GURPS March Harrier GM's Campaign Retrospective


Now that the GURPS March Harrier campaign is over, here's a quick retrospective of what went right and wrong, and whether I'd like to run another GURPS Traveller campaign.

As a high level overview for people who haven't read this whole blog, I ran The Traveller Adventure using GURPS 4th Edition, with a group of players recruited over Discord.  We played weekly for 13 out of 14 weeks, using Foundry VTT for dice and maps and Discord for voice and text communications.  We had three consistent players for the whole campaign, plus a fourth player who joined a few weeks in and then played consistently.  We also had a few other players who dropped out after playing zero to one sessions.


One question is why I ran a Traveller campaign with GURPS, rather than Classic Traveller or MegaTraveller or Mongoose Traveller or T5.  The short version is that I think GURPS has far superior character generation, skill resolution, and personal combat rules to any other Traveller system, with the possible exception of Traveller Hero.  And there's a lot more GURPS Traveller stuff than Traveller Hero stuff.  But the drawback of using GURPS is that it's a huge system with way too many possibilities, so it's a challenge to constrain what the the players can use to keep the game from getting out of hand and turning into a rules quagmire.  Also it's probably harder to find players who like both GURPS and Traveller than players who just want to play Mongoose Traveller 2E.  There were a bunch of GURPS Traveller books for 3E, but there's only the one book (Interstellar Wars) for 4E, and that book is aimed at an earlier time period in the Traveller timeline, so adapting it to the year 1105 of the Third Imperium was a bit of work.  Anyway, I think the GURPS Traveller career templates from GTIW worked well.  One challenge was equipment, as GTIW doesn't have much, and GURPS Ultra-Tech has too much, so the GM needs to filter down to what equipment fits Traveller.  Also, GURPS has several possible systems for space combat; I ended up picking the one in GTIW just to try to be consistent and use as much as possible from one book.  Similarly, I used the trading rules from GTIW rather than the ones in GURPS Traveller Far Trader.

Why The Traveller Adventure?

First, nostalgia. I bought this adventure in paperback when it was new and I was in middle school, but never got around to running it. It was the first really large campaign in a single book I ever saw, and I always regretted not finding the time to run it when we were kids and had whole summers of free time.

Another reason I liked this adventure was I wanted to see if players could work together as a full merchant crew. I basically said that we needed a captain and a first officer, and that we needed a pilot and a navigator and a steward and a medic and an engineer, and let the players run with it. We ended up with a pretty well-rounded initial starship crew, though they were somewhat weak on other useful abilities like combat and thief/spy skills. The other challenge was that a few players made characters but then dropped out, but a starship needs a pilot, so sometimes the GM needs to run some characters as NPCs rather than just removing them.

Adventure Review

I'd like to briefly review The Traveller Adventure.  It was written by Games Designer Workshop (Chadwick, Harshman, Keith, Miller, and Wiseman) back in 1983.  You can get it (along with all the other Classic Traveller books) for $35 from farfuture.net.  It was re-released by Mongoose as The Aramis Adventure for Mongoose Traveller 1E, and you can get that version from drivethrurpg.  (The Mongoose version is pretty much identical to the original with a new cover.  I don't see any reason to prefer one over the other.)

If we're grading in a historical context, TTA definitely gets an A.  There weren't a lot of adventures this big available in 1983, and it was the first big self-contained campaign released for Traveller.  So for a lazy GM who wants a whole campaign in a box, it's a great start.  Drawbacks would be that you don't really get a fully ready-to-run campaign.  You get stats for the Aramis subsector, descriptions (in varying detail) for its worlds, some maps (but not as many as you want), descriptions (but not stats) for major NPCs, etc.  There's still a ton of work for the GM to do.  Furthermore, because of the scale of the adventure, it's really not possible to pre-prep everything in advance.  For example, you might have maps for one part of the surface of Aramanx, but what if the players steal a car and drive through another country that you didn't map?  At some point the players are going to do something the GM didn't expect, and the GM will have to wing things.  So you have to think of TTA as a campaign framework that the GM adds to, rather than a paint-by-numbers adventure.

