Why is Traveller a classic? Part 4

19 Oct

Benjamin Knight – 7695A6 On sabbatical from Casandra University, xenobiology department, Age 38m, 5 terms 50,000 Cr
Jack-o-t-2 Medical-1 Engineer-1 Pilot-1 Navigation-1 Vacc suit-1 Blade-1, 4000 Cr/ year grant, dagger, Scout Ship

After looking at this character I actually started to despair of being able to put together a party. Sure he has a grant (pension) that pays his living expenses on a planet, but life support for a stateroom costs 1000 Cr per week. Considering that a scout ship has 3 free staterooms and 3 tons of cargo space, it seemed clear that Benjamin would have to occasionally carry passengers just to cover the cost of flying around in his ship. If he has to take passengers, then he can’t carry around the other two characters I’ve already made up.

But there was a house rule that we used back when I played this game with my friends. We ruled that scout ships were largely self sufficient. They were equipped to use unrefined fuel. It seemed a little silly that all starships weren’t equipped to use unrefined fuel. Separating oxygen from hydrogen is a high school science experiment. Anyone who went to 20th century high school should be able to make pure hydrogen out of mud with a few wires and beakers and a battery. Note that you need a battery or some other source of direct current. I remember one teacher when I was in school that performed electrolysis with alternating current, presumably because she couldn’t find the batteries so she just hooked up to the electrical outlet. Then for the big finale when she was supposed to show the hydrogen burning, the beaker had an even mix of hydrogen and oxygen so… it exploded. I don’t recall her being seriously hurt although she might have lost her eyebrows or something.

So I find it hard to imagine Benjamin saying, “We need to stop at a high-tech spaceport to purchase refined fuel for the fusion engines.”

I find it much easier to imagine Benjamin introducing Lief to the intricacies of restocking a starship.
Lief: What’s this?
Benjamin: It’s an asteroid.
Lief: I see that. Why is it in the cargo hold?
Benjamin: Because we need it. I’m waiting for it to melt right now.
Lief: Melt?
Benjamin: It’s mostly ice. You’d be surprised how much random space debris is just ice.
Lief: But it’s black.
Benjamin: And dirt. Oxygen, hydrogen and carbon are three of the most common things in the cosmos. Some of this looks like silicon.
Lief: Why would we need those things?
Benjamin: Some mud goes in the algae tank. The rest of the water get’s electrolyzed by these two leads. Hydrogen forms here, and goes here where it is cooled and compressed and sent into the hydrogen tanks for fusion. Oxygen forms here and goes into our air to take some of the load off the algae tanks and air scrubbers. The rest of the dirt goes into the planters in the common area, or into the sand-casters to protect us from space pirate lasers.

As far as life support costs… scout ships are small. We wouldn’t have house ruled that they have hydroponic garden areas that clean the air and grow food. But there is no rule in the book that says how much you can pay ahead for life support. It says that life support costs 2000 per occupied stateroom, per trip (2 weeks). But it doesn’t say that cost has to be paid every two weeks. So a scout ship could be stocked with several years worth of life support. And could be restocked at a price of 52,000 Cr per extra year. Maybe we ruled that a scout base (or in this case participating university) will restock a scout ship for free. The supplies will be rather spartan, so the scout ship cannot take passengers unless it also pays normal life support overhead, but as long as a scout ship isn’t taking passengers, it won’t be accruing life support costs.

Wait, I think this is it. The 2000 Cr per occupied stateroom cost for life support was only for staterooms occupied by passengers. The crew is actively working towards the maintenance of the life support system, so their life support costs are negligible, other than groceries which they can get at normal costs. Passengers on a ship have their sheets and towels changed and laundered every day. They eat finely prepared food and engage in entertainments during the boring voyage through hyperspace. It costs 2000 Cr per trip to carry a passenger, not a crewman. It doesn’t explicitly state this in the rules, but it doesn’t make sense that a scout ship with no real income generating potential should cost so much to operate. 16,000 Cr per month? Isn’t a scout ship supposed to operate on unexplored frontiers? It should be able to run for years on freeze dried tamales and ice.

Since it explicitly states in the rules that fuel and maintenance are free at scout bases, making fuel free almost everywhere, and making life support free as well (by far the largest expense of running a starship), isn’t a huge change in the rules, and may have been how they were originally intended. Without the change, it becomes a whole lot more difficult to keep the party together. The ship will need to take passengers. With the change, the party is encouraged to stay together for a very simple and elegant reason. Staying on the ship relieves one of the 180 – 300 Cr that the character was paying for lodgings. So twice a month a scout ship will be paying 100 Cr for berthing costs, and even that can be gotten around. I imagine that a water landing is entirely possible, kind of like in Cowboy Bebop, since the rules state that fuel can be skimmed from worlds that have bodies of water.

