Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Plus Ça Change

Victor Raymond very kindly gave to me a large collection of Different Worlds magazines, which I'm now reading with great enthusiasm. DW, if you've never seen it, was Chaosium's gaming periodical and, as such, contains many articles for RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and other Basic Roleplaying games. Like Dragon, though, DW wasn't purely a house organ and included articles on many other games, including Traveller.

Issue 11 (Feb/Mar 1981) includes an article called "A New Computer System for Traveller," written by someone called Martin Connell. What's interesting about this article is not so much its content but the rationale behind it:
Since Traveller was released in 1977, sporadic articles have appeared in various gaming magazines augmenting the basic system. These have added great new aspects to the game, but, through my own experience and through discussions with other players, I found that what everyone was most dissatisfied with was not any limitation of scope, but with the original computer rules. The computer system presented in Book 2 is slow, stupid, and grossly overweight. It's straight out of the 1960s. Truly representative of the far future, is it not?
As you can see, the desire to keep a game "up to date" did not originate in the 21st century. There were always gamers who wanted to ensure their games were as "realistic" as possible by drawing on the latest information available. What's amusing about Martin Connell's effort, though, is the second paragraph of the article, explaining his methodology in "improving" Traveller's presentation of computers:
In this article I present a variant computer system based on what I see as trends in the industry and my own experience with computers. I preface this by saying that I am not a computer specialist. I am student of Mechanical Engineering. I have used an IBM 360, and IBM 3033, a PRIME, and several hobby computers. Several friends who are science majors were consulted.
I don't mean to make fun of Mr Connell, but it's deeply funny nonetheless to read someone complain about Traveller's 1960s-style computers in 1981, which have now long since been superseded themselves. For myself, I've never really been bothered by Traveller's technological assumptions, which, while perhaps ridiculous from the standpoint of contemporary computing, make perfect sense within the context of the science fiction literature that inspired the game.

Playing Traveller has never -- for me anyway -- been about accurately predicting the future, technologically or otherwise. Rather, it was about emulating a particular type of SF, such as that found in the stories of Anderson, Piper, and others. In this respect, it's very similar to OD&D, which was also inspired by a particular set of writers and stories and which becomes all the more intelligible once you take this into account. It's a point that's frequently been lost on players and referees alike, who've criticized the game for not taking this or that into account and thus not "accurately" reflecting reality. To my way of thinking, Traveller is near-perfect in reflecting its fictional reality; it is its players who are often mistaken.

24 comments:

  1. It's a point that's frequently been lost on players and referees alike, who've criticized the game for not taking this or that into account and thus not "accurately" reflecting reality.

    Yes, I've always been baffled by those who try to portray things in a D&D world by the principles of how things were in mediaeval Europe. If that's how one gets one's enjoyment from the game, then that's fair enough, but I personally don't see the point in trying to shoehorn accurate simulations of mediaeval economics, construction, etc into a fantasy game. I think this is also why I react better to fantasy settings which shirk the mock-mediaeval trappings and do something different.

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  2. I like the massive, ridiculously bulky and slow computers in Traveller. The last time I ran Traveller, part of the point was to glory in the nostalgic "outdating" of the tech in the basic game. I was shooting for a "1999 seen from 1959" kind of feel, and the obviously outdated tech in the original game worked well to make that happen.

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  3. "don't see the point in trying to shoehorn accurate simulations of mediaeval economics, construction, etc into a fantasy game."

    This is something that's been itching at the back of my brain lately. Some folks really prefer the pseudo-medieval implications of D&D. Look at Harn, for example, which is essentially a (for lack of a better term) fantasy realist's reaction to OD&D. And of course others see the gameworld as a place that is assumed to be totally divorced from reality, while still others occupy some sort of middle path between these extremes.

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  4. As Anderson continued to write in the 80s and 90s, did he limit himself to the future technology he evisioned in the 70s? Do you believe Piper would have limited himself to the technology he envisioned in the 60s if he had lived another few decades and saw reality, in some areas, trump his visions? Did the authors of Traveller specifically set out to recreate a single vision of the future, fixed on the projections of 1977? Were they setting out to create a game about one fixed retrofuture?

    I don't believe any of those authors intended for the technology to be a rigid, fixed part of the futures they envisioned. None would have wanted readers to to occasionally stop and snicker at giant mainframes and similar misguesses about the future. They wrote of future technology that seemed plausible when it was written. To contemporary readers these weren't snapshots of a world at the moment, the was The Future.

