Thursday, May 3, 2012

Retrospective: Mercenary

During the "Classic" Traveller era (1977-1986), Game Designers' Workshop produce three types of support products for the game: books, supplements, and adventures. The meaning of "adventure" is clear enough to need no explanation. A "supplement" was (generally) intended as an aid to the referee in running a Traveller campaign, such as pre-generated characters (1001 Characters), patron encounters (76 Patrons), or sector data (The Spinward Marches and The Solomani Rim). A "book" was an expansion of some aspect of the original three little black books that comprised the game. In a sense, they were an early example of the "core rules" concept lately championed by several contemporary RPGs -- later additions to the game elevated to the status of being equal in importance to its initial rulebooks.

I didn't discover Traveller until 1980 or '81 by which point there were already several examples of all the categories of support material. I had only a spotty collection of both adventures and supplements, but I owned every single book produced for it. That's because, unlike adventures and supplements, I viewed books as Official™ and thus absolutely essential for running and playing a "proper" Traveller campaign. In retrospect, it's an absolutely foolish notion, but, having read one too many editorials by Gary Gygax on the importance of buying and using only official AD&D products, the mentality was very easy to adopt with regards to other games.

Fortunately, when I started playing Traveller, there were only two additional books beyond the three that started the game. The first of these was Mercenary, published in 1978 and written by Frank Chadwick and Marc Miller. Mercenary was 52 pages long and provided lots of new rules and information for ground forces, both Army and Marines. So you got lots of news military equipment and vehicles, a discussion of mercenary work, and a bunch of sample adventure outlines for such characters. But the big draw of Mercenary (and its immediate successor, High Guard) was its expanded character generation rules.

For those of you who don't know Traveller well, here's a brief overview of character generation. Characters can enlist in one of six services, three of which are explicitly military (Army, Navy, Marines). They then go through 4-years terms of service during which rolls are made to see what skills, if any, they acquire during that term. The most skills a character can acquire in a single term is four (in his first term if the player rolls very well), but most terms grant only one or two skills. Once the character musters out, he'll have a handful of skills that reflect his time in his chosen service.

Mercenary changes this somewhat by providing lots more detail about a character's terms of service. Each term represents a four-year block, but Mercenary lets the player roll for each year within that term, to see not only what a character's specific duties were during that time but also provides many more opportunities to gain skills. The result is that a character generated under the rules of Book 4 are almost always much more talented than those generated under the original three LBBs.

It's no surprise, then, that, by the time I started playing Traveller, nearly everyone I knew used Mercenary (and High Guard) to create their characters. This meant almost no one played Scouts or Merchants, at least until they, too, got expanded character options later in the '80s. After all, why wouldn't you use these rules? Not only did they generate better characters but they were also official. By calling Mercenary "Book 4," GDW had placed it on the same footing as Books 1-3 that came in the boxed ruleset. Unless you were explicitly trying to get a reputation for stubbornness, the pressure on the referee to allow Mercenary was significant.

At the time, I don't remember having any qualms about allowing Book 4 into our campaigns, despite the weird way it warped them into focusing almost exclusively on mercenary tickets and the like. Of course, this may explain why some of my players wanted to move on to play a "real science fiction game" like Star Frontiers, since its adventures weren't just about traveling from world to world fighting local insurgencies. Nowadays, though, I have a less positive feeling about Mercenary, feeling that it inaugurated not only power inflation in Traveller but a cult of the official that was common enough that a little pushback against it was much needed -- especially by guys like me whose natural tendency was to look to a game's designer/publisher for guidance rather than relying on my own judgment. Oh, the follies of youth!

31 comments:

  1. I was wondering when you were going to get to power creep in Trav. IIRC Mercenary also introduced the game-changing gauss rifle, which all but did away with every other gun except Traveller's 2-handed sword, the LMG.

    I was suspicious about Merc's power mismatch from the start, but I couldn't resist the higher-powered PCs and gear. We never played merc contracts, though - we were still tramp traders meeting patrons in various versions of the Mos Eisley Cantina and dreaming of knocking over a bank or a starport. But we were all, to a man, ex-marines, and we figured Han Solo must be, too.

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  2. I was just talking (very briefly) about this one yesterday.  White Dwarf gave it a 9 out 10 in their Open Box reviews.
    http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/2012/05/white-dwarf-wednesday-14.html

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  3. Personally I think Mercenary/High Guard is, loosely, more like how generation should have been from the start.  I don't see giving characters 4 skill throws per term as really inflating power.  Considering the odds, I would be pretty surprised to see a 4-term character with more than 1-2 skills at L3 or more.  Were I to run an LBB Traveller game now, I'd probably omit the books after 1-3, but house-rule at 1 skill per year basis rather than 1 skill per term.

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  4. That pretty much matches my experience (except that I got into the game a couple of years earlier, and so watched High Guard come out, then get revised nearly immediately). Today, I'd probably just go with the six original careers, except that I'd replace Other with the twelve careers in Supplement 4.

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  5. My favorite book was Merchant Prince.

