Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future
Copyright 1977, Game Designers' Workshop
Supporting products in the collection:
Traveller wasn't the first science fiction RPG (both Metamorphosis Alpha and Starfaring beat it to copyright), but it remains one of the longest-surviving and best known RPGs of any category. It has been through many incarnations (Traveller, MegaTraveller, Traveller: 2300, Traveller: The New Era, Traveller Fourth Edition, and Marc Miller's Traveller) not counting its highly successful resurrection as GURPS: Traveller. Few of its peers can claim such popularity or longevity. Traveller also beat the odds in another way: it is one of the very few successful RPGs originally produced by a wargaming company. Even The Avalon Hill Game Company, a highly successful wargame company which bought an already popular RPG (RuneQuest), failed in the RPG market.
Curiously, although Traveller is the primary example of science fiction gaming, it is a relatively low-tech, gritty game. It's nothing like Star Trek. Starships don't zoom to the far reaches of the galaxy, characters don't zap bug-eyed monsters with rayguns, there are no subspace messages from Starfleet. Instead, starships cross interstellar distances by "jumping", and the long-distance champions can only cover about 20 light years in a jump. Longer trips require a series of jumps from world to world, with frequent refueling. Energy weapons are rare; most Traveller characters use guns that shoot bullets. Bug-eyed monsters? The original rules have no aliens. Subspace communication? Nothing travels faster than a starship. Interstellar communication is by mail and dispatches.
Why is Traveller the most popular science fiction RPG out there? Because of the well thought out setting. But the first edition followed the same path as Dungeons & Dragons: three books of pure rules, supposedly to work with any science fiction setting. Over time, as GDW released information about the Imperium, Traveller became a more exciting universe to game in.
The Traveller universe has a vast interstellar empire, dominated by humans. Different branches of humanity (or, in Traveller spelling, humaniti) are found on several different worlds. Humans originally from Earth are called Solomani. The Vilani humans (from Vland) originally ruled the Imperium, but the Solomani eventually defeated them in a series of wars (some of which were detailed in GDW's award-winning wargame, Imperium), and took over the Empire. The Imperium is generally at peace, although there are border clashes, most notably with the Zhodani. There are a number of thoughtful, well developed alien races: the leonid Aslan; the warlike vegetarian K'kree; the enigmatic Hivers; the wolfoid Vargr, all nicely detailed.
There are a huge number of webpages devoted to the various incarnations of Traveller. An excellent starting point is the Traveller Downport . Another important site is Far Future Enterprises , a company selling reprints of the original classic books (as well as some other GDW RPGs). Their guide to classic Traveller covers this game and its supplements in great detail. Steve Jackson Games's GURPS edition of Traveller is going strong.
Two games clearly had an influence on Traveller's design. One was D&D, most noticeably in the physical design of the game, with three booklets in a small box. The other was En Garde!: the technique of adventuring by rolling on a series of tables is clearest in Traveller's character generation system, although other aspects of Traveller can also be played by selecting an activity and rolling on tables.
Traveller used a 2d6 system for most rolls (or, as GDW abbreviated it, 2D).
Characters and Combat
The first book introduces the game, describes how to generate characters, and presents the combat system. The introduction is coy about what kind of game Traveller is, offering the possibilities for solitaire play or group play without a referee. As one progresses through the books, it becomes clear that Traveller is a traditional role playing game, although the rules provide enough guidance to make it possible to play without a referee. Such a game would be dry and without much background, much like the random solo dungeon options for D&D.
If there is one feature of Traveller that is memorable nearly twenty five years after it was released, it's the character generation system. Players used 2D to generate strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and social standing, and there was no provision for modifying scores at generation. The rules also expressly forbade players to discard an unwanted character.
After creating the six basic scores, characters went through a skill selection process. Players attempted to join one of six career paths. Three of them were explicitly military: Army, (space) Navy, and Marines. The Scouts and Merchants seem to be nearly as formal as the military, with a bureaucracy and assigned posts. Finally, there was the "other," which could encompass any other career. To join, players had to make a recruiting roll; if they failed, the character was randomly drafted into one of the six services.
