North Star V - After-Action Report
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue.
Garrison Hotel, Sheffield
An Alternative to TravCon?
With TravCon cancelled for a second year, we were discussing other options after one of our sessions of The Traveller Adventure. Clearly the need to meet for face-to-face gaming was weighing hard. Jane or Jim, I think it was, suggested North Star which I had vaguely heard of previously. However, what little I recalled was that it wasn’t Traveller-specific and it was ‘up north’ – i.e., a long way away from the south coast of England. I wasn’t convinced about the travelling, ironically, and I wasn’t convinced about finally, after all these years, playing games other than Traveller. Old dogs and new tricks and all that. But needs must and I had some vague vision of our little gaming group meeting up as a whole, with Jim, in person and so we started thinking about it. Jane did some googling and found out it was held in the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield in June and keen to ‘escape’ after two years of pandemic and lockdowns she signed up. With the offer of a lift rather than facing public transport I was persuaded as well. The decision was helped by the fact that the North Star convention is organized by Dom Mooney and Graham Spearing, two ‘greats’ of TravCon that I could get very excited about seeing – especially if they were running games I could play in. Both have impressed me with their role playing and refereeing abilities on previous occasions. From Dom’s marvellously frustrated captain discovering stowaways in my own See How They Run, to Graham’s stunning made up on the spot story ‘The Narrative of Baron Spirn’ (which he kindly let me publish in The Second Scions’ Society). It was also Dom who demonstrated to me how to get players to make stuff up to further engage them and one of Graham’s games which allowed two of us, going out on the town as female PCs, to be ‘dressed to kill’ in two different ways. (See past TravCon reports for more details or A Decade of TravCon.) Finally, Jim signed up for one of the two days as, from Durham, it was doable as a day trip.
Of course, by the time we’d finally decided to attend, the Garrison Hotel was full. That meant finding another hotel and factoring in taxis at the start and end of each day. This was on top of having to travel up on the Friday in order to make the first session on Saturday and deciding that while it might just be possible to travel back on the Sunday evening after the last game, it wasn’t sensible, so a three-night stay was required. Still, Jane had found the Rutland Hotel which looked ok on the website and if not close to the Garrison, was at least not on the other side of the city. I’d once been to a conference in Sheffield for work and rather fancied the hotel I’d stayed in then with its swimming pool, but it was far too costly for my purse. Not that I’d have much energy or time for swimming if my experience at TravCon was anything to go by.
Next up was looking at games on offer and thinking that at last, I wouldn’t have to play in every session going. At TravCon I can’t bear to miss out on the opportunity to play and end up signing up for every session going even though I’m constantly reminded it’s not a requirement to do so. I like to get my fill of Traveller across the weekend. At North Star, with non-Traveller games filling most of the schedule, I could take it easy, pick a choice game or two, and not exhaust myself fitting too much in. While I might be drawn by the scads of Star Trek on offer, or the chance to play – at last – Blue Planet or Firefly (both of which I own but have only read), or even, perhaps, Alien, other options weren’t grabbing me as much. I could relax, take it easy and maybe even step out of the convention to do something else. Hah! How little you know me if you think that was even remotely possible. Worse than that, I could see there were some gaps in the schedule and the organizers were actively asking for games to fill them. Well, it was one way of getting Traveller into the schedule if I were to take it myself. I considered running a ‘scene from’ The Traveller Adventure as it would be ‘easy’ – all the prep work largely done. I considered taking one of my other past adventure favourites from TravCon. I considered running another classic adventure to get one of those out of my system. I’d really enjoyed putting Annic Nova into The Traveller Adventure. But in the end, I decided it was a new convention (for me) and that I should do something new. Or newish. I finally settled on Spindrift which I’d written during lockdown as a 2000-word Amber Zone competition entry for the Zhodani Base website. I’d never run it, opportunities being lacking, but I had some confidence in the idea at least as it had been awarded second place in the competition. Rather apprehensively, I filled it in in one of the available slots.
North Star V – I meant to check but presumably the ‘V’ meant this was its fifth outing – is organized rather differently to TravCon. For the latter you sign up to the weekend, might get an idea of what games are being offered a few days before or not till you get there, and then sign up for what games are on offer an hour or so before the session. North Star had a Google Doc online for anyone to view which was constantly evolving as things firmed up (or referees dropped out). One sheet in the spreadsheet showed games, times and rooms. Another sheet gave details of the games which meant it was possible to have longer descriptions than the sentence or two which fit into the TravCon schedule. A third sheet showed players in each game. This latter had its first release point for referees running something to be allowed first pick and then a second release point for everyone else to put in their preferences. At some stage someone, presumably Dom and Graham, must have assigned people to the games as best they could in preference order. As there were no announcements of any of this, it required keeping an eye on the changing spreadsheet if you wanted a clue as to what was happening. It was by this means, for example, that I discovered in the week before the convention, that I was running Spindrift twice due to Dom himself having to drop out after his wife tested positive for covid. It was a disappointment that Dom wasn’t coming as I’d looked forward to seeing him again after quite a while, but quite understandable in the circumstances. There seems no end to what the plague will take from us – large or small. We could only wish them well and a speedy recovery. It also meant that playing Blue Planet went out the window. Although the upside of that was that I didn’t feel I was treading on Dom’s toes with my Hydrographics = 9 planet adventure that was very marine based. (Presumably it also made a natural home for any other refugees from the Blue Planet games on offer although I wasn’t following the spreadsheet closely enough to see if this actually happened.)
The Convention Schedule
Why do I write all this in a magazine for Traveller? Well, aside it from being my experience of the convention, I thought it might be interesting to compare TravCon with North Star. Not saying that one way is better than the other – I can see advantages and disadvantages to both systems of organization – but it might offer ideas to anyone considering running a real or virtual convention themselves.
