After-Action Report: TravCon 17
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue.
The best Traveller adventures have at their heart some form of conflict. Perhaps the obvious run down starport bar brawl; noble dukes duelling at dawn; or battle armour and gauss rifles in a frenzied energyfest. Maybe it’s a battle for survival where nature is the enemy – on the ground or in the depths of a gas giant; or taking the moral high ground against racists who can’t see past your culture. Or perhaps it’s the more subtle psionic confrontation with a winged beast you’re determined to tame and ride to save the tribe; or government leaders politicking over the priorities of resource allocation on a world at the edge; or the more ordinary struggle to make a credit in the face of difficult trade situations, a decrepit starship, and desperate merchants.
And layered on top of all this are the personal trials we bring to the game table. Perhaps physical limitations such as the chronic back pain I was told about in the bar between games; it could be family or work issues getting in the way of a bit of down time we heard about as the convention started; or perhaps private battles too personal to even talk about save with close friends.
Andy bravely sets to work on his schedule - being cut up within minutes of being put up.
This year, the excitement started early as a harassed looking Andy Lilly arrived at the convention with not one or two but four referees having had to pull out for one reason or another: sickness, work demands, family crises. Organizing three dozen travellers, a convention and a small hotel (under new management?) that had also shrunk the playing area unhelpfully isn’t easy at the best of times, but this year seemed particularly fraught. Still, hands set to in helping set up and referees offered whatever they could run at short notice, and things were soon looking shipshape. With a bit of cutting and sticking a schedule for the weekend came together. As ever, throughout all this it was great to catch up with old friends, make new ones and look forward to another 48 hours or so of Traveller fun and adventure.
See How They Run
I had considered taking a break from running a game this year so it was a good job, perhaps, that I’d had a bunch of ideas over the intervening months and had developed a couple of them enough to make them workable. As usual, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try out something new. One of my bright ideas – which I’ll save for another year – was to use the setting of a novel I’d really enjoyed as a world for adventure. I’d produced almost all of a sourcebook and had a few ideas, but I knew back in December that while I could probably finish the job and get it ready in time, it would be very demanding to do so. Instead, I decided I’d run an adventure I’d written not so much as a sequel to Three Blind Mice but as a long intended companion piece coming at it from the other end as it were. Titled See How They Run, it would be a group of merchants exploring District 268 but with the wrinkle that it would be Zhodani traders looking for opportunities to make an Abradlnad or two and also reporting back to the Consulate on conditions, attitudes and shipping. Of course, if I was going to bother with Zhodani, why not have them all with psionic abilities to give the players additional interest and to explore what an ‘ordinary’ merchant adventure might look like with such extra Talents. Thus five Intendants and one Aspirant fresh from crossing the Sword Worlds arrive at the spinward end of District 268 with the subsector before them.
See How They Run in full psionic swing – note the use of www.travellermap.com on the laptop – also in evidence in other games
One player even provided a sketch of the character! More, please!
This is, I would say, quite the most sandboxy adventure I’ve tried writing. (Perhaps Ashfall II comes close.) Although there was plot – and way more than could comfortably fit into a four hour slot – I had also put together a 90+ page sourcebook covering all 32 worlds in District 268 and I fully intended to let the players as well as the PCs have a completely free hand in where they went to after departing Dawnworld. I should add that I cheated somewhat in producing the sourcebook by using the terrific resource of wiki.travellerrpg.com which itself combines material from a wide variety of published sources as well as other writing. A bit of ‘tidying up’, correction and adding a subsector map and the UWPs (including Traveller5 ‘Acceptance’ figures) and it made a very attractive printout which I had combbound with covers. (The Acceptance figures were there in order to give some approximate guidance on how welcome the Zhodani might or might not be on any particular planet.) Given the propensity for Traveller referees to set adventures in the District I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the interest this handout and reference work drew. The snag with the whole approach was that it made it difficult to know what the PCs and players would choose and thus what they’d encounter and which bits of plot we’d run with. I tried to mitigate this somewhat by having several ‘scenes’ that could run in multiple places and I had lists of passengers and NPCs that were designed to fit in with the theme but could be encountered anywhere. It was still, however, more stressful and I think next year – if I don’t have a seventh year sabbatical year off – I’ll be back to the rather more directed sort of adventure.