    If one specifically wants to play a retrofuture game, that's great. I love it! But if someone wants to take the real essence of what made 60s and 70s science fiction great, but wants to update the relatively unimportant trappings of technology, that is entirely within the spirit of the source material itself.

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  5. Did the authors of Traveller specifically set out to recreate a single vision of the future, fixed on the projections of 1977? Were they setting out to create a game about one fixed retrofuture?

    We know from several sources, most notably Marc Miller, that Traveller was specifically inspired by several books and authors whose scientific speculations were already out of date in 1977. While far from definitive, this suggests to me that the game likely was intended as a "retro-future," or at least as one whose technological/social axioms would not be "updated" as history marched on.

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  6. Maybe because it's a 70s game, but I always pictured Traveller looking a lot like ALIEN - ugly spaceships, hardworking men and women in t-shirts and jeans, no flashy stuff, and huge, clunky computers. I have to admit that the idea of it being intentionally retro even for its time period sailed right over my head.

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  7. I'm surprised you didn't mention your own "Thousand Suns," which also beautifully captures the era of "Imperial science fiction."

    Of course, I don't recall how big computers are in TS....

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  8. Blizack,

    I too superimpose Alien's esthetic over Traveller in my mind, but remember that Alien came out two years after the release of Traveller, so any influence the movie might have had on the game is ex post facto.

    Also, I should be clear: I don't think Traveller was "intentionally retro" so much as strongly emulating SF that would have been considered retro even in 1977. So I don't want to claim that Miller and company were making any kind of explicit philosophical/esthetic statement, but their clearest and strongest inspirations were space operas from the 50s and 60s, which included technological and social assumptions uncommon in SF contemporary to the game's release.

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  9. This particular issue is, I think, very distinct from the normal dialogue about "realism" and "new research".

    The specific problem of what computers look like in the future is endemic to any SF-related anything. I've never seen any SF that dealt with it reasonably (except maybe something so outlandish that it sidesteps the whole issue, like Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix series, say). If I criticize any SF whatsoever, it's foremost among the issues that continually irk me. This writer unfortunately walked into a particular quagmire which no SF writer seems able to resolve.

    Reference: "Technological singularity refers to the hypothesis that technological progress will become extremely fast, and so make the future unpredictable."

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  10. I loved Diff. Worlds back in the day. Wish I still had those issues (think I Ebayed them with my Dragons around 7 years ago).

    When Traveller is mentioned I always need to bring up EC Tubb and his Dumarest stories because he hardly ever gets mentioned. So much in Traveller is based on the stories and settings. Especially straight out of Tubb was traveling "Steerage," which meant you were put into cryostasis along with animal cargo. I remember a character dying in one game because he failed a certain roll to survive the ordeal. Awesome.

    I agree with the "gritty" and "sweaty" feel like the Alien movies. Dumarest was full of that flavor as well.

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  11. Oh, speaking of the old mags - I have to say that the computer room pic above reminds me of that martial artists vs. cloners boardgame that came in an issue of White Dwarf. Was it "Kung Fu 2000" or something? It's the future, but takes place in these big-ass computer mainframe rooms. Not many Sci Fi items back in the day got the future right as far as computers are concearned, did they? Maybe only Star Trek (can you imagine if the original Enterprise had some big computer mainframe room?)

