From TRAVELLER: Out of the Box to the Third Imperium


One of the main themes running through the the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series is that the original Little Black Books contained lots of implied setting details that run counter to the setting details four in The Third Imperium.

Now, his makes sense. The original purpose of LBBS 1-3 (expressed on the back cover box of the original Traveller rules) is that the Referee is supposed to build his own setting with the rules provided in Book 1-3. This was required when the game first came out, of course, because there was no setting in the original rules. The Third Imperium is an application of the rules by Marc Miller and the gang at GDW to create a specific setting from the implied setting details found in the LBBs. But to do this they added new details, removed detailed, and altered details to make their own setting.

In the same way one can begin with the LBBs and easily create a settings based on the Dumarest books, the Demon Princes books, the Flandry books, the Solar Queen books, the Co-Dominion books, The Space Vikings, and others. This is a testament to the strength of the game Miller wrote. It was built to handle many settings built by many referees–and it does.

But each of these settings is obviously distinct. And my simple point is that the Third Imperium and the Official Traveller Universe is only one application of the rules to create a setting.

In this post I want to walk through what original rules and early products and look at the implied setting found within them. Many of these early books suggest a setting very different than the OTU.

The ideas it to make the implied setting details in different products clear so you can make choices about what books and rules to use to make the setting you want.

This is not authoritative, and I am no authority. The following is how I see thing, filtered through my interests and obsessions.

Let’s go:

I dived the Classic Traveller line into three broad categories or “phases”:

  1. Original Traveller
  2. Proto-Traveller (a term developed by the gang at Citizens of the Imperium)
  3. The Official Traveller Universe

Each grows from the one preceding it, but each is (in my view) distinct.

Original Traveller is playing without any concern for GDW’s house setting at all. That means playing with:

  • Books 1-3 (Either 1977 or 1981 editions. There are differences between the editions, but one can cobble together elements from each of them to taste. The real differences setting-wise are the Communication Routes and Travel Zones found in the 1981 edition but not the 1977 edition. Those two elements are concrete parts of the The Third Imperium I prefer to play without them. Meanwhile, the 1977 edition of the rules has Jump Routes, which I prefer.)
  • If you want you add Supplements 1 & 2 (Setting agnostic and helpful for the Referee!); Supplement 4 (for people who like those new prior services and bow weapons); and maybe Book 4 (though I think this starts pulling the game away from it’s rag-tag adventure paramilitary roots and makes it more straight up military game. I also think the expanded skill list and service generation is bloated and unnecessary. But whatever.)

Proto-Traveller is playing with Books 1-4, Supplements 1-4, and Adventures 1-4, using these for the rules and the sum total of what you know about the Spinward Marches and the Third Imperium. As noted below, the Imperium in the early Traveller materials was a long-lived political power in decline. It committed dark deeds, the distances between the Spinward Marches and Core mattered more, and all in all it is not the bright, shiny competent Third Imperium that came as it was developed in later decades

When I talk about the Official Traveller Universe in this post I’m talking about the Classic Era history that was developed again and gain over the last 40 years in different editions of the game. Each iteration removed the shadows that were part of the early Classic Traveller. Travel became easier and travellers were just any old tourist hopping onto starships. What started as a “large (bordering ultimately on the infinite) universe, ripe for the bold adventurer’s travels” (Traveller Book 1) felt pretty much like First World 20th Century Europe by the time GURPS was done with it.

A note: Keep in mind I’m all for people making up their own settings and tweaking to their hearts content. I’m not trying to trap anyone in any cannon issues. All of my rooting around in Traveller materials was my effort to see if there was still a game called Traveller if you took the Third Imperium out. There is! But it’s amazing many people are utterly convinced that Traveller is the setting and I actually got confused enough after talking with them I thought I’d look into it.

A second note, and an important one I think: Until Book 6: Scouts (1982) not a single one of the Traveller Books mentions a specific setting or any details of the Imperium. All of that material is inside Supplements and Adventures. Thing change with Book 6. With Book 6 the implicit message is if you are playing with the Traveller rules it is assumed you are playing in OTU.

Finally, the OTU was an ad hoc creation. There was no plan to published more Traveller books, and certainly no plan for a grand 11,000 worlds. The fact that things had to be retconned over the years as ideas rubbed each other the wrong way isn’t something I care about. My point is I preferred the way things worked in the Traveller material before the changes that required retcons came along.

