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

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[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.


THE MISSING RULES
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.


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THE THROW SYSTEM

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.

Classic Traveller: About those Ship’s Computers…

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For some reason many people think the displacement tonnage devoted to computers on starships reflects the massive computers of the 1970s. I have never understood this. Why would computers in the “Far Future” look like computers from the 1970s? Even in 1977 when I first bought Classic Traveller I never assumed the space required for computers was taken up with one large computer with spinning tape reels.

The displacement tonnage of the computer isn’t for “the computer” alone. It is the space devoted on the ship to the computer system.

Starships in Traveller travel parsecs away from facilities that can handle repairs of starships. They travel to worlds (often) where the technology level is far below the needs that might be required to repair their computer. Starships in Traveller can be attacked by other ships when entering into a new system. These attacks can damage any element of the ship — including the computer system. The computer system in Traveller starships handle many functions, but one of the most important is handling the Generate program or running the Navigation programs that allow the ship to track and navigate from star system to star system and arrive close enough in a system to the system starport that the ship can dock before running out of life support but not so close that the ship is destroyed by a world’s gravity well when coming out of jump space. The storage of the programs of data for these programs alone must be monstrous. If the computer system is damaged and there is no facility to repair it, there is no way to leave a system. A crew and passengers might not be going home for a long while… if at all. (Which is awesome for Traveller play, by the way! But not something most folks traveling on a starship would want to encourage.)

The volume dedicated to the computer, as I see it, constitutes redundancies of multiple computer systems, space for accessing those systems, armor around the computer systems to prevent damage from attacks, cushioning and packing to protect the system on hard landings.

I understand there are people who would, apparently, head off light years from the closest repair facilities into the coldness of space knowing they might take missile or laser fire damage or have a bad landing on a planet or end up in a system without any computer technology at all… and yet still want to attempt such travel with nothing but a laptop sitting on their ship’s console to get them there and back.

I am not one of those people. And I would never get on such a person’s person’s ship.

[As a side note: The term “Jump Tapes” never appears in the rules. The item is called a Jump Cassette, and whether this cassette holds a tape, crystals, gears, a magnetic pulse, or any other method of interacting with the ship’s computer is never defined…]

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.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Marc Miller Talks about the Development of Traveller

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E.T. Smith was at the recent GaryCon and had an opportunity to talk to Marc Miller during a quiet Q&A with a few other attendees.

He begins:

Friday morning at Gary Con IX, I attended a seminar hosted by Marc Miller, lead creator of Traveller. It turned out to be a modest affair, fewer than ten people, so Marc had us all pull in close and provided rare opportunity to ask him direct questions. In particular, since I’ve been reading the “Out of the Box” series on Tales to Astound, I was curious about the evolution of Traveller from a generic sandbox generator to a game specifically about the Third Imperium setting, and was able to put the matter to him directly a couple times.

There are plenty of interesting nuggets scattered through the post, so if you’re interested in Traveller and its history I would definitely check it out.

I found this passage interesting in particular:

Buyers demand expansions they’ll never use, so designing for the market is not the same thing as designing for actual play. “They want thirty pages of combat rules, but will never run more than a brawl using five of them.”

I suppose part of the love I have found for OSR style play in recent years is based on the notion that I want as few rules as possible, and I’ll add more later if  need them. My focus is on actual play… not buying more material.

From TRAVELLER: Out of the Box to the Third Imperium

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One of the main themes running through the the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series is that the original Little Black Books contained lots of implied setting details that run counter to the setting details four in The Third Imperium.

Now, his makes sense. The original purpose of LBBS 1-3 (expressed on the back cover box of the original Traveller rules) is that the Referee is supposed to build his own setting with the rules provided in Book 1-3. This was required when the game first came out, of course, because there was no setting in the original rules. The Third Imperium is an application of the rules by Marc Miller and the gang at GDW to create a specific setting from the implied setting details found in the LBBs. But to do this they added new details, removed detailed, and altered details to make their own setting.

In the same way one can begin with the LBBs and easily create a settings based on the Dumarest books, the Demon Princes books, the Flandry books, the Solar Queen books, the Co-Dominion books, The Space Vikings, and others. This is a testament to the strength of the game Miller wrote. It was built to handle many settings built by many referees–and it does.

But each of these settings is obviously distinct. And my simple point is that the Third Imperium and the Official Traveller Universe is only one application of the rules to create a setting.

In this post I want to walk through what original rules and early products and look at the implied setting found within them. Many of these early books suggest a setting very different than the OTU.

The ideas it to make the implied setting details in different products clear so you can make choices about what books and rules to use to make the setting you want.

This is not authoritative, and I am no authority. The following is how I see thing, filtered through my interests and obsessions.

Let’s go:

I dived the Classic Traveller line into three broad categories or “phases”:

  1. Original Traveller
  2. Proto-Traveller (a term developed by the gang at Citizens of the Imperium)
  3. The Official Traveller Universe

Each grows from the one preceding it, but each is (in my view) distinct.

Original Traveller is playing without any concern for GDW’s house setting at all. That means playing with:

  • Books 1-3 (Either 1977 or 1981 editions. There are differences between the editions, but one can cobble together elements from each of them to taste. The real differences setting-wise are the Communication Routes and Travel Zones found in the 1981 edition but not the 1977 edition. Those two elements are concrete parts of the The Third Imperium I prefer to play without them. Meanwhile, the 1977 edition of the rules has Jump Routes, which I prefer.)
  • If you want you add Supplements 1 & 2 (Setting agnostic and helpful for the Referee!); Supplement 4 (for people who like those new prior services and bow weapons); and maybe Book 4 (though I think this starts pulling the game away from it’s rag-tag adventure paramilitary roots and makes it more straight up military game. I also think the expanded skill list and service generation is bloated and unnecessary. But whatever.)

Proto-Traveller is playing with Books 1-4, Supplements 1-4, and Adventures 1-4, using these for the rules and the sum total of what you know about the Spinward Marches and the Third Imperium. As noted below, the Imperium in the early Traveller materials was a long-lived political power in decline. It committed dark deeds, the distances between the Spinward Marches and Core mattered more, and all in all it is not the bright, shiny competent Third Imperium that came as it was developed in later decades

When I talk about the Official Traveller Universe in this post I’m talking about the Classic Era history that was developed again and gain over the last 40 years in different editions of the game. Each iteration removed the shadows that were part of the early Classic Traveller. Travel became easier and travellers were just any old tourist hopping onto starships. What started as a “large (bordering ultimately on the infinite) universe, ripe for the bold adventurer’s travels” (Traveller Book 1) felt pretty much like First World 20th Century Europe by the time GURPS was done with it.

