In My Traveller Universe: Near Space

One of my favorite sourcebooks for Traveller and the Cepheus System is definitely Stellagama Publishing’s Near Space. It’s a small booklet containing maps and stats for the stellar systems in the vicinity of our solar system based on current astronomical data. If you plan to run a game in the “near” future focused on exploring our stellar neighborhood, you can either do the heavy hauling yourself or just rely on the great work.

These days I am thinking a lot of the Traveller universe, games I’d love to run, and the Cepheus Engine especially in its “Light” variant. One of the campaign ideas I had was one about an early human star ships on a – let’s say – five year mission to explore the Milky Way. Starting from the solar system the ship and its crew would venture out into the unknown, finding strange new worlds, investigating mysteries, facing dangers, and all that jazz.

But if you want to rely on “Traveller-esque” rules and keep the “early space exploration” premise, you quickly run into issues. Even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is more than one parsec away from our solar system which means that Jump-1 drives can’t reach it. The authors of Near Space solved these issues by introducing a number of objects from the “Hypothetical Star Chart”, which help fill these gaps. The objects on this chart are all hypothetical brown or red dwarfs which could plausibly exist in these places without us being able to easily detect them nowadays.

If you prefer to keep things scientifically accurate, you face the problem that you need Jump-2 capability before humanity wants to read its nearest neighbor. Of course one could easily replace the standard Jump drive with another FTL method, but that’s something I’d like to avoid at the moment.

For my campaign, I’d like to keep things as simple as possible. I intend to use the CE Light rules as written, without too many tweaks and hacks. In my version of the near future, humanity is mostly united (at least when it comes to space exploration) and has reached a tech level equivalent to 9 with some level 10 prototypes thrown in. I was considering replacing the Jump drive by something inspired by the Alcubierre drive, but decided against it. Instead I’ll make use of the hypothetical stellar objects proposed by Near Space.

The focus of the campaign should be exploration. But there should also be political intrigue, and some conflicts. Such a huge undertaking like a multi-year expedition to our stellar neighborhood is probably controversial. There might be groups on Earth who are vehemently against it out of numerous reasons. Such a group could – for example – try to sabotage the mission.

The huge question still unanswered is whether I want to introduce alien species or not. First contact could be extremely exciting with the player characters trying to figure out how to overcome the communication barrier. Alternatively the lack of alien life could be intriguing also. “Where is everyone?” could easily be the central question. Perhaps something or someone wiped out all technologically advanced species and humanity just shouted a loud “hello” into the void by developing their first jump drives. The best approach is probably to have both. There are some alien species, but there are also signs of extinct alien civilizations with planets littered with ruins, derelict fleets in space, but no indications what actually happened to them. Everyone loves a good mystery. In the end the player characters might be forced to find a way to protect Earth from a terrible threat!

One aspect of the campaign I want to mostly gloss over is a future history. Most players actually are not that interested in a fictitious history lesson anyway. It’s also extremely hard to extrapolate future events without relying on cliches. I’ll probably just describe the status quo and ignore what lead to this.

At this point I should probably ask a couple of friends what kind of campaign they are more interested in. Sure, I could prepare both, but since I regularly suffer from motivation issues, it’s more likely that I work only one of these campaigns at a time.

The Cepheus Engine As Multi-Genre RPG?

First and foremost the Cepheus Engine like the game it tries to emulate, Traveller, are science fiction roleplaying games. But instead of being limited to just sci-fi adventure stories, could Cepheus handle games in other genres? While thinking about what kind of games I could run with Cepheus Light, I wondered if the CE would actually work as a multi-genre roleplaying system.

Historical and pseudo-historical games are very easily done using the Cepheus System. The game assumes that the various worlds the player characters travel to have different tech levels from 0 (Stone Age) to 15 and beyond. The modern world is about tech level 8. The game also lists weapons, armor and equipment suitable for a variety of tech levels. So the CE is already designed with various levels of technology in mind.

The only problem I see are the CE careers which have been tailored to fit the implied setting. Retirement rewards like space ships, or certain skills might be inappropriate in a game set into medieval times for example. But if you use an alternate character creation method like the one I mentioned in my last post, things should work out quite nicely. It should also be quite possible to hack the existing careers into something more fitting to the kind of game you want to run. More adventurous referees might even want to design their own careers.

If you add fantastical elements to the game, things get a bit more complicated. The Cepheus Engine does not have a magic system out of the box. You could just use psionics and call it magic, or you could try to adapt an existing magic system from a fantasy roleplaying game. I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I guess you could just take the magic system from an old edition of D&D and use it with Traveller.

Alternatively you could just wait for the release of Sword of Cepheus, a sword & sorcery version of the Cepheus System. Omer Golan-Joel from Stellagama Publishing is currently working on that one. This project actually made me think about the CE as a multi-genre game in the first place.

So why should anyone actually want to use the Cepheus Engine for anything else than what it was designed for? First and foremost CE is a simple, easy to learn roleplaying game. If you are already comfortable with the system, you could easily run/play games in other genres without relearning everything. The CE is also pretty robust. You can hack it easily without fearing to break everything. Of course Traveller or the Cepheus Engine are not the only games you can hack to run in other genres. But if you like the 2d6 mechanics but want to run a non-scifi game, the Cepheus Engine might still be a valid choice.

Alternate Character Creation Rules For Cepheus

Traveller (and Cepheus for that matter) are (in)famous for their character creation. Being able to die during character creation is one of the quirks for which we love that game. But there are times when you want to create a character exactly how you envisioned them. Here are my ideas on how to houserule character creation:

  1. Instead of rolling for your six characteristics distribute 42 (or probably 45 to 50 points for a more heroic game) among Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing. No characteristic may be higher than 15.
  2. Pick your career, there’s no qualification roll needed, but you have to fulfill the requirements.
  3. Instead of rolling on the skill tables you may pick which skill you want learn or raise.
  4. Advancement is a bit tricky. With Referee approval variations are possible, but personally I’d limit Advancement to once per two terms of service. Otherwise you’ll end up with a party of Admirals, Generals, and the like.
  5. Re-enlistment is automatic and there are no survival rolls. With Referee approval you may switch careers.
  6. The maximum number of terms is still 7.
  7. Players are allowed to pick their benefits from the table, but you can’t choose the same benefit twice without GM approval.

There’s a high risk that characters created in such a way are extremely skilled and well-off. I recommend that players and referees work together to build somewhat balanced and fun characters. And if everything else fails, you can still return to the old random generation method.

A Roleplaying Games blog

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