Classic Traveller: Making a World from the Universal World Profile

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After playing around with Classic Traveller’s system for generating Main Worlds and subsectors, I have decided to add the Tags system from Stars Without Numbers as part of the process.

Here’s why:

I think the Classic Traveller Main World generation system is compelling as all hell. It offers the Referee a tool to make him go… “Hmmm… what crazy-SF-themed thing is going on here to justify these numbers?”

The weakness in it, if it is one, is that it might suggest to people, “Roll up these numbers, slap on some obvious high-tech explanation for any obvious inconsistencies, and you’re done.”

But I think that’s doing the system a disservice. The trap is that, like the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules before it, at the time of the game’s publication the game assumed that people who would pick up a game about “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” would be deeply read in the science fiction stories preceding the game’s publication.

If we turn to the stories that inspired Marc Miller when he was writing Traveller we find the works of E.C. Tubb, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, H. Beam Piper, Andre Norton, and others. And in these tales we find that the worlds and SF premises of countless worlds that would be considered outlandish by the standards of today’s science-fiction.

I bring all this up to say, if one roll up the UWP numbers, slap on some obvious high-tech explanation for any obvious inconsistencies, and call it done, one is missing the next step… which is to create the weird, the unexpected, the spectacular, the strange, the exotic, and the unique worlds that would be at home in the science-fiction tales and novels from the 40s through the mid-70s. These are the qualities that these stories from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and early 70s traded in.

The problem is that the Classic Traveller Main World generation system doesn’t necessarily lead to the qualities. It is presumed. But if one assume the underlying quality of the setting is being “realistic” or “hard SF” one can easily iron out these presumed qualities. And if one hasn’t read the books that inspired the game, or even know about them, it might seem that the string of numbers is enough. (One might even be confused as to why the randomly rolled values are so strange!) But it isn’t. The string of numbers is a jumping off point for creating a world.

Later Classic Traveller material, as well as later editions of Traveller, would drill down deeper into astronomical detail when generating world and systems. I would offer this is the wrong direction — at least the wrong direct from the original concept of the game. (If that’s the sort of game the Referee wants AWESOME! I am simply talking about the core conceits and purpose of the game as originally written.)

Marc Miller was not only an Army Captain but also got a B.A. in Sociology. Combined with the compelling conceits about countless societies found in the books by Tubb, Piper, Vance, Bester, Norton, Anderson, Pournelle, and all the other SF authors that inspired Classic Traveller, a compelling case can be made that the focus of the game is not actually Hard SF and astronomical detail, but rather all the interesting cultures and societies the characters the Player Characters get to encounter, puzzle out, and interact with.

Certainly that’s the argument I’m making in this post.

So if we roll up a string of numbers that give us facts about a world, do we necessarily end up with compelling societies and cultures for the player character travellers to interact with? Not necessarily.

The strength of adding the Tags from Stars Without Numbers into the mix is that it immediately colors the world being created with culture, society, factions, conflicts, and NPCs. It encourages the Referee to make something extraordinary that the Player Characters can encounter and interact that is new and fresh and unexpected.

Recently I started nailing down a subsector of my own.  I rolled up the locations of the worlds in the subsector, their respective spaceport types, and the space lanes from the 1977 rules. I made notes for the kind of setting I wanted for the subsector.

Then I chose a cluster of stars for the beginning of a campaign. (For a variety of reasons I like to “Star Small” when working up a subsector. Here on some thoughts on that.) From that cluster I picked the first wold I would begin with: the world in the middle of the cluster with an A class starport. This is where the PCs would begin.

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For that world I rolled a UWP of A-210989-B. So we have a world only 2,000 miles in diameter, with a very thin atmosphere, and a population of billions. “Exactly,” I thought, “how would this work?”

I then thought of an O’Neill Cylinder in orbit around the sun near the planet, which the colony used for mining. But then I realized that an O’Neill Cylinder wouldn’t hold billions. Some quick research and some math told me I would need about 1000 O’Neill Cylinders in orbit to hold the population of the system.

That’s kind of over the top, right? But AWESOME. The image of A THOUSAND O’NEILL CYLINDERS glittering in the sun as a ship approaches would be an astounding sight. And the world itself, small though it is, would be lit up with millions of bright lights as the entire surface of the plane is part of a mining operation that has been going on for a hundred years. Other ships blink in and out of existence as they Jump within the system to gather resources from other worlds within the system.


— Sample Tags from Stars Without Numbers. You roll two Tags to flesh out a world.

I then rolled on the SWN Tags and got Civil War (!) and Restrictive Laws. The Restrictive Laws was an easy fit with the Law Level of 9 that I had already rolled. But the notion of a Civil War raging across these islands in space really caught my imagination. I want the setting to be at the fringes of an ancient, failing interstellar empire. I wanted a noble of the empire to rule the star system. And now I saw that noble’s grasp on the system failing. More importantly, a 1,000 O’Neill Cylinders are fragile. There would be many laws restriction munitions and conflict. The Restrictive Laws would fold neatly into a culture of many rules and customs that keep conflict from spilling out of control and literally tearing the ground out from under the feat of the citizens.

