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.
As GURPS Traveller revved down over the last several years, Traveller simultaneously began to appear in a new media: PDFs. Many of these largely systemless books were produced by Avenger Enterprises, the design company of Martin J. Dougherty. Among those books was a trilogy of source books that centered on a part of the Spinward Marches' District 268.
This seventeenth review discusses Spinward Marches Cluster Book 1: The Bowman Arm. It offers an overview of a cluster of 10 stars in District 268.
An Overview of the Book
Though I've found mentions of clusters in some Classic Traveller books, as far as I can tell, it was Martin Dougherty who popularized the concept. His cluster is a small grouping of stars that are near together and as a result tend to be members of an small interstellar community. It's a much more organic grouping that the rigid subsectors, quadrants, sectors, and domains of the Imperium, and thus one that's likely to be of more interest to the average GM.
Between 2002 and 2006 Dougherty produced four cluster books for the Gateway Domain: the Linkworlds, the Sydymic Outworlds, the Megusard Corporate, and The Starfall Cluster. Sadly, he produced just one for the Spinward Marches, The Bowman Arm, which highlights a cluster of 10 worlds located along the Spinward Main, to the coreward side of District 268. The worlds included are: 567-908 (home of the Shriekers), Asteltine, Bowman (the setting of Beltstrike), Datrillian, Enos (which is actually in the Sword Worlds subsector), Faldor, Flexos, Nirton, Squallia, and Walton.
The Bowman Arm book is broken into two parts: an overview of the cluster and a look at the world of Walton.
The Bowman Arm Overview
The Bowman Arm leads off with some background material. It starts off pretty generally but gradually tighten in on the nominal cluster. There's an overview of the Imperium in 1111 (the time period of this book, a topic I'll return to), then an overview of The Spinward Marches, then an overview of District 268, and finally an overview of the Bowman Arm itself.
I find a lot of this material unnecessary, as the larger topics are all covered by in-print books like Dougherty's own The Spinward Marches. However, given that The Bowman Arm was written back in 2005, when there was very little material in print for the classic Traveller system, I understand the necessity of including it at the time. Dougherty couldn't be sure what reference material his readers might have.
In any case, even for me reading from 2009, there was some interesting material in the District 268 overview, which really highlighted where the District stood in relation to its neighbors. The Bowman Arm section made an even more convincing case for the ten worlds in question being an interesting transit corridor for the spinrimward corner of the Marches.
Besides the general information on the locale, this section also includes two listings of worlds of interest: first for five nearby worlds and then for the ten worlds of the Arm. These world summaries are two to four paragraphs each, but they're pretty terse. I didn't feel like they said much more than the similar descriptions from Dougherty's Behind the Claw. Still, it's nice to have the relevant descriptions all in one place.
Though the background material in The Bowman Arm is mostly comprehensive, I was surprised by a few things that were missing. There's a beautiful map of the Gamma Quadrant, but it doesn't actually highlight the Arm; instead you have to work out where it's located from a textual description (or the list of worlds). I also felt like there was too little info on two major powers in the region--Collace and Trexalon. For some reason they don't even make the Worlds of Note list, despite the fact that they're listed as the main powers in the region. These organizational issues together hurt some of the overview nature of the first half of the book.
Four pages of adventure ideas finish off the first half of the book. It begins with ten really generic ideas. They're all things that could happen in the Arm, but with topics like "chart & survey", "diplomacy", and "freedom fighters", there's no real specificity. I felt like this was another missed opportunity (and another area where other in-print books provided just as good of a resource). The front half of the book ends with "The Near Future in the Bowman Arm," an adventure section that was much better. It talks quite a bit about major movers in the Arm like Ling-Standard Products and the Trexalon Trade Consortium and could easily be used to generate lots of adventure ideas.
Overall, the half of The Bowman Arm that covers the Arm itself is weaker than I'd like. There are a few nice overviews which really give the impression of the politics and commerce moving through and about the region, but there's too much information that's quite general, while organizational issues have resulted in some specifics being left out. Thus I think this lead material is at best fair.
