This review is one in a series which will look at some of the many Spinward Marches setting books which have been published over the years and which describe the area. It'll offer advice as to which ones were the best and which will work the best with Mongoose's current, fifth-edition, Traveller gaming system.
review discusses Traveller Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches
, GDW's 1979 book that took the first look at the setting.
An Overview of the Book
The year was 1979 and the idea of campaign settings was all but unknown. Judges Guild had published a few books for its City-State and Wilderlands setting, while Dave Arneson had produced his First Fantasy Campaign, but well-known settings like Greyhawk, Tekumel, and Glorantha only existed as vague references in rules books or board games.
(Though I ultimately intend to rate this book based on its usefulness and interest today, it's worthwhile putting it in context, to show that it was on the very leading edge of a new sort of RPG book.)
Enter, Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches, a look at an entire sector for the Traveller universe. It's a very spare book that reflects the trends of the time. Of the book's 44 pages, 32 cover the 16 subsectors of the Spinward Marches (at two pages each), 1 provides library data noting the major powers of the Marches, 5 detail what the world data means, and a final 4 give a complete index of world names.
Very little need be said on the short sections toward the ends of the book. The world data format of Traveller has always been a clever way of quickly summarizing data, but it's been well described many other times since. The library data is so brief as to only give a hint at what the Imperium and the other powers are ... which leaves the sector data.
Each two-page spread of sector data is laid out precisely the same. Each includes a few paragraphs providing an overview of the subsector, a listing of the stats for all the planets, some statistical information, and on the opposite page, a map of the subsector.
As you'd guess, this is all really minimalistic. It's basically just a published version of the random subsectors that any Traveller player could have rolled up on his own--and given how much fun rolling up those subsectors was, I'm not convinced it was very necessary.
The only real meat in the book is the library data, which is only a page long, and the short descriptions of each subsector. The latter are actually quite good. In three or five paragraphs, each one gives me a better understanding of its subsector than some more recent publications have been able to do with much more space. Perhaps there's something to be said for brevity.
Nonetheless, the comparative sparseness of this book has to be acknowledged in any review of it on the modern market, and thus I've give it a "2" out of "5" for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
Similarly it must be acknowledged that of all the past looks at the Spinward Marches, this one is that one that is entirely duplicated by newer books.
You can also tell that this book was published in a time when the Traveller universe was still being defined, because there are a few anachronisms. The ones that really jumped out at me were the description of the Zhodani Consulate as being 40 parsecs in diameter (where it's actually a rectangle about 128 parsecs by 100 parsecs, which is to say about 2.5x bigger than this early supplement claims) and the fact that Joyeuse is listed as the capital of the Sword Worlds (where that hadn't actually been true for a few hundred years). However, I think these anachronisms are limited to the big picture things, because the star maps and UWPs look roughly the same, which suggests that much of the content of the book is still usable.
So what use is an entirely duplicated book for a modern Mongoose Traveller player? I think it's not a bad quick reference, since it does a great job of cleanly displaying the information on each subsector (on which I'll say more momentarily) and because it provides very nice brief descriptions of each subsector (as I've already said). In other words if you see it sitting around for a buck or five, you might want to grab it, but other than that, I wouldn't bother.
Of course if Mongoose were to publish a similar "Imperial Atlas", this book would become entirely redundant.
The little black books were pretty widely produced, so they're still easy to find. I've seen copies of this one on the internet with sales prices from $3-13, most of which are probably more than the book is worth for a modern GM. This book is also currently available as part of The Classic Supplements; the two volumes of library data in that collection will probably be of some use to Spinward Marches GMs as well, though the rest of the collection will be of more limited use.
Style & Design
One of the reasons that I think Supplement 3 is a nice quick-reference book is because it's so well laid out and organized. Every subsector is formatted as a nice two-page spread with the info to the left and the map to the right of each spread. When you need to specifically lookup individual sectors, you'll find them all listed in the index. The typography and lay-out are also top-rate, especially for the time-period of 1979.
I have one complaint about the style, and it's that the maps are a bit sparse. Later Traveller maps show gas giants and bases, but these early maps just display planets and trade routes, leaving them a lot less useful (though you can still look at the UWP info for those additional bits).
Still, stylistically I think this book stands up very well to much more recent releases, and it shows why Mongoose had adopted a minimalistic style for its own line (sometimes successfully, with its own careful attention to page spreads, but sometimes a bit less successfully, because all of this text doesn't look as good on a full page as it did on a digest page).
Even on the current market, I think Supplement 3 deserves a "4" out of "5" for Style.
Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches was the first look at Traveller's default setting. Today, it's mainly a curiosity. The data has all been replicated and expanded to good effect in more recent releases. The only thing that truly shines in the original release is its compact and neat layout, which could make this first book a nice quick-reference--if you're aware of the slight anachronisms that the book contains.