Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Retrospective: Challenge

The first issue of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society appeared in 1979 as a (theoretically) quarterly magazine devoted to GDW's science fiction RPG, Traveller. At that time, Traveller was the company's only actively supported roleplaying game, so it made sense that its sole periodical would be devoted wholly to it. With the publication of Twilight: 2000 in 1984, however, the situation had changed and GDW decided that a gaming magazine with a wider scope was needed. 

That magazine was Challenge and its advent in 1986 was initially controversial, at least among Traveller fans. Its inaugural issue was not designated "No. 1" but rather "No. 25," on the basis that it was a continuation of JTAS rather than being its replacement. This was done in large part to assuage the concerns of Traveller fans who feared that GDW was abandoning their beloved game in favor of Twilight: 2000. To further allay their fears, issue no. 25 devoted all of its Traveller articles in a separate section in its center pages that mimicked the format and layout of the original JTAS. Loren Wiseman's opening editorial even notes that "the center 8 pages are designed to be removed" by "those not interested in Twilight: 2000," thereby preserving the illusion that JTAS still existed.

This situation did not last long, however. The combination of the popularity of Twilight: 2000 and the release of its sci-fi sequel, Traveller: 2300later that same year put an end to this internal JTAS section after only three issues. If GDW received any complaints about this, the company could quite correctly argue that the coverage of Traveller had not decreased on an issue-by-issue basis, only that other GDW games were now placed on equal footing. Moreover, given that Challenge was appearing bimonthly rather than quarterly as JTAS had been, the amount of new Traveller material released each year was actually increasing. It helped, too, that the quality of Challenge's Traveller articles remained high, thanks in no small part to the many JTAS writers who continued to pen material for the new magazine.

Even so, the Traveller fans were correct in their original anxieties. As time went on and GDW expanded its catalog of roleplaying games, the amount of space devoted to Traveller – and eventually its ill-named successor, MegaTraveller – started to decline. The articles remained quite good, by and large, but there were a lot fewer of them, a situation that only worsened when Challenge expanded its coverage yet again, in 1988, to include non-GDW games, like Battletech, Star Trek, and Star Wars, among many others. It was around this time that the magazine changed its subtitle from "GDW's Magazine of Adventure Gaming" to "GDW's Magazine of Futuristic Gaming" (and, later, "The Magazine of Science-Fiction Gaming"), since its focus remained RPGs that could broadly be called "sci-fi" in their content.

Devoted fan of Traveller that I was – and am – I was never as put off by this expansion of scope as were some of my older contemporaries. The mere fact that I now had a gaming magazine devoted solely to science fiction games was more than enough to win my allegiance. Challenge was thus an excellent companion to Dragon, whose focus on SF had always been spotty (all the more so after the ending of the "Ares Section" not long after Challenge first appeared). Consequently, it soon became my favorite RPG periodical. 

Challenge was also where I first tried my hand at professional RPG writing. My very first published credit, "Contact: Answerin" appeared in issue no. 55 (December 1991) and, over the next few years, right up until the magazine's demise in 1995, my byline appeared quite regularly in its pages. This fact probably plays some role in my affection for Challenge, though not all of it. The magazine excelled in the area of adventures, with a good amount of its regular content being clever scenarios for a wide variety of SF RPGs. It also included equally clever rules expansions and options, which were just as welcome at my table. 

Until I started writing this post, I'd half-forgotten how much I'd enjoyed reading and writing for Challenge. As with my thoughts about its publisher, GDW, thinking back on Challenge – and the times during which it flowered – ushers in some feelings of wistfulness and melancholy in me. Ah, well ...


  1. Challenge (as itself and as JTAS) remains my second-favorite gaming mag of all time, just behind The Space Gamer. It's interesting in that it follows almost the exact opposite course as White Dwarf - starting off as a very focused house organ, then transforming into a more general gaming mag offering increasingly broad coverage of the hobby as a whole. Challenge got steadily better as WD got steadily worse - and I say that even as an unabashed fan of GW throughout the 80s and 90s (the bashing part started in around 2000).

    Sorely missed, although at least the fan community has done a pretty fair job of emulating the JTAS days with continued Traveller support over the years.

    So, you going to do a Shadis or White Wolf/Inphobia retrospective sometime?

  2. I was never a big player of GDW's games but I do remember that Challenge published a handful of very strong Call of Cthulhu adventures in its later period.

  3. I've never read an issue, but the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society always sounded like a proper academic journal, and thus an air of mystery to my teenage self.

    1. Gotta agree. Actually, the whole 'Traveller' name had a certain adult mystique. I mean, the big kids played characters who were impossibly old-- in their 30's and 40's! And that name 'Traveller' sounded so austere and aloof. One would have expected the first science fiction rpg to have a more descriptive name, like, I don't know, "Space Frontiers" or something.

  4. A great magazine that got better the longer it was published.

  5. I seem to be on the other side of the divide. I have very fond memories of JTAS, especially around '83 - '84, but I felt it began to fall off before Challenge hit. There comes a point with 'magazines', the Star Wars Adventure Journal being another one, where the creators/early supporters drop away and part of the . . . vision is lost. I'm sorry I can't be more descriptive than that. I think MegaTraveller and TNE didn't help because of a seemingly lack of focus. I'm indebted to Challenge for aiding and abetting my writing "career" but I still wish I could have written for JTAS.

  6. Thanks for this stroll down memory lane; for me Challenge represents the heyday of gaming magazines, particularly in the usefulness and quality of its content. My first gaming article appeared in issue #64, an adventure for the Star Wars RPG. I fondly recall James L. Cambias contributing a host of Space 1889 articles. West End hired editor Paul Sudlow in part based on his contributions. Paging through the table of contents for a few issues I’m amazed how many bylines look familiar even today.

  7. I wonder still how Challenge used to drop, erm, primitive combat situations to 2-page spreads and called them adventures for some unfathomable reason.

  8. Just yesterday I was going through this:

    One of the coolest things about reading Challenge was that it was like going to a video store. Flipping through its pages was akin to walking around the shop, looking at all the boxes and discovering something new almost every time.
    I first learned about -- or got a better understanding of -- quite a few games from articles and adventures in Challenge. And over the years I began to look forward to reading the latest articles from a number of writers I otherwise never would have encountered.