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Close to the Edit

When It's Cold I'd Like To Die

by Ross Winn
Jul 18,2005

 

When It's Cold I'd Like To Die:
"where were you when I was lonesome
locked away in this freezing cold
someone flying, only stolen,
I can't tell, this night's so old..."
(Moby 1995)

Have you ever wondered if we have simply over-intellectualized the point of roleplaying? Maybe we spend so much time thinking and watching. Maybe we read and give in to the elitism of ideas. What if we forget where we came from? What if everything was wrong? Moby asked this question in 1995 and I wasn't listening. I was deep into the darkness within myself, and within cyberpunk. I had completely forgotten where I had come from, but not any more.

"...this is Free Trader Beowulf..."

I was talking to a great friend a few weeks ago. He was one of the people who I have been working and playing with since 1986. There aren't very many of those people in the world. I can think of six people I knew then that still game now.

"...Mayday, Mayday ..."

One of the most lucid then was. Tom Mulkey was a very talented former captain in the US Army Special Forces. He had a wife and two children. We used to play Traveller, Twilight 2000, and a couple of other games. Tom is gone now. He was less and less lucid as time went by. In the last year of his life I didn't even know him. When he died most of us simply didn't know. A lot of people had written him off completely. Those of us who hadn't were written off by him. I think he knew he was crazy, and he just didn't want to hurt anyone else.

"We are under attack..."

Frank Frey and I talk on occasion. We played Morrow Project, Traveller, and Twilight 2000. One of Frank's favorite stories is when he pistol-whipped my character for chambering a round during a negotiation. I was thirteen years old and didn't know anything. Frank is still a great guy, and he is still one of the better GMs I have ever known.

"Main drive is gone . . . "

I always knew Dan Eveland would do well. Someone with that much raw talent was going to be successful. Dan ran Traveller. He still does from time to time. We trade emails and stories. We meet at conventions. I consider him one of my best friends.

"Turret number one not responding..."

When Will Parsons showed up he always made an impression. At one time he was simultaneously the best roleplayer and the biggest ass I had ever known. He is still occasionally both. He is also a man who I am proud to call my brother and my friend.

"Losing cabin pressure fast calling anyone . . . "

Steve Scrivner is the guy I consider the absolute best GM I have ever played with. We played a lot of different games. Traveller, Danger International, Morrow Project, Twilight 2000, and many more. Steve has taught me more about story than anyone else. Whether it is steampunk England in 1876 or 300 year after the Atomic Wars all of them made sense.

"Please help . . . "

Gilbert Milner is the best game historian I know. I helped him move his game library once. It took four hours. He was always my sounding board. I could discuss anything with him and then bring it in to the game and he always reacted perfectly both times. He gave me a copy of Lands of Mystery for my birthday one year. At the time it was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever gotten.

"This is Free Trader Beowulf . . . "

When I write examples of something I learned in games or witnessed at least one of these guys is also involved. They are the compass points in my life as a roleplayer, a GM, and a writer.

Yet still none of them had as much affect on me as a man I have never met.

His name is Marc Miller. When I was just a kid he wrote these words:

"This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone...
Mayday, Mayday...
We are under attack...
Main drive is gone...
Turret number one not responding...
Mayday...
Losing cabin pressure fast calling anyone...
Please help...
This is Free Trader Beowulf ...
Mayday..."

I doubt that he had any idea what he was doing any more than Shakespeare figured kids would memorize Sonnet 42 and recite it to their unrequited loves.

Marc Miller's Traveller has kept being relevant through more versions than any other RPG in the history of the hobby. Traveller was the second game I ever played. At Merl Hayes' original Hobby Town in Lincoln Nebraska, I played my first session of that and The Arduin Grimoire on the same day in 1977. Star wars was redefining the genre right at the same time, and influenced later versions of Traveller a lot more than those first few "Little Black Books"(aka LBBs).

Eight weeks ago I started buying the game I left in 1988 after a decade of fantastic stories. I couldn't figure out why. It was a compulsion.

Oddly I started by buying a copy of Traveller: The New Era (TNE as it was abbreviated). This was my least favorite version of the rules and the set that turned me off the game. Then I found a copy of MegaTraveller (known as MT), GURPS Traveller (GT for short), and rather than buying each of the Classic Traveller books separately (as the LBBs became known, and are now abbreviated CT) I started buying the reprints. I got a copy if Marc Miller's Traveller (or T4 as it became known) on eBay. My copy of Traveller D20 (aka T20) will shortly arrive in the mail, maybe today, and I will still have a few more versions to go.

Nothing explains the amazing popularity of the game except the setting. In my opinion The Third Imperium has a more rich and detailed setting than any other game ever. I would not be surprised if the total word count exceeded that of even Greyhawk. Influences as diverse as James White's Sector General, Asimov's Foundation, Piper's Empire, and hundreds more and makes them work together incredibly well.

In the midst of all of this I discovered that in 2007 Marc will release the tenth version of the Traveller rules, which will oddly enough be called Traveller5 (I'll refer to this as T5).

I thought the array of products and internet support available for Traveller was incredibly impressive in both its diversity and respect for the canon of source material. I almost never came across bootlegs or scans of the rules sets. I didn't see wholesale plagiarism. To be honest it is very refreshing.

I thought it would be great to talk to Marc and ask him some questions about Traveller, about his own games, and about (if he lets us peek a little bit) T5.


1: After all of this time, and all of the different versions of this game, why Traveller5?

Traveller is an incomplete vision; each of its incarnations has striven to accomplish some goal, to define more completely some aspect of the Traveller vision. Classic laid out the framework, and even now, thirty years later, designers and writers and players return to the broad brushstrokes of Classic for ideas on how the universe of the future works. MegaTraveller introduced tasks and with them an attempt at refining the game rules for more consistency. The New Era experimented with a more chaotic, less ordered environment. T4 worked at refining rules while introducing events at the beginning years of the Empire. GURPS brought Traveller to a whole new audience. T20 followed the wave of the present and brought Traveller to those using the D20 system.

