Saturday, November 12, 2022

Frontiers of Adventure

Thanks to Traveller Map
When Traveller first appeared in 1977, GDW's  game of science fiction adventure in the far future followed the model of Original Dungeons & Dragons in being a generic ruleset without an explicit setting. Of course, like OD&D, Traveller's rules included within them assumptions that laid for the groundwork for an implied setting. An illustrative example of what I'm talking about is the relative slowness of interstellar travel and the concomitant lack of a separate (and faster) form of interstellar communications. Thus, Traveller may not have included its own integral setting, at least initially, but its rules certainly pushed referees in certain directions as they created their own settings, much as OD&D had done before it.

This situation didn't last long, though. Starting with the appearance of Mercenary in 1978, GDW started including references to "the Imperium" in its products. Initially, the Imperium was just a stand-in for any remote interstellar government of the sort that Traveller's rules implied. By the time of the release of The Spinward Marches in 1979 (if not before), it had started down the path that would soon make it the explicit setting of the game. From my conversations with the late Loren Wiseman and others, this shift in emphasis was one that players of the game wanted, based on feedback that GDW received from them. I can hardly blame them for catering to their buying public.

More to the point, I've always loved the Imperium. By the time I began playing Traveller, there was very little sense that the game had ever been a generic ruleset without an explicit setting and I was quite content with this situation. That said, most of GDW's efforts in describing the Imperium were focused on its frontiers, sectors of space like the aforementioned Spinward Marches and the Solomani Rim. Likewise, the various third parties licensed by GDW to produce their own materials setting set in and around the Imperium tended to follow their lead, whether they were Judges Guild or Gamelords or FASA. By comparison, there was little or no material set in the core sectors of the Imperium.

I was reminded of all this recently because a good friend of mine offered to referee a Traveller campaign and he chose to set it in the Crucis Margin sector, in the region trailing the Imperium. The sector is in close proximity to the Imperium, as well as the Solomani Confederation, the Two Thousand Worlds, and the Hive Federation but none of these major interstellar powers has any presence here. Instead, there are multiple smaller governments, usually no more than a dozen worlds in size – the very same model I used in my Riphaeus Sector campaign. 

I think it's pretty obvious why this is such an attractive set-up for a RPG campaign setting: frontiers are where adventures happen. Sometimes this is quite explicit. For example, there are The Keep on the Borderlands for D&D and Borderlands for RuneQuest, to cite just two very obvious examples. Back in the realm of science fiction, there's Star Frontiers and Star Trek, whose televisual inspiration dubbed space the final frontier. I rather suspect that one of the reasons that RPGs set in the modern day generally do poorly is that most of them lack a clear frontier and thus the possibilities for adventure are more limited. The only exceptions I can think of are horror games like Call of Cthulhu or Vaesen, where I would argue that the supernatural (or at least extramundane) constitutes a frontier of sorts.

If we turn back to Traveller, it would seem that GDW learned this lesson as well. Most of the editions of the game after its initial one were explicitly set not just in the Imperium setting but during a time when there were lots more frontiers. MegaTraveller (1987) shattered the Imperium in a civil war that resulted in the foundation of antagonistic successor states, while Traveller: The New Era (1993) takes place when much of interstellar civilization is rebuilding in the aftermath of that same civil war. I suspect a big part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World is the way they take a staid, familiar setting, like Earth, and fill it with frontiers again. 

None of this is to suggest that it's impossible to have a satisfying roleplaying game campaign set in the core areas of a stable society, but, as I scan my bookshelves, looking at the games I have played most often, I see few obvious examples of them. I don't think that's mere coincidence.


  1. I think that you are correct about borders and frontiers of empires - RPG offer the fantasy of adventure and the jeopardy that that situation implies as opposed to our normal existences.

    The creation myth of America is full of heroic adventurers finding fame and fortune by resisting the imposition of taxes and trade restrictions of an empire, and after that conflict was resolved, extending the boundaries of civilisation against the unknown or barbarians. Those myths were heavily pushed in American popular culture in the period after WW2, a time when the UK was having to deal with decline and trying to suppress the reality of its behaviour during days of empire.

    Which brings me to Traveller and Star Wars. While the game was developed well before Star Wars, it was published more or less at the same time that it was released. The audience and potential customer base for the game would undoubtedly have seen Star Wars Episode IV and immediately bought into the idea of a plucky set of outcasts and poorly-armed brigands pushing back against a well-organised and resourced evil empire. It might just be me, but I've thought for two decades or more that Star Wars' success was owed in large part to the timing of its release the year after the bicentennial of the American War of Independence and the feeling that pervaded in the months after that. After Vietnam's failure the USA needed a clean goodies vs baddies story and the War of Independence and Star Wars deliver (for Americans) on that in a big way. In contrast the UK had Doctor Who and Blake's Seven. Subsequent episodes of Star Wars, whether movie or Disney+ series contain, to me at least, hints that the Empire in Star Wars is in fact the British Empire.

