Why play a 70s game in 2011? Is Traveller/Striker dead?

March 24, 2011

Short answer for those who don’t want to read a long and personal post: No, Traveller is not dead. There are some smart ideas there that bear a second look.

HOW I GOT HERE – Thoughts on a personal wargaming history

I play a lot of games. These days one of the critical parameters for successful game play is time. I only have so much time to play and when I do get to play I want to have good “bank for the buck.”

When I first played Avalon Hill’s Midway back in the early 70s, I was a teenager with lots of time on my hands. That’s a good thing since those AH classics took a lot of time to play. I spent many hours playing Panzer blitz and Panzer Leader, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Afrika Korps and many others. I enjoyed the time especially since it was better than just about everything else I was doing in those days (except Judo.)

The problem I had was not finding the time, but finding the players. Finding another teen who was willing to take the time to meticulously set up Anzio, let alone play it, was something of a quest. I managed but there was always the question of creating the community of interest.

I started collecting and painting Napoleonic miniatures. I couldn’t think of anything cooler than that. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find another teenaged soul to play. Remember there were no Sharpe’s rifles books to read in those days. I found A Soldier of the 71st damn good reading but I couldn’t even get anyone else to pick it up. I had many a solo battle on the floor of my bedroom.

I attended my first game con, Origins 77, at Hunter College on Staten Island, in the hunt for gaming materials, know how and preferably peers. That was the first time I saw “fantasy” miniatures. I didn’t know what to make of them since there was no reference books to use to help understand what they did and how that fought. (ah youth…)

The D&D came along. Frankly I was not very interested in the concept when I could play Alexander or Arab Israeli Wars. But my gaming confreres were interested and in 1977 I embarked on a career as a Dungeon Master. Even I got hooked.

What I found was a whole new level of excitement, engagement and interest in role playing. There was just MORE. I never lost my interest in military gaming. I just found a new and separate outlet that did not require the same pre-game commitment to understand satrapies, dive bomber tactics, desert supply, or the difference between cuirassiers and voltigeurs. You created a character and started to play. THEN you had to understand lots of new and weird stuff. By that time, you were already engaged and interested.

The D&D game convened at my parents Kitchen table which had a convenient 1″ checkerboard pattern that served us as our ad hoc dungeon map. The group grew and even included girls. Midway was set aside to gather dust. One of the girls lent me her copy of Lord of the Rings. Yikes I was converted.

I DISCOVER TRAVELLER or A Love Affair with Three Little Black Books

I discovered White Dwarf magazine in the Compleat Strategist store in Manhattan and found there was a larger world of gaming. In one of the first issues, they had a review of a new science fiction role playing game, Traveller. I read the review and started saving my pennies.

I can still remember the first time I open the box to reveal the three little black books (LBBs.) I can still remember the smell of it. If you think that is creepily akin to a young romance, you would be entirely right. I devoured the books. I found them utterly disappointing as an extension of D&D and completely fascinating in opening an entirely new and bigger world. I fell in love.

You hear stories lately of how people who have married, raised a family and divorced wind up meeting their high school sweetheart on facebook and falling back in love. I have to admit I sometimes feel that I am in the same boat with Traveller. I am admitting to you that my love for the game is tied to that youthful spirit of adventure, discovery, and excitement. That could be a bias in all the rest of what I say. I just want to be up front about it.

So I started a Traveller campaign, bought the extra books, supplements, and adventures that I could afford, and we played and played. I prefered Traveller over D&D, but we wound up running both. By the time I got to college, I was pretty adept at running games. I ran a D&D campaign that had about 22 player characters and I recall actually having to stand on a chair once to manage the crowd. Exciting days.

I played Traveller as a player then in a campaign run by my friend Andy. This change was a big one since I got to play rather than ref and I could savor the enjoyment from the consumer rather than the producer side. Don’t get me wrong, they both have their charm.

About 1981, I got D&Ded out. As characters advanced in levels, the very concept of advancing in levels itself became the point of the games. Instead of exploring the unknown and facing an environment of uncertainty and risk, the games tended toward risk management. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that a lot of those players went to work for Chase or Morgan Stanley.

Traveller though, structured without levels or clear intra-game advancement really shone in contrast. I kept playing Traveller more or less regularly until about 1986 and intermittently there after. I bought the MegaTraveller books, love the consolidation of materials they had done, liked the task systems concept although not always its manifestation and hated the Shattered Imperium setting. Did I say “hated”? Yeah I wanted to make sure that was clear.

I started going to Historical Miniature Gaming Society (HMGS) conventions in New Carollton MD in 1983, I have gone to all but a handful of HMGS cons since. One college buddy who played Traveller back in the day still attends regularly (love you Frank L!)  HMGS was the long awaited outlet for the military games I so loved before role playing.

STRIKER

When I first read Book 4 Mercenary, a whole new idea dawned on me. Military role play. It was around that time that I first consciously asked myself: Can I play a military role playing game? Is there such a beast? I had to wait for Striker before I found the answer was yes.

However, Striker faces the would be player with some daunting challenges. First and foremost, there are no TO&Es, no real vehicles to speak of. The chore of completely organizing one’s forces from scratch deterred almost everyone I know who set out to play the game. For Traveller referee’s who got an inkling of the kind of cool hardware previewed in Book 4 Mercenary, Striker was a gold mine of deep resources for creating high powered toys. Lots of folks have created vehicles (or should I say “vehicle” singular since the effort is something considerable) or otherwise used Striker as a resource for Traveller or other games.

But the game itself is remarkable. If played as the game itself, it puts players in charge of herding cats. If makes the troops under one’s command only partially under the player’s control with a wide range of things they may or may not do. The player is truly in command, not of a robotic horde of perfect, order following, opportunity-seeking extensions of the commanding officer/player, but as a fuzzy, more or less controllable mob of individuals formed into cohesive or less than cohesive units attempting to work together towards a military objective while desperately trying to save their own asses. That strikes me as very realistic and certainly worthy of role play.