Players ran their characters through a series of four-year terms. Each term, the player had to roll for character survival and promotion. Yes, characters could die before they were fully created. After surviving the term, the player got to roll for one or more skills that the character learned this term. Players chose one of four tables to roll on, and the result was the skill the character learned. After completing a term, the player could choose to roll to re-enlist, or quit the service and begin playing. Different services had different probabilities of survival, earning valuable skills, or getting promoted. The scouts were legendary for fatalities (roll a 7 or better each term to survive) and the rules state that players should try to get unwanted characters into the scouts to get them killed.
There were many benefits to staying in service for as long as possible. The only way to gain skills for your character was in the service, and most characters earned one or two skills per term. At the end of the character's service, they got a pension, and rolled for benefits on the mustering out table: money, additional skills, and for the lucky few, their own starship. The longer a character stayed in service, the more benefits they got. The downside was that each term was four years long, and after a few terms, characters began to age and started to risk seeing their physical statistics degrade a bit.
In hindsight, this was an odd system. Because skill selection depended on die rolls, players had only a limited ability to guide their characters into becoming the sort of person they wanted to play: someone who had her heart set on playing a starship pilot had a slim chance of creating one. Further, there were no rules for learning new skills in play. Already known skills could be improved, but this process was lengthy and difficult. Second, skill levels are kept low: one level in a skill is considered pretty good, and more than two would be rare. Given that most characters learn only 1 - 4 skills per four year term, a single level in a skill might be considered the equivalent of a modern Associates degree, equivalent to two years of study in a major in a community college. We also note that given the relatively narrow range of scores for the usual 2D throw, a die modifier of +1 for each level of skill makes even two levels in a skill a formidable advantage. On the other hand, the low number of skills, and the narrow range of skills permitted in each service makes the distribution of character skills neither wide nor deep.
While the random skill selection system could lead to dissatisfaction with one's character, Traveller's designers might have argued that role playing was part of the character creation process. Players had choices: which service they attempted to enlist in, how long they wanted to try to stay in the service, and choosing which skill tables to roll on. The example in the rules also showed how a player might come up with a justification for why their character came out the way she did.
The combat system is at its heart simple and elegant. Players roll 2D, and if they roll an 8 or better, they hit. Damage is based on the weapon used, and hits are subtracted from a character's strength, dexterity, or endurance. The defending player may allocate the damage dice (in whole die units) to those three characteristics as he sees fit, although the first time he's hit, he must take all damage to one characteristic of his choice. If one characteristic drops to zero, the character is unconscious. Two scores at zero indicates serious damage that requires medical attention, while three mean death. Laid on top of this system are a host of die modifiers (DMs) and special rules. To wield melee weapons requires a minimum strength for the weapon; too low a strength leads to a negative DM, while a strength higher than another cutoff provides a positive DM. Dexterity serves the same purpose for guns. Melee weapons also take endurance into account: a character may make as many normal attacks as her endurance. Any additional attacks are at a negative DM for fatigue. Characters get additional DMs for skills in their weapon. Defender's armor adds yet another DM. All DMs are to hit only; there are no damage DMs. Damage ranges from 1 die for bare hands to 2D+4 for a cutlass up to 4D for the "broadsword," a big two-handed sword. Guns range from 3D-8 for a Body pistol (a small, plastic handgun equivalent to a modern Walther PPK) up to 3D for an automatic rifle or 4D for a shotgun.
As mentioned above, Traveller doesn't use energy weapons much. The basic rules have only the laser carbine and laser rifle. The designers argue that the most efficient way to do damage is to propel a bullet into the target. Thus, most of the weapons in the game are conventional firearms and obsolete blade weapons. While some feel blade weapons in this milieu are silly (Murphy's Rules had an amusing cartoon to this effect), the designers imply that blade weapons are most used aboard starships, where a missed shot from a pistol might hole the ship. On the other hand, it's hard to envision using halberds and spears on a ship. The other argument is that it's good policy to be familiar with primitive weapons in case you're stranded on a world that doesn't have firearms. But Traveller doesn't have any "prime directive" against bringing guns into a low technology setting. This debate could go on for a long timesuffice it to say there are many blade weapons to become skilled at.
