After-Action Report: TravCon19 (UK)
This article was the featured article in the May/June 2019 issue.
For all that TravCon is in its 12th iteration at Redwings Lodge and this was my 11th outing to the annual UK Traveller convention, this year saw a lot of firsts:
- first time it’s started on Friday morning, not Friday evening
- first time I’ve run an adventure at TravCon not written by myself
- first time ever (that I’m aware of) another referee has run one of my adventures
- first time that my work colleague Jane has run an adventure (twice!)
- first time referees haven’t been given a (small) price reduction for running something but:
- first time referees have had a first option on which game they’d like to play in
- first time I've tried to run a “Zero Prep” game
- first time I’ve ever run four games (and very nearly five)
- first time we’ve not had an auction at the end
- first time I've ever flown (and captained!) the Beowulf free trader, and
- some other personal firsts of attendees that are stories more appropriate for them to tell
In another small first, Tess had a new car – with a delightfully Travelleresque Signal GK number plate. After last year’s worries about the ‘Beast From the East’ storm moving in, the 150 mile, three-to-four-hour drive was a straightforward as could be; though I nearly managed to forget my hearing aids. Fortunately, only a mile from home or the convention might have been a real strain for myself and for others around me with even more ‘pardons?’ and loudness than they already get.
A resplendent microfibre towel as the convention gift
We were welcomed as usual by Andy Lilly, the convention organizer looking a little less strained than last year. Perhaps the much balmier weather had lightened the load of concerns about whether anyone would be able to make it. He also had much to smile about in the terrific convention freebie he was handing each of us after we’d dumped our bags. Sarah L had come up with the lovely idea of a microfibre towel printed with the artwork from the cover of In Search of Angels. This had also adorned one of the mugs we had been given last year and gave us yet another chance to encourage ISOA to see light of day as a book more widely available to Traveller fans everywhere1. If Andy got a Hitchhiker’s Guide quote once as he handed them out, he got it 37 times as once again we’d filled Redwings for the Friday and Saturday nights. We’d not quite filled the place on Thursday night however, to the bemusement of some non-delegates in the bar later on.
1—For newcomers to these annual write ups, the convention freebie three years ago was a fabulous printed volume collecting the first half of the adventures of the Angel’s Share which had been run across the years at TravCon. And yes, we also lobbied for the other half of the book to be written and published. If only this pesky thing called real life didn’t get in the way.
An Earlier Start
As promised at the end of last year’s event, this year’s convention was scheduling its first slots at 9am on Friday morning rather than the usual 7pm. This meant two extra games, although it also meant that to participate some of us were arriving Thursday and needed to take two days off work. But what’s not to love? An extra day of Travelling… more time to meet old friends… more opportunities to chat and chirp and channel our inner divas… more exhaustion…!
Figuring that there would be others that would arrive early enough on Thursday to fit in an evening game, even though none were scheduled, I’d had the bright idea of running a Zero Prep game. I’d save all my preparation for the ‘formal’ games I was running and for this game, anyone who was interested – or not that fussed about sitting in the bar all evening – could generate a character, fit their character in with everyone else, and I’d use their character gen and some random tables to just see where we ended up. Great idea in theory but in order to be ready for anything I probably put more effort into the Zero Prep game than I did anything else: digging out all the supplements I thought would be useful for detailing people, planets and plots on the fly; preparing (or finding) d66 tables; producing some die drop forms to randomly select certain things (or provide a discussion starter for players); inventing a Lego die drop tray to use with those tables; going mad and deciding I wanted an Atlas of Charted Space so we could set our adventures anywhere.
Clockwise from top left:Hugh, Robin, Jane, Jeff and Robin
Ah, yes, the atlas. This perhaps deserves a bit more explanation. Those of you who recall the old Atlas of the Imperium from GDW may recall that it was somewhat disappointing in only including the system positions of all the worlds it included. I’ve long fancied something more comprehensive thanks to the ever wonderful travellermap.com (and if you don’t know this resource, get along and take a look now). It’s great while sitting at a computer, but what if you just want to browse through a print volume or don’t have an internet connection? I’d done some experimentation and seen that printing a sector in colour (but not on black) at A3 size (a little larger than twice US letter) meant a map that was quite usable even with aging eyesight. I couldn’t quite squeeze on the UWPs at that size – although TravellerMap allows the possibility – but I can’t easily print at the next size up, A2, and didn’t particularly want to start sticking together two sheets of paper. My plan was to take a reasonable chunk of Charted Space, maybe 125 sectors worth, print out the maps and bind them together to make an atlas. It would have been a bit rough and ready however as there’d be no sector title on each map unless I added it manually, pages would be printed single sided which would bulk the thing out, I’d lose sections of the map along the binding edge, and I’d have the UWPs separately in electronic booklet files that can be created from TravellerMap. Then I discovered the site allows you to actually generate an ‘atlas’ of most of the sectors I was interested in. Although you lose a little bit of size as it doesn’t print to the edges of the paper, the layout and look would be much smarter, and it would include UWPs on separate pages; including the full extended T5 data. That last wasn’t critical, but is nice to have. A visit to a printshop and I had a rather lovely ‘one off’ kind of handout that I doubt will be replicated in too many other places. Of course, my dream would have been to print the whole thing at A2 size, with UWPs on the maps themselves, and bind the whole thing between hard covers like some old-time map folio. But I was being quoted prices upwards of £300 just for the printing.
