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Monday 1 April 2024

[Fanzine Focus XXXIV] The Travellers’ Digest #2

On the tail of the Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with
Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970sDungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Travellerbut fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will be compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. However, not all fanzines written with the Old School Renaissance in mind need to be written for a specific retroclone. Although not the case now, the popularity of Traveller would spawn several fanzines, of which The Travellers’ Digest, published by Digest Group Publications, was the most well known and would eventually transform from a fanzine into a magazine.

The publication of The Travellers’ Digest #1 in 1985 marked the entry of Digest Group Publications into the hobby and from this small, but ambitious beginnings would stem a complete campaign and numerous highly-regarded supplements for Game Designers Workshop’s Traveller and MegaTraveller, as well as a magazine that all together would run for twenty-one issues between 1985 and 1990. The conceit was that The Travellers’ Digest was a magazine within the setting of the Third Imperium, its offices based on Deneb in the Deneb Sector, and that it awarded the Traveller’s Digest Touring Award. This award would be won by one of the Player Characters and thus the stage is set for ‘The Grand Tour’, the long-running campaign in the pages of The Travellers’ Digest. In classic fashion, as with Europe of the eighteenth century, this would take the Player Characters on a tour of the major capitals of known space. These include Vland, Capitol, Terra, the Aslan Hierate, and even across the Great Rift. The meat of this first issue, as well as subsequent issues, would be dedicated to an adventure, each a stop-off on the ‘The Grand Tour’, along with support for it. The date for the first issue of The Traveller’s Digest and thus when the campaign begins is 152-1111, the 152nd day of the 1111th year of the Imperium.

To best run ‘The Grand Tour’, the Referee will need access to The Atlas of the Imperium, Supplement 8: Library Data (A-M), Supplement 11: Library Data (N-Z), Supplement 7: Traders and Gunboats (or alternatively, Supplement 5: Azhanti High Lightning), as well as the core rules. In addition, other supplements would be required depending on the adventure. For example, ‘Of Xboats and Friends’, the opening part of ‘The Grand Tour’ in The Travellers’ Digest #1 requires the supplement, The Undersea Environment, and adventure, The Drenslaar Quest, published by Gamelords, Ltd., are both useful for running underwater adventures—though they are really only useful if the Referee develops adventuring content beyond that presented in the issue. Alien Module 4: Zhodani may also be useful. Of course, that was in 1985, and much, if not all, of the rules or background necessary have been updated since. The campaign is also specifically written for use with four pre-generated Player Characters. They consist of Akidda Laagiir, the journalist who won the Traveller’s Digest Touring Award; Dur Telemon, a scout and his nephew; Doctor Theodor Krenstein, a gifted-scientist and roboticist; and Doctor Krenstein’s valet, ‘Aybee’, or rather, ‘AB-101’. The fact is, AB-101 is a pseudo-biological robot, both protégé and prototype. Consequently, the mix of Player Characters are surprisingly non-traditional and not all of them are easily created used the means offered in Traveller or MegaTraveller. This is addressed within various issues of the fanzine.

The Travellers’ Digest #2 was also published in 1985 and moved the date on from 152-1111, the 152nd day of the 1111th year of the Imperium to 244-1111, the 244th day of the 1111th year of the Imperium. The opening ‘Editors’ Digest’ looks both backward to the first issue and forward to future issues, as well as commentating on the editors’ success at Origins in Baltimore that year. It highlights the success of the fanzine right from the off and how the editors’ thoughts on various aspects of Traveller align with those of its designer, Marc Miller.

The second part of ‘The Grand Tour’ in The Travellers’ Digest #2 is ‘Feature Adventure 2: Journey of the Sojourn Moon’. In addition to the standard books required by the campaign, the adventure needs the supplement The Desert Environment and the scenario, Duneraiders, both originally published by Gamelords, Ltd, since the adventure takes place on a desert world. The adventure breaks down the Universal Task Profile used throughout and again, presents the four pre-generated Player Characters. The adventure itself opens with some colour fiction which explains why the quartet decide to travel to the world of Wal-ta-ka. This is because Akidda Laagiir, the journalist who won the Traveller’s Digest Touring Award, is in search of a story. The terms of the award demand that he submit a regular story highlighting cultural diversity in the Imperium and on Wal-ta-ka, there is a culture which rejects technology. Could that be the basis of a story—let alone a scenario?

Wal-ta-ka is a tidally locked world in the Atsah Subsector of Deneb Sector. A seismic quake destroyed the original mining colony in 234 and the population thought to be wiped out. However, some managed to survive and their descendants evolved into their own nomadic sub-culture. Notably, the nomads reject all technology beyond Tech Level 2 and see its use as blasphemous. The scenario is initially driven by Akidda Laagiir, who wants to make contact with the ‘San-de Wal-ta-ka’, one of the hunter-gatherer tribes living on the bright side of the world. This is actually easily achieved as the tribe welcomes visitors so long as they leave all advanced technology behind. The tribe also sees the journalist’s interest in it and its culture as flattering. However, the Player Characters will make a terrible cultural faux pas. Either the ‘San-de Wal-ta-ka’ discover that they have brought an item of advanced technology with them (if they did) or a duel is provoked with ‘Aybee’ and discover that ‘AB-101’ is actually a pseudo-biological robot—and thus not human! This all needs to be done in order to set up the major part of the scenario and that is the Player Characters being forced to survive in the desert of Wal-ta-ka.

