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The implicit game in original Traveller’s ship loan rules

December 11, 2018 14 comments

Back in 2018 when Google+ made it easy to have unending-yet-still-highly-focused chats about specific topics in gaming, I threw a hook out about LBB Traveller careers, which wound up in a general discussion of capitalism, Han Solo’s loan terms, and just what you’re supposed to do with a Free Trader anyway. Archaeologically, the most interesting presentation of this discussion would be in its original stratigraphy… but we’re all about the museum artifact here, so here it is polished up, co-authored by myself, Scott Martin, John Till, Viktor Haag and Maxime Golubchik. Guest appearances by Joshua Kubli and Isaac Kuo.

There is a certain authorial tone in the LBBs that I’ve never quite been able to pin down. Personally when I first got Traveller I found it very alien indeed – it assumed a load of cultural orientation that I didn’t have (in the US military, in 60s American SF, in technical manuals and US engineering education) and it was my first brush with an RPG, which neglected to say anything about what an RPG was. So although I understood it was supposed to be generic, I really had a hard time grokking the stakes – what you were supposed to do when playing it. Your motivations, your scope, what it made sense to build, run, destroy.

D&D was easier. Moldvay said you go into dungeons and get loot and in the Basic book that was it. Aside from the equipment list, the only thing to spend loot on was xp. You leveled up and could fight bigger monsters. A nice, closed loop.

But Traveller had no dungeon, it had the small chance of getting a ship… and then what? I started reading Heinlein and Clarke to answer that question (they didn’t answer it. Harry Harrison did better). Nowadays we know “you can do anything” but
(a) the LBBs didn’t really explain that and
(b) still, what are your goals?
At the time, Star Wars and Elite stepped in to fill the gap and it sort of worked about as well as Tolkien did for DnD’s kitchen sink US pulp fantasy… in both cases, I knew I didn’t have the intended answer.

Years later I’m still trying to figure out what might propel a Traveller game if you didn’t use it as a simple ruleset armature for your own otherwise fully-formed campaign with its own society and motivations. Also I’m writing 17th century Traveller right now and I think I should answer these questions more clearly than Marc Miller did.


1: just to cover all the bases, what if, like nearly everyone, you don’t get a ship as a mustering-out benefit?

Well, you can extend the famously lethal chargen experience and maybe die on your first Low Passage jaunt, or you can use your one precious High Passage to try to make powerful friends during the long night of hyperspace, or you can try to cosy up to some high rolling High Passengers as a Steward. Any of these can wind up generating an adventure, even the Low Passage option, as the party’s gunner is mistakenly ejected while frozen somewhere between the starport and the asteroid-mining colonies or the whole party wakes up, Arthurian Sleepers style, a thousand years later and it turns out you’re playing Vancian fantasy after all.

Under these circumstances you’re either going to stay in the starting star system for a good long campaign or execute one heist and hope your mustering-out ticket is just good enough to get you to a place that has easy money and poor record-keeping. If you’re smart, you’ll stay put, build an empire, and hire down-at-heel, recently-demobbed space cowboys to do the stupid vacc suit antics for you.

Footnote: there’s 1 steward for every 8 High Passengers vs. 1 medic for every 120 persons. Stewards need no formal training, in theory they earn 3000/month vs the Medic’s 2000, and you can work your way up to Chief Steward if you do learn some skills, for a 10% pay bump. Are the medics mass-produced replicants, or the stewards all runway models/entertainers/courtesans? Probably not: tending to High passengers (and I use the term advisedly) is like herding cats – painful and unrewarding. And you inevitably get let go after your 3rd voyage so you never make it onto the regular payroll. It turns out 99% of all stewards are un-unionized, unpaid refugees, just trying to get to the next star system without being recognized. Which is why they all wear eyepatches and comedy prostheses. Of these, 40% are running from the Pinkertons following their first, botched heist, three star systems ago. The millions they stole are nothing compared with the bill the pursuing detectives are racking up, which will be charged to their account on capture.

2. You’ve got a scout service surplus Type S Scout/Courier, the transit van of spaceships.
** following Faoladh’s comment I went back to CT book 2 and checked my facts and it turns out I did the Type S a serious disservice here. This is now edited to reflect the ship’s significantly better performance than I remembered.

This ship makes sense for the scout service, where it can work as an adjunct to a cruiser big enough to carry the necessary maintenance crew. For a crew of independent operatives it’s harder to imagine in law-abiding roles, with a tiny 3 ton cargo hold and 4 staterooms, allowing maybe 3 middle passengers (24000 CR) if they’re willing to put up with the rules-mandated smell and the fact that the pilot also does the cooking and cleaning. A couple of enterprising retirees can turn it into a pony express postal carrier by filling the cargo hold and one stateroom with mail. They may even make money on the 25000 CR/month mail contract because they don’t have loan installments to pay. The Type S really shines, though, as a nail-bitingly slow getaway vehicle: the ship and its auxiliary air-raft can take off simultaneously, fly in different directions, and meet in orbit. 2G is fast for a private commercial spaceship but achingly bovine compared with all the ships’ boats and pinnaces and fighters that don’t have to carry jump drives around. Which brings me back to diamond heists and other kinds of high-value, low-bulk smuggling (where “diamonds” actually means whatever thing is hard to replicate and valuable in small quantities in an interstellar empire with easy gas giant and asteroid mining. Probably information and exotic life-forms). Most intriguingly, it turns out hardly anyone ever really retires from the Scouts – they can go on Detached Duty, where they might be called upon by the old service to do a little favour here or there, keep an eye out for trouble on the frontier, pass the odd package through blockades, that sort of thing. And maybe get paid in official amnesia for that one time they were spotted slipping “mail” to the criminal cartels.

scout_courier viper_photo
Type S Scout/Courier vs. Elite’s starport police Viper

Maybe this is the early 80s talking, but for our group there was only one prototype for this sort of roving mercenary adventuring band.image-thumbnail-full
Now there are probably really smart things you can do just by being mobile. An expert strategist, consulting detective, interior designer, repo team or psychic bioweapon ninja wouldn’t need anything more to ply their trade. The ship’s anonymity (artificially boosted by millions of mustered out “scouts” ie. intelligence agents) is its greatest asset. But there is an irresistible suggestion in the fact that its cargo bay is just big enough to hold an air-raft or ATV.

