Thursday, January 26, 2017

Worlds in Abundance: After 40 Years, Traveller Remains Compelling

Those of us who grew up in the era of tabletop role-playing games often find that the scenes and characters those games created occupy more of our mental landscape than any book or show. Teachers know that students learn more effectively when they actively engage with the material they study; a similar principle applies here. We may find Lord of the Rings or Star Wars exciting and deeply moving, but we are likelier to remember worlds that we have manipulated and developed ourselves. I’ve written before about one of these peculiarly resonant gaming worlds, that of Dungeons & Dragons. Many of its players can remember fond hours spent “rolling up” characters, sketching dungeons and ruins on graph paper, and poring through bestiaries of fantastic creatures and compendia of magical treasures.

For me, though the gaming milieu that had the strongest presence in my imaginative life wasn’t Gary Gygax’s eccentric fantasy world but Marc Miller’s eclectic science-fiction game Traveller. First published in 1977, this first caught my attention in elementary school, and I continued to play it, off and on, through graduate school. Traveller was no great shakes as an actual game. Its first edition became mildly famous as “the game where you can die during character generation,” and the rules for starships and space combat grew so complicated that by the second edition one needed a computer even to design spacecraft. Traveller’s appeal lay, rather, in its setting, a vivid melange of space opera (typified by the “Third Imperium,” with its nobles and distant emperor), well-developed alien species, low-technology personal combat a la Dune or Firefly, and grubby adventures for PCs, usually involving larceny, spying, smuggling, or some other shady activity. Principal designer Marc Miller borrowed heavily from Earth’s history and from an array of middle-shelf sci-fi novels, notably E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest series and H. Beam Piper’s Star Viking. Later designers added in space battle scenarios derived from STAR WARS, elements from Larry Niven’s Known Space novels, and a scenario or two based on the film ALIEN. 

This sounds like it should have become an unholy mess, but Miller and his colleagues made it work, partly by leaving a lot of details up to the gamemaster, partly by allowing adventures to occur on many different physical scales. As an adventurer one could salvage abandoned spaceships, explore alien ruins, fight mercenary battles for interstellar corporations, carry (or smuggle) exotic cargoes from starport to starport, or explore backwater worlds both on and off the main travel routes. Those worlds comprised Traveller’s most compelling cast of characters. The game provided simple rules for determining the basic features (atmosphere, population, etc.) of alien worlds, and allowed GMs and designers to flesh out those numbers into dozens of compelling adventure settings. There was Azun, whose small landmass held 26 billion people, crowded into towering arcologies; Bellerophon, an ocean world harboring the island-sized daghadasi (and the nomads who hunted them); Dinom, a vacuum planet of sun-baked flatlands and rebellious mining cities; Mithril, a barely habitable iceball with short-lived “ephemeral glades” of flora; the wildernesses of Pagliacci, the pitchblende mines of Newcomb, the reclusive nobility of Sainte Foy, and many others. All suggested a universe of fractal complexity, a galactic-level civilization that retained its variety and dynamism at whatever magnification one viewed it. And since Traveller was a role-playing game, authors like Miller, Loren Wiseman, and John M. Ford presented these worlds as places that the reader (or his/her 57th-century surrogate), not some improbably heroic character from someone else’s story, could explore. This was a compelling offer to one who wanted to travel, wanted to escape the gray and restrictive world of home and school, but had no physical or financial means to do so.

More on some of Traveller’s many worlds in future blog posts, I suspect. 

(Image above from, which holds the rights thereto.)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

John Christopher's FIREBALL: Rome Endures, but at What Cost?

In my youth I rarely encountered the idea or practice of alternate history. The alt-history storytelling tradition remained an obscure subset of science fiction, with only a few prominent novels and stories to its credit. Many, in the 1980s, had gone out of print: I didn't find Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee until I was 20, didn't read Keith Roberts's Pavane until grad school. The first volume of John Christopher's Fireball trilogy, which came out in America while I was in junior high, thus struck me with the force of revelation. Here was one of my favorite writers, experimenting with an obscure (to me) concept that bridged my growing interests in speculative fiction and history. How exciting!