This was also the first time I’d attended TravCon having refereed Traveller in the intervening year. Between the six sessions once-every-other-month of The Traveller Adventure two TravConners and three colleagues were going through in the pub, I also had three work colleagues playing roughly fortnightly lunchtime sessions for an hour at a time. I had really hoped that this would contribute to me being much more relaxed about running a game at TravCon. Sadly, that didn’t pan out and I was as on edge as ever and very glad Andy’s chopping and pasting of the schedule meant that it didn’t feel too unreasonable to put in a request to give See How They Run its first outing Friday night so that I could sleep easy.
In the event, the game seemed to go well enough although once again I think I could fairly be accused of having too many handouts. Nothing like the levels of The Second Scions’ Society however! Once again I was surprised by just how different it could be with two completely different groups of players. Once again I loved how my paltry words really come alive in the hands of six or more skilled players breathing reality into them. Having learned from previous years, I had a couple of NPCs prepared which could ‘upgrade’ to PCs in case Andy was struggling to fit in a latecomer or balance game tables or something. And on this occasion it paid off as one player’s son arrived half way through and it was simplicity, from my point of view, to accommodate him. Poor K! He was not only completely new to the convention and to Traveller, but he was faced with one of my games and a ton of information to absorb, a choice of not one but two PCs to pick from and a four page handout on psionic Talents (perhaps around 80 of them!) from which he needed to pick a couple. It’s a testament to his bravery that he didn’t abandon hope on the spot.
The first time through on Friday interestingly didn’t use the psionic talents quite so much but did spend considerable time on the ethics of using them and how best to do so. They spent a chunk of game time on an early scene in which they have the opportunity to rescue a poorly educated, low class, unemployed guy – one Stinford Glass – who’s been accused of killing his girlfriend psionically. A court has convicted him and the mob are turning against him. A direct rescue is a possibility, ignoring him is an option or a more diplomatic negotiated release is a third approach. The players spent some time discussing the possibilities and eventually opted for the talking and, I think, felt some satisfaction, in being able to save him from his lobotomy.
The second group, playing in the longer Sunday game session, played it completely differently and left poor old Stinford to his fate bypassing the scene entirely. This did give us a chance to fit in a scene the first group hadn’t had time for (a rescue of buried survivors after the collapse of a section of a domed city) and gave a wonderful moment in which a teleporter made a big impression on the locals as he brought someone out of the rubble apparently magically. Both groups went for the scenario I had as a climax in which some free traders who had previously been racially abusing the PCs and had shot at them near the 100 diameter limit, now needed rescue in a gas giant’s atmosphere as one of their drive coils failed. I’d like to think that with a variety of task rolls tied to some tight timing rolls, it kept up the pressure of the hull failure being imminent but it was hard to judge how that segment actually went.
Also difficult to judge, was that this was the first game I’ve ever run in which I thought it might be wise to warn players there were sensitive issues contained within. Mainly due to the overt racism that was part of the theme of seeing how the Zhodani would behave but also because each of the PCs had in their back story some form of mental trauma which they could make as much or as little of as they wished. Back in the Consulate these issues would likely have involved a visit from the Tavrchedl’; this far from home, that wasn’t necessarily an option. Ironically, none of the players seemed to have any issues with anything – but it was me who was choking up as I described a class of school kids nearly buried in the rubble of the dome collapse but safe for the moment in a void below a concrete slab.
Freelance Traveller had very kind words to say about Three Blind Mice (although one experienced Referee told he’d “take it apart” if he ran it – Thanks T!) and I can only hope that See How They Run eventually finds a publication outlet and is as warmly received.
An Alien Intruder
As my contribution to filling in an empty refereeing slot, I’d specially brought with me a game of Star Trek Expeditions I’d bought a couple of months before. I debated running an old adventure again. I thought about trying something truly off the cuff where we just set off with some quickly generated characters and saw where we ended up. I could have given See How They Run a third outing. But in the end, energy levels made me take the easy option, although I tacked on a couple of minutes at the beginning and end of Traveller ‘framing’ just to make it feel kosher. The conceit being that a bunch of scouts on the edge of Solomani space had come across an old training simulation and had to evaluate it for use with newbies. My thanks to the four who signed up for this in having a go at a Star Trek game which wasn’t too difficult in its ‘cadet’ level but proved nearly impossible at ‘captain’ level and goodness knows how you succeed at ‘admiral’ level. Fun nevertheless.
