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Outer Veil

Outer Veil. Omer Golan-Joel with Richard Hazlewood
Spica Publishing. http://spicapublishing.co.uk

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in December 2011, and was reprinted in the November/December 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller and here with the author’s permission.

Allow me, first and foremost, to thank one of the writers/publisher (Omer Golan-Joel of Spica Publishing) for gifting a copy of this PDF for the purposes of this review. Thank you very much.

Outer Veil is a complete Alternative Traveller Universe completely removed from the Third Imperium, but uses many of the technological assumptions that mainstream Traveller does yet at a much lower tech level. As a result, you get a wonderfully crunchy Hard SF milieu to play Traveller in.

Outer Veil takes you back to the early days of Traveller and indeed much of Science Fiction of the 1970s and early 1980s where worlds were unknown dangers and one could not simply engage the warp drive and just run away. If danger and adventure need to be confronted, it must be done so on the spot without communication with any centralized authority. Because it is also at a lower tech level than mainstream Traveller, it retains the “shotguns in Space” feel of early Traveller. Also, while there are nods to the Space Opera genre such as the retention of Jump Drive (though the Tech Level essentially limits you to J-1) and gravitics, many of the Space Opera tropes are more plot devices than common technology. The whole feel of the milieu is that of gritty Hard SF. Worlds are not nice places with white picket fences and manicured gardens but dirty, hostile, balls of rock orbiting realistic stars. There is alien life but no sentient aliens, though it is clear from numerous alien ruins found on different planets that “We Are Not Alone”—but the nature of those aliens is a mystery and provides a great enigma. Careers are not soft and comfortable save in the Core Worlds (though then one has to fend through a serpent’s pit of politics) but rugged individuals who must cooperate or perish, as support is virtually non-existent thus allowing for great individual initiative. There is lots of room for traditional cultures to exist among the stars (albeit taking on new forms as they adapt to alien worlds) but also room for new cultures based upon rigors and tests that confront societies on the frontier. But make no mistake, this is not a Space Western dressed up differently; it is refinement of the best Science Fiction writings of the likes of Jack McDevitt or Alistair Reynolds with a dash of Outcasts or Earth 2 thrown in.

The supplement unfolds organically with an extensive and believable history; particulars are deliberately left vague lest it fall into the trap of not reaching benchmark x in year y. Essentially, what is important that a breakthrough has occurred and the world of 2159ad is recognizable but also radically different than our own time. Earth’s Solar System has long become a settled region where Space travel is commonplace; outside of the Solar System, the frontier more or less begins; and beyond that lies the Outer Veil (the true frontier). Players may start in the frontier or the core worlds: both are areas ripe with adventuring possibilities. Corporations and the private sector do most of the legwork for the exploration of space due to the possibility of unlimited resources to exploit thus giving very Alien feel to the milieu. This is not to say that there is not a central government of sorts—there is, in the form of Federated Nations of Humanity, as a sort of coordinated global mechanism that allows for enough things to get done and provide the bare minimum and then rely upon the private sector or philanthropic organizations to fill in the rest. What is nice is that the Core worlds are not high tech marvels where every want is sated but rather polluted, foul, dingy places where the frontier has real appeal (here I am reminded of Blade Runner). All-in-all, very believable and the writing in this section is superb and really shows that the author spent a lot of time to make it all internal consistent and coherent. The frontier is populated by very small populations—essentially start-up colonies—that can be prey or home to raiders, separatists, or worse dangers. They range from prefab structures to small arcologies in a hostile environment—even if relatively Earth-like (reminding you that you ain’t in Kansas anymore).

Next comes a section on character creation and the recommended rule variations from the basic Traveller chargen to make characters more compatible with the Outer Veil milieu. The supplement also uses the Careers found in the Career Books put out by Spica Publishing which highlight some of the other careers that may not be found in the standard rules, thus, giving a richer texture to the choices that players may be. That said, there is a truncation of careers available for players to choose to reflect the smaller universe—which is good, but might have the reader ask about certain things. For instance, I was struck by the lack of robots, but then thinking of the overall milieu, robots (other than in the form of robotic assistance) really don’t fit in. This is Hard SF at its best. Similarly, those accustomed to Space Opera games where players represent the best of the best might be disappointed. This takes Traveller back to its roots of ordinary people doing ordinary jobs that suddenly get called upon to do the extraordinary. Bravery, courage and honour as exemplary traits and turning a profit are all necessary.

