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.
Following the shut-down of GDW, Steve Jackson Games picked up a Traveller license for use with their own GURPS system. Unlike the folks running GDW in its latter days, Steve Jackson wasn't afraid to quickly publish a new Spinward Marches campaign book.
This ninth review discusses GURPS Traveller: Behind the Claw, a sourcebook that details the Spinward Marches more precisely than anything before.
An Overview of the Book
Behind the Claw is basically a 144-page encyclopedia, giving an overview of the Spinward Marches that's heavy on specific details in the era of an alternate 1120. The result isn't exactly gripping reading, but it is something that you'll want to refer to every time players visit a new planet in the Marches.
The book is broken into four main sections: The Domain of Deneb, The Spinward States, Worlds, and History in the Making.
The Domain of Deneb is a 20-page introduction to the Marches that covers all the big-picture stuff: how the government is structured, who the rulers are, and how the armed forced work. There's also an extensive 11-page overview of all of the corporations in the Marches, covering both the megacorps of the Third Imperium and the notable corps of the Marches. It's probably the most extensive list of corporations that you can find anywhere in Traveller lore, particularly for those smaller corps found exclusively here, on the spinward side of the Imperium.
Interwoven with all of that (thanks to SJG's ubiquitous sidebars) is a history of the Marches that runs from 1098 (when Norris became Duke of Regina) to 1120 (the current time in the alternate history of GURPS Traveller
. There's an amusing entry in 1117 which reads, "News of the tragic death of Archduke Dulinor in a shuttle accident at Capital/Core reached the Marches late in the year." Of course, in the real Traveller universe, the news that reached the Marches in 1117 was that Dulinor had assassinated Emperor Strephon, and thus we can probably recognize 1116, when that news bulletin originated (and when Dulinor met an unfortunate accident on the way to see Strephon), as the turning point for this alternate universe.
The Spinward States takes an encyclopedic look at both the political entities and the minor races of the Spinward Marches. The latter in particular contains details on several races that you won't find easily accessible elsewhere, like the Otarri, the Saurians, and the Viji. All of these descriptions are pretty brief, but they lay out the basics of what a GM would want to know to develop the state or race more.
Finally we come to Worlds, which is the heart of the book. Over the course of 88 pages, this section details every single world in the Spinward Marches. That's right, everything from Zeycude (a Zhodani world up toward the spinward-coreward corner of the sector) to Hazel (an amber zones Imperial world in the opposite corner). Each description appears in two parts.
First, you have the statistical data for the planet: starport, size, atmosphere, surface water, climate, population, government, control rating, and Tech Level. This is essentially the same data that you'd find in the UWP of any other Traveller game, but it's actually a bit more detailed. Thus, for example, you get a population of 80,000,000 on Hazel rather than just a code of '7'. The 'climate' entry also represents something generally not found in a Traveller UWP, and it's a nice addition.
Second, you have the description of the planet itself. Really, this is just a highlight or two, to give you some ideas for the planet. They're a bit dryer than I'd like and generally pretty mndane, but I still feel like it's enough to be able to uniquely describe the planet--and that I could quickly generate an adventure hook for at least three-quarters of the planets, based on the information here.
The last section of the book is called, somewhat confusingly, History in the Making. It's the GM section. It includes a few GM secrets, some ideas on running adventures, and a neat set of starship encounter tables. Other than the starship encounters, I thought everything here was pretty forgettable, and didn't add much to the book.
However, overall, I think that Behind the Claw is a great reference for the Marches. If you want to know about an individual planet, a corporation, or a minor race, this is the place to look up information. What you get might not be super deep, but then what could be in a book of this size covering an area so huge? I give Behind the Claw a full "5" out of "5" for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
As noted earlier, this book is set in 1120 in an alternate universe that diverges from the Original Traveller Universe around 1116, when the emperor isn't assassinated. So, how much use is the resultant book for a gamemaster running 15 years earlier?
There have been some changes in that time. Overall, there's four big events that you have to watch out for:
- The Fifth Frontier War has occurred (1107-1110), with the biggest result being that some of the Sword Worlds were occupied as "The Border Worlds".
- The quadrant containing the Spinward Marches has been recognized as a Domain, with Norris being named as the new Archduke.
- The Vargr have begun corsairing more to the coreward side of the sector.
- The Aslan have begun landgrabbing more to the rimward side of the sector.
Somewhat less than a quarter of the descriptions in this book are affected by one or more of these four events. You can choose to selectively edit them out or to allow them to occur earlier in your own Traveller universe. (In particular, some Aslan and Vargr invasions could
happen in the 1105 timeframe.)
Overall, however, Behind the Claw remains a superb reference for The Spinward Marches. As an encyclopedia, it's far better than Mongoose's own The Spinward Marches (partially because Mongoose's book needs to dedicate some space to the Imperium as a whole). I'd still recommend Mongoose's book as the better first buy, because it's innately set in the right time period, but if you want to get a little more background on the Marches, you should immediately hunt Behind the Claw down, as your second choice.
Unfortunately, it's out-of-print and usually priced appropriately for what a solid book it is, which means $60-90. However in the last week I've seen two slide by with $15 price tags, so you can get a deal if you're patient. It's also available through Steve Jackson Games' e23 and a PDF is almost as good (perhaps better) for a pure reference book of this sort.
Style & Design
Generally, Behind the Claw is probably the prettiest Spinward Marches soucebook around--though given the minimalistic tendencies of most iterations of Traveller, that's not saying a lot in itself.
The three outer chapters of the book are laid out in SJG's typical sidebar format, with the sidebars showing a nice, muted star field. The art is almost all grayscale, and it runs the range from fair to quite good. (I don't like some of the more cartoony people, but the spaceships are almost all very attractive.)
However, I have to also figure into Style how entertaining Behind the Claw is to read, and, frankly, it's a slog. I read it all through because I wanted to be able to completely review it, but I wouldn't recommend that to anyone else. Read through chapters 1, 2, and 4, but just consult the "worlds" section as is required for your own game.
Averaging together an above-average layout and art style with a below average entertainment style gives me a totally average Style rating: "3" out of "5".
Though dry as a Jonkereen colony, Behind the Claw is the best reference in existence for The Spinward Marches. You should hunt it down by any means possible--with e23's PDF being a great option.