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Saturday 20 May 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Mindjammer: Traveller

This is a review of the RPG source/campaign-book "Mindjammer: Traveller", written by Sarah Newton & John Snead, published by Modiphius.  This is a complete campaign setting with adventures, nominally requiring the Mongoose Traveller rules for use though theoretically it could be used alongside classic or other Traveller systems too with relatively little modification.

As usual, this is a review of the print edition, which is a nice-looking hardcover, 385 pages long.  It has a full color cover featuring some starships, and the interior art is a mix of color and black and white, featuring a lot of relatively well-drawn sci-fi art, plus planetary and starmaps, starship outlines, equipment, etc. The interior cover art features a great starmap of Commonality Space.
Best of all, it has a ribbon bookmark! I automatically give extra points to absolutely any RPG book that has a ribbon bookmark.

This review also includes the "Mindjammer: Dominion" free quick-start rules, which comes as a 46-page softcover (magazine-style) meant to introduce you to the world of Mindjammer. This product includes a summary of the main changes from the standard Mongoose Traveller rules, as well as a few pre-made characters and an introductory adventure. It involves the (premade) characters heading to a frontier world to meet their new boss, only to have the boss end up being kidnapped by agents of a client-state of the Venu (the enemies of the Commonality). The adventure is presented in several parts, and there's options to cut down to only certain parts for a shorter adventure of the type you could play in a one-shot at a gaming event.  In all, Dominion provides a decent introduction to the campaign, particularly if you're already familiar with Mindjammer's setting. If you aren't, I suspect you'll need to read up some of the main book to fully acclimate yourself.

So, on to the main review.  First of all, I should note that this is the third incarnation of Mindjammer I've had the opportunity to review.  First was the review of the original Mindjammer sourcebook for (FATE-powered) Starblazer adventures.  Then, I reviewed the huge 500-page stand-alone Mindjammer RPG. You'll note that on the whole, I've been quite impressed by Mindjammer. It's basically the only "Transhumanist Sci-Fi" RPG that I actually like. Sarah Newton has shown herself to be a very talented RPG designer; if I were to dive into the totally unnecessary waters of identity-politics, I'd probably say that she is the best female RPG-writer around.

Mindjammer is a sci-fi setting in the very distant future (15000 years),  in a period of expansion (after a time of chaos) of humankind into the stars. The 'Rediscovery Era' is being led by the Commonality, a transhuman civilization that is expanding not only through conquest but by cultural domination.  The commonality technology, the Mindscape, means that everyone everywhere is interconnected, to great advantage and collective benefit; but it also means the Commonality is in some ways the ultimate collectivist nanny-state. In the previous incarnations of Mindjammer, as indeed here, this has been handled with fantastic subtlety by Newton. It would have been very easy to just make a setting portraying the Commonality as some blue-rose style leftist utopia, or as a horrifying dystopia out of a libertarian's nightmare-scenario. Instead, Newton's setting is a lot more complex than that, and largely how you view the Commonality depends on your own personal analysis of various complex factors. It's hard to deny the Commonality has some very positive features, but also poses some serious issues on the subject of individual liberty; all without being ideologically-heavy-handed or preachy.

Experienced Traveller fans might be asking themselves "I've got Traveller, I've got the Imperium, what do I need Mindjammer and the Commonality for"?  Well, for starters, Traveller is fundamentally 1970s sci-fi. Even though it has made significant attempts at trying to modernize itself, at the end of the day there are certain things still hard-wired into the setting that make it at least a little 'retro'.

Mindjammer is modern transhumanist sci-fi. So while there's some parallel to the internet in terms of computing-power in the modern version of the Imperium, in the commonality there's an extrapolation of that into the Mindscape, a direct-to-brain implant that makes you a part of the internet. In fact, there's technically  no computers at all in Mindjammer: because everything is AI. You don't program your starship (or your toaster!), you have to learn how to talk to it.  In certain ways, the 'tech specialists' of Mindjammer are more like psychotherapists for machines.

In some ways, Mindjammer is a great Traveller setting, because it's very different from the Imperium.  The setting conceits are different, the political structure is different, the challenges are different. The tech level is different. Characters in the Commonality will generally live longer than those in the Imperium, and access to Mindscape means that they will be able to mindscape-enhance skills to in some ways be much more effective.  For example, skill bonuses will be a lot higher than in a standard Traveller campaign.

