Friday, February 24, 2023

REVIEW: The Spinward Extents

When it comes to Traveller, my preference these days is for what has come to be called "classic" Traveller – GDW's game of science fiction adventure in the far future as published between the years 1977 and 1986. This is the period during which I first became acquainted with the game, so my preference is at least partly born out of nostalgia for those heady days of my youth. At the same time, I also have a genuine philosophical preference for the earliest iteration of Traveller, as I think it's the most elegant and easy-to-use of all editions of the game. Like OD&D, which preceded it by only three years, I find classic Traveller a great foundation on which to build freewheeling and enjoyable SF RPG campaigns.

Because classic Traveller is no longer in print – though you can purchase PDFs (and some POD books) of its entire run through DriveThruRPG – it's not necessarily the best choice for enticing newcomers to take a look at the game. Fortunately, Mongoose Publishing has been producing a new, very playable edition of Traveller since 2008. Though it's not my preferred version, I nevertheless enjoy it and am, in fact, currently playing in a campaign that uses its rules. Currently in its second, revised edition, Mongoose Traveller (as it is sometimes known) is probably the best edition and most accessible version of the game since classic, thanks in no small part to its continued support in the form of supplements and adventures.

One of its most recent supplements is The Spinward Extents, a massive, 368-page hardcover book devoted to describing the disputed border region between the Third Imperium, the Zhodani Consulate, the Aslan Hierate and the Vargr. Given my avowed love of frontiers, this is like catnip to me. The fact that the tome also updates and expands upon the old Paranoia Press sectors, the Beyond and the Vanguard Reaches, only added to its appeal. The Paranoia Press sectors long had a reputation among Traveller fans for being a bit wilder and woollier than the more sober and even staid tone of GDW's own pre-generated sectors. I was thus intensely curious to see what Mongoose had decided to do with them, hoping that they might find a way to keep the reckless inventiveness of the original material while squaring it better with the overall tenor of the Third Imperium setting.

I am very pleased to say that my hopes were largely fulfilled. Though not without flaws, The Spinward Extents is a fine supplement, providing the referee everything he needs in order to run many adventures and indeed entire campaigns in the Beyond and Vanguard Reaches sectors. Before discussing the meat of the book itself, I'd like to write briefly about its physical qualities. As I already noted, the book is big, perhaps a little too big in my opinion. The book's size makes it a little unwieldy as a reference book, particularly given that its index cursory and its table of contents non-existent. This makes finding specific information within its nearly-400 pages difficult at times, though not impossibly so.

The Spinward Extents is full-color throughout, in very stark contrast to the restrained, mostly black and white interiors of classic Traveller materials. That said, the layout is clean and legible. Illustrations of varying quality abound, most of them depicting sophonts, planetscapes, and new starships. Each of these starships also gets deckplans, which are generally serviceable, though rarely as attractive as those of GDW's heyday. The same is true of the sector and subsector maps, which are much "busier" than I'd prefer. Speaking of which, the book also includes two poster-sized maps of the Beyond and the Vanguard Reaches. Despite my qualms about the esthetics of their presentation, they do a very good job of providing a macro-view of the region's sectors.

As one might expect, the book is divided roughly into two parts, with each half devoted to one sector. Each half uses a similar format, starting with a brief introduction, followed by a historical timeline of important events, and then descriptions of the major interstellar states within the sector. One of the main attractions of a region of space like this is its political diversity (and instability) compared to the sclerotic Imperium. Many government descriptions also include starship designs unique to their forces, along with game stats and the aforementioned illustrations and deckplans. Non-governmental organizations (and their starships and special equipment) also receive descriptions, as do non-human sophonts. 

Each of the sectors' sixteen subsectors gets several pages devoted to it, starting with an overview and a listing of its Universal World Profiles, the string of letters and numbers that describe a star system's primary inhabited body (planet or asteroid belt). Between three and six worlds are singled out for additional detail, in order to give some sense of the flavor of each subsector. In some cases, a world description might include additional game-related material, like a mapped location, an animal native to it, or yet more unique starships – there are a lot of new starships in this book. The material in the subsector write-ups forms the bulk of The Spinward Extents and is quite varied, giving players and referees alike plenty of ideas for characters and scenarios. All in all, it's reasonably well done.

As I said earlier in this review, my hopes for The Spinward Extents were largely fulfilled and that's no mean feat. I am a diehard Traveller fan of long standing, who knows the Third Imperium setting like the back of my hand. I am thus the proverbial tough audience for products like this and my complaints are mostly quibbles about esthetic choices. Reading this book left me wanting to start a campaign in this region of space, since it offered me plenty of little seeds that I could easily imagine flowering into exciting science fiction adventures. Even more, I found myself interested in Mongoose's other supplements, something I never expected to happen. In the end, I suppose that's the highest recommendation of all.


  1. Thanks for this review, James. I have recently been looking at Mongoose Traveller myself, and have been favorably impressed with how much similarity to classic Traveller it retains. It's nice to know that a real aficionado of the original like yourself also thinks well of it. I'd definitely be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on it, including what you think its flaws are.

  2. I liked classic Traveller well enough, although I didn't play a ton of it. But I absolutely love Mongoose Traveller. I've been running a campaign for around 6 years now, pretty much confined to the Trojan Reach and Reft sectors. Loads of fun!

  3. I really like the Mongoose system. Very clear and easy to use. I loved how they released the 1E rules in a LBB size. I wish they'd do the same for 2E. Though since that one has 5E style color layouts and art maybe it's not as easy to reduce.

  4. Classic Traveller had this odd dichotomy about the Zhondani. In some of the supplements, adventures, and JTAS articles, they were presented as unambiguous villains, bent on conquest. In others, they were basically peaceful and only riled by Imperial hedgmonists who didn't appreciate the Z's skill set.

    Have they addressed this in the new edition? Or is that ambiguity maintained somehow?

    1. There's an increased emphasis on how "alien" the Zhodani society and worldview are compared to Imperial humaniti – so alien that true accommodation between the two cultures is unlikely. Imperials view the Zhodani as authoritarian thought-controllers, while the Zhodani view Imperials as duplicitous expansionists. Both perspectives are true to a certain extent, so there remains plenty of scope of conflict. In short, the ambiguity remains, though we now have a somewhat better idea of what the Zhodani are actually like rather than just how the Imperials view them.

    2. The psionic element was always the biggest differentiator between the Zhodani and Imperium sides.