TRAVELLER: What The Traveller Adventure had to Say About Throws in Classic Traveller

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Several months ago Mike Wightman pointed me to pages 28 and 29 of The Traveller Adventure (1983). On these pages the writers lay out how to use the “playing pieces” including in Traveller to resolve situations.

Two years later DPG would publish their Traveller Task System in the first issue of the Travellers Digest. But this passage assumes the Traveller rules don’t need to be “fixed.” It uses the rules found in Traveller Books 1-3 as is and explains clearly how the Referee can use them to keep the game interesting and moving along with several applications.

THE USES OF DIE ROLLS
As players in a Traveller game venture out into the universe, they immediately face a wide variety of circumstances and situations. Many times, procedures already exist for the resolution of a situation (for example, combat, animal encounters, or patrons), but if not, the referee is thrown back on his or her own resources in handling the problem.

There are several reasonable and efficient methods of dealing with unexpected situations. These include use of personal characteristics, situation throws, and reaction throws.

Personal Characteristics: Many cases can be resolved by looking at the character’s personal characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, and so on) which are appropriate to the situation. For example, in lifting or forcing large objects, strength might be most appropriate; a more delicate situation could depend on dexterity.

The referee should instruct the player character to throw the characteristic or less on two dice. The higher the characteristic, the greater the chance of accomplishing the goal. Relatively easy situations might call for rolling the sum of two characteristics or less; harder situations might have a positive DM to reduce the chance of success.

Reaction Throws: Any non-player character can make a reaction throw to determine relative disposition and reaction to the adventuters (see Reactions, The Traveller Book, page 102). This reaction number can also be used as the required throw or less for the individual to assist or help the group. DMs for appropriate skills are allowed, or for common background (such as both non-player character and player character having served in the same service).

In addition, the referee can rarely go wrong implementing a DM of + 1 or – 1 for some miscellaneous item which the players suggest, such as friendliness or appearance of affluence. For example, if the adventurers are encountering an express boat pilot and one player character comments that she has always admired the efficiency of the xboat service, then the referee can easily allow a DM + 1 for the exchange. Too many such DMs can easily ruin a game, so moderation is advised.

Situation Throws: In the absence of any other guidance, the referee may always resort to the situation throw. When an incident first occurs, throw two dice to determine its relative severity. A low roll means that it is easy, a high roll means comparitjve difficulty. The number achieved is now the situation number. The player characters involved, when they attempt to deal with the situation, must roll the situation number or higher on two dice. They are, of course, allowed DMs based on any appropriate skills. Tools, assistance, and equipment may also provide beneficial DMs; weather, haste, adverse environment, or other handicaps may impose negative DMs. It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.

Example of Throws: An adventurer (46797A) has experienced a malfunction in the drive room of her vessel. The situation seems hopeless at the moment and she is forced to abandon ship. The air lock hatch, however, is warped shut. A quick resolution to the problem is to state that she must roll strength or less to force it open. After several unsuccessful rolls, she casts about for a pry bar to help her. The referee arbitrarily rulas that the bar allows – 4 on the die roll (the referee could guess or roll one die for the result).

On the next roll, the adventurer is successful; then she makes her way to the ship’s locker for her vacc suit. Grabbing a survival pack, she proceeds to abandon ship. She knows that the drives cannot stand the strain much longer, and that she must get out immediately.

The referee decides that the drives will explode on 9+ in the current turn, 8+ in the next turn, and so on, The referee decides that the character’s last minute repair attempts have been partially successful, and he increases the needed roll by her level of engineering skill (2) to 11+ . The adventurer needs to find a survival kit before she leaves the ship, but one extra turn will be needed to gather it up. The referee rolls to see if the ship explodes this turn (11+). It does not, and she grabs the survival kit. On the second turn, she cycles through the ajr lock while the referee checks for an explosion again (10+ this time); once more the ship remains intact. On the third turn, while the character is drifting away from the ship, the referee rolls 11 and the drives explode (9+ was needed).

The distress call from her radio attracts a local asteroid miner. He is required by custom and law to pick her up, but may not like being diverted to an unprofitable rescue mission. The referee rolls two dice for his reaction: the result is 4.

