Episode 3 (Part 1) Traveller RPG

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Introduction – The origin of the game

Section One – Open Box – reliving the memories of playing the game for the first time with Blythy, who was our referee back in the day. We introduce ‘the prime directive’ and Blythy has a black mark on his wall.

Section Two – White Dwarf – @dailydwarf talks about his early experiences of playing Traveller and makes a selection of an article, scenario and ‘Starbase’ column from the pages of the UK’s best gaming magazine.

Section Three – Judge Blythy Rules – Listing three great mechanics and one that doesn’t quite work, the resident rules-lawyer goes ‘under the bonnet’.

Section Four – An invitation to listeners to contribute their stories of playing Traveller. What’s your favourite supplement?

Look out for a Micro Grog-Pod (Traveller – Part Two) coming soon featuring a list of our favourite Traveller supplements and a current online pricing guide.

19 thoughts on “Episode 3 (Part 1) Traveller RPG

  1. Traveller – the game I had to have but the game I never got to play (not until recently with the boss grognard, Dirk, online).

    I should say I never played the full game until recently. I’ve played the mini games LOADS. The design a universe mini game, the try to figure out spaceship design mini game and most especially the create a character mini game. Somewhere, a rainforest was destroyed to provide paper for all of my Traveller characters, none of whom ever drew breath. Good times (as long as you’re not a tree).

    Mr Dwarf was quite right in his section, I was a little disappointed to not have my favourite article featured. “Happy Landings” in WD 43. Thomas M Price’s rethinking of the starport sparked my Traveller imagination in a way that few other Traveller articles had up to then or indeed since. Outlining this one small aspect of the setting just breathed life into the Imperium and gave the imagination a hook which it could use to drag itself into the far future. But I may have been alone in my love for the article…

    It’s funny. I’m not sure if it’s the passage of 30-odd years or the advent of the internet and troll-culture that has desensitised me to flame-wars and personal insults in public fora but I’m SURE the article caused a huge hullabaloo in the letter pages of the Dwarf for months afterwards, but after bringing the White Dwarf collection down from the highest shelf in the house and blowing off the dust I find, not a bit of it. Sure, there were several letters over the next couple of months detailing why various correspondents thought the article was wrong but that’s about it. (Even the regular savaging of Lewis Pulsifer for his contributions seem almost reasoned these days). Presumably no one ever though it was worth the price of a stamp to accuse a contributor of being “Teh gays!!! LoL!!1!!” My memory may be going.

    Anyway, excellent GrogPod, Dirk, and I can’t wait to next time for the most slapstick game ever.

    Cheers, Steve.

    1. Thanks Steve. I remember us being filled with righteous indignation about Lewis Pulsipher’s contributions. I can’t think why now.

      Slapstick? Cpt. Ollie never signed up to being a steeple jack. Quote of the session, following the blast of 10 charges, sending you and Guvudzen into the air, “Well. That could be a lot worse.”

  2. Unlike Hizzoner the Judge, I quite liked the Starship combat rules. I thought the vector addition movement was rather neat. But just like him I never managed to properly integrate them into the role-playing bit of the game.

    I think the problems I have with TRAVELLER lie in its innate conservatism. It was more strongly influenced by wargaming than any of the other early games and the character generation and many of the scenarios emphasised the military aspect of things. And the science fiction in it was very much of the time: the most up to date it got was a certain hint of Larry Niven in some of the aliens but by and large it reflected the sf in ASTOUNDING/ANALOG from the 50s to the 70s. All of those huge computers, weaponry that for the most part the Marines fighting in Vietnam would recognise and societies of the ‘Far Future’ that looked a lot like the ones in Earth’s past. A feudal interstellar empire fergawdsake! The first fictional universe I tried to adapt it to (prior to the Third Imperium coming out) was the Empire of Man, the setting of Niven and Pournelle’s MOTE IN GOD’S EYE.

    All of which has the advantage of allowing the players to be familiar with the sort of universe they find themselves in… but the disadvantage of being a little dull. There were even constraints against life being too different from that of 20th Century Terrans baked into the rules. Psionics were there but desperately illegal. Life extending drugs were there and not actually illlegal but expensive and disapproved of. (They will blackball you from the Travellers Aid Society if they find out you’ve been taking anagathics. Really?)

    And the problem with combination of the random ‘lifepath’ character generation and the ‘people never change’ attitude was that you had less investment in your character. If you end up with a one term Scout pilot with perhaps two or three skills and someone else had ended up with a retired Naval Officer with his own yacht… You just might decide that suicidal or sociopathic was the way to go. I seem to recall (with slight blushes) that at one point I pointed my group’s starship from orbit at the base of the people who were frustrating me and told them that either they handed over the McGuffin or I was going to see how big a boom I could make coming in a full speed. (They blinked!)

