Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Classic Traveller: Playing for the First Time!

Our Classic Traveller campaign is still fresh at one month old, but my wheels are spinning in my brain already!

I'm enjoying it so far. This little game is a tonne of fun! I was fortunate that our group decided to play Classic Traveller around the same time the charity Bundle of Holding put the majority of the books together for download at a huge discount. One of the beautiful things about the, "little black books," is how economical it is to print them out in A5 booklets on a typical office laser printer. I printed out a pile of books just to read them!

(Why yes, I did colour in the margins of the covers with a Sharpie. What of it?)

It seems a strange thing that I didn't play Traveller in the early 80s when I was starting to play so many other games, but the world was a much larger place back then. I lived in a city that could be best described as "remote" at the time. Without the internet and the new divided highways that connect us to the major cities in the south nowadays, we took what we could get up here. As far as RPGs went there were the TSR boxes in the Sears department store, the tiny collection of dice, modules and AD&D books at the hobby shop and a shelf at the comic shop located in the downtown core. Traveller just never made it to Sudbury. For science fiction RPGs we had Star Frontiers and eventually GURPS Space, but Traveller was a game I merely read about in Dragon. I played a myriad of sci-fi RPGs over the years, but Traveller continued to elude me.

After I joined the RPG enthusiast party that is Google Plus I heard more and more about Traveller and how awesome it is. It became something of an RPG bucket list item for me so I'm thrilled that we finally played it in our infamous Tuesday Night Hangout Game!



We decided to use the classic version of the game. The one that originally came as three, "little black books." Since the only one of us to play Traveller before was our GM he elected to keep it simple with the original game and only the basic books.

Those three books are a complete mess. They make the game harder to play than it needs to be. Don't use them. Seriously. The original books from 1977 are 'organized' along the similar lines to the original D&D, "little brown books," with one for characters and rules, another for starships and space rules, and the final one for world and adventure building. They look like they were typed out on a typewriter and cut and pasted together (which they probably were). There's no art and the layout is awkward at best.

(For the love of sanity, don't use these books!)

The good news is the game was re-released in a "starter box" in 1981 with a new layout and books separated into the core book, all the charts and tables, and the adventure book to get a new GM started. Arranging the rules in one book and referring to the reference book for charts makes gameplay a much better experience. Our group has already switched to the starter set. If you are new to Traveller, do yourself a favour and start there. The art certainly is typical of its era, but at least it breaks up the text and shows you what the standard designs of ships look like.

(Use these books instead. Trust me.)

What I love about Traveller is the scope of it. The universe is a vast sandbox of worlds where anything can be happening! The rules of space travel make communication a matter of going to a place with the news as cargo with weeks of time spent travelling in hyper/jump space. This means worlds can be lost. Wars are slow and devastating. Opportunities abound for the people who have managed to be at the right place at the right time.

Fortune favours the bold.


The implied setting is in a massive galactic empire that is preoccupied mostly with defence and commerce. The individual worlds and small collections of system are left mostly to their own devices in the vast bureaucracy that is the Imperium. There's plenty of room for adventure in such a place, doing freelance missions for Imperial intelligence, operating as a tramp freighter moving cargo from system to system on speculation, explorers searching for lost technologies from a forgotten age, couriers bringing sensitive information and packages to clients with discretion, finding opportunities for high risk cargo transport (smuggling), salvage teams/pirates taking what they can from the space lanes, power brokers getting involved in planetary politics, mercenaries doing the jobs that patrons need to keep some distance from, bounty hunters bringing in dangerous people or even kidnapping innocents... there's no limit!


There's a lot in this game that feels like the gritty sci-fi of the late 70s and early 80s. I can see the influence of Blake's 7 here and there. The movie Alien could be a Traveller adventure. So could the sequel Aliens for that matter. The psionics section looks like it is lifted directly from scripts of The Tomorrow People. With these rules I could even turn the old Canadian sci-fi classic The Starlost into a campaign.

Part of the beauty of the system is how well it has kept over the years. It still seems like a great RPG to run something like Farscape, Cowboy Bebop or Firefly. There are plenty of rumours on the internet about how Firefly is based on Joss Whedon's college Traveller campaign. It certainly translates well and the idea of it shows how a GM is not bound by the implied setting. It can be taken down to a single star system full of inhabited/terra-formed worlds clustered together in an almost clausterphobic proximity. Take away jump drives and you are back to the same age-of-sail speed of game. There's no reason to have a successful Imperium either. It could be crumbling like the last days of Rome or Asimov's Foundation series. The coming chaos creates opportunity for adventure and the necessity to search for older, better technology!