Traveller did better in providing futuristic armor types, even if they lack pizzazz. Traveller's armor list has Jack (leather), Mesh (jacket lined with metal mesh, lighter and stronger than chainmail), Cloth (ballistic cloth, something like Kevlar), Reflec (reflective material to repel lasers), Ablat (designed to vaporize when hit by lasers, a cheap but effective form of protection), and Battle Dress, military combat armor from the future. Most characters wouldn't have access to the full kit Battle Dress, which includes strength enhancement, but the limited version is still highly effective.
Traveller's treatment of starships was very successful. While players may have spent long hours generating characters and sending them on their military careers, we believe far more solo game hours were spent designing and building starships.
The writers postulate a "jump" drive that permits FTL travel. Jump drives are rated with a score from one to six, indicating how many parsecs the ship can jump at a time. A jump takes about a week of elapsed time. Ships that attempt to jump within 100 planetary diameters of a planetary mass run the risk of a "misjump," where a ship's arrival point is randomly determined. This could be fatal because ships rarely carry enough fuel for multiple jumps, leaving them stranded in deep space.
Assuming players wish to build their own ship (there are a variety of standard designs available), they begin with a hull. There are six hull types available, measured in how many tons they displace. They range from the 100 to the 1000 hull. Players then select the three drives: maneuver drive, jump drive, and the power plant. There are 22 varieties of each, scored from A to Z (without I or O). Hulls can only take some sizes of drivesfor example, the size 200 hull can accommodate drives of type A - F. Larger jump drives allow for longer jumps, larger maneuver drives allow for faster sub-light acceleration, and both require larger power plants. After outfitting the hull with drives, the player allots space for the bridge and controls, selects a computer (ranging from Model 1 to Model 7), allots space for quarters, including high and low passage berths, and determines how much fuel is needed to run the ship. Once size of the fuel tanks has been set, players may install weaponry, and select smaller vehicles to be stored aboard the ship (including lifeboats, a ship's boat, air/rafts, etc.). The remaining space in the hull is set aside as cargo space. The final cost of the design depends on what features were selected.
High and low passage berths refers to travel accomodations for passengers. High passage is a stateroom and high quality accoutrements and provisions, and the attentions of the ship's steward. Low passage is hibernation, a cheap form of transportation that requires few resources. The popularity of low passage is somewhat limited by the possibility of dying (a roll of 2 - 4 on being defrosted, although a ship's medic can add a positive DM).
The rules assume ships are commissioned and purchased either by the government or individuals. Individuals who purchase their own ship need to place a down payment, and the balance of the price is financed by a bank. Characters are responsible for paying off their ship over a 40 year period. The rules mention that piracy and hijacking is a common threat, because the ship is so valuable, and it can be taken far away from any authorities. The rules also mention that occasionally ship captains disappear with their vessel to avoid making payments. We find it odd that such valuable enterprises as starships are not purchased by interstellar corporations, with extensive batteries of psychological tests to ensure employee loyalty. We believe such corporations would also have strict anti-theft programs including bounties, spies, computer lock-outs, and limited navigation controls. Interstellar repo teams might make for an interesting game. But we digress.
Most of the rest of book two contains rules for starship combat. The rules are miniatures based, two dimensional with vector movements and fairly simple rules. Starships have a choice of four kinds of ordinance, three offensive, one defensive. Offensive weapons are pulse lasers (cheapest and least effective), beam lasers (more powerful and more expensive), and missiles. Defensively, ships use "sandcasters", which fire cannisters of "sand", a complex mixture of ablatives, reflectives, and abrasives, which degrade laser fire, disturb missile trajectories, and may even disrupt the flight path of ships that pass through it, although there are no rules for this.
Next, the book abruptly changes topic, moving into drugs. The rules explain that drugs are standardized into pill doses, and information is provided on the basic pharmacopia: Slow (a drug that accelerates metabolism, so that individuals can respond more quickly), Fast (slows metabolism, useful for slowing aging and the need for shipboard consumables such as air or food), Anagathic (an expensive anti-aging drug), Truth (useful for interrogations), and "Medical", a catch-all for therapeutic drugs.
