Using Original TRAVELLER Out of the Box — E. Tage Larsen’s Alien Legion Inspired Setting

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The premise of the Traveller: Out of the Box series is that the original Traveller rules were a framework to allow a Referee to create his or her own settings to share with friends. Here’s an example of this in action:


Over at G+ E. Tage Larsen wrote up some notes about a Traveller game he ran. The picture above shows a collection of items and notes he used for the game.

He wrote:

Reffed my first Traveller (in a few decades) game on Saturday night and had a great time! Used my own universe, rolled up a subsector, stuck to the ’77 books and went with an ‘Alien Legion’ comic book theme.

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For those of you note familiar with Alien Legion, here’s a description from Wikipedia:

“The original concept was the ‘Foreign Legion in space’ and all the legionnaires were human. … Then I created the humanoid/serpentine design that later became Sarigar and decided that the Legion should include a wide variety of species. This was in the early ’70s. By the time I got around to developing the idea further in the early ’80s, Star Wars obviously became an influence. The Alien Legion universe is a giant extrapolation of the American democratic melting-pot society where different races and cultures work together for the common good while dealing with the pluses and problems that the nation’s diversity creates.”[1]

Larsen continues…

I had the players all roll from “The Metamorphica” to create aliens. The +Johnstone Metzger book is wonderful and I’d been itchign to use it. It’s pricey though even on sale at Lulu. I almost went with the generative tables from Maze Rats which would have worked really well too. Also, tons of love on this coast for the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box Weapon Cards… I’m not the only one. I almost flagged you in this post but wanted to keep the fan boy to a minimum.

The Metzger book is enormous. So, first i had to sort of put the brakes on the tables and decide how much stuff i wanted to leak into play. I settled on letting them roll if they were mutations or more animal type creatures. Gave each player two body mutations and I think one additional physical and mental modifiier. I was running an additional Corruption mechanic that modified the Saves so they could buy into addl mutations for added Corruption.

The Metamorphica can be used in countless ways, but Larsen used it to build out aliens from countless species. Here is a sample table…

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And here is a couple of tables devoted specifically creating aliens…

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You can find a thorough video review of The Metamorphica here.

Larsen continues…

Character 1 rolled up: Birthmark, Bug Eyes, Super Charisma. Character 2: Big; Gaseous; Long legs: Multiple Personalities. Character Three: One eye; Cilia; speech impediment.

These were all friends and hardcore Story Gamers for a one-shot. Mostly we just used the Alien factor for color. Though the gaseous form and multiple personalities of Character 2 had a lot of show time. If I’d been doing a campaign or thought this through better, I’d have given them some sort of auto-success or something 1x per game on their powers. One time the charisma came up and I gave the player a dice modifier but it wasn’t a very successful resolution.

The second character had no problem losing the final conflict and narrated losing a contest as getting a hole in his vacc suit and his gaseous form being vented out into space.

Larsen pulled his game together using G+’s RPG Roulette.

So, in the tradition of the early days of the hobby, Larsen started with the kind of setting he wanted, then kit-bashed the rules to create rules that would support what he wanted. He didn’t limit himself to Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3, but grabbed material that was even outside the Traveller line to help inspire and support the kind of setting he wanted.

 

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The New Yorker Magazine Covers Dungeons & Dragons

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As a long time New Yorker Magazine reader I was startled and surprised today to find a lengthy article about Dungeons & Dragons and its enduring, if even currently surging, popularity.

