Believe it or not, there is a segment of Dungeon’s & Dragons roleplaying game players who proclaim that if you don’t follow the rules exactly as written then you are playing the game wrong. As much as I disagree with that position, I decided to go back to my tabletop roleplaying game roots and review the “Little Black Books” in my Traveller boxed set to see what is different and maybe play around with those rules a bit to see how they stand up after four decades. Along the way, I also (re?)discovered a gritty edge of Little Black Book Traveller.
No Third in ’77
Traveller, like every other RPG, has its own version of edition wars. Whether you like Classic Traveller or MegaTraveller or Traveller: New Era or Traveller 4 or Mongoose Traveller (1st and 2nd Editions) or Traveller 5 or HERO Traveller or GURPS Traveller, it’s all Traveller at heart. My three Little Black Books for Traveller are the 1977 edition. This means it truly is settingless—there is no Third Imperium between these covers. If I am tracking publication dates correctly, the Third Imperium didn’t appear until Book 4 Mercenary in 1978.
Here is how the “setting” for Traveller 1977 is introduced:
Traveller covers a unique facet of future society: the concept that expanding technology will enable man to reach the stars, and to populate the worlds which orbit them. Nonetheless, communication will be reduced to the level of the 18th Century, reduced to the speed of transportation. The result will be a large (bordering ultimately on the infinite) universe, ripe for bold adventurer’s travels. Using this three book set, players are capable of playing single scenarios or entire campaigns set in virtually any science fiction theme.Traveller, Volume 1, p. 1
To me, the Third Imperium setting in Traveller is the definitive space opera tabletop roleplaying game setting. That said, I have always liked making my own space opera setting. For me, the lack of a defined setting in Traveller ’77 is actually quite refreshing, especially in today’s hyper-commercialized world where IP is the thing. Traveller ’77 is a relatively simple framework for adventure; the buy in requires only a few concessions (most notable, that communication at the speed of transportation). Beyond that is really is up to the imagination of the referee and players!
Let’s step though the three Little Black Books and see what we find…
Book 1 Characters and Combat
PLAYING THE GAME (p. 2) – “Traveller may be played in any of three basic configurations: solitaire, scenario, or campaign.”
- The Solitaire Game: “Solitaire is ideal for the player who is alone due to situation or geography.”
- The Scenario: “Generally, a scenario is a one-time affair, and ends when the evening of play is over or the goal is achieved…Strangely enough, players generally become reluctant to dismiss an experienced character without good cause, and usually want to continue their “lives” in further adventures.”
- The Campaign: “The referee should generate the basic facts of his universe before play begins…Traveller is primarily written with a view to a continuing campaign, and these books primarily deal with that end.”
Here is where my two primary modes of Traveller play, solitaire and campaign, come from. As much as I have played within the Third Imperium or other modern Alternate Traveller Universes like The Clement Sector from Independence Games or HOSTILE from Zozer Games I often find myself coming back to a single subsector for adventure—like I did at the very beginning.
DIE ROLL CONVENTIONS (p. 2 ) – “Routinely in the course of Traveller, dice must be thrown to determine an effectively random or unpredictable course of action. These dice throws may be made by players for their characters, or by the referee for the effects of nature, non-players, or unseen forces. Rolls by the referee may be kept secret or partially concealed depending on their effects. In situations where the players would not actually know the results of the roll, or would not know the exact roll made, the referee would make the dice roll.”
Ahh…the old argument of roll-in-the-open or roll-behind-the-screen. Also “players-roll” or “referee-rolls.” Thinking back, most of my early games were all rolls by the referee with players consulting their character sheet to add die modifiers. Later, we added “shared” rolls where players would roll one die and the referee secretly rolls a second and then narrates the result. This gave players some insight into the potential result (“Hmm…I think I need a 8+ for this to work, and I have a Skill Level DM of +2. I rolled a 3….odds are 2 in 3 that the other die is 3 or better for success but there is a 1 in 3 chance it’s not. Referee said it looks good but…”). To influence their luck, players would often bring their own dice and offer them up to the referee after appropriate blessings or incantations.
INITIAL CHARACTER GENERATION (p. 4) – “Obviously, it is possible for a player to generate a character with seemingly unsatisfactory values; nevertheless, each player should use his character as generated. The experience procedures and acquired skills table offer a genuine opportunity to enhance values, given only time and luck. Should a player consider his character to be so poor as to be beyond help, he should consider joining the accident-prone Scout Corps, with a subconscious view to suicide.”