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  12. "Such a group can be selected, I think." The girl stood for a moment, lower lip held lightly between white teeth. "That is not a standard index, but each scientist has a rating. I can set the acceptor . . . no, the rejector would be better --- to throw out all the cards above any given rating. If we take out all ratings over seven hundred we will have only the highest of the geniuses."
    "How many, do you suppose?"
    "I have only a vague idea --- a couple of hundred, perhaps. If too many, we can run them again at a higher level, say seven ten. But there won't be very many, since there are only two galactic ratings higher than seven fifty. There will be duplications too --- such people as Sir Austin Cardynge will have two or three cards in the final rejects."
    "QX --- we'll want to hand-pick the fifty, anyway. Let's go!"
    Then for hours bale after bale of cards went through the machine; thousands of records per minute. Occasionally one card would flip out into a rack, rejected. Finally:
    "That's all, I think. Mathematicians, physicists," the librarian ticked off upon pink fingers. "Astronomers, philosophers, and this new classification, which hasn't been named yet."
    "The H.T.T.'s." Kinnison glanced at the label, lightly lettered in pencil, fronting the slim packet of cards. "Aren't you going to run them through, too?"
    "No. These are the two I mentioned a minute ago --- the only ones higher than seven hundred fifty."
    "A choice pair, eh? Sort of a creme de la creme? Let's look 'em over," and he extended his hand. "What do the initials stand for?"
    "I'm awfully sorry, sir, really," the girl flushed in embarrassment as she relinquished the cards in high reluctance. "If I'd had any idea we wouldn't have dared --- we call you, among ourselves, the 'High-Tension Thinkers'."
    "Us!" It was the Lensman's turn to flush. Nevertheless, he took the packet and read sketchily the facer: "Class XIX --- Unclassifiable at present ... lack of adequate methods ... minds of range and scope far beyond any available indices ... Ratings above high genius (750) ... yet no instability ... power beyond any heretofore known ... assigned ratings tentative and definitely minimum."
    He then read the cards.
    "Worsel, Velantia, eight hundred."
    And:
    "Kimball Kinnison, Tellus, eight hundred seventy-five."


    > Playing Traveller has never -- for me anyway -- been about accurately predicting the future, technologically or otherwise.

    Yep; I see no problem. And if you're lacking credits to buy a spaceworthy ship, "borrow" one, close the airlock and blast off into deep space hoping that no-one puts a tractor beam on you...
    (Space opera wouldn't have been the same otherwise; http://www.jessesword.com/sf/list/?page=1 QX? :)

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  13. I suppose GDW could have made the case that their multi-ton computers were in service of a very particular type of science fiction story--but if I recall correctly, the explanation they actually advanced in response to players' comments was that the computers themselves were relatively small, but the all the desks and chairs and other impedimenta that the operators needed took up a lot of space.

    Regardless, a lot of the fun of designing space ships in Traveller was making trade offs of size, cost, and tech level. A more accurate assessment of the size of computing power might have been less fun as a game mechanic.

    Still, a "hard"ish science fiction game or campaign would seem to leave itself more open to legitimate criticism of it's depiction of "reality" than games in many other genres.

    My favorite science fiction game "prediction" occurred in the Trek RPG, where they noted that in the 23rd century computers will have "megabytes" of memory. Yes, yes, they will...

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  14. I suppose GDW could have made the case that their multi-ton computers were in service of a very particular type of science fiction story--but if I recall correctly, the explanation they actually advanced in response to players' comments was that the computers themselves were relatively small, but the all the desks and chairs and other impedimenta that the operators needed took up a lot of space.

    Yes, I vaguely recall such rationalizations myself, which is why I wanted to clarify that I think most of GDW's "retro-ness" was sub-conscious. They were simply trying to make a game whose science fiction world was like that of the novels and authors they read and enjoyed and these were decidedly retro even in 1977, never mind 1987.

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  15. Generally, I'm in the "Why retrofit?" camp.

    To me, speculative fiction best reflects the present in which it was created than it does any real or imagined period of the past or future.

    To alter the assumptions upon which a thing is based makes it a different thing, doesn't it?

    [enter Ship of Thesus, stage left]

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  16. To alter the assumptions upon which a thing is based makes it a different thing, doesn't it?

    A man after my own heart. :) Needless to say, I agree with you.

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  17. I am in the process of planning my very first game of Traveller and I actually just had to think about exactly that for the last two days. Maybe it's because I'll be using the Mongoose rules (which do not really specify that much about the computers as such) that I just got into thinking: FTL travel is starting with TL 10 I think, but basic computers usable on ships start with TL 7.
    Which actually makes sense: starship owners just shelled out a lot of money for the starship and the jumpdrive, why spend too much money on luxuries like computers if a simple one can do the task just as well? (also there's the old joke: we needed the power of 3 C64 to get to the moon, what do we need to just boot up Windows?)
    Of course "in the future" people will have smaller computers and all that, but Traveller (or at least the 3rd I.) also integrates places which are of lower tech level, which means all that tech might get mixed up a bit.
    In my case I plan on giving my players a ship with bulky 70s computers, pre-WWII style pistols and a jump-2 drive. Then I will enjoy their confusion.

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  18. I want my starship computer to run fast and effective every time.

