Hârn: Back in the saddle

It’s been a long time since I ran a Hârn game, but at last the drought is ended.

Hârn is a setting I adore. I named this website after it (which may not be apparent to those who just read the blog – the main site is the Penultimate HarnPage). I’m pretty keen on the HârnMaster rules system as well – I’ve played most incarnations of it since 1987, but have played the HârnMaster Gold edition from Kelestia Productions since it came out.

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to play in the setting for the last few years, but moving to a new country can crimp your gaming style. It took a while to find other gamers, and I couldn’t convince them to try Hârn, so we played Hero System or variations of 3.5 – both also systems I enjoy – as one-offs or short campaigns.

But folowing the first Middle East Comic Con last year, the Gulf gaming scene has really taken off. Thanks to the efforts of a few bold gamers who set up some gaming tables, our little gaming group discovered we weren’t the only ones. The Gulf Roleplaying Community is behind a tabletop renaissance in the Arabian Gulf.

And now, at last, I have players who want to play in Hârn. A couple of nights ago we created characters for a campaign I’ve designed to fit the transient nature of Middle Eastern life, and the hectic (and often incompatible) nature of working shifts.

Rather than the open-ended style of campaign I’ve run before, Agents of the Crown is designed to run around a series of short missions. I’m back in my old stomping ground of Káldôr, and the players will be royal agents, troubleshooters working on behalf of the king’s private secretary. In theory, this will allow for players to play a session or two, and drop out and rejoin as their schedule allows. It’s also likely to mean that I use HârnMaster’s rules for character development during down time for the first time.

Gaming in the Middle East also means I’m making small changes to my Hârn. We’re a multicultural set of people, and I’m activiely looking for ways to make Hârn – in some ways a traditional fantasy medieval England analogue – more multicultural too. I don’t think it’s enough simply to allow players to play characters from other parts of the world. My Hârn has to become more multicultural too.

I’ve always had a black character in my version of Hârn, Sergeant Mbunte of the Army of the Oselmarch, a mercenary who decided to settle in Káldôr after falling in love with a local woman. But now I’m playing with ideas to add more. It’s easy enough for the port towns and transient populations – merchants and their factors can come from almost anywhere – so I’m simply having more settle for longer.

I’m looking forward to this game.

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Dangerous Journeys: Mythus

Note: Since writing this piece I’ve had the opportunity of playing in a Mythus campaign. You can read about those experiences here.

Back in 1992 I was on the lookout for a new set of game rules. I’d spent my time at university playing MERP and HârnMaster, with the occasional foray into Megatraveller, Fantasy Hero and RuneQuest III. I fancied a change.

Two things drew me to Dangerous Journeys – or, properly speaking, to Mythus, the only part of the Dangerous Journeys system that was ever published. The first was the wonderful artwork by Janet Aulisio on the Mythus Gamesmaster Screen, a beautiful triptych watercolour of a Middle Eastern dock scene that promised something radically different from stereotypical European fantasy.

Janet Aulisio's awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn't want to meet these people during their adventures?

Janet Aulisio’s awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn’t want to meet these people during their adventures?

The second was the name of the designer – Gary Gygax, co-written with Dave Newton – and the promise of the blurb on the back of the Mythus rulebook, which seemed to address every issue that led me to abandon AD&D: it had a percentile-based skill system, logical advancement, social classes, plenty of background detail. A flick through the book confirmed that armour absorbed damage. Gygax, the grand old man of roleplaying, had designed a system that seemed to tick every box I had at that time.

The main rulebook, magic supplement and screen were more than I really wanted to spend. I put them back on the shelf and continued browsing while I had one of those in-shop debates with myself. We all know how those end. I walked out of the shop with a lighter wallet and a new rules system. I even picked up the first couple of copies of Journeys magazine, intended to support the system.

And thus began the longest love-hate relationship I’ve ever had with a game system. Mythus has intrigued me and frustrated me in equal measure, but I’ve never been able to put it entirely out of my mind. As one person put it, when I mentioned the system on an old school discussion group, “I tried to like it… still trying.”

My main frustration with the system is Gygax’s writing style. Long-winded, precise to the point of prissiness, self-referential and full of exclamation marks! There are endless acronyms, most of them pointless bacronyms. Money, for example, is the Base Unit of Currency, or BUC, unless you want to call it the Quantifying Unit Indicating Denomination, or QUID. Grrrr…

Some people like Gary’s style; I don’t. That’s not criticism of Gygax the man, or of Gygax the designer, just of his writing style in games (oddly, his style in his novels is much better). In Mythus, Gary’s game style is pretty much unadulterated – it isn’t so much that it needed a decent editor as that it needed a complete re-write before ever being sent to an editor. Still, my reaction to it isn’t quite as bad as the chap who made a drinking game out of reading Mythus.

And yet I’ve always sensed a pretty solid system lurking somewhere behind the modifiers, sub-clauses, digressions, pomposity and axe-grinding. And every time I go to look for it, I get caught up in the frustrations again.

My fascination was further compounded with the number of people praising Mythus’ setting book, the Epic of Aerth, even as they condemned the rulebooks. I didn’t have that. So last year, I splashed out on a second-hand copy. And, I thought, while I was at it I may as well get the rest. I’m now the proud owner of almost everything ever put out for Dangerous Journeys. I’m missing the third novel and the last two copies of Journeys.

And it still frustrates me. Tempts me. Taunts me.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

Last night, I sat down determined to finish a character. Yeah, I know: 20 years and I’d never made it through character generation once. I chose the simpler option of a non-heka user (Mythus uses Egyptian terminology for magic).

I wish I had done so earlier. Things are falling into place. My frustrations have become less to do with the language and writing style, and more with the need to flip through rulebooks hunting for elusive tables – the booklet of tables in the GM screen helps, but doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem. But I am convinced this is playable. The question is whether it offers anything more than systems I’m using now. It is, after all, an early 90s rule system.

Mythus has a fairly complex random character generation system, but nowhere near as complex as Rolemaster Standard, for example. I’d put it on a par with games like Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd edition (or Rebirth), or creating a mid-level Pathfinder/3.5 character. I’m OK with that; I don’t mind complex character generation if it helps enhance play and roleplay.

Character generation

In Mythus, generating a PC (the game calls them HPs, Heroic Personas) is a six-step process. I’m going to go into a fair bit of detail.

1) Determine socio-economic class (SEC)

SEC runs from level 1-9, representing lower, middle and upper class, each further subdivided into lower, middle and upper. Level is determined by a simple percentile roll. There’s a  table. I roll 13, and discover my character is SEC 3, upper lower class – a skilled bluecollar worker, in US terms. My SEC will limit the vocations I can choose.

2) Determine characteristics

Mythus has three traits – Mental, Physical and Spiritual – each subdivided into two categories. Mental is divided into Mnemonic and Reasoning, Physical into Muscular and Neural, and Spiritual into Metaphysical and Psychic. Each category is subdivided into three characteristics – Capacity, Power and Speed. Power and Speed cannot exceed Capacity for any given category. Characteristics are listed in the form SMCap (Spiritual Metaphysical Capacity), PNPow (Physical Neural Power) and so on. Each category is the sum of its characteristics; each trait is the sum of its categories.

