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Grumpy, yet verbose.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Giving up the Reins

 Well, the Traveller campaign has continued on with a player taking over as GM and my taking a seat on the player's side of the screen, running an NPC the party had met before. It's working all right overall as I had not read much ahead in the campaign materials, so I don't have spoilers.

The difficulty is in my letting go of "running" the game I'm in. I'm usually the GM and --for good or ill-- I have a particular style. The new GM's style is not radically different, but it's his own as well. I fear I sometimes may chime in with comments on rules or mechanics when I should just be quiet and play. 

On the other hand, one of the reasons I normally GM and not play in our little group is that a couple of the players can, well, be a lot. One is very competitive and dominates a lot of the conversation, making it hard to be heard sometimes without just constantly interrupting. The other favors "storytelling" over rules and die rolls, so he's happier when we don't bother looking up a rule and either A) handwaving the whole thing or B) just letting the GM make an ad hoc ruling and move on. I have no beef with either style, but when I run, I usually only handwave or wing it when the actual rule doesn't exist or is not easily found. 

Both of these players push back when I cite rules, but as GM, I have more of say in how we proceed than as a player. The friction between our styles is more annoying when I am just a player at the table with them. I know that sounds a little petty, but when most sessions consist of getting fellow players talking over and interrupting you when you're trying to describe your character's actions or grumbling when you point out a relevant mechanic in the book, the fun level drops.

I know this is more in my headspace than in their actions, but it's just something that I'll need to process. Otherwise it may be time for a break. Game group dynamics are always interesting to navigate. What's strange is that it can actually vary from one campaign to the next. A group of people can play together just fine for one game system, then be utterly derailed when playing another. I'm not sure what the alchemy is there, but it seems a real thing. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Death of the Campaign

 Over the last several months of running Traveller, I've started to notice a pattern in my gaming habits that conflicts with a long-held assumption I've had about styles of gaming and my own preferences. It's forced me to take a serious look at what I want and get out of this hobby.

As a fan of old-school games and things like classic D&D, I've often been a staunch defender of the whole long-term process of characters leveling up over time and getting really enmeshed in an extended campaign. The time it takes to get from 1st to "Name" level being essential to really making the PCs part of the world and for the players to get invested in the setting and what's happening there. There's no substitute for "putting in the work" as they say. It's not that I disagree with this now, but I believe I am at a point in my gaming style, as well as of an age, where my priorities are shifting somewhat.

Lately, I find that I am far more likely to experience burn-out on campaigns that last for months (or longer). This is especially when I GM, but has happened as a player, too. I realize that by some grognardian standards, a 6-12 month campaign is hardly "extended," but when you factor in all the games over the years that have crashed and burned after only 1-2 sessions, I think sustaining one for the better part of a year or more is certainly at the longer end of the curve.

When I went on my game-purchasing spree last year, I originally had the idea of getting at least one published campaign for each system. While Runequest lacks a full campaign (presently), it does have several compilations of scenarios. The thinking was to reduce the workload for me to run the different games and have enough for players to do for a good long while in each game.

The reality has been a little different. While I count myself lucky that my group has really been enjoying Traveller and have gotten engaged with the setting and the campaign, I'm struggling as GM to maintain the energy to prep and run it, even with published materials. My enthusiasm for the campaign has waned over the months and I fear I'm going to need a real break from it soon, which, as experienced gamers know, often means that it will never get picked back up again. Because of this, I've been trying to push through,hoping to regain some momentum. Sadly, that seems to not be happening.

So where does this leave me? Well, for one thing, I've learned something about myself as a GM and a gamer, so that's good. (I guess?) Secondly, I know I will need to make the call about the current campaign at some point, and third, I should focus on shorter, more episodic games where there are frequent "stopping points" to let one wrap up and have some closure before moving on. We had a moment like that in the Traveller campaign right before we shifted gears into the Drinax campaign. Perhaps I should have taken it. Perhaps the open-ended, long term campaign is not for me any more.

Live and Learn.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Garycon XIV: A Tale of Two Cons

 So Garycon finished up a little over a week ago and I have thoughts.

TL;DR: Not my favorite year of attending. There were issues, not all of which were the convention's fault. But the con seems to be moving in directions I'm not a fan of.

