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After-Action Report: Ascent to Anekthor

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue.

Referee: Greg Caires
When: 18th July 2020, 1900-2300 BST (GMT +1)
Where: Online via Roll20 and Discord

I was minding my own business last night idly scrolling through notifications on my phone as my daughter got me watching Burnley beating Norwich at home (having two players sent off in the first half really didn’t help the soon to be relegated chances of the latter), when my attention was grabbed by a request for Traveller players. For a game starting, well, pretty much now.

I see a fair few of these and between time zone differences, work or family commitments and my own battle with Chronic Fatigue, I just have to sigh, delete them and move on. But several factors came into play on this particular occasion. The game started in 40 minutes. 1pm Central Time meant 7pm for me. A four hour game would go till 11pm. I’d slept much of the day through exhaustion so the late hour shouldn’t be a problem. An earlier highlight of the day had been the arrival from the USA of the Japanese referee screen for Traveller and some magazines and bits. The excitement must have worn me out. Additionally my wife was out at a social event for the first time in several months as lockdown begins to ease for the ‘bubble’ of teachers she’s part of and the end of their school year. And then there was the title: Ascent to Anekthor. Well, it’s lived on my shelves for years and of course I’d at least looked through it sufficiently to write a bibliography entry for it, but that was many years ago and I can’t say I’m familiar with the detail of the adventure. Plus it’s the Keith brothers – J. Andrew writing, William H. illustrating – so what’s not to love? Count me in!

Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. The game was being run by Greg Caires via Roll20 for gaming material and Discord for voice chat. I understand the latter was because voice chat in Roll20 can be somewhat iffy. I’m familiar with neither but I powered up my laptop early and found it wasn’t too difficult to get going with both tools. It took me a moment to get the right microphone chosen so I could be heard but aside from that I was soon meeting players and referee from the US and one from the UK who I’ve previously corresponded with. I was using my laptop as my main PC has neither camera or microphone (it’s a bit elderly) but better yet my laptop has a newly attached monitor from work as well as the TV I’ve been using as a second screen despite its poor resolution. I thought three screens would be ideal for gaming via two bits of software, taking notes and managing video.

That was my first surprise. As my entire online gaming experience – i.e., two evenings of The Traveller Adventure under lockdown1 1—Actually, that’s not quite true. A few years back I found myself in a one-off online game which I remember was Death Station but have no recollection of who ran it, unless it was Felbrigg Herriot, or what software was used. I’m sure we had small video screens of each other though.– has been with virtual meeting software rather than virtual gaming software, I’d vaguely expected to be seeing the referee and other players. I’d found that really useful with my poor hearing for lip reading and for my general engagement with everyone playing. Not a deal breaker, just something to get used to. I turned up the sound.

Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I assume had some experience but they were very helpful in getting me going with the basics of the software and pointing out a couple of things that helped. Greg very kindly but thoroughly embarrassingly introduced me as a “giant of the game” which I can only put down to being a bit over 6’1”. No pressure then.

With seven players we were pretty much straight into it with Greg introducing us to the game material in Roll20. Characters ‘sheets’, photos and equipment lists, NPC details and more equipment – well, we are mountaineering – environment notes with pictures of maybe 25 or 30 terrain types(!), the map of the mountain and rules that would be used. I was very impressed by the work Greg must have put in to make this as exhaustive as it was and as easy to access. Particularly given there were no faces to see and all the interaction was through this material, the text chat and voices, I found the visual focus this gave really helpful. I would love to be able to ‘revisit’ this and browse through it at leisure but I assume once the game is over, that’s it. Of course, I can look through my own copy of AtA which helps and provides a lot of ‘answers’ but I’d like to have had more time to see the pictures for example that were provided to us and the general set up of the software.

Frustratingly, with three screens, I seemed to only be able to open anything on one of them and I couldn’t drag things over to another monitor. After more than hour someone mentioned that you could ‘pop-out’ screens. I was about to text and ask how when I had a fiddle around in some settings that were mentioned and managed to find the right option and from then on had much more real estate for having characters and information to hand instantly. [See photo for my set up. The map is on the right and the team I was part of is on the left so I could remember names and see skills etc. On the laptop screen is an ‘overview’ of the PCs and NPCs so I could remember who was who].

