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After-Action Report: TravCon 2018

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue.

Traveller is all about adventures of course. And in the UK, TravCon is the best place to experience a lot of excellence in one action packed weekend. Darrian special arm forces investigating old AIs, quiet monks having their peace shattered by bloodthirsty Vargr, a dodgy crew scamming rich socialites – and lots more.

The Adventure

This year just getting to Redwings near Sawtry in Cambridgeshire for our annual get together was an adventure. “The Beast from the East” roared in at just the wrong time. Bitter winds, “red warning” snow, and a large drop in temperature meant that parts of the UK were ‘no travel’ areas and others were hazardous. The news reported people stranded in cars on motorways for 17 hours or stuck on freezing trains overnight. Those of us travelling any kind of distance were swapping emails that were beginning to look like equipment lists for PCs given Central Supply Catalogue prior to a convention scenario and told to tool up. Shovels, blankets, sleeping bags, cold weather gear, thermal underwear, torches, food and drink… cars were looking like arctic expedition vehicles and 4×4s were jealously regarded.

And life, too, can be its own adventure. Sometimes heroically so. I was being given a lift as usual but this year by my regular driver who deserves a Starburst for Extreme Heroism all of his/her own. Tess, as she is now, several months into hormone therapy, had been making courageous decisions since we last met that are life changing. Up for the challenge of just getting there, Tess was also facing the challenge of how she might be received in a nearly all male environment where good-natured humour might possibly be insensitive. I’d assured her last year however, that I firmly believed her reception would be none other than warm welcome that’s marked TravCon’s atmosphere for the ten years, now, that I’ve been attending. I’m pleased to report I wasn’t wrong.

Knowing that more snow was promised for the afternoon we managed to arrive several hours later just after the whitestuff had begun coming down again. Once again successful Piloting and Navigation rolls were made. We were happy now if we were snowed in for several days of gaming goodness. Unfortunately, however, the weather meant that there were a few who couldn’t make it and so for a second year running the long-heralded Richard Talbot gas giant warfare game some of us had been looking forward to would have to be postponed. We will just have to save our u-boat commander accents for another time.

The People

For those that had made it, however, it was good to see familiar faces once again and also some new travellers ready to experience the eleventh year of the convention at this venue. My work colleague Jane P was back for a third year determined as ever to swat a chirper, and in a surprise last minute move another work colleague David B had also decided to give it a go. The University of Portsmouth Library now very well represented with three of us and my bimonthly running of The Traveller Adventure now represented at TravCon by no less than four of us! We’ll work on the others for another year…

Derrick J was back with lashings of beer to buy – although this would be the last year from the brewery that’s produced Scout Brew, Aledon Pale and Lift Infantry Light, etc., as they’re changing ownership. Nothing remains the same forever and the world moves on. Andy L, organizing yet another brilliant convention, is even thinking of changing the date of TravCon for the future to avoid weather difficulties – although this year was exceptional. Dom M, the voice of @BITS_Traveller, was back and it was good to see him again even if I couldn’t play in his cool sounding game.

Nick W was there and champing at the bit when he saw another change for TravCon. Encouraged by the reception of a New Year Traveller quiz I posted to TML a couple of months ago, I had offered to run an ‘after hours’ quiz at the con Friday and Saturday night. Nick’s knowledge of Traveller minutia is right up there with the very best and he was keen to take on all comers.

Steve E had found a train that wasn’t cancelled to join us again and we could swap notes on which of his adventures I should be lining up to publish next with March Harrier Publishing. It’s invidious to start mentioning individuals and I wish I could give a shout out to everyone there. It’s the people that really make the convention and hearing their real life adventures, or reminiscing over past Traveller adventures, or sharing a joke together, or competing over ‘my snow/ice/cold problems were worse than yours’, is as much what draws us back each year as the rolling of dice, plotting routes on maps, planning heists/attacks/rescues, shooting things up or perhaps even daring to speak in character.

Meanwhile, Andy was already cutting up the planned programme and shifting things round as he worked out who had and hadn’t made it to Redwings Lodge. His scissor work and gluing is becoming an artform in its own right. And talking of mugs, the conference freebie this year was a very attractive pair of enamel drinking vessels with pictures taken from the covers of BITS books (Delta 3 is Down and In Search of Angels, for those tracking such things) and +DMs for piloting and engineering rolls if in use at the appropriate time. (And yes, we continued to badger Andy about getting In Search of Angels published to a wider audience.) The customary gift duly admired and cooed over, as is also traditional, an Indian meal at Spiceland was duly consumed. Fortunately, given the appalling weather conditions, the place is right next door and we could button up for the short tramp. Then it was into the first session.