She must now convince him to take her to the local starport so that she can arrange salvage of her ship. She may add any applicable skills, such as streetwise, bribery, even -1 for intelligence 9+ if the referee thinks this appropriate. Obviously, in a situation such as this, repeated requests will not be possible (or they may be allowed, at- 1 per additional request). Probably she only gets to try once. Even with DMs totalling – 3, she rolls an 8, which does not convince the miner to go out of his way to help her. She is stuck on his ship until he finishes his prospecting run of (the referee rolls one die) 4 months. Judging by his reaction roll to her, he’ll probably make her pay for room and board as well.


Some of the above I love, and some I’m not fond of. So there’s a lot to unpack here… and I will in future posts.

In this post, however, I want to throw attention on this one passage:

Situation Throws: In the absence of any other guidance, the referee may always resort to the situation throw. When an incident first occurs… determine its relative severity. The number achieved is now the situation number. The player characters involved, when they attempt to deal with the situation, must roll the situation number or higher on two dice. They are, of course, allowed DMs based on any appropriate skills. Tools, assistance, and equipment may also provide beneficial DMs; weather, haste, adverse environment, or other handicaps may impose negative DMs. It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.

After rooting about Traveller Books 1-3, it became clear to me, even before reading the passage above, that this is exactly how Miller assumed a Referee should use the Traveller rules.

That there are people on Traveller focused sites convinced I’m simply making up nonsense procedures (and there are a few) has always startled me. It seems so obvious once you look at the text of the three books holistically. The improvised adjudication of situation is part and parcel of the game culture of the mid-70s.

Now, this doesn’t mean people should run the game this way. I want people to run the game the way they want to run it. I’m only hoping that this passage from The Traveller Adventure will make it clear I’ve only been saying what the folks at GDW would have said as well.

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The Heart of the Classic Traveller Rules — For Me

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Different people focus on different things in Classic Traveller.

For a lot of people Classic Traveler is:

  1. Generating Characters
  2. Generating Subsectors and Main Worlds
  3. Making Starships

That’s where the fun is for a lot of people and for a lot of people it’s enough.

This makes sense. The three actives listed above are, in of themselves, fun. It’s also stuff a person can do on his or her own without needing to gather a group. I think the fact that those three activities are fun and can be done alone is one of the reasons Classic Traveller has stirred the imaginations of those in the hobby for so long.

But here’s the thing. For me those three elements are not what Classic Traveller is about. In fact, what I think Classic Traveller is about is something that I a lot of people who love Classic Traveller even think much about.

For me characters having adventures is what the Traveller rules are really about. That is, characters, in motion, in play, doing things. You can generate lots of player characters and never get around to putting them in motion. You can generate lots of worlds and a player character will never set foot on them. You can build ships and a player character will never travel in it.

Now there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the enjoyable aspects that have nothing to do with putting characters into motion. But, again, my focus is player characters caught up in adventures. That is, my interest is to getting characters into motion in exotic worlds having great adventures. That is, my focus is on playing the game as an RPG.

This is why so many of the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box posts have been about Referee driven play and how to handle Throws. Because when characters are doing things in play the Referee and the dice will be stepping up to see things moving.

Now for a lot of people the rules of Classic Traveller are either broken or nonexistent when it comes to how to adjudicate situations or handle Throws. It is why The Traveller’s Digest #1 invented a new way of handling skills in 1984, and why many people focus on the character creation, the building of subsectors, the designing of ships.

In my view however, as discussed in many of my posts, the rules work fine. In fact, more than fine. They are the strength of the game.

With all that in mind, my view these days is that those three systems above take a back seat to getting around to playing the game.

And what is the rule for playing the game?

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

If you made me choose between that formula and the character creation system found in Classic Traveller, I can tell you right now I’m choosing the formula.

Because what matters to me most about creating a character in Traveller is that the character has six characteristics, skills, a prior occupation of some kind, and an age. With those four qualities I can use the flexible, on the fly system found in Classic Traveller to adjudicate any situation and keep the game moving along quickly.