I don’t think middle school me really understood that last part, but the first has driven so much of my RPG life. Generating a character in Traveller taught me to take what I had and try to make the best of it. There is no real min-maxing characters in Traveller. As I moved on to other RPG systems over the years, I always struggle with developing a character concept because I usually take the hand dealt, not the one tailored to me.
Survival (p. 5) – “Each term of service involves some danger; during the term, a character must successfully throw his service’s survival number to avoid death in the line of duty…Failure to successfully achieve the survival throw results in death; a new character must be generated.”
The character death rule has been in my Traveller since the beginning. To this day I look at other versions that avoid death and shake my head in disbelief for THIS IS Traveller.
Skills and Training (p. 6) – I’ve always been amazed at how few skills a Traveller ’77 characters has. Two skills for first term and one for each subsequent. One skill for a commission and one skill each promotion. A character going out to five terms (early retirement) might have only 10 levels of skills.
AGING (p. 7) – “If, as a result of aging or combat, a characteristic is reduced to zero, the character is considered to be ill or wounded. A basic saving throw of 8+ applies (and may be modified by the expertise of attending medical personnel). If the character survives, his recovery is made immediately (under slow drug, which speeds up his body chemistry). The character ages (one die equals the number of months in added age) immediately, but also returns to play fully recovered. The characteristic which was reduced to zero automatically becomes one. This process occurs for each time (and for each characteristic) a characteristic is reduced to zero. In the event that medical care is not available, the character is incapacitated for the number of months indicated by the die roll.”
Another rule I don’t remember, likely because it is different from the Wounding and Death rules found on page 30 in COMBAT RESOLUTION:
When any one characteristic is reduced to zero by wounds, the character is rendered unconscious. When all three characteristics are reduced to zero, the character is dead…
Unconscious characters (with one characteristic reduced to zero) recover conciseness after 10 minutes, with all characteristics temporarily place at a value halfway between full strength and the wounded level…and remains so until recovered…Return to full strength requires medical attention, or three days of rest.
Unconscious characters (with two characteristics reduced to zero) are considered severely wounded, and recover consciousness after three hours. Their characteristics remain at the wounded level (or one, whichever is higher). Recovery is dependent on medical attention (recuperation without medical attention is not possible).Wounding and Death, pp. 30-31
I remember the combat wounding/death rules but the one under aging seems more appropriate for out-of-combat situations, like basic illnesses or even falling.
THE UNIVERSAL PERSONALITY PROFILE (p. 8) – “…expresses the basic characteristics in a specific sequence, using hexadecimal (base 16) notation.”
How many of you can read the UPP, or USP (Universal Ship Profile) or UWP (Universal World Profile)? It’s amazing how much adventure can be inspired by just a string of alphanumeric text…
A NOTE ON GENDER AND RACE (p. 8) – “Nowhere in these rules is a specific requirement established that any character (player or non-player) be of a specific gender or race. Any character is potentially of any race or of either sex.”
There, no political theatrics or culture war needed. Been doing it since 1977.
Basic Skills / General Description / Specific Game Effects (p. 13 onward) – A close look at the Specific Game Effects give lots of rules for referee’s to use. They also show how flexible the game mechanisms are, mostly because they are few and leave much up to the imagination of the referee and players.
Computer (p. 17) – “Nonetheless, there is always the possibility that such a program will have a fatal error and not function when actually used in space combat (referee throw secretly 7 exactly for fatal error to be written in) or that such a program will have a negative DM when used (referee throw secretly 5- for a negative DM. Half chance that DM will be -1 or -2). Expertise will serve as a DM affecting program quality, +1 per level of expertise. Flaws generally remain hidden.”
While I remember the rules for writing a program, I had forgotten about the fatal flaw rules. Based on experience with MicroSoft over the years, I’m not sure that limiting a fatal flaw to a roll of exactly 7 is limited enough…
Ship’s Boat (pp. 17-18) – Often overlooked, there is a quick-resolution alternate ship combat system in the Specific Game Effects here. It is much more “narrative” than the set-piece combat sequence in Book 2.
Pilot (p. 19) – I often forget that while Ship’s Boat is useful for piloting small craft, a Pilot can also fly small craft, albeit at a -1 skill level.
Skills and the Referee (p. 20) – “It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates.“
“In some game situations, actual die roll results must be concealed from the players, at times allowing them to misconstrue the reasons for their success or failure. In other situations, the referee may feel it necessary to create his own throws and DMs to govern action, and may or may not make such information available to the players.”
