After-Action Report: TravCon 16
This article originally appeared as one of the featured articles in the May/June 2016 issue.
There was an increased air of anticipation for the UK’s Traveller convention this year. TravCon16 was celebrating 20 years of British Isles Traveller Support. Across a couple of decades BITS have consistently run great conventions, published excellent support material and adventures, and connected up Travellers on this side of the Atlantic. In fact it’s fair to say that I might well have never published anything, nor refereed an adventure, if it weren’t for Andy Lilly’s small but perfectly formed organization. So there was much to celebrate – or maybe answer for!
Well before the convention there were rumours of something special to celebrate and I was privileged to have a sneak preview. Oh, the pain of not being able to shout about it! But I was also anticipating TravCon with a certain trepidation. My enthusiasm for Traveller and presumably for TravCon in the days after the event each year had apparently inspired a work colleague to sign up and attend. Now I’d be the first to guess that a cataloguer might be the ideal candidate to fit in with 35 or so geeky guys (and a couple of ladies) for a weekend of role playing, but I had no idea if J (my colleague) really understood what she was letting herself in for. We spent a lunchbreak creating a character or two, had a look at the typical programme for the weekend, and even joined with a handful of others in a pub one evening to try the beginning of The Traveller Adventure, but it still seemed risky!
Keith, of Marquee Models, introduces my colleague J
to Firefly as a prelude to her first TravCon
The third reason I was anticipating the convention was because, having promised myself I would take a break from any refereeing duties, a couple of weeks before I had finished putting together a special one-off preview edition of my Traveller Bibliography, now in its much expanded 3rd edition1, so I had a little time on my hands. I also figured Andy would need help filling all 25 slots and I was beginning to wonder how Ashfall II: Under the Dome might play out. It’s a sequel to Ashfall that I ran a couple of years back and that had gone well. But this was much more sandboxy and instead of a fairly linear set of events with the odd NPCs at the right moment, this was wide open with some 15 NPCs who could all be encountered at the same time! But it was already written and I just needed to reacquaint myself with the details and prepare some handouts.
1) 254 pages, 1588 entries, 10 eras, four indexes and full of lots of fun facts, such as BITS being in the top ten publishers for number of items published.
//PIC L anticipating another great TravCon!
A Page and Half of Notes
L anticipating another great TravCon!
Having said that, I panicked at that point and worried that it might not fill four hours, so I sketched out a page and a half of notes and drew a map and a floor plan, just in case we needed to go onto the half idea I had for Ashfall III, as yet unnamed but an ‘obvious’ sequel.
Once more the weekend arrived and so did T who had, for a second year offered to drive us both up to Cambridgeshire – this time with the wrinkle of picking up L on the way. But even that was touch and go as T phoned from the side of the road on Thursday to say someone had run into the back of him. To be honest I was more concerned about him than the car and the trip on Friday as he sounded very shaken. But in the event the car was just about good to go and T had made a successful courage roll for the following day.
The schedule – after some revision!
T had also made a successful Drive (wheeled) roll and we arrived safely at Red Wings once again on the old A1(M). L and I are indebted to him for allowing us to avoid the rigours of the trains and crossing London. At the hotel we found my colleague had already arrived and was well ensconced in a game of Firefly that was filling in time before the first adventures at 7pm, Andy was setting up his base in the main room as usual, and the regulars, as well as new faces, were beginning to gather. Most of our attention however was immediately on the conference gift. In previous years we’ve had folders, bags, polo-shirts and all sorts. This year Andy had been beavering away at his piece de resistance – a beautifully produced heavyweight paperback adventure, In Search of Angels. Regulars at TravCon will know that over the last ten years or so, various adventures have been run as ‘parts’ of this larger whole. ISOA is a collection of the first five of these with some additional linking scenarios and all gorgeously printed in a fabulously high quality production that was a special edition for the convention.
A formally published edition should be available soon through DriveThruRPG, but for the moment it was difficult to know whether to say ‘Hi’ to everyone or just to get lost in the story and beautiful book! Any slight disappointment I might have had that this is what had pushed my bibliography to the back burner, evaporated in the excitement of a campaign book which I will go out on a limb and predict will become a classic. Of course, I couldn’t resist sitting down immediately and producing a proper bibliography entry for the book so Andy could type up the entry, print it out and we could slip it into the preview bibliography as a book mark.
