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After-Action Report: TravCon 12

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller. The Handouts and Miniatures section was not part of the original article in the downloadable PDFs.

Sheer terror?

Embarrassed delight?

Flabbergasted surprise?

No, these weren’t some of the reactions of the PCs at the British Isles Traveller Support annual TravCon. These were just some of the emotions that coursed through me as I attended my fourth convention as a player and my very first as a referee.

I wrote last year, in wrapping up a report on TravCon11 (Freelance Traveller, #20, August 2011 and the web page), that I had been inspired to dream of running a game. I even dumped the outline of it on TH as we both travelled down to London on the way home. His enthusiastic reception convinced me there might be an interest and the following day I sat and wrote 7000 words of notes.

Of course, I then proceeded to do nothing with it for virtually the rest of the year until, at the end of January, I realized I’d better get writing if I was ever to be ready in time for the first weekend of March. There were characters to create, an entire stellar system to build, animal encounter tables to generate, and of course the ‘outline’ had to be turned into something usable. In particular I had to actually answer all the questions I’d posed in my uncertainty about how to proceed. I even asked my daughter if she’d like to help out by writing a journal that would be ‘found’ by the PCs and give the backstory to what they’d encountered.

What was really focussing my mind was the realization that I’d not only offered to run a game, but if I was going to go to all that effort, I might as well run it twice. Andy Lilly, BITS director and convention organizer was either desperate enough or foolhardy enough to take me up on that. So, I’d be attempting to shepherd 12 people through 8 hours of gaming – which no doubt many readers would eat for breakfast.

My fear stemmed from the fact that I had not only not refereed a game at TravCon, I’d never actually refereed a game at all excepting two one hour lunchtimes with work colleagues who’d finally persuaded me to show them what I was going on about in this “Traveller thing”, and my daughter and two French nephews for a couple of hours one evening. Neither groups had any knowledge of Traveller or even of role playing and neither experience had anyone clamouring at the door for more. Thus, I wasn’t overly confident about any hidden ability to entertain. I’d settle for mediocre to average in front of real Traveller fans and aim to improve for another time. If it didn’t all go horribly wrong.

Some gain their confidence through experience; I didn’t have enough to draw on, so it could only be through preparation. By now my adventure was called ‘Portents and Signs’ (riffing on the Mongoose magazine title – as well as a Babylon 5 episode) and nicely hinting at what it was about without giving anything away. I lived and breathed the creation process for the best part of a month and was beginning to feel I’d really visited the world I was constructing. But some 74 pages of maps, deckplans, tables and 35,000 words of text later, I did at least feel I had something. What, I wasn’t too sure. Would it have enough of a climax? Would it be interesting to players? Could I answer all their questions? Would it even last a couple of hours, much less four?

On the Saturday before, even my daughter started writing – I’d told her Wednesday was the deadline if I was to print and bind the journal as a handout on Thursday before travelling on Friday. Like a typical student she’d left it to the last minute, but on Wednesday evening she dutifully handed over nearly 10,000 words. Handwritten. I was suitably impressed by her output but then of course had to sit down and type it all as accurately as possible. Never again in so little time! However, as I typed, I found myself genuinely moved by what she’d written based on a page and a half outline of what was required. She had really taken the brief and run with it.

Fearing train delays, I arrived early – Friday afternoon – at Redwings Lodge on the old Great North Road about an hour north of London. That made a change as it meant I missed travelling in rush hour and also arrived in time to help Andy and other early arrivals to set up. Chairs needed arranging, stock for sale needed laying out, Andy’s command centre needed sorting. To be honest, if at that moment, I’d been told there were too many games or too few players, I’d have happily pulled the plug on running my game at all.

