Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Less-Travelled Road: A Fresh Look at Classic Traveller

By Omer Golan-Joel

 Art by David Reddington

Published a mere three years after the original fantasy role-playing game, Classic Traveller was one of the first science-fiction role-playing games ever. Rules-light, simple and innovative, it still has its following even today, 34 long years after its initial publication, even though numerous new editions of the game have been published since. This article is the first in a series of articles exploring this old game from a fresh, modern perspective, while remaining respectful for the game that has started it all.

The initial publication of the three little black books of Classic Traveller was followed by a veritable river of supplements and adventures expanding on them. While most, if not all, of these supplements were excellent products, they did considerably change the flavour, scope and, indeed, the very nature of the game. From its humble beginnings, Traveller grew into a major brand-name in science-fiction role-playing, an empire of its own. But it was changed in a major way by its supplements.

I argue that you can roughly divide Classic Traveller into two "eras" or separate games. These are not, by any means, historical or chronological eras, but rather two different approaches to the subject of science-fiction role-playing. I argue that the main divide is between Book 2 and its implied flavour and Book 5 (High Guard) and its setting implications.

If you look at Book 2 on its own, it clearly implies a smaller setting, with even the mightiest TL15 (maximum technology) empire fielding 5,000-ton ships at most, and most polities having much smaller ships; military weapons are not better than civilian ones. This requires relatively small budgets; only allows for limited trade; and makes player-scale ships relevant. In contrast, High Guard allows for giant military (and commercial) ships up to 1,000,000-ton monstrosities, brimming with world-shattering weapons. It implies, therefore, mighty empires with mighty fleets and bulk-scale shipping. In other words, while the first implied setting feels like Firefly – with small, civilian-scale ships and shotguns in space – the second implied setting feels like Star Wars or Star Trek, with huge military ships and space-stations and massive energy weapons.

There is also the matter of game mechanics to consider. Traveller traditionally uses the 2d6 curve, which is quite sensitive to modifiers, in the sense that even a small modifier could sway the chances of success or failure on that curve by a significant degree. The first three little books stringently limited the number of skills per character, so that a skill of 3 or above was rare and valuable and most modifiers were in the area of -2 to +2 (except for a few to-hit modifiers). Books 4, 5, 6 and 7 with their Expanded Character Generation gave characters much higher and more numerous skills, and gave their weapons higher modifiers, essentially "breaking" the 2d6 curve by making success almost automatic for such skilled characters.

Let me stress that both implied settings are legitimate and both could lead to enjoyable games. However, Traveller has already chosen the latter road of large-scale settings with huge ships and expensive military tech, and all later editions of Traveller have faithfully followed this road. But what would result if you follow the former road, the road of only the three little books and a handful of supplements, the way of small ships and light weapons?

My rough mapping of the road is as follows. The first road, that of lighter rules, small ships and a smaller, weaker Imperium, includes, generally speaking, the first Three Little Black Books, Supplements 1-4, Adventures 1-4 and all the Double Adventures. The second road, that of more complex rules, more law and order and a vast Imperium with mighty warships, starts with A5: Trillion Credits Squadron, Book 4: Mercenary and Book 5: High Guard, and continues with latter-era Classic Traveller products, and later MegaTraveller.

How would a hypothetical game and setting using only Books 1-3, Supplements 1-4, Adventures 1-4 and the Double Adventures look like? For starters, things would be at a smaller, more "human", scale than when using later books. It will be a universe where there are four 1,200-ton Battlecruisers per subsector while most day-to-day naval work is done by 300-ton Patrol Cruisers; a universe where most ground battles are resolved with firearms, or, at most, with lasers; a universe where the Imperium (or whatever major polity in your game) is much smaller and weaker than in later books, a fact which opens much more opportunities for enterprising (and/or criminal and/or mercenary) characters for adventure and profit. Game mechanics would also be quite simple, and the average character will have a handful of skills, well within the capabilities of the 2d6 curve to handle.

The next article in these series will discuss Classic Traveller's most distinctive, and, for some people, most hated, element – death at character generation.


  1. I fully agree. My current solo "Currents of Space" campaign (which is a blend of CT / MGT / SWN) is a Book 2 campaign. I have the original LBB High Guard, but never used it. However, I do love the Kinunir adventure. The two largest warships I have (although they have not yet seen action) are 5000 tons each and are of the Promethean Navy.

  2. While I love CT-LBB5 High Guard, I think that it started a chain reaction which made Traveller extremely different from what was apparent from the original three little black books. HG did two main things: 1) it increased the size of military starships, as well as they costs, by one or two orders of magnitude; 2) it changed the focus from small civilian and paramilitary ships with light weapons to big naval engagements.

    The result was, of course, a VERY expensive navy - not 4x 1,200 dton cruisers per subsector, but rather multiple 30k dton cruisers. This costs a lot of money, and a loose Imperium or pocket empires as implied by LBBs 1-3 can't finance and maintain such an expensive fleet. So then came a huge, powerful Imperium of 11,000 worlds with strong Imperial rule and large interstellar military presence making piracy and smuggling much less feasible. A large, powerful, stable Imperium became, at one point, a bit boring, so they started a Rebellion, which, due to the huge ship sizes, was mostly fought above and beyond the players' level. Because it involved such huge fleets and empires, it eventually fell into stagnation and the slate had to be cleaned by the Virus. But the Virus was controversial and so fractured the fan base.

    Now, MT and TNE aren't necessarily bad, but they do have a completely different tone than LBBs 1-3 and the first few adventures.

    1. IMO HG introduced the idea of scalability into the Traveller system. It gives the referee another option for his campaign. With the release of Trillion Credit Squadron GDW took it up yet another notch. While the fleet and strategic levels of gaming aren't to everyone's taste, its nice to have those tools available.

  3. Great observations. I'd personally prefer the smaller scale.Never had much use for the whole Imperium setting of latterday Traveller.

  4. I've just started my own Traveller campaign using only "Starter Traveller" rules. No Imperium, only one backwater subsector, and mind-numbing planet-side anomalies the PC's just have to stick their nose in...

    1. This sounds like absolute fun! I would love to see a blog with posts about your subsector...

    2. Omer I will. After the PC's finish the first adventure. Wouldn't want to leak out any spoilers :)

    3. Forgot to add, I have never played this game before. Always wanted to. Almost bought into the whole 3I thing, that that was what Traveller was. The Classic Traveller google+ community illuminated me to the fact that the LBB's would do what I always wanted to do; run the type of sci-fi game I was into, not the type of game the publisher was into.