Classic Traveller actual play: Annic Nova meets Alien

pemerton

Legend
Context
Our group's most recent RPG sessions have been Prince Valiant, but yesterday we returned to our Classic Traveller campaign for the first time in (I would guess) 6+ months.

I suggested Traveller for two reasons:

(1) One of our group has been absent for a long time due to home renovation commitments, but he joined us yesterday (in fact we played at his house) and he has characters in Traveller but has never played Prince Valiant;

(2) After reading some threads about the new Alien RPG, I wanted to try an Alien-esque scenario in our Traveller game.​

The current ingame situation was ripe for it: the PCs had finished their psionic training in our second-to-last session (as per my post linked above) and then, in our last Traveller session, had (i) suffered a misjump which took them to what was, for them, an unknown part of the galaxy, then (ii) sold the orbital laboratory that attaches to their starship (the Laboratory Research Vessel the St Christopher) in order to play for repairs to their ship, then (iii) ended up investigating a strange ship that they had encountered in orbit about the world of Novus.

That ship was the Annic Nova, as per the Classic Traveller module from 1980 (which I picked up second hand some time in the last decade or two but have never run before - SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this post).

The module as published is fairly passive investigation in order to find out why the ship - an alien vessel with an unusual propulsion mechanism - is abandoned, and how it works. I don't recall now how I was planning to use the module when I got it out 6+ months ago, but now it was going to be the venue for my more active Alien-inspired shenanigans. To this end I had already written up my critter:

200 kg killer (so larger than human-sized but not terribly so); movement speed double standard; wound levels of 5D/2D; chitinous exoskeleton giving armour equivalent to combat armour (the best in the system) but with a +1 mod in favour of the attacker; a +1 bite attack; and corrosive blood that does 1D wounds to anyone it splashes onto.​

This creature could be generated via the random animal generation process, though with only a low chance to have such a thick hide, except for the acidic blood which was a pure referee-stipulated special.

I had also decided to make my alien somewhat psionic, consistently with the established psionic (including alien psionics) theme of the game - so noted Sense Life in a 5 metre radius at will (a good justification for having the aliens respond to PC presence without having to worry about cover etc). I also decided that when an alien dies it gives off a telepathic "shriek" that affects telepath-sensitive people in the vicinity - there is only one PC who has telpathy, and I knew his player wouldn't be at the session, and so this was a device to knock out that character (on the assumption that an alien would be killed) and so justify not having that PC needing to get involved in things without a player. (The player's other PC is the pilot of the St Christopher and so was never going to end up on the Annic Nova.)

On the way to the session I stopped off at Officeworks to make an enlarged photocopy of the Annic Nova deck plans (65 cents Australian for a single A4 colour copy). This turned out to be a good decision, as we were able to put that in the middle of the table and use it as a reference point for the action of the session.

The Action
Our last session had ended with a group of four PCs arriving at the vessel (in a ship's boat piloted by a fifth PC) ahead of an Imperial naval cutter that had set out from the naval base on Novus, and claiming salvage rights in the name of Hallucida (the homeworld of one of the two Baron PCs - Vincenzo von Hallucida). A spacewalk had enabled them to open an airlock and enter the bottom, bridge, level of the seemingly abandoned vessel. Memories for any detail beyond that were pretty hazy, as were precise details of the boarding party - each player runs a "position" of two (for the smallest position, ie the telepath and the pilot) to seven (for the largest) characters, with some of these characters having more prominent PC status than others. So we started our session yesterday with the four boarding PCs on the bridge being one character for each player:

* Blaster McMillan (former low-ranked naval officer with high physical stats, Int 2, Edu A and a good mix of technical and large blade skills - not very bright but an excellent knowledge of, and very good at following, standard naval protocols);

* Tony (who has Mechanical-1 and Jack-of-all-Trades-4 as well as Vacc Suit-2, and so is handy for investigating strange things in orbit and was the one who had opened the airlock);

* Xander (a tough combat-oriented former pirate who owns, and was wearing, the only battle dress in the group);

* Alissa (who has two skills, Cutlass-4 and Tactics-1).​

Investigation of the bridge enabled Tony (the Jack-of-all-Trades) to identify the power button, and Blaster identified the computer but couldn't work out anything more than that it was a very non-standard model. So it was decided to bring another group of personnel to the vessel (up to the limits of vacc suits available):