A note: Keep in mind I’m all for people making up their own settings and tweaking to their hearts content. I’m not trying to trap anyone in any cannon issues. All of my rooting around in Traveller materials was my effort to see if there was still a game called Traveller if you took the Third Imperium out. There is! But it’s amazing many people are utterly convinced that Traveller is the setting and I actually got confused enough after talking with them I thought I’d look into it.

A second note, and an important one I think: Until Book 6: Scouts (1982) not a single one of the Traveller Books mentions a specific setting or any details of the Imperium. All of that material is inside Supplements and Adventures. Thing change with Book 6. With Book 6 the implicit message is if you are playing with the Traveller rules it is assumed you are playing in OTU.

Finally, the OTU was an ad hoc creation. There was no plan to published more Traveller books, and certainly no plan for a grand 11,000 worlds. The fact that things had to be retconned over the years as ideas rubbed each other the wrong way isn’t something I care about. My point is I preferred the way things worked in the Traveller material before the changes that required retcons came along.

So, working product by product, here is my text-flowchart showing the shift in the material from 1977 to 1983…


ORIGINAL TRAVELLER
TRAVELLER BOOKS 1-3 (1977)
GDW publishes the book with no intention of publishing any more material for the game. Marc Miller and the GDW assume people will build their own settings and make adjustments to the game as they need for those settings. (Gary Gygax assumed the same thing about OD&D, for the record.)

General Notes:

  • No mention of The Imperium or any specific setting
  • “Generic” to the degree the Traveller draws on the countless 1950s- 1970s SF adventure novels and short stories Miller has read (Thus there are implied setting details drawn from these many sources)
  • A few named details (Psionics Institute; TSA)

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • Jump Routes rather than Communication Routes (Jump routes are concerns of PCs; Communication routes will rarely, if ever, be the concern of the PCs)
  • No Travel Zones (In the implied setting of play the power and influence of the centralized government is weak)
  • Play is assumed to be centered on one or two subsectors created by the Referee
  • Ship size capped at 5,000Dtons
  • Travel for civilian and commercial ships limited in part by the need for refined fuel, which is limited to A and B-Class starports
  • Starship Critical Hit Tables have no “Explode” result (Space combat is a game of resource management for RPG play; ships can be horribly damaged, but not blown up. Later editions will move space combat toward the feel of a board game with “Explode” result
  • The Starship Encounters tables suggest a very different dynamic in the implied setting than one would find in the 1981 edition of the rules and beyond:

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As one person at Citizens of the Imperium commented:

In 77, pirates are the bane of populated systems, but are absent in the backwaters. The mains are dangerous for lack of services, not hostiles…

In 81, pirates are the scourge in the fringes – desperate men choking the lifeblood out of minor trade. Meanwhile, the major ports have no pirates, but plenty of law. And patrols are EVERYWHERE.

The “empire” of 81 leaves E and X alone, and to the pirates, but patrols the A and B systems, and the pirates only match with them in the C-ports.

The “empire” of 77 patrols everywhere, but is outgunned by pirates in the systems with good ports…

One is effective, the other not…

The implied setting of 1977 is a freewheeling frontier beyond the reach of the law in most areas, and a struggle for order in the civilized areas. This is a very different kind of setting than one finds in the later Traveller materials when the rules and the setting become one thing.

—————————

SUPPLEMENT 1: 1001 CHARACTERS (1978)
Setting agnostic material to aid the Referee in using the Traveller rules

SUPPLEMENT 2: ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS (1979)
Setting agnostic material to aid the Referee in using the Traveller rules


A BRIDGE TO PROTO-TRAVELLER
BOOK 4: MERCENARY (1978)
Setting agnostic expansion of the Traveller rules
Pertinent to this discussion:


THE IMPERIUM ARRIVES: PROTO-TRAVELLER

SUPPLEMENT 3: THE SPINWARD MARCHES (1979)
Concrete details about The Third Imperium, including government structure, history, and alien races of the setting
A maps and quick-sketch details of the sixteen subsectors of the Third Imperium

SUPPLEMENT 4: CITIZENS OF THE IMPERIUM (1979)
Setting agnostic expansion of rules and new prior service paths for Player Characters

Pertinent to this discussion:
The information is sparse, with an enormous about of room (and expectation) the Referee will fill in details

  • The Imperium in described as “in decline”
  • In many respects the Marches can be seen as a Frontier
  • There are no Jump Routes (using rules established in Book 3)
  • There are Communication Routes belonging to the Imperium
  • The Imperium imposes Travel Zones to prevent travellers from reaching certain worlds

ADVENTURE 1: THE KINUNIR (1979)
Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • The Battle Cruiser described in the book use the High Guard rules for design, but is 1,200Dtons, keeping it within the ship size range found in Book 2
  • The Library data and Rumors Matrixes describes a darker Imperium than what is later portrayed, with abuse of power against citizens of the Imperium and even members of the government
  • In many respects the Marches is still a Frontier

ADVENTURES 2-4: (1980)
Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches and beyond

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • Ships are built using the High Guard rules, but tonnage remains withing the range established in Book 2
  • The Library Data and Rumor Matrixes continue to paint a darker, less powerful Imperium than what was portrayed later

DOUBLE ADVENTURES 1-6: (1980-1982)
Scenarios set in the Spinward Marches

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • The Imperium remains dark and more dangerous that later material would suggest
  • Ship sizes remain within the scope found in Book 2

A BRIDGE TO THE OFFICIAL TRAVELLER UNIVERSE
BOOK 5: HIGH GUARD (1979 – 1st ED.; 1980 2nd ED.)
Almost setting agnostic expansion of the Traveller rules. “The Imperium” as a term is introduced exactly as in Book 4, but details of naval structure are made explicit

Pertinent to this discussion:

  • In Book 2 only military and scout vessels could use unrefined fuel without penalty. Book 5 introduces Fuel Purifiers that can be installed on any ship. This makes civilian travel and trade much easier for any interstellar civilization unrefined fuel can now be acquired at any C or D-class starport or any gas giant
  • New rules for constructing ships that increase the possible size from 5000Dtons to 1,000,000,000Dtons
  • Significantly, though the rules are supposed to be generic tools for any Referee to build ships of whatever size he wants, The Official Traveller Universe introduces ships of sizes well beyond those found in Book 2. In this way, the “Battle Cruisier” found in Adventure 1: The Kinunir clearly no longer makes sense due to its now relatively small size and limited armaments. (Countless years of retconning will be spent trying to explain why The Kinunir was ever called a “Battle Cruiser” in the first place.)
  • The above point is tied to another important point:
  • A shift away from Player Character driven play to a focus on the large scale strategic concerns of running an empire of 11,000. In other words, a shift from an RPG focused setting to a setting ready made for board games and large scale tactical deployments. (We can see this in the shift from Jump Routes to Communication routes; we can see this in the addition of “Destroyed” results for starship combat; we can see this the larger ships and ease of travel (and thus communication) introduced in Book 5.)
  • The text introduces and formalizes the naval structure at the world, subsector, and sector level. The nature of The Imperium as an explicit setting is for the first time built into a Traveller Book.

