Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Retrospective: The Solomani Rim

In the very '80s, when I first started playing Traveller, there were two broad classifications of players: those who created their own settings and those who used GDW's official Third Imperium setting. I didn't have a lot of experience with the former group, since they were vanishingly small in number by the time I picked up the game. Of the latter, there were several sub-divisions, the two biggest being those who used the Spinward Marches as their campaign's home sector and those who used the Solomani Rim, first published in 1982. I was a Spinward Marches man myself, in part because that's the sector GDW used in most of their earliest adventures and because that's the sector the older guys I knew also used. Even so, I found the Solomani Rim intriguing, especially as I became more and more enmeshed in the official Third Imperium setting.

For those of you unfamiliar with Traveller, the official setting postulates that humanity -- or "humaniti," as GDW spelled it -- originated on Earth (or Terra) and that 300,000 years in the past a mysterious race of aliens known only as the Ancients took members of the species to the stars as servants. Some of these other human races died out but some survived and prospered, three of whom discovered the ability to travel faster than light independently, one of which were the Terrans. In time, these humans came to be known as the Solomani, a coinage whose origin is never definitively explained, though most assumed it means "men of Sol." In any event, The Solomani Rim is a 48-page book written by John Harshman that details the sector of space dominated by the Solomani.

Like its predecessor, The Spinward Marches, The Solomani Rim describes all sixteen subsectors of the Solomani Rim sector using a two-page spread. On the left side are strings of alphanumeric entries that describe all the worlds of each subsector. I continue to be amazed both at my ability to remember just what these strings mean and how elegantly Marc Miller managed to condense so much information into so few characters. It remains one of the great hallmarks of Traveller that no other science fiction RPG has ever managed to provide so much information about a planet so succinctly. On the right side of the spread is a hex map that provides much of the same information graphically. Again, it's absolutely amazing that, back in 1977, Traveller did so much right that other roleplaying games continue to struggle with.

One of the things that separates The Solomani Rim from The Spinward Marches is a much clearer sense of place. By that, I mean that the Solomani Rim sector has a consistency and logic to it in terms of, for example, its naming conventions that suggests it's a real place with a real history. While the Marches has meaningless, "science fiction-y" world names like Rhylanor and Zamine and Roup, the Solomani Rim is filled with names like Barsoom and Krypton and Oz. It feels much more like a place that men from Earth had explored and colonized and that lends it a distinct appeal. Of course, The Solomani Rim also includes a lot more specific details about the history and culture of the sector than does The Spinward Marches.

By today's standards, these details aren't onerous -- maybe 6 pages of the whole -- but it's enough that, looking back, one can see that Traveller had changed a bit since the publication of The Spinward Marches in 1979. I don't remember thinking much of it at the time, since I was using the official Third Imperium setting anyway. Now, though, it becomes clear that, by 1982, Traveller had begun its inexorable shift away from being a generic sci-fi game of which the Third Imperium was but one sample setting to a sci-fi game about the Third Imperium. This is a shift that culminated in the publication of Traveller's second edition, the goofily named MegaTraveller in 1987, which "hardcoded" the Third Imperium into the rules in a way that the 1977 edition had not. It was perhaps an inevitable shift but it was a shift nonetheless and one that, I think, ultimately weakened the appeal of Traveller and contributed to its decline.

23 comments:

  1. Traveller has been making a comeback in recent years, through the publication of the Mongoose Traveller line. As a one-book, d6-only game, it's a really good intro to RPGs, and I've used it as such before.

    The Third Imperium always left me cold. I've never played a game of Traveller in it.

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  2. Traveller is linked to its setting because of the specifics of chracter creation, the weapons choices and the way interstellar travel worked. We all wanted to know why things were they way they were and the official setting provided the explanations. The Third Imperium had a way of grounding the game into a sense of reality. As a freind of mine once said when shown the game, "If its set in the far future where are the phaser guns?"

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  3. I remember this book somewhat. IIRC the Solmani where kind of a planet wide version of East Germany. As such they never seemed very interesting to me

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  4. @5stonegames: Well the Solomani had been technically at war with the Vilani since the Imperium boardgame was first published in 1977, so a bit of security consciousness might have only been expected.

