My Ruby Jubilee as a Game Designer

I played a role-playing game for the first time in May 1977 at the first Gothcon (Swedish post about that event — link >>> ), Sweden’s premier game convention. Little did I know … etc.

Purple prose aside, it was a momentous experience but I did not realize that it redirected the course of my life: that day, I discovered a fountain of suspense and of never-ending joyful creativity. My first game was Dungeons & Dragons, the off-white box with three nigh incomprehensible rulebooks. I quickly acquired my own set plus a copy of Jim Ward’s science fiction RPG Metamorphosis Alpha (adventures in the lost starship Warden with mutants and monsters). After all, I preferred SF to fantasy.

In that autumn, I made my first attempt to design an RPG. The rules were based on Dungeons & Dragons and the setting was an SF cosmos vaguely inspired by Edmond Hamilton’s Star Wolves novels. And no, the nameless game was a dud. I ran it once and then consigned it to oblivion. In 1978 I instead discovered Traveller, and immediately started designing house rules. (Read more about that here — link>>> )

Forty years have passed and I am still an RPG designer in my spare time, even though these days I prefer to create setting while using already well-established rule engines. But the creative enthusiasm is still there. Jim Ward and Marc Miller opened the gates to Never-Never-Land for me and I rushed past them, and in there I still reside.

Nowadays I am the grizzled veteran, who gets interviewed by young gamers who want to hear what it was like in that legendary First Age of RPGs, but rest assured: I intend to go on writing games and novels as long as I keep my wits about me. My father was a vital chap until he turned 86, so hopefully I will follow in his footsteps and have another 20+ years of creative work ahead.

However, man proposes and God disposes.

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Loren Wiseman in Memoriam


The veteran game designer Loren Wiseman passed away yesterday. He worked for many years at GDW with both board games and role-playing games and after the demise of that company, he produced GURPS Traveller for Steve Jackson Games. His former colleague Marc Miller has written the following eulogy:

I first met Loren Wiseman more than forty years ago: he was one of the small group who played games in the University Union at Illinois State University, and a fountain of knowledge about history in general and ancient history specifically. When Frank Chadwick, Rich Banner, and I created Game Designers’ Workshop, we immediately added Loren to our partnership because he was a solid, dependable, and insightful friend. I have never regretted being in business with Loren.

Loren designed the fifth game published by GDW: Eagles, Rome on the Rhine Frontier, AD 15. He had a catchy concept: retrieving lost Roman legion standards (the Eagles) from the Germanic tribes, and he did an excellent job that made us proud. We were equally proud (and a bit jealous) when Avalon Hill picked up the game and published it under their banner. He followed up with Pharsalus, a board wargame of the Roman Civil War 48 BC in 1977.

Loren did a variety of jobs at GDW and they shaped everyone’s perception of him. He ran the warehouse at a time when everything was done with pen and paper and by hand. When we created the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, he became its editor.

Loren also was the line developer for Twilight: 2000. The process at GDW was for the designer to write the text, but the developer brought together that text and some draft diagrams and some art needs, typeset it, and then made sure it was properly published. It also fell to Loren to design titles in the series (out of 46 supplementary titles, he is credited with designing 20).

After GDW closed its doors (in 1995), Loren moved to Steve Jackson Games in a variety of roles, including editor of their Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society online edition.

Along the way, Loren was recognized for his excellence and expertise: with the H G Wells Award for Going Home (1986), and the H G Wells Award three years running for the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society (1979-1980-1981). In 2004, Loren received perhaps the highest of honors within the gaming community: he was inducted into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame, and the above recounting of his credits gives some insight into why.

But I remember Loren as a friend and a game player. I remember he and I both in a board game competition at GenCon many years ago. I rarely play games, and so I was gratified to make the finals, but in the end Loren beat me. That is what the industry he loved is about: friendly competition, with an emphasis on “friendly.”

Loren is the chap who put me on the professional game designing track. I started playing Traveller in 1978 and in 1979 I bought the first issue of Journal of Travellers’ Aid Society, GDW’s inhouse magazine for the game. Loren served as its editor. He accepted my first submission surprisingly quickly and for many years he kept on accepting my Traveller articles with only an occasional and well-explained rejection. I still have a photocopy of the first cheque he sent me way back in 1980 (more about that here — link >>> ).

