Traveller, Cepheus Light and The Perfect RPG Mechanic

So, I think I may have mentioned that I love the classic RPG Traveller. I think I also mentioned that long ago, I wrote a very simple RPG to play with my daughters that used one of Traveller‘s rules. Because I have come to the conclusion that Traveller‘s basic task resolution mechanic is perfect.

So what is the mechanic? You have skill ratings for whatever your character can do. Skill ratings range from skill-0 (newbie) to skill-4 (seasoned veteran). In order to find out if you succeed at doing something, you throw two six-sided dice, add your skill rating, add any modifiers the GM assigns (for difficulty, etc) and try to hit 8 or higher. This mechanic was simply called 8+.

But…that rule was only used for combat skills. For reasons I cannot fathom, the designers of Classic Traveller did not use that lovely, lovely 8+ mechanic for general skill checks. Instead, each skill had its own mechanics, resulting in a horrible mish-mash. How bad was it? Allow me to quote from Classic Traveller Book 1, Characters & Combat, 1981 edition:

Gambling: The individual is well informed on games of chance, and wise in their play. He or she has an advantage over non-experts, and is generally capable of winning when engaged in such games. Gambling, however, should not be confused with general risk-taking.

Organized games (as at casinos) allow bets of up to Cr5000, and require a throw of 9+ to win. Private games allow bets ranging from Cr50 to Cr5000, and require a throw of 8+ to win. Gambling skill allows a DM of +1 per level, but the house will always win on a throw of 2 exactly. Games may be crooked (throw 10+ to be dishonest) in which case the referee will stack the odds against the players. Gambling-3 or better will usually detect crooked games (throw 7+ to detect). Gambling-4 or better may be suspected of cheating and ejected (or worse) due to the finesse of the skill involved (throw 9+ to be suspected; DM -1 per level over 4). Characters may elect to use a lower expertise level in some cases in order to avoid detection of true skill level. Referee: Characters’ die rolls should not be divulged when gambling; instead merely inform the individual of wins and losses. This will serve to conceal any manipulation of the throws.

Most of the other skills aren’t much better; it’s all 9+ this and 3- that. It actually caused me physical pain to read the original Classic Traveller rulebooks and see them get this so wrong. Why not just use 8+ everywhere? It made no sense to me.

So, ever since, all us fans have been waiting for a “fixed” version of Classic Traveller.

Then MegaTraveller came out. Its designers wanted to more thoroughly integrate stats into the game. In Classic Traveller, stats almost didn’t matter once your character was created. It was very rare that any stat other than Education or Social Status was referenced in gameplay, and there were no mechanics for making a check against a stat as opposed to one against a skill.

So MegaTraveller introduced the idea of stat bonuses. A character’s stat bonus for any stat was stat/5, round down. This means that a below-average stat of 5 gives characters a permanent +1 bonus on any success roll that pertains to that stat – in addition to any skill that also applied. This had the result of inflating the success rate of rolls, prompting MegaTraveller to abandon the simple 8+ mechanic in favor of a system of four values, for Simple, Routine, Difficult and Formidable tasks.

Now, MegaTraveller is a good game. Its task resolution system is highly regarded because it provides very clear details on what modifications to success rolls mean and how they should be calculated. But not only does MegaTraveller not fix Classic Traveller, it isn’t even really compatible with it.

Then Traveller had kind of a dark age. Traveller: The New Era switched up the mechanics and made drastic changes to the Third Imperium setting that few fans seemed to like. Marc Miller, the original designer, tried to give us the “fixed Classic Traveller” with Marc Miller’s Traveller, but incomplete rules and a host of production problems prevented the product from clicking with players. Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Traveller married the Third Imperium setting to GURPS’ realistic rules to great effect, producing some very good sourcebooks. But fans were still wanting a new version of the old rules.

