Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Now, as I said, Traveller: 2300 is a good game. As its name suggests, it takes place not in the "far future" of Traveller but on the cusp of the 24th century, three centuries after the disastrous Third World War (chronicled in GDW's Twilight: 2000) laid waste to Earth and its people. Traveller: 2300's future history assumes that, after several decades of rebuilding, mankind recovers from the war, the trauma of which engenders a newfound desire to explore and, eventually, colonize other worlds. World War III played havoc with the political situation on Earth, ultimately resulting in a much diminished United States, an ascendant Manchuria, and an Africanized Third French Empire as the dominant powers. Though the future history is very dated now, written as it was before the collapse of Communism, it's nevertheless very interesting. Part of that is because it contains a lot of surprises and oddities rather than being a typical sci-fi future history whose final outcome is a vindication of its creator's ideology with a few ironic counter-examples to suggest breadth. Instead, Traveller: 2300's future was the result of a loose political-economic-military simulation run by GDW's staff that took the post bellum and then played out the next 300 years. It was not the creation of a single person so much as the result of many people playing a wargame that included random factors.
I won't argue that the resulting history is at all plausible, but it was unique and fascinating to me at the time and felt much more grounded than classic Traveller's space operatic approach to history. It was that "groundedness" that was a big part of the game's appeal to me. 1986, after all, was solidly within the Silver Age, when "realism" became the watchword for a lot of game design. Traveller: 2300 certainly took realism to heart. Its combat rules, for example, included concepts like penetration and hit locations, while even character generation distinguished between various body types (ectomorph, endomorph, etc.). Though this gave the game a great feel, in practice it proved quite unwieldy and indeed, as written, the combat system didn't even work properly (it'd take errata to fix it). But I didn't care back then. What I wanted was a SF game that looked and felt "real" and Traveller: 2300 delivered that to my satisfaction. It certainly didn't hurt that the game clearly took a lot of inspiration from Aliens, a hot new movie at the time and one that I still like a great deal.
Traveller: 2300 suffered to some extent because, like many RPGs, the intentions of its designers and its fanbase were often at odds. The game's tagline -- "Mankind Discovers the Stars" -- suggested that the designers intended it to be a "serious" SF game about exploring other worlds and interacting with strange aliens. The game did include a number of truly wonderful alien species, several of them alien indeed. These weren't guys in suits but beings with wholly inhuman biologies and, best of all, psychologies. This, of course, made them unplayable as PCs, which I suspect wasn't met with much pleasure by many gamers. Early adventures focused very heavily on exploration and solving alien enigmas, which, again, probably wasn't what gamers were expecting from a game that devoted so much verbiage to differentiating between various types of, say, laser pistols. When a new edition of the game was released a couple of years later, the redubbed 2300 AD now carried a new tagline -- "Mankind's Battle for the Stars." Quite the difference, isn't it?
Despite it all, I remained a Traveller: 2300 true believer for several years, before returning to classic Traveller and slowly (and expensively) re-acquiring all the books I so foolishly sold. I retain a great fondness for Traveller: 2300. It was a flawed game, no doubt, but it was also an ambitious and imaginative one. The game taught me a lot about how to present a science fiction setting, particularly when it came to alien races. The sample aliens in Thousand Suns owe more than a little to those in Traveller: 2300. Unfortunately, many of the things that made the game seem to realistic to me back in the late '80s now repel me. Likewise, so much of its setting depends on a future history that has been rendered impossible that, much as I appreciate it, I could never again use it. Far moreso than Traveller's 57th century, the 24th century presented in Traveller: 2300 strains at credibility, so rooted is it in the contemporary world in which it was made. That's another lesson I learned from the game: if you're going to make a futuristic setting, it's best not to talk too much about anything in the very near future. Doing so is only going to date your setting quickly, no matter how clever it is.