TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Peculiar Lack of Science-Fiction in Original Traveller

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Here are the Science Fiction concepts in the original Traveller rules, published in 1977 in Books 1, 2, and 3:

  • Jump Drive Technology for Interstellar Travel
  • Interstellar Civilizations
  • Interstellar Communication Moves at the Speed of Interstellar Travel
  • Indigenous Life Forms on Countless Worlds
  • Psionics
  • Cold Sleep
  • Grav Vehicles
  • Advanced Drugs
  • Laser Canons
  • Laser Rifles

That. Is. It.

There are no aliens. No robots. No genetic engineering. Jump Drive technology is never defined. Just the list above. And several of the items on the list are incredibly bland. In fact, overall, the whole list is kind of bland.

Which is kind of weird if you think about it. Why would a game about “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” have so little Science-Fiction in it?


WHY SO LITTLE SCIENCE-FICTION IN TRAVELLER?

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Remember that the original concept for Traveller was very GURPS-ish: a generic system that could emulate every possible part of SF. And in the first year, we did very little support beyond the basic rules. It was only after we started writing adventures that the Imperium started taking shape as a real background.
–Marc Miller

The answer is clear if you look at the quote above.

While GDW would later introduce The Ancients, several alien races, and genetic manipulate of species by the ancients as part of their official setting, none of this appeared until 1979, two years after Traveller was published. (The information would appear introduced in the Library Data found in Adventure 1-The Kinunir and Supplement 3-The Spinward Marches.)

The assumption, of course, is Books 1, 2, and 3 were seen as a complete tool set for the Referee to create his or her own setting. Nothing else need ever have been published. There was, in fact, no plan at the beginning to publish official settings. (In the same way Gary Gygax assumed there would be no need to publish his campaign notes for Greyhawk.  “When I was asked by TSR to do my World of Greyhawk as a commercial product,” Gygax said, “I was taken aback. I had assumed most DMs would far prefer to use their own world settings.”)

Here is the key about the lack Science-Fiction concepts in the first successful Science-Fiction RPG:

Miller didn’t list a bunch of Science-Fiction concepts because he didn’t want to muddy up your setting. He didn’t want to muddy up your fun. He didn’t assume he knew what you would find fascinating and cool and would want to put into your worlds and adventures that you created for your friends.

Take a look at the list above once more. Look at how simple it is. Look at how it establishes the basics for an RPG about traveling from one world to another in a distant future–and then gets out of the way.

Why does it want to get out of the way?

Because Miller assumes you, as the Referee, will be providing the cool Science-Fiction concepts that turn you on and you can’t wait to share. Whether it is something you make up yourself or steal from a book, whether it is a world modeled after Logan’s Run or desert world with giant Sand Worms, Traveller gives you enough to make such worlds, makes it possible for your Players’ characters to travel between such worlds, and then stands back.


THE CORE SCIENCE-FICTION CONCIET OF TRAVELLER

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Let’s pause for a moment and consider the only true SF premise baked into the original Traveller rules. There is only one, and it defines the implied setting and kind of play originally intended by the rules:

  • Interstellar Communication Moves at the Speed of Interstellar Travel

That’s it. In the core rules the only real SF conceit is this: travel between the stars is slow, and communication moves at that speed.

Jump drive tech really isn’t much of a conceit, because by itself it isn’t that interesting. Only coupled with communication issues does it become interesting. (If you tie Jump Drive technology to Psionics, or the need for an exotic, mind-altering drug on a hostile planet, then it would become interesting.)

Travel is slow. Communication is slow. In this way, what specific worlds were like would never be fully known to people not on that world. Even if survey had been done.

If you received news of a world several parsecs away and had to spend two months getting there, what had once been a paradise might well be a war-blasted radioactive nightmare by the time you arrived. Because months had gone by since the last report left. And months would go by before you got there.

When you think about it, once something happens on a world, news has to leave that world (whenever news actually leaves) and it has to be carried somewhere (weeks to months away). And then decisions have be made. And then that information has to be disseminated — and that, give the technology — could take months to years to get out. And in that time, what has happened to that world? Who knows!

(This is why I’m not a fan of Travel Zones, which are introduced in the 1981 edition of the rules. Such Zone mitigate all the uncertainty that I find so appealing with the limitation on communication posited by the core conceit of Traveller.)