In the end it was quite fun to at least offer the option of setting an adventure pretty much anywhere in Charted Space. I could also introduce the other adventures I was running by starting with a galaxy map and extolling the natural beauty of creation; moving down to the Charted Space map in the atlas and pointing out the wondrous beauty of so many polities inhabiting the same space and (mostly) getting on; turning to the Spinward Marches and describing the fascinating beauty of so many many many individuals (and naming three of them from other adventures I’ve run across the years); and then zooming in on a map of Aramis subsector and the deck plans of the March Harrier – anything but beautiful as I handed out various ship faults the crew had to deal with.
Zero Prep – hah!
The actual Zero Prep games, one on Thursday night for anyone interested and then the formal one that Andy had scheduled on Friday morning, were two different beasts. I had imagined that character generation might take half an hour – I can knock through Mongoose 2nd edition in 20 minutes – but actually took nearer an hour as I’d underestimated most people’s familiarity with the rules. However, a chunk of that was taken by characters agreeing events together and connecting their characters which made it more fun. That still left us with three hours for me to quite literally make things up as we went, riffing off the choices the players were making with regard to their characters or decisions they had made using the Lego die drop table earlier. Thursday night went really well with players united in their aim as out of work ‘citizens’ deciding that they were going to try and stake a claim in the rush to prospect for lanthanum in a belt that’s just opening up. They encounter an Aslan who’s looking for missing relatives and end up helping her locate the wreck of a ship in a little explored planetoid belt. Sequels were presenting themselves in the possibility of then pursuing the reason the ship had been wrecked and what had happened to the relatives. Somehow it flowed, the players worked together and seemed to have fun, my random decision tables managed to look almost coherent in retrospect.
On Friday morning it went well enough, but not quite as smoothly. A couple of the players were tugging in different directions as PCs (and possibly as players as well, it was hard to tell) and I was finding it harder to get a focus. But eventually, it turned into a heist of sorts as the PCs burgled a ship of some military drugs right under the noses of its crew. There were some great moments here as Sarah chatted up the Captain, got him drunk and her crewmates slipped off to explore an elevator shaft to find the small cargo they were after.
Charts, tables, mindmaps, books, etc.—and not all that were used…
I felt I’d exorcised the lesser demons of knowing whether I could make up an adventure on the spot, but was kind of glad it was over and I’m unlikely to tread the same ground again in quite the same way. If I did it again, I would limit options somewhat, have much better organization of all my tables and generators, and hopefully relax more knowing that it wasn’t impossible! I should take this opportunity to thank the players who so gamely gave it a go.
Dive! Dive! Dive!
After a bite to eat from the nibbles BITS kindly provides, I was able to ‘relax’ and actually play a game for a change. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as restful as I might have hoped. I’d signed up for Richard Talbot’s game Till Depths Do Us Part. This had been long awaited. It must be at least three years if not four since Richard mentioned the possibility of running something along the lines of an SDB under attack in a gas giant. Cue a nifty diagrammatic representation of said gas giant with different levels and ‘sectors’, as well as the possibility of clichéd submarine captain accents. For various reasons, Richard had not been able to make TravCon one year for this reason, another year for that reason, last year because of the Beast from the East. So, he was finally here, finally running it, and finally I could see what it was all about. I wasn’t disappointed; it’s an instant classic and full of atmosphere – no pun intended. Without giving too much away the Captain of the SDB is utterly incompetent. I was playing the XO and suddenly found my non-existent tactical prowess under severe pressure as Simon B brilliantly role-played an over-educated, under-intelligent captain who fortunately managed to completely miss his crew’s subtle, and not so subtle, interpretations of his orders. My favourite moment was when several enemy ships hove into scanner range and the order came “Dive, Dive, Dive”. The rest of the bridge crew knew this would mean almost certain death for various Reasons, so I signalled the pilot to ‘dive’ at the absolutely shallowest orbital reduction that could be managed.
Charting the Depths
Given my lack of tactical ability as a player and given the dysfunction of the crew generally, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised that this adventure finished in what may well have been my first experience of a Total Party Kill. But boy did we go out gloriously, taking a lot of the enemy with us and being memorialized in statues. Well, everyone except the Captain who somehow got missed off the records thanks to an administrative error. Great fun.