THE OFFICIAL TRAVELLER UNIVERSE
SUPPLEMENT 5-LIGHTNING CLASS CRUISERS (1980)
A 60,000Dton Cruiser is now part of the . We have left the “small ship” setting of original Traveller behind. The 1,200 “Battle Cruiser” found in Adventure 1 now officially makes no sense.

TRAVELLER BOOKS 1-3 (1981)
A new edition of the rules almost identical to the 1977 edition, cleaned up and better laid out.

However, in this new edition the Communication Routes and Travel Zones introduced in Supplement 3 are now a standard assumption. And, as noted above, there Starship Encounters Tables reveal a much more civilized setting.

My only issue with these items is that they make the default “remote, centralized government” a Traveller setting more intrusive and more involved with the setting of play — even though the original, implied assumption was to put the PCs at the edges of the government (you know “remote”). There’s nothing inherently wrong about these two items. But they do shift the dynamics of the setting of play.

So technically the 1981 edition mentions nothing about The Third Imperium and so is still setting free (apart from the implied setting details). But it adjusts the text to reflect certain elements of the OTU.

THE TRAVELLER BOOK (1982)
The rules are (essentially) the same as those found in Traveller Books 1-3.

Of course, this edition of the rules end with an entire section on the Third Imperium and adventuring within it. As the book is structured one reads the rules to learn how to play in the Third Imperium. This is a drastic change from the earlier, setting-free editions of the rules.

BOOK 6: SCOUTS (1983)
For the first time details about the Third Imperium (of the sort that had only appeared in Supplement 3 and Adventures (proper nouns, dates, and specific details of The Third Imperium)) are now in a Traveller Book. If you are playing with the Traveller rules, you are playing in the Third Imperium.

And here we are.


Additional thoughts…

Parallel to all of this are the board games running in parallel in the development of the Official Traveller Setting and the Classic Traveller game line.

GDW tended to cram things together (again, ad hoc). They had been working on a much larger board game for interstellar war and used that game’s background (involving the Vargr, the Aslan and so on) to create the background for their Traveller RPG. From everything I’ve read all of this was built up on the fly… which is why you can find Traveller mailing lists and forum boards filled with people arguing about how to make all the contradictory bits of the setting make sense.

But as this happens you can see how the Classic Traveller’s game line shifts focus from RPG support to being more about a board game, whether shifting from RPG-driven para-military personal combat to skirmish combat; PCs on board a ship starships combat to flee combat (Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron); and the shift of away for material focused on the concerns of adventuring PCs to generating fluff about the politics and concerns of running an interstellar Imperium.

Given the original premise of Traveller (ex-military with a particular set of skills head off to worlds beyond to carve their own fate and fortune) this shift is, in my view, pronounced.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Rules are Not Your Friend

Petra-Spaceport-OutlanderThere is no comfort to be had in the Basic Traveller rules as written.

For years people have pointed out that making a profit with a freight hauler in Traveller is hard if not impossible. They claim the rules are broken since people should be able to regularly and safely make a profit.

Here’s a thought: What if that isn’t true? What if given the setting implied by the rules found int Books 1-3 making a profit is supposed to be very hard, if not impossible? What would happen then?

Lots of things!

For example, a crew of Player Characters might end up with a ship. The ship might have a mortgage. There are rules for paying the mortgage. But if the crew isn’t making a profit, they can’t pay that mortgage. Does this mean the rules for trade are broken?

Not if we remember that this passage has been part of the game since 1977:

Skipping: Most starships are purchased against a mortgage or loan, and the monthly payments required against the multi-million credit debt are staggering. The owner or captain may decide to steal the ship himself instead of remaining under that load. Passengers have no way themselves of determining if a specific ship is in such a status. The referee should throw 12 exactly to determine that a commercial ship is of this type.

Ships which have skipped are subject to repossession attempts if they are detected by the authorities or by collection agencies. Such attempts may range from the formal service of papers through legal injunctions to armed boarding parties. A repossession attempt will occur under the following conditions: On each world landing, throw 12+ to avoid such an attempt, apply a DM of +1 per 5 hexes distance from the ship’s home planet, to a maximum of +9. If the ship has called on the same world twice within the last two months, apply a DM of –2. This procedure also applies to ships owned by player characters who have skipped.

See, the underlying assumption of the Basic Traveller rules is that things go wrong. The rules for skipping make this assumption explicit. Your business venture as a tramp freighter crew might well go south. Why else have rules devoted to skipping out on your mortgage?

But this is only part of the pain the rules offer.

The rules of Books 1-3 dwell on combat, animal encounters, run-ins with the law, hijackings, pirates, hostile encounters in space and on planets, ship holds that don’t fill up, jump drive failure because of being unable to find refined fuel, and the fact that many worlds lack the parts or technology to repair anything from firearms to starships.

This doesn’t mean that any given setting has to be like this. Everyone should make the setting they want. If you want a setting where everything is clean and shiny, refined fuel is plentiful, and ever ship leaves port with a full cargo hold… go for it!

But the implied setting found in the actual rules of original Traveller assumes that things fail, that things go bad, and that things are always on the cusp of turning into the next disaster.

The implied setting of play assumes that travellers deal with trouble regularly. Traveller by definition put themselves in harms way, go to extraordinary places, and live lives most people would not risk. The rules make this clear.

When it comes to starship economics, the rules assume play will take place in a patch of space defined by depressed population levels and worlds with sub-starship technology. Profit margins will be narrow if not nonexistent. All of this is by design.

