Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Retrospective: Secret of the Ancients

I try very hard to be positive on this blog. There's enough negativity in the hobby as it is without my contributing to it and, although I know I don't always succeed in this goal, I do earnestly attempt to focus on what I like and why rather than dwelling on what I dislike. Still, negativity can be sometimes by useful, particularly when it serves to illustrate a large point, as I hope this, one of my more negative retrospectives in some time, will do.

Secret of the Ancients is, as its cover suggests, the twelfth adventure published by GDW for its science fiction RPG, Traveller. Written by the game's creator, Marc W. Miller, it was published in 1984, seven years after the release of the game itself and toward the end of the line of products supporting its original edition (a major revision, the infelicitously named MegaTraveller, was released in 1986). Secret of the Ancients is not only, in my opinion, an awful adventure in its own right; it's also a microcosm of everything that was wrong about Traveller in its latter days and provides an example of how not to support a RPG line.

Like all the adventures published for classic Traveller, Adventure 12 is short by modern standards, being only 48 pages in length. Notes early in the text remind the referee "to administer the adventure rather than just to tell it" and that he "definitely should not explain why events take place." This is, of course, good advice for any referee, but it is difficult to implement when running Secret of the Ancients because the adventure's primary purpose and appeal is its revelation of one of the main enigmas of the Traveller game setting -- the origin and history of the Ancients, a long-vanished race of ultra-powerful alien beings responsible for amazing technological feats, including the seeding of humanity (or humaniti, in Traveller's argot) across many worlds throughout the known galaxy.

Like many Traveller adventures, Secret of the Ancients begins with an archeological mystery. A man by the name of Trow Backette inherits a strange metal statuette from his favorite uncle, who'd been a merchant in the Spinward Marches before retiring. Not long after acquiring the statuette, Backett is accosted by thugs looking for it, but, fortunately, he does not have it on his person at the time of the attack. Later, Imperial agents attempt to seize the statuette as well, claiming that its an unregistered Ancient artifact and thus properly the possession of the government. Like most people in the Traveller universe, Backett's first instinct is to hire a collection of ex-military types to serve as his bodyguards and investigators as he attempts to determine the nature of this statuette and why so many parties are interested in acquiring it for themselves. What follows is a treasure hunt across the Regina subsector of the Marches, culminating in the discovery of an operational Ancient starship that transports the PCs to a pocket universe where dwells the first -- and last -- of the Ancients.

In and of itself, there's nothing necessarily problematic about an adventure of this sort, although I'll admit that I find adventures whose climax includes revelations that would shake the very foundations of the settings if known not to my taste. Even so, the implementation of the adventure -- and its revelations -- are problematic. There are simply too many coincidences, moments of serendipity, and dei ex machina that it strains credibility, especially since neither the characters nor their patron are professional archeologists or experts on the Ancients. By dumb luck, they manage to acquire technology and knowledge, not to mention a face-to-face interview with a super-intelligent 300,000 year-old being, in the process uncovering the answers to numerous long-standing mysteries of the Traveller setting. What's more is that the adventure is written in such a way as to remove most, if not all, the incontrovertible evidence of this having happened, so the PCs are left with knowledge and insights into the true nature of the universe that almost no one else will ever believe to be, thereby ensuring that there are no long-term consequences of their discoveries.

Don't get me wrong: I sometimes enjoy those moments when the PCs discover something that no one else knows. Regular readers of my Dwimmermount session reports should know that very well by now. But there ought to be consequences to such discoveries; the setting cannot remain the same afterward simply by authorial fiat. If the PCs really do uncover the "secret of the Ancients," then it damned well better mean something. Instead we're left with self-destructing super-tech starships and pinched-off pocket universes that conveniently ensure that there are few, if any, ripples in the wider world of the Traveller setting.