Traditionally on Friday it’s arrival evening and a trip to the curry house next door. Some had actually gone on Thursday night and would go again on Saturday. For those of us who feel one curry in a week is quite sufficient, thank you, this was the night most chose to go. On Saturday night we’d make do with local takeaways. It wasn’t as if we were about to starve with all the lovely BITS nibbles available in any case.
The Traveller Adventure Revisited
After supper, it was time to run my first ‘proper’ game. Ironically, preparations for my Zero Prep games, had rather distracted me from spending much time actually going over my notes for The Traveller Adventure, not helped by losing a weekend unexpectedly following the death of my father-in-law. I was only thankful funeral plans hadn’t cancelled my attendance at TravCon altogether. My plan was not to try and run the entire campaign over the weekend, but just to offer ‘Scenes from The Traveller Adventure’ in two slots, or three if Andy was struggling to fill spaces. I’d dug out what I considered the more interesting early scenarios. I could save later ones for another year. So I had ‘Leedor on Aramis’ (still a dull title) to kick off with, ‘Pysadian Escapade’ and ‘Wolf at the Door’ lined up. I noted on arrival Andy had me down for all three and was glad I’d brought everything with me. The snag was that it is actually something like three years since my little group in Portsmouth started out back on Leedor so it’s hardly fresh in my mind. I had at least, however, prepared the handouts I thought I’d need and I’d just about had a chance to read through the chapter and study my original briefing notes, which helped a lot. The one thing I hadn’t managed to do was prepare a bit of detail for how Gvoudzon might get smuggled into the starport and up into orbit which is supposed to happen towards the end of the first chapter. Having already spent three sessions on Leedor back with my group we’d not gone into this in any detail for fear of never finishing. In fact, the book itself doesn’t give you much support for this section, which makes me wonder if it was something of an afterthought with the authors.
Bob and Nigel poring over a map
The Author, centre, refereeing, with Karl (left) and Nick (right)
I slipped into the role of Weekea-da the Bwap broker with his enthusiastic welcome to Aramis: ‘Bakaka!’ I fear there may be photos somewhere of me using my convention microfibre as a prop to play the ‘towelhead’. But in fact, once I got started and the players were responding, I found it kind of ran itself and we had such fun with meeting Gvoudzon and doing the heist that it both filled the four-hour slot and obtaining the brooch felt like a satisfactory ending in itself so lots of detail after that wasn’t really necessary.
Keen to do it ‘by the book’, I’d gone back to the original (unnamed) book characters and converted them all from scratch to Mongoose Traveller 2nd edition. Thus I was handing out the eight characters found in The Traveller Adventure for the six conventioneers to pick. I did ask (beg? insist?) that someone take on the Captain’s role so I wasn’t directing things too much, and I suggested it would be more fun if someone took Gvoudzon on rather than me trying to run him as an NPC. We then, also, decided we would lose the two weaker PCs that are offered. (The ex-Army Captain and the ex-Marine Captain).
So far, so good. Thinking that it would help my connecting with the characters and speed up response times as I’d better know their names and characteristics, I’d added the PC names we’ve been using for three years down in Portsmouth to the new character sheets. Although I was happy for players to change them if they wanted, no one did. In retrospect, this was probably my one mistake. I thought it would make things easier; in fact, it was just plain weird having ‘characters’ I knew well being played by completely different people – however much they stuck to the descriptions I’d added to the back of the sheets which were, again, optional. I think if I do this again next year (i.e., more scenes from TTA), I might be inclined to let the players provide their own names. Then again, that might be as confusing…
When playing this back in Portsmouth we’d been without our Gvoudzon player for the first session so it made sense to let the others roam the city, get used to role playing, and check out some of the attractions before finally getting to the museum in the second session. This made no sense for the convention game and I didn’t want Gvoudzon’s player to sit around for half the evening waiting for his big entry and scripted lines. However, there was an easy ‘fix’. The campaign starts at New Year so I had the Marquis doing his New Year speech from the balcony as before but on this occasion determined that pretty much everywhere in the city was shut on New Year’s Day. Except of course for the Museum of Aramis which has provisions in its charter to provide education and entertainment 365 days of the year. As it happened, Gvoudzon had been taken by an experienced role-player I’ve admired in other years and other situations (he was the useless SDB captain above, for example) and he took the whole introducing-himself-to-the-other-players-after-he-gets-beaten-up in his stride. It was really quite moving hearing his backstory passionately delivered. I was desperate by then for a cup of tea and could have easily slipped out to make it as I knew all the content, but it was far too much of a privilege to watch Simon perform to miss a second of it.
