Whither (NOT to be confused with "Wither") Traveller?
An Editorial Excursion by Some Long-Winded GDW Guy
I have written or talked to a great many people about the evolution of TNE and its assumptions, intentions and goals. I have done this so often (as has Frank) that I feel like everyone in the world must certainly know all the philosophical underpinnings of this game. But when I think about it, it is obvious that no one has heard all of it, and the vast majority of Traveller players have heard none of it. It's meaningful to think that everyone who has bought a piece of the Traveller system is in some spiritual (but not legally binding, let me get that out of the way right now) way a kind of "part owner" of Traveller. When you spend years of your life with your friends carefully crafting your own campaign, itís impossible to not have a sense of connection to the game that represents so much work, so much fun, so many memories. With that understanding, the comments inspired by the following letter belong to all Traveller players, and this is a good place to make them widely available (especially seeing as how it also gets this editorial out of the way).
I've been a loyal customer of yours for about
four years now (okay, maybe six) and I recently bought your Aliens of
the Rim Volume 1: Hivers and Ithklur. Up until that supplement, I've
been very happy with Traveller: The New Era, but Aliens of the
Rim brought that happiness to a screeching halt, When DGP did the two
alien sourcebooks for your MegaTraveller setting, they were awesome,
but your sourcebook fell short.
A loyal customer?
First of all, donít blame the entire GDW staff for what you dislike about Hivers and Ithklur. I thought the credits were clear that those who disliked the book were supposed to blame me (via divine intermediation, of course), but Frank often points out that I am too subtle. Maybe I'll listen to him one of these days. By the way, so you don't have to skip down to the end of my letter, my name is Dave. Ed, Dave; Dave, Ed.
First, I want to thank you for your support of Traveller and TNE for the past four to six years. We work very hard on this stuff, and your happiness means a lot to us. We also pay attention to all of the comments we receive about any dissatisfactions you might have.
Having cunningly segued to the dissatisfaction thing, I will now address yours in order: what I left out and what I included.
Everything I left out in comparison to the DGP books I left out for a reason, and this goes back to the basic concept behind Traveller: The New Era. Where MegaTraveller presented a smorgasbord of space which could not be effectively tied together into a unified whole, TNE is intended to present a coherent story. The same way that a novel or movie has to introduce new characters, plot developments, etc., in a planned way so that they develop rather than dilute the storyline, TNE's releases have a sequencing and content intended to advance the story we are trying to tell. This is actually quite a departure from the philosophy behind the earlier avatars of Traveller, so please indulge me while I explain.
From the TNE point of view, the main problem with the DGP sourcebooks is one that was shared with the alien modules from original Traveller: They presented aliens as a sort of Alien of the Month Club. Each race was complete in and of itself, on its own home turf, with UWP information, subsector and sector maps of their home space, etc. In addition, rather than concentrating on the dynamic instabilities that exist within a society and between the alien society and the neighboring Imperium, these supplements usually presented alien societies as the socio-political equivalents of a steady-state ecological climax community.
Because players naturally use what you give them, the combination of well detailed alien home space and the lack of clear hooks to pull these alien races into the larger Imperial storyline encouraged Traveller groups to jump their campaigns from one unrelated corner of space to another to follow the latest published material. When the Aslan book came out, groups started an Aslan campaign in order to use the cool information. When the K'kree book came out, groups jumped their campaigns over to K'kree space, followed by further abrupt campaign shifts when Vargr, Zhodani, Hiver, etc., books came out. This tendency undermined the ability to present a campaign in which the Imperium, or later, the "Rebellion," could be experienced in any kind of coherent way. (For example, the only way DGP was able to tie this disparate material together was to bodily haul their Travellersí Digest campaign around the entire Imperium, an unusual solution that is unsuited to most existing campaigns.) And because much of MegaTraveller was about the Rebellion, this lack of focus was a problem, perhaps even a fatal flaw. When a unified campaign background is fragmented into a number of separate neighborhoods, it becomes impossible to give all the players the campaign support they want. An Aslan campaign book does not meet the needs of the Vargr, K'kree, Zhodani or Hiver players, and vice versa. Furthermore, human-centered Imperial or Rebellion material answers the needs of none of the alien campaigns.
