Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Encounters

It helped, being a scion of a baronial house in the Grand Duchy of Hermes, Falkayn reflected.  To be sure, he was a younger son; and he'd left at an early age, after kicking too hard against the traces that aristocrats were supposed to carry; and he hadn't visited his home planet since.  But some of that harsh training had alloyed with the metal of him... (pg. 6)
The machine said, "Further study will be required.  For example, it will be needful to know whether the entire cryosphere is going to become fluid.  Indeed, the very orbit must be ascertained with more precision than now exists.  Nevertheless, it does appear that this planet may afford a site of unprecedented value to industry.  That did not occur to the Lemminkainenites, whose culture lacks a dynamic expansionism.  But a correlation has just been made here with the fact that, while heavy isotopes are much in demand, their production has been severely limited because of the heat energy and lethal waste entailed.  Presumably this is a good place to which to build such facilities."
The idea hit Falkayn in the belly, then soared to his head like champagne bubbles.  The money involved wasn't what brought him to his feet shouting.  Money was always pleasant to have; but he could get enough for his needs and greeds with less effort.  Sheer instinct roused him.  He was abruptly a Pleistocene hunter again, on the track of a mammoth.  "Judas!" he yelled.  "Yes!" (pp. 23-24)
Satan's World
Poul Anderson (1969)

In the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, it was envisioned that there were going to be three kinds of encounters: routine, random, and patron.  Routine encounters were simply those encounters which did not need a great deal of attention, while random encounters were an attempt to provide a variety of unexpected encounters, friendly or unfriendly.  In a sense, random encounters in Traveller were a kind of "wandering monster" although the parallel is not exact.  

Patron encounters were seen as a means of providing adventuring opportunities for the players, should they not have enough ideas on their own.  What's interesting as a difference between the 1977 and the 1981 editions is that the 1977 edition phrases the relationship between patrol and player-characters somewhat differently.

1977:  "One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power."
1982:  "The key to adventure in Traveller is the patron.  When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success.  The patron is the single most important NPC there can be."
There's a subtle but important difference between the two introductory passages.  The 1977 version leaves the relationship more undefined, and the focus is left on the player-characters.  By 1981, however, patrons are viewed as a sort of "story-controller" which shifts the focus from the players' intentions to those of the referee.  While some might say I'm splitting hairs, I think in retrospect it is difficult to not recognize the difference, and the effect it probably had on people learning the game.

In addition to the differences in how patrons were viewed, there is a section in the 1977 edition on nobility.  This section was shifted in the 1981 edition to Book One: Characters and Combat, but putting it by encounters in the 1977 edition was a clear suggestion that nobles were seen as being potential patrons:

At the discretion of the referee, noble persons (especially those of social standing 13 or higher) may have ancestral lands or fiefs, or they may have actual ruling power....Ranking above duke/duchess are two levels not reflected in social standing: prince/princess or king/queen are titles used by actual rulers of worlds.  The title emperor/empress is used by the ruler of an empire of several worlds. (pg. 22, Worlds and Adventures)
In the 1981 edition, the mention of ancestral lands and actual ruling power is muted by the modifier "some ancestral lands or fiefs, and may actually have some ruling power..." [emphasis added]  So this is another suggestion of the openness of the 1977 edition, which gets more constrained by the 1981 edition.  The entire idea of scale in interstellar relations was left open for the referee to determine, with just the suggestion of "empires" as comprising "several worlds."  That's far different from the Third Imperium.  (Some of this gets cleared up in an article by Marc Miller published in 1979 - but I'll get back to that.)

Thus "encounters" in the 1977 edition were left to the referee to use as they saw fit, but in a more "sandbox-y" way than the 1981 edition.  From game play, I recall that considerable time was spent attempting to find patrons, though the resulting adventures were as much about the players' intentions, if not more so.

Next time: Animal Encounters

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Distracted just a little

Sorry about missing a Traveller Tuesday; I've been dealing with some of the fallout from the Great TARGA Porn Debacle.  It's mostly been dealt with, though there will be a lot of interesting and potentially productive results from all that.

Meanwhile, I have my players' map of their delving into Xylarthen's Tower to share with all of you, once I have a chance to scan it in.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Just got back from GaryCon - and it's not even over!