This passage sums up much of what I’ve been talking about on this blog in terms of play style…

A decade ago, when developers attempted to bring Dungeons & Dragons into the twenty-first century by stuffing it with rules so that it might better resemble a video game, the glue of the game, the narrative aspect that drew so many in, melted away. Players hacked monsters to death, picked up treasure, collected experience points, and coolly moved through preset challenges. The plotters of the game’s fifth edition seemed to remember that D. & D.’s strength lay in creating indulgent spaces (get lost in your gnomish identity, quest or don’t, spend time flirting in the tavern) and opposing whatever modes of human industry prevailed among the broader public. D. & D. now has vastly simpler rules than those found in an iTunes terms-and-conditions agreement. The structures the designers made are also simpler and more subjective. If a player thinks of something clever, you don’t have to thumb through a handbook for a strictly defined bonus. The Dungeon Master can ponder the idea for a moment—could a dwarf with low charisma, with a few well-chosen compliments, really convince a city of elves to love him?—and then decide to reward the player with an extra chance to succeed.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Expectations of a Traveller Referee at the Start of the Hobby

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On another site I read a discussion about the rules for original Dungeons & Dragons. The conversation was about Hit Points and what they “mean.”

At some point the conversation turned on the matter of killing a character if the character was tied up and helpless.

One person wrote:

Tell me there aren’t really players and refs out there who have a bound, unconscious enemy who still has 10 hit points so they have to keep rolling hits and damage with their dagger when slitting a throat to inflict enough hit points to kill the poor sucker…

Someone who had played Dungeon & Dragons with Gary Gygax at the start of the hobby replied:

Gary had to write elaborate “coup de grace” rules because the vast majority of buyers were too fucking stupid to figure out implications.

This got me thinking about a shift in the hobby that had taken place from its start until today. Reading that Gygax had to add the “coup de grace” rules meant they hadn’t been there at the beginning of the hobby. But I was well aware I could open up almost most RPGs published since the early 80s and find rules explaining in clear detail that if a PC wanted to kill a helpless opponent he could do it without having to make a roll.

Why the shift?

In a previous posts I discussed how early RPGs grew out of the tradition of Referee driven war-games such as Free Kriegspiel. By “Referee driven” I mean that the Referee makes judgment calls based on his own intuition and knowledge to adjudicate moments of uncertainty and conflict instead of constantly turning the rules. This allowed the game to move along more swiftly, as rules and calculations of odds did not have to be made for every encounter, conflict, and situations. If the Referee is not certain how to make a decision, dice would be rolled to determine outcomes randomly, often using rules and calculations to determine the odds.

The Referee did this in the role of impartial adjudicator of circumstances. At this time in the hobby he wasn’t trying to use the ruling toward and sort of “story.” He wasn’t trying to make ruling to lead the adventure to any sort of climax. His job was to provide opportunities and threats to the Players, allow them to describe their actions and responses to specific situations, make rulings that made the most sense given the imagined details at hand, and turn to the dice when needed.

So, for example, if a group of six Level 8 Player Characters came upon three 1 HD goblins, the Referee might well not bother to roll and simply describe how the PCs slaughter the goblins. If there were forces nearby that might hear the combat he might roll a d6 and determine the odds for those forces becoming alerted. He would decide the odds on the spot and make a roll.

That’s how a Referee ran an RPG in the early years of the hobby. There would be no need for special “coup de grace” rules–because if a Player wanted to kill a helpless opponent the first thing the Referee would do, before turning to the rules, would be to imagine the circumstances of the situation and make a ruling if possible.

“Hmmm…” the Referee might think, “the Lord Belanor is tied up, unable to defend himself, his neck exposed–and one of the PCs wants to slit his throat.” And then he would turn to the Player and say, “Your blade digs into Belanor’s neck as you slide it across. He tries to curse you with his final breath… but already blood is gushing out. He stares at you in shock, until his eyes become glassy and lifeless.”

Boom. No need for checking the rules. Because the Referee is there to figure this stuff out. It is assumed he is capable of making such decisions. It is, in fact, his job.

This got me thinking about the original Traveller rules. So I cracked open the books.

