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Cepheus Engine

This review originally appeared in the January/Feburary 2017 issue.

Cepheus Engine System Reference Document. Jason “Flynn” Kemp.
Samardan Press (no website found)
208pp., PDF
PWYW: $4.25/3.37
Modifiable version available, MS Word DOCX
PWYW: $3.08/2.45

A note on the price: At the time of the writing of this review, the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document (CE or CE SRD, henceforth) was available from DriveThruRPG as “Pay What You Want” (PWYW, above); the prices given are what DTRPG claimed were the average contribution for the product.

A description of the genesis of CE would necessarily get into a discussion of some issues best described as political. I’m not really interested in going there, and you’re not really interested in reading what I’d write were I to go there.

CE represents a complete set of core rules—and only core rules—for a game similar to Traveller. The author specifically notes that he has drawn on the Mongoose Traveller SRD (for their first edition of Traveller, withdrawn with the publication of their second edition) and “other Open Gaming Content”. The result is a game that will be familiar to most of the Traveller community.

The CE SRD is broadly divided into four sections: an Introduction; Book 1, Characters; Book 2, Starships and Interstellar Travel; and Book 3, Referees. Each book is a solid treatment of topics relevant to the book’s overall subject.

The Introduction is just that, an introduction—to roleplaying as well as to CE. It starts by laying the groundwork for someone new to the hobby, beginning with answering the question “What is Roleplaying”. It then builds concepts, explaining the fundamental ideas of the roles in the game (i.e., player vs. referee vs. character), characteristics, skills, careers, game play, die rolls, and so on. The progress through concepts gets more and more specific to CE.

Book 1: Characters covers, chapter by chapter, character creation, skills, psionics, equipment, and personal combat. Each chapter assumes that you understand the material from the previous chapters, as well as from the Introduction.

The CE character generation procedure is a hybrid process, based in part on the process given in the Mongoose Traveller 1ed SRD, and in part on earlier character generation processes. Careers (there are 24 of them) are unitary, rather than offering specializations, but characteristic checks are used for resolving terms, rather than fixed DMs, yes-or-no, applied to a roll. Except for the Scout career, ship shares are awarded rather than possession of a ship itself, but the type of ship isn’t specified, allowing a party to pool their shares as part of an effort to acquire a ship.

As in past versions of Traveller, the “default assumption” is that player-characters are human. However, the generation procedure does touch on aliens, to the extent of giving a few sample alien races and defining the meaning of alien race traits that can be applied to characteristic generation. The reader is referred to Samardan Press’s Flynn’s Guide to Alien Creation for more extensive rules on alien creation (reviewed in Freelance Traveller, July 2011).

The section on skills describes the standard format of a task definition, with variations. No examples of a task definition are given, and discussion of adjusting the time taken to do the task uses “time frame” where the task definition uses “time increment” (and neither seems fully explained). The reader is expected to be fully conversant with the concept of a ‘check’ as explained in the Introduction, as that information is not repeated here. (It would be better if it were repeated here, or in a separate “referee’s recap” section; having all the information and definitions together makes for quick reference.) Skilled vs Unskilled is explained, along with conditions under which the difficulty of a skill check might vary from the expected. A full list of available skills and their definitions is provided, and it is specifically noted that the referee can add additional skills if needed for a particular campaign. Unstated, but perhaps implied, is that skills can similarly be eliminated or ignored if the needs of the campaign so require, which should satisfy the “Old School” roleplayer who prefers a minimal set of skills.

A mechanism for increasing skill during play is provided; it involves weeks of training (the number of which is determined by the character’s total skill levels plus the desired new skill level). However, a ‘week of training’ is not defined, nor is it stated whether you must train to acquire skill-1 in a new skill before you may train to acquire skill-2 in that skill (I would certainly play it that way, but it’s not stated). It should be noted that there is no indication of whether it is more difficult to learn one skill than another; starting from the same point, under the rules as written, it takes just as long to go from Archery-2 to Archery-3 as it does to go from Computer-2 to Computer-3. The link to the total number of skills means that if one wishes to raise two different skills from level-2 to level-3, it will take a week longer to raise the second than it did the first.