Because communication is slow the Player Characters won’t know all the details of every world. Because communication is slow, different worlds will retain their core cultures and remain unique and different from each other. (Trade existed between Great Britain and India in the Age of Sail–but these two lands remained very, very different.)

This is why the crazy-fun, random, prod-to-the-imagination results of random world sitting right next to each other make sense. The reason that a dozen worlds that are really strange can all exist near each other in the same subsector is because there is not a great cross-pollination of travel, ideas, and goods between these worlds. Communication between worlds is carried one ship at a time, on journeys that take weeks if not months.

And what of those ships? If one is using the original Traveller rules, they are less than 5,000 tons. Most of them will be far smaller, working with crews focused on making ends meet… not on spreading culture, news, and enhancing the interstellar society.

Keep in mind, too, that in the Book 2 rules:

Mail and Incidentals: Subsidized merchants may receive mail delivery contracts, usually as an adjunct to their established routes. Five tons of ship cargo capacity must be committed to postal duty on a full time basis, the ship must be armed, and a gunner must be a part of the crew. The starship is paid Cr25,OOO (Cr5,OOO per ton of postal cargo area) for each trip made, regardless of the actual mail tonnage carried. Such tonnage will not exceed 5 tons per trip.

This is how worlds stay in touch. The nominal interstellar government that issues subsidized merchants in order to foster trade and communication hires people to carry mail back and forth between wolds.

The worlds, even with travel between them, are somewhat isolated from each other.

If one uses the Space Lanes rules from the 1977 edition of the rules many worlds in a subsector will not be on any regular commercial route. This means many worlds are utterly dependent on the random ship that happens to decide to arrive in system. (This is the method I prefer.)


MANY WORLDS, MANY WONDERS

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In this way, the Referee is free to concoct whatever worlds of wonder and terror he wishes for his Players. The whole of a world might be extraordinary. Or there might be a singular mystery waiting for the Player Characters on a world that seems otherwise mundane.

This is why there are so many BLANK SPACES in the Technological Levels Table.

It is not a flaw that there are blank spaces. It is not that GDW never got around to filling those things in. It is that it was assumed that the Referee, using the other items on the table as references, would create all sorts of wonders, anomalies, and terrors that he or she thought would make compelling content for a game of “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future.”


THE PLAYING PICES AND THE GAME

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Here is long passage from a post Geoffrey McKinney made at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess site’s forum. It is about the original Dungeons & Dragons. But the original Dungeons & Dragons and the original Traveller are kissing cousins. I’ve quoted this before. But I think it is a vital set of ideas for this post:

The 1974 D&D rules have a specific flavor to them, which I will here refer to as “vanilla”.

The various versions of A/D&D through the decades (as well as their support products) have not travelled far from 1974 in terms of flavor. Thus we have “French vanilla”, “vanilla bean”, “vanilla with nuts”, “vanilla with chocolate syrup”, “vanilla with ______”, etc.

Consider: “This setting has crusty dwarves who have wars with goblins who have chests full of gold and elves living in forests with dragons flying overhead while regenerating trolls live in caves and every town has a cleric to heal people and magic-users will zap you with fireballs and etc.”

I just described almost every published D&D product. Those that supposedly “innovate” from that merely A) add more stuff to that mix (“…plus laser guns and crashed spaceships and robots!”), and/or B) give the above mix some twists (“In this campaign, elves live in the desert and ride anhkhegs.”)…

Ever since the 1970s, people have typically failed to distinguish between A) the D&D game and B) the sample playing pieces included with the game. Just about every D&D product is full of monsters from the standard lists, magic items from the standard lists, spells from the standard lists, and etc. I think that shows a reticence to really unleash the imagination.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the D&D monsters, magic items, and spells are merely suggestions/options/examples. I chucked all but 6 of the standard monsters from Carcosa, and I dumped ALL of them from Isle of the Unknown. All the standard magic items are absent from both those products, as well as all the spells and even magic systems. Demi-humans aren’t there, either. All gone!

The bedrock, the basis of the game is pretty much the standard character generation system for making a human fighter, plus the rules for him to operate: to hit, saving throws, etc. And I think that’s it. Even the equipment lists and prices are merely options. Everything else is wide-open for the referee to make as he wills.

