TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Advantage of Being Remote (for RPG Play)

Age of SailA NOTE: In this post I refer to the “setting” and “the setting of play.” I use the terms interchangeably. I want to be clear about what I’m referring to. In the 1977 edition of Traveller the text states: “Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds)…”

When I refer to “setting” or “the setting of play” that is what I’m talking about: one or two subsectors that the Referee generates what will have enough material for a few years of regular play. That is, “setting” to me is the useful setting material that can be applied directly to RPG play; it is the material the PCs can interact with directly.

Does this mean that the only interstellar governments are located on these one or two subsector maps? Not at all! In fact the original Traveller books assumes that there is a “remote centralized government” beyond the edges of the Referee’s subsector maps. But those elements, though they might provide a framework for the “setting of play.” They are window dressing of sorts, spicing up the setting of play, but not actually part of it. Whether it is one empire, or many polities scattered across countless subsectors, one can have might have background with all sorts of history and politics that extend beyond the “setting of play.” But the focus here is the material the PCs will directly interact with.

Picking up from this post about Book 4 Mercenary, let’s talk for a moment about the advantages of the implicit setting of the original Traveller rules found in Books 1-3 and the explicit setting assumed in Book 4.

As stated, “Traveller assumes a remove, centralized government.” That is, the government is “far back that way…” and we, here in this subsector with our Player Characters, are remote from it.

The government is not here in force. Law, and customs, and society as found back in “civilization” are not here or, if they are here, are not firmly held. There is novelty here. There are fragmented polities, isolated or in conflict, either upon a single world or between worlds.

If you look at the text of the original three little black books of Classic Traveller you’ll find no mention of The Imperium or any reference to any details that later came to define the OTU.

This was on purpose. Miller and company assumed every would go off and build their own settings. (Miller has been explicit about this in interviews.)

Now, I know I keep harping on this. But I do this for two reasons.

First, for some reason, people blow past the fact that game was designed to be much more elastic and to serve as a toolkit for the Referee to build his or her own setting. For some reason, over the decades, the Official Traveller Universe got stapled to the rules of the game. And this misses the delightful play potential waiting to be found in the original rules.

Second, Traveller came out of a specific tradition of roleplaying games. Specifically, as quotes from this post note, the original design and production values of the original Traveller boxed set owe a great deal to the boxed set of three little brown books of the Original Dungeons & Dragons.

And what was the structure of play in the Original Dungeons & Dragons? Players would create characters who were, by definition, adventurers of some sort. They would travel to exotic, remote, dangerous environments beyond the borders of civilization, solve puzzles, engage in combat, and secure treasures of some sort.

If you read the original text of Traveller Books 1-3 you’ll find that the the default assumption is that the PCs travel an area at the edge/frontier/whatever of a centralized government. If you look at the selection of ships, weapons, the world generation system, and how trade works, it is clear they have left “civilization” far behind.

This is why it is not strange that archaic weapons are listed alongside laser carbines. It was assumed that the Player Characters would be adventuring upon worlds where high-enegery weapons had not yet been developed. This is why it is not strange that most starports do not have refined fuel. It is assumed that the interstellar infrastructure required to make interstellar travel safe and routine has not yet reaches the stars the Player Characters will be traveling across. This is why it is not strange that the trade rules don’t match the models of a modern day capitalist society. Because the trade routes are limited and the markets still growing. It is a time of speculation and risk for men and women willing to ply the space between the stars. The Player Characters in a merchant ship are forging a culture of commerce which is only now being built–and built with their help.


I have always assumed the following about the Player Characters, their terms of service, and the setting of player the Referee creates:

The Player served their time in the forces back in “civilized” space, and now — like Civil War soldiers going west, or mustered British soldiers going to the Indies — they are heading off to new lands beyond the direct influence of civilization to make fortunes. (There most likely is a presence of “the remote centralized government” in the area of play. The point is, it is fragile, uncertain, and does not dominate the subsector.)

What does this get us? It gets us a situation very much like the kind of RPG environment that one expected to play in back in the late ’70s: The assumption the PCs are NEW to the area of play. The PCs served their time in the forces back in “civilized” space, and now — like Civil War soldiers going west, or mustered British soldiers going to the Indies — they are heading off to new lands to make fortunes.

