Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Relief for Traveller Nobility"

In celebration of the imminent release of Thousand Suns, you'll see an increased attention given to science fiction RPGs here in the month of December. To kick things off, let's take a look at an article from issue #73 of Dragon (May 1983), entitled "Relief for Traveller Nobility" by Paul Montgomery Crabaugh. Though Dragon was always very focused on fantasy and (naturally) D&D, the magazine did publish SF RPG articles -- many of them, in fact, starting in 1984, when it added the Ares Section.

For those not familiar with the game, Traveller characters have six randomly determined ability scores, one of which is Social Standing. Scores are generated by rolling 2D6 and results of 11 or 12 for Social Standing indicate the character is of noble birth. Scores can reach as high as 15 a result of events in character generation, with each number above 10 reflective of a different level of nobility (from Knight to Duke). This is all well and good and comports with much of the sci-fi that inspired Traveller, but, other than a title, there is absolutely no difference between a noble character and a non-noble one. One could reasonably argue that it's up to the referee to decide what benefits (and drawbacks) go along with patents of nobility in his campaign, especially given that Traveller presents itself as a generic game without a default setting of its own. However, not a few gamers wanted something more than "make it up yourself" and that's where Crabaugh's article comes in.

"Relief for Traveller Nobility" firstly provides rules for determining what sort of family estate (if any) a noble character possesses, as well as the revenue generated by it. Of course, estates require management and, if a noble does not spend much time on his estate, preferring instead to go traipsing across the galaxy with his old military buddies, there's an ever-increasing chance of a coup or revolt. Of course, estates have expenses, too, and Crabaugh spends some time discussing that aspect of noble life in the article. He also discusses the sorts of personal starships to which a noble might have access, something suggested in various parts of the rules but insufficiently fleshed out to Crabaugh's satisfaction.

In the end, it's actually a very short and sketchy article, but it provides more ideas for dealing with noble characters in Traveller than were ever provided in the rules themselves. One of the things that Crabaugh stresses is that the presence of a noble character who takes running his estate seriously will necessarily change the content and scope of the campaign. Instead of speculative trading and breaking and entering on behalf of shady patrons met in startown bars, the campaign will focus more on power politics and all that that entails. That's certainly my own experience in playing a noble-centric campaign and doing it successfully definitely requires a shift in one's perspective and expectations. On the other hand, it can be a lot of fun, particularly if, like me, you enjoy the ups and downs of political machinations and jockeying for influence.


  1. So, I assume that we can expect a "nobles" expansion book for Thousand Suns. I hope so, at least, as I also enjoy the political game. Dune is my favorite SF novel, and I keep looking for good ways to run that sort of scenario (though not necessarily with the messianic aspects).

  2. I actually do have plans for an expansion of Thousand Suns dealing with politics and history, with the goal of its being dual purposed for both regular campaign play and more Pendragon-ish generational play. I've done stuff like this in my own games before, but, before I'd try to offer it to others, it'll need extensive playtesting and that means we won't see it before 2013 at the earliest.

  3. One thing that I grokked to very early was that holding a noble-level Social Status didn't have to mean that you were a member of the peerage yourself. A character with a SOC C could be the nephew of a more powerful noble. His family is rich, influential, and the character may well be found on lists of succession (page seven, near the bottom) but other than a minor, worthless title and prestige, his family connections and 2 credits will buy him a cup of coffee.

    Any noble who held an actual fief (and in Traveller, Barons held entire planets) who ignored theior responsibilities to go gallivanting around the galaxy would soon find themselves stripped of their title and holdings.

  4. If you do an expansion for this based on politics and history might I suggest you title it Thousand Suns: Heritage

  5. Hmm. I've actually have been playing around with a setting using a more unsettled Empire based on the Holy Roman Empire rather than the more traditional strict feudalism. More a confederation held together by mutual interest. This sort of setting creates all sorts of intrigue and danger as the Great Houses scheme to advance themselves at the expense of their rivals. Wars would be allowed, so long as the Emperor is assured that it will be short and not spread.

    We should talk.

  6. Drop me an email at dberry49er(at)gmail(dot)com

  7. I've not seen this article, but White Dwarf published something pretty good on the same subject called Robe and Blaster - I forget the issue. Benefits started with Imperial pensions and grants of gilt edged shares in Megacorps, and the most a PC might expect, if he was really lucky with his dice rolls, was an assistant governorship for a couple of years, which meant pulling in a nice salary for wearing a silly hat and waving the Imperial banner at state occasions.

    Being from Britain, a country that actually still has an aristocracy, I tended to model the Traveller nobles on the real thing, or a caricature of real thing. Plummy-voiced non-entities with slightly more cash than sense who co-opted talented people from the bureaucracy, military and business into their ranks often enough to give the impression of being a meritocracy and to bind such people to the Imperial cause. Back in the day they led the Imperial conquest and expansion, but in the climate of Traveller's default period an old boy's network working behind the scenes not always to the benefit of the Imperium and certainly not of its more democratically minded citizens.

  8. The one thing I really liked about the standard Traveller Imperium was that it actually was an imperium. In this respect, if I was to run a standard game,* I'd actually consider a SOC of 8+ to be the minimum requirement for Imperial Citizenship, and a SOC of 6+ to be the minimum requirement for Imperial Traveller (someone capable of travelling freely throughout the Imperium on Imperial documentation, but not with the legal rights of an actual citizen).

    Lesser SOC could not legally obtain an Imperial passport (it need not be for a criminal reason; it might include politics such as coming from a world with no actual Imperial presence, despite the fact it might be in what is claimed by the Imperium). In essence they would be considered Foreigners. They could travel on their own merits, but would lack a lot of the protections that even an Imperial Traveller might enjoy.

    I do think that this would add a touch more to the characteristic which tends to be ignored (outside of character generation) unless it reaches 11+.

    Of course players would still be free to have a local Social Status, which shows their importance to their home world.

    And I've always been a fan of Flashing Blade style politics and offices in games. Too many people focus on the perquisites of nobility rather than the responsibilities (even if they are ignored).

    [* Most of my games of traveller have either been proper Empires (or pretty much despotic kleptocracies with an anarchic fringe).]