    ETA: Amusing and highly appropriate word verification: "nonsplat".

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  5. A friend of mine used the photocopier where he worked to copy all the subsector maps from the Spinward Marches. I taped them together to create a poster for my bedroom wall.

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  6. Oh, you're bringing back such memories, James... and making me regret even more discarding my Traveller material. How stupid was that?

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  7. I never had much interest in the Solomani Rim until the excellent Gurps supplement "Interstellar Wars" came out. Suddenly, I saw the potential in that sector of space.

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  8. OK, James, at this point, I think you're just trolling for comments from me. :)

    Re. the Solomani Rim Sector, I truly enjoyed the sector as a setting. It was truly fun taking the game into the oldest stomping grounds of the Terran form of mankind (Solomani). Inevitably, I'd take campaigns to Earth at some point, and emphasize both the familiar, and the profoundly different between present day and Traveller's 57th Century Imperium setting. If I had to choose between it and the Spinward Marches, it'd be a tough call as to my favorite.

    It's a bit unfair to slag Traveller for marrying its setting to the Imperium. Like a lot of folks who bought the original LBB Box set, I struggled at first with what to do with it. Traveller's ruleset dictates a very specific set of assumptions as to what its Golden Age of Sci Fi universe is going to look like. I would suggest that the early setting materials gave a lot of explanation as to what the game could be.

    Re. MegaTraveller and marrying it to the Third Imperium more tightly, a couple of things prevented it from being the smash success that CT was. First, the RPG market undeniably shrank from Class Traveller's late 70's-early 80's heyday, much as AD&D died. CT was arguably the second biggest selling RPG of the early 1980's. It had broader third-party support than D&D, and was much more open to third-party development than D&D in those days. That openness only happened after the broad outlines of the Third Imperium had been laid out, and led to some interesting development. Notably, FASA began as a third-party developer for Traveller's Third Imperium setting.

    The biggest problem with MegaTraveller is that it was farmed out to a third-party design group, Digest Group Publications, and there were some serious communication issues between DGP and GDW (I've heard this straight from parties involved with both companies). The first printing was buggy as heck.

    GDW further made some changes to the universe that alienated people (the Civil War, rather euphemistically referred to as the Rebellion in MT) and then didn't really support the altered setting with much in the way of new material.

    In defense of MT, it's my favorite version of the rules sets I own (CT, MT, TNE, T4), at least retained backward compatibility with CT, and fixed some of the portions of CT that were creaky and old. I still run it some 25 years later, albeit with a lot of house rules and third-party stuff.

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    1. "It's a bit unfair to slag Traveller for marrying its setting to the Imperium. Like a lot of folks who bought the original LBB Box set, I struggled at first with what to do with it."

      I would disagree. After Traveller was first released at Origins in 1977, and the first copies appeared in the Twin Cities shortly afterwards, we had easily eighteen months to two years of gaming before the Third Imperium really appeared. There were at least a half-dozen campaigns going, with house rules for ships of over 100,000 tons, and maps that covered four sheets of 5mm hexpaper taped together.

      Put another way, we didn't wait for GDW to explain what they meant. We used the rules and modified them so they were what we needed for our own games - just as had been done with Original D&D.

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    2. I'm with Victor on this one.

      I actually played less Traveller as more and more of the Third Imperium setting was introduced into the game. It just wasn't as interesting as the campaigns created entirely from our imagination.

      Much like, in fact, Original D&D.

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    3. Our group did the same thing, Victor, running the game with the assumptions that were built in, but making up our own empires. The vastness of the Third Imperium initially turned me off, since our campaigns had involved dozens of smaller empires, thus making the politics more interesting. I grew to love it, as long as we stayed near the edge, in The Marches, where things could still get dicey.

      I still remember fondly my wolfine race (pre-Vargr) that I played solo with my referee. A couple years later, he called me and asked what my autocrat would do if a 100,000 ton ship came into my system unaccompanied by support ships and started shooting. I told him I'd capture it with my substantial fleet of ships. It made a nice addition to my navy, and the fiesty humans onboard made nice slaves. And they bred like rabbits, too.