I posted an example of this approach a couple of weeks ago. Because of time constraints (it was a convention game with a four hour slot, and I wanted to try the rules in a non-SF setting as an experiment) I bypassed the standard character creation system. As I wrote:

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.”

Although we didn’t use the character creation system per the rules, what I did have was characters with the numbers I need to adjudicate situations on the fly and handle Throws as needed. Because how we made the characters is not the priority for me. The player characters in motion in an adventure is the priority for me.

Strangely, some people said I had gutted the game by blowing past Classic Traveller’s character creation rules — which they consider the “heart of the game.”

To which I say, “No, playing the game is the heart of the game. And that heart is found in the Players doing things with their PCs and the Referee adjudicating and moving things forward to the next things the Players want to have their characters do.”

To sum up then, the heart of the game is this:

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

All the pieces of the game lead to this simple formula for creating Throws. Character Creation, Law Levels, Animal Encounters, the Reaction Table, the Personal Combat System, the Starship Combat System… all of it. This is the heart of the game, the brilliance of Classic Traveller. Because it lets you play the game. If you have this, the Referee can keep adjudicating, the adventurers can keep adventuring, and the game keeps moving.

Using Original TRAVELLER Out of the Box — Rick Stump’s The Clash of Stars

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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:


Classic Traveller Campaign the Clash of Stars: Setting Details

Over at Don’t Split the Party Rick Stump is setting up a setting for play with the Classic Traveller rules.

Here are notes on the general setting. A sample:

General Setting

  • The Terran Confederation is so long collapsed no one in the sectors of space near the game setting is certain in which *direction* Man’s homeworld may be found.
  • No intelligent aliens, at all.
  • 80% or so of inhabited worlds are ‘stand alone’ and have no interstellar government
  • Interstellar trade is almost ubiquitous and mainly of three sorts
    • run by local planets out 1-3 parsecs
    • trade guilds and co-ops on runs between 3-8 worlds
    • independent freighters running either their own routes or wandering about
  • General tech level for independent worlds  is 7-9 with 9 a pretty hard ceiling and 7 a soft floor
  • There are scattered interstellar nations of 2-7 inhabited worlds. Almost all are Tech 9
    Although most planets have a Dorsai universe median (meaning that while some worlds are heavy into farming, others into manufacturing, some into arts and soft science, etc. they all are still close enough to each other culturally for it to not interfere with communications and trade) some worlds have gotten very strange.

Then Player Characters will start in the Lanxing Comity…

… an alliance of 3 inhabited worlds all within Jump 1 of each other. The worlds have a mixed Chinese/Spanish heritage with a relatively strong class structure and their economy and culture based upon a Manorial system. The blending of Catholic religion and Confucian social ideas led to them weathering the long centuries the Cycles of Collapse with a strong social cohesion, positive outlook, and a commitment to charity and justice.

This post drills down into greater detail about the Lanxing Comity:

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The Lanxing Comity
The Lanxing Comity is centered around 3 worlds that all have TL9 and the capacity to build and maintain FTL craft. These planets are ruled by a single King (Catalan) and a web of nobles spread over the 14 worlds of the Comity. Alongside the nobility is the Interstellar Bureaucracy which ensures that the far-flung worlds run smoothly despite such things as communications lag, death of a noble, invasion, etc.

Beyond the Comity is the Twelve Moons Trade Cooperative that operates among 5 TL6-TL8 planets nearby and uses their wealth to purchase FTL craft from the Comity (and have them repaired). The various worlds of the TMTC have a variety of governments and cultures, have no truly coherent “outside diplomacy”, but act as a trading bloc.

There are also independent worlds beyond the Comity and outside the TMTC. TL4-TL8 with a wide range of governments and cultures the ones closest to the Comity often have trade with independent merchants from the Comity.

Lanxing Itself
The core worlds of Catalan, Biscay, and Fujian appear to have originally been settled by groups intent on ‘recreation’, a term for those elements of the Terran Diaspora that wanted to emulate specific periods of Terran history and territory in space. In this case, Late Medieval Spain, the Spain of the Age of Sail, and a stylized Classical China. The interaction of these three forces over time developed into the Lanxing Comity.

