Monday, June 13, 2011

Sigils and Traveller

As I've enthused elsewhere on the Internet, I recently picked up the original three Traveller LBBs at my FLGS for six bucks inclusive, and it's been a real psionic blast from the past. I have a lot of nostalgia for Traveller, but in all honest I don't think I ever actually played it. I didn't have a lot of people to play with back in 1980 or whatever, and my little group in elementary school was mostly about D&D and Tunnels & Trolls, with Top Secret added sometime in junior high. By then, I think Traveller was mostly forgotten, although we did squeeze in a little Star Frontiers, so it's not like sci-fi or space opera was totally unappealing to us. (How could it be? We're the Star Wars generation, man.)

At any rate, the thing I do remember doing with Traveller was rolling up characters. Like the AD&D DMG, those Traveller books weren't written for my demographic -- but unlike Gygax's work, Traveller's text was almost as hard as its sci-fi: dry and didactic. Gygax loved fancy words, and my vocabulary expanded quite a bit with AD&D, but Traveller's more... impersonal. Like, "Let's just get through this so you can play." The charm is in the content, not the presentation.

So as I rolled up characters the other night -- some of whom, yes, died in chargen, but nobody ever said exploring with the Scouts was going to be easy -- I recalled a recent couple threads on RPG.net about doing a fantasy version of Traveller. This, of course, is right up my alley. So I looked around, found Adventurer and Mercator, and found that they had things pretty well in hand. But it also occurred to me that in terms of the thing I love so much about Traveller -- the random chargen -- Sigils is, like, 80% there. It's all about the random chargen. Instead of doing another fantasy Traveller, I'm Travellering up Sigils.

Looking at what I have now, I'm keeping the Cultures, but I'm divorcing them from the Backgrounds. It used to be that the only way to have a Background as, say, a Sorcerer was to come from the Decadent South. No more. Now the Backgrounds are in six categories -- Authority, Commerce, Crime, Learning, War, and Wild -- each of which contains four Backgrounds. Three of these can be chosen at will; the fourth has a pre-requisite, like a stat minimum or previous Backgrounds. (This is analogous to how Traveller keeps certain skills requiring advanced training behind a wall of elitism.) Each category also requires a 2d6 roll to access it. If you don't beat the target number, you can't get in, but you can roll for something else. If you don't beat the target number on that roll, well... I'll get to that in a bit.

Your Culture affects your chances of opening these categories. If you're from the Frozen North, for example, it's a lot easier for you to go into War than Learning, just as it's easier for someone from a Great City to go into Commerce instead of the Wild. It's not that you can't have those Backgrounds -- it's just that it doesn't come easily to you, and you may not find the opportunity in life to become a scholar or a shaman or get into a guild or what have you.

Assuming you beat the category's target number, you choose the Background, but you roll 1d6 for the Specialty it gives you, just as in Traveller. (Hey, it ain't broke.) Different Backgrounds within the same category are thematically related, but give you different odds for getting a particular Specialty. For example, if you want a fighter-type who's very focused on weapon skills, go for Soldier over Mercenary. Soldiers are more focused on that sort of thing, whereas the wandering life of a Mercenary gives you a potentially broader skillset. Almost all the Backgrounds only dole out Specialties, but some can give you a Resource, such as a Wealth Level or a Contact Level. The "elite" Background in each category almost always does this, sometimes two such Resources at a time.

All of this occurs in five phases; each phase you roll for a Background (or roll for a second, if you don't get the first, or...), and give yourself an aspect. If you succeed at your first-choice category, the aspect is a Quality -- a favorable aspect. If you fail to enter that category, you get a Challenge instead, or an aspect that is almost totally "negative" in nature: a weakness, a personal failing, an enemy, or the like. Both Qualities and Challenges can be invoked and compelled. They only differ in terms of the Challenge's enforced unfavorable flavor. Of course, you don't have to go a full five phases -- you can leave a couple aspect slots blank, and fill them in later, but that also means you start with fewer Specialties and Resources. Why on Yrth would you do that, you ask?

As alluded to earlier, probably the most famous bit of old-school Traveller chargen was the possibility of dying during it. I'm not going quite that far, but I'm keeping the vibe. Death-by-chargen isn't just cruel -- it serves a purpose. In Traveller, two things discourage you from going a full eight terms and racking up a ton of skills and other benefits: age-dependent stat degradations, which get worse the older you get, and the risk of dying during a term of service. I'm not so concerned about age. Sword-and-sorcery characters are old or young as the story demands. If you roll up a guy with a low Strength and Coordination, feel free to say he's old -- or weak and clumsy. Whatever. No, there has to be an analogue for dying, a potential consequence for constantly testing your luck in the world and starting out with a more experienced character, and that analogue is Servitude.

If you fail two Background checks in a single phase, you end up in Servitude for that phase. You're captured by slavers, or arrested on charges real or falsified, or forced into indentured service, or overthrown by your social inferiors and made to work the mines. You figure it out.

Being in Servitude sucks. You roll for your Specialty, just as you would with any other Background, but odds are good -- one in two -- that you won't like the result. Sure, there's a chance your enslavement could make you stronger or slightly more worldly, but it's just as likely that you'll emerge from it penniless and broken. In fact, you could end up so broken that you aren't fit for a life of adventure, in which case you roll up a new guy. That's right. You aren't dead, per se, but you wish you were.

What are the odds of this happening? Pretty low. First, you have to fail two Background checks, then you have a one-in-six chance of getting a -1 to your Willpower. If your Willpower is reduced to zero, you've lost your ambition, hope, thirst for vengeance, or whatever it is that drives you. You have to keep ending up in Servitude (getting out requires a roll, as opposed to rolling to get in) and keep rolling that result. All that considered, this probably will not happen to your character.

But it could.

I've only rolled up a few characters using this method, but right off the bat the results indicate much more in terms of backstory and personality than the old method did. I'm very pleased with it. Yeah, it's a little more rolling, but it's also much more interesting, so that's a fair trade-off in my mind. When I have it in better shape, I'll update the PDF and post it. I've gotten some interest in it lately, so I know at least a few people out there will care about that.

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