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  9. "there were two broad classifications of players: those who created their own settings and those who used GDW's official Third Imperium setting"

    One of the things that I would have liked to see, but which I think has sadly become nearly impossible, is some alternate Traveller universes in publication. Notably, I'd like to see more of Jefferson Swycaffer's campaign setting, which he has somewhat fleshed out in a series of readable novels and an adventure in Dragon magazine's issue 59 titled "Exonidas Spaceport".

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  10. I assume that the Traveller planet classification system owed a lot to the Sector General stories' species classification system.

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  11. The Third Imperium had value only to the same extent as any other publish setting. To give somebody who doesn't know what they're doing, has never done seting design, and gave them a place to start. And just like TSR's settings, it was developed enough that you didn't give yourself some creative latitude as a GM, it would serve as a strait-jacket quite nicely.

    GDW would have been wise to devote more time and resources to provide more resources to GMs who wanted to roll their own. I suggest GDW should have put some systems in place to even remove a couple of assumptions of its core rules to this day (no FTL communications, no jumps faster than 6 parsecs/week).

    However, the decline of Traveller had less to do with an official setting, and a lot more to do with the fact that Traveller's setting increasingly required a suspension of disbelief on the part of players that no science fiction of note has been written since the Eisenhower Administration.

    I give LBB Traveller a pass on that a little bit. Imperial Science Fiction was a lot newer then, and not completely the province of greybeard sci-fi readers.

    By the time MegaTraveller came out (1987), Neuromancer was 3 years old. Blade Runner was 6. Cyberpunk 2020 was in the design stages. Battletech had been out for 3 years. Science fiction was full of concepts of cybernetic replacements, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, mecha, and even early transhumanism. Notebook computers were around.

    Why was a game purporting to be a game of the "Far Future" and incorporating Earth as part of its setting not including concepts that in the 1980's were possible, or soon would be? Why are there no computers in any version of Traveller prior to Mongoose/GURPS (and there may not be in those either, since I'm not familiar with either one) that don't take up most of a room?

    Why, in William Gibson's near future vision of the Sprawl Trilogy, are cybernetics possible by the 21st or 22nd Century, but not possible in the 57th? We're seeing breakthroughs in stem cell research right now, today. Why isn't genetic engineering possible 3700 years from now?

    Traveller's appeal was self-limiting because it never changed. It never added anything that would appeal to a science fiction fan below a certain age. It still doesn't. In fact, the only concession that any version of Traveller that GDW put out to acknowledge that anything technologically happened after 1977 was the badly conceived, and illogically written "Virus" of The New Era, which alienated what few hangers on there were for the game by taking the established setting, dousing it liberally in gasoline and throwing in a burning rag.

    I was part of the design group for Traveller 4th Edition, in constant contact with the Line Developer, most of the writers, and quite frequently Marc Miller himself. The number of times I heard the word Cybernetics in a conversation? Zero. Genetics? Zero. Nanotechnology? Zero. Portable computers? Zero. This was in 1998.

    Now I get that Golden Age sci-fi has a certain appeal to old school gamers and even some new-school gamers. I openly admire Thousand Suns for being what it sets out to be, a game limited to Golden Age of Imperial science fiction. It doesn't pretend to be the be-all and end all of space opera games. Thousand Suns acknowledges that it is a smaller niche of science fiction, but that's one small niche.

    Traveller has never made that acknowledgement. It basically is an anachronism at this point, like the blinking light computer consoles of the original Star Trek, or the gyrocopters we all were supposed to be flying in by 1940.

    That's the reason Traveller's appeal faded in later years, IMHO.

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    1. I see what you're saying, and I suppose that there's something to it. However, you say it with a couple errors of fact.

      There were Hand Computers in the original 3 LBBs (Hand Computer, TL11, CR1500, 0.5KG). Now, it acted as a remote terminal for a regular computer (by integral radio), but that's pretty interesting in itself. It was a very conservative extrapolation of what was available in 1977, but the concept existed. In MegaTraveller, actually, the Hand Computer was made explicitly equivalent to a Model/1.