The primary language is Spatha which is Spanish with a number of Mandarin loan words (pronounced in the Spanish manner). The primary religion is Catholic (using Ecclesial Latin), although a number of Chinese holidays are secular festivals. The currency is the real.

The government is feudal technocratic with a blending of Spanish nobility, Imperial Chinese bureaucracy, and European civil service.

People use Spanish conventions for personal names with a tradition of “translating” non-Spanish names into Spanish (Rob Roy would become Roberto Rojo or even Roberto Ruiz; Tom Swift would become Tomas Vencejo; etc.). Initial introductions tend to use the full name so that if you met Tom Swift for the first time he would introduce himself as ‘Tomas Alberto Vencejo y Nestor’.

Through religious traditions almost all adults have 2 given names – one granted at birth and a second at confirmation. By cultural tradition a person receives more given names as their social status increases beyond a certain point so for each level of SOC above 8 the character will have an additional name (increases to SOC as an adult do not count!) so a character that begins with a SOC score of A will have 4 given names (their ‘first name’ plus 2 given names for social status, plus a Confirmation. There is also a tradition of using the names and titles of Saints as given names leading to people of high status among the Lanxing Comity having names that appear stunningly long to people used to Anglo-saxon names, such as ‘Pedro Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Rodriguez’.

Rick then breaks down the noble structure in the Comity.

Nobles
Following the ranking scheme of traditional Spanish nobility there are both titles or nobility and the three levels of Grandes de Lanxing, or Grandees.

The titles and their SOCs:
Don/Dona*………………..SOC 9 +
Senor/Senora**………..SOC B

Baron/Baronesa***….SOC C
Conde/Condesa………..SOC D
Marques/Marquesa…SOC E
Duque/Duquesa……….SOC F

*’Don’ or ‘Dona’ can be applied as an honorific to anyone above SOC 8 except the royal family.
** While courteously applied to almost everyone as titles of nobility roughly equal to ‘Lord’ in English they are not omitted when speaking to nobles.
***The titles of Vizconde/Vizcondesa are usually (but not always) used by the children of Condes and above and are equivalent to Baron in precedence.

The levels of Grandee are simply third (lowest) through first (highest). Only about 60% of Lanxing nobles are also Grandees; of Grandees 70% are Third rank, 25% are Second rank and only 5% are First rank.

Within levels of Grandees (none, third, etc.) noble rank determines authority but levels of Grandee are more important. For example, Duque de la Cruz has no grandee rank, Conde Ruiz is of Third rank, Baron Rodriguez is of Second rank, and Senor (the lowest rank that can be a Grandee) Diego is of First rank.  In social precedence (seating, introductions, entrance into a room, who bows to whom, etc.) de la Cruz is top. But in matters of political and military decision making Senor Diego has the greatest level of authority.

Not only am I fond of this in Real Life it really works with Traveller, doesn’t it?

“Bob, my character started with a SOC of C and I got a +1 from service and another +1 from mustering out, so I am a Count. Shouldn’t I be rich and rule, like, a solar system?”

“Frank, you have a high SOC but you aren’t a grandee. So you get invited to all the parties, the end.”

On a related note, in my campaign if a character with a high SOC score takes the Noble profession and gets a Promotion (pretty rare) if they are already SOC B or better they can shoose to stay the same SOC but become a Grandee!!

And then Rick goes into more details about the function of government in the setting.

Bureaucrats
The Lanxing Bureaucracy originated in the recreated Confucian bureaucracy of the founders of Fujian modified by their exposure to European and other civil services. Entrance into the lower levels of the bureaucracy are based upon education and performance on standardized entrance exams. Promotion is based on passing more advanced exams, performance evaluations, and job performance. The Bureaucracy is a complex maze of departments, committees, boards, projects, and independent managers and overseers with an interplay of jurisdiction, precedence, rank, and mandates that makes the complexity of noble and Grandee titles appear dead simple.

