Category: Games

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.)

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.

Pinball Arcade

(Note to Fargoalians waiting for a Fargoal update – you will be served. Yes, you will. You just wait.)

In the meantime, I ran across this thing called Pinball Arcade.

Now, I had never been a big fan of pinball. Every time I played a pinball game it was over within moments, the balls caroming randomly off everything. I felt like I had no control and that the ball was attracted to the outlanes like they were magnetized or something. I never got it.

Then, while YouTubeing, I ran across this video of a guy absolutely owning a pinball game called The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot.

It became clear as I watched this video that this game was complex and subtle, with many objectives to fulfill and many different ways to score. It also wasn’t nearly as random as I thought pinball games were and definitely rewarded skill.

It was also emulated, which appealed to me. Anyone reading this site should already know about emulators. Right? There’s tons of them. NES, SNES, Game Boy (Color) and Game Boy Advance, classic arcade games, the original PlayStation – all these platforms have been solved, with emulators providing experiences indistinguishable from the originals. If you’ve got a super-hot computer, you can even get near-perfect experiences with GameCube and PlayStation 2 emulators.

But unlike an electronic platform where you just emulate the CPU and memory and all the games suddenly start working, each pinball game must be emulated individually. The guys at Farsight Studios have to get a working machine (or a non-working machine and restore it to working order) and then spend months translating the machine’s internal workings, LED display and programming into their system. And of course they desire to be as accurate as possible.

This is more than emulation – it’s preservation. There are millions of working SNES machines in existence; you don’t need an emulator to play SNES games. By contrast, a very popular pinball machine would sell about five thousand units. And when all five thousand of those machines are gone – either sold for scrap or junked or just left to rust in a storage unit – then the game ceases to exist.

Unless it’s been emulated.

So I looked up Pinball Arcade and discovered that you can play it on practically any electronic device known to man. There’s a PC version (through Steam), PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, and versions for iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android devices. And they all play practically identically.

At this point, Farsight Studios has emulated almost thirty pinball machines through Pinball Arcade. They are living up to their name, doing the work of the gaming gods and making sure that these games do not die when the machines that contain them do.

You can download a version of Pinball Arcade on whatever you happen to have and it comes with a free boardTales of the Arabian Nights. You can then buy boards in two-packs or buy whole seasons of boards for a lower price.

Give it a try; it may just change your mind about pinball like it did mine.

Greetings, Fargoalians!

(To my loyal readers: I’ve been kind of keeping a low profile recently because I had something in the works and now I can finally talk about it!)

Hi there! I’m Anthony Salter, and I’m the new developer for Sword of Fargoal 2. I’m incredibly excited to be on this project and if you look around the site you’ll be able to see why – Fargoal is just the kind of game I enjoy.

My first encounter with Fargoal was at a friend’s house back in the…I’m going to say late 80’s. See, I didn’t have a Commodore 64 of my own, so every once in a while I’d go spend the night with my friend Dennis and we would stay up all night playing games on his. That’s where I first encountered Sword of Fargoal, and though I didn’t have long to play it, I enjoyed it – especially the sound effects.

But when you’ve only played a game for two hours 25 years ago it might not stick in your memory so much. So I completely forgot about it…until the CRPG Addict started playing it. His writeup of the game was excellent, and that’s where I found out about the Kickstarter for Sword of Fargoal 2. It had already passed at that point so I couldn’t contribute.

And that’s where things stayed until a few weeks ago, when a friend of mine named Ido Yehieli mentioned that Sword of Fargoal 2 needed a programmer. I’d been wanting to get back into game development so he recommended I email Paul Pridham, the current programmer.

So I did, and I had a perfectly pleasant exchange with him. And eventually he recommended a phone conversation with the project leader, Jeff McCord.

Wait. Jeff McCord. Why did that name sound familiar?

That’s when I realized I was going to be on the phone with the creator of the original Sword of Fargoal. He hadn’t sold the license or farmed the game out; this was his show.

So, after an initial phone interview (in which I may have fanboid just a bit) and a series of follow-up email back-and-forths, here I am.

I think Sword of Fargoal 2 is a great game already and I hope that I can improve and polish it and get it into shape for its initial release. And after that…who knows?

So, that’s the current deal! To any new readers: I’m glad you’re here, and I’d be honored if you stick around. I talk about game development, review games sometimes and run a (semi)-weekly gaming trivia contest called NAME THAT GAME!

Age of Mythology Made Me Feel Dirty

So! Just a few days ago I found out about this:

Now, despite my eternal love for Age of Empires II, I did really enjoy Age of Mythology. I played it a lot and I played it with my daughter (co-op against AIs, of course). So that video made me very happy; there are some long-standing bugs with the original Age of Mythology that rear their head every time I try to play it. Seeing these bugs fixed would make me happy. Plus enhanced textures, water and lighting, and tools to make streaming and commentary easier. I might get to watch commented games on! I couldn’t see a downside.

But the community sure could.

See, the game is being released at the abominable price of $30. I know, right? Quel horreur! It’s not like Microsoft is paying an external developer to improve the original code and add all these features. And it’s not like this developer is actively encouraging feedback on what new features to put into the game. And it’s not like the only reason they are doing this is because they feel they might make money at it.

Oh. Actually, it is like that.

And the thing that bugs me isn’t the fact that some people think that the price is too high. There are always going to be people like that. The thing that bugs me is that people are actually outraged at this price. They are frothing and foaming. The price is an affront to them; they can’t live full and robust lives any longer because of this price.

