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Squaring the Circle (Again)

June 23, 2007

Traveller has always been in the back of my brain while working on Thousand Suns and deliberately so. Traveller is the gold standard when it comes to non-licensed science fiction roleplaying games. I’m hard pressed to think of any game in its category that’s been as successful or as influential. In addition, Traveller covers a lot of the same ground that Thousand Suns covers, being largely the bastard child of the literary SF of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As I’ve said partially in jest: “To get a sense of Traveller’s setting, just imagine Pipe’s future history, culminating in Anderson’s Imperium, which is protected by Niven and Pournelle’s military, with a dash of Asimov thrown in.” Cinematic or televisual sci-fi seems to have exerted little to no influence over Traveller, as the game predates Star Wars and its imitators and, so far as I can tell, there’s little or no evidence of Roddenberry’s shadow in the game. Thousand Suns is similar, although, being a man of my time, it’d be impossible for me not to be influenced by both Star Wars and Star Trek, both positively and negatively. So, Traveller is the intellectual father of Thousand Suns in innumerable ways.

As with most sons reflecting on their father’s lives, I can’t help but try to avoid past mistakes and, in the case of Traveller, there’s a glaring one — the Rebellion. As I explained at greater length elsewhere, GDW noticed that, by the mid-80s, Traveller’s popularity had flatlined or had at least ceased to grow at any appreciable rate. The designers seemingly decided that one of the reasons for the decline from its immense popularity in previous years was that the official setting was too large and too static. Simply put, they felt the Imperium was too vast a canvas on which to play and lacked (though the word was not yet current) a metaplot. This was likely the origin of the Rebellion, or Second Civil War, which tore the Imperium into bite-sized chunks, each — in theory anyway — with their own flavor and, more importantly, small enough to be manageable. In addition, the ongoing hostilities and burning resentments of the Rebellion would create rivalries, antagonisms, and plot hooks that the GM and players alike could use far better than the bland, ill-defined, vanilla immensity of the pre-Rebellion empire.

I think GDW was on to something and I’m probably among only a handful of people who didn’t think the Rebellion was, in itself, a bad idea. Indeed, my favorite era of Traveller play is during the Rebellion era, because it really is a much more dynamic and interesting setting, at least if, like me, you enjoy politics and warfare and espionage and all that. The problem was that the Rebellion was handled poorly from the start and provided little to no support for GMs or players in figuring out just how to use this sudden shift in interstellar affairs. Perhaps more importantly, the Rebellion ran rough-shod over existing continuity. Gamers who’d be playing Traveller happily for nearly a decade suddenly found that all future materials would treat the reality of a shattered Imperium as the one and only possible way to play the game. This might not matter if you were in the isolated Spinward Marches sector, where life proceeded pretty much as before, but what if you played in a core sector, which was now suddenly at the front lines of a bloody civil war? What if your game was set on Terra, now occupied by the Commie-Nazi Solomani? GDW never provided any answers to these and other practical questions and, as time went on, the Rebellion went from being a meta-game device to reinvigorate a stagnant setting to, first, an exercise in gloom and doom “dark” futurism to, later, an excuse for all manner of needless politico-ethical philosophizing that seemed beside the point (even if they were very much in keeping with the literary roots of the game).

With this as a cautionary example, I set out to make the Thousand Suns setting open, flexible, and modular, even to the point of not definitively establishing whether its ruling state was a Federation or an Empire. Likewise, I wanted little to no history and no metaplot. Any apocalyptic events were safely in the past, thereby letting GMs spin their own tales and go their own way without fear that some future product would set events in motion that’d either lock them into those events or isolate them from compatability with even later products. Thus, the civil war of Thousand Suns is a generation earlier, even if it still has repercussions for the present day. The point is that I did not ever want to find myself in a situation where I said, “You know, what this game setting needs is a big war to sell more products.”

I stand by that decision, but there’s one problem. I still cannot decide, in presenting the setting material, how to frame it, since I want it to be “government neutral.” In addition, I’m torn in my own mind as to whether I better enjoy a benevolent but authoritarian empire or a free but corrupt federation. Esthetically, empires always win, but, dramatically, I love corrupt democracies. It’s why I suspect I enjoy the Star Wars prequels far more than most of my peers. The pulp gaming possibilities of being a lone group of genuinely good guys working for a venal and short-sighted government is cool and works so much better if the government is, in theory anyway, “of the people.”

So, I think I’ve come to a decision. Rather than either/or, why not both/and? Suppose I push the civil war back a century rather than a generation and have a victorious secession movement reform itself and its liberated territories into a Second Republic to rival the Empire of the Thousand Suns? The Empire, even after 100 years, is still recovering from the blow to its pride, not to mention the loss of some key sectors and jumplines. Perhaps the loss of these territories toppled the emperor at the time and, since then, things have been less stable politically. Likewise, what if the secession movement was hijacked by demagogues and corporate interests and so the Second Federation never quite lived up to its high ideals? Imagine too a frontier sector of independent and unexplored systems, with both the Federation and Empire jockeying for power, while the Myrmidon Dominions look for signs of weakness on either side and I think you have a richer, more open setting, especially since I remain committed to no metaplot and no detailed histories. To use a WotC-ism from ages ago, this is a “Newtonian” setting: I give you the billiard balls and set them spinning and each GM and his group decides which balls, if any, to knock this way or that.

Am I crazy?

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 26, 2007 6:21 pm

    Although Traveller is an interesting game, I don’t know if it has ever been really challenged as the “gold standard”. I admit though, I really haven’t found a true “Space Opera” or “traditional” sci fi game yet to match it. So it wins kinda by default. Well, now we are starting to get a few with GURPS suppliments and what not, but most of the attention is in the Cyberpunk arena.

    That being said, I think we are getting to the point in the industry where a new Gold Standard is going to be made that doesn’t look forwards by rehashing what once was, but rather looking through what will be.

    Maybe Thousand Suns is going to be it. I think it could have a good chance to do that, but only time will tell. IMHO I’m just saying the door’s open for someone to walk through it.


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