Mustering Out Blues

At the end of February, I ran a game for Games on Demand Online I call Mustering Out Blues. It’s a Traveller hack that came from a couple-three different places: (1) the classic Traveller campaign I started at the height of the pandemic that evolved into Galactic Adventures, the game I described in a previous post; (2) a now-vanished blog post I once saw that played with Traveller’s lifepath character creation mechanics in an interesting way; and (3) my friend Nathan’s suggestion that maybe the Pool would work for Traveller.

Huh. Traveller with the Pool. There’s a kind of synergy between the two that starts from the way that rolling through the career tables in almost every iteration of Traveller–survival, promotion, skills, re-enlistment, you’re four years older; now, do it again or “muster out” and, bam, now what?–invites players to make up a little story about what’s happening to explain the ups and downs of the dice: “Oof, barely made that survival roll, but got a promotion out of it and learned Blade Combat; gosh, must have faced down some pretty hairy stuff this term!” For a player of the Pool, faced with the blank page problem of writing 50 words to be their character, this sequence can be a gold mine of inspiration. In fact, you don’t even need the 50 words, just the outline of a biography and some little moments in it.

We walked through the Mustering Out Blues character creation process in about an hour and a half; you can hear us bootstrapping ourselves through procedures that resemble Traveller. At one point, I talk about “negative traits,” which are not a thing in the Pool but which I wanted to incorporate into the game because of how they contributed to worldbuilding in character creation, which is also nice aspect of classic Traveller. The game teaches you what the world is like as you create your character. In this game, you can hear me explain that the two careers that have negative “service modifiers,” mercenaries and scouts, are the ones that are lower in class compared to the bougie merchants and the hoi polloi of the Fleet and the Diplomatic Service. Once I randomly determine their “mustering out world,” you can hear the PCs start to get a sense of place, and to connect their characters to where they’ve washed up.

Vadwaus (Mandala 0201) B943620-B
The Vadwausi derive from Spacer settlers who came to mine the system’s two asteroid belts. Wealthy Vadwausi have settled on-planet in stately manor-domes where they live off dividends from their belting investments. The Vadwaus Downport Exchange is famous for its freewheeling trading routines, and speculators have been known to make and lose fortunes in a matter of minutes.

Library Data for Planet Vadwaus

The notion of “Spacer culture” is rendered canonical for this game by virtue of its being there to read in black and white on the screen, a subculture spanning several systems in this star cluster, conquered less than a century ago by an expanding Imperium of Humanity. I based them on the culture encountered by the spacefarers in Joan D. Vinge’s 1978 novel The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, cyberdemocracy and all. One player explicitly positioned his ex-Navy guy as sympathetic to the Spacers on more or less philosophical grounds as part of the reason for being on Vadwaus.

Setting-centered Story Now play, from “Setting and Emergent Stories”

We were right there in the first box of Ron’s 2011 essay on how setting-rich play can produce emergent rather than pre-plotted or retrospective narrative, steps 1 and 2. Before we took a break, we knew where the characters were and how they were related to one another–old friends, business partners, clients, and so forth. I also rolled on the rumor table to see what was “in the air” on planet Vadwaus, and got lucky.

ItemThe Sultan Mandala Pasha intends to suppress cyberdemocratic factions on a nearby Spacer world and install a viceroy there.
Rumor from the Grapevine on Vadwaus

Something was going on! There was only one nearby Spacer world, and it was named Arano. We looked up the library data for Arano.

Arano (Mandala 0401) C100753-C SG Na Va
The roofed warrens of this vacuum planet are home to neocratic communities, whose cyberdemocratic moderators hold specialized political roles that interact with the public in different ways to represent local, expert, and “official” perspectives. During the Imperial Annexation, the Aranians declared their planet a “free port” in order to avoid full-scale takeover.

Library Data for Planet Arano

At this point, I don’t know how any of this is going to matter, but I do know that the next NPC they meet is going to care very deeply about the fate of Arano, one way or another.

When we reconvene and begin play in earnest–step 3 in Ron’s model–I put my thumb on the scale and rolled for an encounter from among the six Spacer sub-types I’d created, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the result was a Spacer “moderator,” but at the moment it seemed like magic. Clearly, a political type from Arano who wanted or needed something from one of the PCs. But which one, and what?

As you can hear in this Mustering Out Blues “actual play” recording, I chose the ex-Scout with a folk hero reputation for her storied defiance of the pirates; the moderator wanted to recruit her to rally people to the defense of Arano (Spacer Moderator: “We think with a determined show of resistance and resolve, that perhaps the scoundrel who calls himself the Sultan of Mandala Cluster will back down”), a sort of figurehead of political resistance: “Will you join our cause?” The Scout demurred publicly, but she invited the moderator to meet with her friends (“What’s in it for us?”) and they decided that what they should do (“Is there a different job here?”) is somehow save cyberdemocracy on Arano from the threat of an Imperial takeover. The scout just happened to have an alien data receiver that could be used to set up a secure communications network enabling them to continue to have their cyberdemocratic referenda and whatnot even in the face of Imperial occupation. This was something that the player had created during character generation as the accoutrement to accompany his character’s Education skill; another player, with Pilot skill, took a ship at my suggestion.

In that first encounter, you can hear the main rules adjustment I made to the Pool: you can pay credits for dice, to the tune of one die per order of magnitude over 100 (so 1 die at Cr1,000; 2 dice at Cr10,000; etc.). At the other side, you then have the additional option, instead of taking a die or uttering a monologue of victory as per normal Pool rules, of taking a payout at the same scale, based on the number of successes you roll.