Isn’t 2000 words of notes enough?
Meanwhile, as far as Traveller goes, I might have been content to simply run Spindrift directly from the competition entry text. I might have put it aside until a week before and then spent a frantic few days producing a handout or two and some NPCs. As it happened, I had my French relatives visiting for a week and the weather was ‘mixed’ to put a positive spin on it, such that it meant that not of all of the outdoor activities they might have liked to do were possible. My two nephews have recently qualified as doctors – so one evening was celebrating the first nephew’s final results – and my niece is a bright young thing as well doing a chemical engineering degree. (She works for Tefal and is developing new forms of Teflon I believe.) All the best people with intelligence are attracted by the idea of Traveller so playing a game of it became an option. Clearly I’d gone on about it for too long. In the event, time ran out and a shopping run to buy things hard to find in France won out. Marmite, baked beans, mustard. Mustard? Really? In the land of Dijon? Apparently.
However, as it had been a close-run thing that we might have filled a morning playing Spindrift and I’d dug out handouts and PCs, it set me actually thinking about running it rather than leaving it as a vague worry for the future. That paid off in spades as, rather than leaving it, I began to think about NPCs I might need, maps that would be useful, puzzles that might be fun. In the couple of months I had before North Star, I set to in spare time doing all the sub-creation I so enjoy and which generally feels like the ‘easy’ part of writing an adventure. Not satisfied with my world map I even found someone on Twitter willing to generate a rather nice one for me in exchange for a reasonable amount of hard cash. I thought I’d save some time and use the D-class starport from the White Dwarf article ‘Happy Landings’ until I discovered that scanning the relevant page didn’t produce a high enough quality image. I set about reconstructing the entire thing in PowerPoint and was very pleased with the results. (Although no time was saved in the end as the project took a bit of patience when it came to all those little buildings.) I had a ‘bright idea’ for a marketplace noticeboard which a field test on Twitter suggested might go down well. I came up with an investigative puzzle which I tried out on a colleague at work during lunch break and that seemed to work.
Of course, you might gather from the above that ‘paid off in spades’ might not be quite true. By now I was getting up to serious quantities of handouts for the players. Not quite as many as I produced for The Second Scions’ Society but somewhat reminiscent of that. It was all displacement activity for actually nailing down details of how the adventure might run and how the players might deal with certain things or get from A to B to C. Of course, there’s a bit of me that knows you can’t really plan this out in detail but I still thought I ought to have thought about the most likely possibilities. I already had three potential endings and no way of knowing what players might prefer or end up with. Anyway, with some 20,000 words now instead of 2000 and 50+ pages (including full page maps etc), not to mention Jane’s constant refrain of “you’ve only got four hours”, I did in the last week finally quit writing more and start filling in holes. On the upside, the nerves that were already developing about the entire enterprise – new venue, new people, new adventure, running a game for non-Travellers, running for Graham who appeared to have signed up for my game – were in part quelled by the preparation. I was just hoping it wasn’t over-preparation.
Oh, and while all the above was going on, I’d had two other bright ideas. Or not. You can judge for yourselves. The adventure was called Spindrift, it was set on a hydro = 9 world, it was very maritime based and I was introducing the players to storms and all sorts. So, I thought it might be fun to get one of those plant spray type things to fill with water and at appropriate moments give the game room or even the players a blast. From there it was but a short thought to fill it with seawater for that genuine tangy salt taste. Fortunately, before I washed out one of my wife’s weed killer spritzers, I remembered that at work they used them for watering the various pot plants we have round the Library. Better yet when I asked to borrow one for the weekend, there was a brand new one in the cupboard. I took it down to the beach on one of my swimming outings and loaded it up. I probably didn’t need to fill it.
The other idea was that I might try ‘bennies’ again. I can’t recall who introduced me to them at TravCon and I can’t recall them ever being formalized in any Traveller ruleset but I stand to be corrected. In any case, I’d been rather taken by the idea and if I had players who didn’t know Traveller rules they wouldn’t know better. What I did recall was that the one time I’d tried them in one of my games at TravCon, I’d allowed up to three per player and soon a lively blackmarket in trading them developed and rather upstaged the adventure itself. Or maybe that was the real fun. My thinking was to allow only one per player this time and in as much as I had a plan, give them out for good roleplaying (or something) and then allow them to be ‘spent’ rerolling a poor dice throw. There’s probably loads of other ways games use them; I ought to see what’s out there. I had some coloured stones from the previous occasion which I could have reused but my bright idea this time was to find some shells from the beach as more in keeping with the theme. I spent far too long on the shingle overlooking the Isle of Wight trying to find perfect examples that would be either robust enough or attractive enough to use.
Finally, the convention was upon us but so was Jane being hospitalized due to pneumonia the day before. I suppose if you’ve going to cry off, you can’t beat that as an excuse. I did feel for her, knowing how much she’d been looking forward to the convention as an oasis of sanity in the rigours of day-to-day life. I suppose it could have as easily well been covid or something else. I could only wish her well and a speedy recovery. It did mean, however, that I was now liftless. Driving myself was out of the question as it would both leave the family without transport for four days and probably be dangerous given how much I struggle with more than hour or ninety minutes at a stretch behind the wheel before becoming exhausted. Sheffield is at least a five-hour drive (it’s some 300 miles but the roads are very busy). Public transport it would have to be. Coaches were all booked up and I find my legs too long for comfort on them in any case but my daughter finds their cheapness attractive so she’d looked them up before I’d told her not to bother. The train was the only realistic option. Quick searches had suggested that the only realistic way of going was via London which then means additional tube journeys and changes which are tedious if carrying luggage. I immediately rethought any plans I had of taking more than a core rulebook. Droyne coyns and a few other ‘fun’ things to show off Traveller also got chucked out of my packing. If I had to carry everything, it really had to pay its way. One thing I had treble checked I was carrying was the adventure I’d just had printed and bound at a local copy shop. I might have been able to run it from an e-paper PDF on my reMarkable, but I knew it would be easier to flip pages and the like with a physical copy.
