Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Retrospective: Traveller: 2300

Despite the amount of time I've spent over the last forty years playing, refereeing, and writing about fantasy roleplaying games, I've always been more of a science fiction fan. There are many reasons for this, but, if I had to single one out, it's probably the fact that the first "grown up" television show I watched with any devotion was Star Trek, broadcast every Saturday afternoon on a local independent TV station. Watching Star Trek with my aunt – who'd been a teenager when the program originally aired – made a powerful impression on me (as did the days of manned space exploration) and I fully imagined that, sometime in my own lifetime, there'd be a permanent base on the moon's surface, as well as regular expeditions to Mars, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets. 

Though it's quite probable that I'll not live long enough to see my youthful dreams come to pass, I remain a science fiction aficionado. I have long said that Traveller is my favorite roleplaying game, bar none. I played the game regularly and with great enthusiasm in my younger days and my first professional writing gigs were Traveller articles and adventures that appeared in the pages of GDW's Challenge magazine. Despite this, there was a time, in the late 1980s when I'd grown tired of Traveller and was casting about for a replacement sci-fi RPG. Almost as if on cue, I began to see advertisements in Dragon proclaiming the imminent publication of a new SF game from GDW, entitled Traveller: 2300 and I was immediately intrigued.

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that it was a "prequel" of some sort to Traveller. Later advertisements explained the game's setting better, connecting it not to Traveller but to Twilight: 2000, another favorite game of mine (I was and am an unrepentant GDW fanboy). Traveller: 2300 took place three centuries after the Third World War, as "mankind discovers the stars," according to the game's tagline. The setting's post-Twilight: 2000 history was generated through the play of "The Great Game," a massive freeform (and, therefore, refereed) wargame played out by GDW's staff. Consequently, that history contained all sorts of odd and unexpected elements that gave it the weird plausibility that actual history does. For example, the USA never fully recovered from World War III and took a back seat to an African-oriented Third French Empire and the northern Chinese successor state of Manchuria. I adored this, since it provided not only a terrific backdrop against which to set adventures but also plenty of scope for national rivalries, intrigue, and wars – things missing from the utopian, antiseptic future of my beloved Star Trek.

Traveller: 2300 also excelled in its alien races, all of which were genuinely alien, sometimes to the point of being almost inexplicable to humans. Again, this appealed greatly to me. I'd long been seeking aliens better than the "guys in suits" approach adopted by so much space opera and this game provided them. Attempting to understand these alien species and their cultures was, in fact, a major part of the game, with several early adventures focusing on this. Even the main "enemy" species, the Kafers, received similar treatment, with both a sourcebook and series of adventures that delved into their unique biology and psychology, explaining just why it is that they had decided to launch a devastating war against humanity. 

The game was equally devoted to fleshing out the world of the future. We learned interesting little tidbits about Earth in the future, such as the fact that the eating of rat meat was now commonplace – a holdover from the famine years following the Third World War. The game's equipment list was not generic; instead, it was heavily corporatized, with everything from weapons to armor to computers bearing the name of its manufacturer. The result was a familiar yet somehow different Earth that felt "real," which is precisely what I'd been looking for at the time.

My main complaint about Traveller: 2300 was that its rules were nothing special and, in fact, impeded my enjoyment of the game to a certain extent. I had expected they'd be similar to those in Twilight: 2000 and, while there were certain commonalities, there were also plenty of changes, not all of which agreed with me. I gritted my teeth and used the rules as they were presented to the best of my ability, but I also houseruled many aspects of the game too. Had the game had better rules, I might have played it more than I did. Even so, I devoured the setting and, to this day, retain a great fondness for it.

In the end, though, it wasn't the rules that killed my interest in the game; it was GDW itself. The game's second edition, retitled 2300 AD, bore a new tagline "man's battle for the stars." The Kafer War became a much bigger focus for the game and incongruously tacked-on cyberpunk elements – then all the rage – were introduced. After a while, the game felt less like the wondrous, exploratory game that I fell in love with in 1986 and more like a generic military SF game. Every now and again, I get the hankering to return to this game and it's stymied by my memories of the game's ultimate development. I should probably just put that aside and immerse myself in it, since Traveller: 2300, flaws and all, had a lot going for it. One day, maybe I will.

