Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Retrospective: Traveller: 2300

In my long history of doing stupid things, selling all my Traveller books and boxed sets in 1986 because I believed that GDW's new SF RPG, Traveller: 2300, had "superseded it" is surely one of the stupidest. I say this not because Traveller: 2300 was a bad game (though it did have its problems) but because it was a very different game than its predecessor and namesake. Back then, though, my teenaged self was still, as most teenagers are, a believer in Progress. Newer didn't just mean better; it also meant wholesale rejection of the old. And so it was that, upon getting my copy of Traveller: 2300, I deemed it the greatest science fiction roleplaying game ever, a declaration I punctuated by selling off everything I owned for the game I'd previous declared the best science fiction roleplaying game ever. Ah, the follies of youth.

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.

18 comments:

  1. I never bit on this one, but I'm kinda curious now.

    I am confused by your stance on the setting and its strain on credibility as it affects your desire to use it. That kind of thing has seldom been a problem for me, but...then again...it's always 1985 in my head, so I find it pretty easy to pretend just about anything.

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  2. I suppose it's because I know there wasn't a nuclear war waged between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1995, an event that involves not just one big counter-factual (a nuclear) but two (a belligerent that ceased to exist several years before in the real world). I find it easier to accept alternate histories that don't occur over a span of years I personally live through. And of course Traveller: 2300 wasn't even written as an alternate history but as a future history. That probably plays a role in my disbelief, too.

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  3. It will be interesting to see how well Mongoose Traveller's version of 2300 AD will be received as it will fix the major flaw of the game, the rules.

    I don't view the fall of communism as being a problem for the setting. There are a number of reasonable ways the 21st century could have played out to produce the geopolitical situation as seen in 2300 AD.

    If I was the publisher I would make a new edition intentionally vague about the 21st century and pick up the history in the latter half of the 21st after the world began it's recovery. The early half was a vague Time of Troubles that included a limited nuclear war, American Civil War, Fragmentation of Germany and left France the dominant power.

    The only think that didn't work for me was the attempt to graft cyberpunk onto the setting late in 2300's publication.

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  4. The only think that didn't work for me was the attempt to graft cyberpunk onto the setting late in 2300's publication.

    Yes, that was definitely an error on GDW's part.

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  5. For a good example of how to handle the near future for a sci-fi game I would point to GURPS Interstellar War. I suppose once we get to 2100 AD there will be issues but the vagueness in which the 21st century is presented makes it harder to date.

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  6. "These [aliens] 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."

    Whereas to me that's the interesting part. That's why I bought PDFs of the old game and will probably buy Mongoose's new sourcebook.

    To those players who complained about not playing aliens ... tough. Relatively few players can actually portray something like a Kafer, Hiver, Dragonewt, or Sindarin Elf. Alien PCs, like demi-human PCs, usually make marvelous creatures commonplace, just this guy with a weird biology. "Oh, Fred the Kafer? Yeah, he has to beat someone up every day or his brain stops working, but otherwise he's cool." For the same reasons I'm sick of Tolkienesque demi-humans I'm also sick of bumpy forehead aliens and anthropomorphized animals.

    Aliens in 2300 AD, especially Kafer and Pentapods, feel more like *real* aliens than Aslan or K'kree. Granted, we have no idea what multicellular extraterrestrial life would *actually* look like. To sustain a sense of wonder and mystery that real aliens would provoke GMs must portray the otherness of Kafers, Hivers, Vorlons, and the rest. It's hard to do so if Sam the Vorlon, PC or NPC, lives next door and pops by to exchange koans with our heroes.

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  7. For a good example of how to handle the near future for a sci-fi game I would point to GURPS Interstellar War. I suppose once we get to 2100 AD there will be issues but the vagueness in which the 21st century is presented makes it harder to date.

    True! Interstellar Wars is very well done. I have some small quibbles with some of its decisions, but nothing that changes my overall opinion of the book.

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  8. Hyper detailed game settings can be a blessing and a curse. They make for fascinating reading and can get GMs and players excited about playing in their complex worlds. But if some aspect of the setting doesn't sit quite right, it can ruin the whole experience. As cool as Traveller: 2300 was to read, I just couldn't commit to playing it. The idea behind the Stutter Drive was brilliant though.

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  9. The near star map was the clincher for me.

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  10. I love the setting: most od my sf games take place in a version of 2300ad. I love hard sf and I think 2300ad offers a mechanic for space travel - the "3,5 lightyears limit"- that is a clever solution to maintain the setting focused and under control (i ever had problems with the "millions of worlds", unlimited scenarios). In the other hand, it offers the GM and players the chance to break those limits and be the really first to explore new reaches of the space. I don't know, maybe it's only me, but 2300ad inspires me like no other sf setting: I can see myself running a Pournelle-like campaign with it... or Sheffield's... or Haldeman´s... (heck, even a Galaxy Rangers'!)

