ON THE TABLE: Encountering Proto-Traveller

Thursday , 8, June 2017 11 Comments

This is a game I’ve wanted to play for a long time: Traveller with just the original three little black books. Decoupled from the ponderous rules and “official” setting material that accrued steadily through subsequent releases and editions.

I rolled up a character while the other players got into a scuffle at a psionics institute. I had the perfect stats for a Navy career and had a 9 for social standing. Just a couple points more and I’d be a knight! I didn’t get a commission until my third term. I got promoted on each of my fourth, fifth, and sixth terms. Good gosh, I actually had a chance to make captain here. Rolling for survival for my seventh term I get snake eyes.


I could tell at this point that the other player characters were a crusty old merchant captain and… a Marquis. What does the party need? That didn’t actually come up. I rolled 2d6 six times in order and waited to see what the Book One prior service tables gave me.

It turned out to be a three term Scout with a trusty type-S:

54576B Scout (3 Terms) Pilot-1, J-o-T-1, ATV-1, Vacc Suit-1, Electronics-3. Primitive/Elaborate “Alien” Blade, Scout ship. No credits.

Now, I’d chosen the Scout service because it was liable to kill this guy with his lousy stats. But three terms is a pretty impressive career with that outfit. Social standing eleven makes him a knight. The blade he picked up on mustering out…? Obviously an exotic and godawful “paddle sword” from some weird alien culture, perhaps a zero-g planet. I have no idea how to wield it.

But the scout ship…? My first character in an honest to goodness old school Traveller game and I get a danged scout ship. Which we didn’t “need”, because the party already had a merchant ship they were hustling to make payments on. Of course, I’m also the guy that’s lectured the internet on why they should bite the bullet and try bumming around the galaxy earning just enough money on lousy backwater worlds to make it to the next one.

At any rate… we has a combination a player characters that no one would ever consciously put together for a campaign. And it didn’t seem to slow down the game in any way at all. Shouldn’t their be some sort of angst involved in figuring out how to make this work? Shouldn’t we be disappointed that we don’t have a cast to rival that of original series Star Trek or Firefly…? Well I didn’t feel it. The game the dice gave us was just fine, really.

The biggest thing I noticed about cutting out the “Official” Traveller Universe was that suddenly I was really dependent on the referee to find what things were really like. Of course, will the classic rules in play, there were all sorts of things that were immediately familiar to begin with. But there were a great many things I couldn’t depend on and I think I requested more information about the background than I would otherwise. I sure didn’t trust anything I thought I knew.

The other thing I notice: I really want to help nudge this particular subsector away from would it would be like were it actually in the “real” Traveller setting. For instance, while outfitting my scout ship I wondered why it was that I’d have an ATV instead of the more typical air/raft. Then I remembered that the air/raft debuted on the cover of an old Dumarest novel. The air/rafts…? They’re tacky and declassé. They’re used by referees, guards, and enforcers in death sports. Also… they’re dangerous. Floating through the air in an open air vehicle makes you easy pickings for airborne fauna. Is it really even practical for the sort of work scouts do…?

In the heat of the game, it’s still movies that serve as the most accessible reservoir of inspiration, however. When port authority was knocking on my cargo bay doors, it was Alien that immediately sprang to mine– the scene where the union workers had steam exploding from the pipes in order to enhance their negotiating power.

But for total immersion in a role-playing game, it’s going to be hard to beat the merchant player. He fretted over every possible cargo, mulled over the best way to get his passenger sections filled out, and daydreamed about enhancements to his ship while also calculating how long he had before he’d have to seriously consider skipping.

I suppose that just like rolling up characters, this side of the game is liable to be viewed as a distraction from the role-playing aspect of the game. It was certainly dropped altogether in the process of adapting the Traveller franchise to GURPS. But these mini-games encapsulate a science fiction universe, and expose the interesting parts of it in a way you can interact with. They convey setting information by way of something resembling actual experiences. And none of it requires anyone to have a deep understanding of physics, economics, or world-building to leverage it.

For a short time, I was in a game that became a merchant captain. I don’t think he was consciously attempting to do some kind of method acting thing– he was absolutely concerned about everything related to his ship. I don’t think this particular aspect of space gaming has gotten a whole lot of attention in the decades since Traveller’s initial release. Most games don’t even try to produce this sort of play, really. But the accessibility and cogency of the original rules are a big reason why they are to this day one of the best science fiction games around.

  • Neal Durando says:

    The story is always right there in the die roll.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    It’s easy to forget how old school rules so often limited the options on getting the character you wanted. They force the players into a place of uncomfortableness. Which is more like life. We don’t always get what we want. But, sometimes we get what we need.

  • I miss sword fighting in vacuumed-out ship corridors.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    I always loathed dungeon crawls. But I muat admit, the old-school “work with what you got” attitude had its moments.

    That said, it’s amazing how many low-stat TRAVELLER characters I saw accidentally cycle an airlock from inside…

  • Salamandyr says:

    I’m less enamored of being a slave to the die roll. Something I noticed while perusing the pre-gens in many of Gary Gygax adventure modules; the characters all have improbably good stats.

    Isle of the Ape for instance includes pregens with multiple 18’s, along with magical items that often boost things even more. Then he includes survival rules to simulate the corrossive effect of prolonged exposure to a tropical rainforest.

    The lesson I got was to give your players everything they want. And then give it to them…good and hard!

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Now I want to play Traveller again.

  • Skyler says:

    I was looking through the original rules before Snapshot and Mercenary came out. You could make them fit any SciFi Space Opera setting. I have to think Joss Whedon turned his Traveller Campaign into FIREFLY.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    This is free trader Beowulf… mayday… mayday…

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