What Really Happens in a Traveller Game

Tuesday , 29, August 2017 14 Comments

Classic Traveller’s original three “little black books” are not broken. They are not incomplete, either. They have everything you need to experience countless hours of science fiction themed gaming.

And here’s the thing: a lot stuff that has been tacked onto the game actually gets in the way actual play. It’s tragic. Not that the later stuff wasn’t neat. Like whoever came up with the idea to add another code to the world-profile to make it easy to gauge world populations with another level of resolution. That’s kind of cool, right? And like… it’s even cooler when somebody points out that the resulting population numbers are wrong because they don’t follow the same logarithmic scaling that real distributions would follow…? How awesome is that?!

Well let me tell you: it’s not awesome at all. It has nothing to do with what referees and players actually need to run a real game. 

If you’re prepping to run a campaign without ever having refereed one before, it’s liable to be absolutely terrifying. Which canonical campaign area should you use? Which alien modules will be in play? What if one player wants to play a bureaucrat and another wants to play a rock star and another wants to play a space pirate? How are you going to get the stellar generation rules in GURPS Space Fourth Edition consistent with the latest findings in astronomy? What will the players say when they notice that your distribution of stellar classifications is wrong?

All that stuff? It’s stupid. I mean seriously, it’s turned “not playing Traveller” into an art form. That’s arguably harmless in and of itself, but seriously– it gets in the way of people buying a space game from getting play out of the products they laid down hard earned money for.

The truth is, the best introduction for a player into the Traveller universe is rolling up one of the original characters types: Navy, Army, Marine, Scout, Merchant, and Other. These are not just adventure-ready character types that fit nicely with everything else in the game. The stories of their careers imply a whole universe that absolutely doesn’t need a whole lot of trivia and data to make it seem real.

How much space do they need in order to have a meaningful campaign…? One subsector is all it takes. And if it’s set in a homebrew universe rather than one cobbled together from piles of “official” sourcebooks, then all of the finer points can be interpolated from the referees favorite science fiction stories. The best authors in science fiction history are way better at making this stuff than the people putting rpg supplements together.

What actually happens in real Traveller games?

  1. The players discuss everything that’s happened so far in the game.
  2. They talk about all the bad things that they’ve come across and how best they can do what they want without gratuitously falling afoul of them.
  3. They talk about all the opportunities they have to make some coin… and how to balance these rewards with the risks they take.
  4. They pick their next stop based on this discussion… which has more to do with everything that’s happened in the campaign than anything to do with the raw census data of the world codes.
  5. Then they work the starship economics rules to pick up passengers and cargoes.
  6. And when they arrive, they look for rumors and potential patrons.

Theoretically you could do this more than once in a session, but that’s not typical. If a patron encounter develops into something closer to a full fledged adventure, that’s going to take a session or two to play out by itself.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of preparation to make this sort of thing work.

Or rather, it takes a very different type of preparation than what the vast majority of Traveller supplements provide.

If you’ve struggled to get the Traveller campaign of your dreams off the ground, then you really should look at ditching the dead weight of all those ponderous rules and add-ons. The original game is way more complete than it’s given credit for. And the imaginations of the referee and the players are far better at filling in the blank spots than you might expect!

For more on this topic, check out the Classic Traveller discussion group!

  • Jack Amok says:

    +1 as the kids say today. Or said last year anyway.

    I always found rolling up a subsector and then trying to explain the results to myself a great exercise in directed creativity. You can always tweak a parameter here or there to pull it all together, but leaving some randomness in there is a good guard against formulaic stuff.

    • Jeffro says:

      Same thing with those patron encounters. Even in my D&D games, I’ll whip up a table of outcomes on the fly and roll to see what happens just so that the old man in the bar and the damsel in distress aren’t always run exactly the same way. This allows you to play things that are both more normal and more off the wall and more evil/insane than what depending on your creativity and justice as a referee would create.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    “all of the finer points can be interpolated from the referees favorite science fiction stories. The best authors in science fiction history are way better at making this stuff than the people putting rpg supplements together.”

    Bingo. Those three books, you and your players’ imagination and the SF that you’ve read are all you need.

    The add-ons always seemed to lead to more talk and less action.

  • Cambias says:

    I’m going to come out in defense of the Traveller supplements: some gamemasters aren’t good at coming up with something on the fly — and even back in the 1980s there were plenty of Traveller players who didn’t have a good grounding in the SF canon. (When you’re 13 years old you don’t really have a good grounding in anything.)