The treatment of psionics in CE seems like something of a tacked-on afterthought; this is consistent with its treatment in similar systems that CE is based on and intended to emulate. The characteristic governing a character’s psionic ability is also used as the measure of how intensely and with what limitations a character can use his/her psionic abilities, as well as providing a modifier for psionic-based tasks (similar to other characteristic modifiers). The net effect is that regardless of the level of acceptance of psionics in a particular campaign setting, the likelihood of psionic abilities occurring, and the likelihood of a psion being trained, the setting will be relatively low in psionics, compared with various SF stories in which psionic abilities occur.

The ability to use psionics is divided into ‘talents’; each talent represents a specific set of what are variously called in SF ‘powers’, ‘skills’, or ‘abilities’ (referred to as ‘abilities’, henceforth), each of which is described in the subsection on the talent. Having a talent allows the character to use any of the abilities, at any time, at the level that the character has the talent. For the purpose of task checks, the talent level is treated as a skill level. The base difficulty of a psionic task check is defined strictly by the ability being used; other factors that might be thought to affect how difficult a task is (such as distance) instead affect the cost in psionic strength.

One specific note: Most other treatments of teleportation ignore conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. As presented in CE, these are not ignored, and characters attempting certain types of teleportation tasks will take damage.

There is a brief discussion of a limited amount of available psionics-related technology; this includes drugs to enhance and suppress psionic strength, artificial shields, a ‘teleportation suit’ that compensates for energy differences resulting from teleporting, and adding psionic interfaces to non-psionic devices (including weapons). One specific limitation of the psionic interface is that a device equipped with a psionic interface cannot be used by non-psions.

The section on psionics closes with a brief overview of how psionics may be regarded in society (psi-hostile, psi-neutral, psi-friendly); no additional rules are presented, nor is there any discussion of the implications or effects of psionics on societies.

Equipment is principally a basic catalog of equipment. There is an overview of Technology Levels, described in familiar (and broad) terms. Generally, a world’s TL is an indication of its knowledge and ability to produce, and the TL of an object is a representation of its complexity and effectiveness. A single paragraph notes that the CE uses the Credit as the currency unit; examination of the various equipment tables and comparison with identifiable equivalent real-world goods appears to place the CE Credit at rough parity with the 21st-century Terran US Dollar, Euro, or Pound Sterling, with prices roughly consistent with what one would pay in a major metropolitan area such as New York. Descriptions are basic; there is no mention of minor distinctions in design or detail (such as longsword vs katana vs scimitar, all subsumed in ‘sword’, or coupe vs sedan vs station wagon/estate car, all subsumed in ‘ground car’). That’s not to say that the offerings in the catalog are scanty; where appropriate (such as with weapons), there are extensive lists, and some lists offer additional options (for example, adding laser sights or telescopic sights to a rifle).

Personal combat is round-based, with initiative being checked at the beginning of combat only. There are options based on the type of action and certain skill availability to temporarily adjust initiative for a particular round, and characters have a limited number of actions that can be taken in each round. The rules even encompass (potentially important) minutia such as panic fire, stance, thrown weapons, cover, communications, and so on. Vehicle combat is also supported, and there’s even a brief discussion of how to handle personal/vehicle weapons firing at starship-scale targets. As injury can occur in combat, the effects of injuries, and what’s involved in healing, are also covered.

Book 2: Starships covers travelling off-world, both interplanetary and interstellar. For interplanetary travel, it provides a table of travel times for various distances at various accelerations, and a formula for calculating the travel time for any distance not given in the tables (or for when more accurate figures are desired). For interstellar travel, all the details are discussed, including routine operations and finances.

Several topics not often encountered (at least in the games I’ve played in) are also covered, such as airlock requirements in ships and how big an airlock is, distress signals, ship-to-ship docking, boarding actions, and landing on worlds. Ship’s security is also covered, with physical and electronic aspects of deterrence and detection discussed, and a few active measures to combat breaches.

On-world travel and encounters with the law are also discussed here, although one can argue that they’re misplaced.