Here is a passage from the 1981 edition of Traveller: Book 1 in the “Special Consideration” section, which covers things like “Full Automatic Fire” and “Group Hits by Shotgun”:

Coup De Grace: Any gun or blade may be used to administer a coup de grace and kill an unconscious or unstruggling individual (person or animal) at close range in one combat round if the character using the weapon so states. Ammunition is expended, but no die rolls are necessary. A coup de grace may be administered with hands or brawling weapons using special blows, but die rolls must be made.

But if you open up the 1977 edition of Traveller: Book 1 you know what you find about “coup de grace”?

Nothing.

Everything else is there about Full Automatic Fire and Group Hits by Shotgun. But nothing about how you can kill an immobilized, unarmed target. Because, of course, the answer is obvious and it was assumed the Referee would make a ruling and the game would move on.

Apparently, just as Gary Gygax felt compelled to add “coup de grace” rules in later editions of D&D, so the gang at GDW felt compelled to add rules that would have seemed utterly pointless only four years earlier.

Now, there might be good reasons for layering more and more rules into an RPG text to shift the load from Referee rulings to the rules.

The most common reasons would be Referees who are really bad at the job. They made poor adjudications that made little sense. Or, worse, they behave not as an impartial judge to make rulings on fictional circumstances but to abuse or beat up the players. By making the text as explicit as possible about as many circumstances as possible the game is protecting the Players from crappy Referees.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.

The fact remains in countless cases judgments have to be made on the part of the Referee in any RPG. Now, there are two paths here: One is to encourage people to become better Referees through advice and practice. The other is to take the responsibilities of being a capable Referee away from Referees and shift those responsibilities to the text of the roleplaying game itself.

For the most part the hobby followed the second path. The rules and text changed (and have continued to change) to move the Referee away from being the impartial arbiter of actions and situations during play and into the role of applying rules from the rulebook. And this has become the default assumption of the RPG hobby.

This is why when people look to the rules of Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 they often become boggled. “It makes no sense!” they say. “There’s no skill system!” they say. Everyone knows how to roll up a character, everyone knows how to roll up a subsector… but the actual application of playing the game with the Player Characters going on adventures and doing things is a kind of mystery.

Other details of “rules” become added in each successive edition of Classic Traveller as well. The original rules offer no Dice Modifiers for Concealment or Cover, for example. I would offer that is because the rules as printed could not anticipate with the same clarity each specific situation as well as a Referee at the table could. How much cover? What is the quality of the cover? While the rules for Cover and Concealment found in The Traveller Book are certainly useful as guidelines, to assume that Cover and Concealment would be impossible in a game of Classic Traveller before they were written into the rules would be weird.

And yet, for many people today, if the rules don’t cover something all sorts of confusion breaks out. For some people the original Traveller rules are missing so much. And I offer this is because our expectations of RPGs, and what we expect a Referee to do, has changed so much.

Because of the expectation brought from later games people assume the original Classic Traveller rules do not work. Such people can’t see the rules functioning the way they were designed to be used, because they don’t even know such a style of play is possible.

If, as a Referee, one thinks, “The Player Characters want to kill an unarmed and defenseless opponent,” and then tells they Players, “You succeed,” without even thinking to check the rules but simply because the circumstances dictate that is the ruling that makes the most sense in that moment… one is on the way to playing the game in the tradition and style it was originally intended.

This isn’t the “right” way to play an RPG, of course. But it is certainly one way. And it certainly the way the original Traveller rules were designed to be played out of the box.

Classic Traveller Rules In Action, But Not In Space

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One of the main themes of my posts about Classic Traveller is to look at the rules found in the box and to focus on how to play the game. (This is in contrast to not looking at the rules and how to play, and focusing instead on years of yammering about a setting and how it doesn’t make sense but could make sense if only everyone argued about it for another 40 years.) It is has been my belief that Classic Traveller has an excellent system for running loose and fun RPG sessions–independent of anything to do with starships or the implied setting found in the basic rules.

Recently, at a local convention, I had a chance to give this notion a test drive.