Having decided I would take a seventh year sabbatical from running an adventure this year, I’d taken along the brand new Traveller Customizable Card Game. As a long anticipated Kickstarter it had finally delivered just a fortnight before. I was still getting used to the rules – as the whole genre of customizable card games is new to me it was quite a steep learning curve – and I thought it might make a useful filler for the two or three slots I wasn’t offering to fill with an adventure as in previous years. Four people were willing to give it a go with me guiding them, as best I could, through the various phases and after a slow start we were fairly cracking through the turns towards the end and produced a winner in my colleague Jane who’d been quietly managing her contracts and complications with some diligence. Elsewhere Robin F was running the board game Imperium, Steve Q was running “A Nasty Cold” in which the crew of the Imperial Rescue Ship Talullah are scrambled for a medical emergency and Roger S was offering “Prelude to Continuation” with traders trying to make a living in the tensions between the Zhodani Consulate and Imperium.

The Quiz

The quiz was an interesting experience. Scheduled to start after the evening slot finished at 11pm I knew it was going to be a late night. But Andy had firmly banned me from 6 hours of questions. I threw out more than I brought with me. The plan was that we do half the ten rounds on the Friday evening and if there was any interest, the other half on Saturday night. I still wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t just be Nick and I sitting in the corner of the bar by ourselves or if the questions would prove ridiculously hard even through I tried to make sure they weren’t too difficult but with one or two really hard ones each round to provide a challenge. I’d also tried to create a balance between straight question and answers, match this list to that list, ID the book cover or ship picture, and so on.

As it turned out, some twenty or so people played in 6 teams all told (there was a team that only played the first night, and a team that only played the second night) and it was a rambunctious affair at best. I should have expected nothing less. Teams really got into creating their jokers to play on a round they thought they might do well out and took great delight (as I had expected) in nit-picking some of the questions or answers or both and even the marking. Rivalries were breaking out between teams trying to outdo each other’s knowledge and there was lots of showing off (and demands for bonus points) as some would give detailed answers far beyond anything necessary for the standard two points per question. In short, I think I pitched it about right and it was a great success. Exhausting though… herding cats till one the morning. I couldn’t have done it without the able and calming assistance of Jane who I don’t think quite knew what she’d let herself in for!

Sleep, as usual, was all too short although I believe there were others that were busy making use of the all night bar facility and after a bleary breakfast it was time for the morning games. Usually I’m torn between wanting to be in all five places at once but this choice was easy. David B, my work colleague, was running “All’s Fair in Love and War”. I was most curious. Although he referees DnD, David is brand new to Traveller. His entire experience consists of joining us the last couple of times in the pub for The Traveller Adventure and then a couple of weeks ago grabbing the Mongoose rules off the shelves in the Library where we have a copy for our game designers. I had no idea he was planning on running a game and wanted to see what it was like, how he refereed, and generally be supportive to a TravCon first timer.

The Debut

David was also facing the additional challenge that, having been a late booking, all his gear and his adventure was a hotel a few miles away that he couldn’t get to thanks to the snow. He’d been given one of the empty rooms at Redwings overnight but was now rooting around quickly on the internet to find his character sheets, map and so on and relieved that Andy always brings a printer to the convention for just such contingencies. However, if I was concerned about how it would go, those fears were quickly retreating in the face of a fascinating scenario in which I was playing a 54 year army general who has gathered a motley crew around her intent on scamming rich socialites to pay the bills. With some nice bits of tech and some excellent NPC depiction, he soon had us chatting up sycophants, fat sweating colonels, sleek business types, ladies with lapdogs and persuading them that the in thing this season would be a trip on our (hugely over crowded) Scout ship and The Game that we were offering to a very select few. For a lot of money of course. Little did they know they’d be crammed into a tiny cabin, drugged for the duration of Jump and fleeced of every Credit from their accounts that we could wangle.