Now, I’m tempted to skip onto the convention itself but the journey became something of an adventure so I’ll cover it here. However, while it may be travelling, it’s not Traveller, so skip on to A Quiet Evening or even North Star V if you would rather. On the other hand, perhaps it might serve as a salutary warning to ‘take care’ as I often sign off emails or just possibly act as grist to the referee’s mill of things that might give PCs pause for thought. It might also act as a kind of catharsis for me.
Normally I enjoy train travel but the UK had just had a series of one-day strikes and there had been one of these on the day before I travelled. This meant many of the trains were out of place and so the regular timetable had gone out the window. I started early on the grounds it could take all day. My fears weren’t unfounded as I got to my local station and found the good news was that I didn’t have to go via London after all but could catch three trains going fairly directly north, but the bad news was that the first train now wasn’t expected for over two hours. I could have spent money on a taxi home and start again in a little over an hour, but I had a lot to read and write so why not just do it on the platform? It was certainly quiet enough. I waited ninety minutes and found a train that would take me to the next change of trains at Southampton but would give me a longer wait there. Well, it would be a change of scene I reasoned at that point having exhausted the delights of any ‘view’ at Fareham. ‘Railway industrial’ would be the best spin I could put on what was across the platforms and behind a rusty chainlink fence.
At Southampton I found an out of the way corner in a relatively busy waiting room and settled in for another stint of sitting and minding my bags. Eventually I decided it was time for a coffee and a newspaper and surprised the poor young lady at the checkout when her accent revealed she was Czech and I managed a few words of greeting and “I can’t really speak Czech” in good enough Czech that she could understand. I don’t think she was expecting that. Nor was I to be fair and was pleased I’d been able to ‘switch’ from the Ukrainian my pastor’s wife has egged me on to learn these last few months1.
The next train (Southampton to Birmingham for anyone following a map) wasn’t as empty and was quickly filling up until eventually the conductor brought someone along to sit beside me in the one remaining seat for as far as I could see. Beside me. He introduced the older (60s?) passenger as being “mobility impaired” and assured said passenger that his little green trolley was safe down at the end of the carriage out of the way of other travellers. The chap was broad shouldered and I’m not exactly small so I was pretty much up against the window by this point. Big sealed units that can’t be opened. Which is important because immediately there was a strong sense of stale urine. Well, the joys of public transport I thought and might have been tempted to move except there wasn’t a chance of getting a seat anywhere else and people were now standing in the aisle. I was just glad to be sitting. Although I was now virtually half sitting on his hand and forearm which had fallen, I assumed, into the scant space between us.
A couple of times he asked questions such as where was I travelling and I felt very guilty that I kept any answers as short as I could. I really just wanted to read my book and try to sleep if I could ahead of a weekend I knew would be busy. (I’d given up any thought in the press of people of getting my laptop out to tidy up a scene in Spindrift). The cute couple on the other side of the table between us were clearly staying well out of it. I’d worked out she was Spanish and he was English but their quiet conversation was in English so my guess was they’d only recently met. Some time later, after the couple had got off and been replaced by two of the standing passengers, my neighbour had been fiddling with something on the table and when done had let his arm fall to his side again. Only it wasn’t really on his side it was more on the side of my leg. Well, we’re all squashed in I thought trying not to feel uncomfortable. Well, he is mobility impaired and may not have much control or feeling I thought trying to rationalise it. Well, I don’t want to make a fuss I thought being terribly British. He was keeping still and I decided I’d been in odder situations such as Asians holding my hand as we walked along a street or leg touching in a cafe as per their cultures in ways I found… unusual. It wasn’t helped by a morning Bible reading only a few hours earlier that had encouraged me to represent Christ to those around me. And who was I to complain after whinging about touch starvation following two years of pandemic and lockdown?
The train continued although any hope of an early exit from the situation were dashed by delays that meant we were running some fifteen minutes behind time. Eventually we stopped at Birmingham International and I knew it was just a few minutes until Birmingham New Street, the big interchange where I was getting off. Perhaps it had been a mistake to tell this to my neighbour, perhaps I should be ashamed for not being more accepting to what happened next but when it was quite clear that his hand was moving and virtually stroking me and then after a few moments more a couple of his fingers were stroking my leg, I finally reached the point where even my British reserve snapped. I debated saying something to him and I probably should have done. I debated making a scene with all those around me and I possibly should have done if it stopped someone else being on the receiving end another time. I even debated one more time just trying to ignore it although that wasn’t really possible. No Brit wants to ‘make a fuss’ which is what would happen if he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) move into the still packed aisle so I could get out of my seat. I wimped out completely, asked him to move, and fled though the crowds to the vestibule by the carriage door and spent the last few minutes before we arrived wondering if I’d been overreacting. I only had to look down past all the people standing and sitting around to see a little green trolley to know I hadn’t been. I was rather rudely the first off the train and never looked back.
Perhaps he did me a favour as I had just a few seconds to catch the next train to Sheffield and made it by the skin of my teeth. I might not have done had I taken my time. On the way home, I had over an hour’s wait at New Street. Although there was a stunning bookshop on the concourse and food court I later discovered. That helped pass the time; as did being sniffed by a police dog for any drugs I might be carrying. No constable, just several tons of paracetamol2 and ibruprofen.