      MegaTraveller included smaller computers (a shipboard system was assessed as three smaller computers, as required by Imperial law, making the smaller computers match up approximately with CT's large volume). It also included cybernetic body parts (though not in the basic rules, sadly; the rules appeared in The Traveller's Journal issue 13).

      Those aside, though, the more general point that Traveller did not change quickly enough in the face of changes occurring in SF in general (and in real-world technology) is well-made. I suspect that those were some of the reasons driving 2300AD, in fact.

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    2. "There were Hand Computers in the original 3 LBBs (Hand Computer, TL11, CR1500, 0.5KG). Now, it acted as a remote terminal for a regular computer (by integral radio), but that's pretty interesting in itself. It was a very conservative extrapolation of what was available in 1977, but the concept existed. In MegaTraveller, actually, the Hand Computer was made explicitly equivalent to a Model/1."

      Point. I'd forgotten the Hand Computer (hand terminal, really, in CT). Still, it does beg the question...if I can wear a Model 1 computer on my wrist, why does it consume a good chunk of a metric ton to install it on my bridge.

      "MegaTraveller included smaller computers (a shipboard system was assessed as three smaller computers, as required by Imperial law, making the smaller computers match up approximately with CT's large volume)."

      This is really nothing more than fiddling around at the margins. It's retcon at best.

      "It also included cybernetic body parts (though not in the basic rules, sadly; the rules appeared in The Traveller's Journal issue 13)."

      Not sure in 1987 this says something good about MegaTraveller that the only source for cybernetic body parts is an article in a third-party magazine. Don't get me wrong, I liked DGP's work (and own a lot of it), but this says nothing positive about its publisher at the time.

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    3. MT's computers were much smaller. Looking up the actual details, I see that a Model/1 was reduced to 2.0 kiloliters/0.5 tonnes (down from 13.5 m^3 in CT/High Guard). Still not ideal, but they were making an effort. Sure, it's retcon, but the game in general was very conservative. That DGP was allowed to get away with so much in MT says a lot for how GDW was trying.

      The Traveller's Digest was the official organ of DGP (until they switched the title to The MegaTraveller Journal), and was, in fact, the origin of that company. Since the alien modules and other "official" materials were published under their imprint, it could be argued that TD was a house magazine, not third party.

      But all this is an aside to the point, which was that GDW was a very conservative company, and this was reflected in their rules. It's how you get a (relatively) hard-science SF game rather than the more gonzo settings of Star Frontiers or Space Opera. That this may have contributed to a feeling of increasing irrelevancy is a point you made with which I agree. That said, it can be read now as a sort of retrofuturism, which is pretty popular at this point (though steampunk has a lot more cachet at the moment).

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    4. Agreed faoladh. I still think CT and to a lesser extent MT are pretty elegant rules systems, that were a little ahead of their time. The random character generation was great at generating real back stories for characters, and the fact there were generation systems in place for virtually everything one needed makes things a snap for a GM. There's a reason I still run a heavily house-ruled MT 25 years after its publication.

      Re. DGP, not slagging them at all. By the time MT came out, Joe Fugate and company were supporting Traveller more than GDW was...particularly when you realize they basically wrote the three corebooks, along with the Massilia sector campaign Knightfall, even though it was published under GDW's imprint.

      Still, Challenge magazine was being published. While Challenge published a lot of non-Traveller material, GDW hadn't abandoned the line completely. I'll stand by the description of TD/MTJ as third party material.

      Ironically, a few years ago, a woman I got to know off of Traveller's listserv once referred to CT/MT as Steampunk Sci-Fi.

      I think we're splitting hairs at this point. We're mostly in agreement. And I agree with you...retro sci-fi is a popular movement. I think it's part of the reason Mongoose is having some success with a new edition of the game.

      I'm glad to see that some games from that long ago (thinking of Traveller and Call of Cthulhu, both of which are long-time favorites of mine) have made it to the modern era, through multiple editions, more or less intact.

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    5. "Well there was the problem that the distortions caused by the jump drive were very destructive of semi-conductor technologies. Electrons (and holes for those technical purists) could no longer make the "jump" across the gate under the influence of the drive field. So all you were left with was a chunk of doped silicon embedded in plastic while the drive was on. Useless.