Nevertheless, some Traveller fans aren't bothered by the difficulty of tying together unrelated campaign fragments, as they just like all the cool background material. This raises another important point: There are at least two constituencies of Traveller fans, which I will call "players" and "collectors." Naturally there is extensive overlap between these two groups, so the division is perhaps best thought of as two poles of interest, between which all gamers are stretched to varying degrees of agony. Traveller fans who gravitate more toward the player pole enjoy Traveller primarily as a means to play a science-fiction roleplaying game in a broad, detailed, diverse and relatively "hard-science" setting. Those who gravitate toward the collector pole get their primary enjoyment out of being immersed in the large mass of interesting pseudo-reality source material. This is the same enjoyment that history lovers get out of historical material; Star Trek fans get out of all the encyclopedias, blueprints, Klingon dictionaries, spaceflight chronologies, and technical manuals; and Tolkein fans get from Tolkein glossaries, Middle Earth maps, elven poetry, and Christopher Tolkein's examinations of his father's notes and unfinished manuscripts. Traveller collectors get most of their enjoyment from what Marc Miller called "solitaire Traveller"- designing starships and vehicles, generating sectors, writing histories, or simply having fun reading all the cool stuff. Because Traveller is 18 years old, many of its staunch supporters have reached the age where it is hard to fit roleplaying get-togethers into the demanding world of families, careers, hair loss, etc. These supporters are therefore inclined to move toward the solitaire/collector pole.
Neither pole, player nor collector, is better or worse than the other. However, material targeted more toward one pole than the other will not be wholly satisfactory to the untargeted group. While a collector wants the Traveller equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jane's Fighting Ships, The Bible, Dune and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, players are better served by adventure oriented material: The past is prologue; adventure starts now!
An excellent example of the difference in needs and enjoyment between the collector and the player is their approach to sector data. Collectors want to be able to see all of Charted Space, and clamor for more and more sector data. The leading response to the publication in 1984 of Atlas of the Imperium (long since out of print) was, "Okay, so now give us all the UWPS." Players, or more particularly referees, on the other hand, know what a task it is to detail a mere subsector to the level required for roleplaying. They don't want more sectors they want help in breathing life into the worlds they already have.
We seek to satisfy both groups with our TNE material, but it is hard to walk a fine line between two demanding goals, and in many cases we have to err on one side more than the other. So which side? What do we make, Atlas of the Imperium or Tarsus?
In order to answer this question, we have to first decide what the purpose and goal of the game is.
Original Traveller was not intended to become a huge system. It was a loose, open-ended framework for a broad variety of science-fiction adventure. But as its popularity grew, it evolved, a piece at a time, into a system that had not been envisioned when it was first created.
In time, this system turned out to be too static, with an omnipotent Imperium surrounded by climax communities of aliens. One Traveller contributor calls this background "airliners in space," in which you racked up frequent flyer miles going from one civilized world to the next. While this is an exaggeration, it is true that many, perhaps most, players had to create opportunities for adventure by breaking the law - if not Imperial law, then local law. The Imperial laissez-faire approach to home rule actually encouraged contempt of local authority, which led to lots of campaigns filled with bank robberies, jail breaks, stealing starships, robbing weapons depots for battle dress, abusing unsophisticated locals and staying one step ahead of the law.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I find it troubling to think of a game in which the only way to do anything interesting is to break the law (again, an exaggeration, but grounded in truth). So, apparently, did the Forces for Galactic Harmony resident at GDW circa 1986-7, who decided to open up the Traveller background so that players could unleash mayhem legally. (Considering the success of the militantly anarchic cyberpunk genre, it is interesting to speculate that perhaps Traveller was ahead of its time, but that's water over the dam.)
The result was MegaTraveller and the Rebellion. Breaking the Imperium into chunks broke the omnipotence of the Imperium and allowed adventures to be more free-wheeling. Allowing certain of these chunks to be nominally good or evil allowed players to engage in greater amounts of spiffy combat, and in the name of what passed for a good cause.
However, there was confusion over whether the Rebellion was a means to an end or an end in itself, and MegaTraveller wound up with feet planted in both camps. This was not good for Traveller fans. Players who wanted to see the Rebellion unfold were disappointed, as were those who simply wanted to fast forward to a campaign with many little Imperia instead of just the one really big one. At the same time, collectors were equally disappointed by the lack of source material on the single most important historical event in 1100 years. MegaTraveller's greatest story, the Rebellion/Civil War/Final War, was left essentially untold.