How Governance Works
The King has ultimate authority, although this is rather limited by tradition. The Stellar Navy and the standing Army answer only to the King, for example, while local militias are raised by Nobles. Grandees control specific territory and are responsible for administering those territories in accordance with Royal Law but can also pass their own territorial laws if they do no clash with Royal Law.  Local police report to the local grandee but each police force has a senior officer (usually not the commander) appointed by the King in charge of oversight. Tax collection, regulatory enforcement, etc. are all also local with one or two royal appointees as oversight.

The Bureaucracy has three levels; local, regional, and royal. Each department monitors for graft, corruption, criminal activity, gross incompetence, etc. Grandees have a senior Bureaucrat appointed to their staff that exists to both provide advice on things like royal law and regulatory compliance and to watch for corruption and treason.

Other departments of the Bureaucracy watch the Bureaucracy itself for collusion, corruption, graft, etc. and those departments are, in turn, monitored by Grandees appointed specifically to check the power of the Bureaucracy.

In order to prevent this from turning into a massive war of intelligence agencies and secret police the ultimate authority (the King and Royal Family, the Royal Guard, and the Royal Advisors, collectively called the Crown) have two strict policies in place; transparency and transition.   Transparency means that the results of all investigations must be made public, no transaction that do not involve Intelligence can be kept from the public, and that the jurisdiction, background, etc. of all Bureaucrats be accessible. There are exceptions for undercover work, intelligence agents, etc. but these have their own oversight.

Transition means that no bureaucrat can remain in a particular position for too long. The average tenure is 3 years but can be as short at 4 months but no longer than 5 years. Bureaucrats are generally prohibited from working on their hometowns/districts, with family members, etc., and usually do not work with the same team more than once. Bureaucrat Tom, currently in charge of oversight on Joe, may find himself working for, or under oversight by, Joe in just a year or two. Combined transparency and transition are meant to prevent the creation of ‘bureaucratic fiefdoms’ and networks of influence.

Lastly, all payroll costs of the Bureaucracy are paid directly from only the King’s accounts, meaning the more Bureaucrats the bigger the personal expense to the King. At the same time, the King is usually held responsible for graft and corruption among his subordinates. As a result the King is very invested in making sure the Bureaucracy is as small, agile, and efficient as possible while still eradicating graft and corruption.

With Grandees performing local leadership and the Bureaucracy providing oversight the Comity functions fairly smoothly despite having an administrative class only a fraction the size of those familiar with 21st Century Europe.

Trade and Diplomacy
To Lanxing trade and diplomacy are intimately connect to each other and to the nobility. Members of the diplomatic corps are often of high social status, even including non-Grandee nobles. Trade from outside the Comity usually faces stiff tariffs and other customs fees but with sponsorship by a grandee or the Crown these fees can be reduced significantly. Since non-Grandee nobles are themselves subject to reduced customs fees a fair number of them go into interstellar trade. Also, very successful merchants can be elevated to the nobility because of the wealth their trade brings to the Comity.

Some nobles (usually not Grandees) also use their wealth, personal training, etc. to work for the Crown as unofficial diplomats (this is a fair amount of the Noble profession) within and without the Comity. They may travel with merchants, in their own yachts, as leader of a small mercenary company, or otherwise as they ‘Tour’ outside the Comity, but their underlying goal is to improve the reputation of the Comity and its King. A nobleman with his own merchant ship may very well be pursuing the multiple goals of corporate commerce, interstellar diplomacy, personal wealth, and family advancement all at once.

Culturally and politically the Comity is dedicated to service. While their trade with nearby systems does seek overall profit to the Comity and the Crown diplomats, nobles, and even merchants also strive to help the sick, the poor, and the lost wherever they go.

Please note that all of the above is for only a section of the subsector mapped above! Other portions of the subsector will have their own cultures and governments.

I quoted the description of the Lanxing Comity at length to make two points:

First, look at how Rick has made is own setting. He is clearly using the Classic Traveller rules, but he is working from the rules to make his own setting. Which is exactly what the Classic Traveller rules are there to do: help you to create a cool setting you wanted to share with your friends. (Or, in Rick’s case, his sons.)

Second, one of the things I really liked about what he’s posted is his section on nobility. Keep in mind that if you look on line you’ll find lots of people dithering about the Social Status rules in Classic Traveller and saying, “Oh, my gosh, the rules don’t tell me what Social Status means!”