So, yes… if the crew of a ship can make their mortgage payments that’s great. It will be one less source of trouble if they don’t have people after them to repossess their ship. On the other hand, the rules take the time to explain how one bolts from the responsibility of paying that mortgage. The rules then explain how one can get into trouble for this choice and avoid that same trouble.

The soil of the Basic Traveller rules is science-fiction adventure fiction. The rules of the game are designed to create stress, conflict, and trouble. This helps drive the player characters to bold choices. It means taking high risk/high reward jobs. It means coming up with bold schemes to get contracts or find treasures. It means doing deeds for powerful patrons to get hold of better resources. The PCs might even skip the mortgage payments or become pirates. This is all part and parcel of the implied environment of the game fostered by the rules themselves.

No interpretation of the rules demands that trade in the implied section of space created by the rules works efficiently. In fact, if one looks at the expectations of the rules one finds the opposite.



Please note there is a discussion of these ideas taking place in the comments. Make sure to check them out. The points you want to make might already be under discussion!

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making a Character, Playing to Find Out

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Obviously, it is possible for a player to generate a character with seemingly unsatisfactory values; nevertheless, each player should use his character as generated.
–Traveller Book 1

I think the Classic Traveller character creation system does a lot of other neat tricks that I discuss in this post. (It teaches the mechanics of the game (the 2D6 bell curve, DMs for rolls based on characteristics, the honest risk of death (which is how I play) in pursuit of what you want, the basics of suboptimal choices (“Do I call it quits after one term? Or risk death?”) which in many ways is baked into the implied setting, working with the hand you are dealt (choosing the career based on potential characteristic DMs.)

And let us remember as well, it doesn’t happen that often. Odds are good (especially with DMs) that characters will make it alive through terms. The risk is there.

But for me, just as important, is that the roleplaying begins here. In the rules rolling up those six characteristics is called “Initial Character Generation.” Those six die rolls are the character creation process. Once you have those six characteristics written down on a scrap of paper the game begins.

Notice the phrasing here from Book 1 (emphasis added):

A newly generated character is singularly unequipped to deal with the adventuring world, having neither the expertise nor the experience necessary for the active life. In order to acquire some experience, it is possible to enlist in a service.

The rules make it clear that entering a service is, in fact, optional. You could. You might not. Your choice in these matters is part of play. Character creation is already over. You are playing right now.

Of course you’re going to try to get into a service . You want those skills.* And so you try to enter a service. But still, it is a choice. Your character’s life is underway. His life of risk has started. We are learning who is he as we play out his life.

And this is the fascinating thing. As we do this process, we build a character.

Is my guy the kind of guy who chose to leave after two terms? Got kicked out? Pushed his luck and went for a fourth or fifth term voluntarily? Wanted to get out but got drafted?

These questions, along with “Why did my guy never get promoted?” “What the hell happened during his service to make him so skilled in Blade combat?” and more, along the with answers the Player creates, add up to define character even before “play” begins. (My thesis is play begins the minute you pick up the blank character sheet, btw. Make of that what you want.)

But the biggest of these questions is the relationship the character had with a dangerous career. Why did he stay? For how long? Why? Why did he get out?

Given that all of the original Traveller characters would be characters heading off onto worlds remote from the centralized government they once served, their relationship with risk, danger, and death is part and parcel to getting a hold on them.

For all the reasons listed above, I love the Classic Traveller character system and its risk of death.


Significantly, the Classic Traveller character generation system really isn’t set up for the Player who wants a specific kind of character type. The system is designed more about the “play the cards your dealt” in which the Player rolls characteristics and then makes decisions about how much he’s willing to risk to get an soldier from the Army (if that’s what he wants) even though he’s got characteristics that are better suited for the Merchant Marines.

The game wasn’t designed for the Player to always get what he wants. You make your six characteristic rolls and then you decide where his best odds are in a system full of suboptimal choices. (A character might have better odds of survival in one career, but his odds of promotion will be lower; while his odds of promotion might be better in another career, but the odds of survival lower. The Player has to weight these DMs and odds, and then make a choice and see how it goes.)


You can also put him in a service that you think will kill him, be surprised when he survives, musters out with some interesting skills, and wonder “Who is this guy?”

And then follow him into play to find out what will happen and how he’ll conduct himself in order to survive while pursuing wealth and power on the fringes of society.

How he will conduct himself will, by definition, provide interesting roleplaying and memorable moments that can’t be gained by simply plowing through circumstances with an average and powered up PC.

The game was built to provide a range of kinds of characters, inspiring roleplay through both strengths and weaknesses. Again, Classic Traveller is built on a “play the hand you are dealt philosophy.” Let us say you roll up characteristics of 222222. Your guy, until he dies, has characteristics of 222222. Okay, now what are you going to do with that?

The answer to that question is part of what Classic Traveller is about.



* A Note: First, one could bypass the services, start at 18, and use the Experience rules to train in two weapons (a blade and firearm). It’s possible!

And hers is another thing I never see people do, but the rules would allow. You blow off enlistment and seek a Psionics Institute. This would allow better odds for more power and versatility in psionics than one would get at a later age. By using the Experience rules, one could choose two weapons (blade and firearm) and have them at an expertise of 1. Not something most people are going to do. But I think it’s worth noting!

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–A Subsector Map and a Cluster

A Subsector Map:

FullSizeRender-10The lines between worlds are charted space lanes generated with the 1977 rules. These are navigational routes allowing a starship to travel safely from one system to another without the Generate program. The charts are encoded on self-erasing cassettes that can be purchased from starports within jump range of the destination world.

A charted space lane does not guarantee regular traffic. Only that the route is traveled enough, and the information updated frequently enough, to make it safe to travel there without the Generate program.

You’ll notice I erased a few of the lanes. This is in part to clean up the map. If there is a route that extends from A port to a B port and the B port connects to a C port, one can assume there is a route from the A port to the C port without having to directly connect the A to C port.

The other reason is that I’m still futzing with the subsector and deciding about how many worlds in that lower right corner already have space lanes routes. I’m pretty sure that the B starport world in 0708 will still connect to the E starport world in 0709. But many of those fainter lines will take a bit of work on the part of the players to reach them. They’ll have to scrape together enough money to get the Generate program, or charter a flight, and so on.

