Friday, 13 April 2012

A to Z: L is for Language and Leviathan

Trokh random word generator from Alien Module 1: AslanLanguage
Way back when I did my “I for Imperial Basic” post, I had good intentions of expanding upon the languages in Traveller theme by doing an “L for Languages” post. This is because back in April 2010 I posted a simple system for working out what languages a character might possibly know. Not having really had the opportunity to revisit the system, it still seems to me to provide a reasonably neat way of handling languages within the context of the game. I would appreciate feedback or playtest reports if anyone would like to give them a go.

I first encountered the term “Land Leviathan” as the title to a novel by Michael Morcock – one of his Oswald Bastable science fantasies set in an alternative early 1900s – 1930s Earth. Somewhere about the same time, or a little earlier, I saw Star Wars and caught glimpses of the massive and enigmatic Jawa Sandcrawler.

In the late 1970's, New Zealand wasn't the end of the Earth – but you could certainly see it from here. So we missed out on most of the really cool Star Wars toys that people now pay fortunes for on eBay. Consequently, I wasn't even aware that model Sandcrawlers existed until very recently when I was looking for a ride for my newly-painted Chewks.

Produced by Khurasan Miniatures, the Chewks are a desert-dwelling, crustacean-like species who actually look nothing like Jawas, but who tick the Jawa-box for me. I've decided to incorporate them into my Traveller campaign as proxies for the Ly-ly, natives of Gyven’s World, a desert planet in the Cabria Subsector.

Looking for a vehicle that ticked the Sandcrawler box, I eventually settled on a 1/72nd scale A7V – a German tank from World War I that looks like an iron box on tracks. As my miniatures are all 15mm, or 1/100th scale, a large vehicle in 1/72nd scale looks even more massive, especially as being unfamiliar to most people, it's hard to establish a visual scale.

While I was looking around for vehicles, I came across this monster (below): the LVTP-5, an armoured landing craft used by the US Marines in Vietnam. While the more modern AAV-7 looks vaguely boat-like, the designers of the LVTP-5 must have decided that “put a large enough engine in a floating metal box and it will eventually move in the direction you want it to.”

I ended up buying a 15mm scale model from Peter Pig and then painted it up in a random camo pattern. The vehicle “unit number” is from a font called “Angled” and was hand drawn in pencil, inked with a felt-tipped pen, and then hand-painted.

A UNSC Marine from Ground Zero Games and a Chewk from Khurasan Miniatures are there to give a sense of scale to the vehicle.
I could not work out which was the front end of the LVTP-5 until I saw a photo of one actually at sea – the domed hatches belong to the driver and commander while what I thought was a boxy bridge is actually a command cupola for the marines riding as passengers.

The A7V is still awaiting assembly.

One of the best Traveller adventures from amongst Games Designers' Workshop's stable of adventure modules is Adventure 4: Leviathan. The characters play crucial crew members aboard the 1800 ton Jump-3 merchant ship, Leviathan, on a trade and exploration mission beyond the borders of the Imperium. Essentially a road trip, the characters know that there are systems out there in the wilderness, and their job is to go out, make first contact, and trade beads and axe heads (or the Traveller equivalent thereof) for lucrative and exotic stuff they can bring back home.

Thinking about this adventure module today, I was, once again, reminded of the great wonder of the unknown we felt; even playing adventures set in the Official Traveller Universe, back in those days. At that time, Supplement3: The Spinward March had given us a look at one Sector of the Imperium, and a large scale map of the Imperium, much like the wide view on this website, was doing the rounds as a promotional piece of art. Beyond that, the galaxy and the Universe belonged to the Traveller players, and their Games Masters.

Then along came this adventure script and this invitation to leave familiar space ... . Traveller has this Age-of-Sail vibe due to its travel times and its communication limitations and the Leviathan adventure invited you, as the player, to step aboard with Columbus, de Gama, d’Urville and Cook and boldly sail beyond the edge of the map into the bits of space marked, “here be dragons”.

Have we lost this wonder? I follow an astronomy blog called Centauri Dreams and try to keep up to date with developments in astronomy – part of satisfying the science that goes with the fiction – and astronomers are now detecting exoplanets only a few orders of magnitude larger than our Earth. By the time we have developed a Jump Drive, we may very well be able to detect the glow of alien cities in the night sky of any planet we care to visit. Would Columbus have sailed to the new world if he had known that he would be stuck in traffic in the Antillian equivalent of the Seville rush hour? Likewise in Traveller, the massive mapping-of-the-known-universe project, started by DPG, and continued by the fan group HIWG, essentially filled in all the lovely vague bits on the Traveller Imperium map – because we have this incessant need to know what’s over “there” – until the only way to “refresh” the official Traveller universe, was to destroy it.

So, that’s my old grognard’s lament – the surveyors taking all the magic out of the unknown – and the reason why I have left large sections of my sector map only vaguely mapped. Like Leviathan - the original one - mystery and the thrill of the unknown need unfathomed deeps to lurk in. Micromanagement shines light in all the cracks and crevices and kills wonder. Sometimes, it is better to leave blank bits on the map, so when the players suddenly set off in that direction, the Games Master goes along as an explorer, too. Sharing the excitement of exploring something new should be a thrill for both the narrator and the participants.