You can carry a transit van in your transit van.

3. The Han Solo game: a 40-year loan on a Beowulf class Free Trader.
Free-Trader-T5-Core-Rules-Pg-358_25-July-2018a cobra mk3
Is the Cobra Mk.3 really a fair equivalent to the Traveller Free Trader? I think it’s significantly better at fighting and maneuvering, but it’s hard to translate between the videogame and tabletop experiences. The Millenium Falcon, being an extreme hot-rod, is just obviously part of a different design idiom.

Scott Martin reminded me that the entry level offer for a high-performing merchant captain is a shipyard loan on a new-built Free Trader: capital cost 36-37 MegaCr at 6.2% interest, working out to a monthly payment of 150,000 Cr – roughly equivalent to room and board for 500 average Imperial citizens or 6 mail contracts to different systems, meaning you’d need a 6-week month to break even as a mail carrier. Used (ie partly paid off) Free Traders are in high demand and short supply, going only to the luckiest/best-connected captains. The malfunctions table and the prevalence of piracy suggest that few ships make it to their 40th year, which further suggests that there’s something going on with the economics of the whole thing.

In the afterword to book 3, Miller tells us: “The typical methods used in life… (thrift, dedication, and hard work) do not work in Traveller; instead, travellers must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power.” Looking at the terms on a Free Trader, that seems pretty evident for anyone saddled with such a miraculous gift. Here at last we have a plot-generating engine: how are you going to raise 150,000 a month?

Firefly, Traveller’s grandchild, has to convince its audience that it makes sense for Mal to tramp-trade his Free Trader around the backward Rimworlds. Its answer is to make Mal a social outcast, welcome nowhere – a defeated Confederate captain forced eternally to Go, Move, Shift along with his motley crew of conspicuous misfits, who all generate plots with their back-stories. It’s a classic stress loop, like MAR Barker’s Tekumel opener, “you are all barbarians fresh off the boat.” Not only does that excuse you from knowing anything about Tekumel, it also gives you immediate goals – get food, shelter – and a strong incentive to take any job that comes along. Mal must solve this week’s problem or die trying. Traveller does the same thing with raw economics… suggesting that it’s not so easy to escape the long arm of the Merchants’ Guild.

For the PCs, this works by driving them to take risks – probably smuggling to start with, in the longer term, probably finding profits that nobody else has noticed. For the shipyards… how can it possibly make sense? If lots of traders fail (and we can safely assume they do, given the profit margins they need to keep payments going), what happens to their ships? How are new-built ships the main option? Do they just get rolled over as “new” when in fact they’re reconditioned – so that the only certified-pre-owned ships are the ones with a clean set of papers and a famously successful previous owner? Are you liable to find fingers in the cargo hold door jamb, from that time the repo agency came to “follow up on the loan”? Is there something in the “mail” that activates when you miss a payment and flies you right back to the bank? Or are they still flying but on out-of-the-way tramp runs, where authorities are willing to overlook their lack of proper transponder records? It’s worth noting that according to the rules 1 in 36 of all commercial craft has skipped out on its loan, so that repo-men may show up on any commercial voyage. Yes, even liners.

Viktor suspects that the multi-ton computer systems on board are so heavy and seem primitive because they’re mostly doing stuff for the guild or the shipyard – constantly monitoring and auditing what’s happening on the vessel, the audit log being regularly dumped every time the ship reaches a starport for the benefit of analysis by the ship’s underwriters, mortgage holders, insurance providers, guild overseers, etc.

I suspect the answer is venture capital. Free traders do cost a lot to build and hardly ever survive more than a few years. They’re effectively mercantile scouts, drumming up new business, supplying backwaters, finding new products that are too risky for the regular steamer lines. They’re an acceptable fiscal risk for the big boys because just occasionally they discover a new route for a Fat Trader, and those routes get monopolized in-guild – the obvious thing to do, in fact, is to give the captaincy on the route to the person who’s developed it – creating a second-stage domain game for Merchant characters. The new Fat Trader captain might even get a financial interest in the bigger vessel, while being able to pass on their Free Trader to… a family member, trusted associate, or new aspiring captain from the guild.

So being a free trader captain is a bit like starting a punk band used to be: you’ll probably fail but there’s a lottery-like chance that you’ll invent a new line of business, which the guild will try to grab off you as soon as it learns about it. If you can survive its contract terms and IP lawyers and just maybe a couple of friendly assassination attempts, you get a full partnership, maybe a supervisor role over a stable of new Free Trader captains, and a foot on the admin ladder.
Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 2.51.51 PM.png fat trader
Free Trader vs. Fat Trader

How can this work with a paltry Jump-1 ship? Because the frontier is not “around the edge” of the empire but “in between” those systems that looked richest at first blush during the early years of colonization – all those less obviously promising worlds that got officially passed over because they lacked exotic fuels and super-strong materials but which were occupied by squatters and prospectors, who are liable to start up New Vegas anywhere the Imperial Bureau of Investigation doesn’t monitor too closely.

