After Action Report: TravCon 14
This was the featured article in the September 2014 issue.
Clicking on the pictures in this article will open up full-sized in new windows or tabs, depending on browser capability and setting. Closing the window/tab should return you to this article.
I wrote last year about TravCon13 being bigger and better than ever. I’m going to go out on a limb this year and say that TravCon14 was the best ever! Admittedly it’s for personal reasons and this will be very much from my perspective. I’m willing to bet, however, that the 35 other delegates had a great time as well. Once again, Andy Lilly organizing the con with his wife and daughter had upped the ante by fitting five games into each of the five slots across the weekend. Well, mostly, as you can see from the final photo of the schedule (Figure 1). All our thanks go to them for their commitment, time and energy.
For the seventh year, we were at Redwings Lodge (see figure 2) on the old A1 north of London. It was my sixth time at the convention and once again I made the train journey from the south coast early enough to miss the rush hour through London and in good time for the Friday evening’s activities. For the first time, however, I met another Traveller on the final leg of the journey and we were able to reminisce about previous years, debate what we were in for this year, and most importantly share a taxi to the hotel. Many of the usual suspects were gathering, and it was great to see Derrick J back after a year off – with several cases of officially approved Traveller beer in tow, naturally (see figure 3) – but also new faces in what I think was the biggest TravCon yet filling the hotel.
Three Blind Mice
As has now been the case for three years running, I was fairly nervous because I’d offered to referee again—this time, not one but two adventures in three different slots as I couldn’t decide which I most wanted to see in action. I also went with some trepidation as I’d not had the best year between times and knew that the CFS/ME I struggle with was worse than last year which I’d found pretty exhausting. But no rest for the wicked… I was down to referee in the first slot on Friday and was keen to get ‘Three Blind Mice’ going because I knew it was going to be complicated. I wanted to see how splitting the six PCs into 3 stowaways and 3 crew would work in practice, and an experienced referee I greatly admire, who’d read the adventure and said he’d ‘take it apart and rebuild it’, advised against trying this just a couple of hours before kick-off! Oh well, in my head I was committed. So the stowaways (the first three to sign up) were grabbed and started 45 minutes early, I ran them through to their ‘discovery’ in the straw and they then took a break in the bar while I got the three crew going. Once the latter had discovered the titular blind mice (which also took 45 minutes – so my timing was about right), we could all join together to complete the adventure. My fears that the stowaways would immediately be spaced were unfounded (phew!) and I should thank all six for ‘playing along’ with the story. In particular I should note the patience and forbearance of TH who, as the orphaned girl, had the whole kidnapping section thrown at him, perhaps rather unfairly, and took it like a man. Other highlights included Dom M, as Captain, getting increasingly irate as his crew reported they’d found a stowaway, and then another. He completely exploded when they sheepishly admitted a little while later to there being a third—It’s a good job we’d been banished to a room at the end of a corridor and well away from the other tables! Tony H had the best line of the evening, playing the blind war vet: when the Captain demanded why he hadn’t said anything about the little girl, he came back, quick as a flash, with “well, I couldn’t see she was there, could I?”
The game proceeded as smoothly as I might have hoped for until near the end when it came time for the rescue of the kidnapped orphan in the starport concourse. Having prepared all manner of handouts and maps and cards and all sorts for both games I was running, I must have had a mental block at some point in the weeks running up to TravCon. I handed the players the map exactly as you see it in the online PDF. Yes, with “secret agent hideout here” marked in big letters (see page 19 of the file). Peter D very graciously and discreetly pointed that out to me sotto voce, but the game was up and my heart sank. Embarrassment, shame and the horrible feeling I’d just wrecked the whole adventure struck, but in fact all the players were very kind in not seeming to mind too much. They simply got on with the task of rescuing the orphan from the agents’ clutches!
I wasn’t sure the whole split group thing would work, but I think it did – although it was more demanding in terms of stress levels. I was also pleased that an adventure I’d not spent an entire year writing (as was the case the previous year), seemed to provide just as much entertainment.
Other games going on at the same time were Simon B’s ‘Yet More Spacedogs’ which I’ve played a couple of times and is a great look at Vargr charisma, Richard T’s ‘The Love Boat’ which I’d loved to have tried, and James F’s ‘Never Forget, Never Forgive’ which involved assassins tracking down a warlord in revenge for a child soldier whose life he destroyed 20 years previously.
