Monday, November 14, 2011

The Journey

Travel was emphasized in the original book, which inspired the original games. The other games were based on the first games, with details changed. So why is travel so frequently de-emphasized in the games? And what can we do to re-integrate it into our games?

It's a Long Way, Itinerary

The central point of this Wall O' Text is a critical look at The One Ring, the latest rendering of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary works in RPG form, which was created by Sophisticated Games and published through Cubicle 7. And a review of that will be forthcoming.

But not yet. We won't be staying on The One Ring for long. No, we've got a lot of ground to cover and a lot of sights to see. Watch your step as you enter the tour bus, as those exhaust manifolds hang kind of low over the passenger door.

Okay, everybody strapped in? Then hang onto your lunch, I'm hitting the Ignition button.

The Bug I Want To Put in Your Ear

Yeah, I'm not writing a full review here, but I will tell you why it at least deserves your attention.

The One Ring is based on Tolkien's works. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are covered, and the game's setting as presented in those books is nestled comfortably between those two events. Between the fall of Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies, and the rise of Sauron as a power in Mordor, there is a time of relative peace. Note that I said relative peace; darkness and corruption still haunt the lands in small pockets, and their effects have a way of rippling outwards. So obviously the world needs adventurers.

The interesting point, the exception that highlights the rule as it exists in other games, is how the game handles travel. The One Ring considers the means of transport (especially how fast it is), the seasons, and the terrain, in how frequently you have to check for things like Fatigue and hazards on the road. The "darkness" or "lightness" of the land affects how easy or hard that Fatigue check is, and things like Fatigue or Misery can have adverse effects on the group's well-being, like wearing them out before an eventual ambush or making them so Miserable that some of them go temporarily mad.

Thus, occasional stops are needed to help travelers to regain their constitution and restore their wills. The game encourages the fleshing out of these stops, whatever festivals and events they may have, and make them memorable enough that the players will (hopefully) remember the place fondly on the way back, or curse it with a seething rage, whichever is appropriate.

The key takeaway here is that The One Ring takes the journey at least as seriously as the sudden stop at the end. Meanwhile, how does what you play treat travel?

But perhaps I should highlight the contrast between extremes:

My favorite whipping boy for this topic... notDungeons & Dragons, interestingly. Sure, that one has an annoying way of boiling down travel to a number of nigh-unavoidable set-piece encounters and roadside ambushes, but there is at least a sense of travel between locales, and the opportunity to flesh out each stop with evocative (or florid) detail.

No, my signal honor for games which seem to actively discourage interesting details in travel is, ironically, Traveller.

Come for the space tourism, stay for the 1980s BBS game

Depending how old you are, you might either not remember that far back, or you never had the opportunity to remember it in the first place. Trade Wars was a game of buying and selling goods across vast interstellar distances, of establishing trade routes, and of making one's fortune buying things where they're in embarrassing abundance, and selling them where they're desperately needed. I won't go into more detail beyond that; for one, the link I provided goes to the article on Wikipedia, where you can read more. And second, I've established enough of the picture that you should be able to figure out what it's got to do with Traveller.

The original rules (of Traveller I mean, not Trade Wars) were written to encompass adventuring in all environments to at least some degree: land, sea, air, shipboard, hard vacuum, and a number of different atmospheric compositions beyond that. One of the original three books came up with a system of "planetary attributes," what they meant, and how they could be extrapolated out into a world ripe with the potential for conflict and encounters.

The serpent in this otherwise idyllic setting? The Spinward Marches. The quintessential trade-paperback-sized book of sector maps featured little more than hex grids showing common jump routes between systems, and the stats and features of the dominant planet in each system. Yes, enterprising GMs had free reign to flesh out each planet however they saw fit, and could even have multiple occupied planets in a single solar system. Unfortunately, some GMs didn't exactly enterprise. I've seen games which have boiled down to searching for goods that might be sale-able, buying or otherwise acquiring them, going to another world, and selling them there. If this sounds familiar, scroll up three paragraphs.