Then things started getting better. In 2008, Mongoose Publishing came on the scene and produced a frankly excellent set of Traveller rules. Mongoose Traveller is well-regarded, but it leans towards the MegaTraveller rules, with characteristic modifiers still added to skills. It’s not as bad as MegaTraveller, since even getting a +1 modifier requires an above-average characteristic of 9, but it’s still an inflation of the original resolution curve.

Enter, at last, Cepheus Light, from Stellagama Publishing. Cepheus Light is Classic Traveller all the way, with several improvements. While there are task difficulty levels like in MegaTraveller, they are compatible with Classic Traveller‘s success distribution, and the majority of rolls during play will still be 8+ rolls. All skills use the same mechanics. While stats do have bonuses, they are never combined with skills, instead being used for things more like saving throws. And the system still only requires two six-sided dice.

And that’s that. Cepheus Light completely fixes Classic Traveller and I love it. Why? Why is a coherent ruleset based on the 8+ mechanic so important to me?

  • Easy to remember. If you understand the mechanic and have done any roleplaying, you’ll probably remember the mechanic forever, even if you never play Traveller in any form.
  • Easily obtainable hardware. Polyhedral dice are awesome and can be very pretty, but if someone is just getting into the hobby they can seem like a barrier to entry. “I’ll try it when I get some dice” can easily turn into “I never got around to trying it”. With this mechanic, all the dice you need can be filched from that Monopoly set in the closet.
  • You can do the math in your head. The low die rolls and skill modifiers mean that the totals rarely come out to above 20.
  • Players always want to roll high. Some systems use low rolls for some parts of the system like task resolution and saves, but high rolls for things like damage and reactions. It can be confusing, especially for new players. Cepheus Light makes it simple – you always want to roll high.

Does it have any drawbacks? Of course it does; nothing is perfect. (Yes, I know, I said it was perfect above. I may have exaggerated slightly for humorous effect.)

The main drawback is that the numbers are very “crunchy”. The use of 2d6 as the base roll means that success percentages jump radically as players gain their first levels of skill. Going from skill-0 to skill-1 raises your chance to succeed by almost 17%, and while the jumps get smaller as you increase skill, they are still significant. Because of this, games based off of these mechanics tend to have very slow character growth, which can seem unsatisfying to players familiar with other systems. Still, good GMing can mitigate this and I feel all the benefits outweigh this drawback.

Well, you read to the bottom of this article, so you probably have an interest in Traveller and/or Cepheus Light and you deserve a reward. While the main rulebook for Cepheus Light has a suggested price of $10, you can download a free version called Cepheus Faster Than Light, which covers the basic task rules, character creation and combat. It’s a great way to find out if you’re interested in the main game and makes a great handout for new players if you’re GMing a game.

And there’s already Cepheus Modern, a Cepheus Light spinoff set in the modern age…

GURPS Simple Fantasy

It can be tough being a fan of GURPS.

Once, long ago, on /r/rpg, I complained that while GURPS is very simple at its core, it’s got so much cruft and minutiae and spiderwebbed corners in it that it puts most people off.

The second problem with GURPS is that far too often SJ Games doesn’t treat it like an RPG. They treat it like a “make your own RPG system”. Thus, ferreting out the rules that you need to run your high fantasy campaign from the ones that explain how futuristic medicine works can be a pain in the butt, and there’s very little to help you.

The third problem is that while there is a Lite version of GURPS, it tries too hard to be regular GURPS instead of being a simple way to introduce new players into the game. And Ultra-Lite is even worse – it doesn’t provide a path back to “real” GURPS at all!

So I did it my damn self. Presenting GURPS Simple Fantasy, an eight-page handout. The first four pages include all the rules necessary to make real GURPS characters and run a simple fantasy campaign, while the last four pages are an adventure specifically designed to work with the simplified rules. As I designed this handout, I made certain that every rule I presented either came from GURPS Lite Third Edition, GURPS Lite Fourth Edition, or GURPS Ultra-Lite. This handout does not “give away” any rules. The characters made with GURPS Simple Fantasy are full GURPS characters and can be brought over into “real” GURPS without changing anything.