Saturday morning I wasn’t refereeing which gave me the chance to sign up for one of Andy’s games. Another in the series written by his wife Sarah – again the clue in the T.P. title – this one ‘Trash Prevention’. In what is probably one of the most hysterically funny games of Traveller I’ve ever played, we were six chirpers working as trash collectors for the SuckItUp company. With no rehearsal or planning, all six of us immediately started talking in the most high pitched voices we could produce (pretty high!) and managed to keep it up for the next four hours (Figure 4). Together with our pretty low intelligence characteristics – played to the hilt of course – I’m not sure Andy was quite sure what he had unleashed as he bravely struggled to keep the scenario on course. The snag was we’d come across a fancy puzzle-box which contained a data chip. No problems there until some very insalubrious types came looking for it. Before we could get it back to them, a very posh lady was asking for it as well. We’d not been able to read the encrypted chip, but at this point worked out we could copy it. If someone was willing to pay us good money for it, why not others too? And indeed, other parties seemed very interested in the puzzle-box and wafer as well. Before long we had visions of riches as we supplied the city with box after box of the next big craze – cheap to produce, and they seemed to be selling for lots of money! Of course, as players we knew full well there was a very limited market for some incriminating photos that just the subject and various blackmailers wanted. As chirpers I’m not sure we ever put two and two together and were very fortunate not to be dropped in the nearby river with cement overshoes on more than one occasion. With some pain – from the laughter and the strained voices – the session ended with another success for the creative team behind it.
Elsewhere, Tom Z was running a (very rare) Babylon 5 outing ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, Steve Q was running ‘The Imperial Credit’ which involved the security of a new currency release, and John G was finding out what would happen after a lottery win in ‘Thank you for Playing’.
The usual frantic few moments to grab lunch and try and ‘rest’ and also prepare for the afternoon slot saw me then running ‘Ashfall’. This is the first adventure I ever wrote back in 2011 (with a little bit of a titivation of the original text for the convention). It had been submitted to an online journal but not used – possibly because it was an awkward size and was illustrated in a slightly unusual way. But although I was confident enough about the material there were nagging doubts that maybe it hadn’t been used because it wasn’t good enough. I also had a bit of a gimmick in this one and wasn’t sure how this would work. The plot concerns six Darrian scientists on the highly volcanic world Spume. They’re on an expedition and pretty cut off from any outside help. At one point they would have to grab what gear they could from their base and run for it. I’m sure there are really easy and much more normal ways of handling this (such as just saying, “you can grab three bits of gear +/- your dexterity modifier” for example, but I thought it might be fun to have earlier given them cards representing each item of kit the expedition actually had. Each scientist had been given a note of their tidiness or lack of it. They would then have just a few real world seconds to actually grab the cards with the gear that they wanted. If they’d kept the cards tidy, this would be easier, if they’d left them scattered over the table it would be harder. It’s perhaps debateable whether it was worth the effort and expense of making up the cards (business cards done pretty cheaply in a local copy shop), but it was certainly fun and gave the players as well as the PCs something to think about as they realized they’d have to survive with, say, the fur-lined handcuffs they’d grabbed by mistake in their haste. That wasn’t the only fun handout, however; I also had postcards with ‘photographs’ of the planet’s surface which are another story! (Figure 5) The adventure itself seemed to go down well enough, although I think there were ‘corners’ I could see that might be improved. One player enjoyed it enough he came back for a second dose of it on the Sunday afternoon (see figure 6) which was encouraging. I hope it sees the light of day in publication somewhere, somewhen soon.
If someone could advance cloning technology dramatically I’d love to have played in ‘Run for your Money’ with Nick W and another lottery game as a patron needed help cashing in his winning ticket, ‘Azhanti Strike!’ with Robin F once again doing amazing things with handouts and cards (see figure 7), ‘Hellbent’ – Paul T’s search for a lost colony and Leviathan cruiser, and ‘Jinxed!’ with Nigel F on a chase for an Ancient artefact.
A Second Highlight
My second real highlight of the convention – after both ‘Three Blind Mice’ and ‘Ashfall’ not being complete disasters – came on Sunday evening. I was persuaded by Steve E. to sign up for his adventure ‘Imperial Intrigue’. I nearly didn’t because I thought it sounded very similar to the high level game he’d run last year where I’d played a female navy lieutenant commander pregnant with Norris’ child. It was a terrific game where we were given characters. motivations and just wound up to run in a game that maximised role playing and minimised die rolling. It was particularly fun meeting such a well-known personality as Norris at the end. I just thought it might be a bit similar when I heard the style of game would be the same and because I could only choose two games across the whole convention – as I was running three – I thought I’d do something different. How wrong I was! And how glad I am that Steve made me look again. This game was even higher level. In fact, the very highest. The emperor himself, Strephon, his daughter Iphigenia, nephews Varian and Lucan, Archduke Dulinor and Norris soon to be promoted… you’d think such a game would be unplayably powerful. But, once again, Steve had worked his magic. With just a page and a half of description, goals and motivations for each of us, we were into political intrigue at the highest level and of the most convoluted kind. I can’t speak highly enough of the thought and design that Steve puts into these games although they’re not for the faint-hearted in terms of what-on-earth-do-I-do-now and being able to really play your character to the hilt.
