“That moment when you realise some of the people you follow on Twitter are Traveller characters…”
We’d been chatting about buying a second hand (deactivated) Bren Gun. (I once nearly impulse bought one, but ended up saving the money to spend on swords and armour like most if the other responsible adults I knew.) This led to a consensus that fair fights are bad. Then @wandering_andy tweeted:
30 years, mostly in the crappier parts of the world has developed what I would like to be my new family motto;
‘If you find yourself in a fair fight, you got your strategy wrong’
Not as catchy as the current one I guess… but more realistic
Intrigued, I clicked through to his profile and found:
Listening – Watching – Advising. Covert Intelligence, Security Adviser to UHNWI & Trainer
Yep, from that and his tweets, he’s a British veteran turned security contractor. Up until this point I’d mostly been interacting with gamers and writers who only play at this sort of thing. Hence my tweet.
That moment when you realise some of the people you follow on Twitter are Traveller characters…
Guess what Andy tweeted back?
Free Trader Beowulf…
Why didn’t I use that as my twitter name!!!
A tingle went down my spine. Marc Miller’s immortal text:
This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone… Mayday, Mayday… we are under attack… main drive is gone… turret number one not responding… Mayday… losing cabin pressure fast… calling anyone… please help… This is Free Trader Beowulf… Mayday….
Somebody out there who had rolled the dice was now walking the walk. A very odd feeling.
It was also a reminder that the Traveller universe I’m GMing in, and the Space Punk subgenre I’m writing in, all reflect the real world, its hazards and its procedures. If I was going to be more than a second artist, I needed to go beyond Dumarest and take the business of guns and travel as seriously as I did swords and magic. This sent me down an uncomfortable rabbit hole learning about Close Quarters Gun combat, how to “slice the pie” and “button hook”.
It’s also why, when Andy tweeted a link to The Travel Survival Guide, I impulse purchased it. I was not disappointed.
Lloyd Figgins is a well-travelled ex-soldier turned professional risk expert and security advisor. In movies, his type is played by a craggy character actor, and is found shepherding parties of scientists through danger zones, or training the protagonist in kidnap avoidance. Figgins is also a keen traveller to hazardous — but not too hazardous — places: go anyway, he urges, but manage the risk. In some ways the book suffers from this.
Figgins is simply too good at managing risk to have generated any disaster stories! However, his instructional anecdotes are hair-raising because they are real: Talked his way out of kidnap and/or summary execution by a South American militia by bonding over David Beckham. Witnessed Columbian rough justice but avoided getting caught up in it. Nearly got kidnapped or blown up in Syria, but took a calculated gamble and trusted a restaurateur to get him to safety. Survived various vehicular crashes and the resulting fall out with the locals. Had really bad malaria and got caught up in an earthquake.
The actual advice he offers seems solid. Much of is dull from a storytelling point of view — after all, avoiding generating stories of misadventures is the whole point of his book! Do your research, get the right insurance, inform the right people, avoid hiring the wrong ones, plan… no really, plan!
Some of the advice, however, can easily be reverse engineered to create encounters and adventures, and dilemmas. The chapter titles speak for themselves: Aircraft Safety, Kidnap Awareness and Avoidance, Personal Safety and Security, Natural Disasters, Medical Issues, Vehicle Safety, Boat Safety, Accommodation Safety, Terrorism. Theft doesn’t get its own chapter, but is covered in almost every chapter — in some regions what can be stolen will be stolen. Each chapter covers how and why things go wrong, and how to survive the result. You want to know where to sit on an plane, what floor of a hotel to pick depending on whether the main threat is theft of car bomb? This is your book.
Most useful, however, is the picture of how travel works beyond the developed world. He does it in a way that’s empathic enough to extend understanding to the people who live there… the equivalent of NPCs in your Traveller adventure.
In Figgins’s world, the locals aren’t stupid or naturally perfidious. Rather culture and poverty gives them different priorities from you, and different horizons.
Sometimes you’re othered. They just don’t see you as a person, or can’t afford to (because poverty), and so you become a dehumanised source of wealth to be harvested by whatever means necessary including thefts that range from ingenious to blatant. Meanwhile, other locals don’t want the tourists to go away, and the rough justice protecting you and yours may not be to your tastes (as in summary executions on the hotel veranda).
Sometimes, you aren’t othered enough. You end up subject to the local culture of rough justice and revenge — just don’t go running over any goats.
And of course they may have a perfectly reasonable fear that you are an agent for a hostile power, or want to punish you for the perceived sins of you’re country — “British? Na, mate, um begorrah, I’m Irish.”
Meanwhile, lack of training, poverty (again), and fear of crime may compromise safety standards in ways that seem idiotic until you realise what people may be up against. Drivers may be under-trained and under-rested — but in need of the money for their families. Vehicles and craft may operate while overloaded and poorly maintained — same reason. Escape routes may be sealed against theft and violence — a more immediate threat than fire. Safety equipment may have been neglected or stolen, or unreachable because of overcrowding. In one sinking, a handful of people got hold of lifejackets, but none of them survived: turns out its hard to stay above water when everybody else is using you as a buoyancy aid.
And despite perfectly good reasons not to, there will also be locals who come to your rescue, who cling to their own humanity in the face of the threats that you, ultimately, will fly away from… if you’re careful.
So yes, of course, read The Travel Survival Guide if you travel independently, or if your work sends you off the beaten track. However, more pertinently for us Black Gate types, also read this book if you want to lend life to your Traveller NPCs or literary supporting characters, and throw in flavourful hazards for your PCs or protagonists. It will help you go beyond stereotypes and comedy accents, and in doing so add a little moral complexity to your secondary world.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)