Thursday, August 15, 2013

How to Referee, Part Two

I ran an all-too-brief Traveller campaign about eight years ago, a bog-standard space-merchants-with-a-mortgaged-free-trader-and-a-mountain-of-debt. As part of my prep, I worked on a table of events associated with speculative trading, to use in conjunction with the Actual Value table in the rules for trading.

For those of you unfamiliar with Traveller, merchants can transport other people's goods, but at best that will keep you living on the edge of a potential repo. Speculation - buying your own cargo on one planet and selling it on another- is riskier but offers by far the best potential for profit. The Actual Value table is consulted when buying and selling, and provides a percentage modifier to the base price of the cargo; if the base price of a ton of wheat is 500 ImpCr, and the Actual Value table result is 80%, you can purchase it as 400 ImpCr per ton.

What I wanted for my campaign was an additional table, that provided modifiers to the Actual Value roll, stuff like, 'Market saturated, - 2 ,' or, 'Sudden demand, + 1,' to add flavor to the results. I worked out a d6, d6 table of results, but it still seemed bland to me, so I and showed it to a buddy of mine. He ran his Traveller campaign for something like fifteen or sixteen years at that point, and he regularly had far more players looking for seats around his table then he did chairs to accommodate them. I knew his critique would be helpful.

He looked over the table, then put it aside and grabbed a pair of six-sided dice. 'You have a cargo of cybernetic parts and you're on [planet name], an agricultural world, jump-three from the industrial world of [planet name]' he said, tossing the dice on the kitchen table. A three. 'Fifty percent,' he continued - there was no need for him to look up the Actual Value chart, as he knew it by heart - 'an Oberlindes Lines bulk carrier arrived a week ago, and the market is flooded.' He picked up the dice again, and tossed them once more - a ten. 'One hundred thirty percent. Looks like those LSP robotic harvesters that arrived six months ago are acting up, and the replacement parts haven't arrived yet, so there's a price bump.' Another roll - a twelve. 'One hundred seventy percent. Not only is demand high for parts for those harvesters, your broker just found a loophole in the tariff code.' He tossed the dice a couple more times, each time improvising an event from the memorised table of generic percentages.

'It's already in there,' he finished with a smile.

9 comments:

  1. 'It's already in there,' he finished with a smile.

    It’s only ‘in there’ if you reverse the normal direction of causation, which has consequences as to how the game world operates. In effect, the commodities table is driving events in the game world. Prices aren’t high because the market is saturated, the market is saturated because the commodities table roll says that prices are high. Clearly the advantage to doing this is it is a very simple way to run a free trader campaign. You only need a one lookup tables covering commodity base price, a second table to adjust for commodity price based on world type, and a single die roll and table for price fluctuations. The disadvantage is you still have no mechanic to represent price fluctuations based on in game events that happen prior to a price fluctuation die roll. While I don’t mind adding color to rationalize random die rolls (in fact in enhances the game), there are many times when I’d like (or actually need) a mechanic to incorporate the effect of events – especially those events that the PCs were a part of and that occurred prior to the price roll – on price and availability of goods.

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    1. When the dice are 'driving causation,' then it's up to the referee to account for the actions of the players' characters on markets.

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  2. I think I'm missing something... :(

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  3. Your buddy was correct. And merchant prince gives you everything you need without any extra modifiers.

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    1. Merchant Prince and BITS' 101 Cargos are my two favorite Traveller supplements.

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  4. I don't see reversal of causation. Any researcher will find data (ie, the result of the roll) and then begin to work out the causation. That process has never felt like a reversal of causation to me.

    I'd rather say that the table is not prescriptive of the causes of its results.

    That ref is awesome to be sure.

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    1. Causation is reversed because the table result is a priori to and independent of world conditions, while world conditions are a posteriori to and dependent upon the table result (and of course referee whim about how or if the table result is rationalized).

      Note that an explanation of the die roll after the die roll is also true of many combat systems - dice are rolled first and then someone (often the GM or referee) makes up a narrative description to rationalize the result of the die rolls. Generally the description is a short term event e.g. "the attacker slipped on a pool of blood so the attack missed" or "your blow slides off his armor causing minor bruising but no serious damage" as an explanation for a bad attack roll or a low damage roll. The effect is of short duration so next round the attacker may not slip or the blow may hit a vulnerable area.

      Economic drivers, on the other hand, are of longer duration than combat results, generally do not wildly vaccilate from hour to hour, and thus should affect more than a single price roll. Again compare that to combat systems. If there is a persistent condition, e.g. darkness, in many combat systems that condition will affect every combat roll until the condition changes. Because not being able to see well causes less effective attacks and parries.

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    2. Economic drivers are also very complex and difficult to predict. This gives the referee all sorts of opportunities to introduce effects, from supply-and-demand to political action to price fixing to rebellion and much, much more.

      I take your point about economic drivers, and in Traveller they inspired the pretty detailed simulation in GURPS Far Trader. In actual play, however, it can be much easier to let the dice dictate the result and rationalise it in terms of what I know of the setting.

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