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.