Which brings me to my other big complaint about Secret of the Ancients: it's much too deeply immersed in the official Traveller setting of the Third Imperium to be of use to those who aren't using that setting. Indeed, even those of us who were using the setting couldn't find much use for this, because it's such an esoteric scenario. The Ancients were a useful element of the setting, because they provided the means to have uplifted dog-men and interfertile human beings on many worlds, not to mention godlike technology, shattered worlds, and other oddities that even 57th century science could not explain. In short, they were a terrific way to inject some mystery into the setting. Left unexplained, each referee could do with the Ancients as he wished -- or do nothing at all with them. Once explained, though, that mystery was gone and the referee's option became either to accept the explanation offered or ignore it, thereby deviating from the official setting and making it harder to use subsequent materials that depended on his having accepted the answers provided in Secret of the Ancients.

As it turned out, this last concern was a minor one, as Traveller was soon detonated by GDW itself, further canonizing what was once an example setting into the very essence of the game. It's interesting to note, though, that, according to Marc Miller's own admission, Secret of the Ancients sold significantly less well than most of its predecessors (7,370 copies -- nothing to sneeze at by today's standards, to be sure -- compared to 36,703 for the first adventure released just five years earlier). It's possible that the decline in sales has as much to do with the decline in the mass marketability of tabletop roleplaying at the time, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Traveller's decline in popularity also maps on to its increasingly self-referential and insular nature, with adventures like Secret of the Ancients being a prime example. I can't say with any degree of certainty that, had the game remained as open-ended and sandbox-y as it had been for the first several years of its existence, it might have weathered the mid-80s better in terms of sales, but it's a theory I hold nonetheless. Regardless, Secret of the Ancients is not one of Traveller's finest moments and it's one I look back on now as a herald of what was to come.


  1. I never played Traveller, though it was part of the local "gaming universe," and so I knew people who did. I have to admit that, when I finally learned "The Big Secret," my first reaction was an unimpressed "that's it?"

    Sometimes these big mysteries are best left for the GM to decide themselves, or even leave untouched.

  2. What's the modern Traveller equivalent, not counting the GURPS Traveller of course...or is that it?

  3. The modern equivalent would be Mongoose's version of the game.

  4. I can't say with any degree of certainty that, had the game remained as open-ended and sandbox-y as it had been for the first several years of its existence, it might have weathered the mid-80s better in terms of sales, but it's a theory I hold nonetheless.

    Is there any evidence to support this theory? I tend toward something a little simpler: if you put 'Adventure 12' on the cover, folks who don't know better will assume that it follows on Adventures 1-11, and you shitcan any possible impulse sales. The content needn't be self-referential; the cover copy advertises self-reference.

  5. By the time "Secret of the Ancients" came out, most Traveller players would have got the idea that although Adventures 1 through 11 had a setting in common (nominally the Third Imperium, although it wasn't established until quite late on), they were not necessarily related to each other.

    For us at the time, the main disappointment in "Secret of the Ancients" was the fact that it was an absolute railroad. As a player, you were only there for the ride. As a referee, there was very little room to make the adventure your own. Word got out via the various channels, and Adventure 12 flopped.

    As for the modern equivalent of "Secret of the Ancients", Mongoose are redoing it as a free multi-part download, but I'm not picking it up. So far I have kept myself to the generic MgT books, and I'm doing fine. I don't think I'll ever buy onto the Third Imperium again.

  6. "Secret of the Ancients" was absolutely my most favorite Traveller adventure - by far. It had exactly the kind of stuff I loved about sci-fi stories such as Ringworld and Heechee books - mysterious and ancient progenitor civilizations.

    Of course, I never ran the adventure as written. I used it more as a sourcebook and took bits and pieces of it and scattered them throughout the campaign.

    Yeah, thinking back on it, it was probably pretty lousy run verbatim - but I don't know that I ever did anything RAW back then - and I don't think I would have even considered it. Printed material was simply a springboard.

    - Ark

  7. Is there any evidence to support this theory?

    No, and in fact there is some circumstantial evidence that would suggest otherwise; including the similarly timed success of the Dragonlance paradigm, for instance (also terrible modules, but very successful ones financially nonetheless) and the fact that no really successful "sandboxy" setting or adventure has emerged in all the years since.