A Referee’s seat at the table, Roger style
When a Woman Loves a Man…
Meanwhile, the captain role had been taken on by young Karl with his real life Dad next to him in the March Harrier’s pilot seat, as well next to him round the table. Ordinarily this might have passed without comment but Karl picked up the biography line about Loyd searching for his ‘one true love’ and not having much success. Out came the old ‘Loyd’s Ladies’ tables (see TML reports passim) and he could chat up any females he encountered to his heart’s content. There was an added frisson though with his father sitting next to him watching this in action. And sometimes wishing he wasn’t as Karl began rolling a series of high numbers for the success of his endeavours. Our captain back home in Portsmouth had singularly failed to have any sort of luck like this across the 15 or more sessions we’ve played.
In this session it came to a climax, ahem, when the captain found a museum guide who was rather pert and pretty and saw a way to get information about the brooch, etc., without going anywhere near hacking into the computers as is traditional. I rolled a double six for the guide’s reaction to him. Watching Karl outline how he’d prepare for a date, what he would arrange, what chat up lines he’d use and so on with his Dad, Nigel, sitting next to him was a picture. Not to mention Nigel teasing him for so blatantly using the poor woman. We did have to fade to black at one point. But it got worse. As the PCs got to the actual heist, Captain Loyd realizes that his newfound lady friend – who he has persuaded that he is both a ship captain and a secret agent – wants to join in with the robbery. “For the excitement.” She still has romantic visions of a secret agent’s life of adventure. Karl/Loyd does his best to dissuade her with all sorts of reasons why it’s a bad idea: danger, losing her job, getting hurt, prison, etc. Given his multiple high rolls but also given my NPC’s initial reaction to him, I decided to go all in. “But I love you,” she says for the first time. Karl’s face for just a split second as he processed how to deal with this in player terms and how to deal with this in character terms was just fantastic. A look of horror, fear, astonishment and probably more all rolled into one. Or perhaps it was just really excellent role-playing…In any case, with just that split second of hesitation he bravely returned an “I love you,” took her on the heist and eventually the March Harrier departed Aramis with an additional passenger tucked up in the captain’s stateroom.
Pilot and Captain; father and son: Karl and Nigel
My fears about running an adventure that could quite easily be well known by players and possibly hijacked by anyone wanting to make things difficult were completely unfounded and I’m very glad I decided to give it a go. It was certainly interesting revisiting old, familiar territory but with a new set of players which was a first for me. It seemed the players enjoyed it as well – despite the ‘issues’ with the adventure as published. Perhaps the railroading is of less concern at a convention. My thanks to them for throwing themselves into it so wholeheartedly.
I’d love to have stayed for after hours’ talk and games in the bar, but it had been a full day and I knew there were two more action packed days to come. I decided to retreat and call it a night. Come the morning I was very glad of that decision as the sleep period seemed short enough as it was. But I chatted with Nigel over breakfast and appear to have found a long-lost twin. In our shared – or at least not dissimilar – boarding school experiences; shared love of a comfy hat; shared experiences of facing fairly serious medical issues; shared attempts to write Traveller fiction; and perhaps shared styles of role-playing and refereeing, we hit it off very quickly which ended up having interesting implications for the Sunday game.
Memory Loss and Memory Capture
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d been persuaded, over breakfast, to sign up for Love’s Labours Lost in the morning slot. This was being run by Nigel and once I heard it was Darrian scientists I couldn’t resist. Curious to see how it differed from (or was similar to) my own Ashfall trilogy which features Darrian scientists, I jumped right in along with Tess and Sarah and three others. One difference is that in Ashfall, all the PCs are university lecturers; here, just one was. A random distribution had given me a female engineer and I happened to know that Tess really likes those, so I offered to swap and ended up with a professor character. Well, that suited me just fine. One of my first experiences at TravCon more than a decade ago was playing a professor in Dom M’s terrific This Fear of Gods and the role fit me like a glove. I cranked up my channelling of all the university types I work with and had a lot of fun. Given that Sarah L was playing the ship captain in charge for the first portion of the adventure, she was perhaps quite right to put me in my place a couple of times about being a bit in everyone’s face and “just wanting to be worshipped”. The problem was, I wasn’t 100% sure whether she was in character or talking about me as a player. My guilty conscience perhaps as I’m aware that I can get a bit boisterous – particularly when excited, which is pretty much the norm for the entire convention. I tried to rein it in a bit particularly as I noticed that Tess had gone remarkably quiet and wasn’t saying very much. This didn’t change however, even after I bit my tongue a few times. Anyway, I won’t spoil the plot save to say that it involved AIs and an old war and despite the professor having to take over leadership of the expedition once on the ground, we managed to see our way through to a conclusion, even if my ‘solution’ at the end had been over-ruled by everyone else only for us to find out what we’d missed by not following my suggestion. Ah well. As a complete aside, there was also another first here as instead of trying to take notes, I thought I would take the opportunity to continue my ‘drawing a day’ attempt to improve my (non-existent) artistic skills. A photo may exist but I’m a long way yet from being brave enough to share my efforts.
