TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Setting and The Setting of Play


In the section on generating the setting, the 1977 rules state: “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.”

The 1981 rules, on the other hand, state: “Sixteen subsectors (arranged in four rows of four subsectors each) form a sector, probably the largest size practical for a continuing Traveller campaign.” There is no mention of the details from the 1977 quote.

Note that in the 1977 rules, the process is laid in the most practical terms: “Here’s how you start. Here’s how much you need.” (The term “sector” never appears at all in the 1977 edition.)

I consider this difference huge, as in one case the Referee is told that 40 or 80 worlds is enough to get going with play. And in the other case it is implied that he or she should probably generate 640 worlds to create a fair sized setting for play.

Now, a question: How many of those worlds are going to be used? And how many are really needed? Especially if one is using Books 1-3 (where travel is much more limited that the prosaic journey through space Book 5 offers)?

How many worlds will a Traveller group burn through in a session of play? Even if a group spent only on session per world we’re still talking 10 months of play in one subsector.

Is that enough to get going? Is that enough so the poor Referee is not overwhelmed with the prep to have some fun with his friends? And how maddening is it when one begins building over 600 worlds and the moment of realization arrives that in point of fact, the Players will simply never get around to visiting most of the worlds and the Referee has not idea how to get them to those he wants without railroading them onto them.

I bring all this up because my point of view is about the practical nature of RPG play. What is the most effective use of time and resources to have a good time with friends?

The notion that one has to chart Huge Swaths of Space is where a lot of Traveller games falter, where the Referee can feel overwhelmed and swamped. And it flies in the face of the rules for starships, J-drives, and the dangers of space, where simply traveling a few parsecs can be a big deal in and of itself. (My guess is the 1981 edition reflections the publication of the Spinward Marches, wherein the sector became the “standard unit” of campaign play.)

Does this mean that the one or two subsectors a Referee creates are all there is? Does this mean there can’t be star spanning empires and more?

Of course not.

The trick is always to think, “This is where the action is!”

I don’t care if the Imperial core is 16 sectors away. Or if Duke Whatever is involved in political machinations four subsectors away. Whatever subsector the Referee builds should be where the action is, where the most interesting things are happening (even if no one knows about them yet).

Something is happening in the star systems of this subsector — some precious resource, some technological mystery, some ancient alien mysticism — whatever — that makes the subsector at hand where the action is.

I have two phrases I use for Traveller now:

The Setting and The Setting of Play.

The “Setting” might involve an 11,000 world empire that has existed a thousand years. But none of that matters.

What matters is “the Setting of Play” — where the PCs are, where the game is set.

The “Setting” involves all the things that happen “back that way,” toward the remote, centralized government the Player Characters came from.

The “Setting of Play” is the focus of the campaign, especially at the start of play. The Setting of Play might expand. But no matter what remains focused on the locals the Player Characters might adventure in.

An example:

Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a whole world, with many peoples and many lands. That is “The Setting.”

But in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we see only this:


This is “The Setting of Play.” This is where the action is.

All that world beyond the “The Setting of Play” is mentioned, inferred, and impacts events in the The Setting of Play. But the main characters don’t go to it, don’t worry about it, don’t think much about it… because the action is right where they are.

The Setting of Dune is a huge expansive interstellar empire. The events of the book will determine the fate of trade, politics, and noble families of this sprawling empire. And yet, the “Setting of Play” is almost exclusively set on one planet.

When you build your Traveller setting, it can in extend far beyond the boundaries of your first subsector. But remember that the focus of play is the Setting of Play.

Not only does this keep you sane, it keeps you honest. “Is this subsector interesting?” you have to ask yourself. “There are forty worlds here. Am I really making sure there’s something interesting an unique for each of them?” And looking at the subsector as a whole, “What is happening between these worlds right here? Am I intrigued with it? Is it exciting? Would I want to stay and adventure here?”

Because this subsector right in front of you? This is where the action is.

8 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Setting and The Setting of Play

  1. Hi. Having loved Traveller since the 77 boxed set, I wanted to mention how much I love your blog. Also, the late Doug McKinney published a PDF on RPGnow that details all the differences between rules and such in all the classic Traveller editions. If you have not seen that, check it out. It’s so cool.

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