Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Traveller Philosophy

It's been remarked before -- and not without reason -- that Traveller's little black books mimic the little brown books of OD&D in many ways. In the course of re-reading thes other LBBs while away, I noticed that Book 3, Worlds and Adventure, concludes with a section reminiscent of the famed "Fight On!" conclusion to OD&D. It reads:
Traveller is necessarily a framework, describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe. A group involved in playing a scenario or a campaign can make their adventures more elaborate, more detailed, more interesting with the input of a great deal of imagination.

The greatest burden, of course, falls on the referee, who must create entire worlds and societies through which the player-characters will roam. One very interesting source of assistance for this task is the existing science fiction literature. Virtually anything mentioned in a story or an article can be transferred to the Traveller environment. Orbital cities, nuclear war, alien societies, puzzles, enigmas, anything can occur, with imagination being the only limit.

The players themselves have a burden almost equal to that of the referee; they must move, act, travel, in search of their own goals. The typical methods used in life by 20th century Terrans (thrift, dedication, hard-work) do not work in Traveller; instead travellers must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power. Again, the modern science fiction tradition provides many ideas and concepts to be imitated.

Above all, the referee and the players work together. Care must be taken that the referee does not simply lay fortune in the path of the players, but the situation is not primarily an adversary relationship. The referee simply administers rules in situations where the players themselves have an incomplete understanding of the universe. The results should reflect a consistent reality.

Congratulations on your entrance into the universe of Traveller!
There's lots to comment upon there, but two things stand out to me. First, Traveller, like D&D, owes its primary inspirations to literary sources. Second, Traveller assumes that what we nowadays call sandbox play is integral to the success of a campaign.

I mention these points in part because I've begun to realize how much of how I view old school gaming is rooted as much in Traveller as in D&D. Indeed, I suspect, if I were honest about it, I'd probably find that the gaming philosophies implicit in Traveller eclipse those of D&D in terms of their influence on me. D&D may have been my "first love," but Traveller was my "true love" and, even though I don't play it anymore, it's hard to deny the permanent effect that masterpiece of game design has had on me.

47 comments:

  1. Do you not play it because it's harder to find players? Pity Traveller never had an Appendix N, I would love to have seen the designers listed influences.

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  2. I don't play Traveller much anymore, mostly because I've got my own SF RPG to play when the urge comes upon me for that genre.

    As for a Traveller Appendix N, we get something close to it in a couple of early supplements to the game that describe famous literary characters in Traveller terms. They are:

    Poul Anderson, "Flandry" series
    Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust
    Alfred Bester, The Stars, My Destination
    E.R. Burroughs, "Mars" series
    Harry Harrison, "Deathworld" trilogy, "Stainless Steel Rat" series
    Keith Laumer, "Retief" series
    Larry Niven, "Known Space" series
    Alexei Panshin, "Anthony Villiers" series
    Jerry Pournelle, "CoDominium" series
    E.E. Smith, "Lensmen" series
    E.C. Tubb, "Dumarest" saga
    Jack Vance, "Demon Princes" series
    James White, "Sector General" series

    There are also references to Star Trek and Star Wars, though in my opinion, the influence of either is minimal. The list above also excludes H. Beam Piper, who exercised a huge influence on the game's future history, far more than either Lucas or Roddenberry's ideas did.

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  3. I think Piper's influence was far and away the largest literary influence on the game. You can read some of Piper's stories, and if you removed the label, you'd swear you were reading Traveller fiction, despite the fact the novels predate the game by a couple of decades.

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  4. Ah! Where did you find those references? I didn't see them in Supplements 1-3 and am curious. Very appreciated! Adding some to my to-read list now...

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  5. I was surprised to see references to "The Long Night" on the back of my Ensign Flandry paperback, I had always thought that was an original Traveller creation.

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  6. As for Niven's universe, I still have a Traveller sector I drew up decades ago, with all of the Known World planets (Jinx, We Made It, Wunderland, etc) plotted upon it.

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  8. I would argue that E.C Tubb had far more incluence than piper or anyone else- but I won't, because J.Rients did it first, here: http://jrients.blogspot.com/2007/04/evil-but-generous.html
    For some reason I can't make the link work, so you will have to cut and paste.

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  9. Although I think a great deal of Traveller and its inspirations were clear to me, I found its rules often got in the way of playing adventures like the ones I read and loved (and it got worse with every supplement). In the end, Traveller to me became the best way to play The Third Imperium, and little more. I sometimes wish I'd never bought anymore than the original LBBs.

    Weird coincidence though: just this evening on RPGnet, someone asked for opinions on the best games in which to play Anderson's Technic History. I didn't hesitate to recommend Thousand Suns.

