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Captain Anorak's Guide to Gaming
MegaTraveller
The RPG of mentally retarded spacemen in a two-dimensional universe

Traveller is the name of the overall game. MegaTraveller is the name of this rules set, and is used to differentiate it from the 10 years of development and earlier editions that preceded it.
- MegaTraveller Players' Manual, 1987

I like Traveller, but it does have some terrible flaws.

The Traveller background is the brainchild of Marc W Miller. It seems like he's tried hard to make a sensible and consistent universe to play an SF game in. Speeds of travel and communication have been worked out and applied consistently. Technological developments have been thought through and their obvious applications have been put into the game. Where people might resist the introduction of certain forms of technology (eg. true artificial intelligence or cyborging), the opinions formed in society and the resulting political movements are described. It's clearly a feat of world creation from someone who cares enough to try to do it right.

But for all this, there are some horrific oversights. Most staggering of all is that space is flat. Maps of Miller's universe have only two dimensions. I suppose three-dimensional maps would be impractical. But still, it makes the idea that this is supposed to be in any way like real space utterly laughable.

Other than that, the background falls down by incorporating a lot of the standard science fiction cliches. Almost all humans are white - why? Most alien intelligent races, which are of non-terran origin, are humanoid - why?

These future humans can have psionic abilities that are clearly demonstrable. There is an explanation for this: humans met a psionic alien race, the Droyne, who taught humans to use there own innate psionic potential. Human psionics could then teach other talented humans. But this is a feeble bullshit explanation. This psionics business is just another typical SF cliche that's been tacked on for no good reason.

THE RULES SYSTEM

Again, the rules system has a lot of good ideas, but it's deeply flawed in many ways. One big problem is that the writing is often very unclear. There are sections which I've read time and time again, and I can't be sure exactly what they mean. Also, it's often necessary to flip between tables on different pages to work things out.

For instance, suppose I'm firing a rifle at a target 23 metres away. What is my chance of hitting? First I have to consult the Range Table on P74 to find that 23m is in the Medium range band (5-50m). I then need to go to P72 to find the Direct Fire Difficulty Profiles, which tells me that a rifle shot at Medium range is Difficult. I then need to find Resolving Tasks on P9 to find that Difficult requires 11+ on 2D6 to succeed. Now that information could all have been included in the Direct Fire Dificulty Profiles, simply by listing the numerical values of the rangebands, and the target numbers of the difficulty levels, alongside their names.

TASK RESOLUTION

MegaTraveller resolves tasks by rolling 2D6, adding a Dice Modifier (DM) and trying to get a target number or better. This is a good system and I approve in principle. But again, many of the details are ruinously silly. Suppose you want to make an intelligence roll. Primary stats like Intelligence are generated by rolling 2D6.

Intelligence (Int): Corresponds roughly to IQ. Values 10+ and over [sic] are genius level; 5- indicates learning difficulties.
- Introduction to Characters chapter, MegaTTraveller Players' Manual

Associated with each stat is a bonus (Dice Modifier) equal to one-fifth of that stat rounded down. This gives us these bonuses:

Int2 to 45 6 to 910 to 12

RetardedSlightly retarded NormalGenius
Bonus+0+1+1+2

A normal or slightly retarded character gets to roll 2D6+1 for task resolution; a genius gets to roll 2D6+2. That is, the difference in that chances of success between a genius and someone mentally average or even slightly mentally retarded is one point on a 2D6 roll. The difference between a high-level genius (Int 12) and someone with severe mental retardation (Int 2) is only 2 points on 2D6. In other words, the value of a character's Intelligence stat has barely any influence at all over the outcome of Intelligence tests.

Sometimes a character gets to roll on a primary stat plus a skill. Again, skills typically have values in the range 0-2, so getting a bonus of more than +4 for your own ability is very rare, and something like +2 is more likely to be what you get. That isn't much as a modifer to 2D6.

The target numbers you need to roll for success go in steps of 4 points (Simple = 3+, Routine = 7+, Difficult = 11+, Formidable = 15+) so a change of one difficulty level is usually more significant than the stat bonuses which most characters will add. In effect, a character's personal abilities are almost completely irrelevant to the success or failure of a task he's attempting.

The task resolution system does have some very good ideas in it. There is a standard system of useful task descriptions, like safe (failure will not result in a mishap), fateful (failure will always result in a mishap) and uncertain (outcome is largely opinion). It's good to just be able to apply one of these standard terms to a task. If a task fails but can be tried again, the character must roll to stay determined or the task gets more difficult as he gives up the will to go on. Every task that's not instant has a time increment listed, and takes 3D6 time increments of game time to complete before the dice are rolled to determine success. Hasty tasks have 1 level more difficulty but take half the time; cautious tasks are one level easier but take twice the time. All these things are great ideas, and I wish more RPG rules systems used them.

