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


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:


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


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.


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


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.

An Improvised Classic Traveller Convention Game


I was at a local convention a couple of months ago and decided mid-way through the day I wanted to run some Classic Traveller during one of the gaming blocks. I went to the sign up desk, grabbed one of the templates, and wrote out a quick description about hunting for treasure on a war-torn world. Then, during lunch, I set about hacking some notes together.

I’ve moved to index cards for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. I have come to prefer them for two reasons:

  • They make me keep my information, ideas, and descriptions short. And I’ve learned brief chunks of information are more practical for my RPG play. I need data I can grasp at a glance and move on. I need something brief that can inspire me for more ideas in the moment and that I can relate to the Players (via their Player Characters) through specific interactions. Lots and lots of detail means I am sitting there reading a bunch of stuff that I can’t get out all at once. So for now I’m in the habit of jotting down what can fit on an index card per subject and moving on.
  • I love that I can pull the cards that I need out from the index card file box, set them out in front of me for reference, and then when I am done put them back.

I got myself some index card tabs that I use to divide the cards into different categories, most of which are NPCs and Encounters divided by location. Here’s an image from the cards from my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.


I had no other Classic Traveller material with me. But luckily I have stored a ton of stuff on this blog as PDFs and images. So I pulled up this blog on my iPhone and got to work.

I grabbed some pre-made Player Characters from a file I had shared before. I transferred four Player Characters to index cards. Each player would choose one. I made them all Marines so that the Players would have easy hooks to each other. (See the cards at the top of this post.) Normally I love having people roll up Classic Traveller characters. But I’ve learned that simple as the process is the first time someone does it takes a while. And I really wanted to have more time to play the adventure.

While I was working on that I was back-burnering some thoughts for the adventure.

I wanted a clear goal out of the gate. (It was a four hour convention slot after all). So there was a treasure the PCs were after. I decided we’d go in media res–the PCs would already be on the trail of the treasure and were closing in on it when the game started. This way we could just get on with it instead of spending that first hour of everyone trying to figure out if they were on the “right path” for the adventure.

So I hacked together a few facts for the Players to have before we began:


The Player Characters would be chasing down rumors of an idol that was smuggled off a world decades ago and sold for a great fortune. It became a tale told in the culture of travellers, but no one had yet found the world where it had come from.

I decided the Player Character would already know about the idol, already had competition also looking for the world to see if there were more valuable idols (Captain Brand and his crew). Further, before play began I would explain to the Players their PCs had confirmed the location of a descendent of the man who had found the first idol, were meeting with him and got map of where his grandfather had found the idols, but that Brand and his men arrived, killed their contact in a fire-fight, and escaped with the map. Thus, the race was on.

The name of the world was Pherris, and I whipped up for factions to engage the Player Characters:


House Silis were the noble house that ruled Pherris in the name of a failing, ancient empire. The Takar were an humanoid-insect race that the humans had conquered decades ago. Some Takar were loyal to the humans, but others were beginning to revolt against human rule. And then there was Captain Brand and his men.

I started up three types of Takar really fast:


I decided the idols were made by an aboriginal culture and that the properties of the crystals keep a great beast in a great cavern in a state of suspended animation:


I have already designed Classic Traveller Weapon Cards for ease of play, but didn’t have them with me. But using my phone I jotted down some common weapons we’d be using during the game to have them on hand. I didn’t give them to the players. I simply gave them the Throw values as needed.


As for the game, it went gangbusters. Three players signed up. (One was from my regular Monday Night Group, the other two were strangers.)

The Players (by their own accounts) had a really great time. A loose premise, a few notes, a lose structure for an evening’s entertainment… and then winging it in terms of both the players’ choices and the pacing as seemed appropriate.

Lots of fun world-building on the fly. It was a world dominated by high tech humans lording over an aboriginal humanoid-like insect population that lived at a Tech Level 0 capability. But I found I was adding solid details beat by beat to fill out the sense of reality as we went. I described the cold of the world. How the Takar could essentially hibernate as needed to conserve food and energy. I told the Players, “Because you’ve all served you know the imposing architecture of the Silis Palace is not there to defend against attacks from space but to be imposing to the natives of this world.” What I was looking for was not a “Hard SF” but enough details that made sense and an internal logic to give a patina of logic and science fiction–just like the fiction that inspired Marc Miller to create the game.

