Tales to Astound!

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:

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…


ONE SUBSECTOR

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.

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.


A FAILING AND DARK EMPIRE

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.


DISTANT, ISOLATED WORLDS

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.


SPACE LANES, NOT COMMUNICATION ROUTES

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:

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.


A DECADANT, RULING NOBLE CLASS

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.


TECH LEVELS

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:

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.


THE INTERSTELLAR CULTURE

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.

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