Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Retrospective: The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society

My love for GDW's roleplaying game of science fiction adventure in the far future, Traveller, is well known. Traveller stands proudly alongside Dungeons & Dragons as the RPG I've played the most over the years and indeed whose very approach to its subject matter has thoroughly shaped my own. My very first forays into professional writing were for Traveller – technically, its 1987 successor, the infelicitously named MegaTraveller – and the my sole stab at an original game is itself a love letter to Marc Miller's magnum opus. 

I could (and have) written at length about the glories of Traveller and the company that birthed it. Among those glories is its official periodical, The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, whose first issue appeared in 1979. Over the course of six years and twenty-five issues, JTAS provided fans of Traveller with a steady stream of new content for their adventures and campaigns, as well as fleshing out GDW's Third Imperium setting. Though the exact content of each issue varied, there were many recurring features, such as:

  • Amber Zone: Taking its name from the travel classification indicating a world where travel is cautioned, this feature presented short adventure situations or scenarios.
  • Contact! One of my favorites, this feature offered up new sophont races, both human and non-human.
  • Bestiary: Closely related was this feature, which provided alien animals to the referee.
  • Ship's Locker: Sci-fi gamers are notorious for their love of new equipment and that's what Ship's Locker served up.
In addition, many issues included answers to common rules questions, articles for the referee to aid his running of the game, and longer articles fleshing out a locale or starship, usually with maps. JTAS also occasionally provided "modules," which were pull-out sections that detailed rules expansions, such as merchants and trading or exotic atmospheres. There was such a wide variety of content, almost all of it focused on things useful in play, that nearly every issue is terrific.

Looking back on it from the vantage of the present, another thing that stands out about JTAS is the quality of its articles and the names of its contributors. In addition to GDW stalwarts like editor-in-chief Loren Wiseman, creator Marc Miller, and Frank Chadwick, contributors included future Dragon magazine editor Roger E. Moore, William H. and J. Andrew Keith, John M. Ford, Marc L. Rowland, and Phil Masters – and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Like Traveller itself, JTAS offered a sober, serious, and thoughtful approach to science fiction roleplaying that never lost sight of the need for both wonder and fun. 

If I had any serious complaint about JTAS, it's that, as time went on, the magazine was more focused on developing GDW's Third Imperium setting than in providing new material and options for use by players and referees of homebrew settings. This started to become especially noticeable around issue #9, which kicked off the Fifth Frontier War. Fortunately, editor Loren Wiseman ensured that these setting-specific articles didn't dominate the content, which kept JTAS relevant even to those who were using the Third Imperium. Mind you, at the time, I was a huge fan of the Third Imperium and ate up every scrap of information JTAS doled out about it. In fact, it was my interest in developing the setting that eventually led me to submit my own articles, the first of which appeared in the successor to JTAS, Challenge.

At any rate, The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society remains for me a good example of a narrowly-focused gaming periodical that transcended its house organ status. It did more than encourage readers to buy the latest releases from its publisher; it actively encouraged having fun playing Traveller by showing the game's many possibilities. Whether it was trading, exploration, military action, intrigue, or scientific investigation, JTAS provided it on a roughly quarterly basis for the better part of six years. That's no small accomplishment. 

3 comments:

  1. Fond memories to be sure. But I'll admit if I had to choose between JTAS continuing for years beyond issue 24 or having Challenge I'd still things as they occurred. The broader scope of Challenge had more appeal to me, especially as JTAS transitioned more to Third Imperium-specific content over time. Not that I dislike focused house organs as such - I subscribed to Autoduel Quarterly for its entire run, bought every Adventurer's Club I could find (even the split ICE/Hero issues) and Howard Thompson still owes me a half a year on Metagaming's Interplay - but broader is better for me.

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  2. A few of the adventures from JTAS have been updated for the current version published by Mongoose. But many great articles were in JTAS.

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  3. Thank you James, for posting this.

    JTAS was Traveller's secret weapon, although it took me some time to realize it, by which point I missed nearly two years of its output. Alas, I was not able to read those early issues until a few years ago when I bought the CD from Far Future Enterprises.

    I ran into Marc Miller at a convention in the late 70s or early 80s down on the gulf coast somewhere (Baton Rouge? Biloxi? I can't recall.) and he kept telling us, "Subscribe to the Journal. Subscribe to the Journal." I was reluctant to take his advice since I had a low opinion of gaming magazines in general, but I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy if I saw one on the wire rack of my game store and had a few extra bucks. Eventually I did subscribe.

    Like many Traveller players, I came to the game from Dungeons and Dragons. My group always struggled to figure out how to make a dungeon in space work. We had bought (or at least read) Adventure 1 The Kinunir and Adventure 2 Research Station Gamma. I couldn't make any sense of Kinunir. "Is the level boss really a pouncer hidden in the bilge? This thing won an award?" Research Station Gamma seemed like a strange mix of boring easy monsters and total-party-kill death machines. It wasn't until I'd read a few Amber Zones in JTAS that my eyes were opened, and I understood that a dungeon was not the only paradigm a role-playing game could have. (And yes, I had played wilderness adventures, but they were just dungeons in sunlight.)

    Only then could I see that Kinunir and Research Station Gamma were both awesome adventures when played correctly, better adventures than anything I had read from TSR at the time. Traveller showed me how to role play, and JTAS held the key to this 9th-grader's understanding Traveller.

    And of course Amber Zones were not all there was to JTAS. That journal had the highest signal to noise ratio of any game magazine I ever read.

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