The final train of the day (Birmingham to Sheffield) was nearly full but again I was fortunate, by having stood at the right place on the platform more by accident than design, to get one of the last seats. I collapsed into it thinking finally I could read my book and sleep although I had planned on buying a snack lunch to eat on this leg of the journey. There hadn’t been time and I didn’t care. In sitting down I’d said to the older woman sitting inboard to kick me if I encroached on her space as I knew I wasn’t small and this led to an explanation of what had happened on the previous train. Perhaps she was an incognito angel as I suspect that if I had, after all, sat quietly and tried to read I would just have stewed but it turned out she was a 75-year-old former nurse and was very sympathetic to my tale and evident stress. She even had a sandwich left over from a two-pack she couldn’t finish and some cheesy biscuits that were also surplus to requirements. It even just so happened, and you can’t tell from my tone but I don’t believe it ‘just so happened’, that she knew of the mission ship I’d been on for two years and another organization I was connected with. If you’ve not guessed we got on famously and passed the entire 75 minutes of that segment of the journey almost as if it flashed by. Her views on feminism even drew comments from another passenger a seat or two away so I suspect we could have kept going all day. I never did get to my book.
Finally, at Sheffield, I was too tired and too weighed down (even by limited luggage which at that point I didn’t think I’d limited enough) to fancy exploring the city. There was probably some mental baggage as well that needed shifting. A taxi straight to the hotel was all I could face. I think I managed to satisfy the receptionist that when I asked if she had any perfume or something strong smelling it wasn’t some kind of chat up line. I could still smell urine but couldn’t work out if it was psychological or some particles that still remained in my nose. I had to settle for a hot deep bath and as much of the hotel’s coconut(!?) soap as I needed. I’m not overly fond of coconut since an Incident in Nigeria but I lathered it on anyway. It didn’t really help.
A Quiet Evening
Now, one of the attractions of North Star being in Sheffield was that I knew someone who lived there. I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to catch up with a dear friend and weeks before had arranged, as I thought, a meal out. M was busy Saturday and Sunday travelling to London, but Friday night looked possible. However, come 6pm it turned out she’d had a better offer from some family event, so that fell through which was disappointing. Still, it gave me an excuse to muster some final strength and explore the environs of the hotel. Fortunately, the Rutland was only a couple of minutes’ walk from a set of shops, pubs and restaurants which meant that there was a fair bit of choice. OK, it wasn’t the most salubrious bit of town but that’s all grist to a Traveller referee’s mill. I probably should have taken notes as it would have made an excellent startown locale or port location in one of the more run-down areas of a city adjacent to a startown. There seems to be no end of need for such things in many Traveller games. In any case, I found a pub that wasn’t too crowded and turned out to do rather nice burgers even if it was served by a rather overly efficient young lady who was ready to clear away the very second I’d finished eating or put down an empty glass. I probably could have made the trek down to the convention hotel to see if there was anything social going on with other early arrivals but aside from the cost and time, I was way past too tired. The rest of the evening I spent in the hotel room idling away time as though I was at the dog end of a tedious week in Jump. I was far too tired to do any final prep on Spindrift which I really wanted to do although I desultorily generated some weather using Michael Brown’s algorithm but my heart wasn’t in it and it was time for sleep.
Of course, the plan had originally been to breakfast with my colleague Jane and then share a taxi down to the Garrison Hotel where the convention was being held. With Jane still in hospital fighting pneumonia I was on my own but had a perfectly average cooked breakfast in a grand conservatory overlooking a small but interesting garden. A table or three away was a single chap in his forties who, it occurred to me, could be straight out of a gaming convention. I wasn’t overly surprised to find him at the Garrison raring to go for North Star just as I was. Darren. He was actually signed up for my game later on. Naturally, after that, we shared a taxi to and from hotels which worked out well.
North Star V
The first order of the day was orienting myself in an environment very different to TravCon. There, we essentially take over a small two-storey hotel which provides us with a ‘main’ room (and two gaming tables), a second game room (and two more tables) and two or three converted bedrooms (with a game table each). There’s also a bar/breakfast room and a couple of toilets. It’s all very ‘flat’ with essentially a stairwell past reception and two long corridors off on the ground floor and two long corridors on the first floor. In other words, you can’t possibly get lost and nowhere is more than about thirty metres from anywhere else; usually less. (Main room to bar is about twenty paces, if that.) Ideal for someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The Garrison hotel is the complete opposite. It used to be a prison. A lovely old rambling place across multiple floors and a warren of passages, staircases, lifts, caverns in the basement and infamous ‘cells’ in which three or four games happen. Not only that but there are other guests apart from those attending the convention and indeed, there was a wedding reception taking place while we there. So, drinks and food at the bar can be a bit of bun fight or involve queueing – despite the best efforts of a sign-up sheet for meals which helped to a degree. It makes it less cosy than TravCon and it has less of a ‘family’ feel, but it did mean there were more facilities and more options regarding eating and so on which made things easier. There’s also a big supermarket opposite if nothing on offer appeals. TravCon at best has a garage with a sandwich or two opposite but requires runs into the nearby village of Sawtry for any hot meals (or takeaway deliveries if they’ll come out).