This had a delightful effect later in the game, starting at about the 1:00-hour mark, when the techie PC setting up the system turns into a kind of far future Elon Musk to provide DAAS (Democracy As A Service) technology to the Aranians. He could have narrated the win, or put a die in his pool, but he chose the payout of a cool Cr100,000. One hundred kilocredits, baby! “That’s double my net worth.”

So I narrated in pirates coming to look for the device as the sequel to that success, and after that it went from bad to worse. They couldn’t outrun them, so the pirates started to board. They did an emergency crash FTL jump to get away, and wound up on the far side of the cluster with pirates still aboard. Even the space pilot’s armored space suit didn’t help him defeat the pirates, who took control of the ship, and the egg, and marooned the crew on a low-tech world off the regular spacelanes.

And that was the adventure! I really loved how the “payout” mechanic affected the game, capturing for me the kind of mercenary ethos of classic Traveller play in a way that seems very organic. Money is useful in the game, in a very real way, so you want more of it–even when going for it exposes you to complications and headaches that maybe you didn’t ask for.

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2 responses to “Mustering Out Blues”

  1. I’ve been delayed in commenting because, well, a lot of it simply speaks for itself and doesn’t need me to say, “Look at that.”

    In game situations/play like this, I want to know more about how characters, groups, entities, effecs come directly into play. Or rather, what they were doing or how I (if GMing in this) was thinking about them before that point.

    That might not be clear, and I’m not sure how to make it more clear without my annoying diagrams.* But … going from how I’ve played things over decades (and decades! four-plus decades means I can use two plurals), sometimes I make something up between sessions which fits perfectly with things we knew, and it enters play in such a way that of course it was involved all along, fictionally speaking. Whereas other times, I do what I think is the same thing, and it’s a horrible humpbacked interjection into play which is clearly trying to be a gotcha or a setup or a brilliant plot point of some kind, and everyone including me is deeply unhappy with it – immediately, too, so that I am gazing right there at play and thinking, “Why didn’t someone stop me.”

    I stress here that it doesn’t matter whether this thing was made up before this session (as I described above) or improvised into play right that moment. The same two effects are possible. And it also isn’t about whether I grabbed the players, or used brilliant GM timing mojo, or played my innocent face so well that they were so, so surprised. In fact, when I used to do such things, the “thud, stillness of death” for me as well as everyone else was even louder.

    So I’m interested in your pirates. I can see that they were “there” from the start of play, and I’m good with assuming that their appearance had that nice-feeling fit for everyone. Without interrogating you or demanding justification for their appearance, that’s a variable I’m reflecting about, at least.

    I wish I could say some great or useful thing about Traveller + Pool, but it does seem so functional that I don’t have much to add.

    * Yes! Even ones that very few people have seen yet. (Collective response: eye-roll, “Oh, goodie.”)

  2. The question, “Well, where did the pirates come from?” makes total sense to me. I gloss over it in my post, but looking back at it I see that there’s some interesting negotiation at the table involved in bringing them into play.

    During the key player’s action–the player who took his “win” as a cash payout rather than a die or narration–he wondered what would be the consequences of _not_ narrating. “I still fundamentally succeed, right?” The rules I wrote for the game say I’m supposed to say what happens on “generally but not generously favorable terms,” so yes, you still succeed. You convince them that the system works, but anything else that might go wrong, I’m allowed to narrate that in. “Okay, I’ll take the money.” Okay, great; where does that money come from? Are you using insider information to make a killing on the Spacer stock market? “I get a microfee from each cyberdemocratic subscription.” This is great fun for me and the other players–this is where the contemporary buzzword “software as a service” was parodied as “democracy as a service”–but now I have to figure out what to say next. I even say, okay, it’s only fair that I introduce some complication now.

    At that point, even though the set-up for the action and thus the implicit stakes were limited to “this is a test of the system to convince the Aranians that it could work,” the implication of where the money came from was that _it totally worked_. Millions of people signed up when they expected only a few thousand. They had done what they came here to do! I needed an idea, so I hit the button I’d created to roll on a random “Space Events” table. There must have been some kind of lag or something, so I wound up hitting the button three times before I saw a response, and this got posted to the Roll20 chat window:

    Referee (GM):The ship encounters the space patrol
    The ship is the target of a pirate attack!
    The ship is the target of a pirate attack!

    “Here’s what I think,” I told the players. “I hit the button too many times. Space patrol was the first thing I rolled, but clearly pirate attack wants to happen.” Then I did the thing that, Ron, you describe as “a horrible humpbacked interjection into play,” saying something like, okay, the pirates bust into your ship and steal the mcguffin. In the silence that follows, a player named Mike says, “Is that a done deal, or are they bursting in with intent to steal?” Closer to the latter, I say, backing away from the original humpbacked interjection I’d offered. And then we start doing what we should have done before I started rolling for random events: setting the stage for what’s about to happen (“We’re parked on the dark side of a moonlet”) and establishing the context for it: The pirates are tracking the encrypted communication patterns; they can’t read them but they can follow them. “I’d like it,” Mike said, “if what’s painting us isn’t the democratic stuff but the financial information.” Delightful and thematically on point.

    At that point I think we had successfully pivoted from what was going on before (saving cyberdemocracy on Arano) to what was happening now (pirate attack!). I was lucky to have some really skillful players; Mike from my perspective was the MVP of the session, for a lot of reasons.

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