The title of the trilogy, and of its first volume, referred to a fiery portal that flung the series' main characters, Brad and Simon, from 20th-century Britain to another world. Initially Brad (the viewpoint character) believed they had become lost in Britain's past, in the primitive and cruel Roman era of two millennia past. Separated from his cousin Simon, Brad was abducted by soldiers and sold into slavery as a gladiator. He failed at that bloody trade, was purchased and freed by a Christian patrician, and reunited with his companion from the twentieth century. Simon explained, he and Brad were still IN the twentieth century, just on an alternate timeline, an "If world," where a series of fourth-century reforms had prevented the Roman Empire from Christianizing or falling. Edward Gibbon would have been pleased.

Brad, however, didn't care for the new world; he considered it barbarous. Hyper-intelligent and very well-read - traits Simon found nearly insufferable - Brad decided to give technical aid to a Christian revolt against Rome, like an inverse Martin Padway from Lest Darkness Fall (or a strange alternate version of Martin from Christopher's Sword of the Spirits). In a nice twist, the Christian insurgents decide they only want Brad to teach them medieval military technology. This proves more than adequate to defeat Rome's ossified legions. Then, as an experienced reader of Christopher's novels could have predicted, the Christians begin building a new regime as cruel as the Romans'. Brad and Simon and some of their Roman friends decide to get out of Dodge, and with a small sailing ship they head for Brad's homeland: North America.

The second and third novels of the series, unfortunately, lack the creativity of the first, and fail to develop the main characters and their motives. What drives them in New Found Land is not personal interest but necessity. In this second volume, Brad and Simon find that much of America lies in a pre-Columbian slumber. The Algonquian (and, eventually, Californian) Indians they encounter seem friendly, but turn sullen and suspicious once the newcomers wear out their welcome. A Norse refugee community on Nantucket later offers to take the travelers in but turns out to have nefarious plans. The Aztecs, whose empire has expanded geographically but ossified culturally, show the companions a more benign indifference. In another nice twist, Brad and Simon and their friends become pelote players, which at the cost of many bruises and scrapes lets them put together enough wealth to resume their journey, ultimately (in the cousins' case) as far as the Pacific. Then they lose their momentum. Brad had hoped to find some sort of home in California (his home state in the "real world"), but found only strange Indians and wilderness. Christopher seemed on the verge of letting his characters fall into existential despair.

Then he recalled that he was writing young-adult fiction, and sent in some Chinese slavers to kidnap them across the Pacific. So begins volume three, Dragon Dance, the weakest part of the trilogy. Brad and Simon discover that the Chinese Empire is alive and well, albeit with a few technical changes, namely ocean-going junks and gunpowder weapons. More significantly, some high-ranking Han appear to have acquired magical, or rather psionic, powers: control of their biorhythms, longevity, mental suggestion and illusion, even a limited kind of weather control. (Okay, maybe some of this is just magic.) None of these new powers have altered the structure of Chinese society, which remains stuck in the real-world equivalent of the fifteenth century. Peasants and slaves support monks and nobles, and barbarians periodically knock at the northern gates. Brad and Simon do take part in a rebellion against the emperor, supplying the opposing sides (don't ask - an unconvincing romantic rivalry is involved) with primitive tanks and aircraft. In the end, though, the new tech cancels itself out, the revolt fails, and the boys track down the mysterious head of China's Mind-Control Monks, who offers to send them home. One closes the book with a bit of relief, if also regret that Christopher didn't have many more novels left in him.