But no, the schedule was on the board and there was Portents and Signs. Friday 8pm and Saturday 2pm. Worse than that, when the signup sheets for the first session – the usual four games in parallel in three rooms – were put on the board, people were signing up for it. TH was the first – as good as his word, he’d said he’d be interested in playing it and I was delighted he’d have the opportunity to see how it had turned out. The story centred on the crew of a Donosev scout ship surveying an unexplored system on the fringes of an Imperium. Eventually, in a small tech level 0 village, they discover the descendants of a misJumped school trip which was never rescued after it went missing a hundred years before. The villagers still use sign language to communicate as the original castaways were all profoundly and incurably deaf. Unfortunately, the magnetic field of a Brown Dwarf a couple of orbits away is collapsing which will seriously endanger life with x-ray flares. Can the PCs interact with the culture and can they (should they?) rescue the descendants?

A meal next door at the Spiceland curry house beckoned as the rest of the attendees arrived in dribs and drabs and then it was all too soon 8pm and time for the Convention to formally get underway. Seven of us retired to TAS Lounge Gamma (nicely out of the way in case of disastrous embarrassment) and launched into Portents and Signs. Yes, there were questions I couldn’t answer – but other players always came up with good responses (I should have made better notes of these); yes, there were moments I feared it would all go horribly wrong – the moonlet that we all discovered orbited at 2% of the speed of the light was great fun. (I knew it was quick but hadn’t done the math!); there were even moments I thought we’d never get to the key part of the adventure as quite a lot of time was spent examining the stellar data and exploring (and brewing alcohol on) an uninhabited world; but sometime after midnight we’d reached a satisfactory conclusion.

What I absolutely hadn’t expected was the more than positive reaction the game seemed to generate. I was quite taken aback. The praise for my daughter’s journal handout, made all the stress over that worthwhile. Indeed, from the moment it was found it was never out of someone’s hands. The one complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to read it all! The scenario had gone down well and was later described as “very Traveller” which was a delight to hear. The snag now was that as word got about, expectations were high for the Saturday game which, with a completely different set of players, might have been a completely different experience. Fortunately, it seemed to go as well the second time around. Indeed, the pacing seemed nigh on perfect throughout and we finished right on time. This time the PCs had spent less time with the stellar data, but more time on the key world and interacting with the villagers. There was a particularly memorable moment as Steve E and Tony H, naked and armed with nothing but a stick, faced down a vicious and rather quick pride of pouncer carnivores.

Meanwhile, despite refereeing two slots, there were still three opportunities to play. Firstly, on Saturday morning, in Dom Mooney’s take on the Challenge MegaTraveller adventure by Dennis Myers, ‘Snowblind’. This saw the PCs saving a ship from pirates, rewarded with a TL15 Far Trader if they could deliver their patron to a world across the subsector, and finally uncovering a secret Solomani base. While the high tech ship was nice enough, I was personally more delighted to be awarded a knighthood in the Order of the Blue Feather and find I was off to receive it from Margaret herself at the finale!

Following another curry for those who couldn’t resist, or takeaway Chinese for those who could, Saturday evening saw Derrick Jones running his first game at TravCon. This one was called ‘I’m Not a Celebrity’ and those who’d played with Derrick before had a feeling this would be full of fun and good humor and indeed his scenario, unsurprisingly given the title, was inspired by reality tv shows such as Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity… and even, for those of a certain age in the UK, The Adventure Game. (Anyone else remember the aspidistra overlord?!). From the genius idea of an Automated Packet Switched Low Berth Network, through the uncertain start of finding ourselves ‘on show’ for others’ entertainment, to the finale of a game of Stratagem (a sort of truncated chess in a vast arena), we were kept guessing and mentally stretched throughout. Definitely a scenario that might have been published in an April issue of Challenge, say, but great fun nonetheless and the change of pace was very welcome after an exhausting day.

For those who had energy – or just couldn’t bear to miss out on the fun – there was a late night game of MagBlast in the bar. I understand this was one of the longest games ever and eventually Derrick Jones won – retaining his inglourious title from the year before.

