Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Retrospective: Imperium


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.

14 comments:

  1. Oh, wow, another blast from the past. We loved Imperium, but because we'd started playing Traveller in '77 and made up our own setting, we never really connected the two. I don't think we ever adapted any of the "official" Traveller setting into our game.

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  2. I think "GDW would plunder its backstory to provide details for their proprietary" is a bit strong. I suspect, given they were developed and published at the same time it's more they grew together.

    Kinunir concept of the size of a battle cruiser, for example, fits my reading of Imperium very well.

    What I wonder is did one of the house Traveller campaigns resemble Imperium and one the Third Imperium and at some point they were merged to be really cool that all our games are the same.

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  3. I started playing Traveller in '82, and didn't really notice much of a setting then. The little bit that was there was spread out over several different books and not really necessary to play. I don't think it was until Megatraveller that the setting really became integral to the game.

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  4. I suspect, given they were developed and published at the same time it's more they grew together.

    It's possible. It's one of those things I've never seen discussed anywhere, so it's hard to know for sure. I'd like to think that the Third Imperium setting reflects some actual play, but I've never heard, beyond the existence of Miller's character, Marc hault-Oberlindes, of anything that supports that.

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  5. I don't think it was until Megatraveller that the setting really became integral to the game.

    If you're talking about the rulebooks themselves, yes, you're right; MT was definitely a turning point. However, supplement-wise, Traveller ceased to be generic by the early 80s, if not slightly before.

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  6. I had this game. When I picked it up I was pretty young (8ish) and as I recall the rules were a bit lost on my friends and I. Though we had already started playing D&D a wargame was new to us all and a bit more abstract in some cases than we were ready for.

    We liked all the ship counters and made up our own rules for the game until we had grown as gamers enough to grasp the game as it was written. That's also about the same time we started playing Panzer Blitz and other bookcase games from AH.

    -Eli

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  7. While being a fan of Traveller since around '82 or so, I never really got into the actual boardgames until recently. Not long ago I acquired Dark Nebula, which I understand to be a kind of "Imperium-lite". My first few attempts at playing the game with friends have, so far, ended very quickly indeed. The ability of fleets to be able to jump across the entire board and attack have resulted in games that take less time to play than set up! I have been wondering if the larger scale of Imperium solves this brevity to some degree (or if my friends and I are simply novices at space combat that haven't grasped some understanding about how to defend against fleets that can jump multiple parsecs).

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  8. This is one I always wanted to play but never got the chance.

    As for Traveller being solidly set in the Third Imperium by the early 80s, I started playing in 1982 and thought it was simply the Traveller setting. I was sort of mystified for a while by the idea that you'd roll up your own subsectors, and also by the suggestion to do so and the example of a different interstellar government in Book 0.

    However, I started with the Deluxe Traveller boxed set, which came with the cool map of the Spinward Marches and the Introductory Adventure, so that probably colored my assumptions.

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  9. I'd like to think that the Third Imperium setting reflects some actual play

    I seem to remember reading once that the 3I was Marc's personal campaign initially. I'll see if I can track that down (or accept it is from the ether).

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  10. The ability of fleets to be able to jump across the entire board and attack have resulted in games that take less time to play than set up!

    I think you're doing something wrong here. Are you creating a large board out of individual sections and are you obeying the movement limits? I'll double check when I get home but you shouldn't be able to cover a complete map in one move.

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  11. I never played Traveller in the 'official' setting, we just started with the LBBs and a lot of ideas from comic books...
    I did pick up Imperium a while back because I'd heard it works well as a campaign system for smaller-scale space games like Full Thrust.

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  12. Avalanche Press rereleased the game in 2001 as Imperium 3rd Millenium. It's a lot flimsier than the GDW edition (both in terms of maps, counters, and box), but a lot more colourful. It's also been "expanded," primarily in order to provide limited tactical battle resolution for both space and planetary combat. The main map is probably one of the worst examples of graphic design for a game I've ever seen. It's an isometric representation of the hex map from Imperium, with the actual stars located above or below the plane of the hex map (in an approximation of their real-life positions), which means that the actual position of the star symbol on the hex map (which is what is used in play) can be up to four hexes away from it's actual location on the hex map. And to make matters worse, the jump routes are shown transiting from star symbol to star symbol, rather than hex to hex.

    Which means you can have Old School preferences about boardgames too. Caveat emptor.

    As for Traveller, it wasn't until GDW started publishing adventures that they realised that an official setting might actually be useful in which to set these adventures. So when they published The Kinunir they introduced the Regina subsector and the very first Library Data. Before then, anything went. I had an Empire game with 5000 ton Nova Class Dreadnaughts (as that was the largest ship size in the original set), and even a variant game where no FTL or gravitics actually existed. Other people had games where Earth was under the heel of alien invaders (who were using it as a staging post in a bigger war), and so on. It was a time of wonderful creativity, that I don't think we will ever see again with Traveller.

    The one thing I did like about the Imperium of Traveller is that it was actually an Imperium. Whereas the Imperium of Imperium always seemed to be much more of an Empire. Although it wasn't until quite a few years later that I was able to appreciate the difference.

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  13. I think you're doing something wrong here. Are you creating a large board out of individual sections and are you obeying the movement limits? I'll double check when I get home but you shouldn't be able to cover a complete map in one move.

    I exaggerated when I said "entire board", but the map for Dark Nebula isn't that large when pieced together, and a ship can cruise pretty far when it's regular move (and possible reaction move) are all considered. It seemed pretty easy to quickly get from one place to another on the map the couple games I played... and hard to defend any particular jump choke-points.

    But, again, we are novices and indeed may be playing the game wrong or just haven't fully digested the tactics.

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  14. Marc has explained on a number of occasions that Traveller grew out of a home-grown space combat game they played at GDW where he eventually gave each player a "son" who could be assigned a role with a fleet, army, etc., and used as a DM where he was located. I always interpreted this to mean that this was the game that became Imperium, which would mean that Imperium and Traveller were twins from the beginning.

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