* Zeno Doxa (Computer-4, Electronics-3, Medical-1, and very high Int and Edu - the scientist in the group) to investigate the computer and see what data could be extracted from it);

* Roland (a mix of skills including Medical and Laser Carbine, who is a PhD in Xenoarchaeology and so was keen to check out the alien vessel);

* Vincenzo (who has no useful skills for this sort of thing - Bribery, Gambling, Carousing and Air/Rafter is his skill set - but is the owner of the St Christopher, the financial sponsor of the group's shenanigans, and was not doing anything else useful).​

While Zeno started work on the computer, following a full regulation breaching from Blaster, Tony turned on the power which activated the grav plates. The players (and PCs) already knew the ship was pressurised, but didn't have an atmosphere tester. But Vincenzo decided to take off his vacc suit and test it the old-fashioned way ("Tony, if I start suffocating stick my helmet back on!") - the atmosphere was breathable.

Vincenzo and Alissa then decided to check out the ship's main elevator and see what was on the top deck. The vessel is for smaller-than-adult-human beings, which requires Vacc Suit checks to avoid snagging etc. Alissa's player failed the requisite check squeezing into the elevator, and so Alissa also ditched her vacc suit. As per the module, I wrote out the markings on the buttons in the elevator, and the players started to decipher the alien numbering system (which is one of the aspects of the original module - if players fully decipher it then their characters get a +1 bonus on checks to do with the alien vessel as they are making sense of the alien culture and technical methods). On the top deck the elevator opened into a workshop, and then a corridor ran off and up, on a moderately steep angle, to the hydroponics area - where the lights and heating had come back on with the activation of the ship's power.

Alissa checked out the plants more closely - some were dead, other still alive (but how?!) - and then saw a shape in among them. I called for a surprise check - in Classic Traveller this is a d6 for each side, with some adjustments (eg Alissa gets +1 for her Tactics), and if one beats the other by 3+ that side gets surprise. I rolled well and Alissa's player rolled poorly, so my alien got a surprise attack. Once the PCs could see it properly I described it as somewhat reptilian, having a silvery-grey exoskeleton, a head a bit like a pterodactyl but with extremely sharp teeth, and bipedal but not upright. The players narrated a tail (in some of their action declarations) without any prompting from me.

In the ensuing melee Alissa didn't get a hit in (terrible rolls with her cutlass) while the alien knocked her unconscious. Classic Traveller uses a slightly baroque wounding mechanic which mixes randomness with player choice as to where to allocate damage across three physical stats - one stat at zero is lightly unconscious with partial recovery in 10 minutes and full recovery, with medical assistance, in 30 minutes; two stats at zero is badly unconscious with days to weeks of medical treatment required; three at zero is death. As a player, there are conflicting imperatives - if you allocate to stay up by spreading across your stats you're more likely to attract more attacks (because you're still up) and hence might find yourself taking fatal damage. Alissa's player has been an optimisation mathematician as his day job and so is pretty conscious of these things - and so between his choices and my damage rolls Alissa went down at 0,1,1 (ie stayed up just long enough to get in the maximum number of attacks without suffering worse than light unconsciousness).

Vincenzo drew his autopistol and got off a shot but his bullet bounced of the creature's exoskeleton. So he ran instead. Vincenzo was carrying a communicator, and when I asked his player whether it was set to "on" the answer was a firm Yes. So down in the bridge the other members of the boarding party could hear Alissa's scream and Vincenzo's gunshot. Blaster and Xander decided to head up to check out the situation. This meant that the elevator was heading back down, and so Vincenzo had to find another escape route. His player won opposed rolls which allowed him to escape into the access shaft that ran parallel to the elevator. With another successful roll he was able to trap the alien's head in the closing iris valve, but I then made a successful check for it to free itself. (The difficult for Vincenzo's Dex check I set based on system intuitions; the module itself had the appropriate check required for the alien to force the iris valve, though I applied a modest penalty for its head being caught.)

