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….
35 years and those words still send a chill run down my spine.
I can even see the shelf in the now defunct gaming shop on Edinburgh’s Forest Road. I was there to pick up Chivalry and Sorcery. Even at thirteen, I was a howling medievalist and that game seemed like it would be my game.
However it was a box of little black books — Traveller RPG! — that I came away with that day.
Sure, I’d played it before… briefly… with a kid in the year above and I’d liked firing pulse lasers and negotiating the mean streets of human space.
However, I hadn’t seen the possibilities.
You have to understand, this was pre-Internet. Our provincial teenage horizons were, well, provincial.
Sources for Science Fiction were the local library — only good for the more speculative and thoughtful stuff like Asimov and Arthur C Clarke — second hand shops — EE Doc Smith, anybody? — and the local Science Fiction Bookshop — expensive for a 13-year-old, and what would I buy?
I simply hadn’t read Space Opera, let alone the corner of the sub-genre corresponding to Fantasy’s Sword and Sorcery. There was nobody to even tell me that it existed. So those words were like a ray of grit into my comfortable early teenage existence.
Looking now, I can see they are remarkably good writing. Like “Shaka When the Walls Fell“, they pack a punch because of all the things they imply in a very constricted space:
This is Free Trader Beowulf
Clearly “Free Trader” is a thing in this universe. The “Free” part is also important. It says, “Han Solo.”
So, these Free Traders might go to corners of the Galaxy so far off the beaten track that there would be nobody within detection range. And yet, somebody might happen by; like two cowboys meeting on the plains. Yes, those two words resonate with a sense of a story world populated by a host of ships, each with its own agendas and adventures, and scattered across the massive galaxy.
…we are under attack
Pirates! That’s cool in itself (Arr!). However, the implication is that the players get to be the Free Trader, which, given the above, is even cooler.
…main drive is gone… turret number one not responding… Mayday… losing cabin pressure fast…
Free Traders have their own weapons; enticing because a good RPG caters to fantasies of agency. Clearly, there’s no sitting tight to wait for the Galactic Police Force to sort it all out, which in turn implies an exciting (imagined) life of profit won in the face of danger.
There’s another thing here. These are all very specific statuses. There’s no sense of hit points or damage being abstract. The game promises to simulate the experience of running, and fighting, your own ship.
…calling anyone… please help… This is Free Trader Beowulf… Mayday….
And then we have the darker, more adult note, suggested by the ship’s name. Help won’t come. Perhaps this is a heroic last stand. It’s certainly a tragedy. Cold night will close in on the little ship. This is not a fluffy game. This is a game with added gravitas.
Yes, those few words were and still are perfect.
How could I not want to play this?
But actually, how could I play this game?
I was thirteen.
Though the sparse little rule books did their best, they assumed both real world and genre knowledge I didn’t have.
Like all good literature, the — I give in, let’s call it — Travelleresque genre reflected real-world themes and stories. A naive pre-Internet teenager focused on escapism, I hadn’t really engaged with modernity. I just didn’t get concepts like government corruption, diplomacy, trouble spots, the limits on the projection of power and policing, interdepartmental rivalry, the odd immunity of the very rich, the rootlessness of the poor, organised crime, racketeering… Nor did I have the modern historical knowledge with which to draw parallels.
I was thus incapable of being anything other than a second artist, which Charles Stross explains thus:
The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. (*)
The problem with being a second artist was that I had barely glimpsed the works of the first artist(s)!
Had I read merely a few of EC Tubb’s Dumarest books, I would have had some insights into the world of the game. There were other books as well — James Maliszewski talked about his “Appendix T” a few years back (*).
Had I had the budget, I could have stretched and bought the various supplements and pre-created adventures, but I wanted to create my own adventures — that seemed like the point of GMing.
There were also problems with the game.
The kind of GMing it required was challenging and perhaps not for novices. There was no internet to tell me how to run a sandbox campaign, or to introduce me to the wonderful West Marches concept (*).
Its simulationism — vector addition for space combat, for crying out loud! — was a burden both in terms of creativity — it made me feel I had to be able to show my workings, rather than just make stuff up — and playability — complex rules for trade, anybody? At the same time, that simulationist SF aesthetic jarred with the various fudges and abstractions, not least space being flat.
I would like to excuse myself and claim that Traveller was really a game for middle-aged SF fans and military veterans. However, my older friend — gasp, 14! — ran it quite successfully. If I hadn’t been such a rubbish player — a twitchy, headstrong, loudly argumentative teenager — I could have enjoyed many many hours exploring the universe. (Sorry, Alex.) I might also have stopped to ask what books to read, and what knowledge might help me to not just GM the game, but explore the sub genre and perhaps one day write it.
Instead I tried other games.
I spent hours trying to get my head around Chivalry and Sorcery — there was no online community to tell me I was probably wasting my time. I blew money on Space Opera, a game that promised high-adventure in the manner of EE Doc Smith and George Lucas. It did provide a reading list, but was so detail orientated, it even including two pages of rules enabling you to calculate “Hand-off” situations, meaning if you throw me your blaster, there are calculations and dice modifiers to see if I catch it — yeah, there really were no online communities to post reviews back then… did anybody actually make a go of that game?
I played other role playing games (with varying success in terms of being a good player — sorry guys), GM’d my home brew during college vacations, but never really approached Traveller again.
Even so, I’ve always felt its tug, or perhaps the tug of Free Trader Beowulf.
As a teen, I played the original Elite… well, when it would load from the tape drive of my BBC B Microcomputer (a whole 32K!!). Over the years, I’ve mined the books that inspired the game, and those perhaps inspired by it — Elizabeth Moon’s wonderful Vatta’s War series, for example. I loved Babylon 5, but yearned for the story to take us off with a free trader. Needless to say I’m a fan of Firefly (arguably inspired by the game).
Fast forward to my 40s.
‘Kurtzhau’, my 10-year old son was desperate to do proper Science Fiction role playing and was utterly mesmerized when a friend gave me the (now previous edition of) Mongoose Traveller. We rolled up characters and Kurtzhau loved his lean mean middle-aged veteran. However, it was still all too crunchy, too detail-orientated. I was both rusty and inexperienced so we ended up playing Fate Diaspora instead.
I like Fate, and I particularly love Diaspora because the elegant system gives me the freedom to just create on the fly.
However, there’s a problem with “lite” narrativist games. You can’t kill player characters.
Well you can, but when you do, it’s pretty obviously you the GM who has arbitrarily decided this should happen. The grimness and the tragedy are just narrative effects. They can’t pack the same emotional punch as the impersonal role of the dice.
So then, last week, I wandered into my local gaming store and there was a new edition of Mongoose Traveller. I felt the tug of Free Trader Beowulf, flicked through, found they’d rationalized it, honed it, smoothed it out.
When I got home, I set about securing myself a review copy. It should arrive sometime next week. Watch this space for some detailed reviews and meditations…
Mayday… losing cabin pressure fast… calling anyone… please help… This is Free Trader Beowulf… Mayday….
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary turned archaeologist. He’s on a quest to find the mythical Dome but keeps getting involved in “local difficulties”. You can get it on Kindle here.