So now it's late 1991, and we had to figure out how to approach Traveller: Take 3. In the interest of making newer, better mistakes instead of just repeating old ones, we attempted to learn the lessons of Traveller and MegaTraveller to determine what characteristics the new edition should have. Among these were:
The first thing was to get away from the Rebellion. It was already too late to properly handle the unfolding of the Rebellion, and to satisfy the Traveller players who were pulling for their favorite factions. In addition, I found the whole Rebellion concept to be ever more morally repugnant as time went by. I was determined that this as-yet-unspecified watershed event would not remotely rationalize the excesses of the Rebellion, but would categorically repudiate them.
So what's the event? Frank had already floated the idea of a computer virus and Star Vikings who come to pick up the pieces, and we revisited it. When Frank had first mentioned the idea at some con, the response was, "That's impossible. We have virus protection software now, so no virus could ever bust up the Imperium."
My first reaction to that was an inarticulate sputter. "If man were meant to fly, he'd have wings." "Trains will never be able to go faster than 50 mph because all the air would get sucked out of them and the passengers would suffocate." "The Titanic is unsinkable." "The Maginot Line is impenetrable." "The world is too interconnected. War is now impossible." "I have armor. Therefore you cannot hurt me." "Oh yeah? I have a new gun, so your armor is useless." "Oh yeah? I have thicker armor, so your new gun is useless." "Oh yeah? I have..."
All these are variations on the bankrupt theme, "If I can't see it/can't understand it, it can't happen."
My second response was that disbelief in a sufficiently interesting virus did not signify a victory of intellect or technical knowledge - it signified a failure of imagination. Okay, so what do we imagine? After some noodling, and one brilliant insight by a Traveller player, we came up with this: Traveller has always shied away from intelligent/self-aware/sentient/truly alive machines and robots by pushing them one tech level beyond whatever it is we have now. So what's the breakthrough? What do machine life forms look like? How do they act? What's their ecology? Who knows, but wouldnít it be more interesting to have them than to continue to refuse to deal with them because we canít understand them? And by the way, we had this adventure called Signal GK....
(As a side-note, some Traveller players remain unconvinced of the authenticity of Virus. This strikes me as a tragic squandering of intellectual energy: One need not dig that deep in Traveller to find something one imagines to be impossible. I personally remain unconvinced of the authenticity of jump drives, contragravity, stutterwarp, psionic teleportation, Zhodani, Droyne, Grandfather, lasers with useful offensive power at starship combat ranges and inertial compensators, and yet I sleep like a baby. Go figure.)
Okay, so we have a device. How do we present it? One of MegaTraveller's failures was that it was centered around a Rebellion that it did not know how to talk about. In order to leave space for everybody's personal campaigns, it refused to define too much about the Rebellion. But how could you run a campaign about the Rebellion if nobody told you how it was going? Who was going to win? Did anybody know? Would anybody ever know? Referees didnít want their campaigns to strand players in some faction doomed to fail or become evil, but no one would tell them which to choose.
The lesson of MegaTraveller and the Rebellion is that if you want a watershed event to change the campaign, the game is about the new world after the change, not about the change itself. Make the change and move on. And whatever you do, donít look back. Donít leave the Rebellion as an open wound. Let the wound close, and leave it closed. The only faction that survived the Collapse was really a non-faction, the Domain of Deneb. All the others are dust and will not return. The Rebellion is over; the factions are gone.
Let it be done.
And what do we call it? GigaTraveller? Since our intent was to start with the moral equivalent of a clean slate, in the morning of a new day, the title was easy. Traveller would enter a New Era (not a "Next Generation"), both in terms of new rules mechanics and a new campaign background.
Okay, so we've got a New Era. How do we show it? How do we bring players into it? How do we address the fact that this New Era is breaking out all over the place, in the former Imperium, among the Aslan, Vargr, K'kree, Zhodani, etc.? We want to revisit all these interesting places, but we canít do it all at once, not without becoming over-extended and not doing any single issue with enough quality. We need a system that allows us to prioritize and sequence these things in a helpful way.
We chose a storytelling approach to achieve this goal. Storytelling gives us a tool to try to find the fine line between detailing too little, not giving referees enough of a feel for what their campaigns should look like, and detailing too much, not leaving enough open space for players and referees to do their own thing. A storytelling approach means that we deliver background material that is immediately used in adventures that allow the players to participate in the unfolding events of the New Era.
