TRAVELLER: Out of the Box is Driven by ADVENTURE, not Hard Science


In a discussion about Classic Traveller at G+, someone wrote:

I’ve always wanted to run original traveler but I’ve been reticent because of the verisimilitude of the system – and the fact I know precious little of the sciences. (To run the game well, I believe you’d have to be well versed in the sciences…)

I know this is a common fear for some people. I also know that many people believe the notion that “To run the game well… you have to be well versed in the science.”

I really, strongly, disagree with this sentiment, though I can see why some people might think it. So here’s post about it.

Traveller, at least as originally written, was never about Hard Science Fiction as we know it today. It was about ADVENTURE. It was inspired by the works like the Dumarest series by E.C. Tubb, the Demon Princes series by Jack Vance, the Nicholas van Rijn tales by Poul Anderson, among other SF tales from the 40s to the 70s.

That Traveller could become a playground for gearheads has nothing to with what it has to be.

If you go read the Dumarest books or the Demon Prince books you see tales of adventure in an SF setting… but the focus is not calculating heat exhaust issues, but on skullduggery, theft, assassination, political corruption, fighting abusive power, protecting the weak, revenge, ambition, and more.

The point of the “science fiction” element is to put these tales in the context of exotic setting with strange creatures, alien races, and peculiar technology to heighten the novelty of the adventure and provide mysterious situations the protagonists have to deal with. The stories seldom rely on “real science”–but are self-consistent within themselves, allowing the protagonists to puzzle out anomalies and solve problems that make sense within the tale.

As for translating all this to the table of a Roleplaying Game session: No one at the table will know how a Jump Drive works–which is why die rolls can be made to see if it can be fixed.

This is why I think the procedures for determining Throw values in The Traveller Adventure are so interesting and valuable: The book suggests rolling 2D6 to determine the Throw value! This means the Referee is not responsible for knowing how difficult it is to repair a Jump Drive. His job is to determine a random value of difficulty and adjudicating the results of efforts on the part of the PCs.

The point being that if the Throw to repair the Jump Drive fails (or the Player Characters don’t have the skill required to even make a Mechanical roll), the Referee says, “Yeah, you can’t repair the ship. And you don’t have enough money to get a repair part. But you know how much one costs so you can earn the money. And you know where you can steal one…”

That’s not about science. That’s about adventure.

12 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box is Driven by ADVENTURE, not Hard Science

  1. All games need to be fun. But the thing that made Traveller special was precisely that it was science fiction. It was relatively hard SF, too — the planet creation system was based on what little was understood in the 1970s about how planets form. The whole rationale for firearms instead of ray-guns in Traveller was hard-SF realism. The vector space combat system is hard-SF. The aliens (I know, they came along later) are excellent hard-SF concepts.

    Compare Traveller with the Star Wars RPG (any version). It’s light-years (heh) ahead of it in scientific plausibility.

    • First, remember, I want you to have the fun you want to have with Traveller. What I’m about to write is in no way pissing on what you want to do with your RPG time.

      I’m always baffled by the point of view that because Traveller wasn’t Star Wars it was Hard SF.

      First of all, there was nothing “scientific” — even for its time — about the world creation system. It is a system for producing exotic worlds that often only make sense if one comes up with specific rationals for the results. It is a system designed to randomly creating interesting places. That is it’s primary function and its design is built almost entirely for that singular purpose.

      As for the firearms, without doubt the weapons are more conservative than the blasters of STAR WARS. That said, the game lists weapons like swords and spears. It does so because, per the influence of these earlier books, it was expected the PCs would be traveling to many worlds of varying tech levels, and the game had to handle such weapons.

      Moreover, firearms were common weapons in books like “Space Viking” and “King David’s Spaceship” as well as other books of the time.

      And, of course: Psionics. So, let’s get real about what we’re claiming to be “Hard SF”.

      The notion that if we’re not playing Traveller with a focus on the science (which is what the above post is about) means we’re veering into Fantasy or STAR WARS, as if simply makes no sense. It’s exactly why I had to make the post.

      Anyone’s Traveller game can be utterly logical, self-constant, and a blast to play… and never once feel like Star Wars.

      As always, I point people to the books and stories referenced in the post above and this reply for solid examples of what I’m talking about. Such books will often set on edge the teeth of people who are focused on “Hard SF”… but they are, in fact, the soil Traveller grew from.

