TRAVELLER : Book 4 Mercenary – The Implicit Setting Made Explicit


Book 4 Mercenary doesn’t refer to The Third Imperium, the house setting GDW eventually created for Traveller, anywhere in its text.

This will come as a shock to people convinced Traveller is The Third Imperium, or people who conflate the game line into one unified product. (The Traveller Books were setting neutral until Book 6 Scouts, at which point the rules and setting became one.)

Here is the beginning of the second paragraph of the General Background:

“Traveller assumes a remote centralized government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium), possessed of great industrial and technological might, but unable, due to the sheer distances and travel times involved, to exert total control at all levels everywhere within its star spanning realm.”

Note that what Traveller assumes is “a remote centralized government.” Not “the Imperium.” “The Imperium” is what the book in your hands will call this remote, centralized government for rhetorical convenience. But what the remote centralized government is called or how it functions is up to you and the game you play. Basic Traveller simply assumes such a government of some kind exists.

Is the focus of the game on this centralized government? No. The centralized government is remote. Where is the focus of play? The text continues:

“On the frontiers, extensive home rule provisions allow planetary populations to choose their own forms of gevernmeny, raise and maintain armed forces for local security, pass and enforce laws governing local conduct, and regulate (within limits) commerce, Defense of the frontier is mostly provided by local indigenous forces, stiffened by scattered Imperial naval bases manned by small but extremely sophisticated forces. Conflicting local interests often settle thier differences by force of arms, with Imperial forces looking quietly the other way, unable to effectively intervene as a police force in any but the most wide-spread of conflicts without jeopardizing thier primary mission of the defense of the realm. Only when local conflicts threaten either the security or the economy of the area do Imperial forces take an active hand, and then it is with speed and overwhelming force.”

So, Traveller assumes that RPG play takes place on “the frontiers” of the remote, centralized government. (Referees are able to set their games in an Imperial Capital–or anywhere–if they wish. The only point at hand is that a frontier setting is what Traveller assumes.)

As for the the character creation portion of the book, I assume the PC serves his terms in the Army either on the frontier or closer toward the government core. He is not a mercenary yet, but is learning his trade as a soldier on the government’s dime.

During this time such-and-such backstory might be created. But it is all backstory. Whatever happened or wherever it happened is good for fictional color. Because at the end of character creation, when the PC musters out, he ends up, for whatever reason, at the frontier… for that is the setting Traveller assumes for RPG play.

And here is the opening paragraph of Book 4’s General Background:

In many respects. the expansion of man into one frontier after another, and its resulting effects on his social and governmental institutions, can be seen as an alternating series of instability and stability in the relative efficiency of transportation and communication. A society will expand into a new frontier as its transportation technology allows it to do so. and its expansion is generally limited only by the sophistication of its transport system. However, if communicatian technology has not kept up with transportation technology, stresses develop between the mother country/capital and the provinces. These stresses are resolved either by a technological advance in communication (the telegraph. for example, ended the possibility of secession by the western territories from the United States), by a severance of ties between the new territory and the home government (the gradual process of colonial independence in the western hemisphere in the 18th and 19th centuries), or the arrival of a new home government generally involving a much higher degree of local autonomy than had previously existed (the Persian system of Satrapies).

Look at the historical analogues at play!

The western territories of the U.S.! The colonies of the western hemispheres! The conquered lands of the Persian Empire!

Think about how exotic those lands were to those living back in the mother country/capital! How remote!

Yet these exotic, uncivilized, distant  lands are the analogue to where the PCs are supposed to adventure. These are the analogues for the setting of play for Classic Traveller.

My question is this: How much of this feel of the distant, the exotic, the strange and the uncivilized made it into the Official Traveller Universe by the time all was said and done? How much of it made it into the Spinward Marches–full of MegaCorporations and Xboat networks that carried news with ease? Did this frontier setting ever feel like a frontier? Did it ever seem like it was all that different than sectors located toward the Imperial core?

My impression of the material was that all the answers to those questions was no.

