TRAVELLER: Out of the Box – A Single Subsector is Enough


Inspirational Quotes

Here are some quotes that serve as a touchstone for me when I read the early books. It is the point of view of these early books that still draws my attention. When I think about creating a setting, it is these quotes that serve as my compass points.

From Traveller 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.

From Traveller Book 3:

Traveller is necessarily a framework describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe; obviously rules which could cover every aspect of every possible action would be far larger than these three booklets. A group involved in playing a scenario or campaign can make their adventures more elaborate, more detailed, more interesting, with the input of a great deal of imagination.

The greatest burden, of course, falls on the referee, who must create entire worlds and societies through which the players will roam. One very interesting source of assistance for this task is the existing science-fiction literature.

Virtually anything mentioned in a story or article can be transferred to the Traveller environment. Orbital cities, nuclear war, alien societies, puzzles, enigmas, absolutely anything can occur, with imagination being the only limit.

The players themselves have a burden almost equal to that of the referee: they must move, act, travel in search of their own goals. The typical methods used in life by 20th century Terrans (thrift, dedication, and hard work) do not work in Traveller; instead, travellers must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power. As for the referee, modern science-fiction tradition provides many ideas and concepts to be imitated.

From Traveller Book 5:

Traveller assumes a remote centralized government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium) possessed of great industrial and technological might; but due to the sheer distances and travel times involved within its star-spanning realm, the lmperium is unable to be everywhere at once. As a result, the lmperium allows a large degree of autonomy to its subject worlds, calling only for some respect for its overall policies, and for a united front against outside pressures.

These quotes form the basic spine of inspiration for the feel of the game I want. Something at the edges of civilization, without uniform in law or culture, allowing the adventurers to make daring plans, be bold in action, become the crowbar or kingmaker in the political and industrial intrigue occurring around them.

Focus on a Single Subsector
If I’m planning on playing Traveller, I’ll be rolling up one subsector and… well, that’s it. That’s all I’m going to roll up. There will be history and culture and politics that extend beyond the edges of the subsector. But for now, one subsector will be what I roll.  Here are some quotes explaining why.

The first is from Traveller Book 1, 1977:

Generally, the universe is mapped in convenient segments, called subsectors. A convenient size for subsectors is that of the hex grid sheet printed in this booklet on page 3. Each hex in a subsector represents the distance that may be covered by an interstellar jump of distance 1 (1 hex = 1 parsec, or 3.26 light years). In mapping, each hex is examined to determine if a world (and its attendant star system) is present; the quality of the local starport is then determined. Finally, jump routes or space lanes connecting worlds are determined.

Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds), but ultimately, travellers will venture into unknown areas and additional subsectors will have to be charted.

And here is an Q&A with Joe Fugate, Sr.

Q: In retrospect, do you think the DGP products might have covered the OTU in a bit too much detail – leaving less for the imagination?

A Yes.

I think less detail probably would have been better. I think it would have been better to focus on a few star systems per adventure and detail them, and leave the Imperium star system positions, etc, somewhat more vague for the most part.

Provide a detailed sector once in a blue moon.

Personally, I think Traveller is designed backwards in this regard, a topic we often discussed at DGP.

Wargames are by nature, map oriented, and tend to be more sweeping in scale. Rarely do you see wargames that get down to hand-to-hand combat level. It’s most often battalions or divisions, sometimes down to companies and platoons.

But role playing games are about individual characters and what matters to them. Thats one big reason why fantasy gaming is so popular. Fantasy gaming doesn’t focus on detailing half of the known universe. Just what matters to a few characters.

So Traveller was designed with this star-spanning map mentality, not character-centric. But that’s all backwards. As a role-playing game, it should be designed from the character out. The farther you get from the character, the less detail you should be concerned with.

It’s not surprising that Traveller would have this orientation, since GDW was first a wargamming design company, and a huge-scale wargamming design company at that. Look at their Europa game series. Massive in scale and scope.

While the wargammer in me really identifies with this orientation in Traveller, I don’t think it is condusive to popular opinion in the RPG market and has somewhat “doomed” Traveller to remain a niche game.

And I’m not sure there’s much you can do about this perception now. What’s done is done. For a science-fiction role playing game to be more popular, it needs to be character-centric through and through, with rich world detail and an motivation that keeps you there for a while so you get to know it and it’s people. The galaxy spanning star charts and constant system hopping part should remain very much in the background, because that’s not role-playing, that’s wargamming.

I can’t wait to build a cool setting to share with my players when I look at the Traveller rules found in Books 1, 2, and 3. But here’s the thing: The setting simply won’t matter as much as the Player Characters and the cool trouble the PCs get themselves into.

Because of my background and career (writer dude), when I’m creating something, my focus is always this question: “What is the camera pointed at?” And if I’m doing my job well as a GM, the camera is pointed at the PCs.

While the Traveller rules imply a star-spanning government somewhere, it is mostly off-screen. I don’t need all the details of the offscreen material to make hours upon hours of compelling adventure in a consistent setting work. I need just enough to make sure the PCs and the Players feel it’s “real.” And that can be done by making the worlds and NPCs of the subsector focused and unique and driven and willing to take action about the things they care about.

I think one subsector will be enough to certainly get things going. The discipline this forces, of course, is interesting stuff has to be happening in that subsector right now[. The cool stuff isn’t the politics back at the Imperial core or whatever. I have to stare down at the 8×10 grid of hexes and think:

“Right now, looking down at those worlds, what is happening? What matters? What are the conflicts? Between world, on worlds? Who is mad at whom, who is making a play for whom?”

There can be be agent provocateurs or starships or weapons or missionaries or whatever pouring into the subsector from beyond its borders. But they’re doing so because something is happening in that subsector that is so compelling they have to show up. And by showing up they’re only making things more interesting and providing more tension and adventure potential for the PCs.

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