While I feel like I’m mostly done with this, feedback on both the rules and the adventure is still welcome. There is no perfect thing, everything can be improved.

(I have since learned of the existence of the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and Dungeon Fantasy RPG products, both of which seem to try to fix the same problem…but I didn’t know about them when I was writing my version.)


So my youngest daughter and I have started making a game together.

When I tried to participate in Ludum Dare 38 (as I mentioned previously) I quickly remembered my worst deficiency when it comes to Ludum Daring – I cannot Art.

I’d previously explained what the LD was to my daughter Jewel, showing her this video because that’s the video I show to everyone who wants to know what LD is.

So when she came to check on me and learned of my lack of Art, she offered to help. So we switched from doing the Compo to the Jam, which allowed her to help me and gave us another day. We were heavily inspired by the movie Castle in the Sky, and eventually came up with an idea where you’re on a floating island that has an energy crystal that is about to shoot a deadly beam into the Earth. You must first defeat the crystal’s guardians, then fight the crystal itself.

While she’s good at freehand drawing, Jewel initially had a little trouble conceptualizing how to create the sprites, so I showed her the excellent work of Oryx. Jewel started furiously drawing sprites while I started furiously coding.

Stuff Happened during the weekend that prevented us from finishing, but we made great progress. Jewel got all the sprites done and designed the layout of the island. I programmed the basic project, got the map design into the computer, programmed the fairly intricite rules for not-walking-across-the-sky, and got basic movement in for the main character. Here’s where we are so far.

Isn’t it the adorablest?! Now we need enemies and the big crystal boss fight at the end! Look for continued updates!

Ludum Dare 38 starts today!

In about 16 hours from this posting! And they’ve got a spiffing new website!

I may enter. It’s not like I have anything better to do!

An Epiphany…

Once, there was a game where each player controlled an army. And it was fun and people liked it, but one day a player thought, “Why don’t we create a variation of this game, where each player only controls a single figure and about five of them team up?” And it turns out that this variation on the original wargame is far more popular than the original game, spawning countless similar games and creating an entire industry!

Now, am I describing how Dungeons & Dragons grew out of Chainmail, or how DOTA grew out of Warcraft III?

(Yes. The answer is yes.)

A Tale of Two Demos

(Have I used this title before? I’ll have to check. Anyhoo…)

So! I recently played two demos, one excellent and one terrible and I figured I’d tell anyone who still reads this blog what they were and why I rated them such.

The terrible one was the Halo Wars 2 demo. I’ve actually been looking forward to Halo Wars 2, ever since I participated in a beta a few months ago. I’m fully aware that, even on Windows 10, the game was designed to be played with a controller. And I’m more willing to play it that way (unlike some poncy British guys who review games).

But this demo is terrible because it represents the game so poorly. The demo consists of – wait for it – one single-player level and a Blitz mode where you play against the AI. That’s it. Not even a single multiplayer map – and multiplayer is where this game is really at! As something designed to get me to buy the full game it’s a colossal failure.

On the other hand, just a few days ago a demo for Dishonored 2 was released. Dishonored 2 is overall considered a good game, if you can get it to run well on your computer. Since its release it’s been patched many times to improve performance and this demo was designed to show people who are on the fence not only how Dishonored 2 plays, but how it will run on their setups.

And it succeeds at both of its goals perfectly! The game runs fine on my middle-of-the-road i5/Radeon R9 290 combo on medium settings. It includes the first three missions of the game – and if you played the original Dishonored then you’ll know that a single mission can take well over an hour to complete, so you get a very generous chunk of gameplay. It also includes both Corvo and Emily as playable characters, so even the demo has replay value! And if you decide you like it, you can carry your demo save over to the real game and pick up right where you left off. It really is an amazing demo. And its release coincided with a 50% off sale of the game on Steam. I really hope that this results in lots of people playing, enjoying and then buying the game. I don’t want to see Dishonored die because of a bad launch.

