Travelling through life

Travelling through life

traveller21It is interesting to see how our childhood obsessions remain with us. Reading John’s essay about playing RPGs as a boy, expecially that massive space exploration game, reminded me of the influence that a certain science fiction RPG has had on my own life. I can still recall the moment when the black box containing the three little black books of Traveller caught my eye at a Games by James bookstore. The text practically seared itself into my imagination.

This is Free Trader Beowulf
calling anyone….
Mayday, Mayday… we are under
attack… main drive is gone…
turrent number one not responding..
Mayday… losing cabin pressure fast…
calling anyone… please help…
This is Free Trader Beowulf…

I never had too many chances to actually play Traveller, mostly because I was quite actively involved in sports and my few friends who played role-playing games tended to focus on AD&D and later Battletech.  But I devoured the various booklets with their eyecatching design of simple text combined with a bright rectangle on the ever-present black of the little books.  My first short story was set in a Traveller-style universe and incorporated an image that I traced from one of the books.  Years later, when I needed the name of an online name for my first novel’s protagonist, I thought back to that first story and happily incorporated it.  And although many people thought the first two computer games I designed, Rebel Moon and Rebel Moon Rising, were based on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the fact of the matter is that I had never read that particular Heinlein novel and to the extent I had thematically borrowed any concepts, they were from Traveller.

The success of those two games led directly to what is still one of the most annoying experiences I have ever encountered in the game industry.  After our executive producer left GT Interactive for Sega of America, we were recruited to contribute a launch title to the Sega Dreamcast.  At the same time, a friend of mine who was a legendary RPG designer (Daggerfall, Arena) mentioned to me at the CGDC that he was getting a little tired of the way things worked at Bethesda.  We contacted Marc Miller and obtained the video game rights to Traveller, which had languished since the twin snoozefests that were the Megatraveller PC games.   Julian joined us, we signed a well-funded contract with Sega of America, and proceeded with the development of the Traveller RPG game.  We had the character development system and a vast universe map done and working on the Katana devkit, (the Dreamcast was known as the Katana during development; the announcement of that weak name was our first inkling that not all was well with Sega), enough to receive our second milestone check, when we got the bad news.  Sega of Japan was shutting down Sega of America, including all ten of the American launch titles.

One well-known game industry parody site summed up their insane strategery best when they posted a mock headline: “Sega refuses to reveal secret plan to destroy itself.”

fifthfrontierwarTo add insult to injury, SoJ spent practically every dollar that had been budgeted for American-made games on putting DREAMCAST on the front of the jersey of my favorite soccer team.  I still have that handsome Arsenal jersey to commemorate what should have been an excellent, perhaps even groundbreaking, science fiction RPG.  Of course, Dreamcast went on to fail, in part due to its library of weird Japanese games that held little appeal to the American and European markets.  Could Traveller have saved it?  Almost surely not, although as HALO proved on the Microsoft Xbox, a great launch title sometimes can be the difference between a console’s failure and success.  But that wasn’t the end of my interest in Traveller and I have continued to stay in touch with Marc Miller over the years, so stop by next week to get his thoughts on the Sega fiasco as well as many other Traveller-related issues.

And someday… someday… I am going to actually complete a game of Fifth Frontier War.

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Games by James?? Minnesota represent!

I’m pretty sure I bought Traveller there as well.

John ONeill

Hey Theo,

You tell the most fascinating stories. And I would have LOVED to play a Traveller game on the Dreamcast. It would give me something to play besides Jet Grind Radio.

And someday, you and I are going to play a game of Fifth Frontier War. I dug up a scan to put in your article.

Have you ever played IMPERIUM? Best of the GDW sf board games, in my opinion.


Vaughn Heppner

Imperium was great! I once owned Fifth Frontier War and would set it all up and look at the pieces, but like Theo I never played it. I also owned Traveller and played one or two times with it, but mostly played Steve Jackson’s ITL RPG back then.

John, your essay on the old days… it brought back memories all right. I still remember sending away for Starforce from SPI and getting it in the mail. I was spellbound studying the star map. Ah, those were the good old days.

John ONeill

Hey Vaughn! Good to see you here.

What’s ITL? I thought I knew most of Steve Jackson’s RPGs. Is it a flavor of GURPS?

Starforce was one of the games I started with too. I remember the intro scenario was horribly one-sided. Those poor bastards on that space station get shot up every time.

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a survey article of all the great space games of the 70s-90s. It’d be worth it just to print all the covers.

Theo, what’s VASSAL?


Vaughn Heppner

John, ITL = In the Labyrinth. It’s what came after Melee and Wizard micro games. They had a fight over it, however–I think it was Thompson and him–and later Jackson made GURPS, which does have a lot of ITL in it.

I still have the 70s magazine I cut up to mail for Starforce. It has a Forever War story in it. I remember thinking after a time, I wanted a bloodier space game than Starforce. But those strategy hints for judo matches in space…

I wanted a space game like Ben Bova’s Star Conquerors. I can still look at that old book cover and recall some of my early feelings for cool space battles.

John ONeill

Ah, I should have made that connection. I played MELEE and WIZARD until my copies fell apart, but I never followed Steve Jackson when he started publishing more expansive rules and calling them “In the Labyrinth.” By then I’d started playing D&D, and ITL had only a tiny handful of titles.

I heard a little bit about the spat between Jackson and Howard Thompson over ITL. Wish they’d been able to resolve it. I was never taken by GURPS, but I think I would have bought every ITL release ever made if they’d supported it well.

Did you ever play any of the Task Force space games, like Starfire? Or GDW’s Imperium?


Vaughn Heppner

I played Cerberus, the Earth invasion of an alien world. I played that one several times. I think they had a Star Trek game, and I played that once.

I bought the Starfire games. I loved those covers, but I never played them. The system was a little like Warp War, if I recall correctly. I think Task Force games also owned Asteroids.

As you can probably tell, I bought a ton of those games. I even started a war game club in high school, and we bought a slew of them. We had lots of Melee battles in the library at lunch.

I have played Imperium. But that was years ago. I sold my copy, but a friend in town still owns his. The warp lines was such a cool idea.

I would have loved playing Nova. It sounded like the game of games.

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