Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Retrospective: Citizens of the Imperium

During the decade between 1977 and 1987, Game Designers' Workshop released thirteen supplements for use with what is now known as "classic" Traveller. As you might expect, these supplements are a mixed bag, ranging from the essential to the merely useful to the forgettable. I own them all, of course, because I've been a huge fan of the game since I first encountered it a little more than forty years ago. Even so, there are only a handful of these supplements I always use when playing and high on that list is Citizens of the Imperium.

First published in 1979, Citizens of the Imperium is 44-page digest-sized book completely devoid of any artwork, either on its cover or in its interiors. That's par for the course for most classic Traveller supplements – and quite a few adventures, too, come to think of it – unless you consider maps, deckplans, or mathematical formulae illustrations. It's frankly impossible to imagine a RPG supplement being released nowadays without even a single illustration, but, at the time, I can't recall anyone commenting on it, let alone being put out by it. Yet more evidence that the past really is a foreign country.

The book consists of two large sections, as well as two smaller ones. The first large section is the most important, introducing as it does twelve new starting careers for player characters, most of which are civilian in nature. This is significant, because the original Traveller rules only provided for three military careers (Army, Navy, Marines) and one paramilitary career (Scouts), with only the Merchants and nebulously-defined-but-probably-criminal "Other" career as non-military alternatives. Citizens of the Imperium widens the field considerably, offering barbarians, belters, bureaucrats, diplomats, doctors, flyers, hunters, nobles, pirates, rogues, sailors, and scientists as possibilities, though some are more clearly attractive than others (I have never, in all my years of playing Traveller, seen anyone roll up a bureaucrat, but I'm nevertheless glad the option exists).

The second large section is more or less an adjunct to the previously published 1001 Characters, in that it presents 40 pre-generated examples of each career type, to be used either as player or non-player characters. Difficult as it is to imagine from the vantage point of a world with ubiquitous personal computers and similar devices, this section would have been a genuine godsend to the harried referee. I know I regularly made use of it in creating NPCs for my campaigns and I suspect I was not alone in doing so. Much more so than Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller regularly included "time saver" material like this in its books, supplements, and adventures, which made sense, since what we now call "sandbox" play with the default campaign playstyle.

The two smaller sections of Citizens of the Imperium are, in different ways, worthy of note. The first provides rules for low-tech missile weapons – bows and crossbows – for use by characters in the game. I suspect the presence of both barbarians ("rugged individuals from primitive planets") and hunters ("individuals who track and hunt animals") suggested their inclusion (though Traveller was already notable among SF RPGs for including a wide range of low-tech melee weapons). The second small section presents eight heroes and villains "drawn from the pages of science-fiction" in Traveller terms. This section is important for anyone interested in assembling an "Appendix T" for the game, which is to say, a list of its literary antecedents. We get the game's interpretation of Harry Harrison's Slippery Jim di Griz, Keith Laumer's Retief, and James White's Senior Physician Conway, alongside Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and several others. It's one of my favorite sections of the book, if only because it's a reminder of what inspired Marc Miller and the crew at GDW when making the game.

My complaints about Citizens of the Imperium are few and curmudgeonly. The introduction of new careers paved the way for the introduction of new skills, a baleful trend inaugurated by Mercenary and continued by many more books, supplements, and adventures. I say "baleful," because one of the glories of classic Traveller in my opinion is its relative simplicity, including a relatively spare skill list. The introduction of more – and more specific – skills undermined that simplicity to the game's detriment. Still, it's easy enough to ignore most of the new skills and focus instead on the careers, most of which increased the range of options available to players without adding any mechanical complexity to the game.


  1. “I have never, in all my years of playing Traveller, seen anyone roll up a bureaucrat.”

    Another funny example of how real life diverged from role playing. Played Traveller in the 80s and never considered any of the civilian roles. But after my time in the Navy, I gladly became a bureaucrat, to the envy of other Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Airmen. Back then, none of us placed much stock in “Social Standing,” but we do now. Still think RPGs are great, but it’s because of how they don’t mimic real life. That said, I have had some great adventures as a bureaucrat, including trekking through Amazonian jungle, and so feel like a I could really add some spice to that humble career option now.

  2. I can recall several period magazine reviews that positively compared other games to Traveller for having good (or, indeed, any) artwork, so it was definitely noticed and seen as a feature the game was lacking in. I initially skipped on all of completely unillustrated "# Things" LBBs because of the dearth of art and a dislike for books full of pregen characters/monsters/etc. which were something of a fad for a while (not unlike "book of random charts" stuff is on DTRPG today). It wasn't until I'd bought everything else that I went back and took another look at them and realized there was a bit more to the,

    FWIW, I played a character with a couple of terms as a bureaucrat back in 1984. He was very much an homage to the Retief books, a guy with just enough familiarity with red tape to know how to get around it efficiently. Had some time as a diplomat too. I was trying to make "Magnan, if Magnan wasn't an ineffectual cowardly backstabber" - which he occasionally was in the stories when Laumer was feeling generous to the guy.

    Vastly underappreciated series, Retief. Still a depressingly realistic depiction of diplomacy today. Although William Keith's attempts to posthumously finish out a draft of Laumer's back in 2005 was the only thing by him I didn't care for, which was a bit of a disappointing cap on the series. Credit for trying, but Laumer's voice was something unique.

  3. FWIW, my three "Mike's" D&D books have no art whatsoever, either in the interiors or on the covers (unless, of course, one counts maps as art).

  4. I like the careers, but in the past never used them because they didn't have the same detail as Mercenary etc. In my more recent "back to basics" gaming, I decided to stick with Book 1 style generation. I didn't want to introduce lots of new skills that the Book 1 careers should have had, so I reworked the Citizens tables to virtually eliminate new skills other than a couple that could be very career specific (so no need to retrofit the Book 1 tables). Here is my effort:

  5. I had been reading so much Niven at the time that I think my first PC was a belter. I remember rolling up the character and earning several MCr; my D&D indoctrinated self wondered what there was left to do since I was already rich.

  6. "It's frankly impossible to imagine a RPG supplement being released nowadays without even a single illustration" -- I think one reason GDW got away with it even then (after all, TSR and Chaosium books were full of excellent art during that period) was that GDW's layout design was so crisp and sure-footed, its typesetting, table, and font choices were perfect, and its digest size books with their distinctive covers stood out. (Most game stores put them on spinner racks rather than shelves).. Even today I find reading a Traveller book of this era a pleasant experience due to this.

  7. Citizens is an eminently useful supplement. Even for more recent UPP Traveller versions, the bare bones characters give a referee an assortment of ready to use NPCs. And the sample characters from this and "1001 Characters" tell you exactly what gave great influence in to Traveller.