One real issue with the adventure was that the whole plot depends on the PCs helping Gvoudzon (who may be a PC or an NPC) on Aramis.  If Gvoudzon is a PC then they probably will, because most PC's tend to help PCs because they're PCs.  (Also, if it's GURPS, and I say "Sense of Duty (adventuring companions) [-5] doesn't count against the disadvantage limit" then every single PC will usually have it, which is a way to bribe the players into cooperating with each other.)  If he's an NPC that they just met, then why are the PCs motivated to help this random Vargr break into a museum to steal back his stolen brooch that he alleges a pawnshop stole from him after he pawned it?  I was lucky enough that my players were game, but probably should have engineered some additional motivation, like Gvoudzon being an old friend of one of the PCs.  (In my defense, Gvoudzon was supposed to be a PC, but his player didn't show up.)

Another issue was that the Anolas' psionic drawbacks can really mess up the PCs (cumulative -1s or -2s to intelligence is no joke) over time, and it's not easy to find the Psionic Institute to fix the problem.  I chose to reduce the severity a bit and only have Gvoudzon (an NPC at that point) be severely affected, as he spent the most time with the anolas, so the rest of the crew could successfully operate the ship while looking for help.

The Zilan Wine chapter was basically navigating a bureaucracy, which would not be to every group's taste.  I was ready to start fast-forwarding through the details if the players seemed to hate it, but my group was up to the challenge and actually roleplayed talking to dozens of bureaucrats.  Again the prep challenge here was that the adventure has 47 Zilan bureaucrats, but none of them have names or sexes.  Fortunately random name generators exist.  Unfortunately most of them don't give you a nice mix of Solomani and Vilani names with the occasional Vargr name thrown in.  Also the different government buildings are in different places on Zila, but there's no map of Zila, or of its capital city Crescence.  Like I said, the GM has to do a lot of prep.

The adventure was fairly light on combat, which is a good thing in a high-tech setting because guns kill PCs.  We had a couple of gunfights, the standoff with the kidnappers on Aramanx and the attempted hijacking of the March Harrier on Junidy by Llellewyloly-rights activists.  We also had one melee fight, with Gani's morph axe taking down a feline pouncer on Pysadi.  The Aramanx fight resulted in a dead Captain Wilder, which was thoroughly deserved because the Captain had been abandoned by two players and I was sick of running him as an NPC.  (Some of the the players suspected that I rigged the combat to kill Wilder.  In practice, the rigging was limited to Wilder being automatically chosen as the sniper's target.  The to-hit roll and damage rolls were legit.  Again, guns kill PCs, so if there has to be a gunfight, have some disposable NPCs around.)

There was also one session featuring space combat, the space ambush of the March Harrier and a free trader and a patrol cruiser against various Tukera-affiliated freighters and scouts.  In theory the March Harrier was mostly a decoy and the patrol cruiser did most of the fighting, so a lot of the combat could be handwaved.  In practice I felt like it was necessary to actually run the fights (though the fights started with a morale check so the outgunned freighter captains could surrender), and the March Harrier actually got shot up once, so it was a reasonable mix of danger and quick resolution.  We used the space combat system from Interstellar Wars, which seemed to work okay in this limited instance.

Finally, the showdown on Jesedipere at the end of the adventure was the March Harrier crew plus a few Vargr refugees against the crew of a Tukera landing station plus two Kforuzeng corsairs, two Kforuzeng freighters, a Tukera patrol cruiser, and lots of Tukera and Kforuzeng bodyguards.  I think this was a very difficult fight for the PCs to win, with the only real chance being to turn Tukera and Kforuzeng against each other and mop up the depleted winner.  The PCs instead recorded the presence of the stolen Imperial Navy meson guns and then blew up the meson guns (using stolen Tukera Air/Rafts as improvised missiles), which I thought was a pretty good solution to mostly spoiling the bad guys' plans while also not dying.  They then told the Navy what had happened, which was a very Good Citizen thing to do, but which cost them a big reward from Oberlindes, who really wanted to keep the secret to blackmail Tukera.

