Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thoughts Occasioned by Traveller

(Rob Conley's comment about the terseness of The Spinward Marches and how a little more detail might have improved it as a tool for sandbox play got me to thinking about my issues with most published settings.)

A cursory reading of my posts on this topic would suggest that I hate detailed settings and prefer those that are more "skeletonic" in nature. That's simply not the case, as I adore Tékumel, which can hardly be called un-detailed, let alone skeletonic. In point of fact, what I actually dislike about many published settings is not so much their detail but their tendency to add ever-increasing levels of specific detail over time, details upon which later supplements come to depend for their very existence.

Let me cite a few examples of what I mean, using the history of Traveller for my basis. When I first started playing the game, probably in 1980 or thereabouts, my campaign was set in the Spinward Marches, using Supplement 3 as its basis. The thin information it gave me was a good starting point and the fleshing out of the sector that GDW did through its adventures and supplements was slight enough that it did little violence to my own presentation of it. Then, the Fifth Frontier War happened. GDW felt that it needed to "shake up" the staid Marches by having another war break out between the Imperium and the Zhodani. The War was covered in The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society and through a wargame, among other means.

When the war concluded, there were consequences. The map of the Spinward Marches changed and the political fallout from the War had repercussions in adventures and supplements. In short, the War changed the setting, in ways both subtle and (occasionally) profound. Now, of course, one could choose to ignore the War and its canonical outcome, but, if one did, then GDW products set in the Marches after its conclusion become increasingly less usable, or at least demand a lot more modification to suit one's own private vision of the sector. But I'm all in favor of referee modification, aren't I? Why is this a problem? Well, it's not in any absolute sense, but the more a setting expects that I hew to an evolving history that occurs independently of my own campaign's history, the less point I see in using it at all.

Sadly, GDW never seemed to learn their lesson on this score. They repeated the mistake again and again. In the late 80s, they threw the entire Imperium into a civil war (oddly called "The Rebellion") that ultimately laid low interstellar civilization first in a period of decline called "The Hard Times" and finally in an even more bleak one that more or less rebooted the entire setting. Without debating the merits of these particular decisions, what I find most objectionable about GDW's approach is that Traveller's setting changed from a wide open one whose presentation was piecemeal and open-ended to one that more or less bound you to its official development. Again, sure, you could just ignore a lot of what they were producing and use it as you saw fit, but, from my perspective, if you're going to do that, you might as well create your own setting.

To put it another way, when I started my Traveller campaign in the Marches, I could easily portray the Imperium as a distant, decadent, and thoroughly corrupt institution, like Hollywood's imagination of the late Roman Empire. The rulebook and the early supplements didn't contradict this portrayal and neither did they contradict alternate ones, making it possible for each referee to present the setting as they felt best. Over time, though, this changed and it became more and more clear that the Imperium wasn't decadent or thoroughly corrupt and was indeed better described as noble, if somewhat flawed. Likewise, the earliest presentations of the Zhodani were outright villainous and some sources even call them "barbarians," which only strengthened my late Roman interpretation of the setting. Later, though, the Zhodani were portrayed more sympathetically.

My point here is not to argue against any particular thing GDW did to the official Traveller setting. In the end, this isn't about Traveller at all, but about the tendency for game companies to develop their RPG settings in ways that both demand you buy every one of their products to stay "current" and that encourage an obsession with setting "history" that occurs independent of player action. This also isn't about the level of detail, because, as I said, I can enjoy lots of detail in certain contexts, even if it's not my preferred approach. If one looks at Hârn, you'll find an incredibly detailed setting, filled with more information and minutiae than most gamers could ever use. What you won't find, though, is an evolving history that requires one keep up with all the latest releases to be able to enjoy those published down the road. Hârn is what you might call a "steady state" setting, forever stuck in an eternal Now -- until, that is, you get the ball rolling in your campaign and nothing Columbia Games publishes will ever tell you what's going to happen after that starting point.