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  10. As for a Traveller Appendix N, we get something close to it in a couple of early supplements...

    Noticed this was interesting in that it intersects DMG Appendix N for 3 authors: Poul Anderson, E.R. Burroughs, and Jack Vance. In particular, Burroughs' "Mars" series is the only literary work that appears on the lists for both AD&D and Traveller.

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  11. And yet I continually run into gamers, under 30s mostly, that have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention ERB and Barsoom let alone Vance or Anderson.
    Kids today. Hey you teenagers - get off my lawn!

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  12. @ JM:

    The two things that stood out for you...especially the sand box part...and the way they inform "Old School" play is a huge bolt of enlightenment. I've been attending my first ever gaming convention this weekend, and while it's been a blast, these two things: literary reference and sandbox play...have been conspicuously absent from all the role-playing I've seen and in which I've participated. And until I thought about it this way, I couldn't put my finger quite on the reason the gaming has felt a bit "soul-less."

    Thanks.

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  13. Indeed Robert StJ, I feel exactly the same. The original LBBs left one with the feeling of limitless possibilities. But each subsequent supplement and adventure focused more and more on the Third Imperium. It became so self referential it was useless. The only worthwhile book for non Imperium players was ironically Citizens of the Imperium which gave more character options.

    If you wants to recapture some of that wide open feel in a modern edition, Mongoose Traveller is a good option. It's close rule wise to the original but includes more character types and it mostly generic using a few Imperium examples only.

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  14. There were some things in the original LBB Traveller that informed our first forays into science-fiction gaming. Even though the Third Imperium had not been created, there was enough in the rules that we could infer something of what the authors intended.

    First off, the character generation system placed some importance on Social Standing - a stat that had never been important in any of the other games of our experience at the time (D&D and RQ). This seemed to imply that whatever the future was, your rank in society was important.

    Secondly, the character generation system's emphasis on military service told us that there was a strong service tradition, possibly with strong connections to the nobility.

    Next, the fact that there was a Scout service and it was dangerous (7+ on the Survival roll!) led us to believe that there was a frontier and that it was a lethal place to be.

    What did that lead us to? At the time, Star Wars and BSG had only just hit the public consciousness. We were too young to go and see Alien. Star Trek was too egalitarian. So, we retreated to our books for inspiration as to what to do with Traveller. Eventually, we came up with the answer.

    E E Smith was enjoying a renaissance in the UK publishing industry, and we were all avid readers. It came down to a choice between the Lensmen and the Family d'Alembert series. Of the two, the Family d'Alembert definitely fit our idea of Traveller more. So, for the first couple of years of our Traveller gaming we used that as our background. Of course, as more books became available, our awareness of what Traveller meant to its authors changed. Mercenary brought us into the realms of Starship Troopers - then into nastier places as we combined it with miniature gaming (Recon was our preferred set). High Guard took us out into the stars, with giant fleets clashing in orbit above gas giants. When Scout was published, we went on dicefests of exploration and mapping.

    Amazingly enough, we did get to try the Lensmen. But that had to wait until we got hold of a copy of V&V.

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  15. I think my favourite Traveller campaign was the one I set in the solar system in the near future. A High Frontier game. I simply rated the maneuver drives as 10% of their actual efficiency (it probably should have been 1% or less in reality), representing ion drives. Actual fusion drives used the jump drive rules. No artificial gravitics of any kind. And definitely no FTL drives (OK, there was an experimental one, but that was the Big Secret behind the campaign). Everything else was by the rules. [Except I also had a security forces (as in internal security) career track and no marines career track since I was using a very European model for the militaries.]

    Nowadays most people would look at you strangely if you described a game of Traveller in those terms, methinks. When you establish a background in any game there is less incentive to do anything different. Or at least, a lot more work to convey the difference. But it was lots of fun.

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  16. Among the few gaming books I've kept is the Traveller omnibus that came out a few years ago. I'd love to run it again, but have zero interest in running an Imperium game ... as others have noted, the game eventually became about the setting.

    Also, the Traveller Mailing List people take this stuff SRSLY, or did during my limited time on the list years ago.

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  17. Ah! Where did you find those references? I didn't see them in Supplements 1-3 and am curious.

    They're not listed as an appendix or list as such. I gleaned them from the lists of characters statted up at the end of 1001 Characters and Citizens of the Imperium.

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  18. I would argue that E.C Tubb had far more incluence than piper or anyone else- but I won't, because J.Rients did it first

    Tubb is a HUGE influence on LBB-only Traveller, no question, whereas Piper (and Anderson) have a bigger role in the Supplements and Adventures, especially as the Imperium setting gets more fleshed out.