And how do you keep making those monthly performance assessments, while you’re hunting for the big breaks? Well there is one commodity that’s theoretically tightly controlled, expensive everywhere (200,000Cr a dose in my 1981 book!), and in especially high demand with you and all your merchant guild buddies –  anti-agathics. Because you’ll all be 80+ years old by the time you escape your first contracts, if you’re lucky. Following this logic, the Company directors are probably all over 300 but don’t look a day over whenever it was they started making the system work for them.

How do the shipyards support their wild speculation in flooding the galaxy with free traders?
Drug trafficking.
Just like in the 70s and 80s.
Go watch Narcos. Seriously, it’s the best thing on TV this decade. Get over the subtitles. And Traveller/Narcos is a match made in heaven The Colombian Reach.

Oh yeah, and remember that Detached Duty for Scouts? You know who the anonymous, autonomous Type S is made for? CIA Bill, the guy who always shows up just when the real trouble starts.

Elite, then and nowlite ship scales

…did you think we were done? Not quite.
Reviewing the ship design rules, it occurs to me that there is one horrible hack you can do to the Type S scout/courier – the sort of thing Narcos’ Bill Stechner would do.
The scout/courier carries 4 staterooms (4 tons each), a 4-ton air-raft, and has a 3 ton cargo hold. Structural modifications are frowned on, if you’re on the sort of Detached Duty the rulebook talks about, but maybe they’re implied by what Detached Duty carefully doesn’t say. Strip out 2 staterooms and ditch the air-raft in favour of a parachute-and-motorbike. There are now 15 spare tons (and loads of space, since a Traveller shipping ton assumes hydrogen at 14 cubic meters each). A 6G fighter is 10 tons, including 1 ton of cargo space, and carries 2 people. If you have a plan to kidnap a planetary leader or heist anti-agathics (which are apparently worth over 100,000CR a gram), then a gutted Type S, a fighter, and a docking module just might be the unbeatable blockade-running combo. You’re restricted to a 4-man team (3 if you’re kidnapping) unless you bring a second ship.
Also not mentioned here but kind of obvious: the more droids on your team, the less you have to spend on life support. Does a droid need a stateroom? How many can you strap to the exterior and still make hyperjump?

we apologize for the explosion of posts

December 11, 2018 Leave a comment

just trying out an exporter from google+ and hey look 600 blog posts.

They’re being edited down. Remain calm, keep you limbs inside the vehicle.

A Thousand Thousand Islands: a review of #1-4 by Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao

May 11, 2018 4 comments

I pretty much never write reviews of things made by people in the DIY DnD community, mostly because I feel compromised by knowing the creators. But I’m planning to get over it and write a few, because not everyone gets to see all the awesome stuff that’s been happening and that’s a terrible shame in this, the weird Indian summer golden age of independent TTRPG publishing.

SO, you should know and follow +Zedeck Siew and +Mun Kao. More concretely, you should try to get their zine-sized publications under the imprint “A Thousand Thousand Islands.” Zedeck kindly sent me the first 4 and they’re small but potent – it’s taken me some months to get these few words together about them because they reward slow digestion and reflection.

Superficially, Mun Kao’s line drawings seem the easier part to engage with – there are characters I feel I recognize from Counter-colonial Heistcrawl

cannon crew

and animals and landscapes and mysterious bundles of goods and situations that could be excerpts from David Roberts’s sketchbooks or fragments of a completely coherent setting with more depth that I’d pretend to. They entwine Zedeck’s writing perfectly.

haunted mahogany

Regarding Zedeck’s writing, it’s writing in a way very few RPG folks mean it – personal, poised, finely honed, and referential simultaneously to the structures of poems, novels and encounter tables. In its compression it reminds me of Ben Marcus, in its sketched suggestiveness maybe Bruce Chatwin.

You keep walking. What else can you do? It is not as if you can really run, in your condition. The house is at the end of the street.

Ignore it. Do not acknowledge it. Blank it from the world. Perhaps then – God save you – it will leave.

But it follows you, lamp-pole to lamp-pole. And you cannot help but notice details. How its belly spills down between its short, stubby legs.

It flaps its hands, once, and you see it is wearing a strange skirt: a belt of round things, that could be fruit. Or – if your aunt’s story was true – shrunken infants’ heads.

The baby in your belly turns, afraid.

The Bilangpinggang, from Hantu! – a collection of spirits.

There are no stats, nor anything to definitively place the writing as game text. Still, you could lift it and run it direct from the page – it’s all superbly clear and self-contained and conveys a really strong sense of place. If you’re wondering how to fit the material into pre-existing campaigns, Mr-Kr-Gr, the death-rolled kingdom is a watchful excursion up the river where humans serve crocodiles and Kraching a realm under the tutelage of cats, and either would slot neatly into Call of Cthulhu’s Dreamlands or David McGrogan’s Yoon Suin but I really recommend taking them on their own values and letting them serve as your introduction to their distinctly southeast Asian world.

the gates

I’m impatient for many, many more numbers. I want to know where else Zedeck and Mun Kao can take me.

What I think I’m doing with Counter-colonial Heistcrawl

March 5, 2018 1 comment

So some guy called Sean Nittner annoyed a bunch of people with talk of “reinforcing colonialist narratives without interrogating them.” And +Scrap Princess said “there needs to be more takes on colonialism other than ones where the players are the invaders” and wondered if anyone was doing that, and so I thought maybe I should explain what I’m up to with this game I’m running. Which I might one day package and sell.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl started out as something quite modest: a pirates game, drawing a bit on Traveller tramp-trading, set in island Southeast Asia because everybody does the Caribbean and it seemed to me there were possibilities in this other highly interesting part of the world. In particular I wanted Chinese mafias running protection rackets.

