A defense of Traveller:The New Era
What is TNE?TNE is the abbreviation for Traveller: The New Era, a roleplaying game published by Game Designer's Workshop in 1992. TNE was the third incarnation of the Traveller roleplaying game; the earlier incarnations are referred to as Classic Traveller (CT) and MegaTraveller (MT). A fourth incarnation, called Marc Miller's Traveler (T4), is currently on the shelves.
TNE was a radical departure from previous versions of Traveller, in a number of ways. First, the mechanics of the earlier CT and MT systems were totally replaced by the GDW house system used in Twilight: 2000 and Dark Conspiracy. While this had the neat effect of making supplements for the three games interchangeable, it did increase the complexity of the system a great deal.
More importantly, though, TNE destroyed the CT/MT setting of the Imperium. In MT, the Imperium had fallen into a period of civil war, with multiple factions vying for the throne. In TNE, a sentient computer Virus, originally created as a weapon but not yet controllable, is accidentally released. Virus is (by human standards) insane, and program to kill as many people as possible. In a universe where computers control even the most basic of services (not to mention life support on worlds above their natural carrying capacity), this is devastating, and the lights of civilization go out on a thousand worlds.
Except in the Spinward Marches. Quick-thinking on the part of local officials (and the Great Rift, which gives them defensible borders) allow the Domain of Deneb to hold off the onslaught of Virus.
Eighty years pass. Most of the self-destructive Virus strains have died out. The Hivers (who, as superb computer technicians using fundamentally different computers from the Imperium, managed to weather the storm fairly well) are helping a new human government on their border, which calls itself the Reformation Coalition, to bring democrary and technology to the worlds nearby. On the other side of the Imperium, the former Domain of Deneb (which now calls itself the Regency) looks forward to the day when it can move back into the Imperium and rekindle the glory of the past. And meanwhile, the Zhodani are leaving their coreward territories, fleeing something first detected 80 years previously, something that will reach Regency space in just a few years...
Why does TNE need "a defense?"Because TNE got a bad rap for Virus that it doesn't deserve. Many people with just enough computer knowledge to be dangerous looked at the explanation of Virus and said "Nope, couldn't happen. Computers don't work that way. The explanation given doesn't make sense." Well, duh!! The designers of TNE were very sharp people, but they have no more idea what a computer system in the 57th century will look like than any of the critics. In addition, they were usually looking at very tight deadlines for getting the product out. In such a circumstance, it would be silly to look at the exact details of computers and Virus as anything more than a metaphor for a technology which is beyond our current understanding. [I know from conversation with the principal architect of TNE, Dave Nilsen, that this is exactly what he had in mind.] Would I have written it this way? No -- I would have been a little more vague, and turned the technobabble knob up a notch or two. Nilsen chose to be fairly explicit concerning the computer architecture, which, incidently, let him use elements of a couple of adventures originally published for CT.
Why I like TNESome Traveller fans have made no secret of their "passionate hatred" for TNE's campaign setting. I don't expect to convince anyone who doesn't like the setting that they are wrong -- to each his own, after all -- and I certainly don't want to get into a pissing contest, but I'd like to take a moment to explain why TNE is my favorite setting to date and address a few of the comments made by the detractors.
First, there is variety. With the Reformation Coalition, the Regency, and the whole of the Wilds to draw from, you can craft a setting pretty much to your liking. If you like military stuff, the RC may be the place for you. If that feels too cramped or you are longing for "the good old days," well, you have all of the Spinward Marches to campaign in. And if you want something totally new, who knows what is waiting out in the Wilds -- maybe even another Regency.
Second, characters had a purpose (at least in the RC): bringing technology and democracy to a hostile land. Some critics were disturbed by the perceived focus on toppling Technologically-Elevated Dictators [TEDs]. If that's the case, then don't play adventures where toppling TEDs is the goal. Besides, it can't simply be the violence of the adventure -- how many Classic Traveller players were involved in campaigns as mercenaries?
Third, you can build stuff in a way that you can't with other RPGs (except, possibly, GURPS). The TNE technical supplement, Fire, Fusion and Steel, gives you a wonderful level of detail for designing all sorts of vehicles, weapons, etc. It's not perfect (it especially needed more pregenerated widgets), but it's damn good. About the only thing Imperium Games has done right with the T4 is to use FF&S as the basis for its simplified ship design system.
Fourth, TNE passed what I refer to as the novel test: if this were a novel, would I be happy that I spent time reading it? The answer with TNE has always been "yes." I eagerly awaited each new release, because it was clear that the story was moving forward, and that that there would be inevitable conflict as the subplots came together. [Notice "conflict," not "violence." Without conflict, there is no drama.] What was going to happen when the RC and the Imperium meet? Both can be considered the good guys, but each is likely to regard the other as anathema. What about the Zho's and the Empress Wave? The Black Curtain? The other pocket empires? The Hiver plot(s)?
CT never had any appeal to me -- it was a generic interstellar empire made from the bits of every popular science fiction movie and book from the past fifty years. Occasionally there would be a bright spot (e.g., Norris using the Imperial Stationery to promote himself during the Fifth Frontier War), but rarely would it be enough to really grab my attention. MT's Rebellion Sourcebook actually caught my attention, and I loved Survival Margin (the history major in me is very susceptible to science fiction written as history or news dispatches). TNE caught my eye, though, because it was a good story in and of itself.
One last point -- many people have commented that they find the apocalyptic nature of TNE's setting to be to be dark and depressing. I think these people are missing the point: The disaster by this point was long past, and the setting was one of new challenges every day and new worlds to explore with every mission. Yes, bad things had happened on those worlds once, but in the relatively distant past. If you don't like cemetary worlds, then don't campaign there. This wasn't Twilight:2000, despite claims to the contrary.
I think it is funny that many critics describe T4 as having the same sense of adventure and excitement that I find in TNE. I, unfortunately for me (I guess), just don't see it in T4. I don't see any evidence that the story is going anyplace we haven't already been for twenty years. And, while the crash of the long night before Cleon may have been softer, I suspect we would see some of the same things -- TEDs and worlds where billions died as the political and social institutions disintegrated -- as we saw in TNE.