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  6. As I contemplate running Traveller again sometime, I do a lot of thinking. I like the additional detail Books 4-7 added, but they do have some impact on power level. Though with the ideas that Paul Gazis put forth, it's not so bad, he added an experience system, where to go from level N-1 to N, you need to gain N skill points. Skills in character creation give you two skill points per skill earned, so the first three skills earned give you 1/1, 2/1, 3/0 and it takes 5 skills earned to get level 4.

    I like the additional skills added, and the additional chargen details gives you more to work with.

    I've also had a look at MGT, which adds some detail but keeps close to Book 1 chargen.

    Frank

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  7. The effects of Mercenary that you describe here are a great example of the push for emulative rules that you recently wrote about.  As I saw it, Mercenary came about to allow players to more effectively emulate military SF stories; the original rules didn't generate robust enough characters to allow such emulation (or at least people thought they didn't).

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  8. The skill inflation is significant.

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  9. Stephen TeixeiraMay 3, 2012 at 2:11 PM

    Mercenary wasn't complete, it mentioned a lot of the gear in the Striker
    game, so it was more like a book integrating Striker into Traveller.
    That aside, the books did introduce a huge amount of military theme
    creep into the game. With books 1-3, warships were limited to smaller 50,000 ton ships and low jump ratings. With books 4-5, million ton ships
    carrying armies capable of jump 6 are introduced - that sort of detail changes a game.

    I prefer book 1-3 Traveller, with more emphasis on small ships, diplomacy, exploration, mysteries, and merchant traders. Small ships and adventuring parties could make a difference, and there were parts of the starmap big ships could not go, creating backwater areas and places for star pirates to hide. The base game and the book 4-5 games were vastly different games, at least from my game table.

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  10.  Mercenary came out before Striker...

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  11.  I also like the replacing of Other with the Sup4 careers as well. 

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  12. That's what I do these days. Citizens of the Imperium is a great supplement.

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  13. Supplement 4 - Citizens became the default that most of my players wanted to roll characters from, especially Belters, Pirates and Barbarians.  A party of these misfits made for very bizarre campaigns.

    I can't remember the issue offhand, but Space Gamer had an article called competitive Citizens that gave a cool system to allow 1 year skill roles for these characters.

    This was only important if you worked Book expanded characters into the game and all the Citizens classes tended to be very skill oriented rather than combat oriented so it helped lots regardless.


    The expanded ship design rules in High Guard were riddled with problems and that book was rewritten/revised at least once and heavily FAQed by GDW.

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  14.  Supplement 4 - Citizens became the default that most of my players
    wanted to roll characters from, especially Belters, Pirates and
    Barbarians.  A party of these misfits made for very bizarre campaigns.



    I can't remember the issue offhand, but Space Gamer had an article
    called competitive Citizens that gave a cool system to allow 1 year
    skill roles for these characters.



    This was only important if you worked Book expanded characters into the
    game and all the Citizens classes tended to be very skill oriented
    rather than combat oriented so it helped lots regardless.





    The expanded ship design rules in High Guard were riddled with problems
    and that book was rewritten/revised at least once and heavily FAQed by
    GDW.

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  15. Books 1-3 of Classic Traveller represent the kind of Traveller I enjoy. They are evocative rather than exhaustive. They are manageable rather than overwhelming. They are open-ended rather than constraining. The smaller number of skills meant one could do more with those skills -- it encouraged creativity. The increase in the number of skills, although it seemed to give characters more capabilities, in the end gave them more limitations (in my opinion).  I really wish they had just added new services in the same level of detail as the originals and left the originals alone.

    IISS

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  16. Stephen TeixeiraMay 3, 2012 at 6:21 PM

     True, I just remember reading through Mercenary and seeing dozens of references to gear and weapons not in the book. Only years later did I find them in a copy of Striker I picked up.

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  17. But just think of all the splatbooks this thing inspired!

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  18. As Mercenary was one of the very few supplements for Traveller published in Spain, I have it in the highest esteem. Even now, I'm amazing how inspirational it is for the kind of hard-military science-fiction I've always liked.

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  19. These days I prefer to stick to the Book 1 and Citizens of the Imperium generation. That said, there are bits of the “advanced” character generation I might’ve liked to see integrated back into “basic” chargen. (Which it looks like some of the later editions have done, but I haven’t had time to take a good look at them.)

    I’d also say that the books have some useful stuff beyond the expanded chargen. And I like the way I can ignore that stuff until in becomes relevant.

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  20. After Mercenary and High Guard I just did my own versions for the other professions and added more professions as well. That helped with the all ex-marine syndrome.

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  21. Whoa; didn't realize Classic Trav only had 6 careers.  I've been playing Mongoose, which is mostly very close to Classic with some rough edges filed off, and the chargen is much more like what you describe pre-Mercenary, but with many more careers (12ish, I think?).

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  22. "Adventures" weren't.  They were generally mini-campaigns, or small sandboxy situations with no real expected resolution.  Or worse they did have a resolution which wouldn't be considered by your players.

