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After-Action Report: Traveller at DunDraCon 2019

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue.

The Setting: DunDraCon 43 at the San Ramon (California) Marriott over President’s Day weekend. It is a four day convention focusing on RPGs, but also including miniatures, CCGs, board games, and live action role playing (LARPs). The con started in the mid 1970s, and is now over 2000 people, completely taking over the hotel, and with many people staying at nearby hotels as well. I love DunDraCon for many reasons, but here are the top three: First, there are no extra fees. Once you pay for the con, you can register for all the official games, attend all seminars, watch movies in the anime room, walk the dealer’s room, etc. Second, they use a “no waiting” sign up system for games, where you submit your first, second, and third choices for games in a session, and software randomly chooses who gets their first choices. But after the first session, it remembers if you’ve been lucky in past sessions, and adjusts your odds. If you have not gotten your first choice in the past, you are more likely to get it in the future. Third, every official game is in its own room; No shared noise.

There are three types of gaming: official games (described below), open gaming (free tables in a large room and flags which say “players wanted”), and organized gaming (D&D, Pathfinder and Starfinder organized by Wizards of the Coast or Paizo).

DunDraCon attempts to fill each official game with people who signed up ahead of time, but if there are empty seats they are filled “first come first served” from people waiting at the game (this is called “crashing”). Time slots are available from 4-10 hours in length, but 6 hours are the most common for RPGs. In addition to actual gaming, there are seminars, swap meets, Protospiel (testing games under development), freecycle tables, miniature painting, a dealer’s room, etc. There is a special room for kids and another room set aside for teenage gaming. Both of these have some level of adult supervision.

The Adventurers: The Levy Family. I started going to DunDraCon in the late 1980s. My girlfriend – later wife – started going in the late 1990s, and our daughter has been going for over 10 years. This year is a little bitter sweet, however, since our daughter is a senior in high school, and this is likely the last year that we will be attending as a family.

Plot Summary: This year DunDraCon had just over 180 official RPGs. Four of them used Traveller rules and two more were set in a Traveller Universe. At first glance, 6 out of 180 RPGs doesn’t sound like a lot of Traveller. But this is your schedule if you only want to play Traveller:

You could play Traveller every day, and use a wide range of Traveller rules and adventures.

The Traveller Game: I only played in one Traveller game, but it spanned two sessions: “You Can’t Take The Stars From Me” run by Paul Coulter. This game appealed to me because I like Traveller and was curious about the Savage Worlds rule system. Most Savage Worlds games are a little “cartoony” and superhero/superpower oriented, and I don’t like those, so this looked like a good opportunity to experience the Savage Worlds rules in a setting I like. It was amazing and interesting in many ways:

The Savage Worlds rules are slightly more complex than Traveller rules, but not as complex as D&D, Pathfinder, Warhammer, etc. They worked well in a Traveller setting. (Since we were given characters to choose from to play, I have no insight into the character creation process.)

The setting was clearly Traveller, but with a lot of stuff added in from other science fiction settings. We had Wookie/Yeti, light sabers, and an ion cannon from Star Wars, Klingons from Star Trek, and Androids from Aliens. I really loved this. I’ve been adding aliens, weapons, and general tech from other science fiction settings to my own Traveller Universe for years, but this Referee had done more of it, and integrated it better. This setting was an inspiration to me for where my setting could go, and how much fun it was to add more into it.

The adventure was classic Traveller: take this type-S scout and deliver it to a secret base before you muster out. What could possibly go wrong?

The plot involved fighting, rescuing, exploring, aliens, tech, starship combat, etc. Good choices in one scene could make future scenes easier, and my character was interesting to play. (My character had been created by Paul’s daughter, and she deserves a shout-out for that.) So the game had what I would call the “good trifecta”: A good setting, a good plot, and good characters.

The Referee had created his own starship combat system which was based on Battlestations (I think). I found this intriguing, because I am in the process of beta-testing my own starship combat system as a drop in replacement for Traveller’s system. Although my system was based on Starfinder rather than Battlestations, I thought we had converged on very similar design ideas: two dimensional hex battle maps, all characters active/important in starship combat, a greater variety of starship weapons, faster combat, etc.

Sidenote: I do hope to publish my system in some form in 2019. If you are interested in beta-testing it, send me some email: publicjoshualevy@gmail.com.

The Referee had a big screen TV, which he placed screen up on the table, and used to display floorplans and images. For the past few years, some Referees at conventions have displayed images on TVs, but this was the first time I’ve seen this used as a “smart table”. At the time, I thought it was very cool, but in retrospect, I think a display screen and a standard battle map might be better. There was some switching back and forth when showing images during times when the floorplan was also active. On the other hand, we never needed to wait for the Ref to draw a floor plan. Obviously, the future is a Referee with one computer driving at least two big flatscreens one of which is the floorplan and the other is a display screen for images.

I had never seen a “one game, two sessions” organization at a convention before. Basically, there were two sessions: part 1 from noon to 6pm and part 2 from 6pm to midnight. They were separate official games, in separate sessions. You registered separately for each, and could register for just part 1, just part 2, or both. Plus, depending on your luck, you might actually get into one or the other or both.

I had registered for part 1, but had not gotten in. At noon there were 5 crashers hoping to get into a 6 person, fully registered game, but I was crasher #1. One registered player did not show up, and the Referee had two extra characters, so three of us got to play. For part 2, I had not registered, but out of the 6 players who registered in part 2, only 3 showed up, so 5 of us from the first part got to play in the second. This worked perfectly, since 5 out of 8 of the players in part 1 wanted to continue their characters in part 2. However, the 3 players who joined part 2, without playing in part 1 were definitely less connected to the adventure than those who’d started earlier. I think they had a little less fun, as they needed to get up to speed on what was happening, from both plot and setting points of view.

Cautionary tales from other con games: I’ve played a lot of convention games over the years, and a lot of Traveller. I think that Traveller as a system and setting has a lot of advantages for convention use. In particular, it is easy to play and the setting is intuitive and usually doesn’t require a long explanation of technology, history, setting, etc. However, I do think there are a few pitfalls for a Traveller referee to avoid when organizing a convention game:

  1. Especially in Classic Traveller characters, there are often few skills to use. Therefore, it is important for the referee to make sure those skills really can be used in the adventure, and to explain the “breadth” of a Traveller skill. Also, since even one point of skill is a big difference, for skills that only will be used once or twice, it is also important that if one character has skill X, that no other character has it at X+1. If they do, the first character might as well not have it at all.
  2. Because there are a lot of Traveller players out there, a Referee needs to expect that for any given convention game some players are going to know the setting details, and some are not, and handle both situations. You don’t want to make knowing the details of the technology or setting critical to the game, because that excludes/frustrates the players without Traveller experience. On the other hand, you do want to leverage the background, so that the players who know Traveller will get the experience they are looking for.

Point 2 is especially important for the “crunchy” military details. Traveller seems to particularly appeal to people who like military equipment and tactical details, and so the Referee needs to appeal to those folks without making it boring or frustrating for the other gamers who are less interested in them (or who don’t know them).

The Next Adventure: As usual, DunDraCon was a great gaming experience this year, and I’m already looking forward to next year.

Sidenote: I do sometimes wonder if there is a way to make any generic RPG convention more Traveller friendly, by adding a poster listing all the Traveller games, having a Traveller meet up, and/or having a public Slack channel to discuss Traveller at the Convention. Something to think about.