Vincenzo exited the access shaft on the next deck down, which was a cargo hold which was mostly empty but contained a crate of minerals. (At this point in my refereeing I made a map mistake - the vessel has two cargo holds and I'd misread which one the access shaft gave access to. That didn't matter at the time but became relevant later on.) Vincenzo (via his player) conjectured that these must be psionic-enhancing minerals because why else would it be worth carrying such a small quantity? Alissa's player (speaking out of character, given Alissa was unconscious one deck up) cautioned not to confuse minerals for eggs or pods - but oddly enough Vincenzo's guess was correct! The original module has a cargo of tobacco leaves but I didn't want to use that and so when I was doing my pre-session prep, and as an expression of the continuing psionics theme, had decided on a crate of thongamonganite, which (as per the original edition of Classic Traveller - I think it may have been edited out of later versions) is the basis for psionic-enhancing drugs. There being nothing immediately useful in the crate Vincenzo then looke around for a fire extinguisher and after a couple of rolls (I set a difficulty of 9+ on two dice to find one) he found one and headed back up - his player stated the theory that if bullets wouldn't work against the alien maybe chemical foam would!

Meanwhile the two bruisers - Blaster and Xander - arrived on the top deck in the elevator. The alien, with its animal cunning, was waiting for them and so the fight was on. I continued to roll well - I got a good hit against Blaster that shattered the faceplate of his vacc suit, and at close range he had trouble bringing his main weapons (broadsword (= claymore or similar) to bear and drew his autopistol instead, trying to shoot the alien in the head but rolling poorly. Xander also drew his broadsword but had trouble attacking (-4 penalty for cover) with Blaster in the way. Blaster therefore made a successful check to push the alien back out of the elevator doorway (Traveller has no grappling-type rules and so when this sort of thing comes up I set a Str-check difficulty based on referee intuition) which allowed Xander to bring his broadsword into glorious action, resulting in a dead alien in fairly quick order. Xander's battle dress protected him from the blood spatter but Blaster took a couple of further dice of damage as he got sprayed through his (now) open-faced helmet.

I hadn't (and still haven't - though more came out in the course of play) decided on the full ecology/life cycle of my aliens but at this point made one decision: I described the dead alien decaying quite quickly as its metabolic system that managed its corrosive blood had stopped functioning. I also narrated Vincenzo arriving back on the scene at about this point, and his player decided to spray the alien with the extinguisher to try and halt the decay process. This was essentially random chemistry and so I suggested a 9+ roll for it to work - Vincenzo's player rolled well and so the fire retardant foam also had the effect of neutralising the alien's rapid decomposition.

The elevator went back down and brought Roland up (with his medical kit) to perform medical duties - Blaster was treated first, and then Alissa was revived and treated. (Taking an hour in total.) Meanwhile back on the bridge Zeno had had a chance to investigate the computer and so I gave the players the relevant information from the module - which included that the computer didn't seem to use any sort of Imperium/galactic standard that he was familiar with, and that it would take a week or more (with his Computer-4 Zeno them module gives Zeno one 8+ roll per week to decipher the computer system) to figure it out. Given that 8+ is 15/36, and that he'd been looking at it for only and hour, I told Zeno's player that on a roll of double six (ie 1/36) he could decipher it straight away, but the check was a bust (it was a double, but snake's eyes rather than 6s). Tony was making sense of the controls - no manoeuvre drive but two jump drives - but without being able to operate the computer actually taking the ship anywhere wasn't going to happen.

At some point during this post-initial contact action I also narrated a transmission from the St Christopher - Methwit, the telepathic PC, had fallen into a coma (two zeros) for no evident reason. When times were compared this correlated with the killing of the alien. The players (correctly, though neither prompted nor confirmed by me) conjectured some sort of psionic feedback.

With Alissa and Blaster treated, the players decided it was time to check out the two unexplored decks. Blaster and Roland stayed on guard on the top deck, with Blaster setting up his auto-rifle (a bipod-mounted support weapon) to give him enfilading fire up the sloping corridor to the hydroponics area, and Roland taking up a position further back towards the elevator providing cover with his laser carbine. I narrated some scuffling and chittering in the sloping corridor, but nothing actually came out into view. Meanwhile Vincenzo and Xander went back down to the cargo hold Vincenzo had checked out, while Alissa took the elevator down to the bridge deck to re-don her vacc suit and collect her sub-machine gun. She then went up to the cargo deck.