A relaxed Neil M gets players into A Family Business
Nick W makes it up on the fly
Once again, I can’t describe all the other great games that were going on. I wanted to play them all but without clones or a time machine I could only admire them from afar. Strange Goings on at Station 22 and In Search of Justice, both run by Steve Q, In Search of Lost Knowledge by Nick W, Return to Research Station Gamma by Ravi S, Star Vikings and Formula 3000 with Robin F (the latter looked most dodgy from the scantily clad artwork on the table!), The Lost Colony by Bob P, A Family Business under Neil M, and the Vargr were back in Pack of Trouble by Nigel F and two slots from Simon B: Spacedogs and Return of the Spacedogs. At one point all the chirpers, supposedly on a break from their game, came around the various other games going on in different rooms in character. At least it gave those of us who were missing out a chance to respond in kind. Although it also gave my work colleague J – back for her second year – the chance to brandish the actual chirperswatter she’s made and had bought with her.
Steve E keeps some semblance of order in Mirabilis
Running games in three slots meant that I could only play in two of course. One was a no brainer. I’d heard via social media that Steve Ellis was running Mirabilis again. He’d run it last year and I hadn’t been able to get into it, but I was intrigued by the idea that it contained absolutely no dice rolls at all and involved the five leaders of a government having to make decisions about (limited) resources. I managed to book a seat this year and wasn’t disappointed. It was a cracking game although the first half hour was stressful as you tried to weigh up possibilities and options. Once we were into it though, it was very immersive and I really felt the failure of assigning, in one turn, too little to maintenance and having a grav city fall out of the sky killing ten million people! I was the Chief Scientist and got to channel some of my knowledge of university academics which was fun, but I was particularly delighted that over the five turns of the game (representing a number of years) we managed to raise our tech level to nearly 17! Definitely a success for me. Perhaps less successful was the poor head of security who ended the game in one of his own cells with a bunch of uplifted apes he’d been abusing for a long time. (The initial and final scores on the board, for anyone that cares, were: Population 9→7, Law Level 8→6+, Tech Level 14→16+, Economy 10→9, Military 7→9+.)
This is the third high level, ‘interaction’ game that Steve has come up with. All of them are corkers and to fill in scheduling gaps he was running all three across the weekend. So for anyone who had missed them previously – or wanted a rerun (I was sorely tempted to have another go at Eve of Rebellion and play against Emperor Strephon this time) – you could collect the set in one convention. The Zhodani Candidate, Eve of Rebellion and Mirabilis. The emotional energy that would have taken would probably have been prohibitive though! I was impressed however, that my colleague J – attending for her second year – bravely signed up for Eve of Rebellion. She ended up playing Norris and, perhaps very accurately, captured the ‘out of his depth’ nature of his interactions with Strephon, Iphigenia, Dulinor and the twins. Sarah Lilly, Andy’s wife, was playing Iphigenia in a nice counterpoint to Anne, their daughter, having played the princess in the game where I was Emperor a couple of years back.
