Learning Traveller, Part 2: Combat Simulation

Go back to the beginning? Read: Learning Traveller 1

Having read through the Book 1 chapter on Combat, I feel ready to pitch two of my previously generated characters against each other. This will be a training simulation: we can imagine the two old hands meeting in some kind of urban combat practice range, complete with ruined structures and rubble. I am minded of those training montages from SF films, but that’s just for colour.

I learned an awful lot about Traveller from reading the Combat rules. It continues to amaze me how unlike the classic game modern retro-clones are; it seems there is little substitute for returning to the primary source. The strongest impression, however, has been the returning flood of memories from playing this game back at the beginning of my hobby.

While I doubted it for a good few years, I now believe that I was playing Traveller sometime around 1979-1980, aged 8-9 years. Memories of the Combat chapter firmly pre-date High School in 1983, gaming around my friend Daniel’s house. Anyway, that is my personal history and probably not something to dwell on here.

Going Solo

As with my past solo actual play posts, I will sprinkle the core narrative of the game with a detailed set of notes on what I was doing with the rules and dice. Any paragraphs in italics are game notes, with the narrative in regular text. Usually, the italics are longer than the narrative in the first few games, so I hope this proves helpful to interested readers.

If you’re just wanting my evaluation of the Combat Rules, skip down to the What I Learned section.

Grabbing my notes and dice, with the rules on standby

Scenario Set-up: Urban Simulation

Aspen and Cassius have decided to sharpen their weapon skills with a friendly simulation. They‘ve hired a combat range modelled around an urban zone. Aspen has brought along his Laser Carbine and Cutlass, while Cassius is carrying his Rifle. Neither is wearing armour, largely because they haven’t decided what to go shopping for yet.

I am trying to keep things simple for this first outing. I don’t want to mess around too much with gear until I have a better feeling for how combat works. The first thing I do is calculate the weight of the character’s gear: Aspen’s Laser Carbine and Power Pack plus the Cutlass totals 9.25kg, which fits inside his Strength 10 allowance with no penalties; Cassius’ Rifle, when loaded, weighs 4.5kg, and he is carrying a spare clip to total 5kg to fit inside his Strength 6 allowance. Thus, neither character has to worry about encumbrance.

Into The Zone…

Each of the men enters the combat zone via different entrances. To simulate the realities of combat, they will not be entirely sure of the other’s position until they “bump”.

Following the Combat procedure, we determine if either party gets surprise. I roll 1D each, with any result 3 or more greater than the other indicating surprise. Die Modifiers (DMs) are as follows: Aspen has military experience +1; Cassius has the Tactics skill plus military experience, totalling +2. I am using two different coloured dice with yellow for Aspen and red for Cassius: Aspen scores 2 while Cassius scores 7, giving the latter surprise.

The next step is to determine the encounter range. I imagine this being an urban ruin so we apply the City -4 DM to a 2D roll on the Encounter Range table: roll 7, scores 3 = Short Range. This is defined as being, “at sword or pole arm point, 1 to 5 meters.”

Aspen moves quickly through the ruins, sticking to cover and listening intently. Cassius is similarly moving at pace and trying to catch a glimpse of his target. Suddenly, Cassius turns a corner and spots Aspen about 3 meters ahead with his back to the Army veteran. Smiling to himself, Cassius knows he might be able to end this fight before it even begins.

Surprise is nice in Traveller: you get to act, once per 15 second round, until the other side raises the alarm. In this situation, it’ll be a single action but I do like that rule. By the way, all actions are simultaneous in each round which means that it doesn’t particularly matter which order you take player turns. I imagine I‘ll go around the table in a multi-player game.

The next step in the combat sequence is escape and avoidance, but I don’t think Cassius is going to do that because he’s here to best his pal in combat. This seems almost certain given the element of surprise.
Cassius has to declare his movement status and then gets to indicate his target for attack. I think Cassius will Stand and shoot his rifle at Aspen.

Bringing his rifle up quickly, Cassius plants his feet and aims at Aspen. Grinning, he pulls the trigger.

To resolve the shot, we will be rolling 2D and seeking an 8+ to hit. The modifiers are the interesting element.

Cassius uses a rifle and has Dexterity 9. This gives him +2 because he has the Advantageous Dexterity Level of 9 or better. The rifle against no armour gives +3 and at Short range another +1. Cassius has Rifle-2 to give him another +2. Total DM = +8. Nice.

Roll 2D, score 9+8 = 17. Cassius hits Aspen. The rifle inflicts 3D wound points. Roll 8 scored. Because this is the first wound in a combat, all the wound points go to a single randomly determined physical characteristic: Strength, Dexterity, or Endurance. I roll D3, score 1 for Strength. Thus, Aspen takes 8 points to his Strength 10, reducing it to 2. As his Strength is still positive, Aspen doesn’t go unconscious.

The rifle cracks sharply and the bullet whizzes across the short distance to Aspen, striking him in the upper left arm with a thump. The big man yelps in pain and is turned sideways by the impact. The surprise is over.