Ravi, playing a gorgeous seductress had some great lines. As he/she pretends to wake up beside the colonel to pump him for information as he comes out of his drug induced coma: “What setting is your phaser set to? That was stunning?” He also turned to Anne, Andy’s daughter who is now at University – my, doesn’t time fly! – and asked for any seduction techniques she might have. I think most of us round the table were cringing at the spot he was putting her in. But quick as a flash she came back with “Roll high!” which had us all in stitches. Clearly a university education teaches you something. Or perhaps it’s having grown up with TravCon each year… she and I still fondly remember jointly winning a Starburst for Extreme Heroism a few years back when Anne played Princess Iphigenia to my Emperor Strephon in Stephen J. Ellis’ marvellous “The Eve of Rebellion”.

In short, David had produced a very creditable scenario that felt very Traveller, gave the players interesting characters and opportunities, and was a riot from beginning to end with the likes of Pete, Ravi, Nick, M and Gary round the table. I could only admire the courage and skills on show from the referee. I attended TravCon for three years before I plucked up the courage to run something on my fourth year and with way more stress and overpreparation than David was exhibiting! I have a lot to learn still.

Meanwhile, “A Nasty Cold” was getting a second outing – clearly it was viral – and Bob P was running “The Lost Ships” in which an experienced ex-military team were being sent into a Red Zone to find two missing scout ships and their commander. The seriousness of the situation could be seen in the warning to “clean up your battledress, you could need it”. Steve E was running another of his well-received dice-lite games, “In the Name of the Dawn” – more of which later.

The Chirpers Return

After lunch I had the opportunity to revisit the Chirpers. I’d missed them last year because I only played in two games and had been really keen to try James F’s terrific high-concept adventure “A Long and Sleepless Night” (see Face Off! in last year’s TravCon After Action Report). The chirpers were back for their Nth outing in a continuing story that Andy, refereeing as usual, recapped for us in “True Potential”. Once again, the high-pitched voices and chirping were a backdrop to some not-very-bright goings on as the diminutive rubbish collectors got involved in finding, following and liberating an Ancient bowl that was the centre of attention. Food-obsessed as we often were, we saw it as an excellent cereal bowl which became a running joke. Once again, Andy was attempting to keep us on track (“there’s a track?”) with varying degrees of success as the Suck It Up employees caused their usual mayhem. Andy and his wife Sarah, ably supporting the whole enterprise as usual – or perhaps the éminence grise – are to be commended on the imaginative continuation of something that could be a one-note wonder becoming an interlinked series that’s interesting in its own right, hysterical to play, and now almost as much a fixture of TravCon as curry on the first night and the Sunday afternoon auction.

Also playing in other rooms was James F’s “Top Laser” – an elite school for Navy pilots; Mark P’s “Shakedown” in which a crew is conducting trials on a new Imperial Rescue Service Ship including a refuelling stop on a backwater world; and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” led by Nigel F. This involved a Darrian special arm team going to an interdicted world where two AI war robots have been battling it out for 2000 years. The AIs had fallen in love and wanted command codes for a cease fire. Apparently the players had fun debating the laws of robotics and what had to change. It certainly sounds like a game I would have loved.

The Dream PC

After another bite to eat there was again too much choice but I couldn’t resist the draw of Steve E offering an adventure that I knew had been inspired by my own “See How They Run” last year. Not only that but it was set in a monastery which sounded intriguing. Twice I’ve spent five days in a monastery, so I was more than curious to see what Steve would do with one set on Dawnworld in District 268 with no other population. But it was even better when I finally sat down at the table and the character sheets were being handed out. One of the PCs was a librarian monk! Well, it was of course rather a stretch for me to role play such a PC, but it had to be done. Feeling increasingly frail and elderly myself, I could ham up the doddering and squinting over my glasses until Steve suggested I was playing a 92-year-old monk, not a 62-year-old monk. Meanwhile, I’m not quite sure he knew what he was letting himself in for as I asked for a run down on the various sections of the library, what books we had, how old they were, whether any were proscribed or rare books, and so on. To give him his due, he had answers and he and the other players were very patient for a few minutes while I got it out of my system. Other monks had their own obsessions – and secrets too! One was an apparently mild-mannered beekeeper we eventually discovered had once been the leader of a pirate gang but who was now on the path of repentance; another was a 7ft Aslan – with tonsure in his mane! – who was always quoting Shakespeare; and our cook was a criminal and spy on the run and hiding out in his habit. I won’t spoil the plot – hopefully March Harrier can publish this at some point – but there was a gem of a moment when the beekeeper discovered a ferex had got into his beehives, pawed a hole in one of them and killed several of the bees. Ravi, playing the Aslan, was quick as lightning as he came across the scene and heard what had happened. “Two bees, or not two bees?” Maybe you had to be there, but I nearly choked to death.

