TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Distant, Isolated Worlds of Original Traveller

Sister's Reach Subsector ColorLet’s talk about Jump technology and its impact on the implied setting of the original (Books 1-3) Traveller game.

As originally conceived, Traveller is about “travellers” going from one world to the next. Access to travel across the stars is allowed by Jump Drives. Jump Drives have severe limitations based on the technology assumptions built into the rules:

  1. Tech Levels of worlds will cap what Drives and Computers can be built (in the original rules there are no “Average Tech Level” or “Above Average Tech Level.” The Referee to set the TLs to his or her preference, or used the TLs of worlds in his subsector as the cap.)
  2. Drive technology is limited by the hull size of ships (at some point, cramming higher drives and plants into too small a hull means no room for anything else).
  3. The risk of unrefined fuel for travel limits how far afield a starship can travel from A and B starports before it begins risking damage (and worse) to the ship.
  4. In the original 1977 rules, there were things called Space Lanes. These indicate the regular trade routes in a subsector. Every world off those Space Lanes will depend on a privately owned ship, a charter, or Free Trader making his or her own run to the world. Moreover, when combined with the Jump Cassette rules form 1997, a ship without the Generate program cannot travel off Space Lane routes. Some ships will have the 0.8MCr program… but others will be paying the 10,000Cr a pop for the Jump Cassette of the already mapped Space Lane. This, too, limits the worlds traveled to on a regular basis. (You can see an example of Space Lanes above. I’m currently reworking the Five Sisters subsector from Supplement 3–The Spinward Marches using earlier rules.)
  5. Most ships in the “small universe” setting of the original books will have drives capable of making Jumps of 1, 2, or 3 parsecs. (Most at 1 or 2.) This means three big things:
    • Travel is slow, since it will take weeks or months for most ships to get across a subsector.
    • Many worlds will be severely isolated form each other. For example, in the Five Sister Subsector, the three clusters of stars are separated by 3 parsec jumps. Without a J-3 ship, ships with J-1 or J-2 will be taking the long way around through District 268 to get to the Wonstar Cluster taking a year or more time. Getting to the Raweh Cluster is impossible for such ships. Now, J-3 or J-4 ships are available. But even if such a ship travels to the world of Raweh (starport B) will it really take the time to go to the worlds of 876-574, 769-422, or Wonderay (all starport E) or Jinx (starport D)? Because the assumption in the original rules that no, they wouldn’t. They’d be bigger ships, built for a purpose, most likely with larger cargo holds. Regular commercial traffic would be tied to the A and B starports, maybe C. But by definition D, E, and X starports would be handled by the rare ship that appears because it has traveled off the beaten path.
    • Which leads to the final big point: Communication is tied to travel. We all know that, but given the above points, the idea of original Traveller was the so many worlds of a subsector would be physically isolated by all the points above that communication would isolate them as well.

All of this comes down to this: Many worlds separated by distance, lack of trade, and lack of communication. This separates them culturally and scientifically. They are discrete communities that share little in common and are often exotic and strange if compared to one another.

This is part and parcel of the original Traveller premise, all driven by the Jump Drive technology and the way stars are set out on a subsector map.

Over time, these assumptions changed or were scuttled: the dropping of Space Lanes in the 1981 rules; the introduction of Communication Routes in Supplement 3 (which were made part of the rules in the 1981 of the game); the introduction of easy-to-access purification plants in Highguard (what ships would not install these things?), and finally the declaration in The Traveller Book that “In the distant future, when humanity has made the leap to the stars, interstellar travel will be as common as international travel is today…” and that “and that travel from one stellar system to another is commonplace…”

All in all, these changes both implied and stated clearly that traveling back and forth between words was common and easy. It was a different kind of setting than the one implied in the original Books.

But for the kind of play that Traveller was originally designed to produce (traveling between unique, exotic worlds and having adventures on them in the style of the SF that Marc Miller read from the 50s and 60s), these base assumptions were part and parcel of a setting that all worked together in an elegant way to make space travel exotic, strange, and special. The people who traveled to different worlds were set apart because they did things few did, and saw things most people never knew about.

9 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Distant, Isolated Worlds of Original Traveller

  1. Hi, been enjoying these posts (Thanks Omer) Something made me wonder what the Spinward Marches would look like boiled down to a subsector (or a Stars Without Number sector), especially if you had smaller interstellar states and most ships were J1 or J2. As a direct compression it doesn’t work very well, but it did make me realise even the Spinward Marches had its core areas which aren’t covered in much detail (the Lunion-Mora-Glisten-Trin area for the Imperials, and the Cronor-Querion-Jewell area for the Zhodani) and its peripheral adventure areas (Regina-Aramis-Rhylanor-Lanth and District 268).

