TRAVELLER and “Hard Science Fiction” — I don’t think so…

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In an interview from 1981, Marc Miller suggests that the biggest influences for Traveller were numerous. Of note were SF series by Jack Vance, E.C. Tubb, and Poul Anderson.

Now, here’s a thing:

There’s no “right” way to play Traveller, nor is there any “correct” setting for Traveller. The short stories and novels Miller references would never make a coherent whole. Like Gygax referencing several dozen fantasy authors, there is no single coherent world to be built out of these tales. They are there for inspiration for the Referee to build his or her own setting for play.

Keep in mind that this series of posts is about the 1977 & 1981 editions of Traveller Books 1-3. There is no mention of any specific setting in these book, and Miller in several interviews over the years makes it clear there that in 1977, (when Traveller was first released) there was no official setting and he assumed players of the game would make their own settings.

When I make the following points, then, I’m not saying, “Your Traveller setting should be like this.” On the other hand, I’m trying to disabuse certain people from running around the Internet telling them that they’re playing Traveller “wrong” because their setting makes no sense.

What I am saying is this:

Somehow, over the years, Traveller got a reputation for being a game of Hard Science Fiction. This is strange, since the underlying assumptions of the game (the Main World creation rules, the trade rules, concepts such as interstellar piracy, the notion of low tech worlds and high tech worlds being neighbors, and so on) all work against the notion of a contemporary concept of an interstellar civilization, let alone modern day understanding of astrophysics, economics, and engineering.

Thus, a weird things happens:

People attack the Traveller rules for “not making sense,” for “not being realistic.” Flamewars have broken out over the logic (or lack thereof) of Interstellar Trade, Piracy, Ship Design, and more. People point out that the computers are too large, that the world generation system flies in the face of astrophysics, and so forth. Decades have been spent trying to bring the rules and setting of Traveller into alignment with the Hard Science Fiction that Traveller is “supposed” to be.

But the fact is, Traveller was never supposed to be Hard Science Fiction. It was designed to allow RPG play in fictional situations inspired by SF tales published in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Here are some passages from tales and authors that helped inspire Traveller:

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The Mercury did not, outwardly, look different after the engineers were finished with her. Her cargo was the same as usual, too: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, tea, whisky, gin. If he was going to Antares, van Rijn did not intend to waste the voyage. He did omit wines, doubting their quality could stand as rough a trip as this one would be.

Margin of Profit (1956)
Poul Anderson


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BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER is spread the broad belt of the asteroids. Of the thousands, known and unknown, most unique to the Freak Century was the Sargasso Asteroid, a tiny planet manufactured of natural rock and wreckage salvaged by its inhabitants in the course of two hundred years.

They were savages, the only savages of the twenty-fourth century; descendants of a research team of scientists that had been lost and marooned in the asteroid belt two centuries before when their ship had failed. By the time their descendants were rediscovered they had built up a world and a culture of their own, and preferred to remain in space, salvaging and spoiling, and practicing a barbaric travesty of the scientific method they remembered from their forebears. They called themselves The Scientific People. The world promptly forgot them.

The Stars My Destination (1956)
(First Serialized in Galaxy Magazine)
Alfred Bester


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There was no cycle of night and day on Gath. Always the swollen ball of the sun glowered over the horizon, tinting the leaden sea the colour of blood. To the east there was darkness, cold, mysterious. Between light and dark ran a strip of bearable temperature but only here, on this waterlogged world, did it touch both land and ocean. The accident of distribution had helped to make the planet unique.

‘A dying world,’ said a voice. It was soft, carefully modulated. ‘Angered at the knowledge of its inevitable end. A little jealous, a little pathetic, very much afraid and most certainly cruel.’

‘You are speaking of Gath?’ Seena Thoth, ward of the Matriarch of Kund, stayed looking through the window set into the wall of the tent. There was no need for her to turn. She had recognised the voice. Synthosilk rustled as the tall figure of Cyber Dyne stepped to her side.

‘What else. My Lady?’