With those nitpicks, I think it's an excellent adventure overall, with a nice mix of trade and following a couple of major criminal plots and exploring most of a subsector.  You just want to read it several times and then read multiple reviews before running it, so you can flesh out the weak parts.

Recruiting Players on the Internet

Finding reliable players is hard.  I advertised this game on this blog, on the biggest GURPS Discord, on the biggest Traveller Discord, and on a few smaller IRC and Discord servers where I knew people.  That got about a dozen interested players, one of whom I knew and the rest of whom I did not.  Making GURPS characters is a lot of work, which some players love and some players do not, so I made a bunch of pre-generated characters in case anyone wanted one.  Some players made characters (including one amazingly detailed character) but then didn't play.  Some players agreed to use a pre-generated character but didn't play.  One player played once but then dropped out.  It happens.  Free time evaporates and not everyone enjoys every game.  My plea to players would be that if you're going to drop out, be a grownup and tell the GM you're dropping out, so the GM can start working on replacing you rather than wondering.  Don't just disappear.

Anyway, amidst all the chaos, we actually got three starting players who played every week or almost every week, and one more replacement player who played almost every week after he joined.  So a pool of about ten players winnowed down to four reliable players.  Kind of like a Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel.  One suggestion I would have for GMs recruiting random players on the Internet is to use adventures where the early sessions work for a lot of players, later sessions work for fewer players, and it's not a huge deal if some players drop out.  Adapt to the reality of the player pool and make it work.  This particular adventure was not really that kind of adventure, because the PCs were owner/operators of a merchant ship and some continuity was required, but the crew recruited two new members (one plot-critical NPC and one new PC) and lost two members (one to a bullet head wound and one because he fell in love with the captain of another ship while in prison) and it mostly worked out.

Things I Did Wrong

In the first session, on Aramis, after the PCs tried to meet Roet Bannerji at the Travelers Aid Society, Commander Eneri Giilaan of Imperial Naval Intelligence was supposed to overhear them mentioning Bannerji's name and then later try to meet with them and gather information about Bannerji.  I totally forgot to do this encounter.  I later moved Giilaan to Aramanx so the PCs could still have a contact with the Navy.

I wanted to avoid too much railroading and let the players decide what to do, so I decided that any starting PC with Merchant Rank 1 or higher was a co-owner of the March Harrier and any other starting PC or any PC that joined later was just hired crew.  I also said that the captain had to have Merchant Rank 3 and the First Officer had to have Merchant Rank 2.  This was probably excessively complex.  In practice the crew never voted themselves any dividends from the March Harrier's operational profits, so it would have worked just as well if I made everyone hired crew.  I could have also provided an NPC captain to railroad them around the subsector, but I really wanted players to have more agency.  Of course the player who was playing the captain dropped out so they ended up with an NPC captain for a while anyway, until he got shot and the players promoted a PC to replacement captain.

I spent a bunch of time making a spreadsheet with all the March Harrier's passengers and cargo and fuel expenses and stuff.  Ultimately, other than the ship generating enough cash that the PCs got their monthly paychecks, I don't think it mattered.  So I probably should have handwaved more there.

One of the PCs was looking for a Psionic Institute and actually found the (illegal, undercover) Psionic Institute on Junidy but was so paranoid that he was afraid to talk to them for fear they were going to narc him out to the Imperium.  I thought that was kind of funny but probably should have sorted it out better so the player could play with psionics.

Two Vargr NPCs, Gvoudzon and Gharukh, had a complicated interpersonal relationship.  I don't think the PCs really figured out what was going on, so I probably should have either cut that out or made it simpler.

I never managed to get the crew to do the Yebab alien side quest, which I think would have been a lot of fun.  They just always seemed to avoid Yebab, until the very end of the campaign, where they were in too much of a hurry to take any charters.

Things I Think I Did Right

I entered all the character templates from GTIW into gcs (gurpscharactersheet.com) so nobody else ever has to do that again.

It was a low-combat campaign, with only one melee fight, three gunfights, and one protracted series of 3-on-1 space battles.  Combat is very slow to resolve and tends to kill PCs, so I think this was a good choice, and explained why we finished in 13 3-hour sessions.