Extremes of mapping/preparation: Left, from “The Experiment”; right, “Iron Hammer” miniatures game.
What amused me as the game concluded was something ringing a lot of bells as Nigel wrapped it up. I couldn’t quite place what the connection might have been, until Tess revealed that she’d gone quiet earlier because an hour or more in the memory had surfaced that she’d actually played in the same adventure last year! Indeed, I reported in these very pages a year ago – albeit very briefly – on the adventure being run which is why it was sounding familiar to me at the denouement! [See second paragraph and photo under The Chirpers Return in the after-action report from the July/August 2018 Freelance Traveller]. So much for wetware memory cells.
Afterwards, I felt I had to apologize to Sarah if I had been a bit much as a player rather than a character. Although I don’t quite think I want to be worshipped, I am aware I’m driven by the hope of some kind of appreciation or admiration. Perhaps not finding it elsewhere, I’ve come to enjoy TravCon providing that kind of encouragement. Poor Sarah was a bit mortified that I’d not been sure about real vs play when she’d definitely only meant the latter, but it did give us a good laugh!
Proof that Nigel is a real fan of Traveller
What I’ve missed out in that description however was a rather surprising first. At some point, I forget why, I was being teased for owning some obscure Traveller book and referee Nigel made a quip about that being nothing compared to having the Beowulf tattooed to your leg. I initially thought he was just joking and continuing to tease me. However, I slowly twigged there was something more going on and probed further. It turned out he does indeed have quite a large tattoo of the Beowulf on his leg. A friend of his had been dying of cancer and helped Nigel pick out a design as a memorial to be remembered by. Well, that was too good a secret to keep. And as shy isn’t a word one could use about the tattoo’s owner, it didn’t take much for Nigel to pull down his trousers and reveal all! (This must be a first for pretty much any Traveller convention…) Suitably impressed and pausing for a moment to remember Nigel’s friend Phil, we got back to the game, but I suspect there were many of us round the table questioning the extent of our own fandom in the light of this devotion to the cause and tribute to friendship.
The Traveller Adventure revisited. Again.
The afternoon slot was back on the March Harrier as a new set of six players signed up. Well, there were a couple of repeat offenders to whom I gave the option to continue with the same characters as before if desired. ‘Pysadian Escapade’… and yes, “those b***** anolas” as one experienced referee described them saying he’d drop them if he ever ran the adventure. Back in Portsmouth, for anyone who’s not been following the after-action write-ups on the Traveller Mailing List, we’d had the player with the marine captain feeling so disconnected with her character that we’d killed him off and replaced him with a much more dynamic – and pretty – archaeologist. The whole conceit of the fussball game with the Vargr on the starport landing pads leading to a bad head injury on the plascrete and the eventual death of poor old Fox Hogan, had worked so well previously that I wondered if it mightn’t be worth trying again. So I nabbed the player who’d taken the Fox character and asked he was up for a bit of shenanigans. It turned out he was and so poor old Fox, even in this universe, didn’t make it out of the port, but Lily Lee signs on with the crew instead. And a good job too, with her Explosives skill for mining, sorry, harvesting howood.
I couldn’t resist rerunning the three day trip on the train once again – although not quite at such length and another favourite moment of the weekend was the player whose character had missed the information about the train’s departure time. To be fair, I think the player had missed it as well. So said character stops off for a drink only to discover he’s supposed to be at the station a mile away in just a few minutes. This was definitely a moment to role-play as he ran to the station, races onto the platform only to see the old steam train is just pulling out. Tearing after it, with most of his crewmates laughing through the window, he then manages to fail three Dexterity rolls in a row as the train is slowly speeding up. Finally, a crewmate gets to the door, offers him a hand, they make contact and he was pulled rather wildly onboard. We nominated Neil for a PFI at the end of the convention but it didn’t quite get enough votes to win.
I also did the whole bit at the Baraatsu homestead again. I thought it would be nice if he offered them each a howood carving from a basket. Each player got to describe their own small carving. Baraatsu then explains the ‘meaning’ or significance of the carving relating it to his faith and Mother Pysadi. It’s hard thinking so quickly on your feet as you respond to whatever the players have come up with for their carving, but at least to my mind, it makes the gifts more memorable.
Jane seems not to be having any trouble running A Troubled Case
We took a break, I grabbed a mug of tea and I charged round the other rooms with my camera to take photos as I do. Only to get to the room where Jane was bravely running A Troubled Case a second time. Now I desperately wanted to stop for a little while and see how it was going but seeing Jane suddenly reminded me that we still had the whole harvest the howood and rescue whoever from the church at Itzeny and we were already three hours into the session. Arrrgh! I charged back to our room and picked up the pace a bit. After all, we’d spent ¾ of the time doing ‘other’ stuff and now had only a bit over an hour to do what’s actually in the book!