What does this mean? It means that the players don’t have to know the setting yet. We might have rumors of what is going on in the subsector (in fact, we should!) but there is no expectation

I bring this up only to say that I don’t think Traveller was ever designed or meant to be played with a four foot stack of supplements supporting it. What mattered was the setting material that the PCs could learn about and interact with through adventures.

This issue of setting bloat is something that happened after the first wave of RPGs. TSR, GDW, and others were certainly happy to produce material that consumers wanted to spend money on. But I question how much valuable utility actually came from such purchases. While I can see the fascination with countless details about fictional worlds I would propose that asking anyone (players or referee) how much digging through and mastering a thick background of setting really matters against having the players focusing on this adventure, right here, right now.

I mean this challenge in the most practical sense: honestly ask how much all that thick material imperial lineage matters to some ex-marines getting caught up in a derelict ship with aliens coming to kill them.

Please note: I’m not talking about having NO context or background. I’m asking: how much does one really need to support sessions of regular play focused on adventure-style tales.

Note as well that the 1977 version of the rules assumed that one or two subsectors would be enough of a setting area to keep players busy for years. (The concept of a “sector” isn’t even in the text!) The 1981 edition said there would never be need to go larger than a sector. (A nod to the release of Spimward Marches material released the same year.)

The OSR in the filed of fantasy RPGs has been solid in their recognition that what you need is to focus on background material that matters to the PCs through play. My own approach to Classic Traveller is to bring this OSR sensibility back to the game. (In this and in other ways.)

I’ll be playing some Classic Traveller tonight, set at the boundaries of interstellar empires (much smaller than the OTU). The remains of a fallen empire will be scattered across the worlds of the subsectors. There will be settlements to lay claim to worlds. Local politics. And, significantly, the PCs will be recent arrivals, here to make their fortunes outside the bounds of civilization, just as the rules of LLBs 1-3 suggest. What they need to know is what they have to learn.


If the Referee plays in a subsector of his own creation, with the centralized government “back that way” [jerk thumb over shoulder], there’s no need to have detailed stacks of information about the Imperial lineage of the royal family going back six hundred years.

That was my point about the comparison to the OSR. I can go dig up fantasy setting books from the 80s and 90s thick with gazetteer-style setting info… and maybe .05% of that stuff will actually have any bearing on a bunch of PCs going into a dungeon.

The OSR, as a design philosophy, is getting rid of useless encyclopedic books like that. The wisdom of some of the OSR publishers is that the setting material that matters is the setting material that PCs can interact with. And it’s fine to have stuff that is about matters far afield from the haunted keep the PCs are exploring, but that none of that matters until they interact with some broach or imprisoned relative or something in the keep that ties into that far afield bit of politics or whatnot. That’s all. That was my point for bringing up the OSR.

There is a reason original Traveller kicked off with the notion that communication worked at the speed of travel. In the implicit setting of Books 1-3 trade and travel are relatively rare and interstellar civilization has not taken full hold of the setting yet. (The “setting” being the subsector of play. The game assumes there is a well-developed interstellar community “back that way.” But that is not the setting of play, per the rules in Books 1-3.)

The PCs with a Type A Trader are like packet boats in the Age of Sails, bringing news and communication to remote areas where trade does not exist. Note, please, that the PCs are contracted to deliver mail on every jump. The PCs’ dinky ship is what folks are depending on to get communication out. (Vital Note: In LBBS 1-3 there is no X-Boat system. The 1981 edition of the rules establishes the concept of “Communication Routes.” Which one can already assume exist from dedicated routes of travel for vital trade routes.)

Now, some people want to blow past these assumptions. That’s fine. Some people find these assumptions intolerable. That’s fined. I don’t want to blow past these assumptions. I like them. I find them inspiring. They are part of why I want to play the game.

My post was built from the default assumptions of LBB Books 1-3 — and specifically Books 1-3, which are in many ways very different in implicit and explicit assumptions about the setting.

So we have worlds which are in some ways settled (by someone, each campaign is different), trade is rare, communication is rare, political connections between worlds is tenuous — so tenuous as to require ties of feudal loyalty to keep any sort of interstellar government going. (And we all know how not-particulary-stable feudalism is.)

