Wednesday, July 01, 2020

I went to a Games Convention: it may have been Dragonmeet or Games Day. 

It may have been the same one where I won the small metal trophy for my excellent characterisation of a dwarf. 
I heard a talk by Marc Miller who invented Traveller. 
I had read the three little books and knew that they talked about the Imperium as if I already knew what it was, so I assumed that everyone apart from me knew what it was. In fact the Imperium was Marc Miiler's own little game world and no-one outside his own little game group could be expected to have heard of it. 
Games happened mostly in fanzines I didn't read; games happened in the back rooms of pubs I was not old enough to go inside; games happened in clubs at colleges and universities in parts of London I never went to. 
If I decided that I wanted to play Traveller tomorrow I could (I assume) by a great big book that would tell me what the Imperium was and why there was a Scout Service and what marches are and how spinward ones differed from any other kind. There are probably web pages as well. There is probably more information out there than any one person can remember; but I would at least know where to start. 
Back then there was no way to find out about the Imperium and the Spinward Marches and the Solomani and the Zhodani except by gleaning it from the margins of the three little books (and their one or two little supplements) and from what people in the loop had written in fanzines.
This is the advantage of Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings as gaming settings. It is also the advantage of bland generic fantasy with wizards and orcs and knights and princesses and clerics and dragons and dark lords and towers... You can tell me "you are playing an X-Wing pilot in the Rebellion" or "you are playing a bounty hunter working for Jabba the Hutt" and I immediately have a picture in my head. If you are a strict world-builder, there is lots of stuff in Star Wars which is under-defined or incoherent. Some days Jabba seems to be a mafiosi; some days more like the prince of renaissance city state. I couldn't tell you what planet he comes from (Hutt, probably). I don't know if he is the kind of slug who has disgraced all the other slugs by turning to crime; or if the whole slug culture is crime in the way the whole Vulcan culture is science. But you have a general idea what the words mean. 
So: Marc Miller handed out A4 folded sheets detailing the aliens in the Traveller Universe. The three books had, astonishingly, not contained any real rules for aliens. I thought this was a moral high horse and I immediately climbed on board it. We do not have aliens in this game about faster than light travel and interstellar empires because the idea of aliens and robots is preposterously far-fetched. And anyway, aren't human beings as interesting and heroic and evil and strange as any aliens?
But it turned out there were aliens.
He spent a page on each alien. There were cat people called the Aslan. There were Insect people called the Hive or the Drone who turned out to be connected to the Ancients who had scattered lost alien technology all over the hex map. There were Centaur People with bald heads and necklaces. I can't remember what they were called. It looked somehow so exotic and serious and evocative, and Marc talked about the Solomani and the Zhodani as if he was talking about actual history, or serious literature. 
The idea behind the Zhodani came, he said, out of Doc Smith's Lensmen. (I honestly thought that this was the first time I had ever been in a room with someone else who had read Lensmen.) He said that the Lensmen are basically cops; but that they are literally infallible and wear grey uniforms. Once your cops are literally infallible then ideas like due process and burden of proof and fair trials go out of the airlock. Kimball Kinnison naturally knows who are the goodies and who are the baddies and can execute wrong'uns on the spot. A world of telepaths in grey uniforms would appear to be fascistic to any non-telepaths; so the antagonists in Traveller are telepathic fascists: the Zhodani. 
I do not know how many times I read those four pieces of paper. 
I think that I had a sense that one day, eventually, far down the line I would be one of the people who played Traveller and said, oh, yes, Space-Centaurs, as casually as you might say, oh, yes, Frenchmen, and everyone would know I was a proper role-player. Eventually the Traveller aliens books came out, and they were more long lists of skills and six digit numbers.
I may not have understood these games. I may not have been very good at these games: not good at remembering numbers; not good at drawing neat diagrams and painting figures; not one of the in-crowd who knew his Solomani Rim from his Snake Pipe Hollow. 
But sometimes, from time to time, I got to say "I". As long as I was playing Traveller, it was sometimes possible to say "This is MY spaceship, I have made some special modifications, WE are going to fly to Smugglers Base on the Planet Woggle; I know a special short-cut." As long as I was playing Dungeons and Dragons I was sometimes allowed to say "Come back to MY cave and I will look in MY spell book and see if I can learn about the monster that lives under your castle." 
MY spaceship, MY sword, MY spells. A series of fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero. 
That was very nearly enough.

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Marco said...

It took me years to realize just how *tight* the Traveller (3-books) system was. Every skill has a very specific game mechanic and they all integrate. The rules for space flight and size of ships--also the extreme commitment to minimalism and functionality in the rules.

The cost mechanics seem to work decently well (I think space combat, though, is so expensive that it never pays to engage in it at all)--the rules for paying off your ship, for distances at which space combat could occur, etc.--all carefully calculated and reasonably well interrelated.

I didn't get that from my read of it when I was younger--it seems complex for no reason. But decades later we are going over what they did and are super impressed.

This is the Traveller homage we are working on ( ) I think you can see this if you care. In this world there are no aliens (there are multiple human "alters," some of which are pretty alien--but no actual aliens).

Taken as a stand. :)

Richard Worth said...

As the universe is roughly disk-shaped, and rotates, the four compass directions are Spinward, Trailing, Rimward and Hubward (sort of ahead, behind, left and right). What struck me in hindsight about Traveller is how conservative most of the technology is: apart from jump-drive and anti-gravity, and not-very-effective later weapons, there is nothing much beyond the 1950s, twenty years before Traveller was actually written. I have never figured out whether it was rooted in a WWII/ Korea skirmish war-game, or whether the relative isolation of different planets had encouraged Appropriate Technology, where most most technology on most planets was made in someone's garage or garden shed.

egg said...

When I was a child, the everyone in Jabba's species was a mafia boss, I guess from a planet with a 100% mafia economy. Han Solo was from a planet of roguish, handsome smugglers. The musician aliens are from various musician-only planets. I guess Disney cancelled out the entire extended universe and all of that backstory, but then they officially made Coca-Cola a canon soft-drink within the Star Wars universe, so it all balances out.