Tales to Astound!

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


Let’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.