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💯 {Staff Pick} Some Stuff about Classic Traveller

CK!

Creator of Things
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I think some referees fall into a trap. They want their players to work problems and so they present the problem, and only after the players didn't ask the right questions or respond to the right cues...
So, we all Referee different ways. (And I should add, I at least, Referee different games different ways. The rules of Classic Traveller and Burning Wheel and Runequest are all utterly different, and I'm going to bring utterly different sets of Referee techniques and styles to each game, because each game demands different Referee techniques and styles.)

We all, also, run games differently, because we have things we like and don't like about different kinds of play. Which makes us oppinionated. Because we have preferences. So in my statements below, I'll be showing my preferences for certain kinds of play and playstyles. Because some I like and some make my teeth grind.

***

A few years ago I realized that if the Referee (GM/DM/What have you) is depending on the Players to read his mind then the game will probably go south and the fun will bleed out. Because people can't read the Referee's mind and so failure is pre-determined.

When I read posts on this thread from various people talking about the need to "ask the right questions or get shafted" I see that as asking the Players to be able to read the Referee's mind. And I think that is a bad idea.

Now, I may be misreading what people mean by this in application. Several times now I have posted a reply to some style or technique a Referee uses in an example in a post, only to be told, "Well, it really isn't like that" or whatever. And if I am misreading the examples presented so far in this thread I apologize. Really. It's the internet. I'm doing the best I can. But communication often falters. Especially with examples of play about something so ephemeral as RPG play. But I am doing the best I can, and replying in good faith. But I suspect the conversation will continue to fray.

In any case:

As a Referee I never assume there is one right solution to any problem
I never assume there is one path to survival or success
I never assume there are the correct questions that must be asked or information found to survive

What I do assume that it is my job to place obstacles and opportunities before the players and let them sort out as best they want any actions they want to take, often without die rolls, through conversation, impartially adjudicate to the best of my abilities the results and fallout of those actions, and turn to die rolls in moments of crisis or uncertainty to see how things will turn out.

I also assume that the Players are portraying characters many leagues removed from their actual characters. The Players have lives and and concerns that take up their lives six days and 19 hours when we are not playing the game, and to expect them to jump into the point-of-view of their characters as if they are actually alive in their characters is insane. I also know that both the Players and myself (as Referee) have a gajillion facts and details of reality we have yet to establish in any instance of play and that has to be sorted out as we go.

Example:

If a PC sees, through binoculars, canisters of a new nerve agent on an invaiding marine base, will he recognize the symbol? We have never need to determine this before, I had no idea they were even going to go investigate the base till 25 minutes of game time before, and perhaps I didn't even know the marines would be invading till an hour of game time before. I literally have never given this a moment's thought. And yet there are the PCs are, on a ridge, having successfully killed off several marine sentries, staring down a base that is being set up. I start describing details and it occurs to me they might see the canisters. I make a roll. The PCs see the canisters! The canisters have marking on them. It is a new nerve agent that the PCs have never seen before. Can the PCs intuit what the canisters contain. (I should point out now in this hypothetical example that the PCs chose NOT to go to a moon in the Xandor system and investigate the PyrCorp factory facility which, if they had infiltrated it successfully, would have been a treasure-trove-infodump about all this stuff. Their actions lead to information or not information, not asking questions.)

So... they see the symbols. What do the PCs get from this. I, as the Referee, need to make up details about the setting now. This is my job. It is time to do it.

We begin by building what has already been established: Did any of the PCs serve in the military forces they are now spying upon? If so any former marines will probably notice, even if they don't recognize the symbols of the specific contents, that this stuff is being handled by a bio-weapon team. Former Army and Merchants might have less of a chance. Someone from Other who established his PC worked in counter-terrorism might well know.

All I am doing here is fresh world building. I am thinking through how the military works (I have decided the Marines have a separate bioweaons unit) and what different PCs might know with that reality in place. Also, depending on the background and history of the PC as already established, a PC with a high INT or EDU might well know something.

No roll is required if I decide one of the PCs will recognize the province of the canisters. But let us say I'm not sure. I might make a roll to let them know. I will do this if the Players ask about the canisters (which they most certainly will, since I pointed it out) or even if they don't, because the Players are not the PCs and my job is to provide the interface between the Players and the World. If I am not doing this on behalf of the PCs then I am not, in my view, doing my job as Referee.