Next is the section on character skill improvement. It is difficult, time consuming, and requires some luck, just like initial skill acquisition. It takes four years of study to gain a +1 in a skill, and the player must roll an 8 or better for the character to stay with the program. During the entire four years, the character gets the +1 bonus to the skill, but the bonus disappears at the end of the program, unless the character succeeds in studying for another four years (requiring another 8 on the dice) to make it permanent. The rules state this option is only possible if you already know the skill at some level; there is no provision for learning a new skill from scratch.
The second book closes with a section on interstellar trading, which gives bare-bones rules for finding starship cargos, determining their value, and buying and selling them.
Worlds and Adventures
Book three is a bit of a hodge-podge, with sections on how to map star systems and generate worlds; available equipment, human encounters, creating animals, and psionics. The star system and world generation system are simple enough: each hex in a subsector has a 50% chance of having a world (not a star system). Worlds are classified according to presence of a starport, planetary size, atmosphere, percentage of surface water, population, government, and law level. A technological index is generated based on the world's other characteristics. We are not astrophysicists and cannot comment on how well the system adheres to real constraints, but it provides a satisfying, if slightly bland variety of worlds to adventure on. A successful Traveller game would demand some detail work on the part of the referee to bring these worlds to life.
As we have mentioned above, Traveller is not a high-tech kind of setting. While there is a recognition that different planets could have different levels of technology (technological index ranges from 0 to 18, with the most industrialized nations of Earth ranked at about 7), the designers provide very few examples of what advanced technology would look like. The rules have already mentioned lasers, body armor, and starship components; the only new items mentioned on the technological development table are artificial intelligence (tech level 17), grav belts (tech level 12), matter transport (tech level 16) and anti-matter as a power source (tech level 17). As for the equipment list, there is next to nothing on the equipment list that couldn't be obtained today.
The encounter table rules are basic and flavorless. It's probably necessary: in order to cover all possibilities on all worlds, the tables must be generic. Typical human encounters would be "2D of Researchers," or "3D Naval Troops," or "3D Rowdies". These encounters are described more as fighting opponents than role playing opportunities. There is a sub-section on encountering Patrons, an important part of Traveller games. The prototypical game has the PC group hired by a Patron to fulfill a mission. The Patron table includes 36 possibilities, including an Arsonist, an Avenger, a Playboy, and so forth.
On the other hand, the animal creation rules, while equally dry, are clever and well thought out. How can one cover all possible animal encounters for a wide variety of environments and a wide variety of worlds? Short answer: you can't. A better answer is to extract out the fundamental features of most types of animals, and use a random generation system to create animals for each environment. Animals are first defined as herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, or scavengers. Each type of animal is sub-defined by their mode of feeding or obtaining food: for example, herbivores are filter-feeders, intermittent eaters, or grazers, while carnivores are pouncers, sirens, killers, trappers, or chasers. Animal size is randomly rolled, modified by the environment. The amount of damage they can take is based on their size, and the damage they do in an attack is generated separately, although modified by their size. Their basic personality is determined by their sub-type: there is a table with the die rolls needed for them to flee or attack. While the animals thus created are functional, they are dull without a referee's input into their appearance. There are a number of places where a referee could get ideas for strange creatures, or even entire ecosystems. (The Museum is partial to our old copy of Eon's Quirks, an evolution card game, and our copies of Dougal Dixon's After Man and The New Dinosaurs books.) Traveller's animal system could be used to generate most terrestrial animals in any environment, and creates logical bases for behavior, rather than worrying about trifles such as appearance. In addition, the animal encounter tables are also where the referee puts a line for other random events, such as earthquakes, volcanos, or other non-animal inconveniences.
The last section of the book details psionics. Traveller does not make it easy to be psionic. The Psionic Institute is the only place where psionic testing, training, and development can take place. There are strong prejudices against psionics, so the Institute keeps a low profile. (Psionic individuals who are caught might be lynched or lobotomized!) Institute branches are only found on worlds with populations of at least 1 billion people, and even then they are rare. If such a branch exists, the players have to roll a 9 or better to find it, and a failed roll means they cannot search on this world again. Should a character find the facility, and be able to afford the steep fee for testing, they roll 2D for their psionic strength. Older characters are psionically weaker. This design feature makes it unlikely that a character with many skills (that is, one who has spent many terms in the service, being trained) will have much psionic strength. It also reduces the likelihood of psionic characters: few players would choose to retire from the service after a single term or so on the chance that they might find a psionic Institute branch, and luck out on the die rolls for useful abilities. Remember, Traveller has no allowance for learning new skills.