The experimentation I had done with other con games with Traveller paid off here as I knew the limits of the game and when to simply move things along. I was, per all my blog posts and comments here, a Referee who adjudicated the “logic” of the world and actions of the PCs quickly, often without requiring rolls, and then came up Throws on the fly. No player blinked at that.

Because I had the pre-generated Player Characters I used my time at the top of the session to do a preamble about how the game was going to play differently than most games from the mid-80s on. I talked about the role of the referee. I talked about how they should not limit themselves to the skill list of what they can do but to look at the first line of the PC Index Card in front of them that listed their service branch (former Marines for all), age, and terms of service. “Remember,” I said, “if there is something you think a marine should be able to do, you can probably do it.”

Then came characteristics. And then skills under all that. I described how Throws could be made for almost anything. That they might not be able to try some things at all, but other times they could make a throw and sometimes a expertise rating might be a DM, or a very high or low characteristic might be a DM, or having been a Marine might be a DM. And other times they might simply do what they want if they have the right qualities of skill or characteristic or background without even having to make a roll.

I explained that Classic Traveller has no Experience system for activities or deeds done during play. Which means the Players have to set up their own goals or agendas and judge for themselves if they are getting closer or further way from what they want only through the details of the fiction. This makes it a unique game within the range of RPGs as far as I know. If the Players don’t know what they want the game might well grind to a halt.

I explained the notion that space travel between the stars is relatively slow compared to what we are used to in most mass-media. I watched eyes widen with both sudden comprehension and delight at this notion. I will admit this delighted me — as I could see this novel aspect pulled all of them closer to core conceit of the game and the idea that it could take weeks, if not months, to travel a vast chain of star systems. The idea that space was BIG and travel between the stars was a BIG DEAL was beginning to take hold.

Then I broke the news that communication only moved at the speed of travel. Eyebrows went up. Smiles appeared. This was apparently A REALLY COOL NOTION. “No faster than light communication at all?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Like ships have to carry messages and communications between worlds?”

“Exactly,” I said. “Like packet boats in the Age of Sail.”

And with the three players really _got_ the core conceit of Traveller’s one core setting element and seemed _delighted_ with this notion.

I asked them to tell me what one item they still carried with them from their time in the service (A jacket; a footlocker; pistols with handle grip designs commemorating a field action of great import).

I asked them to look at their age, terms of service, characteristics, and skills and think not in terms of what their character could _do_ but how this informed the characterization of the character. “Looking at these details, who is this character? How do they see themselves? What do they want? Why are they traveling between stars when most people never do?”

I asked them how they met (after each of them mustered out, kicking around the stars and lacking focus), and what they sought.

One had been a quartermaster, always working to make an extra buck. I handed him the background details: Rumors of a crystal statue of great wealthy sold by a man 60 years ago for a million credits. The world was unknown, but rumor was he meant to go back years ago and get more.

I explained they had met up as this marine pursued this rumor. They were going to be meeting with the man who claimed to be the long dead man’s grandson to get more details: the name of the world, a map.

The crew of a free trader charged into the bar during the meet. The man with the map was killed during an exchange of fire. The map stolen from them.

The PCs worked passage on ships with greater jump capability than the free trader to beat their adversaries to the world. There they worked themselves into the planetary forces dealing with an uprising of “the abos” (aboriginals) who were now fighting against the abos who were loyal to the human ruling class. This allowed them to scope out the situation a bit before the other crew arrived on planet and gave them authority to take action agains the crew when they arrive. (The arriving crew made the mistake of looking like they were trying to sneak onto the planet to smuggle weapons to the rebels abos.)

Lots of adventure, the Players being smart, unexpected mysteries. They realized there was a rebellion happening–and got themselves hired into the local militia. With their imperial training they were a cut above the local forces and managed to get themselves wide leeway going out on ‘patrols” (but really trying to track down the location of the idols) without having anyone keeping too close an eye on them. (Please note: I did not think of this as a plan or expect it at all. This was something the Player Characters came up with on their own… and it was quite smart. I had no “adventure” planned. Just a situation. It was up to the Players to figure how how they would move their characters forward. It was up to me to provide obstacles and opportunity.)

They found the crystal statues and figured out they were used to keep a buried creature in hibernation through psionic energy. They stole the crystals, awoke and unleashed what was pretty much a T-Rex. Hijinks ensued.

It was a sold old school game that could have been expanded greatly both in terms of play time at the table and as a campaign. The players were coming with all sorts of smart ideas that would have paid off for a longer campaign and I had to say things like, “That’s really great. But we have forty minutes left for a con game. What is your objective now.”

