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2300ad: Grendelssaga

2300ad: Grendelssaga. Colin Dunn
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
136pp., hardcover
US$24.99/UKú16.99

This review originally appeared on rpg.net in April 2015 and is reprinted here and in the October 2015 issue with permission.

Previously sold as separate linked PDF adventures, Grendelssaga brings these separate adventures together in one place in an impressive tour de force mini-Campaign centred on the insignificant, unexplored, largely uninhabited world of Grendel. Grendel seems inconsequential because of the lack of a viable biosphere for either humans or the aliens that populate the 2300ad setting. However, what starts with a rescue mission reveals that this world holds more promise than previously understood, which in turn unambiguously shows that hard SF can be just as riveting and dramatic as space opera.

As with all my reviews of adventures, there will be no spoilers… Grendel is not just an outpost or desolate rock; it is a site of active exploration and discovery by humans in the 24th century. And, that is the root of 2300ad: to go where no sentient has gone before – the thrilling journey of discovery of mankind among the stars. The lush garden worlds may seem to offer more in the way of intrigue and mystery – and unquestionably loads of interpersonal transactions – but it is often the isolated or abandoned locations that hold the most enigmas in Traveller (or any other RPG). That’s why one frequents that Keep on the Borderlands, not bypassing it for the more exciting locale of the capital city. It is what makes Mar del Plata more interesting than Buenos Aires (or Tbilisi versus Moscow, Glasgow than Edinburgh, Oia over Athens, etc.) – the possibility and anticipation that something new and undiscovered is just waiting to happen, where authority is thin and ordinary people can truly become heroes. Such encounters may be fleeting or temporary; nevertheless, they remain more memorable than the cacophony of bright lights and noisy streets of the capital. Both are equally important locales in any Traveller game (or other RPGs) – but adventure usually happens in the borderlands and the shadows.

Grendelssaga does offer a little of the lights and streets of a Buenos Aires (not a Rio de Janeiro or even a Miami, let alone a New York, London or Athens) in the form of a visit to Beowulf in the second adventure (assuming they survive the first part). Beowulf is a lush garden world where the nations of Earth have established a firm foothold, giving a players a bit of a reprieve before embarking back again to Grendel. This opportunity gives Referees a chance to explore the nuances of the 2300ad universe – it is both metropolitan and cosmopolitan, and also contains vast tracts of wilderness and fundamentally extraterrestrial places, each feeding a sense of wonder in a different way. Dunn has done a wonderful job in describing both locales accompanied by breathtaking yet problematic (see below) graphics. Beyond simple UWP stats, each world must have a character or history, which accounts for its development both as a Mainworld and as a Colony. And Dunn has prepared an excellent background for each world. Unsurprisingly, this represents some of the best writing to date for the 2300ad line. And what would Traveller, even 2300ad, or any other SFRPG, be without aliens and xenomorphs (more commonly known as flora, fauna and fungi (or in Traveller short form, Animals)), and this adventure has both. Threats, ambiguity, and conspiracy exist in abundance for both settings, and as the adventure unfolds there is only a partial solution to the matter revealed, giving the referee lots of room to expand the campaign (especially for referees conversant with the 2300ad milieu—there are lots of winks and nudges to other previously released products).

This perhaps leads to an obvious question: Is Mongoose producing the same quality of stuff as GDW for 2300ad, given the advances in technology and regressions in terms of economy? That is where some of the problems that I had with this product resided. The artwork is phenomenal, but Studio 2’s printing of it is rendered like a bad photocopy of a photocopy, faded and bleeding into the page rather than the sharp, clear and distinctive images that appear in the PDF. Mongoose may employ professional editors and layout staff but this adventure does not reflect that. Rather than having information clustered in appendices at the end of the book, they are clustered at the end of each adventure. Similarly, although the writing style is very strong and evocative, it does have not a cohesive core; it feels like there were several adventures sewn together written at different times. Although this ‘quilting’ of products is quite common in the RPG industry, sometimes even bringing different writers together to work on segments of the same project, good editing keeps the project on track. But one gets the impression of deadlines for publication, making this work feel like a rushed job and a solo effort (or of a very small group of people). In the days of GDW, projects were often done by small groups, or even just the Keiths – but it seems like there was a greater degree of editorial oversight that went into those products. However, with Grendelssaga, the writer and line editor are the same person. This has the result of producing a very tightly scripted line (with ample room in the sandbox for others to play), but quality and diversity is somewhat diminished from the GDW days.

Perhaps a problem inherited from the “GDW days” is the question of how to write an adventure (methodology) for Traveller or 2300ad. Much of Traveller does revolve around Marc W. Miller’s personal vision and design philosophy for RPGs, which is both sandbox and structured. In most cases, I do agree with an integration of solid, easy to play rules/simulations with fuzzier social science notions like history or politics. So, I will grant you, maybe, it is a matter of personal preference, but I do like a clear structure to adventures that I buy which allow them to be played right out of the box with minimal preparation, not so much in narrative, but layout. For Traveller, it came together with DGP’s nugget format; for D&D, it is the purple prose box. These days, gamemasters do not have time to wade through realms of data to construct encounters. It is sad, but nevertheless a fact. Furthermore, newer players can easily become lost in the reams of data before getting to the crux of the encounter. Grendelssaga reads much more like a sourcebook than an adventure.

