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.
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:
- I am clearly not taking the UWP literally (which I don’t think is the point of the UWP, so I don’t)
- 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?
- 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.