    What I found was that the rules didn’t create campaigns about Robin Hood or even Butch Cassidy. But they did create campaigns about people running a mostly honest business as a Free Trader who found themselves (either due to poor business results or a dodgy personality) up to their necks in enterprises of dubious legality and minimal safety. Arfur Daley would have made an ideal ships owner in a TRAVELLER game. And FIREFLY is widely regarded as having been a tribute to TRAVELLER.

    1. The starship combat rules aren’t bad at all. I think the problem I had with them was more to do with my thirteen year old brain struggling to deal with table top battle rules I wasn’t expecting to find in an RPG. I agree that the militarism and conservatism of Traveller presented problems. A few years after discovering RPGs we found and joined a group who ran Traveller and later Twilight 2000. Interesting that the GM was a Royal Navy reservist and another member of the group went on to join the army. Their playing style jarred a little with ours but I think they probably got more out of Traveller than we did because the aspects you mention weren’t such a problem for them.

  3. You know, thinking about it now, the ‘people never change’ comment sort of puts the kibosh on all sorts of character development not just the improvement of skills. There’s no way to define personality in the system (which indicates it wasn’t of interest to the author) and that means you don’t get what modern RPGs call the ‘dramatic’ axis: people growing and changing in their ways of thinking and their loyalties.

  4. Yes. The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear just how devoid of character development it was – in all senses. Very telling that there is no equivalent of a CHA stat, no alignment or attempts to give characters any allegiances. In essence, none of the very early attempts in RPGs to give a sense of your character being a bit more three dimensional rather than a string of stats. Maybe that is the wargame element of the game winning out over the RPG element.

  5. Now that I’ve started to run a game, using the GDW ‘Traveller Adventure’ as the campaign, I’ve come to the realisation that it is a plot driven RPG. The characters have some degree of agency (which can cause all the problems that we discussed in the podcast) but, in the end, it comes down to the dramatic beats built into the story to provide any sense of satisfaction.

    I agree that it is a bit ‘war-gamey’ in it’s approach to character development, which contributes to its ‘route one’ approach to narrative – go here, this happens, go there and this happens.

    As for the conservatism it also emerges in the Traveller Adventure, as a kind of satire against the debilitating effects of bureaucracy and big government. More on that in the second part of the podcast, but it’s enough to make this Local Government officer harrumph his way through an adventure.

  6. Really enjoyed reading Michael’s analysis of the influences that informed the early development of Traveller. When I started playing, I hadn’t read much SF – my touchstones were films like Star Wars and Battle Beyond the Stars. So, as I said in the podcast, the militaristic emphasis came across to my teenage mind as rather “sophisticated”. With the benefit of hindsight though, Michael’s comments about Traveller’s innate conservatism are spot on.

    Judge Blythy’s comments in the podcast reminded me of some difficulties I had refereeing Traveller, particularly with player morality (or lack thereof). I played with a particularly amoral bunch, whose attitude could be pretty savage at times. Later, they revealed themselves to be admirers of the Servalan of British politics, Mrs Thatcher, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bob McWilliams offered a few words of advice on the subject of getting players to maintain a consistent moral outlook in Starbase in White Dwarf #34, but it was an issue I often struggled with as a referee.

    Regarding supplements, after The Kinunir, I only bought another 3 little black books: Mercenary, High Guard, and The Spinward Marches. (I was very jealous to hear Blythy got the Deluxe Traveller set. I really wanted that big star chart – having it in book form just wasn’t the same.) Mercenary was the most *compelling* one, the one I referred to the most. As I said, I really appreciated the military focus of the game, so expanded rules, including *even more detailed* character creation, were very welcome. And I made a lot of use of the extra hardware and firepower in the book: the good ol’ PGMP-13 – that’s what I call a ray-gun!

    Mercenary of course also included the Instruction skill, which was touted by some as a way of introducing character progression (of sorts) into the game. Although IIRC, there was a warning to referees not to make NPC instructors easily available to players. GDW really didn’t want players developing their characters post-creation, did they. Curiously, this never seemed to be much of an issue with my players, despite us also playing D&D at the time. In Traveller, they seemed quite happy to just accumulate “stuff” – money, starships, enemies, etc.

    Looking forward to hearing more about people’s experiences with other Traveller supplements.

  7. Player tantrums were a real feature of those early games of Traveller. I used to love playing, but I’m not sure that everyone else got the same pleasure out of it. We mentioned in the pod that we later did a free-trader game, which was much more successful. I was playing it almost one on one with Blythy as the referee using the features from the Merchant supplement. As Mike says, I was Arthur Daley in space with my hooky ‘medical equipment’.