    I want it to have a ton of redundant systems and memory. I want it impervious to Electric Magnetic Pulses, hacking, and virus, if a system fails when I am at Warp speeds I want ten other systems to take it's place to keep me from veering .000000001 of a degree to the right sending me straight into a sun, I want it easy to fix, so if I am stranded on backwards planet that doesn't have the part I need I can construct the part, I want it to operate even if my ship fills with the cold vacuum of space and I’m in space suite mashing the buttons, I want it to operate if I crash my ship in a lake, it sits underwater for 3 years until I domesticate the local wildlife to pull it out of the lake.

    If this makes my computer the size of a Volkswagen so be it.

    a 1970's car versus a modern hybrid, sure the hybrid is all fancy and nice but when it breaks down.......

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  19. So many thoughts...

    I view Traveller as a game "set" in the sci-fi books of 1950's and 1960's just like D&D is "set" in Fantasy books of Appdx N. Large computers, scientist "heros", interstellar empires it all fits (and it wouldn't be Traveller without)

    Hard sci-fi always has seemed foolish to me for the "it's out of date/inaccurate by the time it's published".

    I assume that "computers" won't even exist in far(ish) future. Just like no one thinks of their phone, VCR or car as computers even though they are run by computers. Future people will interact with / think about their space ship, their desk, their bracelet. All of which will have integrated computers.

    But, whatever you have (or update) in your game, good on you. It's a game, it's fiction! How can I or anyone argue that you're wrong or right?

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  20. Was it "Kung Fu 2000" or something?

    I suspect you're thinking of Kung Fu 2100, one of the first games from Steve Jackson Games after SJ left Microgaming:

    "For years the CloneMasters have ruled the world. Their only foes are the Terminators -- Trained from birth in the martial arts. Now you are a Terminator. Your mission: smash your way into the CloneMaster's fortress...chop through his defenses...to destroy him forever.

    But his guards are many and loyal. Like you, they can kill with a single blow. And time is against you..."

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  21. Different Worlds WAS an excellent RPG periodical. I still own and treasure my mostly complete collection. I believe Tadashi Ehara still had many back issues for sale.
    Likewise the Tunnels and Trolls magazine Sorcerer's Apprentice was a surprisingly professional books with interesting articles on RPGs in general and some fiction from name SF authors.

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  22. Of course what makes this more ironic is that the learned Mr. Martin Connell just would not had any clue of how computers would end up. Or that his article would be blogged about with nearly two comments and it would all be read for free.

    His "fix" would be just as dated as Marc Miller original rules.

    For me my vision of advanced computers were similar to that of Star Trek. You talked, it understood, and gave you answers. It could do some automatic control with human guidance. Traveller's program swapping seemed natural to me considering the limitations of the computer of the time from IBM 360s to the TRS-80s Model I at my home.

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  23. The problem was, when Traveller came out, that there was no in-game rationalisation of why the computers were crap and, at the same time, it was clear to the players that they were crap.

    It's nice and easy to look back on those days and smugly declare that players were being anal or not getting into the (undeclared) spirit of things, but how many of the posters here would put up with a "modern day" spy game where machine guns were all two-man devices and prohibition was listed as one of the distinguishing features of everyday life in America?

    It is possible to rationalise Traveller's computers - I've had to do it myself - but the bottom line is that the game didn't. It did not declare that it was reflecting a specific fictional reality and in fact a certain amount of PR was put out suggesting that it was Hard Core Science Fiction.

    Anyway, DW was always to me the better of the gaming magazines, but very very hard to get on this side of the Irish Sea, and expensive too. Dragon was carried by enough places that the price was nearly sensible but DW seemed to carry a wider range of world-views, IMO.

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  24. I guess the problem is that Traveller because its emphasis early on with Realism (ecological niches, Delta V calculations, etc.) some players who were more gaget or scientific (although that is not the right word) would expect more from a game that was supposed inspire them. Blame, Star Trek inspired engineers who fought to always get the Science as opposed to the Story right. :)

    I wonder if much of the problem with SFRPGs is because they try to do Star Trek and Star Wars (playing upon the old Guns & Butter analogy) and fans came down heavily on one side or other. And, GDW catered to both audiences...sometimes verring too much in the way of Star Trek other times Star Wars. The beauty and (percieved) weakness of Traveller is that is/was a heuristic or tool that allowed any of these adventures to happen.

    But, as Science Fiction spiltered into Hard & Soft, Traveller could not be neutral forever before fans wanted a conclusive answer - other than..."it's only a game..."

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