By the time I reread the trilogy in college, I had learned a bit more about history, and realized that Christopher held a rather deterministic view of it. If an important event were to happen differently (e.g. Rome fails to fall), history itself would not change but grind to a halt. Empires and human societies change very little in the Fireball trilogy, despite five to fifteen centuries of divergent history. Even China, with its trans-Pacific connections and psi powers, not to mention civil wars and Otherworld interventions, tends toward a medieval steady-state. Compare this with the dynamic continuum of a tale like Bring the Jubilee, where a Union defeat in the Civil War produces a stripped and impoverished North, a rich and expansionist South, a slowdown in technological innovation, and even changes in Latin American and European history. In Ward Moore's view, changing one important historical event has ripple effects throughout the world, divergences that build with each passing decade. In Christopher's continuum, changing a major event causes the rest of the historical machine to break down. Brad and Simon's comparative listlessness in books two and three becomes easier to understand within this authorial theory of history. If no human institution can ever really change again, why should individuals pursue any lofty or selfless goal? The castaway cousins would perhaps have found more to motivate them in the milieu of Christopher's Tripods series.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Does Not Stephen Baxter Fill You with a Sense of Wonder?

Scifi readers appreciate good writing as much as anyone, but usually give it lower priority than what old-timers call “a sense of wonder:” a writer’s ability to evoke the immensity of the universe, the deepness of time, the diversity and strangeness of extraterrestrial life. Fandom is not a literary society but a quasi-religious order, and what most of us want from our novels and movies and games is not esthetic pleasure but transcendence. We will tolerate bad writing so long as its author can take us from our mundane lives and tell us of something sublime.

Kurt Vonnegut, who dabbled in science fiction but refused to acknowledge it, satirized scifi writers and fans with his character Kilgore Trout, a dismal writer with a head full of good ideas. In the real world, E.E. “Doc” Smith, who more-or-less invented the galactic-war epic, wedded outsized narratives to a painfully juvenile style L. Ron Hubbard, who when not inventing a religious cult cranked out over a thousand books, crafted space operas (e.g. Battlefield Earth) that wedded stylistic crapulence to delusions of galactic grandeur. The British physicist Stephen Baxter, who began publishing science fiction in the 1980s, fit himself into the Smith-Hubbard-Trout tradition. His early stories and novels, now known as part of “the Xeelee universe,” sketched out a future history of trans-galactic scope. Baxter’s fictions suffered from numerous flaws: clumsy dialogue (“Does it not fill you with a sense of wonder?”), forgettable characters, and the inevitable continuity errors. Fanboys like myself still found these tales fascinating. Despite his mediocrity as a wordsmith Baxter could evoke a sense of immense scale and mystery, and his stories and novels crackled with ideas – aliens trying to manipulate Planck’s constant, spaceships powered by the primordial Grand Unified superforce, pilots who used black holes as traps, mega-structures built of superstrings. They offered pleasure to anyone who enjoyed watching an educated and creative mind at work.

Baxter's initial run of Xeelee stories comprised four novels (Raft, Flux, Ring, and Timelike Infinity) and a couple dozen short stories gathered in the anthology Vacuum Diagrams. They described a future history that began in the 37th century and ended about 10 million years later. The first Space Age apparently ended in our own near future, as humanity needed to devote its resources to repairing our own badly damaged planet, but once people resumed exploring the Solar System they discovered life everywhere, from the caverns beneath Mercury to the frozen wastes of Pluto. A century or two later, as homo sapiens began creeping toward the nearer stars, they ran into more advanced alien races who quickly conquered and degraded them: the group-minded Squeem and the huge, exotic Qax. (Baxter had little talent for alien names.) One of these conquests actually extended itself backward in time. The engineer Michael Poole, a recurrent character in Baxter's stories, constructed a wormhole time bridge to the fifty-fourth century, through which human rebels and alien warships chased one another to do battle. That they avoided a time paradox one may attribute both to their decision to fight in more remote parts of the Solar System, and to Baxter's lack of interest in describing a time paradox.

