Saturday, February 13, 2010

Before the Imperium

I've mentioned many times before that I was -- and am -- a Traveller fan. It remains the gold standard for science fiction RPGs, particularly for those of us whose tastes tend toward "Imperial" style SF of the sort written in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. I recently started to re-read the 1977 edition of Traveller and I was amazed by many things about it, but what most amazed me was the sense that I had never actually read these books before. Now, I know I had; I played Traveller a lot back in my youth and I owned copies of Books 1-3 in their original little black book format. Yet, re-reading made me think otherwise. How could this be?

Then it dawned on me. I didn't start playing Traveller till 1980 or 1981, well after the official Third Imperium setting had been firmly established. Alongside my little black books were later supplements, adventures, and copies of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, each of which contributed bits and pieces of the Imperium setting, forever coloring my sense of what Traveller was and was about.

But there's none of that in the little black books. None. The Imperium is never mentioned. Like OD&D on which it was clearly modeled, Traveller in 1977 has only an implied setting, a goulash of Piper, Anderson, Tubb, Chandler, Niven, and Pournelle, with other bits and pieces ripped from off from SF stories written in the decades before the game was published. It's all very "pre-cinematic," which is to say, there's little to no evidence that science fiction movies or TV shows -- including Star Trek -- exercised much influence over Marc Miller in constructing the implied setting of the game.

So, yes, Traveller has a lot of socio-political-technological axioms in common with a lot of literary science fiction, but it nevertheless had no setting of its own. Indeed, the game frequently reminds its readers that it's the job of the referee to make one up for himself, using the tools included in its three rulebooks. (Ironically, this is a point on which the game is criticized in its review in White Dwarf #6). This absence of the Imperium, even merely as an example, makes a world of difference, believe it or not. The game feels far more wide open and flexible, two traits Traveller has always possessed in abundance but which become even more pronounced in the absence of the Imperium. This absence enables me to read Traveller with new eyes and that's a wonderful thing.

34 comments:

  1. I've only ever had the '83 Traveller Starter Boxset and the scenarios from Adventurer Magazine. I've never felt I've ever missed out on the Imperium, which is mentioned by never detailed in the rulebook. I always liked that Humans are the only living humanoid race, all aliens are beasts.

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  2. It was actually quite late in the day when the Imperium began to take shape in Traveller. It wasn't until The Kinunir (Adventure 1) that GDW started to introduce the Third Imperium through Library Data, abd even then it was very adaptable to other games (I think I used it in my 2389 game).

    My first three Traveller campaigns had nothing at all to do with the Third Imperium. Here is quick summary of two of them, if anyone is interested.

    2839: http://reverancepavane.livejournal.com/193865.html

    Prometheus: http://reverancepavane.livejournal.com/193643.html

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  3. I remember that. I had the original 3 books, and I remember a growing sense of disillusionment as more and more official Traveller setting became available, and I felt more like a spectator.

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  4. The tide of official Traveller was what stopped me ever really GM'ing it. I was too young just to take ownership of what I had.

    Free RPGs can only be a good thing.

    BTW Elizabeth Moon's SF is very travelleresque, especially the Trading series.

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  5. One of the things that I do like about the Mongoose edition of Traveller is that they seem to returning to a model were the rules support a variety of different SF settings. Sure, they are putting out a lot of material explicitly tied to the OTU, but they are also using the rules for a number of licensed settings.

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  6. James, would you consider doing a post at some point on the how Traveller influenced Thousand Suns?

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  7. q.v. the Doc Smith quote on your previous post, James.

    More worryingly, how many people thought Dragonlance, Ravenloft or Forgotten Realms /was/ D&D. *jk* ;)

    > Ed:
    > and I remember a growing sense of disillusionment as more and more official Traveller setting became available, and I felt more like a spectator.

    Which was, of course, one thread of critique regarding EPT right back at the start.
    Horses for courses: some people /do/ like in-depth setting & backstory, others less so; although it depends more, perhaps, on how much that actually limits play potential.

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  8. I love Traveller but I never had much use for the Imperium setting myself. . . being a world-builder type, I invented my own settings and tended to run more one-off adventures than ongoing campaigns anyway.

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  9. I love the Third Imperium game setting, but honestly I've never had a problem discarding it and using the rules for my own home-brew settings. I hear the same criticisms about the oWoD's metaplot, but IMO the same thing applies. Discard what you don't need and keep what you want. Once you embrace the concept that a worked setting is just a grab bag of ideas for your own setting, it doesn't matter if you don't like a published game setting or not.

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  10. When I played with the Little Black Books as a kid, we never had any of the Imperium supplements...even though it was 1986 or so (we fell into that no man's land age right before one started working the part-time job and yet after our parents had stopped buying us our games).