12 comments:

  1. I hear that Mongoose is going to be developing 2300 AD as a setting using their current Traveller rules. Maybe 2nd half of this year or something.

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    1. Mongoose's offerings are very hit or miss with me, but I'll keep an eye out. I think 2300 is a setting well worth developing further.

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    2. Actually Mongoose did publish a 2300AD all-in-one book.
      https://www.mongoosepublishing.com/rpgs/2300ad.html

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  2. While my introduction to Traveller was Classic Traveller, I loved the hard, near future SF of 2300.
    We played it quite a lot, and it remains one of my favorite Traveller takes.
    My campaign focused on Aurore and the Kafer war (Aliens had left a big impression on me at the time), a friend, instead, made us free traders and ended his campaign by making us the explorers that first made contact with the Imperium.
    While I'm very much an original cyberpunk fan, I too think that the Earth/cybertech sourcebook was a poor idea: both a bad fit for the setting, and "bad" rules.
    We never used it in our game.
    It's very sad that GDW went that way instead of diving us more sourcebooks on the Pentapod or the Sung like they had done for the Ebers and Kafers.
    I particularly loved Nyotekundu, though we didn't play it.
    Would I go back to 2300? Probably, the rules were somewhat wacky, and I would use a different ruleset but keep the setting.

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    1. The Nyotekundu sourcebook is excellent and a good example of the kind of thoughtful SF that 2300 did so well. It's a real pity that the Kafer War came to dominate later releases for the game line.

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  3. "more like a generic military SF game"

    They did that to Traveller too, with The New Era.

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  4. The aliens, and some of the worlds were good. I too was disappointed it turned into endless Aliens re-runs, but it was the 80s and I guess that sold.

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  5. when I was a kid we tried every sci-fi game we could get our hands on as we expanded our play outside of fantasy rpgs. Traveller, Star Frontiers, Star Trek (FASA), Star Wars (West End) all his the table, as did Traveller 2300. The rules set didn't impress any of us, but the backdrop is still probably my favorite.

    I grabbed a copy of this a few years ago when I found it at HPB and my initial impressions remain: elite backdrop, mediocre rules set. The evolution of the world as something post Twilight 2000 was inspiring, especially since we played the heck out of that too.

    I have the Mongoose reimplementation, but it's using their Traveller rules set as I recall, which is...fine? I just don't know that it necessarily fits well. I feel like this one needs an integrated and maybe a bit crunchier one that recognizes the very specific orientation of the backdrop.

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  6. I am considering a SciFi campaign using Cepheus and an amalgam of Hostile and Traveller:2300 and I will try to cherrypick stuff from the T:2300 scenarios (both the original ones and what was published by Mongoose.

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  7. When I had a chance to ask Marc Miller in person, he stated that the plan had been to cancel Traveller and quickly replace it with 2300. According to him, it was feared the original game was aging out of its audience, and they believed something new and in sync with contemporary SF was needed. That at least explains the confusing name. And though it seems ludicrous in retrospect, it's less so when remembered that the hobby was barely over a decade old at the time, nobody really knew what had legs or not.

    I personally have some affection for 2300AD, probably because it was easy to snap up books for it cheaply in the 90's. But looking at it now, I can't help but feel it's ended up more dated than original Traveller, with its very 80's Aliens-infused tone. And the value of the "Great Game" in generating the setting is overstated; it still lead to GDW's typical "colonial powers in space," and the speculation regarding social and technological changes is very conservative. There are many aspects of the setting that have changed less in three centuries than our world has in three decades.

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  8. I agree with you about T:2300 being a game about exploration and 2300AD being about war with the Kafers. I think that GDW planned multiple story arcs and it happened they thought the war would sell more. MgT 2300AD brings back the exploration and puts the Kafers back as something mysterious.

    I would encourage you to check out the original (meaning unique supplements/adventures) to MgT 2300AD and certain that its line editor would welcome your writing talents. As hopefully it might move it away from the "Ancients theme" that seems to underpin much of Mongoose. That said, "Ancients theme" is very Star Trek TOS.

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