But Rick doesn’t do that. Instead, he looked at the rules, saw there was a thing called Social Status, and said, “Oh, there’s a thing called Social Status and I get to decide that that’s going to mean for my setting.”

And, again, I believe that’s what the Classic Traveller rules were designed to do! The three original Traveller Books (1, 2, and 3) offer a collection of “playing pieces” the Referee gets to pick up and use as he sees fit to build the kind of environment he wants to share with his friends.

The same holds true, in my view, of how to define the various definition of government type, what jumpspace is, what psionic powers are, exactly how the Traveller Aid Society works. All if it is mentioned in passing in the rules, but grist for the mill for any Referee to use as he sees fit for his or her setting.

When I asked Rick about this he replied:

Yeah! I remember when I joined the Traveller Mailing List about 20 years ago and there was a long argument about “What does Feudal technocracy’ mean?” And all I could think was “Make it up, change it, remove it, or whatever, why the fighting?”

Exactly.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–You are Not Your Numbers

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art: Lazar Kacarevic

A while back, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Soon-Yuinposted at his blog:

Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the “player”, who inhabits him).

Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It’s your decision. Nobody else’s.

In this and many ways, RPGs are – perhaps uniquely among games – an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don’t have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can’t just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that’s true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.

Does this mean anything? I’m not sure, but I’ll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them.

I post this in reference to the original Traveller rules, because for some people the rules seem too light. “Who is my guy?” they might ask. Or, “My character only has six characteristics and two skills. Who is she?”

David’s point is that who your character is is what your character does. Using the characteristics of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, Social Standing, and your skills, as well as age and career branch, as a springboard for understanding your Player Character, you get to create your character based on what they want, what actions they’ll take to get what they want, and how they’ll go about getting what they want.

Modern RPGs are insistent that all these matters should be on one’s character sheet. (And certainly I love games that record matters of character, like King Arthur Pendragon.) But there is a wisdom as well in letting the rules sit back a little, offering the Players characteristics and skills that affect the odds of die rolls but letting the Players fill out the rest. This allows the Player Characters to be discovered as play rolls on, and change in significant ways, without bogging down the game with excess rules and die rolls that move the game away from choosing to do things and seeing how they turn out.

Always remember the example of character creation found in Traveller Book 1. Marc Miller invests the character with all sorts of details from the process that go well beyond the mechanical die rolls of rolling up skills.

JAMISON: Having just finished school, Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world. Taking stock in himself and his personal qualities [generate all six characteristics; he rolls, consecutively 6, 8, 8, 12, 8, 9] he soon decides that his UPP of 688C89 adapts him best for the Merchant service. He visits the local starport, checks out the situation [required roll of 7+ to enlist, with a DM of +2 allowed for his intelligence of greater than 6; he rolls 5 (+2=7)] and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on.

During his first term of service [survival roll required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+2=13)] he faces no great dangers, merely ordinary day-to-day events. His application for a commission [required roll of 4+, DM of +7 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+1=8)] is a mere formality. As a 4th Officer, he proves hard working and efficient, [promotion roll required of 10+, with a DM of +1 for intelligence; he rolls 10 (+1=11)] and quickly receives a promotion to 3rd Officer. Jamison clearly feels he has found his place in life, and decides that he would like to continue in service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 7] and reenlists. He has become eligible for four skills during this term of service (two for initial term of service, one for obtaining a commission, and one for being promoted): the work as 4th Officer was, at times, strenuous [Table 1, roll 1= +1 Strength] but he certainly developed his muscles. While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people [Table 1, roll 5= blade combat] he learns to handle a dagger. Routine operations [Table 2, roll 2= vacc suit] require that he learn to handle himself in a vacuum suit. Finally, [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] he takes an elementary course in electronics.

In his second term of service, the rapidly maturing Jamison finds himself faced with some danger [survival throw required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 3, which is the lowest possible and still survive (3+2=5)] possibly a pirate raid, but does stay alive. His continued efficiency [promotion throw of 10+ with a DM of+1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 12 (+1=13)] gains him his desired promotion to 2nd Officer. He signs up for a third term of service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs, he throws 6] and is accepted. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service, one for his promotion): He goes on a physical fitness kick [Table 1, roll 3= +1 endurance] and learns to better defend himself [Table 2, roll 4 =gun combat] using the small body pistol.

