RogerBW's Blog

Back to School at Dartmouth in space 14 July 2016

For my latest RPG campaign, Wives and Sweethearts, I've been trying something a little different, making extensive use of the rules from GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School.

This was more or less by accident. My original plan, which I mentioned back in June of last year, was to have the player characters as the senior officers aboard a warship in a troupe-style game: i.e. they'd also have other characters available, and one wouldn't expect all of them to be played at once. This is a sort of anti-Star Trek in concept: if the ship's exec goes ashore on a diplomatic visit, he's going to be accompanied not by the entire bridge crew but by a junior lieutenant and a couple of Marines – played by the other players, whose more senior characters stay on the ship.

Which was fine, but one of my primary inspirations for this was John Winton's series of books about the Royal Navy, and that (combined with the release of Back to School) gave me the idea to start with naval training. Not in the full troupe game, of course, but with one character each, starting their professional lives with some general idea of who they were but definitely with more talents (broad areas of competence) than skills (specific training).

Then I added seven NPC fellow cadets, because they pretty much all have to show up at once at the start of the course. At this point they mostly had about one personality trait each: the guy who likes getting into fistfights, the granddaughter of a great naval heroine who's expected to live up to the Family Name, the mad Finn, or "velcro wall girl", who made extensive use of that facility in the bar on the last night before heading up the beanstalk. Then as things went along they grew a bit: Velcro Wall Girl, for example, later turned out to have a knack for computers and electronic warfare, and suffered a major crisis of confidence after a training accident, from which she only really recovered when she made some crucial discoveries regarding software sabotage on a solar yacht during the cadet cruise. And she did eventually buy off the Compulsive Carousing, though she later developed Connoisseur (Local Spirits).

Because life at Naval College in peacetime should be relatively uneventful, I had three-month-long slices of training in between the actual game sessions (during which the "adventures" happened, like a rough terrain exercise across the surface of the Moon, and incidents on the cadet cruise). Intensive Training causes penalties if done too often, so alternating months between Standard and Intensive seemed sensible, especially as this allows some hours of time off for developing personal rather than professional skills. Various successes and failures on the training rolls gave me different combinations of characters having difficulties at different stages of the course, allowing for mutual assistance, NPCs out of action following training accidents, and so on.

More unrealistically, I allowed each training slice to be taken for whatever skills off the approved list the players wanted, as long as they had at least one point in everything on the list by the end of the course. They also got bonus points from the actual game sessions, and the opportunity to pick up more by taking disadvantages, specifically Sense of Duty (Royal Navy) and Code of Honour (Soldier's); it didn't seem fair to charge lots of training hours for these traits, even though time is spent trying to inculcate them.

One of the standard elements of this sort of story is people washing out of training, and I had my eye on some of the NPCs for that, but it didn't happen; some of them came close to chucking it in, but they were all capable of passing the course and motivated in their various ways to put in the work to make sure they did. (It's a world where basic subsistance is free to pretty much everyone, so nobody joins the Navy, or does anything else, just to have enough to eat; they have reasons.)

So after five sessions, we have characters who've grown from a starting 100 to roughly 150 points, with all the basic skills needed for the job, and with memories of training that will last them the rest of their careers: in the future when they run into Commander Fleming the EW officer, or Lieutenant-Commander Quaid the gunfire liaison officer, or Crash Piper the Scourge of the Spaceways (a natural helmsman who's not quite as lucky as he thinks he is), they'll have some idea of what they were like Back in the Day.

The next step was initial assignments, and here I resorted to electronic means: I made a list of officer postings and the skills required to fill them, and each character made a roll against each skill, with their margins of success making up an overall score. The same system was used to hand out the prizes. (I wrote it in a somewhat haphazard manner, and early versions turned out not only to invert performance evaluations but to treat a worst-possible result as a best-possible. Clearly the Admiralty Board had been at the rum a bit.)

Phase 2 of the campaign will see the player characters off to their junior-officer postings in a variety of jobs, which in effect means I'll be running four separate mini-campaigns - while the players and I make up more PCs to fill in background roles.

See also:
Campaign Ideas
GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School, William H. Stoddard


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 11:01am on 14 July 2016

    It was good fun, too. I wrote myself a training plan at the start, because my character is a methodical chap, and tried to get the basic spacer and officer skills done first, simply because that made more choice later on plausible. The plan got revised several times, but its fundamentals survived and got to happen.

    The four mini-campaigns will take some time to play, and the structure will need some thought, because if we just play the minis one after the other, it's going to be something like a year before the fourth one starts. What might be best would be to give each principal PC a brief scene at the start of each session, and then stay with one of them for the main event of the session.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:22am on 14 July 2016

    I was vaguely thinking of having a number of mini-incidents, each for a different primary PC, in a session, but your idea would also work - and would help maintain narrative flow within the session.

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:35pm on 16 July 2016

    Mt training method was usually to spend xp on whatever skill I'd horribly failed at that session. There were quite a lot of those!

    Looking forwards to getting my hands on a Marine character!

  4. Posted by William H. Stoddard at 06:06pm on 17 July 2016

    I'm very glad to see my work being put to use! I saw a lot of that same dynamic in my Worminghall campaign, which came before I wrote Back to School but was a big influence on it; the five disparate boys there all developed in multiple unexpected directions. I didn't attempt to track the training of NPC students at Worminghall—there were just too many of them—but that's an interesting use of the training roll mechanics. I would actually be interested to see quick sketches of all seven NPC cadets, if you ever feel like taking the time; designing casts of characters is an interesting part of GMing for me. . . .

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 06:32pm on 17 July 2016

    I won't list all their traits, but a general introduction:

    Constance Fleming: "velcro wall girl" as mentioned above. (Computer Wizard, Compulsive Carousing.)

    Tero Isomäki: voted most likely to say "hey, I've just had an idea for something fun that isn't technically against the regs yet". Ended up going into Aviation (small combat craft) in the (allied) Finnish Navy. (Daredevil, Overconfidence, Trickster.)

    Kenneth Piper: natural pilot from a low-tech colony. (Several overlapping talents that boost Piloting in space, to the point that he was defaulting to an 11 even before training began, but a number of fumbles at key moments have kept him from shining as brightly as he might have.)

    Joseph Quaid: stubborn compulsive fight-starter with a Bad Temper, so will probably end up as a senior officer. After a training exercise on Luna, started taking an interest in orbital fire support, and has been training as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (planetside forward observer).

    Sadie Stark: granddaughter of Captain Helena Stark VC (posthumous), started with some good skills but also Combat Paralysis and Fearfulness – which she managed to conquer during training. Everyone assumes she's a future admiral.

    Charlotte Stratton: from the Belphegor Navy (old colony world), no sense of humour, but tended to be an academic anchor to the group – in large part because of the Less Sleep 3.

    Hal Whitfield: seems to be able to find dubious contacts just about anywhere, and went into a nice safe Supply posting. (Street-Smart, Greed, Laziness.)

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