A Marc Miller Interview at Gary Con X


James from the James the Geek blog had the good fortune to play Traveller with Marc Miller at Gary Con X last weekend.  After the game he sat and chat with the group of players, and with James individually for a bit as well. As a fan of Traveller James had a lot of questions about the game and put them to the man himself. He has posted the results of his impromptu interview.

The conversation covered a lot of ground, but here are some answers from Miller I wanted to highlight:

  1. When Mr. Miller designed Traveller, he intended it to be a generic sci-fi roleplaying game system, in which we could play any science fiction game we wanted.  The Third Imperium setting came later.

  2. The rules, or systems, he included are there as an aid for when your imagination fails. He shared the example of world creation. “Think of a world. Now think of another one. And another. After a while you run out of imagination or things get a little boring.” That’s where the world generation system steps in and helps you by creating worlds that you now have to creatively explain. Why would millions of people choose to live on a desert world with a tainted atmosphere, for example? The more I learned about his play style, and his original ideas for the game, the more it became apparent that the systems, while there to aid us, could be completely ignored (and should be) in order to simply play the game

  3. While playing Traveller, Marc role-plays.  Very little rules. Traveller is truly a rules-light game system once you start playing.  For our scenario, we generated characters by only rolling up stats. No skills. Just stats and pick your service.  All rolls were made against those stats, but you couldn’t roll against the same stat again, until you had used them all.  Oh, and you had to support your decision on which stat to use. After that, it was all role playing. Creating a communal story. He made it up as he went along, allowed us to build the story, and acted as “referee” just as intended. After we were through, he said “There. Now you know how I play Traveller.”

  4. Originally, there was no intention to publish anything except rules.  He wanted players to use their imaginations and play in whatever world they wanted.

    The Imperium became the setting after a reviewer made a comment that he wouldn’t play a game that did not include a pre-defined setting. Marc implied that he didn’t want to play in one in which there was one. He said he had even written an article about it.

    I thought I recalled seeing it, but could only find a comment made in “Challenge/JTAS” Issue 29. Marc writes, “In our own naive way, we thought that the basic rule set was enough. It was a review in a fanzine run by Tony Watson that changed my mind. The reviewer, talking about Traveller, complained that there was not enough background and detail for the Traveller rules: each player had to make up his own. And Tony (as the editor) inserted a comment that he would never play a system that imposed a background on him. … it was my responsibility, as a game designer, and our responsibility, as a game publisher, to provide support for the role-playing system.”

    I believe that the ‘fanzine’ may have been “Space Gamer”.

  5. Money. It’s come up here a couple of times, so I asked Miller how he envisioned money would work in Traveller. He said he never thought people would really be transporting money, like credit or even cash. Instead, he gave the example that on one world you would buy a cargo load of pigs.  You would go to the next world and sell the pigs for a cargo load of turkeys and, hopefully, enough local currency to get supplies, fuel and repairs, and then move on, repeating the process. Personally, I think “Firefly” does a great job of demonstrating this in action. Of course, that still doesn’t answer how a ship gets paid off, and I didn’t ask.

  6. Traveller was most influenced by the “Dumarest Saga” books…

  7. His favorite version of the game is still Classic Traveller. Yeah us!

  8. He loves the character creation system because the dice rolls give you interesting characters to play. He pointed out how, during the weekend, he had several PCs that were really just dumb, and it was fun to see how the players handled playing those characters. He mentioned that this is what made the game interesting, and gave exciting results.

    During the game our rolls mostly consisted of “roll under the attribute”.

  9. While he doesn’t play Traveller using lots of rules, he does like to play with systems. Just like many of us here who play with building starships, or worlds, or the merchant system. T5 is this way. He said “I always wanted a system that would make interesting aliens with 5 arms and stuff and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Finally I did.” I haven’t read T5, but given how much fun I have personally had playing the games within the Traveller game, I may have to pick it up some time, just because.

Now, there is little in the above that will surprise to the readers of the blog. I’ve been flogging these matters since the fall of 2015.

The weird thing is how many people did not believe me when I pointed out that there was no Third Imperium in the original rules sets, how the game was designed for everyone to create their own settings, how the game is designed to mostly be a conversation between the Referee and the Players and the Referee falling back on the rules when required.

On this blog I’ve talked about the improvisatory nature of running Traveller assumed in the original rules. The need for Referee to be adjudicating on the fly. The fact that a Player Character is not defined by his skills and he can do many things without skills. I’ve talked about the original inspirations for Traveller and how the notion that you must do it as “Hard Science Fiction” or you are doing it wrong is nonsensical. (Read the Dumarest books and tell me how much they teach you about science.)

Now, Miller has been making many of the statements above for decades–pointing out since 1981 that he assumed the rules found in the original boxed set would be the last Traveller material he would ever (or ever need to) publish. But despite actual interviews with the actual man who was actually there, the pushback against these bland facts was often crazy-fierce. In particular, the notion that Traveller is the Third Imperium and that if I wanted to address the rules and how to play the game I was somehow missing out on what Traveller actually is.