On Sunday, there was the final ‘six-hour slot’, and for this, in what must almost be a tradition now, I was privileged to play in Andy Lilly’s game running ‘Trading Places’ written by his wife Sarah. This was a great look at the trouble you can get into rescuing a minor noble on one side of the political battle lines just before a major election. Just like ‘A Thorny Problem’ last year, there was lots of intrigue and well thought out background which made it feel as if the choices we made really would have consequences and could make a difference. Playing an unarmed medic in two serious gun fights was quite an interesting experience as well!

What I’ve failed to mention are all the other great games that were going on and that I would have loved to have played in. The classic ‘Tower Trouble’ has been run before and always intrigued me with its space elevator, but I still couldn’t fit it in; Simon Bell continued the ‘In Search of Angels’ campaign with part 7: ‘The House on the Hill’; there was a fascinating looking Droyne adventure, ‘The Oynssork’, being run by Tony Hyland; Tom Zunder ran the classic (and now Mongoose) ‘Rescue on Ruie’; and there were many others as well that were all tempting. Special mention should also go to Paul Thornbury and his stunning miniatures (see pictures Editor's note: We meant to include the pictures in the original article in the PDF, but somehow overlooked including them. We've included them below.) seen in action in ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Lock and Load!’. Also, I mustn’t forget to applaud James Firminger, Tony Hyland, and Lindsay Jackson who along with Derrick and myself were running games at TravCon for the first time. It was especially good to meet Lindsay in person for the first time as he ran the very first PBEM Traveller game I ever joined way back before the World Wide Web was invented!

Finally it was time for the Convention to end with the usual awards, the charity auction and wrap up thank yous. The biggest thanks, of course, went to Andy Lilly and his family once again for organizing another brilliant TravCon. This year the Ping… F*** It award went to Peter D for the glorious moment when he realized a fellow PC really had said to another “Are you sure you want to sacrifice his life to save yourself?” His expression was priceless. The Starburst for Extreme Heroism went to Larissa for bravely storming a redoubt with a cry of “Just do it!” Her fellow PCs were not right behind her after all. In the auction, the remains of the beer were snapped up quickly, even Derrick’s DIY handouts (two blank sheets of paper as a deliberately comical riposte to the referee who’d waaaay overprepared with a handout for everything) raised a couple of pounds for Help for Heroes, but the final shock was the last lot on offer. I’d given Andy my notes, handouts and my daughter’s journal to auction off just to save having to carry them all home. There was a rumour that someone might offer 20 (around $32) which seemed mightily generous. When, in the event, the final bid was 70 ($110) with another tenner ($16) given for the PDFs, you can safely say my jaw was on the floor. My thanks to the charitable generosity of the two final bidders quite making my year, my thanks to all twelve people who bravely took their chance on a newbie, and a huge thanks to Emma, my daughter, for her terrific work in making Portents and Signs look so good! Of course, the only snag now is how to follow that next year. But I may have caught the refereeing bug and my work colleagues now want to try out a game in the pub one evening, if not attend TravCon next year. I’d call that a Spectacular Success roll!

Lessons learned: Embrace the fear and jump right in. Preparation preparation preparation.

Handouts and Miniatures

Here are some pics of the amazing handouts and miniatures that were seen at this con.

Clockwise from top left:
  1. Handouts from Scrapyard, run by Paul Barker
  2. Leviathan, run by Paul Thornbury
  3. A scene from Lock and Load, by Paul Thornbury. The miniatures in this scene and the next are hand built.
  4. Another scene from Lock and Load. When these two pictures were taken, the players were in another room while video footage from the recon drone was relayed to them.
  5. A scene from Psionic Assault Team Zhadant-33, by Robin Firminger. One player characterized the adventure as "Apocalypse Now on an alien world ... with psionics"
  6. Handouts from Psionic Assault Team Zhadant-33. The objective was for the team - Zhodani - to infiltrate an Imperial world and link up with Ine Givar freedom fighters to destroy military targets.
  7. Handouts from Snowblind
  8. No expense was spared for the maps and miniatures of I'm Not A Celebrity.