Steve Q and “Strange Goings on Station 22”, Dom M and “Plausible Deniability”, Ravi S and “The Big Job”, Robin F and “A Local Situation”. The latter, I’m told, had an Imperial cadre and the Efate regulars peacekeeping in Efate in the run up to the Fifth Frontier War. They turned on each other and the insurgents.

More Quizzing

Utterly exhausted, I would have happily gone to bed, but come 11.30 I still had 90+ minutes of adrenalin to run on as we ran the second half of the quiz. More Traveller questions, ship identification (some showed off by giving tonnages as well as name or type), and a really hard Skill Level 3 round soon had some head scratching. Everyone voted for their favourite jokers – and more points – we totted up the scores and declared a winner. The only downside for me was that too much fun was had I think there were those that were hoping this might be an annual thing. Noooo! Maybe again in 7 years…

Sunday morning usually allows more of a lie in but the slot had been brought forward a bit so the auction and awards could be earlier and everyone could get on the road a bit sooner. Although the weather was warming, the snow melting fast and things looking better where we were, it was still snowing further north and some had long miles to cover.

I was again really torn. James F was running “A Long and Sleepless Night II” – a sequel to last year’s wonderful adventure. I would have loved to have had another go flying an Avatar-like ‘dragon’ and fighting the monstrous trasks he had this time round – creatures as big as large buildings and almost impossible to kill it sound like. However, I’ve long wanted to play one of the grand miniatures games that often goes on. Usually they’re in high demand and I don’t get much of a look in at sign up time. Not helped by the fact that war gaming isn’t really my cup of tea and I thought I might hate it – or at least find it hard going after several hours. So perhaps I don’t push through the crowd very hard to get in first. But for some reason, other games were drawing the attention of the assembled players and there were three empty slots in front of me when I got to the sheets. I’m often willing to stretch myself and try something new. I’m very glad I did.

The Battle Royale

Simon B had set up a stunning terrain with fabulous miniatures and great painting. It was a work of art before we’d even started and it only got better as more vehicles and figures arrived on the scene. Called “Aces & Eights” – inspired by the first scenario in Adventure 8: Broadsword with the name taken from the mercenary company in the JTAS #14 Amber Zone of the same name – it saw Jane P, Robin F and I taking on the role of mercenaries trying to quell an element of the Tanoose Freedom League in their village base. Robin was the only one with any experience of this kind of game so we were rather banking on him to provide strategic and tactical expertise. The game used Stargrunt II rules for anyone that’s interested and Simon quickly worked out that he could take nothing for granted with such newbies. “What size is a squad?” “d10? That’s the green one, isn’t it?”

I must say that along with his artistry with the miniatures, his ability to switch into a mode of explaining everything that was necessary, not going into detail which would simply confuse, and giving us interesting and significant decisions to make – without telling us what we should do, was an absolute marvel to behold. He engaged us from the very outset, kept things moving and ran a scenario which was challenging for us but not impossible and hid the mechanics from us so we could concentrate on the decision making and shooting things. Well, I say shooting things… we were each controlling a squad, two of humans with an APC for each squad, and one of Vargr with an air/raft. I’d chosen the latter and was making a right hash of it. Because the air/raft could only take four of the 8 Vargr at a time I’d made the mistake of delivering half my squad to some woodland with the aim of taking out a vehicle mounted gun we thought was there. I should have immediately gone back for the other half of the squad but with some vague idea of helping out with air superiority or something ended up getting into trouble from an elite group of the enemy who damaged the air/raft and had me spiralling out of control for what felt like ages and completely ineffective. Meanwhile, Robin and Jane were making good use of their APCs and were barrelling into the village like they meant business. Unfortunately, Robin was soon pinned down and just about holding his own, leaving Jane to become the mainstay of our attack. And brilliant work she was making of that. Taking out the enemy facing her, sending enough fire in the direction of the lot that were just about to wipe out half my squad to keep me alive and generally making some of us look like rank amateurs – which admittedly I was.