I once again took a look at the schedule and tried to map the room options to the real space. “Upper Jailhouse - High Passage” (1-3) were three tables in the open area on the first floor where we were mostly situated. These were nice light, airy spaces but relatively noisy as there were no dividers between the tables. Still, there was a decent amount of space between and it wasn’t too problematic. “Lowberth” (1-4) were the four ‘cells’ on a slightly lower adjoining mezzanine level right opposite the tables that Michael Southern from Patriot Games had set up to sell role playing books, some boxed games, and doodads (such as dice trays). The cells were really lovely spaces but quite tight with four people sliding into bench seats on two sides of a table which the referee sat at the end of. Tea or loo breaks required pretty much everyone moving but if we coordinated a stopping time it wasn’t really a problem. Light was from a single high up window at the end (they really were cells once!) so ventilation wasn’t ideal. I liked them for their cosiness but did discover they rather nicely captured the noise from the slightly higher-level tables outside. But by sitting beside the referee and concentrating on lip reading I could get by. (Though I did apologize to the referee on that occasion as I suddenly realized I was possibly coming across as a bit intense as I watched her mouth and may have been making her feel a tad uncomfortable.) Finally, there was ‘Cargo Hold’ 1 & 2 which were two stairwells and a labyrinth of corridors away in the cellars. I didn’t find these until later when I was running my game in one. This was a single large space with junk storage (and a garden exit) at one end, one table in the middle and one way down the far end. It might not have been the cosiest space, but noise was not a problem and there was plenty of room to spread out.
As for games on offer, there was a wide range – both of settings and of rule sets. All science fiction of course but we had been spoilt for choice in signing up previously on the Google sheet. Some I’d never even heard of, others were very familiar – not that I’d ever played anything but Traveller. Alien, Blakes 7, Blue Planet, Coriolis, Firefly, John Carter of Mars, Mutant Chronicles, Savage Worlds of Flash Gordon, Space: 1889, Star Wars (in a variety of eras and rule sets), Tales from the Loop to name just a few. Rule systems included Cortex Prime, FATE, Forged in the Dark, GUMSHOE, and Savage Worlds. My apologies if I’ve muddled rules and settings – that’s my ignorance. Traveller of course was represented. A 2300AD adventure using the Mongoose 1st Edition version, a Cepheus Deluxe game and not to forget my own adventure with Mongoose 2nd edition rules. It was frustrating to not be able to play in more games (particularly Firefly and Space: 1889) but of course without a clone there’s only so much that can be fitted in. Indeed, I had promised myself I wouldn’t play in every slot as I do at TravCon and that I’d pick and choose so that the weekend didn’t exhaust me such that I’d pay for it for days afterwards. But you know how it is; once you see what’s on offer and get caught up in all the excitement it’s irresistible. Well, it is for me at least. Perhaps it was for the best my work colleague wasn’t present to keep reminding me “you don’t have to play in every game, you know.” Yes, yes, I do! One omission I was surprised at was Modiphius’ new Dune which I’d have expected to see. Perhaps it’s too new. It was a also a tad frustrating to end up playing not one but two Star Trek games and neither of them using the Star Trek Adventures rules which I’ve bought and not really got my head round. Ah well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and back where everyone was gathering in the Upper Jailhouse, I soon found Graham and said hello but left him to last minute organizational stresses and greeting others. I recognized a couple of other faces from TravCon although no one I knew well. I ran into Darren and introduced myself as having “breakfasted with him” (well, sort of) and swapped notes on games we’d picked and subsequent taxi sharing. It was soon time for a very brief and low key welcome from Graham and off to our first game.
I don’t intend to cover these in detail as they’re not Traveller but I’ll mention each one as a record and because there may be comments about each that I can make which might or might not be useful.
Adventure: CSI: Weyland Yutani
Rules: Alien (Free League)
For anyone who thinks role-playing referees have to be raging extroverts and wannabe Shakespearean thespians, Sue S running this game proved otherwise. With her quiet command of the adventure, in-depth knowledge of the rules and good grasp of ratcheting up the tension, this was an excellent first choice.
Four of us were playing investigators from the Department of Unauthorised Destructions of Corporate Assets looking into the death of a roughneck on an isolated mining colony on a small ice-covered planet. Anyone familiar with the Alien films will know how things unfolded as we discovered wasp like nests of (eagle?)-sized nasties. Familiarity with the films helped those of who didn’t know the rules although one player did and could support Sue on the odd occasion it was required. On the other hand, that did make it rather difficult to divorce player knowledge of things bursting out of bodies and so on from character ignorance about such matters. Still, I don’t think it took anything from the experience. My notes immediately after the game record that Sue engendered an excellent sense of ‘being there’ and the Alien setting more generally. My fears about it being too much in the way of horror for my liking were unfounded. Throughout we were given good opportunities to ‘do stuff’ and to contribute.
I was playing a young pilot and got some exciting bits and bobs to do landing and so forth. I also enjoyed exploring the relationships between the miners – as though that was somehow going to be important. I also liked a couple of features of the rules which meant we each had a ‘buddy’ and each had a ‘rival’ amongst the PCs as well as our own personal agenda to achieve. Halfway through the game, the reverse of our character sheet – which was very nicely designed and simple to follow for newbies – revealed a second personal agenda which kept things moving and made things interesting, prodding us into action we might not otherwise have taken. By the skin of our teeth, and despite being wounded, I manage to pilot us out.
All of this could have been easily handled by Traveller but the system did add Stress which suited the setting perfectly and although I probably didn’t learn the full intricacies of how it worked, it definitely added to the experience. Perhaps the new Sanity characteristic in Traveller Companion could handle this, or perhaps the stress rules could be ported over in their entirety but this could have easily been a Traveller adventure or one perfectly suited to Zozer’s Hostile setting for Cepheus Engine.
Adventure: Where Has All the Glory Gone?