To determine characteristics, you roll 2d6+8 18 times. Yes, 18. Once you’ve done this, you assign each roll to a characteristic. Cap must be the highest in any given category, and the game advises assigning your six highest rolls to the six category scores. Since I want to make a non-heka user, I’m going to put my highest scores into the Physical categories. Once you’ve assigned all the rolls, you can add up to three points to characteristics – no more than one to each, and Cap must remain highest.

My rolls are: 13, 13, 15, 11, 20, 17, 13, 18, 14, 17, 18, 13, 14, 13, 15, 12, 14, 14.

Including the three bonus points, I assign my characteristics so:

MMCap    17    PMCap    20    SMCap    18
MMPow    13    PMPow    16    SMPow    14
MMSpd    13    PMSPd    16    SMSpd    15
MRCap    15    PNCap    18    SPCap    17
MRPow    12    PNPow    14    SPPow    13
MRSpd    11    PNSpd    14    SPSpd    13

This gives the following Traits and Categories: Mental 80 (Mnemonic 43, Reasoning 37); Physical 98 (Muscular 52, Neural 46); Spiritual 88 (Metaphysical 45, Psychic 43)

Physical is the total damage I can take before dying. My Wound Level is 75% of that, 74 – that’s what I can take before becoming dazed. My Recovery Level is 10% of it, or 10, as is my combat speed – 10 paces.

Mental and Spiritual have effect levels of 80% of the total; these act as my wound levels in mental and spiritual combat.

3) Choose Vocation and Skills

Since this PC (or HP, since this is Mythus) has SEC  3 (social class, remember) and I want him to follow one of the Physical vocations, my choice is limited. All in all, Mythus has a good selection of vocations, broken down into 10 areas: Alchemy, Arms, Dweomercraeft, Mysticism, Outlawry, Priestcraeft, Primitive, Scholar and Voyager. The 10th area is for non-humans, and includes Alfar (northern Elves), Alfen (halflings), Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes.

I decide I want a fighter. There are three Arms vocations, Cavalier (Knight), Engineer and Soldier/Mercenary. With a SEC of 3, I can only pick Soldier/Mercenary. This gives me a decent selection of combat and physical skills, each calculated as a base (ranging from 8 to 20) plus one of my characteristics. What other systems call Skill Level or Rating, Mythus calls STEEP (Study, Training, Education, Experience and Practice). Sigh.

In addition, I get a number of additional skills (did I forget to mention Mythus calls these Knowledge/Skill Areas, or K/S for short?) based on my TRAIT scores. I get 2 extra Mental skills, and 3 in each of Physical and Spiritual. Each of the bonus skills will start at 2d10 + governing characteristic. I have the option to forego one of these skills and use its points to boost skills I already have, which I choose to exercise in Physical skills to boost my combat ability.

I decide this character’s a mercenary. I think of him as a sergeant, maybe – hardcore professional soldier. I won’t go into the picks I made here – the skills are listed on the character summary below – except to note that I decided not to pick Weapons, Special Skills, which would allow me things like called shots and two-weapon fighting, because I don’t see that fitting with a common soldier: solid weapon skills, yes, flashy tricks, no.

What I will note is that a number of skills have sub-areas. How many of these you can pick depends on your STEEP for the skill – between 1 and 4 of them, unless your STEEP is 51+, in whcih case you know all sub-areas. You can use any sub-areas you know at full STEEP, and others at half STEEP.

4) Additional Details

This is where a few game details and the character fluff is added – and quite a lot of fluff it is.

First, Attractiveness. It’s another 2d6+8 roll, and I get 15 – Attractive.

Then starting Joss Factor – Joss is Mythus’ hero points system; spending points can allow re-rolls, change success levels or buy plot twists like an escape from captivity. I roll 73 on percentile dice, and start with 11 Joss; that’s pretty good, as the table allows from 2 to 14.

Next up is birth rank, another percentile table, cross-referenced to social class. I roll low – 03 – and I’m the first child of the family. There are subtables should you be the seventh child, which carry bonuses including extra Joss, characteristic bonuses and extra heka skills, maxing out if you’re the 7th child of parents who were each also 7th children.

Age, oddly because it has a game effect, you choose rather than roll for. I’ll stick with the default starting age of 25-35, which adds 1 to PMCap (taking mine to 21). If you’re younger than this, you lose STEEP points but gain small bonuses to physical characteristics and attractiveness; of you’re older to lose attractiveness points and (if very old) other characteristics, but gain STEEP points.

You’re encouraged to choose personal details like height, weight (it’s odd that this isn’t rolled for, as weight has a game effect on wrestling), general description, usual dress, brief background and a typical quote.

Quirks – minor bonuses – are assigned by the GM, who can roll randomly, pick from a list or make them up. Each quirk generates a counter-quirk, again determined by the GM. I roll for one of each, and find that my character is toxin resistance (poisons are at 80% effectiveness against him) and a poor sense of humour.

The remaining details are optional – tables are provided for people who want their inspiration prompted or challenged.

Handedness is rolled for – ambidexterity allows you to fight with two weapons even without the skill. It’s another percentage roll, and I discover I’m right handed.

There’s a table for the briefest and brief backgrounds, cross-referenced for social class, and I discover I was an apprentice craftsman before becoming a soldier.

Then it’s time to determine race (as in, the type of human; we didn’t pick a non-human vocation). Now, you can pick this, but there’s a table provided, and random is fun, right? First, you roll to determine colour: Black, Brown, Red, White or Yellow. Each has a sub-table to determine actual race. Now, that kind of terminology was pretty dated even by the early ’90s, and it’s positively cringe-worthy now. But terminology aside, kudos to Mythus for not assuming everyone is a white European. Random rolls determine first that I’m brown, and then that I’m Hindic.

There are a set of tables for political and religious beliefs, general personality, interests and conformity. I discover I’m apolitical; follow nature deities; am a conformist (though might be trendy or a fashion chaser); am a sober person, if not downright introverted or stubborn; and that my interests are politics, status and power. Apolitical, but interested in politics and power? Interesting – that would seem to suggest a desire for political power but no firm principles. He chooses expediency.

5) Determine resources and connections; buy equipment

Starting money is determined by SEC rating. I’m not going to have much. Mythus divides wealth into several areas – Net Worth (which determines home, equipment and other possessions), Cash on Hand (which isn’t counted against net worth), Bank Accounts (which is) and Disposable Monthly Income. Age also plays a factor – the younger you are, the less money you have.

Wealth is measured in BUCs, though Epic of Aerth details coinage of its various nations.

My character’s at the default age, so no adjustment, but he’s still pretty poor – Net Worth of (3d3+5)*10 = 100 BUCs, and 5d3*50 = 500 BUCs cash on hand. I have no bank accounts or monthly income. 50 BUCs net worth isn’t even going to get me a decent set of clothes, so I’ll be spending some of that cash on hand straight away.

You get one special connection for each TRAIT over 90, rolled on a table cross-referenced against social class. Exactly who your connections are is determined the first time you call on them for help in play, at which point you note down their identity. In my case, I have only one TRAIT over 90. I roll a d20 and discover my special connection is a juggler.