    The sandbox is more of a niche market with RPGiana. Although sandboxes were more common during the era in which RPGs (and D&D in particular) had their peak of popularity, I've never seen any seriously considerable suggestion that there's a correllation other than coincidence between that popularity and the prevalence of module design that was more sparse and "sandboxish."

    The faddish success of D&D and the coattail effect on other RPGs in the early to mid 80s is better explained as driven by other factors entirely, and the population of gamers who remained with the hobby after the faddishness faded have in overwhelming numbers "voted with their wallets" in favor of modules that have more material in them than sparse, sandboxy areas that the GM was meant to fill in all himself.

  8. I am with Joshua on this. Sandboxy stuff requires extremely talented GMs -- those that are highly competent storytellers -- to run them properly. In my experience, the attrition of players in the 80s was because most GMs/players are not this talented. Players had bad experiences and either left RPGs entirely or moved to computer RPGs where the experience was more uniform (not as good as a fantastic GM, but better than an awful GM).

  9. SOTA is the example of how not to write an adventure. Complete railroad, no options, and a terrible plot to begin with. It really was the nadir of Traveller and GDW in general.

    From the canon perspective, we hated it.

  10. For us at the time, the main disappointment in "Secret of the Ancients" was the fact that it was an absolute railroad. As a player, you were only there for the ride. As a referee, there was very little room to make the adventure your own.

    This was my basic take on SOTA. When I did run it a few years ago, I spiced it up by including elements of my old Timelords campaign (which had ended prematurely), having the Traveller PC's team up with my Timelord PC's (there were a couple of players who had been in both games) to face of against the Destroyer on behalf of Grandfather.

  11. I have to say, reading your retrospectives is enthralling and addictive.

  12. The real problem with SOTA was that the Big Secret just completely sucked. Yaskoydray (the Prime Ancient) was not just god-like, he pretty much WAS A GOD. He knew everything, could do anything, etc. Granted, Traveller was never terribly "hard science" but Grandfather was so clangingly discordant that he may as well have sent Nazgul to fetch the PCs instead of his super-spaceship. The Ancients were a great part of Traveller lore and should have been left mysterious - as Crossby wisely did with the Earthmasters in Harn. If you're gonna drop an "explain it all" bomb like SOTA you'd better have the storytelling chops of a Fred Pohl. Marc Miller didn't.

  13. I will admit to using the whole Yaskodray plot line to develop a darker Illuminated Traveller campaign. A cabal of Droyne are working tirelessly to bring Yaskodray back to this universe to usher in a new age of Droyne supremacy. Meanwhile, various human factions plot to use revealed Ancient technologies and psionics to control known space. Sort of a Call of Cthulthu/Illuminati variant on the traditional Traveller setting.

    Due to player problems the game didn't last long, but everyone enjoyed the concept.

  14. I am with Joshua on this. Sandboxy stuff requires extremely talented GMs -- those that are highly competent storytellers -- to run them properly. In my experience, the attrition of players in the 80s was because most GMs/players are not this talented. Players had bad experiences and either left RPGs entirely or moved to computer RPGs where the experience was more uniform (not as good as a fantastic GM, but better than an awful GM).

    So... you're saying the opposite as James? That the prevalence of sandboxes actually caused the end of the fad and the flight of players all over from RPGs?

    I don't know that I'd go quite that far, but that's an interesting idea nonetheless...

  15. "The real problem with SOTA was that the Big Secret just completely sucked. "

    Yeah. It strikes me as pretty much being along the lines of the worst of Marvel Comics' 'cosmic' storylines. Like the Beyonder in Secret Wars I and II.

