Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Other LBBs


Among OD&Ders, the abbreviations "LBBs" refers to the "little brown books" that comprised the 1974 release of the game. Those 5½" x 8½" books are the beginnings of our hobby and, though each is only 36 pages long, they packed a lot of creative punch. Supplements to the three volumes of OD&D followed the same basic format, although only Supplement I and II are brown.
So seminal were those LBBs that many early RPGs followed a similar format. Arduin is one notable example. Another is GDW's Traveller. Released in 1977, Traveller was to science fiction gaming what D&D was to fantasy -- a generic rules set whose assumptions were a goulash of specific literary allusions, pop culture, and auctorial whimsy that somehow managed to transcend its sources and become a unique thing with a life all its own. The initial boxed set consisted of three little black books of the same size as the OD&D volumes. Among Traveller fans, those books are often abbreviated as the LBBs. They had a sleak, simple graphic design that, even now, I consider to be among the best used for a RPG ever.

If D&D is the girl that I married, Traveller is the old flame who repeatedly jilted me and yet still has a hold over me I can't quite explain. I love Traveller with the passion of a thousand suns and played it almost exclusively during my high school years, when fantasy lost its appeal for me (Remember that I started high school in 1983, just as TSR was entering its Dark Ages). It fired my imagination in a way that only two games have ever really done (D&D is the first; you'll have to guess the other) and it forever imprinted on me a notion of what sci-fi should be: sober, semi-realistic, and, above all, human(e).

I was heavily involved in Traveller fandom for years and my earliest paid professional writings were for Traveller: The New Era and in the pages of the late, lamented Challenge magazine. One of my fondest memories is attending Origins in Baltimore and going out to dinner with Marc Miller and the Japanese translators of Traveller. Over crab cakes, we talked about the history and development of the game, as well as its future (this was just before the release of TNE); it was my first brush was an RPG "celebrity" and I still retain a fondness for both Mr Miller and Loren Wiseman, both of whom impressed me as gentlemen of the old guard. Or maybe I should say the High Guard. In any case, I like the guys who created and wrote for Traveller and that probably has a lot to do with why I still have positive feelings about the game after all these years.

OD&D and Traveller are cousins under the skin. They both present simple rules, full of ambiguities and infelicities, that are nevertheless the gateways to infinite adventures. They're also both founded on literature that few people nowadays read or appreciate, which may explain why they are often misunderstood. Finally, both games eventually succumbed to hubris and forgot why they held such a powerful appeal for kids like me. Once Traveller reached the point where it was no longer a game of "science fiction adventure in the far future" but a game about, well, Traveller, the magic was gone for me. It's a parallel to the brandification of D&D and it's a shame.

Still, I can't deny it: I think about Traveller from time to time and remember the fun times we had together. It's a great game.

34 comments:

  1. Oh, Hell, yeah!

    I never played as much Traveller as I wanted to, but I did dearly love the game.

    You made that image over at The Zhodani Base, right? Good stuff. I just made one for myself, Supplement A: House Rules -- I'm preparing a sort of mini-campaign to take to conventions and such and run, just to show people how things used to be. It'll be three-book original Traveller with a few house rules. (I'm doing the same for OD&D.)

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  2. Have you looked at the latest edition of Traveller by Mongoose Press? It is an attempt at bringing the game closer to what it once was.

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  3. Does that mean Thousand Suns is your love child? :P

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  4. Hello, I've just discovered your blog, and have been catching up with the posts over the last few days. I've very glad to see this post about Traveller as it allows me to topically request clarification of a comment you made in a much earlier thread.

    You said: Alas, the lure of canon isn't confined to horror stories on the net, as anyone who's ever played Traveller can attest.

    As a long time Traveller fanboy, I'm very curious if your distaste for the development of the Traveller canon is directed at the accumulation of minutia via Library Data, the adventures, and JTAS, or you are referring to the disastrous venture into meta-plot circa MegaTraveller. Or both. Or something else?

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  5. They're also both founded on literature that few people nowadays read or appreciate, which may explain why they are often misunderstood.

    I relat6ively recently discovered H. Beam Piper, and, wow. The parellels between Traveller's Third Imperium and the First Empire as seen in A Slave is a Slave . . .

