Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Holmes on Traveller

J. Eric Holmes, who wrote my beloved edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, also wrote a very fascinating little book entitled Fantasy Role Playing Games. Published in 1981, it's an introduction to the then-new hobby of roleplaying for the uninitiated. Purely as a historical document, it's quite compelling, providing lots of little details about the state of the hobby and Holmes's own participation in it. 

I could (and probably will) devote many posts to its contents. Right now, I was struck by one particular passage in the section in which Holmes discusses Traveller. In it, he offers a theoretical exchange between a referee and his players.

"You land at the space-port, which is a Type A installation. The port authority control tower informs you that docking will be 100 CR per planetary day, refueling will be 2000 CR. The planet's name is Hecka, and you are within 100 miles of the capital city of Arcane. Underground jet-tube transport is available anywhere on the planet."

"Can we breathe the atmosphere?" asks a player.

"Sure. You can see people without special vac-suits walking around the space port."

"O.K., we gird up and go out, leaving the Rigelian behind to guard the ship."

"No guns," says the referee. "This is a law level 9 world."

"We'd better find out what the government set-up is."

"Who're you asking?"

"Ask the computer."

"Computer reports the data are forty planetary years old. Government type at that time was a charismatic dictatorship."


So the players leave their gun belts aboard the ship and step down on the surface of Hecka, not knowing that the world is torn by a civil war, and that the government of the capital is now a hated religious oligarchy.

There's a lot that I, as a long-time Traveller player, love about this passage. First, there's the enumeration of berthing and refueling costs, which are an important part of the rhythm of a crew's visit to a new world. Anyone who's run a free trader in Traveller will immediately understand this. Then, there's the seeking out of library data from the computer, another staple of the game. 

What really impressed me, though, was the way the referee casually mentions that the data are – yes, he uses the plural verb – "forty planetary years old." Not only is this key to understanding how to interpret the Universal World Profile properly, but it's also a great way for the referee to subvert the players' expectations. Hecka was a charismatic dictatorship in the past, but not anymore, as the characters will soon discover. This is fun stuff in my opinion and rather succinctly provides a window on how Traveller was meant to be played. My hat is off to Dr Holmes once more.


  1. OK, that really makes me want to play Traveller!

  2. When I read set ups like this, it reminds me of the early episodes of Tom Baker era Dr. Who. They land on a planet, the info in the TARDIS informs them of some local history, but not the most recent developments, and through the course of the first episode in a 4 or 6 part episode arc, we find out just how involved it gets and sets up the Doctor and companion(s) for the next 3 - 5 parts!