CHARACTER CREATION

Now this is a big smelly can of worms. More than anything else, the charcater creation system is based on good ideas that could have worked really well, but they've been done in a completely cack-handed way that leads unto woe and ruination.

A Note on Gender and Race: Nowhere in these rules is there a specific requirement established that any character (player or non-player) be of a specific gender or race. Any character is potentially of any race and either sex.
- Introduction to Characters chapter, MegaTTraveller Players' Manual

When I first read these words, I took them to mean that a player character may be of any species described in the rules. The word race is commonly used for non-human aliens; for instance, the Imperial Encyclopedia's definition of Major Race lists both human and non-human races. But once I read the charcater creation rules it became clear that they were intended for creating only human characters, although this is not explicitly stated anywhere. This is a typical example of the unclear writing that mars all of the MegaTraveller rulebooks.

First you roll up six primary stats on 2D6: Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing. Education clearly has a major component of technical ability: rolls for technical skills are made using Education, not Intelligence.

You also choose or roll randomly for you Homeworld. This is not necessarily the world you grew up on, but the world you now (ie. at the end of charcater creation) regard as your permanent home. This will have a big effect on your character's development, even though you might only have moved there a week ago.

Clearly the 2D6 roll for Int is not representative of the normal spread of human ability levels. In reality, less than 1% of humans have genius-level intelligence, and less than 1% have learning difficulties. In MegaTraveller, when you first roll up your character, he has a 17% chance of starting as a genius (Int 10-12) and a 28% chance of staring with learning difficulties (Int 2-5). Now I don't know about you, but I have no interest in playing a game about playing mentally retarded spacemen. What possessed Marc Miller to write a game where more than one in four starting PCs is mentally retarded? I just can't understand it. This could equally be said for the other primary stats (except Social Standing). I don't want to play characters who are physically disabled. This is a problem shared by many RPGs: they let you roll up a cripple and force you to play him.

This gives you a character at the age of 18. He then enters a career. He may try to volunteer for a career, and if he fails to get in then he will be drafted into one of the services. The character creation system then follows his career through a number of 4-year terms of service. During these terms of service, the character gets to make all sorts of rolls for gaining skills and rank, and at the end of it he rolls to see what he's ended up with in life in terms of money and possessions. This then gives a character who has just finished his first career and is now looking to start something new.

All that sounds great, and it's a good set of concepts, but as always it's been done in a ridiculous and ill-thought-out way.

Career entry world restrictions. Most of the careers have an entry restriction based on the type of world that the character 'comes from'. But in character creation we don't determine what type of world a character comes from (ie. where he grew up), only his homeworld (ie. where he now regards as home).

So which of these does Miller mean?

(A) The character's homeworld is assumed to be where he was living at the age of 18 (even though the rules specifically say this is untrue), and this affects what career he can enter. This certainly seems to be implied in the rule that the draft ignores what this specific rule calls the character's 'homeworld restrictions'.

(B) Miller is misusing language and when he says a character 'comes from' a world he really means the character's current homeworld. A character leaving a certain career would naturally end up living on a world within certain specifications; so a Hunter would only end up living on a world with game to hunt, and a Pirate would only end up living on a world with a tech code of Early Stellar+, but this does not mean that the character has lived there all his life. It makes sense, but then why are draftees excepted?

I suspect that the whole concept of the character's homeworld has been ill thought out, and different rules seem to rely variously on (A) and (B) to make sense. Effectively, the only way to make rational sense of these rules is to take it that they assume that the character has spent his whole life with the same homeworld. Once you do that, all the restrictions make complete sense. But the rules specifically state that this is not true.

Default skills. A character gains a set of default skills dependent on the world he 'comes from'. Again, we have to ask if this is the same as homeworld. Unfortunately the rules do not specify when during the character creation process he gains these skills, which seem to have been left out of the worked example of character creation and out of the character creation flowchart. I have always assumed that these skills are gained at the age of 18, implying that the homeworld is the same world on which the character grew up.