The verbose version:

Due to some issues at the hotel, some rooms that were being renovated were not ready in time for the convention. As a result, several of us were bumped out of the main facility to alternate lodgings at Timber Ridge, the Grand's 2nd hotel on the property which is their waterpark location. The accommodations were fine, but it was not walking distance and one needed to drive or grab the shuttle. To be fair, the shuttle staff were prompt and polite, but it was an added hassle to get to and from one's room. As I said, this was not the event's fault, it was the hotel's. Nevertheless, instead of a room with two queen beds, we ended up with one king and a sofa-bed (guess which one was mine).

Day One (Thu): I started off with running a couple Traveller sessions to earn my GM badge. Both went well, but left me pretty wiped out. So much so I ended up bowing out of my evening game that I was going to play in. 

Day Two (Fri): My early game was canceled by the GM (who ended up unable to attend), later in the day I got to play the sci-fi horror game Mothership. I backed the new edition on Kickstarter so getting some actual at-table time in the system was nice. I spent a little while in the exhibit hall and picked up one or two little things for my kids. 

Something I noticed about myself at this con was that, being an early riser, I was running out of stamina by early evening. Some of that is no doubt due to being socially distant and virtual for the last couple of years. I had slept poorly on the sofa-bed the night before, so I bowed out of another game (minis wargame) as it was supposed to run until midnight. 

Day Three (Sat.): I played an early Cthulhu game run by the excellent "You Too Can Cthulhu" group. Seriously, if you are at a con where they are, sign up for one of their games. Top Notch! Because I really wanted to try the BBQ place at the Timber Ridge, I went back to the room and found Empire Strikes Back on TV to watch as I ate brisket.

Day Four (Sunday): I played a great little game of Star Frontiers. Afterwards, my friend I was rooming with and I had some lunch then headed back to Milwaukee and the airport and home.

So! The good? The games I played in were all pretty fun, both my GM-ing sessions went well, and I got to see some folks I almost never get a chance to talk to outside of Garycon.

The bad? I realized that I don't like playing all day and well into the evenings for multiple days in a row. And given the expense of flying, car rental, and hotel, it makes little sense for me to go for less than the full convention, which means it's harder to justify going. In past years, my reasoning had been that it's the only con I travel to in any given year, so the cost and effort were easier to accept.

This year? Well, that brings us to the "Two Cons" issue I alluded to in the title. 

Garycon has changed a lot over the last several years. It's grown significantly in size, resulting in the venue change, and become more tiered, with different level badges costing up to $1000 each! These features aren't really new, but have been affecting the experience for a while, so I felt they deserved mention. Higher tiered badges increase access and give priority for event registration. This seems fair enough, but it also leads the staff to focus a lot of their efforts on these VIP guests as opposed to the overall con experience for the majority of attendees.

Secondly, it seems that the pandemic has accelerated the rise of virtual gaming, whether it's Virtual Table Top platforms like Roll20 and Foundry, or people watching others stream their games via Twitch, etc. "Shows" like Critical Role and many others have become a big part of the current tabletop gaming scene. It would appear that the powers that be behind Garycon have decided to make an earnest effort to woo some of these groups to making Garycon a definite part of their own "brands." I don't have anything against streamers, whether it's a publisher using the platform to promote their games or gamers making their own content, it's all fine to me. An unfortunate effect of the convention focusing so much effort on currying favor with the streamers is that the original, old-school population of attendees seems to have been getting de-emphasized more and more. There's not something super-specific I can point to and "There! That's it!" but I was not alone in expressing feelings along these lines at the con.

All this being said, I have to say that while Garycon is still a fun time, I think I'll be bowing out of it for the foreseeable future for reasons that are as much my own issues as with how I feel the con is being presented nowadays.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

This is Free Trader Beowulf. Mayday...


As a gamer of “a certain age,” I grew up as several now-iconic games were just coming on the scene, following the trail mostly blazed by TSR and D&D. Games like Tunnels & Trolls, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily chronologically or historically 100% accurate. Theses are just the non-TSR games that I first started becoming aware of and interested in.


As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m currently running a Traveller campaign using the most recent edition of the game: Mongoose Publishing’s 2nd edition (“MgT2e”). There have been many versions of the game over the decades, published by various companies. Starting WAY back in 1977 with Game Designers’ Workshop’s “Little Black Books.”