Traveller 5 is our attempt to produce a comprehensive game system and environment that makes the vision complete: in theory, T5 allows players to do anything and go anywhere within the Traveller universe. At the same time, Traveller5 supplements are intended to be rules independent: they can be used (more or less) with any system that has gone before.

How successful will we be? We'll have to see.

2: What about the setting still intrigues you?

Role-playing is a rite-of-passage for most boys today. They learn about role-playing through video games and Dungeons & Dragons, and some of them encounter Traveller. Because of the parameters we created for Traveller at the beginning (travel between worlds takes a week; there is no FTL radio) the universe depends on men of honor. And I think that that central concept of honor is what distinguishes Traveller from all the other major settings.

Casual players may pursue adventure or money or thrills, but ultimately serious players get caught up in events that require decisions about right and wrong. I think that's always intriguing.

3: If you were unable to take Traveller, what RPG would you take with you to an Antarctic Research Station?

I think that the original Dungeons & Dragons, easy-to-learn and fun-to-play has never been bested by anything that has come after. With a long boring half-year night and nothing else to do, original D&D would be a perfect vehicle for getting to know everyone.

4: What revision of Traveller do you think stayed closest in spirit to the original?

What a question! Each of the incarnations of Traveller has its own purpose. Each is based on what has gone before. And each is has to stand on its own.

5: You mentored and fostered a lot of talent in the early days of RPGs, what advice would you give new RPG writers who are starting out?

Hone your writing skills! Ultimately what you write will be evaluated on its imagination and innovation, but that can't really be taught. But no matter how imaginative you are, if it isn't competently written, it won't even get into print.

Back in the early days of role-playing, players tolerated poor writing and complex rules. Players today want innovative ideas, but they also insist on well-written, understandable rules. Hone your writing skills!

6: Whatever happened to the Keith brothers? Any chance they will be back for Traveller5?

Sadly, Andrew Keith died in 1999. Bill Keith, the renaissance man who could illustrate and write, and who had innovative ideas and concepts to talk about, progressed to writing novels (sixty-two at my last count). Bill isn't writing for games any more, but I expect that some of his art from Classic Traveller will also appear in Traveller5.

7: So many systems use the Traveller background have you ever thought of publishing background only books?

I mentioned rules-independent supplements for Traveller5. We already know that game masters pick and choose what they use in adventures. I think the perfect format for supplements and adventures is a sourcebook filled with information about the specific subject... facts, personalities, artifacts, geography, and whatever else is necessary... and made usable by a checklist adventure in the back. For example, the sourcebook could describe a subsector in detail: the worlds, the cultures, the corporations, and more. In the back would be a checklist for the game master detailing a variety of things that the players need to do. They can do them in any order, but they are ultimately led to a single climax that resolves the adventure.

We're refining the concept, but I expect the majority of the sourcebooks for Traveller5 will be rules-independent.

8: In the history of Traveller, was there ever a hint of a TV show or movie adaptation?

The people behind T4 wanted to ultimately do a Traveller movie (indeed, they did do a D&D movie). Then again, some people have told me how fortunate we are that they didn't do a Traveller movie.

9: Do you make a living with Traveller, or do you have another career as well?

I work half time designing games (Traveller and others). The other half of my time I spend consulting with and advising game companies on how to make their games the best they can be. I enjoy both jobs I have.

10: Do you have a favorite Traveller starship, and was it your design or someone else's?

I have two: I think the Free Trader Beowulf is a fun design that has been used for decades. And I designed the original. The other is the Ghalalk (its in Classic Traveller Fighting Ships supplement); its smooth lines make it a classic (it was designed by Paul Jaquays).

11: Obviously Star Wars had a huge effect on Traveller, what other films resonates with you when you think of Traveller?

I am disappointed in science-fiction movies; they go for big special effects and miss out in plot. They give us good images, but not enough else. Let's expand our scope to include novels and stories: Dumarest. Flandry. Van Rijn. Heinlein. Anderson. Asimov. Van Vogt. Dorsai. Weber. Drake. There's more.

If you (the reader) recognize the names, you are well informed. If not, take the time to find out about them. You'll enjoy the search and the rewards.

12: How often do your fans completely take you by surprise?

Most of the time. I was talking to my grandson about exploring a world... moving from hex to hex finding animals and cities and artifacts. I talked about crossing the seas in an air/raft, and he said "Wouldn't it be need to have a scuba set?" That simple question opened up a huge unexploited territory of undersea cities and strange swimming beasts that I had not even thought of. I get a lot of my inspirations from simple questions players ask.

Pretty cool, eh? Marc Miller answering questions from me, this is kind of a trip actually. I also want to thank Dan Eveland, and Gary Astleford for help with questions. Gary is one of those guys I would love to game with but for 3000 miles between us.

Was it just a coincidence that I suddenly want to run Traveller again, or is it really the effects of watching Episode III? We may never know. Surely Traveller has had more effect on me than either D&D or the Lord of the Rings. In the long run, and this is saying something for me, it may even have affected me more than Cyberpunk.

Coupled with all of this is that it is time to put my money where my mouth is. I keep saying that everything old is new again, and now it is time for me to take something old and make it new and fun for me and for some players. I don't have a play group yet. I have some people who are interested in playing, but most of them are too far away. Hell, some of them, like Gary, are in California.

The idea of running an online game just isn't attractive to me. So that leaves just finding new players. That part will either be easy or impossible. Next time we will talk about the mechanics of how I will make my Traveller game different than The Third Imperium.

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What do you think?

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