The players didn’t seem to mind, however, and we had fun harvesting the howood. The anolas do their thing and I can only presume that the reticence of everyone at the table to get anywhere near the things is because they all knew just what trouble they are. Perhaps it was metaknowledge on their part, perhaps it was railroading on mine, but I used the two NPC crew (there are eight characters and only six players in a typical TravCon slot), plus one randomly determined player to receive the affections of the creatures.
Gvoudzon, still played by Simon, made a valiant effort to persuade the Salvors that they hadn’t even seen the anolas, much less touched them and he was so passionately lying through his teeth I actually felt a bit bad producing the evidence of animal droppings on their carts and Baraatsu’s witness statement. As something of a sop, I had the animal loving NPC offer to stay in place of the PC who’d been ‘selected’ to stay on at the church. This meant the players could reasonably just take off and leave said NPC to it. But no, they were in for a penny, in for a pound and there was just time before close of play for them to hatch a plan to rescue the player and execute it very nicely – even picking up the kitchen maid who has been chatted up in the intervening three days. The crew is swelling by the moment! It’s almost a shame we’re not running it as a campaign for the ongoing humour and role playing that might offer.
“This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…”
Meanwhile, whilst running the previous session I’d been accosted by a referee who had not been able to run the game he had planned because someone, we’ll mention no names, had managed to wander off with his bag of notes/rules/dice/handouts/etc. It was a genuine mistake but I’d have been irritated to have spent time preparing only to find it had been wasted. I’m presuming someone directed him to me as he was asking if I’d be prepared to give up my Sunday session (and third ‘scene’ from The Traveller Adventure). Well, a small part of me was rather disappointed not to get to the fun of that romp in the woods now I was mentally geared up for it, but a much larger – and very very tired – part of me was aware that I’d really overcommitted to this TravCon and that running five slots might just finish me off. I was quite relieved to be able to say, fine, take it!
Time for supper. Fish and chips for me, courtesy of Steve and Neil who kindly made a run into Sawtry while I got some much needed rest. Way down on the usual three stops a day I do to manage the chronic fatigue, I was really struggling. There was a temptation to skip the final session of the day and just go to bed. But it’s Traveller – my one opportunity a year to play – how can I miss out?! Plus, I knew it was a Stephen J. Ellis game and I really couldn’t resist. They’re invariably interesting, emphasise role playing and often become talking points at later conventions.
So, what was on offer this year? Well, I’d had a tiny bit of a sneak preview in social media discussions a week or two before. That had just whetted my appetite and made me even more determined to get a seat if I could. Fortunately, it was being run twice which helped. In addition, there was the new system at the convention this year that referee’s running games could have first dibs on a game or two depending on how many they were running.
You may recall my after-action report of five years ago – can it really be a decade? [The TravCon 14 AAR in the September 2014 issue of Freelance Traveller – see under A Second Highlight] – when Steve had run Eve of Rebellion [then called Imperial Intrigue] and I’d been able to play Emperor Strephon. In what is beginning to look like an attempt to corner the market on taking really iconic bits of Traveller and somehow making them accessible to play, this adventure, The Grendel Problem, was set on the Beowulf. Yes, that Beowulf. Better yet, as Steve offered up the different roles, all the other players stepped back from wanting to play the captain. Well, I could relate to that having had to play captain/leader/boss in both the games I’d played in so far. But at the same time, it was the Beowulf! As I didn’t step back as quickly as the others, Hobson’s choice was mine. But the Beowulf! Captain of the Beowulf! Gamers tend to know one thing about Traveller – you die in character generation. If they know two things, it’s the distress call of the Beowulf. There can be little that’s more iconic across almost every edition of Traveller.
Steve Ellis isn’t a Sword Worlds Jarl, but he plays one on HD…
But our referee, being as experienced and skilled as he is, wasn’t just leaving it there and letting us get on with it. That would have been far too easy and ho-hum. The conceit of this adventure was that we were the crew of the ship but also being filmed for series 18 of the holodrama that is based on the ship, its crew and its adventures. This is what has made it so famous across Charted Space. This really worked as an in game idea and also as a convention idea. One player was the producer/director on board, one was the ship’s doctor and female lead who is a bit fed up with the whole enterprise, I as the captain and pilot was only there because I’d been pressured into it by uncle, and so on. (Also, I quite fancied the doctor but didn’t want to make that public for fear they’d write it into the show and cheapen my true love.)
The background briefings, which included all this and more were very convincingly put together and even better, read like a wikipedia article on the ups and downs of a long running tv series. It was quite brilliantly conceived and really helped us get into character.
