This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.
Clement Sector. John Watts and Matt Adams
Gypsy Knights Games http://www.gypsyknightsgames.com
One of the first Traveller products that I could examine was GDW’s new Atlas of the Imperium, which featured a beautifully rendered starship on its cover and pages filled with countless dots. I had seen the FASA boxed sets of deck plans with their wonderful Keith illustrations but AotI sunk the Traveller ship, as I could not understand how could they make a product so boring and not living up to the product name – Imperium. Sure, I wanted something like the World of Greyhawk, a sandbox with lots of juicy bits thrown in for good measure. So, GDW lost my support for another year and I continued to play AD&D, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, etc. – Traveller, I had decided, was lame.
Fortunately, Gypsy Knights Games has decided not to follow GDW’s bad example: Their campaign notebook, Clement Sector, does right everything that GDW did wrong with that initial encounter with their milieu. As a quilt of worlds, subsectors and adventure plots, GKG has managed to assemble some coherence into their Alternative Traveller Universe (ATU) and rebrand it into the Clement Sector, forming a primary document in which everything from the sandbox can be created. The book is a distillation of the work that has been scattered throughout its different products and improves upon them thus giving firm muscles to the workhouse of their ATU.
The product provides an overview of the history, keeping our near future vague and mercurial and distant. So, far, so good; there is nothing worse than reaching the “date” in a game and realize that the world did not come to an end or the aliens that are among us – do not represent our most repressed sexual perversions but maybe something all together different. The backstory plays nicely into the milieu – essentially the re-emergence of nationalism with national and corporate exploration of the Solar System after a series of crises. I still do question the fact that if Germany does come out on top in this struggle for hegemony, why are there not more German institutions in the ATU? Similarly, it does help Americans relate to the ATU as one of the other major powers is the United States – though other powers are present. Traveller has often been criticized as: “Yanks in Space”, and, yes, there is great diversity within the United States – but there are core things that are simply American and often enough, many of the worlds of this ATU suffer from being shades of the American experience, rather than German or other nations that could offer similar and different experiences such as Mexico or Argentina. That is not to say that one needs to have Planet Mar del Plata, as the consummate “beach planet” but taking slices of history and geography to build better worlds.
And that is where we move to the next section. We get 34 pages of subsector maps, with scant yet tantalizing details of some of the worlds found there. Those wanting more details need to buy the different subsector guides. The most interesting concept is the worlds that have yet to be explored – a region appropriately and evocatively named ‘The Darkness’. Naturally, this is a considerable lot of sand for any Referee to construct the unknown or exploratory campaign. Thus, even if one would do a Star Trek (after all, Mongoose promises a Prime Directive for Traveller in the near future), if the wormhole can send someone to the Gamma Quadrant – why not to Clement Sector (though the Zimm Drive is no warp engine)? The whole approach to this section is just to provide the taste that later subsector supplements or the referee will fill in. A nice feature that Mongoose products have thus far neglected is stellar data. Not that it adds much – but it does add more of the flavour that could be found in the original Traveller and confers a sense of wonder, as the referee describes the rise of the binary suns on the barren moonlet where the distress call was last heard. Kudos and thanks to Gypsy Knight Games for their inclusion.
Then what follows is a large section entitled Characters. What makes the characters different in this ATU, as opposed to standard Traveller? For this is what Traveller has lacked for a long time, humans were the same humans that they were in 1977 (or the Golden Age of SF 1940s and 1950s which Traveller draws a lot of its inspiration from). Thus, there is not much room for transhumanism (though it creeps in) or cyberpunk (though it, too, creeps in) let along neo-Space Opera or neo-Hard SF in standard Traveller (yes, though it creeps in). The section on characters is there to update Traveller to an ever changing world yet remain true to some of the basic rules. Sounds impossible? It’s not. This is how Gypsy Knight Games does it.
