After-Action Report: Virtual Traveller 2020
This was the featured article in the January/February 2021 issue.
This past weekend, I attended a virtual Traveller convention that was hosted via Discord. To be forthright, I have to admit I’m not much of a convention-goer. I’ve only been to one, a relatively small convention that took place around thirty years ago. The highlight for me was meeting Dave Arneson, but other than that, I basically didn’t enjoy it, and the reason, I think, is fairly self-evident.
I’m more into characterization and setting exploration than jumping through the hoops of some pre-conceived plot, and convention games, by their very nature, are focused on getting the characters from the beginning to the end in under four hours. That means there’s going to be hoop-jumping and not enough time for much else.
However, convention games are useful for getting a feel for how other GMs run things as well as getting a taste for how different RPG systems are played. Obviously, this convention focused on Traveller, but there are a lot of different versions. There’s Classic Traveller (CT), MegaTraveller (MT), Traveller: The New Era (TNE), T4 (& T4.1, both of which were also marketed as Marc Miller’s Traveller), Traveller5 (T5), Traveller20 (T20, a d20 version), 2300 AD (there are at least two separate versions of 2300 AD, one by GDW and another by Mongoose, as well as 2320 AD, which is sort of a T20 version), GURPS: Traveller, Cepheus Engine, and, of course, the Mongoose editions. And as complete as this list might appear, it certainly isn’t. For example, there’s a guide for playing Traveller using FUDGE. In short, I don’t know that it’s even possible to name all the different versions of Traveller.
In any case, the scenarios at this convention were mostly CT, MT, and Mongoose, with a few of the others sprinkled in. I played in two of them, both of which were seeking players at the last moment. Before I get into the session reports, however, let me give you an overview in terms of what was available by copying/pasting the scenario descriptions from the convention schedule1:
- Cold & Wet:
- The PCs are uplifted dolphin characters, members of the elite Special Dolphin Service, the Imperium’s premier aquatic operations unit.
- So Others May Live 2 – Leviathan Slumbers:
- You are Sappers of the Imperial Rescue & Recovery Corps; you’ve been activated to stop a mysterious Merchant Cruiser from impacting the system’s main world with billions of sophonts and a fragile ecosystem.
- So Others May Live 3 – Crush Depth:
- A Colonial Cruiser has arrived in-system, declaring itself quarantined as it heads for the local gas giant likely to conduct wilderness refueling. The ship and crew are unresponsive to hails from the local Imperial Rescue & Recovery Corps detachment. Someone will have to go aboard to determine the nature of the emergency; that someone is you. Suit up, Sappers!!
- Across the Bright Face:
- While accompanying the absentee owner of his mining operation on Dinom (Spinward Marches 0201), the PCs are caught in a worker’s revolution and forced into a difficult trek across the blazing hot “bright face” of the planet to the safety of the local starport. They have lost their client; they may lose their lives as well!
- Stranded… In the Void:
- You are passengers on a Far Trader that has recently exited jump. Suddenly, alarms start wailing, and there’s a loud ruckus down below. Then… silence. Can you figure out what happened… and, most importantly, get to safety?
- The Chamax Plague:
- An expedition to a distant planet has disappeared. Initial reports from the expedition were promising, trying to discover what destroyed the planet’s previous culture — possibly a terrible disease — termed: the Chamax Plague. Fourteen people are missing. The adventurers are offered a contract to investigate and search for survivors. Speed is critical.
- Black Cauldron:
- It is the year 1105 Imperial. You are part of a Vargr crew prospecting at Aek Elakfough (aka ”Black Cauldron” at Gvurrdon 0439). Get filthy stinking rich or die trying.
- Lost in Time:
- While carousing in your latest port of call, you hear about an interesting discovery: a Second Imperium ship lost to history — the Arkyn — has been discovered anchored to an asteroid in a nearby belt. It appears to be completely intact, and two groups of treasure hunters have already gone to explore it; none have returned. Curious and in need of cash, you and your crew decides to head out there.
- Some Disassembly Required:
- That safari ship… you know… the one we “legitimately salvaged” after the prison break…? Oh, never mind. It’s a long story. Well, we now find ourselves being salvaged out of our “rightful salvage” by a Vargr pirate salvage vessel. They can’t take from us what we legitimately stole. Can they?