Notice that the two worlds with E-class starports next to 0708 do not have gas giants. The 1977 rules require gas giants for skimming unrefined fuel. This means that if one arrives in jump-1 ship one cannot leave again unless one carries extra fuel in the hold. Other methods of reaching these worlds and returning involve chartering ships, working one’s way up to a jump-2 ship (and using half the fuel one way and half the fuel the other way.) In short, these two worlds will really not have been visited much, offering a terrific sense of “journeying into the unknown” — which is very much the feel I want to offer to the Players.

I’ll be focusing on a cluster of star systems at first:

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Six worlds, one of them being a high tech level world with an A-class starport.

From these worlds a series of lesser starport worlds trail off to the lower corner. And then we can head to another A-class starport in the other direction. But generating enough details for these first six worlds will be enough to get me going.

The subsector is beyond the edge of the empire the characters have come from. If they have a Scout ship or Free Trader then they have sailed that ship a great distance to arrive at this section of space.

The subsector is not ruled by any  central government; it has no shared culture; the worlds are culturally and technologically isolated . Trade is sparse, though a few world governments and charter companies do have ships established for trade between a few key worlds. Not many ships ply the darkness between worlds.

Per the 1977 Ship Encounter rules pirates and government ships cluster around A and B starports. The D and E starports see little if any trade. The danger at the these worlds off the beaten path is isolation and the environment itself. Tensions exist between higher tech worlds with A class starports. The conflicts are often fought on other worlds as natural resources become a point of contention. There will be an underground mystical order with psionic powers trying to unseat these powerful governments and instal their faith as the ruling order.

The worlds of the setting will have for the most part an exotic and even archaic spirit and aesthetic to them. The player characters will be from a more “conservative” (cultural, not political) and recognizable society that the Players can easily identify with. I want a sense of each culture being a bit different and unique. The player characters will definitely be “outsiders” finding their way amid these new worlds.

The fictional inspiration points are the E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest books, “The Beyond” from Jack Vance’s Demon Princes books, Frank Herbert’s  Dune with its raw and dangerous environment, as well as movies like The Man Who Would be King, The Wild Bunch, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which focus on ex-military who head off into conflicts and lands uncivilized to find their fortunes.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Another Difference Between the 1977 Edition and the 1981 Edition

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I’ve posted before about the differences between the 1977 edition of Books 1-3 and the 1981 edition of books 1-3.

Here’s another difference! The nature of the Starship Encounters Table produces very different results.

Here are the rules from 1977:

SHIP ENCOUNTER RULES
When a ship enters a star system, there is a chance that any one of a variety of ships will be encountered. The ship encounter table is used to determine the specific type of vessel which is met. This result may, and should, be superseded by the referee in specific situations, especially if a newly entered system is in military or civil turmoil, or involves other circumstances.

Throw two dice; apply a DM based on the starport of the primary world of the system (A +6, B +4, C +2, D +1, E –2, X –4). The result indicates the ship type encountered. If necessary, exact specifications for the ship should be generated. Both Patrol and Pirate Ships will generally be Type S Scout/Couriers (throw 6–) or Type C Cruisers (throw 8+), with the chance that they are Armed Type Y Yachts (throw 7).

Ship Encounters Table
Die……….Ship Encountered
8 or less…No encounter
9………….Free Trader
10 ………..Free Trader
11 ………..Free Trader
12 ………..Pirate
13 ………..Subsidized Merchant
14 ………..Patrol
15 ………..Subsidized Merchant
16 ………..Yacht
17 ………..Yacht
18 ………..Patrol

Free Traders, if friendly, may serve as a source of information about other circumstances in the system; Subsidized Merchants may also provide such information. Patrols may be simple border pickets, or may be a form of pirate, exacting tolls or penalties.

And here the Starship Encounter rules from 1981:

STARSHIP ENCOUNTERS

When a starship enters a system, there is a chance that it will encounter any one of a number of different ships going about their business. Very often, the exact encounter is the responsibility of the referee; for routine encounters, or for inspiration, the accompanying starship encounter table is provided.

The table classifies each system by the starport within it. Two dice are rolled and modified by the presence of scout or naval bases in the system. If a dash is shown on the table, then there is no encounter. The letter codes indicate the various types’ of standard design ships described earlier in this book. The referee should examine the specific type of ship involved and determine the precise nature of the encounter. Free traders may want to swap rumors and gossip; scouts may want information; patrol cruisers may want to inspect for smugglers.

The suffix P on any ship type can be construed as pirate; such a ship will probably attack, or at least try to achieve a position where it can make the attempt.

It is also possible to encounter a variety of small craft in a system. If an asterisk appears on the table entry, a small craft has also been encountered. Roll one die and consult the standard small craft table to determine type. This encounter occurs either before or after the large ship encounter.

The referee may want to use the reaction table from the encounter section of Book 3 to determine the precise reaction of any type of ship and crew.

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Let’s leave aside for the moment that the 1981 edition of the rules contain a larger range of ships. What interests me is a table that Aramis put together over at the Citizens of the Imperium which compared the odds of encounter a Patrol vs. Pirates in the 1977 edition and the odds of encountering a Patrol vs. Pirates in the 1981 edition. [The notions N, S, and B stand for the presence of a Naval Base, a Scout Base, or a base of both kinds in a given system.)

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Look at the difference. Out of 36 Throws for encounters when entering a system, the difference could not be more stark.

I’ll let Aramis sum it up:

In 77, pirates are the bane of populated systems, but are absent in the backwaters. The mains are dangerous for lack of services, not hostiles…

In 81, pirates are the scourge in the fringes – desperate men choking the lifeblood out of minor trade. Meanwhile, the major ports have no pirates, but plenty of law. And patrols are EVERYWHERE.

The “empire” of 81 leaves E and X alone, and to the pirates, but patrols the A and B systems, and the pirates only match with them in the C-ports.

The “empire” of 77 patrols everywhere, but is outgunned by pirates in the systems with good ports…

One is effective, the other not…

Carlobrand, another poster at CotI added:

’77 and ’81 paint starkly different trade pictures, if you think about the meaning behind the numbers.

Where there’s big money involved, that money will try to protect itself, and that clearly is not happening in the ’77 universe. ’77 is a universe of little trade between planets, with what trade occurs being the result of adventurous souls willing to take big chances to score that big hit. As Aramis points out, it’s not a universe where the interstellar forces of goodness and niceness are very effective. Maybe they are more effective somewhere else, but they’re not very effective where the players are. It’s a universe where anarchy has the upper hand out in the airless void …

… and as such, it is a small-ship universe. Big ships in trade mean big money and, as I noted, big money tries to protect itself.

