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After Action Report: TravCon 15

This was the featured article in the August 2015 issue.

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For six years I’ve made my way to TravCon via bus, train, tube, tube, train, and taxi. You may even have travelled with me in previous issues wending my way north to Redwings in a journey that’s not horrendous but has its irritations – in particular London’s lack of a single hub terminus and lack of a ‘joined up’ Underground, necessitating not one but two tube journeys to get from arrival station to departure station. And despite several options that are about as good as each other in terms of time, none avoid stairs – an increasing consideration with CFS.

But this seventh year was different as fellow Traveller TH had passed his driving test. Congratulations! Drive (wheeled) 0 added to your skill set and surely it won’t be long before it increases. The practical upshot for me was that I could contribute petrol money and an extra pair of navigation eyes as well as packing a little more expansively than the minimum I might usually take. In went a couple of extra rule books I thought might be useful for the adventure I was running; in went Traveller5, which I was surprised to find quite a number of people hadn’t seen in the flesh; and in went my Firefly game – which, although not strictly Traveller, is close enough that convention organizer Andy Lilly is happy to see such things – particularly to fill in time before the convention starts or ‘after hours’ moments.

Both of us had taken Friday off work to allow plenty of time for the 3 or 4 hour drive (allowing for breaks) of 152 miles. The journey was as uneventful as one might hope for with a newly-qualified driver and a co-pilot operating auxiliary controls from air-recirculation at the Hindhead tunnel to satnav functions. Even the often-horrendous M25 cooperated.

Redwings Lodge, our regular stop on the Old Great North Road, looked as welcoming as ever and Travellers were beginning to gather in the bar and TAS Lounge Alpha where Andy was setting up his modest headquarters once again. I probably made my first mistake at this point. Instead of lying down and grabbing a sleep which would have been really useful later in the weekend, I got a game of Firefly going for those who’d not seen it. We had enough time to give a flavour of how it worked and let those who were interested see how the mechanics and the story cards work. I didn’t dare try the couple of story cards I’d come up with, but perhaps another time.

The convention format itself was the same as in recent years with five games in each of one four hour slot Friday evening, three on Saturday and one slightly longer five-plus hour slot on Sunday. The usual mix of games was on offer from miniatures-heavy to almost dice-free role playing, from bog-standard Traveller merchants through 2300ad to the first use of Dynasty I’ve seen at TravCon, from serious games to more light-hearted romps, from old favourites to completely new for the convention, and one rather different experience which I’ll come to in a moment. The schedule was as subject to change as it ever is (and the photo was taken early on in the convention!). Andy’s efforts at wrangling this into some sort of shape – despite what we referees do to it subsequently – deserves a medal of his own.

As ever, the quality of what was offered made choices really difficult. I was already down to only being able to pick three and it was nearly impossible as Robin F’s ‘Azhanti Strike!’ was back, classics such as the Sky Raiders trilogy were there, and I’ve still not managed to fit in one of the grand miniatures games that always look inviting but fill up quickly.

As ever, this report won’t be able to report in detail on everything that was going on, but some photos are placed throughout the report to give you an overview.

The games I played in were a very varied set and all excellent in their own way. First up on the Saturday night was ‘Deep Shadows’ run by Dom M. This was a clever remix of the classic double adventure ‘Shadows’ with some additions and using the characters from Mark Harrison’s The Travellers comic strip as PCs. For better or worse I ended up with Dinalt known as a space pervert and with my character write-up telling me I was lusting after Syrena. No, I tell a lie, I didn’t draw the short straw getting this character, sitting next to me Jeff did as he had to put up with what was to come. Now I’m usually one to cross the road to avoid a double entendre but keen to show willing I jumped in with both feet and twenty plus years of repression got unleashed with every bad pun and slightly off-colour line I could muster. Jeff took it in good spirit but I suspect it wasn’t only Syrena who wanted to kill Dinalt by about half way through.