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  19. In the end, Traveller to me became the best way to play The Third Imperium, and little more. I sometimes wish I'd never bought anymore than the original LBBs.

    I sympathize. Much as I love the Imperium setting, it's now become so strongly associated with the game itself that it's difficult to get people to play Traveller without using it as well.

    Weird coincidence though: just this evening on RPGnet, someone asked for opinions on the best games in which to play Anderson's Technic History. I didn't hesitate to recommend Thousand Suns.

    That's very kind of you. Thanks.

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  20. In particular, Burroughs' "Mars" series is the only literary work that appears on the lists for both AD&D and Traveller.

    Though John Carter is hardly a household name these days, once upon a time, he (along with his author) were probably the biggest influences on fantasy and SF.

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  21. And yet I continually run into gamers, under 30s mostly, that have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention ERB and Barsoom let alone Vance or Anderson.

    Sadly, a lot of the seminal works of these authors aren't available in print anymore, so I can't really blame anyone for not being familiar with them.

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  22. literary reference and sandbox play...have been conspicuously absent from all the role-playing I've seen and in which I've participated.

    They both fell out of favor a long time ago, arguably not long after the hobby began and certainly by the time it became mainstream. Granted, they're two of my longstanding hobbyhorses, so I mourn them more than most, but I genuinely believe the hobby lost something by the shift away from these elements.

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  23. But each subsequent supplement and adventure focused more and more on the Third Imperium. It became so self referential it was useless.

    The self-referential nature of Traveller as the years dragged on is what simultaneously drew me to it and repelled me from it. In the end, it was the latter aspect of it that won out and I haven't actually played Traveller for any length of time in years. I still have enormous respect for its design, though; it's close to perfect for its purposes.

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  24. Nowadays most people would look at you strangely if you described a game of Traveller in those terms, methinks.

    Almost certainly and that's a pity. Like OD&D, Traveller in its original form is a really wide-open game and I remember some very imaginative campaigns that looked nothing like the Third Imperium setting.

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  25. Also, the Traveller Mailing List people take this stuff SRSLY, or did during my limited time on the list years ago.

    The TML is a great resource if a) you've got a strong stomach for obsessive nerdery and b) you're interested in the Third Imperium setting. Point a, in particular, scares people away and I can understand that. It's too hardcore for me, but I think there's a place for that kind of devotion to the game and many of the TML regulars are imaginative, thoughtful people.

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  26. Note that the Traveller principals are still around and likely available for interviews.

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  27. I think Mongoose Traveller has sparked a revial of using Traveller as a general science fiction ruleset.

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  28. Note that the Traveller principals are still around and likely available for interviews.

    I try not to announce any interviews I have in the works before they come to pass. :)

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  30. While not listed above, I always thought the Asimov Foundation stories (at least the older ones...ie the three books I bought in the 70s) were Travelleresque. We've got Jump Drives, free traders, and so on.

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  31. On the subject of ERB, Vance, and Anderson- I've found only one bookstore in my area that carries Vance, and it's only three books total. A seperate store has, I believe, one Anderson book. So it's not our fault, really! :P

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  32. I'm reading Iain M. Banks' "Against A Dark Background", and it has a pretty Traveller-y feel. The tech level is lower than the 'Culture' novels, apart from some rare and/or restricted artifacts. (I suspect the Culture plays a role, but the populace of the system is ignorant of their existence.)

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  33. I think one reason why it's harder to get into Traveller these days isn't just because of the setting, but because the original rules (which would involve technology) are influenced by the decades of influence the SF has.

    The big problem with SF is that, unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction doesn't age as well. A fantasy world doesn't need to keep up with the future or logic, but concepts from pulp-SF seem at best quaint and at worst archaic and dated.

    As science discovers new concepts and technology advanced, stuff we never predicted comes true and stuff we predicted doesn't happen. Flying cars and space colonization didn't happen, but we have inventions not predicted, such as the microprocessor which made computers a lot different from what was predicted, and things like the Internet. Thus, SF speculates about things like Nanotech and biotech and other concepts unthinkable 50 years ago.

    If the original traveller rules don't take these concepts into account, it makes it harder to accept the rules. I could get into something more like Transhuman Space or Eclipse Phase than I could Traveller.

    I can't see a lot of SF fans seeing as much value from the Little Black Books as I could a fantasy fan from the Original White Box. And I think that's the big flaw in pursuing classic SF games (as opposed to classic Fantasy games).

