Designer's Notes: GURPS Traveller: Rim of Fire

Designer's Notes: GURPS Traveller: Rim of Fire

by Jon F. Zeigler

Art by Jesse DeGraff

Producing this article was surprisingly difficult. GURPS Traveller: Rim of Fire was a breeze to write. I had no trouble meeting deadlines. Not even the last-minute discovery that we were 15,000 words short disturbed me very much (more about that later). The book required relatively little research and allowed me a lot more room than usual to express creativity. In short, there just weren't very many problems to report after the fact. How does one honestly expand "I had fun writing this book" into 1,000 words or more?

Even so, we did make some deliberate design choices in the course of writing and production, and those choices may provide some insight for Traveller fans on how to get the most out of the book. In particular, it might be of interest to see how a book which was originally intended to look very much like GURPS Traveller: Behind the Claw ended up being a substantially different work.

History Lessons

The first few chapters of the book describe the history and current situation in Solomani Rim sector. I had two distinct goals here. I needed to recapitulate already-published material for the GURPS Traveller audience. At the same time, I wanted to "fill in the blanks," producing new details regarding the Solomani Rim.

For example, Archduke Adair was apparently not mentioned at all in Classic Traveller material, and appeared only briefly in Megatraveller (a few of his responses to the Rebellion were mentioned, but he was never assigned so much as a first name). Those few references hinted at a determined and tenacious Imperial patriot. He must have had a personal relationship with the Imperial family, considering that he was the only Archduke to give his allegiance to the Emperor Lucan. He must also have had a special tie to the Vegans, given that his campaigns in resistance to the Solomani invasion were based within the Vegan district. That was enough to give me a picture of Kieran Langos Adair: a cunning diplomat with surprising talents as a wartime leader, a personal friend of the Emperor Strephon, and a close ally and patron of the Vegan species. The last item also gave me a new piece of background material, the placement of the Domain of Sol capital on the Vegan homeworld.

There were other examples of this kind of extension. Some study of the regnal dates of various Emperors gave me insight into the politics of the Imperial Court in the years immediately after the Civil War. The result was a slightly deeper picture of the origins of the Solomani Movement than we had seen up to this point. A fortuitous conversation with Hans Rancke-Madsen helped me understand the history of the Old Earth Union and the Bootean League, and also allowed me to hint at the surprising origins of the Sword Worlds colony in the Spinward Marches. Marc Miller's question about an uncaptioned illustration in GDW's Rebellion Sourcebook inspired me to develop the character of Elias Treleven, and helped me derive a substantial amount of back story regarding SolSec.

Of course, the biggest block of new material here is the detailed history of the Terran Confederation and the Interstellar Wars. Much of that material is due to Andrew Moffatt-Vallence, whose superb "Prometheus Rising" material formed the backbone for this section of Rim of Fire. Not only was Andrew gracious enough to allow heavy borrowing from his work, he even adjusted a number of items from his draft to fit my vision of how the Interstellar Wars must have proceeded. With any luck, "Prometheus Rising" will itself see print someday, providing Traveller players with a rich new setting for play. In the meantime, the material in Rim of Fire may be enough to inspire an enterprising GM to create his own Interstellar Wars campaign. I would be pleased to discover that this had happened. The Interstellar Wars period is by far my favorite portion of the Traveller "history."

It should be obvious by now that I view any body of canon as a creative challenge. How can one break new ground while still remaining faithful to the canon as established? A big detailed setting such as the Third Imperium is best when it provides plenty of opportunity to create new pieces of back story, building the seeds of single adventures and whole campaigns. Thus, we get the best of both worlds: the support of already-published material, and the range to create a private setting large enough for the entertainment of one's friends.

Four Hundred Worlds

Designer's Notes: GURPS Traveller: Rim of Fire

With the background chapters finished, I turned to the description of the Solomani Rim's individual worlds. At first, this section was conceived as resembling the similar material in Behind the Claw: a block of textual data and a short paragraph of narrative for each world. It took about three days of work for me to discover that this approach was going to be unsatisfying. By that time I had produced writeups for most of the worlds in Ultima subsector. Many worlds were simply not lending me any inspiration, and I found myself struggling to produce any meaningful narrative for them. Others gave me so much inspiration that I had to deliberately cut myself short, lest the book come in at more than 250 pages.

Meanwhile, I saw a discussion on Pyramid regarding the format of Behind the Claw. At least one person expressed dissatisfaction with the world writeups in that book, claiming that they were just long enough to get in the way of his own creativity, but not long enough to provide him with a useful pre-packaged setting. This opinion didn't meet with universal approval (and in fact, I didn't entirely agree with it myself) but it gave me an idea. Why not restrict the long narrative writeups to subsector or other capitals, worlds in strategic locations, or worlds which somehow inspired me to write more? For the rest there would be little or no narrative, simply a block of data not much more extensive than what had been published in the original Solomani Rim material. That way referees could either use my material or set their adventures on worlds I had deliberately left sketchy, as needed. Players could read enough to get a flavor for the sector's worlds, but there would be plenty of areas left open for them to discover.