So I (possibly stupidly) decided to dip my toe in.

You can’t see most of it now because it’s been scrubbed, but I was immediately attacked by one Baron von ZinGer who, instead of addressing any of the points I’d made, called me an idiot. He accused me of having such a big ego that I’d probably be fired from my dev team soon.

I can’t wait to have that conversation.



“Can I have a word?”


“We’re letting you go from the team.”

“What?! Why?”

“You’re too arrogant and sure of yourself. You’re egotistical and your self-confidence is completely obnoxious.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s how we feel.”

“We? Who’s ‘we’?”

“Me, Viridian and Badman.”

“But we’re all the same person!”

“I know. We’re drawing a line inside our brain. We’ll stay on this side and you stay on that side.”

“Well, fine!” (door slams)

Yeah. This same guy also looked up my profile, saw the Greenlight link to Planitia, and accused me of being a “lying stealing dev” because Planitia is based on Populous. When I asked him how I was lying when I explicitly stated that the game was inspired by Populous, he said it was because I called the game “one of a kind” on my Greenlight page.

Yeah, I’ll just stop working on Planitia now and play one of the forty other god-game/RTS’s out there. I mean, why did he think I was such a fan of Age of Mythology in the first place?

So all I can conclude is that people are stupid on the internet. Oh! And that Age of Mythology Extended Edition looks boss and I’m definitely picking it up.

Project Magma Version 1.8

Project Magma, as I’ve mentioned before, is the fan-maintained version of Myth II: Soulblighter. I wasn’t aware, but last year they released version 1.8 of Myth II and it is frankly awesome. A video is (literally) worth a thousand pictures, so here’s an overview of everything in it:

The far zoom when playing a replay and the motion interpolation are the best features, IMO. With these, the more modern RTS controls and the ability to quickly quit and restart games, Myth II has all the features of a modern RTS – perhaps more. Indeed, if it weren’t for those damn low-poly models and billboards the game could be released commercially today and would almost certainly be a big hit.

If you try this and like it and decide to play online, the current most popular hangout for Myth II players is Gate of Storms.

Game Center CX

As I mentioned on my Twitter, I’ve been watching GameCenter CX (in the US it was retitled Retro Game Master). It’s a show where a Japanese comedian is tasked with beating old, hard, and/or terrible video games; it’s also interspersed with interviews with developers and trips to Japanese game centers.

Here’s a sample episode for your perusal. In it our hero, Shinya Arino, must complete the original NES version of Ninja Gaiden. He’s never heard of it before.

(Anyone who has actually played Ninja Gaiden is probably chuckling already.)

Now, I love me this show a lot. It’s got humor, game history and interviews with luminaries of the Japanese gaming scene.

But at the same time it makes me wistful. Why? Because the punchline of the show isn’t that a 35-year-old man is playing games. It’s his reaction to being locked in a room with a terrible (or terribly difficult) game and being told he can’t go home until he finishes it that’s funny. When Arino visits game centers there are just as many adult players as children.

As you watch the show it becomes clear that gaming in Japan is not stigmatized like it is here in the United States. Nobody cares that Arino plays games; hell, everybody does it! There isn’t a single person in Japan that is Arino’s age that didn’t play a Famicom at some point in their childhood, and continuing to play games into adulthood isn’t seen as a failing but as perfectly normal.

I just wish that were the case here.

I leave you with Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain’s take on the social stigma of playing games here in the West (warning: salty, hilarious language).

Deep Space Settlement

And now on to something else. I found another indie developer who also has a long-standing project she is obsessing over, and from what I’ve seen it looks like it could be really good.

The project is Deep Space Settlement. Your job? Turn a colony ship into…well, you get it, and then defend that settlement from anyone or anything that tries to harm it. The kicker is that the game uses RTS mechanics even though it’s more of a build/strategy type game.

The game manages to give off both Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire vibes, which resonate deeply with me. And despite the plurals on the home page, the entire game and its underlying engine have been written by one woman, Stéphanie Rancourt. So she’s working on a labor-of-love project that’s probably way too big for her and writing everything herself from scratch. I’ve found my French-Canadian distaff counterpart!

Borderlands 2

So! A while back I mentioned Saints Row 4 and how much I enjoyed it. Since then a lot of DLC has been released for it and while I haven’t bought all of it, I have paid attention.

And that’s how I saw this.

Now, despite laughing at the trailer, I had no idea who that girl was or what “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'” was. So I went to the Tubes of You to find out. And that’s how I found out about Anthony and Ashly Burch.

And then I ran across an episode of HAWP (gotta use the acronym to prove I’m hip, dontcha know) where Anthony talked about writing Borderlands 2.

Which reminded me that I’d picked up Borderlands 2 during the Steam summer sale and never touched it.

So I touched it.

For about thirty hours.

Borderlands 2 is a great game and I’m very, very sad I didn’t play it sooner. I should have just dumped that pretentious, jumped-up Bioshock Infinite and gone for this. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s got one of the best villains in recent gaming memory with Handsome Jack.

I actually bought another copy for my daughter and she convinced her friends to buy it and it’s like Catan where it’s always good but at its peak when you’ve got four people.

(I think I may have mentioned in the past that I think co-op multiplayer is the only good kind of multiplayer? Yeah, this game proves me right. Again.)

So if you like FPS games and/or you like to laugh and/or you like playing games with your friends, definitely check it out.