I guess, in the end, what bugs me about too many gaming settings is the assumption that they exist independently of being used in one's own campaign. Some likely will see this as a positive thing, since it implies a living "reality" to these places, but, for me anyway, it's a big turn-off. I don't like game companies dropping world-changing events into official settings, no matter how cool they might be in the abstract, because experiences teaches me that these events almost always make it harder for me to use future products unless I decide to go ahead and use these events in my own campaign. This isn't an old school vs. new school thing; rather, it's a situation created by the need to sell more setting supplements. I have no beef with companies wanting to sell products. I simply think there are better ways to do so without turning their official settings into novels or movies whose events are decided by someone other than me and my players.


  1. I agree with your sentiment and vastly prefer Harn's approach over a campaign world that "evolves". That my plan for the Majestic Wilderlands. I may post or write something about what happens post 4436 BCCC in my campaign but I won't make it offical. So referees will free to resolve the Viridian Civil War without me saying how it should end.

    As for the Spinward Marches I will point out that it not a particularly good example of an evolving campaign. Yeah there was a 5th Frontiers, yes the Imperium and the Zhodani changed from their original presentation. There are version set in 1065, 1105, 1117, 1202, and 1248 as well as the GURPS version and the Mongoose Version.

    Basically after the first couple of years added details pretty much stopped. Later products pretty much rehashed the library data of older products instead focuses on specific adventure. It really a bit of mess.

    The TNE version has a lot of "changes" but compared to the baseball bat they gave to the rest of the imperium not that much changed. They did that pretty much deliberately to allow fans of older Traveller to have a place to set traditional traveller adventures as opposed to the type of adventures they were suggesting for the wrecked Imperium.

    Plus the date 1202 was so far off from 1105 or 1117 that you would have to run a campaign for a really long time to the point where it even a factor.

    It wasn't until the advent of GURPS Behind the Claw (not so good) and Mongoose Spinward Marches (better) that we finally get systematic detail to entire Spinward Marches. I have both and only a little over the amount of detail I would have added if I done the project.

    But now comes the danger that you point out. Will Mongoose resist the temptation of "advancing" the setting or choose to focus aka Harn on added detail to the existing line.

    Finally there is Traveller 5 by Marc Miller. I am part of the beta group. I can't give out specific detail but one of the goals is to support "eras" of the Third Imperium. That the referee picks which era he likes and goes off and uses that.

    The sentiment seems to be "OK we got this rich background let's give the tools to flesh it out." as opposed let's advance it even further.

    Hopefully this works out.

  2. There is, I think a middle ground. Look at what TSR did with the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting in the early 1980's. It began with the folio/gold boxed set, and was then fleshed out with a series of articles by Gary Gygax in Dragon magazine, which told of what the various states were doing in the year following the "official" release year of the boxed set.

    If you take those items in and of themselves, what you see is that Greyhawk was a "steady state" setting in the way you describe, but one which was given a trajectory. The Great Kingdom was sending expeditionary forces against the Iron League. Iuz was testing the resolve of Furyondy. The Bandit Kingdoms were raiding and facing reprisals from the Pale and Tenh.

    Then, of course, they blew it all with the "Greyhawk Wars", and the "From the Ashes" boxed set that followed. Those did exactly what you describe above in reference to the Traveler universe.

    But for a few shining years, TSR had it perfectly right, to my mind. You had a world, and it had the impression of life, because there were events that happened after the "official" year of the boxed set, but there was no resolution. The DM was free to determine how those military conflicts, and those political machinations, were going to go.

    So I say you're right with the notion of a "steady state" setting being preferable, but I also like the idea that such a setting can have a trajectory, which is up to the game master to bring to a final resolution.

  3. Hey, James, I agree with you 100%. It's as if the game designers, rather than creating a rich, campaign setting for a game is instead creating a novel (or series of novels) for their stunted authorial aspirations. I find White Wolf to be some of the most irritating culprits of this, but there have certainly been others.