I have no idea yet what the Civil War is about, or whether it has even started. But already I have conflict and action coming to bear in a unique culture driven by the SF details of the setting. This also all works within the Government Type: A Civil Service Bureaucracy mired in tradition. I’m seeing lots of robes with bright colors and elegant patterns that denote one’s station in the hierarchy. The institutions of the system keep generating new rules to sustain their sense of power and order even as they fail to see that discord is brewing below their elegant and elaborate customs and laws.

All of this seems worthy of a setting of a story for Vance or Anderson and the other authors listed above. And three things:

  1. I am clearly not taking the UWP literally (which I don’t think is the point of the UWP, so I don’t)
  2. I do want to spend some time figuring out what it means to fight a war amid islands that can shatter and kill millions if things get too hot, so how does one “fight a civil war” in this kind of terrain. But won’t it be awesome to find out?
  3. I’m not worried about it being fully “realistic.” That is, it will need to have a layer of verisimilitude and self-consistency to feel real. But ultimately there will be awesome adventures, action, puzzle solving, and more… all from rolling 9 pairs of dice and discovering images that excited me from those rolls.
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22 thoughts on “Classic Traveller: Making a World from the Universal World Profile

  1. Cool, I’m resolving to make better use of the SWN tags myself, and not immediately reject a tag that conflicts with the UWP, Restrictive Laws could still work with a low law level. Maybe you can openly carry, but the law is restrictive in other ways. Or maybe it appears to the casual observer that you can open carry, but actually there are books and books of rules on who and when can open carry…

    • Frank… excellent points!

      For me the ideas to find more “vectors” to play around with than simply dumping the literal UWPs onto the table.

      Your Law examples are exactly the kind of thing I am talking about.

    • Another possibility: restrictive laws, but lax and perhaps even corrupt enforcement (so, the law level is perhaps theoretically as restrictive as another world’s law level of 9, say, for weapons carry and such, but for purposes of rolling law enforcement encounters use the actually rolled law level of 3 or whatever – and if such an encounter does occur, then the law enforcers act as if it were the higher value; the Referee would also be justified in raising the effective law level for the characters if they should get on the wrong side of the cops, so that they start to get harassed if the cops don’t like them for whatever reason or even if they forget to pay off the right people within a reasonable time).

      • Another example:

        I’ve been working on further notes for the system I started in this post.

        The world has a Law Level 9. It is also a world that prohibits almost all weapons because everyone is crammed together on fragile O’Neill Cylinders. The possibility of violence means things can spiral out of control and millions might die if a conflict escalates.

        This means more than limiting weapons. It is a culture built on self-effacing ritual and a smothering of emotions.

        However, to release the conflicts, there are ritual fights with swords — whether involving the partly directly involved in the conflict or a champion.

        Now I could have moved the LL down to an 8 and allowed “well regulated long blades” but I thought about it and said, “No. It is highly regulated. The blades aren’t for carrying, they are for specific purposes within the culture.”

        So the LL is 9, but long blades are part of the worlds, but only in very narrow, proscribed ways.

      • I was going to suggest swords were a little boring. Since we have lots fo space colonies that tends to trigger Gundam associations in my mind and in G Gundam we have rigorously enforced law on the colonies and conflict and the rulership of the star system for the next term is settled by each of the interested parties dropping a Giant robot down to preselected areas of the planet to fight one another.

        In this case they are presumably evolved from Mining Exoskeletons and the mentioned civil war could represent the tensions involved in factions trying to ensure they have access to the resources to construct and deploy the giant combat mechs or to steal them from those that have them. And soon the Noble lord who rules must call the great tournament that confirms his right to rule…

        Which gives Players a number of things to get involved in and or roped into, from stealing or piloting mechs through the corporate infighting involved in getting the rights to export video of what is to every one out side the system functionally a legal extreme bloodsport.

  2. Have you seen Paul Elliott’s (Zozer Games) Universal World Profile for Cepheus Engine? It’s his take on bringing the UWP to life. In particular, I would direct your attention to the very end of the work and his concept of “The Hook” for each world.

    • I suppose if one’s definition of “Traveller” is “The Third Imperium” then those changes would make sense.

      However, as anyone who reads this blog knows, my “Traveller” is Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3.

  3. Great writing! Thanks heaps. I had a similar thought myself because I love the general story building focus of SWN. But you’ve expressed it so clearly and made me resolve to read more literary influences on Traveller! I agree with Frank that it is interesting to not discard apparantly contradictory roles, but another complementary approach is to draw on the tags by selection based on Traveller trade codes and remarks. I love then looking through the SWN Friends/Enemies/Places/etc. tables and combining themes to come up with an adventure hook. What I’d also like to start doing is carrying around a notebook to extend those lists. The vaaast bulk of my NPCs don’t have stats, they just have a place in the story (although I do keep a few UWPs rolled up “just in case”).