Due to a perfect storm of multiple events scheduled on the same weekend, I was only able to spend some time yesterday at GaryCon.  But what a time it was - I had a chance to see various lions of the hobby: Frank Mentzer, Bill Hoyer, Tom Wham, Tim Kask, Mike Carr, and many others.  What made GaryCon so amazing for me was the feeling of being with over 200 other people who were all interested in the OSR.

I acquired a back issue of Judges Guild Journal I was lacking from my collection, and I talked for some time with Allan Grohe.  I also had a chance to talk with the great guys at Dead Games Society - they are doing some very cool things; look for a possible exciting announcement from them shortly.  And I got the opportunity to present a check to Luke Gygax from TARGA for $350.00 as a donation to the Gygax Family Memorial Fund.  How cool is that?

p.s. I am definitely going back next year.  This con is awesome. :)

Being An Arbiter of Taste

I personally find it bizarre that some corners of the OSR think we should be spending our time debating how ethical it is to have mentions of sex and adult intimacy in reference to a game which has been semi-humorously summarized as being all about "killing things and taking their stuff."

Of course, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 3 of 3

Technological index may vary from 0 to 18, more commonly ranging from 4 through about 10.  Higher numbers indicate greater capacity....The technological index is used in conjunction with the technological level table to determine the general quality and capability of local industry.  The tables indicate the general types or categories of goods in general use on the world.  In most cases, such goods are the best which may be produced locally, although better goods may be imported by local organizations or businesses when a specific need is felt.  In most case, the local citizenry will not be armed with weapons of a type which cannot be produced locally, although police or military units may be armed with weapons up to several levels above local technology.  Technological level also indicates the general ability of local technology to repair or maintain items which have failed or malfunctioned....The technological level tables have several spaces or holes, and such gaps should be filled in by the referee or the players when they discover items or devices of interest.

Worlds and Adventures, pp. 9-11
Traveller, 1977 Edition

Terse.  That's about the best way to describe this section of the original Traveller rules.  What did we get?  A sense of general technological development, the use of local conditions as a context for technological capacity, and a specific suggestion to "fill in the blanks."  It's also quite clear that this entire section is written with the referee as the intended audience.  Just three short paragraphs and a couple of charts - it might as well have been labeled, "not to be left unfinished."

I recall quite distinctly several debates about how easy it would be to get ships repaired on planets with tech levels of 7 or under.  Generally speaking, tech level was used as a limiting factor - while there was considerable variety between tech levels of different planets, most of the time, tech level wasn't thought of as the basis for suggestion, but rather as the end of discussion.  "I want to get my ship repaired." "Yeah, well, the planet is tech level 8."  "They have spaceships, right?"  "Your jump drive is tech level 10 - too bad."

This attitude was reflected in the reviews of the time.  Here's Don Turnbull in White Dwarf # 6:
Tech. Index: 5. They have developed gunpowder (they have SMGs) but don't know how to make chain armour; they have simple computers and radio, but no television, and despite the fact that there is quite a lot of water about they haven't invented the submersible. They have fixed-wing aircraft but no nuclear fission. Altogether this is a pretty improbable world. Interesting to know, for instance, how those fixed-wing aircraft fly in what is virtually a vacuum, and what do the bureaucrats breathe?

Or Tom Wham's more positive review in The Dragon #18:
Technology: 14 (very high) Non-industrial world...As you can see, “Grendal” nearly created herself.  The small population, high technology and government type seemed to dictate to me that Grendal is some sort of research base on a fairly inhospitable little world. And so she shall be when any adventurers land upon her.
So, technological level was seen as a suggestion to the referee about what could be expected from place to place.  The idea that technological levels might be shared from one star system to another, or that tech levels might get improved over time, were not easily grasped (though some referees did do both of these things). Even so, within those three paragraphs was a lot of implications to act as a guide for the aspiring referee:

  • Tech levels range from 4 (roughly c. 1900 AD) to 10 (beginning interstellar flight).  That meant that a lot of planets were of not high enough tech level to produce their own starships.  This in turn meant that a few planets of high enough tech level (and population) probably would dominate interstellar relations.
  • Local planetary conditions would shape how technology was used - Marc Miller would later refer to Fritz Leiber's short story "A Pail of Air" to show how even a low tech level could be plausible on an (seemingly) airless world.  This particular aspect of "fleshing things out" was something generally observed in the breach by most referees in 1977.
  • Higher tech level stuff might be available on a planet, but would likely cost more, due to importation and scarcity.  This in turn would provide a trade opportunity, for those ready to see it.
  • Tech level would shape and limit the technology in use in interstellar relations.  If you had a really high tech item, you'd have to be prepared to either take it back to its planet of origin to get fixed, or be ready to make the repair yourself.
There were some limitations and lacunae in the technological index scheme.  "Star Trek" tech - matter transport, artificial intelligence, anti-matter power sources - were all off the chart, so to speak.  Any sense of how aliens might develop technology was missing - referees were to assume that alien races would develop like humans - or not.  (In fact, there were no rules for the development of aliens, at all - I'll come back to that in another post.)  The effect of law level on technology and availability was also left to the referee to determine.  The relative terseness of the technological index system seems ideal from an "old school" perspective.  Fill in those blanks, make up your own stuff, and don't look back.

Looking at the technological level table today, I'm struck by those empty spots in various columns.  Blasters, particle beam weapons, and yes, light sabers, all suggest themselves in the personal weapons column.  There are other possibilities: combat armor of different sorts; larger shipboard weapons, tightbeam communications, neural nets, cloning, medical advances, different kinds of water, land, and air transport.

But its the second-order derivatives that seem even more interesting today.  What tech level would be assumed to be the interstellar standard?  What choices would be made regarding tech level and availability, that would then shape the products available?  How would people notice tech level differences?  Might there be two or more tech levels in common use?  Some thought given to this before the start of a campaign could make a lot of difference in how the world feels to the players.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 2

The next morning, he and Harkaman took an aircar and went to look at the city at the forks of the river. It was completely new, in the sense that it had been built since the collapse of Federation civilization and the loss of civilized technologies. It was huddled on a long, irregularly triangular mound, evidently to raise it above flood-level. Generations of labor must have gone into it. To the eyes of a civilization using contragravity and powered equipment it wasn't at all impressive. Fifty to a hundred men with adequate equipment could have gotten the thing up in a summer. It was only by forcing himself to think in terms of spadeful after spadeful of earth, cartload after cartload creaking behind straining beasts, timber after timber cut with axes and dressed with adzes, stone after stone and brick after brick, that he could appreciate it. They even had it walled, with a palisade of tree-trunks behind which earth and rocks had been banked, and along the river were docks, at which boats were moored. The locals simply called it Tradetown.
- Space Viking, 1963
H. Beam Piper

Okay, so I lied.  I was going to talk about encounters this week, until I noticed just how much there is to say about tech levels in Classic Traveller.  There are some interesting assumptions in Book Three, not the least of which is that interstellar travel and contra-gravity become possible in what should be the near future for Earth (despite the assessment of a tech level of 5 in Book Two).  While this might seem somewhat incongruous, it becomes even more curious when you realize that the world generation system results in wildly disparate tech levels for different star systems, right next to one another.  A lot of ink has been spilled over this since 1977, most of it trying to point out how "it ought not work that way."

However, the relatively imminent development of interstellar travel combined with worlds with different tech levels matches Space Viking to a "t" - and also the Demon Prince series by Jack Vance, or King David's Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle, and even the Polesotechnic League stories of Poul Anderson.  The concept of fallen star empires slowly rebuilding, with humans striving for something more, is a powerful theme.  So powerful, in fact, that a lot of campaigns were built around this back in 1977.

What makes this more interesting is incorporating the OSR idea that it is okay to leave descriptions relatively sparse so as to allow for later inspiration or improvisation - the UPP system for stars and planets fits this very nicely. Combined with different tech levels, and the referee can find a myriad different reasons why things are the way they are.  Between 1977 and now, the biggest mistake seems to have been to assume that the Traveller rules and background setting can be used for "reverse-engineering" how things actually work.  Unfortunately, this has mostly led to debacles over money, credits, trading, and whether or not markets could or should get regulated in the future.  This was and is boring.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cold Hard Facts

Original D&D cost $10.  That's a fact.  Using any of a number of online inflation calculators (I used this one), we can see that what cost $10 in 1974 would cost approximately $43 in today's money.  In 1974, the minimum wage was approximately $2/hour, which would be worth a little over $8/hour in today's money.  However, the current minimum wage is just over $7/hour.