    Make your game, make your setting, then leave well enough alone! Jeez!

  4. I dunno. I like the loss of control and need to think on my feet as a GM. Admittedly, I don't use Greyhawk post-Pluffet Smedger. But I do prefer to have other GMs in "my" campaign and give them totally free reign to change the world. Then when I take the referee seat again I just riff off the changes they made to the world.

    This is different from a published setting in some sense; but, smacks of something very similar to riffing off what changes the publisher makes to the game world.

  5. I'm with you James. If I want my Rary a traitor I'll make him one myself, thank you very much.

    @Eric: the idea of riffing off other DMs actually sounds interesting. But it wouldn't require you to keep buying boxed sets.

  6. James, I agree with you completely. I get extremely frustrated with companies that try to "advance time" in the campaign setting. As you say, after a certain point the materials they publish are practically not worth the price, since you would invest the same amount of time creating something from scratch.

    I posted a bit about this on the Fading Suns boards, but no one seemed to be on the same page as I was.

    If a company continues producing products "set in Year Zero," I may very well remain a customer. But they can't tell me what's going to happen in the future of my campaign, because that's up to my players and I.

  7. I think the problem companies have with timelines is the fact that you can only detail a world so much before you've done everything you can with it. Then, you have two choices... advances the timeline to see how things change, or leave things the way they are. Joseph's comments were exactly waht I was going to say.... TSR almost had it perfect with the Greyhawk articles following up on what was in the box set, and they still have so much more they could have done with the world of Oerth, instead of advancing the timeline with the Greyhawk Wars (which, quite frankly, I *hate*, and refuse to use anything from).

  8. The idea of "advancing the time-line" for a published campaign setting has always just seemed "off" to me. It makes it almost impossible for gamers to use these products as a game setting, and becomes, as JB mentions, an excuse to write a novel.

    I do understand that companies feel there is a business reason to do this, so they can sell more product, but there are other ways around it. The way Paizo is doing it with their Golarion setting is an example, where they have a main campaign setting book, which is really all you need, but for people who want extra detail, there are books coming out for each country/region, as well as books about the Gods of Golarion, the Planes, Magic, etc. This can go on for years before the entire continent is described.

    There are plenty of ways to go by coming out with support material for a "Year 0" type of approach, rather than saying, "Oh, by the way, this Big Event (TM) happened and you have to re-buy everything you already own."

  9. Agree. This is me writing about the same thing in 1994 (examples include Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Dark Suns, Known World):

    Unfortunately, I think this is one of those business vs. art collisions that is practically unavoidable; it's the same phenomenon as movie sequels (see Pixar's resistance, buyout, and submission to the issue, for example). As long as there is a customer base eager for a "complete collection" of whatever, then it's practically a law of nature that more will be published by some company.

  10. I am not a fan of "official" settings - even less so of settings that have an evolving metaplot. I appreciate that games companies have to make money in order to keep producing, but I hate being on the treadmill of buying "official" adventures just to see what happens.

    Of course, every themed game has some implied ideas about the setting. D&D implies a world where there are fantastic creatures, magicians and thieves' guilds. Changeling implies a world where fairies are real (clap!) and superstition is more applicable than logic. CoC implies a universe where nameless horrors drive you mad because your existence is incompatible with theirs. However, when I run a game, the setting is now mine to do with as I please.

    It is bad enough that some players will complain that the setting does not conform to the published material. I never try to argue with them; I merely remind them that the setting may look the same, but how can they claim to know the secrets? It usually works. When the progress of the setting is dictated by an "official" source, I feel cheated - particularly when the progress reads like it is just there to support a favourite NPC. NIMGYD.

    In the case of Traveller, we managed to pretty much ignore the Fifth Frontier War even when we did play in the Official Traveller Universe (OTU). For a start, Traveller stuff was hard to get hold of in Belfast in late 70s/early 80s, and a subscription to the journal was out of the question. Secondly, we used the Solomani Rim for our OTU games. This was the red-headed stepchild of Traveller, but that suited us fine.