The surprise round ends. We’ve resolved the first 15-second round. Remember: all attacks and blows are simultaneous in a round, so it doesn’t matter which way around we resolve things.

Aspen declares he will stand, dropping his carbine and drawing his cutlass to strike at Cassius.
Cassius declares he will open range (move away) while shooting again at Aspen. Thus, according to the Movement table, Cassius will take one round to reach Medium range. Aspen is going to get just one chance to strike.

Aspen’s cutlass whistles out of the sheath as his carbine drops to his side, caught on his shoulder by the sling. The big man slashes out wildly, trying to down Cassius as the rifle cracks, a second round fired.

Aspen doesn’t have the required Strength (STR) 11 to gain a bonus with the Cutlass, but he’s well above the minimum 7 with his STR 10. No DMs there. Drawing incurs a -3, short range gives a +2, Aspen’s Cutlass-1 gives another +1, and no armour gives +4.

Aspen needs 8+ on 2D with a +4 DM. Rolls 11+4 = 15. Hit! Damage is 2D+4, scores 12. Cassius’ first wound goes to a random characteristic, roll D3 for a 2 = Dexterity. Thus, 12 points of damage go onto Cassius’ Dexterity (DEX) 9, reducing it to zero. The remaining 3 points go wherever Cassius chooses, so I allocate them to Endurance (END), taking END 9 down to 6. Cassius has had a characteristic reduced to zero, so he will be going unconscious. But, remember, actions are simultaneous.

Aspen moves deftly with the cutlass and cuts Cassius across the shoulder, cutting into his torso from above with the edged 70cm blade. Meanwhile, Cassius’ rifle cracks.

We already know the DM +8 applies, we roll 10+8 = 18 to hit. Damage is 3D, rolls 12. The dice show 6, 3, 3. Each dies is applied to a different one of Aspen’s characteristics, in any way that he choose. He opts to take the 6 on his END 9, reducing that to 3; he takes a 3 to his DEX 3, taking him to zero; he takes the remaining 3 to his STR 2, reducing it to zero and leaving 1 point; the last point is applied to END, reducing it to END 2. Aspen has two characteristics at zero and is therefore unconscious and severely wounded. Good job this is a training exercise.

The bullet from the rifle penetrates Aspen’s torso, ripping a wound through his abdomen. Both men collapse as unconsciousness pulls them down. The cutlass slides from Aspen’s grip as he falls, clattering on the concrete beneath him. Cassius’ grip on the rifle similarly loosens, the sling catching the weapon’s weight as the smaller man drops from the pain.

The simulation ends. No clear victor, although Aspen requires far more serious medical attention. Attendants swarm into the range to carry the men to the Medbay.

Game over.

What Did I Learn?

Traveller’s combat system is, to my mind, pretty straightforward and abstracts a lot of factors. With fewer combatants, I didn’t need to track the relative positions of fighters using the line grid. Although all of the modifiers make things look complex, most of them are pre-determined and could be noted on the character sheet easily. Two factors need a little matrix on the character sheet (or you can steal these excellent weapon cards from the Tales To Astound! blog): the Weapons Matrix for DMs vs armour types, and the Range Matrix for DMs due to range. Neither seems onerous to me.

The combat system is pretty quick and deadly. This is the reputation of the game, so it’s not a shocker, but surprise was clearly the deadly factor here. I also realised the necessity of melee weapons in tight quarters, and noticed that once you are in Close Range (touching distance) pistols and daggers come into their own. I think most modern gamers would be a little stunned by the sense of brutal realism from what is actually a pretty abstract combat engine. It was, frankly, an exciting and quick experience slowed only by my note-taking.

Finally, I noticed some interesting omissions from the weapons available in 1977 Classic Traveller: there is no axe and there is very deliberately no Laser Pistol. I loved this quotation regarding the latter:

Referees may feel free to create other weapons to suit the needs and desires of Traveller society. For example, laser pistols (very expensive, and perhaps unreliable), pneumatic guns functioning on compressed gas, and relatively silent, or light machineguns (heavier and of greater effectiveness than the automatic rifle).

Characters and Combat: Traveller Book 1; GDW 1977, page 40

How Useful Are The Combat Rules?

The Traveller Combat chapter provides a solid and very easy to learn structure for running combats. Given that the primary role of a game structure is to answer two core questions, this set of rules is consistent with that need.

(1) What do the characters do? The characters are trying to stay alive and can EITHER opt to disengage OR engage the enemy in melee or ranged combat.

(2) How do the players do it? There is a clear process fought in 15-second rounds. Players declare their character’s movement status and indicate an attack form plus target. 2D6 are rolled with a target number of 8+, modified by character skill + range DMs + weapon/armour DMs + any relevant DMs from low/high Strength or Dexterity. If necessary, the Referee can bust out a sheet of lined paper and tokens to help track relative range bands between combatants.

Of course, if the players opt for other actions, it’s pretty trivial for the Referee to adjudicate those decisions within the framework of 15-second combat rounds and simultaneous activity.

All in all, this seems a pretty robust starting point for adventure. Game on!

Read Learning Traveller 3: Mercenary

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