Jamison’s third term is rather uneventful [survival roll of 5+, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 9 (+2=11)]. Unfortunately [promotion roll of 10+ required, DM of +1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 8 (+1=9)] he fails the examination for 1st Officer by two points, and does not receive a promotion. Determined to succeed, he reenlists [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 10], He is eligible for one skill: [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] and studies electronics to increase his knowledge.

The fourth term begins easily enough [survival throw of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)]. This time he passes the 1st Officer exam [promotion throw of 10+ required, DM +1 for intelligence; he throws 12 (+1=13)] easily, receiving his promotion and his master’s papers (including automatic pilot-1 expertise). Reenlisting again, he signs the papers to allow a fifth term of service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he throws 10]. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service and one for his promotion): he trains himself in the martial arts [Table 7, roll 5 = blade combat] choosing the cutlass and [Table 2, roll 4= gun combat] and, of all things, the submachine gun.

Beginning term of service number five, [survival roll of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)], he stands for promotion [required promotion roll of 10+, DM +1 for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+1=12)] and is so promoted. At this point firmly entrenched in the merchant service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 3] the service falls upon hard times, and in a cut-back, notifies Captain Jamison that it will no longer require his services after the end of this term. Because he has served five terms, he is eligible to retire (at CR 4000 per year). His service entitles him to two final skills: [Table 4, roll 5=pilot] He studies to improve his piloting skill, and [Table 3, roll 3= electronics] he continues his interest in electronics. Jamison now musters out of the service after 20 years of active duty. Because he is a Merchant Captain (of rank 5 on the scale of ranks), he is entitled to two extra rolls on the mustering out tables, in addition to the 5 rolls (for 5 terms of service) he has coming. He also is allowed, by virtue of his rank, +1 on all rolls on Table 1. Jamison elects to make one roll on Table 2 [he rolls 4= CR 20,000] and six rolls on Table 2 [he rolls 5 (+1=6) = +1 education; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 2 (+1=3) = one middle passage; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) =merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship]. His rolls indicate that Jamison has probably been participating in a long term purchase arrangement for the ship he has been serving on; at this point he has possession of the ship and 30 years of payments have already been made. Jamison is 38 years old, and is subject to 2 rounds of aging (one round should have been made at the end of term of service 4, but is instead being resolved at this time for simplicity; the other round is due to the end of term of service 5). He rolls twice (once for each round of aging being resolved) for strength reduction [saving throw is 8+; he rolls 12 and 9], twice for dexterity [saving throw of 7+; he rolls 7 and 6] and loses one point, reducing his dexterity from 8 to 7, and twice for endurance [saving throw 8+; he rolls 9 and 11].

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To recapitulate, Captain Jamison is now a 38 year old retired merchant captain, UPP 779C99. His skills are shown in the inset. He owns a Type A merchant ship (30 years old) and he owes 10 years (120 months) of payments before he will have clear title. He also has one middle passage, worth about CR 8,000. He has a re-tirement income of CR 4,000 yearly, and has already collected the first year’s bene-fit, which, when added to his other monies, gives him a balance of CR 24,000.

It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career.

Notice how much life Miller imagines for Jamison as the character makes his way through the character creation process. Notice how much attitude and point of view about himself and the world around him Miller invests in Jamison based off the rolls.

Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world…

…and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on…

While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people he learns to handle a dagger…

It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career…

…are only some of the examples. None of these qualities of character or bits of history are dictated by the numbers or written on the character sheet. But the Player had decided that for his character “dealing with people” requires a dagger!

A different person might come up with a completely different set of assumptions about who Jamison is, what his attitude toward life is, what the rolls meant, and what his history with the Merchant Marines was like.

This is the gift that a system life the original Traveller rules offers. It is less specific in nailing down the character on the character sheet… but thus much more open ended in terms of letting the Player inform the life of the character as his own imagination sees fit.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.