Following is discussion of the thirteen starships (complete with deck plans) that are the workhorses of the milieu. Initially, this section needs more of a transition from the rest of the text; it takes a while to recognize how to play these starships—not as “push the button and go” starships, but as haulers and carriers of goods, services, and the military. Because of their truncated range, one is very quickly on the frontier and on your own thus requiring things like Cold Berths. This very much goes back to the old Classic Traveller of tramp traders doing most of the work; it’s very much a small ship universe—which is good, as it makes the scale and magnitude of the frontier that much more believable. Related somewhat to the discussion of starships are the methods of belting (or recovery of value from rocks) most of the time rather than settling for manufactured goods (as the trade rules in regular Traveller are biased toward); in the Outer Veil, players are hauling raw materials and semi-finished goods. Very good rules are to be found here.

That discussion leads to a section entitled Astrography. This is a section that tells you of some of the worlds of this milieu, as they exist in 2159. The emphasis (as the astute reader will notice) is on ‘some’. Most worlds remain unexplored or marginally explored. Some systems may not even possess worlds. All of this done with the aim of creating realistic worlds that has adventure built in. The recent invention of Jump-2 (only 13 years ago) means that the possibility for change in these worlds will come about slowly but dramatically, akin to the way the introduction of the railroad in the American West or Russian East changed the social geography. Plenty of places will not be fully connected but change will happen nonetheless. In spite of the relatively slow speed of change, it shows how the geography presents the real essence of the frontier—there is lots of room on the map where ‘dragons’ may reside and civilization exists on a very thin tether or completely on its own. Great detail is paid to make these worlds’ realistic, even adding extensions to the UWP that I wish other Traveller products would have.

Then we get to the ‘Secret’ Sections or, at least, guarded sections: Referee’s Information. This is the section reserved for Game Masters that explain some of the major themes that run through Outer Veil and suggestions on how to run them and some things about the setting that are hinted at, along with sample Patrons (employers) and an adventure. As more products come out in this line, hopefully we will see more things developed for Referees exclusively, as what is suggested here is not going to ‘spoil’ things for the players (save the adventure). So those hunting for spoilers will have to wait. As a result, this section feels somewhat incomplete compared to the rich detail of the rest of the supplement. However, it is enough for any Referee worth their salt to take up the themes and start immediately in crafting adventures.

What was bad about this product? Not very much, save, it was a PDF and—being bereft of an eBook reader—a chore to read. Sometimes, you got the feeling that you wanted more detail than what was presented in the text, and then you realize that feeling of wanting more is more a reflection of the excellent writing. It is engaging the reader, not spoon-feeding him/her, encouraging the reader to look for more depth. It would have been nice had there been a list of resources that inspired the author at the back of the text (I have already suggested SF of the 1970s and Hard SF), but those things could possibly be found on the net with ease (http://www.hardsf.org/index.htm is a great place to get seeds). Also, it is not dated only in the 1970s, no more than Traveller is lodged in the SF of the 1950s. It just has the right level of grit sullying the chrome. That said, perhaps some more bells and whistles need to be added should it go dead tree/hard copy.

The art is computer art generated by Poser or similar program. Generally, this type of art annoys me but here it worked wonderfully, perhaps because it not overstated. As one can tell, the writing is marvelous in that it is crisp, well written, and engaging. I found myself wanting more and more – so I hope Spica Publishing is planning further support for this milieu. And, if they issue a revised (as I said, a little more bells and whistles) edition coming out in dead tree – I want it to be part of my precious Traveller collection.

This is an excellent product and deserves further support by Traveller fans who do not want to use the kind of soft Space Opera premise that sometimes exists in Traveller; it is clearly an Alternate Traveller Universe but still has some fuzzy feel-good things. This is a lower tech alternative that is more grounded in Hard SF (and in many ways like the early days of Traveller before the Imperial Campaign…before the Dark Times…wait a minute; I like the OTU), so players and referees looking for the ’hard and gritty’ should certainly check this out. Conceivably, if one wants to mix and match the OTU with this ATU (as I have done), it can be done, but only with rewriting a good portion of Traveller history. The result will be satisfying, as Outer Veil does provide sufficient flexibility and areas where the dragons (or Vilani) may be hiding beyond the Outer Veil. However, I would encourage long time Traveller players to set aside the OTU for a few sessions to explore this fascinating milieu – it has many things that we hold dear about Traveller yet incorporates the new Hard SF conventions that some of us crave.