  4. It is a little odd that the Imperial Scout Service would try to boil entire star systems down to an 8-character string of digits. Using the UWP as “in-universe” information seems silly when you think about it. Especially since you either have to have false information in the UWP when there are secrets about the world — or assume the Scout Service puts spoilers in its public data.

    • All I can say to your post is… “Yes.”

      The UWP, as envisioned in Book 3, is there as a tool for the Referee to run the game.

      The moment you fold that tool into the “fiction” of the setting the whole thing falls apart. It makes the UWP too literal. It also becomes WEIRD. That is, look at all the government “types” that are not listed. (For example, Monarchy.) But the key is the UWP isn’t trying to be a taxonomy of reality. It is establishing details that will push at the PCs and which the PCs will interact with AT THE LEVEL OF THE PCs.

      So a “Monarchy” can be many of the Government types, because what matters is whether the Monarchy interacts with the public (which means the PCs) through the interface of an Impersonal Bureaucracy, Religious Dictatorship, and so on.

      The text in the 1977 edition are clearer about these things:

      “Ruling functions are performed by agencies which have become insulated from the governed citizens.”

      “Ruling functions are performed by a religious organization without regard to the specific individual needs of the citizenry.”

      The focus is on the term “ruling functions.” It isn’t about the “type” of government. (There could be a king or elected President in either case.) What matters is the focus on how people interact with the functions of government on the planet.

      • I used to mix and match between traveller generated planets and star wars d6 system planets just to break up the feel of the planetary descriptions, and to get extra inspiration. The SWN tags seems to be an excellent tool for doing the same, only more simply. And despite liking the more advanced systems for generating star systems that were developed for traveller I never went for these because I got more value out of the original simpler system, and thinking about how to explain what it generated. As per what you’ve described above. That was where the imagination is sufficiently stirred to create scenario hooks and the world descriptions, and where you get the tailored details that make one impersonal bureaucracy different from another. And on your last point, I might return to an idea used in a scouts/merchant trading & exploration scenario a long time ago – only the first few bits of info about a system got mapped. Thus – system presence, and starport. Asteroids and GG, maybe bases. Sometimes names and sometimes only designations. Trade classifications. The meaningful tags that grab the attention of players. And a rumour table that gave one to three liners about the most interesting (from *my* referee perspective). As for the UWP itself, perhaps it can be explained in game terms that it comes from ‘The Rough Guide to Subsector’. Its a tourist guide and marketing construct rather than an official IISS classification. Just a thought.

      • I would never suggest people not do what they want to do.

        But for me, this idea: “As for the UWP itself, perhaps it can be explained in game terms that it comes from ‘The Rough Guide to Subsector’. Its a tourist guide and marketing construct rather than an official IISS classification.”

        … is not the kind of thing I’m going to do anymore. (And that’s a change for me.)

        I’ll give them details about the world in fiction through play (“As you approach the world you can gauge from comparing it to the starport and ships in orbit it’s about 2,000 miles across…”) or if they ask question (“You hear Bavraa is really strict in terms of law… no weapons outside of the starpart at all, regular police checks.”)

        But as for the UWP… if I hand that to the players I think I’m making the world too small. They’ll think they have a grasp on it, or start imagining it a certain way, and it really won’t help them… and can only mislead them.

        After all, finding out the the world of Bavraa has an “impersonal bureaucracy tells them NOTHING about what the world is really like. Yes, there is an impersonal bureaucracy. But it is divided into countless scheming clans and tribes that can only fight their battles with ritual duels because they live on fragile O’Neill Cylinders, and they either fight their own battle, or hire a champion, or have had a clone of themselves raised (if they wealthy enough) to fight their battle for them while still claiming (as a matter of prestige) that they fought.

        Like, none of that is in the UWP. And I’d rather the Players find all that out in imagine play and interaction with the world via their PCs rather than from a string of numbers.

  5. PS – just realised that my last comment about mapping is really to only show what you have in your map at the top of the post. Silly me. But – its a good idea.

  6. The idea of not giving players a UWP appeals. A lot – for the same reasons you mention. I’ll be doing that when my traveller game resumes.

  7. Interesting thought about not sharing the UWP with players. I like the direction of focusing deeper on the description of the worlds. but I’m not sure I’d go quite so far as to keep the UWP to myself. One thought is that it still provides some kind of simple summary of the world. Sure, there may be creative interpretations of some of the numbers, but as a short reminder I think it can still work.

    I will definitely be taking advantage of the fact that my Hangouts game had to go on hiatus and I’m just doing play by post to take things slower and work on more descriptive worlds and less slavery to the UWP. It should be fun.

    • Well, in later CT books the UWP becomes something produced by the Imperial Scouts — in the fiction of the setting, if you will.

      So it is something the PCs might have because the Imperium distributes it.

  8. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Planetary Government in Traveller | Tales to Astound!

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