Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Less Travelled Road: The Three Creeps

By Omer Golan-Joel

During the development of Traveller as a game, there were three slow, somewhat unintended, but certain nonetheless currents of development from the three little books of Classic Traveller to the massive electronic (and soon physical) tome which is Traveller 5. I call this kind of development "creep" as it was, as far as I can tell, unintended, and usually quite slow, but it did change the game considerably.

The first creep, and the only one with relatively undebatable detrimental side effects on the game, was the Modifier Creep. You see, Classic Traveller (like most editions of Traveller) uses a 2d6 curve for task and combat resolution; this kind of curve is far more sensitive to modifiers than, for example, the 1d20 curve used by the D20 family of games. A +1 modifier influences the 2d6 curve in quite a significant way, and higher modifiers have much more effect than the simple incremental effects they have on 1d20. A big enough modifier would "break" the curve - that is, force either an automatic success or an automatic failure, which is an undesired result in an RPG, where "swingy" mechanics are usually preferred.

So Classic Traveller, very reasonably, kept skills very low - to an average of 4 skill points per character and usually no more than 1 point in each skill. Skills of 2 or 3 were uncommon and skills beyond that were rare. Also, the combat modifiers were, for the most part, quite modest. But Book 4: Mercenary and the books that followed, as well as later Traveller products, started adding more and more skill points to characters and more powerful weapons with bigger to-hit modifiers. The end result was a "broken" 2d6 curve and less interesting mechanics.

A second type of creep, which is more a matter of taste, is complexity creep. Classic Traveller was a very simple game, where a character can be described in a few rows of text and a starship in a single paragraph; character generation and ship-building were very simple, sometimes too simple, and very quick (about five minutes per character). Book 4: Mercenary and Book 5: High Guard added many more details, including a much more cumbersome character generation system, as well as much more technical ship design rules. While the High Guard design rules were excellent, they started a trend in Traveller which led to more and more complex design rules up to the highly technical Mega Traveller and Fire, Fusion and Steel design systems (and Traveller 5), which were very detailed and very complex. That's not a bad thing in itself, mind you, but a major departure from Classic Traveller's simplicity nonetheless.

A third type of creep is scale creep - the gradual change from pocket empires or a loose Imperium as implied by the first three books to a much grander, more secure and much more powerful Imperium as implied by later products. I think this trend started with Book 5: High Guard. While I love 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 books 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. The same goes with the two previously-discussed processes.


  1. There is another trend as well - the trend from the sketchy setting to the micromeasured.

    I still have the excellent map of Known Space which named a few sectors and polities to show their relationship to each other, but had no other detail. That map fired my imagination.

    The Atlas of the Imperium, on the other hand, gave you pages of dotmaps with stellar system details and no other information, effectively closing of exploration, for the GM, as everything was defined. If the GM loses his sense of wonder, then his game goes stale.

  2. Well, I can see your points, but frankly I rather liked the progression of the story and setting which is why I think the rules got as detailed as they did and are. It was the end of the great frontier days of the Marches.

    I must say, that the ACS rules of Traveller5 are a richer version of Book 2's system. Which I adore, High Guard was used for CharGen only and ships were all Book 2 in my TUs. HG was too damned arcane and took the Universal Digit String to levels of incompressible.

    Truth be told I am waiting to hear that some Supplements are coming for T5 that add yet more complexity, yet richness to it, like Orion and Ion Drives that would let the Referee build a non-Gravitic based TU,

    So it may have its creep, but it is good creep in my opinion. But then I like complexity, nerd that I am.

  3. In some ways I agree and very nearly decided to go back to CT myself recently in lieu of other versions. It is the inconsistency and complexity of the supplements that came after the first 3 books that ruined Traveller a bit and still does.

    But without the supplements Traveller would have remained a very small simplistic game. When you compare CT to Mongoose products the Mongoose products are so much better, design wise, in everyway except presentation. Traveller 5 seems to be planning to extend the complexity even further - probably to the point I won't be able to use it (not having the memory I used to have). For me MgT is complex enough.

    Certainly you can have a very nice time playing CT core rules games around a table with a group. But there isnt much to keep anyone busy elsewhere - for example designing or branching out from the bog standard adventuring game. A lot of what Mongoose have released enables this.

    And lets face it we can pick and choose. Theres nothing to stop you playing with the MgT core rule book and that's it if you want to. And then adding some of the other stuff like advanced rules, equipment, armour and ships gradually into your playing style as you go.

  4. When you analyze the addition of HG and other supplements to Traveller's original LBB (or in my case, my first exposure was The Traveller Book containing a few LBB's in one volume, sadly the library I checked it out from got rid of it at some point...), it was the trend in SF to go with larger more elaborate ships and empires. Star Wars mania hit along with Battlestar Galactica shortly after Traveller hit. Fans were looking for that, designers catered to it... The system changed as a result.

    I enjoy the 'core' books by themselves, but I also see (and feel) the desire sometimes to have those massive 30k dTon super dreadnought style ships for some games... It all depends on the tone of the campaign I guess. I have MgT now and just the core book. Its not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (especially after reading the CotI forums), but it gives me ONE resource to churn out a universe of play even if the hulls stop at 2000 dTons.

    I'll look into HG and Mercenaries with MgT later when I run a few campaigns past the core rules.

    Maybe. I kinda like what you mean about the tone of the original books... With smaller, simpler, rules comes a more interesting environment plot wise where planets are part of the Imperium, at least at the spaceport; but still can be radically different outside. True frontiers for PC parties to explore...

  5. Yes, splatbooks add creep generally I suppose. I prefer the Classic to Mongoose though, even if the latter are prettier.

  6. There's no curve in 1d20 rolls. Can't really be compared with 2d6 rolls.