Through several lucky breaks humanity defeated its conquerors and acquired from them alien superweapons and FTL spacedrives. A more militaristic and fanatical global society began colonizing the galaxy, only to run into an even more powerful alien race: the near-godlike Xeelee. (Told you he was bad with names.) Neither could peacefully coexist with one another by now, and a long series of wars, extending to about 1 million CE, ensued. Human warships broke up planets, set off supernovas, flung neutron stars at their adversaries – this was the background of Flux, set on a supermassive projectile that microscopic humans had colonized – and, in the later novel Exultant, used FTL causality loops to garner tactical intelligence. Seizing at last the Xeelee redoubt at the core of the Milky Way (ca 20-30,000 CE), humanity paused to regroup, but later empires sent warships to attack the superstructure that served as the focus of Xeelee civilization: Bolder's Ring. The Ring was a giant exotic-matter matrix, thousands of light-years across that the Xeelee had built as a gateway to other universes. It served as a plot device in Baxter's early novel Raft, wherein a human warship fell through the Ring into a universe where gravity was one billion times stronger than in our own dimension. (The alternate universe, a realm of breathable gas clouds, floating trees, and retrograde human castaways, resembled Larry Niven's The Integral Trees.) In the last of his initial Xeelee novels, Ring, Baxter revealed that the Xeelee had built the gateway not out of ambition but fear. They wanted to escape our universe because a dark-matter species, the “photino birds,” had colonized nearly all of the stars in our reality and were dramatically accelerating their stellar aging process. By 10 million CE, none would remain luminous enough to support life.

Longtime sci-fi fans will note that Baxter's future history resembles to Olaf Stapleton's novel Star Maker, which continuously “pulled back the camera,” so to speak, to show increasingly large and sophisticated interstellar civilizations. The Xeelee universe employed a similar creative structure, but increased the drama of its stories by making these alien cultures progressively more advanced and threatening. Humans discovered Solar species as intelligent but less powerful than humans, interstellar societies fully capable of conquering Earth, an intergalactic race able to fight off even a Type III human civilization, and a universal race of energy predators whom no-one could fight. This allowed readers to appreciate the gradually escalating scale (in both space and time) of Baxter's speculations, even as he used the old-fashioned narrative framework of interstellar war and exploration to scaffold out the plot.

After a six or seven-year hiatus, Baxter returned to the Xeelee stories in 2003 with a trilogy of novels, “Destiny’s Children” (no relation to the band, I assume), and two more anthologies. Some of these usefully fleshed out episodes that had received little previous attention, like the Human-Xeelee wars (Exultant) or the traumatic Squeem conquest of Earth (“Remembrance”). Others, alas, tacked on ideas that seemed thematically incompatible with the earlier series. Coalescent posited a sisterhood of Romano-British gentry trying to preserve their culture after the fall of Rome, and eventually developing into a eusocial hive entity hiding within the modern Eternal City. (This was Baxter’s riff on Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.) “Starfall” recounted an interstellar war, fought at slower-than-light speeds, between an Earth-based interstellar empire and its rebel colonies. The “Old Earth” stories took place on a far-future Earth shielded from the photino-bird triumph by a time field that caused time to pass at different rates at different elevations - very rapidly in the mountains, glacially slow in the lowlands. These weren’t necessarily bad tales (okay, I didn’t much care for Coalescent), but they fit poorly with their predecessors; some dealt competently with the concept of deep time, but none of them really evoked the transgalactic scope of novels like Ring or the diversity-of-intelligence theme of Baxter’s early stories. Mostly they just reminded me of a certain ‘70s TV character vaulting his motorcycle over a shark: interesting concept, but not really what we came here to see.

(Illustration above, of Spline* warships on the move, are from and are copyrighted by Rhysy.)

* A race of whale-like intelligent creatures who converted themselves into spacecraft and rented their services to other species. This is one of Baxter's better ideas; Douglas Adams would have liked it. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

D&D and World War Three

Ask any literate person to name the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century, and she will likely reply "J.R.R. Tolkien." The Lord of the Rings novels and the Peter Jackson film adaptations thereof have brought pleasure and wonder to hundreds of millions of people. But she could just as accurately answer "Gary Gygax," the principal designer (with Dave Arneson) of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. D&D itself remains something of a fringe hobby, enjoyed by a few million active players worldwide, but around thirty million people have played the game at one time or another (David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It [2014], 32). More significantly, Gygax and Arneson's game also provided the tropes and templates for online multi-player role-playing games like World of Warcraft, whose players acquire a fantasy race and class, fight monsters and demi-humans, acquire treasure, embark on quests, descend into dungeons, and earn experience points. These online games have attracted well over 150 million players*, many of whom have never heard of the men who helped invent their fantasy-gaming experience. The D&D designers' influence persists nonetheless.