B and his dragon-like creature—no prize for spotting James F's inspiration
Sarah, of course, had written a fourth Chirper adventure Temptation’s Pull and while some people ran a mile from the high pitched, enthusiastic chirping, others were signing up in droves. Andy was running it no less than three times across the weekend and I believe it was full each time. This gave me a really hard dilemma as I’ve so enjoyed playing these humorous games the last three years. But I’ve also heard good reports of a young referee’s games and decided I would use the last precious slot I had for playing to give James F’s A Long Sleepless Night a go. And I’m so glad I did. This was a cracking game which appeared to be a fairly normal Traveller adventure. We were young tribespeople hunting down ‘dragons’ to bond with psionically in a coming of age trial so we could fly on them and help protect our people. Perhaps my highlight of the weekend was watching P – who was playing the son of a beastmaster and thus wanting to prove himself, facing down the largest beast after the rest of us had settled for average size animals. P as a player was determined enough and his character was even more so. James as referee certainly wasn’t going to let him – player or PC – have it easy. In a fifteen or twenty minute segment of the game, the two squared off in a showdown that I could have watched all evening. Two alpha males determined to get their way, not letting up despite the damage they were doing to each other, and pushing the edge of what either could stand. And that was just referee and player…! It was fabulous stuff. Eventually the two in-game characters came to a shared understanding even if neither achieved complete dominance. We weren’t finished however. Towards the end of the adventure it all got much more complicated as we discovered a rogue AI and camouflaged Droyne and began to realize just how limited our understanding of our situation was. Indeed, by the end, the players if not the PCs became aware that their decisions had caused, many many millennia later, Virus to be unleashed on an unsuspecting Third Imperium. Kai! Did that ever put the 10 million deaths of my grav city into perspective! I don’t recall playing in such a high concept game ever before (perhaps excepting Dom Mooney’s wonderful This Fear of Gods back in my first ever TravCon) and James is to be commended on his excellent idea and execution, as well as his fascinating use of some grand sf artwork to help set a key scene.
I should add that I constantly ask Sarah and Steve to get their terrific – if very, very different – adventures published and I’m sure many others would be worth making more widely available as well. Perhaps we could have a TravCon anthology collection. If only I had the energy.
And that was my biggest frustration with the weekend and a battle I knew I would face and nearly lost. The Chronic Fatigue I struggle with has not improved over the last year but I had thought I could make it through to Sunday afternoon and collapse on the journey home. CFS has its ups and downs both over the weeks and on any given day and I had clearly overdone it by Sunday morning. I might try to hide it but was clearly failing and as I stumbled downstairs and round the cereal and tea making, it was being suggested I didn’t attempt to run See How They Run again. But in for a penny, in for a pound – I didn’t want to let anyone down and besides, I thrive on the buzz! Once the painkillers and adrenalin kicked in I was able to get through. But for those who tease me about over-preparing I was very glad I had every word I needed written down once my brain had turned to custard along with my body. And I should publically thank all those who provided both practical and emotional support when I was close to the edge. In particular Sarah Lilly for her encouragement and the cups of tea which kept me going and to Steve Ellis for his in-game support helping with rules I couldn’t remember or deal with easily, or in moving luggage etc when I could barely traverse the few feet between game rooms.
Larissa and Gracie May win a well-deserved Starburst for Extreme Heroism
All too soon it was time for the wrap-up, thank yous and awards. It’s getting pretty slick now with nominations and voting swiftly dealt with. The PFI award went to Simon Beal and it was no surprise that the SEH went to Larissa and her little one who was just 15 weeks old. A tiny thing who had completely discombobulated our big strapping ex-air force traveller in a game of Striker every time he rolled the dice! To add to the bravery of having a babe in arms and coming to TravCon, Larissa had fallen over and broken her wrist so was learning Striker rules, managing gaming, breast feeding and everything else with a cast on. (See Star Vikings picture with Robin R refereeing and babysitting simultaneously). Our thanks to her husband who in driving her to Redwings, attended his first TravCon, and appeared not to be too daunted by the experience. Andy may need to have a special category of award in future for such devotion above and beyond! As ever we’re indebted to Andy and Sarah for organizing and running a great convention! Thank you!
Star Vikings Striker miniatures game in full swing
As has become something of a tradition, I’d put all my notes, handouts and District 268 book into a pack to auction for charity. Andy had various other lots from awesome beer to autographed books. Once again the generous bidding of attendees raised a substantial sum for Help for Heroes and motivates me to keep bothering to prepare beforehand. Though I was very impressed with the Referee I found kicking an idea around just a little while before running a game, and then doing so with just a few scribbled sentences. Kai!
I’ll continue to deal with conflicting pressures over the coming year and I’m certain there will be few fellow Travellers from the convention who won’t be facing their own struggles – external or internal, ongoing or new, small or life changing. But in coming together for a weekend of gaming we’re able to have a few moments of escape and shared experience; a short time of stretching our boundaries and believing we can fly; and the wonderful camaraderie and support of friends who know the future is brighter if we overlook our differences and celebrate what unites us.