Thursday, August 7, 2008
Among OD&Ders, the abbreviations "LBBs" refers to the "little brown books" that comprised the 1974 release of the game. Those 5½" x 8½" books are the beginnings of our hobby and, though each is only 36 pages long, they packed a lot of creative punch. Supplements to the three volumes of OD&D followed the same basic format, although only Supplement I and II are brown.
So seminal were those LBBs that many early RPGs followed a similar format. Arduin is one notable example. Another is GDW's Traveller. Released in 1977, Traveller was to science fiction gaming what D&D was to fantasy -- a generic rules set whose assumptions were a goulash of specific literary allusions, pop culture, and auctorial whimsy that somehow managed to transcend its sources and become a unique thing with a life all its own. The initial boxed set consisted of three little black books of the same size as the OD&D volumes. Among Traveller fans, those books are often abbreviated as the LBBs. They had a sleak, simple graphic design that, even now, I consider to be among the best used for a RPG ever.
If D&D is the girl that I married, Traveller is the old flame who repeatedly jilted me and yet still has a hold over me I can't quite explain. I love Traveller with the passion of a thousand suns and played it almost exclusively during my high school years, when fantasy lost its appeal for me (Remember that I started high school in 1983, just as TSR was entering its Dark Ages). It fired my imagination in a way that only two games have ever really done (D&D is the first; you'll have to guess the other) and it forever imprinted on me a notion of what sci-fi should be: sober, semi-realistic, and, above all, human(e).
I was heavily involved in Traveller fandom for years and my earliest paid professional writings were for Traveller: The New Era and in the pages of the late, lamented Challenge magazine. One of my fondest memories is attending Origins in Baltimore and going out to dinner with Marc Miller and the Japanese translators of Traveller. Over crab cakes, we talked about the history and development of the game, as well as its future (this was just before the release of TNE); it was my first brush was an RPG "celebrity" and I still retain a fondness for both Mr Miller and Loren Wiseman, both of whom impressed me as gentlemen of the old guard. Or maybe I should say the High Guard. In any case, I like the guys who created and wrote for Traveller and that probably has a lot to do with why I still have positive feelings about the game after all these years.
OD&D and Traveller are cousins under the skin. They both present simple rules, full of ambiguities and infelicities, that are nevertheless the gateways to infinite adventures. They're also both founded on literature that few people nowadays read or appreciate, which may explain why they are often misunderstood. Finally, both games eventually succumbed to hubris and forgot why they held such a powerful appeal for kids like me. Once Traveller reached the point where it was no longer a game of "science fiction adventure in the far future" but a game about, well, Traveller, the magic was gone for me. It's a parallel to the brandification of D&D and it's a shame.
Still, I can't deny it: I think about Traveller from time to time and remember the fun times we had together. It's a great game.