- The Peace Wolves:
- A clerk from Black Research and Development hires the players to recover an invention that was stolen. It’s being guarded by The Peace Wolves, an environmentally conscious protest group that wants to use the new tech to terraform the interior of an asteroid. They, in turn, are being actively hunted and retired by a Mercenary Company known as Parsec Nova. The Players are tasked with recovering the invention and staying alive when this war-in-progress heats up between the factions spilling into the public sphere at the Aracadia Asteroid Mining Station.
- Skenta (Foreven 1032) has been interdicted for 400 years since a civil war destroyed the star system’s sole habitable planet, killing nearly three billion sophonts in the process. To contain the threat, their neighbors destroyed every jump-capable ship in the system and retreated, wiping the databases of every mention of Skenta except a stark prohibition on contact. To this day the Skenta League and the Vilhet Open Alliance continue their bitter conflict through minor incidents and regrettable mistakes, each side maneuvering for advantage over the other. On a lonely research base hidden in the asteroid fields, scientists seek to re-invent the jump drive, a weapon that would all but guarantee victory for the VOA, unless their enemy gets it first.
- The Duke’s Dilemma:
- Something has happened to the noble on a small moon colony. Your team must solve the mystery to obtain permission to refuel and escape.
- Six top Darrian university scientists are on an expedition to Spume to investigate the (top secret) properties of certain materials. A Special Arm scientist on the fringes of the Star Trigger project leads the expedition, a vulcanologist, a seismologist, two materials specialists, and a technician are in support and looking forward to the university paid trip. Have any of them actually read up on Spume?
- The Annililk Run:
- Sign on with Captain BlackJack Tanner on his new ship, the Annililik! Its Maiden voyage, however, is more dangerous than originally advertised, jumping through pirate-infested systems one step ahead of the bankers who financed its construction. Tanner is the adventurer’s adventurer, pushing ship and crew to its limits for wealth and glory.
- Your last memory is of falling asleep in your cabin aboard the Empress Dragon. You awaken in a cell with other passengers. The door opens and two men wearing battle dress and carrying stun-sticks grab a gentleman — someone you have never seen before — and drag him screaming from the room. Beyond the door you hear more screams and what sounds like — power tools?! Where are you? What’s happening? More important: will you be next?!
- The Watchtower:
- As the crew of the Watchtower, a 200-ton Fast Trader, you will be running a few cargos between systems, but if only life were that easy. Using your contacts, you have been handed a sweet deal, or so it seems on the surface.
- Forgotten Memories:
- The PCs wake up from a top-secret medical procedure, their memories damaged. Interactions with objects and situations may trigger memories, unlocking their skills.
- The Chime of the Ruins:
- A unique Traveller/D&D5e mashup! On a distant asteroid, a memory-erasing chime is affecting the local belter settlement. In a race against time, the PCs must enter strange, recently-discovered ruins to find the chime’s source and stop it before they forget why they are there. Can they fix the problem before the corporate suits decide the fix isn’t worth the cost?
- Swiftly Tilting Fortunes:
- A research firm needs radioactive samples with a fast half-life moved to another site. The players have just arrived at Leopold Station, which is run by SuSAG, and have sixteen hours to leave. It’s legal, but just barely.
- 30 Rock:
- There were many reasons to visit Ranscore Station. Its entertainments, casinos and performance events were renowned throughout the sector, and the famous museum to the mythical battle of Hoth was an amusing distraction ideally set on the planet’s ice-bound surface. Fate, it seemed, had other ideas in the form of a solar event requiring hasty evacuation. Emergency evacuation flights were assigned and guests and staff began to leave. The station is beginning to seem a bit empty when finally you receive a ship assignment. The Coriander Breeze is waiting in small dock L27.
- Losing Air:
- Passengers aboard a subsidized merchant are left adrift after a pirate attack. With only emergency gear and their wits, can they figure out how to survive on the edge of the star system, while they are losing air?
