TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making the Sister’s Reach Subsector [Underlying Design Philosophy]

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Inspired by recent conversations at Citizens of the Imperium about Proto-Traveller, I’ve decided to work up subsector notes based on early Classic Traveller materials.

The idea is to take some of the material that GDW published in the first couple of years after the original Traveller rules came out, be inspired by them (but not beholden to them), and make the setting that I’d like to make. In other words, use the stuff I might have bought in the 1970s and use them exactly as they were meant to be used.

In this post from last year I outlined Subsector Basic Assumptions. These are the notions that interested me while digging into Books 1-3. The post is a listing of many of the rules found in original Traveller Books 1-3 and the setting details implications I found inspiring.

Remember that there is no “right” setting for Traveller. We will all read the rules and find different elements that excite us. We will also build setting influenced by the books and movies we loved, but experiences in our life, because of the focus of our own interests and passions.

I know that the setting I’m building here is influenced by the novel Dune, the Dumarest books (which were also a prime inspiration for Marc Miller as he wrote Traveller), and my love for a certain strain of adventure movies which usually feature former soldiers who become gold hunters, mercenaries, and trail blazers. Here’s a post about such movies and how I see them fitting in with Traveller. But, a quick list of such movies would include:

  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • The Wages of Fear
  • The Man Who Would Be King
  • Yojimbo
  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • Rififi
  • Le Cercle Rouge
  • The Wild Bunch
  • The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
  • Heat
  • The Seven Samurai

Finally, although this might seem beyond the scope of setting, I should note that I won’t be having any over-arching plot or campaign scheme. For the style of play I want, the Players will chose the direction they want their characters to take. Their choices will lead to adventure and action, which, in turn, will create the “stories.” That is, the stories are the wake left behind by the characters’ choices and actions.

The adventures are episodic and picaresque in the style of the pulp SF short stories and novellas that inspired original Traveller or the short stories and novellas that inspired original Dungeons & Dragons. I, as the Referee, have no tale to tell. My job is to provide opportunities and obstacles to the goals the Players decide for their characters.

The characters go to a world and have an adventure. That adventure ends. They go to another spot on that world (or another world entirely) and have an adventure. Details accumulate. Allis and enemies that they make in one adventure come back to haunt or help them. But such details grow naturally–not because I’m forcing them, but because the interest and focus of the Players make these particular non-player characters and details important. Thus, if you will, the “backstory” of the campaign is found in the first four to six adventures and grows from there.

Keeping this in mind matters, because I will want a setting that encourages this kind of play. I will want exotic and unique worlds chock full of adventure possibilities. In this way the players can go off in any direction they wish, but still have compelling conflicts and adventures. And I want to have a setting that seems full of distant and isolated worlds so that traveling between them really feels like the Player Characters are traveling from one unique place to the next.

With all that in mind, I’m beginning to dig down into the setting I want to create from play. Here are the basic rules I’ll be working from…


The 1977 edition of Book 3 states:

Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds).

Note that there term “sector” appears nowhere in the 1977 rules.

Thus, I’m limiting myself to one subsector at the start. Thus, there is no need to map out a whole sector. (I discuss the matter of scale and setting in this post, “The Setting and the Setting of Play.”)

I picked up Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches and flipped through it. I decided on using The Five Sister Subsector as my starting subsector. I want something as far away from Imperial influence as possible.

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I’m doing this in part to show how the rules can be used to create settings that are very different.

With that in mind, note that I am not beholden to the subsctor map or its details in any way. It is my setting, and in the spirit of early roleplaying materials, my job is to take the supplement and books I buy and turn them into the setting I want.

One of the first changes is this: A subsctor in this setting is not a political division of the Imperium. It is an arbitrary unit of space (which is what it was in both the 1977 and 1981 editions of the rules.) I believe the implications of this are clear: rather than seeing the subsector with the an overlay of the Imperium on top of it, the setting is its own thing. The politics, conflicts, and more, are local.


Supplement 3 describes the Imperium this way:

Imperium: The lmperium is a strong interstellar government encompassing 281 subsectors and approximately 11,000 worlds. Approximately 1,100 years old, it is the third human empire to control this area, the oldest, and the strongest. Nevertheless, it is under strong pressure from its neighboring interstellar governments, and does not have the strength nor the power which it once had.

That’s exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want a strong centralized government that’s going to come in and keep the peace all the time and provide so much structure that the Player Characters don’t have a chance to do much. I’m creating a Player Character focused game. I want loose, local authority. I want conflicts, stress, and danger both on worlds and between worlds.