I think I should make it perfectly clear that I do not like making this change in the rules. I just like it better than having a scout ship cost four to sixteen thousand credits per month in life support costs. Let’s be honest, LBB Traveller is a very poorly edited game. The section on character education and advancement is in the Starships book rather than in the characters book or the worlds and adventures book, where one would expect to find it. If I were playing this game with my friends, like I did when I was a little Jahbooty, back in the 80s, we would all expect a certain amount of house rules. Imagine you’re playing with your friends, all gathered around your cargo manifest, balance sheets, character dossiers, and dice, and the game is going at a good clip. It’s exciting. Everyone has characters they like because you’re 12, so you regularly fudge things in your favor. If one of your friends wants a character with a certain skill, nobody forces him or her to roll and hope for it. Just select it off the table. And now that things are really rolling, one of the players announces, “Couldn’t we rent a spacecraft to go investigate the asteroid field?” And that seems to make sense. Their ship is a free trader, so they can’t accelerate at faster than 1G (roughly 10m/s2), so it would take them a while to get there, but they could rent a ship’s boat and get there in a couple of days. So you go to the section in worlds and adventures on equipment, including booking passage on a ship, and it’s not there. But you remember that the only place in the rules that it mentions baggage restrictions on starships is in the characters book, so you look there and it tells you how many Kg of baggage you can take on a starship, but it doesn’t tell you how much it costs to rent a spacecraft. So you make up a price. You just make up a house rule that a ship’s boat costs 30 Cr per hour to rent. Incidentally that is how much it costs to charter a ship’s boat. You can find the rule in a four sentence paragraph on the bottom of page 9 of the starships book in a small section called Trade Customs. But if the made up price had been wrong, do you think we would have cared? Not in the slightest. The price we made up would be what it costs in our world from that day forward.

Most house rules are like that. You can’t find the rule in the book, so you just make something up and write it down so you know to be fair to anyone doing the same thing in the future. Or you don’t remember that there even was a rule for that in the game, so you make up a rule and write it down to be fair. Or you just read the rule but it doesn’t make sense the way you understand it, so you change it so that it makes sense. It makes me wonder if there are any RPGs that people play the way they are written, without any house rules. I’m assuming that the people who wrote the games, Mark Miller and Frank Chadwick in this case (From what I understand, much of the solitaire aspects of Traveller were inspired by Frank Chadwick’s game En Garde!, a swashbuckling RPG designed to run largely without a GM so everyone could play a character.), play them as they are written, but I have no reason for assuming that they don’t run into these little thingies. For example if I were playing Traveller with Mark Miller, I might try to pay 2000 Cr for each occupied stateroom, even if it is just one person on a scout ship, and he might look at me funny. “You don’t have to pay that. It’s a scout ship. It runs on ice and freeze dried tamales.”

Now that we’ve addressed Benjamin Knight’s finances, lets think a bit about the events that brought him into contact with Lief James. I imagine him a little like Jack Hanna, so I’ll try to base his story on Jack’s to an extent.

Benjamin Knight (doesn’t mind being called Ben or even Benji) grew up on the water covered planet of Casandra. On Casandra, the weather is mild and food is easy to gather from the wild (kelp, clam diving, etc). The spaceport clings to one of the few volcanic archipelagos and atolls that break the surface of the Casandran sea. Most of the world is just one undulating ocean. The locals take advantage of the enormous waves that form to travel from island to island, sliding down the sides of gigantic moving mountains of water in kayaks or on surf boards.

But Benji was never tempted by the daring, the speed, the freedom of life on the waves. He was too engrossed in what lay under the waves. Several entire ecosystem live under the surface of the Casandran sea. There was the ecosystem that drew energy from sunlight, starting with algae and kelp. There was another ecosystem on the bottom of the ocean that drew energy from pools of brine, starting with bacteria and clams. There was another ecosystem that drew energy from geothermal processes, heat vents or faults from which magma oozed. There was more different types of fish and insects and mammals and reptiles and life forms that never even existed on Earth than he would ever be able to remember.

And as soon as he finished his primary education he dedicated his life to studying and popularizing the study of exotic life forms. He worked as a biologist, pilot, engineer, navigator, and everything in between. He is the star of several computer simulation safari adventures. He was married for 10 years, and is now separated (not officially divorced) and has three daughters. His current plans are to explore the Anarian Expanse to write and film travel logs of the places he goes, the creatures he finds there, and the people he meets.

Since he got blade as a mustering out benefit, I should probably make up a story about how he got that too. To make it simple, let’s say he got it as a gift while filming a nature show on the world, Karri, and that it’s a traditional type of dagger on that world made from alien sedge or reed or something. It doesn’t make it any easier to conceal, but it won’t set off metal detectors, so that’s something. Considering that flint, high density plastic, and ceramic could be just as common combined as metal knives in the future, I’m thinking most places don’t rely on metal detectors, but some places would.

Incidentally, Jack Hanna is happily married, but if I were to create a Traveller character that were married it would be a disastrous Traveller character fail. I’m having a hard enough time creating characters that have some incentive to adventure. Can you imagine if I created a character that was retired, drawing a pension, and owned a warm bed with a beautiful woman in it? How the hell would I get such a character to leave the house for anything other than groceries and condoms?

Now the only question I have to answer is, what would happen if space Jack Hanna met space Oscar Wilde?

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