On top of all this, to try to improve flagging ratings and avoid the possible cancellation of the show, we were being sent into Sword World space to find excitement and adventure. So we also had an attaché and a Sword Worlds security officer on board. A local Jarl had a problem with a monster attacking his mead hall, which gave us something to look into. Thus the title of the adventure and a neat play on the Beowulf tradition of old. It really was very well thought out and to add to the verisimilitude, Steve had really done his background homework on Viking culture, the Beowulf epic, Sword World culture and throughout maintained a really impressive Nordic accent (as did Ross playing across the table to be fair). There were other touches too as he dimmed half the lights when night fell and the Sword Worlders were regaling us with terror tales around the flickering fireplace. In short, before we’d even started, and increasingly as we went on, I was hugely enamoured of the whole thing and it only got better as we role-played, engaged in derring-do, and tried to solve the puzzle(s) on offer.
The only downer of this session was that I was so exhausted I was in considerable pain by about half way through and come 10pm or a little after was seriously thinking I might have to call it a night. I pressed on but very rudely asked Steve if he could predict an estimated finish time which felt very out of order. But it seemed as if we were making progress and stuffing some analgesics down me sort of helped. I saw it through to the end. I’m glad I did, I think, because at the denouement brave Captain Dafydd Wanatabe was supposed to be flying the ship out of a swamp after we’ve successfully tackled the monster. Only to roll double 1. Our backup pilot (the former “Miss Foreven 1100” beauty contest winner) takes over and she rolls double 1. We’re in trouble and basically crash the Beowulf into the swamp rather ignominiously. “This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…” Sadly, some of the crew are not only injured but killed and I’m feeling hugely responsible. Of course, all this makes for great holovision. Especially when I get to the injured doctor and declare my, ahem, concern and the director is getting it all recorded. With a bit of judicial cutting she is able to make an entire love scene out of it.
There is more but I don’t want to spoil the plot for folk if it gets run again or published. Suffice to say that disgusted with myself for killing friends and crewmates Dafydd tells his uncle to stuff the job and goes off to explore the Spinward Marches desperately hoping the doctor might follow. However, in a really nice – and possibly unique – epilogue, Steve had primed the director’s player to take it off his hands and to do it as a description of the finished production that gets broadcast. My work colleague Jane, back for her fourth year, and not a public speaker by nature, rose to the challenge and with an audience of the other players and one or two other conventioneers who had wandered in, stood in front of a board and dramatically recounted our exploits neatly adding her directorial touches to show how it came out on broadcast. Painting us all in the best possible light, of course.
An Idea For Another Time
Saturday night I was not even slightly tempted to stay up after hours, but I was really glad that my other bright idea of a couple of weeks before the convention hadn’t come to pass. Here in the UK – and I’m willing to bet it’s translated across the Atlantic [It has —ed.] and further afield as well – we have a number of tv shows along the lines of The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee. I happened to notice that they have almost identical formats: a ‘signature challenge’, a ‘technical challenge’ and a ‘showstopper’. There’s a theme for the episode, the participants have to bake or sew (or to do make up I just saw a couple of nights ago) according to the directions given, judges rate them and pick a ‘best of’ for the show who gets kudos, and a loser who goes home. Eventually, across a series, just three are left for a final.
It wasn’t a great leap to think, why couldn’t we have a Traveller equivalent? Take a four-hour slot and do something similar. Pick a theme – say, Darrians, or Scouts, or ‘Eve of War’ or ‘Merchants on the Edge’. I quite liked the latter as it allowed multiple interpretations – edge of space, edge of bankruptcy, edge of morality… Spend an hour (or 45 minutes if judging is included) creating a character; spend an hour (or 45 minutes with judging) on a technical challenge such as creating a world, or ship, or vehicle, or animal according to certain criteria; spend two hours creating the outline of an adventure with, say, three interesting locations, two antagonistic NPCs and a plot point twist.
I’d suggested the Great Traveller Make Off as an option a couple of weeks before the convention and also suggested it could be an after hours thing like the quiz of last year if all the gaming slots were filled. The only doubts I had about that were that I thought it would be quite a niche interest. In the event, although I took blank paper and sections of rules to make it work if we did it, all the slots were filled with adventures so it would have had to have been after hours. I’m not entirely sure that there was anyone with the interest or capacity to try that kind of brainwork and pressure at that time of night, but in any case, I was in no fit state to run it. So maybe another year. Or perhaps TravellerCon in the US would be interested in giving it a go.