The Walston Overview
Following this overview, Dougherty planned to write detailed descriptions of all ten worlds in the Bowman Arm. The first of those ten descriptions he included as the second half of The Bowman Arm.
The first six pages constitute a Walston worldbook. It starts off with a delightful overview of all the planets in the system--something that I think a lot of Traveller GMs miss out on when they head straight in to the most populous world of a system and then straight back out. After that there is a nice color map of Walston, followed by a description of many different aspects of the planet--including its physical aspects, its socio-political data, its economic state, and its military readiness.
These sections are quite well done. Dougherty manages to introduce particular elements that really make the world stand out (such as the fact that the Vargr of Walston are happy second-class citizens) and also describes everything very evocatively. Even when he's imagining new animals for Walston, he comes up with critters that are original and interesting.
The final four pages of The Bowman Arm cover Walston adventures. They're very location-related adventures seeds; each one covers either an area of Walston or else some social flashpoint that's derived from the setting. As a result, they're almost the opposite of the (mostly generic) Bowman Arm adventure seeds. The result should keep you busy for a few sessions on Walston, if you're interested in running multiple adventures, all in the same place.
Overall, I love the concept of The Bowman Arm:describing a very small section of Imperial space in very high detail. And, I think that the Walston half of The Bowman Arm carries it off well. However, the first half of the book, describing the Arm as a whole, had some issues, and thus not quite as useful.
Nonetheless, this book has brilliant information for any GM running in the area, and thus I've let it eke in a "4" out of "5" for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
As a Mongoose Traveller GM, you'll generally find The Bowman Arm a great reference for that section of District 268. Even better, it's quite well supported, even though Martin Dougherty never finished his intended series of ten books. You can supplement The Bowman Arm with the following books to fill out the ten planets:
That makes it one of the best detailed star clusters in the whole Traveller universe, and thus a great place for adventures.
However, Mongoose GMs will find three problems with using this book. In increasing order of difficulty, they are:
1. The animal stats in The Bowman Arm use the Classic Traveller system. Fortunately, it's probably no more than 15 minutes work to convert them all, and the rest of the book is totally generic.
2. The book is set after the Fifth Frontier War, in 1111. This is mainly an issue because Dougherty has really thought about how things would have changed after the War and put in lots of post-war color. It's not hard to work around, but you'll lose some of the nice details of the setting.
3. The Bowman Arm is utterly out-of-print. This is the big problem. Because The Bowman Arm only existed as a PDF, there's effectively no secondary market for it, and now that it's out-of-print, it's pretty much gone. I almost didn't write this review as a result, but I decided to do so because: (1) I wanted to keep this series complete -and- (2) I thought I might remind readers of a book they could squirreled away on their hard drive.
There's also a tiny bit of good news. First, some of the info on this book--namely the overview of the 10 Bowman Arm worlds and most or all of the overview of Walston--appears in the aforementioned Type S adventures, which is in print. Second, the author says that the material from this and the two System Books (Datrillian and Flexos) will probably reappear in the current Avenger product line--at some point. So, if this review has piqued your interest, you should remember it for the future.
Style & Design
Even for Traveller books, Avenger's PDFs were very austere. The two maps in the book are gorgeous, but they're the only art in the PDF. Beyond that, the layout is very simplistic.
Additionally, on the good side, some of Dougherty's writing is quite evocative, particularly in the Walston section, while on the bad side there were some organizational/content issues in the Bowman Arm section, as I mentioned.
Putting that all together, I averaged the Style at "2" out of "5".
Overall, Spinward Marches Cluster Book 1: The Bowman Arm provides a nice structure for a constrained setting in Traveller. It also does a great job of starting to fill in that structure with its description of the world of Walston.
It would have been great to have the entire 10-world cluster in detail, but even without that, there's enough content available on worlds in the area to make this an excellent starting point for a Traveller campaign.