A long time ago, in a suburb far away, a middle schooler went into the local hobby shop. Most of this shop was dedicated to trains, miniatures, modeling, and such, but it also had an aisle with role playing games and classic wargames by companies like TSR, Steve Jackson Games and Avalon Hill.
His eyes fell upon a large, 8.5 x 11 hardcover book. The cover had two people with futuristic weapons, in clothes that would easily fit in on the Millennium Falcon, or Serenity. They were leaving their ship via a transparent, enclosed gangway, ready for trouble.The name on the cover, oddly, used two “L"’s. Traveller.
He opened the rules, looked at the line art, and immediately bought it.
Traveller was unique, and in many ways still is. I’d already been exposed to two editions of D&D – Moldvay basic with Keep on the Borderlands, and AD&D – and wargames like Starship Troopers, Afrika Korps, and Panzerblitz. Sure enough, there were rules for combat, weapons, and armor, as well as rules for creating alien creatures to populate planets with. It predictably had a list of common starships, and a pretty coherent system for building your own. Because it involved traveling it also had a set of clear rules for generating a sector to move about in, generate planets. A lot of time was spent debating if having such a skeleton available was better or worse than making up D&D maps from nothing but graph paper. I still say “yes” – nothing stopped you from fudging things to add a needed feature, and sometimes the odd interrelationships opened new possibilities.The first true shock was discovering that the character creation system not only gave a background, but could also kill your characters before you ever got a chance to play them.
All in all, it’s a set of rules that, despite having played a number of other systems over the decades – including a number of editions of Traveller – I would still gladly play. Simple enough. Complex enough. Loose enough. It has aged well.
The other thing I loved was the setting. The rules alone, as published in the original little black books, could easily be used to adventure in settings like the Polysotechnic League, Drakes Slammers, or Pournelle’s CoDominium or universes. But later books, incorporated into the hardcover I bought, included the beginnings of the Imperium setting, information on and maps of the Regina sector, and background. Grand in scope, feudal, with a lot of room for adventurers to get in trouble, it took on a life of its own.
Agent of the Imperium is a book set in that universe. Written by a man who obviously loves the sweep of history, and knows and loves the universe he created.
We have a problem – the empire needs trusted troubleshooters on call, in a moments notice, with full authority short only of the Emperor, to deal with threats that could grow to destroy the empire. That troubleshooter needs to be anywhere, at any time. Given the size of the empire, where trips across it can take months, even years, one man’s lifetime is simply not enough. A troubleshooter, a cleaner, or as the book calls Jonathan Bland – a *Decider – *needs to somehow be everywhere at once.
We also have “skill wafers” – that can temporarily, with some risk, impart skills.
What if you had a souped-up version that could store an entire personality, and reactivate it once plugged into a person carrying a wafer implant, for 30 days? So that not only the skills, but the trusted personality occupies the mind and body of the host.
The Decider has a terrible role – he must do just that – Decide. He not only effectively has the full authority of the emperor, he also has to accept the responsibility for the choices made, rather than some junior commander on the scene.
The story jumps episodically, but the pieces start coming together. A planet sterilized by orbital bombardment due to a parasite breakout that could threaten the imperium. And other incidents. Each time the agent awakes, in a new body, reorients. Works the problem. He decides.
But the recordings in turn are updated with experience, and synced. And in time Bland realizes that there are less obvious threats to the empire than the ones he is awakened for, far more dangerous ones. And so he begins to make long term plans….
And so the story explores what happens from there, with the strange distributed loosely synchronized memory, and quasi-immortality of our Decider.
This book is a great example of taking something familiar, and cliched, what at first looks like a standard space opera setting, and breathing life into it. It also uses that familiarity to ground you while it then proceeds to explore the ramifications of change.
It is a thoughtful page turner. Highly recommended.