Monday, September 23, 2019

Robots in Traveller

A TL12 starport mechanic robot.

Robots have an odd and somewhat unfortunate history within Traveller. Certainly, robots are common within much of the golden age science fiction that inspired the game. But the original three little black books (1977) did not include any details on robots, and many fans, finding this a glaring omission, tried to fill the gap with their own house rules, such as Tony Watson’s “Robotics for Traveller” in The Space Gamer 15 (1978) or Andy Slacks’ “Expanding Universe” article in White Dwarf 15 (1979). 

One of the challenges with describing robots within Traveller is they cross over a few different (game) mechanical categories, making it difficult to create a universal robot design system that works well with all models. Do you write them up like characters, or computers, or vehicles? A vehicle system might work well with an automated grain harvester or robot tank, but maybe not so much for a humanoid assistant droid.

Marc Miller finally addressed this omission with a three-part article that appeared in issues 2 (1979), 3 (1980), and 4 (1980) of the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, followed by Loren Wiseman’s “Sample Robots” in issue 5 (1980). For reasons I do not quite understand, this treatment of robots did not seem to fully take. Roger Moore’s unofficial (though excellent) “Androids in Traveller” in White Dwarf 30 (1982) was one of the few subsequent pieces that really seems to embrace the Miller model. 

Although robots are mentioned in passing throughout classic Traveller, they were one of the last subjects to be covered in a dedicated supplement. In 1985 Joe Fugate of Digest Group Publications put out a series of articles on “Robot Design Revisited” in The Travellers’ Digest issues 1, 2, and 3. His variant system was collected and made official in Traveller Book 8: Robots (1986). Fugate followed up with 101 Robots (1986), which used the Book 8 system and was published by DGP under license from GDW. 

The Book 8 treatment of robots does not quite line up with the JTAS treatment, particularly with relation to androids and pseudo-biological robots. To make matters worse, the Book 8 system was not fully compatible with the new MegaTraveller game, which debuted in 1987. And maybe for those reasons the Book 8 take on robots does not seem to have been universally embraced, either.

In any case, MegaTraveller never got an official robot design supplement. DGP had been working on one, but before they could publish it GDW decided to shake up the entire Traveller line with the Virus, kicking off the third edition of Traveller. (A draft of the lost DGP robot supplement was found many years later, cleaned up, and released—it’s quite good and a shame it didn’t get it due.)

So robots in Traveller occupy this weird place. There is a distinct fork between the Fugate model—which is followed in TNE, Hero Traveller, T20, and Mongoose Traveller—and the Miller model, which is followed in T5. The different design systems across editions can produce widely differing results. Compare, for example, the same models in 101 Robots with TNE Vampire Fleets—some prices differ by an order of magnitude between the systems!

And as an additional complication, many of the example models from 101 Robots are caught up in the same vexing intellectual property limbo that has affected many DGP products. As a result, there is no robot equivalent of the far trader merchant ship: a recognizable touchstone that appears across different editions. (Although the Tukera 232-BHR-7 Starport Mechanic toolbot comes close.)

Without a definitive set of robot design rules and lacking an iconic robot model, many Traveller fans have speculated that robots just aren’t common or important within the Third Imperium setting. But Agent of the Imperium and T5 have shown us that the Official Traveller Universe actually contains a great many things, such as posthumanist technology, that have long been erroneously assumed to be absent. As the T5 rules explain, “Non-anthropomorphic robots (robots not in the shape of people) are commonplace at the higher technological levels, although they are effectively invisible… they fade into the background” (Book 1, 15).

T5 has a fairly detailed robot generation system. While it potentially represents Marc Miller’s definitive vision of robots in Traveller, I find it hard to follow and the ultimate output doesn’t line up with the system I’m using right now: Mongoose Traveller 2e. As detailed in the Central Supply Catalog (2016), Mongoose takes a rules light approach for statting out robots that resembles the system used for animals. While I am drawn to T5 for providing accurate capabilities and pricing for robots in the Third Imperium setting, I really like the simplified MGT approach for use at the table.

I use the following guidelines for converting T5 robot stats to Mongoose 2e:

  • Hits: Sum the three physical characteristics.
  • Speed: Guestimate based on human movement rate of 6 meters.
  • Cost: As T5
  • Skills: Divide T5 skill levels by 2 and add 1. Assign these values to equivalent MGT skills.
  • Attacks: Guestimate using MGT’s “How Big a Beast” table and weapon stats.
  • Traits: Pick from animal or robot lists. Most robots seem to have Armor of at least +2.
  • Programming: Use T5 INT:
    • 1–4: Basic
    • 5–8: Advanced
    • 9+: Very advanced

As an example, here is a common starship maintenance robot derived from the EngLe Drive Tech Robot, which appeared in the first issue of Rob Eaglestone’s excellent T5 zine, Xboat:

Mekagune-3 Starship Maintenance Robot
Shululsish Internetworking, LIC
Hits 28
Speed 4m
Cost KCr560
Skills Engineer (power) 3, Electronics (computers) 1, Mechanic 2
Traits Armor (+2), Flyer (idle)
Programming Basic (maintenance)

The Mekagune-3 model robot is a product of Shululsish Internetworking LIC of Shululsish (Solomani Rim 0214 A584A52-F) and is designed to perform delicate repair work on board starships. Sometimes called “the Big Red Egg” due to its shape and standard factory paint scheme, this robot is a familiar sight onboard commercial ships and in the Imperial starports of Magyar sector. A Mekagune-3 is approximately 2 meters tall and weighs 150kg. It moves on an integral grav floater and has two light arms for fine detail manipulation and two retractable tentacles for dextrous work. Each model ships with an integral toolkit including a light laser welder. All of its components are hardened against hot, cold, and vacuum environments. Although its mechanical brain is not truly aware, the robot can understand voice commands and has a vocoder allowing it to respond. A Mekagune-3 is networked to its ship by a 1km radio transceiver and runs off broadcast power from the ship or on a one day emergency power cell.

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