[Traveller] At Origins, We Hippie-Gamed It Up

edited July 2008 in Actual Play
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.


  • That's interesting. I'm doing something similar - trying to recapture the fun bits of a Traveller in a simpler form - except I've written it as a game, called Bleakworlds.

    I do recommend using Fudge dice for your ad hoc trading mechanics. When you get to a new world, roll a handful of Fudge dice. Add them to the last price you had for a particular thing, and you've got the new price for that thing on the new world.

  • Bill,

    This is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking as I perused the little black box I picked up last year on ebay.

    Thanks for sharing. I'm bummed I won't be there at Dexcon to play along.
  • Judd, your thread along with a few others that have passed by on Story-Games were instrumental in turning my attention at least back to Traveller. For those of you scoring at home:

    Something about classic Traveller that's been haunting me lately...
    Classic Traveller Play-by-Post
    Awesomize Black Box Traveller
    Traveller Boxed Set circa 1981

    I'm sorry you won't be at Dexcon! That's too bad!

    Graham, I'd like to see Bleakworlds at some point. The "Traveller Done Right" impulse is a strong one; I think it's a phenomenon that parallels the much-discussed fantasy heartbreaker. I picked up two games at Origins that were arguably TDR games: one called Third Millenium, and another called Hardnova. I haven't really looked through them yet, but Third Millenium at least seems to be very self-consciously emulating Traveller in many respects: world generation is Travelleresque, but the die rolls are completely independent (preceding rolls don't modify their successors), which makes on-the-fly world creation easier (not that they suggest any such thing) and the "meta-setting" of the Thousand Suns is customizable depending upon the players' vision of what a galactic empire (or federation!) should look like. There is some technological updating, but the bones are Traveller.
  • I really like your idea - it sort of dovetails with the playstorming discussion.

    Traveller, as lonely fun, is first rate. I spent an entire international flight just making up characters one time. If it was any other game I'd be ashamed to say that, but for some reason it was an engaging pastime with Traveller. I made some cool dudes and a lot of interesting losers. Their world grew in my mind as I churned them out.
  • Jason -- Yes, exactly. The issue of turning lonely fun into collaborative play is central. But how to preserve that sense of making it up fresh each time while simultaneously establishing things in play that matter, from the level of character action all the way up to setting features and out to the social level of the people at the table contributing to the game. I think the answer lies somewhere in preserving the artifacts of play, but I'm unable to articulate it more distinctly than that. And with that, I'm off to Dexcon!
  • ...and I'm here. I didn't mean to close off the discussion. What I'm trying to say is that I want to move toward a model of collaborative play where the game is a game like cats' cradle rather than like chess: here is the structure within which we build something together, a performance that's satisfying in and of itself as well as in what it produces. I imagine that good improv probably feels like that.
  • Hi Bill,

    Isn't this simulationism as well? Mike's got his Traveller dream, and you've got your Traveller dream? I know your in the throws of making it all, but the payoff is largely in the integrity of what is made - Mike refered to the cannon as his integrity, and even in your short time, I doubt anyone contradicted or didn't get the agreements that had been made about the universe. Would you argue the fun is in making it, rather than integrity? I'd ask whether making it would seem fun or have any pay off at all if people deliberately forgot or deliberately contradicted it half a second after it was said/made. Prolly not.
  • I once knew a math major who decided that Traveller was an amazing game because, theoretically, you could play out an entire adventure completely randomly.

    All you'd have to do is turn a few of the, say, patron lists and reaction lists into charts.
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