To add insult to injury? Jumpspace, the means by which a ship weighing hundreds of tons could be flung a baker's dozen light years in a single week, has been described by certain sources as "a grey void." There's nothing to see out there, and if you stare out into it too long, you go mad. So they opaque the windows. Nothing to see; please move along. Enjoy being packed like sardines with your friends for the next seven days.

To add further insult to insult heaped upon injury? Starports were described mostly in function, less in aesthetic. Except for the letter designation of the starport describing its quality level, those buggers could look awfully similar. Awfully similar.

So, a game where you can spend a week at a time looking at nothing in particular, only to get to yet another cookie-cutter starport, hit the bar, look for someone to sell stuff to, look for someone to buy cargo from, move cargo around, and repeat? If you're spending a day on the non-jump portions, you're spending 87.5% of your time staring at shipmates and blacked-out windows. The remaining 12.5% of the time, you're staring at industry standard starports.

That's not how the good games of Traveller run, but this is the pitfall that they've created, into which some groups have fallen without so much as a peep of protest. It may technically be travel, but it's such an unsatisfying take on it that it seems more of a bug than a feature.

And Why You Might Not Have Noticed

If you're in the same general location all the time, or travel is fast enough, you're not going to notice that travel is boring because it almost always passes too quickly for anything sufficiently, gameably bad to happen.

Pick a contemporary game. For example, let's go with an espionage theme. You're always going to be on Earth, so no gallivanting between planets. If you're moving around on the surface, there are roads, aircraft, and other means of getting around that can reduce travel times to a single day—hardly enough time for something to go wrong, at least by The One Ring's standards.

And that's why you wouldn't notice. When trips are so short, standard, and sterilized, travel fades to irrelevance. If the transit between scenes has to become a scene itself, it'll likely become a set-piece encounter, an unscheduled stop which has to be dealt with before the trip can continue. The stop becomes a set-piece ambush, planned by someone else.

Making Travel Exciting Again

Can the ideal of travel espoused by The One Ring be properly applied to other games? It won't always fit for reasons I mention above, but for particularly long trips, the exhausting effects of travel might make a pleasant change from the standard encounter structure.

House → car → airport → airplane → airport → car → accommodation is what a lot of travel in contemporary games boils down to: you catch a ride to an airport and fly to a different city where you've arranged for a car and a room somewhere, even if you're only couch-surfing.

But what if the destination is a little more out of the way? Consider the slightly more involved house → car → airport → airplane → airfield → car → lodge → alpaca → mountain pass → hike → temple. Not just more steps, meaning more opportunities for missed connections and mishaps, but more esoteric means of transport, more opportunities to deal with strange people with their peculiar foreign ways, and more ways for the globetrotting adventurer's nerves to be worn to a dull nub before a climactic battle at the destination. The journey could itself become another hazard on the way to the target.

(Disclaimer: I have nothing against alpacas. I'm sure that in their natural habitat, they're lovely creatures.)

Even in "civilized" space, the standard formula might apply. Consider another variant, the house → car → airport → airplane → airport → shuttle because you arrive in one city at one airport and for some perverse reason the next flight which goes where you're going is at another airport → airport → airplane → car but they didn't reserve the right car for you because [$major_sports_event] has depleted their fleet → small town → hotel which is cramped, dirty, and not at all like the pictures they showed on

I dunno, those sound kinda like set-piece encounters

In The One Ring, those kinds of troubles only pop up when someone in the fellowship misses one of those regular tests. They indicate that someone dropped the ball, either not securing enough supplies or not finding enough food, or misreading the map, or something else. It's not exactly a set-piece encounter because careful navigating and managing the loose ends during the trip makes them go away.

Upshot: They're not encounters, they're the results of poor planning. If they're on an encounter table somewhere, it's because they were put there specifically to pop up when someone's poor planning got the better of them.