For equipment, my 100 BUCs will buy me a kilt (25 BUCs) and a pair of shoes (50 BUCs). I’ve got 25 BUCs of my net worth left, which won’t buy much. I’ll dip into my chash on hand to get a longsword and a cheap (half-price) small roundshield, which won’t protect me as well as a full-price one, but it’s the best I can do. All but 50 BUCs of my cash is gone; I can’t afford armour.

Looks like I’d best be off adventuring – I’m going to need the loot.

All I need to do now is name this chap and decide where in the Hindic lands he’s from.Logging on to behindthename.com, I decide his name is Chandrakant Tamboli, and he comes from the Deccan Highlands near Hyderabad. I also have to pick a couple of foreign languages, but I’ll do that once I know where the campaign will be set.

Chandrakant Tamboli

Vocation: Mercenary     SEC: 3 (upper lower class)   Current Joss: 11

30-year-old Hindic male from Deccan Highlands. First child. Former apprentice craftsman. Attractiveness 15 (attractive). Right-handed. Height 5ft 11ins. Weight 190lb. Stocky. Black hair. Brown eyes. Usual dress: Kilt and shoes.

Personality: Apolitical, but seeks power and status. Conformist. Worships nature deities. Sober & introverted. Tendency to be stubborn.

Special connection: A juggler.

Wealth: None

Equipment: Kilt, shoes, longsword, cheap small roundshield.

Characteristics

Mental: 80 – Mnemonic 43 (MMCap 17, MMPow 13, MMSpd 13); Reasoning 37 (MRCap 15, MRPow 12, MRSpd 11). Mental Effect Level: 64

Physical: 98 – Muscular 53 (PMCap 21, PMPow 16, PM Spd 16); Neural 46 (PNCap 18, PNPow 14, PNSpd 14). Wound Level 75, Critical Level 89, Recovery Level 10

Spiritual: 88 – Metaphysical 45 (SMCap 18, SMPow 14, SMSpd 13); Psychic 43 (SPCap 17, SPPow 13, SPSpd 13). Spiritual Effect Level: 70

K/S Areas (sub-Areas in brackets)

Mental: Etiquette/Social Graces 15, Native Tongue (Hindi) 32, Language (Trade Pheonician) 26, Gambling (Dice, Dog & Horse Racing, Sporting Events) 32, Criminal Activities – Mental (Extortion, Gambling Operations) 27, Military Science 28, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Fortification & Siegecraft 26, Weapons – Military Other 27.

Physical: Perception – Physical (Noticing, Hearing) 25, Riding (Horse, Camel, Teamstering) 36, Combat – Hand Weapons (1H Swords, Spears, Daggers & Knives, Shields) 46, Criminal Activities – Physical (Sneaking, Hiding, Ambushing) 36, Escape 36, Handicrafts 35, Survival 42, Combat – HTH Lethal (Hands, Feet, Sais) 32, Combat – HTH Non-lethal 32, Combat – Hand Missile (Bows, Knives, Crossbows) 38, First Aid 31, Jack of all Trades (Carpentry, Masonry, Construction) 32, Travel 28, Arms & Armour (Swordmaking, Bowyery & Fletching, Making Light Armour) 42, Endurance 32.

Spiritual: Streetwise (Rural Poor, Mercenaries, Urban Poor) 33, Jury-Rigging 27, Animal Handling 28, Leadership 23.

 Conclusion

Overall, Mythus character generation isn’t too bad – if you can get past rolling 2d6+8 18 times and you have the booklet of tables from the GM Screen to hand. Without the booklet, you’ll be flipping from page to page, moving between the table itself and the note on another page, buried between layers of unnecessary verbiage, which describes how to use it. Mythus may be a usable system, but it’s not user-friendly.

It does, at least, produce an interesting character. I’d like to play this guy. However, this is a deliberately simple character with no heka abilities. Making a magic user or priest adds another layer of complexity. And that’s what I’ll be trying next… Cover me. I’m going in.

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We were munchkins once, and young

Note: some of this was previously published on James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog, where he called it Memories of the British Old School. I’m allowing myself more time to ramble now; you have been warned.

I played my first roleplaying game – Holmes edition Basic D&D – during a school lunch hour in September 1981. I was 12. This puts me firmly in the second wave of roleplaying, towards the tail end of what Maliszewski calls the Golden Age of D&D.

The blue-cover Holmes edition Basic Set - my first taste of D&D.

The blue-cover Holmes edition Basic Set – my first taste of D&D.

My classmate Jonathan Midgley was the DM; it was a dungeon he’d created himself. Jon and a few of my other friends had been introduced to the game during the summer holidays and had played it a bit; I lived out in the country on the far side of town, so didn’t see my classmates during the hols.

They persuaded me to give it a go. I rolled up a character – a cleric – and Johnny Leinster, who’d played a couple of times before, rolled up another, a thief perhaps. We entered Jon’s dungeon, walked into a room full of zombies armed with two-handed swords, attacked, and died within a couple of rounds. The whole game lasted about 20 minutes, including character generation. I loved it. I rolled up another character and joined Jon’s regular lunchtime gaming group.

But in some ways, this first taste of D&D, of what would later become roleplaying, was not a beginning, but a culmination of schoolboy pastimes. We were already gamers.

We know the history of the hobby, how D&D derived from tabletop wargaming. But that wasn’t our experience. We didn’t play wargames, though I played toy soldiers with the kid next door.

But we had our schoolboy games – I went to an all-boys school – played on rainy day lunchtimes or the back of boring physics classes. Noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans); hangman; battleships; boxes, where you draw lines on a grid to capture territory; and a game we called War – drawing coastlines on opposite ends of a piece of paper, drawing an agreed-upon number of gun emplacements, ships and tanks, and taking turns to flick a pencil from one of your guns to try in hit your opponent’s. Some of these games are – or were – common British schoolboy heritage going back to at least the generation before us. I played War with my Dad – he may have taught it to me; he certainly mentioned playing it when he was at school in the 1940s.

Then we started playing a game we called mazes. As far as I know, this was one we developed ourselves. It had humble origins – one person drew a quick maze on a sheet of paper, someone else tried to find their way through it as quickly as they could. We didn’t keep score; it was a way of relieving boredom in a world with three TV channels, no internet and few video games, when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea (thank you, Douglas Adams).

It wasn’t that we were particularly inactive. We weren’t the sporty kids who played for the school, for sure, but at home we rode bikes, ran, played in the fields, built dens in the woods and so on. I rode in Pony Club gymkhanas, sailed dinghies and fished. We were all in the Boy Scouts. We were The Goonies. But school was in the middle of the city, and we weren’t allowed out of the gates at that age.

During the academic year of 1980/81, mazes grew from a way to pass a few bored moments into something resembling a challenge. I recall Jason Spence being the prime driver behind this. Our mazes became larger and more intricate. Rather than discarding them, we held onto them, embellishing them, allowing each and every one in our little group to play each one. We tried to outdo each other in the size and intricacy of our mazes.