    Now I happen to agree that locking the game into the Imperium setting weakened it, especially by shutting down any exploration-based scenarios. But one must admit: people bought it all and clamored for more. The Traveller setting has survived multiple changes of game systems; for better or worse, the Imperium, the Zhodani, the Spinward Marches — those _are_ Traveller to the fans.

    • Jeffro says:

      If you’re in the book selling business, then those fans are all that counts.

      If you want to talk about game design and role-playing games, then only the ones with session reports matter.

      At any rate, someone that can’t learn how to make something up on the fly needs to be playing board games instead of trying to run an rpg.

  • Aaron B. says:

    Similarly, I have the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which includes everything you need to run a D&D campaign and then some, all the stuff from the BECM box sets in 300 pages. Some friends who are complete D&D newbs are interested in trying it, so we’ve been trying to arrange time for a game.

    Yesterday a couple of them came by with their dad’s old D&D stuff: a stack a foot high of AD&D 2nd edition books and modules, including a Monstrous Compendium a couple inches thick, and that’s just Volume One! They asked if that would help. Uh, no, it would mean I’d need to spend a few weeks just absorbing it all, and then I’d have even more stuff in my head to try to keep track of.

  • Rick Stump says:

    My traveller games:
    – The LBBs plus High Guard (because I like High Guard)
    – The expanded character generation rules that I cribbed from a guy in the Traveller G+ community about 16 years ago
    -My own setting
    I almost never use intelligent aliens

    • Jack Amok says:

      Years ago I wrote a C++ program called chance2.exe. Stood for 2nd chance. It would roll High Guard characters (I added Mercenary later) until they failed a survival roll, then back up and assume they’d mustered out at their last opportunity – gave them their “second chance” at life.

      Produced a great set of NPCs. Wish I’d kept the list.

  • Frank Filz says:

    I’m totally there. Now sure, since I have them, I might use an adventure or two. I’ve also been using Supplement 6 Patrons. And I do allow the Supplement 4 Citizens careers, though I agree, the original six are loaded for good play. Between characters I’ve rolled and players have rolled, there are 4 or 5 Supplement 4 characters and 20+ Book 1 characters (course the online Classic Traveller Character Generator helps skew that – it doesn’t do Supplement 4 – yet).

    I can see whipping out Supplement 1 – 1001 Characters or Supplement 2 – Animal Encounters in a pinch (thought the online chargen substitutes for 1001 Characters quite nicely).

    • Brian Renninger says:

      I have been using the three LBBs. But, I do have my eye on number 4: Mercenaries. Plus, there are a number of support books that are handy: patrons, animals, and isn’t there an atmosphere book. But, at some point additional skills and classes don’t add much and can detract. Similarly, getting into detailed star and planet calculations also can slow things down — though that sort of stuff should really be done by the referee ahead of time. Thing is most of it isn’t necessary in itself and not be that relevant in play. But, could be fun as essentially referee solo games (to the right person).

      • Frank Filz says:

        Yea, additional skills are an issue. My solution to that was to re-write the skill tables for CotI and only add Liaison (with a different writeup to eliminate the use as Admin and Streetwise), Prospecting, Hunting, and Bow Combat. And again, I really don’t encourage the use of the CotI careers, but they are there for someone who does want something different.

        Book 4 – ah, I think there’s a lot too much that it adds. Advanced chargen creates really different characters. Not only do they get more skills, and new skills, but certain skills that were hard to get in one career or another are now available, and that changes things up. Then there’s all the new weapons. I would reference Book 4 if I needed a more military weapon, but I essentially enforce Book 1 weapons for PCs.

        The Atmospheres Special Supplement is useful, though I haven’t looked at it in too much detail. And yea, Book 6 system generation just gets too much.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    I always thought they should do supplements for other backgrounds altogether.

    With respect, the quasi-Dumarest setting sucked. So did the economic system. And most people who just bought the books and started trying to play never realized the rules could be divorced from the setting. A few alternatives might have changed the whole tone of the game.

  • Traveller books are fun to read. I haven’t run a campaign by the rules since…ever…but Traveller definitely inspired my epic space game, still the most popular thing I’ve run — and there’s lots of competition for that title!

    (takes off modern hat and goes back to 1962)

  • Convex says:

    Personally i think every supplement and add-on adds something good to the game. You don’t have to use every book in a game. Just gives you more flexibility/options/ideas.

    I have 99% of all the books, proberbly never used 60% of them in a session, but the options there.

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