Now, let us assume the PCs never went to investigate the base. They arrive on a planet. Do they know war is imminent or not? Do they know bioweaons are a possible threat? Are they bringing their suits with them? (Going back to an example many posts back.) Well, the answer to the second question will certainly be affected by the first two question.

If the PCs both know that war might occur and bioweaons will come into play, when the Players get off the ship, I am going to say out loud, "Do you guys bring your suits?" Because, again, I'm not expecting the Players to be so alive in the PCs that every little detail -- that might have been mentioned, for example, two sessions ago and not brought up again -- is floating around in the head of the Players. Because... reality.

But let us assume the Players don't know about the potential war or the potential use of bioweaons and they have no reason to to bring their suits. I will still probably ask. I want them to make choices with as much information as possible. Leaving your ship requires operating procedures to be established. Have they established them? I don't know yet and neither do the players. So we ask questions, we have conversations, to establish this stuff. "Is there any reason to think we'll need them?" the players might ask. And I would say, "Nope." And they might say, "Okay, we leave the suits in the ship."

But here is what I am not going to do: when the bioweaons is released, I'm not going to say, "Okay, anyone not in a suit dies." Because such a move by a Referee is boring. The release of a bioweapon is an OPPORTUNITY for play. It is, in Apocaliypse World, a move. (Not working from the same rules, mind you, but the same concept.) If I simply kill the players because they made a decision 40 minutes of real time earlier and die immediately from it with no chance to take action, then that is no different to me than "Rocks Fall. You Die."

What I care about as a Referee, what I am excited about, as that the Players did not have their PCs take certain actions that would lead to them knowing more and being better prepared. And now the hammer falls and I cannot wait to see what they are going to do. I am not going to KILL THEM because they didn't ask the right questions or make choices that could have helped them. I am going to say, "You get word over the city's broadcast system: the city is being invaded, and a poisonous cloud is moving south. You are trapped out in the open without protective suits. What do you do?" Becaue how they Players/PCs respond to the problem is what I care about. Things could have gone much better for them if they had chosen different paths, but now they are on this path, and now we find out what is next.

And yes, they will ask questions, "Is there a shelter nearby?" "How far is the space port?" "Is there an air/raft we can steal in sight?" And I'll answer questions. But not one of these questions is the "right" question. It will only lead to more Opportuntiies and Obstacles -- which is more fun.

They will, of course, reach points where they might die. Rolls will most likely be called for as they jury-rig breathing apparatuses or whatever on the fly. These are in the tradition of saving throws. The PCs might end up on the brink of death and we'll let the dice decide.

But simply say, "You said the wrong thing forty minutes ago. You're dead." Not for me.

And when I say "The Referee decicedes what the PCs know by deciding..." all of the above is examples of this.

The same holds true if the PCs land on the planet of Ambergris (thank you Jeff Vandermeer!) which has a Festival of the Squid every year that turns improbly bloody. I might withhold all information about the festival from the PCs if, in my World Building, I decide the PCs (because of established circuctmances) would not know about it. This isn't to punish players or to bring them closer to death or to laugh at them later. It is beacuse exploring new places and having to figure things out (and failing to figure things out) is part of what original Traveller is all about.

But I'm not simply going to say, "Oh, the festival becomes bloody. Rocks fall. You die."

The will arrive on the planet. Preparations for the festival will be underway. The PCs will see this. They will either ask about the festival or not. Either way is fine. If they do, they might find out about the planet's bloody history of colonization. How the humans who landed here drove the indigenous and sentient fungi special underground as they took over their city. About the history of wars between the humans and fungi creatures that lasted generations and that led to the city's population of humans vanishing en masse a hundred years ago, and only now re-populated again.

They might find out more: about the the way the mushrooms of the planet have all sorts of mind-altering powers and such, about how their was a civil war where humans attacked humans. Or they might not. And that will be fine too! Becaue they PCs might be busy with other things, not paying attention to the festival as I describe preparations continuing, and then the beatiful festival beginning. I'll still be sprinkling clues as I go, about the history of the world and so on. And even if the PCs never ask questions about them or follow up, all is fine...