So, working product by product, here is my text-flowchart showing the shift in the material from 1977 to 1983…

GDW publishes the book with no intention of publishing any more material for the game. Marc Miller and the GDW assume people will build their own settings and make adjustments to the game as they need for those settings. (Gary Gygax assumed the same thing about OD&D, for the record.)

General Notes:

  • No mention of The Imperium or any specific setting
  • “Generic” to the degree the Traveller draws on the countless 1950s- 1970s SF adventure novels and short stories Miller has read (Thus there are implied setting details drawn from these many sources)
  • A few named details (Psionics Institute; TSA)

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • Trade Routes rather than Communication Routes (Trade routes are concerns of PCs; Communication routes will rarely, if ever, be the concern of the PCs)
  • No Travel Zones (In the implied setting of play the power and influence of the centralized government is weak)
  • Play is assumed to be centered on one or two “subsectors” created by the Referee (The word “sector” does not appear in LBBs 1, 2, and 3 at all, implying a smaller focus of geography and play)
  • Ship size capped at 5,000Dtons
  • Travel for civilian and commercial ships limited in part by the need for refined fuel, which is limited to A and B-Class starports
  • Starship Critical Hit Tables have no “Explode” result (Space combat is a game of resource management for RPG play; ships can be horribly damaged, but not blown up. Later editions will move space combat toward the feel of a board game with “Explode” result
  • The Starship Encounters tables suggest a very different dynamic in the implied setting than one would find in the 1981 edition of the rules and beyond:

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.13.11 AM

As one person at Citizens of the Imperium commented:

In 77, pirates are the bane of populated systems, but are absent in the backwaters. The mains are dangerous for lack of services, not hostiles…

In 81, pirates are the scourge in the fringes – desperate men choking the lifeblood out of minor trade. Meanwhile, the major ports have no pirates, but plenty of law. And patrols are EVERYWHERE.

The “empire” of 81 leaves E and X alone, and to the pirates, but patrols the A and B systems, and the pirates only match with them in the C-ports.

The “empire” of 77 patrols everywhere, but is outgunned by pirates in the systems with good ports…

One is effective, the other not…

The implied setting of 1977 is a freewheeling frontier beyond the reach of the law in most areas, and a struggle for order in the civilized areas. This is a very different kind of setting than one finds in the later Traveller materials when the rules and the setting become one thing.


Setting agnostic material to aid the Referee in using the Traveller rules

Setting agnostic material to aid the Referee in using the Traveller rules

Setting agnostic expansion of the Traveller rules
Pertinent to this discussion:


Concrete details about The Third Imperium, including government structure, history, and alien races of the setting
A maps and quick-sketch details of the sixteen subsectors of the Third Imperium

Setting agnostic expansion of rules and new prior service paths for Player Characters

Pertinent to this discussion:
The information is sparse, with an enormous about of room (and expectation) the Referee will fill in details

  • The Imperium in described as “in decline”
  • In many respects the Marches can be seen as a Frontier
  • There are no Jump Routes (using rules established in Book 3)
  • There are Communication Routes belonging to the Imperium
  • The Imperium imposes Travel Zones to prevent travellers from reaching certain worlds

Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • The Battle Cruiser described in the book use the High Guard rules for design, but is 1,200Dtons, keeping it within the ship size range found in Book 2
  • The Library data and Rumors Matrixes describes a darker Imperium than what is later portrayed, with abuse of power against citizens of the Imperium and even members of the government
  • In many respects the Marches is still a Frontier

ADVENTURES 2-4: (1980)
Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches and beyond

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • Ships are built using the High Guard rules, but tonnage remains withing the range established in Book 2
  • The Library Data and Rumor Matrixes continue to paint a darker, less powerful Imperium than what was portrayed later

DOUBLE ADVENTURES 1-6: (1980-1982)
Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • The Imperium remains dark and more dangerous that later material would suggest
  • Ship sizes remain within the scope found in Book 2

BOOK 5: HIGH GUARD (1979 – 1st ED.; 1980 2nd ED.)
Almost setting agnostic expansion of the Traveller rules. “The Imperium” as a term is introduced exactly as in Book 4, but details of naval structure are made explicit