    Never missed the Imperium...Traveller was just fine without it.
    : )

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  11. My introduction to Trav' was Megatraveller, which just so happened to be the iteration in which GDW decided that the Imperium setting was what the game was about. At the time that didn't seem so odd; a game has to have a setting right? But looking back on it, I can now see how it utterly failed to engage me as a game. Though I loved reading about the broad sweep of Imperium society and history, it was so large scale and impersonal that never once did I feel the urge to actually roll up character and start adventuring. Megatraveller wasn't inviting me to play in the dirt, it was telling me stand back admire the pretty tableau of its fiction. Continuing that fiction was about buying the next supplement that told the next part of the official story, not making up my own.

    It wasn't until I got and read an original three-book boxed Trav' set that I thought of Traveller as something that could actually be *played* with. No canon to mind, no second-rate "Foundation" plotting to distract me, just some instructions on how to turn random rolls and blank maps into endless adventure hooks.

    I think, on balance, the 3rd Imp' setting has done more harm than good for Traveller. Its tied down the game to one dominant interpretation, and side-tracked the fan community into an endless rehash of disputes over that setting's canon. The contrast with the wide open character of the OD&D community is striking; just imagine if every discussion there had an even chance of turning into an argument over the trade routes of Furyondy or the history of the Great Kingdom.

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  12. The first time I played Traveller, sometime between 79' and 81' I honestly hated it.

    I wanted nothing more than a cool Sci-Fi RPG as I wasn't a fantasy fan but D&D was the only game I knew of at the time. When someone told me there was a Sci-Fi game I was all of it. I was then introduced to Traveller and I remember saying, "OK so its the future, there is space travel but...the FTL is slow, there are no Aliens and we are shooting guns with bullets? Are you sure this is a Sci-Fi game?"

    Now yes, I was was 10 or 12 but I was also an advanced reader for me age, having already read some E.E. Smith, Piper, Norton and others. I had also grown up on Star Trek, SF comic books and seen Star Wars 5 times on opening day (absolutely true). Traveller, at least at first exposure, seemed like a weak representation of SF, at least as presented but the GM who ran it for us. Needless to say, we didn't want to run a campaign.

    I would finally appreciate and grow to love Traveller is the mid-to-late eighties, just before MegaTraveller was released when a friend of mine who was a huge fan of it lent me the books to read for myself.

    I gained such a different perspective (and being older helped as well), that I immediately went out a picked up set of the books used and than got the MegaTraveller box as soon as it was released.

    I love that game and have been thinking about it alot lately. Maybe its time to dust it off and pull it out once again.

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  13. As Ed put it, "I remember that. I had the original 3 books, and I remember a growing sense of disillusionment as more and more official Traveller setting became available, and I felt more like a spectator."

    QFT. And I also liked Reverence Pavane's comment about original campaigns having nothing to do with the Third Imperium as a setting. E.T. Smith's comment about how the Third Imperium has side-tracked and ultimately been a detriment to Traveller is also spot on.

    As I've mentioned before, I'm continuing my examination of the 1977 Edition of Traveller in my blog - the latest post is about Experience in Traveller<.

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  14. My only experience with Traveller was with The New Era; I think I've mentioned before how it was the first rpg I ran, and so I was completely unprepared and overwhelmed by the weight of rules. I didn't have any problems with the setting though; I simply ignored it and used the game to run a more generic starships and trading game.

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  15. It's interesting that Traveller became the dominant SF RPG when you consider that the kind of SF it drew its inspiration from was by then very much in decline, in favour of the colourful space opera of Star Wars and Star Trek. If there had been a Star Wars RPG released between 1978-1983, similar to the Marvel one in its speed, ease and fun of play, I wonder how the history of SF RPGs might have been different...

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  16. I prefer Traveller without the Third Imperium. I also agree that the setting tied the game down. And it was terrible for exploration, as humanity was hemmed in on all sides by other races.

    The new Mongoose version is very well done. It's Hammers Slammers book is great, as well.

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  17. I think I see your point of Traveller having a transition between no setting and a fully fleshed out one. I received Traveller for Christmas in 1981, and I'd say it was one of best gifts I've ever received, as it was a complete surprise and a perfect fit. That seems to me to be the objective in gift giving. Anyway, I don't recall a lot of setting detail. And then I'd read a module like Twilight's Peak (Adventure 3) and there'd be these details in the Library Data section. In hindsight, it seems to me that stuff stuck out. It showed details of the wider Imperium, but it was tucked away in side area. I guess after I stopped playing it evolved, broadened, and then became a complete setting.