My group of friends, being deep in the throes of the original trilogy Star Wars films and reruns of classic Star Trek, were ripe fodder for a game of spaceships and laser guns. I estimate we got a hold of a set of the books circa 1982. Sadly, we never really succeeded in getting a Traveller game off the ground. Oh sure, we ran through wild and wacky (at the time) character generation system, rolling up character after character. But we never managed to sustain a campaign or even play through a full adventure. For whatever reason -a lack of clarity in the text, our youth, or a lack of information on gameplay in a pre-internet age- it just never fully clicked with us. After a time, we abandoned it and returned to fantasy and 1st edition AD&D and a smattering of Runequest.

Fast forward to the Year That Shall Not Be Named. Virtual gaming (in my case, Roll20) had taken the front seat. After a B/X Keep on the Borderlands game that I hastily launched because we were all going out of our collective tree from a lack of gaming, we shifted to another member of the group running some Savage Worlds, giving me a break from the GM chair.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was around this time that I acquired the latest versions of several games in an effort to A) occupy myself with the reading of them and B) take a look at where some classic titles were at today vs. when they first came on the market. One of these was Traveller.

“Science fiction” is one of those terms that can cover a LOT of different things. Whether it’s pulp, gritty, grimdark, space opera, hard sci-fi or alternate history (to name a few). The best way I can describe Traveller’s brand of sci-fi is “Space Opera with a Hard Sci-Fi Vibe.” This definition is not always received well by some Traveller fans, who relish in all the fiddly rules and stats which make the game feel more realistic than it is. Yet, despite all the different types of ships, drives, technological equipment, star maps, and so forth, the game has the characters flying around in ships at faster-than-light speeds, equipped with artificial gravity and inertial dampers. Alien races and futuristic gear abound, and humanity covers a significant portion of the known part of the galaxy in its third version of an interstellar empire. I don’t say this as a dig against the game, but I wanted to clarify that many of the game’s conceits venture into “Clarketech” territory and it’s good to keep that in mind. Whereas in a fantasy game, one might explain some phenomena through “lost magic” or “the gods”, Traveller often just declares “FTL travel is a standard thing. Don’t worry too much about how it works.” And I’m fine with that. There are always those folks online who love to pick at things trying to devise the best technobabble so as to explain it, but I find that largely unnecessary. Still, it can be hard to steer 100% clear of THE LORE.

Traveller is right up there with the big boys like Star Wars or 40K for extensive lore in a science fiction universe. Decades of books, adventures, articles, and maps provide a wide array of races, ships, locations, historical events, and technology. It’s a massive library, and one that can easily trap you in a rabbit hole of chasing down sources for your game if you let it. For myself, I tend to use game lore as more suggestion than canon and that philosophy has helped me avoid getting stuck in several GM-ing situations over the years. But enough about the history, now on to some actual observations of gameplay.

I’m not going to break down every single section of the rules. This isn’t a comprehensive review. But here are a few highlights. Traveller uses a d6 based system where the core mechanic is simply 2d6+modifiers vs. a default success threshold of 8. All rolls are d6 or the occasional d3. This is a simple system but it works well. Rolling two dice helps reduce the extremes of a single die’s results and the “bell curve” makes most rolls fairly likely to succeed. The chance of failure might be increased (or decreased) through higher thresholds due to things like complexity or haste. Likewise, MgT2e utilizing “Boon” and “Bane” dice (advantage and disadvantage) to represent difficult circumstances or a lucky break.

Character creation is done by starting your character at 18 and rolling on various educational and career path tables. You may attend university or enter a military academy. Or maybe you just enlist in one of the military branches. Perhaps instead you wish to remain a civilian and be a merchant or a scholar. There are many choices. Each “term” of four years calls for a couple different rolls. Gone are the days where characters can die during generation (technically it’s possible, just highly unlikely), but you can still suffer hardships and injuries. Most characters will probably hold multiple careers before “mustering out.” Many PCs are in the late 30s or 40s before beginning actual play. Unlike a leveled game like D&D, your PC has most of his skills at the start of play. While you can train during downtime (often travel), you are already largely who and what you’re going to be by the time the campaign proper begins.

Combat in Traveller is dangerous. There’s no ever-growing pool of hit points that represents some abstract level of durability. Damage is removed directly from your physical scores (Strength, Endurance, and Dexterity). Drop to zero in two scores? KO. All three? Dead. In play, combat goes fairly quickly.