Like MegaTraveller, it grounds players within a home planet, and as such home planets confer skills that might not be present on other worlds. A simple heuristic but establishes an identity that can be praised or derailed as homeworldism. But, as the ATU has no overarching polity for the whole sector, you get more reasons to make things more local and immediate. Traveller has often had a problem of scale, but one consistent fact will be that people in the future will be born and their surroundings will affect their characteristics/skills as much as their genetic inheritance. Then comes tweaking of the aging rules believing that superior medicine will extend life spans and consequently negate some of Traveller’s aging rules, thus, giving credence to the wise-saying that 40 is the new 20, or you are not ready for retirement when you are 60… This is true and confirmed in fact, but, it does seem like it a certain pandering to the aging Traveller community—it was fun to play a 40-year-old when one was 14 years old; it’s just as much fun to play a 20-something, now that one is 40-something. I think the original aging rules are there to keep that balance. To recreate the balance, this ATU has a skill cap of 4 which represents an interesting compromise. Another related compromise is the lack of aliens (more about that later) and uplifts. All referees have toyed with uplifts in their adventures/campaigns; it is just part and parcel of anthropomorphizing the natural world/universe. It is natural that our technology will augment our animal companions to speech but what will they say? Yes, we might yet understand how to augment their brains, bringing true sentience to them. These rules are left open, but I fear that many referees will use this as an excuse to populate worlds with furries.
Next up are some modifications to skills and career paths that represent core paths in this ATU: modification to the Naval (or Spacer) Career and the addition of a new career rooted in exploration and colonization. As many of my campaigns have revolved around exploration (damn Star Trek, again) more than trade or fighting these career paths are a welcome addition – until I can see how Starfleet shapes up. Traveller has always had Scouts but I always felt that it needed something more that would give expression to the frontier—the Scout path seemed to be too urbane and scientist too much of a bolo. Thanks, Gypsy Knight Games for providing an additional path more in line with how I see Traveller.
Next up is a large section devoted to Technology. And, because, this ATU is a much more underpowered milieu than the Third Imperium (in its glory); it provides some of the justifications for the technological tone of the milieu. That is not to say that there is no chrome (in fact, there is more chrome than 1977 Traveller) in this milieu. But, the technological curve has been rectified to account for the miniaturization and computer revolution that has taken place of technology and more importantly within Speculative Fiction. What’s more, the technological base is relatively consistent thus preserving a “Shotguns in Space” or Firefly vibe that Traveller has spread across its different worlds. A major part of any Science Fiction game is Starships; this book is no different. It does deviate from certain “classics” by introducing new workhorses that deviate somewhat from the Classic Traveller mould but not radically so, so that most grognards will simply say: “cool, more ships” and yes, they do include the deck plans. Newbies will simply adjust their Traveller Universes to populate them with these shiny starships that have a very different vibe than “tanks in space” (as my wife once called Classic Traveller starships).
Following Starships is the Travel and Starship Operations section, wherein is discussed the workings of starships. These are all the things that you wanted to know about hailing frequencies, where to get fuel (and the means to buy it) and greater evils such as piracy. Traveller has been often cited as recreating the Age of Sail, a difficult task considering we live in the Atomic/Diesel Age. And, while Traveller may have many conventions from the Age of Sail, most players can relate to the Modern Age and this chapter brings it all nicely together. As one knows, the first transnational corporations were set up as charters in the Age of Sail; in the Clement Sector this is no different. Thus, what follows is a discussion of the megacorporations that dominate the Clement Sector. They are in no way as powerful as the Third Imperium megacorps, but neither are they a force to be treated lightly. Balanced and sometimes pitted against the megacorporations are formal and informal organizations by which corporate power is curtailed in the absence of interstellar governance. These are organizations that form the basis of mutual aid. Sometimes, they are self-interested; sometimes they serve a greater good. Just like the megacorporations: they are containers or pails for the Referee to fill with sand.
Next is a section on the politics of the largest power in the sector. The Hub Federation, which has a supplement unto itself, is a nascent interstellar polity gradually expanding outward and making contact with many lost colonies. Long time Traveller players will see this parallels T4’s Milieu 0; those not familiar with T4 may still see parallels to Star Trek. Though the Hub Federation is weak, it is gradually growing and establishing itself. Time will tell how it grows and comes to dominate its neighbors.
