Slices of Life
This review originally appeared on rpg.net in March 2017 and was reprinted with permission in the July/August 2023 issue.
Slices of Life. Martin J. Dougherty
Original Publication: 2012
Current Availability: Out of Print
This review, the twenty-sixth in the series looks at a collection of Traveller short stories by frequent author Martin J. Dougherty.
About the Book
Between the fall of T4 (1998) and the rise of Mongoose Traveller (2008) and T5 (2013), Traveller largely disappeared from retail shelves in its original forms— but it lived on by adapting other game systems. The story of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Traveller (1998-2006) is well known because its print books are still available (often for outrageous prices) from second-hand sellers. However two other publishers are slipping into obscurity because so many of their publications were produced as part of the nascent PDF market: QuikLink Interactive (QLI), publisher of Traveller20 (2002), and ComStar Games, publisher of HERO Traveller (2007).
Traveller20 is particularly notable because it introduced not just a new game system for Traveller, but also a new setting: the Gateway Era, set around 1000 in the Gateway Domain. QLI debuted the setting in The Linkworlds Cluster (2002), then supported it with both setting books and adventures. They also published a mammoth sourcebook on the era, Gateway to Destiny (2004).
QLI was interested in fiction from the start and published a trio of Martin J. Dougherty short stories to their web site in the ramp up to T20: “Pandora’s Box” (2001), “Diplomatic Extraction” (2001), and “Secret of the Ancients” (2001). They then produced a PDF fiction anthology called Traveller’s Aide #2: Grand Endeavor (2003), which contained yet more stories by Dougherty set in the Gateway Era; the book also previewed the first chapter of a novel called “The Big Hurrah”, set in the Interstellar Wars era that would soon be used by Steve Jackson Games in GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars (2006).
QLI’s PDFs all disappeared from the 'net when Mongoose picked up the Traveller license, but Dougherty decided to resurrect his Gateway Era short stories in a collection from Avalon Games, the successor to ComStar Games. Slices of Life thus contains the four short stories from Traveller’s Aide #2, one of the online stories, and numerous shorter pieces of “flashfiction”. “The Big Hurrah” is not included (and was presumably never finished).
|“Grand Endeavour”||Martin J. Dougherty||2002||2||4|
|“In Wilder Places Too …”||Martin J. Dougherty||2002||3||2|
|“Reactivation Clause”||Martin J. Dougherty||2002||4||2|
|“Wheelman”||Martin J. Dougherty||2002||3||2|
|“Under the Sunburst”||Martin J. Dougherty||?||3||2|
|“Pandora’s Box”||Martin J. Dougherty||2001||3||3|
About the Setting
Slices of Life is based in a time period that unfortunately has largely disappeared. The print Gateway to Destiny book remains available from second-hand dealers, but at an inflated price. The rest of the Gateway Era adventures and sourcebooks were long unavailable because they were only produced as PDFs. Fortunately, they’ve recently been resurrected on a FFE CD-ROM.
Five sourcebooks form the core of the setting:
- Gateway to Destiny (QLI, 2004)
- The Linkworlds Cluster (QLI, 2002)
- Traveller20 Referee's Screen/Linkworlds Cluster (QLI, 2003)
- Traveller20 Special Supplement 1: The Sydymics Outworlds Cluster (QLI, 2004)
- Gateway Domain Cluster Book 1: The Megusard Corporate (ComStar Games, 2006)
- Gateway Domain Cluster Book 2: The Starfall Cluster (ComStar Games, 2007)
QuikLink also produced numerous Traveller20 EPIC Adventures (2004-2005) set in the Gateway Era, while ComStar linked the setting with classic Traveller rules in their Gateway Domain Campaign Adventure 1: Homecoming (2007).
The Stellar Reaches PDF fanzine (2005-Present) adopted the nearby Empty Quarter Sector of the Gateway Era as its initial home base. Unlike the other Gateway Era books, it remains available (from its fan site), and has even recently returned after a two-year hiatus.
“Grand Endeavour” (2002) by Martin J. Dougherty. In this first story, Free Trader Captain Paulo Danilo of the Eternal Optimist learns the history of the planet Raa, then is called upon to save the crew of the Grand Endeavour, a ship plunging to its death after a fatal misjump. By risking his life, Danilo may right an ancient wrong of his own.
Dougherty’s writing here is fairly well polished, but the story is unfocused. The first third of the story is spent on a conversation with a Vargr about the politics of Raa and why it has an Amber rating, none of which is actually important. The story picks up after that, as action takes center stage, but the introduction is offputting because it’s an infodump that’s irrelevant to what follows. Style: 2.
Raa/Frontier Worlds (Ley Sector 1927), 1000. “Grand Endeavour” is the first short story to focus on the Gateway Era, and that’s probably the reason for the massive info dump about Raa — which is much more useful as setting material than story background. It provides a GM with just enough detail to run games on the world.
Beyond that, “Grand Endeavour” does a good job of depicting the feel of the Traveller universe in just a few short pages. The introduction’s description of what a free trader does is practically a mission statement for Traveller, while the casual inclusion of a Vargr helps to set the stage. However, it’s the central problem of the story that really shines: a misjumping ship that’s plummeting to its doom. Not only does this give Dougherty an opportunity to describe some of the intricacies of jump, but it also suggests an adventure that would be appropriate in any Traveller game. Traveller Substance: 4.