‘I thought it possible you spoke in analogy.’ She turned and faced the cyber. He wore the scarlet robe of his class; beneath its cowl his face was smooth, ageless, unmarked by emotion. ‘The Matriarch is also old, perhaps a little afraid, most certainly cruel— to those who oppose her will.’

‘To be a ruler is not an easy thing, My Lady.’ ‘It can be worse to be a subject.’ She turned from the window, her face pale beneath the black mound of lacquered hair. ‘I saw one before we left Kund, a man impaled on a cone of polished glass. They told me that his sensitivity to pain had been heightened and that he would take a long time to die.’

‘He was a traitor, My Lady. The manner of his death was chosen so as to serve as an example to others who might be tempted to rebel.’

The Winds of Gath (1967)
E.C. Tubb


Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing the kind of science fiction in those passages so beloved by those who want their science fiction to be hard and real.

What I am seeing, however, is excellent setting material and inspiration for the kinds of settings that might work GREAT for roleplaying game settings.

I need to note that while the stories quoted above are not Hard SF as we’d think of it today, it is science fiction. Each tale has a self-contained logic gussied up with scientific principles of one sort or another that the protagonists interact with. The settings are not haphazard, nor do they come off as arbitrary or goofy. (They are playful, but not goofy.)

Many people might not like these settings. That’s fine. Many people might not want such settings in their Traveller game. That’s fine.

But I’m here to tell you that it is these unique, exotic, and, frankly, often illogical tales that inspired the rules, feel, and tone of the original Books 1-3 of Traveller. (Why van Rijn, let alone anyone, would be hauling around whisky between the stars and assume to make a profit is insane, of course. But that’s exactly what the trade rules in Traveller model.)

When people look at Traveller and expect Hard SF they will will be disappointed. But if they look at the tales that actually inspire Miller, things make sense.

They’ll find wandering protagonists going from world to world, challenged by strange creatures, ecologies, societies, and puzzles that, if not based on science are at least self-consistent in the tale itself. This is the kind of set up that would be wonderful for an RPG setting.

And, of course, that is exactly what the Traveller rules are built to create in preparation for play, and play itself.

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17 thoughts on “TRAVELLER and “Hard Science Fiction” — I don’t think so…

  1. I would also recommend Andre Norton’s various S-F novels for anyone wanting to understand the ‘feel’ of original, classic Traveller. The Solar Queen series in particular should pretty much be required reading for anyone wanting to run a ‘free trader’ type of game.

  2. Great post. One of the most odd things about many folk’s understanding of “hard sci-fi” is that it exists on a continuum and what was once “hard sci-fi” a few decades now is not consistent with the our current understandings of science and the universe. This will always be an ever-changing knowledge frontier and good stories do not need to cling to that boundary… And that, of course, brings up what is the purpose of sci-fi, to which I say there are many and entertainment is one of them.

    • Where’s the “+1” button? Poul Anderson, at least, was an exemplar of “hard” SF writing back in the day, but the nature of most readers’ understanding of “hard” SF makes “hardness” a moving target, if not a receding one.

      I offer an alternative definition of Hard SF offered recently by James Nicoll: SF that provides enough technical detail that the reader can be certain that various mechanisms and events couldn’t work the way the author has them working.

    • I can’t say you’re wrong about that.

      To be honest, I’m not much interested in nailing down the label of the genre.

      What really intrigues me, and the point of this post, is looking at the actual, concrete tales that inspired Traveller Books 1-3, and seeing how so much these books make a solid, coherent game for RPG play in the light of those stories.

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  4. I am find of hard SF from the 30s and 40s, such as Doc Smith’s “Spacehounds of IPC” (he reputedly once said that was the only actual science fiction piece he ever wrote) or George Smith’s Venus Equilateral stories. Hard SF entirely based on tube technology. In Spacehounds, the term computer refers to the navigational mathematician who sets up the problems on the various electro-mechanical devices used for astrogation.

    Back in my hands on salad days as a gamer, I had a homebrew Daredevils campaign set in a Captain Future /Tom Corbett type Solar System, ranging from the jungles of Venus to the deserts of Mars and the icy Jovian and Saturnian lunar cultures. Happy times.

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