      And I would add that, for example, THE EXPANSE books and TV show are of the same soil. Enough science to make it fun as SF, but if you try to dig down deep enough you’ll find that it really makes no sense. But that’s not the point of the books or the show. THE EXPANSE is about ADVENTURE in a backdrop of exotic locals, situations, and almost-plausible technology that allows the characters to live out unique and novel situations and adventures in cool places and moments that would otherwise not be possible.

  2. Reading the Dumarest series you’ll never learn a thing about science … Tubb studiously avoids even trying to explain how the Erhaft drive works, for instance, or the affinity twin, or how the Cyclan can communicate over light years…nothing even remotely “hard” about the sci fi. Van Rijn stories at most attempt to make aliens accommodate the planets Anderson put them on, but again there’s just about zero science needed in the stories as they are more about human nature and psychology than anything else. I’ve never understood where anyone gets the idea that Traveller is hard science. It has a whole section on psionics, for the love of Mike! That is about the least scientific thing you could include if you were writing a hard science-based game. It’s basically magic for your sci fi setting.

    • “Reading the Dumarest series you’ll never learn a thing about science …”

      This sentences sums up everything I was trying to say above, but much more neatly! Thanks for that. And, as you point out, you’ll learn almost no science with any of the books original Traveller grew from.

      Of course, the original Traveller rules do teach the reader something. In Book 2 we do get the travel formula — and it even involves a square root!

      I am convinced that if that very science-y looking formula had not included that formula Traveller’s later reputation as Hard SF would never have come about.

      A formula, by the way,that never really needs to be used as long as you have the Typical Travel Times Table.

      • If you play a Traveller space battle you’ll soak up more Newtonian physics than most kids learn in high school physics classes.

        And the planet creation rules show that atmosphere is related to mass (size), as is hydrography. That’s very different from the Lucasian paradigm of “Desert Planet,” “Forest Planet,” “Ice Planet.”

        Or, to put it in personal terms: Traveller helped make me a hard-SF writer.

  3. What this has me thinking about… about Traveller and about D&D both. I have a book that collects the covers of Men’s adventure magazines, sometimes called ‘sweat’ magazines. The book talks about the role of these magazines in postwar America. These men who had been in Europe or in the Pacific and were familiar with the experience of war, both the boredom and the moments of sheer adrenaline, and were now returning to this calm civilian life which seemed flat in comparison. And the stories in these magazines filled this adventure role.

    It makes me wonder about both of the granddaddy RPG’s and how they’re situated after Vietnam, and the relationship to postwar fiction. Space Viking was published in 62 but piper was born in 04, making him 15 for WW1 in 1917, and 37 for WW2. I wonder about the resonance with that fiction for people who had gone to Vietnam. My own early exposure to RPGs was through my uncle who was in the service as was his entire gaming group.

    And there’s Traveller’s default setup as service veterans choosing to live on the fringe of society, away from civilization. And the gambling quality of the chargen minigame often leading to playing characters in their forties.

    • I think that’s an amazing and thoughtful analysis. And it’s important to remember that Marc Miller served in the Army in Viet Nam.

      I’m almost thinking that to get my players in the mood for a Traveller game (or, rather the kind of game I’d like to play) I’d say to them, “Okay, to get yourself in the right frame of mind… imagine it’s 1978 and you got back from your tour in Viet Nam. Imagine what life was like there. Imagine what life is like here. Okay, and now, let’s start making characters.”

      • Let me just drop in Joe Haldeman and David Drake as two other ‘Nam vets with a presence in the field.

    • By the way, this is why when I think of movies to reference for Traveller, I don’t think as much about SF Movies as I do movies with a noir and/or criminal bent. But each of them, now that you have brought this to my attention, could have the feel of a “sweat magazine.” Movies like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Ronin,” and “Heat.”

      I discuss this here:

      • Good point about the reference movies. And the link to your earlier discussion – which was before I discovered your blog. I use all of those sorts of things too. If I want big corp cyberpunk-esque — well there are the Aliens movies and Blade Runner and Robo cop. But for being on the frontier and knocking about from world to world, a whole lot of crime/merc/noir-ish stuff is good. There are one or two Dr Who episodes that were ‘in the past’ that provided inspiration for some scenarios as well. A good adventure story, idea, character, macguffin – wiell it can come from anywhere.

  4. Tubb is even better as an example of postwar. Having been British and 19 in 1938, he didn’t start writing until the war was over.

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