Monthly Archives: April 2012

Traveller vs. 40K – Agency in SPAAAAAACE

This post stems from a discussion I was having with a friend of mine the other day (in Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, in front of the RPG section, Purge the Unclean – a supplement for Dark Heresy – clutched in my greasy paw).

I don’t remember quite how we got onto the subject of Traveller vs. 40K, but we were both very much of the opinion that Traveller was kind of boring but the various 40K games made us want to get playing, and we started chatting about why this might be.

Traveller has its good points – and I’m not just saying that because I worked on Mongoose Traveller – primary among them the game of character-building. In a fit of contrariness the first character I ever made for MGT (and the only one I played) was a barbarian warlord whose background was pretty uneventful except for the bit where I found Space-Excalibur wedged in an asteroid. Other notable characters were the one-armed space postman (who had once started a war and couldn’t afford enough cybernetics to cover all his missing body parts) and the space equivalent of Paris Hilton (a wealthy debutante with no skills of note).

But the game itself is lacking something, and I reckon that something is agency. The default game mode of Traveller seems to be a group of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying not to get stuck in dead-end systems where they can’t get enough water to fuel their stardrives and attempting to make as much money as possible. The thing is, you can’t really achieve much. The Traveller universe is a vast place and the scale so sensible that anything individuals do is unlikely to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. You might save (or doom) the occasional ship or planet, but it never feels like what you’re doing matters.

Compare and contrast with Rogue Trader, which is also a game of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying to get rich. When you play RT you don’t start out scrabbling in the dirt like Traveller characters – you start out with so much money that on a personal scale it’s near-irrelevant. You start out with a warp-capable starship (with tens of thousands of souls aboard) and a bit of paper that says you can do anything you damn well like, so long as it isn’t heresy. When an RT character acts they leave a mark on the setting, because that’s the kind of scale they act on.

It’s helped by the 40K setting. Not only is it dripping with flavour that the Traveller setting lacks, but for all the GRIMDARK and the waffle about “to be a man in this time is to be one among countless trillions” it’s a setting where individuals can and do change the shape of worlds. The precendent is all over the fiction and the wargames. A single unchecked enemy – an unlicensed psyker, a genestealer, a chaos cultist – can bring about global destruction, which means that even in Dark Heresy (the 40K RPG where you are grubbing about in the dirt) your actions have major, meaningful consequences.

So, that’s what I think of that. If you want to create a scifi setting, either dial down the scale (Eclipse Phase) or dial up what characters are able to achieve with their actions (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch).

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One-Page Dungeon Contest

A few years back, somebody in the old-school D&D movement came up with the bright idea of a one-page dungeon: a small map, some sketchy notes, and you’re good to go. This is the sort of neat concept you can have with old-school D&D games, since the stat block for any given monster is maybe three lines long and traps need no more detail than ‘anything put in a hole gets chopped off’.

And, over the past few years there has been an annual contest revolving around this: the One-Page Dungeon Contest. I entered a few years back, and was somewhat discouraged that my clearly superior* dungeon didn’t win any categories at all – I’m still quite pleased about the dungeon which serves no purpose other than to give its creator a chance to fall about laughing at the unfortunate fates of the PCs within.

Anyway, I thought I’d enter again this year, since I had an hour to kill over lunch. My entry is The Cult of the Tyrant Kings, and while it’s got it’s moments – Gavrik who thinks he’s a minotaur is my favourite, followed by Usebio and Lara who have a flat 50% chance of being a couple on any given day – I think it’s going to be roundly trounced by some of the competition I’ve seen. Oh well.

Still, it’s been a useful exercise in brevity – as the editors at Purple Duck can attest, I have a tendency to get verbose when describing dungeons. Having to cram everything (21 locations!) onto one page, even without any system info, is pretty hard. Even now I’m thinking that the Tyrant Kings have legs; hitting their cult should either be the culmination of a more investigative adventure or start you off on another trail, and it was difficult to hold myself back from filling in the details in the adventure itself.

If you feel like entering there’s still time! Only, like, 10 days, but since you can knock one of these out in *checks clock* about 1d3 hours, that’s not a great obstacle.

*Dungeon may not have actually been superior. =P

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Fatescape 2.0!

Well, Fatescape 2.0 alpha – it’s still not complete, as you’ll notice if you actually read the thing (see if you can spot all the places where I went ‘argleblargle’ into the text in lieu of actual content).

Anyway, having completely overhauled the magic system and slightly overhauled the equipment system it is now ready for a second round of testing.¬†I think I’ll try to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path with it, since one of the stated design goals for that series was to include all the iconic elements of D&D: goblins, ogres, giants, dragons, evil archmages, a brief jaunt to another plane, and so on. If Fatescape can cope with all that and still be a fun, fast-moving game then I’ll be very pleased.

I’m also interested in having someone else try running it, with a group that I’m not in. One of my friends seemed interested so I’ll maybe nudge him and see if he’s ready to start another Planescape game – only this time I’ll not play in it, so I can get the feedback of a group of people who don’t have me to explain the rules to them as they go. I find house rules naturally form in that sort of situation, papering over the cracks where the game itself doesn’t quite reach, and I’m interested in swiping any good ones for myself.

(If you’re interested in giving it a go, feel free: here’s a handy link.)

Other News

I picked up a copy of a game called Microscope, which is an innovative take on a collaborative storytelling game that involves creating the whole of history, then zooming in on the bits that interest you and playing out no more than one scene at a time. I like it, but I can see it joining the ever-growing list of games to file under ‘neat idea, will never have the chance to play’.

It would probably be an excellent tool for collaborative world-building a la Burning Wheel, or if I was going to start a D&D (or Fatescape!) game without a predetermined setting – so perhaps I’ll get to use it that way in future – but as a game it feels¬†lacking. Plus right now all the games I want to run – Fatescape RotR, Nobilis, Everway, Rogue Trader, Black Crusade – have settings built right in.

I think Microscope would also play very well online, with a few minor adjustments, but it’s still less a game and more a tool for enabling gaming later on. I dunno. I’d love to give it a try, in any case.

Other Other News

Doing a little more RPG writing for Purple Duck – Mark seems happy with my output even if I can’t stat up a Pathfinder monster to save my life.

A friend of mine sold me on the WH40K roleplaying games, especially Rogue Trader and Black Crusade. I also quite like Dark Heresy. Deathwatch, while more interesting than I thought it would be, still seems pretty boring.

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