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This is Free Trader Beowulf: a system history of Traveller

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue.

This is Free Trader Beowulf: a system history of Traveller. Shannon Appelcline.
Original Publication: 2024
Current Availability: eBook; print forthcoming

Full disclosure: the reviewer, along with others, had early sight of some of the chapters (just the main text) as they were written to help with comments and corrections. I’m only sorry that ill health meant I couldn’t offer more. This review has been written, however, on the basis of my own purchase of the book. Indeed, in a drug fuelled haze in hospital I managed to buy it twice by accident. But if that encourages Mr Appelcline to provide more of this kind of thing, so be it!

For a game of the far future, Traveller has a lot of history. I should know, I’ve lived through it, played through almost all of it and collected for virtually all of it. Traveller is nearly fifty years old and there is a lot of history in five decades and a multitude of editions, eras and publishers. Some of that history has been told before in Appelcline’s Designers & Dragons. This four-volume set, however, covered the whole role-playing industry and could necessarily only include sections on Traveller. (Mr Appelcline has also looked at the fictional basis and inspiration of Traveller in his The Science Fiction in Traveller, FFE, 2017). Wouldn’t it be great however if a comprehensive overview of Traveller could be collected in one volume coherently looking at the development of the game, in all its forms, across the years? Wish no longer, that work is here in This is Free Trader Beowulf.

Obviously, this new work covers big players such as GDW, Imperium Games, and Mongoose Publishing, but it includes so much more as well in its comprehensive coverage of every rule set and every era. Licensees, multimedia spinoffs, checklists of products, glimpses of ‘what might have been’. There’s a wealth of information in this magisterial work of some 296 pages.  From July 1977 to 2023 and Aliens of Charted Space 4 or Mysteries of the Ancients, Appelcline has not only surveyed the literature but dug into archives, forums, letters pages and much more to be able to report on what was going on at the time and fit it all into a chronology that explains much about Traveller. He solidly situates Marc Miller, GDW and Traveller in wider role-playing history of the time and this is really helpful if you’re not necessarily familiar with the bigger picture. The author doesn’t just tell you that a title was published, but explains why it is relevant to the greater whole. That the author does this in an immensely readable way is all credit to him.

The book is divided into 15 chapters starting with Marc Miller & GDW in times before Traveller.  It then moves through all the editions with looks along the way at licensees or fandom or ‘roleplaying in 1981’ for example, and finally arrives at Mongoose’s 2nd edition update. Each chapter begins with a colour page and image, a sentence or two of what is to come and the dates covered. There are then several sections of specific bits of history in each chapter, a look at publications that were slated for publication but never appeared, checklists of books for readers who want to be comprehensive or collectors to assess their own holdings, and finally lists of the main references used in the creation of the chapter, some of which are hyperlinked. 

Throughout there are selections of artwork from the original texts, cover images, photos of various people and dot maps of various sectors marking where particular sets of adventures appear. These latter could be particularly useful for referees wanting to set a campaign in a particular region of space and wanting to know what published adventures might be available to use or mine for ideas. Occasionally there are sector grids showing what company or person had ‘responsibility’ for what area (i.e., old land grabs or land grants).

Throughout the volume, titles are clearly labelled in italics and with dates of publication which can really help either identify very similar titles or provide a gentle reminder about where a title is from given the rich history. This is very welcome as more than once I found myself reading a title and being glad of the grounding in which book was being referred to.

As for the design of the book, Sandrine Thirache has done a superlative job. It is attractive, modern and clean looking; serifed text throughout, sans serif titles and subtitles. Most pages have some kind of illustration, graphic or map. There are photographs, book covers – some at a jaunty angle, some straight on the page, and illustrations from the original sources. Sometimes these are backed by a swash of colour which makes them stand out and unifies the look across the book. Page numbers are placed in a hex with a smaller empty hex beside. Chapter straplines are repeated sideways on the left side of each page with the dates covered sideways on the right side of each page. This makes it easy to keep track of where you are in the history and is welcome. Subtitles are used throughout the chapters. Many are a little fanciful but they add to the joie de vivre of the whole project which, along with a liberal peppering of excited exclamation marks in the text, show the author’s love of the subject and appreciation for just how interesting or strange some of the history he has uncovered has been. Coming from an academic background I found this odd to start with, but soon accepted that it didn’t show any lack of professionalism so much as a familiarity with and love for Traveller.

Mongoose has taken the perhaps slightly unusual step of laying the book out in landscape format. I should note that I’ve only seen the PDF version thus far as the print edition is to follow. It is not clear from their website whether the print version will be landscape or hard/soft cover but the images support the landscape orientation and it would have been easy enough to provide two different PDFs if a portrait version existed. A choice certainly would have been good. [STOP PRESS: I’ve just had it confirmed the book will be hardcover in line with other Mongoose publications.] This landscape orientation does make the book easier to read on a laptop or computer screen, not as easy to read on other devices which may be more geared up for reading in portrait format. It remains to be seen how comfortable the physical book might be to read. It would be interesting to hear Mongoose’s thinking behind the decision – although, perhaps, it will make the volume standout on the shelves from all the gaming material. I can hear librarians sighing even now.

That may be a plus or a minus depending on your view but there is a very little else here to complain about. Appelcline perhaps overeggs the idea of a ‘long night’ a little. He puts it between 1998 and 2007 when Traveller had no formal publishing line, although it does work as reference from Traveller’s own history and the period did feel like a hiatus to fans hoping for more. So perhaps he’s not wrong on that. A handful of glitches have crept past the proof-reading but as I feel guilty about that, I’ll say no more. More of a tiny niggle is the seemingly random use of a ‘forward’ apostrophe in abbreviated years – e.g. ‘70s rather than ’70s. Usage starts out correctly for a chapter or three, seems to become flaky and then seems always wrong. This really is minor though and in no way detracts from the content of the text, even if it looks odd.

If my biggest issue with the book was not being able to decide whether to read each chapter’s main history straight through and then go back for the interesting pages of additional material, or whether to read such ‘side bars’ (usually full pages) inline with the text, then the author has done something right. In fact, perhaps my real complaint is that made by some readers of The Lord of the Rings, it’s not long enough!

On the other hand, a real knack that the book has, is in providing information that even the most ardent Traveller fan may not already know. Much of this history I knew or at least had lived through or read about and largely forgotten, but Appelcline does three things that make the book worth buying alone. He brings together a lot of history that it is easy to lose sight of and he makes connections that join the dots in a helpful way. He gives a greater appreciation of things already known but not fully appreciated. An example here, for me, was in learning that the APA I’ve been privileged to be a small part isn’t just an APA but is pretty much the APA in terms of history. Finally, the author has uncovered – or put together from his gleanings – new information that I’d not come across. Just one example was the list of items in the ‘Gannon Plan’ on p.132.

Whether you’re a newcomer wanting to navigate the wealth of Traveller’s history which, let’s face it, can be intimidating, a grognard wanting a one-stop shop for that wealth of information, a referee looking for inspiration in adventures or their locations, a collector looking to check out the further reaches of Traveller obscurity, a writer looking for corners not yet covered to create something original, a player hoping they might be able to encourage their referee to take them ‘further out’, there is almost certainly something here for you. I can only hope Appelcline is aiming to write the next 47 years of Traveller history as well. In the meantime, anyone with more than a passing interest in Traveller should both enjoy this and find it invaluable.