Games That Made Me Cry: GURPS Traveller

Monday , 30, November 2015 4 Comments

This is the game that got me back into gaming. I mean just look at it… that sleek, understated cover. There’s a space combat game in the back. Its loaded with pictures of aliens and starships. The possibilities are endless… and combined with the imposingly long history of this gaming franchise you have a game here that will turn the head of just about any geek worth his salt.

But there’s a catch, here. Actually… there are a good half dozen catches. Let’s start with the biggest one from the back cover:

GURPS Basic Set, Compendium I: Character Creation, and GURPS Space are required to use this book in a GURPS campaign. Ultra-Tech and Ultra-Tech 2 will be useful.

You know, there are a great many light years between this and the phrase “Requires only the Basic Traveller.” Truly, it is a path of tears. And I get that this was a different time. And I understand that GURPS players want what GURPS players want. And I can see that every single decision made with this book makes perfect sense given the context. But the pain…. Oh, the pain!

Now, I wasn’t coming into this game universe cold. For a long time I’d had several Double Adventures in the iconic “little black book” format. I really wanted the game that was behind those books. And Steve Jackson was my hero. I couldn’t think of any reason why a game with his name on it couldn’t light up my life. But I had no idea the extent to which the Traveller universe had sprawled over the years. I had no concept of rpg fans’ gluttony for detail. And I had no concept of how far beyond early eighties style microgaming Steve Jackson Games had grown or how incompatible the “new” GURPS was from the scruffy second edition that had so enamored me when I was a teenager.

If I could go back in time, I’d take a copy of GDW’s Fire Fusion & Steel and show it to me. I’d say, “look, man… this new Traveller game doesn’t concern you. It’s just an answer to this. You see this? It shouldn’t even exist. Nobody plays this stuff. And yet… the people making games think this is what they have to address just to compete. You don’t have a clue, but there has been too much of this sort of thing in the nineties. Too much unplayable garbage. But I have an honorable compromise. Just walk away.” I wouldn’t have listened to myself. I mean I figured if I could handle Car Wars and Star Fleet Battles and BattleTech, that I could handle anything. Boy, was I wrong. I just had no idea…!

I wouldn’t have believed that the space combat system would take hours of my time just to slog through three quarters of the sequence of play. That outfitting a simple Sulieman-class scout for play would take me hours of digging through extraneous detail. I had no idea which of the character types were central the Traveller ethos and which ones were the oddballs. I also had no idea how to handle it when players naturally gravitated toward the weird character types.

It’s that picture of the Regina subsector map that gets me here. Yeah, this is an edition of Traveller that doesn’t equip the referee to create things like that. The throwaway rules for running space trading gigs here are utterly laughable given the completely autistic levels of detail everywhere else. The irony is that the systems in GURPS First In and GURPS Far Trader that referees are pointed are far too complicated for anything remotely like casual role-playing. Referees looking for answers to problems with the space combat system will only find in GURPS Starships more ways to build more units that they don’t get any play out of.

The same thing played out with the various aliens. I don’t know why, but I felt like I had to understand them all right up front. I was irritated that I didn’t have the GURPS stats necessary to play them and quickly placed orders for the GURPS Alien Races books. In reality, the number of advantages and disadvantages needed to run these things in the fashion that was normal for GURPS players at that time was just too danged much for me to wrap my head around. And it also turned out that the really odd races that I was most smitten with weren’t actually part of Traveller canon– they’d gotten pulled in from Space Master of all places…!

This was a game line that just couldn’t win with me. If it innovated, I was outraged. If it gave me the exact same stuff that was in the classic Traveller books, I wouldn’t believe it. Then when I got enough of the old books to know what was what, I’d be disappointed to find out that the GURPS authors hadn’t innovated!

What I did not grasp was just how little it took to run a Traveller game. I didn’t understand how my own impulses were my own worst enemy, either. There was absolutely no guidance in the GURPS line… and that actually was a competitive advantage for them. Of course, the guys at Judges Guild could take the relatively primitive classic Traveller rules and just a handful of the same library data that is repeated in GURPS Traveller… they could take that, and spin up an entire sector’s worth of adventure like it was nothing. What’s more impressive is that they could do that without the benefit of the old Alien Modules. On the other hand… the fact that they didn’t have to keep up with all the data that was in those booklets was a big part of why they could make their game supplements so effortlessly in the first place!

You know, I don’t know what the answer is to how to best produce a space rpg. Not in the late nineties of the last century and not now, either. I just know what works for me. The first space game to really get off the ground at my table was GURPS Prime Directive. I knew how the space combat in that universe worked, what motivated it, how it tended to play out, and how to handwave the irrelevant parts without losing the overall sense of it. All of the rules were in one book… but also the entire GURPS line was available to me as a reference if I needed it. (High Tech and Martial Arts are well worth the price of entry if you ask me.) And finally, the setting included off the wall planets like the gangster world from “A Piece of the Action”… and going by “Who Mourns for Adonis?”, even the real deal Apollo from Greek mythology could show up if need be. The po-faced nudniks of tabletop rpgs would scoff at that lack of “realism”, but the reality was… it freed me up to take complete control of my game universe and run whatever made the most sense to me.

There’s something about the vast quantity of material for a novice referee like I was that just gets in the way of getting a game going. I know it was my problem and not necessarily the game designers’, but that sense of being responsible for correctly portraying both the rules and the universe at the table with the third edition GURPS line…? I just wasn’t up for it. I don’t mind that there are a variety of approaches out there to rpg design… but it does sort of get to me that a lot of designers seem to be clueless about all of this. I suspect that it is the nature of the beast that rpgs require a certain amount of initiation for people to really get up to speed for them. At the same time, the market doesn’t really reward people that want to tackle that sort of thing head on because the people buying this stuff either already know what they are doing better than the designer or else they’re content just to read the books and look at the pictures. But what can you do?!

4 Comments
  • tweell says:

    So Steve Jackson got Traveller and made it a Space Master rpg for a while? It looks like Mongoose has an edition out as well. Interesting. Classic Traveller was a fun game, although I killed more characters rolling them up than actually playing them.

    I’m not a fan of Space Master, the friends that ran it found it necessary to utilize a large number of house rules in order to make it usable. My guilty favorite sf rpg is Space Opera. Like D&D, it steals from many books and movies, and went for awesome and playability over logic. Whee!

  • Amadan says:

    I still have my complete Space Opera boxed set plus all the supplements! That game was awesome. The rules were kind of a mess, but the setting was awesome. (They had two, actually – one was a standard “Federation with the serial numbers field off”, and the other featured a Roman Catholic Imperium as the default “good guys” from Earth.)

  • Amadan says:

    …”filed off.” Argh.

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