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After-Action Report: TravellerCON/USA 2023

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue.

TLDR: Fun was had, as usual.

General comments

This year’s theme was a bit more successful as a theme than past recent themes have been; while not all of the games were free-trader-focussed, it seemed that a good number of referees took the idea and ran with it in some form or other.

I completely forgot about pictures this year, and even if I hadn’t, the phone I carry is probably barely adequate for dealing with lower resolutions – it takes a good three minutes just to fire up the web browser. Worth every cent I didn’t pay for it (there’s a story behind that, but not for here)… Maybe next year I’ll remember, and take a decent camera.

The after-effects of the pandemic are still affecting the hospitality industry; while the breakfast buffet was handled generally well, the hotel restaurant is still closed for lunch, and they really can’t handle two large events at once for dinner; they don’t have enough staff. I still agree that this is a better site than our last two, and they acknowledged the shortcomings of their service Saturday evening.

Come Away

I determined to get going around 0900, with a quick stop at the bank for cash. Traffic was smooth until – as usual – the Cross Bronx Expressway, which always backs up for some distance, and calling it an expressway is a bit of a misnomer. There were actually two backups westbound (the direction I was travelling); the eastern backup was for unknown reasons; its cause, if any, had been cleared by the time I reached wherever it had started, and traffic was in the process of unclotting. The second was at the interchange with the Major Deegan Expressway (usually less of a misnomer) where it always backs up – unavoidably – at the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. This backup is inevitable, because the George Washington Bridge (which the AHB feeds) is a two-level bridge on which trucks are only allowed on the upper, the access to the upper is via the leftmost lanes across the AHB, and the interchange from the Deegan brings the trucks coming to the bridge via the Deegan into the right lanes. Obviously, this means that the trucks need to merge across four lanes of traffic in a fairly short time/distance to get where they need to be to cross the GWB. Need more be said?

Once across the GWB into NJ, traffic was generally good along I-80, I-287, and I-78 until about Clinton NJ, at NJ-173. The road there was narrowed for construction, and it was posted as a blasting zone, and traffic was brought to a full stop just past the exit for about ten minutes. When it started moving again, it stayed very slow and badly clotted; this turned out to be due to a tractor-trailer that was moving like it had lost function in one of its two gearboxes – it was crawling up a not-steep-at-all hill at a speed barely faster than a moderately healthy person could achieve with a bicycle, so everyone else had to merge left into the other (one only) open lane to pass him, after which it was smooth sailing right to the con hotel. I checked in at just about 1400, dropped off my stuff in my room, and went to the playroom.

Session 1: Friday 1300-1700

Well, 1410ish to 1700, for me. I checked in at the Con desk (vs. the hotel desk for my room) and collected the T-shirt, challenge coin, image, con-guide, and water bottle. There were a couple of games already in progress; I spent the remainder of the session chatting with old friends from previous TravellerCONs, making new friends, and scoring some swag from the vendors, including some of Chuck Gannon’s newer books. Just after the official end-of-session, the pizza arrived; M (the ‘con queen’) gave a bit of history about the origin of the TravellerCON Friday Evening Memorial Pizza Party, and we enjoyed pizza and soda, then more random chatting until about 1815, and the first panel discussion.

Panel Discussion: Refereeing: Friday 1815-1845

This was K acting as moderator, with B1, B2, B3, and G as the referees sharing their knowledge. This was focused on developing and running adventures for the standard four-hour con slot, with discussion also covering the idea of dealing with what happens when your wonderful plans encounter the players, and “where do you get your ideas?”. Most of this was aimed at experienced referees who normally run “kitchen campaigns”, but there was some meat for “newbie” referees as well. I would have loved to have Timothy Collinson up there with the other panelists, but…

Session 2: Friday 1900-2300

J was present with Traveller Ascension: Imperial Warrant again, but instead of the standard game – which is quite good – he was playtesting/demoing a new set of rules, designed for cooperative play with several players or (alternatively) solo play. The basic plot of these rules is that The Big Baddie is trying to gain enough (military) power to escape the region and pursue his nefarious aims; the players’ purpose is to prevent this, and possibly destroy the Big Baddie. The rules seem to work well, and are recognizably derived from the standard rules, and I’m looking forward to the formal release.

Session 3: Saturday 0800-1200

A Classic Traveller game in a homebrew setting that was not totally unlike the standard universe. The player-characters are gun-runners to a balkanized world; they have a well-placed contact in the armed forces of the world that supplies the arms that they run. (It should be noted that the two worlds are in the same system; the PCs’ ship was well into maintenance deficit, and don’t count on the Jump Drive.) I really think that the players “went off the rails” with this one; rather than handling the basic gun-running deal that we were “scheduled” for, we ended up helping our supplier/contact depose one of his rivals, breaking up a major drug deal, and were starting to see a Strange Thing with some Significant Implications before time ran out in the session. NO SPOILERS; if you want to know more, come next year and hope that “Burning and Dealing” is being run again.