I do not know if Mongoose (or Mongoose writers) feel hostage to a particular style of writing adventures, but, guys – this methodology is not working. It is common knowledge that adventures are the least sold component of any game system because they are only bought by one member of the group – the Gamemaster – hence the popularity of their format in PDF which makes visual aids readily available. On the other hand, PDFs do not bring people in the game, quality sourcebooks do. Therefore, I implore Mongoose to seriously look into the quality side of their Traveller products – this has the possibility of being fantastic product, if tender, loving, care would be applied to its editing and layout. It is often said that anyone who holds a Traveller license is like the Golden Goose – for Traveller players are devoted because of the unfolding story that is told in their products. Then again, the market has become much more crowded and sparse, and The Grand Old Game has to compete against many games with narrativist arcs built-in.

I fear that Mongoose may treading water or existing in a holding pattern around GDW legacies. That is not to say that this product is not original and fantastic in its own right—but the lack of editing and solid art make it uncompetitive in a shrinking marketplace**.

This is a very, very good adventure, and, if referees have the time to make the notes and preparation for it, it can become a truly excellent and memorable adventure. It has all the right elements to make something truly wonderful. Nevertheless, it comes back to the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – no effort should be spared to make it just right. Which for Mongoose means tightening up the writing and most especially the art.

Art does cost a lot of money – both in terms of engaging the artist to get “buy-in” and to have a “consistent” look. Mongoose has done a fantastic job with their covers; interior artwork often leaves much to be desired. The marketplace has moved to full colour and detailed black and white drawings – one does not need a budget like Hasbro, as Pelgrane Press shows. Just thoughtful and good editing, as Chaosium shows in the seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu, and good solid writing as Arc Dream shows. Furthermore, I do get the feeling that Mongoose is increasingly viewing RPGs as a dying art form, it may well be in the former heartland of the United States – but in all my travels in Europe, Latin America, Asia show there is a huge resurgence of interest in RPGs. Not to mention, a younger generation of players just waiting to come onboard with RPGs. And, this younger generation is one that has grown up with MMORPGs – how are the publishers of legacy lines bringing that younger audience whether we talk about demographically or geographically. So, I am not certain that Mongoose is wise in sacrificing quality for quantity at this particular moment in time.

For me the answer lies in improving aesthetic look of a particular product. A picture does tell a thousand worlds. Traveller, even in its 2300ad incarnation, was part of that story. The frontiers of exploration and the creative energies of excitement that went into Traveller was coupled with the Space Race and Star Wars, and it is important to get writers and artists on board to recreate that same sense of wonder. The entire canon of Traveller now resides on PDF – the task for Mongoose is to really transform what a bunch of wargamers did in the mid-1970s into a completely new, yet, familiar product.

I believe the original GDW did this very well with MegaTraveller and Traveller: The New Era – even though they lost the core Golden Age SF fans, they tapped into a rich vein of popular culture which had taken a turn to the dark and was able to siphon off some of that creative outpouring into Traveller. I do not see Mongoose doing the same. Consequently, if Grendelssaga were the beneficiary of such an investment in improving the editing and ensuring great artwork, it would be truly memorable. Now, it stands along with something that I have as a resource for the world of Grendel (not even the Star System) and an adventure that I may run once. Great adventures, like The Keep on the Borderlands or The Traveller Adventure or Walker in the Wastes become the stuff of legend and bestow a particular aura.

Make the investment, and one will always reap the benefits much later on – which is, I think, the story of Traveller. Would I recommend this product? Most certainly! Would I tell Mongoose to tighten things up? Most certainly! Otherwise, they run the risk of killing the Golden Goose. Colin Dunn is an extraordinary writer with an astonishing grasp of the 2300ad universe, and this was very clearly a labor of love, sweat and tears. It is then incumbent upon the publisher to respect that work by supporting it with better layout and editing. I know economic times are tough. However, that also means that there is glut of graphic designers and graphic artists all willing to ply their trade. And, if Mongoose needs recommendations…I know people.

**Although RPGs did go through a brief resurgence in the beginnings of the 2010s, the Great Recession has taken a big bite out of disposable incomes which has included spending on RPGs. Therefore, we still represent a small niche of the hobby market. And, it becomes incumbent upon publishers of long tail products/lines to maintain a high quality product lest consumer abandon the line altogether. The problem with Traveller5 is that it is a behemoth of a product, and structured as an RPG toolbox rather than a game. The market does not need a toolbox. It needs a city to be built and populated. Traveller has had many incarnations of toolboxes – but every dedicated Traveller player will tell you what keeps them buying is the rich tapestry of history that takes the player/referee on a journey from a time before the first hominids to the Heat Death of the Universe.

I do believe Mongoose is attempting this with other parts of the Traveller line – namely the Alien sourcebooks and anticipated full-colour Third Imperium sourcebook. However, as D&D shows, you have to pay attention to aesthetics, or risk losing further market share.