One player (former Army, as it happens), as we took a break halfway through the session said, “I have to tell you…. I am having a great time.”

So everyone thought it rocked.

And I type all this up to say–the game was written and designed to play this easy, fast, and loose play–and you can play this way too. No long, detailed introduction from the Referee about politics that the Player Characters can’t influence anyway. No thoughtfully pre-planned adventure the Player Characters are supposed to follow. No expectations of what the Players will do.

I simply came up with some notes. Let the Players move forward with their plans. Made rolls to see how things turned out when required, let them succeed without rolls if that made sense. And everyone had a great time.

Just sayin’.

My Favorite SF RPG…


On an gaming forum I visit someone asked, “What is you favorite SF Roleplaying Game?” Unsurprisingly I replied…

The choice for me is Classic Traveller. And by Classic Traveller I mean Traveller Books 1-3.

Why I like Classic Traveller the most is built on several reasons I’ve been thinking about lately:

Do you know how easy it is to stat an NPC in Classic Traveller? This easy:
5468A7. Rifle-0. Mechanical-1
Boom. That’s crazy easy.
As someone who really wants to spend more time just making shit up with my friends in response to the ideas, plans, actions, and choices they throw at me.
I cannot overstate the brilliance of Marc Miller’s design in this regard.

Sure, it’s a bit more complicated, but watch this:
Gatherer 50kg Hits: 11/2 Armor: jack-1 Wounds: 7 teeth+1 Responses: A9 F8 S2
Still, sweet!

The dense layer of procedural generation of Worlds, Encounters (NPCs, Animals, Legal, Patron), Encounter Range, and NPC Reaction lets me generate content on the fly and help me come up with new ideas, locals, and situations I would never come up with on my own.

A preposterously straightforward but crazily flexible resolution system to handle any situation that the PCs get into that the Referee wants to hand off to the dice for adjudication.

  • The scale is simple: a 2D6 bell curve. A Referee armed with a table showing the odds from 2-12 on 2D6 is good to go.
  • The Die Modifiers are intuitive: +DMs for skills, high characteristics, tools, character history, or situational modifiers the Players come up with. The -DMs are just as simple.
  • The trick is to take the system for what it is: A Referee driven simulation rather than a failed Skill System of later RPG design. But once you do that the game is excellent.

The game doesn’t try to present you with every type of person from every walk of life that could exist in an interstellar setting. It’s built to create characters who have the chops and the wherewithal and the focus to go on adventures in an adventure driven interstellar adventures.

The PCs can’t do everything, of course. The character generation tables offer a limited set of skills, and PCs will only have a few of those per PC. But this means that if the PCs don’t have the skill set available they will have to come up with adventure-driven schemes and shenanigans to keep going: steal the part they need to fix their ship because they don’t know how to fabricate it; get to the professor of ancient languages held against his will on the estate of the noble to translate the alien tablet they found; sneak into the government building using a clever ruse because this group doesn’t have someone with Computer skills; and so on.

While the rules have implied setting details they do not provide a setting. This allows me to build the cool setting that I want. And as for the implied setting details, what are they? That the distances between the stars matters, communication is slow, tech levels will vary greatly, space travel between the stars is expensive, dangerous, and a big deal. What does this give us: Implied setting details that support exotic, novel, adventuring environments with lots of space and room for adventures to go get into trouble, take risks. The procedural driven setting generation material, along with the random encounter material, all define a setting ripe for adventure.

Ultimately Classic Traveller at its core isn’t limited to being a SF game. It is, instead, an awesome RPG engine with tools to build the setting you want and allows the Referee adjudicate clearly and the Players have an infinite latitude as to how handle problems and situations.

Want to use the rules to play a game set in WWII? You can do that. Want to use them to play cavemen? You can do that. Want to use them to play modern day Cthulhu? Why not? All one needs to do is come up with rebuilt character creation tables and you are good to go. (For the CoC you’ll want some sort of mechanic for insanity or insights or whatnot… but you’re a grownup. You can figure it out.)

Remember that the Psionics rules are a template for anything from Psionics, to magic spells, to magic weapons, to alien or monsters effects. Combined with the rules for Drugs (as well as the flexible weapons and armor rules) one can mix and match the rules to reproduce the effects of everything from cyberware to trans-human bioengineering. This flexibility allows a Referee to create truly alien SF worlds and technology in the standard “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” play mode… or use the game (as mentioned above) for completely different settings shorn of all SF trappings.