Which leads to the most interesting point about Millers comments above.

Miller states that Classic Traveller is his preferred version of Traveller. And the fact this is the edition he chooses to play at conventions gives lie to the notion that each iteration of Traveller is somehow an improvement or “advancement.” I bring this up because I have had had interactions with several people who consider Classic Traveller to be some sort of “introduction to Traveller” and really not worth much time when Traveller5 is around the corner.

I have stated from the start of Traveller: Out of the Box series that I believe Classic Traveller works–and works great–as is and without needing to be “fixed” or “improved.” Later editions add more and more complex rules or endless efforts to simulate reality–and if that is what someone wants more power to them. But as an RPG game used in the playstyle of the 1970s I don’t think the game can be beat.

Which brings to Miller’s point that while he likes the challenge of game design, he doesn’t use the complex game designs he creates. He doesn’t use rules that have rules for everything. He instead uses the simple, straightforward, Referee-driven rules of Classic Traveller.

I have a theory: Back in the 1970s GDW created a wonderful, light RPG rules set for playing Science-Fiction adventures in the far future. It provided a straightforward framework a Referee and Players could to play out countless kinds of settings and situations. For some settings and situations the Referee would have add rules, subtract rules, or simply ignore some rules–but that was part and parcel of the spirit and the letter of play in the mid-70s. After all, one could play a terrific and long campaign of Traveller on a single planet. If you never got around to using the cargo and passenger rules, that would be fine. The key is this: it was a framework for you to go do things with. The reason Miller didn’t think there would be need or demand for more Traveller products is because he assumed everyone would take the framework and go do what they wanted with it.

But something unexpected happened. Rather than taking the framework and doing what they wanted with it, people who bought the little boxed set of Traveller rules wanted answers. GDW assumed you would provide the answers you wanted for your game, but in short time it became clear the people who bought the game wanted GDW to provide answers for them. And this was completely contrary to how GDW thought you would use the game–and should use the game.

This tension of expectations between the designers of the game and the consumers was best illustrated in issue #2 of The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society. James Maliszewski sums up the matter here:

In issue #2 of JTAS, editor Loren Wiseman has a column where he takes exception to a review of Traveller Book 4, Mercenary, which appeared in issue #26 (June 1979) of Dragon. Among the complaints made in the review (by Mark S. Day) is “Laser pistols were missing from hardware.” Now, as any old Traveller hand can tell you, laser pistols weren’t originally included in the game. I’m not certain I can recall when they finally did appear (MegaTraveller in 1986?), but their absence was a common knock against the game, especially by fans of other SF RPGs.What’s interesting is the way that Wiseman dismisses the reviewer’s criticism:

Take, for example, the laser pistol. Although it does not specifically mention them, Traveller provides all the information needed to enable a referee to create them, with a little mental effort. Since, as referee, we are running the world, we declare that a laser pistol should be to a laser carbine as a conventional pistol is to a conventional carbine.

He then goes on at some length showing how he’d extrapolate the game stats of a laser pistol, concluding his efforts with the following:

The above example indicates how the Traveller rules can be used to create something not present in the rules. We don’t have room to describe everything. With a little imagination, a little research, and a lot of thought, almost anything can be made compatible with Traveller.

On some level, Wiseman’s reply to the review comes across as a little tetchy. On another, though, I find it reminiscent of the afterward [sic] of OD&D, where Gygax and Arneson ask the question “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” That’s a sentiment that makes more and more sense to me as the years wear on, so it delighted me to see it expressed in the pages of JTAS so long ago.

It is my guess that the questions never stopped coming. Starting with laser pistols, the questions moved on to how “What, exactly, is Jump Space?” (when, in fact, it can be any of number of different things in any number of different settings), to “Please explain how an interstellar empire of 11,000 worlds would work.”

The questions never stopped coming. A great and vocal chorus demanded a half-dozen guys running a game company to nail down every possible application of the rules for Traveller as well as how an interstellar empire would work. All this despite the fact the game was designed for the Referee and Players to come up with their own setting and details for their own table.

It is my belief then, that Miller has spent the last four decades, on and off, trying to come up with a rules set the will satisfy this choir of questions. A game so broad in its application (in other words: everything) that it could provide and answer to everything with the text of the rule book, whether it be about having a roll defined of every situation or a method of answering any question about the settings.

And so we have Traveller5. Now, there are people who want games like Traveller5–and so I’m glad Miller is making this game for them. There is a need and desire for this product, and Miller is doing his damndest to deliver.

But here is the important thing: Marc Miller doesn’t play Traveller5. He plays Classic Traveller. Traveller5 is for all the people who want a game that will provide all the answers for them, an audience that Miller wants to please, but he himself is not that audience. He built the game he wanted to play 40 years ago. He’s still enjoying it.