Friday Evening – Must Be Curry Evening
Soon it was off to the next door curry house, as usual, for an evening meal and all too soon it was time to get ready to run my first game of the weekend in the evening slot. Once again, I’d said that if I was going to bother running Ashfall II at all, I might as well do it twice, so I was also scheduled for the Sunday session. I was suitably embarrassed and gratified at how fast the 7(!) slots for my game filled up. Someone timed it at 10 seconds, put that on Facebook and I was surprised to get home and find this was the one thing my daughter and wife had heard about – the power of social media! I was down for seven players rather than six because I’d made the (mistake?) of mentioning I had seven PCs and I think with one game not running or something, Andy was a bit short of places.
Snacks and a map of Dryavis in Ashfall II. There is no truth
to the rumour bacteria were taking over the dome.
It’s just the old part of the base!
The hotel has had a change round and our usual third gaming room had been turned into an office – so we were banished to a ‘converted’ bedroom – the bedding had been jammed into the bathroom. But it made a suitably quiet room for us to revisit the Darrian scientists (and the NPC Special Arm agent now upgraded to a PC) and tackle the hellhole of Spume once again. Two years before I had rather thought that a bunch of academics in a non-combat adventure, with a ‘reference list’ as part of the handouts might be a rather specialised niche interest that appealed to me but perhaps not many other Traveller players. I’d been proved wrong then and I was proved wrong again. Not only with the alacrity with which people signed up, but with the perhaps over-the-top enthusiasm with which players threw themselves into the roles. It varied from the petty bickering of scholars vying for precedence and pre-eminence, through quiet and unassuming players switching into wonderfully appropriate language such as “I want to run a comparative analysis of X and Y to produce Z data…”, to a pair that were found in tea break huddled over an actual research paper they were outlining in some detail on a sheet of A4. I had a feeling that the plot I’d outlined in my notes was almost an irrelevance – though thankfully enough stayed on track to get to a conclusion. (The less said about S, who took the longest hot shower in the history of the Darrian Confederation and then disappeared with the local woman of ill-repute for several days, the better!) I needn’t have worried, Ashfall II pretty much perfectly fit the four hours available on Friday and the five hours (but with a lunch break) on the Sunday.
Too Many Games! Too Little Time!
Edd Quick running The Infected
As usual there was the frustration of not being able to play in the other games that were going on. K was running a game of Firefly for latecomers, but there were two other adventures happening as well: Fixing X? and Wolves at the Door were being run by Steve Quick and Dom Mooney respectively. The latter was one I’d managed to miss before which was doubly frustrating and the other involved J who, much to my relief reported that she had settled in well and was thoroughly enjoying the convention so far. I believe she may be reporting on TravCon elsewhere on this site. As a last minute addition, Paul Barber also ran It’s a Big Planet as Vic Berry’s scrap team got together once more.
The article in the magazine indicated that J’s report wasn’t in the issue. It was, as the second featured article, but Your Humble Editor forgot to correct the note in this article. This is rectified here. -ed.
I was absolutely shattered by now so it was a tad irritating to find I was too excited to sleep immediately, so it barely seemed a moment before breakfast and the fun of the Saturday. Andy’s wife Sarah had come up trumps once again with a third outing for the Chirper trash collectors of Persephone and in A New Friend, six of us – including Andy’s daughter playing again after a year off for an archery competition last year – were once again chirping and falsettoing through a delightful adventure where our ignorance and stupidity managed to triumph. Rest assured I plague Andy and Sarah at any opportunity to collect these together and publish them. Elsewhere Ed Quick was running The Infected where the party was charged with collecting a dangerous fugitive from a low-tech world, Bob Parkins was running Join the Colonials! set in the 23rd century as the Terrans begin to expand into Vilani territory and are recruiting for an army to be sent to a swamp world, Paul Thornbury was running Cold Store, and Simon Bell – manfully struggling through a dreadful cold – was revisiting the excellent Not Another Space Dogs! which I’ve had the privilege of playing a couple of times and can attest to its fun as some Vargr vie to become top dog.
Stunning map of Rhinom Starport in Cold Store –
auctioned off at the end. I regret not bidding.
Bob Parkins invited players to
Join the Colonials
The garage opposite the hotel has now permanently shut its doors, so no chance of a sandwich from there. But the ever dutiful Sarah made a run into Sawtry and came back laden with provisions to see us all through the afternoon. Not, to be honest, that there was much danger of starving with all the regular snacks – healthy and otherwise – that BITS provides for hungry gamers. And not to mention the traditionally excellent beer that D once again provided. Although not Traveller branded this year for which my attic and its growing collection of empty bottles is ever thankful.