    As the OTU developed, we kept using the Solomani Rim. Nothing was ever specifically published for it, so we were never contradicted. Lucky us.

  11. @Delta

    There was no crash, friend citizen. It is an un-event. Please report for historical re-education. The Computer is your friend.

    But I do agree with you that the big companies have moved towards fixed settings. The worst example I saw was at a gaming con just over a year ago. One of the raffle prizes was to play in a D&D 4e game run by the designer of one of the settings. As nobody had turned up for my game in that slot and I was meant to be in the room, I decided to listen in.

    The slot was supposed to be a four-hour game. The designer took an hour to expound on his setting and what had been going on in it. He then spent another hour telling the players what their characters should be thinking of doing in the adventure. As we (the other members of our demo team with nothing better to do) listened, we exchanged looks of disbelief before walking out very quietly.

    Comparing notes, the most complicated introduction any of us had given during the whole con had taken maybe 15 minutes. We all thought that telling players how to play their characters was just rude at best, rampant egotism at worst.

    Suffice to say, none of us have bought into D&D 4e, and this did not encourage us.

  12. It's not just business vs. art though, sometimes it's hard to step away from a setting. There is that authorial urge to follow through and a sense of ownership.

    I think with the amount of readers/collecters outnumbering players in the OSR there will be an eagerness for new stuff to read - and outlining a rich, detailed history alongside new mechanical add-ons over several splat books may be a way for a designer/author to hold the interest without having to embrace something new.

  13. I ran Traveller with the Starter Set and a head full of Blake's 7, 2000AD and HGTTG. As there were a few groups playing in my area we swapped notes and a mega-setting started to evolve, as events occurred in the individual settings. There was cross-over, war and consequences but nothing 'broke' it. The freshness came from the gameplay.

  14. "I think with the amount of readers/collecters outnumbering players in the OSR there will be an eagerness for new stuff to read"

    I don't think this issue is distinct to the OSR, but rather to RPGs in general. It is kind of a problem, though, that's kind of self-perpetuating. The products that are fun to read from a "story" standpoint (like big huge megaplot campaign settings) are usually much less useful in actual play. However, as readers (not gamers) keep buying these types of products to read, then game companies will keep putting them out because that's what sells. So, what you get over time is a bunch of material that's really not gamer-friendly because its audience is really ex-gamers who aren't using the materials in actual games.

    A lot of gamers, meanwhile, tend to subscribe to the standpoint of "I don't need to buy X game supplement or a new version of Game Y because I already have all the material I need to run my own game using the base rule set and my imagination." Since these guys aren't going to buy stuff anyway, the stuff that's produced ends up appealing to a much different audience (readers instead of gamers).

    At least, that's how I've seen it over the past few decades.

  15. @Martin:

    I do agree but I think the ideological clash will be more acute within the OSR as on one hand designers/bloggers are saying 'it's a hobby, make stuff up - it's fun and satisfying' and on the other hand 'my stuff is cool, now available in game stores worldwide'.

    I see nothing wrong with this dichotomy, it'll just be interesting to see how it pans out.

  16. I vastly prefer Eternal Now settings to Metaplot settings. Metaplot seems like something to read for peope who don't actually _play_ - and AIR Traveller in particular had a very high proportion of fans who did not actually play the game. *sigh*

    Re the Imperium, I'm increasingly hostile to settings with an overarching structured order beyond the reach of the PCs. OK-ish if there's a Frontier where the PCs can make a difference, but Traveller lacked even that and traditionally defaulted to criminal enterprises. In many ways I have to say I think it was/is a poorly designed setting.

    My feeling is that the system generation tools are best used to generate something much smaller, on a scale where Space Opera PCs can make a real difference. So, worlds should be independent or in small cluster-empires, with no overarching authority to knock heads together if they go to war. I want plenty of room for Save the Planet plots as well as merchant trading. I want a setting where PCs can rise to become Kings of their own worlds or empires, or Warlord of the Nomad Fleet, or Captain of the Star Pirates. I don't think the Imperium really gives me that.