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • In Book 2 only military and scout vessels could use unrefined fuel without penalty. Book 5 introduces Fuel Purifiers that can be installed on any ship. This makes civilian travel and trade much easier for any interstellar civilization unrefined fuel can now be acquired at any C or D-class starport or any gas giant
  • New rules for constructing ships that increase the possible size from 5000Dtons to 1,000,000,000Dtons
  • Significantly, though the rules are supposed to be generic tools for any Referee to build ships of whatever size he wants, The Official Traveller Universe introduces ships of sizes well beyond those found in Book 2. In this way, the “Battle Cruisier” found in Adventure 1: The Kinunir clearly no longer makes sense due to its now relatively small size and limited armaments. (Countless years of retconning will be spent trying to explain why The Kinunir was ever called a “Battle Cruiser” in the first place.)
  • The above point is tied to another important point:
  • A shift away from Player Character driven play to a focus on the large scale strategic concerns of running an empire of 11,000. In other words, a shift from an RPG focused setting to a setting ready made for board games and large scale tactical deployments. (We can see this in the shift from Jump Routes to Communication routes; we can see this in the addition of “Destroyed” results for starship combat; we can see this the larger ships and ease of travel (and thus communication) introduced in Book 5.)
  • The text introduces and formalizes the naval structure at the world, subsector, and sector level. The nature of The Imperium as an explicit setting is for the first time built into a Traveller Book.

A 60,000Dton Cruiser is now part of the . We have left the “small ship” setting of original Traveller behind. The 1,200 “Battle Cruiser” found in Adventure 1 now officially makes no sense.

A new edition of the rules almost identical to the 1977 edition, cleaned up and better laid out.

However, in this new edition the Communication Routes and Travel Zones introduced in Supplement 3 are now a standard assumption. And, as noted above, there Starship Encounters Tables reveal a much more civilized setting.

My only issue with these items is that they make the default “remote, centralized government” a Traveller setting more intrusive and more involved with the setting of play — even though the original, implied assumption was to put the PCs at the edges of the government (you know “remote”). There’s nothing inherently wrong about these two items. But they do shift the dynamics of the setting of play.

So technically the 1981 edition mentions nothing about The Third Imperium and so is still setting free (apart from the implied setting details). But it adjusts the text to reflect certain elements of the OTU.

The rules are (essentially) the same as those found in Traveller Books 1-3.

Of course, this edition of the rules end with an entire section on the Third Imperium and adventuring within it. As the book is structured one reads the rules to learn how to play in the Third Imperium. This is a drastic change from the earlier, setting-free editions of the rules.

BOOK 6: SCOUTS (1983)
For the first time details about the Third Imperium (of the sort that had only appeared in Supplement 3 and Adventures (proper nouns, dates, and specific details of The Third Imperium)) are now in a Traveller Book. If you are playing with the Traveller rules, you are playing in the Third Imperium.

And here we are.

Additional thoughts…

Parallel to all of this are the board games running in parallel in the development of the Official Traveller Setting and the Classic Traveller game line.

GDW tended to cram things together (again, ad hoc). They had been working on a much larger board game for interstellar war and used that game’s background (involving the Vargr, the Aslan and so on) to create the background for their Traveller RPG. From everything I’ve read all of this was built up on the fly… which is why you can find Traveller mailing lists and forum boards filled with people arguing about how to make all the contradictory bits of the setting make sense.

But as this happens you can see how the Classic Traveller’s game line shifts focus from RPG support to being more about a board game, whether shifting from RPG-driven para-military personal combat to skirmish combat; PCs on board a ship starships combat to flee combat (Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron); and the shift of away for material focused on the concerns of adventuring PCs to generating fluff about the politics and concerns of running an interstellar Imperium.

Given the original premise of Traveller (ex-military with a particular set of skills head off to worlds beyond to carve their own fate and fortune) this shift is, in my view, pronounced.

27 thoughts on “From TRAVELLER: Out of the Box to the Third Imperium

  1. I remember going to the Mini City in town each month to see what new Traveller book was on the shelves. Back then I was trying to put my finger on what Traveller actually was, to describe for friends, while its universe evolved. It took forever it seemed for the second Library Data book to come out (which had the Solomani, Vargr, Vilani, and Zhodani in it).

  2. Thanks for the best rundown of the differences between the early Traveller series. I apparently started out right at the transition to ProtoTraveller and have never looked back. I fully embraced the Third Imperium up to 4-5 years ago when I started looking to ATU settings. These days is a mix of ATU and ProtoTraveller partially inspired by this blog. Enjoying every minute of it, more so than 10 years ago, and especially since dropping Mongoose Traveller.

  3. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Marc Miller at a small seminar at Gary Con last weekend, and was able to ask him several questions inspired by your _Out of the Box_ posts regarding the evolution from Original Trav’ to the OTU, all of which he graciously answered. I’m hoping to put that material into a blog post of my own over this weekend, maybe it’ll be informative to the discussion here.

  4. I would love to see a post about the Character Advancement of Traveller. If my memory is correct, you had to concentrate on two skills over four years and you got a temporary level to that skill, which only became permanent if you concentrated for another four years, while getting another temporary level in those skills). It just goes to show you how much that +1 matters in a 2d6 system. It makes one wonder however how a 22 year old character could possess any service skills on mustering out?

    • Because he or she learned those skills while working in specific conditions providing full focus and support for learning those skills for four years?

      • Yea, that’s my take now. I think it’s actually good that the rate in the service is better than the experience rules, though I have made some changes to make the dedication roll a bit easier, and allow working on any two skills (not just one gun and one blade, or 2 any non-weapon skills).

        Note that the skills earned during service are also semi-random, they are what the powers that be think you should be trained in, or what you pick up based on the assignments they directed you to.

        Now that you’re your own person and no longer answer to some organization or leadership, you get to choose what you focus on, but at the same time, your motivation to focus is lower, thus the the roll to keep up with the program and the slower rate to improve above level-1.

        One more thought I would toss out, I see no reason you couldn’t allow any number of sabbaticals. They take your PC out for 4 years to learn a brand new skill. Sure, totally open ended, you could eventually learn all the skills, but that’s also all you would be doing. Meanwhile your fellow players are having fun playing their character. And few PCs will have the resources to do this before they enter play (and of those, most will only be able to afford one sabbatical).

      • The use of sabbaticals is one of the reasons I think having multiple PCs per play might make sense for the game. Or using hirelings as replacement PCs for sabbaticals or death of PCs.

        With the travel times involved between systems it is possible for game time to move at a rate much faster than we are used to in RPGs. Playing out a year of game time might happen in a few months depending on what the PCs are up to.

      • I actually like the slow advancement. Travellers are too busy doing stuff to study. I think that Marc Miller saw that the “plusses” should be hard won. He even limited the total skills you can have to your INT + EDU.

        Later on the Year-by-year character generation of High Guard and Mercenary would shake things up. I recall a few published adventures ignoring the INT+EDU rule.

      • Keep in mind that the INT+EDU rule was a late addition to the game. It started as a kind of tossed off comment in the Robots Book (dealing specifically with robots) and was incorporated in The Traveller Book.

        This might be why there is inconsistency in the application of the rules in adventures.

  5. The side-by-side analysis reminded me that between 77 and 81 drives went from something like reaction drives (small-craft have fuel they expend; starships may be similar but have more fuel – in Shadows the ship is ‘fully fueled so can land and take off several times if necessary’) to reactionless. Don’t know if that was because GDW remembered the kzinti lesson, or because other worlds in the system became more interesting (Asteroid mining in an early JTAS) and they felt transit time calculations were complex enough without worrying about fuel economy as well.

      • I’m guessing that’s a reference to Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, where the warlike Kzin attacked the unarmed human starships, only to discover that a multi-mile-long fusion engine exhaust was a fearsome weapon in its own right. I seem to remember a story set some generations later where Kzinti had evolved into much more cautious fighters, because all the brave and fearless ones had died in their multiple failed attempts to conquer the humans.

      • As above. The formal statement would be something like:

        “Any spacedrive that depends on Newton’s Third Law of Motion is a weapon. And the more mass-efficient the drive, the more deadly the weapon.”

        The logical extreme appeared in the story that introduced it: the kzinti messed with a ship in interstellar space. It turned to run. They laughed–you can’t run very fast with a drive whose thrust is measures in microgees.

