Sunday, June 28, 2020

The second game we played was called Melee. 

It came in a tiny little folder and cost about a quid. It was called a "micro-game". There were quite a lot of "micro-games". Small but not trivial. A serious tactical war-game that you can put in your pocket and play over lunch. One of them was called Car Wars. Another one was called Ogre. Slightly bigger, but in the same format, was an utterly unplayable behemoth called Star Fleet Battles. Melee was just a set of combat rules; it had a companion, Wizard, which was just a set of magic rules. Melee and Wizard tried to mate: they became a wannabe Dungeons and Dragons alternative called The Fantasy Trip. The Fantasy Trip never took off, but it eventually cloned into something called GURPS, which did rather well.
Melee defined characters on a simple sliding scale. You had Strength and Dexterity; you split a pool of points between them; you could be strong but slow or quick but weedy. (The were lots of 16/8 characters and 8/16 characters and some 12/12 characters, but not a lot in between.) You had to roll under your dexterity on three dice to hit. The stronger you were the bigger the weapon you could carry: bigger weapons did more damage. Armour and shields reduced the amount of damage you took but also reduced your Dexterity. There was a little hex board representing an arena. Characters circled round each other. There were little counters so you could throw and drop weapons and see where they were left. If you won a fight in an arena you got an experience point which eventually got you an extra point of Strength or Dexterity. We played it nearly every lunchtime; when other people were playing top trumps or football. It became a bit like conkers. (No-one in real life has ever played conkers.) You built up stronger and stronger characters and waited to see if someone else could knock you off your perch. I think we worked out a seeding system so people with too many experience points had to retire. Obviously the correct thing to have done would have been to use the Melee combat system to resolve fights in Dungeons and Dragons. But we stayed loyal to our first love. 

The third game I played was Traveller. Traveller was a big science fiction game invented by an American military war-gamer; one of those universes where every planet and star has been colonised and flying from world to world is as normal as crossing the sea in the age of sail. Traveller came as three little books, like Original Dungeons and Dragons. It had a black cover and a grey atmosphere. What we all wanted from a science fiction game was Star Wars. The first supplement for Traveller consisted of a thousand and one pre-rolled characters. It was called One Thousand and One Characters. It included stats for Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. 
Marc Miller15 said he was quite relieved, when Star Wars came out, that it was possible to represent the characters in terms of the Traveller rules set. This was only partly true. It was certainly possible to create a character who had ridiculously good piloting skills and psychic, or as Traveller preferred to call them, psionic, powers; it was even possible to give him a sword. Traveller had no lightsabers, but it did include a weapon called a vibro-blade. The rule book pointed out, perfectly sensibly, that you didn't need to invent laser swords or even ray-guns because whether you were on Earth or Mars you could conveniently put your enemy out of action with a bullet. 
"Yes: but lightsabers and ray-guns are cool. "
"This isn't about being cool. We don't play role-playing games for fun, you know."
But even if you worked out the game mechanics for a Pilot/Psychic/Farmboy and a Cyborg/Pilot/Wizard, Traveller's nuts and boltsy ex-marines rules set ensured that nothing remotely like a space fantasy movie could ever happen. 
Traveller resolved battles between spaceships using a Newtonian vector system. You drew wobbly lines to represent the gravity-wells of planets. It was perfectly possible to end a game by inadvertently crashing your space ship into the sun. 
White Dwarf did make a valiant attempt to introduce some fun or at any rate local colour into Traveller, with unofficial articles about robots and aliens and black holes. But if you wanted to role-play space adventures you had to buy into the official Traveller universe. It was all there was. 
Traveller was designed to be about the military: in the first version everyone was a space soldier, a space sailor, or a space scout although subsequent rule books included things like pirates and bureaucrats. (There is an idea for a game: Pirates and Bureaucrats.) The structure was military: your character went through one or more 4 year "terms of service" during which he acquired skills and got promoted. The game started after he retired. Characters could get killed off during the character creation process. 
Dungeons and Dragons took it for granted that you were a tomb robber and a dungeon plunderer. If you thought your Cleric should stay at home and support his local temple then hard luck. Traveller was much more upfront about the idea that players were traders and mercenaries. A very large amount of the rules was based on the idea that you would fill your spaceship up with trade goods in one location, fly on to the next location and sell them at a profit. I don't know quite when Traveller occurred relative to the computer game Elite, but they were in the same solar system conceptually. 
A disconcerting proportion of the young American population had either recently fought in a war, narrowly avoided fighting in a war or just possibly refused to fight in a war. In the UK, war stories were already more the province of Granddads than Dads. In the US everyone's big brother had been to Vietnam. This didn't necessarily mean that American game designers were more violent or more conservative or indeed more pacifist or hippy-dippy than their European equivalents. But it did mean that they had some idea what fighting and soldiering was like; had a knowledge of and interest in hardware; and were disinclined to talk about a single universal zap-gun. An unofficial Dungeons and Dragons clone, the Arduin Grimoire, had a deliberately gory system of critical hits because the writer knew what it was like to be in combat.
Say what you like about Dungeons and Dragons; no-one was in any doubt about what you were meant to do with it. You drew maps of little rooms; you connected the little rooms together with little corridors; you noted what kind of monster was in each room (or maybe you made a chart and picked them at random as you went along) you created parties of heroes; the heroes walked along tunnels and into the rooms and killed the monsters. 
Break the door down: kill the monsters: take their stuff. Continue forever. 