Setting: Star Trek: Classic
Rules: Star Trek (FASA)
This was the first of my Star Trek outings, on this occasion with Paul B at the helm. It felt very typical of a Star Trek episode so once again a solid knowledge of the setting overcame any rules ignorance. Four players again and we were Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Lt (JG) Barbara Smith on the edge of the neutral zone, encountering some Tholians and then being drawn into the zone by a distress call from a Romulan outpost. There were good action moments, good political moments and a thoroughly satisfying adventure that felt as if it could have been a genuine tv episode with its various ‘acts’.
However, what set this apart as a really wonderful experience (despite my struggles to hear at some points) were a couple of meta things. Firstly, the referee and one of the players, R, knew each other very well (were they part of the same gaming group? I lost track) and bounced off each other very well. Secondly, that player (who was Kirk) and the player with McCoy went into faux Kirk and McCoy accents and kept them up throughout. The Kirk imitation was particularly accurate including accent and mannerisms. Both were great fun. I was playing Scotty and sorely tempted to join in but I’ve never been good at accents and the others were so good, it seemed a shame to spoil it. Not that Doohan’s accent was particularly accurate so I might have got away with it. Thirdly, we leaned very heavily into the quirks and wobbliness of classic Star Trek – whether it was dodgy accents, iffy sets or over-the-top acting. It wouldn’t have worked had we been playing, say, The Next Generation, but this seemed to really work; it was certainly raucous at times and I feared for the nearby tables’ sanity.
Some of the ‘handouts’ from Where Has All the Glory Gone?.
Left to right: a LEGO™ Enterprise, a character card (using pictures from a fan continuation of the series), and a communicator
I also rather liked the terrific handouts Paul provided including a tiny model of the Enterprise in LEGO™ and a tricorder in card as well as attractive photos of each of the PCs. Rather cleverly he hadn’t used photos of the original actors, but chosen photos from a fan produced continuation of the original Star Trek with those characters. This meant you could both get into character easily and not feel intimidated in the shoes of Nimoy and Shatner and so on. Excellent choice. We also poked a lot of fun at the rules themselves, rather egged on by the referee who could see their deficiencies. Dating from the 1980s, game design has moved on and doing relatively complicated things like rolling under two double digit numbers added together and averaged seemed incredibly unintuitive. Paul was great at leading all of us through rules we didn’t know and keeping them out of the way for the most part. Also, this was the first time I’d ever played a game where I have had to roll under a target number which I don’t think I’m alone in feeling isn’t as satisfying (and is one of the reasons I don’t take to T5 like a duck to water). Of course, when I mentioned this and my non-Traveller virginity, Paul couldn’t help but rib me about quirks of Traveller such as letters for characteristics and T5’s size/complexity. I didn’t have a quick answer. He even mocked my rather prehistoric non-sixed sided dice. Unfortunately my best photo of the game includes the one person at the entire convention that preferred not to be included in these pages.
I was disappointed we weren’t using the new Star Trek Adventures rules as, having bought into the kickstarter, I’d have liked to get to grips with understanding those. I didn’t particularly have any need to learn a 40-year-old system I’d never use again, but I seemed to gather Paul had a thing for the retro and evidently decided it would be fun. It was.
This would have been harder to run with Traveller rules because of the differences in technology and names/factions of the setting and so forth, but some parts of it could have been strip mined for use in something not too dissimilar.
Setting: Third Imperium
Rules: Traveller (Mongoose 2nd Edition)
So, already flagging from a full day no proper STOPS (I’m supposed to nothing for half an hour every three hours or else find that fatigue and pain kicks in all too quickly), I was into my own Spindrift.
I was a little worried about running a game that had been on the web for some time but I needn’t have fretted. No one knew it. That wasn’t surprising considering the four players I had for this evening didn’t know Traveller but I suppose was almost a little disappointing in the other edition with four people who knew Traveller rather well!
So, Udo, Dörte, Darren and Pete joined me for the evening. I had all of the crew of the March Harrier from my The Traveller Adventure campaign as potential PCs. I didn’t think it particularly mattered who played what although it might mean a change of emphasis on how the adventure was tackled and what events we focussed on. I wouldn’t, for example, focus much on piloting skill checks if no one played Kunal and we kept her as an NPC. I did think it reasonable to insist that someone played Captain Loyd Kitman as I feel that the referee playing The Captain as an NPC tends to drive the action a little more than I like. Possibly with newbie players this wouldn’t have mattered so much. One advantage of reusing the TTA characters was that I knew them well and could describe them briefly and as attractively as I could. So Loyd got ‘picked’, Gvoudzon always sounds interesting and was soon snapped up, one player took the engineer and the final PC picked was the ever-favourite Lily – our explosive archaeologist.
I spent as little time as I felt I could explaining the setting and the rules but it probably took about half an hour or a fraction more with introductions and the PC selection. I’d come up with some ‘in Jump’ preparatory material to give a sense of task rolls and character roles. I think this worked well although it took a little longer than I had perhaps envisioned. That was mainly because the players threw themselves into it and came up some interesting ideas I hadn’t considered. One segment here caused some hilarity as Gvoudzon tried out the engineer’s variable grav plate water tank (simulating increasing depth) before she’d finely tuned it. The Vargr’s attempts to swim in the twisted pressures and currents was amusing enough, but the player’s partner, with the engineer as his character had explicitly said it was being filmed for further refinement and an excellent viral media clip was created. The ‘floofiness’ of Gvoudzon when he came out of the watertank and dried himself off was definitely inspired by the Boys from the Baltic Star and their very own Vargr character, Agnar. The ‘in Jump’ stuff was reasonably strongly linked to the main action of the adventure however so I didn’t think it was time wasted. With more time, I would have, should have, quizzed the players on whether this was true or not.