Spaceship combat is more like the submarine duel in the movie The Hunt for Red October than a Star Wars X-Wing/Tie Fighter battle. Each crew member has a job and a time within the combat round to perform their role. Rounds last six minutes to reflect the immense distances two ships can be at and still fight each other. There are rules for dogfights, generally between smaller craft, but I haven’t had the opportunity to run those (yet).

While styles of play can take nearly any shape, one of the default campaign styles in Traveller is the “Tramp Freighter.” This is the small ship a la Firefly, taking jobs and hauling small cargoes in order to pay their expenses and keep flying. Often a party’s ship comes with a mortgage, and paying that monthly note is a major motivation. The book provides extensive rules for ship operations, trade goods, and taking on passengers.

Another common campaign style is more “Travellers for hire.” Often, one of the PCs may have received a Scout ship (somewhat smaller than the typical “Free Trader” merchant vessel) and the party uses this to hop around the stars, looking for adventure. The scout ships have the advantage of being given to retiring scout character on sort of a long-term loan. There’s no monthly payments, other than maintenance, but the Scout Service may give you an errand to run now and then (Adventure Hook, anyone?).

Okay, that whole discussion got a lot longer than I’d planned. Moving on.

I think it’s pretty obvious from all I’ve rambled here that I’ve been enjoying the game. That’s not to say the game is perfect, however. Most of my criticisms of Traveller aren’t actually about the system. One issue is that so much material is spread over so many source, that players and GMs can feel like they are always one book away from having the information they need. While it’s perfectly possible to play with only the core book, there is SO MUCH addition material published that I suspect few groups do.

Another issue, which has mostly to do with Mongoose the company, is that their proofing/editorial process is, well, frankly terrible. The books are often riddled with typos, botched formatting, and unclear wording. They have been making some strides in this area lately, but be sure to check online for errata when you pick up a book or module from them.

(Time to start wrapping this long ramble up.)

Speaking of online, I can heartily recommend a couple of internet resources for the game that any new player or GM can benefit from. One is the Traveller Discord. It’s a great place to discuss the game, get advice, and ask questions about the game. Another is Seth Skorkowsky’s YouTube channel. He has posted many reviews of Traveller products and has a video series with terrific overview of the current rules set.

Currently, my group is in the middle(ish) of a large published campaign called The Pirates of Drinax. Whether we finish the entire story or not is never certain in gaming. What I do feel confident about is that one way or another, Traveller has earned a spot in our group’s game systems rotation for the foreseeable future.


Saturday, February 26, 2022

I'm a Travelling Man

 It's 2022! How did THAT happen?!

Greetings to anyone who still checks this site. I am still kicking and gaming. I hope everyone has kept safe and sane during all the craziness. I haven't posted much as late because my group and I haven't been playing much D&D. I've been running the group in a new (to me) system for the last 8-9 months.


Science fiction gaming is a genre we haven't done much with over the years, so it's an interesting departure. We tried playing classic Traveller back in the day with the little booklets, but beyond the character generation rules (which are a lot of fun), we never really seemed to get a proper game off the ground. Currently, I am running the group through one of Mongoose's published campaigns, The Pirates of Drinax. We've been using online tools like Roll20 to meet and play.

Last year, finding myself with little face to face gaming and a lot of time on my hands (for some reason), I set about picking up some new games and trying to learn them. Of course, true to my grognard roots, I ended up with the latest editions of three games that had been around for decades: Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. 


Thus far, I haven't sprung CoC or RQ on the group, though I have run a demo adventure over Discord for some folks on a one-shot server, and I've played a few games of 7th edition CoC. It's been great fun. 

I will also actually be making the trek again to Lake Geneva next month for Garycon. Hopefully, there won't be any "public health issues" to screw that up. I am not a good traveler (See? One 'L', so you can tell I'm not referring to the game. ;-P ). I mislike flying and I am not a fan of being away from my home and family for any length of time, but I generally have a good time at GC. Perhaps I will see some of you there. If anyone is still reading this, that is.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Curious Objects: Amulet vs Crystal Balls and ESP