But what was Traveller for?
I used to ogle the Games Workshop catalogue like pornography. For some unspeakably huge amount of money, six pounds maybe or even seven, there was something called City State Of The Invincible Overlord which was a map of a whole city. And for some more money, you could get the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and the Fantastick Wilderlands Beyond. But so far as I can tell, cities were pretty much the same as dungeons. You walked around them as a party, you broke down doors, you killed inhabitants and you took their stuff. 
Traveller had no dungeons. You could draw a map of a spaceship if you wanted to. There were complicated rules about what could fit into each kind of spaceship; based on tonnage and displacement and how many hard-points it had and what the technology level of the planet where you built it was. Designing a starship was pretty much like filling up your backpack for Dungeons and Dragons. Planets were rolled up like characters; instead of having scores for Strength and Dexterity they had scores for Temperature and Population and Sea Level; a whole world defined by a six or seven digit number. You randomly determined their position on a hexagonal star map and worked out where the hyperspace corridors were according to an algorithm. But once you knew that three hexes away from the democratic planet with low gravity was a primitive planet with low technology it wasn't clear what you were meant to do with that information. In Dungeons and Dragons you said "I walk down the corridor. I turn left. The elf gets his arrow ready while the Fighter breaks the door down. We attack the orcs." In Traveller you said "We fly to the low tech planet." That takes a week. "We refuel at the star port." Okay. But then what? You couldn't "explore" a planet in the way you explored a dungeon or even a city. There couldn't possibly be a map. It was just a list of numbers. 
I get, now, that what you were supposed to do was trade: find stuff that could be made cheaply on Planet A and sell it for a profit on Planet B and use the money to buy a bigger spaceship. If the trading wasn't working you could do missions but the missions were conceived of in abstract terms. It wasn't like "Here is an evil enemy base full of storm-troopers; hatch a daring plot to break in and steal the dilithium reactor." It was "Obtain a Dilithium Reactor for your Patron. If you roll a 13 on 2D6 you succeed. You can add three to your score if you have any of the following skills...." Where Dungeons and Dragons was a small unit war-game that had reluctantly mutated into an RPG, Traveller was a game of trade and business, almost certainly intended to be played through the post. 
Perhaps I am particularly paranoid; or perhaps my first Dungeons and Dragons group was particularly immature; but I think that they regarded even the intrusion of a trap or a puzzle or a little-old-man as an annoying interruption into the monster-killing which they had come for. They put up with my digressions: to keep the D.M. on side; buttering him up for the next time there was a rules dispute. And anyway Andrew was the only person whose Mum was mad enough to let him buy all these rule books and to have his friends round every Sunday to play, and to give them sandwiches and Pepsi. So you had to indulge him sometimes. But how I got them to play Traveller. I can't think. 
You kill clown. You kill clown. I was clown. Famous Clown Charlie. That was me. I killed him.16

15 The designer of Traveller

16 Literally no idea.

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