Let’s talk about Traveller: 2300.
This was GDW’s attempt to grittify and modernize Traveller, to turn it into something more along the lines of Twilight: 2000 (note the title construction) but in space. This was a pretty nifty idea — plenty of Traveller players were going through exactly the same transitions that we were, feeling like we had graduated from “kid stuff” games about dwarfs and dragons and were really more interested in humans and, frankly, detailed military stories. That felt real. That felt like they took place now but only slightly different.
This was almost that game. I certainly wanted to play a lot of it, and I for sure played with it a ton, making space ships and characters and reading and re-reading the weapons lists. But for some reason I didn’t. I don’t have a good reason for that. I should have played it a lot.
This was the first game I ever read that didn’t have hit points. Injuries were abstracted into categories. No longer could I be slain by a thousand scratches.
The game came with a list of all the stars within some distance of Earth. 50 light years maybe? I forget. But all of them. With X,Y, and Z coordinates. So one of the ways we played with this game was build a 3D rotatable star map. On a 286. I sometimes wish I still had that floppy disk, but then I wonder what I would even do with it. Can you still get drives like that? Doesn’t matter — the disk is gone.
Another way I played with it was making space ships. The ship design system was the usual naval architect model: pick a volume and fill it with stuff, then calculate the stats from mass:thrust ratios and so on. This is a no brainer for any game: add this subsystem and I will play your game (alone, mind you) for years. I may never so much as tell someone else I’m doing it, but I’ll do it. And space combat was along the “submarine” model, hiding from detection, finding range, exposing yourself (lol) and fighting. I seem to recall it used black globe generators straight out of Niven & Pournelle and that thrust was based on “stutterwarp”, a reactionless system of micro-jumps using the FTL technology.
And the weapons lists! The gauss rifles looked cool. The plasma guns, a nascent technology in the games timeline, looked like a cross between a Lewis gun and a WW2 anti-tank rifle. The aesthetic blew me away. So much gun porn. Binary propellents. Integral grenade launchers. The terms! The pictures! I was really into that kind of thing at the time and it still gives me a guilty thrill. I can’t find a decent pic. I wish I had my books still.
So how come we didn’t play the hell out of this?
Well, it came out in ’86. Around that time I was close to done with gaming. My friends were graduating university and moving around the globe, I had moved in with my girlfriend, and the spark just wasn’t there. I’d break it out every now and then and try to get a game going, but really all that would happen is I’d wistfully rotate the star map, leaf through my old notes, and then do something else. Around this time I’d eventually drop games altogether for about ten years straight. Maybe more — I wouldn’t come back to gaming at all until D&D 3e was released.
But I also get the sense that it wasn’t a great game. The lack of hit points set my game design brain on fire (and would eventually become a pretty basic choice for me) but the implementation didn’t seem to work all that well. Abstracted damage but detailed hit locations? It wasn’t working. And it wasn’t clear what you did in this game as a character. With the awesome weapon lists I pretty much just wanted to play military scenarios, but I already had Twilight:2000 and it absolutely did work, firing on all cylinders, and dropping us in the post-apocalyptic meat grinder to boot. And there were plenty of things to do in there.
So this game occupies a weird space in my head. It certainly and heavily influenced how I would eventually design games. It did some novel things I hadn’t seen before. And parts of my imagination were absolutely on fire for it.
But it kind of actually sucked at the table. And that’s where games live or die. And only there.