Religion often plays a divisive role in SFRPGs. The best games, like Fading Suns, put it front and centre by postulating the advent of religion as both refuge of the oppressed and tool of the oppressor. The key to crafting this balance is never to include too much real world discussions. The problem with fictional religions is that someone is bound to find a real world analogy. Religion in Traveller has often played the role of the antagonist to the rational, scientific future, yet as BITS’ 101 Religions shows, Traveller has as many religions as it does worlds. Gypsy Knight Games maintains this equilibrium of religion being an important motivator for both good and ill and steadfastly avoids the pitfalls of calling one religion good and virtuous and another the work the dark powers. Shades of grey are what dominate. Naturally, when we go to the Stars, we might expect aliens to become the new gods (for some that already occurred). But, what happens when there are no aliens, yet… That is the discussion of a science fiction universe where there certainly are signs that we are not alone, but those fellow sentients are no longer even on the other end of the galaxy… There are no overarching god-like aliens on this side of the Darkness. What lies beyond will be revealed in future supplements. I found the approach to be highly sophisticated and reminiscent of my favourite TV Show of recent memory – Outcasts. And, this vibe is entirely consistent with Classic Traveller until someone in GDW went back to Imperium board game and started populating Traveller with aliens.
Lastly, there is an expanded discussion about the adventures that can be had in the Clement Sector. Here you find a breakdown of what types of adventures can take place, providing juices for the imagination of any referee that wonders how Mercenary adventures can be played alongside Merchant trade runs that dabble with a bit of science on the side. Every milieu book ought to have a portion devoted just to the nuts and bolts and Gypsy Knight Games has done a great job in providing lots of food for this section, so that new and old referees are able to see how Gypsy Knight Games sees the fit between the different types of campaign with the Clement Sector and the ATU as a whole.
After reading this review, you might get the impression that I am enamored with this product… and you would be partially correct. I think this is a fantastic product in doing what the Atlas of the Imperium failed to do all those many years ago. It provides a solid basis for any adventure and milieu – it is truly the organized sandbox that Traveller has been so missing in all its incarnations. That said, it is still a collection of campaign notes. There is much more work for the referee to fill in those details – for the devil does lie in the details. Gypsy Knight Games has done some of the work for the referee in its numerous offerings to date, but those who buy this believing it to be a consolidation of all Gypsy Knight Games’ efforts to date will be mistaken.
This is an excellent product to start a campaign with, but, it is not going to tell you how to run your Traveller games. That takes place around the gaming table. The art is Poser art and for the most part create a real sense of mood befitting the text. There is a slight Star Trek/Firefly vibe to all the pieces. What perhaps is missing – and the problem with much computer art – is showing people doing things. For Traveller is about action, and action taking place in many different hostile environments and computer art does not quite convey that. Of course, there are many cool renderings and there is a right balance between art and text. But, the art does not speak to the reader; the reader doesn’t say, that’s me in the picture. Similarly, the absence of purple pose means that the rules are on the dry side, giving more weight to the thought that Traveller is an outdated game of charts and tables without any narrative core. Purple prose in moderation goes a long way in conveying how an author sees their ATU – and sometimes, more than the rules themselves. For we all do learn from example, as well as doing.
So, what Gypsy Knight Games has done with this volume is taken the patches and provided the thread to knit these together to form a quilt. The invitation is to all players and referees alike to take this quilt and use it where you will. I will steal large segments but unfortunately still feel more work has to be done before I take this ATU and make it My Traveller Universe (MTU). But, indeed, that shows the resilience and strength of Gypsy Knight Games’ efforts – that this is not some generic universe but a fully realized and “realistic” one that is worthy to bear the name of Traveller. I certainly look forward to seeing how this ATU evolves and changes – as Gypsy Knight Games has provided the template for others to create their own adventures. So, my verdict: Buy this product – it is a goldmine of ideas for Traveller or any SFRPG (with some tweaking) – it builds a frontier and a human-centred universe.