Psionics rules are nicely done. Characters roll to see if they possess each of the five different talents (telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, awareness, teleportation, and special) in any order they choose. Each talent has a different probability (5 or better for telepathy, up to 9 or better for teleportation or special). But, for each die roll after the first, there is a cumulative -1 penalty, so that each talent attempted becomes less likely. Each talent has a graded series of abilities, all starting rather weak. Higher level abilities are unlikely because they depend on the character having a high enough psionic strength to attain them. The very highest level skills can get rather powerful. Most interestingly, the teleportation skill actually takes conservation of energy and momentum into account: teleport down and you heat up, teleport up and you cool down. Too much of an altitude difference can be fatal! The rules make it highly unlikely that any character would have significant ability, and skew the odds so that less skilled characters are more likely to be psionic. The social strictures against psionics limits their use, and gives referees a useful club to keep psionics in line.
The rules end with the usual disclaimer: the rules are only a framework, and require a lot of effort on the part of players and referees.
Summary of the Basic Rules
Original Traveller is a curious game. For a science fiction game, it lacks imagination. There is very little in the way of futuristic hardware, no aliens, and what little information about the setting is provided implies a feudal or at least pre-WWI European type of society. It's a cheap shot to criticize any science fiction endeavor for failing to predict what actually happened and Traveller obviously missed the boat on a number of factors. We won't address them here. But the designer's insistence on sticking to technology from the 1970s was puzzling, even back then. Happily, this was soon remedied.
Book 4: Mercenary
One really doesn't need Mercenary to play Traveller, and most of the book will be of little use unless your game has a lot of military action in it. But Mercenary succeeded in correcting the technology question rather nicely.
First of all, Mercenary expands on the skill acquisition rules for characters in the Army and the Marines. Instead of simply having a single four year term, Mercenary takes the character through four one-year missions in that term. Each mission has the same survive/promotion/get skills mechanic of basic Traveller, except a character was not assured of gaining a skill for each mission, which kept the number of skills learned roughly on par with the original rules. There were more detailed military skills, too. Mercenary also introduces the Instruction skill, which permits characters or NPCs to train other characters in new skills that the instructor knows. The designers warn against using this path too much; they limited access to new skills on purpose.
The book also has basic rules for running a mercenary company, and explains why the Imperium would have so many: it's so large that the government cannot station troops everywhere. Individual worlds are expected to settle their own differences, and the Imperium only steps in if things get bad. Since military hardware is expensive, and training soldiers is too, it's cost effective for planetary governments and interstellar corporations to hire mercenary companies to do the dirty work for them.
The real reason for the average referee to have this book is the logical and consistent thinking of the designers in advancing military technology. Here at last is the high tech of the future, but energy weapons are still unlikely. Guns become lighter, more powerful, with gyroscoping stabilizers and built-in infrared sights. Climbing up the technological ladder, we have gauss guns, which use magnetic fields to propel explosive flechettes. We have low-powered hand guns for use aboard ships, with tranquilizer darts. Finally, at the energy weapon level, we have portable plasma and fusion guns. These are kept out the hands of most players by making them only functional in battle dress, the strength-enhancing, vacuum capable combat suits of the far future, and far out of reach for most player characters. It is simply impossible to fire one of these weapons without it being hooked into battle dress, and a character in battle dress who tries to use one without having any skill with it is likely to be seriously injured or even killed by the recoil. Another particularly interesting device is a nuclear dampener, a pair of transmitters that project a field that slows radioactive decay. They can reduce the effects of nuclear weapons, and preserve short-lived radioactive isotopes. A single sentence here says that at very high tech levels, this becomes a disintegrator weapon.
We suspect few games actually took the whole-hearted Mercenary route into a ground combat game. But we still believe this is an all but essential supplement to first edition Traveller.
Book 5: High Guard
Museum staff considered this our favorite book of the set. The obvious tagline is "it does for the Navy what Mercenary did for the Army," and it's a nearly perfect summary. The detailed Navy careers are here, along with a few new skills. High Guard also has rules for characters to go to college or even medical school before joining the navy. But the real advantage to High Guard is that it expands on the starship design and combat rules. Starship weapons include new choices: plasma guns, fusion guns, particle accelerators and meson guns. Starships have new defenses with repulsors, meson screens, nuclear dampers, and the experimental black globe energy screens. High Guard's new combat system is easy to play without needing to set up a miniatures style battle, although it is essentially a pre-WWII naval engagement system. Ships are put "in the line" or in reserve, and ships in the line trade fire until the line is disrupted, at which point the reserve is vulnerable to attack. Disabled enemy ships can be boarded by the marines. Of course, the ability of ships to jump out of combat is an option wet navy admirals didn't have.
Like Mercenary, High Guard has little information about the Imperium, but at least we now know the Imperium has a tech level of 15.
The new ship design rules are the heart of High Guard. The new rules are intended for larger warships than the original Book 2 covered, and most players will not have access to such vessels. There are many new shipbuilding options, including keeping some of your crew on reserve in low berth style accomodations ("frozen watch"), ships designed as carriers or tenders, larger model computers, and completely customized drive options, based on ship size and desired speed. One can spend endless hours happily building warfleets. Will a few big, heavily armed and armored ships prevail over a large fleet of small vessels? Is it better to build all warships with jump capability, or to build large vulnerable tenders with jump drives so the fighting ships can be cheaper? How would a Battlestar Galactica fleet fare against a Star Destroyer? There are many choices.
Without a doubt, Mercenary and High Guard improve the game considerably, even if a referee never uses them for character generation or for battle rules.
Supplement 8: Library Data (A - M)
The library data supplements contain the background information for the Traveller universe. They are written "in character," as it were, presented as the sort of information you might pull up on your ship's computer. There is much useful information here on the history of the Imperium, a map of the Imperium (deliberately broad and low resolution), notes on the alien races, and so forth. As for most of the rest of the game, a good referee will need to fill in all kinds of details, but the broad outlines are enough to make the universe come alive.
Supplement 11: Library Data (N-Z)
There is a large gap between the two halves of the library data supplements: two years by copyright date, a different set of authors, and a more orange-y shade for the colored stripes on the book cover. Somehow, the second volume of library data seems less informative and less interesting than the first. Perhaps this is because the first half gets to cover more topicsvolume two is dominated by information about the Solomani. More likely, it's because most of the aliens are described in volume one. The main advantage of this volume is the detailed sector maps of the Spinward Marches and the Solomani sector, and a description of how the nobility works in the Traveller universe. Another virtue is the information on the Zhodani, the psionic empire that is contesting the Spinward Marches with the Imperium.
Once the background and rules supplements are added in, Traveller is an exciting and versatile game to play. It's a classic for good reason. The rules are effective and don't get in the way of play. Starship design is a pleasure; world design is fast and easy; alien creatures are simple to devise.We cannot imagine how many other games are out there that sustain loyalty for the original, unmodified rules system. Clearly, Traveller did something right.
A personal note from the curator
I didn't play much Traveller. A friend gave me his copy and I bought a few supplements. I tried a game once or twice and never found it as accessible or exciting as D&D. Somehow, I was never able to get Traveller to fit what I wanted of a science fiction setting, something like Andre Norton's Zero Stone universe. I don't think I ever appreciated the official background for that reason: I was more interested in trying to create my own universe, and it never jelled.
It sat on my shelf for some years, and then I passed it on to a friend. As soon as I began putting together the Museum, I realized Traveller was an important part of RPG history, and I obtained a copy of the original rules for the collection. While it's always fun to pull out an old game that hasn't seen daylight for many years and give it a good read again, Traveller has been especially exciting. I'm tempted to generate a few characters, build a starship, and try some trading missions, and not just out of a sense of nostalgia. Marc Miller and GDW did a great job with this game. I hope it continues to inspire future generations of gamers.