  2. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making the Sister’s Reach Subsector (1) | Tales to Astound!

  3. If you use the sub-sector random generation rules, the worlds aren’t really that distant and isolated. I’ve generated a few since I got the books a few days ago, and almost all the worlds are connected in a single network. In the Five Sisters sub-sector, the number of hexes with a world seems to be about 1/3, but in the LBBs the written assumption is that the number is about 1/2. This drastically increases the amount of connectedness. Of course this is accompanied with notes that you can change it to suit your game.

    • You are correct that the number of stars in the Five Sisters star system is fewer than average. (It is, perhaps, one of the reasons I was drawn to use it as my template.) It is why there are isolated clusters in the subsector above. But for all that, I do think that given the assumptions in the post above, many of the worlds are still isolated and distant, if not as dramatically as in the Five Sisters subsector. Here is where I see things perhaps differently than you:

      First, the distances remain not matter if there are fewer gaps between worlds. A crew on board a J1 or J2 ship is still going to spend months crossing a subsector, even if there is a connected path between the stars.

      Moreover, using the original Space Lane rules (which the post assumes) is going to seriously cut down how many jumps are viable for the crew specifically and commercial traffic generally. I don’t think I can stress how drastically the nature of Space Lanes changes the “topography” of a subsector. It is no longer a 2D space where all routes between worlds are equally viable. Routes that are not on Space Lanes are isolated — not because of distance but because of the lack of trade and traffic of any kind to them. If one keeps in mind the metaphor of the Age of Sail introduced in the opening pages, these worlds, then become all the places on the earth that ships never travel to, trade never reaches. They are the places where civilizations are often untouched by explorers from other lands, or only know them in passing or as strangers, invaders, or threats to their way of life.

      This is why the shift from Space Lanes to Communication Routes from the 1977 to the 1981 edition are such a big deal. First, they remove a big barrier that the first edition of the rules imposes on ease of access to many worlds. (Again, both the Player Characters will have to spend more money to travel to these worlds, but in the fictional setting it is assumed that most ships don’t travel to or stop at these worlds.) Then it adds the Communication Routes that doubly reduces the in-fiction ease of news not only between worlds, but between subsectors, implying that all of space is easy connected. This view is later emphasized in the text of both Starter Traveller and The Traveller Book. But it wasn’t the feel of the random settings created by the 1977 edition.

      Finally, in Books 1-3, there is no Imperium to use as a guideline and it is assumed the Referee will determine the TLs of his overall setting. Depending on where the Referee sets the Tech Level, the jump capability of starships might be severely curtailed, and the size of ships might be relatively small as well. Ships might partially cap out at J2 or J3, with the rare J4. Or there might only be J2. This “dial” of TL for starships also serves to create isolation and distance, because no matter what the star distribution, they will require more time and resources to get to them.

      Notice in the points above, when I speak of “isolated” and “distant” I am speaking of these things from the point of view of human who travel the stars — not by looking down with a God’s eye view of the star map. Looked at from a great enough distance many thing will look “clustered” together. But when one is responsible for sitting in a tin can and making one’s way jump-to-jump, with two weeks from each world to world, with many worlds lacking commercial traffic between them, then many worlds will, in fact, in the context of the fictional setting, feel isolated and distant.

      Thank you for your interest in the blog and taking the time to comment!

      What sort of setting are you creating?

      • For reference, here’s the subsector I generated . I ended up erasing all Jump-4 routes, and at the bottom I erased some Jump-3 routes just so I could isolate a few systems from the rest of the network. Otherwise, they’d all be connected, except for an X and an E starport planet. You’re right that even planets in a network can be distant, but hardly any are truly isolated. It is almost always possible to buy passage to another world. There are other factors though, such as time, money, and just what a nearby planet has to offer. It would take months to cross the sub-sector. It would take years to earn passage through mundane work. Not many planets are lush, earth-like planets. Most are small, have poor atmospheres, and small populations. Not saying that’s bad, the referee doesn’t need (or maybe even want) a bunch of Earths for the players to adventure on.

        I haven’t decided exactly what sort of setting I’ll make. I’ll write up some descriptions for a few planets and we’ll start our game, see where it goes from there.

      • Maybe I can’t post links. If you go to and add f1oLBKu to the end it’ll be the picture.

  4. ,I had the idea of converting District 268 to a proto Traveller setting by shifting it’s boundaries rimward and spinward. So no Imperial world’s just the Collace navy trying discourage pirates from Trexalon. You also get a back country with a few B starports on the far side to speculate trade with. Then populate with successive waves of Droyne, Vilani, Darrian and Sword World colonies levened with more recent Vargr and Aslan traders to give some true exotic atmosphere.

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