If one reads the early Traveller adventures, one find an Imperium that kidnaps senators, experiments on sentient aliens, and rounds up the economically desperate to send them off on colonization ventures. This selfishness of the ruling class is defiantly something I want to keep as well.


I want to lean into the Age of Sail metaphor from Book 1:

The major problem, however, will be that communication, be it political, diplomatic, commercial, or private, will be reduced to the level of the 18th century, reduced to the speed of transportation.

In fact, I want to lean into the following sentence as well:

The result is a large (bordering on the infinite) universe ripe for the adventurer’s bold travels.

With those passages in mind, I want to have a collection of Distant, Isolated Worlds, separated by the limits of technology and the vastness of space.

The Spinward Marches are built on the empires and civilizations that existed before the Third Imperium. The Third Imperium spread into this region… but even as it did so, the power of the Third Imperium was waning.

This means most people, and most worlds, are focused on the concerns immediate to them. Most worlds still have corners not yet explored, resources not yet exploited, and ruins and mysteries still available. Most people do not travel between the stars. It is a dangerous thing to do, Trade is limited to a few regular routes sponsored by noble families, political entities on worlds, mercantile companies (sometimes propped up by the previous two groups), and free traders who ply the lanes where others often do not go.

This last group is filled in by the Player Characters, if the Players decide to pursue the Free Trader route of play.


Given the principles established thus far, I want to keep the Space Lanes from the 1977 edition of Book 3 and dump the Communication Routes from the 1981 edition of the game.

Here are the rules for Space Lanes:

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Route Determination: The worlds of a subsector are connected by the charted space lanes, which mark the regular routes traveled by commercial starships. While it is possible for starships to travel without regard to the lanes charted, individuals who do not own or control starships are generally restricted to commercial travel on ships which ply to routes which are mapped. For each world, note the starport type for it and for its neighbors. Consult the jump routes table, throwing one die.

Four columns are provided, corresponding to jump distances one through four. Determine the distance between the two worlds, and the relationship between the starports. At the intersection of the distance column and the world pair row, a number is stated. If the one die throw is equal to, or greater than the number, a space lane exists. Draw a line connecting the two worlds on the map. Each specific pair of worlds should be examined for jump routes only once.

This procedure is followed for most worlds within four hexes of each other; some worlds will obviously not have connecting space-lanes, and others will obviously have many. The nature of interstellar jumps is such that a jump-2 may be made over two connecting jump-1 links; by remembering this facet of star travel, it is possible to ignore some potential connections because they are already present through the use of shorted connecting lanes. This may well help in the creation of legible subsector maps.

Space Lanes limit the connection between worlds, and are focused on the kinds of trade and travel that concern Player Characters.

Communication Routes are spread out across a subsystem, leaping over the gulfs of space and make any subsector look like all the clusters of worlds are easily connected and traversed.

More importantly, Communication Routes are the province of the Imperium. They work at a level far above the concerns of the Player Characters. The Communication Routes are part of a shift of focus in the game, moving it from a Player Character focused RPG and more to the strategic, boardgame level that would let them introduce board games easily to the setting.


Again, building on what has already been outlined above, I want the noble class to matter and be part of the unique setting implied by the distances and limits on travel and communication.

Running completely counter to the feel of the later Third Imperium materials, where the nobles are nothing more than pencil pushing bureaucrats with fancy job titles, I want noble families that are built from ties of loyalty and blood–ties that often are ignored, go corrupt, and go bad. Marriages across worlds to keep peace, to gain wealth, to strengthen bonds, to create friendly-hostage agreements and more. In this, I am, of course, inspired by Dune. They have long histories, memories, and pride.

But, moreover, I want a noble class more in line with the Dumarest books, decadent, indifferent to others, powerful in their own sphere, but at risk of falling and failing if not careful of the intrigues and power plays around them.

Nobles, then, are easy universal plot motivators: they have wealth, practical needs that are sometimes best served by those not close to them, jealousies, military concerns, banking concerns, family troubles, and more. As Patrons, they are perfect.

Moreover, these characters can also make terrific villains, often abusing their power, manipulating the fate of others either bluntly or behind the scenes. Such characters are a terrific addition to a Player focused Traveller setting.

There can also be tension between the worlds the nobles ostensibly rule. Some nobles will be popular, some hated, some powerful, some on the brink of destruction.