Now for those who know ‘Shadows’, you’ll recall it was one of the first ever Traveller adventures ever produced and clearly showed its roots in Dungeons & Dragons style design. Indeed, one player did (good humouredly) complain when he realized it was a dungeon crawl. I was delighted, however. I’d missed the whole D&D thing at school and wanted to know what it was like. Off we went, uncovering various bits of the underground structure as we went. Syrena was doing her best to ensure she was paired up with anyone but Dinalt as we burst into the various rooms. Eventually we stumbled across a pit that contained Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style pods. In the pods were bodies and we soon discovered that they were clones of… us. (It was complicated.) Now, having been rebuffed by Syrena and being totally unused to the conventions of dungeon crawls, I thought that this might be my chance for redemption. Rescue the Syrena clone and either win the undying affection of ‘our’ Syrena, or that of the clone. Win-win! I thought. Of course everyone else was set to run for the hills as they knew perfectly well what the score was and the zombie-like clones started making short work of being terrifying and beginning to attack. Still utterly blasť my character moved in for an embrace… and while poor Dom had to face the fact that the player really hadn’t seen the writing on the wall, I was perhaps fortunate that Syrena put aside her feelings and stepped up bravely to shoot her own clone in the face. It was a great moment in the game and in the convention. Believing that stories should have redemptive arcs for characters – you see I still hadn’t quite got the hang of dungeon crawls – I then used the experience to decide that Dinalt was a changed man who might still worship Syrena but would do so politely and from a distance having learned his lesson. I think Dom, Jeff and the others were more shocked at that behaviour than the surprise of finding that I hadn’t run a mile from playing Dinalt in the first place.

Saturday morning taken care of, lunch and a break fitted in, the afternoon saw a complete change of pace as I joined Graham S and his ‘Extreme Sports’. This was unusual in being a rare example of the totally ordinary merchant trader crew getting on with life and seeing what turns up. As I’ve never been part of a regular gaming group this experience too was a novelty for me as TravCon adventures are rarely quite this straightforward. In fact so much so that I’m thinking I might try running something like this myself next year and arming myself with just the rule book, some encounter possibilities (such as Supplement 13: Starport Encounters), picking a spot on the map and seeing where we end up. Not sure I’m quite brave enough for that, yet. Graham, however, was, and with some terrific stand up character markers and gorgeous deck plans of a Kankurur-class Frontier Cruiser we were soon doing Travellerish things and eventually encountered some rather dark goings on a long way from anywhere.

I was playing a woman this time, Tara Vix with her name hinting at her attractiveness and former socialite/wastrel past. Peter D playing the only other non-male in the group was cast as Kel, a rather against-type gung-ho Aslan female. A highlight of this game was our decision to collect rumours at a local upmarket casino on a girls’ night out. We both said we’d go dressed to kill. We didn’t quite mean it in the same way however!

As ever some retired to the nearby curry house for a second evening, some stayed in and ordered take away, and I believe some may have gone further afield. But the evening saw the third game of the day and another change of pace to a much anticipated sequel to last year’s ‘Trash Prevention’. Those who read the write-up of TravCon 14 (Freelance Traveller, September 2014) may recall that this involved a gang of chirpers clearing up a city from the garbage that piles up – both literally and metaphorically.

In ‘The Chirpers Strike Back’ the SuckItUp refuse collectors were back in action this time having possibly witnessed a political assassination at the highest level. This had already run once on Saturday morning and much mirth and merriment could be heard. Once again our voices were strained as we chirped for four hours but the characters were just as fun a second time around and the plot intriguing and involving. Once again the husband-and-wife duo of Sarah writing and Andy running is not one to miss and we can only encourage them to ensure that their wonderful string of ‘TP’ adventures see the light of day in publication.

Other games going on in other slots either looked intriguing or sometimes sounded intriguing. To mention just one, ‘You’re in the Army Now’ had Pete G (right) using his military experience to put his players through a bootcamp which appeared to involve some real square bashing, boot polishing and punishment. It certainly involved a lot of shouting.

