Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Traveller: Outer Veil

Picked up Outer Veil over the weekend, by none other than fellow ACKS-and-Traveller blogger Omer Joel!  Interesting setting.  Had a few small gripes, but also found a lot to like about it.

Outer Veil opens with 20 pages of setting background, including a history of human space travel starting in 2033, background on the ten main megacorporations that dominate manufacturing in human space, and the structure and policy of the primary human interstellar governing body, the FNH (Federation Nations of Humanity).  Things are set in 2159 AD, about 30 years after a major civil war which saw a significant reduction in corporate power and the rise of the FNH.  Jump-2 has just recently been invented; low-TL11 is the standard, with meson weapons not yet developed.  No nonextinct sentient aliens yet encountered, and psi exists but is only usable through recovered alien artifact booster tech (reverse-engineered and duplicated in the last two decades, still very poorly understood and unpredictable).  This chapter made me nervous for two reasons - one is that as a near-future setting, the politics may cut a bit close to home for some folks (self non-exempt).  The other was that the FNH sounded like a well-meaning but monolithic government, and I was concerned about the ability of players to exercise agency under such conditions.  The jury is still out on concern #1, but it turns out that concern #2 was unfounded.

Chapter the second is 24 pages of modified careers.  I am, as a rule, not a huge fan of careers, but I do like in particular what was done with the Agent career, namely its conversion to the Justice Commission career.  Nice hat-tip to Judge Dredd in the description text, there - more on this one later.  I also saw an event on one of the tables that I liked, which required a roll to avoid gaining an alcohol or drug addiction.  That seems like something suitable to Traveller chargen.  Some of the other events were rendered troublesome by career specializations; for example, the Citizen career is divided into Bureaucrat, Service, and Worker.  A pair of events on the Citizen event table included "you are assigned to work with hazardous materials", and "your job is to push papers".  One of these seems appropriate for bureaucrat and not worker; one seems appropriate for worker but not bureaucrat.  I guess I'd rather see d36 tables specific to each subfield of new careers, rather than d66 tables that are too specific for their intended generality.

On the plus side, the new careers tend to have about the same survival+promotion difficulty as the Core careers; Mongoose screws this up a lot.  There's also some gear and modified starship availability rules as regards mustering out - I quite like the addition of the machine pistol.  The subsidized merchant rules could be useful.  I dislike the skills from Mercenary that are reprinted here, but that's because I tend to feel that they're overspecialized (and Instruction is poorly implemented), not because they don't belong.

The chargen chapter is followed by 37 pages of starships.  This is where my concerns about central authority started to abate - when the heaviest starship in the manual is 600 tons, and you're looking at a 300-ton frigate as the heaviest government / military ship in most Veil systems because shipbuilding capabilities haven't grown as quickly as the sphere of human colonization, a picture of sparse law enforcement really starts to emerge.  Anyway, they're decent ships.  Lots of Jump-1 with fuel for two jumps.  I like the addition of hydroponics equipment as an option in ship design for the reduction of life support costs.

We then get three pages on belt mining and conducting planetary surveys!  I admit that I marked this as "come back and read later, because while I do love belt mining, none of the rest of my group ever cares."  The survey rules, again, are suggestive of lots of unexplored or lightly-explored space.

Finally, the meat of the book at 52 pages is comprised of starmaps, listings of planets, and short descriptions of a select few per subsector.  Having not bought a Traveller campaign setting before, I had no idea that they usually covered an entire sector; we've been playing within single subsectors, historically.  So this is a ton of scale compared to what I'm used to.  Pretty well done; some of the planetary descriptions got the brain rolling.  Good mix of described points of interest with enough empty worlds to add your own material.  And yes, lots and lots of low-law, not-quite-empty-but-certainly-poorly-policed space out on the fringes, as well as some simply unexplored space out beyond that.  Good stuff.

This is followed by 4 pages of referee information (helpful / good, again got the gears turning), 4 pages of patrons (pretty decent), and 7 pages of sample adventure that I haven't read yet because it's rather late but the maps and handouts look alright.

Other miscellaneous comments: Some minor proofreading issues ("Secessionists" is occasionally used as a singular noun / oddly, for example).  The art is, as other reviewers have noted, CGI and not amazing.  I had the colors on my pdf reader inverted because I hate reading black text on a light-emitting white background, so it was gonna be ugly anyway; not a huge deal for me.  I actually like what the inversion did to the megacorp logos and some of the starship art.

