TRAVELLER: Out of the Box – Introduction

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Here is a series of posts about how Traveller worked back in the day and how how i’m approaching the game and the creation of the setting.

The Basic Assumptions

When I think Classic Traveler I don’t think of The Traveller Book, or Starter Traveller, or the full library of books published Traveller.  When I think of classic traveler, what I think of is the Little Black Books 1-3 found in the original box set of Traveller published first in 1997 and later in 1981.

The distinction is this: in Little Black Booksa1-3 there is no mention of The Imperium or any official setting details of any kind. Later editions of Traveller conflated the game with the Third Imperium. I believe this was a horrible mistake. Or rather, to be more specific, it was a good decision for publisher who want us to sell product. But it was a horrible decision for the good of a role-playing game.

So, to be clear, when I speak in the following posts about Traveller I’m referring to little black books 1-3, and Supplements 1, 2, and 4 on hand to make my life easier. I am also stripping out all thought, expectation, and assumptions that the third imperium is in any way part of the conversation. I believe an amazing game was buried under a static, bland, and overwhelming setting that works against effective RPG play.

The idea is to look back into the original three books of the original Traveller box which I picked up at the Compleat Strategist in my youth.

I remember reading the text on the cover of that box and instantly felling in love with the game’s potential;. I bought it, brought it home, rolled up subsections, made up worlds, rolled up characters. It pulled me in like no other game did.


Out of the Box

The Third Imperium an amazing creative effort, and I’m in no way knocking it with the following comments. Moreover, it’s clearly brought a lot of pleasure to many people. I would say that talking about the Third Imperium, reminding it, making it real, sanding down the questions of logic has become a hobby unto itself.

But I never made the immediate connection between the rules of Traveller and the Official Traveller Universe. When I first read the rules after buying them, the text sparked certain images and ideas and made me think of certain books. And they didn’t look such like what became the Third Imperium or the Spinward Marches.

I’ll be covering this in more detail later. But quickly, if one reads the text of the books, there’s nothing to suggest you’ll end up with the Third Imperium.

Instead, I’ll be working from three premises:

First, one should create one’s own setting from implied setting of the rules. For example, when I read these opening words in Book 1…

“Traveller deals with a common theme of science-fiction: the concept that an expanding technology will enable us to reach the stars and to populate the worlds which orbit them. The major problem, however, will be that communication, be it political, diplomatic, commercial, or private, will be reduced to the level of the 18th century, reduced to the speed of transportation. The result is a large (bordering on the infinite) universe ripe for the adventurer’s bold travels.”

I immediately thought of Europe’s colonial era of both North America, Asia, and Africa. The Third Imperium has the feel of the Roman Empire in its sensibilities. But those few words made my brain spring to a different model. And that’s the model I want to work from. (And I want you to make what you want. My point is that a thick stack of published setting material will get in the way of that.  My point is that Traveller books 1-3 are designed well to help you do that.

Second, extrapolating at my whim to fill in the fictional details left blank by the rules. For example, Starships can only be built at A-class Starworts. Why is that? What are the implications? The rules don’t say. But I have some ideas about that that I’m excited about for the setting. These ideas won’t be the “right” ideas. There are countless reasons for and implications about having only A-class starports being capable of building starships. The ideas I want to put forth are simply notions that strike me as making sense and exciting. (Exciting in the sense they lead to more strife and conflict politically, which allows the players more chances to have adventures with their characters.)

Third, I’ll be growing my game from the rules, but not bound by them. The text of LBBs 1-3 makes it clear that the game is a frame work for play. That the Referee should make adjustments and make it his or her game as he or she sees fit. So, as an example, I’m going to tweak the System Content Table to reduce the odds for an A-class starports and increase the odds for for D-class starports. I want a more frontier feel for the setting, and I want keep the Tech level of the subsector maxed out at 12. Reducing the number of A-class starports helps with that. (There will be higher tech available. But it is not native to the subsector and will be all the more extraordinary when it shows up.) I might tweak some of the other World Generation rolls as well. But that is an example.


As stated above, most people familiar with Classic Traveller are familiar with the game through The Traveller Book. It’s a nice edition of the game and the tables and charts are much more accessible than those found in LBBS 1-3.