Then someone – Jason, I think – added a trap to the maze. If you went down a path with a trap, you were dead and had to start over. We all added traps to our own mazes. Than someone added fire; go down a path with fire and you died. But then someone added a fire extinguisher – if you found the fire extinguisher before hitting the fire, you could put it out and get past. Then Daleks were added, then machineguns to defeat the Daleks. Pretty soon, the only way to get through a maze was to pick up all the equipment you needed to get through the traps, fires and Daleks that lay between you and the middle of the maze. By the end of the summer term in 1981, Jason’s maze filled a piece of A3 paper, covered with twisting passages a quarter of an inch thick. Navigating through it could take an entire lunch hour or a double maths class, with Jason watching like a hawk for any excuse to declare you dead and send you back to the beginning.

That’s the summer the lads who lived on the far side of town were introduced to D&D. When we came back after the break, they described D&D to me as “like mazes, but better”.

I’m not sure who introduced Jon to the game, but his dungeon was filled with hand-me-down ideas of what Maliszewski terms the “gonzo fantasy” of original D&D. There was some kind of folk-process going on, a shared meme. Traps were designed, not to kill, but to confuse the party mapper – revolving rooms, teleportation chambers and the like. Nobody laid out a battleboard, we mapped what the DM described; if we went wrong, that was part of the point. Every square of graph paper was laid out with room or corridors, so you could find secret rooms or corridors by default unless the mapper got confused.

When we did find a secret door or passage, a little old man appeared, yelled “Secret Door” or “Secret Passage” with a speech impediment and disappeared. I later discovered the Little Old Man was such a common meme, he got an acronym: the LOM (a few years later Roger Musson, in Imagine magazine, wrote about the the LOM and the LOLITS – the Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes – but we never encountered her).

The first level of Jon’s dungeon featured a large room with a sleeping giant in it. His name was Jarl (and how our characters knew that, I never figured out). You had to tiptoe past for fear of waking him. How he got there, who knows? He certainly couldn’t move out of the room. There was treasure – gold and magic items – and experience to be had.

There was no village to resupply. Once you’d picked your starting equipment (don’t forget the silver dagger, or a silver arrow, and especially not the 10-foot pole) you entered the dungeon and stayed there, getting ever deeper. We reached level 3, I think, playing only during school lunchtimes over the course of the year. As far as I know, my second character (also a cleric, I think) is down there still.

My birthday was that autumn. I knew what I wanted: a set of D&D rules of my own. I got it – by this time, not the Holmes edition but a box set of the Moldvay edition, including B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, a set of blue dice and a crayon to colour in the numbers on the dice. I still have the d20 from that set. I keep it on the dashboard of my car, and it rolls every time I go round a corner.

With those rules, I made a dungeon of my own and became a Dungeon Master.

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Vancian magic revisited

One of the things that’s bothered me about D&D from its early days was that magicians forget spells when they cast them – the so-called Vancian magic system, named for the late Jack Vance, who developed it for his Dying Earth novel series. I have no problem with Vancian magic in its place – but as far as I’m concerned, its place is in the most excellent and bodacious Dying Earth RPG, and not in generic fantasy settings.

I’m not the only one. From the early days of the hobby, GMs have been developing variant spell point or fatigue-based systems, allowing magicians to repeatedly cast any spell they know, so long as they have the resources to do so. But these systems alter the nature of play quite radically, and are either too simplistic to consider the fixes to balance them or too complex to be playable (or too complex to explain quickly to new players, which is the same thing).

I developed my solution many years ago. It’s not the mechanics I dislike, it’s the explanation.

So in my games, magicians do not forget spells. But spell-casting is such a long, drawn-out affair that it’s impossible to cast a spell in the tactical environment – unless you cast most of it, leaving the last little bit to finish off when needed.

Naturally, no one can hold too many part-finished spells in their heads, but they do get better at it with practice. Slowly they can hold more, and more complex, spells in abeyance, ready for those last few words and gestures which will complete the casting and unleash the spell.

Once they’ve cast a spell, they have to prepare it for casting once more – that’ll require the standard 8 hours’ sleep and whatever preparation time your edition requires (for example, in 1st edition, it was 15 minutes per spell level; in Pathfinder, it’s one hour for all the spells you can cast).

The mechanics of this are exactly the same as the standard D&D or Pathfinder rules. No change whatsoever. A simple change in the explanation, the way I envisage what the mechanics represent, satisfies me.

As for those few spells which already take a long time to cast, well, they can’t be held in mind. If you know it, and have the time and a spare spell slot, go ahead and cast it. If you don’t have a spare spell slot of the appropriate level, you’ll have to clear one. A generous GM will likely let you seep the energy out slowly and safely. A harsher one might insist the only way to clear a slot is by finishing the last part of the spell and casting it – and take those 8 hours sleep before you can cast the new one.

To me, it seems an easy and obvious fix, but a few months ago another GM was complaining about how the Vancian system didn’t work for him; he beamed once I told him my solution, and said that’s the way magic would work in his game from then on.

Perhaps others who dislike Vancian magic outside Vancian settings will find it useful as well.

In a related matter, I regard Traveller’s 2D starmaps as a triumph of graphic design and visual presentation in much the same way as Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is. Of course Traveller’s space is three dimensional; the starmaps distort and twist the reality in order to give a simple visual guide to people not versed in the multi-dimensional mathematics of jumpspace astrogation. Just like the Underground map, Traveller starmaps will show travellers where they need to go, and what star systems they’ll pass or visit, to reach their destination, but they won’t help you get around in real space, or pick out a star in the night sky.

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RIP Mick Aston, 1946-2013

Mick Aston died yesterday, June 24, 2013.

I never met him, never spoke to or corresponded with him. Those who knew, worked or studied with him will have their own stories. Though I saw some episodes, I was not an avid watcher of Time Team.

But I do want talk about Aston’s influence as an archaeologist.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Before I left the UK, and with the support of and frequent collaboration with my nightschool archaeology tutor, I carried out small research projects into medieval villages and their landscapes. Professor Aston, though he did not pioneer this area of archaeology – he routinely cited WG Hoskins and Maurice Beresford as his inspiration – was one of a small number of early proponents who developed the use of geographic techniques in archaeological studies.

Aston didn’t get me into archaeology. Growing up near York during the Coppergate dig and an enthusiastic teacher at school did that. But his books did get me into landscape archaeology.

As I began my own forays into understanding the English landscape, Aston remained one of my three main guides – the others being Professor Brian K Roberts and Dr Oliver Rackham.

Both Aston and Roberts began their academic careers as geographers. Roberts has remained one, and has long held a chair as Professor of Geography at Durham University. Aston moved into archaeology, becoming the first county archaeologist for Somerset, and teaching at Bristol, Birmingham and Oxford. Rackham is a botanist. Hoskins and Beresford were historians. The study of the landscape is a broad field.

Aside from his reports and papers, and away from his popular works, Aston’s two greatest contributions to landscape studies were his two synthesis works, Interpreting the Landscape (1985, revised 1997) and The Landscape of Towns, co-written with historical geographer James Bond (1976, revised 2000).

General works covering wide periods on a national scale must, of necessity, skip many details, but Aston managed to paint a sufficiently comprehensive picture of trends, methods of investigation and techniques. Though I now live far from the fields and deserted villages he once guided me through, his books are never far from my hand.

In his own words, from his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape: “The past is all about us… a truism which deserves to be repeated because it is so true; whether we like it or not, in this country we do live in a museum. Yet how are we to disentangle and interpret it?”