It may yet be one of the highlights of my entire Traveller playing career that I was able to play Emperor Strephon himself. A privilege and a treat as you can imagine after 30 years of reading about the man – with some unexpected consequences within the game and without as well. Around the table were the ever deadly Nick W. as Dulinor, the inestimable Lindsay J. as both Varian and Lucan (of course—they’re twins!), and in a surprise to us all, the brave Anne, Andy’s daughter, now allowed to play in her very first Traveller game. What a baptism! To really blur the boundaries of game and real life as she’s only a little younger than my own second daughter, she was playing Princess Iphigenia – Strephon’s daughter. Any doubts that she would find such a complex, political, immerse-yourself-in-your-role kind of game difficult were soon dispelled and she was deviously plotting, cunningly planning, and cleverly manipulating with aplomb. There was one delightful moment when I had to explain to her some of the secret plans I had going (Longbow, Project JumpStart, etc.) and the boundaries were incredibly blurry as to whether my mini-lecture was being delivered to Anne or to the Princess. But it worked and as I shared my fears for the Third Imperium and hopes that she could take over after me, it was a truly moving moment. A standout moment came when she was manipulating me brilliantly – was it regarding an engagement of convenience to Norris? – that she cried out “Daddy” and was wrapping me round her little finger that had the rest of the room creased up in laughter. I’m sure they could see some real world experience with Andy creeping in! And a final highlight of the game was Dulinor’s assassination attempt. Caught completely by surprise, I found him pulling a gun on me only for a disastrous roll to mean he missed before my guards burst in and despatched him messily towards the end of the game. I fully expected not to survive the four hours, but to play Strephon and live was a personal triumph!
My thanks to all concerned, but particularly Steve for a lifetime Traveller highlight! Next time I’ll be quicker on the uptake of the instruction “yes, you can do anything, you’re the Emperor!”.
I’m sure they were having fun elsewhere as well with the spacedogs in action again, Dom M. running the BITS adventure ‘Delta Three is Down’ in which I’ve previously enjoyed playing a Zhodani, Steve Quick with ‘Space Wolves’ – more Vargr, and Robin F. with ‘Memoir 2044’.
After a very poor night’s sleep thanks to all the excitement, it was Sunday and the final few hours of TravCon14. In the six hour slot I ran ‘Ashfall’ again. This time I was able to relax and enjoy it much more. ‘The Love Boat’ and ‘Trash Prevention’ were on second outings as well. Dom was running the truly excellent conceptual breakthrough game ‘This Fear of Gods’ which I’m hoping will get published soon, and Paul T. was running ‘The Akabar Express’ which involved K’Kree and as ever incredible maps, miniatures and other accoutrements that he’s rightly known for (see figure 8).
My final highlight came right at the end though. As usual we had an auction to raise money for charity and the last of Derrick’s ale found a home. Both of my adventures – fully written up with notes and handouts and cards and postcards etc – were graciously bid for and bought raising £60 ($100) between them – thank you! But then it was time for the two convention awards. I’ve written about them in previous years, so I’m sure you know there’s a PFI award (Ping! F*** It) for the stupidest thing someone does, and there’s a Starburst for Extreme Heroism for the greatest moment (Figure 9). The usual offerings were made from various games across the weekend, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that for once the PFI didn’t go to a PC moment of stupidity, but a referee moment… yes, my gut-wrenchingly awful moment of handing out the wrong map obviously touched a few nerves of “there but for the grace of God go I” and after six years of attendance I won my first TravCon award. A few moments later I was in some shock when the tale of the Princess wrapping Strephon around her little finger, and Anne doing so with me, won the hearts of the voters and Anne and I jointly won the SEH for a moment of gaming excellence. Really, the award should go to Anne for her bravery in venturing into a TravCon game, her excellence in handling the role playing, and for maturity beyond her years in coping with the subject matter. As a debut performance, I was enormously privileged and fortunate to be allowed to witness it. I’m sure there must be many good years of Travelling adventure ahead.