By perceiving all these options as necessities, all too many people will say, “Yeah, but without magic missiles/orcs/dwarves/you-name-it, it just isn’t D&D anymore!” Which is like saying, “If it’s not some kind of vanilla, then it just isn’t ice cream anymore!”

I have as my authorities the very highest: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

They write at the beginning of the 1974 D&D rules under “Scope”: “DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future…”

Then, on the very last page of the rules in the “Afterward”: “We urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!”

Wow.

“D&D can have any setting whatsoever, from the prehistoric to the farthest of futures. And YOU decide (based on your whim alone) how EVERYTHING will be.”

That’s from Gygax and Arneson in January 1974.

It’s too bad that those three sentences have been basically ignored by virtually all publishers of D&D material. There is enough published D&D stuff (of all the vanilla variations) to last anyone 20 lifetimes. I for one have no desire to see another orc or another +1 sword. I want to reach back to the exhortations in the 1974 rules and have some really imaginative stuff published…

There is nothing wrong with vanilla ice cream. Just don’t neglect all the other flavors. I occasionally play a game of vanilla D&D, but most of my D&D games are of various other flavors. Variety is the spice of life!

When thinking about original Traveller (the game found in Books 1, 2, and 3), keep McKinney’s post in mind. What he says of original D&D is exactly how original Traveller was meant to be used as well.

And  just as McKinney exhorts people to make their game of fantasy adventure from D&D, so Traveller asks you to take the lack of Science-Fiction in the game and fill it with what you think is most amazing.

Do you want alien races in your game? Add them. Do you want androids or robots? They are yours to create. Do you want drug addled psionic pilots be the only people capable of navigating the stars? Go for it. A world where bioengineered apes took over the planet from humans? Yup. A world where 12-foot tall, six-armed, green skinned aliens fight with four swords at one time? Done.

As the back cover copy of the rules originally stated:

Rather than simply having you read about a science-fiction adventure, Traveller invites you and your friends to actually take part in the action…

Entire games can be patterned after any of the many science-fiction novels available, with the action following the story line, or diverging when something interesting happens…

The original Traveller rules, just like the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, create a bare framework for you to create any wonders or dangers you wish. No extra rules are needed.

For example, to create aliens or robots all one needs to do is mix and match pieces of rules from Characteristics, Combat, Drugs, and Animal Encounters will allow you to create any sort of alien race or robot. No extra rules are needed.

This is how games were written back in the 1970’s. Not with the expectation that what was in the rules was all there was… but that the rules were a starting point for you to build the game and setting you wanted.


THE ADVANTAGE OF A SCIENTIFICALLY CONSERVATIVE CULTURE AS BASELINE FOR THE PLAYER CHARACTERS

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People have reworked the Traveller rules to build campaigns set in the Star Wars universe, or settings along the lines of Flash Gordon and Star Trek.

And well they should! The point of 1970s RPG rules sets was to provide a framework for the Referee to create whatever setting he wished!

But there is within Books 1-3 a baseline assumption of play:

The Player Characters are mustered out from the military branches of a remote, centralized interstellar government. They have traveled to the edges of their civilization (or even beyond those edges) to seek out adventure and fortune. They are armed with weapons that most of us would recognize today: Shotguns and automatic rifles. There might be a laser rifle among the crew, but this is not guaranteed. Their starship is protected with missiles and and laser cannons. Most armor is armor we would recognize today. (Battledress exists, but is not only expensive, but it is rare for any Player Character to end up with the ability to use it.)

All in all, the Player Characters seem armed with, and to come from a culture similar to, our own.

What is the advantage of this?

It is, in my view, to make the strange stand out more.

If the Player Characters are from what I will call a “Scientifically Conservative Culture” it means that when the Referee introduces technology that is more advanced or strange it might provoke curiosity, awe, or even fear from the Players themselves. The Players, via their Player Characters, will have to poke and prod (or run from) the strange things that exist, because their knowledge of extraordinary technology, aliens, and cultures is limited.

Early RPGs (and by this I mean specifically original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller) were games of exploration, in which the Player Characters traveled to strange environments where the Players had to use their wits and imagination (via their Player Characters) to overcome puzzles and situations in search of treasure. The hows and whys of this vary, as well as the kinds of treasure, but this was the original structure of play.