So I think this is more interesting than if you had a Traveller setting that was just another spin on more classic sci-fi. But of course, a lot of people who like Traveller specifically like classic sci-fi. They might not be too keen on a Transhumanist campaign. Even there, though, I will note that Mindjammer is a much more approachable type of Transhumanist sci-fi than many other RPGs of the same genre; I've found that a lot of those make the mistake of going so far into The Weird that you can't really connect to them, or have any idea of what to do, or even how to keep a PC group coherently together.  Mindjammer doesn't have any of those problems.

Character Creation for Mindjammer is in many ways similar to that in standard Traveller, but obviously due to the different setting and transhuman genre there are also some important differences. You start out rolling for  your Traveller stats as normal, unless you're playing a sentient machine like a starship (yes, you can play a starship in this game!), in which case you roll a more limited number of stats.
The stats mostly mean exactly the same in Mindjammer as they do in Traveller, except for SOC which has nothing to do with aristocratic titles (there are none in the Commonality).  Instead, in Mindjammer SOC is a measurement of your reputation of respectability and competence. It also in essence serves as kind of credit rating in the Commonality core for obtaining equipment, since in the core worlds of the Commonality money has not existed for thousands of years (the Commonality was forced to reinvent currency for the purpose of interacting with the fringe areas and outside Commonality space, but some PCs will actually start out having no idea how money is supposed to work, depending on what culture they belong to).

Mindjammer has a "Tech Index" instead of Tech Levels, and characters will have a personal tech-index which indicates what level of technology they're familiar and comfortable with based on their culture. The standard tech index for the Commonality is T9, which is equivalent in Traveller to Tech Level 15-18, the maximum for the Commonality (T10) is somewhere around Traveller TL21.

Characters must choose a native 'culture' (Commonality Core, Neo-culture, Fringe, and their various subcultures... or Venu; though that last one is the xenophobic and warlike "bad guys" of the setting and generally aren't recommended as actual PCs), and these will potentially include certain 'traits'. The most common trait is the Longevity Trait, which means your character's lifespan has been enhanced. Starting characters in Mindjammer can, after the creation process is completed, be somewhere between 20 (ridiculously young) and 200+ years old.  Characters with the longevity trait will no longer age in the normal way, and will gain advancements in 50 year blocks rather than the standard Traveller method.
Note that because characters with longevity packages do not suffer effects of aging, the recommendation for character generation is that characters with longevity traits (which will probably be most PCs) should have to complete character creation after obtaining 3 longevity packages at the most (so, 150 years of career time). Each 'longevity package' provides a significant amount of bonuses, so even with this restriction the typical finished Mindjammer character will be significantly more powerful than the standard Traveller (Imperium) character. To give you an idea, there is a cap on skill levels; it equals 6+ 1 per 100 years of age!

Characters who have longevity packages also have to choose levels in what are called "longevity restrictions": these are personality traits that develop due to extreme age. It includes things like existential boredom, insatiable curiosity, intolerance of discomfort, concern for all sentient life, disregard for life, emotional distance, neediness, hyper caution, or risk taking.

Different cultures will include a number of different "genotypes", like humans, hominids (divergent humans, which can be as weird as any aliens from more standard sci-fi settings), xenomorphs (uplifted animals), or synthetics (artificial life forms). There are also actual aliens, but Mindjammer aliens are super-alien, not similar to humans at all, and thus are not recommended for PCs (though there are optional guidelines for playing one in the chapter on alien life).

Just like cultures will include certain genotypes, they'll also include certain Memes.  These are inherent concepts of ideology that the culture you come from belives in; PCs might have up to 3 memes, which will affect certain checks in terms of how your character would perceive or react to certain situations. Characters from the standard Commonality culture might have a meme of "rapid social change is dangerous", while characters from some weirdo neo-culture world might have "distrust mechanical technology" or "all life is one"; a character from some rediscovered fringe world might have "never show weakness".

After initial education (which in the Commonality worlds can mean the first 50 years of your life), characters go on to work their way through careers in a way quite similar to that in Traveller, with the noted exceptions (particularly relating to Longevity) mentioned above.

The available careers are: civilian, diplomat, downtecher (a career for people from or in more primitive worlds), explorer, installation (a career for sentient machines), merchant, military, rogue, sci-tech, security, or spacer.