    Iain Banks' novels have some 'ancient, vanished, super-powerful races', but they don't appear, only their long-abandoned artifacts do. (For instance, shell worlds, manufactured planets consisting of a series of concentric spheres, with each layer being artificially lit and heated by fusion-powered mini-stars that travel on the underside of the layer above, where civilizations arise and evolve independently on various levels, at different tech levels, etc) In another novel,

    Actually meeting the Ancients is like David sleeping with Maddie on Moonlighting (replace with the example of ruined TV show sexual tension of your choice.)

  16. I think part of the problem is that there has—to my knowledge—never been an adequate categorization of modules that has then been applied to their design and marketing.

    There are things like SOTA, D&D's X1, and that prison planet Traveller adventures, which are best kept in a judge's collection until circumstances allow them to come into play. Rather than designing them with this in mind and marketing them as such, too often such things have a poor "plot" grafted onto them, and they're marketed as just another adventure.

    Secondly, this kind of thing should be presented as an example of what the secret may be. I think there is huge value to giving people this kind of example rather than only leaving them to figure it out on their own without an example. But it should be presented as emphatically not canon.

    Indeed, I think just as many rules system have gone out of their way to emphasize that they are only guidelines, settings should go out of their way to emphasize that there is no canon. Just examples.

    With those two changes in approach, then I think the "but it might have all been a dream" ending probably wouldn't have even been written.

    For all its faults, I'd miss SOTA if it weren't in my big floppy book.

  17. Back in the day when Secret of the Ancients first came out I gobbled it up ravenously! At first I had a hard time understanding how anyone could think it "sucked"... but having not read it in years, I have no remembrance of the railroading side of the adventure. Yes, that would probably trouble me somewhat now, but back then I was young and really had no skill in creatively winging an interstellar sandbox campaign. I liked the Third Imperium setting (and still do) for its example of what the universe would look like with the mechanics the Traveller game offers. (Basically any space-faring RPG is going to be founded on the backbone of whatever style of SF interstellar travel one decides to adopt... Traveller chose "jump" drives.)
    Ultimately, now as an adult, I think I agree with Robert Fisher's comments above. Even if one chooses to not play SotA as an adventure, it has plenty of uses as a library resource.

  18. Besides the whole railroading thing, my complaint was that Yaskoydray was a supermutant and absurdly out of the range of his ancestors. It was just silly.

    The Droyne as the ancients could have been fun, and I don't think it would have been that worldshaking; if the Imperials had opened an Ancient base, and found some Droyne in deep sleep who obviously ran the thing, it would have had impact over time, but there would have been a lot of denial, and little real impact. I mean, the British knew the Egyptians and Greeks to have been cultures thousands of years older then them, who invented math and built the Pyramids when the British didn't know agriculture. And yet the British still made Egypt effectively a colony, and took artifacts from each of them; it didn't deeply seem to affect how they treated the modern people.

    There's plenty of sandbox games out there; D&D of all ages has had a lot of setting-free material, as has GURPS and Hero. Sometimes I don't find it effective; if I were looking for aliens for an science-fiction game, I'd raid GURPS Traveller: Alien Races 1-4, not the more generic GURPS Aliens, which doesn't have its own implied setting--or really has one, but it's hidden.

  19. 'Sandbox' is being used here with multiple meanings.

    Joshua is probably right that the primary drivers of 'the D&D craze' were not related to system.

    But, most of the genuinely good GMs I knew, of D&D or Champions or whatever, were people who drew up their own settings and had those settings respond to player input, 'sandboxes' or otherwise. Products supporting that kind of GM on the one hand were, as Joshua says, generally less popular sales-wise than spoon-feeding products and epic quests. But on the other hand, if you don't have some way to train a new generation of good GMs, the 'core' of the hobby suffers from that too. The original generation of good GMs learned the hard way, something I think Tim Kask got right in his article in Fight On! #5 (IIRC). Maybe that's too much to ask now, but we ought to be able to teach them the lessons a different way - and railroads, even great ones like Masks of Nyarlathotep, fundamentally don't do that. IMO.

