PDF and Paper
At the time of writing, early April 2004, Gateway to Destiny has gone off to the printers and it's due out in dead tree form "soon". Last year the publishers took the unusual step of pre-releasing a PDF final draft of the text, complete with maps but minus art. I bought it about six months ago and GMed a small campaign in the setting; I'm also playing in another Gateway campaign and doing GM prep for a third.
Those who bought the pre-release version (for a bargain ten bucks!) got a PDF of the final book, including art, when it was completed. It's this final PDF that I'm reviewing, but it will be withdrawn once the identical paper book goes on sale. The dead tree version will be a 256 page soft cover; the price is yet to be set.
Setting, Milieu, Timeline and Rules
Gateway to Destiny is set at the top-right corner (alright, coreward-trailing) of the human-centric Third Imperium. It spans the Ley, Gateway, Glimmerdrift Reaches, and Crucis Margin sectors. The Impies call this area "The Domain of Gateway", even though Gateway sector is outside the empire. There are about 1450 worlds on the map.
This area forms a buffer between the Imperium and the alien empires of the K'Kree (vegetarians who would exterminate all meat eaters) and the Hive Federation (giant pink starfish psycho-historical-manipulator types). The Imperium covers about half a sector in total along the left side of the map, and the major aliens are just off the right side. The bulk of the setting, in the middle, is filled with independent worlds or relatively small interstellar "pocket empires". Some of these are under the influence (or invasion threat) of the three major polities; but most are doing their own thing and occasionally trying to force it on the neighbours.
As the six major Traveller rule sets came out over the years, each brought a new version of the "Official Traveller Universe" (OTU) setting. The assorted versions are each known as a "milieu". They're placed at particular years along a common timeline in the shared universe (though in practice there are consistency problems). Original "Classic" Traveller was set in 1107, the apparent golden age of the Third Imperium. Megatraveller was set about ten years later, with the same Imperium wracked by rebellion and civil war. And so on.
Gateway to Destiny is set in the year 993, earlier than most existing settings but not so different from Classic Traveller. There is a war going on between the Imperium and the Solomani Confederation about 100 parsecs around the border, but that's mostly just making ripples in Gateway.
This book is offered as the opening gambit of a milieu known as "Milieu 1000", which will advance the timeline up to the year 1000 though various sourcebooks and "Grand Adventures". So it appears that there will be a micro-timeline within the setting, and there is the risk of it overwriting our games. Frankly, I would much rather have everything occur simultaneously in the year 993. I'd also like to see "this planet/species/hook is destined to feature in Grand Adventure #2" style warnings in a GM's section.
The book does its best to be independent of rules, and it succeeds very well. When rules are necessary (e.g. stat modifiers for alien races) it uses T20, the D20 adaptation of Traveller that is also published by QLI. But I can't see players of "Classic" Traveller, Megatraveller, or GURPS Traveller having much of a problem using the book.
QLI have done a truly fine job on the rules issue. Players are in the habit of saying things like "CT is set in 1107" or "GURPS Trav is set in an alternate 1120 without the rebellion" or "T20 is set in 1000". The last statement is untrue – T20 is highly decoupled from milieu, and Gateway to Destiny is largely decoupled from rules. This is something of an achievement in the Traveller world.
Style and Scope
Some time back, Martin J. Dougherty co-authored a GURPS Traveller book called "Behind the Claw", which drew criticism for a style somewhat more cinematic than the Traveller world had come to like. I haven't read that book, but Gateway to Destiny seems pretty middle of the road to me. If you're familiar with the Keith Brothers' Reaver's Deep book, SJG's Sword Worlds, or QLI's Linkworlds Cluster then it's in the same ballpark.
Nobody ever detailed all, or even much, of the OTU – publishers have generally covered a sector here or there. They typically provide some sort of overview plus star maps and a single line of coded "UWP data" for each world (starport type, atmosphere, population, tech level etc). A few sample worlds get actual descriptions beyond the numbers. There'll be a handful of minor races, either aliens or genetically modified humans. The rest of the worlds in the setting will be "open for the referee to describe as they wish" or "not finished" as you prefer to look at it.