The chapter on technology breaks down the standard details of the setting's tech level.  There's ubiquitous intelligence (in machines), power is super-abundant (unlike standard Traveller, starships don't really need to worry about "refueling"). The mindscape allows for access to amazing levels of information, but it is not itself some kind of consciousness. There isn't actually faster-than-light communication; but there's a network of communication transmission that allows for relatively fast communications.  The standard ftl transport allows for a relatively fast voyage between star systems, but the newest technology ("3-space gates") is already making transit in the core-worlds near-instant. There's no teleportation, but "makepoints" allow for ubiquitous creation of matter.  The chapter on equipment covers a huge variety of weapons, armor, vehicles and miscellaneous equipment.

The chapter on the Mindscape is explained in about 9 pages. The mindscape can be used to obtain bonuses to tasks by extracting memory from the mindscape.  Users with the right sort of skills or equipment can tap into the mindscape to attack or control people through the mindscape-link, or to perform other feats that look very similar to 'psychic' powers ("Technopsi").
You can even have a reading of your persona, at the time of death, updated to the mindscape so that a replica of your consciousness keeps on existing.  The game makes it clear that this is not actually you, however.

The chapter on starships covers everything you might need to know about those, including the ways the rules vary from starships in regular Traveller. There's also encounter tables for different areas of space. A significant number of premade starship templates and floorplans are included.

After that, there's a chapter on organizations, which includes mechanics to establish an organization in the game. Organizations can have their own Memes, will have varying scales of size, influence, and services.

Next we get into more description of the Commonality.  The setting's history details how humanity expanded slowly into space, then went through a long period of stagnation and isolationism with no central civilization being possible due to time and distance.  It was only with the discovery of the 2-space drive on old Earth that FTL travel was possible; this discovery led to the growth of the first interstellar civilization through the Earth-centered Commonality.

However, not every old colony was welcoming to the Commonality. Many did not want to join the Commonality's culture, and some areas of humanity out in space had diverged so much, either genetically or culturally, from the humans of the Commonality that conflict was inevitable.  In particular, in the fringes of space the Commonality encountered and warred with a human culture known as the Venu, who had become a strange culture of highly xenophobic and violent cultists of a Techno-priest religion. Although the Commonality beat back the Venu invasion, the result left behind a group of buffer "Successor States" that were clients of one or the other group.

In expanding and rediscovering worlds, the Commonality is as concerned about "culture threats" as they are about military threats.  Because of the Mindscape, cultural change can be as dangerous to the stability of the Commonality as a military attack.  So they will often seek to change entire cultures, and alter or remove any cultural memes that are considered dangerous to stability, before they integrate a new world to the Commonality.  Some worlds are quarantined not because of civil strife or toxic environment, but because of dangerous ideas.  There's also some worlds in the Commonality that are special "culture worlds", carefully crafted as a kind of "preserve" of specific cultural ideas, including some recreations of ancient cultures from Earth's past.

As for the fringe worlds that encounter the Commonality, some of them view the Commonality as saviors and rescuers.  Some which have slipped back into primitivism due to technological collapse even see them as gods.  But others see them as interstellar fascists bent on repressing human freedom into what they see as a dystopian nanny-state.

This chapter also details various areas of the Commonality's government, security and military organizations.

Just as in regular Traveller, it is possible for a PC group to be freebooters, doing their own thing; passenger transport is possible, as is trade in those parts on the fringes of Commonality space where money is a thing.  Criminal enterprises like smuggling are obviously possible too.  On the other hand, PCs could be agents of some branch of the Commonality's government or armed forces. Rules are provided for handling both regular trade, and the SOC-based status-derived resource-access that is more common in the core of the Commonality.  Certain actions can cause PCs to gain or lose SOC points, so this stat will be far more fluid than it normally is in Traveller.

There's a chapter on "culture" that creates mechanics for setting up a culture in a way similar to how in standard Traveller you would create a planet. Cultures are designed with their overarching memes, and with a series of "capabilities" that determines the culture's makeup.  Capabilities are tied to the Tech Index, and include "Armaments", "biotechnology", "comms", "information", "power", "resource exploitation", and "transport".
There's also rules for how to manipulate cultures, which is a big deal for the Commonality, as part of it's expansionist tactics involve altering cultures to make them more in line with the Commonality before integrating them. The mechanics involve accumulating sufficient "cultural manipulation points" to alter the culture; the further you need to alter it, the more points are needed. The values that are changed directly are the Memes of the culture, which in turn can have consequences altering the culture's capabilities. There's a whole set of guidelines for how to openly or (more often) covertly changing a culture.
Yes, that's right: this is a game setting where you can have a Meme War.  It's just like the 2016 election!

