TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Start Small

mars-1280x800-planet-space-12178

One Planet Can Be a Whole Lot of Adventure

Traveller presents a specific, terrifying possibility for the Referee based on two facts.

The two facts are:

  1. Space is big
  2. The Player Characters can go anywhere

The terrifying possibility is that the Referee will be responsible for creating literally hundreds of worlds before proper play can begin.

I would offer something else: Start small.

“But,” you might say, “space is big. The Third Imperium is big. How can you be playing Traveller if you start with something small?”

Since the Third Imperium is big we’ll use that setting as an example. I’m not saying this is the only way to set up a Traveller setting. But I do think is both efficient and sanity preserving for any Referee who wants to get a game of Traveller up and running.

THE ORIGINAL DESGIN OF THE GAME
Part of the lure of the Official Traveller Universe is its immense size.

It stretches across countless subsectors. Contains 11,000 worlds. Has politics back at the Core as well as on the frontier of the Zhodani borders. There are 16 subsectors in the Spinward Marches alone. It’s vastness and immense scope is part of its glittering appeal.

And yet, I am going to suggest you don’t get lured by all that glitter. The key is to ask, “How much do I need to get going?”

Here is what the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 3 said about the matter:

Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds), but ultimately, travellers will venture into unknown areas and additional subsectors will have to be charted.

The text above was written two years before GDW published any material abut the Third Imperium.

Let’s assume for now that the text is valid even if we are setting a game in the Third Imperium. Let’s assume further that the rules and text and the implied setting details of Books 1-3 and why a starting in a setting of limited scope makes perfect sense.

TRAVEL
It is possible to start the game without a ship. Not only might the Players not end up with a character with a ship, but also you as Referee might simply declare that the PCs can’t start with a ship.

There are several good reasons for this. First, getting a ship serves as a terrific carrot for the PCs. They might get one for services rendered on the behalf of a noble, a planetary government, a corporation, and so on after several adventures.

Second, it keeps the movement of the PCs somewhat limited at first. Not because you are forcing them or railroading them into particular situations and trapping them… but simply because in the implied setting of early Traveller makes traveling between the stars a big deal.

For example traveling between the stars is expensive.

If we look at the average expenses per Book 3 we find…
Ordinary Living thus costs Cr4,800 year.
High Living is Cr10,800 per year.

Meanwhile, this is how much it costs per jump to travel…
High Passage: Cr10,000
Middle Passage: Cr8,000
Low Passage: Cr1,000

Most people can’t afford to travel, and for those who do it will each up an incredible amount of the resources. And, again, those travel rates are per jump. If you are planning on traveling three or more jumps then you are spending years of living expenses.

This means that if the PCs don’t have a ship yet and want to travel, they’ll need to earn money on high risk/big payoff adventures. (This is one reason why they’ll want to get a ship of their own!)

Second, the ships available to PCs at first will be Jump-1 ships. This means that even if they can Travel they won’t be able to shoot all over the galaxy at first. Moreover, most ships in Book 2 have jump capabilities of Jump-1, Jump-2, or Jump-3. Even getting across a subsector is a big deal.

Moreover, the quality of fuel limits the ease and safety of travel as well. Ships can only acquire refined fuel at A and B class starports. And those are not that frequent. Unrefined fuel can be skimmed from gas giants. But using unrefined fuel means there is a 3% chance of both drive failures and misjump for each jump. To go too far and too long from the well established A and B-class starports means risking those failures time and time again… and that is not a risk most captains or crews are willing to take.

Which brings us to…

GEOGRAPHY
Once upon a time someone had Traveller Books 1-3 (and maybe Book 4), Supplements 1 (1001 Characters), 2 (Animal Encounters), and 3 (The Spinward Marches)… and that was it. And it was fine. People played the game and it was fun.

In Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches one found several about eight pages worth of text describing the background of the Third Imperium and the sixteen subsectors of the Spinward Marches. I would suggest going smaller than that.

Pick one subsector to start with. Let’s look at the Regina subsector:

regina-subsector

The 1977 edition of Book 3 said one or two subsectors would be enough for years of adventure

Let’s assume, as the book itself suggests, that you start on the world of Regina, where the PCs have gathered and meet after arriving in the Spinward Marches.

Notice that there are several worlds clustered around Regina within Jump-1 of each other. (Other worlds, while nearby, are two parsecs away… out of reach for J-1 ships at 2 parsecs.)

This is by design. The game is built for a Referee to sketch out a subsector and have that subsector be useful for many sessions of play because of the mix of ship types and jump drives available. (The 1977 edition of the rules stated: “Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds), but ultimately, travellers will venture into unknown areas and additional subsectors will have to be charted.”)

So I would recommend zooming in on a subsector rather than the whole of the Imperium.

And I would recommend zooming in even further… to Regina and the cluster of worlds around it:

regina-3-jump-map

The Regina Cluster: A Solid Start for Your Traveller Campaign

Imagine this is the map for the start of your campaign.

Notice how this map seems manageable. (As opposed to the map of The Third Imperium.) But see also how much potential is there. Fourteen worlds, all of which can be reached by a Jump-1 ships. Yet traveling from one end to the other (Knorbes to Yori) will take five months… and longer if adventures take place along the way. (And adventures should take place along the way!)

Moreover, the area is full of hotspots: three Amber Zones and one Red Zone.

Still, a single world (let alone fourteen!) can be daunting. Which brings us to…

STARK AND SIMPLE
In Stars Without Numbers* Kevin Crawford suggests that a Referee should never prepare more than he needs for the next session, or if more, only things he’s having fun preparing.

I think that’s a good benchmark. Which means we’ll be doing a lot less prep for the setting than we might at first think we have to.

For example, yes, we need details of politics four our world. But how much politics? After all, I can watch the first season of 24, an adventure-driven tale of a Counter-Terrorism agent trying to protect a Presidential candidate… but I’m going to learn very little about the United States government during those 24 hours of television!

In his article on Planetary Governments in Traveller, Marc Miller wrote this about the interpreting the Government number in a Universal World Profile:

It is important to remember just what purpose the government factor is meant to serve. Traveller players and characters are rarely involved with governments on the international and interplanetary level. That is to say, they do not deal with kings or presidents or heads of state; they deal with individual members of broad government mechanisms , they deal with office holders and employees whose attitudes and actions are shaped by the type of government they serve. As a result, travellers are rarely interested in the upper reaches of government; they want to know what they can expect from the governmental structure at their own level. For example, if a group of travellers were to journey across the United States from coast to coast, they would be interested in the degree of responsiveness they could expect from local governments, in how easy the local court clerk would respond to information requests, or in the degree of difficulty that could be expected in obtaining certain licenses. As they moved through Nebraska, the fact that that state has a unicameral legislature would be of little or no importance….

I think in this quote Miller is warning against becoming obsessed with details beyond the scope of the concerns of the Player Characters. Yes, we want context for our worlds. We want consistency. But those qualities serve our needs for an adventure-driven evening of roleplaying.

Miller later writes in the same article:

For this reason, among others, labels such as monarchy have been eliminated. Calling a government type “monarchy” would conjure up images of a king and his retinue, but still leaves a lot of information unrelated. Within the Traveller system, such a government could be classified as a self-perpetuating oligarchy (hereditary monarchy), representative democracy (constitutional monarchy), feudal technocracy (enlightened feudal monarchy), captive government (puppet monarchy), civil service bureaucracy, or any of several others. The simple term monarchy becomes nonsense when one attempts to apply it to a widespread classification system.

Another reason for the labels that are provided in the government classification system is as an aid to imagination. The unaided imagination of even the most inventive referee can go dry after generating a few simple worlds. Using die rolls to create the individual factors for planets jogs the imagination, forcing the referee to think of rationales for the combinations that occur. The use of too familiar terms (such as monarchy) can stifle imagination by allowing the referee to settle into old lines of thought.

Notice here what Miller is making clear: The UWP system was never meant to be comprehensive as a tool of categorizing a planet. Moreover he is making it clear the UWP is not about the fictional “reality” of a world. Instead, the UWP is a game tool for the Referee to prod his imagination into unexpected results.

The text of Book 3 also makes it clear the Referee should not be beholden to the results of the UWP and, in fact, he should not even bother rolling them up if he knows that a specific world to be.

Extending this logic to the Official Traveller Setting I would offer the following:

Scratch things out. Re-write the UWPs as you see fit. Don’t get trapped by the details as published. If you know what you want don’t let the UWP get in the way. Come up with what you can’t wait to share with your players and then make your worlds that.

And what do you want? You want details the Player character can interact with.

Which bring me to…

PLAYER FACING

I think of the term “Player Facing” when I’m thinking about this stuff. Player Facing is all the stuff (the places, the objects, the people, the organizations) the PCs can interact with. The merchant who wants them dead. The secret organization that is trying to steal the thingamabob. The patron who wants them to find his daughter.

Think about the images and factions and characters you want to present to the Players. (Remember what I wrote about using index cards in a previous post.) Make the images and ideas bold and strong. Make them things that the PCs can interact with.

This city has clothing woven by strange spiders in amazing patterns that glitter as the large red sun sets. The spider factories are at the north end of the city and compete in an annual festival. There’s an industrial haze in the distance where massive mining vehicles cut their way across the landscape and often stop as troops battle swarming creatures. At night the prayers of the religious faithful echo across the city’s towers — sung by members of religious people who settled here centuries ago and are now a smaller and smaller percentage of the population and seem are rumored to be growing in anger at their loss of power.

Okay. I have enough there to make things happen. All of that is stuff the Player Characters can interact with.

Do something like that for fourteen worlds and you’re good to go.

THE SETTING AND THE SETTING OF PLAY
In a post called The Setting and the Setting of Play I wrote in part:

I have two phrases I use for Traveller now:

The Setting and The Setting of Play.

The “Setting” might involve an 11,000-world empire that has existed a thousand years. But none of that matters.

What matters is “the Setting of Play” — where the PCs are, where the game is set.

The “Setting” involves all the things that happen “back that way,” toward the remote, centralized government the Player Characters came from.

The “Setting of Play” is the focus of the campaign, especially at the start of play. The Setting of Play might expand. But no matter what remains focused on the locals the Player Characters might adventure in.

An example:

Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a whole world, with many peoples and many lands. That is “The Setting.”

But in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we see only see a portion of that world. That portion that we see is “The Setting of Play.”

So yes, the Third Imperium extends in all directions from the Regina system. But where we will be playing, are those fourteen worlds. That is our setting of play.

We might well move beyond those fourteen worlds. But with those fourteen worlds we can get going with the game. We will have weeks (if not months) within those closer of worlds. We’ll get our sea legs for the game. We’ll come to understand what the Players want to pursue, which in turn will let the Referee set out opportunities and obstacles in alignment with those interests.

And how do we help stay focused on those fourteen worlds at the start of the campaign?

PATRONS AND RUMORS
The original Traveller rules contain rules for Patrons. As the rules state “When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success.”

Patrons also focus the attention of the Players on star systems that you want them focused on. That is, when a Patron approaches the Player Characters with a job, that job will be on one of the worlds in the zoomed in section of space you have decided to start in. In our example, the first dozen or so Patrons will have work on Regina or the thirteen nearby system.

Remember, this isn’t railroading the Players. The Players can always refuse a job. It’s simply that because the Player Characters are starting on Regina, most of the jobs they find on Regina or the surrounding worlds will involve Regina and the surrounding system. After all, most people on Regina or the surrounding systems will have concerns on these worlds. (Remember: most people apart from Travellers don’t travel between worlds that often. The things a Patron cares about (a loved one, a business venture, an enemy, a political complication and so on) will usually be on the same world he or she is standing on, or a few systems away at most.)

Second, we have the option of Rumor Tables.

Here is a Rumor Table from The Traveller Book.

The idea is that each Letter corresponds to a specific Rumor you have established for specific worlds, or for a general cluster of stars, or the subsector you are starting in.

I give each character starting play one randomly rolled rumor. And if the party spends a week on a planet trying to find rumors, another (single) roll is made.

Rumors feed the Players things you are already interested in (the Rumors, of course, lead to situations, NPCs, and places you already care about and what the PCs to encounter). But more importantly they give the Players focus and choice (just like Patrons).

Here is the big thing about Rumors:

A large sandbox like Traveller can be overwhelming–even if we are focusing on only fourteen worlds at the beginning.

When the Players are told in the first minutes of play “You have arrived on Regina…” they have no clear direction and not enough information at the start to make any valid choices.

By giving the Players a selection of Rumors about the planets and systems off the bat, you are offering them a selection of items to prioritize and pursue as they wish. You are winnowing down the massive amount of possible pursuits (that they don’t even know about yet!) into something they can mull and manage.

Moreover, your Rumors can create mystery and agendas. If the Rumors don’t just provide facts, but tantalize with being somewhat incomplete, it can lure the Players toward those things because they want to know more.

All of this is great stuff as it tells you what (off the list you created) they are most interested in, and thus what you should begin prepping as a priority. In other words, from the list you offer, what do they care about? What do they want to pursue? What intrigues them?

Instead of you trying to jam them into one scenario or another, or having NPCs rushing upon to them with missions, the PCs are now in the driver’s seat. There’s no railroading, just opportunities. (The Players are free to blow off the Rumors as they wish!)

Here’s an example of the rumor table I used to kick of the fantasy game I’m running. Not only did it establish lots of mysteries and intrigue for the Players to pursue, it also did a lot to establish the kind of setting we’re playing in.

Rumors will inform the PCs/Players as to what the political situation is, who the players are, what the mysteries that people talk about on their down time. The Rumor Table is the buzz of “what everyone is talking about” and so can establish the setting without a huge info dump on the Players.

  • Remember that the mechanics and implied setting details are your friend. They limit the mobility of the PCs at the start of play.
  • Feel free to focus in on one patch of geography of a cluster of worlds rather than thinking you are responsible for mastering all sort of information scattered across countless books written over forty years.
  • Focus on what you need to play: The people, places, organization, creatures, environments that you can’t wait to share with your players that the PCs can interact with.
  • Make it yours. The early materials of Classic Traveller were there for you to have a good time with as you made them your own. You own nothing to the setting. The setting material is there for you.
  • Use Patrons and Rumors to impart information to the Players about the setting without depending on huge info dumps, as well to as to keep the Players and adventures focused on this patch of space you are ready to play in.
  • Finally, remember a patch of interstellar space seven parsecs across and containing fourteen star system isNOT SMALL.
    Fourteen worlds is fourteen entire worlds, full of society, economics, politics, opportunity and obstacles. And then there might also be mysteries and adventures on other worlds beside the Main Worlds.
    Ultimately, this is a matter of perspective. If you look at a map of the Third Imperium, then fourteen worlds will look small. But if you look at the that map showing Regina the stars clustered around it and really imagine the gulfs of space between those systems and imagine each world as its own stunning spot for adventure, then those fourteen worlds take on a huge significance.
    Found as they are at the edges of the Imperium, they are beyond the reaches of civilization proper. They are, by definition, places of mystery, intrigue, and adventure, with parts not yet expired, societies not yet stabilized, and opportunities still waiting.

* Stars Without Numbers is a sandbox SF game set among the stars and very much like Traveller. The book has really solid Refereeing advice for running sandbox style games. The link above leads to a free PDF version of the game.