Aston not only disentangled it and interpreted it, he explained it and taught people how to read it. Many’s the time I’ve stood on a hill, looking down into a dale or valley, noting the patterns of the walls and hedges and tracing the outlines of medieval strips, 16th or 19th century enclosures, traces of square prehistoric fields. Aston’s work taught me to differentiate medieval ridge and furrow from Napoleonic ridge and furrow, to read the humps and bumps revealed by shadows or by more intensive survey with theodolite and staff, with resistivity meter and magnetic resonance.

Aston closed his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape with these words: “When Professor W. G. Hoskins wrote The Making of the English Landscape in 1955, he said (p14) ‘The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.’ Since then, study after study has shown how much can be learnt. We now know that the landscape as created and used by people is much older than we thought, with perhaps as much as 12,000 years of intense activity represented. We know that its development has been more complex than we ever imagined, with many combinations of and interrelationships between the factors mentioned above. Change, rather than stability, has been the order of the day. The idea of an unchanging landscape since time immemorial has had to be replaced now by one of great dynamism. If we could see the English landscape developing over the last 6,000 years in a speeded-up film, it would certainly resemble an ants’ nest, with not only the ants moving about at a great pace, but the nest itself being shifted continuously!”

Aston may have been an eccentric, wild-haired caricature of an archaeologist, but his passion and enthusiasm shone through his writing and his TV presentation, and was tempered with professionalism, honesty and academic rigour. Archaeology could not have had a finer poster boy.

And as to the influence of Time Team, I remember doing a resistivity survey with a colleague around the remains of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield, which lies on the edge of a golf course (those ridges across the fairway are from Napoleonic steam-ploughing, golfers, and are not medieval). We were looking for a grange (a monastic farm) which was thought to lie close by. Lacking the high-tech computerised add-ons of Bradford University’s geophysics, we were working in a taped grid, recording results the old-fashioned way, on a clipboard with a pencil, when a golfing party walked past. Thanks to Aston and co, they knew exactly what we were doing.

“Eyup, it’s Time Team,” one called.

“Nay, lad,” replied my colleague. “It’s Saturday – we’re t’Time-and-a-Half Team.”

The golfers chuckled, and continued their game. A few years earlier, we’d likely have had to stop the survey, or assign a dedicated volunteer, to explain to passers-by what we were doing, how the equipment worked, and reassure them we weren’t developers planning to build over their golf course.

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Review: Robin of Sherwood

 Note: this is a minor reworking of a review I originally published on rpg.net in August 2003.

Robin of Sherwood is, for many people, the definitive modern version of the Robin Hood legend. Moody, atmospheric, superbly written and acted, with a haunting soundtrack by Clannad (later released as the album Legend), it was the inspiration for a generation of British fantasy roleplayers. Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson’s RPG Dragon Warriors (Corgi, 1985; Serpent King Games, 2011), for instance, owes much of its atmosphere to the series, and Graham Staplehurst’s Robin Hood: The Role Playing Campaign (ICE, 1987) is Robin of Sherwood with the serial numbers filed off.

Robin of Sherwood Season 1 DVD cover

Robin of Sherwood Season 1 DVD cover

The Region 2 DVDs (UK and Europe) were released 2002 in four boxed sets. In 2003, Network Videos released a limited edition (1,500 copies) Region 1 (USA, Canada, Japan) boxed set of 8 DVDs containing all three series. The complete series was re-released on DVD in 2010 and is available from Amazon.co.uk. In 2012 it was re-released in two Blu-Ray sets, one covering the two six-episode Michael Praed seasons, the other covering the 12-episode Jason Connery season.

The first series of Robin of Sherwood sneaked onto British TV screens in 1983. It was something of a “builder”, as the movie moguls say. With the young, handsome Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) leading his small band of young Saxon outlaws against the nasty Normans to a backdrop of pseudo-Celtic mysticism, pagan deities and beautifully filmed greenwood, it quickly began to capture the imagination of those who saw it – especially those of us who played FRPs.

The show is set, as are most 20th century retellings of the legend, in the reign of

Robin of Sherwood Season 2 DVD cover

Robin of Sherwood Season 2 DVD cover

Richard the Lionheart. The first series ends with Richard’s return from the Crusades; the second is set in the late 1190s, and the third in the reign of King John. No, the characters don’t get any older – don’t ask, or you’ll spoil the magic. And the magic is what makes this series so special, so endearing and so enduring.

For although Robin of Sherwood has its feet firmly rooted in solid medieval history – we see feudal relationships in action, governmental bureaucracy at work, peasants tilling the soil and craftsmen making their wares – its head is in the clouds. There are witches, evil sorcerers, Satanists and mysterious Saracens. Robin himself is the “Hooded Man”, chosen champion of Herne the Hunter, presented as a benign pagan deity of the wildwoods.

To blend such diverse elements together could so easily have gone wr

Robin of Sherwood, Season 3 Part 1 DVD cover

Robin of Sherwood, Season 3 Part 1 DVD cover

ong – you

only need look at Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or, worse, the glam-rock of The New Adventures of Robin Hood to see how badly it can go.

That Robin of Sherwood succeeded is a tribute to the skill of writer, cast and crew. Somehow, despite its fantasy elements, it produced something earthy and captivating. Not history, nor fantasy, but a kind of “mystic history”.

The acting from the young cast – Praed and the outlaws were all in their early-20s when the show was made – is excellent. It has constantly amazed me that their subsequent careers have not made them better known – though, like many British actors, most seem to have concentrated on stage work. Praed himself had a guest role in Dynasty, and a large part in a Brit mini-series, Riders, which was complete tosh. Mark Ryan (Nasir) was a fight arranger for First Knight and King Arthur and was the voice of Bumblebee in the Transformers movies; the late Robert Addie (Guy of Gisburn) was Mordred in Excalibur; Clive Mantle (Little John), became a British TV icon with his role as Dr Mike Barrett in the long-running medical drama Casualty (and its spinoff, Holby City), and recently moved up from Little John to a cameo as Greatjon in the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones; only Ray Winstone (Will Scarlet) has really made a name for himself, with a string of critically acclaimed British gangster movies and the occasional Hollywood role (Face, Nil by Mouth, Sexy Beast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and others).

One of the most endearing features of the series is the group dynamics between

Robin of Sherwood Season 3, Part 1 DVD cover

Robin of Sherwood Season 3, Part 2 DVD cover

the outlaws. Because the group is small (seven, including Robin – about the size of the average gaming group), each gets their chance to shine. The characters are wonderfully drawn – Scarlet, the perpetually angry, near-psychotic killer; Little John, the earthy, independent and affable giant; Much, the simpleton who hero-worships Robin; Nasir, the silent, efficient Saracen assassin; Tuck, the gentle, loving monk; Marion, the fragile beauty with a will of steel and the guts to match. Sparks fly as they establish their relationships with each other.

The relationships within the other main group, the three staple baddies – the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace), Guy of Gisburn (Robert Addie) and Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson) – is also explored: the sour bile between the Sheriff and the Abbot, brothers who between them hold all secular and religious power in Nottingham, yet are constant rivals; the snide, witty bullying of Gisburn by the Sheriff; Gisburn’s sneaky, underhand attempts to get his own back. Much time and energy is spent making these perpetual baddies into three-dimensional villains we love to hate. And just as you start to feel sorry for Gisburn as he endures another round of bullying from the Sheriff, he’ll go off and murder a peasant.

