Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Retrospective: MegaTraveller

Traveller is, without qualification, my favorite roleplaying game and has been since I first encountered it through The Traveller Book in 1982. Over the course of the next four years, I played the heck out of it with both my neighborhood friends and one of my high school classmates. Then, I stopped – or, more precisely, I grew bored with Traveller. Looking back on it now, I suppose it was simply a case of over-saturation. Even more than D&D had been my go-to game for fantasy, Traveller had been my go-to game for science fiction, the end result of which briefly abandoning it for GDW's other SF RPG, Traveller: 2300, which came out in 1986. (I would eventually come to feel similarly about Dungeons & Dragons, but not until the mid-90s.)

My love affair with Traveller: 2300 was comparatively brief, lasting only a couple of years. In only two years of playing it, my passion for the game burnt itself out. Not long thereafter, I discovered that, during my time away from it, GDW had released a new edition of Traveller, bearing the rather unusual (and cumbersome) title of MegaTraveller. This new edition boasted not just revised and expanded rules, but also a change in its official Third Imperium setting – the so-called Rebellion.

A quick aside for context: starting with The Spinward Marches in 1979, GDW slowly built up and developed Traveller's official setting. This setting was originally intended as a loose backdrop for published adventures. Over time, the Third Imperium setting, named for the large, human-dominated interstellar empire at its center, accumulated a wealth of details. This was a big part of its appeal to me and other fans. However, a common complaint about the Third Imperium was that it was too static, a holdover, I suspect, from its origins as a universal framework for a wide variety of campaigns. MegaTraveller's Rebellion – really a war of succession – was an attempt to end that stasis by throwing the Third Imperium into a civil war.

The Rebellion was a major reason why I decided to return to Traveller after my hiatus. I thought the political and military shakeup of the Third Imperium was exactly what was needed to add some dynamism and danger to a setting that felt very staid to me. Consequently, I snapped up MegaTraveller and dove back into the rules and setting I'd loved for many years beforehand. My hope in buying the new edition was that it was similar enough to the earlier edition rules-wise that I wouldn't have to relearn how to play, while also being changed just enough to make it more compelling.

On the first point, I was largely correct. Mechanically, most of MegaTraveller's rules were very close to the 1977/1981 versions I'd played before. Character generation was much as I'd remembered it, though there were a lot more skills and options for advanced generation methods like that found in Mercenary. The combat system borrowed elements from Azhanti High Lightning in an effort to streamline it. More significantly, there was now a codified, universal task system for the handling of both skill use and combat – a major innovation over the ad hoc approach to skills in the previous edition.

At the same time, there were major changes to starships, both their construction and combat systems. Classic Traveller had a simple, elegant system for starship construction. Its combat system was a bit more complex, making use of a realistic vector movement that I always found frustrating. By contrast, MegaTraveller introduced an extensive but unwieldy (and much corrected) construction system that required more or less demanded a spreadsheet to use properly. Its combat system seems to have been modeled on the personal combat system, which is either a positive or a negative depending on how you felt about the original combat system. 

Also included in the MegaTraveller boxed set was the Imperial Encyclopedia, which consolidated the two volumes of Library Data under one cover. There was also a map of the Spinward Marches sector. Released around the same time – but sold separately – was the Rebellion Sourcebook. This setting book laid out the various factions of the Imperial civil war for use in the game. Unfortunately, all of the information was very high level and there were no practical details, in this or in the boxed set, on what it was like to referee a campaign during this time of interstellar tumult. Its main utility for me came in the form of its credits, which thanks an organization called The History of the Imperium Working Group (HIWG), whose members were apparently dedicated to working out the details of the Third Imperium setting.

I found HIWG's address in a copy of Challenge magazine and sought them out. They were a collection of Traveller fans dispersed throughout the world who'd been consulted by GDW about the Rebellion and its development. At the time, they were quite active in producing documents about various in-universe topics, which they shared amongst themselves and with Traveller writers. Some of HIWG's members even wrote articles that were published in Challenge and elsewhere. I enthusiastically joined HIWG and used it as a platform to jumpstart my professional writing career. I also made a number of lifelong friends who also shared my passion for Traveller.

MegaTraveller was never a success. Many longtime fans, who'd wanted to see the Third Imperium setting reinvigorated, grew disenchanted with the Rebellion, which seemed both needlessly destructive and aimless. Newcomers were even more confused by what the game was about than they might have been during the latter days of classic Traveller's run. Matters weren't helped by the fact that GDW produced very few support products for the game, leaving most of that work to licensees like Digest Group Publications. The end result was a huge mess – not unlike the Rebellion itself.