You may have spotted that I’ve missed what I was up to on Friday night and through the Sunday slot. This was the slightly different thing I mentioned. Last year I wrote about running a game in which I’d split the players into two groups and for the first half hour ran them separately until they ‘met’. (‘Three Blind Mice’, available for free from DriveThruRPG or 13Mann if you’ve missed it.) Well, that probably grew out of an idea I’d had some 18 months before TravCon 15 when it had occurred to me that it would be cool to get together with another referee and have two completely separate games which somehow ‘met’ and had the players interact. For a long time I half thought about perhaps two crime syndicates running different parts of a city or asteroid and eventually clashing, but it didn’t feel very Travelleresque and it seemed far too combative for my liking although I’m sure it would have worked.

While still having not decided back in October what I might run at this year’s TravCon I happened to be rereading Rob Grant’s ‘Colony’ and the first light that went on in my head was that I should run an adventure on a generation ship. The second thought that came to me was that this was the ideal moment for Supplement 12: Dynasty to allow different periods of the generation ship to be experienced; and the third thought was that this was also the perfect opportunity to have two lots of players meet: one group on the ship and one group finding the ship. I tried the idea on a couple of referees but they were busy with ideas of their own, or weren’t keen on a collaboration, or feared that the idea would never work due to complexity, or didn’t have time, or all four. I was a bit knocked back as I was convinced it would be a fun idea and I’d never seen or heard of it done in all the years of TravCon. However, I knew one more referee I thought I might ask despite it now being only a month before the convention. Perhaps I could sell it as ‘I’ve got an idea for an adventure if you’ve not written one yet’. Enter Steve E whose meaty role playing I’ve enjoyed in the past, first as a lowly naval lieutenant pregnant with Norris’ child, then as Strephon, Emperor of the Third Imperium! Steve had some concerns and outlined things which would be problems, things that could be problems, and one or two other pitfalls to avoid. But in a moment of extreme bravery he agreed to give it a go if we addressed the concerns. I sent him an outline of what was needed and what I was doing and in two or three lengthy phone calls we thrashed out the details and foreseeable problems together with their solutions and alternatives. While I’d written a ridiculous amount of material for my own side, I can safely say his advice and experience made the whole thing a sane proposition rather than a half-baked, hare-brained idea!

We’d arranged with Andy to be given two adventures in the same time slot and wrote teasers that were sufficiently attractive without giving the game away or looking too closely connected. And once again, having gone to some effort, I thought we might as well run the whole thing twice even if we couldn’t possibly keep the secret for the second run.

My side was called ‘Generation X’ and was not only experimental in terms of the meeting, it was also experimental in using Dynasty at least as a basis if not fully implemented. My thought was to have the launch generation – well outside normal Known Space – making decisions about the ship, its layout, its crew and its organization; a tenth generation facing various problems 300 years on; and a final generation hundreds of years later still which had ‘regressed’ in knowledge. This is very traditional in many generation starship stories so I wasn’t surprised at one player guessing that might be the way they were headed. The games would meet during this ‘final’ generation.

Steve’s side of the equation was called ‘Rendezvous with Karma’ and involved a disparate group of merchants and scientists from the Imperium and elsewhere all with their own agendas which is usual in his games. They were on the trail of rumours about a strange vessel on the edge of Known Space and eventually managed to locate and catch up with what turns out to be a generation starship. Naturally they’d want to board; naturally my regressed crew would be a tad taken aback to have strangers enter their universe through a cupboard (airlock) they thought led nowhere… Let the interaction begin…

Steve and I had carefully set up quite a detailed timeline of certain marks to hit at certain times. The idea being to keep me on track particularly (his refereeing style is looser and more flexible) but also to ensure we had enough time for a final hour of our two groups of players inhabiting the same game space. We had no idea of how it would go, we had no idea of how the players would receive it, we had no idea if it would really work at all. It was another fearful moment, but Steve’s confidence and experience was reassuring. In the event, I have to say my expectations were wildly exceeded.