The first hour of the game was spent

I was pleased to be assigned to Lady Sandra Lockhart’s team. Perhaps it was the small but perfectly formed picture representing her which I learned later was Julie Newmar2. 2—You may not even need to Google her if I tell you she was Catwoman in the Batman series in the 1960s but perhaps even more subliminally as I didn’t realize until much later, Dorcas in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) – a film I’ve seen an embarrassing number of times and once on the stage as well. Perhaps more relevant here, she also played a pregnant Capellan princess in Star Trek (‘Friday’s Child’, 1969). Suffice to say, I’d have climbed any mountain. I also liked the fact that I ended up on the same team as A, the one player I knew from a distance which seemed friendly. (Although this had interesting repercussions as his character was good at Recon making it only sensible that I should forgo worrying about such rolls and maybe stay at the back of the rope line keeping an eye on Lady Sandra and her retainer.) Inspired by the image of my character being Leonardo diCaprio, I named myself Rio Nard and tried to get into the mind of a scout facing the climb of his life.

It would appear that there are at least three ways of conquering Mt Anekthor. None of them are ‘better’ than the other but they are different and all present their own problems. All benefit from some training and good guidance. The first, let’s call it the north face, would be entirely via role playing and a theatre of the mind ascent that is clearly not what was intended by J. Andrew Keith the author of the original adventure. The way the book is designed makes that clear. Another route, let’s call it the south face as you might say it’s diametrically opposed, would be entirely mechanistically using the mini-game that forms the basis of the Gamelords book from 1984 – some 30% of it. With this you wouldn’t even need actual characters or a ‘setting’. A third route might be considered the south east face and this was the path Greg guided us into: mostly following the mini-game with some opportunities for role playing. I really enjoyed this approach, and it gave some fantastic views as we played a classic and saw the author at the peak, perhaps, of his powers. As a change of pace from role playing it works well so I can see it fitting into a campaign; if all Traveller was like this, however, it would be a different game.

While I think about the author, what on earth possessed him to call it Ascent to Anekthor? I know pronouns [prepositions—ed.] are tricky in a lot of languages. In fact one of my cheats to ‘get by’ in a language after learning 500 or so words of ‘easy’ vocabulary – animals, colours, body parts are favourite as they’re so visual – is to knuckle down and learn twenty pronouns the hard way as they really help convey a lot of meaning, but surely it should be the Ascent of Anekthor? One of my treasured possessions3 3—When I say treasure, I mean house-is-burning-grab-this-once-the-family-is-safe kind of treasure. I managed to get my copy signed by ALL the surviving members of the 1953 team at the 40th Anniversary event held at the Royal Geographical Society. Amongst several others that includes Lord Hunt, the author, Sir Edmund Hillary of course and Tenzing’s nephew, the youngest member of the team. (Tenzing had, by then, died.) I believe it’s rare because I heard throughout the day that I tore around the building trying to catch everyone that I mustn’t trouble Pugh, the doctor on the expedition. He was in a wheelchair in 1993 and very disabled and minders wouldn’t let me close. By the end of the day I’d spoken to everyone but him and decided to go for it. I pushed through, knelt down beside his wheelchair and presented my book as quick as I could. I may be mistaken, but I had the distinct impression he was delighted to be at last included in the team even as he struggled to scribble his name! is The Ascent of Everest about the first successful expedition in 1953. Perhaps US usage differs but this seems odder and odder to me the more I think about it. [No, this isn’t US usage; unless Anekthor is, e.g., a city, temple, etc., at the top of the mountain, it should indeed be Ascent of Anekthor—ed.]

