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Mongoose Traveller: 2300 AD

2300 AD. Colin Dunn.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
312pp, hardcover
US$49.99/UKú34.99

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net on March 28, 2012, and is reprinted here and in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.

2300 AD is often viewed as a strange offspring – somewhere between the Hard Space Opera of Traveller and Twilight: 2000 (realistic post-nuclear war military RPG), and indeed an early version of the game was called Traveller: 2300. Now, Mongoose Publishing has restructured and resurrected this classic game and has it powered by the Mongoose Traveller rules thus creating a new universe to explore. It is completely different yet similar to Traveller, in the sense that both games revolve around people not technology – but 2300 AD is grittier and more realistic technology than the Official Traveller Universe. With time, 2300 AD became an excellent game in own right. Notwithstanding, it suffered from the same weaknesses that Traveller and Twilight: 2000 were criticized for. The closing of the frontier and an all-embracing conflict that threatens to be a war against all was one of the evolutions of the original game especially when it transitioned from Traveller: 2300 to simply 2300 AD. Nonetheless, it did offer some novel innovations to the resolution of each weakness. And, then 2300 AD went into a coma to be briefly resurrected in D20 form in the controversial 2320 AD (controversial in how it dealt with some of the loose ends of the 2300 AD).

Fortunately, one thing that 2320 AD did right was set the game back to its origins, as a game of exploration and adventure among the stars. The essential premise is that 300 years after a time of great turbulence involving and including a nuclear exchange, possibly triggered by terrorists – the world has rebuilt itself under the global leadership of France. Thus, the map of the world has been completely remade by the Twilight Years but also newly established Faster Than Light Travel called the Stutterwarp. The Twilight Years rightly reinforced and gave the nation-state an added boast over the forces of transnationalization. Thusly, many national characteristics can played out an interstellar scramble for colonies, resources, and identity among the stars as well, as familiar themes such as international cooperation and traditional religion appearing again, as cornerstones of identity. However, the author is quick to give the things that differ from today’s world such as omnipresent surveillance, computer-human interfaces that one can jack into the net (somewhat duplicating the cyberpunk vibe of the original game) but at the same very different, as it explores the full meaning what it would mean if computing was as ubiquitous as electricity is today. Furthermore, Earth’s farther-flung colonies are striving towards new forms of identity, some strengthening ties with the mother country, others seeking a more independent path deciding to veer towards transhumanism, as new planetary conditions call upon colonists to adapt Human DNA to new environments.

The world that the author describes shadows the script of the original game but tweaks it, so that it is not merely a future version of the 1980s (which is what was what the original game originally resembled) nor a future version of the 2010s but a truly Hard SF milieu grounded in movies like Outlander, television shows like Outcasts and novels like Robinson’s Mars trilogy. And, I must say this is a vision that really appeals to me. As I have always played Traveller in a more hard way, any game that moves it closer to this objective immediately has my respect. It does, however, make some concessions to the softer side of Science Fiction – in the form of nanites and intelligent aliens among the stars – however, like mainstream Traveller – humans are at the top of the pyramid – notwithstanding, perhaps some Pentapod designs or the recently discovered Kaefer race. It also refocuses the game back into a game of exploration both of the frontier but also the human condition.

Much of the book is devoted to setting up this realistic and gritty future pulling in much of the original 2300 AD milieu but filtering it through different lenses. And, this is where the author must be commended for truly creating an original vision that synthesizes what now can be found in the basements of archaic collectors such as me and PDFs available through Drivethroughrpg. Sadly, the author has opted to avoid the fan-made marginalia which had many interesting sidetracks but in doing so has created his own unique stamp on the material – hopefully prompting more fan-development of this rich universe. The author is a one-person dynamo and has a long and extensive plan for materials but it would still be interesting to hear/see other voices engage the material. After the extensive history that leads to 2300 AD, we begin an exploration of select worlds of galaxy where humans have begun to call home. Remarkable, geospatial maps illustrate these worlds in a grey scale (some of the resolution unfortunately lost in the printing process) but remarkably accurate and realistic. Future supplements, are going to go further and outline these worlds in greater depths and I can hardly wait. Although, what I look forward to most is when Earth will get the same treatment, as tantalizing details are suggested but I want more – as I found that GDW’s Earth/Cyberpunk for the original game rather a concession to the popularity of Cyberpunk 2020 rather than something really thought through. And, here is hoping that the worlds of the Solar System will get similar treatment to SJG’s Transhuman Space or Eclipse Phase.