Name That Game 100 – Haiku II!

Yeah, I figured I’d go ahead and do this. I was going to make it this fantastic and incredibly complex but it turned into this huge thing that I was working on along with everything else…so that can sit on the shelf for a while.

In the meantime, I decided to do more gaming haiku!

all of history
is at your beck and call
screw Montezuma

villain tropes give way
to a gentle tale about
improving oneself

your enemies die
in horrifying fashion
as you pump them up

dry wit and light hands
a steampunk world with magic
silent in the dark

your maid will insist
that you do her job for her
before you can sleep

your phone can find them
but be careful that you don’t
get hit by a car

choose your noble house
betrayed by the emperor
the essence of war

Good luck!

Fargoal 2 Beta – July 2016

Greetings, Fargoalians! Here are the links to download the most recent beta of Sword of Fargoal 2.

UPDATE! UPDATE! HUGE UPDATE! I have now updated ALL THREE BETAS with a bunch of requested bugfixes! Feel free to redownload and try them out! If you want to verify that you have the new version, from the main menu click “More…” and make sure the version number in the upper-left is 0.9.2.

Windows Beta – This version requires the most recent Visual C++ redistributable.

Mac OS X Beta

Linux Beta – To run this version you will need to install the following libraries: SDL 1.2, SDL Mixer 1.2, SDL Image 1.2, SLD Net 1.2 and Boost Filesystem.

For all betas, you’re going to want to delete your old savegames and settings before you run the new version. On Windows, this will be in “Documents > My Games > Sword of Fargoal 2”. On OS X, this will be in “~/Library/Applications Support” where ~ represents your home folder. If you can’t see this folder, open a Finder and go to the View menu. Select Go and type: ~/Library to open it.

Okay, let’s talk about the bug I’m having trouble squashing. Some of you are reporting that in certain resolutions, GUI elements like menus or the minimap aren’t positioned on the screen correctly. If you are having this problem, I’d very much like you to send me a save game and a copy of your settings file. You can find these on your computer in “Documents > My Games > Sword of Fargoal 2” on Windows.

If you find any bugs, please send me an email at with the word “Fargoal” in the subject line.

Thank you guys for your patience, and thanks to Ed Perkins and Rob Hammond for help troubleshooting these betas. Also Rob, you have the coolest email address ever.

Duck Potatoes

I’ve prepared this dish twice now successfully, which I guess means it’s an actual recipe that I came up with.

Duck Potatoes (better name suggestions welcome)

1 duck, frozen
4 red potatoes
1 onion
2 tbsp parsley flakes
1/2 cup shredded cheese

Thaw the duck until it can be quartered, then quarter it. Slit the skin a few times on each of the pieces – don’t cut all the way through to the meat.

Steam the four duck quarters in a steamer basket in a large pot, covered, for 45 minutes or until no pink can be seen in the duck meat. Remove the quarters and allow to cool. Remove the water from the duck fat in the pot either by boiling the water away, using a gravy separator or putting the water and fat in a container and letting it cool in the freezer. Save the duck fat. Harvest the meat from the duck pieces. I always do this part the night before.

Chop about half of the duck meat into 1/4″ pieces. Dice the onion and chop the red potatoes into 1/4″ pieces.

In a large pan, add 1 tbsp of the duck fat over medium heat and wait until it shimmers. Add the onion and a little salt and stir occasionally until the onions turn translucent. Add the potatoes and a little more salt and cook until soft. Add the chopped duck meat and stir, allowing the meat to reheat. Add the parsley flakes, then taste and add any seasoning you desire (I like a little garlic powder).

Once it tastes the way you like, turn the heat off and sprinkle the shredded cheese on top to form a complete coating. Wait for the cheese to melt and serve. Serves 4-6. You can make two of these with the meat from one duck.

Godus Wars

Holy crap. Yesterday, Peter Molyneux announced Godus Wars. What’s Godus Wars?