By making the Player Characters (and their gear and culture) non-exotic, the exotic that they find as they travel world to work can remain exotic. The Referee can come up with (or steal from other media) strange, unique, and exotic situations, locals, technology and culture, and because of the basic premise of the game, the Players Characters will no know more about these exotic elements than the Player Characters themselves.

This means a simple die roll cannot be used to understand or solve the situations at hand because the Player Character has the appropriate skill. Instead, the Players, imaginatively and in detail, will have to describe the ways in which their characters sort out the novel situation at hand.

I understand this might not be the way people play RPGs in general or Traveller in particular. But it is the kind of play Traveller was originally designed to be played.

In this way the game follows in the footsteps of the kind of pulp SF that inspired it–books like the Dumarest series and others, in which characters traveled from world to world, encountering unique and peculiar cultures, technology, aliens, problems, and opportunities that had to be puzzled out on the fly.


AND THEN THERE IS THE THIRD IMPERIUM…

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A final note:

All of the above is written, as always, with the point of view of the playing with Books 1-3 of Traveller, without any concern for GDW’s Official Traveller Universe or the source material and rules that came after those first three books.

This is not because I hate the Third Imperium as a setting (I don’t), or that I don’t think people should use it (I think that people should use whatever setting they want).

But as I’ve outline several times, using Books 1-3 alone produces a certain kind of setting and play, and playing with the Official Traveller Universe provides a different kind of setting and play.

The matter of exotic technology (and the lack of it) is one more subject where the differences are stark.

Because, as far as I can tell, when GDW developed the Third Imperium they took the scientifically conservative culture that served as a baseline for the PCs and spread this scientifically conservative culture across all the stars.

Yes, yes… there are the Ancients and Grandfather. Yes, yes… there are several genetically modified races. But how strange are they to the Player Characters? How much do the Player Characters actually interact with the strangeness? The Ancients leave artifacts that are mysterious, but do not, by definition change anything in the setting. (In fact, in the Adventure 12–Secrets of the Ancients, when the PCs discover the secret of the ancients, it is done in a pocket universe that precludes a) any interaction between the “secret” and the setting; and b) any way for the PCs to prove that they have found any secrets at all.) Meanwhile, the Vargr, the Aslan and others were mostly developed as political entities, and not particularly strange once one got past a few cultural distinctions. (That the key alien races are there in the setting as political entities and not as strange SF Aliens to foster awe and terror makes sense, of course, given that the setting became more and more a setting for GDW board games, and less and less focused on RPG play.)

Notice that Official Traveller Universe reads very much like the “Vanilla Setting” McKinney describes above.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. As a setting the Third Imperium is on of the great accomplishment of the RPG hobby.

My point is only that the lack of awe, wonder, terror, and weirdness flies in the face of the original intent of the rules. And since these blog posts are about that original intent, here’s what I offer for how to develop a setting that runs along a different path than that created by GDW:

  1. Per the instructions in the 1977 edition of Book 3, develop only 1 or 2 subsectors
  2. Assume that the Player Characters served their terms in one of the various branches of the military in a centralized government and mustered out
  3. Assume after that the Player Characters, trained with skills that will allow them to pursue the fortune they seek at the edges of, or beyond the edges of their interstellar government, journey for a few months or more until their centralized government is remote
  4. Arriving in the subsector beyond the easy reach of their government, the Player Characters, armed with skills and gear, and perhaps a ship, begin their journeys
  5. What do they find? They find whatever weirdness the Referee cannot wait to share with them. There might be mundane worlds, of course. But across the subsector of 40 worlds the Referee has created there will be  many weird science fiction elements to explore, interact with, survive, and exploit. In some settings each world might be an “island” of weirdness all on its own. Or the Referee might create a subsector in such a way that a science fiction premise (or two or three) have spread out across many worlds, creating situations and crisis that invoke interstellar politics within the subsector
  6. The Player Characters interact with the cultures, aliens, and technology of these Science Fiction elements. They are strangers to the subsector. Even if armed with information about the subsecector, they will mostly have rumors from the Rumor Table designed for the subsector, with each PC beginning with one rumor. (More rumors can be gained using the rumor rules.)
  7. The PCs will discover, explore, and deal with the mysteries waiting for them

At least, that’s how I’ll be doing it when I make my subsector.