That was 20 years ago. I started running it, put it on the backburner, and went back to college. Along the way I picked up some courses in history, southeast Asian area studies, anthropology and a few other things. They fed into what I was thinking, which started to look less like an innocent pirate game and more like a theory. And then, after my initial enthusiasm for historical theory-formation faded, like an antidote to theory. I finally played Civilisation and my dissatisfaction with its self-satisfaction made me dust off the old obsession and think about it seriously again.

Here is what Counter-colonial Heistcrawl is: it’s an open-ended game like any other kind of trad RPG. The players do stuff. Depending on what they do and the force-multipliers they bring to bear, the world reacts in a bigger or smaller way. It’s also a Civilization style domain game from session 1. No matter how much or little the players have, no matter how Picaresque or Romantic their adventures, we keep a tally of what they have and what they’ve done. Every grain of rice is domain. Every action brings them followers and/or enemies. It’s their civilization against others, whether at the knife, ship, county, kingdom or empire level.

And their world is under attack, and if they don’t do anything, history plays out exactly as we think it did, up to today.

They start in island Southeast Asia in 1610. Why? Because in 1610 the Spanish and Portuguese have already demonstrated the structures of European colonialism to the local area, but in Southeast Asia up to this moment they’ve mostly behaved like any other warlord. The Dutch and English show up around 1600 and also mostly behave like warlords to begin with but they have a bit of a different idea that’s just beginning to form: they plan to systematize their intrusions into the local economy and subvert it. Eventually they will plan an empire independent of territory, where they’re not responsible for anything but profits. But in 1610, their plans are still forming. They represent a big but defeatable pirate fleet. in 1610 it’s still possible to start from nothing and beat them.

Beat them at their own game? Doesn’t this just make them colonialist invaders without the explicit necessity of having white skin? Well, not necessarily. That’s why I want it to be a game. I don’t know. It’s up to the players. I’m not preaching to anyone about what should happen. But I’m certain that the situations of colonialism will all come up in play because if nobody else introduces them, the Dutch and English will. Right now (in 1610) they’re fighting a war of monopoly and influence in the Banda islands, over nutmeg. Left unchecked, that war will end up with genocide against the Bandanese, imported African slaves operating nutmeg plantations, and the first Dutch global monopoly on nutmeg and mace, which the Dutch will parlay into growing control over cloves, cinnamon etc. So the players have an opportunity to do something about that. But what? What will they have to do, what will they have to become, in order to stop the English and Dutch? Will they ally with them against the Chinese (who are far from benign), the Japanese (who are in an expansive mode and well placed, right now, to rival Europeans), Mappillas from south India or the Sultans of Aceh or Riau or Ambon, all of whom know an economic opportunity when they see one?

Who are they working with and for? If they resist gaining followers, that will severely limit the influence they can have in the world. If they accept them, they have to figure out some methods of governing them, or at least maintaining them. Being in the world’s great archipelago gives me 2 basic political units, the ship and the island, which is kind of an unmoving ship because (a) it’s oh so Nusantara, and (b) it’s the most romanticized of all nation models. And using this little discrete polity, we can work out the relations of power, how people will work together (that is, for someone else), who is in and who is out of the polity, and how the outs are treated (which is what nobody wants to talk about when the topic of pirate ship democracy comes up, nor the externalities of democracies in general). And networks of trust and trading to make up where the polity is not self-sufficient and all that Ricardian economic stuff.

And the point is, if you want to do anything, you can’t keep clean hands. You will have to make difficult and often unattractive decisions. And you might have episodes where you look like the good guys but we’re not going to cut and roll credits there. You will certainly also find yourselves in the position of bad guys.

And I’ve got this far without even saying what I think colonialism is or why you might not want to do it.

Colonialism is getting forcefully in the way between people’s production and consumption and demanding that some of it be diverted into your own mouth/hands/accounts/networks. Very simply, it’s theft. Although it tends quickly to get administered so as to look routine. Capitalism is this too (against what a lot of people say on the internet, Marx’s theory of capitalism lays it out quite clearly and explains how it’s different from just trade or free markets or whatever). It’s no accident that they grew up together.

Both have good sides, for some people. Both make things possible that would not be possible otherwise. Both are so deeply imbricated in our world system that everyone reading this will owe their livelihood one way or another to them – indeed, the computer probably couldn’t have been invented without them. That business about leading or governing – it’s hard to imagine that happening without some of this kind of diverting of labour and resources. So the PCs will presumably get implicated in it and might be enthusiastic and ruthless proponents of it and if they are/do then they will have to make all those decisions about how to run their ship/legion/nation/empire. But they don’t start with an empire or nation. They have to make their own categories and draw their own lines about who gets exploited by whom, and as they draw those lines, they will know that the same lines can be used against them by their allies, enemies, children, cabin boys, priests and historians.

Why Heistcrawl? Because as a stated design principle the PCs start with little. Maybe a ship, maybe not even that. And the reason for this is, it places them in the poorer position in any fight, together with the people being exploited, not together with the invaders. If they are to find allies, it will first be among the dispossessed. And they will be able to tell themselves, at least until they achieve some measure of success, that their desperate ends justify their means. And the theory I’m operating with, for how they can go from knife-wielding to empire-wielding, is that everything is an alliance. If you want to conduct a pirate raid you need to ally together under your command:
troops and their loyalty
ships and their expert handlers
information and plans
materiel (guns, ammo, powder, etc)
markets where you can trade the booty.

Colonialists do exactly this for themselves. Then they interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits.

The challenge with making this publishable is that I would have to come up with systems for scaling all this action from the club level up to the empire. So that’s what I’m quietly working on.


Tony Demetriou, BTW, offered a pretty good response in a G+ comment. I have taken the liberty of reproducing it here where someone might be able to still see it in 5 years time:

I feel like it’s both too much and too little.

Too much because the mechanics aren’t very complicated, but I think you can get a better bang for your buck by looking at how you can use the existing mechanics instead.

And too little, because I think that if you simplify things down to a set bonus or penalty you don’t get much player engagement other than “I chose this option.” Try to, instead, create gameplay around the players making choices that have no clear “right” answer, but instead have two good (or two bad) outcomes, where they need to make in-character decisions and tradeoffs and the personality of their PCs shape what choices they make.

May I also suggest that, if you want politics, you need to create asymmetrical tradeoffs.

What I mean is that, if doing X gives you a penalty and doing Y gives you a bonus, then you’re making strategic choices, not really looking at the politics.

I’m not one of your players, and I’m sure they have a different play style to me – so do what you think best. But using your example, I wouldn’t really “engage” with the colonisation aspect. Yeah, I’d see that war destabilises things, but that would be a background part of the setting. It’d be like knowing that drought causes famine, it’s something that happens, something that creates plots in the game that my PC is involved with, but not something I think about deeply or try to influence. I’d probably pick a warlord to throw my lot in with, and try to capture other land. Then try to hold that land until the economy recovers. So, effectively, it just means “newly captured land isn’t as valuable as holding land.” – it changes the tactics a little, but doesn’t really explore colonialism.

Saying “war disrupts the economy” is very different to showing that it disrupts the economy. And saying “war is bad” is very different to showing that war creates opportunities – there’s a reason people go to war, because it’s very profitable for them. Either in economic terms, or in social terms.

If you can get the players to the point where they morally know what they support, they know how to do that, but don’t know if they should – NOW they’re really engaging with the topic.

Maybe start by brainstorming the things you want to show about colonialism. Then you can build those in with asymmetrical game mechanics.

My list would be:
– Destruction of culture and society
– Wealth creation for the colonists, wealth destruction for the colonised
– Transition and adoption of new technology and attitudes
– Assimilation of the colonised people, class standing, wealth opportunities, etc.

How would I bring those into the game mechanics? I’d look for the sort of gameplay my players love, and I’d give them meaningful choices that come with benefits and disadvantages.

So, for example, maybe you can buy ectoplasmic ammo. Everyone knows that the ammo is mostly imported by Shadow Nomads. They travel the waste, using this ammo to defend themselves, and know how to create it. Yeah, other people also know the secrets, but it’s a very involved technique that takes years of practice to get right, and needs you to trap ghosts which requires it’s own technique. The Shadow Nomads capture the ghosts as part of defending themselves, distil the ectoplasmic ammo while camping, then trade the excess for other equipment they need. Their nomadic lifestyle means that they don’t tend to accumulate or consolidate a lot of wealth – if they make a profitable trade, they’ll spend it on a better tent or more horses, since they need to carry it with them.

Mechanically, we can say that the Shadow Nomads would be easy to conquer. But if you do, that will disrupt this situation, and ectoplasmic ammo will become scarcer. At first, just more expensive. But longer term, more problems with ghosts in the cities, spirit wardens stop trying to defend the poorer areas, and so on. Maybe leading up towards another lost district. Or a new ectoplasmic ammo manufacturer (create a factory and mass produce for the entire city! So much money to be made!)

It’s this balance between opportunity and cost that you want. Something that the PCs can get involved in – both because they can be the ones to profit or lose, but also because they can see that everything comes with tradeoffs. And it’s fine if they “deal with it” by just paying more for the ammo, and carrying on with the game. They still get to experience the impact.

But why stop there? That’s just dealing with the problem in front of the players: “ammo is getting scarce.”

You can bring it into the stories. The next time a PC is possessed, they’ll be able to sort that out – the shadow nomads know how to do an excorcism. Except how do you find a shadow nomad shaman? They certainly still exist, but no longer advertise themselves (after conquering them, their new rulers don’t want shamen competing for positions of authority. Or do they? Have they incorporated the shamen into their authority structure or let the shamen speak for their people?) – they might not be willing to help an “outsider” now that relationships have soured. They might want a favour in return – perhaps an assassination.

The next time they do a train robbery, it’s to steal the ammo shipment. The next time a contact’s child is missing, it’s because they were lured away by a ghost. The next time there’s a rebellion, their goal is to bring down the spark towers and let the ghosts in now that the defenders won’t be able to repel that type of attack. The next time they are hired, it’s to help protect workers as they build a new train line (because without nomadic traders, there’s increased profit opportunities for a train line connecting those cities)

Oh, and that’s only looking at the destroyed culture. The colonists took that land, and did whatever-they-did to the shadow nomads for a reason. That will also create opportunities and costs. Are the expanding industrialisation? Strip mining for coal, steel and wood? Is this creating an economic boom in the nearby cities? With the population able to see that war is bad, but supporting it because of their benefits. With the new steel and copper and coal, their city walls and stronger, their sparkworks protect from spirits, their trains bring in food even when they’ve got local food shortages, and everyone is happy, if they’re one of the colonists. Or are they? Who loses from this? What changes?

Mechanically, maybe fine guns are cheaper for the players. Maybe they get paid an extra coin when doing work for the colonists, due to the colonists having more money. There’s certainly advantages to siding with the winners!

… that’s the first point from my list. And my initial brainstorm. With only one cultural group.

Jot down four or five different ideas for the various groups. Don’t go into detail yet. Then jot down a few ideas of how you can bring those “colonialism” ideas into the game.

Each of the groups, and each of the ideas, will lead the game in very different directions. As you come up with the pros and cons of these colonisation themes, you’ll automatically “fill in the details” about those cultures. Even so, try to keep it simple, so there’s room for the players and the gameplay to shape them and fill in the blanks.

This sounds really complicated, but as long as you start simple and keep a focus on how it will create choices for the players, you’ll probably find that it all falls together pretty easily.

These mysteries work less great for RPGs because it’s quite possible that the players make their super cool mysterious characters and then say “what now?” and the GM is also going “oh crap… what now?”. 

make sure it’s super clear, what that war actually amounts to and what actions they will take in it. Also, maybe consider maybe not war? (see above)

I want to know the roots of that power in the setting, and I think establishing those roots will help not only define the scope of the power, but the likely outcomes (and consequences) of wielding it.

Consider your values and how they affect your design choices. They always are!

Calling something a monster makes it “other” and creates a justification for killing it and taking it’s possession, the same justification for many atrocities in our history.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl: state of play

February 14, 2018 1 comment

The PCs have hit a critical point: they’ve got boats, have rescued some people who need nursing back to health but could serve as crew, and have rescued/acquired a navigator who has some idea of where they are.

Here’s their fleet:

1 prahu (Malay tramp trader or fishing boat) with sails like this:

but with outriggers like this:
outrigger sampan manila model

1 junk (half of this matched pair, the other half is still in the hands of Chinese pirates:
chinese junks in japan_woodblock2

1 korakora (Philippine viking ship). Those usually look like
but this one’s a 2-hull model that looks more like a Polynesian voyaging canoe
big catamaran

also a straightforward 12-man dugout canoe (you can imagine that, right?) and a totally pimp 6-man dragon boat that looks like it got lifted from some royal parade, kinda like a mini version of this:
Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.21.29 AM
It’s clearly valuable but not very practical, being twice as long as it needs to be for 6 people.

This is their current situation, stalking the remaining Chinese junk, also hoping to trade with villagers on the bigger island for food. Except they’ve just now seen some towering white canvas sails approaching from the NW, which they spied while shinning up some species of “breadfruit” tree.


More generally, they’re east of Borneo, south of Sulawesi. According to their Makasarese navigator, Sulawesi’s outlying islands are about a week away to the north. There are islands closer to the south (maybe only a couple of days, since the wind’s with you) but he doesn’t know the people there. Past those islands the currents get crazy, the water gets deeper and colder, therefore good for whaling, and then after that there’s the Great Spiritland, where he’s heard things get kinda out of control. Trees that bear women as fruit, walking mountains, stuff like that. And out to the east, maybe a week to 10 days away, are the island of nutmeg and cardomom and cloves.

Tiki’n’D2: the joy of veils

July 27, 2017 4 comments

“These aren’t really drinks. They’re trade winds across cool lagoons. They’re the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They’re a lovely maiden
bathing at the foot of a waterfall.”

So a little while ago there was an article on Kotaku that sorta celebrated D&D and sorta concluded it was obsolete:

“It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy.

“Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies. On top of their race, class, alignment and stats, today’s character sheets want to know why the player adventures, and what they ultimately hope to gain. Today’s Dungeon Master’s Guild, an official D&D website that publishes anyone’s adventures and additions to the game, tells us who really owns its legacy. It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.”

Greg Gorgonmilk disagreed: “The general thesis seems to be that giving the GM too much control is a bad thing, as though the responsibility of the other players should go beyond their characters. This is something we see in New School games a lot and it has its strengths and drawbacks but most notably (at least for the purposes of this article) those games are not like any iteration of D&D that I am aware of.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.56.28.png

…Christmas 1982 I got Traveller Deluxe and Moldvay Basic from two rather distant relatives. It took a month and the help of a schoolmate to overcome the initial confusion but then I was slowly, uncertainly hooked.

One of the things that slowed me down – one of the most distinctive elements of this new way of neither exactly playing a boardgame nor exactly playing let’s pretend – was the role played by the DM. I had no exact analogue for it and all the things I did already know betrayed me one way or another.

Like a novelist, the DM holds all the secrets and knows what’s in every cave. But that’s where the novelist metaphor ends and every other part of being a novelist – narrating what the heroes do, directing their actions, revealing the inner mental lives of the characters, using multiple perspectives to reveal facets of a story – are actively harmful to playing the game. You’ve seen The Princess Bride, of course. You know how Peter Falk breaks off the narrative to tell the kid “it’s OK, she doesn’t die here. We can stop if it’s getting too scary”? When I saw that I’d already DM’d just a little and I knew it was terrible form – threatening to take the experience away because the kid didn’t like it or it was getting too intense, deferring to the writer as ultimate guide. No. It canceled the stakes, brought the players’ engagement up short, stopped them making the decisions that could ruin them.

The other frequent metaphor, that of a referee, was equally misleading – a strictly neutral ref might adjudicate in a game of skill or luck but the DM’s thumb could never be free of the suspicion of tipping the scale. I was just getting to the age where I could recognize that answering “I got you” with “did not!” was foreclosing the game I had been invited into and replacing it with an argument nobody wanted. So for our fledgling play group it was, I think, a great but only semi-deliberate act of trust to assign the position of DM with its peculiar double responsibilities of playing the opposition and refusing to advocate for them. Never to pull punches, but also to telegraph the cues a skillful player would use to avoid getting punched. If we didn’t quite understand the awesome responsibility those first few times, we soon found out as we played with capricious, cruel and uncommitted DMs after school – people who were intrigued enough to try but not engaged enough to try hard.


I recently got to play Braunstein with Dave Wesely (+Zach H’s photo is of B4: Piedras Marrones) and I was startled by how lightly – almost invisibly – he refereed. Braunstein 1 is pretty much a statless larp in which all the scenario building is front-loaded in the character packets. Each player gets a role, a set of objectives and something to trade with, and then the game begins and people wander around learning puzzle pieces from each other, finding out why their objectives are complicated, negotiating and cajoling and threatening. Dave’s job, once it was on was, I’d say, maintaining simultaneity. Letting the room know when player-initiated events had happened (but not that they were player-initiated). Running NPCs’ responses when needed, although I hardly saw any, there were so many players.

It made me think hard about the players’ responsibilities. They were there to make their characters spring to life, sure. They needed to play their parts, pursue their objectives (on which others’ objectives depended), cause trouble. But they absolutely were not there to advance a story. There was no pressure to keep one foot on either side of the fourth wall, to have any consciousness of plot or structure or opportunities for character development. Their responsibility was to live as fully and inventively as possible inside the space.

Big deal. So far so trad. Where’s the Tiki?


1933; Prohibition ends and ERB “Don” Gantt opens a bar/restaurant called Don the Beachcomber, casting himself in the title role, sporting colonial slacks and an Indiana Jones hat. This new bar combines several innovations into a new formula that will transform American drinking culture. Most of the elements are not new but, (to belabor a metaphor) they make a new synthesis, which flourishes in the post-Prohibition environment.

And the new thing is mystery. The exotic.

Nobody wanted mystery in their drinks during Prohibition (or again during the war), when the provenance of spirits was a major concern because the bathtub stuff could cripple you. The bartender’s job was to shake clean mixes in plain sight from imported bottles displayed proudly over the bar. The classic 20s cocktails – the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni – were simple 2 or 3 ingredient drinks that showcased the qualities of individual ingredients. Bond drinks vodka Martinis because their crystal clarity makes it hard to conceal drugs. Cloudy sours – the Rickey, Sidecar, Collins and so on – might make it harder to identify a particular doubtful spirit base but to be well made, they need the best ingredients. Trust in the bartender was strictly limited and customers often led the effort to find and share new mixes. When Erskinne Gwynne “crashed into” Harry’s Bar in Paris with his Boulevardier Cocktail, he was part of a rowdy emigre drinking crowd that was inventing and publishing its own cocktails and relying on Harry to spin the bottles and keep count.


Don takes a sharply different tack. Instead of branded bottles on the bar he sells potions from a menu, made with a wild variety of under-specified rums and a bunch of secret “Don’s mixes,” which stay secret and have to be distributed from HQ as the franchise takes off and Beachcombers spring up across the US. The rum is suspiciously cheap and it shows amazing variety exactly because it’s less controlled, standardized and valorized. It comes from a plethora of small producers. During Prohibition it had run into Florida under the radar, was unpredictable and a little bit dangerous: an irreplaceable and explosive fuel for the Harlem Renaissance, the low-rent end of the 20s’ roar.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 15.18.56.png

So when Don puts his elixirs on the menu with names like Tropic Breeze and Zombie Punch he’s offering his customers a taste, not of what they expect, what they’ve helped design, but of forbidden pleasures they’ve heard of but been afraid to try for the past 14 years. And he doesn’t shake them in the open, he makes them with an electric blender in the back bar and brings them out in ornate, opaque mugs, discreetly veiled by fruit garnishes and umbrellas.

You don’t ask what’s in them. Even the bartender doesn’t know. So you get on with playing your role up to the hilt, causing trouble, taking no responsibility for what’s going on with the service because you don’t have to know how it works. And that’s how it opens up a space for magic – there’s that little bit of a surrender to fate.

So I’m not here to say which approach is better. I love Martinis and Pearl Divers equally – I even mix them sometimes. It occurs to me that Gwynne probably represents a free sharing OSR blogger more than a storygamer, while Don was unquestionably into monetizing his intellectual property even more than Gary but I guess that goes with being Phandaal, legendary creator of lost arts and inspirer of cargo cults. What I do take issue with is the idea that the player is an afterthought in either approach. It’s all set dressing for the players and the things they choose to do.

RETCON: time (the inevitable tyrant) got in the way of this post being as good as it could have been. Happily I can edit posts later, so here is Jeff’s necessary weigh-in: don’t go gently into that good night that is the game ending for your character. This is what I failed to say: the rules are good and important but they’re not as important as the game at hand, just like your lovingly created world is important but ultimately less so than moments at the table.


Counter-colonial Heistcrawl: previous high scores

June 15, 2017 1 comment

One of the reasons I’ve been blogging so little here of late is that it inevitably takes me a whole day to write a post. I’m going to try to keep this one short because it’s a simple point, relevant to the campaign I’ve just started running (after 15 years gestation – that might be why I’m reluctant to start campaigns, too).

Have you seen Black Sails? It’s trashy but better than I expected (see previous post). In fact on the trash violence to interesting plot axis, I think I prefer it to Game of Thrones.

