An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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MegaTraveller As a Resource For Classic Traveller

MegaTraveller is an awkward goof in the history of Traveller. On paper, the idea of a fresh new edition of the game which gathered together the cream of the crop from various disparate supplements and accessories in order to provide a brand new unified version of the rules – complete with, at last, a universal task resolution system, something vanilla Traveller had been sorely lacking – was a good one.

Unfortunately, slightly too much of MegaTraveller involved just slopping on the advanced options from Classic Traveller without much consideration as to how likely it was any particular group wanted all these dials turned up to 11 at once. Moreover, the core books are absolutely riddled with errata; the Consolidated MegaTraveller Errata is some 71 pages long, and of those pages 4 consist of explanatory material at the start, 48 consist of errata for the MegaTraveller core books, and the remaining 19 pages cover errata for some 11 supplemental products – coming to less than 2 pages per supplement on average, whilst the MegaTraveller core set has an average of 16 pages of errata per book therein.

Now, it’s true that some of this errata consists of clarifications and additions rather than actual errors – and a few of the corrections already made their way into later printing of the materials. Still, it’s clear that the task of actually implementing all of this errata to the entirety of MegaTraveller, even if you limited yourself to just the core books, would be a mammoth undertaking and, arguably, not really worth the effort – especially when the Classic Traveller material that MegaTraveller was based on (or the Mongoose Traveller stuff that came out later) is more accessible and much more amenable to letting you pick and choose what to use.

That said, what scope is there for using MegaTraveller not as a rules set in itself, but as a body of work to draw on for other Traveller games, particularly Classic Traveller or other systems closely related to it? I decided that was a question interesting enough to merit further investigation, particularly since some of the MegaTraveller materials out there is substantially cheaper to find hard copies of than the Classic Traveller material it draws on.

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Spreadsheets, Seeds, and Scenarios: A Sampling of Little Black Books

Classic Traveller fans have a certain fondness for the so-called “Little Black Book” format – the run of game products and accessories whose form factor matched the original small black booklets the rules originally came in. Sure, they didn’t have amazing art, but they otherwise benefitted from a somewhat more consistently clear layout and arrangement than was typical of RPGs of the era, and they managed to balance being cheap enough to be worth dropping a bit of money on whilst having just enough page count that they gave you something useful without going into a redundant level of detail.

When I got that cheap copy of Deluxe Traveller I mentioned previously, it also came with a nice collection of LBB supplements – only the tip of the iceberg as far as the entire run went, but with enough variety in there to, as I’ll outline below, cover the an interesting cross-section of the range. The one significant omission I’d say would be books offering substantive expansions or additions to the actual Traveller rules – such as the supplemental Books 4-8, or Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, which greatly expanded the range of character backgrounds available to player characters.

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Did Traveller Invent the “Campaign Framework”?

A while back I got the opportunity to pick up at a reasonable price a nice copy of Deluxe Traveller. This was a version of the core Traveller rules that GDW published (and gave Games Workshop the rights to release in the UK) in 1981, once Traveller really started getting hot. It comprised the three core booklets of Classic Traveller in their 1981 revisions, a couple of dice, and Book 0 – a beginner’s guide to the game which, as I’ve outlined previously, might be the single most detailed introduction to the hobby written with a view to explaining it to outsiders that existed at that point. (Basic Dungeons & Dragons did exist at this point, but that of course was replete with system stuff – Book 0 is, in effect, a system-free multi-part essay.)

And on top of that, Deluxe Traveller gives you a colour map of the Spinward Marches – later bundled into the MegaTraveller core box – and The Imperial Fringe. This is billed as an introductory adventure but, aside from an introductory encounter, there isn’t much adventure to it – it covers the PCs starting out their post-mustering out careers as Traveller adventurers and getting recruited by the Imperial Scout Service – giving them an opportunity to earn a very welcome extra chunk of cash if they spend a day or so surveying the systems they visit so that the central Scout database can be updated accordingly.

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Roll to See If You Are the Law

One of the most important business relationships in the history of Mongoose Publishing is that between them and Rebellion, the videogame company that also happens to own 2000AD and its associated intellectual property. This started early on in Mongoose’s existence; they landed the Judge Dredd RPG licence that had laid fallow since Games Workshop’s 1985 attempt at a Dredd RPG, and managed to put out a D20 Dredd game as early as 2002. It reached its zenith in the late 2000s, when Mongoose became a part of the Rebellion group, but by the early 2010s it was on the wane – Mongoose detached itself from Rebellion for reasons that have never been wholly explained, and more recently their various 2000AD-related licences came to an end.

