I've never been able to kick Traveller to the curb, though I've tried many times. I've successfully gone for years without having anything to do with the game, but I always come back to it. Even now, after I've written my own homage to this classic of the hobby, it's hard not to feel that those three little black books -- the other LBBs -- aren't the most perfect roleplaying books ever written.
Certainly there have been many fine SF RPGs written over the years, some of them taking far "science fiction" far more seriously than did Traveller. But then Traveller was never just a science fiction game. As its subtitle proclaims, it's a game of "science-fiction adventure in the far future." I'm not quibbling when I note this, because I think it's key to understanding Traveller's lasting appeal, not just for me, but for many older gamers, who fell in love with this masterpiece of rules elegance and concision.
What Marc Miller understood, as had Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson before him, was that roleplaying games are, first and foremost, about adventures. Adventures, by their very nature, are risky and uncertain experiences and they don't necessarily have any meaning beyond what we invest in them. That's why Traveller's three little black books provide little or no context for the dozens of mechanical sub-systems they present. Each and every one of them, from trading to combat to animal encounters to world generation and, yes, even character creation is an opportunity for adventure and a call to invest them with meaning -- or not. That's part of the point really: not everything has a meaning beyond bare facts and that's especially true in the case of adventures, where what matters is not a grand narrative so much as thrilling escapism.
Taken purely as a vehicle for scientific speculation, Traveller could best be described as "quaint." Even in 1977, its science was outdated and its esthetics old-fashioned. Like OD&D, the game drew inspiration from the literature of an earlier era rather than what was current at the time. That never bothered me as a kid, child of Star Wars though I was, because, then as now, Traveller screamed "Adventure!" and the rest was mostly secondary. That's not to say that the game is incapable of supporting "deep" scientific speculation as the impetus for adventure, but the focus remains squarely on adventure. It's perhaps a simple, even banal, thing to say about Traveller and yet it contains, in my opinion, the secret of the game's lasting appeal.
Indeed, Game Designers Workshop produced a great many adventures during the run of "classic" Traveller -- 13 plus 6 double adventures and every issue of the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society included at least one adventure, plus patron encounters and other "adventurous" bits from which to build one's own adventures. The beauty of the original three little black books is that they consist almost entirely of rules and all of those rules exist to create and/or adjudicate the basic needs of any starfaring campaign. Some, like the economically dubious trade system remain, in my view, among the greatest game mechancis ever created for any RPG. They're literally adventure-generators disguised as simple algorithms. They may not make sense if taken out of their context, but why would anyone want to do that?
Sadly, Traveller very quickly came to be dominated, both at GDW and among its fanbase, by folks who wanted to do just that: make sense of it all. Thus did we get ever more elaborate and "realistic" improvements to the rules of the three LBBs. It was no longer enough to know one's Marine served five terms before mustering out; now you had to know precisely what he did during each of these 20 years in the service. It was no longer enough to know that a world had a "thick" atmosphere; now you had to calculate its albedo to three decimal places. And, worst of all, GDW's example setting, the Third Imperium, ceased to be an example and become what Traveller was all about.
Talk to almost any fan of Traveller and chances are they'll eventually start blathering on about the minutiae of the Third Imperium setting. I say this not out of malice or superiority, because I was once an addict of this kind as well. By the late 80s, I remained a Traveller fan out of my love for the Third Imperium, but I could not be called by any reasonable definition a Traveller player any longer. At some point or other, I stopped treating the game as, well, a game and instead fixated on its every detail, as if this were what drew me to the game in the first place. Gone was the focus on science fiction adventure, replaced by obsession with the details of a setting created by someone else and in which I'd barely ever played. Back in the day, I created my own setting for my Traveller campaigns and, to my mind, that's how Traveller ought to be played; that's where the heart and soul of Marc Miller's brilliant creation lie.
I've read Mongoose's recent edition of Traveller and think it's pretty good -- certainly better than anything we've had in years. Rules-wise, it's a bit too clearly a descendant of late classic Traveller, after supplementitis had set in, and there are a few more attempts to "update" its assumptions than I like, but it looks decent enough. There also doesn't (yet) appear to be much of a fixation on the Third Imperium and that's all to the good. I love the Third Imperium to pieces, but, in the end, it helped kill Traveller.
As for me, I just snagged myself a mint copy of the first edition boxed set from 1977 for a reasonable price. Once I have it, I intend to set aside some time and read all three books from cover to cover. The classics only improve with each reading and it's been a while since I spent time with this one.