Wednesday, April 6, 2011
It's funny how easily subsequent events can effectively rewrite the past, at least far as our recollections go. A good case in point is GDW's Traveller, one of the classics of the Golden Age of Roleplaying and probably the most successful non-licensed SF RPG ever written. For a great many of us, especially those who didn't begin playing Traveller until after 1979, Traveller is synonymous with the Third Imperium setting, a fact that the game's own supplements hit home through their "Standards and Assumptions" text boxes that make reference to both the Imperium and its calendar system.
The reality, though, is that, at its release in 1977, Traveller had no setting except the very limited one implied by certain of its technological (limited jump drive, no FTL communications) and sociological (titled nobility) assumptions. If you look at the original printings of the Little Black Books, you'll find no references to the Imperium whatsoever. Indeed, the LBBs even imply that a large interstellar state, one ruled by an emperor, would consist of "several worlds," which seems a far cry from the 11,000 worlds of the later Third Imperium. So where did Traveller's official setting come from? I mean, aside from the works of H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, and Jerry Pournelle. Well, some of it comes from another game Marc Miller wrote (along with Frank Chadwick and John Harshman) and GDW published in 1977 called Imperium. Unlike Traveller, Imperium is a wargame, albeit a science fictional one. Set a couple of hundred years in our future, it presents a conflict between the Terran Confederation and an alien government called the Imperium for control of the sector of the galaxy in the neighborhood of Earth.
As presented in the wargame, the Imperium is old and technologically advanced but also conservative and slow-moving compared to the Terrans. Though evocative in itself, this setup is also useful in providing some game balance between the Imperial and Terran players. The Imperial player, as it turns out, takes the role not of the far-off emperor but of a local provincial governor taxed with bringing order to what the Imperium considers a backwater sector of space. The Terran Confederation, then, is little more than a rabble of barbarians in Imperial eyes. Victory in the game is determined by the accumulation of "glory points" and the Imperial player loses glory points if he appeals to the emperor or otherwise relies upon resources other than those immediately available to him. The Terran player, though outnumbered, need not worry about saving face at a distant imperial court and so accumulates glory points largely through straightforward conquests. Consequently, each side in Imperium has a distinct feel to it, with the Imperial player clearly having the more challenging task.
By the time I'd encountered Imperium, I'd already been playing Traveller for some time and so recognized in it the prehistory of the official GDW setting. The vaguely alien Imperium of the wargame was the "First Imperium" of the Vilani, whose defeat by the Terran Confederation set into motion a series of historical events that would eventually culminate in the Third Imperium of Traveller. But in 1977, such recognition would have been impossible and Imperium was simply a stand-alone science fiction wargame. It was only later that GDW would plunder its backstory to provide details for their proprietary Traveller setting and change the tenor of its SF RPG forever.
I should note that, as a wargame, Imperium is quite fun, though, as I noted, the Imperial player has a much more challenging task ahead of him than does the Terran player. Players who favor aggression will find that that approach doesn't often work well if you're the Imperium. Instead, it's often better to bide your time, accepting tactical losses against the Terrans -- sometimes losing entire wars -- in order to put yourself in a better position in the long term. Of course, even this approach is risky, since the game also includes random events that affect the Imperial player, reflecting the vagaries of court politics. If one is lucky, a new emperor may come to the throne who is willing to take the Terran threat seriously, but, if one is not, you may find yourself in an even worse position than before. For that reason, Imperium has a very uneven feel to it, but that's by design. It's not what one would call a "fair" wargame and one's enjoyment depends in large part on whether or not this fact bothers you.