Though the split was cordial and civilised, it’s clear that this gradual winding-down of relations was very damaging to Mongoose. Rebellion seem to be happy enough having added Cubicle 7 to their family (a company I generally find to be rather superior to Mongoose in the production values, editing, and overall quality stakes) – they quite evidently didn’t need Mongoose nearly as much as Mongoose needed them. Conversely, Mongoose’s product range has been gutted, with lines based on Rebellion properties like Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog vanishing from their catalogue. With their loss of other important licences, Mongoose have been left a gutted shadow of their former selves.

It is a shame that one casualty of this is their 2009 Judge Dredd campaign setting book for Traveller. Not only does the militaristic bent of Traveller prove a good match for the brutal Justice Department of Mega-City One, but it’s also a rather gorgeously executed product, with generally tighter editing than expected for Mongoose and excellent layout and use of the 2000AD art assets.

The darkly comedic undercurrents of the Dredd series even make some aspects of the Traveller system feel more appropriate than in vanilla Traveller. Character creation, for instance, is adapted so that instead of starting as an adult and going through terms of service in some career or other, you start as a child recruit to the Academy and character gen takes you through the process of training as a cadet until you have your Full Eagle Day, when under the watchful eye of an active Judge you do a live-fire street patrol, and if they reckon you are ready you become a full-fledged Judge. (More experienced characters can be produced using tables covering terms of service as an actual Judge if desired.)

Everyone laughs about Classic Traveller character generation and the way it makes it possible for characters to die in character gen, and in some respects this a return to that, but for my money it’s an amusing and characterful implementation of the idea which, crucially, establishes useful stuff about the setting. Although flunking the Academy isn’t likely, it’s definitely possible, and the danger of it existing means that new PCs feel like they have survived a recruitment and training process as cartoonishly gruelling as it’s supposed to be, and like any good lifepath system it’s a nice instant introduction to the flavour and style of the setting.

That commitment to the flavour of the setting remains firmly in place throughout the book, even when it comes to rather dated and unkind storylines (like the whole “Fatties” thing concerning a cultish subculture based around weight gain), and is arguably the strongest aspect of the book. You get the big picture stuff – an extensive rundown of the history of Mega-City One as recounted in the comics, details on the structure of the Justice Department, descriptions of other Mega-Cities and offworld colonies, and stats for baddies ranging from street toughs to invaders from other dimensions. You also get a nice discussion of how things work at a Sector level (as well as a sample Sector, Sector 13, to use as a pregenerated focus for the campaign), which helps tie things down to the level of the player characters.

The rules offered are generally quite good, but some editing issues here and there crop up. The thing which stood out for me the most is the duty allocation table you roll on to see what job your party’s been assigned to for today’s shift; on a 2-8 you get a standard street patrol, on a 9-12 you roll 2D6 to see what sort of special duty you end up with. Unfortunately the special duties have been arranged on that 2D6 table in alphabetical order, without any regard given to the relative probabilities involved, leading to the absurd situation where you are twice as likely to be dealing with a Block War as you are to do a simply patrol of a block. This isn’t too hard to amend, but it’s still an irritation.

On the whole, the Traveller incarnation of Judge Dredd is a great one-book presentation of a distinctive SF setting. Yes, it’s a misanthropic world in which a fascistic police force lords it over a twitchy population prone to violent criminal crazes – a cartoon crapsack world which has become dystopian largely because it’s mostly inhabited by various flavours of total asshole – but as a vehicle for cathartic venting or dark satire it’s still a great setting, and this may be the nicest treatment for an RPG it’s had.

The Utilitarian Mongoose

So let’s say you’re running Mongoose’s version of Traveller – the first edition, because you’re not enough of a schmuck to buy an edition of Traveller that doesn’t have basic ship building rules in the core rulebook. You have your core book, you might have the referee screen (portrait orientation panels, ugh, but at least there’s a nice “view through a starship viewscreen” aesthetic to it), what are the other tools you might be resorting to frequently?

Well, there’s every chance you’d also be looking at their supplement line. With a plain aesthetic and a numbering scheme reminiscent of the little black books of Classic Traveller, a few of them (like Dynasty) offered substantial additions to the Traveller rules, but most of them consisted of highly utilitarian compilations of stuff.