In 1990 I had the pleasure of meeting Loren face to face at a Swedish game convention in Sundsvall, where he was the guest of honor. A pleasant chap in all regards. He will be missed by all in the game industry.

A salute to his memory:

My 2016 — a summary

When a year approaches its end, it is tempting to summarize it in a few bullet points. So here are my significant SF/fantasy/RPG experiences in 2016, listed in chronological order.

  • Collaboration of the year: Gustaf Gadd and I wrote Skymningshavets gåtor, a seafaring fantasy campaign book for Drakar och Demoner, during the spring.
  • Boost of the year: I received the Swedish RPG Dragon Award at Gothcon in April.
  • Book of the year: I read and re-read Agent of the Imperium, an complex and enjoyable science fiction novel in the Traveller universe by Marc Miller.
  • RPG campaign of the year: We were Pinkerton agents investigating a murder in New Orleans in early 1870.
  • Boardgame of the year: Terraforming Mars by Fryx Games — wow!
  • Tragedy of the year: Evert Johansson, one of my old Traveller buddies, suddenly passed away in November at age 58.
  • Movie of the year: Rogue One.
  • TV-series of the year: Agent Carter S1 — yes, I know it is not new, but I did not have a chance to watch it until a few weeks ago.

Kickstarter: Traveller Customizable Card Game

Those gamers that have known me for a long time, also know that one of my all-time favorite RPGs is Traveller (read my opinion about it here — link >>> ), a space-faring game in the far future, where you take the roles of interstellar traders, spies, rogues and explorers. Its creator Marc Miller has spent the last decade or so refreshing its cosmos, among other things by writing a good novel about exploration, hazards and politics in the human-dominated Third Imperium: Agent of the Imperium (you find it here — link >>> ).

Marc has now licensed a Traveller customizable card game, which just has been launched on Kickstarter (check the project here — link >>> ). I think this is a cool project, and the game’s solo-player option makes it even more interesting, at least to me.

A scene straight out of the game: the seamy aspect of interstellar business in the Third Imperium. Click on the picture for a larger version.

Traveller: The Soundtrack

I have mentioned a few times here on the blog what great importance the science fiction role-playing game Traveller has had for my career as a game designer (for example in this post >>> ).

Marc Miller, Traveller’s creator, recently published Agent of the Imperium, a good SF novel based on the politics of Traveller’s space empires. And now a fan has composed a soundtrack to one particular event in the novel, viz. the experience of hyperspace travel. That’s a novelty; I wish someone would do something like this to one of my stories.

Anyhow, the music is currently available at Soundcloud — link >>>

The literary roots of Classic Traveller

Michael André-Driussi has written an interesting web article about what kind of science fiction served as the designers’ inspiration for the original “classic” Traveller role-playing game — link >>>

The real thing: some vintage Traveller books

André-Driussi pays particular attention to E C Tubb’s many Dumarest stories and H Beam Piper’s novel Space Viking.

I agree largely with his observations, though I have not read Space Viking, but I would ascribe more design influence to Jerry Pournelle’s Falkenberg stories (future mercenaries in action on rural planets), perhaps also to the John Grimes stories by Bertram Chandler (plenty of low-level espionage and trade among the stars). Also, when I GM’ed classic Traveller in 1978-82, I got a lot of thematically appropriate inspiration from gritty British action novels of the 1960s and 1970s, e.g. by Desmond Bagley (whose High Citadel can be transferred straight into Traveller.)

Mercator — the Roman Traveller RPG

The original Traveller role-playing game had a characteristic “style” or “mood”, emphasizing traveling, “geography” and trading like few other games. My old game group spent many happy hours going from planet to planet in its far-future cosmos. It was a best-seller in 1980 and it is still around today in its fifth reincarnation. Traveller has also served as an inspiration for other role-playing games.

The Mercator RPG
Here is a 60-page PDF with Mercator (link >>>), an amusing pastiche of Traveller. It takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early 1st century AD. Its rules, campaign background and minimalist layout are accurate reminiscences of GDW‘s Traveller booklets with black covers that were published in 1977.

The players ply the waves instead of the star lanes and have to deal with the intricacies of the Roman Empire instead of the Third Imperium. The many Hellenistic realms of the East have recently come under Roman rule and a lot of inhabitants resent that. The adventurers thus have to make their hazardous living in a restless multi-ethnic region. The potential for high adventure is certainly there.