After lunch I had an interesting experience having signed up for Dom Mooney’s Barbarians at the Gates. This was set in the Interstellar Wars period which was unusual in itself, but was also using a hybrid of Traveller and the Uncharted Worlds rules which I’d never encountered before. I admit that I started with some dubiousness as to the value of attempting (and largely failing) to learn a new rules set as well as deal with the adventure which was politically complicated, but Dom’s excellent explanation and handling of both rules and plot put aside any doubts and I really understood the attraction when I encountered a facet of Uncharted Worlds that I’ll write about elsewhere. As a mixed group of Terrans and Vilani we managed to avert the next interstellar war – or at least warn one side of a surprise attack brewing just over the border and Dom’s wonderful colour poster sized maps of the Solomani Rim (A1 size if that helps visualize them) were a real treat to play on top of and really helped as an aid to following where we were and what we were doing and what our options were.
No one in One of Professors is Missing! would admit
to just what this ‘handout’ was all about
Elsewhere The Show Must Go On with Steve Quick again, Thank You for Playing with John Gent, One of our Professors is Missing! with Nick Walker (not related to the Darrian scientists of Ashfall) and Dirty Work with Neil McGurk were on offer. Troupes of entertainers, lotteries and luxury cruises, a lost expedition – as ever the variety, imagination and fun on offer meant four clones would have been more than welcome. I’m constantly impressed by the excellence of TravCon referees.
A Page and a Half of Notes!
There was hardly a time when Chirpers weren’t taking out
the trash in a wealthy mansion at some point in the convention
At 5.30pm – in the middle of that last session – Andy had taken me aside. I’d (perhaps foolishly) mentioned I’d scribbled some notes for a possible Ashfall III and now due to illness there was an empty slot at 7pm. How did I feel about running a game? Gulp! Well I admitted I didn’t have much of an ending – but of course that wasn’t an obstacle to someone with Andy’s experience and he said something which triggered a connection with a bit I’d written which I thought might work. And after that I was out of excuses – save fear! So with a page and a half of notes and an hour and half of warning – but no actual prep time as I still had some of Dom’s game to finish and supper to eat – I was signed up to run a third game. Now I know that many referees would eat that for breakfast, but remember that previously TravCons have seen me with 100 pages of notes for an adventure, handouts galore and a lot of thought and planning. It was encouraging to realize that all of that isn’t always necessary. Though I’d be the first to admit that the task was made simpler by the fact that it was a continuation of a story in which I already had setting and characters in my head. More surprisingly to me, the adventure seemed to work quite well with some wonderfully humorous moments (such as a Respected Scholar abseiling headfirst down a volcanic vent while his team leader filmed for the local social media outlet, some moving moments (the remains of a very old scout), and a hard-to-tell-if this-is-really-roleplaying moment as J, my work colleague who is a much put upon librarian in real life, was now playing the much put upon scholar technician of the group responding to this demand and that demand and viscerally channelling the “if someone doesn’t thank me soon, I’m going to take this spanner and…” vibe. She got into the spirit of the convention totally when at one point, irritated by the rather rambunctious noise of the Chirpers at the table behind, she invented a chirper-swat which several people wanted to try!
The game that got away – I would love to have
tried Mirabilis where even the props looked intriguing
Of course refereeing meant I couldn’t play in Stephen J. Ellis’ Mirabilis which I’d been hoping to join. It was being promoted as the first ‘stat free’ game as a ruling council of a world in Hard Times needed to make some tough decisions. Judging from the whiteboard after the fact, this is something I’d have really loved participating in. Elsewhere, the Chirper game was on the second of its three (!) outings – is that a record for TravCon? – Ed Quick was running Noir in which the PCs are hired to investigate a brutal killing of a young prostitute and the fifth game in the slot was 728-907 with Steve Thornton-Cook guiding the PCs to a study of gravitational anomalies.
Saturday is often known for its games in the bar after hours and F had bought a great selection as ever. Several of my friends have bought Camel Up! after I fell in love with that at a previous con. This time he had several but the one that grabbed us most was Codenames. Definitely a game I’d like to revisit but by that time we were all struggling with tiredness – and one player was still playing moves from the game half an hour previously which confused matters considerably!
