Wednesday, September 19, 2012
I've gone both ways myself at various times, depending on the RPG and the time of my life. In my younger days, I didn't put much stock in gaming "utilities," since I'd just as soon make up everything myself. Nowadays, I appreciate those kinds of supplements a great deal more, since I don't have nearly the free time I did when I was twelve. Even so, there's still a part of me that will always rankle at the idea of supplements that do "too much" of the heavy lifting for referees and players -- "too much" being defined flexibly, of course.
Which brings me to the first supplement produced for GDW's Traveller. Published in 1978, 1001 Characters has no listed author, probably because it was "written" by a computer program. The 44-page booklet contains 136 examples of each of the game's six default career types: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, and the nebulous Other. In addition, there are 176 "chance encounters," like troopers, policemen, and thugs. Each character is described using two lines of text, as only Traveller can do. The character's rank (if any) is followed by his stats, age, number of career terms, available cash, and skills.
It's all very simple and straightforward, so much so that one wonders why the supplement was published at all. That's how I felt about it back in the day; I refused to buy it as a result. Now, to be fair, Traveller character generation takes time. Though quicker than most contemporary RPGs with their plethora of choices, it wasn't a simple matter to make up a merchant captain in Traveller, especially if you wanted to "do it right" rather than just eyeballing it, as I usually did. In play, I don't think my players ever questioned how plausible the stats were on any of the NPCs I made up on the fly or the likelihood that a merchant captain was only 38 years old. These kinds of details were unimportant to us and thus a book like 1001 Characters seemed, at best, superfluous and, at worst, a waste of money, just as those old grognards I knew had said.
The more mathematically inclined may have noticed that 136 times six plus 176 does not equal 1001. The missing nine characters in the book are examples drawn from science fiction literature. In many ways, they're the most interesting part of 1001 Characters, since they provide some insight into the literary influences on the game. The nine characters are: John Carter, Kimball Kinnison, Jason dinAlt, Earl Dumarest, Beowulf Shaeffer, Anthony Villiers, Dominic Flandry, Kirth Girsen, and Gully Foyle. Not a one of them is a character from a movie or TV show, which I think is significant, though hardly surprising to anyone who read Traveller closely.
(As an aside, it's worth noting that GDW printed more than 40,000 copies of 1001 Characters. How many of those sold, I don't know, but there aren't many RPG products today printed in that volume.)