“In order to be consistent (and a consistent universe makes the game both fun and interesting), the referee has a responsibility to record the throws and DMs he creates, and to note (perhaps by penciling in) any thrown he alters from those given in these books.”
THIS. IS. TRAVELLER. A game is a shared narrative created by the players and referee. The referee is charged with keeping the universe consistent.
COMBAT / MOVEMENT (p. 29) – “Because the effects of range are so important, and because the ranges between specific characters can vary greatly, it is suggested that the complex combats be mapped out on a line grid…Ordinary lined paper serves this purpose quite well.”
Another reason Classic Traveller was so easy for middle-schoolers—all we needed was a few note cards, looseleaf paper, pen/pencil and a d6.
MORALE (p. 33) – “A party of adventurers (players or non-players) which sustains casualties in an encounter will ultimately break or rout if it does not achieve victory.”
We always used this rule for NPC parties but for the players their Morale was up to them. Since combat in Traveller is actually quite deadly, my players tended to be careful when bullets were flying about.
Laser Carbine / Laser Rifle (pp 36-37) – These weapons were backpack-powered. In the post-Star Wars movie era this was laughable.
Book 2 Starships
Interstellar Travel (p. 1) – “Commercial starships usually make two trips per month, spending one week in travel time and one week for transit to the jump point, landing and take-off and time in port. In port, five or six days are allowed for the acquisition of cargo and passengers, and for crew recreation.”
This is the classic Traveller adventure timeline; one week jump followed by one week in system. It is also interesting to note how often in my adventures the one week in jump was “handwaved” away because nothing ever happens in jump, eh?
Hijacking (p. 3) – “The referee should roll three dice, with a result of 18 exactly indicating one or more passengers is making the attempt.”
Hmm…we never played this event in-jump but wouldn’t that be interesting?
Skipping (p. 3) – “A repossession attempt will occur under the following conditions: On each world landing, throw 12+ to avoid such an attempt, apply a DM of +1 per 5 hexes distance from the ship’s home planet, to a maximum of +9. If the ship has called on the same world twice in the last two months, apply a DM of -2.”
Wow, throw 12+ to AVOID repossession—means you need to get 30-35 parsecs (hexes) or something like two subsectors away to statistically avoid repossession. I can’t recall a time we ever played a repossession attempt which is very surprising given Repo Man was a popular movie in my gaming group…
STARSHIP PURCHASE (p. 5) – Ahh, the starship mortgage. Here I was learning about buying a house while in middle school.
Mail (p. 8) – “Throw 9+ for a private message to be awaiting transmittal, and then determine randomly which crew member is approached to carry it. Serving as a carrier for private messages also serves as an introduction to the recipient as a dependable, trustworthy person.”
This is one of the several “encounters” that randomly can build an adventure.
Starship Construction (p. 9+) – I have arguably created more starships for Traveller over the years than characters. This simple sequence is still a favorite.
NON-STARSHIPS (p. 17) – “A non-starship…can support its passengers for up to 30 days in space. Beyond that time, air, food, and water begin to run out…At the end of 30 days, throw 9+ each day to prevent the recycling machinery from breaking down. If it does fail, it must be repaired on the same day (throw 9+ to repair; DM +1 per level of mechanical expertise, once per day) or the air is exhausted and the passengers will suffocate.”
I can’t ever recall seeing this rule before (even after 40 years). I double checked and there is no comparable rule for starships though you have to pay for Life Support.
Starship Combat (p. 22+) – A vector movement combat system. Another example of how Classic Traveller skews more towards hard sci-fi than space opera.
DATA CARD EXAMPLE (p. 24) – Another 3×5 notecard!
PLANETARY TEMPLATES (p. 26) – I still have mine created 40 years ago.
DETECTION (p. 33) – “Planetary masses and stars will completely conceal a ship from detection.”
When we all saw this in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan we looked at each other and said, “of course.”
Decompression (p. 34) – “Hull hits result in explosive decompression if pressure has not already been lowered. Explosive decompression kills all persons in that section unless a vacc suit is available and put on immediately. Throw 9+ to put on an available vacc suit; DM + level of vacc suit expertise, and DM + dexterity of the individual.”
Here is a rule worthy of The Expanse that I had totally forgotten. The + dexterity modifier is maybe a bit much; later rules would use the Characteristic Modifier which was not in Classic Traveller.
