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After-Action Report: TravellerCON/USA 2019

This was the featured article in the November/December 2019 issue.

Getting There and Settling In

The schedule on the Con website showed that pick-up games were going to be possible as early as 8:00 Friday morning, but leaving at 4:00 simply wasn’t in the cards for me. On the other hand, I figured I could leave earlier than I had in previous years, and be there in plenty of time to have lunch and be available for the 13:00 session of pickup games. So, I was breakfasted and on the road before 7:00, and arrived before 11:00.

This year, we were at a new site; the cost at last year’s site was simply getting out of hand, and the quality of the accommodations was Not Improving. The Holiday Inn Morgantown is (a) much nicer than the old site, and (b) a bit more than a half-hour closer to me. The directions were even the same up until I reached Reading, PA, where I was directed to US422 and I-176 to Morgantown instead of staying on US222 to Lancaster. As a result, I had no trouble finding the site. The trip was pretty standard, based on past TravellerCONs – it doesn’t matter what time of day you travel; the Cross Bronx Expressway going toward the George Washington Bridge is going to be slow.

Once there and checked in – I was lucky; they had a room ready for me even though check-in wasn’t really open until 15:00 – I helped MF (I’ve referred to her as MH in previous AARs, but she’s finally gotten all the paperwork straightened out and changed her name) and KF get things set up, and then ran across the parking lot for lunch at McDonald’s. A double-Filet-o-Fish and a side salad later, back to the site, where I took over an unoccupied table and asked a few people to playtest a game I’d worked up. I got some good feedback on it; I’m looking into decent production (rather than the put-together-from-crafts-supplies prototypes I brought to the Con). I also arranged to take over a table for the Saturday afternoon session, for more playtests. This brought us to dinner, which I had in the hotel lounge. The food was good, though nothing to write home about; the service could have been faster.

Session F1: Friday Evening and Session S3: Saturday Evening

JB, one of the creators of Traveller Ascension: Imperial Warrant, was selling the game and refereeing sessions of it, so I took him up on the invitation to play on Friday (and signed up for a second session Saturday evening – the game was that good). This is a very interesting game mechanism, and it definitely plays well. There are two levels of play; at the basic level that we used on Friday, the focus is on learning the game mechanics. Once those are mastered, the second level of play (which we switched to by mutual agreement after the second turn in Saturday’s session) offers additional decision options in play, without adding additional mechanics. JB explained that they’d designed in the two levels so that one could avoid ‘decision paralysis’ while still learning how the game is played. While learning, the game can move slowly, but once you’ve got the mechanics down, it becomes possible to plan your moves with a quick inspection of the cards in your hand, and then apply the effects with little delay on your turn – something that’s definitely desirable when you’re playing at the second level, as it’s possible for actions and reactions by multiple players to ‘chain’, extending the time needed to complete the phase (of which there are six per game turn).

Traveller Ascension: Imperial Warrant is currently available in a Base Game, which allows for two players, and two expansions which (each) allow the addition of one or two players (you must have expansion 1 before expansion 2). Each set offers optional scenarios, in which defined goals and a defined map are provided, or you can ignore the scenarios and just play with the basic game premise, which is to explore the area bordering the nascent Third Imperium, develop the worlds economically, and bring them in to the Imperium. There are also “add-on packs” which offer additional options for play, again without modifying or adding to the basic mechanic.

After the Friday game, JB led a bit of a ‘post-mortem’ discussion about some of the possibilities for play strategies; it’s possible for players with their own ‘style biases’ to play together, and nobody is forced into any particular style of play. The various play styles are ‘emergent behavior’ rather than designed into the game mechanic, and no particular style of play guarantees victory over another – nor is it necessarily possible to have such an overwhelming lead as to make further play meaningless; each game can go its full number of turns (customizable for available time) and the play of one event can cause a chain reaction and ‘turn the game on its head’ right up until the last person has made a final play. Interestingly, while the ‘mathematical basis’ for the game is all Classic Traveller, the Third-Imperium-Re-Explore-and-Re-Contact ‘theme’ isn’t ‘baked in’; I could see several other possible ‘themes’ using the same rules/mechanics – which, given how thoroughly Traveller the rules are, shows how potentially flexible Traveller as a game is (as if we didn’t already know this…).

We never actually “finished” the Saturday game (although we brought it to a satisfactory conclusion); a couple of chain reactions extended phase resolutions enough that the turns took longer than had really been budgeted for, and one player’s actions often changed things enough to ‘throw a monkey wrench’ (I believe that our British readers would use the phrase ‘throw a spanner’) into the works, necessitating a rethink of which options were possible and sensible. The post-mortem discussion on that came to the conclusion that the basic level is better for real-time-limited situations (like the four-hour slots at a con), but the game is definitely richer in the advanced level, without actually being any more complex, rules-wise.

Session S1: Saturday Morning

I played in “Communications Breakdown”, refereed under Mongoose II rules by RN, and done well. The player-characters are a troubleshooting team that have been sent to a ship that was targeted for salvage, but two previous teams failed to report – the salvage team, and a follow-up team to find out why the salvage team went silent. To avoid spoilers, I will say only that we found some Bad Stuff, but we had fun as clues were revealed, and we got nervouser and nervouser (yes, it is a word – now!), and finally broke and ran scared. Since we’d made a point of “playing it smart” from the beginning of the scenario, we actually managed to find out what happened, get the information where it needed to go, avert disaster, and additionally convince the Head Office that instead of salvaging the ship, they should disassociate its atoms. While not specifically planned for a Halloween theme, it turned out to be quite suitable for the ‘season’, and (at least for me) that bit of meta-atmosphere added to the game.