Session 4: Saturday 1300-1700

Unfortunately, although this game had an interesting concept, it got cancelled. B1 was going to run “I’m Your Captain”, in which the players were each Merchant captains, with Broker and Trader skills, with the objective being to compete at buying, transporting, and selling; the goods availability list was uniform for all players. In discussing the reason for the cancellation, B1 said that it really wouldn’t work with less than three players, and there were only two that had committed (including me as a walk-up). His guess (and mine in concurrence) is that people were either uneasy about the competitive aspect (most games at cons have the players acting cooperatively, as a single party), or lacked confidence in their ability to manage the trade. Or both. I ended up writing more of this AAR and chatting with some of the other people who weren’t playing.

Panel Discussion: TravellerMap: Saturday 1900-1930

Joshua Bell, the creator of TravellerMap, gave us a half-hour overview of the history of the development of TravellerMap and what it can do, including an overview of the API – which is well-documented on the site, but probably not something that most users look at. It really can do quite a bit more than I suspect most people use it for, and it’s available to copy from GitHub so that one can set up one’s own copy. I’m told (by someone who actually did it) that it’s pretty easy to get set up and running, and that you don’t need a full-out installation of Microsoft’s IIS (which is what Josh uses) – it can even ostensibly run (slowly) on something as low end (by current standards) as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 under Visual Studio Community Edition (not Visual Studio Code).

Session 5: Saturday 1930-2330

This was my first game with B1, who regularly runs games at TravellerCON/USA under the “Dead Games Society” banner. These are Traveller games no different from any other, save that it’s essentially guaranteed that they’ll be using older versions of Traveller – this game was a blend of Classic Traveller and MegaTraveller, and he admitted to having a little Mongoose in there, too. The party was on a world that could best be described using vocabulary most accurately applied to the solid product of the digestive process. We were also in a distinctly unenviable financial position (banks that hold one’s mortgage really do not approve of expenses exceeding income for more than the briefest possible period), and the bank had an auditor/broker aboard, effectively demoting my character to assistant broker (though I was still the Steward). Our mission was to acquire cargo (possibly including smuggling; the ship was equipped for it) and passengers, and then deliver same to our next destination, at sufficient profit to correct our unenviable financial position.

B1 had several potential disasters for us to deal with, but – as usual – no adventure survives contact with the players. We kept rolling well enough that he didn’t really have an opportunity to do a number on us until we were coming in at our destination, where we managed to roll a SPA inspection, which, when the passengers were informed, caused some… interesting reactions among our passengers.

[SPOILERS: One of our high passengers (unknown to us) was (a) an assassin, and (b) wanted for terroristic acts on the world we’d just arrived at. Another pair (sharing one stateroom) turned out to be a pair of grave robbers (they’d identified themselves as archaeologists when they asked us to ship a one-ton container (above and beyond the regular high passenger allotment)) who had what might have been an Ancient artifact in their extra container. Our low passenger turned out to be a (serial) saboteur; he asked that a music chip of his provision be played into his low berth as it was freezing him down; the chip turned out to have a worm in it, but our engineer insisted on checking it first, and found it. The chip was not played. Had it been, he would have been the sole survivor of an otherwise dead ship. The passenger that couldn’t even afford the low berth, but had the skills to be an assistant steward, was given working passage, and used the opportunity to try to break into the grave robbers’ container (and was caught and prevented).]

One of our passengers (the assassin) overreacted to the announcement of the SPA inspection, and we had to subdue her – but the ruckus was enough to distract the inspectors, and the seven sets of battledress that we were smuggling in weren’t found. We also were able to sell our legitimate cargo for significant profit, so the bank was going to be happy for this trip, and we’d even have something of a buffer for the next jump (outside the scope of the adventure).

In spite of ‘going (mostly) retro’ with rules, B1 uses a laptop computer with a second screen attached to good effect, presenting pictures of the characters (both PCs and NPCs), using TravellerMap, providing detail close-ups of various things (for example, the amulet that our assassin was wearing, showing that it had a concealed pill compartment), and so on. It’s not a “slick” display, like you’d see from a cued PowerPoint presentation, but the quality of the presented items definitely adds to the atmosphere of play.

Session 6: Sunday 0900-1300

I elected to pass on this session; there were only a few games on the schedule, none of which were particularly attracting, and I also knew I had some chores to do at home. Since I also had determined that I was going to take a slightly different route home than normal, it made sense to get on the road early. Goodbyes were said, promises to see people next year were made, and checkout was accomplished.

Going Home

I got on the road a little after 1000; my intention was to take a slightly different route home – instead of the usual US-222/I-78/I-287/I-80/GWB/I-95, I’d stick with I-287 up into Rockland County NY, and cross the Hudson via the Tappan Zee Bridge. Nominally, it would only add a few minutes of travel time; it would definitely save me about ten dollars in tolls (about six at the Tappan Zee, vs about sixteen at the GWB). I’m not sure about the time because I couldn’t get a solid read on the GWB backup (the NYC radio station’s traffic reporting is sometimes spotty on Sundays), but I do know that delays on I-78 just getting to I-287 were enough to add well over an hour to the expected length of the trip anyway. Once across the bridge, I was in my “home stomping grounds”, and was able to get home fairly quickly, avoiding known traffic trouble spots.

“Check-in” at home was at about 1600, chores were taken care of, and when I crawled into bed Sunday night I was happy – it had been a good TCUSA.