For instance, for those who don’t have time to design an entire galaxy’s worth of starships, the three starship supplements – Supplement 2: Traders and GunboatsSupplement 3: Fighting Ships, and Supplement 10: Merchants and Cruisers – offer all you could want, with various worked examples of a wide range of ship types and some lovely deckplans. (Fighting Ships concludes with an Imperial battlestation of truly vast proportions, whose audacity is just a joy to contemplate). The first two of these have some nice artwork of the ships which in their simple style give me fond memories of looking at spaceship artwork in library books back as a little Arthur; sadly, Merchants and Cruisers instead has somewhat ugly CGI of the ships instead, and loses some of its charm as a result.

Another set of worked examples was Supplement 7: 1001 Characters. Whereas “masses of NPC stats”-type supplements had been produced for Traveller before, these mostly consisted of statlines produced by a spreadsheet – useful in days when everyone didn’t have computers handy, near-useless otherwise. The modern update of the concept here is somewhat more useful, with various instant NPCs with appropriate statlines, names, brief backgrounds and, most usefully of all, a clear archetypal niche for them in bold. Flip to the appropriate chapter, look at the bold text until you spot something that suits the sort of NPC you want to deploy, and then bombs away. It’s a great example of how even with an extremely simple, bare-bones layout you can with a little thought make something extremely useful in actual play.

Other supplements added additional bits to the rules; Supplement 4: Central Supply Catalogue not just provided lots of and lots of equipment, but also guidelines on adapting equipment (such as coming up with higher tech level equivalents of lower-tech gear). My main complaint about it is that it’s a bit gunbunny-tastic – there’s masses and masses of weapons and armour detailed but comparatively slimmer sections on non-combat requipment. Supplement 5-6: The Vehicle Handbook was a replacement for two somewhat shonky earlier vehicle supplements, and provided a fairly simple vehicle design system which could model everything from a bicycle to a tank – quite nice, though I am not sure why you would ever bother to come up with detailed game stats for a bicycle. Supplement 11: Animal Encounters expanded on the animal encounter rules in the core book.

Supplement 8: Cybernetics might just be the hidden star of the supplement line. Yes, it’s a shopping list of cyberware – but more significantly, it offers detailed rules on cyberware and reworked career profiles oriented towards a cyberpunk setting and rules for handling cyberspace. Between these components, it offers all you need to run 1980s-1990s style cyberpunk in Traveller – decades late, maybe, but a welcome filling of a gap that GDW left open really absurdly long.

Supplements like this aren’t flashy, aren’t sexy, but are extremely useful for running any tabletop RPG – sometimes you need those worked examples handy when there just isn’t the prep time to do it yourself. One could wish that more games remembered the utility of such things.

Farewell to Loren Wiseman

Just got the news via Tenkar’s Tavern that Loren Wiseman has passed away.

Wiseman is mostly significant to gamers as part of the old GDW team, where he co-designed games like Twilight: 2000 (which has rather fallen out of fashion but was the top post-apocalyptic RPG back in its prime) and En Garde! (a very, very early post-D&D RPG – in fact, it’s sufficiently early that it barely resembles a recognisable RPG, though its rather mechanistic and limited rules do make it nicely suited for play-by-email purposes).

He’s mostly famed, though, as a major contributor over the years to Traveller, both during its original run at GDW and as the mastermind behind the GURPS Traveller line at Steve Jackson Games.

I’ve gone on the record before as saying that there’s probably too many official system conversions for Traveller out there, but out of all of them, GURPS Traveller was easily the best. (Indeed, I suspect its success was the main motivation behind many of the other Traveller conversions over the years – and part of me wonders whether Mongoose would have even taken a punt on Traveller had the GURPS line not kept it fresh and asserted the Third Imperium as a still-viable setting.) A large part of this came down to the excellent setting material for it – useful stuff whether you were using GURPS or one of the existing Traveller systems or some conversion of your own design.

