Monday, April 3, 2017

Mr. Miller's Remarks

Image originally posted by catsonkeyboards

Friday morning at Gary Con IX, I attended a seminar hosted by Marc Miller, lead creator of Traveller. It turned out to be a modest affair, fewer than ten people, so Marc had us all pull in close and provided rare opportunity to ask him direct questions. In particular, since I've been reading the "Out of the Box" series on Tales to Astound, I was curious about the evolution of Traveller from a generic sandbox generator to a game specifically about the Third Imperium setting, and was able to put the matter to him directly a couple times.

Naturally, Marc mainly wanted to promote his current work, Traveller5, particularly a basic beginner-friendly version he'd like to produce, but he was still willing to share his memories of the old days.

I suspect some of these anecdotes are familiar to folks who've heard Marc talk about Traveller before; I certainly recognized some of his words as near-verbatim repeats of old essays of his. I'm no journalist, I was merely jotting down long-hand interesting discourse as it came up, so mostly these are the highlights of the talk organized roughly by subject, not by Q-and-A or chronologically, and quotes below should be taken as paraphrasing.

Creating Traveller

Marc Miller's inspirational reading was a stack of old coverless pulp magazines. As a young graduate he'd buy them one at a time from a local newstand when he couldn't afford any other entertainment.

The organization of the LBB's directly emulated original white-box D&D. "I'd finish a chapter then flip through the D&D booklets to see what part I should write next."

The distinctive minimalist visual style of the original set came about largely because the graphic designer (Paul R. Banner, I assume) didn't want to spend much time on it, as they were more interested in another GDW project they were responsible for, the wargame Europa.

The iconic imperial sunburst was another example of graphic expedience; it was copied from the wargame Iliad: the Siege of Troy where it had represented the god Apollo.

Though the popularity of D&D was undeniable, the potential for a wider field of role-playing games was unproven, so GDW pursued their science fiction game with guarded ambitions. Traveller was an unexpected success. "We hoped it would sell 2,000 copies, then we reached 10,000."

Growth and Development

The core game wasn't designed with expansion in mind, so its systems are largely self-contained. But when its popularity presented a market for adventures, GDW felt a structured setting was needed to give those adventures context, thus the Imperium was developed. [I wish I'd time to pursue Miller further about this process, particularly why he felt published adventures required a large-scale inter-connected setting rather than self-contained scenarios.] 

There was early resistance to the expansion of Traveller past the core game. Marc particularly remembers game reviewer Louis Pulver(?) complaining "I won't play a game the tells me what to do," when official setting material started to appear. 

Buyers demand expansions they'll never use, so designing for the market is not the same thing as designing for actual play. "They want thirty pages of combat rules, but will never run more than a brawl using five of them."

Traveller: 2300 / 2300AD was originally conceived as Traveller's replacement. Miller and GDW assumed interest in the original game would wane with age, losing it's market. 2300 was their take on modernized space adventure role-playing for a contemporary audience.

Opinions and Insights

Things got a little fraught when discussion turned to modern SF literature and Marc's opinions of such. He talked about sampling current works, but still prefers straightforward action-and-engineering tales to esoteric socially-focused stories. The tension came when he openly referred to authors of award-winning stories that lacked ray-guns and spaceships as "social justice warriors" and some of the audience reacted negatively (me included) to the disparaging implication, to his mild surprise. He pointed out that he's proud to have broached non-binary gender in his latest Traveller novel, but the way he discussed it indicates he still feels that's a subject best dealt with obliquely. My interpretation of the whole uncomfortable exchange was that Marc Miller didn't mean "SJW" with the full vehemence that gutter-scum like the Sad Puppies and GamerGaters do, and probably wasn't fully aware of that context. He sees himself as liberal-minded, but it's in an old-hand way, "a little edgy."

Marc was refreshingly frank about parts of Traveller's publishing history that misfired. He dismissed High Guard for its long statline that was too unwieldy to actually use, and says outright that Fire Fusion and Steel "didn't work."

I directly asked him for his reaction to players going back to a "three LBB's only" approach, who feel that the Third Imperium and its expectations make for a very different game than Traveller originally was. More or less, he shrugged and said it's fine if people want to do that, but he likes writing about the Imperium so it will continue to be part of his vision of Traveller.

Never did successful roll up a character with a Type S Scout. Source.