Because at some point the bloodshed will begin. And it will not be me saying, "And you're all dead." It wil be, "You come across a square where dozens of celebrantas have been strung up by the neck. A few blocks away you hear dozens of people screaming." And now the PCs choose what to do. Do they flee? Finish the mission despite the growing danger? Decide to investigate further? All fo this is fair game.

And it all works with excactly how I have been describing playing original Traveller, with the use of all the information on the character sheet to inform how I feed information (or do not), how rolls are made, and how the rules work just fine as they are with limited skills on the sheet and an impartial Referee providing obstacle and opportunities for the PCs to deal with or pursue.

There are no "right questions," no "right cues" to pick up on, and no pre-determined results for not asking the right questions. Information and knowledge, while helpful, are not the most valuable coin in the realm, but rather choices and actions are. As Referee the interface between the world and the PCs is my department. But what I care about, what I love to watch, is how the Players make their choices and take actions. I'll do as little as I can to rob them of the opportunities to do both of those things.
 
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seanairt

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Validated User
There's a series of older articles at The Alexandrian on node based adventure design that I am reminded of. The first three entries are mostly setting up the problem statement with regard to plot-based design, then by part 4 he starts getting into the actual node-based approach.

When I read about players suffering the consequence of not reading the GM's mind, I think about the clues that are frequently mentioned in that article, and how a campaign can come to a crashing halt when players fail to find that clue.

Anyway, check it out.
 

ffilz

Registered User
Validated User
So, we all Referee different ways. (And I should add, I at least, Referee different games different ways. The rules of Classic Traveller and Burning Wheel and Runequest are all utterly different, and I'm going to bring utterly different sets of Referee techniques and styles to each game, because each game demands different Referee techniques and styles.)

We all, also, run games differently, because we have things we like and don't like about different kinds of play. Which makes us oppinionated. Because we have preferences. So in my statements below, I'll be showing my preferences for certain kinds of play and playstyles. Because some I like and some make my teeth grind.

***

A few years ago I realized that if the Referee (GM/DM/What have you) is depending on the Players to read his mind then the game will probably go south and the fun will bleed out. Because people can't read the Referee's mind and so failure is pre-determined.

....

There are no "right questions," no "right cues" to pick up on, and no pre-determined results for not asking the right questions. Information and knowledge, while helpful, are not the most valuable coin in the realm, but rather choices and actions are. As Referee the interface between the world and the PCs is my department. But what I care about, what I love to watch, is how the Players make their choices and take actions. I'll do as little as I can to rob them of the opportunities to do both of those things.
I like this philosophy. I think I try to GM something along these lines.

Thinking about the campaign I dropped out of and my three character deaths:

First one, I'm helping a noble test out his still under construction Yacht. We take it out for a spin and to test the fire control. The practice target we are shooting at is rigged and pirates dock and board. A few of us crew attempt to repel the boarders. My character goes down (not dead). GM informs me the pirates don't take prisoners. I dunno, this one felt a bit raw. At least my character did go down in combat. On the other hand, from what was shared, I really see no way my PC could have survived without just abandoning the noble when the pirates arrived (and tried hiding or something - the ship's engineer did survive, the pirates were only after the noble, who the did take hostage).

Second character death, we've rescued the noble from a station. Pirates arrive, we attempt to engage them. Our PC with a yacht takes the noble and runs and makes it out. The rest of us try and make a stand. GM did not remind us the pirates don't take prisoners, so no, we didn't look for extreme ways to try and save out butts. At this point, I'm pretty tired of these pirates...

Third character death, we're taking a train being an escort for some guru and his followers. A terrorist happens to be aboard. We were trying to watch things, but I guess we didn't ask the right questions. GM announces "kaboom, you're all dead." GM reveals afterward that if we had paid attention to him moving tokens on the virtual table top, we would have noticed he moved the terrorist after we all moved and seen the opportunity the terrorist had to plant the bomb (in the train car my PC was guarding, along with an NPC who was guarding his cargo - said NPC also died. GM asked the standard "please read my mind" question of "Is there anything else you want to do?" (two or three times). I think I would have given out more information, and if it really came down to it, at least presented the players with the ticking time bomb scenario.