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  6. Taking a guess of the third game....

    Space: 1889 ?

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  7. I'm another who always liked Traveller, but never got much chance to play. For whatever reason most of my gaming buddies were strictly fantasy types. As you can imagine from my many unsolicited recommendations about pulp fantasy, I have all kinds of crackpot ideas about the literary roots of scifi gaming too :). If you get a moment, please share with us what you feel are the primary sources for Traveller (the counterpart to Gygax's reading suggestions appendices, so to speak).. I haven't read the Traveller LBBs for a long while, but unless I'm mistaken they didn't include such a list.

    I'm always looking for decent SF, but am reluctant to venture into new territory (or more to the point, spend hard-earned credits), so it would be invaluable to me to have your "best of" list, since we seem to have similar tastes in fantasy. My personal SF favorites include Phil Dick, Cordwainer Smith, and to a lesser extent the entire 1950's Galaxy stable (i.e., "social" science fiction).

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  8. I also greatly enjoyed Traveller, although I've never been lucky enough to have a group that would actually play it for long, so it was a theoretical kind of love. I even tracked down the Darrian supplement just to read it, back when it was hard to find. I have run Chamax Plague/Horde, Annic Nova, and I think a couple of others, and we always had fun, but kept moving back to fantasy games.

    I think it'd be awesome to run a new Traveller campaign, but at this point in my GMing career, it'd have to be homebrew, and probably with minimal supplements. There's no way I could run an Imperium game ... I couldn't deal with that much canon or that many years of players' ingrained assumptions.

    So many things I'd love to do, so little gaming time. :(

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  9. They're also both founded on literature that few people nowadays read or appreciate, which may explain why they are often misunderstood.

    That is so true and so sad. I've had to explain what a "DAW yellow spine" is too many times now. While I think mainstream sci-fi literature is in better shape than fantasy, it still isn't what it was and the past is getting forgotten. Fantasy's great hey day IMHO was right as D&D was coming with Lin Carter making sure we all read the classic and people like Tanith Lee righting interesting stuff that wasn't Tolkien Mk. whatever or a D&D clone.

    However, sci-fi's problem is, to a large degree, science and technology themselves. The former is killing too many stock pieces and has lost so much of its wonder (or at least isn't expressing itself). The later is changing faster than sci-fi authors keep up.

    Finally, I'll second the Mongoose Traveller recommendation. I have it and it's what D&D3 and D&D4 could have been: taking the wisdom of everything that has happened since the LBB (I term I associated with Traveller long before D&D...then again I left D&D but stayed with Traveller) and keeping the philosophy of 1977. It's a toolkit and will remain one. The settings, the branded materials, will be bolt on while the BBB gives us 1-3 and the best of books 4-8.

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  10. I'm interested to hear what James has to say, but I can offer the kind of SF that I grew up on, and that seemed perfectly matched to what Traveller had to offer:

    Asimov's Foundation Trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation (ignore the later books)

    More Asimov: Pebble in the Sky, The Stars Like Dust, The Currents of Space

    (those Asimov books pretty much defined the Imperium for me)

    A.E. van Vogt: Slan, The Voyage of the Space Beagle

    Heinlein: Citizen of the Galaxy, Starship Trooper, and many of his juveniles (Red Planet, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel spring to mind)

    Arthur C. Clarke: Rendevous with Rama

    Larry Niven's "Known Space" novels and short stories.

    Book 4: Mercenary is pretty much a love letter to David Drake's "Hammer's Slammers"

    And, probably didn't influence Traveller as much, but certainly colored my palette, the "Humanx Commonwealth" books by Alan Dean Foster.

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  11. I started reading your blog shortly before my copy of TNE arrived in the mail, and your name did catch my eye in the credits. I'm actually entirely new to Traveller—I still need to get a game together—and I'm curious where you would draw the line for it becoming a game about itself. Part of what interested me about TNE specifically was that it did away with so much of the weight of canon, and presented a more open and chaotic environment. (It sure is crunchy, though.) The whole Galactic Empire concept never worked all that well for me anyway, even in vintage SF.