Of course, it was difficult to do on her own and the TFL were soon fighting back and at one point looked like they might repel us before tea break… and this gaming slot was supposed to go on until well after lunch. Simon’s clear tactical superiority was likely to make short work of us. Three and half hours in (perhaps half an hour of game time) and I hadn’t managed to fire a shot, thanks to moving around in the trees, being “suppressed” (see, I have learned some jargon) and generally being pretty useless. My squad was split, half weren’t even on the table yet, the half with the gauss rifle amongst other things had done nothing but spiral out of control – literally and metaphorically. Two of my plasma rifleman were dead. On the upside, at least I felt like I was role-playing Vargr well as the surviving two and pilot bickered and blamed each other and generally swore very inventively in Gvegh over the comms channels. If only we’d actually been role playing instead of war gaming!

Robin had his head in his hands in despair, I was wondering if some suicide run wouldn’t be the best thing I could do for my side, Simon’s eyes were glinting with the anticipation of an easy and early victory. But Jane was still there, firing away, killing bad guys like there was no tomorrow and effectively using the cover we’d been told was critically important at the start. The tide, very slowly, began to turn. With little else to do I’d been trying to encourage Jane’s ‘Squad B’ every time they had a small success. But the small successes were beginning to mount up. Squad B was now being referred to as Squad A while the useless brigade cheered from the sidelines. An enemy squad was broken, Robin managed to take out a nasty-looking truck-mounted heavy autocannon and Jane moved though some poorly trained militia like a hot knife through butter. Forget the air/raft, I’d managed to run the other half of my squad into a position where they could start moving towards a gun position on a hill which had been calling in mortar fire that was giving us some difficulty.

Suddenly things weren’t looking quite so good for the so-called Freedom League as some green troops were taking such a battering from their sustained fight with Jane’s squad that they finally turned and ran for the hills. Jane was also delivering some withering suppressing fire into the elite troops I was facing which allowed me to get away. She was now commanding Squad A*. OK, so now was my chance to get my squad back together. But I was playing Vargr – who still hadn’t fired a shot. I’d had another idea and thought maybe the gauss gunner and plasma rifleman I had left could more usefully take out the mortar team rather than join their brethren who were mopping up another broken squad. Quick hop over to the mortar pit and finally I got to fire one of my weapons. The gauss rifle fired four times and all four enemy in the pit were dead. Wow! Success at last! That made up for a lot.

Eliding over a fair bit more of Jane – now looking as if she’s been playing this for years and telling all the bystanders who’ve gathered round the table what dice she’s rolling and why – dealing hot leaded nastiness to the elite troops, we feel as if the wind is behind us. By this stage, Robin sees some figures rush out of a central building and jump into an armoured car. His APC, damaged as it is, is able to bring its gun to bear and wreck their vehicle. We soon have four commanders surrendering to us. Total loss on our side: one APC (“but that’s coming out of my pay” wails Jane) and my two gauss gunners. “Well, they’re only Vargr,” someone cruelly comments.

Clearly, I’ve been missing out across the last decade by always going the role playing route, and although I don’t think I’d want to make a habit of it, I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed watching Simon’s excellence at so many levels. I’ve no idea how ‘easy’ he went on us – I suspect it could have been a lot harder, and I don’t think we were playing every little rule in the Stargrunt book – but Simon certainly knows how to put on a good show.

On a side note, new to both Jane and I during this game was the use of dice tower. We were quite taken with them, having both spent enough time scrabbling round on sticky pub floors retrieving dice. Jane’s craft ability came into its own the week after TravCon when she designed and built her own – I’ll see if I can get her do a write up and photos.

The Wrap

All too soon, TravCon is coming to an end. We wait a year for all the fun and excitement and then it whips past like a milepost beside an intercity trainline. But there is life’s ongoing adventure to get back to and so Andy wraps up with the awards and the auction. Help for Heroes is our usual charity and once again attendees are generous in their bidding and buying. The beer is snapped up, a copy of “In Search of Angels” is offered – there’s only 4 more in existence, and even my quiz makes a couple of bob. The Starburst for Extreme Heroism (right) goes to Neil for “Big Daddy’s gallant sacrifice” and for the first time in four years the Ping F***-It! Award goes to someone other than myself. Phew! Jane P, we hear, managed to shoot her work colleague in the back (above). Apparently this was accidental but these things happen, heh?! Onwards to the next adventure… safe travelling.