Mothers’ Day Mayhem
Sunday had its usual more relaxed start, but just time for one more slightly longer adventure before the round up and departure. Unfortunately TravCon had conflicted with Mother’s Day this year2 – Andy already works hard to keep it clear of the Six Nations rugby – and so the decision was made to have the awards and the auction just after lunch so that those who needed to could make a quick getaway but the games could continue afterwards. This had a couple of unforeseen repercussions. Firstly the awards ceremony revealed plot points that some players hadn’t quite arrived at by that point. Fortunately the players I was dealing with took in good spirit and refused to act on the knowledge. Secondly, there was much less drive to get games finished in good time so some were then waiting an hour or more for other games to finish and shared transport home etc. Hopefully with Mother’s Day being avoided as well as the rugby next year, that should solve that problem and we can return to a wrap up at the end. But the day is already booked for TravCon17!
2) For US readers, we celebrate Mothers’ Day in March rather than May. This resulted in my mother receiving two cards in the years I lived in an international community as I’d usually forgotten by May that I’d already sent a card.
To wrap this up, I ran Ashfall II for a second time – which was only a mite confusing having run the final part before this. I don’t think anyone played it backwards as they could have done which probably helped. I was very taken with just how differently a different set of players ran through a wide open sand box type adventure which included a random d66 table. This time, the settlement of Dryavis on Spume seemed like a real hotbed of paranoia and conspiracy theory which was fascinating. The players took a completely different approach as well which kept me engaged and motivated – although one five or six minute discussion by the academics sounded so much like a board meeting I might sit through at work that I actually zoned out at one point – mainly tiredness rather than disinterest – and I asked at the end of their pow-wow not for the minutes of the meeting, which I could tell would take hours, but just the action points.
I find it difficult to write humour, but not to worry: the players can inject their own.
Ashfall II: Under the Dome being kept sane by C and L (centre) who really ‘got’ the Darrian scientist vibe
Paul Thornbury was running one of his amazing miniatures games, The Akabar Express, with a herd of K’kree racing across the plains to catch a speeding train. I was told the value of the miniatures on the table at one point. It would have kept me in Cherry Coke for a few years! Vic Berry’s Scrapyard was having another scenario run by Paul Barker, Dom Mooney was running folk through a game of Power Projection and Andy Lilly was bravely running A New Friend for a third time. Given the mayhem that ensues in the chirper games, I was surprised he didn’t win the Starburst for Extreme Heroism for that alone.
Speaking of awards, I was a tad embarrassed to win the Ping, F*** It! award for the third year running. This time it was for simply falling off my chair when trying to pick up a book from the floor. I didn’t think it particularly amusing but apparently others saw the funny side of the chair still being attached to me in a horizontal position. Next year I really am happy for someone else to take a turn with the PFI! On the other hand, I had nothing to do with the SEH for a change – although T kindly nominated me for running a game at such short notice – and the Starburst went to M. For once there was a formal write up of the citation:
“A small agricultural colony has been attacked by Vargr raiders intent on stealing their valuable crop of anagathics. The colonists have been rounded up by heavily-armed Vargr wearing full battledress – only one family has managed to slip away before the net closed. They return to the mothballed colony ship, a repurposed former combat dropship languishing in an abandoned barn. As they make a fast, aggressive pass over the invading Vargr and their new captives, the only crew member on board able to speak Vargr is the colony’s 15-year-old teenage prom queen. Charged with extracting a peaceful surrender from the Vargr raiders with no harm to the captured colonists, she flips on the microphone and, in a stern, authoritative voice, says in her best Vargr: “SIT!”
Andy presents the SEH to M –
digitally removed on the left
The convention organizer
manages to have some fun!
Well done to M (who has been expunged from the photo for security reasons). The auction is almost the final formal event of every TravCon – I was very pleased with the generous amounts bid for both my adventure (part II) and the one-off preview edition of the bibliography. For once I managed to bid on something and brought home the lovely maps that D had produced of the Solomani Rim. Not that I have wall-space for such monsters. The actual final formal moment is our regular thank you to Andy and his family for their work and stress and patience in putting on such a great convention. It’s a hard standard to maintain I’m sure, but here’s to another twenty years of BITS and please, everyone, encourage them that it needn’t be another decade until the second part of In Search of Angels sees light of day.