This was the point where the issue with the map came into play. On the map the elevator gives access to one cargo hold while the access shaft gives access to the other. It's not entirely clear whether there is meant to be any other access to that second hold but I decided not, and based on speculation by Vincenzo's player we decided that the second hold was a quarantined hold, with access only to the access shaft and space, but not to the rest of the vessel. (Why put the minerals in the quarantined hold? Not clear though there was some subsequent speculation.)

So while Vincenzo and Xander checked out that hold - finding some vacc suits that were sized for the vessel crew and so not a good fit for the PCs (Vincenzo is the smallest PC - Str of 4 - but his player failed the module-specified check for any of the suits to fit) - Alissa came out of the elevator and had three choices: going into the other hold or checking out two side corridors. She chose the corridors and found that they led to gun turrets with beam lasers. The first turret had nothing interesting, but the second - which for some reason I haven't worked out yet is marked in a different colour on the module map - I narrated as being extremely rotated so that when she climbed up into it she couldn't straight away get a good view of the gunner's couch. Naturally the player suspected there might be something there and naturally he was correct - I had decided (with Alissa alone in a corridor) that it was time for another creature. I quickly wrote up a 50 kg variant of my alien - so lower wound thresholds (4D/2D), normal movement, lesser damage, no bonus on its teeth attack and a hide equivalent to ballistic cloth rather than combat armour. And no psionics. I narrated it as looking vaguely humanoid with a leathery skin.

This was a fight in which Alissa had the clear mechanical advantage, but her player rolled poorly and I rolled well. So she was taken down again while getting in only one round of SMG fire, which injured but didn't kill the creature. Her player specified that her vacc suit communicator was on, so her screams were again picked up by the other characters. There was resulting confusion - in the fiction no one knew where she was because she was the only one who had exited the elevator at the cargo level; and at the table the players weren't sure of the best way to get there.

I took advantage of the confusion to have my new creature take the elevator up to the next (top) level where it burst out, got a hit against Roland which was only a low damage total but which landed on his Endurance of 3 (when the PC was created we decided this was some sort of heart condition), and therefore knocked him down. It then turned to take on Blaster, who had come around to investigate and got a good roll and a reasonable bite against him also. But Roland was able to fall back from close to short range (mechanically this means foregoing an attack for a double move while soaking an attack from the creature which can therefore only single move) which made use of his assault rifle (not to be confused with his auto-rifle - he's something of a walking armoury) feasible, and the creature then fell in a hail of lead. I asked for an Edu check (with a penalty for low Int) from Blaster's player, which succeeded, and so I told him that - based on his naval training on xeno-contact - he thought this might be a larval-stage creature.

Xander went to find Alissa who (as I narrated it) was regaining consciousness. Xander has Gunnery expertise and so is familiar with starship gun turrets - I said that he could tell that the turret had been rotated beyond its normal tolerance, so as to target the vessel itself. This led to some further player speculation about what had happened on the vessel to leave it abandoned and infested.

With Roland unconscious in the top deck workshop, Zeno had to come up from the bridge to administer medical care. And while Roland was revived, there was no time for full recovery for him or Alissa, which meant that both injured characters' physical stats were halfway between injured and full value. Blaster and Roland stayed on guard on the top deck. Zeno went back down to the bridge to continue working on the computer. Xander, Alissa and Vincenzo went back down to the cargo deck. They inspected the other hold, where they found bales of vegetation. Xander and Alissa were in battle dress and a vacc suit respectively, but as Xander looked around the vegetation a large amount of dust (or spores?) came off it, which Vincenzo couldn't help but breath in - taking a dice of wounds to his Endurance - before running back to the elevator.

On the top deck - I can't quite remember the sequence - there were two attempts by aliens to come down the sloping passage. Both times Blaster was able to shoot them with his auto-rifle and kill them before they got within biting distance.

The session ended with the PCs exploring the final, second-lowest deck - the living area. This is where the module has a lot of detail, although I glossed over some of it in the interests of speedy exposition. Tony joined Xander, Alissa and Vincenzo to help with this - he figured out how to use the alien video display and the players realised this would be another source of information about the vessel's inhabitants and fate (and also gave more clues about the numbering system). Key information obtained was (i) that one room looked like it had been scoured from the inside by laser fire (in the module it refers to a plasma gun, but I changed this to laser fire because I'd already decided a heavy laser gun was in a part of the hydroponics area that the PCs hadn't got to yet), and (ii) that a second room - which had been locked from the outside, by jury rigging the mechanism, until the power going out on the ship had led to the lock failing - contained four bodies of the larval-type aliens, although one even smaller (so child-sized for the apparently smaller-than-human-sized vessel occupants). In the module these aliens are victims of a disease, but our game already featured a viral weapon as a key element in earlier sessions and so I wanted to go with something different. Hence larval-stage aliens.