Abandon Ship (p. 35) – “individuals in vacc suits who are not picked up may attempt to land on a planet. The following notes apply…”
Say what?! I absolutely don’t remember this rule at all. Here are rules for vacc suit endurance, movement, foamed ablation reentry, oh my!
STARSHIP ENCOUNTERS (p. 36) – “When a ship enters a star system, there is a chance that any one of a variety of ships will be encountered…Roll two dice; apply a DM based on the starport of the primary world of the system (A +6, B +4, C +2, D +1, E -2, X -4).”
Another “standard” encounter. I do like the comment on how a “Patrol” might simply be a pirate looking to shakedown your crew…
Experience (p. 40) – One of the common criticisms of Traveller is that there is no character progression system. Granted, this is not an XP approach, but it is still part of the game.
Book 3 Worlds and Adventures
3. Route Determination (p. 2) – “The worlds of a subsector are connected by the charted space lanes, which marks the regular routes travelled by commercial starships. While it is possible for starships to travel without regard to the lanes charted, individuals who do not own or control starships are generally restricted to commercial travel on ships which ply routes which are mapped.”
To me, this always meant if you wanted to go “off the grid” (a phrase yet to be invented when I first played) you needed your own ship or a charter…which was costly. Often the adventure reward (payment) was enough to motivate characters to do so…
ROUTINE ENCOUNTERS (p. 19) – “Adventurers meet ordinary people in the course of ordinary activity…Personal reactions are rarely of importance…and the process usually continues without trouble.”
RANDOM ENCOUNTERS (p. 19) – “Adventurers…also have random encounters with an unpredictable variety of individuals or groups…which may complement, supplement, oppose, or irrelevant to, the goals of the adventurers themselves…Usually, a random encounter point with humans will occur once per day.”
PATRONS (p. 20) – “One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power…In a single week, a band of adventurers may elect to devote their time to encountering a patron.”
While I have always seen Traveller as a form of space opera, the “routine” of life is actually far more gritty. Life in the Traveller universe—whatever your setting—is tough. You can die in character generation. Combat is deadly. The environment is hazardous. You never have enough money. You always have to be on the hustle to your next “score.” This is reflected in encounters. Routine encounters rarely are harmful, but “random” encounters—which can occur daily—can help, hinder, or simply distract you. Patron encounters are very important in an ongoing campaign as they can lead to future adventure.
I’ll just note here that later versions of Traveller make Patron Encounters a weekly event. In early Traveller rules if the adventurers wanted a Patron Encounter they had to be pro-active.
NOBILITY (p. 22) – “The title emperor/empress is used by the ruler of an empire of several worlds”
This may be the closest we get to the Third Imperium in Traveller ’77.
Animal Encounters (p. 24+) – For a game all about space, I didn’t understand the extensive animal encounters section for many years. Only later did I get into “alien exploration” adventures, and finally realized that these rules are how you create alien creatures, not just “animals.”
ANIMAL DEFINITIONS (pp. 30-31) – Hidden here are rules for planetary hazards like a storm or precipices.
Psionics (p. 33) – “The powers of the mind are incredible, and some day the study of these powers will enable every individual to use them as a active part of his life. At the time which Traveller occurs, however, universal psionic training does not exist; accurate information and quality training are available only through branches of the Psionics Institute, which is wholly devoted to the study of mental powers. Unfortunately, some prejudice exists, and the Institute maintains an extremely low profile.”
Seeing how I started Traveller in 1979, or post-Star Wars, this version of psionics clashed with The Force seen in the movies. Not that it really mattered because we all wanted to be more Solo and less Luke! The result was that a few players in my group tried psionics, but mostly it was ignored. Forty years later, and with a better understanding how books like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination influenced early Traveller, psionics often finds its way into adventures.
(End Notes) (p. 44) – “Traveller is necessarily a framework, describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe…care must be taken that the referee does not simply lay fortunes in the path of the players, but the situation is not primarily an adversary relationship. The referee simply administers rules in situations where the players themselves have incomplete understanding of the universe. The results should reflect a consistent reality.”
“Barest of essentials” which in the case of Traveller ’77 means no default setting. Referee and players working together to create a consistent reality.
Looking through Traveller ’77 that “consistent reality” is a bit more gritty sci-fi than I remember. Maybe exposure to 40 years of the highly space opera Third Imperium has softened Traveller.
The three Little Black Books of Traveller ’77 are rightfully a design triumph. Three 44-page books—132 pages in total—deliver a deep, flexible framework for consistent adventures. How many other RPGs do that?
This is the Traveller I started with. This is the Traveller I have always loved.