  17. Martin's on the money. I also had some thoughts on the issue here. It comes down to companies needing constant leveraging of their properties and using the dimension of time, rather than breadth of space or detail in space, to do so. Legend of the Five Rings is one example I am very familiar with, where the constant forward motion demanded by the bread-winner "interactive storyline CCG" eventually ran into a limit and became more of a cycle, in the process causing the aforementioned problems for the less lucrative RPG.

  18. I think a good way to do it was the original plan for Forgotten Realms. The gray boxed set gave you a decent set of maps of the world, some nice setting information, and set aside some areas that the publisher promised would remain undeveloped for GM's to safely set a campaign in. (Of course TSR broke that promise, but that doesn't mean a publisher couldn't keep theirs! lol) Then in addition to the boxed set the supplements added detail to various regions that weren't set aside for GM development. That allows you to run a campaign in a region that won't have official products and for the company to sell additional supplements to make money. The best of both worlds as long as the publisher doesn't renege on the promise.

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  20. As noted, the original FR boxed set (and the first 5 supplements) supports a great sandbox campaign, only to be ruined by the bloat that followed. I've always chalked this up to game designers trying to justify their existence, basically showcasing their "skills" in lieu of the Harn model of eternally set in space at the same time. I also think there is an element of "players need ideas and we are the guys to give them" in the setting developments in Grayhawk, FR, et al.

  21. I think that game companies should stick to "eternal now settings" (i like the term), and if they want to advance history, do it in novels independent of the game (FASA's Battletech, for example).
    The problem then, is that they update the game sooner or later to catch the novels timeline (Battletech, again).

    But if they don't do this, they don't make money, because many of us would not buy anything else besides the core book and a couple sourcebooks (save some with "collector syndrome", of course).

  22. Mostly an echo comment here, too.

    I have to echo the wish that game companies would stick to "eternal now" settings. Battletech are Forgotten Realms settings that had my interest for a while, until I decided not to keep up with them. I never got into Traveller, but dabbled in MegaT. Once we realized that a lot more was going on than we could see, we dropped that, too.

    Developing a setting by adventures in few places, making city or regional supplements, or the like, seems to be a more popular method, no?

    In the defense of the game companies, we know that they do these kind of things to sell more product. I would like to point out that I don't think anyone knew that it would split the fanbase in the mid- to late-80s, or that sales would rapidly decline. What the companies could see was that it did spike sales for their competitors, so it Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

    Strangely, I have found myself wishing for more detail/timeline in a few settings, namely 2300AD and Twilight:2000. Maybe that's just because I never developed my own games too far into the "future," and just want more.

  23. I can assure you that game companies don't publish campaign supplements to feed their egos or even because it's what the designers like (they do like it, of course, but that's not a valid business reason for publishing something, as most vanity publishers realize too late).

    It's because that's what sells. Companies that approach game publishing as a business rather than a hobby can't ignore that fact.

    What we have, then, is essentially a dysfunctional, codependent relationship between customers and publishers. Customers vote with their wallets for products that in the long run are bad for the game. Publishers produce those products because they need to maintain a revenue stream, even though they understand that eventually they'll cause problems. Before you know it, you've created a body of canon which the hardcore minutiae gobblers absolutely adore but which is so overwhelming to newcomers and casual gamers that they steer away. With only the hardcore buying the product, and hardcore members drifting away to parenthood, careers, college, or detail-induced ennui, the market shrinks and shrinks until it reaches a point where you must either abandon the setting as unprofitable or wipe the slate clean in order attract fresh blood.

    That's the real reason why Greyhawk and the Realms are blasted by wars between the gods, the Imperium collapses, and someone discovers that minotaurs rule the far hemisphere of Krynn--it reboots the system so that newcomers can get involved without being shellshocked by detail and lambasted by the dogma-quoters.