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  18. Put me in the anti-Imperium camp. I really liked the openness of the original Traveller set. I was disappointed when each and every subsequent product tied it to the Third Imperium. I especially like Mongoose Traveller because it uses the original clean classic Traveller system and it's an open general ruleset supporting many flavors of SF.

    I never thought I'd see myself write that I liked a Mongoose product, but their editing has improved much since their first Conan products.

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  19. Interestingly, my experience with traveller also started before the imperium with the 3 LBB set. I pretty much always ran my own universes -as did my friends -homebrews, starwars, star trek; whatever. Seldom an OTU campaign.

    That said, I always loved reading the OTU stuff -and mined it mercilessly, too. In some ways, it almost was a faux real history that we all knew, regardless of how we played...in fact, I've known very few OT pure campaigns-the supplements and adventures always had enough general info to use in most campaigns, and the rest was fun reading.

    Obviously, if you didn't like the OTU that wasn't there for you -but then, one had the actual campaigns to play in, and you could ignore the OTU on a detailed level.

    My most recent campaign was an OTU (probably 90% anyway) and had an interesting mix of OTU savants and people who were amazed by this whole "new 2d6 system thing !"...In play, it worked out that there were characters who knew lots about the universe and its events and politics (but were sometimes wrong), and characters who only knew what they saw on TV (ie who read the handouts) and got on with their jobs.....and at least one who didn;t give a damn, he just wanted to play with his technical toys and keep em running. A surprisingly realistic social mix which one [i]doesn't[/i] get with a pure homebrew -although it was in some ways freeing for me as the GM, it does come with some baggage.

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  20. I think, on balance, the 3rd Imp' setting has done more harm than good for Traveller. Its tied down the game to one dominant interpretation, and side-tracked the fan community into an endless rehash of disputes over that setting's canon. The contrast with the wide open character of the OD&D community is striking; just imagine if every discussion there had an even chance of turning into an argument over the trade routes of Furyondy or the history of the Great Kingdom.

    While I understand all too well about the issues with canon arguments breaking down discussion online, I do have to point out that I've never ever had one of those discussions derail an actual game - even at cons where gaming is most like online discussion.

    I think it's important to draw a distinction between how the game is discussed and how it is played; traveller (and any other RPG) is designed to produce a game, not an internet community or body of discussion. It has to stand or fall on that, thus far. My view is that the Third imperium has probably resulted in considerable shackling of online discussion (try and critique or defend New Era or its main creator, for instance); but its effects on play is less clear, and perhaps a more fruitful area for criticism without getting into canon -for instance, the constrained empire and lack of exploration campaigns as a result.

    Doc
    (aka captainjack on COTI and MGT and others..)

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  22. I think it's important to draw a distinction between how the game is discussed and how it is played; Traveller (and any other RPG) is designed to produce a game, not an internet community or body of discussion.

    Your first part is a fair point, and I admit that canon-wrangling has had very little direct impact on my recent actual-play experiences with Trav'. However, I've found it does tend to loom in the periphery in the minds of the players who know about it, and has had repeated subtle influences on play, to the occasional consternation of other players largely ignorant of 3rd Imp' lore.

    But I don't think it fair to dismiss the online community attached to a game as an insignificant factor. Such a community serves a major support role in the way magazines and APA's used to, and as such is as much an influence on actual play as the main text. A game with a limited/eccentric/annoying online community is thus less useful, less easy to use, and ultimately less fun. I personally have grown leery of Traveller, a game I otherwise appreciate, because of frustrations with its online community.

    Tangent: this discussion got me looking through my old issues of GDW's Challenge, where I was surprised to find that our host James Maliszewski himself wrote a few Megatraveller articles.

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  23. I've not played Traveller before, but I'm in the middle of considering a sci-fi ruleset. I'd just narrowed the finalists down to Star Frontiers and X-plorers. But now that I've seen these comments (as well as other reading) I'm starting to think I should open it up a bit.

    Ug! And I'd just found my WEG Star Wars books too.

    Too many options!! :P

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  24. But I don't think it fair to dismiss the online community attached to a game as an insignificant factor. Such a community serves a major support role in the way magazines and APA's used to, and as such is as much an influence on actual play as the main text. A game with a limited/eccentric/annoying online community is thus less useful, less easy to use, and ultimately less fun. I personally have grown leery of Traveller, a game I otherwise appreciate, because of frustrations with its online community.


