Tales to Astound!

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:

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:

Pertinent to this discussion:

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

Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches

Pertinent to this discussion:

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

Pertinent to this discussion:

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

Pertinent to this discussion:

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:

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.