  24. I always did like how GDW slowly fleshed out the Imperium. But I always thought they shoud have tied the system to other settings such as TSR had AD&D in Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dark Suns. They tied nearly every thing to the 3rd Imperium, instead of creating something new to bring in new fans

  25. TSR did this with Planescape, with the whole Faction War, etc.

    It seems like you can divide setting material into two types: reference detail, and news.

    News is the kind that changes the setting out from under you in major ways, if you allow it.

  26. Howdy:

    I, too, am of a fan of the "evolving, canonical setting."

    I finally rebelled, ditched them all, and crafted my own sandbox.

    WV: "horita" Spanglish for""

  27. Honestly, of all the things mentioned, I don't see the "minotaurs ruling the far side of Krynn" as being an example of pushing the setting forward. That could very well have taken place in the same "eternal now" as the originally published Dragonlance setting. (Dragonlance being, of course, a poor example, as it was deliberately designed to be a story-arc setting.)

    Putting something on the other side of the planet doesn't necessarily reboot the world, so much as expanding on it. For instance, I wouldn't have seen an oriental setting way off to the West of the Flanaess as a bad thing-- quite the contrary.

  28. I'm just 3 sessions into a brand new Spinward campaign using classic Traveller and the original booklet. It's more fun than ever!

  29. James-- I think what you're really getting at is just a very strong personal preference which is valid. I never ran a Traveller campaign in the Imperium, never needed background information. But I did keep up with the new products to use some equipment or map or ideas in it, or just to keep up with the storyline because it was fun to see what was going on. But the balance between "eternal now" games designed for refs who can handle everything on their own and storyline games that lots of people need, want, or say they want, is not an error on a game publisher's part, it's just an eternal reality, like having to exercise and eat right when you're just going to die someday, or why can't Detroit make a car that lasts forever and doesn't need gas? Certainly we want game publishers to be able to make a living, else they wouldn't be able to produce anything. But lots of people want (need, say they want) storyline stuff for whatever reason, and publishers are constantly having to try to give people what they ask for, rather than, "No ice cream for you, only steamed vegetables, you'll thank me someday." And you yourself have observed to me that you are baffled how so many players seem to need to be told how to run a game, what to do. Which indicates that self-sufficient GMs like you or me are not the whole story, and some people need (want, say they want) more, like storylines that model for them what to do. On top of that, there is no money in (non-computer) game design, so people do it out of love. Some of that love is in story-telling. It's no accident that there is a huge overlap between the gaming and comic industries, and the comic publishers are always in an endless cycle of developing the story-line, reboot, develop the story-line, reboot, although the cycles seem to be going faster now. As Steven rightly observed, you can't just write what you want or you're just a vanity press, but game publishers are constantly being buffeted by wants from a variety of directions, and Traveller probably worse than most with its virulent historians, gearheads, etc. TNE was always painfully stretched between the poles of generic and storyline, to the detriment of both, and I am confident there was no golden mean, not by the time I got there, given what people had grown to expect, need, want, say they want. And this probably sounds like I'm just being defensive of GDW, but so what if it sounds that way. I just think that when you are trying to please all of the people all of the time, you are going to fail some of the time, those are the rules of the game. Because you don't want to say, "you type players can't play, we're just targeted at story-lovers, or eternal-now players," you try to put out stuff that will be as inclusive as possible. Maybe Columbia games can make it work, and probably the trick to that is that you have to very careful to never climb onto the tiger, because once you do, there's no getting off. "Who's going to win the Rebellion, Margaret or Dulinor? Was that the real Strephon?" And those people are excited, and need, want, say they want something, and why would you not want to answer the question? (You may disagree with the answer we provided, but dammit, we were on a tiger.) At the end of the day, you can only do your best, know it will never be perfect, and someday maybe hear some people say, "I really like what you did." That's not too bad for a life. Dave Nilsen