Details on sample cultures are provided with their statistics.

After that we have the chapters for star system and planetary profile creation.  The overall way these work are extremely similar to standard Traveller, however both have been considerably altered.  The alteration is mainly to try to bring in a greater amount of 'realism' based on current scientific ideas about the makeup of the galaxy and its planets.
The result is that the rules here are considerably more detailed than in standard Traveller, and certainly feel more like 'hard scifi'.  So you get stuff like spectral classification, stellar body age, much more detail than usual on the interal environment of star systems, planetary age, planetary year length, orbit, density, temperature, atmospheric pressure; hell, there's a table called the "year length stellar mass multiplier". Science geeks will go nuts for this.

On the other hand, I do feel it may be a bit too much overkill for my own tastes. Luckily, it gives me the impression that it's pretty easy to skip through the parts you don't really care so much about and focus only on those that you do care about.
Conveniently, there's a number of planetary-type profiles which give the standards for the type of planet by category ("ice giant", "garden world", "inferno", "proto-gas giant", etc etc), so you don't have to roll it all up every time. You can just use one of the template and make slight alterations to taste.
The profiles of civilizations on inhabited worlds are also different, having categories for things like population and government as per Traveller, but also things like societal development, economic development, openness index, control index, etc.  There's starport facilities ratings (familiar to Traveller Players, though the categories are different from Traveller standard), but there's also "Mindscape Facilities" ratings. Again, standard templates for the most common types of civilizations are provided.

There's also guidelines for converting a Mindjammer world profile to a Traveller UWP, and vice-versa.  The chapter also includes a "planetary events" table and random encounter tables.

Next there's a short chapter on Commonality Space, which adds some more detail about the regions of the commonality, and information about "Manhome", which is the Commonality name for Earth.

Then we get to "alien life". Again, in this setting humanity and its offshoots or human-made life forms are highly dominant, but there are a truly alien races, quite a lot of them. It's just that they are so, so alien from humanity that in a lot of cases there's a fundamental lack of compatibility or the ability to communicate. Once again, compared to standard Traveller, it seems like Mindjammer is trying to use more modern scientific concepts to guide its handling of alien life (well, certain predominant theories, anyways).

The gamemastering chapter looks at what might be the themes of a campaign, and the styles of play, and the tone. Suggested genres of campaigns include mining/salvage, military, conspiracy, special ops, hacking, mystery, exploration, research, trading, or transcending.  The latter refers to the transhuman theme of going so far as to become 'post-human'. In fact, characters who end up with 15 or higher in INT and EDU begin to effectively become post-human, they are so far ahead that regular humans find them hard to comprehend, and they're capable of feats (called posthuman-traits) that normal humans can't. There are also classes of post-human detailed in the chapter, in essence post-human "careers".

After this we get a complete subsector detailed, the "Outremer Subsector", which is of course on the edge of Commonality space (you could say it's like the Mindjammer version of the spinward marches). It's an ideal sort of adventuring locale: not too much law and order, various different power groups in conflict, etc etc.
31 worlds of Outremer are fully detailed in this chapter, complete with a worldmap and the planetary profile.

And apart from the character sheet, ship record sheet, system creation sheets and index, that's it.

So what do I think about Mindjammer Traveller?
I like it.
A hell of a lot.

I would say that of the three incarnations of Mindjammer thus far (the Starblazer version, the self-standing FATE game version, and this one), Mindjammer Traveller is definitely my favorite.  I think that a setting like this one begged for more structured rules than FATE is capable of offering. It is, to me, a much better fit to the Traveller rules.
Beyond that, the concepts and elements also seem to be better written and better explained in this version than in the previous one; I don't know if that's a product of Newton having to fit the material into the more rigid rule structure, or just that she's had more time to practice at it.

So if you were looking for a transhuman game, or just a more modern-style sci-fi game, you can't go wrong with this one. If you already liked Mindjammer, you should pick this up and see how much better it is with Traveller. If you like Traveller, why not take a look at what the game is really capable of, with a setting that's very different from the Imperium?


Currently Smoking: Neerup Billiard + Image Latakia


  1. Are the difficulties for rolls still the same as Travellers? Or have their numbers been adjusted for the higher characteristic modifiers PC will have?

  2. @Shawn Driscoll - The core Traveller rules were not changed. It is still 2d6 + mods vs 8+ for most common tasks. The difference is that Mindjammer characters are assumed to be a higher level of competence than standard Traveller characters. What Traveller will do better by default is "ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances".