Armagideon Time

There’s a stage in every hobby when measured fascination risks turning to into unquestioned obsession. The mechanic is similar to addiction behaviors, where users try to offset diminishing thrills by increasing the frequency and dosage of each subsequent hit. Geek pastimes are particularly prone to this pathology, due to their long-standing conflation between consumption and identity.

There are some folks who can keep the buzz going for years, jumping from one New Hotness to another in an endless dash of retail therapy bliss. For the rest of us, however, there eventually comes a harsh comedown. That moment is typically marked by a severe financial hangover and a gut-wrenching mix of confusion and remorse. All you can do is stare at the piles of crap you’ve accumulated and wonder “why?” — which is a question I’m still asking about my purchase of Traveller: 2300.

If forced to reconstruct the reasons (besides enthusiastic giddiness) behind by purchase of the game, I supposed I could chalk things up to the game’s heavy ad presence in Dragon Magazine and a previous bout of newbie confusion that induced me to buy the old school Traveller box set instead of its new-fangled spin-off. Also, Aliens was all the rage among my geeky peers at the time, and Traveller: 2300 drew heavily from the movie’s setting and plausible-future aesthetic.

Whatever the case may have been, my fifteen year old self did willingly drop twenty bucks on the original box set edition of the game, which included player and referee guidebooks, a raft of cheat sheets, and a poster-sized star map of earth’s galactic neighborhood.

The game was intended to represent a sophisticated marriage between Game Designers Workshop’s two flagship role playing games, marrying the name and thoroughly revised mechanics of Traveller with a 24th Century setting extrapolated from the post-WW3 world of Twilight: 2000. The fictional history was hashed out by the designers through in-house geo-political simulation game which produced a third French Empire as the reigning superpower and the Mexican annexation of the southwestern United States.

The setting was simultaneously the most interesting part of the game and its biggest handicap. In opting for a realistic, quasi-hard sci-fi take on the future, the designers merely doubled down on one of the original Traveller’s major problems — downplaying the potential of epic high adventure in favor of pedestrian busywork. Even frontier exploration and hostile alien angles were bled gray beneath the workaday realities of laboring beneath the aegis of massive entities which held a virtual monopoly on interstellar travel. It was internally consistent, but intensely boring for anyone who wasn’t thrilled about playing a Flemish diplomat tasked with delivering crop reports to a colonial administration office.

Even GDW came to realize the limitations of the setting after a year or so, opting to re-brand the game as 2300AD while gradually shifting the focus towards a more cyberpunk aesthetic and throwing in anime-style power armor “hardsuits” and small scale combat mechs. It was a step in the right direction, but too gradual and too late to compete with rival products which offered that content right out of the box.

Traveller: 2300‘s emphasis on realism also bogged down its game mechanics. GDW’s stuff always leaned toward the “advanced class” end of the RPG spectrum, but 2300 was particular hard for my teenage self to parse. I was able to appreciate certain concepts — such as eschewing hit points in order to simulate the lethality of the armaments involved — as I grew older and drifted away from the the AD&D paradigm, but most of the rest squarely fell into the “by designers, for designers” camp of needlessly anal-retentive complexity. The starship combat rules were a complicated wargame in and of themselves, one in which the designers considered everything except “how will this affect the pacing of the rest of the game?”

I can see how 2300 could appeal to a certain type of gamer, folks like the Sci-Fi Club alums who lived and breathed Rolemaster‘s hyper-complexities and mapped their entire earth-sized fantasy world down to hundred-meter hex-grids. For folks like me who preferred faster, action-oriented narratives, though, it exemplified every retrograde convention that RPGs had been in the process of abandoning.

My group never bothered with the game, apart from rolling up some sample characters to marvel at how the system could be so limiting and yet so robust at the same time. (“He’s a…Hanoverian….boat captain….who knows Zero-G combat….and speaks Urdu!”) It was pretty clear early on that we lacked both the interest and the will required to make a go at playing it.

Despite that early abandonment, however, I still picked up a number of 2300 sourcebooks and relevant issues of GDW’s Challenge magazine over the years to come. Most of them covered background and historical fluff or the game’s efforts to transition into the cyberpunk realm, the few aspects of the game that still held some residual appeal for me.

Eventually, I realized I could get more a satisfying fix from re-reading Walter Jon Williams’s Voice of the Whirlwind for the umpteenth time.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Not worth the trip
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: No Netflix required
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Strange homebrew

2 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Empty space”

  1. SJB

    Last comment is precious

  2. DensityDuck

    “Voice of the Whirlwind”, or any sci-fi by David Drake. If you want space laser blasting, nobody beats Drake’s “Hammer’s Slammers” stories!

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