Now I could see the GM thinking he ran in a style similar to Christopher, and maybe even other players would see it that way, or maybe other players would be ok with how information was doled out.

It also didn't help that other dynamics of the game, particularly the PC noble showing up every few game sessions and at least twice derailing the direction we were one. There also were other "gotcha" moments that just didn't happen to result in character deaths.

Frank
 

CK!

Creator of Things
Validated User
Frank, out of curiosity, did the Referee allow the players to have their PCs take action after the trap was triggered? We're rolls made at all? Or did he simply announce, "Pirates dock and board."

My guess is the latter. My guess is he wasn't interested in what the PCs might do, but rather had incidents in his head he wanted to drive to -- and the actions of the PCs would not be allowed to stop it because that a what he was playing for.

My guess is scenarios two and three ran the same way.

This is counter to my approach. Which can be summed up by two elements of the MC's Agendas, Always Say..., and Priniples from Apocalypse World:

Be a Fan of the Characters
Play to Find Out

In fact. I think AW is one of the best teaching texts written for refereeing games like OD&D, B/X D&D, and original Traveller.

I don't think your Referee was a fan of the characters, and I don't think he was playing to find out what would happen at all.
 

ffilz

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Validated User
Frank, out of curiosity, did the Referee allow the players to have their PCs take action after the trap was triggered? We're rolls made at all? Or did he simply announce, "Pirates dock and board."

My guess is the latter. My guess is he wasn't interested in what the PCs might do, but rather had incidents in his head he wanted to drive to -- and the actions of the PCs would not be allowed to stop it because that a what he was playing for.

My guess is scenarios two and three ran the same way.

This is counter to my approach. Which can be summed up by two elements of the MC's Agendas, Always Say..., and Priniples from Apocalypse World:

Be a Fan of the Characters
Play to Find Out

In fact. I think AW is one of the best teaching texts written for refereeing games like OD&D, B/X D&D, and original Traveller.

I don't think your Referee was a fan of the characters, and I don't think he was playing to find out what would happen at all.
In the first instance, I was the only player. I did get opportunities to act during the boarding. They came through an airlock that was defended by the noble's two security men. Shots were heard and they went down. My character and the steward and maybe one more NPC attempted to hold the pirates on the next deck. As far as I remember, there had been no sharing of pirate culture (and my PC was actually on loan to the noble from a former or maybe not so former pirate captain...). I'm honestly not sure what the GM's thinking was in setting up the situation, but as far as I can tell, the only thing that would have saved my PC is hiding out in the engine room so the pirates never bothered to look for me having found the noble (though honestly, given all the logic of the campaign, I'm not sure why the engineer was left alive - he later helped in rescuing the noble, so I don't think he was in cahoots with the pirates - though he ended up with ownership of the yacht).

The best I can guess is that the GM had a plan for the big picture but around that big picture is sort of a sandbox. I'm not sure how bendable his big picture was. Ultimately, I felt like I was along for a ride with the game at best driven by the other players. There were scheduling issues, I wasn't able to make it for the start of sessions (the GM wanted to start at 7:00 PM, I tended to make it between 7:15 and 7:45 depending on how well the kids 7:00 bedtime went. This was a Roll20/Google Hangouts game and most folks did not use video so almost no non-verbal communication. So yea, maybe not really a fan of the characters.

I think some GMs (and I'm not saying I've never fallen in the trap) run a sandbox with a rigid view of setting logic, so not quite a railroad, but still constrains the possible solutions combined with strict control of player knowledge, which is where the "read my mind" problem comes from. Some GMs of this type enjoy trapping the players. I didn't get that sense, though without the non-verbal communication, the GM could have been saying one thing (or rather not saying one thing - verbally sharing his glee at the PCs troubles) while body language could have revealed his glee at the PCs troubles. I sure have seen GMs who get all excited when the players fall for their traps.

In contrast, I have at least tried to be a fan of the PCs and when the players take some action, allow that it might work. Surrender to pirates? Why summarily execute? Why not leave the PCs an opportunity for escape or ransom?

Frank
 

CK!

Creator of Things
Validated User
I actually asked if you had a chance to take action or make rolls before the boarding. Clearly, the answer is no.