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  11. 2300 is an interesting setting. I have a few books here and there but I just don't find it that compelling.

    Of course the same could be said for any Sci-Fi. Those games seem to fail rather quickly for the groups I'm in. Traveller, 2300, Trek, all of them. Sad really, because I'd love to run Traveller in the classic Far Trader or Scout modes.

    Star Wars is the one exception, those games do well with some of my play groups but avoid them as I have a mild antipathy to the setting.

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  12. I just wanted to add more appreciation of the aliens in the game - the pentapod bio-gear was a pretty new idea back then and its oddness contriubuted (for me anyway) to the hard sci fi feel quite a bit.

    The kafers were great, some of the best "badguy" aliens I can recall in any game, and I thought focusing on the war with them was an excellent direction for a campaign and it was pretty well supported too.

    I got rid of my 2300 stuff years ago but I am interested in the Mongoose update as the mechanical side should be much improved.

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  13. "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."

    I exactly disagree with this sentence. The future setting directly follows from its creators' ideology. The resulting history's unusual
    character comes from their ideology not revolving around politics. See the background of Eclipse Phase for a contemporary example of the typical future history you mention. The creators believed in play's ability to create verisimilitude.

    As you pointed out in the subsequent sentence of your post, the creators used a private and
    literal "Great Game" to construct a future history.

    "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"

    The fingerprints of the simulation, or its tooling marks, if you prefer, lie all over the result. Nation-states cause billions of
    deaths yet survive another three centuries without significant changes in character or
    government structure. Mega-engineering projects, such as beanstalks, appear in-game not because they've any particular use, but because they fit the scale, or resolution, of the simulation used to make the background. Space combat relied on particular arbitrary assumptions about the FTL drive to increase dramatic interest. These all happen because of the rules of the Great Game used at GDW, whether or not it seems plausible.

    Grognards wargaming out a future history gave a predictable result. Multiple great powers competing for colonies and military dominance, with setting elements that derive from events in that game. That you end up with a setting that looks like the Napoleonic Era with lasers and spaceships doesn't make 2300 a bad game. It frames the setting in an understandable and approachable way. What Traveller is to the Roman Empire, 2300 is to the French Empire.

    This choice provides ample dramatic potential for players, and gives enough hooks to create a vibrant setting. At least two variations on the theme exist, both from Anders Sandberg. First, you've a setting during the rise of the French
    Empire, in the late reconstruction on Earth in the early 21st century. See "The Big D," at
    http://www.nada.kth.se/~asa/Game/Fukuyama/bigd.html. Second, the Kafer War's might disrupt colonial empires in 2300AD just as the Second
    World War disrupted colonial empires on Earth. See Sandberg's"Kimanjano Libre!", especially "Les Années Folles," at http://www.student.nada.kth.se/~asa/Game/2300AD/.

    You can find partial copies of the rules used by GDW for their Great Game floating about in odd corners of the Internet on various fan sites. I'd love to know more about them, if anyone has tales to tell.

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  14. From the cover, it seems that in the far future men will be real men, but women will still be Larry Elmore babes.

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  15. I played 2300 AD for some years, as it was one of the first science fiction games published in Finnish. I liked the game, though the combat system was a pain even then (I was about 15 years old at the time).

    I didn't own the game then, but I bought it a year ago, mostly for the aliens and the star map. The Finnish box is still available as the print run was bigger than what a Finnish language RPG would sell even in the beginning of the Nineties.

    It could be fun to run a game with it now, but using some other rules.

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  16. 2300 AD was a really cool game. I loved the big map. My only disconnect was that the US was kinda weak, even though it made sense in the setting. But I was gung ho like that back then.

    I also look forward to the Traveller rules with this setting. I think it will be really, really good, as long as Mongoose doesn't drop the ball on editing.

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  17. Nice write up on the game. I dont' agree with the setting being unusable because it is "dated". Star Trek still uses the Ugeneics Wars fo the the late 90's. People still like Star Trek.

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  18. My friends and I had been big Twilight: 2000 fans so we naturally gravitated to Traveller: 2300 and 2300 A.D. The problem with the first version was that it was too generic--trying to cater to many different settings, not all military or paramilitary. The other problem with the future history which had France as the predominant power. This was supposedly because Frank Chadwick of GDW was a francophile. Well, this was no good marketing strategy to sell in the good ole' U.S.A. It was clear within a few years that most gamers wanted to play military characters who were Americans. So suddenly, there were all these Challenger articles about a "new" focus in American foreign policy and a rapid buildup of American military capability after being dormant for 300 years. That said, the first edition Star Cruiser--still an awesome board game--had the best starship. The American USS Kennedy class could not be beat if played properly. The lesson for any game company is know your audience. Another foreign nation being dominant might have sold in America, but not France. Not in the 1980s and not now.

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