    I know it’s impossible to cover everything, but one feature from WHITE DWARF that we haven’t covered yet is THE TRAVELLERS comic strip. I never really knew what was going on. The references went flying over my head, even now, I find the whole effect headache inducing!

    1. Mark Harrison’s art for The Travellers was very detailed – there was always a lot going on in the background, so much so that as you say, occasionally it was difficult to work out exactly what was going on. Like you, I suspect there were many references I wasn’t picking up on: when I spotted the occasional Star Wars reference in the background, it just made me wonder how many other in-jokes on other SF stories I wasn’t getting.

  8. I suspect I got my Little Black Box a few years earlier than your group did, because there was no map of the Spinward Marches, no pre-generated subsectors — no Imperium at all, in fact. Consequently I used the world generation tables often. Like an early D&D player rolling up character after character to get the best one possible, I rolled up dozens and dozens of worlds to get the most interesting results (like a high-population asteroid belt with a feudal technocracy government and no laws). It inspired a lifelong interest in alien world-building.

    It’s worth noting that the fictional inspirations for Traveller weren’t so much Star Wars or even Star Trek, but rather the novels about space merchants and mercenaries by authors like Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, E.C. Tubb, Poul Anderson, and Gordon Dickson. That accounts for the low-tech firearms, the freewheeling frontier setting, and the strong emphasis on marginal, “dodgy” types rather than Heroes of the Imperium.

    1. Hi

      Thanks for the comment. In the second part, we talk a little more about the background and mention some of the literary influences of Traveller. There’s Jack Vance in there too, I think, I certainly use Vancian elements in my scenarios!

      I think it’s a tribute Traveller that it is able to accommodate so many stylistic influences.

      Dirk

  9. I remember getting a look at a friends copy in the early 80s and being impressed with the beautiful simplicity of the design of all the books and tables (the future graphic designer emerging). However although rolling a character seemed amazing, adding all that backstory as you rolled, the gap between that and creating an adventure or universe to play in seemed too big for 12 year olds and we never played. Over those years we instead played quite a lot of games of Star Frontiers instead, which for us Basic/AD&D mashup players was easier to understand, D&D in space.
    The aliens were in the book, you could be one straight away, a mini dungeon (freighter) to start out on, machine guns and stuff that did damage in d10s and 20s, it was all you needed. Unfortunately it’s hard to remember much about those games. Fleeting memories of alien biker gangs shooting up a desert diner, a robochef in a mansion and a player meltdown in a submarine, who proceeded to fire all of the grenades from his head mounted launcher inside the submarine killing everyone. Haha i still remember his indignant face, Craig where are you now?
    Years later in the early 2000s i finally got round to running a Traveller campaign, itself a mash up of Classic, Mega Traveller and the BITS task and gun combat rules (heavily simplified).
    But it worked, set in the Third Imperium by way of 2000ad and Star Frontiers and SF novels in that there were a host of aliens about from Vargr to Osmongs to Dralasites to Kzinti.
    We had about 10 full day weekend sessions over a couple of years, mainly workmates who’d all been victims of the early 2000s butchery of video games companies and used this as a good excuse to come together from our now far flung companies.
    True to form although there were increased character options available, one player chose to be a Navy Deserter and the die was cast, despite every session having more hooks than an angler’s hat, their path inevitably went to getting illegal arms, the old steal the vargr brooch from the museum, ignoring the hooks, multiple car jacking and murdering a noble rival in a faked burglary, ignoring the hooks, shooting up the Navy shore patrol, and blowing up their apartment block, ignoring the hooks, signing on to a pirate ship, destroying a rival ship, looting gold from the natives on a red zone planet and aiding one tribe to annihilate another; ignoring the hooks, to finding a ship (ignoring the massive sector spanning hooks i’d spent ages on which would’ve led them to a generation ship lost in space), nuking an area of said planet, heading to another world, aiding a landlord in a brutal but hilariously dark slum clearance and then falling foul of cultists with an idol which marked for death those who gazed on it with a tracker needle in the brain.
    The game closed for the final time with the team holed up in a hotel, half of them tagged by the idol and trying to get their fellows in the same boat by hiding it for them to find unexpectedly.
    But it was a lot of fun.
    In terms of being unable to control them, a point raised in the podcast, at one point they were easily caught and hogtied by a special forces team looking for the classic vargr brooch, so they could’ve been shipped off to that prison planet any time, likewise a Navy Cruiser could’ve shown up when they were pirating, so i dont think lack of boundaries is an issue with Traveller, its the ultimate sandbox, let em play.
    They did a bit of good along the way, although i can’t actually quite remember which bit….

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