Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column here on SF Signal about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader and writer’s world. This time out, I would like to tackle another of the ur-games of the genre.
If the ur-game for fantasy roleplaying games is Dungeons and Dragons, then the ur-game for science fiction, specifically space opera games, is Traveller. While probably near every reader of genre, and many who don’t read genre has heard of Dungeons and Dragons, I bet that Traveller, even though it was a formative a game in its way, is far less known to you. There are reasons for that, but let’s table that for the moment and just correct that imbalance, shall we?
Traveller is a science fiction space opera roleplaying game that first originated in 1977 by Games Designer’s Workshop. The original game had no real setting, and the roots of the game can be found in the works of Foundation (Isaac Asimov), Space Viking (H. Beam Piper), Known Space (Larry Niven), the Polesotechnic League (Poul Anderson) and many others. The players typically have a space ship, and journey between star systems seeking money, power, influence, trade and adventure.
I have a thesis that setting-less roleplaying systems never last, either they fail, or they quickly wind up with a setting, either by accretion or by deliberate action. Its pretty simple. If you are a GM and you wind up buying a roleplaying book, having no world there to at least mess around with means that you have to build one before you are ready for game time for your players. Building a roleplaying world is hard work, as hard as worldbuilding is for a genre writer. It’s a heck of a lot to ask for a GM to do.
So it is no surprise that while the early little black books of Traveller had no defined setting, that changed, rapidly. The Traveller universe is a future history that extends from hundreds of thousands of years into the past, to the standard game present, which corresponds to about the 57th century A.D, although the anno domini calendar is no longer used.
In the Traveller universe, a precursor race, the Ancients spread through the galaxy hundreds of thousands of years ago. They explored many worlds, and more importantly took samples from many of those worlds, including Earth, seeding humans and uplifted wolves (The Vargr) on a bunch of planets. The Ancients then collapsed and disappeared. Earth was not the place where the first human race made it to the stars; a seeded branch of humanity on a planet called Vland got a space empire going thanks to abandoned Ancient technology before the Egyptians built the pyramids. However, when humans from Earth got into space, they managed to take on the ancient and now decadent Vilani Imperium, topple it, and replace it with one of their own.
Next, throw in a long, harsh, dark age, and finally the rise of a third Imperium. It’s now the 12th century of that Third Imperium. There are many other powers besides the Imperium, from small polities that cover a few dozen systems to the psionic humans of the Zhodani, and a fair number of spacefaring aliens. But now the third Imperium, too, is showing its age, and those who live within it, especially those who live near its borders, are definitely in “interesting times.”
The Traveller universe is space opera as opposed to strictly hard science fiction. In the Traveller universe, there is no threat of Singularities, for example, and in fact the technology of the game, to modern readers, might feel retro. There are other interesting quirks to the technology, too. Travel between systems is with warp drives that are rated by how many parsecs they can travel. This results in a network of routes that most ships can take between systems. Maps are a big part of this game.
There is no faster than light communication between systems, either. If you are on the planet Juniper, and want to send a message to Frederick, Baron Kiesche of the planet Jersey, you are going to have to have a ship hand carry that message for you. This limitation and control of communication and information helps justify the neo-techno-feudalistic setting of Traveller.
The mechanics of the game system, with six sided dice, is relatively easy, light and straightforward. It is the character creation system that Traveller was ahead of its time, in more ways than one. Character creation in Traveller is done by a series of dice rolls to find out how your career went before you became the character you start to play with, a lifepath system. Yes, and you randomly roll stats, as well. What this means is that you can wind up with a character that you did not particularly want to play. Even more interesting, it is possible to have your character be killed in character creation, if they had taken a particularly risky option and you rolled badly. This leads to a perverse incentive that if you get a particularly unworkable character to try and get them killed off before you exit character creation.
So why isn’t Traveller a household name? Why don’t and didn’t more people play it? Its my opinion the licensing. Dungeons and Dragons has had an established chain of custody of its intellectual property, from TSR through Wizards of the Coast. This has allowed a consistency of vision and exposure that has allowed it to keep its exposure and prominence. Sure that prominence and exposure are less than they used to be, but Dungeons and Dragons has seeped into genre culture and beyond.
Traveller wasn’t so lucky. It started off with Games Design Workshop but it never took off as D & D did. In the 90’s, the property sort of went to various pieces, with a lot of products coming out from different entities ever since. There’s the New Era, which changed the game mechanics radically and more controversially changed the setting, killing off the Third Imperium. The original creator of the game, Marc Miller, came out with a version of his own which felt like a “Take That” to Traveller the New Era. The fine people at GURPS have their own branch of Traveller, and have the “current timeline” as well as a setting set in the wars between Earth and the Vilani. And I’ve only scratched the surface. There are many others. With all of these shards of Traveller, there is no one game that can lead the way and gain enough market share to have real exposure in the marketplace and be the space opera equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons.
And that’s a shame in my opinion. Anyone who likes classic space opera, from Asimov to Niven, is a natural fit to play Traveller. Wouldn’t you, science fiction reader, want to be a trader on a spacecraft hopping between the stars, using her guile, wits and knowledge to make the big score? Or perhaps be the ex-marine muscle on that trip, seeing what trouble you can get into in a distant spaceport? Or the pilot-astrogator, the one who everyone is depending on when that pirate ship is coming up hard and fast, and its make or break time for the crew of The Bagel’s Revenge?
Next time, we’ll tackle a recent science fiction role playing game that explicitly tries to take up Traveller‘s mantle, to the point of even having the players and GM define the setting in game creation. *And* try to make it with harder science than Traveller, too. What is it? Stay tuned!