Anyway, all that aside, we were off and our team had the first turn and, in my opinion, the best starting position, centrally on the slope of the mountain we were climbing and with several promising options. Greg explained that turns would consist of Recon, Movement and Rest (or various combinations of that) with penalties for not resting. Teams were to determine their next moves in between turns to keep things moving along. In general this worked well although there were some details in this that took a bit of unpicking until we were used to it. If I were ever to run this at TravCon, say, I would definitely have to rehearse this well to be as confident as Greg was in keeping us moving upwards. If you look at the AtA book, and of course the ‘accompanying’ volume The Mountain Environment, there are quite a lot of options in terms of terrain and options and detail. That’s before you start layering on animal encounters and actions PCs might get up to. As with climbing any mountain, preparation, preparation, preparation is key and I can vouch for the fact that Greg had done his homework both in terms of the game and as mentioned above in providing gaming materials in the online environment.

I won’t rehash all the micro decisions we made as we fairly charged up the early, easier(?) slopes. I won’t try and track the actual route we took although my notes tried to follow what we were doing as well the other two teams. I will say that I had to think quickly about making suggestions as to which way we might go or I’d be beaten to the ‘obvious’ best way of progressing by another player whose analysis seemed to always be spot-on and very fast. (This was a good thing as it kept me engaged and motivated.) If all this wasn’t enough to keep me busy there was always the software to learn and the terrain types and path descriptions to look up. As time went on and I became more familiar with everything, it became easier to also chat with other players. Either on ‘my’ team or other teams. I wouldn’t have minded more of this: in character and out of character. I also tried to add some role playing with efforts to look after Lady Sandra (not a stretch) or to slightly ‘begrudge’ always feeling second fiddle to a character with superior skills (more of a stretch as I don’t mind that in game or in real life – perhaps because I’m not an alpha male and don’t often play one!). With time against us both in game and out however I think these may have got lost somewhat.

As for time racing by, there came a moment when it was clear that at the pace we were going, we were unlikely to make the summit so Greg took the wise, if difficult, decision to suggest we ‘jump’ on and miss a chunk out. He came up with a reasonable, in my opinion, proposal as to where we might have got to just prior to the pinnacle. It did of course take us out of the ‘moment’ for a minute or three but I think it was worth doing in order to have a climax at the summit. Greg himself noted that were he to run the adventure again under similar time constraints, he’d start the teams somewhat further up the mountain. I took note as I was being more and more beguiled into the idea of running this adventure at TravCon at some point. I don’t know how others felt about this disjuncture and I was half expecting a push for the summit by extending the scheduled four hour slot even though another hour for example would have taken those of us playing in the UK till midnight. I was pretty tired by now but would have been up for that.

The decision made we had an hour to go and we got into the denouement which I won’t spoil by detailing here. I suspect Greg will, or at least wants to run it again, but suffice to say with windstalkers and wayward wayfarers the last few metres to the peak were full of action and excitement. I was quite on the edge and convinced death was just around the corner. With great use of William H. Keith illustrations I could feel the wind whipped ice in my face, hear the howl of nature and struggle to lift my leaden body just one more step. The exhaustion was real; the immersion was fantastic. Full marks to the Referee for making this an experience to remember. Best of all we conquered the peak – we were the first! I made it to the top. I’ve climbed Mt Anekthor!

The final confrontation was satisfying and a final flourish from the Referee as our patron was a treat to end with – squirrel suits to get back down to base camp. I thought this was a nice touch and I headed for bed dreaming of a hair-raising descent at speed just above the crags and ice.

For an experience that really did come out of the blue with next to no notice I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’d love to have met my fellow players face-to-face but between continents and COVID that was never going to happen and this was a great way to spend an evening if we couldn’t sit around a table. I appreciate that’s no help to those who would have liked to have played but if it’s any indication of the fun to be had from Greg organizing a virtual Traveller convention in October then there’s lots to look forward to. I would vote for video chat just to see other players but understand the technology can be difficult and better to have good sound than iffy everything. I can also heartily recommend Greg’s Refereeing and diligence in setting up a great experience. A particular delight was his role playing an NPC retainer who was a complete grouch about what he saw as “ridiculous risk taking” and who was overly protective of Lady Sandra. Dougal I think his name was could have been quite annoying but instead really came alive as a character. Finally, if you get a chance to make the ascent of Anekthor – it’s definitely worth getting the crampons and ice-axes out.