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  12. Re: Asimov, Heinlein, Foster, Niven, Clarke, et al. Yeah, I suspect that hard scifi was/is the single biggest influence on Traveller and assume the same is the case for most of its players. I've read everything by the "greats" of course, but have since fallen out of love with authors for whom engineering and/or militarism is a religion (Drake and Pournelle being, IMO, the quintessential Schweinhunden in that regard). But of course YMMV (and obviously does)--no offense to fans of these guys, just my view... I guess I'm curious to know if more "philosophical" or social SF informs gaming side of the tradition at all. SF in the mode of authors like Ellison (with the exception of Babylon 5 perhaps), Leiber (yeah, he wrote scifi too), Dick, etc. don't seem to me to "fit" in Traveller. Maybe Paranoia, Gamma World, and their ilk are their legacy.

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  13. Mongoose Traveller is definitely not about Traveller but returns to Adventuring in the Far Future with a ruleset that is an improved version of the Classic game.

    If they can continue that with Mercernary and High Guard we will have a Traveller for the 21st century.

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  14. I might have to pick up the Mongoose Traveller. I saw it on the shelf the other day and was tempted, but I assumed it was the MegaTraveller equivalent of D&Ds 4th edition. Does it retain the possibility of your character dying during the generation process. I always thought that was the coolest thing ever included in an RPG. It was totally bizarre and on some level made no sense (the point is to create a usable character, after all!), but you don't get any more old school than that.

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  15. Re: Authors

    One of the more obscure (at least today) sources that made it's mark on Traveller is E C Tubb's Dumarest of Terra series. If nothing else, the idea of the Low Passage Lottery comes straight from The Winds of Gath.

    I know there are others, but that's the one that always stuck in my head.

    Further proof the MonT is the real deal, after I got it I sat down with a stack of index cards, a couple of dice, and rolled up a couple of dozen NPCs for fun then a subsector for them to inhabit.

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  16. Re: Death in Mongoose Traveller

    The standard rule sends you to a mishap table (unique to each service) and forces you out of that service on a failed survival roll (and to an event table on a successful one).

    However, under alternate character generation rules it has the following:

    Iron Man Character Generation
    In the original Traveller rules, if you failed a survival roll, your
    character was killed. The Iron Man rules repeat that challenge –
    instead of rolling on the mishap table if you fail a survival roll, your
    character is killed and you must start again. Under the Iron Man
    rules, you must balance the advantages garnered from spending
    another term in a career with the risk of dying in action.
    Other than these changes, Iron Man works just like normal character
    generation.


    So, yes, it does include it and explicitly states why you would use that option.

    My new age of RPG players will soon learn...bwahahahaha

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  17. thalmen dahr said: If you get a moment, please share with us what you feel are the primary sources for Traveller (the counterpart to Gygax's reading suggestions appendices, so to speak).. I haven't read the Traveller LBBs for a long while, but unless I'm mistaken they didn't include such a list.

    They did, if you know where to look: It was in Supplement Four: Citizens of the Imperium. It's where they listed heroes and villains (and told us who the heroes from Supp 1 were). Here's a bibliography I compiled from that:

    Anderson, Poul: Flandry series
    Asimov, Isaac: The Stars, Like Dust
    Bester, Alfred: The Stars, My Destination
    Burroughs, Edgar Rice: John Carter of Mars series
    Harrison, Harry: Deathworld trilogy
    Harrison, Harry: Stainless Steel Rat series
    Laumer, Keith: Retief series (incl Galactic Diplomat and Retief's War)
    Lucas, George (incorrectly identified as Gene): Star Wars
    Niven, Larry: At the Core and other Stories of Known Space
    Panshin, Alexei: Starwell
    Panshin, Alexei: The Thurb Revolution
    Pournelle, Jerry: Sword and Sceptre
    Pournelle, Jerry: the Mercenary
    Roddenberry, Gene: Star Trek
    Smith, E. E. "Doc": Lensman series
    Tubb, E. C.: Dumarest Saga
    Vance, Jack: the Killing Machine (Demon Prince series)
    White, James: Sector General series (incl Major Operation and Ambulance Ship)

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  18. Cool, thanks. I've never owned supplement 4, so never came across it. Interesting that Bester and Vance are on it, wouldn't have expected that.

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  19. You made that image over at The Zhodani Base, right?