By the ’81 universe, it seems they’re giving thought to an Imperium, or at least some organized effort to protect the trade lanes. There’s enough economic activity going on up there to justify a planet putting up enough force to push piracy out to the hinterlands. Could be big ship, could be lots of small ships, but there’s enough to warrant a real effective effort, at least where the bulk of traffic is.

I concur with the statements of aramis and Carlobrand.

Here are a few more differences between the 1977 rules and text and the 1981 rules and text:

When we look at the 1977 rules, we also find that there are Charted Space Lanes rather than Communication Routes in setting up a subsector.

Space Lanes are pre-plotted Jump plans that can be bought on cassettes that self-erase after one use. A ship with the Generate Program does not need them. But a ship without a Generate program needs them if it is going to get from one system to another. And if a Space Lane between two systems has not yet been charted at all, then the Generate program is required for a ship to get to it.

Also: The 1977 rules have no Travel Zones (Amber or Red). As one can see from the quotes above, it seems unlikely that governments that is constantly trying to swat away pirates from A starport systems (and not succeeding) will be able to interdict an entire system. Instead, all worlds, no matter how dangerous, are open to Player Character travellers if that’s where they want to go. They could, of course, encounter resistance from any number of factions. But there is nothing on the books advising or warning them not to go.

Also: while digging into this I came across this first paragraph from the section on Starship Encounters on p. 36 of the 1977 edition of Book 2:

When a ship enters a star system, there is a chance that any one of a variety of ships will be encountered. The ship encounter table is used to determine the specific type of vessel which is met. This result may, and should, be superseded by the referee in specific situations, especially if a newly entered system is in military or civil turmoil, or involves other circumstances.

This assumes a setting that will have “military or civil turmoil” in the space between worlds. Not that there has to be turmoil. That is up to the Referee and the worlds he or she builds. But it is certainly implied there can be such turmoil, and the text encourages the Referee to think in terms of offering up such turmoil. But this sensibility is in contrast to the rules of the OTU’s Third Imperium which allows conflicts on worlds, but not in the space between them.

These elements alone are enough to bring me peace of mind. This is the sort of rough-and-tumble setting that I always imagined for Traveller because, of course, I bought the 1977 edition in my youth.

During the game line’s development the rules changed, the OTU was developed, and the game and the setting became one thing. My view of what sort of environment the Traveller rules originally implied became erased. When I would say, “The Spinward Marches seems safer and more civilized than I want,” I would be met with the reply, “How can you say that? It’s on the edge of the Imperium. There’s all sorts of adventure.”

Which is true, by the way. There is all sorts of adventure in The Spinward Marches. Nonetheless, to me, with all its mega corporations with tendrils to the smallest and off the beaten path worlds, its empire capable of interdicting entire star systems, its vast fleet of enormous startups that utterly dwarfed the ships of the player characters, its all seemed a much different environment than those I remembered reading about when I first bought the rules. Overall, the Third Imperium enforced a law and order across the stars that wasn’t in alignment with my sensibility for Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Traveller was always about the Referee making the setting he or she wanted to share with is players. GDW made the setting they wanted from the core rules — and that is awesome.)

Now, I’m not saying playing with the 1977 rules is the “right” way to play, or that the setting implied by the rules is the right kind of setting to use.

I bring this up, as I always do, to open up the possibilities of play. The Third Imperium is a an awesome application of the Traveller rules to make a specific setting. It is the setting the guys at GDW wanted to make–and make it they did. But the Third Imperium is not the only setting–or even kind of setting–that works well with the Traveller rules.

And we know this because when we look back at the 1977 rules we see an utterly different kind of setting than we would see in later years as the the game line added more rules, ignored other rules, and built a setting that actually is at odds with the rules in Books 1-3.


A thought experiment:

Let’s use the rules and observations of aramis and Carlobrand above, along with rules shared with the 1981 edition:

  • no fuel purifiers (which were introduce in Book 5–and is one of the most fundamental changes to the rules)
  • a cap on ship size at 5,000 tons (or so — yes, yes, I know one can extend the table)
  • the discussions of pirates and hijackings as a threat in Book 2
  • the need for Refined Fuel (which is only found at 37% of starports) to travel without the risk of drive failures and misjumps (both of which can cause catastrophic results)
  • the fact that Refined Fuel will only be available, on average, in 37% of star systems when rolled using tables in Book 3
  • Space travel is relatively expensive compared to the living expenses listed in Book 3:

Costs of Living per Book 3
– Ordinary food and housing is Cr4,800 per year (estimate Cr12,000 annual income)
– High food and housing is Cr10,800 per year (estimate Cr27,000 annual income)
Costs of Space Travel Passage per Book 2
– High Passage: Cr10,000
– Middle Passage: Cr8,000
– Low Passage: Cr1,000

(And remember, those passage prices are per jump)

  • governments do not handle communication through interstellar mail, but hire independent contractors to carry the mail
  • the fact that some people who need to travel but can only scrape together the Cr1000 needed for a Low Passage ticket are willing to risk a base 15% chance of death in order to get to another world
  • the fact that the interstellar culture is clearly stratified along class in some fashion or another

First: are there any other differences between the 1977 and 1981 rules that provide interesting contrasts in terms of setting?

Second: what sort of assumptions can be made about the setting? What are the implications? What do we think the settings would be like drawn from these rules and bits of text?

 

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Start Small

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One Planet Can Be a Whole Lot of Adventure

Traveller presents a specific, terrifying possibility for the Referee based on two facts.

The two facts are:

  1. Space is big
  2. The Player Characters can go anywhere

The terrifying possibility is that the Referee will be responsible for creating literally hundreds of worlds before proper play can begin.

I would offer something else: Start small.

“But,” you might say, “space is big. The Third Imperium is big. How can you be playing Traveller if you start with something small?”

Since the Third Imperium is big we’ll use that setting as an example. I’m not saying this is the only way to set up a Traveller setting. But I do think is both efficient and sanity preserving for any Referee who wants to get a game of Traveller up and running.

THE ORIGINAL DESGIN OF THE GAME
Part of the lure of the Official Traveller Universe is its immense size.

It stretches across countless subsectors. Contains 11,000 worlds. Has politics back at the Core as well as on the frontier of the Zhodani borders. There are 16 subsectors in the Spinward Marches alone. It’s vastness and immense scope is part of its glittering appeal.

And yet, I am going to suggest you don’t get lured by all that glitter. The key is to ask, “How much do I need to get going?”

