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.
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HALLOS SUBSECTOR: Notes for a Setting for Classic Traveller

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The subsector I’m working up is part of an empire in decay. The empire’s power is slipping away, both politically and economically, as civil wars across different sections of the empire have drained its focus. The influence of the empire on the subsector as a political or social entity is non-existent.

Instead, three noble families which have rules potions of the subsector are now scrambling to exert influence and exploit resources of worlds not yet explored. The families see themselves as both standard-bearers for the rich tradition of the imperial past, but also cut off from its support and making their own way forward as best they can.

Trade has been limited and focused on about on third to one half of the worlds in the subesctor. There are many “fly over” worlds, with ships focused on wealthy and high population worlds. Mortgages are backed by the noble families, with fealty and history with the families being a primary consideration for getting a charter on a ship, trade route, or resource exploration rights. A-class spaceports are owned by the noble families. Industrial espionage and sabotage is on the rise between the noble houses, affecting both starships and spaceports.

Common Noble House Tech Level is 9. Average Noble House Tech Level is A-B. Exceptional Noble  Tech Level is C. This, of course, limits the practical size of starships to less than 5,000 dTons. Higher tech levels may well be scattered around the subsector for the PCs to discover, interact with, and puzzle out.

There are many worlds with indigenous, native aliens, as well as settlements of humans. Some of the humans are settlers from the empire either invited by the noble families or seeking better opportunities. Others are from times before a previous rise and fall of interstellar society cycle and thus cut off socially and culturally from each other. (Again, trade has been limited to and focused on a few key worlds. Space lanes, jump cassettes, and other limiting factors from early CT rules are in effect.)

There is an indigenous and ancient faith revolving around psionic powers that has been isolated and quiet. It existed from the time before the last rise and fall cycle of civilization in the subsector (centuries ago). As a power vacuum opens up in the subsector the cult begins to make itself known. It begins recruiting from both the common populace and tries to insinuate itself in the noble houses as well. The teachings promise peace (of course) and a chance to avoid the coming possible crisis of an all out war by uniting the worlds of the subsector under one banner. Obviously none of the noble houses want this. But how to use the faith to their own ends, or stamp it out completely, all the while not being influenced by it is part of the stress the rules class is under.

I haven’t decided yet if the Player Characters will be centered on worlds from one of the ruling houses or have arrived from beyond the subsector. If they have already have served in the noble house’ military or services and have easy access to patronage and get us going. (Whether they remain loyal to the noble house over time is their business.) On the other hand I am tempted to have all PCs arrive in the subsector fresh. This makes the entire environment open to exploration and allows them to find their own way in terms of loyalty. I think this will be something to bring up with the players and ask them what they want.

Adventures will be a mix of political conflict fought out over resources, cold-war espionage and sabotage, as well as expiation and adventure on backwater worlds where all sorts of aliens, alien civilizations, and cultures can be found. (I should note that each of the three noble houses also has their own specific cultures as well.)

Most worlds are politically isolated, with no law enforcement between the stars apart from the efforts of the three noble houses protecting they limited influence on several star systems each. PCs will have varying degrees of safety from the law in illegal activity, depending on where their activities take place and who is backing them and providing cover. (Noble patronage can be very helpful in some circumstances.)

The tone and feel is a softer SF than I think many people expect from Traveller, with the SF elements serving as a backdrop and as McGuffins for adventure rather than and end in and of itself. Think Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and The Demon Princes books, E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Books, Herbert’s Dune (just the first book), and a bit of Game of Thrones.

That’s the basic sketch I’m working from.