All members of the tribe are expected to make a ‘Sojourn’ into the desert at the age of fourteen. They are expected to survive alone in the desert for fourteen days and soo to are the Player Characters. This is essentially to atone for their cultural transgression of bringing technology into the tribe, but in the process, it can also make them members of the tribe. The scenario details what the Player Characters need to survive and what resources and dangers can be found out in the desert. This includes plant and animal descriptions, a list of possible environmental encounters, and there is both a map of the planet and the region where the Sojourn is to take place. There are notes too on how the NPCs were created using and diverging from Citizens of the Imperium, plus the tribe’s particular skills such as Guard/Hunting, Falconry, Riding, and Herding. In particular, there is a guide to roleplaying ‘Aybee’ because his role is important in the scenario as it probably triggers the major events of the story. Lastly, the notes for the Referee also talk about motivations for the other Player Characters to go on the Sojourn, such as Akidda Laagiir wanting a good story and Dur Telemon, the scout, wanting to prove that he can survive on this world.

‘Feature Adventure 2: Journey of the Sojourn Moon’ does feel forced as an adventure, and it does set up a situation where the Player Characters are expected to survive in a situation without recourse to their technological devices. Players instinctively hate this, being forced into a situation that is outside of their comfort zone and that of their characters. However, given the Player Characters of ‘The Grand Tour’, they actually have the motivation to do this. At the same time, the Game Master needs to make this adventure interesting and keep her players engaged. Lastly, it should be pointed out that the setting of ‘Feature Adventure 2: Journey of the Sojourn Moon’ and elements of its story, are inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, and its desert world of Arrakis, as does The Desert Environment and Duneraiders, right down to there being a chemical substance which could have wider implications beyond the world of Wal-ta-ka. This is not Spice, of course, but the pollen of a cactus plant that induces hibernation and has potential medical uses. The Atsah Subsector of Deneb Sector is detailed and accompanied by its own Library Data, though this applies more to ‘The Grand Tour’ as a whole rather than the scenario.

One of the Player Characters in ‘The Grand Tour’ is Akidda Laagiir, a journalist. However, there is not the means to create a Journalist Player Character in Traveller, the version of the rules available at the time, though there is one now in the current edition of the rules. ‘Journalist Character Generation’ presents the new Career in the same format as that of Mercenary and High Guard, introducing the new skills of Persuade and Interview. Interview can stand in for the Interrogation skill, but is not as effective. An overview of journalism at various Tech Levels is given in ‘Recording Devices’, the last article in the issue, covering text, sound, and image recorders. It is a good complementary piece, which should provide the Journalist Player Character with everything he needs to carry out his job.

Penultimately, The Travellers’ Digest #2 returns to the major focus of The Travellers’ Digest #1 and that is robots. ‘Robot Design Revisited, Part 2’ continues the expansion on the ‘Ref’s Notes’ article, ‘Robots’ which appeared in The Best of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society. It includes some examples a Tech Level 12 Cargo Robot and a Tech Level 14 Zhodani Warbot, introduces the Universal Robot Profile or URP, plus all of the codes necessary and their explanation, and presents both the Warbot and ‘AB-101’ as URP examples. The accompanying ‘Easy Task Resolution’ is written exclusively with the pseudo biological robot in mind and covers some of the tasks that his creator, Doctor Theodor Krenstein, will likely have to undertake in order to repair him. It is quite handy, especially given the encounters that ‘AB-101’ is likely to have in the scenario, ‘Feature Adventure 2: Journey of the Sojourn Moon’.

Physically, The Travellers’ Digest #2 is very obviously created using early layout software. However, that layout is surprisingly tidy and if some of the artwork is created using a computer too, it is not actually that bad.

The Travellers’ Digest #2 is already an improvement over The Travellers’ Digest #1. The inclusion of the Journalist as a Career is an excellent addition and together with ‘Robot Design Revisited, Part 1’ supports the scenario in the issue, ‘Feature Adventure 2: Journey of the Sojourn Moon’ in the short term, and ‘The Grand Tour’ campaign in the long term. The scenario itself does feel somewhat forced, but it plays to the motivations of the Player Characters and it is far more coherent and playable than ‘Of Xboats and Friends’ from The Travellers’ Digest #1. Overall, The Travellers’ Digest #2 is a solid second issue, a good follow up to The Travellers’ Digest #1, with some decent content.

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