We moved through the events of the adventure proper on Spindrift and as far as I could tell the NPCs went down well along with the puzzle or two that I had. The physical touch element (for players, representing the experience of their characters) could have been a non-starter in the covid climate, but in fact all bought into it – though I did sanitize my hands beforehand. The somewhat opened ended segment of the adventure didn’t cause problems for new Traveller players because they were all experienced role players. What was interesting was that with rather a large number of options, one got chosen by both sets of players. One that I didn’t think would particularly interest anyone. That open section, however, did mean that both times the game ran it had a different feeling – but more of that later.
Time flashed past as it always seems to and our 8pm start galloped along and arrived at five minutes to midnight when we were scheduled to finish. I realized that I could wrap things up rather descriptively there and then or in another half hour allow the players to have more of a sense of finishing things themselves. I was very conscious of the time and frustrated with myself that I’d not managed things better to be ‘here’ at 11.30pm, but I put it to the players and as far as I could tell, all preferred the latter option. Or were too polite to object. On the upside it felt as if we finished ‘well’ which was a bonus. As so often seems to happen my ‘baddies’ managed to roll a pair of 1s at the critical moment but I assume that’s fun for the players. On the downside I berated myself for not managing better timekeeping. The bestside, however, it seemed that the entire adventure seemed to ‘work’ and I had much more confidence about running it again the next day.
Fortunately sharing a taxi back to the hotel hadn’t meant poor Darren was waiting after another game finished as he was playing in this one! But straight to bed for me and a very sound night’s sleep.
Adventure: To Boldly Go
Setting: Star Trek
Rules: Forged in the Dark
Declan F was running this and running it a short notice as a referee had had to pull out due to covid. He did an excellent job with four of us playing a Star Trek adventure which once again could have easily been an episode on TV. This time we were playing Forged in the Dark rules which I understood is a (derivative?)(relation?) of Blades in the Dark but I’d never come across either system so this meant little to me. I don’t think I was alone amongst the players in not knowing the rules and in fact Declan kept them pretty much behind the scenes for us and I would have to admit, perhaps to my shame, that I learned nothing about them – or at least can remember nothing about them a couple of weeks later save that they seemed massively over-engineered for the purpose. Certainly the character sheets seemed this way. That may have been my tiredness creeping in. My ongoing ignorance about them is not necessarily a ‘fault’ of the rules and certainly not the refereeing, it’s a testament to how Declan very ably allowed us to get on with the adventure and the role playing and not have to worry about such things. I can imagine there might be players who want to get every advantage out of rule options and want to know the details, but for myself – and the other three it seemed – we were quite happy to focus on the story. Having said that, I was very impressed with Declan’s knowledge of Star Trek rule options when I raised the question, again, of why we weren’t using STA, say, and he could rattle off ten official rule sets in chronological order – including an obscure one from Japan. I made notes but refrained from getting in to the unofficial ones as well which I suspect, no, I’m certain, he’d have been just as capable of doing. I suspect, with more time, that we’d have been kindred spirits with a slight obsessiveness over our favourite game systems!
The adventure itself cast me as a minor humanoid alien returning to the planet where I’d been brought up and where it happens to be election time. Something or someone seems to be interfering with the non-warp capable locals so of course the Prime Directive applied. We were soon into exploring and casting about for what might be going on and soon work out that there are Ferengi up to their shenanigans behind the scenes and, without a Prime Directive of their own – just a set of Rules of Acquisition which Declan had to hand – have much less compunction about ‘interfering’. Knowing, however, that others might object they’re trying to do things behind the scenes using a religion they’ve encouraged as their cover. Some poor rolls on my part towards the end nearly fouled things up for everyone but we just about managed to save the day. No thanks to me.
A couple of points of interest were a very slight connection with my own Spindrift in that the alien race had three sexes like my eroctopi. There was also a rather nice quote from one of the players: “It’s not polite to barge in on argument when you could listen at the door.” Despite being in considerable pain and exhaustion from about half way through, I still enjoyed this and could appreciate how well the referee was doing in managing the adventure and managing our enjoyment of it despite the short notice he had to prepare.
This could easily have been a Traveller adventure with a bit of work changing some of the detail. In as much as I saw very little of them (which I considered a good thing), it didn’t appear that the rules in play added a huge amount to making it ‘more’ Star Trek. It seemed rather complicated – the character sheets certainly were – and I wasn’t drawn to learning more about the system. Perhaps I was just grumpy another opportunity that could have been Star Trek Adventures wasn’t.
In addition, this was where I would have been playing Blue Planet which I’d been looking forward to. As I own the 2nd edition (having bought it as a job lot when being sold off at TravCon by someone making room for other stuff), I’d been keen to give the planet Poseidon a go. Maybe even learn something for my own Hydro = 9 adventure! But that will have to wait for another occasion.
Setting: Third Imperium
Rules: Traveller (Mongoose 2nd Edition)
So, speaking of my Hydro = 9 world, to my second running of Spindrift. I was quite happy that this had been added to the schedule as it always seems a more efficient use of the preparation to go through it twice. This time, however, all four players knew Traveller of old so we could skip the 30 or 40 minutes of introductory explanation. I have no idea why the players so neatly divided between the two games; I assume it’s just chance. However, this actually made me think we’d finish in good time and in fact I was so concerned it might run too short, that I decided not to skip the in-Jump material. As we actually finished at 1828 – two minutes before the scheduled end time, it all worked out OK. It was a delight to me to have Graham himself playing in this one – although that ratcheted up the nerves as well. I also had a TravCon stalwart playing as well as the fun of reconnecting with someone I only knew via the internet (and once I got past nicknames clicked – rather stupidly slowly) with who “Dr Moose” was!