        Like a photon drive. That generates its light beam with laser tech.

        The *Angel’s Pencil* was a laser cannon big enough to cross interstellar space on its own recoil…

        I suspect the original commenter was thinking about the kind of holes you dig landing on a fusion torch.

      • Thank you for filling the gaps. Actually, I was thinking about the mess that happens when you catalyse ‘bankrupt tramp freighter’ and ‘re-usable weapon of mass destruction’ with ‘player characters’. GDW may have decided some of their adventures (e.g. the prison break in Rescue on Ruie) would be more interesting without that option 🙂

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  7. You wrote “SUPPLEMENT 4: THE SPINWARD MARCHES (1979)” where I think you meant “Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium (1979)”

      • No, thank you for all the great articles and insights into original Traveller. I am learning a lot I never noticed. And bleeding to get a campaign going using only my 1977 box. I really appreciate your blog and the consistently excellent writing about Traveller 1977 and contrasts with later material from GDW.

  8. Very interesting timeline. I can actually remember seeing when those things came out (not sure if I started playing in 1979 or 1980). I remember how the ‘advanced’ character generation in Mercenary and High Guard stuffed up a few campaigns for a bit because we were buying in to the primacy of having a lot of skills in game systems. But Azhanti High Lightning seems to be the point I remember when the small ‘one person can make a difference’ sized frontier just stopped correlating with how the OTU was developing.Particularly when the Kinunir became a joke. By then, my view was of a ‘smaller frontier style’ traveller. Your articles and this timeline show me where I tripped up, and how easy the fix is. Aside from the early materials you listed for ‘original’ traveller, the only truly useful traveller stuff that has lasted for my games has been Snapshot, Azhanti High Lignthing & Striker – all for the actual tactical ‘battlement style’ combat system that my friends and I liked, and then we found we liked striker as the better combat system. Not that we used it all the time, but every once and a while it became important (or just ‘hey, lets do it’). That and the 1981 rules+the Traveller Book (my 1977 rules got lost somewhere along the way). But I still vaguely remembered they left something out to do with jump routes – which is how I found your blog in the first place. Glad I did.

    • P.S. – at that time a lot of scenarios were more of a homage to some well known films that were obviously more inspired by the SF&F of the 1940s-1970s that you’ve also mentioned. Thinking back I’m remembering I preferred those and the more open ended universe they depicted.

  9. Excellent post again, as usual – thanks for writing down your thoughts on this matter. I found your dissection of Traveller into three distinct (or overlapping?) phases very interesting. Having read what you posted, I’ve come to a realization as to why I started feeling that things were getting too different as the years went by in my Traveller gaming. I started out with the 3 black books (1977 ed) in the early 80s and played all the way to GURPS traveler. Just speaking for myself, I felt that somehow, things did have the same “feel” as the older games I ran in the 80s. I don’t think this is just a case of nostalgia (although I must admit that nostalgia figures a lot, given my advancing age). Rather, your post pointed me to the “declining Imperium” feel of Pro-Traveller – and a light bulb went off in my head. Yes, you’ve identified what I felt was missing as time went by: my games always implicitly were set amidst this type of backdrop- an Imperium that was large and mighty but on the process of decline. I guess this would explain why my gaming group (myself included) seemed rather partial to the Hard Times milieu of MegaTraveller which came in later on.

  10. Remember, in proto-Traveller the Fourth Frontier War was fought between the Imperium and “the barbarians.” (Adv. 1, p. 38). The Imperial Capital “controls the only gap in the Rifts for thousands of parsecs.” (Adv. 2, p. 41; Adv. 3, p. 42).

    Adventure 7 (Broadsword) is a weird proto-Traveller throwback: an 800-ton vessel is described (p. 18) as “used for innumerable other tasks, including some Imperial and subsector military missions, and as fleet auxiliaries to the Imperial Navy.”

    The “High Guard Ships” chapter of Adventure 6 (Expedition to Zhodane) makes the dilemma posed by 60,000-ton cruisers explicit: “Throw 3D for the number of combat rounds before larger vessels enter the battle; at that point Rock is destroyed unless the group decides to surrender.” None of the sample Starship Encounters provided is more than 2,000 dtons.

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