    I got into Traveller late with MegaTraveller.  They had 18 careers, with some additional steps that increased the number of skills in the basic careers, and still including the advanced careers for four of them (in all of their bug ridden, paste-up deficient glory).  For some reason the journalist was not included even though its a major character in the authors adventures in the zine Traveller Digest. They could have left out the wet navy. "Unofficial" careers both basic and advanced appeared in various places in  magazines or online.

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  23. I think you miss the mark on this one a bit, James.  There's nothing wrong with more official material, per se...but it's a matter of how you do it.  If you're going to offer Enhanced Character Generation, you need to do it for every class.

    I've come to believe that Mercenary, not the Third Imperium setting, was the high water mark for Traveller as a system.  The problem wasn't an enhanced character generation system for Soldiers and Marines (and eventually Naval characters with High Guard, Merchants with Merchant Prince, and Scouts with Scouts).  The problem is they never got around to doing the same thing for other careers, which essentially left those grossly underpowered

    For a setting and indeed a system that just cries out for space
    feudalism, why no enhanced Noble career?  Why did none of the other 12 careers published by GDW not get
    the same attention?  For all you can rag on the various splat-books that have been a plague on every version of D&D since AD&D2, at least TSR/WotC have generally made sure that each of the core classes got a little extra love.  GDW never even went that far.

    To return to my original point, Mercenary took a broad game that could create and simulate a wide variety of sci-fi stories, involving a variety of characters (particularly after Citizens of the Imperium added a whole bunch of new classes) and effectively narrowed the number of classes a player might want to play back to the core book, effectively limiting the types of games that could be played as surely as if they'd never created a broader array of classes in the first place.  Effectively games of Traveller after the release of Books 4-7 were released tended to be either mercenary games, naval oriented games, or merchant games.  Now all of those have their place, but you could do so much more if you didn't limit to these options.

    To their credit, GDW finally figured this out with The New Era (too late to save the company, however) and gave the Advanced Class concept the old heave ho.  Similarly, Traveller 4th Edition (which I worked on a bit) and Mongoose Traveller ditched Advanced Classes (in T4), or came out with advanced class book options for every character class (Mongoose Traveller).  Either one is preferable to what Books 4-7 did to Traveller, and by extension to MegaTraveller.

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  24.  Books 1-3 had six careers.  Another 12 were introduced by GDW in Supplement 4, Citizens of the Imperium.  Along with this, there were a few that graced the pages of Journal of the Traveller's Aide Society and Challenge, as well as DGP's Traveller's Digest.

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  25.  Robert, you ought to give Mongoose Traveller a serious look.  It basically cleans up a lot of the gray areas of CT, gives all of the basic classes nice overhauls, and if you want the Advanced Character Generation Options, Mongoose does those too.

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  26.  This is pretty much what I did...though I did borrow some of the non-character stuff from books 4-7 (system generation from Book 6, cargo rules and other stuff from Book 7, etc.)

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  27. My friends and I adored Mercenary when it came out, because we were all enormous fans of Hammer's Spammers. It took a while, we realized that all those plusses on our dice rolls were screwing up the game. Somebody worked out a simple conversion chart that ratcheted Merc-generated stats down a bit, and we assumed that Merc characters didn't benefit from Traveller's standard rule that all PCs have basic familiarity (level 0) with everything. As a Merc, if you didn't have level 1 in a skill, then you were completely unskilled and took big penalties. Eventually we went back to the standard chargen because it made everything simpler. We sure loved all the Ironmongery, though.

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  28. Yeah, the non-character creation stuff is generally good. At this point, I'd use some stuff I found on the web (now gone to archive.org) to incorporate ideas from GURPS Traveller: Far Trader into Classic Traveller, which should fill out the trade system in Book 7 properly.

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  29. I've recently started a Traveller campaign and am using only books 1-3.  I allow characters to roll for skills on each table every term (instead of picking one).   It gives the group a wider variety of skills without all the added crunch of books 4-7.  In retrospect, I could have also used Citizens of the Imperium, but I was going for the Old School approach.

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  30. So far I haven’t seen anything in Mongoose Traveller that has convinced me to invest much time into it. But then, I like gray areas, and I often don’t care for “clean up”.

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  31. "With books 4-5, million ton ships carrying armies capable of jump 6 are introduced - that sort of detail changes a game."

    I don't really see why. That they exist in the setting doesn't mean the players would necessarily have them, or have control of them.

    In an Earthbound game set in the 21st century, where you play smugglers and traders and mercenaries, the players might well have access to small jets, or boats, or even a small submarine. There would also exist major military hardware, that might well factor into the players' schemes, but which they wouldn't be able to consider their own equipment.

    " Small ships and adventuring parties could make a difference, and there were parts of the starmap big ships could not go, creating backwater areas and places for star pirates to hide"

    These situations would be preserved by means of the backwater areas being too numerous and/or too remote to be patrolled effectively. Even a power great enough to field huge ships has limits, and priorities. The piracy activities in a certain area might not be significant enough to warrant intervention from outside the sector.

    Think of how long the real-world pirates on the Horn of Africa were able to operate without real opposition. And that's on a major shipping route. Had the Horn been even more remote, and the pirates been less active, they might not have incurred the current anti-piracy operations.

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