Thursday 22 February 2018

The Old School Reformation and Issac Asimov

One reason for revisiting things that have been apparently done to death (such as D&D or AD&D) is that the perception born from living through literally years of publications and development is often wrong. It may seem that TSR-era publications and magazines dug out all the gold, but the reality is usually closer to a single exhausted shaft rather than the whole mine.

In the UK there’s a fairly strong sense of this for people my age who remember when White Dwarf was not a steaming pile of shit designed to bilk gullible children out of their pocket money with homeopathic paint and planned-obsolescence applied to miniature figures (which technically makes Games Workshop illegal in France, but I digress).

Although the mainstream of D&D development was very much an American trajectory with all the hypocrisy and paranoia about sex and real youth culture that implied, Brits remember the punk sensibility that had itself become fairly mainstream by the time that D&D arrived here.

But rewind to the core three books, whether they are Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, or The Monster Manual, The Players Handbook, and The Dungeon Masters Guide. Neither set has much in the way of setting.

The DMG, in its encounter tables, has perhaps a little bit more of a clear divergence from a “real world” mythical Europe and towards what would become a type of fantasy that was really unique to D&D, but it is still mostly a construction kit, just as the original release was. The final few pages of the PHB and, especially, Deities and Demigods’ detailing of The Outer Planes were certainly the clearest steps away from a generic rule-set and towards something with its own assumptions and axioms.

It was these little nubs and bumps of uniqueness which were at the same time not radical upon which all that followed was built. After the game became a name there were some attempts to try something different but they were all “high concept” approaches: Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Planisphere, and similar. Instead of trying to go back to punk-rock, the designers went for prog-rock and concept albums. To push the analogy a bit further, Forgotten Realms was just a cover version of Greyhawk.

But we had mostly all had enough of big, detailed settings. The problem had become the style, and although Dark Sun and its ilk had their supporters they were not enough to keep the game alive and it finally died a sad and lonely death.

Meanwhile, in Gotham Science Fiction Land, a similar path was trod. By the time one had all the supplements, all the adventures, and all the expansion books, it was hard to remember what Traveller was like when we first saw it. Even now, for the majority of people even in the so-called OSR, “Traveller” means “The Third Imperium” and, in particular, “The Spinward Marches”.

Traveller too collapsed under the weight of its own development and tried a couple of re-boots but it has struggled despite at least still being owned by the actual creator. Whereas the label “D&D” can, and probably will be at some point, stamped on the side of a frozen chicken, Marc Millar has control of Traveller and his vision still guides it.

Like D&D, part of the reason that Traveller failed was that it simply became too expensive and even too heavy. If a newbie GM wanted to set up a Traveller campaign, it was likely that they would believe that they needed not just the core three books (in fact, by then the books were replaced by the large hardback “The Traveller Book”), The Spinward Marches, Library Data books, books of advanced ship design, and some key scenarios like Research Station Gamma. And there’s an obvious reason why the publisher’s marketing would be suggesting that this was in fact what was needed.

In the days before owning a car the accumulated books for running a Traveller game were expensive and a pain to transport to friends’ houses for the action game, although not so much as the AD&D hardbacks which threatened to create an event horizon when packed into a single bag.

The investment was too much and both games imploded.

Apropos of this, I have just re-read Asimov’s Robots and Empire and, as I have been many times, I was struck by the degree of tonal similarity with Traveller. Not the Traveller of that shelf-full of books, but the Traveller of the three Little Black Books where it all started.

In those halcyon days when the world and clich├ęs were still young, the expectation was that the Traveller GM would run a game inspired by their favourite SF stories. The fit would never be perfect out-of-the-box, and so the jump drive might not work exactly as it does in Vance or Asimov’s works but it wasn’t such a big deal, any more than the working of communication devices really were. And if it was a big deal to you, then you just changed the rules. Or added new ones to support things you wanted to have in the setting.

The Foundation Trilogy, of which R&E is an extension, a prequel, is particularly similar to Traveller for one obvious reason: neither had robots as any noticeable or significant presence. For a writer famous for his robot stories, this was the bridge that Asimov was building between the two series with R&E and explains the title of the book. But when Traveller came out that book had not been written and there was an obvious harmony there which was amplified by the generally primitive feel of computers in both contexts - in Asimov’s case it was because many of his best-known stories had been written when slide-rules were still cool. The reason for Traveller’s room-filling computers was not quite so obvious.

Games Designers’ Workshop, the publishers of Traveller, had a choice then just as TSR did with AD&D and they both picked more or less the same option: develop a consistent background and sell both scenarios set in it and sourcebooks about it. The stream of material produced swept away almost all memory of any other option that could have been taken.

