Monday, December 12, 2011

Imagination, Research, and Thought

Over the weekend, among other things, I was re-reading some old issues of GDW's The Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society. JTAS was a magazine devoted to Traveller and ran for 24 issues between 1979 and 1983 before it was subsumed into and superseded by a broader gaming magazine called Challenge. I have very fond memories of both JTAS and Challenge, the latter being where my earliest gaming writing was published.

Anyway, in issue #2 of JTAS, editor Loren Wiseman has a column where he takes exception to a review of Traveller Book 4, Mercenary, which appeared in issue #26 (June 1979) of Dragon. Among the complaints made in the review (by Mark S. Day) is "Laser pistols were missing from hardware." Now, as any old Traveller hand can tell you, laser pistols weren't originally included in the game. I'm not certain I can recall when they finally did appear (MegaTraveller in 1986?), but their absence was a common knock against the game, especially by fans of other SF RPGs.

What's interesting is the way that Wiseman dismisses the reviewer's criticism:
Take, for example, the laser pistol. Although it does not specifically mention them, Traveller provides all the information needed to enable a referee to create them, with a little mental effort. Since, as referee, we are running the world, we declare that a laser pistol should be to a laser carbine as a conventional pistol is to a conventional carbine.
He then goes on at some length showing how he'd extrapolate the game stats of a laser pistol, concluding his efforts with the following:
The above example indicates how the Traveller rules can be used to create something not present in the rules. We don't have room to describe everything. With a little imagination, a little research, and a lot of thought, almost anything can be made compatible with Traveller.
On some level,Wiseman's reply to the review comes across as a little tetchy. On another, though, I find it reminiscent of the afterward [sic] of OD&D, where Gygax and Arneson ask the question "why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" That's a sentiment that makes more and more sense to me as the years wear on, so it delighted me to see it expressed in the pages of JTAS so long ago.

19 comments:

  1. Imagination is the DM's greatest tool and resource. When running a game, I try to never say "no". If a players asks if they can do a thing or have a thing (such as a laser pistol) I always try to figure a way that it could happen and explain the processes by which a thing or action can be accomplished. The lack of laser pistols is most likely explained away by saying that the technology to miniaturize the laser apparatus is prohibitively expensive/unstable/difficult to produce. Doubtlessly, however, it is possible to produce such an item. After explaining that to the player, they will no doubt begin theorizing ways that they can create/acquire such a weapon which can be an adventure in itself. Also, the possession of such a weapon would definitely mark the individual as someone special, either extremely rich, and/or talented, and the adventure hooks blossom from there.

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  2. IMO, this is where computer RPGs tainted the traditional RPG experience. Many people expected to have a similar experience.

    This is wrong.

    I have seen many times over the years how someone who started playing computers games and went to traditional RPGS were completely lost. They did not know what to do. Basically, they just sat there, not using their imaginations.

    And the newest version of D&D wants to emulate computer RPGs to lure in that demographic?

    Why?

    In my AD&D game, I've made an effort to keep as much up to the imaginations of the players as possible. Give only as much description/info as needed. There aren't rules for every little move or thingy done. There are rulings, not rules, and I do my best to be consistent.

    Sorry to rant, but this does touch off a nerve.

    Let us not forget one of the original taglines for TSR: "Products From Your Imagination".

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  3. Recently there was a discussion on the Traveller Mailing List about Traveller's ill-fated fourth edition. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth over typos, people not getting paid, and the wrong version of manuscripts being printed, the topic turned to the setting.

    I made two points: The sector given was way too settled for what was supposed to be a wasteland just recovering from a centuries-long dark age, and setting things at the dawn of the empire took away a great chance to be the ones who shape that empire. I briefly outlined a campaign set about a century prior to the Imperium's founding, when aside from a few nearby systems, all the scouts had to go by were reports that were a thousand years out of date and rumors.

    The first reply was "when are you going to write this up?"

    It doesn't need to be written up. It's an idea, and any game master worth their screen should be able to take an idea and flesh it out. Too many game systems were strangled by their own settings, when the demand for endless details overtook the demand for good design work.

    As I recall, the laser pistol question once came up in a game I was either in or running. After some discussion and rules checking; we determined that such a weapon would be less effective than an autopistol or Gauss pistol. So the technology is there, but no one bothers. There. Solved. By using our brains.

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  4. All my players come from a video game RPG background. It is heartbreaking.

    When faced with a situation that they don't obviously possess some skill or proficiency for, they just shut down. I either have to hold their hands through the situation or have things magically resolve themselves, else they literally just lay down and do nothing.

