Sunday, July 30, 2017

Game 256: MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients (1991)

       
I wasn't a fan of Paragon Software's first attempt to adapt the MegaTraveller RPG to the computer in 1990, and apparently neither were a lot of other people. The company had also made a hash out of another Game Designers' Workshop property, Space: 1889, the same year. Thus under a bit of pressure when it came time to develop the sequel, Paragon got help directly from the source: Marc William Miller, primary creator of the original Traveller tabletop RPG (1977). Miller wrote the plot and designed the game world for the sequel, suggested a number of interface changes, and wrote a letter to the player for the game manual.

The result is less than a sequel and more a second try. The game takes place in a different era than the original and doesn't reference it. The backstory, while setting up perhaps a more epic plot, is still pretty silly. Half a million years ago, a winged race called the Droyne came to dominance on a planet called Eskayloyt. The most intelligent of these beings came to rule his race and extend their reach into the galaxy, making all kinds of scientific discoveries and developing advanced technology. He fathered his own dynasty of immortal sons and grandsons and became known as Grandfather. Although his offspring helped him with his projects at first, in later years their goals began to clash, so Grandfather naturally decided to exterminate his lineage. Thousands of years of war followed, with entire planets destroyed and entire races wiped. Eventually, Grandfather was victorious but he mysteriously disappeared shortly afterwards.

Hundreds of thousands of years later, the ruins of the ancients awe and puzzle humanity. Humans are organized into the Third Imperium, which governs the space around hundreds of planets in a neo-feudal style, complete with an emperor, nobility, and knights.
      
The main mission begins: save a plant from encroaching slime.
     
The lead character is on vacation on the planet Rhylanor, touring an Ancients ruin, when the ruin suddenly comes to life and starts spewing a deadly slime. (Two mysterious figures are seen running away from the ruin about this time.) The slime flows across the land like lava, killing everything it touches. The Duke of Rhylanor offers a half-billion credit reward to anyone who can stop the slime from spreading. The lead character shows his video of the event to four fellow adventurers, and together they agree to team up, solve the mystery, and collect the reward.
      
The party gathers to embark on their altruistic mission.
      
The manual promises a much bigger game than the original, with hundreds of worlds and cities to visit and lots of side-quests to complement the main quest. Of course, the first game had that, too, but the "side-quests" were just somewhat boring ways of making money. I'm not sure if that's true here or not.

As with anything Traveller-related, a huge part of the game is character creation. Characters aren't rank amateurs but rather seasoned veterans who have developed skills and resources over long careers. You begin by choosing between human and "Vargr" races (the latter genetic manipulations of dogs with human hands) and then the character's sex. The game rolls randomly for strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and either social standing (humans) or charisma (Vargrs).
      
Character creation begins with basic attributes. You can immediately re-roll.
     
The first game only had navy, marines, scouts, army, and merchants, but this one has 27 career paths, some specific to humans, some to Vargrs, and some shared by both. They include raider, scientist, aristocrat, pirate, rogue, doctor, hunter, and law enforcer along with all of the original military and paramilitary branches. It's practically paralyzing.

You also choose your character's homeworld, including the option to make up one on your own, which further limits your service choices. The manual helps you not at all with this. 

After choosing your branch of service, your character goes through one or more "terms" with the branch, picking up some skills automatically and choosing others. The game offers nearly 200 skills, with options such as artisan, auto rifle, carousing, computer, energy weapons, engineering, history, interrogation, large blades, legal, navigation, pilot, ship's boat, trader, and zero-g environment. You can also spend skill slots improving attributes. One improvement here is that you can actually select the skill that you want and not just a skill "category" from which the skill is then chosen at random.
      
Selecting skills learned during training.
      
The manual tells you frankly that about 60 of the skills aren't used in the game, but suggests you still might want to develop them for future games. MegaTraveller 1 said that, too, and then didn't allow importing those characters into MegaTraveller 2. Anyway, you just know that among the roughly 140 skills that are theoretically useful in this game, some of them will never be called upon. A blind, first-time player has no idea what these are.

As I start out, I'm not sure whether skills can be acquired during the game itself or whether you have to learn them all during your training period. I'm also not sure how they develop. Both were a bit of a mystery in the original game, too. One thing that is a bit easier here is a "PAL system" (turned on by default), which causes characters who have a particular skill to pipe up when the skill might come in handy.  I would have killed for that in Wasteland.
       
The training center says this, but I noted that it didn't offer me any training in the "ATV" skill even after I drove one around for days.
     
Some characters can keep reenlisting, trading youth and vitality for more skills and benefits; others are mustered out automatically after a term or two. Either way, depending on how long you served, you can select from a variety of benefits, which include weapons, money, and additional skills.

Part of the reason that the process takes so long is that it's meant to serve as a character creator for the tabletop version of the game, too. In fact, there's an "advanced character" mode that allows you to choose from even more options, including pre-career education and training and more options for trying to get promoted and such during your career. There's even an option to print the character sheet.

Overall, creating a party, including dumping characters whose careers go off in the wrong direction, can take hours. This what I came up with:

  • Callahan, a human male with highest statistics in intelligence and education, but pretty high in almost everything. He spent a couple terms in law enforcement, learning skills like forensics, gambling, interrogation, interview, "jack of all trades," leader, linguistics, and "streetwise." (Unfortunately, he didn't learn any weapons!) He mustered out with 25,000 credits, a "low passage" ticket for travel, and a forensics kit. He's the party leader.
  • Gant, a male Vargr "explorer" with high strength, education, and dexterity but low endurance and charisma. He only served one term in his profession, learning gravity vehicles, laser weapons, navigation, pilot, and sensor operations before retiring with 9,000 credits and a "high passage" ticket. He'll be the pilot.
  • Corvina, a human female who spent one term as a scientist. High in just about everything but dexterity. I built her as the engineer/computer nerd of the group, with skills in computer, electronics, engineering, laser weapons, and vacuum suit. She ended up with a laser pistol.
  • Jennings, a human female with a couple terms as a navy lieutenant. High statistics (9 or above) in everything. I built her up as the crew doctor, but also someone skilled in some of the ancillary functions of a ship: laser weapon, medical, ship's boat, turret weapons, and vacuum suit. She got out with 55,000 credits and a laser rifle.
     
Jennings' completed character sheet.
     
  • Highway, a human male. I meant him to be something of the combat brute of the group, but he ended up getting his highest statistics in education and social standing (while still getting 8s or above in everything else). He was a pirate for 6 years, learning battle dress, brawling, demolitions, turret weapons, and zero-g maneuvering. He ended up with 50,000 credits and a "low passage" ticket.

The game begins with the crew on Rhylanor, looking to speak with Trow Backett, an expert on the history of the Ancients. The interface has been generally improved. Instead of a bunch of confusing symbols that you need experience with the game to interpret, you have fairly clear pictures of your 5 characters and their health meters, plus a few icons with clear symbols that lead to a variety of sub-options. Unfortunately, it's almost all mouse-driven. The only keyboard support just mimics a mouse, allowing you arrow through the options, since it clearly would have been too hard to map "search" to the "S" key and "use" to the "U" key and such.
      
Starting out. Those little dots are my guys.
      
Also unfortunately, too much depends on color. The character icons on the screen are tiny--even smaller than in the first game, where they were pretty small. You match up their colors with the color of their names at the top of the screen, which is great except I can't tell the difference between the first three. NPCs wandering into the party just confuses things more. Oh, and you can zoom out a couple of levels, which allows you to see more of the city but turns your character icons into single pixels.

The game does a useful thing with the coloring of NPCs. Those who still have something to say to you, or business to conduct with you, appear in green. Those who are just random background appear in white. The green ones turn to white when you're done with them. The contrast is enough that I can tell the difference.
      
The NPC in the lower-right still has something to say.
     