Most of the episodes follow a fairly standard pattern. The outlaws and the Sheriff are, naturally enough, at odds with each other, and there’s invariably a third force to spark the particular story — it might be something the outlaws must deal with (a plea for help, a new baddie), or something the Sheriff or Gisburn must handle (new orders from the King, another baddie or, in one case, the Sheriff’s upcoming nuptials – “Are you trying to be funny, Gisburn? Stop cheering. It’s a wedding, not a celebration.”)

At the risk of being long-winded, I’d like to pick out a handful of episodes of particular note.

Robin Hood and the Sorcerer was the original double-length pilot episode. Its production is a little shaky, but it manages to assemble the outlaws together and set the tone for all subsequent episodes. Gisburn catches Robin and Much poaching and throws them into the dungeons, where they meet Will Scarlet. During the breakout, Robin catches his first glimpse of the Sheriff’s ward, Lady Marion. Meanwhile Baron Simon de Belleme, a truly nasty individual with mystical powers, comes to visit the Sheriff, bringing with him his charmed “familiar”, John Little, and his bodyguard, the assassin Nasir. De Belleme seeks a virgin to sacrifice, and Marion looks choice. During the subsequent shenanigans Robin assembles his gang, gets adopted by Herne the Hunter and, of course, rescues Marion.

The King’s Fool closes Series 1, when Richard the Lionheart (the wonderful John Rhys Davies – Gimli in LOTR, Shogun, Sliders and more) comes to Sherwood to recruit Robin for his wars in France. Robin’s blind faith in the King’s justice and honour is slowly disabused as Richard proceeds to auction off royal offices and pardons to the highest bidder – includig the Sheriff, the Abbot and Gisburn. Slowly the outlaws desert him and return to Sherwood. Robin is left sadder, but wiser. The nice thing about this episode is that it’s solidly built on real history – the auction of offices at Nottingham really did take place, and much as presented by the show.

Screenshot from The King's Fool: Michael Praed as Robin, Ray Winstone as Scarlet, Phil Rose as Tuck, Cline Mantle in the back as Little John, and John Rhys Davies as Lionheart.

Screenshot from The King’s Fool. From left, Michael Praed as Robin, Ray Winstone as Scarlet, Phil Rose as Tuck, Clive Mantle in the back as Little John, and John Rhys Davies as Lionheart.

The Children of Israel (Series 2) has the Sheriff arranging a massacre of Nottingham’s Jews in order to avoid paying a debt to a moneylender, who happens to be a master of the Kabbalah. Gisburn, finally fed up with the Sheriff’s bullying, falls for the moneylender’s daughter and helps her family escape. Meanwhile Scarlet and Robin have a serious disagreement, which results in Will leaving the outlaws. An interesting episode, which explores racism and faith, and adds a new tension into the relationship between Robin and Will.

Herne’s Son (double episode, Series 3). With Robin of Loxley missing, presumed dead, Herne chooses a new Hooded Man, the Norman nobleman Robert of Huntingdon (Jason Connery – Sean Connery’s son). In order to rescue Lady Marion from an unwilling marriage, he must assemble Loxley’s old gang, which isn’t easy since they’re scattered to the four corners of Britain and have a major distrust of Norman nobles. Cue new round of group dynamics as Robert tries to win the outlaws’ faith and trust. The episode also introduces a new baddie, the sorcerer Gulnar (Richard O’Brien – Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dark City, Dungeons & Dragons) who keeps appearing every now and again for the rest of the series. Though the change in leads was forced on the writer by Praed’s departure for the USA, it was a particularly cool way of blending two strands of the Robin Hood legend – the peasant champion and the disinherited nobleman – into one show.

If all this sounds like the demented ravings of a passionate fan-boy, well, it is. Robin of Sherwood had a profound influence on my gaming, with a mood and atmosphere I still strive for in the games I run. I firmly believe it has a place on the shelf of every fantasy gamer. It does for fantasy games what Firefly later did for science fiction, and for much the same reasons: a small band of characters, each wonderfully drawn, sharp dialogue and an innovative setting.

Extra features on the DVDs include “making of” documentaries, featuring modern interviews with writer, producer and cast members, and commentaries on selected episodes, which are worth listening to for tips on story-telling techniques, and selections of out-takes, which range from the dull to the absolutely hilarious.

Bonus geek trivia: Jeremy Bulloch, who played Edward of Wickham, the outlaws’ main ‘civilian’ ally in Robin of Sherwood, also played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy.

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Chivalry & Sorcery: The Early Years

Back in the days of the Loyal Order of Chivalry & Sorcery mailing list I enjoyed swapping emails – both public and private – with C&S designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus and, at the last two Dudley Bug Ball game conventions in 2001 and 2002, of meeting, chatting and gaming with Ed and the new generation of C&S designers and publishers.

Both Wilf and Ed were very approachable and friendly but, having met him in the flesh, I felt I knew Ed a little better. Ed, being a teacher by profession, was particularly delighted when I told him his essays on medieval economics in the C&S Sourcebook had led me to study landscape archaeology at night school.

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition cover

Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition (1977) cover

What I never really asked either of them about were those early years of gaming, and of Chivalry & Sorcery in particular. It’s understandable, I suppose, because C&S3 had not long since been published then, after the fall-out with Highlander, Britannia and Ed started working on C&S The Rebirth. We were looking forwards, not backwards.

I do recall Ed mentioning that the folks at Chaosium had invited him down to talk to them about his ideas of RPG design when they were working on RuneQuest. If I recall, he rather liked them though found

the West Coast scene and attitude rather different to the war gaming and fledgling roleplaying scene in Edmonton, Alberta. There was a distinct herbal waft around the Chaosium offices in those days, he told me and the group of Britannia staff and hangers-on one evening over brandy and cigars in his hotel room.

When people mention the tiny typeface in the original C&S, this is what they're talking about.

When people mention the tiny typeface in the original C&S, this is what they’re talking about.

Dom at space-opera.net did ask Ed about the early days in an interview he conducted in 2000. Ed described his introduction to RPGs thus: “Two students of mine came to me early in 1974 with a copy of D&D, asking me what to do with it. I borrowed the rules over the weekend and that’s how I became a Gamemaster. (Think I might have invented that term, by the way, for I was using it within a week of starting up a D&D campaign in 1974. I coined it because I found “Dungeon Master” to be offensive: it suggests a petulant, egotistical child with godlike pretensions who delights in pulling the wings off helpless flies caught in the “clever” traps he rigs by arbitrary application of “the rules.”) Anyway, that precipitated my entry into RPG and it soon became one of my favourite activities. Not to mention the occasion for my entry into RPG designing. Rules back then were very sketchy and crude, and one had to develop all sorts of “In House” rules and procedures to cover all the situations that the formal “rules” never anticipated. It didn’t take long for me to realise that D&D just didn’t have the potential to ever meet the needs that I and my players had, so I started writing my own rules. Everything naturally proceeded from there.”

