The T4 JTAS Short Fiction
Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society.
Original Publication: 1996-1997
Current Availability: eBook (via FarFuture Enterprises T4 CD-ROM)
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in November of 2009, and is reprinted here and in the February 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Besides one novel, Imperium Games also published a handful of Traveller short stories during their short period of existence.
This sixteenth review covers the short stories that appeared while Imperium Games was briefly in the Traveller publishing business.
An Overview of the Magazine
When Imperium Games started putting out Marc Miller’s Traveller (T4), they also revived the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society (JTAS), the long-time house organ for the gaming system. Given the problems of Imperium it shouldn’t be a surprise that the revived JTAS only lasted two issues, and that it was as uneven as the rest of that product line.
Despite that, it’s of interest to this review series because of some of its contents. Under Imperium, Traveller was being treated as a multimedia property, and thus each of those two issues also included two short pieces of fiction—all four of which are reviewed here.
“Warden of the Everlasting Flame”, Peter Schweighofer (JTAS #25). This is the story of Cwmir, the only survivor of a disaster which destroyed his world. When newcomers from Imperium corporations descend upon his planet, he tries to warn them of the terrible weapons which still dwell below.
It’s a well-told story, and one that I think is well suited for the exploratory ideas of Milieu 0. My only real complaint is that there’s not enough detail to see where and when the story actually does happen within the Imperium.
There’s not a huge amount of heft to this piece, as it’s just 3 pages long, but as a short story with a single thrust, it works well. I give it a “4” for Style and a “3” for Substance.
Applicability. This story offers up ideas about the dangers that explorers might face in either a Milieu 0 setting or a New Era setting, when planets are being newly discovered. Beyond that, it can remind a GM of the power and place that megacorps hold in Traveller’s universe. Overall, the main applicability of “Warden of the Everlasting Flame” is as a thematic piece which can help get you in a Traveller mood.
“Free Trader Beowulf”, Don Perrin (JTAS #25). Perrin uses the iconic distress call of Traveller (“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone ... Mayday, Mayday …”) as the basis of his story, where a Patrol Cruiser comes to Beowulf’s aid. Unfortunately, the result is a bit awkward and doesn’t have a lot of depth.
I was quite surprised how stilted Perrin’s language is at times, given that he’d already written a handful of novels by the time of this story’s publication. The problem is at its worst in his dialogue, such as the following:
“The registry has been tampered with. Unbeknownst to whomever edited the registry, there are certain check sums built into the coding. They did not check out.”
The story itself is OK, as the Intrepid tries to figure out what’s going on with this distress signal. However, there wasn’t much meat to it, and thus I doubt I’ll look it up again. As a result, I’ve only given this piece a “2” for Style and a “3” for Substance.
Applicability. “Free Trader Beowulf” is the first story I’ve read that actually is set in the Milieu 0 setting. It even hints some at the politics of the time period, meaning that the setting is more than skin deep—though there’s only so much you can put into a four-page short story. Beyond that, the whole investigation of the Beowulf could give a GM ideas for running a similar scenario of their own—when players pick up a distress signal in space (though I think that the plot as presented here descends into anti-climax by the end of the story).
“Hidden Cost”, Michael Siverling (JTAS #26). This story is another short offering in a definitive Milieu 0 setting—as is evidenced by the fact that it all takes place in the Sylea Highport. A merchant captain who regularly walks a fine line with regard to the law offers to take a passenger off planet for a large fee, with no questions asked. When he gets shot, he starts to realize that he’s taken on a contract with a higher cost than anticipated.
This story is well told, other than a couple of jarring metaphors that made me cringe (“a 10,000 joule smile that should have melted hullmetal”). I also liked that it highlighted several aspects of the Traveller universe, including the nobility and megacorps. Unfortunately, much like the previous stories, it’s so short that it can’t offer much meat. I’ve given it a high “3” for Style and a high “3” for Substance; it’s slightly above average in both aspects.
Applicability. This story could be useful in much the same way as “Free Trader Beowulf”. It highlights some of the schisms in the Imperial power structures and also offers a story that could be directly adapted as an adventure. It also includes T4 stats for the main characters.
“Herlitian Dreams”, J. Robert King (JTAS #26). On the gas giant Herlitor, a team of doctors tries to find out what has gone wrong among the genetically engineered laborers who are working for the Imperium mining liquid hydrogen.
This is a well-written story that has a very good scientific basis—probably better than any other Traveller story that I’ve read to date. It offers up lots of interesting details of what it might really mean to work—really work—in a gas giant. Unfortunately, it also gets most of the Traveller background wrong, as I’ll discuss in a minute. Overall it earns a Style of “4”; its Substance would also be “4” if it were a generic science-fiction story, but its mangling of the Traveller background instead pushes that down to a “2”.
Applicability. As with Gateway to the Stars’ author, Pierce Askegren, J. Robert King seems to largely be a gun for hire—though his writing has almost exclusively been for TSR and Wizards of the Coast. I suspect that Imperium Games brought him in to offer up some better quality writing, and the results were unfortunately just as bad as Askegren’s, because of the same lack of understanding of the Traveller universe. OK, not just as bad, because King seems to be a very capable writer, whereas Askegren was more mediocre.
When you begin your story with the premise that the Imperium needs to undertake extensive genetic engineering programs as well as the production of “plasma ships” (which are filled with a breathable viscous liquid), you know things aren’t going well. That’d be because ships in the Traveller Universe having fuel scoops that let them skim hydrogen off a gas giant. Beyond that the scientific advances felt pretty un-Traveller (generally being too modern). Finally, I was really thrown when they started bring up all sorts of stuff regarding Earth, given that the T4 Milieu 0 was centered several sectors away.
Maybe this story was all intended to be set in some other Milieu. Somewhere in the distant, distant past of the Imperium it might have made sense, and I would have quite liked it if it were positioned as a historical piece. Lacking that, as with Gateway to the Stars, I have to say don’t read this story, lest you give yourself incorrect ideas about the science of the Traveller universe.
Summary Thoughts on the Stories
The short fiction in the Imperium Games version of JTAS was certainly better than the short fiction of Traveller Chronicle, but perhaps that’s not saying much. It was interesting to see a bit of Milieu 0, but only two of the four stories were definitively set in that time period—and unfortunately it was the best two that were more ungrounded. The end result of all of this was stories that, on average, were technically good but very forgettable.
I’ve given The Imperium JTAS fiction Style and Substance ratings of “3” out of “5” as a result.
Though I've had JTAS #25 for years, I picked JTAS #26 up a few months ago for a few bucks on eBay. I expect you can get both of them for that price with some patience.
However, I don’t think they’re particularly worthwhile for the fiction and none of the rest of the material particularly stands out to me—though there are some long adventures in both issues.
Editor’s Note: Both issues of the Imperium Games JTAS are available from FarFuture Enterprises as part of the T4 CD-ROM.
The revived Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society published better fiction than its predecessor, Traveller Chronicle, but the results aren't either memorable or important enough to spend much time searching for.