I ultimately visited three cities on Rhylanor (though I later reloaded), and all of them had roughly the same layout. They could have been a little smaller--75% of each city (so far) is just non-descript buildings that you can't enter. Each city seems to have a hospital, a library, a weapons shop, a police station, place to create new characters if necessary and train existing ones, a travel agent offering passage to other cities, Travelers' Aid Societies (I'm not a member and it costs 1 million credits to join), a bank, and a place to rent local transport vehicles.

In the first city (Rhylanor Startown), I bought weapons for all the characters who didn't retire with them, plus flak jackets and a medical kit for my doctor.
      
      
A wandering NPC sold me a ticket for the planet Fulacin, which is apparently "interdicted." He said I could get more passes to such planets on Jae Tellona.

Eventually, I found Trow Backett standing outside his university (a large and complex building that, for some reason, I couldn't enter). He said that the slime would cover the planet in 7 years, which I suppose gives a time limit of 2,555 days to my quest. He also related that his grandfather was an an expert on the Ancients, and that he himself is a member of the Ancients Collector's Society, a group of rich people who buy Ancients artifacts. He gave me one such artifact, a "Locator," found at a site on Inthe. He also gave me his grandfather's diary and 6 "coynes." Finally, he promised to reward me for new artifacts or news of new sites.
    
The first major NPC.
      
The diary lists 10 Ancients sites by letter only--most could refer to several possible planets. But it mentioned two planets by name--Inthe and Lablon--and an NPC named Clieve Senchur who knows more about the "coynes." I don't know where to find him, but one of the Ancients Collector's Society members is named Beckett Senchur, on the planet Enope.
     
The diary imparts some clues.
     
I also met another NPC, Lord Hollis, "administrative assistant to Duke Leonard of Rhylanor," who gave me either a side quest or another aspect of the main quest. He thinks the saboteurs who triggered the Ancients site are in league with a larger conspiracy, which has also made moves against the Imperiallines, Tukera Lines, and Naasirka mega-corporations. He asked me try to uncover the conspiracy.

The library helped turn these clues into specific places to visit. I kept track on a notepad of all the planets, cities, and people mentioned. Searching for ANCIENTS COLLECTOR'S SOCIETY gave me a list of all 8 members and their cities. Searching for the names of the mega-corporations victimized by the conspiracy gave me a list of 7 individuals worth speaking with.
      
The library fills in the game world by offering encyclopedia entries on a variety of topics.
      
I rented an ATV to explore the rest of the planet, but days passed swiftly as I roamed the surface. Since there's a time limit to the game, it seems like a better approach is to visit specific cities only when you have a reason to be there, and use the travel agent to do that (it's faster and cheaper), renting an ATV or "grav vehicle" only when you must go outside.
    
We take a look at the slime spreading across the planet.
       
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I was happy to note that the game offers some basic item descriptions for each piece of equipment--these are still rare in the era. Of course, it would be nice if they had some statistics on the screen, too.
      
I like when items have in-game textual descriptions.
     
  • Interior buildings are full of items that look like you ought to be able to interact with them, but the only command to do so is "search," and it never produces anything. Was the point of this whole enormous building just the one NPC in a corner?
      
I never do.
     
  • The police station had warrants for a couple of dozen fugitives, but I'm not sure if the locations listed are where they are, or where they're wanted.
      
This seems to be a good way to make money, but not if you have to search each planet exhaustively for them.
      
  • Is it just me, or is the main quest sounding a bit like Starflight?
  • Wandering around a city doesn't seem to cause any time to pass. Only messing around outside seems to tick the days away.
  • I wonder if the game records that you've received various pieces of intelligence, or if you can reload after getting some information and save yourself the time. 
  • There's something that looks like a casino in each city, but I can't find the door to get in!
     
How do you enter this building?
     
I had hoped to check out a combat for the first entry, but nothing came along during my explorations of Rhylanor. (Partly a good thing, since weapons are confiscated on civilized planets.) So I decided it was time to leave the planet. I had a list of 17 planets and cities to visit for various reasons. Checking a map, I found the closest was Jae Tellona, right next door to Rhylanor. But my only reason to visit there was to buy passes for interdicted planets, and I had no reason to visit any of them yet.