    Yep!

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  20. Have you looked at the latest edition of Traveller by Mongoose Press?

    I have and I like it. I have a few minor issues with the new rules, but, overall, I think it's a decent attempt to update the classic rules to the 21st century.

    (You'll notice my name among the Special Thanks)

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  21. Does that mean Thousand Suns is your love child? :P

    Well, TS is definitely a descendant of Traveller, no question.

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  22. As a long time Traveller fanboy, I'm very curious if your distaste for the development of the Traveller canon is directed at the accumulation of minutia via Library Data, the adventures, and JTAS, or you are referring to the disastrous venture into meta-plot circa MegaTraveller. Or both. Or something else?

    The meta-plot of MT was definitely a disaster, but it's only a symptom of a much larger disease that infected Traveller. I'd argue (and might in a future post) that, by the time we started seeing the Alien Modules at least, GDW had pretty much abandoned the notion of Traveller as a generic SF RPG and that basically put the game on the path of ruin.

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  23. The parellels between Traveller's Third Imperium and the First Empire as seen in A Slave is a Slave . . .

    Traveller is basically equally part Piper's Terro-Human future history, Anderson's Van Rijn/Flandry stories, and the Co-Dominium/Mote in God's Eye series, with healthy doses of a few other authors of the same general vintage.

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  24. Space: 1889 ?

    Nope -- though I dearly loved that game nonetheless.

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  25. Part of what interested me about TNE specifically was that it did away with so much of the weight of canon, and presented a more open and chaotic environment.

    TNE was, in fact, a very fine game and I had a blast writing for it. It's biggest problem was that, even while it was laying waste to the Imperium in an effort to make the setting more accessible to newcomers, it was still relying heavily on years of accumulated history and canon to do so. So, it simultaneously ticked off the Trav grognards while still being a bit too dense for newbies to get into.

    And that's a shame, because there was a lot to like in TNE.

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  26. Mongoose Traveller is definitely not about Traveller but returns to Adventuring in the Far Future with a ruleset that is an improved version of the Classic game.

    I hope that's the case, but I'll wait and see. I think the real test will be to wait and see how quickly Mongoose decides to release Third Imperium-related setting books and how many they do release. If those kinds of books come to dominate the release schedule, they'll just be repeating history.

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  27. Will Douglas's list of authors is a good one, although it leaves off H. Beam Piper, who was a powerful influence on the game, as was Bertram Chandler.

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  28. Well taken word for word:

    "It fired my imagination in a way that only two games have ever really done (D&D is the first; you'll have to guess the other)"

    There is no third game. Only 2 games have ever fired James' imagination in such a way- D&D is the first. The other, which we have to guess, is Traveller. So it's a riddle with the answer hidden in plain sight.

    Either that or it's a typo and he meant to say "it fired my imagination in a way that only two OTHER games have ever really done".

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  29. Will Douglas's list of authors is a good one, although it leaves off H. Beam Piper, who was a powerful influence on the game, as was Bertram Chandler.

    That's because my list only includes what was specifically referenced in Supplement 4.

    Also of note would be Andre Norton's Solar Queen series, especially for anyone interested in trade (this, I'm pretty sure, is where the Free Traders came from).

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  30. If there is a third game, I'll go with Empire of the Petal Throne.

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  31. Andrew,

    It was not so much a typo as a brain spasm. I did indeed mean to write, "only two other games."

    And, no, it wasn't EPT.

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  32. Yes, Solar Queen was indeed an influence, although the Chandler books have a fair bit in them about the life of a trader as well.

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  33. Traveller was the first RPG I ever played, and my first brush with feature (and power) creep: Mercenary and High Guard changed the balance and upped the stakes from the original rulebooks in a way that I remember feeling was cool and unsettling at once, even as a wee one. I've seen the syndrome of ever-escalating power (usually for beginning PCs) in games pretty much ever since, and never known what to do about it.

    The other thing was the obsession with military service, which I guess later versions of the game tried to storify, but which was as inseparable from the core game as it was from the sources (principally Pournelle and Heinlein).
    Did you ever play Space Opera?

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  34. I have never played Space Opera. Indeed, I'd never even seen an actual copy of the game until a few years ago.

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