Yet, for all of that, I have fond feelings toward MegaTraveller, largely because it served as both my entry into professional writing and because it introduced me to several people who've been very important to me over the years. It probably helps that, for all my protestations to the contrary, I adore setting details and MegaTraveller was an era when such details were at the forefront. From most perspectives, MegaTraveller might not be a great edition of Traveller, but it's one I nevertheless associate with many positive things. That's why it'll always have a special place in my heart.


  1. I remember seeing it in Virgin Games on Oxford Street in '87 and buying it (and the Rebellion Sourcebook) there and then. I never got around to playing it, and the ship design system was just too complex for pen and paper (it would be a couple of years later when I was at university that I bought my first computer) so I gave up on it. I still have it, and do refer to it occasionally.

    There was a major problem with errata, I've since discovered. I did start trying to write them in on my books, but only got so far before I quit.

  2. I just picked up the CD archives of both Challenge Magazine and SJ Games's JTAS, and it's been cool seeing all the articles with your name on them.

    I also don't really like the Rebellion as a setting, so I tend to follow the GURPs timeline. But I also usually start games in 1105 so the biggest event I sometimes include is the Fifth Frontier war. I did like a lot of MT supplements like the Imperial Encyclopedia and the World Builder's Guide. I know a lot of the material is collected from older CT stuff, but it's nice to have some consolidated books.

    Anyway, I've been loving digging into the old magazines and extra materials from all eras to get ideas for my current campaign, which uses Cepheus Deluxe for a consolidated rulebook and pulls from everywhere in Traveller, Classic to T5.

  3. It's my favorite rules edition of Traveller to date, and I do love the era even if I do have a sentimental preference for the classic 1105-1115 era. The only other era that really appeals to me is one that hasn't been covered in much detail in any product line to date, the Psionic Suppressions. There was an adventure—or, rather, a short sequence of three or four presented over as many issues of the magazine—in Travellers' Digest that touched on that latter era, so MegaTraveller is the only rules edition to even marginally cover it.

  4. I'm still more of a LBB fan than MT, but I did enjoy T:2300 (and will always call it that, revisions be damned) quite a lot. The only Traveller campaign I played in during the Rebellion era studiously ignored the whole metaplot and left Strephon alive so I never experienced it directly. Reading the news articles in Challenge was fascinating at first, but quickly became a confusing and depressing mess as things fell apart and no clear leader(s) among the factions emerged. The whole thing felt like an attempt at a 90s-era metaplot (ala White Wolf or Torg) executed by people who didn't really grasp the concept, resulting in a spoiled setting with no reward at the end of it all - unless you really enjoyed the deus ex machina Virus storyline and TNE RC Traveller, which was not a common thing IME. Most of the Traveller players I knew skipped TNE altogether, and quite a few of them grabbed the lifeline GURPS threw them as soon as it came out.

    To this day, I still wish GDW had had the guts to just declare the real canon was the Challenge April Fool's news piece where Strephon (like Bobby Ewing) had just been taking a very, very long shower and the Rebellion was Dulinor having a dream. Doubt it would have hurt sales any worse than keeping that metaplot going and then publishing TNE on their way to collapse.

    1. The TNS news briefs from the Rebellion period were such a baffling mess, even to guys like me who'd become invested in the new setting.

    2. I'll say this much for the Challenge news pieces, they did get me to buy the Rebellion Sourcebook in an attempt to work out what was going on a little more clearly. Didn't really help much, unfortunately. A very disjointed metaplot that didn't sell itself past the very early events and sputtered out with the deeply unsatisfactory Virus plot.

  5. Yeah, the MT did add some excitement to the Traveller setting. I did not like the seemly endless errata. Though there was a segment of the fandom, that loved the new rules for creating starships.

  6. MegaTraveller has a very special and strange place in my heart.

    As I've said before elsewhere, my first experience with Traveller was very disappointing. I was 10 I think, maybe 12, and already a huge Science Fiction fan. Traveller had none of what I wanted in a Sci-Fi game. At least in my first session there were no Alien PC options, firearms had bullets not energy, FTL travel seemed slow, and there was no FTL communication. What the heck? 'How is this considered SF', wondered a very young me.

    I pretty much avoided Traveller for years until my friend 'Big J', a huge Traveller fan, introduced me to the brand new version of it - MegaTraveller! After J ran me through a sample session I like it so much I bought it myself. Funny enough the only thing I didn't like about it was the setting. A Rebellion is Star Wars thing. The Imperium is what makes the Traveller universe cool. Why throw it into chaos? Silly.

    Anyway, nowadays Traveller is one of my favorite RPGs and the homebrew version I run is basically a Classic/Mega hybrid. I'm happy to see some acknowledgement of MegaTraveller and its role in getting people into Traveller in this 'second time around'.