  2. Just thinking about it, the only non-horror game set in the modern world I've enjoyed was TMNT and Other Strangeness. I think the border or frontier in that game is the heroes vs the mundane.

  3. The Imperium is indeed a really good setting, but one problem with it is that nearly all of its frontiers border on other settled rival states, which gives the scouts (or any freelance explorers or merchant adventurers) little to do. A few open frontiers to "boldly go" would have been welcome - I think the main reason for this oversight was that GDW was initially more interested in space wargames than space roleplaying when drawing the frontiers.

    1. It think also in part due to the two main campaign types of early Traveller. Merchants of questionable ethics making their way in tramp ships along the space lanes. And Mercenaries blowing other people shit up for fun and profit. Both of which work best in a frontier region of rival states both large and small.

      In neck of the woods when I was in Junior and Senior High School in the early 80s. One thing that happened whenever we played Traveller was getting the idea that this was neither Star Wars with it's rebellion against a evil empire. Or Star Trek going where no one has gone before.

      But since this was the time of Reagan and all that, the idea of stealing from the "man" or getting one over had it's appeal. And the anti-war feelings of vietnam was fading as well.

  4. While I agree with GDW having a general wargaming mindset along with SW's overwhelming influence on how Traveller was played versus it's nonexistent influence on how the game was written, I believe the official setting's seeming lack of frontiers has more to do with perception than anything else. The First Three LBBs were nothing but frontier, LBB4 introduced a decaying imperium which was explicitly incapable of policing it's territories, and, even after the game went "big" in LBB5, there still was the "1 week per jump" concept.

    The latter is something many referees and players never fully grok.

    That "1 week per jump" concept means that even the Big Ship/Big Money 3I of late CT is full of *internal* frontiers. Add to this "comm lag" the fact that half of those 11,000 member systems have populations under 1 million and you begin to realize that there are still frontiers in most systems and even on most worlds.

    We played Traveller not with a SW "rebellion" or Trek "boldly go" mindset but more with a Dumerest, van Rijn, or Flandry mindset. The stars are far apart in time and space, the emperor/empire is far away in both time and space, and there are too many more important things closer to more important places which need to be watched.

  5. Traveller seems like Star Wars if it was about Han Solo or Star Trek if it was about Harry Mudd.

  6. Would Empire of the Petal Throne count as an RPG set in a settled empire with a core area of stability? A campaign set in Jakala would seem to meet this criteria but still have things to do.

    1. EPT is odd in that, at least initially, its "frontier" is the local underworld beneath the city where the PCs currently dwell.

  7. Adventure requires two things: big (enough) problems, and that the party be the ones who are solving them.

    That problem can be "how do we get this idol out of the temple" or "how do we save the village from the wolfriders," but the problems need to be there. The party solving them is obvious enough (if they don't solve them, you should be playing the guys who ARE solving them).

    The presence of a strong authority in a region is antithetical to adventure. The strength means it's able to solve the problems, the authority means that it's likely to be asked to do so.

    You can weaken either or both of these elements and produce adventure. But if both are firmly in place, adventure's only really practical in reaction to that authority (i.e. you're doing the jobs they won't, or the jobs they can't. Which basically means petty makework or crime).

    The bigger the gaps in established authority and its strength, the easier for adventure to be found. Weaken the strength and you get a frontier situation. Weaken the authority and you get a noir detective situation.

    It is very interesting that American RPGing in D&D goes for "this is an empty frontier without established authority" while UK RPGing (in WHFRP, for example) tends to have a lot more "there is established authority, but it is powerless/corrupt/too busy infighting."

    1. Good points. I'd love to know the difference between the UK and USA RPG themes. It is undoubtedly an effect of our respective cultures. The people of the U.K., in particular the Scots, are deeply cynical. Other than the Russians I think that we are the most cynical people I've met.

    2. Possibly my favourite joke is on that theme.

      The Russian pessimist says the glass is half empty. But the Russian optimist is confident that it can get even emptier.

  8. Most all of White Wolf / Onyx Path's RPGs are set in the modern world, and they were, for a time, some of the most popular RPGs. Modern, urban fantasy is also consistently popular if we look at Kickstarters over the years. There is also whole genre of superhero RPGs. I think one can also make an argument for city-based fantasy games, which is a common trope. I think a frontier is only necessary for certain types of play.