- The Nuclear Options:
- Some years ago, a mid-tech world had an arms race and a cold war, and hostile nations developed nuclear weapons. One staged a demonstration blast that didn’t violate its understanding of the Imperium’s nuclear weapons rules and then demanded capitulation on various issues. Another nation dismissed the ultimatum with a demonstration of its own. The Imperium decided that was enough and came in with the Marines to shut down the nuclear play. They demanded all nuclear weapons and precursor materials be handed over or bad things would happen. The nuclear nations, for the most part, reluctantly surrendered their bombs, however, a few years later the cold war turned hot and through some mishap, the nuclear weapons that they had hidden from the Imperial observers were used, resulting in massive destruction, including loss of numerous Imperial observers. The world was interdicted. Relief agencies were dispatched to oversee recovery. Now, several years later, a diplomatic conference has been scheduled to consider lifting or modifying the interdiction order. The subsector duke had been scheduled to oversee the diplomatic conference, but he was called away on business and had to leave oversight of the conference in the hands of a subordinate, who doesn’t want to second-guess the duke by taking a heavy hand. The player characters are the diplomats from various nations of the world in question, diplomats from worlds with interests on the world in question, business lobbyists, non-governmental agency representatives, and so forth who are involved in the conference. Each has an agenda, and obviously some of their interests are aligned and some are opposed. Each player gets a character profile describing their interests, likely allies, and likely opponents. Inspired by Ars Magica: no dice, no rules, just diplomacy.
- Murder on Arcturus Station:
- When a corporate executive is murdered on Station Three of Arcturus Belt, the adventurers must solve the crime.
- Osiris Vaughn is a renowned arms dealer, smuggler, and information broker. The people that despise him also count on him to do his job. He has been able to stay one step ahead of Law Enforcement, criminal organizations, megacorporations and the Imperial government; but enough is enough. The Third Imperium and other interested parties have just issued a bounty on his head. Osiris’s only hope is to make it to Zhodani space, as they have offered him asylum. You are bounty hunters. Bring him in alive, and 500 MCr are yours!
- The Year is 2220. Jump drive was invented in 2089. A balkanized Earth has reached the stars. The Greys are real. Space seems free for the taking. Jump-2 just arrived in 2199. This is a gritty, tech level 11, corrupt, chaotic, early, human, space frontier. Anything can go!!!
- The Solidus Run:
- Sometimes a simple, profitable job goes horrifically wrong. In this case, a station died. We didn’t blow it up, but the terrorists that did suckered us by disguising themselves as wildcat belters that needed a fair amount of explosives to harvest a sizeable belt strike. Whether we knew it or not, we knew it would track back to us. The station belonged to BioGenTech, a ruthless Megacorp with great reach and a tendency to like to make terrifying examples of those who cross them. They put up bounties large enough to place their targets on the radar of every bounty-hunter or would-be thug in the Imperium. Then they send in-house hitters for good measure. And that’s not the worst of it. The Imperial Security Bureau of the Imperium of the Thousand Suns is known for relentless pursuit, summary justice, zero negotiation with those that have risen to their attention, and the station massacre definitely has their attention. The Imperium now is a death sentence — several attempts so far. The only chance is a dangerous run through the Tortured Abyss, an area of shattered space that can destroy a ship or drive the crew insane, through systems owned by the ruthless Solidus Syndicate, and escape to the far side of the Abyss to the Rimward Territories where you might be able to start anew and where your past mistakes might not matter.
- A scholar from Hermes Archaeology, Inc. hires the players as bodyguards when he undertakes an expedition to investigate an ancient alien ruin in a distant solar system.
- Space: Dangerous Fun:
- Dangerous Fun Industries (DFI), an Imperial registered interstellar travel corporation, is seeking crew members for short term contracts for immediate employment. DFI is the premier adventure experience company in the Spinward Marches. We travel to the most exotic, interesting worlds and give our clients experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives: simulated military experiences with simulated violence and a small risk of actual injury. Ideal candidates will have a background in intra and inter system travel on mid-sized craft (3000 Dtons) with Naval or Marine operational experience and be excellent interfaces with the guests and other passengers on our “Space: Dangerous Fun” experiences. Reply to DFI at Regina HighPort
- The Argon Gambit:
- The PCs are the crew of a bankrupt free trader, and these are their efforts to acquire capital to finance a new venture.
