Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

More on Traveller’s Zero-G Combat Skill

The response to post on Traveller’s Zero-G combat skill resulted in some fairly pointed feedback. I want to say though that it touched precisely the nerve that I intended it to.

Consider this from The Rhetorical Gamer:

When I look at the Traveller passage you posted, I immediately glaze over and think that I don’t really have any incentive to remember all that at the table because I’d much rather just get on with playing rather than modelling each little subsystem with a plethora of modifiers which I have to memorize.

This is an excellent summation of the New School mindset on this point. In fact, this is precisely what I was trying to convey in the original post. Thank you!

Lewis Pulsipher brings a question, here:

So is the fundamental divide between Old and New schools, the divide between those who want games to model something, and those who are happy with collections of mechanics, (abstract) games (including most Euros, that aren’t really about what they purport to be about)?

This certainly seems to be a running theme in this series of posts. For instance, with the Thief class I was bemoaning the transition from the distillation of a half dozen pulp fantasy characters to the space llama combat tap dancer of today. And you can see above how the keen someone is to dispense with the modelling in order to get something that is consistent and quick to play.

I will say that there is necessarily differing schools here. There are simply things that are, objectively, Old School and New School. And certainly, designers in the “Old School” scene (a.k.a. the OSR) routinely dispense with the things I am singling out as being old school.

James Cambias also has a question:

You do kind of palm a card here: what do you mean by “modeling reality?” the Zero-G rules are modeling combat in zero gravity. The game was published in 1977. No one has yet fought (with fists, guns, or blades) in zero gravity, with or without a space suit on. Therefore “realism” in this context simply means “one person’s wild-ass guess.” Given that, why NOT go with something easier to conceptualize and remember?

Okay, there’s a bunch here to unpack.

First, there is maybe a tacit assumption here that since Traveller departs from some flavor of realism that it is crude or broken or even a little silly. This mindset is right home with a lot of rpg design work of the eighties, a good portion of which was taken to impressive lengths during the nineties. And sure, people don’t have to get crazy with it. In fact, with something like GURPS Space, it’s a perfectly reasonable premise to construct a generic science fiction rpg from. But that mindset is largely foreign to the rpg designers of the seventies. And while “reality” might have had some bearing on a few of the design elements, it was not an overriding priority. It certainly wasn’t some kind of fetish.

Of course, while referees were expected to use Traveller to make their own settings, the system was far from being generic or universal. People that played the game were directed by the implied setting towards a very specific style of science fiction. That style was much more the norm at the time of the game’s publication. And as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the authors whose works were looted to get the franchise off the ground have now more or less lapsed into obscurity.

Is it really fair to judge the game by today’s fashions in either rpg design or science fiction…? I don’t think it is. I can’t really change the fact that people are going to do it, so never mind that for now. Let’s instead look at what my actual gripe was: that people were changing rules and systems without regard to how they fit in to the overall flow of the game.

Given all the negative reactions to this gloriously Old School remnant of the past, I have to wonder how many people commenting have actually sat down and played the game that’s under discussion. I mean we’re not just talking about “guns in space” here. Going by the Book 1 combat rules, I think it’s closer to “Vietnam in space.”

  • One hit in the combat system is enough to drop most characters most of the time.
  • Ex-Military characters with any kind of Leader or Tactics skill in their party are liable to massacre civilian thugs due to the surprise rules– and they’re unlikely to be surprised in return. (Reading the rules, it’s hard not to imagine the forest scenes from the first Rambo movie.)
  • The combat system doesn’t even feel like a separate mini-game. I mean… if guns are in play, it’s not only going to be over quickly, but people are going to be hurt badly. While it’s possible to get lucky, the better trained and better equipped players are generally going to mop the floor with people they outclass. (It’s the same sense of determinism and inevitability that is baked into the High Guard ship combat rules.)