I decided to run an RPG session one evening on the fly. I hadn’t planned to run Classic Traveller but two of my friends and one of their friends who had never played an RPG all wanted a game and I volunteered to run something. I had a dice bag, index cards, and whatever PDF I had posted on this blog.

I decided to use the Classic Traveller rules as my framework. They are simple, flexible, and crazy easy to run if Old School Referee-driven-adjudication is your thing.

I established a setting: A mythic kind of place in Eternal Winter and Eternal Night. The Sun had been taken away generations ago. The PCs would be from a village along the coast where fishing still took place. A few scattered communities existed across dark, snow-covered lands. Trade existed, as well as marriages across communities.

I handed out an index card to each player for characters: “Assign the values 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to STR, DEX, END, INT, EDU, and Social Status. Add +2 to two of those, or a single +4 to one. Give yourself a profession and write that on the top of the card. You character can do all thing things that that profession can do. Then add three more skills, the things you are really good at, which might tie to your profession or be something else. Assign a +1, a +2, and a +3, respectively to each of the skills as you see fit. Tell me who your character cares about in the village. Tell me about the god your character pays homage to. Give your character a name.”

We ended up with the chieftain’s bard, the chieftain’s thane, a whaler who loved his sons, and a witch who lived outside the walls of the town with her ailing sister.

I came up with a situation: There had been a kin-killing on the seas when two clans fought over the kill of a whale and The God of the Deep had stopped sending fish up to the surface from the ocean’s bottom. The village would die.

The PCs ended up going to the underworld to find the dead man who had not been given proper burial and returning him to the mortal world. While they were in the land of the dead the PCs saw the sun in the sky (for it, too, had died long ago) and brought back new hope to their village that the sun might return.

I ran the game a little bit like HeroQuest in that a single roll generally handle a full conflict and then we moved on to fallout and new choices. (We had only four hours and had spent some time creating the setting. I wanted to keep things moving along.

I didn’t use a single rule book or reference anything but some notes I scribbled while the Players made characters.

It was kind of RPG Convention Gold. We had a blast.

In essence, I approached resolving situations as I’ve outlined in two posts I wrote a while back. As I discovered while running my Improvised Classic Traveller Convention Game at the previous convention, my assumptions about how robust and effective the Classic Traveller are seems to be paying off for fun times at the gaming table.

Empire of the Petal Throne is Back in Print

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For those of you interested in Old School gaming, the Tékumel Foundation just announced the release of new new hardcover and softcover editions of Empire of the Petal Throne(Here is the link directly to the the books on DriveThruRPG.)

From Wikipedia:

Empire of the Petal Throne is a fantasy role-playing game designed by M. A. R. Barker, based on his Tékumel fictional universe, which was self-published in 1974, then published by TSR, Inc. in 1975. It was one of the first tabletop role-playing games, along with Dungeons & Dragons. Over the subsequent thirty years, several new games were published based on the Tékumel setting, but to date none have met with commercial success. While published as fantasy, the game is sometimes classified as science fantasy or, debatably, as science fiction.

James Maliszewski posted about Empire of the Petal Throne on his Grognardia blog:

Of course, very few gamers love Tékumel for its rules. It’s the fabulous pulp fantasy world that makes this game stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries…

I never ever saw a copy of the original rules until the late 90s. I knew of the setting, naturally, at least in broad outline — a colony world in the far future gets mysteriously shunted into its own pocket dimension where magic works. That the setting’s creator, M.A.R. Barker, was a professor of linguistics with firsthand experience of India and Pakistan, as well as a lifelong love for the pulp greats, Egyptology, and ancient American civilizations pretty much ensure that it’d be like nothing anyone had ever seen — and it is.