- Space Dogs:
- Imperial Vargr… uplifted doggies who do the dirty jobs. They are the underclass, doomed to die in the slums. Little Heaven is a small colony besieged by murderous pirates. They need help, and they don’t care if you’ve got fur and fangs so long that you can fight!
- The Way We Fight in Sector 77:
- The Third Imperium’s grip is far and faint along the frontier in this subsector sandbox where PCs can explore and make their own way… and their own rules. This game is also intended as the springboard for a weekly “virtual table” old-school campaign, if any player so chooses to join.
- Across the Bright Face:
- While accompanying the absentee owner of his mining operation on Dinom (Spinward Marches 0201), the PCs are caught in a worker’s revolution and forced into a difficult trek across the blazing hot “bright face” of the planet to the safety of the local starport.
- This Forgotten Babylon:
- On a desolate planet in the remote Wolfin Chace system, a survey crew has found something extraordinary. A vast ruined city, abandoned for tens of thousands of years, built with technology that no one has ever seen before. The system was placed under interdiction, and an urgent courier sent to arrange a large-scale survey mission. But a secret of this magnitude is a hard thing to keep. Freelance salvage crews across the subsector keep bored administrators ‘on retainer’ just so that they can get word of finds like this first, to steal a march on the competition. You are one such crew, and years of bribes have now paid off handsomely. Imagine the price you will get, selling the first artifacts of this newly discovered alien race. You, the owners and crew of the Some Hunter May, have arrived in-system, ahead of the competition and the authorities. All you have to do now is fill your hold with treasures and get away before anyone can stop you.
Like I said, I played in two of these, specifically “Forgotten Memories” and “Space Dogs”.
“Forgotten Memories” was run on Roll20 by Robert Kasper using the 2nd edition of the Mongoose rules. The characters were all randomly assigned pre-gens, but we didn’t have much on our character sheets. The upshot was that we were elite soldier skilled in all manner of combat, but we didn’t know that when we woke up. In fact, we couldn’t remember anything. All we knew was that we were in some sort of medical bay essentially wearing bed sheets, and there was a guy in some sort of uniform apologizing for waking us up early. He said the ship was under attack and that the rest of the crew were holed up in the mess. Then he got blasted from behind by Zhodani soldiers.
We didn’t know what Zhodani were, per se, but we had enough brains to recognize them as bad guys, so our combat reflexes kicked in, and though we were unarmed, we overtook them. Meanwhile, a computerized voice rang out over the PA, “Warning: fifteen minutes to self-destruct!”
In turned out that we’d all been voluntold into being human Guinea pigs for a bunch of mad scientists who were trying to neurologically implant extra combat skills into our heads to turn us into super-soldiers. Waking us up early had screwed with our brains, so we had to figure out what we knew as we went along. In short, the entire session was exploration and combat, sort of like a dungeon crawl, but on an Imperial lab ship with a bunch of Zhodani soldiers and their warbots lurking around every corner.
The highlight, for me, was getting into battledress and fighting off two combat droids with a plasma jet and gravity hammer. I consistently rolled shit, but when you’ve got four points in Bludgeon, ridiculous strength, and are assisted by the battledress, you can’t go wrong. In short, I had fun, even though combat really isn’t my thing.
What I learned:
Robert was a fairly young GM, but he knew what he was doing. The scenario started with a bang, and it just kept going like that, bang-bang-bang, from one combat to another. All the while we were acquiring weapons and equipment as various challenges triggered our memories and we figured out what skills we had as well as bits and pieces of our personal histories. In short, I think he designed a really strong convention scenario where the PCs start from nothing (no equipment, few skills, and no knowledge of what’s going on) and quickly progress like they’re in some four-hour video game.
Furthermore, there was no railroading, although we had to move. The clock was ticking, but we could go wherever we wanted. If we wanted to spend fifteen minutes examining our navels, we could have. It wouldn’t have been smart, but nothing was stopping us.