 

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12 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Start Small

  1. Later today will be our gaming group’s first session for the year. Your post is very timely, and a good recap of your previous themes. I agree with start small. 100%. My first successful campaign was set on a Balkanised, mostly TL5-6 world. The PCs were descended from survivors of a scout expedition centuries before, so they had access to TL7-8. But, they went around with mostly TL5-6 stuff. Why? I was nervous. I didn’t feel I could do a full SF setting justice. So my friends suggested we start simple, and agreed to a lower tech setting. I don’t know if you can really call such an 18 month (real time) campaign Traveller because they never got off world, nor dealt with ‘high tech’ or ‘alien races’ – but we had a blast. My second campaign was a little bigger. People started as passengers on a starship, all with a reason to travel. They were in a Spinward Marches subsector, and their ship misjumped to another world in another subsector. That was another 18 month+ campaign, set just on one world, inspired by the ‘Dipple’ settings in several Andre Norton SF books. And your comments on economics and the value of the Credit are very pertinent here: they had to raise the cash, in actual Imperial Credits, to get off world. And, get someone to sell them a valid ticket and sign off on their transiting from the world into the starport.

    They’re the two big campaigns of my past that my friends and fellow players from that time remember. Each was *Just* one world. So I couldn’t agree with you more on this post about the value of starting small.

    • If you were using the Traveller rules, then you were playing Traveller. Jack Vance has a four book series called Planet of Adventure — and the whole series takes place on one world, even though the protagonist is a Scout from a distant interstellar government. (He crash-lands on a planet with high tech gizmos. It’s awesome.)

      What matters is you all had a great time.

      As for the word “recap” — precisely. I began this series as an investigation as to how Traveller was played in the past to see how best to play it now. I dug into the text, dug into the time of its release, looked into the mechanics, played other OSR games… and I feel like I’ve gotten as good a handle on the stuff as I’m going to get without getting more play time in. So the next few posts will be assembling all the pieces and tying some stuff up.

  2. So in keeping with Alexander’s Rule (“If you use something awesome from a blog in your game, go back and tell the creator about it.”) I thought it good form to post here… even though I’ve never played Traveller.

    Found your blog via Zak S somehow… and as someone looking to start a new campaign of an OSR sandbox this post was fantastic. Sure it’s based on a game system entirely alien to me, yet the sentiments rang true.

    As a GM it is easy to get lost in the madness of creating a campaign world, even long before players touch it. I wonder what drives some of us to this madness?

    Thank you for an easy mantra often forgotten, “Start small.”

  3. When you said, “Once upon a time someone had Traveller Books 1-3 (and maybe Book 4), Supplements 1 (1001 Characters), 2 (Animal Encounters), and 3 (The Spinward Marches)… and that was it. And it was fine. People played the game and it was fun,” I was going to say one could do without Supplement 3 entirely and just make up a subsector, but you pretty much said that when you zoomed in on Regina.

    Were those spider weavers from a Dumarest book? I seem to recall one of the planets he was on had something like that with one guy using the Cyclan to predict what styles would come into vogue so he could dominate the market…

    • Hi Matt,

      1. Yes, my thesis is always there’s no reason to play within the Third Imperium. Moreover, I thin the game will play better if the Referee creates his own subsector and worlds.

      I chose to use the Regina Subsector and Regina Cluster as an example of starting small, however, to make the point as clear as possible: Even in a setting of 11,000 worlds, it is still possible, and profitable, to focus in on a group of stars in a single subsector at the start of play.

      2. Yes, I’m reading Toyman, the third (I think) in the Dumarest series. The spiders are bred to making amazing material sold throughout the stars.

      • As a result of this series of yours I have started checking out the dumarest saga and will then try planet of adventure. Am not sure how i missed them the first time around but thanks to you I’ve been reminded of them. And from first glance they are very different from OTU. But still traveller.

      • “And from first glance they are very different from OTU. But still traveller.”

        The thing is Traveller can be very many settings that are very different in many different ways, and yet share certain qualities or assumptions. This is one of the key points I’ve been making about the many ways Referees can build unique settings from the core rules that aren’t anything like the Third Imperium.

        So glad the blog has been of help to you!

  4. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–A Subsector Map and a Cluster | Tales to Astound!

  5. Pingback: Classic Traveller: Making a World from the Universal World Profile | Tales to Astound!

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