After the worlds have been describes begins the meat and potatoes of the book – the adaptation rules to Mongoose Traveller. Remarkably, easy and clear cut rules are outlined, that provide the tweaks necessary to have it fall into place and in line with the Hard SF emphasize that made the original game so good. So, if Traveller was akin to Alien with its adventurers being civilians and working class Joes just trying to turn a profit and seek in a universe that does not care, 2300 AD ups the ante and transports you into the universe that combines Aliens with Blade Runner with doses of Minority Report. And, the chargen perfectly maps onto that reality. So, it takes the basic Traveller chargen and appropriates it for its own purpose. And, that is how to characterize much of the remaining sections – taking the basic template that does serve as a workhorse and transform it into a fine stallion. Thus, the sections on ship construction or equipment become perfectly congruent with the mainstream Mongoose Traveller rules. However, as I am quite familiar with the Traveller rules the only point of departure was the section on bionics – which takes a different slant than the cybernetics sourcebook and is much richer as a result. The author has done a fabulous job in taking the isolated fragmentary nature of the Mongoose Traveller project and uniting them under the rubric of the 2300 AD. Thus, this becomes not an Alternative Traveller Universe but Yet Another Traveller Universe – something that can be sustained over the long term. For as much as Hammer’s Slammers or Babylon 5 (however short-lived that venture was) or Judge Dredd – they lacked support supplements beyond the main introduction. What Colin Dunn has done here was provide an entirely new universe to play in. And, yes, he had help, in that he could piggyback his efforts upon what GDW had done – but the difference is that upon reading this, one can see that this is an entirely fresh approach to even the 2300 AD universe.

Equipment, ships, guns have all been tailored for the lower-powered milieu of 2300 AD. The rules retain rules for spinning starships and thus preserve the element of Hard SF. Similarly, while there are fusion weapons and laser weapons, these are plausibly explained within a Hard SF way. However, it is likely just as it is with Traveller that slug throwers will dominate the human future. First and foremost, the relative cheapest will be a factor and secondly, when one realizes how deadly a firearm discharge can be in spaceship, it ought to quickly dispel any notion that slug throwers are anarchic and antique weapons only belonging in the 20th century. Similarly, equipment lists are there as jumping up points for adventurers – those things that made Traveller so great – the exploration of alien environs.

Then after lots of excellent rules, we get to the weakest section of the entire book which really has to be the strongest for me - “Tips for Game masters” essentially this is the section in which it suggests to one how to actually play in the 2300 AD universe. The range of adventurers is much greater than what is to be found in standard Traveller, notwithstanding, one is left the impression – great milieu but how does one actually do anything in that. Fortunately, the author does have a solution in the sourcebooks and adventurers that are scheduled to follow. Thus, very quickly bringing the canon up-to-date and laying the foundation for greater adventurers. And, what he has promised will go well beyond the Kaefer-French Arm conflict and the pseudo-Cyberpunk 2020 adventurers that GDW commissioned and back to the roots of the game – back to those early Challenge articles in which I fell in love with a game that I could never find in my local gaming stores, used the MegaTraveller rules to recreate and dream.

And, this perhaps, is Colin Dunn’s greatest accomplishment – he has restored the sense of wonder back into Traveller. For too long, Traveller has languished as it is seen an old person’s game – each incarnation seems to have brought it as a game of the past not of the future. Mongoose has done an admirable job at modernizing the game by introducing 2300 AD powered by their rules they have gone one step further – they have brought the game into the future.

This book shows that it was carefully edited by the author himself (and close amigos) and is truly a work of love. It does show some signs of a D20 bleed, which, is only natural as some of this was part of the 2320 AD project. However, in no way does it distract nor really change the nature of the game. The author has done an excellent job in bringing an imaginary into something entirely believable. The art that runs throughout the book ranges from very good to excellent. The excellent pieces resemble the art found in the main Traveller rulebook (sans the silly chargen pictures) and the very good pieces approximate those found in the Central Supply Catalogue. I can only hope that the author has the energy to continue this standard – as it far surpasses much of Mongoose’s other offerings of late. The cover as can be seen is absolutely gorgeous...and clearly, Mongoose has excellent cover artists for Traveller – as future and past releases show. And, 2300 AD shows that they are getting the insides right. I understand, why, there is relatively little art expands the page count which then expands the number of pages which then increases the cost of the book. But, one still wishes that there were more art or if it could go the route of colour.

So, we come to the conclusion, is this game worth your gaming dollar. Absolutely and without question, this is the best release of Mongoose since the main Traveller rules – it is a complete and self-contained universe that one can expand on their own or buy supplements for. I am so impressed with this endeavour that I can hardly wait to see more in this line. Colin Dunn has not only restored Traveller as the King of all SFRPGs but also improved the brand name of Traveller. Although, Mongoose certainly deserves some credit for first and foremost employing him and secondly taking a risk by actually resurrecting this fine old game.

Traveller works because of the basic simplicity that Marc W. Miller chanced upon back in 1977 – many people may be seduced by rocket ships or strange alien vistas or even life not as we know it – but the only stories that matter are the eternal human stories – the myths that carry on in our stories from the dawn of time. And, within those stories the setting is important but must remain fluid and ever changing. And, yes, sometimes, Traveller has stagnated but in each and every incarnation – Traveller resounds with the human story with all its fantastic successes (be they technological or social) as well as the pitfalls of human failure (greed, avarice, or simple facts that humanity is constructed from crooked timber). Those stories that make Traveller great are the stories that make ordinary people transcend those limitations and become heroes. Thus, it is not a story of becoming something greater but to recognize the greatness lies within each and everyone one of us. And, while Traveller maybe has devastating weapons, fantastical locations, beautiful princesses/princes – the story of human triumph remains the same.