I would expect our next session to see the PCs finish exploring the vessel - including the rest of the top deck - and to see more information about the alien ecology coming to light. (At this stage all I know is that it involves humanoid larvae, aliens, has something to do with the plants - both the bales with their dust/spores and the ones in the hydroponics area - and thongamonganite.)

Reflections
Although Classic Traveller presents itself as a more-or-less universal sci-fi system, and there are claims to that effect in some published products, it's actually quite specific in the sci-fi universe it presents. As I put it in an earlier post about the system,

The other thing that I was struck by is how bleak the default setting of Traveller is. The chance of dying during low passage transit is 1 in 6 for an ordinary person (1 in 12 with proper medical personnel overseeing the process). That's really high, and yet the rules are full of starship with low berths and passenger tables that show plenty of people willing to pay to travel in them. So the impression one gets is of worlds full of poor people willing to face a really high risk of death in order to travel to worlds that offer better prospects (but only 1 jump at a time!), while nobles lord it over the populace in their ridiculously expensive yet largely pointless interstellar yachts.

This seems like something that should be able to do Alien, which is one of the bleaker of the major sci-fi franchises. And our campaign already had a mysterious aliens and their strange ecologies aspect to it, coming out of the worlds that figured in the bioweapon episodes. And the psionics aspect - which is a bit more sci-fantasy than Alien but nowhere near the Star Wars level of things - could also be connected into it.

Although the system wasn't perfect, and I didn't use every aspect of it (there were one or two times when I should have called for PC morale checks and forgot; and I wasn't properly using the system for animal reactions either), it worked pretty well. The non-combat aspects - vacc suits, various technicians trying to make sense of the alien vessel, etc - went fine. And the combat was quick and visceral enough - with shattered faceplates, trying to get away from aliens so as to be able to fire on them, etc.

And shooting aliens down a starship corridor with a support weapon set to auto-fire seemed pretty Alien to me.
 

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pemerton

Legend
Nice session report.
Thanks!

JTAS 4 has the "Reticulan Parasite" which is the Xenomorph from Alien.
I didn't know that. Are you able to post stats?

Also - how do you handle grappling/overbearing etc in Classic Traveller? I've been happy enough with my approach but am interested in how others have done it.


EDIT: I found a collected JTAS on DrivethruRPG and it is currently downloading (on my slow connection). So I'll get to see those stats for myself!
 
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dragoner

solisrpg.com
Thanks!

I didn't know that. Are you able to post stats?

Also - how do you handle grappling/overbearing etc in Classic Traveller? I've been happy enough with my approach but am interested in how others have done it.


EDIT: I found a collected JTAS on DrivethruRPG and it is currently downloading (on my slow connection). So I'll get to see those stats for myself!

That should be better as it has a fairly involved write up by Traveller standards, with pictures and detailing it's life cycle. I seem to recall there was an adventure or amber zone with it, all around 1980, so pre Aliens.

Years ago I made this picture:
alien trav mix.jpg


Grappling I have used Brawling with an optional Parry, sometimes using Strength or less to pin, and the pinned able to break it if rolling Strength or less as well, with Brawling skill as a negative DM.
 

pemerton

Legend
Grappling I have used Brawling with an optional Parry, sometimes using Strength or less to pin, and the pinned able to break it if rolling Strength or less as well, with Brawling skill as a negative DM.
For pins, when it came up in an earlier session, I used opposed checks with Brawling skill as a DM plus a DM based on Str difference (but less than the numerical difference between Str scores).
 

darkbard

Hero
I suggested Traveller for two reasons:

(1) One of our group has been absent for a long time due to home renovation commitments, but he joined us yesterday (in fact we played at his house) and he has characters in Traveller but has never played Prince Valiant​

Tangentially, with this player's return, will your group reconvene its 4E game as well?
 


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