Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Retrospective: Library Data

My enduring affection for GDW's science fiction roleplaying game Traveller is a recurring topic of discussion on this blog, as is my similar affection for its Third Imperium setting. No matter how often I've felt that I was ready to "move on" from Traveller, I've never done so for long – and indeed often came back to the game and its setting with renewed enthusiasm. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but the primary one, I think, is how well I know both the game's rules and its official setting.

That extensive knowledge comes after decades of playing and refereeing, as well as reading and writing about Traveller. I know a great deal about Traveller and can, if given the opportunity, talk at length about its minutiae. In fact, I very much enjoy doing so, since it's a science fiction setting that tickles all my particular fancies, some of which no doubt exist precisely because I've been a fan of Traveller for so long.

Ironically, this extensive knowledge is also why I have in the past attempted to leave Traveller behind. After more than forty-years, the game has acquired an immense collection of facts and details about its Third Imperium setting, facts and details that, within the game, are sometimes called library data. As presented in the game's earliest supplements and scenarios, library data were supposed to be bits of information the player characters could obtain through research, the knowledge of which might aid them in the course of their adventures. 

Over time, though, library data became much more than that, as evidenced by a pair of supplements released in 1981 and 1982. Supplement 8: Library Data (A–M) and Supplement 11: Library Data (N–Z) together formed what might be considered the first encyclopedia of the Third Imperium setting. Both of these 48-page booklets contained reams of information about the history, worlds, species, cultures, and technology of the 57th century. While some of this information was simply collected from earlier sources, such as adventures or the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, much of it was entirely new or at least expanded upon information we'd seen previously. The end result was the presentation of an immense, coherent, and very specific far future setting for use with Traveller.

I adored these supplements when they were first released and, for a long time, considered them among the best things every produced for Traveller. What's not to love? Not only did it include a chronology starting 300,000 years in the past, but it also included entries on important historical events within the setting, key worlds within and without the Imperium, all its emperors and empresses, and so much more. For someone like myself, who's always been obsessed with setting detail, the two Library Data supplements were like catnip. I cannot begin to count the hours I spent reading and re-reading them, committing all their entries to memory, to the point that I suspect I know some aspects of the Third Imperium setting better than I do their equivalents in the real world.

Such knowledge proved very useful to me over the years. My command of this information has certainly made my Traveller sessions more immersive, if my players over the years are to be believed. They also aided me in getting my start as a professional writer of RPG material. My first published works were in the pages of GDW's Challenge magazine, thanks in large part to my ability to spin library data information into Traveller scenarios. This was, after all, the original purpose of library data.

Yet, library data was also a great temptation – at least to someone of my particular bent. It was very easy to turn the creation and study of setting-based trivia into an end in itself rather than an aid to play. During the 1990s, when I was most active in Traveller fandom, I detected a very strong tendency among Traveller's most ardent fans to obsess over library data almost to the exclusion of all other forms of engagement with the game, including play. This is not a behavior exclusive to Traveller fans; I have observed it in Tékumel fans too and have been told by others that it's prevalent elsewhere. 

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a game whose setting is rich in detail. As I know only too well, such details can be used to heighten immersion and inspire adventures and those are very good things indeed. They can also displace actual play and discourage newcomers from ever taking an interest in the setting. Recognizing this is one of the reasons why I've frequently abandoned Traveller. I often got the sense that its most fervent fans never really played the game but were only interested in it as a purely intellectual exercise. Even as someone who appreciated the joy that can come from such activity, this repulsed me. A roleplaying game setting – especially one with lots of interesting details – is only good to the extent that it's being used for roleplaying.

This is why I have such mixed feelings about those Library Data supplements. The world building details they contain thrilled me as a younger person and inspired lots of great gaming that I still remember to this day. They're also a trap, one that has too often led me away from actually playing Traveller and down a dead end of simply fixating on its trivia. Older and perhaps a little wiser, I understand this, but I nevertheless remain wary of them and other RPG supplements of a similar sort.


  1. Seconded. I file these alongside the Alien Modules: fascinating source stuff that I wouldn't bother with today.

  2. "I often got the sense that its most fervent fans never really played the game but were only interested in it as a purely intellectual exercise."