      "And even worse, there was a cumulative effect on the semiconductors - it wasn't until much later that we discovered lanthanide contraction occurring in the silicon and germanium! Nothing serious unless you were working, but it eventually meant that even if you left the device off it would eventually stop working if you travelled enough.

      "So we had to go back and build electrical computers rather than electronic computers to control the ship. Stuff like mercury delay lines for Grud's sake. Stuff we thought had been abandoned to the museum of forgotten technology. We got pretty good at it, and in some ways their semi-analogue nature is quite useful, but it meant that they ended up being larger than anyone in the past could have expected, and much more simple-minded. AI? Don't make me laugh.

      "The semiconductor industry still exists, and there are some pretty impressive university research projects using them, but the consumer market, especially the military market, wants something that's both useable in space and reliable even after you take multiple jumps. So it's definitely the lesser step-child as far as consumer gadgetry and programming is concerned."

      [You can justify anything if you want.]

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  12. Interesting review. Traveller is a game I've played only a little of and woudl like to play or run more - it's forever brought up by my current gruop as a possible next game. (It's been beaten by Pendragon, Mutants & Masterminds and Priemtime Adventures but it'll happen sooner or later) I do agree with your comments about the change in focus over the years - one thing i like about Mongoose Traveller is that it has plenty of Third Imperium support but goes back to viewing the game more as a toolbox.

    I continue to be amazed both at my ability to remember just what these strings mean and how elegantly Marc Miller managed to condense so much information into so few characters. It remains one of the great hallmarks of Traveller that no other science fiction RPG has ever managed to provide so much information about a planet so succinctly.

    I have mixed opinions about this sentence. On the one hand, the UPP definitely does contain a lot of info in a small place allowing a book of this nature to be small but still have a whole host of key information contained within. If I prepare a new sector tomorrow, I could post it as a single block of plain text and you'd be able to start playing in it tomorrow.

    On the other thand, I don't think the codes are "elegant" exactly because they are indecipherable without a huge amoutn of experience with the system - or a copy of the core rules nearby. If I give you a Pendragon character sheet and a tiny bit of info you can start to work out if a character lsited is espeically powerful or not, but tehre's no way to work out a UPP from a casual browse unless you're pretty immersed in the system. It's one of those thigns tht if you know it, it's great, but it can be a bti intimidating to newcomers.

    Furthermore, the kind of info in the UPP focuses on some details which I don't think are that important in a normal game and ignores those which are. Planet size affecting gravity and population is logical, but how often is the planet's size gonig to be anything other than a brief flavour text thing on the first arrival? It doesn't cover culture at all, but any other sci-fi people would be introduced by some cultural tic.

    That said, there was more info in the latest Spinward Marches book and it was /how/ many pages and cost /how/ much? Solomani Rim is small enough I could buy a PDF, print out a few sectors (if not the whole thing) on my home printer and be good to go.

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  13. Alright, dammit. Now are you happy? For the first time in about 7 years, I'm planning a Traveller campaign. I hate you all, very much.

    Just kidding.

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    1. Kidding about hating us, or kidding about planning a campaign? ;)

      (Good on ya! Traveller really deserves to be played more often.)

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    2. Kidding about hating you. Far from the case. In fact, I really enjoyed our discussion.

      I ran some version of Traveller pretty much continuously from 1979 to about 2004-2005. Whereas a lot of grognard gaming groups fallback game is some flavor of D&D, my groups were always Traveller. After a while, I just got burned out. As I explained to my wife (a gamer girl, how lucky am I?), I think I'd just plain told every Traveller story I wanted to tell.

      Still, the discussion has my creative juices flowing. I'm working on four games for a local con in late February (Delta Green, Star Wars Saga Edition, Darwin's World, A Dirty World), and probably as soon as I get done with those, I'll get started on working up an MT campaign.
      Probably set in the official universe, but it might be Interstellar Wars, or possibly I'll set it in the pre-Virus Rebellion era. Probably Interstellar Wars.

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