Classic Traveller is one of the most pure iterations of RPG play and design that I have ever seen. The fact that most people don’t (or can’t) see the game for what it is strikes me as odd. But that doesn’t change how amazing the game is.


TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part II)


[A note before we begin. This is the second part of how I approach the uses of Throws in Classic Traveller. (The first part can be found here.) I make no claim that this is authoritative. It is a personal project, built off my own taste of how I want to use the rules and the kind play I want to find at the table. That said, these ideas are built of the text found in Traveler Books 1-3 and, per Part I, looking at the historical context of gaming and RPGS in the mid-70’s when Traveller was first published.]

It has long been noted that the Classic Traveller does not have a unified task resolution system. Instead it has an ad hoc system of Throws, with different Throws for different skills, and many of the rolls left without any sort of specific procedure or definition. For many, many people this is a problem. People want to know how the game works in a simple, consistent manner.

And it is important to note that most of RPG design in the decades since Classic Traveller’s release worked specifically toward the goal of making unified task/skill resolution systems.

The fact that so much design effort was spent in making such task/skill systems and that consumers responded positively to this new design philosophy certainly means that:

  1. later design philosophy is a distinct design philosophy from that found in the original Traveller rules
  2. many people prefer the later designs over the early RPG designs found in the original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller rules
  3. people prefer the later designs because it offers a certain kind of play that many people prefer

It is my thesis, however, that the Throw system found in Classic Traveller is still quit efficient, works wonderfully well, and produces a kind of play that many people enjoy.

But because RPG design has changed so much in the intervening decades since Classic Traveller’s release it is difficult in a way to tease out exactly how it is supposed to work. To this end, in this post I present my general outline of resolving moments of tension and crisis using the rules of Classic Traveller.

Here is a passage from the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 1. This passage does not appear in any later edition of the rules:

Skills and the Referee: It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates.

The significance of this passage is that it tells the Referee and the Players how to play the game.

Without the passage to make it clear that the lack of unified skill or task system is by design people are left to wonder how all the pieces of Classic Traveller fit together in a unified system. And, of course, as the passage was cut from later editions of the Classic Traveller rules (the 1981 edition, The Traveller Book, and Starter Traveller) people did scour the rules looking for the unified and logical system that would tell them how to make the rules work.

But the game wasn’t designed in that way. It was designed for the Referee to step up and handle situations ad hoc as defined in the passage above.

The logic of the passage grows from the kinds of gaming and Referee driven game play that Classic Traveller grew out of. (Again, as covered in Part I.) The fact that many, many players wanted something different from an RPG (that is, a game with a unified and comprehensive Skill/Task system) doesn’t change the fact that this kind of play works.

Once we put that passage back into the rules we can see that instead of turning to the rulebook to adjudicate how to handle moments of tension and crisis we now turn to the Referee to handle them. In this way the Referee in the rules of original Traveller is exactly like the Referee found in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien (as discussed in Part I of this series).

However, this does not mean the Referee is acting willy-nilly or left truly adrift in how to run the game. When I read the rules of Classic Traveller I see an order to how to resolve moments of crisis and tension and how to keep the game moving forward. I defined this order below.



I do not think original Traveller has a Skill System. I believe has a Throw system. (Later editions of Traveller do have Skills Systems or “Task Systems”). Again, I’m not claiming this is “true” or “authoritative.” I’m only claiming that after digging into the original Traveller rules, (Books 1-3), and looking at all the text holistically, this interpretation makes sense to me.

Here is how I see the Throw system working for original Traveller:

  1. The game is a conversation between the Players and the Referee. The Players have their characters do things, the Referee has the world and the non-player characters respond. In general, things simply move along. Even moments of crisis can often be resolved without referring to a Throw. If a character has a shotgun and out of the blue announces he’s going to fire the weapon at someone standing right in front of him, I might well have him roll damage (or simply kill the NPC outright) rather than have a Throw for a hit.
    Other matters, from doing daily repairs to hacking into a civilians computer if one has Computer-1 or greater, often will require no roll. The Referee adjudicates whether a roll is required. He does this by thinking not in terms of “story” or what would be interesting, but honestly trying to be impartial judge of the elements of the world, reflecting back to the Players the forces and logic of the fictional setting already established.
  2. The Referee can also decide certain actions are impossible, and not even a Throw can make it happen. Some Throws will be impossible because a PC lacks a needed expertise, or a high enough expertise. In the same way, if a Player declares, “I jump to the moon!” it is in the Referee’s realm to prohibit a roll for it. It’s the Referee’s job to set the bar of “reality he wants for his game.
  3. Notes on the expertise of the Player Characters:
    • I use the term “expertise” rather than “skill.” The term expertise was used in the 1977 edition of the Traveller rules, and I think it better reflects the power and strength of any trained character. Expertise means a character is an expert in whatever skill is at hand, whether it be rifles or medical ability. It means they can be hired at better rates because they are very, very good at what they do. Remember that DM+1 on a 2D6 bell curve is a very big deal. A Rifle-1 doesn’t mean you can handle yourself on a shooting range; it means that in a combat situation, with that rifle in hand, you are above the average soldier. (The average soldier in the original Traveller rules will have an expertise of 0. He does not suffer the DM-5 of the untrained man using a firearm, but he gains no bonus either.)
    • Player Characters are not limited to doing the skills listed on their character sheet. The list of skills
  4. If the Referee decides the outcome is uncertain, or he cannot determine what the result should be, he calls for a Throw of the dice.
    • The Referee determines the Throw based on the circumstances of the fictional situation at hand. It is, for example, easier to perform CPR than surgery.
    • Various positive and negative DMs might be applied. Here are qualities that might provide DMs:
      – possessing a pertinent expertise
      – lacking a pertinent expertise
      – having the proper tools for the job
      – possessing a high or low characteristic that might provide a -DM or +DM
      – any other factors the Referee or Players deem important in the situation
      It is important to note that for me this part of the Throw (sussing out the fictional details involved in the Throw) is a continuation of the conversation mentioned above. This is not “stopping” the game for me, this is the Players and the Referee focusing on the Player Characters, their actions, the details of the environment, the specific actions being taken. It’s like a movie, where the camera is pointed at the pertinent details, revealing their importance to the audience. It makes the game (for me at least) richer and more real as we say, “Well, my guy is really strong (STR 10), and I think that’ll help him use the crowbar to leverage the wheel on the bulkhead door as the air is being sucked out of this section of the ship.” And then I say, “Right. Take a DM+1 on the Throw to get this door open before all the air is gone.”
  5. A key point of play for me is providing Players choices and then seeing how they handle them. (I call this “Providing them with Opportunities and Opposition.”)
  6. 2D6 are rolled. If the roll is equal to or greater than the value of the Throw, then success occurs. If not, then not.

The short version: 2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw Value equals success

The reason I don’t consider a Skill System is because not every Throw involves a skill. A character might try to bluff his way into a fancy party, with his Education or Social Standing (if very low or very high, as appropriate to the situation) as a DM.

Or the Referee could use the number of terms a character served in a service as a DM in a case where his is trying to influence members of that service to bend the laws for him, and so on.

In this way, original Traveller seems very similar to me to the Braunstein rules. That is, anything on the character sheet is fair game for a DM.

Moreover, even things not on the character sheet could come into play. If the Player Characters have been hanging around on a world for a while learning its language, and then travel to another world where they see some ancient inscriptions in an alien language on an old temple wall, the Referee might give them a roll to understand the langue because they had learning a similar language on the other world. In the same way, an NPC Reaction Roll might suffer a -DM if the Player Characters interacting with citizens of a world that the empire they are from recently conquered.

The point here is that not every roll is based on or modified by a skill. Anything from service branch, terms of service, rank, any of the six characteristics, history in play, circumstances of the situation (are they trying to track someone in the rain?), and anything else that seems pertinent, as well as skills, might influence the Throw number or DMs. There might be a expertise DM, there might not be. Sometimes the DMs based on skill rules will be positive, and sometimes, if lacking, will be negative. Sometimes a characteristic value will be a +DM, and other times, a -DM.

When we play this way we are building the imaginative qualities of the situation, with the roll made to determine, impartially and with finality, what the outcome is.

For me, this system works well as it encourages the Referee and the Players to add fictional details to the situation, the actions of the Player Characters and so on, in an effort to really determine how hard or difficult a situation might be, if a roll is required at all, and so on.

By layering these details we end up making the moment concrete and specific (and thus memorable) in the heads of everyone at the table. And that is the kind of play I like best.

In the next post I’ll expand on what I mean about “this kind of play” as well as discuss some of the implications of this kind of play for creating characters, building conflicts, and running games.