    Yeah. Neat people. But they are content to merely play with Traveller rather than actually playing it.

    The intent of the original game was that you make up your own setting. I think I would prefer that, myself. On the other hand, I would never create something as detailed as the Azhanti High Lightning. What an achievement!

  3. You've just made me want to go back and read Classic Traveller material. I loved the library data as a window into the setting. It was also one of my earliest experiences with a published game setting, something I hadn't seen before.

  4. "As I know only too well, such details can be used to heighten immersion and inspire adventures and those are very good things indeed. They can also displace actual play and discourage newcomers from ever taking an interest in the setting."

    I weary of this paradigm. In my first Metamorphosis Alpha game the GM had mapped out all of the levels and created a detailed history of the various warlords. The extensive back story did not discourage me. In one of my early D&D games the GM had a 500 year history of the local lands and seas. I was not intimidated. My first Tekumel game was with David Sutherland, and the alien language, history and social background never daunted my enthusiasm for play. Harn, Exalted, Gamma World, Traveller, Cyberpunk, L5R, all have substantial back stories, but discovering the beautiful and interesting milieu is part of the enjoyment.

    Every RPG that holds an audience for long, is going to collect backstory, history, details, and every possible addenda. It is standard game evolution.

    I am not interested in an RPG with an undefined background, and I think its about time to stop worrying about writing pablum as to not scare the uninitiated. I am looking forward to Vaults of sha Arthan because I want to discover a new world in all of its complexity. If it were a simple, easy to digest, non-intimidating to new comers, RPG, I will be disappointed.

  5. I always thought that the Traveller Adventure was one of the best things they published. It had plenty of background--including Library Data--lots of small situations, several continuing themes, plus the overarching plotline.

  6. Nah. I derive as much or more entertainment from the fictional settings of RPGs (and the odd board or minis game that has enough to really appreciate) as i do from playing them. Sometimes more, depending on the system involved - and Traveller as a franchise has had some stinkers when it comes to game engines. There's no reason to feel like you'd doing something wrong if you're not playing - games settings often offer far more bang for the buck than traditional fiction when it comes to re-read value, and "buying to read" is a perfectly valid reason to purchase a game.

  7. Is there truly a "wrong way" to enjoy learning about a fictional setting?
    A Game setting exists to be played, yes. Fictional worlds that appear in novels or movies can be quite rich in detail - I am certain you can think of many examples. Some fans will read about those worlds with no intention of using that knowledge other than for personal enjoyment or discussion with other fans.

  8. James writes, “A roleplaying game setting – especially one with lots of interesting details – is only good
    to the extent that it's being used for roleplaying.” Like a few others here, I find it difficult to fully agree
    with this. Granted, it is in some ways a pity if details developed to support an RPG aren’t used to do so,
    but this is really only true if someone’s game is suffering as a result (that is, someone’s game would be
    more enjoyable if they took advantage of all this detail). This is the reason to use the Third Imperium in
    a Traveller game: it’s probably more detailed and coherent than anything a referee is likely to come up
    with on their own (certainly than anything I have come up with). I can’t see anything wrong with
    enjoying a setting for its own sake, though, especially if it fosters involvement in a community of people
    sharing and developing their additions to that setting. An imagined world may originate to support an
    RPG, but that need not remain its only function. I would also note that many highly detailed RPG settings
    predate their RPGs (and in some cases predate RPGS altogether). Tekumel, Glorantha, the Forgotten
    Realms, and even technically Oerth fall into this category. Clearly, people enjoy reading about and
    adding to imaginary worlds outside of RPGs: I can’t see how this harms anyone, and I can’t see why RPG
    settings should be excluded from such activity.

  9. great discussion. some games have mechanics that dont appeal but a great campaign setting. some games have mechanics that appeal but the setting wasnt interesting to us. One of us complained about overly detailed settings 'locking you in' to a certain style etc, and the other one absolutely loved the richness and detail of fully fleshed out settings.

  10. Library Data as it existed in Supplements 8 & 11 represent my ideal of setting material. Individual bits of highly evocative details that invite speculation, and suggest things to do, but also giant lacunae in which the local campaign can discover their own answers without fear of treading on canon.