There's much overlap between Lord of the Rings' and role-playing games' fandom, but the two creations take very different approaches to fantasy. Tolkien's tale is one of kings, powerful wizards, and immortal elves united in an epic struggle against an ancient, cosmic evil. D&D borrowed some of Tolkien's nomenclature (until Tolkien's estate sued), and the epic-quest-against-cosmic-evil theme cropped up in a number of packaged adventures (the Dragonlance series in particular). At heart, though, Dungeons & Dragons was a "low fantasy" game whose more obscure characters played for lower stakes, and whose dynamics owed as much to science fiction novels - particularly post-apocalyptic science fantasy novels - as to swords-and-sorcery tales like Robert Howard's.

Gygax acknowledged as much in the famed "Appendix N" to the original Dungeon Master's Guide, which listed his literary inspirations for the game. Geekier players know that the magic system in D&D comes from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, set in a far-future Earth where the study of magic (specifically, learn-fire-and-forget spells) has revived. Another entry on Gygax's list, the obscure and eccentric Margaret St. Clair novel Sign of the Labrys, seems to have provided the model for the archetypal "dungeon," an underground adventure site full of traps and with progressively more dangerous lower levels. St. Clair's novel took place in an underground shelter after an apocalyptic war here on Earth. I've written here of another seemingly-unlikely source, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, from which D&D appears to have taken some of its monsters (slime creatures and giant animals, in particular) and some of the inspiration for the cleric class. The designers' interest in psionic powers, which don't appear in either Tolkien or most pulp fantasy, also come from mid-century sci-fi, and may have specifically originated with Lanier's novel. And the archetypal D&D adventure often involves players exploring the ruins of an ancient culture, hunting for powerful magical items - a quest akin to Hiero's, or to the protagonist's in Andre Norton's Star Man's Son. (Appendix N doesn't mention this novel specifically but does list Norton as a source.) 

The affect of Dungeons & Dragons also resembles that of a post-apocalyptic SF novel, rather than a fantasy epic. The rules encourage players to focus on their own survival and betterment; advancement is primarily based on resilience, combat skill, and acquiring treasure. The game's "alignment" system and the desire to prevent hurt feelings generally ensured players would behave ethically within their group, but otherwise enlightened self-interest was the highest rule. Critics who refer to stereotypical D&D characters as "murder hobos" weren't entirely wrong. A well-armed hobo wouldn't necessarily fit into an epic fantasy tale, but he'd fit right into a survivalist yarn. Maybe that's the best way to characterize Dungeons & Dragons, at least as most of its players have experienced it. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy inspired by, or at least strongly reminiscent of, World War Two, with its battle between good and evil and its happy ending. D&D is more about the aftermath of World War Three, where staying alive, getting stronger, and helping your friends is a far greater challenge, and endings are best postponed for a later session.

* Lord of the Rings has sold about 150 million copies since the 1950s; the movies have been seen by about 100 million people. Ewalt estimates that at least 200 million gamers have played either tabletop or computer fantasy role-playing games.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Treasures Buried in Time

Metagaming's Microgame series, which began with a now-classic sci-fi wargame, quickly expanded to include the realms of fantasy. The company released the medieval/fantasy combat game Melee as its third microgame in 1977, and the sequel, Wizard (#6), a year later. Melee pitted human and humanoid fighters against one another in an arena, with barebones statistics for the combatants (just Strength and Dexterity), melee rules that linked most game dynamics to those stats, and a hex map to govern movement. Wizard added a new statistic, Intelligence; a point-based spellcasting system; and an array of fantastic creatures. Both games came from the mind and pen of Ogre's designer, Steve Jackson, who disliked the complexity of early fantasy boardgames and wanted a more elegant system. Grognards doubtless considered both titles lightweight. Today we can see them, in their simplicity, as ahead of their time.