Tékumel is amazingly cool: a brilliant cross between a sword-and-planet and dying earth setting that evokes writers like Burroughs, Howard, Smith, and Vance without being a pastiche of any one of them. Far moreso than OD&D, Empire of the Petal Throne is a game that wears its pulp fantasy roots on its sleeve, provided you’re willing to look beneath its baroque surface. Like many things about Tékumel, its literary origins are hidden, sometimes in plain sight. It’s also the only game I’ve ever encountered that includes culturally sophisticated rationales for dungeon crawling that enables expeditions into the Underworld to serve as the axis around which a larger campaign could be structured. But then this is an old school RPG of the first rank, so this should come as no surprise.

Both the hardcover and softcover versions have the following:

  • The full text of the original TSR edition of Empire of the Petal Throne as published in a boxed set in 1975
  • Errata for the original TSR edition
  • A Citizenship Document and translation
  • A map of Jakálla – The City Half As Old As the World
  • A B&W map of the Five Empires
  • Reference Charts from the original TSR boxed set

$19.95 for the softcover and $24.95 for the hardcover version.  The Foundation has also updated the PDF version of the rules; it is still a picture scan of the rules, but it is precisely the same as the text included with the print-on-demand edition.  They intend to make a text-searchable version available free to customers who have bought the PDF, as they move ahead with other projects.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Use of Planetary Government in Traveller

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Following up on the post about building a system from the Universal World Profile:

In the original Traveller rules (Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3) the UWP is a tool for the Referee to help create compelling worlds for the Player Characters to encounter and adventure in. The UWP, in these early rules, are not created by the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service (there is no IISS in Books 1, 2, and 3). It is not an “in-fiction” piece of information to be handed to the Player Character via Library Data. Because it doesn’t exist in the fiction. Again, it is a tool for tracking certain rules elements — Law Level, for example, or the effect the world’s diameter will have on the gear that can be carried. And it is a spur to the imagination, providing a shorthand of key details in the broadest strokes… but it is not a literal description of the world itself.

We know it is not a literal description of the world based on an essay Marc Miller wrote in 1982 for High Passage called Planetary Governments in Traveller.

The essay begins:

One of the social factors in the Universal World Profile is called government type, and it purports to indicate the style by which the local government rules itself (or is ruled by others). The list of government types is long and spans the available options from the simple participating democracy to the esoteric charismatic oligarchy. Most notable, however, is the absence of some routinely expected government types; types such as empire, presidency, or monarchy. Similarly, breakdowns such as aristocracy, plutocracy, or matriarchy are also omitted.

The reason, in reality, is that they are not omitted or absent; the many varied types of government which can be imagined all fit into the basic scheme given in the Traveller government tables. To understand this, it is important to remember just what purpose the government factor is meant to serve. Traveller players and characters are rarely involved with governments on the international and interplanetary level. That is to say, they do not deal with kings or presidents or heads of state; they deal with individual members of broad government mechanisms, they deal with office holders and employees whose attitudes and actions are shaped by the type of government they serve. As a result, travellers are rarely interested in the upper reaches of government; they want to know what they can expect from the governmental structure at their own level. For example, if a group of travellers were to journey across the United States from coast to coast, they would be interested in the degree of responsiveness they could expect from local governments, in how easy the local court clerk would respond to information requests, or in the degree of difficulty that could be expected in obtaining certain licenses. As they moved through Nebraska, the fact that that state has a unicameral legislature would be of little or no importance.

For this reason, among others, labels such as monarchy have been eliminated. Calling a government type “monarchy” would conjure up images of a king and his retinue, but still leaves a lot of information unrelated. Within the Traveller system, such a government could be classified as a self-perpetuating oligarchy (hereditary monarchy), representative democracy (constitutional monarchy), feudal technocracy (enlightened feudal monarchy), captive government (puppet monarchy), civil service bureaucracy, or any of several others. The simple term monarchy becomes nonsense when one attempts to apply it to a widespread classification system.

Another reason for the labels that are provided in the government classification system is as an aid to imagination. The unaided imagination of even the most inventive referee can go dry after generating a few simple worlds. Using die rolls to create the individual factors for planets jogs the imagination, forcing the referee to think of rationales for the combinations that occur. The use of too familiar terms (such as monarchy) can stifle imagination by allowing the referee to settle into old lines of thought.

