Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Retrospective: Beyond

GDW's roleplaying game, Traveller, was first released in the summer of 1977. Given this relatively early date in the history of the hobby, it's no surprise that Traveller's creator, Marc Miller, looked to Dungeons & Dragons as a model for how to present an RPG. An obvious debt that Traveller owes to OD&D is its format: three digest-sized books. Another is that Traveller presents no setting of its own. Like its predecessor, it's a toolkit intended to allow the referee to create a setting of his own using the game's rules and his own imagination. 

Nevertheless, the first hints of an "official" setting for Traveller started to appear about a year after the game's publication. Book 4: Mercenary mentions "the Imperium" for the first time, though designer Frank Chadwick's introduction suggests that he intended this name simply to be a convenient placeholder for "a remote centralized government … possessed of great industrial and technological might, but unable, due to the sheer distances and travel times involved, to exert total control everywhere within its star-spanning realm." 

Fans of the game were quick to pick up on this reference it wasn't long before GDW presented a pre-generated sector of space for use by the referee who didn't wish to roll up his own, along with some details on the Imperium (now dubbed "the Third Imperium") of which it was a part. The Spinward Marches and the Third Imperium both proved very popular with Traveller fans and soon became inextricably linked with the game, even though Traveller was still perfectly usable as the basis for a SF setting of one's own creation. By the time I started playing the game in 1982, by which point GDW had already published a second pre-generated sector, I encountered almost no one who played Traveller in any setting other than that of the Third Imperium.

Though The Spinward Marches and other GDW products began to fill in the details of the Third Imperium and its interstellar neighbors, these details were initially quite sketchy and open to interpretation. During the period between 1979 and 1982 (or thereabouts), several third parties, like Judges Guild, were licensed by GDW to produce their own pre-generated sectors to fill in the larger map of "Charted Space" that the Third Imperium occupied. Many of these non-GDW sectors were quite idiosyncratic in their contents and would later be partially or wholly excised from the Traveller canon, as it solidified into something more definite.

One of the better examples of these third-party sectors was Beyond, written by Donald P. Rapp and published by Paranoia Press in 1981. Located "beyond the Great Rift, beyond the Imperium and beyond the law," the titular sector is a wild place, consisting of nearly 500 worlds inhabited by a mix of humans, Droyne, Aslan, and several unique alien species. It's also home to a number of interstellar governments that are independent of the Imperium and the other great empires of Charted Space. Consequently, Beyond is presented as a region of space that's perfect for adventurers who wish to avoid any "imperial entanglements," to borrow a phrase. 

Beyond mimics the format and presentation of The Spinward Marches, being a 32-page digest-sized booklet, with each of Beyond's sixteen subsectors having a single page for its listing of world data. There are also six pages at the back of the book dedicated to "library data," Traveller's term for background information presented in a series of brief, faux encyclopedia-style entries. It's in the latter that we learn about the Church of Resurgent Anthropomorphic Philosophy, Starbase Arcturus II, the Zydarian Codominium, and more. The library data also describes Beyond's unique alien races, such as the arachnid-like Sred*Ni and the flying Mal'Gnar. 

As you can see, Beyond is filled with a plethora of hyphens, apostrophes, and asterisks, not to mention lengthy names with convenient – or "humorous," as in the case of the aforementioned Church – acronyms. Taken together, this gives the sector a very different feel than the more sober, even stolid, approach GDW took with its own pre-generated sectors. That's not necessarily a bad thing and it certainly gives Beyond a distinct flavor that sets it apart – a flavor that might not be to everyone's taste. I know that, when I was a younger man, I didn't think much of Beyond (or its companion from Paranoia Press, Vanguard Reaches), precisely because it was less "serious" than GDW's own efforts. Nowadays, I'm a great deal more tolerant of Beyond's oddities, perhaps because I better appreciate the need for different styles and approaches within established settings, such as Traveller's Charted Space.

Mostly, though, Beyond is a relic from an earlier time in the history of Traveller, before the game had evolved to the point where one needed to know a large amount of background information scattered over multiple books to be able to understand its setting. Fond though I remain of the Third Imperium and its richly detailed history, I recognize that it can be very off-putting to newcomers, who simply want to engage in "science fiction adventures in the far future," to quote Traveller's longstanding tagline. Supplements like Beyond facilitate that pretty well and we could probably use more like it.

5 comments:

  1. I don't know if I'm a rare bird or a common variety, but I have played D&D since the late 70's, easily 10,000 hours invested, ***and I've never played another RPG of any kind.*** Traveller was always the one other game I wanted to try. If I were to do so at this point, where to begin? (Don't mean to hijack your blog, James. Just curious if you or a few others might want to weigh in on that question.)

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    1. Pick up The Traveller Book ( https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/80192/CTTTBThe-Traveller-Book?cPath=21_4767 ). Some might suggest The Traveller Adventure also ( https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/126508/CTTTAThe-Traveller-Adventure?cPath=21_4767 ) but at that point you might be better off getting the Classic Traveller CD-ROM ( https://www.farfuture.net/ ) since for $35 it gets you all of that and more (you might still get The Traveller Book in hard cover from drivethru if you prefer physical books).

      You can also watch for the periodic opportunities to get (Classic) Starter Traveller for free. That provides 99% of the 1981 rules (no self improvement or drugs, and uses a simplified space combat system), an absolute steal if free (otherwise skip it, go with The Traveller Book as the best deal, if you eventually go all in on the CD-ROM, Starter Traveller and that simpler space combat system will be included...).

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    2. Surprised to hear nothing from James or anyone else, but grateful for your response, Frank.

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    3. You're welcome.

      Oh, and for anyone curious about the differences between the 4 versions of Classic Traveller (the 1977 boxed set, the 1981 boxed set, The Traveller Book, and Starter Traveller), here are the differences in gory detail:

      https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jsH-EgKvaR0mdbtJMj_Xj7X3TcYyZTqQGf-Gwu58PX0

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  2. Back in 1978-1985 our group used Traveller and a few other RPGs as minor breaks from D&D/AD&D which dominated our sessions. Consequently, we never really used well-developed worlds in those other games. Traveller -- and its ability to generate sectors quickly and easily -- was perfect for this much more casual and less committed style of play. Generating sectors and PCs/NPCs, in and of itself, is a fun solitaire exercise in OS Traveller.

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