For this setting, the common Interstellar Tech Level 9 and A. The exceptional Tech Level is B. This helps limit both the common Jump Ratings available to starships and the size of starships. The practical effect for ship design because of this:

  • Jump Drives will usually be capped at J-3 (though there will be a few J-4 ships)
  • Most ships will max out around 2000 tons (though there will be a few ships that can be larger)

Again, this is how I want things for this setting.

I’m using the UWPs straight up from the Five Sister subsector, which means both Karin and Iderati have Tech Levels of C. This is not a contradiction to the setting. This means that the technology at these two worlds is above what most people have even heard of, let alone understand. What this means precisely I have yet to decide. It might mean new breakthroughs in technology. It might mean access to old artifacts found on the world. I haven’t decided yet. But I’m looking forward to digging into the possibilities.

By the way, I’m focusing on the language use in the 1977 edition of Book 3. In that edition, the Technology value is referred to as “the technological index,” not the “technology level.”

Technology Level, which is introduced in the 1981 edition, suggests a line of progress, building from one piece of technology to the next through the next in a linear, absolute fashion.

Technological Index suggests equivalents of technology of a certain kind. For example, it is possible for a world of Technological Index 4 to have the equivalent to and as effective as a revolver or shotgun using chemicals and items unique to that world rather than the gunpowder we know from our own history.

For another, terrific example of this concept (but reversed), check out what Marc Miller did to create a “primitive air lock” for a world with a technological index of 1.


Points 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 of this post outline all the ways space travel is dangerous, per the rules of original Traveller. (Space travel might be safer in the more civilized areas of space. But in the setting of play of original Traveller, space travel is dangerous.)

The quick analogy is simply this: the Age of Sail, where trade and exploration meant risk and danger. Travel is long. Ships can go missing. And, most importantly, most people don’t go on boats to travel across oceans and to different continents.

That last point is part of the feel I want to build into my setting. The original Traveller, inspired by the Dumarest books, assumed those who traveled between the stars were a special breed. This is why space travel is built to be such a risky proposition: it makes it clear most people don’t do it.

In my setting, it is not the Imperium that establishes the culture of spaceports, but the people who actually make their living and make it their business to travel between the stars.

Imagine a port in the age of sails. Who is there? Who sets the tone? Who creates the culture? Is it the authorities who patrol the docks in limited numbers? No. It is the sailors, the merchants, the travelers. It is the people who move from port to port, who sail the seas, who stop for a short while, and set off again. They have their rules, they have their culture. When you step onto their ship, you live by those rules and that culture.

It is they who know how to settle a fellow sailor down if he gets too violent (whether with calming words or a conk on the head). It is they who determine when to sail, when not to sail. It is they who the landlubbers have to deal with if they want to travel or get something shipped or send a message.

This is part of the feel I want for the setting. That each world is unique and special. But tying these worlds together–but apart from them–is the culture of the crews and travellers that ply the space between the stars.

This matters to me because the Player Characters are travellers, recently arrived in the subsector, outsiders to the worlds they will be adventuring on, but part of the culture of people who do not settle.

20 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making the Sister’s Reach Subsector [Underlying Design Philosophy]

    • Hi Frank!

      Honestly, to show how different the same information and setting details can be when interpreted differently.

      I recently ran into someone on a Traveller forum who declared that if one read the original Traveller Books 1-3, the only setting one could end up with is the Third Imperium.

      This is a blatantly ludicrous statement. But it offended my sense of logic and imagination so much I couldn’t let it go. So, as an exercise, I set aside the subesector I had rolled up and decided to take a published sector, with pretty much the same information, but create something utterly new with it.

      Just to make a point.

      Petty, maybe, but there it is.

      I also wanted to dig into the feeling I got reading those books when I was a teenager for the first time. I thought, “Wha if I approach this as if I was back in ’79, with a clutch of Traveller books in hand. What would be the thing I would make from that.” Because I think that, too, is an interesting exercise.

      Also, keep in mind: if someone hands you a rolled up subsector it is, for all practical purposes, the same as having randomly rolled it yourself.

      I should also add, I’m getting very excited about this. I still have to wrap up my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. But I look forward to where the Traveller setting is going as well.

      • The only setting would be the 3rd Imperium?! Say what?! I actually know very little about the 3rd Imperium since I never had any interest in other people’s settings, but using the first three books it is unlikely anyone would randomly generate anything at all like the 3rd Imperium that I have seen, which seems more like a top-down creation starting with “I want an Imperium and then this and this and this” rather than “hmm…I rolled up this and this and this, what makes sense here?”