In that context, the Zero-G skill is not adding any sort of tremendous burden on the referee by any stretch. The special modifiers only rarely come up. They’re probably only going to matter for two or three combat rounds. And I have to say, as spartan as this rule set is, it nevertheless conjures up scenes of wannabe space pirates spinning out into space after they fire their guns. Sounds like the sort of scrape Dumarest would land himself in. But those bonuses and penalties are by themselves sufficient to determine who is and who is not going to be rolling up new characters. If you’re ever going to pause the game for dramatic effect, this would be one of the situations where it’s appropriate!!

Seriously, this whole thing is just plain out there. I don’t even know if there are rules from major rpgs of today that even correspond to this. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with it, personally. And my point is not that it is necessarily good or bad. My point isn’t that you’re not cool if you don’t get it. My point is that (a) the New School mindset pretty much recoils in horror at things that are genuinely old school, (b) the New School mindset is fairly well ubiquitous today, and (c) the impulse causes people to make changes without really considering the nature of the overall system they are tinkering with.

I think these discussions are evidence that that really is the case.


17 responses to “More on Traveller’s Zero-G Combat Skill

  1. jlv61560 June 23, 2016 at 1:27 am

    Speaking of “palming cards,” did James Cambias REALLY just complain about realism in a Science FICTION roleplaying game? I mean, he DOES play fantasy roleplaying games, amiright?

    Do Dragons strike anyone here as modeling “reality?”

    Arguing from that basis is the ultimate in debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin…

    • jeffro June 23, 2016 at 1:34 am

      Well hey, that is the James Cambias there. Easily among the most prolific space rpg designers on the scene.

    • Cambias June 23, 2016 at 7:22 pm

      I didn’t complain about realism; quite the reverse. I’m a lunatic for realism — but I’m also realistic enough to tell when something’s realistic and when something’s a wild-ass guess.

      The Traveller firearms rules are realistic. As our host points out, if you start shooting in an (original) Traveller game, someone’s going to be seriously hurt or killed, maybe you. That’s realism because real-life gun battles can be lethal.

      The zero-g combat rules are not realistic because there was little, if any, data on activities in zero-g, and none on combat. At the time the Little Black Books came out (which was when I started playing Traveller*) there had been something like 18 spacewalks ever, and only half of them involved accomplishing any tasks. So realism in this context means almost nothing. It’s simply one SF fan’s guess. It may be an informed guess, or an accurate guess, but it’s still a guess.

      So for situations like that, where the game is describing something about which there is little real-world data, it seems unnecessary to have a whole bunch of fiddly little modifiers rather than something simpler with the same general effect. Examples of the latter, which I just made up off the top of my head: “in zero-G, your Zero-G skill is the maximum value for any skill you use which requires movement or physical dexterity.” Or, if you prefer, “in zero-G, characters must roll a Zero-G skill roll each combat round; if they fail, they can do nothing that round, and a die roll of 1 means the character is tumbling out of control.”

      Both of those simulate the difficulty in operating without requiring everything to grind to a halt while someone looks stuff up. I’m all in favor of the “rulings, not rules” approach, which lets the gamemaster make up some plausible-sounding modifier on the fly rather than flip through the book. One good way to enable that kind of play is to have a consistent system of mechanic, so that both GM and players understand the logic of modifiers and can have an intuitive sense of what is a plausible-sounding ruling and what isn’t.

      By the way, this whole series of discussions has made me start thinking about dusting off my Little Black Books and running something. Everyone’s thoughts are very illuminating.

      *(Which means I am halfway through my 10th term of service as a Traveller player. Fortunately the Survival rolls are easy, but the mustering-out benefits suck. Nothing but “Game book” and “Dice” on the table.)

  2. jddyalblog June 23, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Hey, waitaminute. So how is Old School simultaneously the accretion of odd little subsystems that model a very particular element of the setting in Traveller, but in AD&D (as per the Tim Kask article you found a week or so ago—plus the Matt Finch essay on old school, and plenty of other interpretations) it’s literally the exact opposite? I used to see this on Grognardia too; old school is the DIY, the GM is just as good as any professional designer, and the rules are purposefully incomplete so they can fill them in with whatever they want aesthetic… and yet it’s also we must play exactly as St. Gary wrote it, and if we house-rule anything, it should be reluctantly, after giving the RAW every possible chance to succeed, and for us to understand exactly what its intent was. The OSR was effectively kicked off in when OSRIC passed the legal hurdles to be the first retroclone and people started making AD&D compatible material using it; and yet, AD&D is the antithesis of everything old school.