Gateway to Destiny follows the classic model, except it's 256 pages covering 4 sectors with about 35 different power blocs. It touches on 25 races; about a dozen are Gateway natives like Luriani or Kahyri and the rest are the familiar crew from Vargr to Virushi and Dolphin to Droyne. I think it has 1444 solar systems and I'm not double-checking. Around 50 of these systems get a text description to go with the UWP. When it does describe an individual world, it's always meaty enough to get a few decent hooks (a common criticism of Behind the Claw is that the world descriptions aren't long enough).
It's big, and on the whole it's broad brush. But I note that a lot of QLI's ancillary products that are on sale or in the pipeline – e.g. the Epic Adventure PDFs and the Starfall Cluster book – are set in roughly the same part of the Glimmerdrift Reaches sector. A GM looking to buy a more completely realised setting off the shelf could concentrate on that neck of the woods and do quite well. The Imperial Trade Cluster section, which was a late addition to the book, provides lavish background detail for a political campaign, but not for standard planet-hopping.
There was some earlier work published for this corner of space, by Judges' Guild. That has been "de-canonized" and Gateway to Destiny does not follow it. The UWPs in the book are based on "official" data supplied by Marc Miller, apparently related to Megatraveller Journal 4 and the Atlas of the Imperium. I do remember a couple of tangential GURPS references that don't mesh perfectly with QLI's Gateway, but they're trivial.
Let me start with a list by page count:
- 2 page introduction
- 10 page overview and history of the region, plus a 3 page timeline
- 17 pages on the major and minor races (with pictures for most of them)
- 11 pages on the major political powers surrounding the setting
- 15 pages on the minor political powers (pocket empires) within it
- 4 pages on powerful organisations (megacorporations, churches, spooks)
- 4 pages on powerful individuals (nobles, corporate leaders, charismatic politicians and the like)
- 79 pages of maps and UWP data for four sectors, including text descriptions of 48 worlds and some additional overview text at the sector/subsector level
- 15 pages on "life and adventuring", e.g. how the starports work, how the military are organized, trading patterns, organised crime, and a set of adventure hooks
- Late addition: 12 page "mini game setting" describing the Imperial Trade Cluster (which includes the domain capital); it's heavy on the politics
- 31 page starter adventure called "Cold Fuzion"
- 30 page appendices which basically repeat the maps and UWP data in a compact format
The overview material is good, clear work and by golly it's written top-down. Traveller publishers have a long and inglorious history of presenting their information bottom-up, often as A to Z "library data", which forces the reader to map out the forest from sketches of the trees. The old Reaver's Deep sector book, for example, contained a terrific setting but it reads like a sort of giant logic puzzle.
I'm delighted to say that Gateway to Destiny isn't like this. It starts with the broad overview and general trends, and then goes into increasing detail over smaller areas. One can read about the Grand Duchy of Stoner's diplomatic policy and think "ah yes, that follows naturally from what I read earlier about Imperial border creep". If only all Traveller books were like this…
Is It Good, and Is It Useful?
So the description is good. How good is the setting it describes? Pretty much everything a standard traveller campaign could need is here:
- A decent chunk of the Third Imperium.
- The black and white alien menace of the K'Kree to loom over the setting.
- The Hivers to intrigue and unnerve everybody..
- Plenty of species and sub-races, most of them interesting, with their mutual history and friendly/antagonistic relations laid out.
- Imperial administrative details for political campaigns, especially in The Imperial Trade Cluster mini-setting
- Oodles of pocket empires of every political, social, economic and technological stripe, with their relations sketched out and fizzing with hooks.
- A plethora of independent worlds, which could play host to just about anything.
- More general political, economic and social power groups, that aren't tied to specific points on the map.
- Comprehensive maps and UWP data, enough world descriptions to get a start but not enough for a whole campaign.
- A 30 page adventure to get you started.
- A line of adventures and more detailed setting material that's started to come out.