Another thing they come up with sometimes are encounters that don't necessarily have to turn hostile. Some games may look at these potential non-events with a sneer, but it's actually kind of rare that a simple diplomatic failure leads immediately to weapons being drawn. That just doesn't happen in real life unless the people being dealt with were hairpins to begin with. Feathers ruffle, feathers can be smoothed down. It's how a seasoned traveler would handle the matter.

Making Travelers Miserable

How your game handles things like Fatigue and Misery, I have no idea; I don't know what you're playing. You might have something that fills that role, so check your rules. If you don't, there are other ways to simulate it.

Travel can mean luggage, and luggage can be lost. Items in luggage can be stolen or damaged. Or something might not have been packed in the first place. (A failure at the start of the trip might not be discovered until the very end.)

If it's a game that includes psychological components, some of them might become exacerbated by the stress of the trip. People fully content to leave on the trip might find their worries about loved ones at home, hazards to come, or other concerns at the backs of their minds suddenly and inexplicably pushing their way to the forefront.

Again, I stress that the idea is not to take them out with the hazards of travel, just to wear them down and nudge them out of form to the point that whatever battle at the end is more challenging. Unless, of course, you're running that kind of game, in which case all I'll say is "don't." Or, unless the players going on this trip screwed the pooch that badly in the planning phase, in which case I say "let the anvils fall where they may."

Now, to fix that bastard with the two Ls...

Don't get me wrong. I have played Traveller in the past, and have liked it. That's not to say most peoples' experience with it can't be improved, especially in light of its re-release at the hands of Mongoose Publishing.

Flesh Out The Damn Planets!

I can't stress this enough. The UPP code which describes the planets on the map only applies to the dominant world, and a dozen different planets with the same essential UPP will have a dozen different cultures, a dozen different styles, and likely hundreds of different hazards. If you travel between three such worlds with identical stats and don't see much of a difference, it's either because you're not looking hard enough or the GM isn't presenting the notion of different planets well enough. Demand better.

Note: There might be more than one habitable planet

Each set of UPP stats represents the dominant planet in a solar system. It's likely that there will be facilities of some sort on other planets, floating stations, etc. It's entirely possible that different planets within the same solar system will have their own flavors beyond different sizes, hydrographics, and atmosphere.

Style Pervades

Whatever's going on in the given solar system, it'll get everywhere. Elements of design, artistic movements, and political friction will pervade the countryside outside the starport, sure, but it'll also get into the starport itself and into the space above each planet. If two starports look identical, even on the same planet, again someone's being either thick or lazy.

100 Planetary Diameters of Additional Travel

There's this other thing established in the rules of the Jump Drive: gravity wells play merry havoc with their calibration and operation. A jump too close to a planet will likely not go where it's intended, and given how much space there is between star systems, there's a chance that the misjump may never be seen again.

So when a group of player characters arrives "in-system," they're arriving quite a distance out. What will they find on the way in? If the answer is "nothing," please refer to my thick/lazy comment yet again.

Coax Them Out Of Their Shells!

Sure, it might be possible to rustle up some trade if you never leave that bar at the front of the starport, but clever starfarers know that to get the really sweet trade deals, you have to leave the starport's austere confines and get yourself dirty in whatever culture lies outside.

At least, that's what I plan to tell my players next time I run this, and if you're thinking of running a game of this, you should too.

The One Traveller

Then work in the notes I wrote above, about travel being as smooth as the planning ability of the travellers (note: two Ls). While it might be fun to embroil the PCs in a piracy action between two other ships, it'd be more realistic for someone to make a Sensors test, spot the difficulty, and then plot a course well clear of it. Again, there's that theme of avoiding trouble with a little bit of foresight.

Other skills which might head off troubles of this sort include Astrogation, Comms, and Engineer. Yes, it means that sometimes the players might be avoiding troubles laid out for them, but it's also sensible. A good traveler can get out of any trouble laid before him. A great traveler can avoid it in the first place.

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