Nothing to see here!
In my experience the go-to anti-scry device in BX doesn't see a lot of love, and I can sort of understand that. Like all "misc. magic" it's not a super likely item to come up randomly. The "Miscellaneous" items' table is never specifically tagged in the treasure types' table, so there is only a 5% chance of rolling on the table at all IF you even successfully roll that there are even magic items in the loot! (Here's a pro-tip: If you really want to find magic items, your best odds are to go kill or rob dwarfs.) Another issue with the item's rarity is that I don't think it gets placed deliberately very often. I think the likeliest scenarios are ones where some plotting NPC has one to stop people from scrying their nefarious schemes. 
I would've gotten away with it, too! If it weren't for those meddling scryers!
The description of the amulet is so brief that it's simplest just to repeat it here in its entirety:
Amulet vs. Crystal Balls & ESP: The wearer of this item is automatically protected from being spied on by someone using a crystal ball or any type of ESP.

A few quick things to note.

  • Protection is "automatic." Not a bonus to a save, not a contested roll. Not "when activated." Automatic. Which is par for the course with these types of items, but useful to keep in mind.
  • Works vs. "any type" of ESP. This includes spells, items, and magical abilities. 

Does "any type" of ESP include clairvoyance? Telepathy? That's probably a DM call.I would be inclined to say yes, but other DMs might feel differently.

Keep in mind that the amulet protects the wearer from this type of magical surveillance, but not the rest of the party. If the wearer is telling a party member the Big Plan, the other character's thoughts are ripe pickings. 

Like a lot of miscellaneous magic items, I see this one as one the PCs would need to think outside the box a bit to get more than simply keeping it on all the time just in case some seer starts crystal gazing. While its utility in the dungeon may be limited, such items in a relatively high magic world might be high demand by merchants, diplomats, and the like. Alternatively, higher level "endgame" PCs might use it themselves in such situations.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Art & Quintessence

 I don't normally blog about artwork specifically. Mostly because I am far from an expert in the matter. I can't draw, I never studied art history or composition, and I'm not a fan of brie (gallery joke). However, I do know when a piece says something to me.

Ah, Daredevil! The best of the MCU.
So I'd like to take a moment to share a picture I had bought a print of nearly ten years ago at Garycon and recently unearthed while sorting through some boxes of old comics and such. It's a limited print by Mark Allen who drew the map of Lesserton for our Faster Monkey product, Lesserton & Mor. 

Now, this is by no means a unique sort of scene in fantasy gaming art. We have a party of adventurers looting some dead orcs while trying to open a door. It's practically off the cover of the Players Handbook. What I want to focus on is how effectively this simple image captures the essence of old-school gaming for me.

First off, the setting. It's dark. I don't mean Zack Snyder dark, I mean it looks like the characters can hardly see. There are four points of light within the picture and the rest is shrouded in gloom. The first two are the lanterns, one on the floor and one held so the thief can work. The third is out of frame, just beyond the cleric who stands guard. Perhaps a light up ahead around the corner? The fourth is the eye of giant spider as it sneaks up on the dwarf. The rest of the scene is almost pitch black, with just enough details visible to let us fill in the rest. 

Next, the characters. I've already mentioned some of them, but the composition of the party is nigh-perfect for representing an old-school D&D group of adventurers. There is a Gandalf-esqe magic-user complete with staff and pointy hat. We have our hooded thief, working away at the lock, and a fighter type whom I like to imagine by his somewhat generic appearance to be a man at arms/hireling, fulfilling his role as a torchbearer. There is a stalwart templar-looking cleric with mace and mail, a dwarf with a hefty axe eyeballing the dead orcs (perhaps making sure none are still twitching), and an elven archer lifting a bauble from a corpse. There's a spill of coins on the floor as well.

Obviously, part of the picture's story is easy to see. The party had a fight with some orcs and was victorious. But why are two of the party guarding and why isn't the dwarf watching the stairs? The magic user is speaking, is he casting a spell or admonishing the thief to hurry? Perhaps the party is in a hurry to get through the door and the immediate threat would come from in front or to the right and that's why the dwarf is distracted. True to adventuring form, though, they aren't leaving without at least some of the loot.

Another viewer could be perfectly justified in reading the scene in an entirely different way, and that's fine. But like most art, that's a strength, not a weakness. When I look at this picture, I see a scene whose essence has played out thousands of times at various kitchen tables and conventions over the decades. So when I think about how to sum up the core ideas of classic D&D and fantasy gaming, I believe you could do much worse than to hold up this picture and say "This. This is worth a thousand words."