The closest next planet with something to do was Zivije, where one of the Ancients experts lives in Kafka town. That's where I headed. I soon found that buying a ship is far outside my price range (2 million credits vs. the 150,000 I have now), so I went with commercial transport.
      
Maybe we could work out a timeshare deal?
      
I bought "low passage," which involves freezing the characters in cryopods and putting them in cargo, but honestly, wouldn't you prefer to travel that way? I'd pay extra if I could go to sleep in Boston and wake up in Los Angeles.
      
Keep your stewards and fancy cabins. This is how I want to travel.
     
My funds are already starting to dwindle, so clearly I'm going to have to start making some money to finance these journeys.

Overall, not a bad start to the sequel, but I can already see a way that it could go wrong: if the core gameplay is just a bunch of tedious traveling between planets and walking around hoping to get the next clue, with essentially no character development. By the end of the next session, I should have a sense if that is, in fact, the case.

Time so far: 4 hours

48 comments:

  1. IIrc, if you played around long enough with the character creation system, you could get characters that started with a starship. With two of them, you could sell one starship for a lot of money, making the game much easier.

    But it´s ultimately very pointless: You visit bland cities and talk to NPCs to get the names of more NPCs to visit and talk to. Oh, and does someone in your party have a strong Interrogation skill? If not, you are doomed.

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    1. I have one guy with "Interrogation" at 1. I assume that's not "strong." How "doomed" are we talking about? Could spoilers overcome the problem?

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    2. I suppose I could always roll a new character. Since they don't seem to develop in-game anyway, I wouldn't be sacrificing much.

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    3. A scout has a 1/6 Chance for each benefit to get a scout ship, so it's not that hard actually. I think merchants have a chance to get a far trader - but I'm not sure.

      In Traveller, for skill checks you throw 2d6 against a target number and add your skill and an attribute bonus (+1 for 9-11, +2 for 12-14). If MT2 implenments that faithfully, the difference between 1 and 2 in a skill is not that big. I played this a few years ago and I don't think I had someone with interrogation > 1, but certainly not > 2.

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    4. It´s a while I played that game -thank God!-, but I seem to recall you depended a lot on information from captured baddies, and if they prefer to die rather than talk to you, you are permanently stuck. Is 1 sufficient? As far as I remember, they try and start killing you from go, so once you capture an opponent and interrogate him, I suppose we´ll find out.

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    5. From what I remember the Interrogate skill is the one really vital skill (other than some weapon skills) you need to have to get through the game. Although in tabletop Interrogate is a roll, I think in this game it's a straight up check (I could be wrong though) where I think you'll want at least an interrogate of 2 or 3 to advance. Maybe someone who has played this more recently than 20 years ago can chime in though.

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    6. Hey guys, I think I'm starting to get the hang of this FGMP! Weapon skills certainly improve with usage, I am not sure if any others improve after generation at all. I did read somewhere that the -only- skills that have any use beyond the first rank are stealth, interrogation and weapon skills.

      I think you have to walk in from the right somewhere to get into casinos, it isn't very clear.
      I never got the bounties to work despite taking handfuls of dogtags to the planets listed (and other planets too), they always claimed I hadn't captured anyone they cared about.
      You may be able to bypass the interrogation check with a spoiler item, maybe I should go check for you :) I always plow all my skill ranks into stealth personally...

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    7. Okay, just so you know, I just collected the reward for finding the culprit(s) without any character having interrogation. Unless you need it for the stopping the slime part ( I don't think you do, someone correct me otherwise) you should be able to complete it with any characters (with spoiler assistance).

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    8. I honestly don't see how you possibly save up the $1 million for a ship if you didn't start with one.

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    9. I don't know, but I think you can play the game without owning a ship. Spoiler territory, so I'll leave it at that. Anyway, it's more fun to have one.

      I was never fond of a random element in character generation, computer of tabletop. The difference in power and money you can get out of the MT2 generation system is huge. At least in the tabletop version (regular Traveller), a scout doesn't really own the ship, it's still a property of the scout service.