      • Hi Matt,

        I can’t justify or explain the guy’s comment, as it is patently nonsensical.

        All I can say is I agree with your two main points:

        1) “using the first three books it is unlikely anyone would randomly generate anything at all like the 3rd Imperium that I have seen”

        2) “3rd Imperium… seems more like a top-down creation starting with “I want an Imperium and then this and this and this”

        Yes. How anyone could think otherwise is beyond me.

  1. “I, as the referee, have no tale to tell.” words to live by! Also why I usually wind up GM… I hate being an NPC/audience for a ref’s precious storytelling.

    • Yes. Part of the fun of the Referee (for me at least) is listening to the goals the Players set for themselves, and then placing obstacles and opportunities in front of them and seeing where it all goes.

  2. Another great post on original Traveller. Still the best Traveller for NY money. Currently on Book 22 (“The Terra Data” ) of the Dumarest series. The more I read EC Tubb and your web log posts, the more I want to start up a new Traveller game, though I would do without the Imperium and model mine more on the Dumarest books with no central government at all and tech indexes all over the place from one world to another. Have you thought about including any elements like the Universal Brotherhood or the Cyclan? I wonder also how well the Traveller psionics rules work to emulate the sort of “sensitives” Dumarest comes across now and then…

    I think playing a group of ex- military (and “other”) free traders or treasure hunters in a noir-ish EC Tubb-inspired setting would be pretty awesome.

    • “I think playing a group of ex- military (and “other”) free traders or treasure hunters in a noir-ish EC Tubb-inspired setting would be pretty awesome.”

      I agree COMPLETELY.

      As for the Imperium, in this setting I’m seeing it as a very light touch. That is, there is the tradition of the Imperium, the importance of the Imperium to all those who have benefitted from it through family tradition, and the power it once possessed (and can bring to bear in specific situations).

      But mostly it will be nobles disconnected from imperial concerns because of time and distance. We’re far enough away (in my reimagined subsector) that most of the concerns of political leaders are local… as are the rivalries and such. As noted, I’m looking for a mix of Dumarest and Dune for this when it comes to politics and nobility.

      Also, I want Social Standing to matter in this setting. And that means not having all the politics and class issues floating so far over the heads of the Player Characters that they can’t engage with it. If you look at the 1977 rules on nobility you find this:

      Persons with social standing of 11 or greater are considered to be nobility, even in situations where nobility do not take active part in local government. Nobility have hereditary titles and high standing in their home communities.

      “At the discretion of the referee, noble persons (especially of social standing 13 or higher) may have ancestral lands or fiefs, or they may have actual ruling
      power. The nobility table indicates the actual designations or titles accruing to specific social standing values.

      “Ranking above duke/duchess are two levels not reflected in social standing: prince/princess or king/queen are titles used by actual rulers of worlds. The title emperor/ empress is used by the ruler of an empire of several worlds.”

      Notice how dukes (and all the titles below them) are designations of rulers upon worlds. That was the focus of the 1977 nobility. That structure doesn’t work for the Third Imperium, but it is what I want for this system.

      I forgot to mention this in the post (but will add it right now), in this setting subsectors are NOT a political unit of the empire. They are an arbitrary measurement of space. (Which is what they are in the original rules.) This shift is important: It takes the focus away from the Imperial concerns and puts it squarely upon local issues.

      • Just for fun, and inspired by this post, I used to mash together the bottom left-hand two subsectors of Spinward Marches (five sisters and district 268) and the top two left-hand subsectors from Trojan Reaches. I then got travellermap to run off a 20-hex radius “jump map” centred on the middle hex.

        Changing the format of the map is a simple thing but I find it really helped me break out of the “3rd imperium” headspace, as otherwise my natural laziness has me filling in the blanks with all the old tropes rather than trying to think of something new.

      • Awesome.

        I’ll be using the four lower left subsectors as is, since I backed out of The Third Imperium (and Traveller itself) when the focus on the OTU began. Thus, I learned about the areas in and around the Regina subsector, but very little else about the OTU. (Ultimately, even in the early 80s for me, it all felt too corporate, to stuffy, too civilized. When I first read the Traveller books, in no way did I read the implied setting as Corporate Espionage in 20th Century First World Nations… but that’s exactly how the material was reading to me starting in the 80s.)

        Then names of the clusters (The Five Sisters, District 268, The Sword Worlds, The Darrian Confederation) are all romantic to me… and honestly have no meaning to me.