It so happens I’m discovering it just as my son is re-playing Assassin’s Creed 4 (the pirate one – Black Flag). Both treat the same loosely-historical events in fairly similar ways – the struggle between the pirate anarchs (sometimes dignified as a republic) of Nassau and the nascent British Empire, the latter personified by Woodes Rogers with his pardons and pirates-turned-king’s men. The historical events take place during the period 1715-1720. The TV and video game versions seem to compress it all into a few months.*

So. 1715 is a terrible time to be starting a pirate republic:

  1. there’s more peace between the big pirate empires – Britain, France and Spain – than in the previous hundred years or more. As a group they are disinclined to welcome a competitor (cf. WW1, which was really about not wanting to set a place at the Great Power table for upstart Germany).
  2. although there are plenty of malcontents in the American Colonies, the local power-holder landowners still look to the homeland for preferment – if you want to start up an American Revolutionary Republic in 1715 you first have to engineer a real peasant uprising and kill all the aristos and then still have resources and trade networks to fight off the British counter-attack. In case you’re thinking the actual American Revolution offers a better model, note that it’s a tax revolt by an already-established gentry class – people who already have a working political system for controlling the masses, which they can adapt to new ends. Every fort they can take by ideology rather than force is part of a political machine the English built for them.
  3. the British are already thoroughly networked across the Caribbean and if nobody stops them they will certainly colonize it all. They have a lot of ships, a lot of places to repair them, and a lot of resources to recruit crews. It seems anarchic and it’s definitely full of holes a ship or captain can hide in, but it’s the anarchy of capitalism – there are in fact even venture capitalists in London and Boston trying to exploit the temporarily-anarchic situation by sponsoring “privateer” agents abroad, which is as sure a sign as you’re likely to find anywhere that the pirate bubble is about to burst.

Both Black Sails and Black Flag do a good job of peeling apart the micropolitics of trust that are the basic problem for any gang of murderhobos that wants to turn into a working polity – not everybody understands the same things at the same time. Many people just want to be murderhobos. Nobody wants to invest their treasure in a communal chest. Independent ship captains already command pirate republics (wooden ones) – why should they want to be represented by some wig-wearing tax-collector on land?

But neither one really addresses the bigger picture of why a republic in Nassau is doomed to failure, while one that encompasses the eastern seaboard of North America just might work. Fair enough, dramatically – the pirate genre is really all about Great Man history, not long-reaching economic forces – but that bigger picture is important to the kind of exercise I would like CCH to be. In CCH I want the players to seriously consider first what they have to do to survive the day, and later what they have to do to make a safe space for themselves and people like them. And they can learn (anachronistically) from the mistakes of Blackbeard, Vane, Anne Bonny and all…

  1. the Caribbean pirates never try to make allies, except among equals. They probably fear to lose their independence (fair) but by victimizing everyone indiscriminately, they make themselves the common enemy of all. They do not learn to play politics. England (later Britain) tries several times to recruit them when its own prospects are uncertain. The pirates keep refusing because they rightly guess that Britain will never offer a really good deal – their problem is they lack the presence of mind/discipline to lie to her convincingly (with some exceptions).
  2. they’re trying to establish themselves in the very heart of the imperial project. Caribbean sugar is the starter fuel for colonizing the Americas. That’s why there’s so much merchant shipping to prey on, but it’s also the resource that the imperialists will fight hardest to keep. Basically the Navy will come here sooner or later, which is not true of Madagascar or Mauritius or even the coast of India if you know who to attack (smaller native capitalists, Mappilas, the Portuguese) and who not to attack (the British or French) there.
  3. they declare a tiny castle outpost in defiance of nation states. There’s really no way they can get big enough to become a real threat because they’re not ambitious enough and they’re too public, too early. Compare and contrast with Germany, which definitely won its pirate phase – Prussia was a dead state in 1814. It was reconstructed after Napoleon to act as a buffer between Russia and Europe. It reformed its armies (took care of getting the best equipment), seized a bunch of German-speaking pocket states that the big players didn’t care about (grew in the dark) and focused hard on industrializing (exploited a technological weak point) until it was big enough to be a threat… and then it moved (in restrained ways as long as Bismarck lived) on the big, old players.
  4. ETA: my son makes an excellent point: Nassau is also never self-sufficient. Black Sails suggests it could be if it made an alliance with the planters of the island but it doesn’t, so there you are.

I’m not saying that CCH must follow my vision of a teleological course, I’m not saying it’s the game where you emulate Prussia or anything like that, I’m just saying the pirates of Nassau show some classic traps.

1610 (the opening date for CCH) is a much kinder moment to start than 1715, if you did want to build a strong, working polity in Southeast Asia. The Spanish and Portuguese have been annoying the locals for a century and all they’ve got to show for it is a trading post empire of isolated fort-factories sitting on a set of resource-flow routes – one for cinnamon, one for pepper, one for dye-woods…. not the kind of thoroughly interlinked plantation colony Britain will develop in the Americas a hundred years later. The legal control environment is not so much a Swiss cheese as a few strands of spiderweb stretched across a dark and unknown jungle. Nobody even knows all the kingdoms out there, and inside those kingdoms, nobody has hegemonic control of anything – the general political mode is to have villages pay tribute to warlords when they can be forced to, not nation states with defended borders. Stone forts are rare (and are generally either European colonial, Chinese, Japanese or Mughal).

Perhaps most critically, the fundamental basis of power is not land or even money but manpower. That’s what local rulers fight over, and what Chinese commercial networks export, in return for unique island products. It’s what the European colonists really need (even if it’s not what they most desire). There is rich loot to be grabbed in the form of spices, Spanish silver, Indian gold, sea cucumbers (the Chinese love ’em), perfumes, dyes, cloth etc. so there’s ample opportunity for piracy, trade and smuggling, but the key to long-term success – the key to independent survival – is nakedly and unquestionably uniting people.

* There’s basically one literary source for all this “history” and it’s superbly written, so it’s ideal genre fiction writing fodder and it sparked a pirate genre that’s still playing out today. Seriously, Captain Charles Johnson was the Tolkien of 1725 (or maybe he was Daniel Defoe all along – the case is not definitively settled) – if you want to be an instant expert on the “golden age,” go read him (the paperbacks are cheap, the etexts only cost you time).

** Black Sails has some gorgeous imagery, though. The carved ivory title sequence is a delightful synthesis of familiar elements into a typically 18th century harmonious, murderous whole.