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  5. Wow, I so don't ever run into that problem. Granted my PCs consider me a nightmare when its their turn behind the screen, but I've never found PCs waiting to click the right screen.

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  6. I don't think this is a "using your brains" problem. I think that publishing a sci-fi RPG supplement that has stats for multiple weapons at various tech levels released several years after Star Wars that doesn't include laser pistols is a questionable idea - if "figure it out" is the response then why did we need stats for 3 kinds of plasma gun, 2 kinds of fusion gun, and the 4cm RAM Auto-Grenade launcher? Those were not showing up in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and all the other popular sci fi shows and movies of the time, but some kind of "blaster pistol" was in all of them. There are some easy workarounds - I think we just declared that at TL12 the carbine was a pistol - but that doesn't mean that players who asked for an "official" laser pistol lacked imagination. Likely it means they felt that kind of weapon would be more relevant to their campaigns than the Howitzers, Mass Drivers, and Multiple Rocket Launchers (Mercs pg 48-49).

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  7. With the amount of effort that Traveller goes into to describe anti-laser countermeasures, I am surprised players would even bother with one.

    As far as lasers being required, Ha.

    Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000 use explosive shell firing bolters because they do more damage, the common grunts of the Imperial Guard use lowly laser rifles.

    Also look at the Mass Effect games, lasers are huge ship based weapons, ground troops use ballistic weapons. No one seems to complain there.

    Bottom line, barring explosive blaster bolts like in Star Wars, it is probably better to blow big, bloody chunks out of something rather than cut little holes in it and vaporize some water.

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  8. I never played "Traveler" back in the day, and so wasn't familiar with this 'laser controversy' until now.

    That being said, this strikes me as a designer having made an intentionally unpopular design choice and then, later, in response to predictable popular outcry, resorting to the impliedly insulting defense that anyone raising the issue lacks imagination.

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  9. I'm playing with a 4E group that just switched back to Pathfinder. Good blokes, all play CRPGs, but the paucity of their descriptions compared to the richness of the games I was in back in the day are astounding. I was accused of robbing another player of roleplaying chances when my wizard took initiative for the group and bartered with NPCs blocking our path, whose language only he spoke. Then the accuser sulked when I turned our choice into a vote for the party. Add to the lack of imagination a lack of sociability and compromise and it is easy to see why we are all going back to our roots. Rules that don't cover every situation give more choices, not less...

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  10. The first Traveller version I got was MegaTraveller, and that at least had laser pistols. I never played it, though.

    The Traveller campaigns I've played in or gamemastered have never included much gunnery, so I think the question about laser pistols never came up. Mostly the characters have been nobles and most weapons have been just for show, not efficiency.

    As for the greater problem with players not knowing what to do, I haven't encountered the problem in almost 20 years. When we first started roleplaying there was some confusion about what to do, but most people just started doing Stuff. It wasn't all good, but at least it kept the game exciting. The first time I ran the Isle of Dread, most of the stuff happened on the ship when they reached the island: the characters didn't agree on what to do and had a lot of fights.

    I think there's a philosophical divide in games, too.
    Some games, like AD&D (and probably D&D 3.5 and 4, but I've never played them), Traveller and a lot of other games have the simulationist angle which is concerned with, well, simulating the game universe. There are rules for most things which the characters can attempt and so players might begin thinking about the chances of succeeding and defining their characters by their numbers.

    Then there are other games which are concerned more about the decisions the characters make. They are perhaps more narrative, and I think HeroQuest and Don't Rest Your Head are good examples of these kind of games. I think also the World of Darkness games also have some of this philosophy: rules don't matter that much, what matters is what you try to do.

    I think we ran OD&D at some point pretty loosely as there just weren't rules for everything (and no internet and for some years no Dragon easily available). It was fun, but then when we moved to AD&D we kind of lost that flexibility and went with the book.

    Iẗ́'s not all related to rules, of course. I think nowadays with my tabletop gaming friends we use the character sheet and numbers just as a guideline in most games, but we try to do stuff outside the rules, too.

    Also there have been good games with virtually no rules, just defined the characters verbally and then... roleplayed. It's more of a LARP thing, though. Most of the LARPs I've played in have been more of on the social side of things and those really don't need rules. Werewolves fighting is an another matter but doing a quick RPS and then acting it out is a passable way of doing things.

    Some LARPs have had GM interpretation on what happens in the game. I remember the look on the GMs' faces in a scifi LARP where after the first part of the game we came to them and told them that the four of us had divided the planet between ourselves and what political decisions we made first. The game was to continue in game time two weeks later the next day. I think the GMs didn't sleep much that night...

