ON THE TABLE: Straight Up Proto-Traveller

Tuesday , 20, June 2017 6 Comments

The question of just what sort of game Classic Traveller really was at the beginning is among the greatest mysteries of gaming. Mind you, that’d be Traveller without the Third Imperium. Without the big ships of High Guard or the grav tank design sequences of Striker. Traveller without “advanced” character generation. Without the Spinward Marches. Without the Droyne, the Zhodani, the Aslan, or the Solomani. Without the sector sized campaign maps produced by GDW and Judges Guild.

What happens when you go back to just those three original little black books…? This:

Sir Percival Jones
54576B Scout (3 Terms) Pilot-1, J-o-T-1, ATV-1, Vacc Suit-1, Electronics-3. Primitive “Alien” Paddle Sword, Scout ship “Nellie Gray”. No credits.

The emergence of this character broke pretty much whatever was happening before his entry into the game. When I’d got done rolling the dice, some sort of merchant campaign was brewing featuring a Marquis and a tramp freighter. But then I hustled a psionically “gifted” child and his mom off of a world descending into chaos. Thanks to the jump-2 rating of my scout ship combined with the absence of the merchant captain the next session, and suddenly my character is arbitrarily the center of the action. Comments on the after action report had the merchant captain wanting to roll up a new character that could take passage on Percival Jones’s ship!

A word on that. Why would you want to have such tremendous campaign-level decisions made for you by the dice? Well look, I’ve run dozens of games with complete strangers at conventions. There are always people with very big personalities at the table. And there are just as often always extremely quiet people, too. Leave everything to consensus and the quiet people will sit back and do very little besides the equivalent of rolling for to-hit and damage when their initiative number comes up.

Allowing character generation that’s this random means you don’t even have to spend hours hashing out what kind of campaign you’re going to have. And it gives you things you’d never imagine you wanted. I’ve heard a lot of people argue that Classic Traveller gives you a lot of incoherent garbage that you have to figure out how to explain away. On the contrary, the strangeness is precisely the thing that makes these characters and situations come alive. (After all… how often do you say in the real world that “you can’t make this stuff up?!”)

So I’ve blown into this star system that nobody’s ever played in before. I’ve got this kid on board that started screaming as soon as we hit jump space. We left the one world in hurry because of a coup. And the place we’re at now…? It’s got a naval base and there are scads of ships shooting it out in orbit. Kid sees the naval battle and starts screaming again, clearly with some kind of rapport with the dead and dying.

As far as the big subsector map is concerned, I have no idea where I am. I know nothing about this universe beyond what the typical travelling character is like and what the starships tend to do. I consider going to the gas giant, skimming fuel and then jumping somewhere else. I ask the referee about all the nearby worlds and they all sound equally bad.

Then I have an epiphany. It’s risky to try to land on this world in a firefight. Great risk means the potential for greater reward. And that’s what Traveller characters are all about. I set course for the starport and walk right into some stray laser shots. My hull is penetrated and the ATV we spent so much time arguing about last session was totaled. All my dreams of adventure with that thing vanished with the single roll of a die. Doh!

Starport Authority tries to wave me off but I tell ’em I’ve been hit and I have to land. They buy it. I’m down 30,000 credits due to the ATV so I’m looking for people that are desperate to get out of an increasingly chaotic situation. I meet a scuzzie character that promises to hook me up with three tons of illicit space drugs, but whoever he called didn’t pick up. Then there was this unassuming old guy looking to transport an air/raft to a Corporate world one jump away. He was willing to pay big. (I think the scuzzie guy introduced him to me, so I was good to go after filling my holds with spices.)

Leaving the planet, I was a little savvier. I successfully plotted a course away from the worst of the hairball. On the way to the gas giant we witnessed the end of the hostilities and got a request to return to the planet and report for psionics testing. The scuzzie character ends up persuading the kid to draw what he’d been seeing in his mind’s eye during the battle. It’s the spaceships fighting… surrounded by a circle of alien demons in a different dimension… with them surrounded by an even more monstrous creature in jump space threatening to eat them all.

Should I hang around a day or two to rendezvous with my old merchant captain “friend”? Not this time. We blow into the corporate world and the old guy unloads his air/raft… and then proceeds to earn more in gambling in I could pull risking my neck doing jumps to two different worlds. I try not to be too bitter as I sell my spices and set up the next deal. The old guy did pull some strings to get The Company to patch up my hull for me, but still….

I end the session with 83,100 credits in my pocket. Current money on the table: 80,000 from “company man” for trade information about the nearby UNKNOWN WORLD. 37,500 from dame once I drop her off at a reasonably safe place.

I have no idea what will happen next session. The focus of the gameplay will depend entirely on who shows up and what their characters are interested in. It strikes me that we do not now and will never have anything remotely resembling a bridge crew or even an ensemble along the lines of what you see in Firefly. I have the unheard of opportunity to “explore strange new worlds”, something that you simply cannot do in the Official Traveller Universe setting. Finally, the most significant rules question we’ve had so far is whether an air/raft should cost 600,000 credits or 6,000,000 credits.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the original game is focused on a really shallow space setting where the worlds are only fleshed out to the point where you could have an “adventure of the week” hosted at each stop. But we’re not playing anything remotely like what’s in the old Amber Zone articles or Double Adventure booklets right now. Meeting player characters, travelling, trading, exploring, and finding patrons takes up all of our game session time and a stereotypical adventure scenario would almost seem out of place with what we’re doing.

If you haven’t tried this sort of campaign, you really ought to give it a go. Especially if you get burned out planning for what you think a Traveller campaign ought to be!

  • Neal Durando says:

    We would be playing _real_ proto-Traveller if we were following along with a story we all knew. But it is so much better Doing Stuff than standing around looking cool.

  • Chris mata says:

    Great post. I listened in and caught all but the tail end if it. Can’t wait for next time.

  • Christopher says:

    I think there’s such a thing as “over developing” a setting – maybe this is more of a threat with licensed IPs, but for example, when you’re playing characters who are essentially background noise for a bigger story, a’la Star Wars, Star Trek or Robotech in the old Palladium days, I always thought that sucked a lot of fun out of the entire experience. 40K suffers from this too.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    For those who thought my comments on the previous TRAVELLER thread were too negative, let me say…

    THIS!!! YEAH, BABY!!!

    This is what I was always looking for (and, very occasionally, got) in TRAVELLER campaigns back in the 80’s. Not the deadly fog of despair closing in and pushing you toward foolish decisions–a wild and woolly riot disguised as an “opening situation,” where the proper response alternates between “WTF???”, “I got this!”, and (occasionally) “Okay, let’s think about this for a second.”

    Mine were usually tamer, but the attitude was the same. And I never saw a merchant with a forty-year mortgage who had it.

  • I remember the original 3 book box set fondly. I would occasionally DM D&D or AD&D, but amongst my group of friends I was the Traveller ref. I used to read The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society and used many Amber Zones as the starting point of an adventure.

    The players got the room to breathe and act and do what they thought was right. Many times I had to work on the fly to keep things moving when they threw me a curve.

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