The mercantile system is a goods-based system, so you have a hold full of interesting and idea-promoting Grocery Products (6000 Cr/dton) instead of anonymous A-9 Ag Ri Cr6000. DMs are available for planetary trade codes and for broker skill, but are limited to the “largest” DMs (that is, if a good offers DMs for trade codes Ag and Ni, and you’re on a world that has both trade codes, you don’t get both DMs). This is ambiguous; should one consider a -3 DM to be larger than a -2 DM because -3 has a larger magnitude than -2, or should it be the other way around because if you plot both DMs on a standard number line, the -2 is to the right? I would prefer a statement that is less ambiguous, such as “Use the Sale DM that is most favorable to the seller; use the Purchase DM that is most favorable to the buyer”.

Ship design and construction discusses the definition of the displacement ton, defining it as the volume of one tonne of hydrogen, and giving a numberic value of 13.5 cubic meters (but allowing rounding to 14 to simplify calculations). Deck plans are implicitly drawn using squares of 1.5m by 1.5m by 3m high, making two deck plan squares equal to one displacement ton.

Both standardized designs and custom designs are discussed, with standardized designs giving a 10% discount on cost. Customized designs incur the cost of the services of a naval architect, at 1% of the final construction cost. A selection of standard designs, mostly at TL9 and TL11, are provided, but it is explicitly stated that the referee may designate other designs as standard if appropriate for the campaign. Design descriptions are given in block-text form, with no alpha-numeric profile string to summarize.

There are provisions for a few alternatives to the standard interstellar drive and power plant, with basic descriptions and differences in fuel consumption or performance noted. There are no explicit rules or guidelines for creating alternative technologies for these or other components, but the referee willing to put in a little number crunching work can probably come up with some designs that won’t be too unbalancing for play, even if they result in a setting very unlike the default assumed CE setting.

Small craft are built using the standard starship design sequence, with some minor modifications (for example, omitting the interstellar drive). There are some other limitations on small craft, but those are set out clearly, and you should find designing starships and small craft both to be usefully quick.

Space combat rules parallel personal combat rules; there are naturally some differences. These center around the different length of a combat round in space, and provide for relevant character skills based on the character’s assignment. Actions may be taken at the personal level, not just ship actions, but because of the difference in scale, most personal actions are irrelevant. Where they might matter (such as using psionics against an enemy ship or its personnel), they generally count as minor ship actions.

Special rules for such things as boarding actions and special weapons are included, as is a discussion of damage to ships and how it ultimately affects the ship. Damage control in included in the rules, as a significant action during combat. There are also provisions for using ship weapons against personal scale targets, just as personal combat provided for the reverse.

Book 3: Referees covers the minutia that are often ignored in play, but which really shouldn’t be—things like encumbrance, environmental extremes and dangers, disease, and so on. The effects on characters of such things as poisons, acids, and diseases are covered, as is exposure to radiation, vacuum, weather, and so on.

It also covers preparation, from building worlds to building animals, defining adventures (with two structures for an adventure outlined, and others possible), setting up encounters and what will be needed for them, and even tips on handling the “Omygodididntplanforthat” situations that players always seem to manage to get into no matter how carefully you planned. The first thing that the rules say about refereeing is that the objective is to have fun. The second is called “Rule Zero”, and states that the referee always has the right to modify the rules.

There are discussions of difference in gaming style, improvisations, adjusting task rolls, avoiding task rolls (for those who take the position that ‘it’s role-playing, not roll-playing’), dealing with situations not envisioned in the rules, and even playing solo as a tool for preparation.

Designing an adventure really happens on two levels, and while CE doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the non-mechanical level, it does point out that an adventure needs a plot and conflict. Conflict is pointed out as not necessarily being combat or other violence, but instead is a struggle against some sort of opposition, whether deliberate and focussed against the player-characters, or just the conditions that the characters face in the process of accomplishing the mission. The plot is simply the synopsis of the adventure—what’s supposed to happen to accomplish the goal.

Overall, CE is an excellent, low-cost entry point into SF role-playing, and allows the player or referee to draw on a wealth of extant material for later expansion. It’s not groundbreaking for the player who has experience with any of what Freelance Traveller calls “Classic-compatible” Traveller, nor does it expand on what’s already out there—it fits into the slot of a “basic rulebook”. I’m not recommending either purchase or avoidance; if you feel it fits in your collection, well and good; if not, also well and good.