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Mongoose Traveller Book 9: Robot

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

Book 9: Robot. Uri Kurlianchik.
Mongoose Publishing: http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
102pp, softcover
US$24.99/UKú16.99

Editor’s Note: This book and the German supplement Roboter from 13Mann are independent treatments, in English and German respectively, of the same topic. They are not in any sense translations of each other.

This is one book that I was really looking forward to reading, as there was a great gap between the early GDW/DGP Robot books and the present day. Those early books were like a toolkit for building mechanical aids like semi-aware automatons or at the very best crude robots that one might encounter in staple traditional Science Fiction before the new wave. And, as Mongoose seems really up on making things in Traveller more current plus all suggestions dropped by various publishers that robots were going to be fully integrated into Traveller – I was naturally excited. However, my excitement was rather short-lived.

To this book’s credit, it is an excellent construction kit for robots but reading it, one gets the impression that it is not Traveller or at least not the Original/Official Traveller Universe (OTU). True, I have in the past heralded many of Mongoose Traveller’s innovations but this just was wrong on many different levels. It read like a combination 2000AD comic, with sprinkles of Anime and Pixar’s Robots thrown in. Perhaps, it is culture shock, as we have gone from a universe that had virtually no robots and very human-centric to robots of all descriptions racing all over the place without not so much a nod back to either Classic Traveller product or the history of the Grand Old Game.

The rules for construction are easy to follow and make construction less about spreadsheets and complex calculation than about letting one’s imagination flow. That said they tended toward building clunky robots of which Marvin the Android comes to mind. In fact, I would say much of the robots were inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although, nods in the form of quotes sprinkled throughout the text from different Science Fiction novels/films give weight to some of the descriptions – but not really. I can read the quote from Rachel in Blade Runner or get a Number Six (Cylon) vibe but nowhere in the rules provided for the creation of said robots; at least the original Classic Traveller had something called pseudo-biological robots…when I read these rules they could be the same as the rules for Androids but then again, I would understand Androids to have a different meaning based upon my reading of Traveller. Therefore, players hoping to build droids as well as drones will find a solid set of rules here. It was also interesting how the rules were able to integrate Education and Intelligence as different facets of the Personality Protocol or Command Algorithm. With slots and money being the prime requisites for one’s robot character – a good compromise between those used to the Golden Age of SF and those who grew up in Star Wars’ long shadow.

I absolutely loved the notion of the inhibitor – which hardwires Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics into the brains of robots but I found it not very well described. For at the core of Asimov’s work is the notion that robots may lack free will – they have all sorts of trouble with the laws which in turn would lead to expansion of role playing opportunities – highlighting some of these “conflicts” would be most welcome.

Next up we have a couple sections on careers (pursued by the organics) that may touch upon robots or be directly influenced by robots. These are some of the weakest chapters in the entire book. I am not sure how it could be made more exciting but it struck me as fundamentally not Traveller. Robot Activist or Robot Fugitive seems distinctly like 2000AD – not the OTU although it could be just the style in which they were written. The impact upon existing careers is minimal but it adds another layer of complexity onto Mongoose’s Traveller Universe. I found this part very interesting along with the small section on role playing robots.

What follows is “The Science of Robots”. It starts with a discussion about the differing levels of Drones those robots with command algorithms and Droids those with personality programs. A very interesting aspect of the rules, that has been long been a common Science Fiction trope is that some Drones can develop into fully self-aware and suddenly function like they have high personality programs. The segment produces rules for hacking, inhibiting, fixing, damaging, and protecting your robots including from the elements – which sort of has the function of under powering robots compared to previous versions of Traveller, in which, a robot may not suffer damage from being immersed in water – it would certainly sink but not blow its circuits. True, the rules do offer a work around but still they are rather crude.

