For a while now, my brother Mel and I have been itching to play a space adventure game, old-school sci-fi -- a universe like Asimov’s Foundation, Niven’s Known Space, or particularly Vance’s Gaean Reach. You know: we’ve been wanting to play Traveller.
Now, the last time my brother and I played Traveller was back in 1981 or so: we were in high school, and the adventure involved our characters (Air Marshal Fred and Borq the Barbarian) in an escapade aboard a starship that wound up with us driving a grav-tank through the bulkheads of a starship and out an airlock, or something: exactly what you might expect from teenagers let loose upon the universe without adult supervision.
So, at Origins, after an unsatisfying encounter with Star Hero, we decided to just sit down and play Traveller. We found a table in a public place (hoping to rope in some like-minded folks to play with us) and started by generating a few star systems using the Traveller rules. We rolled the dice and checked the tables and set up a four-by-four parsec grid containing about a dozen planets and their starports. The way Traveller works, your dice rolls in succession (somewhat modified by prior rolls) determine your starport type, world size, atmosphere, hydrographic percentage, population size, government type, “law level,” and level of technology. Then you have to look at the numbers and figure out what they mean--why does this barren rock have a population in the billions? Why does this world have a “captive government”?
What I enjoyed about the process was how collaborative it was. Answering those sorts of questions is part and parcel of old-style Traveller play--but it was always “lonely fun” for the (would-be) referee. When Mike Holmes joined us the next night, I tried to say what a blast it was to brainstorm a sub-sector in that way, but he didn’t seem to get it. He noted that there are computer programs that will map out whole sectors with the push of a button, and files and files of “canonical” library data for the 11,000 worlds of the Imperium. For Mike, the satisfaction of knowing the canon, or maybe just its very existence (the simmy Dream) made it difficult if not impossible to just let go and have an undefined Imperium emerging in play.
For me though, it was better and more fun to “hand-craft” a half-dozen worlds together and agree that oh yes here are aliens and here is a mining outpost and here bitter revanchists of a civil war between this homeworld and its colonies. Fealty to the accreted sediment of 30+ years of “canon” was less fun than just figuring it out for ourselves at the table.
Mel rolled a character whom he decided was a former intelligence operative and spent a few turns gambling at the starport casino to increase his modest savings. His character Zoltan Hagee was on an alien world that had recently reconquered a breakaway colony in a civil war that some suspected had been fomented by the Imperium. I had him encounter an old friend from his service days who introduced him to an alien “scholar-politician” whose detailed account of the war had been stolen by a rival, possibly with an end to stirring up trouble on the reconquered colony by its more general release (kind of like the Pentagon Papers for bug-eyed monsters). It became a nice noirish cat-and-mouse game as Zoltan shadowed the scholar-politician off-world, came up with a plan to steal the manuscript back, and made the exchange with his old friend, whom Zoltan began to suspect was not as “retired” from intelligence service as he pretended.
Now, we didn’t need a lot of rules to run that adventure, and while Zoltan took a trip aboard a starship, he didn’t own one--even though owning your own starship is supposed to be the big ticket to adventure in Traveller and games like it. The next night, after Mike and another fellow named Cary sat down to play, the PCs in fact bought a ship (with the money they’d made from an orbital heist involving a disabled merchant ship and a cargo of lanthanum). And that was actually less fun, since we dove down into the trade & commerce rules -- how many lots of cargo, worth how much, and so forth. I’d argue the loss of fun value came from how it divorced the die rolls we were making from the actions of characters.
We spent a lot of time loading cargo. Interestingly, as the referee I was largely uninvolved in that process; it was the players checking the tables in the book, the subsector map, and the stats for their ship and figuring out what would work. But only two of the players dug that stuff; Cary I think was left out of the fun.
Were I to play it again, I’d make up simpler trade rules on the fly, tie them to character action (“This is what you find when you try to drum up some cargo”), and get into space faster. Of course, that raises the question, “If you’re making up your own rules, at what point are you no longer playing Traveller?” But I think it’s all Traveller: when you look at the published adventures, you see a lot of ad hoc rules created to systematize the situation inherent in the current scenario.
So Mel and I are going to play some more Traveller at Dexcon this week, with the same parameters: collaborative world-building no canon, ad hoc mechanics. If you see us playing, sit down and roll up a character.