        Also: constraints and limitations on the imagination are good! Having a framework to start with is a terrific thing. Creating something new from whole cloth is honestly an impossible task. Sounds like you’ve come up with a great plan.

  3. Never much liked Dune…what elements of Dune are you borrowing or taking inspiration from aside from the noble houses? That’s about the only part I would want…never liked the weird religious/mystical/”chosen one” stuff in Dune.

    • Keep in mind the key word “inspiration” — I”m not really mapping anything directly.

      For me it will be mostly the Noble Houses.

      As for the “chosen one” stuff, no. First, because that would entail a “plot” — and I don’t do that. Though I’m re-reading Dune right now for the first time, and its fascinating to pick up on things that I hadn’t seen years ago. Key among them: That the Bene Gesserit had been seeding Arrakis with myths for years of the savior to come… and trained Paul in precisely the behaviors to fulfill that myth. It’s manipulation all around!

      With that said, I do think I do want a weird/religious/mystical culture of some kind. I know lots of folks sweep Classic Traveller’s psionics under the rug, but I want to dig into them. (Psionics were a very common element of the early SF that inspired Classic Traveller.)

      But I want to make the psionics more colorful, and make them part of the culture that evolved in the subsector after the second empire’s fall and the arrival of the new Imperial state. I want tension and conflict between several layers of society and culture. Weird/Mystical stuff is a staple of lots of pulp SF (which is the waters I’ll be swimming in.) The Imperial nobility will have no use for it, trying to wipe it out. But the Ancient Ways Whatever will be one of several lynchpins offering focus and hope for the those at the bottom of the social ladder.

      Thus, I get the fear of psionics mentioned in the rules, but I get to build it out as a concrete part of the setting, forming factions, rumors, adventure hooks, and more.

      I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I want some of the exotic energy that pulls people from a comfortable home to distant lands.

      Whether the PCs end up siding with or against these upstarts working against the noble houses of Imperial tradition is up to the Players.

  4. Interesting choice of subsector.

    In my own reimagined Traveller I’m building my setting using your next door neighbours: District 268 and Glisten. I quite like some of the 3I setting but I like your method of building from scratch.

    My way I have one pretty well regulated subsector and one “over the border”
    My own dislike of the 3I background is of long the history, a war every few hundred years or so and not a lot else. I condensed that history drastically!

    Another change I’ve made is to the government codes. What was the point of all those alien books when they were hundreds of parsecs from one another?

    So, my revised world codes:
    0 – Anarchy, no government above family/clan
    1 – rule by a corporation
    2 – Vargr world
    3 – Hiver world
    4 – Solomani
    5 – Geonee
    6 – Aslan, captured in the last 20 years or so, roll up an Aslan governmet and roll again to see who had the world beforehand
    7 – Balkanised, roll up some more codes to see who is here
    8 – Vilani
    9 – Ruled directly by the Imperium, going for a Brittania/Victorian vibe
    A – Zhodani
    B – Ithklur
    C – Luriani
    D – K’kree

    In the two subsectors all of these are present at least one so I can have all the diversity I want.

    • Sounds awesome!

      And as for why all those alien races were hundreds of parsecs from each other, my standard guess is that GDW needed a big enough political entity with enough border politics to justify several strategic board games in the setting. Big maps and strategic play were a big thing for GDW. But, as I point out, that starts weakening (at least in my view) the setting in terms of something focused for Player Characters and RPG play.

      • I think you’re probably right. but as a player (or indeed a referee) I want to be able to use those cool aliens, I want to have to work my way past psychotic vegetarians while transporting Vargr mercs to their next job, I want to see how my players might deal behave on a Zhodani world where their thoughts might be monitored at any time.

      • Oh, absolutely.

        And, again, my main point: People should be taking whatever inspiration they want from whatever material they want and making the setting they want.

        For myself, I don’t care much for most of the aliens (and Grandfather’s genetic manipulations) of the OTU. The politics and worlds of my setting won’t look recognizable to anyone who has gone deep into the OTU.

  5. I actually use no aliens at all…maybe some mutants and psionics, but I always preferred sci fi of the humanocentric type.

  6. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making the Sister’s Reach Subsector [Adding the Space Lanes] | Tales to Astound!

  7. Thanks guys for such a lively discussion. Im short on time at present but ive bookmarked this and a few other blog entries and things elsewhere that were mentioned to come back to later. You’ve nicely articulated what i liked about original traveller and what i am trying for now that I’ve a chance to resurrect an old very episodic campaign.

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