As ever I was amused by how a different group of players put their own slant on an adventure so it can feel different enough for me not to feel bored. This time, Graham latched on to my description of Spindrift as a beautiful but undeveloped world and spent much of the four hours lining up the planet to be the next ‘go to’ tourist destination. He certainly presented a much more focussed, Credit-oriented Captain Loyd than our laid back TTA version, but that was refreshing in itself. There was one moment of panic for me, however, when he latched onto an idea that I feared might derail things. He spotted the colour ink bit of the eroctopi biology and instantly saw the commercial possibilities. Perhaps I could have just accepted this and had this going on in parallel to other events but it felt rather close to the bone on the ‘climax’ of the adventure and I hastily decided it might be better just to declare this was far too personal a matter for the eroctopi – it was, after all, connected with their mating practices – and thus tabu to even suggest. This led to quite an interesting discussion about how acceptable it might or might not be and what a human equivalent might be. I’m not at all sure I made the right, or at least the best, decision here.
This time, no one bit on the opportunity to learn to dive – despite the obvious opportunities, but it’s not critical. It simply changes some of the options that are later available. The landing in a storm (or not) time pressure seemed to work well and generate genuine choices for the players which was more of a thing than the first time through. On the other hand, less was made of the rumours that were on offer but at least as much was made of the advert sandbox options and the noticeboard that I’m really glad I bothered with as both sets of players seemed to engage with it.
Much of the plot unfolded as expected but the finale was a little different thanks to the choices made. Interestingly, the first group had decided to hand over the baddies to almost certain death; this group decided to hand them over to Imperial authorities for, most likely, lengthy imprisonment. But I was pleased that the moral choice was there and gave the players something meaty to engage with. Although I was quite amused that Graham/Captain Loyd was really keen to essentially set up a legal version of what the baddies had been doing!
On a personal note I really enjoyed being relaxed a second time through and feeling I knew roughly how things might pan out. However, I was cross with myself that yet again I’d forgotten to take any photos in all the stress/excitement and this time I’d even forgotten to get out the shells for benefits. I was also irritated with myself and more than a little embarrassed that my handouts seemed to constantly be in chaos and not ready to hand when I wanted them. I could blame the really tight quarters we were in – one of the cells – but it was more my poor organization.
The Garrison was an interesting space. Not as cosy as TravCon’s Redwings as we were a bit more spread out and there were other guests around on some of the floors. The hot water for tea making ran out on the second day so there wasn’t quite as good provisioning ‘care’ although in general the hotel did a great job and certainly had much better food options. (With more just across the road.)
The Upper Jailhouse which was ‘open’ was a bit loud and it made hearing – at least for those of us with some disability in this area – a little difficult. The cells which were nicely cosy and might have had better acoustic properties unfortunately ‘caught’ the sound from the Upper Jailhouse just outside and thus had similar problems. Not quite enough to put me off attending another time but certainly a consideration if my hearing deteriorates. Or else only sign up for ‘Cargo Hold’ (basement) games where it was soulless but roomy and quiet.
As ever, the games are fun and often memorable but what really brings a face-to-face convention alive is the interaction with real people. Both during the games and of course, between the games. I’ve already said how great it was to meet up with Graham again and see a couple of other friendly faces from TravCon. I also met S, a sleep researcher who I suspect was ready to whisk me off to his testbeds immediately given my sleeping habits. We’d both played in the Alien game and enjoyed a couple of meals together. I met another S, from Israel, who, playing in the first Star Trek game and was so reminiscent of a Swedish friend in looks, accent and mannerism that it was past weird and into “are you sure you don’t have a long-lost sibling” territory. It was also great to put a face to the Dr Moose name as we’ve exchanged Traveller related emails on more than one occasion and he was very patient with my not being able to place him immediately. I suppose, despite the size of its universe, Traveller can be a small world as well. My hotel buddy, Darren, it turns out lives very near Sawtry so just maybe I’ve persuaded him to come join us at TravCon – assuming we meet there again. (I’ve heard the very vaguest of rumours that after ten years we might have a change of venue.) It was of course terrific to meet Jim C in person after all this time of virtual Traveller games – he played Ghazan in my The Traveller Adventure campaign. In the lunchbreak on Sunday, he took me over to the nearby Morrisons where we had lunch with T, one of his players in a classic Traveller game we’ve just started via Zoom. He had family stuff going on so he couldn’t join in with the convention – but perhaps next time. Particularly as we play with cameras off, it was good to put a face to a name. I met others as well but won’t try and list everyone.
That’s a wrap…
North Star was certainly an adventure for me. As a referee, as a player and as various characters. It was a great shame my work colleague who’d been really looking forward to it couldn’t join in after all. Indeed, I believe she’s been looking at the possibility of Furnace in October which is also at the Garrison Hotel. Another part of my reason for an extended write up of events is that I know Jane will avidly read it and it might help a tiny bit with having had to miss out.
I fear that Furnace is getting too distant from my love of science fiction for my taste. Dungeons & Dragons in my life!However, much more critically, October is my heaviest teaching period as the new university term gets underway. It would be insanity trying to fit in a weekend away at that time3. I suppose at some point however, I really ought to play at least one game of
I assume North Star will happen next year – I meant to double check but I assumed the ‘V’ in the title meant that this was its fifth year but I didn’t remember to ask anyone at the right time. I’d certainly consider going again but am not sure either the distance or my physical decline will allow. Perhaps next year Blue Planet will be running in its new edition which will draw me in. Perhaps next year I could take a Hydro = 1 world of adventure in lieu of getting to play Dune…
In the meantime, safe travelling – both physically and virtually.