Melee and Wizard sold well enough to generate a spinoff series of solitaire adventures, known as MicroQuests, and a role-playing game, The Fantasy Trip. The former were mostly conventional dungeon-crawls, but two, Treasure of the Silver Dragon (#4) and Treasure of Unicorn Gold (#6), had some exceptional features. These titles were programmed wilderness adventures that each contained clues, supposedly, to a real-life buried treasure. I shouldn't say "supposedly," as a gamer named Thomas Davidson discovered the treasure in Silver Dragon (a silver statuette and a $10,000 check) just a year after the adventure's release.* I don't believe anyone found the Unicorn Gold treasure before Metagaming folded, though there are some online rumors about its possible location.

The other spinoff, The Fantasy Trip, comprised three cheaply-made softcover books, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and a GM's guide, In the Labyrinth. All added more "chrome" to the original microgames - more weapons and spells, magic items, monsters, a set of skills/proficiencies for adventures, and rules for underground adventuring - along with a few eccentric minor features, like black-powder firearms and intelligent goblins. TFT did not become a great success. Designer Steve Jackson disagreed with the company's production decisions and left Metagaming shortly thereafter to set up his own company. Metagaming hung onto the property but decided to reboot it as a sequel to another, separate Microgame, Keith Gross's Lords of Underearth (#18). The 1981 base publication was an agreeable wargame pitting dwarves, humans, and orcs against each other and various monsters, within an underground city displayed on a geomorphic map. Metagaming followed this with Dragons of Underearth, which combined LOU with a streamlined version of the combat and spellcasting rules from TFT. Conquerors of Underearth, the prospective role-playing rules, sank with the rest of Metagaming's works-in-progress when the company went bankrupt. Steve Jackson, meanwhile, took some of the features of The Fantasy Trip and incorporated them into a rather more successful role-playing game, GURPS, in 1985.

* The statue was buried at Sunspot, New Mexico, near an experimental solar power station; one of the clues in the adventure was the nature of the eponymous silver dragons, which gained life energy by absorbing sunlight into their scales.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miscasting the SANDMAN: Early Nineties Edition

Reviewing my last post on Sandman and Stone Cold, I recalled a game that my fellow comic-book fans* and I enjoyed playing in the early ‘90s, “Who would you cast in the movie?” I don’t believe anyone was planning to make a film adaptation of Sandman twenty years ago, but it wasn’t entirely improbable; the success of Keaton and Burton’s Batman had revived Hollywood’s interest in comic-book heroes, and The Crow would soon demonstrate the appeal of tragic-gothic heroes with excessive eye makeup. My inner Imp of the Perverse asked “If the Sandman movie had come out in the early ‘90s, and had starred Brian Bosworth, just how bad would it have been?” To which I mentally replied “It would depend on who else got cast in the film.” And then I wondered: just how inappropriately could one have cast the major roles in Sandman, using actors and actresses from the first half of the 1990s? Here are some thoughts:

Morpheus: Joe Pesci

“Are you saying that confronting me in my domain AMUSES you? Do I look like some sort of clown to you?” (Pause) “Well, maybe I do! But an ANGRY clown.”

Desire: Pauly Shore

“I could MAKE you want one, Buuuh-huh-uhhh-dee.”

Destruction: William Hurt

“My fleeting image appears in Scene 53 – and in every ad for the movie.”

Despair: Victoria Jackson
"My hook, it is in your heart, and your hope, it is draining away, tee-hee." 

Delirium: Mayim Bialik

“I'm having a hallucinatory episode! A Very Special hallucinatory episode."

Death: Rosie O'Donnell

“Yeah, manic pixie goth girl here. Blow me.” 

Destiny: Brian Bosworth

“I want you to…stay out of...the old…”

Yeah, I know, I'm going to Hell. At least it's under new management.

*Mainly my brother, my friend Sean, and my mother, who REALLY liked Watchmen.