Some of those options were, of course, simply developing a different setting. Or paying an author for the rights to use one of theirs (probably a cheaper option in those days than it is now with multi-million dollar deals being made to license content for computer games), but these are all “long-form” options, the equivalent of the multi-volume novel series. What about short-form?

Both AD&D and Traveller are well suited to the short-form. AD&D is inherently and almost inescapably episodic. The training rules make it very difficult to run a campaign in any way that does not require time to pass quite rapidly between adventures.

The same is true of Traveller, where the fact that a jump through hyperspace takes a week (no matter what the distance involved is) means that unless the GM has some specifically ship- or spaceport-based scenario to hand, there will usually be, like D&D, no more than one adventure per calendar month, once ship re-fuelling and general resting-up time is taken into consideration.

Traveller’s jump-drive makes each planet into an island, effectively, and islands are excellent places for adventures, as is anywhere the PCs can not simply phone for help, as it were.

The fact that the “islands” are whole worlds also means that they can be quite individual. While it might seem that the nature of adventure modules for D&D and Traveller is similar, in fact there was a major difference which, to my mind, was most clearly seen in the scenarios printed in the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, probably my all-time favourite gaming magazine.

Traveller scenarios in general, and particularly the JTAS ones, were able to evoke a sense of uniqueness even within the increasingly confining “campaign setting” of the Third Imperium background. Want to set a scenario in The Caves of Steel? No problem! Just set up a world with a population index of 10 or 11 and make it so. How about a world like Solaria where humans are outnumbered by robots 10,000 to 1? Again, no problem, and you can explain why this world is the only one with robots by saying that something about hyperspace scrambles their positronic brains, so they are only really useful to humans to are xenophobic enough to want to ignore the great galactic empire that may or may not be out there and are determined not to travel.

(Incidentally, the huge Traveller computers can be explained similarly - the same problem means that computing in space has to be done with out-sized and specially shielded components which make it impossible to fit them into humanoid forms and also require large amounts of space to be devoted to them.)

Each world can be as bizarre or strange as the GM likes while at the same time being safely isolated from any other simply by distance. If the GM wants a culture to not spread and become typical of the setting generally, then there is a simple mechanism to aid the hand-waving involved: expensive, time-consuming, space travel based on relatively small ships.

But D&D does not have quite such a mechanism, at least at lower levels. Even a campaign world which literally was made of islands would not easily justify the sort of short-story quirkiness that can be routine in Traveller. Players know that in a civilised world, travel just isn’t that hard and it would be unlikely that very strange cultures would not be common knowledge unless those cultures were dangerous or clearly sub-optimal. This makes islands that are special only in a tonal or background way hard to justify without making every race and people xenophobic.

Once the PCs are high level they can often zip around by magic anyway, but there is then also the possibility of the Outer Planes and the Alternative Prime Material Planes, either of which (but primarily the latter) can take the place of Traveller’s isolated worlds.

A great deal of the alien can be salvaged in D&D by simply not having a civilised world. The greatest failing of Greyhawk as a published setting, IMO, was it’s inability to evoke the implied state of low civilisation.

Despite being an almost completely uninhabited world with isolated kingdoms and duchies with mile after mile of wilderness between, and “borders” drawn based on distance from capitals rather than any ability to project control, Greyhawk feels very much like a civilised continent in the published modules.

There is nothing aside from terrain, for example, to distinguish the land of the fire giants in G3 from the village of Hommlet. If you’ve adventured in the latter, there is no feeling of anything alien in the former.

Part of this is the encounter tables in the DMG - monsters are split by terrain, but not by region. Since there was no assumed setting it would not have made much sense to try, really.

Traveller avoided this by being a right pain in the arse when it came to encounter tables, mainly because there were no “monsters”. With a potential galaxy of worlds, there was no hope of producing even the generic encounter tables of AD&D.

The solution was to replace monsters with “Animal encounters” which were a combination of animal size, damage, weapons (horns, claws etc.), and in a bit of a genius move, tactics.

Thus, an encounter could be with a huge, armoured, pouncing carnivore which attacks its prey for 12d6 damage by physically shaking them to death. The GM would have to decide on how to narrate that beforehand (and the system really was an object lesson in the value of pre-rolling encounters and preparing for them rather than floundering around at the table trying to explain some of the combinations that might come up).

And again, it was pretty easy to explain why some particular monstrosity was not encountered anywhere else: only nutters would transport them off-world. And that, in turn, was a good excuse to re-use a particularly good one somewhere else.

