Monday, September 19, 2011

Roleplaying - a lifelong hobby

It occurred to me while I was composing this post that I've been playing RPGs for almost ¾ of my life. I was introduced to Traveller when I was 12 or 13, and I've been playing ever since. I've played other games as well, but I always come back to Traveller.
For those who don't know already, roleplaying games are a social activity in which a group of people collectively make up a story. Most of the group use a set of rules to create an alter-ego, an imaginary other self that exists in the imaginary world. One member of the group, let's call him the referee, takes the role of the imaginary world, telling the others what they see, hear, and know about the imaginary world that the other characters inhabit. The players are presented with a situation or problem to respond to, and they tell the referee how their characters respond. The referee, guided by the rules, and also by what makes a good story, decides what results from the characters actions, and they characters respond to this, and so on. The way to 'win' this kind of game is not to defeat the other players, or even the referee, but to achieve the goals the players set for their characters. These goals are limited only by the imagination of the group and the structure set up by the rules. There are rules sets for fantasy stories, science fiction stories, super hero stories, spy stories, explorers, crimefighters, criminals, monsters and aliens and that doesn't even cover it all.
The game I mentioned earlier, Traveller, is officially subtitled “Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future”, so it's obviously got a sci-fi orientation. The original rules were published in 1977, and since then the rules and the imaginary universe the rules depict have undergone several revisions. I have tried several of the rules versions, but I've always come back to the original rules, now known as “Classic Traveller”.
Classic Traveller (CT) is now known as an “old-school” rules system, which is fine by me. CT has its roots in the science fiction stories of the 50's, 60's and 70's; authors like Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, H. Beam Piper, Andre Norton, E.C. Tubb and Robert Heinlein have all influenced the Traveller rules and 'feel'. Almost all the stories I have written or at least begun to write in the last ten years have been influenced by Traveller and its literary antecedents. The story Snowball, which I posted last week, is a Traveller story.
As the game was published the same year that the original Star Wars movie debuted, and two years before Star Trek the Motion Picture, these two currents of popular science fiction did not have a great deal of influence on Traveller. Which to my mind is a good thing. Movies are obviously a visual means of telling a story, while RPGs are not visual. They are conversational and can move at a pace far slower than what is acceptable to a movie audience. So while the general population may be most familiar with those two film franchises, Traveller has gone in a different direction. The visual genre seems to gravitate to bright sparkly things and technobabble, because of their visual appeal, and the ability to keep the plot moving without detailed explanations of things. Traveller, and many other RPGs take the time in the background rules to explain things and lacking the visual element, have to use more verbal means to describe things. It is possible for players to spend an entire evening's game session just playing out a scene that might take two minutes of screen time. Usually, that means the two minutes is a scene of combat, since most game systems have their most detailed rules for how to punch, shoot or stab someone/thing else. Of course, conflict of this type is a mainstay of films, and to some extent books, but the classic authors I've read tend to gloss over combat scenes or just focus on one character's limited viewpoint of the battle.
Traveller also evokes the classic sci-fi authors in its approach to technology. Speculations from the 1960's about what computers would look like, or how space ships would work can seem quite laughable now, but the authors it seems to me minimized the issue by keeping technology in the background. Novels like Starship Troopers and Cosmic Computer had 'spacey' technology, and often described its effects rather than its principles of operation. But technology was secondary to the story, which was about people, normal, everyday people who faced the same kinds of struggles we face – interpersonal conflicts, political struggles, growing up, and the like. In other words, I read these stories because I related to the protagonists, not because I thought they had neat gadgets. So Traveller takes what I call the “low-tech approach to high-tech” - there's enough equipment described in the game rules that players can get stuff done, but not so much that a character can just whip out a gadget and instantly solve whatever problem they're facing.
One of the best parts of the Traveller game, for me, has been creating my own universe. The game provides rules for describing planets, their populations and governments; and leave the rest to the imagination of the players. So far my universe has over 150 planets, some part of large interstellar empires, some planets barely scraping by as independent 'nations'. Eventually I will figure out how to post an image of the map that I've developed for my universe so you can see what I mean. I have made use of my real-life study of political theory to model the various governments and other groups, and to decide how the various polities will interact with each other. It just makes more sense for the universe to be a dynamic rather than static place. Characters in this universe can have influence over significant international events.
Next time in this series, I will introduce some of the characters and locations in my Traveller universe (usually shortened to MTU).


Wil said...

Bob, it's great to see you've taken up blogging. I've been doing some of the same myself, though I use tumblr, since I don't have the time, patience, or inclination to learn html.

Why am I not surprised that you're still writing about and still working on Traveller? Love the essay, although I do have one quibble with your analysis.

Of course, the Star Wars merchandising machine had no influence on Traveller, since they debuted the same year. However, while Traveller predates the first Star Trek movie, the original series (and animated series) had already enjoyed it's full run, and had years in syndication before Traveller hit the shelves. The reason that Trek never influenced Traveller is because the two are different subgenres of sci-fi. Traveller, as you noted, has its roots in the hard sci-fi of the 40's, possibly drawing heavist from the Robot/Empire/Foundation series of Isaac Asimov. Marc Miller drew on hard sci-fi sources because he was writing a hard sci-fi game. Trek was a very different kind of sci-fi, as were the other prominent sci-fi television shows of its era, like The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone.

The difference between those shows and Traveller isn't TV is visual. Remember that TV is also theatrical, and unless you're sticking entirely to the dice-rolling aspects of the game, Traveller--like all RPG's--is a work of collaborative, improvisational theater, acted out within the framework of a set of rules that the gamers are not forbidden to add a certain flexibility to. Remember, there was plenty of non-filmed sci-fi written by people like Usrula K. Leguin, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney, and Harlan Ellison that had little or no influence on Traveller.

Sure, this is a minor point, but that's usually what we debate when we debate games.

Anyway, good to know you're still writing. I'm looking forward to reading more about your Traveller universe. Is it at all related to the Imperium of the game books?

thenormanomicon said...

Bob, Welcome to the blogging world. If you need help with anything please feel free to hit me up. I'm running 4 blogs right now and as we have spoken about previously I'm a serious geek. ;)

You have no idea how sentimental this is to me. Especially after the last few weeks. Bob, Will, I remember sitting in the basement, in the game room, etc playing Traveller, Twilight 2000, Traveller 2300 and Marvel. This really brought back some good memories.

It also hurt a little bit as all of my RPG collection (D&D, Living Steel, Shadow Run, Star Wars, Traveller, Traveller 2300, TW2K, Marvel, Car Wars, AutoDuel, etc) were lost in the flooding we recently had. I was hoping to keep them around for when my son got old enough to understand things and it would be fun to show him how we used to play games.

I'm happy to see that you're still as much into it as I'd love to be. I just haven't had the time, but I do remember some of the games we'd play.

Either way, here's hoping that some day we can all get together and play one more round together.

Wil said...

Norm, if we do, I vote we play the Doctor Who RPG. Clearly, the worst in terms of playability and game mechanics.

Except maybe for Mechwarrior.

Both of which were FASA games.

Also, it was the game we played that first time in my parents' basement.

Library Bob said...

Wil, I disagree. The Top Secret rpg had the worst game mechanics, but we only ever played that once, if at all. Dr Who wasn't bad, certainly not the best.
Norm, I'm sorry to hear that you lost all your gaming stuff. That's a tragedy. I hope that was all you lost in the flooding you experienced.