By creating a commander-centric game — players succeed best as a platoon senior NCO or lieutenant — the game creates a very different perspective on tactical military operations. Frank Chadwick, Striker’s author, went on to write Command Decision/Combined Arms which similarly dealt with what a commander can and can NOT do. That confrontation with the limitations of command makes the game challenging if one is willing to adopt that limitation perspective. The normal wargamers perspective might be characterized as “let’s see what happens when this infantry regiment defends against an assaulting brigade.” The focus is on the outcome of the meeting of forces. Most wargames are enjoyable when they answer that kind of question. The experience of individuals or even small unit commanders of getting what is in their head as a plan out onto the battlefield as actions is sort of assumed as below the level of abstraction of the game or the player winds up with quasi-divine powers to order the world as he would.

Striker deals with that experience of command limitation head on. Someone, player or referee, has to control the forces and that control is only approximate. That leaves the commander in the position of having to correct, order, or personally lead troops to get them to do the job that needs doing. Unit quality is established as militia, conscript, long service, and elite. Individual fire team stands are assessed an initiative level (low, average, high.) Elites usually operate the way players might expect from a more traditional wargame. The player controls their actions since they usually have high initiative. Other troop levels mix the player-controllable high initiative folks with “we can follow orders (sort of)” average initiative stands and “you have to lead me to get me to fight” low initiative stands. With a little forethought and planning, the character of a particular force can be tailored in its composition. Based on the troop quality overall, players are confronted with a differing mix of responsive and unresponsive units. Hence the herding cats.

This situation makes the player’s in-game skills (leader, tactics,  recon, gun combat, forward observer, vehicle, heavy weapons, etc) have meaning in the military game. Not abstractly as a saving through or secondary effect, but right in the warp and weft of the main turn sequence. Leader helps solve morale problems. Tactics speeds ordering. Recon helps spot and avoid being spotted. Each skill is part of the play and give meaning to what my character can do. It also allows the opportunity for a better game player to adopt the role of an inferior commander. No one enjoys the smartest gamer in a group winning every battle — that’s not role play. This system allows in-game skills to balance out-of-game skills as role players expect and wargamers don’t always.

Part of the charm of the system is that it can do this in an environment that is expandable and adaptable to technology. Traveller introduced the idea of various technology levels from stone age (0) to horse and musket (3) to WWI (5) to through modern US (late 8) all the way to the Imperium’s military at tech level 15.  Striker picks up this system at about tech 5 (starting say with smokeless powder days through the 1930s) and provides a unified means of stepping up technology. Most wargame rules assume a certain level of technology (like Arab Israeli Wars, or NATO vs Warsaw Pact, or even cowboys and indians.) Few games provide a single system that can host bolt action rifle combat and fusion powered flying grav tanks without batting an eye. Striker can do exactly that in a consistent single system.

Real world play time is pretty important and I really like the idea of learning one system that I can play Boers, Stalingrad, Vietnam, Modern Iraq and Starship Trooper all in one system so I don’t have to learn a whole new game every time I want to try a new period. I also like the idea that I could play all these troops against zombies (or each other) if I wanted to.

Since Striker is a by product of Traveller, the play occurs within the flexible sci-fi format that allows flat out historical refights, pulp like adventures, xenomorphs vs human (a la the Alien or Predator franchises), all in addition to the laser pistol toting, vacc suit wearing space opera one might expect from a sci-fi game. Traveller’s tech levels, despite some obvious challenges, remain a great way to hold on to history, alternative history and science fiction all in the same game context. That makes for an impressively flexible tool.

Traveller has gone through various incarnations from the so called “classic” or original Traveller to the most recent incarnation Mongoose Traveller. These incarnations themselves reflect the power of the basic idea behind the game. I am partial to classic Traveller for some of the reasons I mentioned above and because classic Traveller and its sub-games like Snapshot, Striker et al. provided a game-making toolkit rather than simply a game. Striker especially falls into this category since it is impossible to play without having invested a fair effort in creating the weapons and forces just to have one’s first game.

I believe that the idea of a game-making toolkit is coming back into fashion. It seems to me from my limited perspective that people enjoy making things. Now you can make the art, maps, video, text, rules, figures, terrain, or created universe you want much better and easier than one could in 1977. There are better tools. More people are doing so and there is more synergy among those of us who choose to make games as well as play games.

I am sure there will remain a larger market for those who want their gaming prepared and ready to go like a frozen dinner. For me, I prefer to cook my own. It always seems to taste better.

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3 Responses to “Why play a 70s game in 2011? Is Traveller/Striker dead?”

  1. Darius Says:

    Funny that you just wrote this – I stumbled into this while following up some links just after writing about my gamer past and origins (http://www.midknightgallery.com/home/2011/5/16/gamer-origin-stories-1.html)


    • Hmm freakishly similar…lots of Afrika Korp and Panzer Blitz myself. It is a small and strange world.

      What do you play now (other than dutiful Dad)?

      • Darius Says:

        I have Descent: Journeys In The Dark, and some Warmachine figs. I also have fluxx (meh) a bunch of GURPS resource books (including the IOU one I wrote a Pyramid article for and GURPS traveller), Mag Blast (yayyy!) INWO (Yaaayy!) Munchkin, Frag, some old Traveller manuals (gunships and traders, IIRC), and I also play a bunch of board games with the local group of geeks:

        Westeros
        Command and Colors
        Arkham Horror
        Survive!
        7 Wonders
        Last Night on Earth
        etc…..

        p.s., I’ve got a gmail account, “dgarsys@”


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