I think if I were to run this, I'd want to do something like the following:
  • Have a Justice Commission PC, in one of several capacities.  Could be a secret agent aboard a free or subsidized trader (suspected pirates?), could be a passenger on a trader when things get interesting and then he decides to stay / deputize everybody, or it could be a dedicated Commission ship from the start.
    • Naturally, someone else in the party has to be the Lovable Rogue, who plays the foil to the agent and suggests effective but morally suspect courses of action
  • Setup is that the Commission is vastly undermanned in some outer part of space, and there's more trouble than the PCs are likely to be able to solve.  They're also left to operate largley independently and to apply the law at their discretion; check in with HQ every couple months, and they'll let you know if they've got any leads for you, but mostly you're on your own.  World engines / progression tracks kick in; while you're solving one problem, others appear or progress.
    • When I say "undermanned", I also mean underfunded - "Sorry, we couldn't get you a ship, so we're buying you two middle passage tickets a month...  There's a free trader headed to Mos Eisley leaving tomorrow named the PC Express; we want you to investigate a pair of murders that occurred in a cantina there.  Rumor has it known Secessionists were involved."  
    • And then the ticket / passage prices go into the player funding pool to supplement cargo, bounties, subsidy, whatever.
      • Note to players - I propose trying the cargo system from Classic Traveller's Merchant Prince. Way less rolling; purchase prices are deterministic, only sale prices are random, and goods from a single source are all grouped together rather than being individual cargos (eg, "40 tons of stuff from mining world X" rather than "35 tons of common metals, 4 tons of industrial gemstones, and 1 ton of radioactives").
  • Possible easy hooks / opposition:
    • Secessionist malefactors
    • Unsanctioned colonies
    • Pirates
    • Psi-gone-wrong incidents of all sorts (always fun)
    • Megacorp illegal research, brush wars, and other underhanded doings
    • Corrupt FNH local branch officials
    • Apocalypse Now-style renegade military dictators who've set themselves up with the good life on the frontier
    • Planetary militias on the take from local crime lords
    • Xenoarchaeologists trespassing in forbidden areas
    • Rival Commission agents seeking to muck up your operations to further their careers, or rogue agents out to cause general mayhem
  • Basically it's Dark Heresy without all the darkness and the heresy.  The PCs are an investigative team for the Good Guys, authorized to independently exercise their judgment and Solve Problems.  I'm a bit tired of running black-and-grey morality, and I imagine some of my players likely are too.  Been a while since we fought the good fight.
  • Finally, Justice Commission offers several advantages over the Marine, Navy, and Corporate Troubleshooter campaign options.  Over military, it has that my players have more familiarity and relative comfort with law enforcement, that militaries tend to act in homogeneous units (which would suggest that the entire party should be marines, if that's the structure) rather than highly intermixed with civilians, and that the driving goal / mandate of the military campaign is less clear than "Bring Law to the Lawless."  As for the corporate campaign, my players have recently demonstrated that they're really not driven by profit.  Justice also feels like it permits a wider range of possible plots to me.
The problem, of course, is that this is incompatible with the ambitions of piracy that I have been discussing with my players.  But on reflection, one issue I think with ACKS has been that I have been completely disregarding narrative structure in favor of total simulationism/gamism.  And it may be that that is less than ideal, in terms of maintaining player interest and involvement.  The investigative game (Reynolds and Tam, PI) is liable to induce something more resembling a coherent narrative; it's about people and organizations, rather than about going places, stabbing things, and taking their shinies (which, ultimately, is not all that different from the proposed piratical structure).  But this is not really part of the review, and probably warrants its own post.


Omer G. Joel said...

Thank you for your review!

Anyhow, the solution to all politics and big-government problems in the OV universe is that communications are limited to the speed of travel, travel is SLOW (Jump-2 is BRAND NEW - almost everyone flies Jump-1 ships) and Authority is spread thin on the Frontier and the Outer Veil. The end result is that there is a shortage of authority figures running around the adventuring area (unless, of course, you want a Core game, which would be more Cyberpunk in flavour). The end result is also that the government you experience in actual play is as good or as bad as the guy or gal running the local administration (assuming they have any actual power). Also, you can interpret politics in any way you want as the Core is far away and all sorts of local political flavours exist, based on what you like to see. The main political conflict is centripetal FNH vs. centrifugal Secessionists; and Secessionist groups are quite varied in political approaches and modus operandi (NOT all are terrorists, though some are).

Also be on the lookout for the free OV adventure series called Through the Veil - search for it on DTRPG!

Also, the Justice Commission is indeed a PERFECT opportunity for adventure. Think U.S. Marshals or Texas/Arizona Rangers in the Wild West - a lot of frontier to cover, a lot of outlaws to bring to justice, and a big iron (machine pistol?) on your hip; an old Wild Horse-class Mail Courier instead of a steed. Also, enough creepy corporate research, industrial espionage and terrorism to deal with as well - and the occasional tomb-raider stealing artefacts from the local Ascraeus Civilization ruins! Could also be run X-Files style, if you want.

John said...

Always pleasant to review something good!

Yeah, that was more-or-less the conclusion I reached, but when I was still thinking at subsector scale, it made a lot less sense. With the size of the setting, I can see it working just so.

Did see those while I was shopping around and reading the rpgnow reviews; will have to take a look.

Yeah, last two Traveller campaigns my group has played have been some combinations of stealing artifacts (and preventing nefarious organizations from stealing artifacts) and X-Files, but with PCs on the run from the law themselves the vast majority of the time. Having some degree of official sanction makes the day-to-day a lot easier, but the problems potentially more interesting and varied.