This meant he robbed you of the chance of the fun of coming up with schemes or trying ideas to escape or prevent the pirates from boarding. This isn't to say the plans or actions would work. But they might! And coming up with plans and taking action to avoid danger is part of the fun of play.

Someone could have made clever piloting rolls. Clever mechanical rolls to jam the airlock and so on. The NPCs could have made these rolls. The CT rules cover hireings, allowing NPCs on the PCs side to expand the party.

Why rob you of this? Why rob the session of this?

Second, it means (or strongly suggests) he had a set piece of the pirate boarding clearly in mind. In other words, there was no point in giving you a chance to escape or block the boarding. Nothing you could do was, in his mind, going to change this. And, again, I think this is a crappy way to Referee.

I think this is part of the segment of RPG culture that define encounters as "fights" and only knows how to move from set piece to set piece of violence. But that's not how original Traveller or early D&D was designed to work and I think it utterly blows up the mechanics and gameplay as designed.
 
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ffilz

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I actually asked if you had a chance to take action or make rolls before the boarding. Clearly, the answer is no.

This meant he robbed you of the chance of the fun of coming up with schemes or trying ideas to escape or prevent the pirates from boarding. This isn't to say the plans or actions would work. But they might! And coming up with plans and taking action to avoid danger is part of the fun of play.

Someone could have made clever piloting rolls. Clever mechanical rolls to jam the airlock and so on. The NPCs could have made these rolls. The CT rules cover hireings, allowing NPCs on the PCs side to expand the party.

Why rob you of this? Why rob the session of this?

Second, it means (or strongly suggests) he had a set piece of the pirate boarding clearly in mind. In other words, there was no point in giving you a chance to escape or block the boarding. Nothing you could do was, in his mind, going to change this. And, again, I think this is a crappy way to Referee.

I think this is part of the segment of RPG culture that define encounters as "fights" and only knows how to move from set piece to set piece of violence. But that's not how original Traveller or early D&D was designed to work and I think it utterly blows up the mechanics and gameplay as designed.
Oh, sorry, didn't fully comprehend the question. There might have been an opportunity to do something before the boarding, I don't remember the details. Some of the challenge with that situation I think is a challenge when the PCs are directly hirelings. The ship captain was an NPC, the noble was an NPC, the engineer was an NPC, the security detail were NPCs, the steward was an NPC. My character's role was a contractor taken on to test the fire control computer. Maybe there was some room for preventing the boarding, but if so, I had to come up with the idea not really knowing much about the setting or understanding how much influence I could exert.

My replacement character was much more fun to play. He hunted around for odd jobs, and ended up helping a woman deal with her uncle's company after the uncle and the business partner disappeared with all the cash. I found the uncle murdered in a shipping container and eventually chased down the partner. While I was working for the NPC, I was in charge of what I did. That deal all came crashing down when the player with the noble PC joined. A 2nd player had joined with a Scout, which gave me the ride to chase down the partner, so 2nd player joined in my quest - 3rd player hijacked the game with his own quest.

The campaign sort of looks like a sandbox, but getting information is challenging. Even when I was looking for odd jobs, the GM would offer them one at a time. No "here's a handful of job offers, pick one." In my campaigns, I've tried to give the players at least a few leads (not all job offers, some just plain rumors). I've also set up job offers that complement what they are doing. In one of my play by posts, the PCs partially took a job offer. Some guy wanted a container stolen and shipped off a war torn world. The PCs were loading their hold up with advanced bases to carry refugees, so didn't want to take the container (let alone steal it), but they offered they guy a ride. He ended up taking the ride. The whole refugee deal was initiated by a player, I worked out details to support the idea.

I think there are GMs out there that genuinely want to run a sandbox, but don't know how and haven't seen examples. I know I'm just learning how, but I read your posts and other blogs.

Frank
 

Anfelas

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While researching what the books say about the role of the referee and running the game I have just noticed a few more differences between CT editions.
LBB:1 page 2
The Scenario: Several players (supervised or not, as the situation dictates) embark on a journey or adventure together.
The bit in parenthesis is missing from 81 edition.

And on page 3:
The referee: <snip> He also acts as go-between when characters secretly or solitarily act against the world or their comrades.
 
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