Most interestingly, nearly every time we walked into a room, Robert would show us a picture of what we saw. He’s a Game Developer at Digital Arc Systems, and they’re working on some project that involves him creating shipboard illustrations of what I’m guessing is a Broadsword mercenary cruiser, so he used them in the game, and I thought they were quite well done and added something unique to the scenario.
Afterwards, he admitted he hadn’t been GMing for long, but that one thing the experienced GMs had told him is that when a player asks if his or her character can do x or y, when in doubt, say yes. That’s good advice, I thought to myself, realizing that’s one of the tactics he’d been using to keep things humming.
“Space Dogs”1 was run on Discord by David Thomas, its author, using the T4 rules in conjunction with Milieu 0. The characters were all pregens, and since two players hadn’t shown up, I got to choose between playing Molly or Sheba. I’ve never taken Molly, and Sheba on the original Battlestar Galactica (who was played by Anne Lockhart) was quite the fox, so, of course, I chose Sheba, who turned out to be a Vargr chemist/demolitions expert and the girlfriend of one of the other PCs.
Interestingly, our character sheets had not only our stats and personal backgrounds but also included our characters’ initial perceptions regarding our pack-mates (all the other PCs), and this stuff was, I have to say, really well-written. According to Sheba’s character write-up, she, despite being very intelligent and well-educated, was highly racist against humans. So I went with that, pleased to find a GM who obviously cares enough about characterization to give us this level of background.
In many games I play in, I have questions about why my character is even with these other characters, but that wasn’t a problem in this game, and David gave us ample time to interact and roleplay before the adventure even began. There we were in a pub, arguing about what to order, when we were approached by a pair of humans intent upon hiring us to protect a nearby colony from raiders. They gave us Cr100,000 to buy weapons for ourselves and the fifty or so colonists willing to fight alongside us, and we ended up taking an hour or so of game time going through weapons lists. It was basically an accountant’s wet dream.
Then it was off to the starport, all the while being shadowed by police, and onto a ship that got boarded and inspected shortly after take-off. Then, when we came out of jump, we got ripped into by one of these raiders we were supposed to defend the colony against. They hit us so hard, we literally didn’t have a bridge anymore.
I’m already giving away too much of this adventure, so I’ll stop, but it was basically all combat from this point going forward.
What I learned:
When gaming at a convention, don’t run a scenario that requires the players to buy equipment. You only have four hours. Make every minute count.
Also, it would really help if there was a Traveller resource that would answer questions that come up every time the PCs try to take over a ship. For example, exactly what does the bridge control, what does the ship’s computer control, and what does engineering control? And what are the lines of control? In short, if you can capture the computer, can you lock out the bridge, or vice versa? What are all the different types of anti-hijack equipment, and what do they cost in terms of both initial costs and annual maintenance? For example, what’s it costs to be able to lock or unlock doors remotely? What about security cameras and hidden mics? I could go on forever, but you get the idea. You’d think that after all the editions of this game, somebody would have written the definitive resource on starship security.
On the flip-side, providing detailed character backgrounds that explain why the PCs are together and what they think of each other is a great idea.
The only other thing I’d add to this is that this game ran during the final slot of the convention, and everyone, including the GM, seemed pretty gamed-out. I’d only played in two games, but most people I’d talked to had played in three or four. I didn’t realize until the end just how mentally taxing convention gaming can be.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience, but I have to admit that my favorite part wasn’t the gaming but rather just hanging out in the social hour chat room between sessions to talk to other Traveller enthusiasts. I talked to a few about some of my misgivings regarding the official Traveller universe3 and the use of social skills in Traveller4, as well as ideas on what makes for good gaming. I also mentioned A&E to a few of them. I’m not sure if it’ll spur any interest, but it doesn’t hurt to give the APA some word of mouth.
I probably would have played in more games had I known how flaky many players are. I had looked through the schedule on Friday for games with open slots, and most of them were marked as being full, but then I saw a GM have to stand down Saturday morning because nobody showed up. I would have jumped in, but there was some stuff I had to do that morning, so I couldn’t, but from that point forward, I just assumed that every game would be open regardless of what the schedule said, and of the two games I attempted to enter, that supposition turned out to be true.