Of the development of Chivalry & Sorcery, the best sources I can find are the introduction to the first edition of Chivalry & Sorcery, in which Ed and Wilf explain – just a moment while I put my reading glasses on; this text is rather small – “Chivalry & Sorcery began innocently enough with a discussion about the vacuum that our characters seemed to be living in between dungeon and wilderness campaigns. In the Fantasy Wargames Society of the University of Alberta a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our characters. The solution was to develop and all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

That first edition of Chivalry & Sorcery did indeed attempt to be all-encompassing. It included a roleplaying game, a tabletop war game, and strategic considerations, all set against the backdrop of a fully functioning society. No game since has ever attempted to make all of that part of the core rules – even C&S second edition moved the war game into a source book. Rolemaster had a stab at it with its War Law supplement, and GURPS and Hero System have abstract mass combat and strategy rules in various supplements. But not in the core rules.

Ed told space-opera.net how C&S came to be published: “Wilf Backhaus and I went to GenCon in 1977 with our Chevalier RPG – admittedly a D&D clone in some respects but also containing all of the seeds that would soon spring forth as Chivalry & Sorcery, which I regard as a dramatic departure from the slash and hack approach to RPG that existed in those early days. Wilf and I were going to approach TSR to see if we could sell them Chevalier, but we had very bad vibes when we witnessed E. Gary Gygax chewing out some poor teen-aged convention volunteer who had managed to goof something up. So we just enjoyed the Con. Then we met Scott [Bizar, of Fantasy Games Unlimited]. He pointed out his Hyborean Age miniatures rules as something he’d written, and Wilf reached into his ubiquitous briefcase, remarking, ‘Well, we’ve written something, too.’ Scott was no dummy and saw the potential of Chevalier. He wrote out a letter of intent on the spot, and Chivalry & Sorcery was the result.”

Now, through Facebook, I’ve found someone who was part of Trevor Clarke’s playtest group and who has graciously agreed to share some of his memories – with the warning that it was a long time ago. At the time Lloyd Wiebe worked at the Edmonton games shop Little Wars.

Lloyd recalls: “I knew Wilf a lot better than Ed, but in the early days, I lived in the same house as Trevor Clarke and since I was a gamer, and he was a major playtest GM for the game, having pretty much contributed the entire Forester set of rules for the game, it was not uncommon for Wilf to drop over to the house in West Edmonton to check in on a Sunday game.

“I also was employed by a game/comics shop that existed in downtown Edmonton for a while, and my boss was heavily into miniatures, when the best place, and sometimes the only place to get them was from Britain. He’d make several trips a year, bringing back boxes of collectible figures. I ran the retail side, and saw pretty much every game that started up in the late 70s.

“Wilf was a lawyer, and while committed to gaming, his take on things was much more about what they could and couldn’t do with things like copyright materials and such. He and FGU and Ed were beginning to have some issues at that point, but we did manage to have both of them attend what I believe to be the first ever gaming convention at the Hilton in Edmonton. C&S was voted the best game lifetime award at the convention, although the convention was refused space by the Hilton group due to the number of room parties and their general stuffy attitudes.”

He went on to give his recollection of Trevor, Ed and Wilf: “As I recall, and remember, this is a lot of years ago… All three of them had been essentially burned out on D&D, but wanted a game that more realistically rendered combat, magic, and campaign battles.

“Trevor was an immigrant from Britain, where miniature battles were being fought for many, many generations already, and he wanted to ensure that those principals remained true to form.

“Wilf had a great appreciation for magic, partly as a result of a lot of exposure to Tolkien, and wanted a system that reflected different, customisable ‘schools’ of magic that could achieve the same ends, via different mediums, and he designed the rules so that that could impose a methodology on each player that would lend itself to gameplay.

“Ed was the Chivalry guy, and worked very hard on rules for the upper classes, the weapons and martial combat.

“In terms of gameplay though, the GM’s word was law. There was no give there. If in a session the GM ruled, then that rule applied. Later you could argue it, but not at the table during gaming. They were all about making the game fun but realistic, taking the hack and slash out of the dice and using roleplay to determine in game events if you could.”

Lloyd added: “After Little Wars, the gaming store, shut down, I pretty much fell out of gaming for more than a decade. Got back into it when a friend lured me to a game on the statement, ‘Lloyd, this is like the real version of C&S.’ Needless to say, my mantra from that point on was ‘Flowchart!’

“They had a set of rules, but they needed serious work, and the only reason to stay was to game with the people in the group, and in particular the GM… But I stayed in gaming from that point forward to today. Now I game mostly in Space or WFRP games. I run open gaming games at conventions when I attend.”

In memoriam:
Ed Simbalist, 1943-2005. Teacher, gamer, designer.
Wilf Backhaus, 1946-2009. Lawyer, gamer, designer.

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Traveller 5 review: second impressions

As I keep reading the new Traveller 5 rules, I am becoming more and more impressed with them.

The underlying mechanics – roll under a target number (often Characteristic + Skill) on a number of 6-sided dice representing difficulty – is simple and intuitive. What’s more, the system is highly structured and designed to work with the same mechanic. Want to shoot something? The number of dice you roll is the range band of your target. You get a bonus to your target number (Characteristic + Skill, of course) equal to Range – Target Size. Everything is classified, everything is harmonious. It’s an elegant system.

I’m also coming to the conclusion that I’m bang in the middle of the target audience for this edition: a committed Traveller player who left the fold with the Traveller: New Era debacle. Traveller 4 didn’t do enough to bring me back; GURPS Traveller was fun, and remains a favourite incarnation, but lacked the full Traveller spark; and Mongoose Traveller seemed somewhat regressive.

To give an idea of the commitment to each incarnation of Trav, I own pretty much all the GDW publications from the Classic Trav era, though I’m missing a number of JTAS volumes and have none of the board games (Fifth Frontier War, Azhanti High Lightning, etc). I have Beltstrike and Tarsus. I have Striker. I’ve most of the Megatraveller material from GDW and DGP. I own a TNE rulebook, which has never seen action, and a copy of Brilliant Lances, likewise unused, an unused copy of the T4 rulebook, a couple of T4 background books (First Survey. Regency), a copy of T20, and Traveler Hero, the Mongoose rulebook, with a lot of the supplements in PDF form, and I have everything published for GURPS: Traveller.

In other words, I committed to Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and GURPS Traveller, but other versions left me rather cold.

My favourite incarnation of Traveller was Megatraveller, which I’ve stuck to, on and off, for the last 25 years, with frequent forays into GURPS Traveller since that came out. I like Megatraveller for a couple of reasons: a unified task system, logical tactical combat and design sequences that let me build vehicles as well as ships, and use them in combat, as part of the core rules. It was complete.

Traveller 5 does that and more with (so far) far fewer errata issues than Megatraveller.

While combat is simpler than earlier editions, it can be an all-or-nothing affair, particularly when it comes to NPCs. This is, I assume, intended to cut down GM paperwork. For example, to put an NPC out of action, you need to do 10+ hits in one shot; fewer means the NPC functions at full capacity; if he’s wearing Cloth armour (AV 14), this means doing 24+ points with one shot; good luck doing that with your Bullet-3 magnum revolver or Gauss Carbine – and even a Bullet-5 Advanced Battle Rifle will struggle (the odds are 5.88%). Since armour, once penetrated, becomes ineffective for the rest of the ‘situation’, a second shot will usually take the NPC down. By the way, for the uninitiated, Traveller’s cloth armour is ballistic (bulletproof) cloth, something akin to Kevlar. A woolly jumper or Jayne’s hat won’t protect you from gunfire.