Now, if you love the Third Imperium as a setting and that’s where you want your game to take place–fantastic.

But if you read those quotes above and something stirs for a setting off the beaten path, far from mother country in all aspects of communication, technology, and culture, i highly recommend using the rules as given. Create a subsector from scratch. Create worlds from scratch. Let the results be weird. Let the justifications for the results be wondrous and strange. Make them worthy of men and women who served the empire, mustered out, and knew the only choice that lay before them was to visit compelling worlds they had not yet seen–and most of their peers had not yet seen as well.

For me, that first page of Book 4 Mercenary fits neatly and exactly into the text and rules found in Books 1-3 of the Basic Traveller game. Book 4 took what was implicit in those first three books and made some of it explicit.


10 thoughts on “TRAVELLER : Book 4 Mercenary – The Implicit Setting Made Explicit

  1. I agree with your overall point. The game as presented in the original LBB and the 3I setting used often today are not the same thing. I imagine some of this has to do with book sales. but some also is caused by GMs that find it easier to just go with the flow rather than spend the time and effort to create their own setting.

    • Without doubt published materials are useful and helpful to GMs. Elsewhere on this blog you’ll find that I’m using published settings for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign. I have nothing against using published materials.

      But as I lay out in this post the editions of Classic Traveller vary greatly in their emphasis on the Official Traveler Universe. The original books have no mention of an official setting. But Starter Traveler and The Traveler Book both assume The Third Imperium. And The Traveler Book funnels the reader directly from the rules into the Spinward Marches.

      Because these two newer editions are the most popular and easiest to buy in printed form is my contention that many people over the years simply assumed that the first edition of the game contained the same material. One of the main reasons I am posting this series is to make clear to people who might not know any better at once upon a time Classic Traveller was a very different game.

  2. Being a Traveller player of many, many years, in the last couple I’ve really been looking at Proto-Traveller again for inspiration. While I think that later editions have. mechanically, a number of things to offer – you’re really capturing the essence of what I enjoyed about Traveller “at the beginning”.

    I enjoyed much of the early days of Traveller gaming, enjoyed the modules, and was even fascinated by the slow reveal of the 5th Frontier War. But in hindsight that is also where I began to “play” Traveller less and started to read it more for fun and ideas and because I found the canon setting to be fascinating.

    My last “Traveller” games were highly enjoyable mashups of Traveller, WH40K, and a selection of other SciFi elements using the Cyberpunk 2020 rules because I couldn’t get past the “retro-70” vision of the future and more than I could get past a strict, RAW version of the Cyperpunk 2020 retro-80’s vision of the future. Interestingly, both games essentially committed suicide when they tried to “re-imagine” themselves by leaping into a darker, “more futuristic” future.

    In any case, I’m really enjoying this series!


  3. I appreciate your read here. When I read Mercenary recently, I was trying to find ways to dismiss it, primarily because I want to experiment with a game where I don’t go down the route of extended character generation.

    But outside of the extended character generation, Mercenary definitely does have stuff to offer to a 1977 LBB inspired game. And actually, in one sense, maybe focusing on those bits has real value rather than just seeing the book as a new character generation system and some cool equipment.

    • Yes, this: “maybe focusing on those bits has real value.”

      One of the things I hope to address more fully (but has been touched on already in the posts) is that people should be taken from the books what they want and ignoring those parts of books they don’t. The notion that somehow the consumers were responsible for stapling together all these contradictory bits of detail and setting and rules that often did not work at all well with each other is one of the most frustrating things about the Classic Traveller legacy.

      The original Books 1-3 have always been called “a toolkit.” In the same way every Book and Supplement should be seen as simply more tools for the Referee and players to rummage through to build the game they want. Many players and groups work this way of course. But there does seem to be a strain of the hobby that thinks it is his duty to use all the pieces a publisher sells even if it runs contrary to the kind of game they might actually want to be playing.

      • And of course there are those who not only buy into the supplement mill, but buy in so hard they dismiss anyone who looks at the original rules.

        Sure, some first edition games are actually broken, but many first edition games are perfectly good games.

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