Was it three years ago that I arrived at breakfast on the Sunday and could barely walk? I’d completely overdone it. That was before I was doing my ‘stops’ during the day to manage energy levels. Fortunately, my efforts to take breaks meant I wasn’t that bad, but all the same, the morning came all too soon. Between packing up the ridiculous amount of stuff I’d bought (essentially a crate of stuff for my Zero Prep games, another crate for the GTMO and another crate for The Traveller Adventure and other assorted bits – not to mention my big box for A3 books like the atlas and the geomorphs), trying to fit in breakfast, and gearing up for the final session, I never quite caught up with myself. So I was quite pleased when the dilemma of which game to pick was resolved for me. I’d thought, if I was running a game on Sunday, I’d not be able to fit in a session with the chirpers. Yes, they were back for another outing and Andy had already run it twice to the usual acclaim and the sound of six players chirping their slightly demented way through it. I’d be sad to miss them but wasn’t regretting the choices I’d already made. With Sunday now free, I could sign up for the third chirper slot. Except that Robin F was also running Rescue on Galatea, the classic FASA adventure, and I was really torn by that too. In the end, I was so slow, Andy had just put my name down for his session.
Andy takes charge of the Chirpers
As it happened, I really glad he did. Firstly, because only three of us were signed up and less might have made it difficult; secondly because the chirper games really are fun – although they’re not everyone’s cup of tea I’ll admit; and thirdly because the other two players were Richard T who I always enjoy watching in action and Nigel. I mentioned before that we’d discovered a like-mindedness that was a joy. As we got underway with Chirpy McChirpFace (what happened to the T- P- title pattern of yore?), it became apparent that despite the reduced numbers of players, Nigel and I were going to go full chirper and make up for any lack all by ourselves. If I’d had any doubts or disappointment about not getting the full experience with just three players, I was completely mistaken. If nothing else we got two character sheets each – well, actually four but it’s a long story. Poor Andy – he’s very patient with the mayhem these games usually involve and Richard was too – but they both deserved medals for spending the best part of a Sunday with the almost constant stream of demented gaming going on. Indeed, at one point Andy paused in a description till we’d finished our undercurrent of nonsense chittering but we pointed out that we really were listening and could keep up the stream of high pitched warbling and backchat while he talked and still be concentrating. The four of us looked at each other in astonishment when on two occasions Nigel and I produced the same lines at exactly the same time using the exact same words in sync with each other. What was that about? The real highlight of the session came, however, when Andy produced his d66 list of rubbish that the chirpers roll on to determine the random bits of trash they’ve got on their person. A glue stick here, a broken toy pistol there, a smelly cheese over that way, or whatever. On this occasion Richard rolled and was told he had an unused packet of sleeping tablets. Quick as a flash Nigel came back with a “what would a packet of used sleeping tablets look like?”. That was enough to crack us up – it was perhaps funnier at the time – but when Andy at that point remembered that he’d planned on recording some chirping, we decided we’d recreate the sleeping tablet line to start it off. This of course became impossible as we tried retake after retake of the lines with anything but a straight face. There always seems to be a moment in chirper games that gets to laughing that is actually painful. Anyway, the (human) Captain of the ship we were on, which was being hijacked, had ordered everyone to remain in their cabins and not cause the hijackers any trouble. Well, as I was leader – with the usual low intelligence of chirpers – I had to point out to the party that we weren’t in our cabins therefore we couldn’t stay in them, and by that logic we were to cause trouble as well. Andy had me roll for how that piece of logic chopping had gone down with the other chirpers and the stewardess who we’d come across and for once I rolled high. Still, a lot of not staying in our cabin and a fair bit of causing trouble later, we managed to save the day and can look forward to the next installment another year. I suspect Andy will ban Nigel and I from playing in the same session however.
Time to vote for the awards
Pak (L) and Karl with their prizes
We wrapped it up and moved to the main lounge for the closing session. No auction this year – I keep meaning to ask if there was any reason for that – but we had the awards as usual. The PFI award for that awful sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach went, quite deservedly, to Karl for his “I love you moment”. I always feel like a proud parent when something I’ve triggered or nominated gets an award.
The Starburst for Extreme Heroism was a tie between Jane P who was nominated for bravely running one of my own adventures as a newbie referee and the in-game heroism of two engineers staying on board their crashing ship to avoid further loss of life. Just as Andy was considering how to break the tie, Richard T came into the room as he’d been elsewhere. He was told to put his hand up and the engineers, played by Pak and Pete, won the day. In football parlance here in the UK, “Jane wuz robbed”.
As ever, this has been a personal journey through TravCon and I can only wish I could do justice to all the other fun stuff that was going on in games, between games, after hours. The photo of the schedule should be good enough quality for you to zoom in and see the other games that were on offer with brief blurbs and the referees running them. One day perhaps we’ll have full-spectrum drone cameras in every room recording all the action!
The schedule, after four days of updates
With no auction, we were free to get on the road to our various homes, but not before thanking Andy in the customary manner. Ravi, who usually proposes the thanks and offers the hug, was absent this year, so it fell to me to do the honours. Once again, the organization had been superlative and if there were any hitches this year, our commander-in-chief was keeping them well buried. Another great weekend, another great convention and another year to be inspired, challenged and amused. Now we hatch our plans for what we might do next year. I hear there’s already the thought that there will be an official Thursday night game next time. Another first.