“In Wilder Places Too …” (2002) by Martin J. Dougherty. A tale of scoundrels Tal and Jandro, who are hijacked into infiltrating an archaeological mission. Unfortunately, they soon find themselves in an awful mess, trapped between psionics and a remnant race.
As with “Grand Endeavour”, the writing here is generally good. Though it drags at time, the story is more focused — describing how the two friends get into trouble, and then into even more trouble. Style: 3.
Ley Sector, 1000. You’d only know that “In Wilder Places Too …” is set in the Ley Sector during the Gateway Era from the introduction that appeared in Traveller’s Aide #2. There’s nothing in the story itself that speaks to that background.
With that said, “In Wilder Places Too …” does have some Traveller applicability, primarily because it’s not a typical Traveller story. Most of the novels reviewed here are about ships traveling between the stars, but this story is instead about two scoundrels and the troubles they find planetside.
The idea of an archaeological dig could also be a great Traveller adventure, and Dougherty mixes that with psionics, a remnant race, and possibly even the Ancients. (Personally, I think he’s too quick to jump to the Ancients for such a short story; there are plenty of other lost treasures to be found with two previous Imperiums lying in the past.) So, this isn’t the deepest Traveller story around, but it contains elements to get you thinking about adventures other than the typical stories of ships and stars. Traveller Substance: 2.
“Reactivation Clause” (2002) by Martin J. Dougherty. The title refers to former Scout Kye Roberts, who reactivates himself when a storm strands prospectors out in the middle of nowhere. He then proves that he’s still willing to risk his life for his ideals.
This is another story that’s up to the same standards as its predecessors. It also has a bit of emotional heft to it. Style: 4.
Ley Sector, 1000. Like most of the stories in Slices of Life you'd only know “Reactivation Clause” was set in the Ley Sector in the Gateway Era if you read the original introduction in Traveller’s Aide #2. It’s set on a nameless planet with a big desert and a community called Pender’s Hope.
The actual Traveller content comes from Roberts’ status as a former scout who is reactivated. This provides some nice background on the scouts as well as a good look at the attitudes of at least one scout on “detached duty” — all of which might influence your own Traveller game. Traveller Substance: 2.
“Wheelman” (2002) by Martin J. Dougherty. The wheelman is Vargr Harnagh “Lifters” Loursegh, who’s hired to help Naval Intelligence freelancers to get off planet. This requires lots of reckless driving.
This story is mostly an adrenaline blast, full of shooting guns and spinning wheels. It’s enjoyable enough, except when it gets confusing. Style: 3.
Ley Sector, 1000. The Naval freelancers that Lifters is helping are the crew of the Eternal Optimist, the protagonists of “Grand Endeavour”. However, that’s (again) the only sign that we’re still in the Gateway Era — which as usual is confirmed by the original introduction in Traveller’s Aide #2.
The best Traveller content in “Wheelman” comes from the fact that Lifters is a Vargr, something that Dougherty has fun with in his descriptions throughout the text. Beyond that, the story is replete with Traveller references such as scouts, Solomani, multiple Vargr, marines, navy, and an air/raft … but they’re all pretty shallow details, not really explained. The best you can say is that “Wheelman” gives you the feel of Traveller, but not the details.
The ending is also pretty cool, because it mashes up land and space transport, showing how the worlds and stars of Traveller work together. Traveller Substance: 2.
“Under the Sunburst” Flash Fiction (?) by Martin J. Dougherty. This set of vignettes details a variety of common occurrences in the Traveller universe, including a docking, an encounter with a Vargr, a Vilani meal, a negotiation with a herald, a ball, and a barfight. They’re got good breadth, from space to cities to the wilderness. They aren’t actually stories, they’re just moments in time. The writing is good and these vignettes are brief enough to generally remain interesting despite the lack of plot. (Don’t read them all at once, though, or they'll get old quickly.) Style: 3.
Ley Sector, 1000. Several of these vignettes feature characters from the earlier stories in Slices of Life, so it’s fair to guess they’re all contemporary with the Gateway Era.
But how much Traveller insight can you gain from a story that’s just a page or two in length? As it turns out, the answer is a bit, if you’re concerned with the details, and that’s exactly Dougherty’s point. His whole purpose was to address the question, “what does this setting LOOK like?” “Under the Sunburst” provides some good answers. It’s worth reading to try and get the feel of the Traveller universe. Traveller Substance: 2.
“Pandora’s Box” (2001) by Martin J. Dougherty. In this final story, Free Trader and Mail Courier Jaime Vorstaten is called to trial for purposefully jettisoning the Emperor’s mail. He explains why.
Like the other Dougherty stories in this anthology, this one is well-written. It also pulls readers along thanks to its mystery, as they try to figure out why Vorstaten did what he did. Style: 3.
Location and Time Unknown. Though “Pandora’s Box” doesn’t have a definite setting, it’s deeply embedded in the Traveller universe. That’s in large part because the central issue (or dumping the Imperial mail) is very core to the setting. However, Dougherty also mixes in scouts, the navy, and a few other features of the Traveller universe to provide even more Imperial depth. Traveller Substance: 3.
Slices of Life is another bit of Dougherty’s Traveller fiction that appeared as a PDF through Avalon Games
Slices of Life is interesting for its visceral, sometimes evocative depiction of the Traveller universe. It’s well-written, representing Dougherty’s growth as a fiction writer from his earliest work, but it’s not very memorable. The most disappointing thing about the stories is that they’re set in the Gateway Era, but give almost no impression of it.