All of that is good solid stuff. The planets, the power groups, and the pocket empires are as interesting as you'll find in most traveller material. Everything shows a determined effort to provide plenty of hooks. The descriptions of history and foreign relations are to a very high standard. The prose is the work of a novelist, and it shows.
There are three aspects of the content that will be issues for some players: It's pretty high level. It contains questions, not answers. And the UWPs are about normal for published Traveller settings, i.e. awful.
The high level approach, with as many campaign hooks as adventure hooks, could be good or bad depending on the buyer. GMs will be creating most of the worlds their players visit unless they buy additional adventure/setting material. Some of them will love that, while those who buy settings on an "I pay you to do the work so I don't have to" basis will be less pleased. In D&D-speak, it's Greyhawk rather than Forgotten Realms.
As I said, some additional material is out there or on its way. I have two PDF adventures with additional Gateway setting material, but I'm reluctant to read them for GM fodder since I play in a game which is due to use them. QLI hit a home run by separating rules and setting books, but it would be nice if they could do the same with setting and adventure books.
The second issue is largely a matter of preference. I think I'll just quote the introduction here:
You will note that there is no "Referees Only" section in this book. [...] we're not in the habit of dictating to referees how their games should run. What is presented in these pages are the "known facts" about a particular place, organization or person. But what is the truth? The truth is whatever the referee decides it to be.
Take the Loyal Sector Guard, for example. Are they a jackbooted elite political organization or an ineffectual bunch of rich people who just like having a fancy uniform to wear? The organization is large enough that both could be true. Or there could be some entirely different "truth" behind the LSG. It's up to the referee to decide what to do with any given piece of information, to integrate it into the campaign or to ignore it.
Here's a book about Gateway Domain.
It's yours now.
Do with it what you will…
They deliver on that promise. I would have liked a few GM notes for practical purposes (e.g. "these systems will be overwritten by a later cluster book"), but on the whole it's a workable approach and I think it's probably the appropriate one for a high level setting book.
Finally, we come to the blessed UWPs.
Everybody who has played Traveller from published settings based on the game's bottom-up random generation is used to some eye-popping system statistics. You see worlds with a population of 400 and a class A starport ("typically 60000 starport employees"). You see worlds that must be the density of lead to have that combination of size and atmosphere.
Sometimes UWPs are tolerable in isolation but bizarre in context. The mighty Old Worlds pocket empire has 121.17 billion people; 99% of them live on three worlds with deadly atmospheres, whilst the three planets with breathable air are home to 0.06%. The text on the Galian Federation says "holds dear the principles of free trade and democracy" yet I count precisely 4 democracies amongst its 30 worlds and they amount to 0.04% of its population.
Does this matter? Up to you, I guess. Lots of long-time players have been dealing with this for years and take it in their stride. Some call it "an opportunity for creativity". I gather the Spinward Marches are even worse, and plenty of people have fun playing there.
Me, I'd call it an opportunity for creativity if it happened about a tenth as often. As it stands, I hate it. When players point at a system two parsecs away that looks like a good place to sell cargo and say "so tell us what that one's like", I don't want to be reading the UWP and thinking "oh no". But, unless you're writing for publication or something, there's always correction fluid.
The high level picture is excellent but it falls down somewhat at low levels. For content I think I'll give this book a comfortable 3 out of 5. This is pretty good considering that I'd give most Traveller material I've seen 1 or 2. I'd have given it a point more if the UWPs made any sense. I'd have liked one fully-defined area of 10 or 20 worlds that was ready to play. And, since QLI reckon to have an actual publishing plan up their sleeves, I'd appreciate warnings about which areas are due to be detailed in later products.
As for style, I think this book is worth an easy 4. It's clear, well presented, well structured, coherent, readable, and astoundingly free of typos. The appendices are a bit redundant – a data file for mapping software would have been better – but they do no harm. The late-coming Imperial Trade Cluster section suffers some redundancy/inconsistency and typos, but it's still pretty good. I think all RPG art sucks, but the stuff here is no worse than usual and it's more useful than many. The maps are good, with multiple levels of detail, and there's a picture of almost every alien/minor race.
For its intended purpose, in the context of QLI's line and its competition, this book's a hit.