Q&A with the Convention Organizer
The organizer, Greg Caires, was kind enough to talk to me about his perceptions of how things went.
JV: Greetings, fellow sophont. So, how did it come to be that you organized a virtual Traveller connection? I’m to understand that it was somewhat more successful than you anticipated.
GC: Ken Patterson and I are longtime TravellerCON/USA participants, and, in fact, Ken is one of the leading organizers of that event. TravellerCON/USA is the American version of TravCon, first organized in the UK. TravellerCON/USA traditionally occurs in late September or early October in or near Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is organized by Keith and Megan Frye. Due to COVID, TravellerCON/USA was canceled in late June, and Ken had the idea of organizing an online “non-convention” — no fees, little administration — that would act as a sort of clearinghouse where players and GMs could meet and play.
We did some spit-balling over adult beverages and came up with the name “Virtual Traveller” and described it as a “virus-free” (a play on T4) weekend of online roleplaying. We decided to create a Facebook group to organize and promote the games offered. Because the events would be showing when and “where” members would be meeting, Facebook privacy standards required the group to be closed to members only. As that limited our marketing efforts, we had to establish a public page on Facebook to market the private group. We further promoted it via other Traveller groups on Facebook.
Members joined, games were promoted, and players signed up. We used Warhorn, which is free, to further promote the weekend. We posted notices to Citizens of the Imperium. SAFECO podcast interviewed Ken about it. Freelance Traveller published a “designers notes” article about the event. And even the Traveller Wiki posted our logo and advertisement. We used Discord to facilitate communication between us, the GMs and their players, as well as to promote the weekend on other Traveller-related servers there.
We thought if we got fifty people to participate it would be a success. Our current group membership tops 550, and we were able to organize nearly three dozen games across Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Based on this success, we intend to keep Virtual Traveller going as a place to gather and promote online Traveller games.
JV: How much time did you give yourself to accomplish this? In short, how long before an online convention does the organization need to begin?
GC: We started planning in July during the Independence Day weekend. We started with Facebook because so many Traveller groups and players are already there. We had the basic infrastructure up within a few days, and then we needed GMs to offer games before we could go any further. Interest built quickly but then stalled. I expected interest to spike up again after Labor Day when summer ended and then again in October as we got closer to the event. Unlike in the real world where people are forced to plan ahead for travel, hotels, etc., I imagined that many “walk-ons” would join us as the weekend began, and that’s exactly what we saw.
JV: What were your favorite and least favorite parts of the experience?
GC: Finding and communicating with people globally about Traveller and playing the games with them was great. Navigating the sometimes confusing and non-intuitive aspects of Facebook — running the group, keeping the page and events up-to-date was more like work.
JV: How do you feel it went? Is there anything you’d do differently?
GC: I think it went well — not perfect but pretty well for the first time doing this. We had some GMs who needed to cancel a handful of games, and I accept that. The hardest part was keeping track of which games were Open and which were Full to give GMs and players some sense of interest and what to expect. For the past few weeks I was updating those game status pages with names of players with confirmed seats. It was a real chore. And in the end, I don’t know if everyone who RSVP’d in advance even turned up. If we do this again — and I’m not rushing to do it — we may determine if TableTop Events is an affordable option and charge fees just sufficient to cover the cost of using that platform to track registrations and game status.
JV: What advice would you give to someone who wants to organize an online gaming convention?
GC: Do it. Start small. Understand what is achievable and realistic given the tools available and the time you might have to donate. I think a year ago, pre-COVID, this would have been harder to do — to find an audience, to find GMs familiar with running online RPGs, and for everyone overall to be accepting of the challenges associated with playing virtually.
JV: The success you’ve had with this endeavor makes me wonder if this role-playing renaissance we seem to be in is going to continue marching on. Do you have any thoughts on the future of Traveller or the RPG hobby in general?
GC: I’m just a player, so I don’t have any insider knowledge about the future of the game in terms of creative content, but from the player perspective, perhaps by being forced to embrace online tools like Roll20 we can finally bridge the analog-digital divide and bring Traveller to a new generation of players more used to playing video games than pen-and-paper old-school RPGs.