Next is something of fan boy concession or at least some clarification – which is a section of micro robots. Traveller, unlike, much contemporary Science Fiction does not have magical nanotech rather it has a concept called micro-engineering. This treads the fine balance between this (having tiny machines that work) and nanotech. It does this quite well. Although, I can see how many a newbie expecting nanotech will be disappointed – as the author really does not make clear that nanotech is verboten. And, why it should be stuck all by itself and not more fully integrated with the rest of the rules is a mystery.

After that there is section is a general History of Robots as it associates to common Science Fiction tropes. This had to be the strangest of chapter of the entire book. And, because I do like my fluff and chrome in sourcebooks this chapter was the most alarming and not consistent even with the rest of the book but also because it completely ignores any reference to any of the Traveller Universe or histories to this date. The history of robots is divided into five periods. These periods are: The Age of Service, Age of Slavery, Age of Equality, Age of Dominance, and the Post-Biological Age. For the most part these ages are self-explanatory. During The Age of Service robots are not self-aware, and have been built as tools. The Age of Slavery is when Robots are newly self-aware, and their rights become the hot topic with many a fight between both sides. Equality is when the prejudices of the past are now forgotten, and robots take their place besides all other free species. Dominance is where the robots have gained control over the other species and are now the authority. Post-Biological is just that, after the biological is gone.

Notwithstanding, this disclaimer: “None of these sections are specific to the Third Imperium or part of its canon.” I could see how some of this could be forced into a larger narrative with things like Virus standing in for Post-Biological Age. It could be said that the antebellum or worlds like Vincennes slowly becoming an Age of Dominance. But, because these are not grounded in any living history either the OTU or even keeping it constant with the literary quotations sprinkled throughout the book – it leaves a funny feeling in one’s gut. Sort of like when a small child tries to walk around in a grown-up’s shoes and clothes; they might succeed for a while but ultimately they will look funny, stumble and fall. The OTU had not much to say on robots but what it did was certainly interesting. Maybe I am just reading too much into this but as a Traveller grognard, I was disappointed by the lack of OTU examples or add-ons.

To compound this error, the book ends with several Patrons write-ups which cannot possibly take place in the OTU. For those unfamiliar with Traveller, patrons are a persistent concept in Traveller in which each patron is basically an NPC with an adventure idea and several charts for what could happen in the adventure. The patrons on offer do offer reasonable job offers that nicely explain out some of the rules outlined but they are in no way grounding the rules into a history of single polity or setting. Which is good but given how I found the History of Robots section rather repugnant because it repudiates history of Traveller; therefore I found patrons are rather flat and are 2 dimensional.

Furthermore and not really a fair criticism is that there is no discussion of where a robot begins and a computer ends. For certainly in the Far Future, as Traveller postulates computers will certainly be HAL-like – are they robots capable of Artificial Intelligence. And, the whole concept of AI is dealt as a software issue which I am not entirely sure is the correct approach for a Hard Space Opera game like Traveller. It is not a fair criticism, as this debate raged on the Mongoose forums for a while and the book manuscript had already been submitted and vetted – so it was too late for its inclusion but it would have been nice.

So, this is a fine book but not the book that I had hoped for. It covers very well the mechanics of introducing robots into Traveller beyond just something that one would expect to find in Popular Mechanics (a la the original GDW Robots book) or Sears Catalogue (a la DGP’s 101 Robots). It does bring them along the path of what we think of robots in science fiction but does not go nearly far enough in creating an integrated whole with the rest of the Mongoose line. Although, I am given to understand later this year or in 2012, they do plan to release a sourcebook based on one of the 2000AD franchises, perhaps this book is meant as a warm-up exercise for that… And, we will have to wait for a Third Imperium sourcebook – to get the definitive integration of robots into the Third Imperium Campaign setting.

The artwork contained within is good but minimal. Sadly, again, I would have expected more given the quality of art in Darrians and Cybernetics – and a large corpus of work that could be found in Classic Traveller that includes robots. Notwithstanding, Robot is a first-rate add-on to the Mongoose Traveller line and well worth a purchase. It can be hoped an article or two in S&P might remedy some of the shortfalls of the product.