Well, it’s a simple RTS with god powers. Watch the trailer:


So my immediate question was, if Godus Wars exists, is there any reason for me to complete Planitia?

In order to find out, I played Godus Wars for about three hours last night, about halfway through the first continent. The basic gameplay consists of flattening out the terrain (using the same sculpting tool from Godus) to allow your villagers to make new abodes, which give you mana. You use this mana to create fortresses from which you create warbands of archers. Your goal is to take over the enemy mana silo, and you can only do this with a warband. Upgrading your fortresses allows you to support more warbands, hopefully giving you the advantage over the enemy. You can use god powers to both help your own villagers and hinder your enemy.

Sounds great, right? Well, the game has a lot of problems.

The first is that sculpting is still done using the sculpting tool from Godus, meaning you have to pull around one layer at a time – and if you’re sculpting anywhere but on the beach near your village, sculpting requires a lot of mana. While sculpting in Populous was a bit tedious, it was nowhere near as bad as Godus/Godus Wars. Expanding a flattened area requires you to individually sculpt the layers below first. Flattening a mountain requires that you delete it, layer by layer. It’s tedious, it’s time-consuming, and half the time you end up sculpting in a way you didn’t intend, wasting time and mana.

Second, god powers almost don’t exist in this game. As you play through the lands you’ll unlock cards that represent benefits. You can pick up to four cards before starting a land. Some of the cards are passive benefits (warbands build faster, you start with more villagers, etc) but some require mana. These are your “god powers” and they mostly consist of buffs to your warbands or debuffs to your enemy’s. Only as I started level 7 was I presented with a real god power – Swamp, which makes a small patch of land uninhabitable. It wasn’t very effective or graphically appealing and I soon decided to save my mana for upgrading my fortresses. After all, warbands win the game.

Speaking of warbands, they have some problems that can make them frustrating to use. They require wide paths to move – odd in a game that so often connects areas with narrow sand bars. Giving warbands a command they can’t fulfill can cause them to become completely unresponsive. Ordering warbands to attack can also be risky. While all warbands have a flag above them, you cannot click the flag to attack an enemy warband. Sometimes your warband will interpret your attack command as a move order and will blindly march right into the enemy warband, ignoring all attempts by you to correct the problem and leading to free kills and XP for the enemy.

To make matters worse, one of the aspects of gameplay is that all units have to perform a little “stair climbing” animation while moving from one elevation to a higher one, and can perform no other action until they find secure footing. This means that if you order an attack on an enemy warband on higher ground, your warband will get cut to pieces while performing cute little animations and pathing around for solid ground.

And to top it all off, the AI cheats. Only a few levels in, the AI will start making two warbands at once even if they only have one fortress. A few more and it will start making warbands that already have veteran status on creation. This is the most blatant artificial difficulty and it completely breaks immersion. And there’s no multiplayer!

There are other problems as well. There’s no minimap and the camera speed is very slow, making it difficult to pop back and forth from your village to a battle. There also aren’t any hotkeys that could make this easier. A “make warband” button on the side of the screen for each of your fortresses would be all that is necessary to allow you to keep producing units while fighting, but Peter is still in “no interface” mode. And the game has performance problems – strange given the simple modelling and texturing of its units and structures. Perhaps that multi-tiered terrain is slowing it down?

Does the game do anything well? Yes. The basic premise is solid (and I should know). You create fortresses by circle-selecting a group of abodes; these then “bunch up” into the fortress in one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen in a video game. The models and animations are simple but stylish, just like in the original Godus.

But Godus Wars just isn’t good enough.

Let me be clear – this isn’t sour grapes! I’m making Planitia because it’s a game I want to play! If Godus Wars was good enough to replace Planitia I’d be disappointed, yes – but I’d also be happy that someone had finally filled this hole I see in the market.

I’ll continue work on Planitia. Perhaps, if Peter puts enough work into improving Godus Wars, it’ll make nice competition.