    (The planet got annexed by a foreign power during that time two weeks later, though. I was kind of sad, but at least my character had a fourth of the planet for a couple of weeks.)

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  11. I think there is a distinction to be drawn between creating game rules, creating game scenarios/narratives, and playing creatively. Just because a person enjoys one doesn't mean they enjoy the others; I like world building and creating character backgrounds, but find creating game mechanics to be uninteresting. I also don't have tremendous mechanical/mathematical intuition, and so wouldn't trust something I came up with on the fly to work in-game in a non-disruptive way, unless it was an entirely trivial creation. I do like having mechanical detail in-game to represent different actions/gear/etc.- I just don't like having to make them up myself.

    I buy books to 1) spark my own creativity by having someone else's work to use as a framework or springboard and 2) get mechanical solutions to anticipate-able situations that someone with more time to test and design or more experience has put some thought into. Time limitations also play into it: I have a day job and constricted time for putting into RPGs. I want to spend that time on world building or playing, not on designing laser guns.

    I suppose too many details can be strangling, but I tend to take the opposite perspective: I can always ignore details I don't like, but details that don't exist I have to create whether I want to or not.

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  12. Maybe the core problem is that Traveler's designers were thinking of one kind of science fiction and most players were thinking of another.

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  13. I liked Traveller and ran a lot of games of it. But I've never actually ran a game in the Third Imperium (or any other version of the official setting). That was the advantage of discovering the game when it first came out.

    My favourite campaign of it didn't even have a Jump Drive and was set inside the Solar System. [The Jump Drive actually represented a high thrust military fusion torch drive as opposed to the much more sedentary ion drive represented by the Maneuver Drive. Fuel was reaction mass.] Didn't even need to change any of the values. Or any of the other rules (except adding a Security service in place of the Marines).]

    As for the laser pistol debate, well Traveller always wanted to be a hard SF set of rules.* Which means that lasers, especially man-portable lasers, aren't really effective weapons, except in special circumstances (such as zero-G**). Not when you compare them to the equivalent-tech small arms. So why would anyone build a side-arm (which is something intended for last-ditch use) which requires an external battery pack to be attached? No reason for it. Especially when a snub pistol already exists.

    This doesn't stop anyone from running an SF campaign with blasters of whatever type they want. You're just moving from the science fiction envisaged by Traveller into science fantasy.

    [* And even then they got the utility of lasers in space quite wrong - you'll notice the correction they added in Fusion, Fire & Steel to add "gravitic focusing" to make lasers a usable interspace weapon.]

    [** The other advantage of lasers is that they don't run out of ammo provided there is a working power plant. This is very useful on a frontier world, especially for lasers mounted in a vehicle. Or lasers that are recharged off a vehicle/power plant.]

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  14. I think that many rpg folk like to follow and enjoy the interpretation of the designer for a setting. Often they *can* and *do* write up their own interpretations, but it is the interpretation of a setting into rules that they like.

    Other just wing it.

    Some like a mix, and a good GM is one who can mix and match a core ruleset, insipiration, some extrapolation, and some sheer flights of invention.

    I am not sure that it is CRPGS that cause this split, I think many people do prefer to follow, indeed maybe the majority.

    The danger is that we all can just become followers and consumers and forget one of the joys of roleplaying is 'making up your own stories and stuff'.

    Sometimes it is simply giving players the licence to invent..

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  15. Reverance Pavane beat me to the punch about laser pistols in the Traveller milieu.

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  16. We all know the Gyrojet Pistol is the weapon of the future...Laser Pistols? Fuuut! They are laser pointers.

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  17. IIRC May Day had laser pistols? This was a variant of the CT Rules designed for bording action.

    to anarchist:

    The text(s) that CT were based on were diffuse - in part because of IP concerns. see:
    http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10119

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  18. Mayday was small ship to ship, fighters bascially, combat. The ships did feature lasers as weapons, though.

    I'm not aware that any of the tactical combat game systems that GDW made included laser pistols. Azhanti High Lightning contain mostly just standard Traveller gear, while Snapshot incorporates the weapons from Merc Book 4.

    And the Striker minis rules say that lasers are visible until Tech 13 then they are x-rays.

    Both White Dwarf and Space Gamer were quick to generate rules and stats for laser weapons, ray guns, blasters, and even light-sabers though.

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  19. @yellowdingo:

    Frankly, I wouldn't play a game that didn't have radium pistols.

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