But, starting with the publication of The Spinward Marches, GDW set off down the path that TSR was blazing: the “house campaign” and ever-increasing uniformity within the official scenarios. JTAS was affected by this but the scenarios there always, or nearly always, managed to maintain a self-contained feel that the main line of publication gave up on very quickly.

A Chance to Begin Again in a Golden Land of Opportunity and Adventure

So, let’s imagine none of that happened. Where could you have gone with Traveller? Since I’ve dragged Issac’s name into the title of the post, let’s look at his Robots/Galactic Empire/Foundation setting.

As that set of slashes implies, there’s various options along the timeline. The robot stories start on pre-jump-tech Earth, then there’s a period of colonisation which gradually peters out, followed by a growing rivalry between the colonies and Earth as their cultures and technologies diverge. The colonisation period has lots of potential, and the period of “Earth Vs the Spacers” is rich in options for the sort of political scenarios that were fairly common in Traveller play, IME.

As Earth starts a second, robo-phobic, wave of colonisation there is a crisis as the Old World overtakes the New Worlds, spurred on by the Traders who see a galactic empire as a golden age waiting to be brought into being. Trading is naturally going to be a high-profit profession as new worlds need equipment and people, and substances rare on one world need exchanged for those common on others. Again, rich pickings for Traveller play.

The Galactic Empire period itself is probably the least different from what we actually got from GDW’s official line of products and something which I think is an underplayed influence on Traveller from Asimov is the relative unimportance, at least initially, of intelligent aliens. Asimov was constrained by his main editor, John W. Campbell, who reportedly would not accept the possibility of intelligent aliens. Whether he felt it was too unlikely a coincidence to have multiple intelligences in the same galaxy at the same time, or he just refused to accept that Scotland could have any rivals in the galactic conquering stakes, I’m not sure. In any case, the stories that started Asimov’s empire off were published under Campbell’s aegis and thus could have no intelligent life not derived from Earth, and that axiom had to be inherited by anything that tried to fit into the continuity regardless of who was the editor or publisher later.

In early Traveller the real “aliens” are the Zhodani, a human culture which split from the dominant imperial culture over the use of psionics (an idea that appeared a couple of years earlier in D&D’s third supplement, Eldritch Wizardry) and which itself is reminiscent of Asimov’s series, which included a few psychic robots and humans, although Asimov’s characters were much less capable than many of the PC options in Traveller or D&D.

Traveller did eventually have aliens in the normal sense, but the only interesting thing about them was that they were completely uninteresting.

The Imperial Bureaucracy in Traveller also seems to me to be inspired by the material that we see in the Asimov stories, but both may simply be taking their leads from the real-world examples of empires.

The decline and fall of the Empire leads us into the Foundation sequence and it would seem that there’s rich pickings for the GM there, which brings us to the next problem with published settings.

Traveller did in fact go down the route of the collapsing empire in later supplements, but by then it was too late. Anyone who didn’t like the Imperium setting had left and those that remained generally speaking didn’t want the empire to fall.

This is another pitfall for the long-form game world, or maybe just another example of the broader problem of ossification as things get filled in or people wait for things to be filled in, rather than rolling their own.

If TSR had specifically committed to only producing, say, scenarios set within 100 miles of Greyhawk city and left everything else as just the Darlene map, I think it would have been a much better compromise. It would have had almost no effect on any published TSR module, at least up to the final collapse of the company and the release of “2e”. At the same time it would not have polluted any DM’s mind with the idea that there was a “Greyhawk style” other than around that city. With the other nations just names on a map with large areas of wilderness between them, the effect would have been much more like the island-effect of Traveller and DMs would have felt, I think, much freer to construct wild and strange areas and races of their own.

Going back to the original materials and thinking about what you can do now, knowing both what the official route taken was, and also that the official route is now a frozen museum piece is at the heart of the OSR for me, and why I choose to use “reformation” as the “R” rather than “renaissance”.

For Traveller, the options range from Blade Runner to Valerian via Forbidden Planet.

For D&D, they cover science-fantasy, weird fiction, punk sensibilities, and essentially anything that can be imagined.

But in both cases, the strength lies in short-story formats of isolated scenarios which give the players variety rather than some sort of “consistency” which builds up into a stultifying set of continuity problems for the GM. Players like reading background material, but they sit at the table to have an adventure.

As ever, REH’s Conan is an exemplar. Conan has many city adventures, but they’re never in the same city. He encounters many strange things on islands, but they’re different islands, and so are the crews he sails with. The background really exists only as a tone and a style with the details experienced only as, yes, islands in a shadowy sea. Howard might have been stitching it together as he went along into something bigger, but he never forgot that he was being paid for the adventure of the moment, not the future Encyclopedia Hyboraca.