    It’s not hard to come to the inescapable conclusion that there ISN’T any coherent, mutually agreed upon notion of what old school actually is, or that in actual practice, it tends to be justification for particularly grumpy curmudgeons to stigmatize what they don’t like, regardless of its connections to anything old or not.

    • Sky June 23, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Yeabut in this context I don’t think the Jeffroid is trying to stigmatize as much as undo the stigma on these older rules. For someone that came in at 3.5 after some earlier dalliances with the red box, AD&D, and (the illustration above caused some major flash backs) Traveller, I have to say the groups I have gamed with from 3.5 on rarely missed an opportunity to slag off the older rule sets. They were unplayable garbage and didn’t make any sense and 3.5, and beyond, with its awesomer PC’s and tons of options and skills and double flip two attacks special feats were vastly superior. For their purposes, for the games they wanted, they were correct. The gaming experience you get from the older and newer sets is fundamentally different. Old school as a category is nearly meaningless, that’s true. But more and more I see it as a simple appreciation for the different approaches and different emphasis back then. DIY, lethality, more heat on the DM to make it good, a little more work in some places, a lot less in others.

      • jddyalblog June 23, 2016 at 9:36 am

        And for the better part of more than five years; maybe closer to ten by now, I’ve seen OSRian blogs, forum posts, and Google+ posts that rarely missed an opportunity to slag off anything newer than the early 80s at least, if not even earlier. Which is fine; I’m not some kind of kumbaya can’t we all just get along type of gamer; as long as I can play the game I want to, I don’t particularly care what anyone else outside of my group thinks about my game anyway, and I’m perfectly happy to extend the same backatcha.

        And I don’t think Jeffro is trying to stigmatize anything per se, but I think that it’s hard to escape the conclusion that “old school” isn’t really a particularly meaningful adjective, because it can mean literally the polar opposite across some dimensions to any two given commentators.

        I sometimes say that I’m not old school, but I am old fashioned, for no other reason than to avoid the connotations that have sadly kind of attached themselves to the term.

  3. Sky June 23, 2016 at 9:42 am

    As I said above, I think old school is nearly meaningless. I play 5e right now and while I would love to try different things there is no one in my circles now into much else, so be it. I like 5e. But I find these discussions about “the good/bad old days” fascinating, especially as I was old enough to play a bit but too young to really get into stuff and appreciate it properly. I have never been particularly active online with this stuff so I completely missed OSR as it unfolded. A lot of bad blood out there apparently.

  4. morrisonmp June 23, 2016 at 10:43 am

    I’m a little amused that you took one portion of my comment entirely out of context to the rest to make your point. That’s usually a trick the “other side” pulls, isn’t it? I expect you to be better than that. Chastising aside, I would say that your point was not nearly as transparent as you might have believed in your last post and, the other folks here have commented already but, this flies in the face of Gygax defending hit points over fiddly subsystems for crits and hit locations precisely for the opposite reason you mention above as speaking to what OS is.

    I have played every edition of D&D and AD&D, along with a metric crapton of other games – both “new school” and “old school.” I’m playing in a decidedly new school supers game (ICONS) and prepping to start another ACKS game in the near future. There’s no disconnect here unless you go looking for it.

    Game designers have specific intentions in designing a game (or should). I think we agree on this. I also agree that it is worthwhile to play a game “as written” before you start tinkering with it so that you have an explicit understanding of how the fundamental systems of a game fit together. But I don’t think that saying, “every campaign is a law unto itself” (which is the ACKS trademark) is particularly new school. I ignore stuff in the ACKS rules. I know a lot of people just eyeball the demand modifiers and other domain stuff by reading the forums actively and seeing these conversations happen.