So far our game has a Firefly/Cowboy Bebop vibe to it. Playing morally flexible opportunists out in the far reaches of space is pretty sweet. Turns out we are not bad at crime. Not so good at mutiny or stealing ships, but low-violence crime is definitely our bag.

(everything I needed to fall in love with Cowboy Bebop is here in the opening credits)

That's a lot to say about the fluff for a game that is not terribly attached to the setting! There's plenty to say about the crunch too!

Crunch in the far future...


People talk a lot of crap about the character generation system and how you can die while making a character. Traveller characters are experienced, capable people. The character generation is a process of rolling up the experiences that made them that way. Not everyone makes it. Push it too far, stay in a dangerous service too long and your character is dead. The risk makes the reward sweeter and the whole process a lot more fun. There's an old joke about D&D that backstory is everything that happens before level 5. In Traveller you just roll all that nonsense and move on. Some characters don't make it to level 5 in D&D, so it goes in Traveller. If you get lucky with your stats survival is pretty easy. We haven't lost any characters during character generation yet. A couple of us had to make new characters after our first ones were blasted out of orbit by the authorities though. That was a rough lesson.

Combat is deadly! It is resolved after only a round or two. You don't want it going past that or someone on your side is going down. It gives the whole thing a pulpy, old-school feel.

(Poor Blake, maybe that surprise roll is important after all)

The basic mechanic for the game is a modified 2D6 roll for a target that is almost always 8+. The roll is modified by skills and occasionally exceptional stats. For our group success comes pretty easy when rolling two dice and adding one or two to the roll to get eight or more. Statistically, it is hard to fail as long as your characters are performing a skill they are proficient in. There's a -3 penalty for non-proficiency which is devastating on the 2-12 spread. This system reinforces the idea that you assemble a team of competent specialists to get things done. If your characters try something they don't know how to do they need to get lucky or it's not going to happen. Even rolling with zero bonus the odds are stacked against you. The simplicity of the system and the way it supports the basic assumptions of the game is elegant. I get why people who played it back in the day preferred Traveller to the mish-mash of different rules and resolution mechanics that was (and essentially still is) D&D.

("I make navigation look good.")

It's the little details that make this game feel like it could happen. For example, the ship a group is most likely to have is the Scout/Courier. A small ship designed for long distance jumps with a little room for special cargoes it's an obvious choice. The fact that one of the characters is likely to have one as a benefit of their service is important too. This ship has a weird thing about it though. The air filtration is a little wonky and the whole ship begins to smell like ass after a few weeks. There are quick fixes and expensive solutions, but the end result is the GM needs to track smell along with time for this starship. I can see the workhorse of the imperial fleet ending up smelly because some planet-bound bureaucrat decided the extra tonne of cargo was more important than the air quality.




The only thing I felt was missing from the starter rules is options for careers outside of the military or merchant services. There's just "other" as an entry that seems like little more than an interplanetary vagabond. I was thinking about writing up a set of six options to replace the single "other" option on the enlistment chart. Turns out there's already a book with 12 options already made up! I found out about The Citizens of the Imperium supplement on a G+ thread and purchased the PDF right away. It's not the all the same choices I would have made but there's no reason why I can't add to it. It certainly does the job of filling out the character options.

There are some wonky rules I'd like to see tightened up. The skills for combat are silly and inconsistent with the other skills. You have a skill for engineering to cover all work on drives and such. You have a skill for electronics for all electronics stuff. If you have a skill in flying fixed-wing aircraft you can still fly a helicopter at one less than your skill with planes. That's all well and good, but for some reason there is a separate skill for revolvers and automatic pistols. There's also separate skill for broadswords and cutlasses. All characters are assumed to have a zero level skill with all weapons so at least they aren't rolling at -3 with a weapon almost exactly like the one they are skilled with.

"It is my very favourite gun."

As a GM I'd hack that into weapon groups: Pistols, long guns (shotguns, carbines and rifles), automatic weapons, black powder weapons, laser weapons, pole-arms (including spears and fixed bayonets), short blades (daggers, knives and blades) and long blades. All of these are different enough to require a different skill. I might use the familiarity (one less than the similar skill) from the flight skill with similar weapons like short/long blades or similar firearms. We'll see.

I'm excited about where our Traveller campaign will take us. There's certainly nothing in this rules-light game holding us back at this point! I can't seem to shake a feeling of foreboding for some reason though.