12 thoughts on “A Marc Miller Interview at Gary Con X

  1. I’ve really got to buckle down and find a few players. All of this discussion leaves me itching to get out there and wing it…

  2. When I read that blog a few days back I remember mentally high fiving you as I read. You may have seen that kind of vindication before, but it was the first time I’d come across something that echoed your blog so well.

    Also, I really loved that his character creation method was roll stats, pick a service and go. I’d have probably let players pick a handful of ‘skills’ rather than use his roll under method, but that’s the beauty of the game we’ve been talking about through your blog (and rpg.net) for a while now.

  3. Once again I find myself in full agreement with every conclusion you have reached in this blog.
    I have posted on many forums that later iterations of Traveller should be more properly titled The Third Imperium Role Playing Game, this is certainly true for MegaTraveller, GURPS Traveller, T4 and T5 IMHO.

  4. Just had a thought about character creation. D&D and Traveller are opposites of one another. In D&D, you start out with a 1st level character with few skills (raw talent?) who sets out on adventures to gain experience and go up levels. In Traveller, the experience is front loaded with taking one or more terms in a career path to FIRST GET SKILLS. You can then use those skills to GO OUT AND ADVENTURE!

    • Exactly!

      In fact, in an interview back in 1981 Miller brought up this exact point.

      But here is also one place where they are similar…. in both systems you roll randomly to determine what sort of character you are playing… and then your job is to have an adventure with the hand you’ve been dealt.

  5. Played Traveller since 1979. Have flirted with many other systems and settings but always come back to the original LBB “setting”, i.e. “make your own.” By today’s RPG standards I started out wrong with an emphasis on ROLE-playing. Nice to see Marc Miller an I are actually of the same mind.

    • And course the role-playing Miller used is baked right into the original Traveller rules. You can’t play the game without talking things out between the Referee and Player. There’s no automatic skill roll to turn to. Unless the Player describes, with clear fictional detail, what the Player is doing, the Referee can’t adjudicate what is happening or decide what Throw or DMs would apply!

      I remember over at CotI someone “explaining” to me how I was misreading how the original Traveller rules worked, because I clearly was not familiar with “the entire corpus of Marc Miller’s work.” And the only way to understand original Traveller was to look at it through the lens of every game Miller worked on for 40 years AFTER writing Traveller.

      My own instinct was that the original Traveller rules worked with one set of assumptions — and that the later, simulation-driven games where everything-has-a-rule came from a different design philosophy.

      Given Miller’s statements above, I think it’s clear that original Traveller is what Miller’s heart loves, and it is a distinctly different beast than what came after it. And the games that came after it were designed for *other people* — people who do not enjoy the pleasures built into the original Traveller rules.

  6. I find interesting the point 3 that says :
    “All rolls were made against those stats, but you couldn’t roll against the same stat again, until you had used them all. Oh, and you had to support your decision on which stat to use. After that, it was all role playing.”

    I am not sure if he means they would roll under, but then again it feels weird that one would be forced to use all the stats to be able to use them again. What is your take?

    • Miller has moved to “roll under” characteristics for his most recent designs. So if you have a value of 12 in STR you then roll a certain number of dice, and if you get that value or under, you succeed.

      As for this element: “use all the stats to be able to use them again” — I think it is fine, especially for a one off convention game. But even more broadly.

      Playing like this forces the Players to be inventive as they cannot solve problems with the same strong characteristic again and again. They need to come up with novel methods of solving problems. I like this.

      It is important to remember that Miller is a game designer. He didn’t build Traveller to create a model of far-future society and economics. He built it to be played as a game — that is: limited resources, choices to be made, shifting tactics as circumstances dictate, and so on.

      The notion of “game” is found in everything from character creation (“How far do I push my luck to improve my character even as I risk the character’s death?”); to personal combat; ship design; ship combat; taking risks using skills… and so on.

      Forcing the Players to use shifting characteristics during play is not “realistic” — but it does put the Player in the position of having to choose when to use a characteristic, when to save it for later, which characteristic to use when the obvious choice is not available… and on on.

      This forces the Player — not the character, but the Player — to play and be playful. This is was the focus of early RPG design. And I think Miller still holds to it.

  7. Great Post. I had the LBBs back in the day and we used them for all kinds of different universes. Now I admit that as a teenager I also bought the rest of the books and most of the games as they came out and got thoroughly invested in the crunchiness of Mercenary and High Guard, but never did I feel constrained to the Third Imperium. There were the Slammers and Dorsai and Starship Troopers to explore and how exactly could you make the CAM 130 Cyclops from the Terran Trade Authority books work in High Guard?

    It was the same for most other RPGS, even AD&D was focused on build your own world in the beginning. While most of the players and GMs I knew were into world building, as the player base expanded, not everyone was and that’s fine.I think what was different back then was that pregen worlds and detailed, prescriptive rules were an option, now they seem to be a requirement and that makes me a little sad.

  8. I’ve read a lot of your Classic Traveller articles, but I think until today I’ve only skimmed this one. Super good stuff. You know, as good as some of the newer versions are, including Cepheus Engine varieties, I just love Classic.

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