    Frequently, I inject new school moments into my old school play and old school thinking into more new school games. The disconnect is not so stark as you make it out to be. Look at the arguments caused by the story-focused direction of AD&D 2e. Look at a game like Amber which is often cited as inspiration by new-school designers but was – to me – about as Old School as you can get if you believe in “rulings over rules.” And while it certainly had a series of ideas which modeled something great (it’s source material) it did it with a minimum of actual rules/modifiers of any tangible sort.

    So why chase the distinction as a meaningful wall between parts of the gamer culture. Gaming continues to change, evolve, and thrive. It is also at its best when we bring a wide range of experiences with us to the table that allow us to grow as players and GMs. Sure, it makes for good blog fodder but it’s nigh-meaningless for each individual group as they sit down to play, as long as everyone communicates like reasonable people and agree on what game they are sitting down to (and are respected at that table) then it won’t matter whether they memorize all the modifiers for for Traveler’s 0G combat…

    • jddyalblog June 23, 2016 at 11:10 am

      It might exist as a meaningful wall, but if it does, I think it’s a very high level, big picture pattern or aesthetic, and looking for it in the weeds; i.e., is this very particular rule old school or not, is probably a hopelessly quixotic endeavor.

    • jeffro June 23, 2016 at 9:42 pm

      Your vehement opposition to that Traveller skill is an interesting data point. I don’t think you understand the context that that skill came from, though.

  5. Hooc Ott June 23, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    From your google+ page

    “Jeffro Johnson
    Nobody gets this.

    Jeffro Johnson
    I think I’ve been pretty specific. I think I’m defining my terms. But nope. Nobody gets it. I wonder if people have some preconceived notion of how this conversation is supposed to go and I’m just not taking it there.”

    I don’t know if you are being sarcastic here. If so “HAHA you got me I am an idiot”

    If not then I am completely baffled about “this running theme in this series of posts.” I am willing to admit to being an idiot about this one as well perhaps concepts and subjects being discussed are beyond my comprehension. But on the off chance they are not and you really are just trying to plain speak this whole thing then yeah you are not doing a good job of it.

    “people have some preconceived notion of how this conversation is supposed to go and I’m just not taking it there”

    I don’t know where this is going I will say I like all the pretty lights and explosions I have seen and I am inclined to be taken wherever you want to go if only because previous stuff you have created (appendix N) brought me here in the first place but damned if I understand where you are taking me or what the pretty lights and explosions mean.

    • jeffro June 23, 2016 at 9:35 pm

      I think this is a significant topic. The difficulty in conveying things about it combined with the fact that delving into it necessarily strikes a nerve only makes it more interesting to me.

  6. John E. Boyle June 23, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Your comment about “Vietnam in Space” really struck a chord with me. I played Traveller around 1978-82, so its been a while, but if you wanted rpg combat that was fast, explosive and lethal as hell, then Traveller really delivered, especially since we had a couple of Nam vets among the players. The thing was, we were in State College, PA, which is H. Beam Piper territory. When we played, we played Future History Traveller, not Dumarest Traveller.

    We fought the Uprising on Uller, or faced off against Blackie Perales’ gang or fought with the Space Vikings on planet. Off planet was ship to ship combat; I honestly cannot remember ever using the Zero-G combat rules.

    Now I’m wondering what other rules we never used. Gonna have to get me some copies of those little black books and see.

    • Sky June 24, 2016 at 10:30 am

      I would kill to play some Classic Traveller in Piper’s universe. I would even play with people that went to Penn State. Just kidding! Not about the killing though. I would totally do that.

      • John E. Boyle June 24, 2016 at 3:41 pm

        I didn’t keep any notes from that game, so I have no idea how much was the GM’s in-house rules and how much was out of the Black Book rules, but that campaign was FUN!

  7. Pingback: Carving Against The Grain: New Wave and Old School | mishaburnett

  8. Pingback: Old School and New School: Where Do You Draw The Line? | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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