However, this does place a limit on how much immediate pleasure we can provide to Traveller collectors, but this is something that we are willing to accept, and here is why. Explaining things to the level that satisfies the hardcore collector, who reads Traveller as a perfectly explained history from an objective and omniscient point of view, means explaining things too much, which means taking the fun out of them. Would anyone play Call of Cthulhu if everyone knew that Cthulhu was just a cosmic grocery store clerk from a race of squid heads sleeping off a long drunk? Some things are fun because we are trying to find out a truth, which requires that we donít already know it in too much detail.
Original Traveller revealed too much about the Ancients and thereby killed them as an interesting (i.e., mysterious) concept. This then required a belated (and abortive) introduction of the "Primordials" to be a new interesting mystery race, until such time as they would inevitably be over-detailed and killed. (Show of hands: Who here got fed up with Marvel Comics when they started to continuously introduce new beings who were an order of magnitude more powerful than anyone you had ever seen before? First there were Galactus and The Watcher, and then that guy in Secret Wars who made them look like small potatos/oes, and then some other guy made the Secret Wars guy look like chopped liver, and on and on, but still the Fantastic Four were able to pull some rabbit out of their collective hat and beat guys umpteen orders of magnitude more powerful than they are. But did you notice that no matter how exponentially more powerful these clowns are than humans, they all still have the souls of children and need to learn eternal verities by watching the wee humans like ants on a sidewalk? Color me bored. Excuse me for frothing. I now return you to your program, already in progress.)
The reason for this progression is because original Traveller and MegaTraveller presented source material for the omniscient referee. This material was therefore absolutely true (well, usually). This is great for collectors, because they want to know about all the cool stuff they can. This is also good for referees, because they want to know all they can about the universe so they can present it to their players in all its glory. The problem is that when players read this material and learn the truth (and they will), the mysterious becomes mundane, and adventure becomes matter-of-fact. There is a simple law at work here: There can be no exploration, no discovery, no sense of wonder, without mystery, i.e., gaps in perfect knowledge.
TNE deliberately departs from the perfect information approach, to leave room for mystery. To an extent, all TNE material treats the reader - collector, player and referee alike - as an inhabitant of the campaign background, not a god who stands above that campaign with perfect knowledge of it. Although using different means than have been used in the past, this follows the great tradition of Traveller: that things are not always what they appear to be. Anyone who has ever talked to Marc Miller knows that one of his greatest delights was the way Traveller had the depth to deliver surprising twists. For example, the Zhodani were originally evil mind-readers but then turned out to be all right guys, and in fact it was the Imperials who were cheats and liars. The Aslan turned out to be a minor race. The Solomani, who once were a bunch of racist yahoos who couldnít even rule their own homeworld, turned out to possess the largest faction in the Rebellion.
Where TNE departs from original Traveller and MegaTraveller is that it leaves the ambiguity in at the front end, and for a reason. And here is where we return at last to your six points of dissatisfaction. (Betcha you had given up hope....)
Hivers and Ithklur contains no sector maps of the Hive Federation, no sector data, no world information on homeworlds or other important worlds. The book is not supposed to encourage players to go into Hiver space. Instead, it is intended to encourage players to interact with and roleplay Hivers and Ithklur where the TNE campaign is already at: the Reformation Coalition. Hive Federation sector and UWP information will be presented as it is needed in The New Era storyline. Watch for the upcoming TNE Epic Into the Belly of the Beast. This three-part campaign will take players from the Reformation Coalition into the. heart (or the belly, take your pick) of the Hive Federation. So hold onto your San*klaass caps (more on this below) it'll be a bumpy ride.
Hivers and Ithklur likewise does not contain a bunch of gratuitous Hiver or Ithklur spaceships or vehicles. The reason is that although no one likes to admit it, the main difference between ships built by different races for similar purpose is the way they are drawn. You can bet that a TL 15 human starship works pretty much the same way as a TL15 Ithklur starship. After all, the physical laws are the same. And because we have already presented significant Hiver starships and Ithklur equipment in the Reformation Coalition Equipment Guide, it would be a waste of space to include a lot of that in Hivers and Ithklur. The point behind H&I is to provide information to roleplay with these fellows, so anything that gets in the way of character generation, rules modifications, motivations, psychology, world view, NPC's, relevant history, etc., is nonmission oriented and is by definition expendable.
I'm glad that you like the Hiver section. This is an interesting example of how I try to restructure and reinterpret old Traveller material to inject the sort of ambiguity and inscrutability that I believe it needs. Large portions of that section consist of previously published material, but I don't think anyone will be able to look at it the same way again, because they will be wondering, "What does it really mean?"