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  34. Traveller was my favorite game back in the 1980's, as well. It really brought a fresh perspective to character creation; even if the original starship combat was sub=optimal. But the "stranded on a hostile world" and "monster loose on a spaceship" scenarios we played in Traveller are still high points of the games that I've played over the years.

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  35. @JRT - I disagree Firefly and the rash of military sci-fi we had over the years are very much in the spirit of Traveller. However I agree that some things could be added to make it seems more futuristic than then the original rules feel.

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  36. I loved Traveller. Great game. Very groundbreaking game for its time.

    While many sci-fi games focused on combat (turning most games into futuristic dungeon crawls), Traveller was more about exploration.

    I also liked the setting... a quasi-imperial/royal government with religious influences and a bloated, overgrown bureaucracy.

    One drawback: If you attempted to create your own sector using their rules and didn't have a computer program to do the work, it took hours. Literally. But to me, it was a labor of love.

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  37. I think Mongoose Traveller has sparked a revial of using Traveller as a general science fiction ruleset.

    That's great, if true. I haven't seen much evidence of it myself, but I admit that I'm no longer plugged into Traveller fandom anymore.

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  38. That's going to chance in about two years once Pixar's Princess of Mars film is released.

    I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

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  39. While not listed above, I always thought the Asimov Foundation stories (at least the older ones...ie the three books I bought in the 70s) were Travelleresque. We've got Jump Drives, free traders, and so on.

    Absolutely. There's a lot of Asimov in Traveller, although I suspect most of its influence is probably subtle rather than the overt stuff derived from writers like Tubb, Anderson, and Piper.

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  40. On the subject of ERB, Vance, and Anderson- I've found only one bookstore in my area that carries Vance, and it's only three books total. A seperate store has, I believe, one Anderson book. So it's not our fault, really! :P

    Oh, I know. It's a shame how hard it is to get many of the classics of SF and fantasy in modern editions.

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  41. The big problem with SF is that, unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction doesn't age as well. A fantasy world doesn't need to keep up with the future or logic, but concepts from pulp-SF seem at best quaint and at worst archaic and dated.

    A lot of people feel this way, but it's never bothered me. In fact, I generally tend to prefer SF whose science and technology aren't "up to date," because it lets me focus on the story and characters and, at the end of the day, it's that stuff that keeps me reading a short story or novel.

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  42. However I agree that some things could be added to make it seems more futuristic than then the original rules feel.

    Part of the appeal of Traveller for me is its slightly dated feel. Somehow, that makes it seem more realistic and not less. I frankly loathe most attempts to "update" Traveller by including stuff like cybernetics, nanotechnology, and other stuff that's not part of the game's literary inspirations.

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  43. I agree with James in that I do not want my Traveller game to try and keep up with modern SF topics... that is just not the flavor I am looking for in a classic space-opera style game. While I loved Charles Stross' Accelerando, trying to play an actual RPG in that universe would not even be fun for me... everything is so gonzo and out-of-control. There is no limit really on what could happen, anything is possible. There would be no structure for the PCs to get a handle on things and make meaningful contributions. So, yeah, I think nanotech doesn't really belong in Traveller except as a super-high level discovery of the Ancients... something that has the potential to destroy the whole Imperium.

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  44. @N Wright: It took me years to track down all the Jack Vance books, all used paperbacks of course, but it was a fun hunt. I think Tor started reissuing compilations about the time I finished collecting. I like the old ones though the covers art is just more evocative.

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  45. @JRT: The big problem with SF is that, unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction doesn't age as well.

    I would argue with this and say that technology doesn't age well, but not all SF is about technology. The best stuff doesn't rely on gimmicks. A lot of the Traveller-era SF concentrated on the people placed in this situation, and people really haven't changed that much with the increase in technology. I'd argue that the works of Eric Frank Russell, for one notable example, are still as readable today as they ever were.

    Then again, Traveller was never meant to encompass the Singularity and Transhumanism and doesn't contain the self-referential mechanisms for the characters to be able to do so. For that I reccomend something like Sufficiently Advanced.

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  46. I reread all three LBBs about two years ago, and what struck me most was how much the state of RPG design and presentation advanced in only a couple of years since OD&D. The contrast between the original three D&D booklets and the original three Traveller books is immense. Not to take anything away from OD&D, but it's clearly an amateur effort groping in strange, new territory. Traveller is a professional presentation in every way, perhaps the first truly professional RPG published, showing just how far the industry progressed in barely three years.

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  47. @ Reverance Pavane: For that I reccomend something like Sufficiently Advanced.

    Huh... kind of a funky site. The aesthetic is sort of like a self-help book and the animated ads in the middle of the page are incredibly tacky. It makes it hard to read and take seriously. I guess that is shallow of me.

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