Will it attract new players to Traveller? I don’t know, but it may have an uphill  struggle. I took my copy of the rules to the Gulf Roleplaying Community’s minicon last Friday and non-Traveller players were not just unimpressed, they were intimidated by the size of the book and its stark cover. ‘It looks like a textbook’ was one complaint.

But those like me who played Traveller in the past have been almost universally intrigued by the new edition. Several friends have mentioned they’re very interested in getting a copy.

There’s a lot of criticism of the new rules in blogs and the like, most of which seem to focus around its size, its organisation (or lack of it) and the errata.

I think the errata is a pretty minor issue. Most errors identified so far are simple grammatical errors which don’t affect playability at all. Actual mistakes in rules or tables are much rarer – not non-existent, but nowhere near as bad as you’d think reading some reviews. Don’t believe me? Check out the errata document on the T5 thread at the Citizens of the Imperium forum.

Size? Well, although T5 is physically bigger than Pathfinder Core I suspect its word count is lower. Point size is bigger, and an awful lot of space is given to charts codifying certain aspects of the rules – if you have the PDF you can print these out and run a session from them.

Furthermore, much of the content is intended for use away from the gaming table. Gun, armour, vehicle and ship designs are not intended for use in play. Traveller’s always had a certain solo appeal – even in the days of the little black books it was fun to create characters, design ships, create worlds or indulge in trade and speculation. These elements will scratch that itch.

In fact I’ll have to use them: there are some sample weapons and armour, but none of the standard Traveller vehicles or ships are pre-designed. That’s a little frustrating, but at least it will get me using the makers.

Complaints about Traveller 5’s organisation are more valid, I think. Certainly, it desperately needs an index. And much of the benchmarks chapter, including dice probability charts, that occupy the front of the book could have gone into an appendix. Traveller 5 is an excellent, elegant system, but the best that can be said of the organisation is that it doesn’t help you use it (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it actively hinders use of the system). But what’s done is done. For me, it’s not a deal breaker. The organisational quirks continue with the PDF as well – it isn’t bookmarked, which I find annoying) but, as well as the full rules, an html index page links to each chapter, chart and section, all of which come on the CD as separate PDFs. Why? Fortunately, Marc hasn’t locked the PDF, so it’s a fairly easy matter to create my own bookmarks since I own a decent PDF editor (Nitro Pro).

Enough of rules and rulebooks. Traveller 5 introduces some new setting material as well.

Perhaps the most notable is that, while the Imperium’s maximum tech level is still 15, the various charts go up to TL-33, after which societies go through a technological singularity; brief rules for this are provided).

This means that Jump-6 is no longer the best available, though as a TL-15 development it remains the best commercially available in the Third Imperium. In fact, jump can go as high as 9, after which it’s superceded by the Hop drive (10-90 parsecs range), the Skip Drive (100-900 parsecs) and more advanced drives. With the rules on experimental and prototype items, there’s a strong implication the Imperium could have top-secret experimental ships capable of better than Jump-6 – in fact, it’s capable of early Jump-7, prototype Jump-8 and experimental Jump-9, as well as experimental Hop-1.

Jump itself is investigated a little more thoroughly. As well as a picture of what jumpspace looks like, there’s a discussion of several ways of creating a jump field, including the jump bubble, jump plates and a jump grid, each of which has its own pros and cons. The last time I recall anything in that much detail was in an old JTAS from the Classic Trav days.

Another variant is Oversize and Titan armours. These special forms of Battle Dress are double and triple the size of standard armour respectively, and can carry oversize weapons to match. The Titan Battle Dress is pretty much a mecha.

Psionic training is handled in much more detail than CT or MT; characters now go through 5 stages of training, from testing through to master. Interestingly, at the fourth stage, a player must choose his character’s personality: order or chaos, good or evil (or neutral on both axes). Yes, that’s the D&D alignment system. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, beyond the fact that it amuses me.

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Poser Pro 14/Poser 10 pre-orders

So soon? It seems it’s only been a little while since Poser Pro 12 and Poser 9 were out. And I’ve barely started playing with Reality 3!

But, yes, it’s that time again. The new generation of Poser looks to have some interesting features, including Pixar subdivision, weight-mapped magnets, live previews of cloth sims, bullet physics and (in Pro) the ability to fit any clothing to any figure.

Introductory pricing is available until June 30 – $199 to upgrade your Pro 12 to Pro 14, $119 to upgrade Poser 9 to 10.

Details from Smith-Micro.

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Traveller 5 review: corrected character generation

Mistakes I made in the archaeologist character.

1)      I missed a trade classification for Natoko; it’s a pre-rich world, so the archaeologist gets a craftsman skill as well (pop 9 as pre-rich? Maybe that will get errata.)

2)      What I thought were cascade skills are not, quite. For the first two levels of certain skills, you take a subset knowledge, and start accumulating the actual skill from the third skill award, so his Fighter skill becomes Fighter-0 (Slug Thrower-2). If he got another level of Fighter, it would become Fighter-1 (Slug Thrower-2), giving him 3D with slug throwers and 1D with other personal weapons.

3)      Knowledge skills like Archaeology max out at level 6. To be honest, that makes me much more comfortable – Archaeology-12 is pretty insane.

4) It appears you get knowledge skills based on your career and homeworld, one level for each term you spent in the profession or on the world (max 6), reduced by one level for every term away from it, so the character should also have Career: Academia-3 (4 terms – 1 term away), Career: Author-1 and World: Natoko-6

4)      I rolled for risk/reward twice in the third Scholar term. Because I want to keep the award-winning publication, I’ll add a term. He fails the tenure roll in term 3, as that’s before the award-winning publication, but does get 4 new skills and has to make another set of aging rolls against Life Stage 6.He loses another point of Str, and gets one more mustering out roll on the scholar table.

5) Because he has fighter skill, he starts with an appropriate personal weapon. I choose a magnum revolver.

So the corrected character is:

Dr Jonas Indiana, Formerly Associate Professor of Archaeology at the Imperial University of Natoko.

6879CA 7 terms (education 2 terms, scholar 4, entertainer/author 1)

Age 46. Fame 11 (world complex)

Archaeology-6, World: Natoko-6, Planetology-4, Career: Academia-3, Sensors-3, Author-3, Survival-3, Hostile Environment-2, Fighter-1 (Slug Thrower-2), Career: Author-1, Vacc Suit-1, Trading-1, Navigation-1, Bureaucrat-1, Animals-0 (Riding-1) , Craftsman-1, Stealth-1, Athlete-1.

Equipment: 2 Ship Shares (lab ship); Life Insurance, Wafer Jack, Magnum Revolver. Cr 35,000.

Publications: The Effects of Planetology on Archaeology, A Detailed Bibliography of Archaeology, and the award-winning Our Evolving Understanding of Archaeology.

 

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