I'm sorry you donít like the Ithklur chapter,
but I can't say your response took me by surprise. Why else would
I put a line like "if you don't like this book" in the credits? There
are certain things that you just know will stir things up, and this is
one of them. Unfortunately, with so many projects at GDW, I have
not been able to develop the H&I storyline as rapidly as I'd
like, so it is hard for players to know what to make of what is there,
especially the humor that you complained about.
"Now, nobody likes a good laugh more than I do ... except perhaps my wife and some of her friends ... oh yes, and Captain Johnston. Come to think of it, most people like a good laugh more than I do. But that's beside the point."
The colonel is exactly right - it is beside the point when humor and truth converge and become the same thing.
Humor is a matter of taste. It is the product of experience: personal, subjective experience.
On the other hand, truth is not subjective in the same way humor is. For meaningful, day-to-day purposes, truth is truth; it is a dictatorship and is not subject to polls. (We are not going to got into an epistemological debate here. if you think you donít exist, that's your problem.)
With this in mind, I will present the following "bad jokes."
Is San*klaass supposed to be Santa Claus? One could assume that, but one might not be correct, and I am not trying to be difficult. People hear what they are capable of hearing, and what they are predisposed to hear. They jump to conclusions because when they hear something they donít understand, they try to fit it into things that they do know. Let me give you an example.
We have all heard of people whose ancestry is "Pennsylvania Dutch." Clearly these people immigrated to Pennsylvania, but they are not Dutch at all. So why do we call them Dutch? Because when they moved in, the local Pennsylvanians asked them what nationality they were, and they replied, "Deutsch." The locals either did not understand the German word for German or were unable to communicate it to others, and the misconception of the Deutsch being Dutch was passed into our national identity crisis.
Would you have been so irritated if instead of sounding like Santa Claus the name had sounded like Bill Clinton, or John Kennedy? What level of goofball coincidence is acceptable, and what level becomes irritating?
I believe your irritation comes from the fact that the only significance of San*klaass sounding like Santa Claus (which was deliberate, I admit it) was that I wanted to make some silly joke that had no relevance to the rest of the Traveller continuity. If this were the case, you would be right to be irritated, as it is well beyond a bad joke - it is sophomoric and irrelevant. But it is not irrelevant; it is true (i.e., true within the fictitious Traveller continuity). Now from my perspective, that changes everything.
What is the significance of that truth? Is it simply one of those Deutsch/Dutch coincidences? Did the humans mishear or misinterpret the name the Ithklur told them? Or are the Ithklur surprised that humans have a great folk hero with exactly the same name as their greatest folk hero? Are they surprised? Pissed? Flattered? Or are they scared that this is just one more damn piece of Hiver meddling? And is it perhaps just one more damn piece of Hiver meddling? And given these questions, can we look at the wearing of the San*klaass hat in the same way? I know what my answer would be.
The story that I began telling in Hivers and Ithklur is the story of a spiritual and even religious quest for freedom. Not Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, not freedom in the narrow American sense of no one telling you what to do, but Freedom itself - freedom to be, to believe, to see what is real, and know it for what it is. Without that freedom, there is nothing else. There is no love, there is no future, and there is no past. One might be a wind-up, clockwork automaton and not even know it. That is an existence worse than slavery, and the only antidote for it is the radical freedom when one breaks through the barriers to see life itself for the first time.
H&I is the starting point for that story, and by necessity it had to be unusual. But I hope not so unusual that you wonít at least take a look at where it will go from there. The story and the ideas I have in mind sure seem interesting to me, and I hope other people will have the same response. I am very excited about it, and that usually counts for something, because when you are excited about something, you do your best work. But then again, you never know - I might be a complete knucklehead and not even have the talent to tell a story that everyone else already knows is not worth the telling. But I hope not. And I have either the faith or the foolishness to try it out.
I hope all this helps you feel a little bit better about your question mark after "a loyal customer." If it doesnít, or even if it does, please write with any further thoughts you have. I'd like to hear them. If worst comes to worst, at least you know who to blame.
With the kind permission of "Geo" Gelinas, who invented the phrase, I will close,
Yours for Traveller,*
The preceding editorial was written by Dave Nilsen, Supervising Editor for Challenge, The Magazine of Science-Fiction Gaming.