TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Invitation to Invention

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Over at Facebook Traveller Group, someone linked to my post “TRAVELLER and ‘Hard Science Fiction’–I don’t think so…

As it also does, the post started a conversation about the nature of science and science fiction in Traveller play.

Someone pointed out that the title seemed to imply that I was against Hard SF in someone’s Traveller campaign. This is not the case at all.

I wrote the post as an argument against the assumption that Traveller, by definition, is built with the diamond hardness that would please engineers who want their SF real-real-real.

I pointed out the stories that had inspired Marc Miller to create the game in the first place. If you read the tales from Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, E.C. Tubb, and many others, you’ll find that while there is a patina of hard SF to make the stories grounded, they are, first and foremost, adventure stories in a pulp-SF tradition.

The primary concern of these stories is a rousing yarn, with the SF elements there to create complication and drama for the protagonists. The SF elements are consistent within the story, allowing the protagonists to solve problems to their own advantage.

But if you tried to learn something about actual science from these tales you’d be in big trouble. And not only because the science has changed from 40 years ago. Even for their time most of the science in the tales ranged from speculative at best to nonsensical at the other end. I won’t say “worst” at the other end, because the point of the tales wasn’t to teach science. The wild and wooly nature of the SF details helped build colorful environment and problems for the protagonists–which means the SF details were great across the board.

For the most part, these tales use far-flung space elements, strange aliens, and exotic environments to create an environment where frontiers, bold action, and spectacular adventures have enough room to take place. That they possess an element of science to justify the wonders they present does not make them scientific.

But to be clear: I want people to play the kind of game that people want to be playing at their tables. If someone really wants to drill down in the contemporary scientific principles and theories to build the RPG setting more power to them.

That’s why I started the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series, after all. Two years ago, when I went online to ask questions about Classic Traveller I was continuously told, “That’s not how The Third Imperium works,” or “The trade rules in Classic Traveller are broken, because the GDP of a world with a Population 9 would produce more ships than the system allows…” I decided to go back and re-read the original three Traveller Books and see if there was a good game in there or not. Because so many people seemed to think the game was “broken” and kept having to be fixed.

So, this series has always been a pushback who assume that because the rules of Traveller don’t make sense because the rules in Books 1-3 don’t make the kind of setting they want. Instead, I looked at the rules and said, “What kind of setting does this produce?”

And not surprisingly, it produced and encouraged the kinds of settings found in the pulp-SF stories that inspired Marc Miller to write the game.

Still, if one read the post I linked to above without context, one might assume I was telling people they could not or should not play Traveller with one of the dials turned all the way to “HARD SF.” And when asked about this on that Facebook thread, I replied:

I wrote: “If I were to retitle it now, it might be: TRAVELLER: Hard SF — sometimes, sometimes not”

And then Cam Kirmser asked: “What is an example of ‘sometimes not.'”

I replied to Kirmser, “I will use a title you mentioned above: Ringworld.”

Kirmser had written:

Ringworld comes close to smacking of Science Fantasy. Some species are so bloody advanced their tech seems magical. But, even those species have limitations that bring them back into the realm of hard SciFi. Yes, a GP hull is impervious to anything – well, except antimatter – because it’s one big molecule. The property is rather ‘soft,’ but the explanation, though out there, returns it to ‘hard.’

But, the CoDominum books – Falkenberg’s Legion books, the Sparta books, Mote – seem to have been written from a Traveller campaign. I mean, take out the instantaneous Jump, replace it with a week’s time in Jump space, add in some grav plates and you’ve almost got textbook Traveller, even to the dispersed empire based upon the remains of an earlier, greater society aspect.

I guess it might be just me, but I see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand.

I replied:

I absolutely believe that see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand… if one looks at the text of Books 1-3 a certain way.

The point I would add is *all those blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart*!

In my view, those blank rows are there to be filled in by the Referee as he wishes. One you start filling those in, you can easily make Ringworld a possibility.

And it was assumed the Referee might well do that. That’s why all those blank rows are there. Not that a Referee had to! That’s my point.

In fact, I think this is one of the major splits in how one approaches the original rules of Traveller in creating a setting:

1. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are what the Referee are the building blocks of any Traveller setting.

2. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are a baseline for setting for the PCs to be from a fairly conservative culture, and the Referee adds extraordinary concepts as he wishes, per the blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart. Those blank rows are an *invitation* to the Referee to add more!

Keep in mind as well that in Book 2, in the experience section, we find this:

“Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems. Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.”

There are a lot of ideas packed into the first sentence that the rules never address in any way. And the second sentence says, “And more!”

So, for me, “…sometimes not…” is when the Referee takes advantage of any SF ideas and concepts that he wants to pursue and adds them at the bottom of the Tech Level chart to make things unexpected, strange, alien, and beyond the baseline scope of ideas, tech, and concepts found in Books 1-3.

As an example, Ringworld. There is no reason the Referee couldn’t use Ringworld as a setting using the oringal Traveller rules, having the PCs land on it and explore it.

The bottom 25% of the Tech Index table found in Book 3:

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I think the point I made about the blank rows at the bottom of the Traveller Tech Level chart is an important one. And I think it speaks to a great division in how people see the game and approach making settings in the game.

For some people what is Traveller Books 1-3 is where the science starts and ends for a Traveller campaign. For others of us what is in Traveller Books 1-3 is just the beginning…

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5 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Invitation to Invention

  1. I’ve never understood these ‘hard vs opera vs science fantasy’ arguments. I bought a rule-set, not a religion. What I do with any RPG I own is between me and my group/imagination.

    I take more delight in seeing what people do with the rules than reading any argument about canon.

  2. I’ve been rereading some of your previous posts and I think one of the most important points that comes across in them and the other blogs you reference is that traveller and dnd and 1st ed ad&d were frameworks and starting points. Players were given permission to extend and alter or ignore as they found necessary for their own play styles and groups. And to freely create their own game worlds. More, this was expected because it was necessary. And I like the freshness you find in the 1st steps of the hobby because of this. As others have noted I too liked playing in a myriad different traveller universes that weren’t the OTU. Thanks for this series you’ve been posting – It has certainly helped me articulate my own approach to rpgs – not just traveller – and codify better how I’ll be running things for my players this year. Hard SF is certainly the story telling feel I’m going for with traveller. Its a game so if i can get the feel right the technical detail doesnt matter so much. At least for me and my group. Obviously others mileage may vary. Keep up the good work.

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