The big take away from the quote above (emphasis added) is that the government factor is built to create elements for the Player Characters to interact with. The totality of what a planet’s government is or might be is not described in the UWP.

Thus, the UWP isn’t trying to be a taxonomy of “reality.” It is establishing details that will push at the Player Characters and which the Player Characters will interact with directly.

As Miller explains above, “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 of Book 3 is clearer about these matters in its description of government types. Examples:

GOVERNMENTAL TYPE

0       No government structure. In many cases, family bonds will predominate.

1       Company/Corporation. Ruling functions are assumed by a company managerial elite, and most citizenry are company employees or dependents.

2      Participating Democracy. Ruling function decisions are reached by the advice and consent of the citizenry directly.

3     Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Ruling functions are performed by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the mass of citizenry.

4     Representative Democracy. Ruling functions are performed by elected representatives.

5     Feudal Technocracy. Ruling functions are performed by specific individuals for persons who agree to be ruled by them. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.

6     Captive Government. Ruling functions are performed by an imposed leadership answerable to an outside group. A colony or conquered area.

7     Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control. Law level refers to government nearest the starport.

8     Civil Service Bureaucracy. Ruling functions are performed by government agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.

9     Impersonal Bureaucracy. Ruling functions are performed by agencies which have become insulated from the governed citizens.

A    Charismatic Dictator. Ruling functions are performed by agencies directed by a single leader who enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the citizens.

B     Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.

C     Charismatic Oligarchy. Ruling functions are performed by a select group of members of an organization or class which enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.

D     Religious Dictatorship. 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” in each definition of each government type.

This term does not appear in later editions of the rules when describing government type and the whole idea of the UWP begins to shift. Thus, the 1981 edition of the game removed the words “ruling functions” from the description of Government Types. And in time the UWP would become a creation of the IISS to be handed to the Player Characters… even though the UWP is there as a prod to the imagination, to be as elastic and useful to the Referee in creating a world but not any sort of literal description of the world.

And once we add on the details that really flesh the world out as we daydream about the UWP then the UWP will tell us almost nothing about the world in many respects. (See the link at the top of this post for an example of what I’m talking about.) The UWP will barely scratch the surface of how interesting a world is once the Referee starts working up notes.

That is, if we are willing to use the UWP as a jumping off point rather than a limit to what the world can be.

 

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.

A Tales To Astound! Post Is In This Month’s Freelance Traveller

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A recent post of mine (about the improvised Classic Traveller convention game I ran) is now in the July/August 2017 issue of Freelance Traveller. There’s a lot of great material in the issue. And this is the second time one of my posts has ended up in the magazine. The first was “Some Thoughts on Skill Use in Classic Traveller” in the March/April 2016 issue.

Check out the magazine. There’s plenty of great material in every issue.

An Interview Marc Miller

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Over at Stargazer’s world, Michael Wolf has an interview with Marc Miller.

A quote:

Marc Miller: When Dungeons & Dragons came out, I was a wargame designer. In a sense, the fantasy role-playing idea was new, but in another sense, it was a familiar concept. I had done political role-playing exercises in college: model UN and model Organization of American States, and some campaign simulations.

What struck me (and everyone else) about D&D was the application of numbers to the individual character and role. Gary Gygax’s conversion of role-playing from a touchy-feely analog system to an easy-to-use digital character system was brilliant, even if we couldn’t quite put it into words. D&D literally took over everyone at Game Designers’ Workshop, and after a couple of weeks, we (the designers and owners) had to make an important rule: no D&D during work hours. Nothing else was getting done.

So we played in the evenings. Based on our experiences, Frank Chadwick designed his Three Musketeers game En Garde! as he digested the idea of fantasy role-playing, and I started working on a science-fiction role-playing game concept that became Traveller.