Here is what the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 3 said about the matter:

Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds), but ultimately, travellers will venture into unknown areas and additional subsectors will have to be charted.

The text above was written two years before GDW published any material abut the Third Imperium.

Let’s assume for now that the text is valid even if we are setting a game in the Third Imperium. Let’s assume further that the rules and text and the implied setting details of Books 1-3 and why a starting in a setting of limited scope makes perfect sense.

TRAVEL
It is possible to start the game without a ship. Not only might the Players not end up with a character with a ship, but also you as Referee might simply declare that the PCs can’t start with a ship.

There are several good reasons for this. First, getting a ship serves as a terrific carrot for the PCs. They might get one for services rendered on the behalf of a noble, a planetary government, a corporation, and so on after several adventures.

Second, it keeps the movement of the PCs somewhat limited at first. Not because you are forcing them or railroading them into particular situations and trapping them… but simply because in the implied setting of early Traveller makes traveling between the stars a big deal.

For example traveling between the stars is expensive.

If we look at the average expenses per Book 3 we find…
Ordinary Living thus costs Cr4,800 year.
High Living is Cr10,800 per year.

Meanwhile, this is how much it costs per jump to travel…
High Passage: Cr10,000
Middle Passage: Cr8,000
Low Passage: Cr1,000

Most people can’t afford to travel, and for those who do it will each up an incredible amount of the resources. And, again, those travel rates are per jump. If you are planning on traveling three or more jumps then you are spending years of living expenses.

This means that if the PCs don’t have a ship yet and want to travel, they’ll need to earn money on high risk/big payoff adventures. (This is one reason why they’ll want to get a ship of their own!)

Second, the ships available to PCs at first will be Jump-1 ships. This means that even if they can Travel they won’t be able to shoot all over the galaxy at first. Moreover, most ships in Book 2 have jump capabilities of Jump-1, Jump-2, or Jump-3. Even getting across a subsector is a big deal.

Moreover, the quality of fuel limits the ease and safety of travel as well. Ships can only acquire refined fuel at A and B class starports. And those are not that frequent. Unrefined fuel can be skimmed from gas giants. But using unrefined fuel means there is a 3% chance of both drive failures and misjump for each jump. To go too far and too long from the well established A and B-class starports means risking those failures time and time again… and that is not a risk most captains or crews are willing to take.

Which brings us to…

GEOGRAPHY
Once upon a time someone had Traveller Books 1-3 (and maybe Book 4), Supplements 1 (1001 Characters), 2 (Animal Encounters), and 3 (The Spinward Marches)… and that was it. And it was fine. People played the game and it was fun.

In Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches one found several about eight pages worth of text describing the background of the Third Imperium and the sixteen subsectors of the Spinward Marches. I would suggest going smaller than that.

Pick one subsector to start with. Let’s look at the Regina subsector:

regina-subsector

The 1977 edition of Book 3 said one or two subsectors would be enough for years of adventure

Let’s assume, as the book itself suggests, that you start on the world of Regina, where the PCs have gathered and meet after arriving in the Spinward Marches.

Notice that there are several worlds clustered around Regina within Jump-1 of each other. (Other worlds, while nearby, are two parsecs away… out of reach for J-1 ships at 2 parsecs.)

This is by design. The game is built for a Referee to sketch out a subsector and have that subsector be useful for many sessions of play because of the mix of ship types and jump drives available. (The 1977 edition of the rules stated: “Initially, one or two sub-sectors should be quite enough for years of adventure (each sub-sector has, on the average, 40 worlds), but ultimately, travellers will venture into unknown areas and additional subsectors will have to be charted.”)

So I would recommend zooming in on a subsector rather than the whole of the Imperium.

And I would recommend zooming in even further… to Regina and the cluster of worlds around it:

regina-3-jump-map

The Regina Cluster: A Solid Start for Your Traveller Campaign

Imagine this is the map for the start of your campaign.

Notice how this map seems manageable. (As opposed to the map of The Third Imperium.) But see also how much potential is there. Fourteen worlds, all of which can be reached by a Jump-1 ships. Yet traveling from one end to the other (Knorbes to Yori) will take five months… and longer if adventures take place along the way. (And adventures should take place along the way!)

Moreover, the area is full of hotspots: three Amber Zones and one Red Zone.

Still, a single world (let alone fourteen!) can be daunting. Which brings us to…

STARK AND SIMPLE
In Stars Without Numbers* Kevin Crawford suggests that a Referee should never prepare more than he needs for the next session, or if more, only things he’s having fun preparing.

I think that’s a good benchmark. Which means we’ll be doing a lot less prep for the setting than we might at first think we have to.

For example, yes, we need details of politics four our world. But how much politics? After all, I can watch the first season of 24, an adventure-driven tale of a Counter-Terrorism agent trying to protect a Presidential candidate… but I’m going to learn very little about the United States government during those 24 hours of television!

In his article on Planetary Governments in Traveller, Marc Miller wrote this about the interpreting the Government number in a Universal World Profile:

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….

I think in this quote Miller is warning against becoming obsessed with details beyond the scope of the concerns of the Player Characters. Yes, we want context for our worlds. We want consistency. But those qualities serve our needs for an adventure-driven evening of roleplaying.

Miller later writes in the same article:

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.

Notice here what Miller is making clear: The UWP system was never meant to be comprehensive as a tool of categorizing a planet. Moreover he is making it clear the UWP is not about the fictional “reality” of a world. Instead, the UWP is a game tool for the Referee to prod his imagination into unexpected results.

The text of Book 3 also makes it clear the Referee should not be beholden to the results of the UWP and, in fact, he should not even bother rolling them up if he knows that a specific world to be.

Extending this logic to the Official Traveller Setting I would offer the following:

Scratch things out. Re-write the UWPs as you see fit. Don’t get trapped by the details as published. If you know what you want don’t let the UWP get in the way. Come up with what you can’t wait to share with your players and then make your worlds that.

And what do you want? You want details the Player character can interact with.

Which bring me to…

PLAYER FACING

I think of the term “Player Facing” when I’m thinking about this stuff. Player Facing is all the stuff (the places, the objects, the people, the organizations) the PCs can interact with. The merchant who wants them dead. The secret organization that is trying to steal the thingamabob. The patron who wants them to find his daughter.

Think about the images and factions and characters you want to present to the Players. (Remember what I wrote about using index cards in a previous post.) Make the images and ideas bold and strong. Make them things that the PCs can interact with.