I had my six players standing in a tribal ‘conference’ (traditional to keep the pow-wows short). Steve had suggested a short break as his players’ characters opened the relevant airlock and suggested peering over our shoulders to see what we were doing. At the right moment I told my players that some strange creatures had entered their meeting space (a large cargo airlock with a side personnel lock) and here they were – as I gestured at the other group.

The looks on everyone’s faces were worth the work, the stress, the fear. One player kept addressing me to say what his character needed to say to supposed NPCs, one was repeatedly muttering “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it” and all were flabbergasted. It really was a priceless moment which I wish I could have bottled. But of course, it was only a moment and everyone soon took it in their stride and the whole set up had engaged players enough that Steve and I could almost sit back and let the remainder of the game run its course. The generation ship was just a few years from running out of water and had other problems as well. The Imperials in addition had certain goals they needed to achieve in a limited time frame. On the Friday night the planned hour turned into nearly two as the players threw themselves into it and the characters thrashed out what was necessary on both sides. On the Sunday, in-character role playing continued right through the lunch break as players were so into the experience. The ‘primitives’ of the ship stayed wonderfully in character and I didn’t find anyone using their metaknowledge of what was going on to abuse the situation. (Their deck plans had degenerated as well to just what they knew as TL0 inhabitants of a world they don’t even know is travelling in space.) I should acknowledge a debt to Chris Beckett’s wonderful wonderful Dark Eden which provided a lot of inspiration regarding language usage which helped with the role playing. There were some wonderful moments as a snooker cue stood in for a ‘speakstick’ to control who was talking; as Imperials tried to explain the reality of the universe, or as the primitives told the new arrivals a thing or two in their own terms and you could watch the hi-tech players slowly working out what they must ‘really’ mean.

What was even better was that in a debrief well after hours on Friday night we asked that no one talk about it, difficult though that was, so we were able to run it again on Sunday with just the same surprise. (Although one player opted to play again and experience it from the ‘other side’ he brilliantly kept the secret to himself.) My recollections above are almost certainly an elision of both games as they’re hard to pick apart.

Yes, there were problems, many of Steve’s predictions were spot on but we had responses and headed them off at the pass where we could. Yes, I fouled up the first time in providing a crucial bit of information a little late which didn’t help one side. Yes, there was a lot of stress in attempting this kind of thing – in particular relating to the timekeeping which was spot on in one game and not too far off in the other. And yes, there was the frustration that a couple of players struggled with some aspects of the game (one with the Dynasty side of things and one with the balance of power in the end game) for which I can only apologize. But was it worth doing? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Possibly. Not immediately, but if an idea presented itself that would work well in this format, I’d certainly consider it. Would I recommend it for other conventions? Definitely – especially if it would be unusual and could be kept a surprise. Although I’m half thinking it might be fun to see if we could get all five adventures in one time slot inter-related – perhaps from the outset! No, just kidding Andy. The stress would kill me.

It only remained after the Sunday slot to have the usual wrap up, auction and awards. The auction sold off the remainder of Derrick J’s much loved Traveller ale and Dom M snaffled up my huge wad of adventure notes that are nearer a complete sourcebook for generation ships and the start of a bibliography of such stories in science fiction generally and Traveller specifically. I was thoroughly embarrassed to win the PFI award for the second year running thanks to my stupidity in Dinalt’s attempt to kiss Syrena’s dark clone; but that was immediately redeemed when my nomination of Steve E for his bravery in taking on such a hare-brained scheme won him the Starburst for Extreme Heroism! Much deserved.

Our thanks as ever to the Lilly family for putting on another great convention. My thanks to TH for driving there and back which really reduced the stress of travelling. My gratitude to the referees who wrote and ran such engaging games. And a huge thanks to all those who took the chance of playing ‘Generation X’ and ‘Rendezvous with Karma’ – I hope the fun outweighed the shocks you were thrown!