    Sorry if I seem to have come across as dismissive of the online community; not the point I wanted to make. I like the online gaming communities, and on the whole find them exciting and energizing taken as a whole. In particular, the traveller sites got me back in and recovered my love for the system. Yes, obviously, the hard core can have an effect on the game as megatraveller shows; but in my experience, traveller is no more or less cursed than most RPG's with a long market and thus online presence - for my money, the key fact is that the longer a system exists, the more....strident people.... it attracts, and they do accumulate online, and can reach a broader audience than ever before. Where we do disagree, respectfully, I hope, is in the perceived effect that part of the community has on actual play, or upon the value of a rules set. In my view, if there aren't obstinate canonistas or condesending young turks at my table, it isn't an issue. Self centered, perhaps, or maybe parochial, but I really haven't encountered that level of discourse and/or wankery in actual play, nor have I heard about it in traveller or most rpgs; and there are games where that kind of issue does, work out face to face - I'm also an old board and miniatures gamer, so nuff said.

    But it isn't the point here, I just wanted to clear up my poor prose and dispel the impression that I;m dismissing the online community: to paraphrase a great hereo, "I take the community very seriously; it is simply certain people who I take lightly"

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  25. Traveller is, as it has been since I picked up the LBB boxed set in 1979(?), my favorite rpg. When FFE released the LBB on CD a few years back I swept it up and reread it. I too was struck by the absence of the Third Imperium (TI). But then I started thinking about all the adventures I have run or participated in over the years and realized that the TI has never been more than a backdrop. My adventures are usually set on the frontiers away from power centers. Often we play a "necessary barbarians" campaign where the players need to do what has to be done but have some limits...such as nukes are frowned upon unless ABSOLUTELY necessary ;-).
    As far as Mongoose Traveller...I like the rules but see all the items as overpriced. Rather just use my Classic Traveller and homebrew where necessary.

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  26. IMTU (way back in the day) I touched upon the Imperium but it was always in the periphery. I did use the Spinward Marches as a setting but the Imperium was always a "Who? Oh Yeah... them. We don't see much of them out here these days. Now... how much for you to take a load of Kesabre Wood to Tacturn 4?"

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  27. One of the things I love about Traveller is that it gives you all these different modules and levels that you can pick and choose from.

    You can use the simple personal combat or Striker. Or you can use the simpler rules for less important combats and Striker for more important ones.

    You can create your own setting from scratch, you can adopt the 3I wholesale, or you can use what you want of the 3I while ignoring the rest.

    Like Doc Grognard, this is what I see happening in play. All this stuff enables people to customize the system to themselves.

    In online discussions at CotI, I’ve found people very helpful to answer question honoring the way I choose to play the game.

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  28. James, would you consider doing a post at some point on the how Traveller influenced Thousand Suns?

    I will almost certainly do that sometime in the summer, as I get ready to release the revised version of the TS rulebook.

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  29. Tangent: this discussion got me looking through my old issues of GDW's Challenge, where I was surprised to find that our host James Maliszewski himself wrote a few Megatraveller articles.

    Those are some of my earliest published articles. I was an undergrad at the time and heavily involved in Traveller fandom. I still have very fond memories of those days.

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  30. This post got me wondering--is there an equivalent board for Traveller to the ODD Discussion Forums? preferably one the focuses on the Classic Line? I know about the Citizens of the Imperium board, but it seems to focus on the setting moreso than the actual game.

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  31. Citizens of the Imperium - has a section on their forums completely devoted to the Classic line...you and a guy called Supplement Four would really hit it off. As he is the self-professed CT nut.

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  32. I was wondering, James, do you ever think of writing for Mongoose? Perhaps, a Sector book where you could create your own Sandbox within the realms of what you think the Traveller Universe ought to be.

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  33. Also, hopefully, I accidently deleted my comment...

    Remember, the 1980s were all about a new generation rising through the ranks. For, remember, the whole thing about the 1980s was about rebranding things anew and for them that meant a centralization of control which necessitated a reigning of the creativity of the (wild & crazy) creative years and codifying of rules even at the determent of the creative energy that built RPGs.

    However, what I notice since the collapse of GDW is the progressive moving away from the OTU toward sandbox play (save in the case of GURPS Traveller). But, that is due to the difference between Loren and Marc's vision**.

    **Maybe my original post was a bit snarky but Loren represents the centralizing trend whereas Marc has always been more about sandbox play. Both are legitimate and both contain elements of the other in whatever they create as that is the essence of a good game.

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  34. I was wondering, James, do you ever think of writing for Mongoose?

    I'm pretty much out of the freelance biz these days. Anything I write will be self-published or published through Rogue Games, of which I'm a partner. I am, frankly, a terribly undisciplined, disorganized person and find it nearly impossible to keep to a schedule. Couple that with the poor money one gets from freelancing, I could never do it again.

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