  20. It's a bit of a catch-22. If learning to run a player-input driven game; whether sandbox or some other style, is hard (and I'd say it probably is) then people will tend to avoid it as a leisure activity, since there are a lot of other alternatives out there.

    I'm surprised even now at how much just "running the module, more or less as written" is hugely prevalent, even amongst gamers who've been gaming for a long time. In my own group, we've got 4-5 part time GMs. I think I'm the only one who regularly runs games where I have no idea what's going to happen beyond the current session, and usually only a very vague one about the session I'm in the middle of running!

    By the same token, I think the term railroad has been applied too liberally lately a lot of the time. A written module isn't necessarily a railroad unless the GM runs it that way; curtailing player reactions by fiat to get people to do exactly what was pre-planned and expected.

    In the game I'm playing in now, which is a Paizo Pathfinder adventure path, I don't feel railroaded. But I do feel like it's my responsibility and expectation as a player to come to the party with the adventure that's written and be willing to engage it, at least, rather than having the ability to decide more widely what I want to do. If I'd said, "y'know, my character doesn't really care about the threat to this town from goblinoids. I think I'll just pack up my stuff and make my way south to Magnimar where things are safer; the Sandpoint folks can solve their own problems" we wouldn't have had a game, for instance.

    Whereas in the games I run, if the players had decided that, hey, that's cool. I could roll with that without missing a beat.

  21. Generally speaking, I'm going to agree with Joshua in that I think the term "railroading" is too liberally applied to written modules. And "sandboxes" lauded as a special genre of some implicit merit in and of itself. But I was there. Sandboxes were sparsely written amorphic notes from early DM's, that ended up being published. A la Judges Guild. I think a DM has to roll with the punches, sure, but as Joshua says, you don't get to say "guess what, I'm not interested in saving the town from goblins." Because that's what the DM has labored to create. Now, a clever DM has probably already solicited the players' likes prior to investing a lot of time in writing. And an ongoing group of players ought to know what style they all enjoy. But I don't think it's all as black vs white as is often portrayed on the net.

    As to SOTA, I love it. It has a huge Andre Norton vibe, to me. When I ran it, I fiddled and embellished a lot, as I am wont to do. But that didn't make it any less a great module in my book. The GM can decide whether the players are believed, and to what extent, as well as the impact on the campaign world.

  22. It's not really my style to lovingly create an adventure about saving the town from goblins. It's more my style to create "hooks" and throw them out there liberally. In one recent game, after the characters arrived in town and been invited to the palace due to circumstances that had happened up to that point, I threw three or four hooks their way, and they could decide which (if any) they thought were interesting. There was the envoy from the city to the east who warned of an implacable legion of hobgoblin conquerers on the way, the king's wife had news that her home town was threatened by fey, the king's brother wanted them to spy out what was going on in yet another kingdeom, and they had reasons to possibly seek revenge amongst the organized crime element in the city they were in.

    I didn't really create much except in vague terms around each of those hooks, because I really wasn't sure which would strike their fancy. But I didn't want to just give them one and imply, "hey, this is the adventure over here"--I wanted them to start getting involved in the stuff they wanted to do until they could latch onto the game enough to start actively driving it themselves.

    I'm also a fan of showing them the consequences of what they don't follow up on. They ignored the hobgoblin legionnaires, for instance, so when they got back to town again several months later, it had been conquered, the king and queen's heads were stuck on the gate, and the king's brother had been installed as a puppet king under the hobgoblins, who had the town locked down under martial law.

  23. Joshua: 'It's more my style to create "hooks" and throw them out there liberally.'

    Lately I've only run short, targeted adventures where, generally, a sequence of events are going to take place that may be affected by the PCs' actions, but will just barrow ahead if they remain indifferent ("The only thing required for evil to triumph is for named characters to do nothing), but I like Joshua's 'cast your bread upon the waters' approach. Some of my best GMing work (and some memorable scenes for the players) has been done on the fly.

    I wonder, though, if the model shouldn't be referred to as 'sandbox' but 'fishpond'?