Session S2: Saturday Afternoon

I used this session to run some more playtests of my game; as during the Friday afternoon pickup session, I got some good feedback, including some critiques that, while unexpected, were spot-on about certain aspects that I hadn’t thought of. I really need a name for this game, and I need to look into the business aspects of Kickstarting, manufacturing, and marketing/selling it; the feedback I’ve gotten has been so universally favorable that I think eventually getting it to be a Real Product wants to happen.

Between playtest games, I wandered around and took a few pictures; there were two or three games using computers as visual/presentation aids, and JB was running another session of Traveller Ascension: Imperial Warrant. Fun was clearly being had all around, and there were several games that were playing to the ostensible ‘Vargr’ theme for this year’s con – some with the PCs being the Vargr, others being set in Vargr space, and still others involving Vargr as antagonists.

Sunday Morning Session and Wrap-Up

A lot of people that had attended were packing up to get going early; although Monday is a minor government holiday in the US (Columbus Day), most businesses – outside banking and finance – would be open as usual, so people would be going to work. (I’m a government employee, so I get Monday off.) As a result, the Sunday morning session was fewer tables than Saturday. Nevertheless, Traveller was being played, and people were having fun. I pulled out my laptop and started writing this AAR, while everything was still fresh.

Finally, the last of the dice and character sheets were being packed up, and it was time for the awards. This year, due to a bit of unexpected logistical changes, we ended up with two Starbursts for Extreme Heroism (the person who was providing the plaques in previous years was uncertain if he was going to be here this year, so MF arranged a new plaque. He did make it, and brought a SEH plaque with him, so we had two.

The first SEH was won by JG, one of a very few woman gamers at the convention. She was playing in BMcA’s “Who Let the Vargr Out”, and during a prison break, threw herself at every attacker, allowing the entire crew to escape, including herself, while incurring near-fatal wounds in the process. This was described on the nomination slip as “Utter Vargr Viciousness”.

The second SEH was won by PD in a different session of the same game (BMcA ran several sessions of “Who Let the Vargr Out”). There was an iris valve that was open to no-atmosphere; it was blocked from closing by a dead body jammed into it. PD sacrificed his life by throwing himself at the body to knock it free, saving his companions by allowing it to close – with him (and the original dead body) on the airless side of it.

The PING! F*** It! was won by CL, in KF’s “Prosperity for the Taking”. In a face-to-face charisma challenge between two Vargr band leaders, CL’s character convinced the other leader to subordinate himself to CL. In the process of getting to the other leader’s base, the other leader died, and upon arrival, CL’s character carried the body onto the landing ramp, tossed it off, and announced that he was the new leader of both bands. (This, naturally, required a reaction roll – which he abjectly failed!) The other band didn’t accept him, and he was shot by one of his own people, who was a Vemene agent for Tukera.

Other Miscellaneous Notes

We had ten tables this year, when we thought we’d only have nine because of space considerations. Every slot that we originally scheduled was filled, and the extra tables were put to good use (that’s how I had a place to do playtesting Saturday afternoon). If you do the math, that means we had planned for about seventy slots for con-goers (figuring eight per table) – and most were filled. Considering that we had a change of venue this year, which has historically meant about a 10% drop in attendees, you can see that TravellerCON/USA is a pretty solidly successful small con.

We’re planning on having next year’s con here, too, and may even be able to get a third room (our room this year was really two rooms with the partition between them removed). If it happens, that room will be where the vendors are, giving us as many as three or four extra tables in the “main hall”, and some very preliminary thoughts and discussion have floated the idea of a panel discussion, one proposed topic being a “Referee Master Class”. We’ve also decided that there will be a sixth formal session; enough people are starting to come early (and enough people are attending the con in toto) that running a formal session starting on Friday at 13:00 is viable.

I’d mentioned above that a couple of tables were using computers as visual aids. This has actually become something of a staple at TCUSA; BMcA and KP, both GM members of the Dead Game Society (DGS) Army (New England battalion), have been putting a lot of effort into the games that they run, and presentation is an important part of it – including the use of computers and monitors. I haven’t played in one of their games yet; they always fill up before I can sign up – which speaks well for their efforts!

I didn’t get the chance to ask, but it looked like one game actually had someone participating via a videoconferencing app like Skype. If so, I’m pretty sure it’s a first for TravellerCON/USA. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about it; I like the idea of someone being able to participate even if they can’t make the trek to Morgantown – but on the other hand, the con is a chance to get to meet people and play with them face-to-face, and have good social fun – it’s Just Not The Same over Skype.

The Holiday Inn Morgantown is a nice hotel. It’s not a luxury hotel (that’s the Crowne Plaza brand), but neither did it have the air of ‘genteel shabbiness’ that characterized the Lancaster Host in the last few years. Everything that I encountered worked (bar one flushometer problem that caused a minor flood in the lobby men’s room on Sunday – and the maintenance man was on the scene to fix it even before I could get out to the desk to report it [some things can’t be rushed or interrupted!]), and while I’d heard about a couple of other minor problems, I’m told that they were fixed almost instantly – the staff was doing their absolute best to make our stay as trouble-free as possible; this even extended to helping us with last minute prep by loaning us a paper cutter (so we could assemble a batch of Con programs) and moving in more chairs when we saw we were going to need them – and it was clear that they were willing to offer additional assistance if needed (which it wasn’t, because KF and MF are experienced at running TCUSA, and because TCUSA attendees who get there early – like me – are also willing to pitch in and help).