All of the above assumptions are from LBB 1-3. I extrapolate from them and find that the PCs will have information about that world they are traveling to. Awesome! But we’re not sitting on a stack of internet forum arguments about how the Imperial council (located a year of travel away) conducts regular business. That’s all. That’s the point. The Imperial Council is “back that way.” It’s the thing the PCs got the hell away from.

Thus, the Referee is responsible for the data for one subsector (maybe two), as the rules state clearly in the 1977 edition. That’s about 40 worlds to kick off with. With the political and cultural elements easily contained and explained within those 80 hexes. Especially since, if using the rules from Books 1-3, the Referee is making up his own subsector. She isn’t worrying about trying do dig through the logic of what someone else wrote and created. She’s got a handle on her own setting because it is hers.

It’s all still relatively a frontier. If the Referee has done her job, it is ripe with adventure possibilities. That means subterfuge, deceit, secrets, changing tides of politics and power, and more. All of this means that the PCs get to interact with the environment, find out more about the environment, impact the environment, and get kicked in the head from the fall out of their actions and the actions of everyone else getting things done.

If a revolution is taking place on a world (and let’s hope the PCs are blessed with chaotic situations taking place on the worlds they visit) the news will be at least one week old by the time anyone in another system hears about it. By the time PCs hear about it will will be one week two two months or more, depending on where they’ve been traveling in the subsector. In one week to two months time of a government’s collapse or the start of a war or a terrorist attack on the construction of an A-Class Starport lots and lots of things will have happened. Who got the news out, what was the agenda, who shaped it, who carried it, what was withheld, what was unknown, what has changed since the news was sent out… these are all questions affect what anyone can know when they arrive in-system.

All of the above rests on (the exciting, in my view) assumptions:

  1. the Referee owning his own setting, per the original rules of creating a subsector;
  2. an emphasis of setting detail on a single subsector to kick off, rather getting caught up in buying a metric ton of setting books far afield from that subsector that have little relevance to the PCs in an adventure;
  3. releasing background information through adventures (the PCs are going to a world? great, they get some info about the world as they Jump, and get more when they land and interact with the world);
  4. that the setting, implicit in the rules, is still on some level undeveloped, not static and safe, and still contains mysteries, crisis, power gaps, confusion, and other details that must still be sorted out by the NPCs and PCs alike.

4 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Advantage of Being Remote (for RPG Play)

  1. I think that while the OSR ideal of getting rid of piles of canonical encyclopedia gazetteers is worthwhile, I also think that the idea of the campaign gazetteer is worthwhile. That is, in effect, what detailing out the one or subsectors are – and I think that it is inevitable that at least some details of whatever imperial government “back there” are both developed and incorporated.

    I’m a huge fan of re-writing the Age of Exploration/Age of Imperialism onto a scifi universe for Traveller.So, frontier area IMTU has a couple of Imperial Governors/Viceroys, I want to know what the local Imperial naval forces looks like, what does the Imperial army do if there is one? Is there a difference between colonial forces and territorial armed forces if there is a difference? Is there a local East India Company (aka megacorporation) or are there multiple different ones?

    The ideal, as you suggest, is to keep it focused on the local area – not the Imperial Core. The trick is that many of the details being laid out have implications on what is happening or what the status quo is “back there”. It’s finding the balance between “bottom up” and “top down” campaign design.

    I think that much of the modern “get back to the OSR spirit” forgets how many assumptions the OSR made about settings. They were both inherent in the RAW as well as in whatever inspirational source the Ref drew upon the most. That’s why worlds looked so different, and why certain people’s game were wildly different – because of the idiosyncratic nature of the OSR.

    That’s what made Runequest and Glorantha so interesting (and inaccessible) for many people – it wasn’t drawing upon the commonly held source material of the era. Instead of medieval or Tolkeinian fantasy it was based on a richly imagined bronze-age setting. The same with Traveller – there is an inherent DNA within the RAW and the descriptions found in the LBB’s that focuses on colonialism rather than transhumanism or space opera or post-apocalypse settings.


  2. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Setting and The Setting of Play | Tales to Astound!

  3. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Start Small | Tales to Astound!

  4. Pingback: From TRAVELLER: Out of the Box to the Third Imperium | Tales to Astound!

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