So the meaning of this is simple: since wages have not kept pace with inflation, the average income buys less than it did back in the 1970's.  For your average middle-class teenager, there are more demands on even part-time wages than in the past.  My own experience teaching college students is that they are more reliant on their parents' incomes than in the past.  So a game that costs more than $40 in today's money represents a higher threshold of entry into the hobby than D&D did back in 1974.  While one might argue that all that a player needs these days is just the 4e Players Handbook, that's not a complete game.  The entire set of 4e hardcovers is over $100.

What I am trying to point out is that nobody should be surprised that sales figures for 4e D&D don't match WoW subscription rates - it's that high threshold of entry that makes it harder for new players to get involved in our favorite hobby.  (This is something of an argument for a decent $10 or even $20 RPG, but that's for a different post.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Tech levels

Tech levels in Classic Traveller have always been a subject of debate.  Back in 1977, what was interesting was seeing the range of tech levels, and what they meant.  Because of the relatively "gritty" feel of the original game - firearms and cutlasses on the ground, lasers and missiles in space - there was a lot of room for experimentation and creativity in the higher tech levels.  It was clear to most of us that Traveller was not a game for Star Trek simulation, since matter transport and anti-matter were "off the chart", essentially - TL 16 and 17, respectively.  However, that left a lot of room for referees to work in, and I recall people taking advantage of that.  But the play of the game tended to revolve around more easily grasped tech levels; TL 12 and under, mostly.

What emerged from re-reading the 1977 edition of the rules is shown above.  It shows the one example planet in the entire game: Earth.  Earth has an E class starport, 8000 miles in diameter, a clean standard atmosphere, 70% hydrographics, roughly a billion inhabitants, a balkanized government structure, a law level of two - and a tech level of five.  Now maybe that's a typo; in the 1981 edition, the tech level is eight, so perhaps this is just off.  However, what this suggests is that, overall, Earth's technological capabilities are not simply the highest level possible, but more what can be commonly produced.  (Remember, this is all conjecture.) What does TL 5 represent? Firearms for personal weapons, cloth armor, sandcasters and mortars (but not rockets), the very earliest computers, radio and television, ground cars, fixed wing aircraft, and oil as a major fuel.  Roughly 1940's level of technology - which is okay, if you accept that this was a planet-wide average - and that the entire system of tech levels itself was at best an approximation.

Needless to say, getting the highest quality high tech stuff was important - but the scale of tech levels themselves made game play more interesting, as we tried finding the "sweet spot" between different tech levels, available gear and trade goods, and how to take advantage of that, whether trading or raiding.  What I recall most clearly was that most "star empires" operated around tech level 12 or so - that being seen as the "upper edge" of what was easily developed.  There were a lot of star systems with much lower tech levels, making them interesting places to visit (and potentially sign up for lucrative trading deals, or consider for raiding purposes).  Since books like Space Viking and The Mote in God's Eye and Trader to the Stars were our inspiration, we were all trying the tramp freighter route, trying to get enough credits to buy a Type C mercenary cruiser, and then go raid planets for their wealth.

I recall quite distinctly rolling up a character who was a Navy Admiral, who then got several boosts to his social standing as he mustered out.  I presented this character to my friend Rick, who was running a Traveller campaign - could this fellow be a planetary ruler?  Rick grudgingly allowed this; my admiral ended up with a planet with a relatively lower tech level - 7 or 8, if I recall correctly.  There was some discussion of what the admiral's planetary government could build up, without me having a really good grasp of what was possible.  It ended somewhat abruptly with the arrival of pirates/Space Vikings of a sort, and the discovery that I had made some poor decisions as the planetary ruler, building trading ships without having planetary defenses.  In the end, the lower tech level of the planet made it difficult if not impossible to actually get what I wanted - rather unfortunate to the teenager I was back then!  I've often wondered what it would be like to play this scenario out again, knowing what I know now.  With a Classic Traveller revival, that might be possible - I can only hope!

Next Tuesday: 1977 Edition Encounters
Previous Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part Two