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    10. I remember making so many characters with the Powers & Perils character generation system. Never actually played the game, but seeing what characters came out of the random tables was fascinating.

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  2. A note on the "low travel".

    In the tabletop game, there's a not insignificant chance of dying in cryo.
    The rulebook mentions that some ship captains actually hold a lottery where you bet on who won't make it.

    The future is a pretty grim place I suppose :)

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    1. Ah, that does make sense as a disadvantage to cryo. One of my characters did take damage during one of the trips. Maybe there's a chance of death, too. The manual does warn "there may be side-effects from traveling with a low passage ticket."

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    2. Did you even have to buy that many tickets? Some of your characters started with 'low passage' and 'high passage' tickets, can't you use those?

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    3. They're only good for one trip, and only for one character on that trip. They went pretty fast.

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  3. Those colours are...bright.

    Neon pink slime is certainly scarier on the eyes than the traditional variety.

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    1. Yeah, but if you're colorblind maybe you see it as grey.

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  4. Whenever I read "Ancients" I have to think of Starflight... let's see if the Ancients are already around you...

    In such a game I would never get beyond character creation. The choice would baffle me, and I would exhaust all my motivation to play in these screens.

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    1. I love a good, complex character generation, it's one of the reasons I gave MT2 a try a few years ago (that and the space theme). Spending half a day on your characters is part of the experience. I even bought the Traveller rulebook (cheap) and wrote a character generator for it.

      I like Darklands even better, though, and it has much more character development in the game itself.

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    2. It's possible in tabletop Traveller to die during character generation. I don't know if that's true of the computer version, but if so, there's another reason why you may not get past that stage!

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    3. Darklands is just such an amazing game. The true definition of a CRPG.

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    4. Well what do you know . . .
      Darklands is on sale on GOG for $1.49. With a recommendation like that, I had to take advantage . . .

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    5. At that price? I don't even need a recommendation. But it's on the RockPaperShotgun's list of top 50 RPG's, which I'm using as a go-to list for what to try out. Now I just need to find time to actually play these games ...

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    6. Darklands has several skills and backgrounds, variable ages, etc...but all skills are useful. (They are not necessarily useful to the same degree, but none of them are ignored by the game and all have a situation for which they help.)

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    7. Note: It is only possible without optional rules to die during character generation in 1st edition traveller. By the time the hardbacks came out it was an optional rule, and you could take a wound and be mustered out.

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  5. Wow, that's quite the color scheme. I wonder if the developers were at all inspired by Sega's Phantasy Star? Or maybe all the neon is just the result of it being a 90s game.

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    1. It gets worse when you imagine what actually went down in the offices of the developer. After all, somebody has to be responsible for graphics design. And somebody higher up approved everything at some point.
      "Ned, give me a little more pink here. I think we haven't quite gone all the way to eleven on the garishness scale. Also, those character icons on the map are way too big. Smaller, please. And before I forget, you made all the tables orange, and that's fine with me, Ned, but please make sure to make the floor deep blue, will you? If they don't stand out, how will players not interact with the furniture they can't see?"

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    2. I also like that the potted plants are about 4 times the size of a man, just like some of the chairs(?).

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    3. Will Corvina and Jennings stay motivated to save the planet, given that the slime matches their hair color so well?

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  7. "A blind, first-time player has no idea what these are."

    The manual lists the skills that are and aren't useful for the actual game, as well as which of the characters' career choices are pointless or provide unused skills.

    Some of the omissions are a bit odd. The 'Broadswords' skill is used in the game, but 'Axe', 'Hand Axe', and 'Battle Ax' are not.

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    1. Yes, I say right in that same paragraph that the manual lists which skills are SUPPOSEDLY useful for the game. There's still 140 of those, and I don't trust that the manual is telling the whole story with that list. I suspect that about 120 of those skills still aren't very useful and a small handful are.

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    2. I may be wrong -I am more reliable about tbs than rpgs to be honest-, but I seem to remember that the only things useful were money, combat and interogation skills and a membership in the TAS, perhaps.