However, The Traveller Book (and later versions and editions of the game) all explicitly tie the game to GDW’s setting of the The Third Imperium.

If you’d like to follow along and see what the text was like before this happened, it is still possible to get a copy of the original Little Black Books 1, 2, and 3 inexpensively.

First, you can get PDF copies of the books from DriveThruRPG. You can find the books on this page for $4 a book.

You can also get a lovely 3-in-1 volume reprint of the game from Far Future Enterprises. If you go to this page, scroll down till you find “FFE 0000 The Basic Books 1-3.” It will cost you $10.

Both of these are the rules from the 1981 edition of the game. Note that several typos crept in, and several rules got dropped. If you get the books, I recommend getting the Consolidated Errata: Classic Traveller. In it you will find the errata for all the versions and editions of Classic Traveller.

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5 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box – Introduction

    • The influence The Third Imperium is subtle in Starter Traveller. But it is there — in the text and tables. (For example, the Tech Level tables reference certain levels in terms of Average lmperial, Above Average lmperial, and Maximum Imperial.) In the Tech Level table found in LBB there is no reference to either anything Imperial nor any relative value to tech norms for the game’s interstellar governments.

      For you this was not that big a deal — for which i’m glad! But framing the tech level this way immediately ties the rules into the assumptions of the house setting. It determines what J drives are available, which in turn determines the maximum number of parsecs a ship can jump in a week, as well as the maximum size of starships.

      in my view all of these matters are best left to the Referee to decide. For example, in Starter Traveller TL 15 is Imperial maximum. In my setting TL 11 is the maximum for the interstellar government the PCs are from. And this difference produces many significant changes.

      But it is also a difference in philosophy. in one case, the players of the game are given a skeletal toolkit to work from and make whatever norms they assume to be best. In the other a lot of very important decisions about norms are already made. Yes, this cam be ignored. But my point is that Books 1, 2, and 3 there’s no need to ignore anything since no assumptions are made. Just a framework for the Referee telling him, “You’ll have to make some assumptions. Make them.”

      The text is different as well. The rules are the same, yes. But the words used to introduce the game and the words used to close the game are different from those found in LBBs 1-3. I understand the difference of the text might not matter to some, but for me those words (either added or removed) shift the promise and expectations of the game.

      And then with The Traveller Book the shift to tying the Third Imperium to the game is complete.

      Again, I completely understand that this might not matter to some. But as I discussed with Jeffro, I originally posted these over at Citizens of the Imperium. I went to that site to talk about Classic Traveller. But I found was many people arguing constantly about the Third Imperium. Since I never assumed traveler was the Third Imperium, I was startled to discover that the setting had become the game.

      Since most people these days know Classic Traveller through The Traveller Book or Starter Traveler I couldn’t get people to understand that in the original three books there is no mention of the Third Imperium or any official setting details at all.

      So, I began reading through LBBs 1, 2, and 3, digging into the text to find out what sort of game was published in 1977 before a metric ton of setting material was sold to people who, in my opinion, never needed it at all. And, in fact, missed the joy found in the original rules of creating one’s own setting. Because the rules were designed to help you do exactly that.

      So the posts do have an argumentative feel to them. But then, I was making an argument. I would say, “There is no mention of The Third Imperium or any assumed details of the default setting,. There’s this whole cool way of playing this game that has nothing to do with the Third Imperium and I think the game would work better this way.” And people would say I was wrong and would then quote from Starter Traveller or The Traveller Book.

      For some here — and elsewhere — this all isn’t an issue at all. Really these posts are for people who were hoodwinked into thinking one needed to master a four foot stack of setting material to play the game. Which is completely goes against the spirit and purpose of the game as originally designed.

      It’s a little bit like the OSR: for those who never stopped playing that way the OSR is useless. But for those who got caught up in play styles and massive splatbooks in the 90s it is a welcome revelation.

      More importantly, in my own pleasure, by digging down into the original rules I found out things about the game and its implied logic that I loved.

  1. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-The Skill System (which I don’t think is a Skill System) | Tales to Astound!

  2. Pingback: Traveller: Creating Hunter | UbiquitousRat.net

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