Classic RPG Review #2: Traveller

Starter Edition and Booklets 4 (Mercenary) and 5 (High Guard)
by Marc W. Miller
1983 Game Designers' Workshop

For a long time, Traveller was the only science fiction role playing game worth knowing about. There were many others of course, including a D&D spin off, but there was no serious contender. What D&D was for fantasy, Traveller was for Science Fiction.

Strangely enough the game does not really allow you to play a typical Star Wars or Star Trek campaign. The rules allow for Phaser and Blaster-like weapons, but these are typically much more high tech than what the players have. And Traveller is somewhat darker, more corporate, militaristic and less friendly than these two blockbuster phenomenae. You can however style your Traveller campaign more easily to Blake's Seven, Alien, or the more recent Firefly series.

Like the original set, the starter set is boxed with booklets in stylish black covers. There is little artwork inside, and it's all black and white, but it's still nice to look at. One book contains the rules, the other contains all sorts of tables needed in the game. It's not as bad as the math supplement needed in college, but it comes close. And it has the same almost magical appeal for others, like me. These tables uncover new worlds, literally in this case.

Because much of the Traveller game is generating stuff, by rolling dice. You generate heroes, generate their histories and careers, generate worlds, generate encounter tables, and later the encounters themselves and you generate or rather design starships and vehicles. As you roll the dice subsectors of the unknown universe grow under your hands.
It's not the same as role playing, but I loved it. I even wrote computer routines to handle the tables and dice for me. Whole new universes rolled out of my printer. I just had to interpret the codes.

At the same time I longed for playing or mastering a Traveller campaign. And that is where the game falls short. It does not provide a strong adventuring concept. You can run lots of small military style missions, commissioned by so called “patrons”, but there is no true backdrop to your stories. The starter set does not mention a Dark Empire that threatens Freedom and Democracy. Nor does it sport a clearly corrupt Federation for whom the heroes have to hide and flee. There are not even any dungeons to rid of their monsters and treasure.

Consequently I played very few Traveller games. Shame.

Subsequent Traveller editions did have more inspiring backdrops, and supplements and adventures published in White Dwarf magazine tried to remedy the gap. One very nice concept in these was the computer virus which made ship's computers sentient, and hostile to their crew and passengers. Nasty. But it didn't really help me or my friends. Most preferred fantasy after all, or missed the magic, or they wanted something more like Star Wars or Star Trek – and never both.

Still, Traveller holds a favorite place on my bookshelves. The rules are simple, fairly realistic in that they make you avoid combat, and balance seems to be little of a problem as the heroes hardly change over a series of adventures. New skills are seldom learned, and old ones seldom become better. No growth like that in this game, sorry! Instead most fun in Traveller is before the playing. Its career and world generation tables are first class: a solitary game in themselves.

(rules are elegant, and fairly flexible and realistic. They do lack some detail however and have little room for growth during the game)
(although the career and world generating systems are very inspiring, the rest of the background is scetchy and it needs effort to mold into a campaign)
(although the rules are fairly clear, a great burden is laid in the hands of the game master to make the game work)
(hard core, slightly militaristic science fiction in the traditions of Niven and Heinlein, mostly human centred, skill based but virtually limited to military careers, almost no progression possible, 2d6 based combat and tasks with die modifiers based on skills and abilities, some limited psionic talents may be acquired by the heroes – such as telepathy and clairvoyance)


1 comment:

  1. Brings back good memories of plasma cannon discharges blowing back in the gunner's face. Literally: plasma has nearly no weight. Traveller is a mean enough game that it reminds you of such stuff.
    Quite fun in a 1980s kind of way but for me the appeal of such "quasi-hard SF" has faded.