This city has clothing woven by strange spiders in amazing patterns that glitter as the large red sun sets. The spider factories are at the north end of the city and compete in an annual festival. There’s an industrial haze in the distance where massive mining vehicles cut their way across the landscape and often stop as troops battle swarming creatures. At night the prayers of the religious faithful echo across the city’s towers — sung by members of religious people who settled here centuries ago and are now a smaller and smaller percentage of the population and seem are rumored to be growing in anger at their loss of power.

Okay. I have enough there to make things happen. All of that is stuff the Player Characters can interact with.

Do something like that for fourteen worlds and you’re good to go.

THE SETTING AND THE SETTING OF PLAY
In a post called The Setting and the Setting of Play I wrote in part:

I have two phrases I use for Traveller now:

The Setting and The Setting of Play.

The “Setting” might involve an 11,000-world empire that has existed a thousand years. But none of that matters.

What matters is “the Setting of Play” — where the PCs are, where the game is set.

The “Setting” involves all the things that happen “back that way,” toward the remote, centralized government the Player Characters came from.

The “Setting of Play” is the focus of the campaign, especially at the start of play. The Setting of Play might expand. But no matter what remains focused on the locals the Player Characters might adventure in.

An example:

Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a whole world, with many peoples and many lands. That is “The Setting.”

But in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we see only see a portion of that world. That portion that we see is “The Setting of Play.”

So yes, the Third Imperium extends in all directions from the Regina system. But where we will be playing, are those fourteen worlds. That is our setting of play.

We might well move beyond those fourteen worlds. But with those fourteen worlds we can get going with the game. We will have weeks (if not months) within those closer of worlds. We’ll get our sea legs for the game. We’ll come to understand what the Players want to pursue, which in turn will let the Referee set out opportunities and obstacles in alignment with those interests.

And how do we help stay focused on those fourteen worlds at the start of the campaign?

PATRONS AND RUMORS
The original Traveller rules contain rules for Patrons. As the rules state “When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success.”

Patrons also focus the attention of the Players on star systems that you want them focused on. That is, when a Patron approaches the Player Characters with a job, that job will be on one of the worlds in the zoomed in section of space you have decided to start in. In our example, the first dozen or so Patrons will have work on Regina or the thirteen nearby system.

Remember, this isn’t railroading the Players. The Players can always refuse a job. It’s simply that because the Player Characters are starting on Regina, most of the jobs they find on Regina or the surrounding worlds will involve Regina and the surrounding system. After all, most people on Regina or the surrounding systems will have concerns on these worlds. (Remember: most people apart from Travellers don’t travel between worlds that often. The things a Patron cares about (a loved one, a business venture, an enemy, a political complication and so on) will usually be on the same world he or she is standing on, or a few systems away at most.)

Second, we have the option of Rumor Tables.

Here is a Rumor Table from The Traveller Book.

The idea is that each Letter corresponds to a specific Rumor you have established for specific worlds, or for a general cluster of stars, or the subsector you are starting in.

I give each character starting play one randomly rolled rumor. And if the party spends a week on a planet trying to find rumors, another (single) roll is made.

Rumors feed the Players things you are already interested in (the Rumors, of course, lead to situations, NPCs, and places you already care about and what the PCs to encounter). But more importantly they give the Players focus and choice (just like Patrons).

Here is the big thing about Rumors:

A large sandbox like Traveller can be overwhelming–even if we are focusing on only fourteen worlds at the beginning.

When the Players are told in the first minutes of play “You have arrived on Regina…” they have no clear direction and not enough information at the start to make any valid choices.

By giving the Players a selection of Rumors about the planets and systems off the bat, you are offering them a selection of items to prioritize and pursue as they wish. You are winnowing down the massive amount of possible pursuits (that they don’t even know about yet!) into something they can mull and manage.

Moreover, your Rumors can create mystery and agendas. If the Rumors don’t just provide facts, but tantalize with being somewhat incomplete, it can lure the Players toward those things because they want to know more.

All of this is great stuff as it tells you what (off the list you created) they are most interested in, and thus what you should begin prepping as a priority. In other words, from the list you offer, what do they care about? What do they want to pursue? What intrigues them?

Instead of you trying to jam them into one scenario or another, or having NPCs rushing upon to them with missions, the PCs are now in the driver’s seat. There’s no railroading, just opportunities. (The Players are free to blow off the Rumors as they wish!)

Here’s an example of the rumor table I used to kick of the fantasy game I’m running. Not only did it establish lots of mysteries and intrigue for the Players to pursue, it also did a lot to establish the kind of setting we’re playing in.

Rumors will inform the PCs/Players as to what the political situation is, who the players are, what the mysteries that people talk about on their down time. The Rumor Table is the buzz of “what everyone is talking about” and so can establish the setting without a huge info dump on the Players.

  • Remember that the mechanics and implied setting details are your friend. They limit the mobility of the PCs at the start of play.
  • Feel free to focus in on one patch of geography of a cluster of worlds rather than thinking you are responsible for mastering all sort of information scattered across countless books written over forty years.
  • Focus on what you need to play: The people, places, organization, creatures, environments that you can’t wait to share with your players that the PCs can interact with.
  • Make it yours. The early materials of Classic Traveller were there for you to have a good time with as you made them your own. You own nothing to the setting. The setting material is there for you.
  • Use Patrons and Rumors to impart information to the Players about the setting without depending on huge info dumps, as well to as to keep the Players and adventures focused on this patch of space you are ready to play in.
  • Finally, remember a patch of interstellar space seven parsecs across and containing fourteen star system isNOT SMALL.
    Fourteen worlds is fourteen entire worlds, full of society, economics, politics, opportunity and obstacles. And then there might also be mysteries and adventures on other worlds beside the Main Worlds.
    Ultimately, this is a matter of perspective. If you look at a map of the Third Imperium, then fourteen worlds will look small. But if you look at the that map showing Regina the stars clustered around it and really imagine the gulfs of space between those systems and imagine each world as its own stunning spot for adventure, then those fourteen worlds take on a huge significance.
    Found as they are at the edges of the Imperium, they are beyond the reaches of civilization proper. They are, by definition, places of mystery, intrigue, and adventure, with parts not yet expired, societies not yet stabilized, and opportunities still waiting.

* Stars Without Numbers is a sandbox SF game set among the stars and very much like Traveller. The book has really solid Refereeing advice for running sandbox style games. The link above leads to a free PDF version of the game.