And even if the above bullet points aren’t what interest you, keep in mind the following:

  • In Books 1-3 there is very little Science Fiction
  • There is little Science Fiction so you can add the Science Fiction you want
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5 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Peculiar Lack of Science-Fiction in Original Traveller

  1. My very first Traveller campaign was a power-political game with the players being actively serving members of the mighty Terran Empire. The retirement roll was when you started play, so most players were high muckety-mucks or working directly for the high muckety-mucks in a distant sector threatened by both rebellion and hostile aliens. [And because we had no Marine tradition (using Naval Infantry or Commando instead), I wrote a Security branch to replace it in honour of H Beam Piper’s Ministry of Disturbance. And tremble in fear at the mighty Nova Class Dreadnaughts of the Terran Empire – all 5,000 tons of them!]

    My second campaign was a variant of Warp War is that I assumed a mass-distance effect on shipping. Which meant that the further away from the home world you went the more expensive it was to ship goods. So you got a declining tech level because you no longer had the industrial infrastructure to support the technology. Because I was amused by having interstellar war at the frontier being dependent upon the clash of Roman-style legions. [Or rather i wanted to play with the interaction of different tech levels. Sure everyone knew what lasers were – they just might not have actually ever seen any.]

    My third campaign was set entirely in the Solar system and was a high frontier game. All I did was assume that fuel was reaction mass (water as a rule), power plants were self-contained fusion plants “burning” tritium scraped from the solar winds, the jump drive was a low efficiency high thrust fusion torch, the maneuver drive was a high efficiency low thrust ion drive, and that actual orbital mechanics were used as a matter of course. While the Earthworms needed the Vaccheads to supply them with resources the spacers had become established enough not to need Earth to such a degree (and there was always the black market for valuable goods that could only be made in microgravity), so the “natives” were getting rather restless. Was interesting that it inverted the paradigm that communication was slow. Instead people could know about things happening but be helpless to do anything about it because they were in the wrong place. One Terran security operative even took the gamble that something was happening out at Far Reach Station at Pluto (it was, but not the actual MacGuffin the campaign was built around). [If he’d been right he’d have “won.”]

    This is the sort of fun you can have when even a default setting isn’t strongly defined. Each was a quite different game and explored different SF themes. For the first two games the Third Imperium was nowhere near the horizon (and I didn’t even know the difference between an Empire and an Imperium at the time [and there is one]). For the third the source was another GDW game, Belter. [I even actually got criticised by someone for calling the game Traveller when it didn’t actually feature the Third Imperium (it was a large multiplayer campaign run at Uni). A sense of entitlement that was quite alien to me, especially since he wasn’t in the game.] Don’t get me wrong, the Third Imperium is a decent setting and the number of contributors over the years have made it an extremely rich one. but there is a whole wide universe of possibilities out there waiting to be explored…

    [I then moved onto other chimaeric games – such as using Privateers & Gentlemen to tell the story of the rebellion of the Fringe Worlds (and didn’t even bother to change most of the names of historical events [a sad lament on Australia’s history syllabus as regards the New World (clue it didn’t involve it at all)]). Or running a fantasy naval game that was actually Star trek in disguise. Fun! Although I’ve got a hankering to pull out Traveller again and do something interesting with it. I suspect brave explorers venturing into the unknown to make discoveries for science! <grin>]

    • What a great post! Thanks so much! I love all the things you created to share with your friends!

      And yes, in the Traveller RPG community there is a big split between those who think the Traveller is the official setting created by GDW, and those who think it is a set of rules to create whatever setting you want. A large reason this series of posts exists is to make the case for the latter. So that if folks show saying, “You’re doing it wrong! It’s about the Third Imperium!” I can say, “Play what you want… but that’s not what the original rules were for.”

      Also, if I may ask, how did you stumble across this blog?

      • Excellent Comment. You have had some exceptional games out of the original box. It sounds like you created an orbital style campaign. Good stuff…

  2. Pingback: MartinRalya.com & Yore | A new appreciation for the 1977 version of Traveller

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