One useful decision made was to set the GURPS line in an alternate timeline where the Rebellion that kicked off the MegaTraveller setting never happened. This did allow the GURPS line to distance itself from controversial setting changes that had divided the fanbase in the past, but it also posed the challenge of making the setting seem like a place you could have dynamic, exciting adventures in despite the rather static nature of the Imperium. At its best, the GURPS line solved that problem by providing strong emphasis on traditional flashpoints like the Solomani Rim and the Spinward Marches, along with really strong planetary writeups which remembered that each planet should in its own right provide a jumping-off point for adventure; underpinning this seems to have been an understanding that the adventure in Traveller isn’t so much in the galactic-scale macropolitics (which by its very nature is too vast and glacial for any individual adventuring party to really expect to make much of a dent on) and more on local-scale tensions.

Regardless of whether this represented Wiseman’s position all along and he’d just been overruled back in the GDW days, or a lesson painfully learned during the decline and fall of GDW, this approach to Traveller offered a refreshing clean break from the galaxy-wide revolutions and disasters that GDW had become fond of during the later phase of the line, and the GURPS line – and Wiseman – deserve a toast from all Traveller fans for that.

With a career as long as Wiseman’s, of course, GURPS Traveller only represents the tip of the iceberg. He also coauthored The Traveller Adventure – a campaign so well-regarded that Mongoose more or less reprinted it with minimal changes to update it for their version of the system rather than making extensive changes to it. And I especially want to pick out Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller as an important contribution of his (excerpts were later incorporated into Starter Traveller, a beginner’s version of Classic Traveller, and The Traveller Book, a complete-in-one-book version of the core Classic Traveller rules).

This was a Classic Traveller supplement that was originally one of the booklets you got in the Deluxe Traveller core set, and represents perhaps the most extensive “What are RPGs, and what’s the deal with this specific RPG?” piece ever written for a major game line up to that point (and for a good while afterwards at that). I particularly like the fact that it goes into fine detail about the tasks of the referee – a vitally important concept for newcomers to get their heads around – as well as providing an example of play which reads like a real session with real personalities to the players, as opposed to the rather sterile style some examples of play can be presented in. The booklet as a whole is especially worth revisiting in terms of the level it pitches the material at; it’s an excellent example of how you can present this stuff patiently and carefully to an interested audience without talking down to them or making them feel like you’re treating them like a confused child, and I would recommend a quick reread of it to anyone who’s about to undertake the task of writing a “What is roleplaying?” essay.

(In a classic example of Far Future Enterprises making business decisions that make me go “bwuh?”, they’re selling PDFs of Book 0 for $4.99. Come on, Miller – there’s no substantive system stuff in there, it’s an introductory text, give the PDF out for free to tantalise the audience.)

So, if you saw the news that Loren had died on the grapevine and weren’t aware of what he’d produced, that’s just a little cross-section there of the stuff that stood out to me. Please send kind thoughts in the direction of his friends and family.

Why I Love Mongoose Traveller, Why I Won’t Get the New Edition

As with many games that have been revised and reissued regularly since the 1970s, Traveller is in the precarious position of having a rather startling number of different versions of it available. This is particularly the case if you consider that actually the term Traveller refers, in the minds of many, to two connected and distinct things: there’s Traveller in the sense of the game systems that have carried that name, and then there’s Traveller in the sense of the Third Imperium campaign setting which became the default setting of the game reasonably early on in the lifetime of its original incarnation (known today as Classic Traveller).

As far as the setting goes Marc Miller, its creator and custodian of most of the old Game Designers’ Workshop RPG back catalogue, has been very generous with the licensing rights over the years, so if you want to play in the Third Imperium there are an embarrassment of choices available. Hero system? There’s a Traveller for that. D20? There’s a Traveller for that too. GURPS? Why, some people swear that GURPS Traveller is their absolute favourite presentation of the Third Imperium! I admit to losing track of which of all these variants are still in print, but I do remember getting the impression a while back that the answer was probably “too many” – although each licence probably gave Miller a nice injection of royalties, at the same time I do wonder whether they have been a double-edged sword: each successful adaptation can only have fragmented the fanbase further (with a big question mark as to whether it grew the fanbase sufficiently to compensate for that), whilst each unsuccessful one can’t have done much to build the fanbase further.

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What’s Up With My Traveller Article?

Seriously, what gives?

My article about Traveller character generation gets a crazy amount of traffic. As in daily clicks direct to that page. The majority of pageviews I get are just for the main page, but when it comes to specific posts, the Traveller character generation article gets around 250% of the direct views its closest competitor enjoys.

I’m flattered that people like the article, but what’s up with that? What is it specifically about that one article that you guys enjoy so much more than my other posts, and what can I do to deliver it more often?