In it's first edition (1986), 2300AD was titled "Traveller: 2300AD" but this was later dropped to remove confusion with GDW's Traveller game line. "2300AD: Mankind's battle for the stars" was released in 1988. In 2007, QuickLink Interactive released a "2320AD" source book as part of their D20 Traveller rules (I admit, I do not own this. I was not fond of the "D20 all the things!" rush of the last decade).
Then just this year (2012), Mongoose Publishing released their 2300AD setting book, which uses their Traveller ruleset to play in the 2300AD setting.
2300AD's setting grew out of GDW's original Twilight:2000 game (no, it has nothing to do with sparkly faeries- i mean 'vampires'), in a process call The Great Game. A hodgepodge ruleset for running countries and nations as a whole. It was played by the writers at GDW to cover the three centuries of time from the nuclear apocalypse of Twilight:2000 to the futuristic setting they were looking for in their new game. This means that 2300AD has a more organic back-story than most roleplaying games; being the product of several players input as well as random circumstances, rather than a unilateral vision from the outset.
Of course, some of the elements of that backstory are hilariously outdated nowadays. The third world war that started the "twilight" period supposedly happened in the 1990's. Germany was still divided into two states until the 2200s until they went to war with the French Empire (yes, you read that right. French. Empire.). Russia is still a communist power. Texas has seceded from the US and is now an independent nation. One has to think of it as alternate history for it to make sense.
On the other hand, the Twilight-to-2300 period allowed for a kind of 'international renaissance' to take place. The culture'verse of 2300AD is very international in feel. France and China have the most colonies with America coming in barely third. Many nations have off-world colonies. This makes for much more colorful character backgrounds and international intrigue.
The newer books have expanded greatly on concepts barely hinted at in the original materials. The difference between life on the "Core" worlds and "Colonial" life is more exaggerated in more detail. My only problem with the Mongoose 2300AD book is a lack of information about the various aliens of the 2300'verse, but I'll get back to this later.
2300AD is gloriously "hard" sci-fi. The designers allowed for one science bending alteration to known physics (i.e. the Stutterwarp drive to allow FTL), while everything else remains limited to extrapolations from current science. For example: there are fusion reactors, but they are huge and require lots of maintenance and attention. Real-world science has given more nuanced details to rather flat ideas (gene therapy for colonists to survive their new homeworlds is more pronounced, for example). The international flavors also influence the technology of the setting: the French love their elegant railguns, the Americans make great warships; the Australians make the best plasma weapons and the Germans still make the best tanks (hover tanks, but tanks none the lest).
The FTL of choice for 2300AD deserves special note. The Stutterwarp Drive, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting and well-conceived theories of FTL travel in nearly all sci-fi I have read. It is one of my favorite concepts, and I keep coming back to it when considering new sci-fi settings. I won't go into details here (maybe in another post about FTL in general), but the short of it is: Stutterwarp allows for fun as well as rational faster-than-light travel, without the loopholes and problems of so many other FTL concepts (relativistic rocks, for example).
Then there are the aliens. 2300ad breaks from a lot of 'pop' sci-fi by making their aliens truly alien. The aliens of 2300AD are enigmas; mysteries to be unraveled or avoided. They are NOT appropriate as player characters, which makes them all the more interesting than "like humans just with funny foreheads and Nietzsche'ian philosophies". From the existential threat posed by the Kafers, to the biotechnology masters of the Pentapods (which are the least human and yet the closest thing we have to an ally), 2300AD makes aliens interesting again.
So why don't I play it?
Hard sci-fi is a difficult sell to a lot of gamers who are used to high fantasy and superheroes. "Does that mean I have to know physics and math and computers and stuff? No thanks," is the common refrain. 2300AD is a great setting, and would be fun to write fiction in, but as a gaming setting? That's a harder sell. 2300AD also suffers, like early Traveller editions, from the simulationist/gamer mentalities of most of GDW's games of that era. It's personal combat has some interesting ideas, but feels more like a table top game than a roleplaying game.
So what do we learn from 2300AD?
- organic settings have a lot more depth than those with direct design.
- A good FTL concept makes the game better.
- Settings drawn from real (or alternate) near-history are easier to invest in, compared to completely (ahem) alien histories/cultures.
- Really alien aliens are cool!