I gave out a reasonable amount of character points (4 per PC per session if they played up for the whole session, less if they arrived late), and a reasonable amount of cash, which seemed to keep the players happy.  In a long campaign, giving out too many rewards can eventually lead to a power explosion problem, but in a short campaign it's fine.

I tried to say yes to player requests, like figuring a way out mail-order stuff from high-tech Rhylanor, or letting a PC have a secret power, or letting one PC surgically install a hidden compartment in another PC, or letting PCs quickly train each other in various starship skills during jump, or letting a PCs set up a food truck on a remote planet to make some extra cash during a layover, or letting the PCs steal a ground vehicle and avoid a long hike through a combat zone, or letting the PCs turn Air/Rafts full of chemical fuel and fertilizer into missiles.

I didn't say yes to extreme player requests though, like stealing Bannerji's Far Trader and having an extra starship to play with.  (The adventure specifically warned against that one.)

I decided to handwave some rules that didn't look very fun, like the large amounts of maintenance that starships in GTIW need.  A jump in GTIW requires four skill rolls, but I decided to only do that a couple of times: the first time they jumped after annual maintenance in case something was broken, and when they jumped in a big hurry to evade pursuit.  Otherwise I tried to make routine starship operations routine.

Will I run GURPS Traveller Again?

Maybe.  There are two other large Traveller campaigns available, Pirates of Drinax and Deepnight Revelation.  Drinax seems to be super-popular (because everyone wants to be a space pirate?) and maybe it would be hard to find players not already familiar with it.  Deepnight is more of a long exploration campaign.  Both would require a lot of prep, but both are so large you can't thoroughly prep everything.

I could also run something smaller, like the crew of an active duty Scout/Courier doing small scale exploration, or a detached duty Scout/Courier and his friends bumming around doing whatever they felt like, or the crew of a noble's yacht doing whatever Sir needs, or The Love Boat In Space aboard a luxury liner.  I would probably avoid another trading campaign, just because it's a lot of random cargo and passenger rolls and spreadsheet work to little effect unless the players really love that kind of thing.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the Traveller universe and the GURPS system. While it was a great deal of fun to play through this adventure, we really had to stick to the rails in order hit the major plot points and finish it. The GM helped us out with instant recaps when we stalled, and we finished in a quarter of the time he projected it would take. Even so, within the rails that couldn't be eliminated, there were a lot of leeway for non-plot activities. Our pop-up food stall was inspired by the Flying Astroburger.

    For a setting where it's considered pretty normal to operate in the gray areas of the law, and a common aspiration is for an FGMP-15 and battledress, I thought our shopping lists were pretty modest for the most part. It helps that Ultra-Tech has a much larger selection of gear even for non-military campaigns, and that the abilities conferred by the gadgets were mostly laid out. It is a far cry from Book 3 of the LBBs, where the equipment section begins with an accurate disclaimer for such a small publication.

    I didn't have a problem with the crew lacking non-starship skills, as we were able to improve with a few generous points after every session, picking up Everyman skills that were used, and even Mundane traits.

    And for the record, as a player who enjoys logistics, the March Harrier finances spreadsheet was very useful when figuring out what high-TL gear was affordable from Rhylanor.

    Lastly, I enjoyed the GM's style, although I might have thought he moved on a little too quickly from time to time. Would I play in his proposed Traveller campaigns? Yes, most definitely, if invited. Ideally, I'd like to continue with my character instead of creating a new one. I believe I have left him off in a good position to jump off onto the prudent next phase of his life. And being circumspect about psionic inquiries is something prudent in an empire that makes it highly illegal. Even to the extent that Gani was not willing to take that level of confidence with the crew if he didn't have to.

    Now if only I could get the crew together to determine if they're willing to give him cash for his ship-share the Harrier. He's willing to be negotiated down to an amount that is affordable...


GURPS March Harrier GM's Campaign Retrospective

Introduction Now that the GURPS March Harrier campaign is over, here's a quick retrospective of what went right and wrong, and whether I...