Levels of primary stats. You would think that high Intelligence, high Social Standing, and growing up on a high-tech world would give a character a high chance of getting a good education. But this is not so: these factors have no effect. I can roll up a Baron (Soc 12) with high-genius intelligence (Int 12) who grows up on the most technologically advanced world in the Imperium, and still he can start with minimum Education. Conversely, someone with severe learning difficulties (Int 2) can grow up on a stone age world and still end up with Edu 12, giving him a naturally high ability to use technology. This is utterly senseless. You would also expect that on high-tech worlds, medical enhancements would routinely be used to boost the stats of those born too far below average (stats of 5 or below).

Equally, it's hard to see how a character could have maximum Strength and minimum Endurance: what type of physique could produce that? Of course, many other RPGs are guilty of the same stupidity.

Primary stats and career entry. At age 18, characters try to gain entry in the career of their choice. To get in you must succeed in a 2D6 throw with a target number. You gain bonuses for high stats, but there is no penalty for low stats. This means you can get into the military or law enforcement even though you're physically disabled, or become a scientist with minimum Int and Edu. This is utterly ridiculous.

Survival. The rules say, '...during each term, a character must successfully throw the career's survival number or better to avoid injury in the line of duty... Failure to successfully achieve the survival throw forces the character to leave the service after having served only two years of the four-year term.' What on earth is the sense in this? If a character gets injured in the line of duty, why does he have to leave? He doesn't lose any points of his stats from the injury, so clearly his is not discharged on medical grounds. Why isn't he just treated and then returned to service?

And why are the chances of injury so high for non-combat careers? A Scientist with Education 8 or less has a 17% of being injured in the line of duty, but with Edu 9+ this drops to 3%. These numbers make no sense at all.

It could be that the answer is that the description in the rules is a lie, and these numbers really represent the chances of just losing your job. The survival roll for Scientists then makes more sense, because scientists with lower Edu will be less valued and so more likely to be laid off. But this is unlikely to be the true reason, because at the end of your term you have to make a re-enlistment roll, so the possibility of losing your job is already covered by another roll.

Skill acquirement. During each term of service you gain a number of skill points. For each point you then choose one of four tables to roll on, though the fourth is only available to charcaters with Edu 8+. Some results give you a primary stat increase rather than a skill. Scientists can only gain scientific skills from Table 4, so if you create a Scientist with low Edu you will never be able to acquire any scientific skills. Does that make sense?

To destruct-test the character creation system I deliberately abused it. I decided to use the Scientist career to create a combat character. All the skill acquirement rolls I chose to put into Table 1 (which tends to give physical improvements) and Table 2 (which tends to give combat skills. The character did four terms of service and got the following skills from the skill acquirement rolls:

+2 Dex, Carousing, Communications, Energy Weapons, Gravitics, Jack-of-all-trades, Laser Weapons, Leader, Rifleman, Ship's Boat, Small Blade, Stealth, Submachinegun, Survival, Vacc Suit.

Now that looks more like the skill list of a special forces commando than a scientist. He's agile, with stealth and survival skills for infiltration, he's skilled with almost every kind of personal weapon known to the military, and he's fairly handy with the technology as well - he can pilot a ship's boat, spacewalk and operate space comms, use and fix gravitics and have a crack a fixing most technology (Jack-of-all trades). This is a gun-bunny that any power gamer would be proud to play. Any character creation system that allows a scientist character to be turned into this monstrosity is clearly not working.

HOW IT SHOULD WORK

The MegaTraveller character creation system is quite complicated and involved, yet the results it produces are utter shite. Here's how it should work.

1. Determine the world on which the character grows up. There should also be the option of growing up on a spaceship, not a world.

2. Roll Str, End, Dex, Int and Soc. These should not be able to produce characters with severe disabilities.

3. Determine the character's chance of gaining medical enhancement during childhood. The chance of this should be based on the world tech level, with bonuses for Social Standing and need (lower stats mean greater need).

4. Determine Education. There are bonuses for world tech level, Intelligence and Social Standing.

5. At age 18, the character gains default skills based on the world he's been living on.

6. At age 18, determine whether the character gets into his career of choice. Each career should have minimum requirements which the character must live up to. Higher stats will give bonuses.

7. If the character fails to get into his career of choice, he is drafted. Again, he must live up to minimum entrance requirements.

8. At the start of each term of service, determine what world or spaceship type the character is based on. He may gain default skills for that enviromnent.

9. In each term of service in his career, the character has a chance of being injured (unless he is in a non-violent career like Scientist). If he is injured, roll for permanent damage to his stats. If he is permanently injured, roll for medical correction being supplied at the expense of the service. If, after this, the character no longer lives up to the minimum entry requirements of the service, he is medically discharged.

That would be no more complicated than the rules in MegaTraveller, but it would make a hell of a lot more snese.





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