I polled the Pyramid audience, and most people seemed to approve (not all, of course). Loren Wiseman and Steve Jackson both gave their cautious approval. I went ahead. The new format helped a great deal. Now I no longer needed to fight to produce useful narrative for worlds that seemed uninteresting to me. When I came to a world that inspired me, I could go on at some length.

The only serious difficulty was an equivalent of the "data entry" problem. I needed to produce a consistent data block for each of four hundred worlds, cross-checking against all published material and triple-checking for errors. This was complicated by a desire to match the rules systems in GURPS Traveller: First In, which were not entirely compatible with earlier Traveller editions. I ended by adjusting many star types and planetary orbits.

I also encountered the perennial problem with Traveller world generation: tiny planets with breathable, Earthlike atmospheres. I had glossed over that problem when writing First In, suggesting that referees either use a different procedure or live with the implausibility. In Rim of Fire I had no such luxury. As a result, astute readers will notice that many of the smaller worlds of Solomani Rim sector have an average density several times that of solid iron. Fortunately only one of the worlds I felt compelled to describe fit this profile (Hamilcar/Gemini). For that world, I borrowed an idea from an acquaintance of mine, the science-fiction writer Ted White. In one of his stories, he placed our own moon in a plastic membrane to hold in a terraformed atmosphere. I did the same with Hamilcar, only about half seriously . . .

In any case, once I had the basic data for each world, I began to write narratives. Some of these were quite short, marking "captive government" situations or summarizing material that had been published as previous canon. The longer narratives all tended to fall into a similar pattern: first a description of the world's physical environment, then its colonization and early history, then some recent history to explain the world's current social situation, then the details of that current situation. This historical approach seemed to work well, and it fit the orientation toward social and cultural issues that I wanted.

The narratives also have the benefit of providing a framework for the evolution of the sector as a whole. If you're a referee about to develop one of the worlds I left undescribed, then there's almost certainly a detailed world nearby to give you ideas. Neighboring worlds were probably settled at about the same time by the Vilani, they were conquered at the same time by the Terrans, they began to suffer the effects of the Long Night together, they joined the Third Imperium together. Even if their local cultures are very different, they will each interact with interstellar civilization from a similar context.

Incidentally, one item that sometimes provided me with a great deal of inspiration was a world's name. World names sometimes suggested ethnic backgrounds. After all, why would the population of a world cling to a name first assigned by a bored survey officer, thousands of years before? Instead, the official name would be meaningful to the present-day population. Thus Darrukesh became a Vilani world, Hiroshi became Japanese, Esperance became Spanish, Suleiman became Turkish, and so on. Other world names suggested unique features of the planet's environment, such as Easter's egg shape and colorful banding, or Caprice's violent storms. Gwynedd suggested settlement by anachronists (Kathryn Kurtz fans, perhaps). Santorini suggested Minoan culture, so I threw in a reference to a crypto-Minoan civilization I've developed for other fiction.

The Final Draft

Finally, I finished and turned in the first draft for editing and playtest. The playtest went very smoothly, but it also provoked the biggest crisis in the production process. Several playtesters suggested turning the data blocks for the various worlds into tables. This took some work on the part of Gene Seabolt and me, but the end result was very attractive.

The conversion to tables also made the Worlds chapter much more compact, with a great deal of text being reduced to the form of half-page or quarter-page tables. How much more compact? Well, Gene put the tables together, I provided a version of the chapter text with the only change being the removal of data blocks, and we counted pages. We were 15,000 words short, with about two weeks to go before the final draft deadline.

Oddly enough, I wasn't worried. (Gene was!) I went back and added bits and pieces. Each subsector got one more world with full narrative, and I also added a few paragraphs here and there to existing descriptions. Gene and I wrote up four Solomani starship designs. I wrote a few pages of text for the last chapter, detailing the situation of each of several non-human races in the Solomani Rim. All of this took just over a week, and it put us at almost exactly the needed word count.

Another item which was added at the last minute was a set of thumbnail sketches for all ten Imperial dukes, along with several lesser nobles. You'll find this material scattered through the Worlds chapter, and despite its late entry into the draft I believe it's one of the more important elements of the book. The Solomani Rim is characterized by its power politics, so that the adventures of PCs will often be affected by the maneuvers of those at the highest levels. The dukes and counts of the Rim may not often be the direct patrons of PC adventurers. Even so, their machinations will often affect what adventures are available and what the ultimate rationale of such adventures might be.

Once we were up to the target word count, Gene Seabolt began final production. Meanwhile, he had already gone to freelance artists with the first draft. The results were very fine, with the art pieces for the Worlds chapter in particular matching the text quite closely. Jesse DeGraff's stunning cover was almost finished at that point as well. Of all the books I've written thus far for Steve Jackson Games, I think Rim of Fire has turned out to be the most visually impressive.

So, to conclude: "I had fun writing this book." I hope you'll find my vision of the Solomani Rim to be a congenial setting for adventure.

Article publication date: September 22, 2000

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