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    3. I'm now tempted to try a play-through of MT2 of skilled interrogators armed only with broadswords.

      Aw Hell, I'm going for it! Skyrim can wait for a bit.

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    4. Well, I'm done.

      Three of my characters were seemingly trapped in their careers, not leaving until they were in their late seventies. Granted, they walked away with a great retirement package, but I assumed they were useless afterwards.

      Then I spent a long time wandering around the first city wondering why none of the green NPCs would talk to me. After awhile I realized it was because I was adjacent to them, but facing the wrong way.

      Good luck with this game...

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    5. This bodes well. I am sure I am not the only one who hopes this one is horrible so Chet drops it like a rock and gets Might & Magic 3 fired up all the sooner! :)

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    6. Actually, I recall the aging penalties being relatively minor, thus the joke of a man with a giant beard, walker, and gun and a sign saying 'warning: experienced Traveller character ahead'

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    7. Sam, I'm leaning in that direction, believe me. I have another post on MT2 already scheduled, then I played a few hours beyond that, but the game is boring as hell and right now I can't imagine continuing with it. I'll give it a day and see if I'm interested in picking it up again.

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  8. That skills situation is debacular. Character creation invokes decision paralysis enough as is without a skill list of 200. I understand that they may wish to provide opportunity for crossover with the p&p game - but I'm not sure you need to compromise the pc game to do so.

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  9. I've played tabletop Traveller in multiple flavors over the years... and I just don't get why anyone ever thought this system was a good idea.

    It's definitely an old school way of thinking, which is "You get what you get and you make it work!" kind of attitude. Turning character generation into a mini-game where you can win or lose is just bizarre by today's RPG standards.

    I tried playing the 4th Edition (which is widely panned as horrible) with my brother and my character ended up with like 3 ranks of equestrian. So I can ride horses. In space. Talk about a useless skill!

    What truly bothers me about the CRPG design is that they STILL imported skills that had absolutely no value or use. I think this was a common issue with RPG->CRPG porting in the era; the license holders insisted their ENTIRE system get brought over, no exceptions, even when it made no sense. It makes me wonder if a similar issue occurred with Interplay and their decision to drop the GURPS system from Fallout. (Everyone has their own side on that one, when you play Fallout you'll have to dig into that and see what you can find.)

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    1. Regarding char-gen as a game you win or lose: I am very much reminded of the tabletop rules for Twilight:2000, where your career was semi-randomly determined based on stats and you checked after each block of time to see if the war had broken out yet (which ended character development.) So probably the same system/developers.

      The innovation there was that you couldn't die in character generation, and more experienced characters were absolutely more effective than neophytes - but the older you were at start, the more radiation exposure you had accumulated. It was a stat you couldn't permanently reduce, and so your Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel might be hell on wheels but likely to collapse and/or die of radiation sickness if you wandered into an impact crater. It felt like more of a balanced approach, but you'd need to have implemented party-splitting to make that work in a CRPG without making certain characters unplayable and potentially even end up with walking-dead parties.

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    2. Twilight: 2000 came later, but it was from the same publisher so I'm sure there was an influence.

      Traveller moved over to the T2000 system in 1992 with The New Era so you could in theory mix and match characters from both games.

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    3. "So I can ride horses. In space. Talk about a useless skill!"

      You have seen Firefly, right?

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  10. I actually found the character generation in MT2 much more fun than the game itself. But I am looking forward to the review. If CRRPGAddict finds MT2 totally exciting, I may give it another try.

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    1. I don't think you'll be giving it another try.

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  11. This isn't making me want to play the computer game, but the tabletop game is sounding pretty good.....

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    1. It's bizarre and takes up an entire game session. The Palladium system is a close second. For me, GURPS is still the most flexible and fastest game system available. For one, you can make a space cowboy. WHO said riding a horse in space was stupid?

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  12. Riding a horse only works if the adventure supports it. And this was before Firefly when we played, so the GM had no clue how to incorporate that plus a bunch of other eclectic skill sets into a cohesive adventure.

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