Those awesome folks over at Bundle of Holding recently put out a new Traveller RPG-related bundle, The Gamelords Traveller Collection. This collection honors J. Andrew Kieth, a prolific early illustrator of Traveller (sorry, if all you have experienced is the “new” Mongoose Traveller art then you are poorly served). At one point in my Traveller journeys I had most of these supplements, but I passed them to a friend and then left for college only to never see them again.
Of all the Gamelord items in this collection, the one I remember the most is Startown Liberty by John Marshal from 1984. Why do I remember this one? Because it was so scandalous!
Recall that the early 1980’s was the time of the Satanic Panic. I watched on of my friends burn his D&D books in the fireplace because his parents insisted he “exorcise the demons.” Several of our parent’s looked with disdain on role playing games, but Traveller, being science fiction and not “fantasy”, got a bit of a pass (after all, Star Wars was huge). By the time 1984 rolled around the worst of the Satanic Panic seemed to be passing, and us Traveller players were high school, not middle school anymore.
It also didn’t hurt that during this time my Traveller gang had its own “wretched hive of scum and villainy” going. We played game after game set on the edge of the empire in dive bars and establishments of lesser-repute. We were like a syndicate that would go in, take a place for all the money we could, then leave…guns blazing if necessary. Very wild west! If our parents had really seen what Startown Liberty offered for a Traveller adventure I think they would have blanched, and I likely would have been burning some books in the fireplace too. Three items in particular stand out in my memory.
Gambling has always been a core skill in Traveller. The rules are very benign, nothing like James Bond 007. Here though, the skill was given a background situation and character reactions. Now we could see who was a real cardshark! House always wins? Never!
Marc Miller provided rules for Drinking in Startown Liberty. These build on the core skill Carousing found in Traveller. Growing up in Colorado the legal drinking age for 3.2 beer (“Canoe beer” according to Monty Python…”it’s like making love in a canoe; f**king close to water”) was 18 so we weren’t totally ignorant of alcohol, but still we had plenty of laughs as our characters got drunk. Looking back on the book today, I wonder just how much we were influenced by comments like:
In all locales, non-intoxicants can also be purchased, usually for the same price as “mild.” Doing this in a typical Startown dive is a fast way to attract attention, insults and snickers for other customers.
Startown Liberty, p. 28
OMG, did John Marshal and Gamelords really go there? As much as Startown Liberty tries to capture the vibes of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars (see the Dedication in the front matter) one thing you did not see in Star Wars (movies) were streetwalkers. Yet, in Startown Liberty the very first Street Encounter in the book is Prostitute. Again, looking back I laugh at how the author tried to play off all the “implications” of the event:
As a family game, these rules will not concern themselves with specifics; these are left to the individual player and referees to work out or ignore, according to their own desires. However, in addition to their basic trade, prostitutes may be willing to part with information for the right price, and may also be a source of danger by serving as a decoy for muggers, pickpockets, and the like. Referees can, however, feel free to ignore the whole thing and substitute some other encounter if they or their players would be more comfortable that way.
Startown Liberty, p. 9
Setting aside the “scandalous” elements, Startown Liberty is a great example of a core Traveller adventuring concept: Adventure Through Encounters. The entire book is one big setup for encounters; find a patron, find a job, find a challenge, find an adventure. Given a sufficiently flexible referee there is actually little need for campaign prep. While many players like the “campaign” approach to RPG adventuring, there are others (like myself) who embrace encounters as a way to progress the story, often in unexpected (but no less fun) directions.
Looking back, I see Startown Liberty having many core concepts that later “space western” RPGs like Serenity Role Playing Game (2005) or Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Edge of the Empire (2013) or Firefly Role-Playing Game (2014) would try to get at, but never quite get all the way there like Startown Liberty delivers. While “scandalous” play may not be your thing, Startown Liberty shows a possible way to incorporate it into your Traveller game.
Feature image “A Corellian prostitute solicits Derek Klivianof Rogue Squadron.” courtesy Wookiepedia; I’m guessing you ain’t going to see this part of Legends resurrected for the Mouse version of Star Wars…
I have always loved starships. Of course, starships are a major element of the Traveller roleplaying game and a part of the game I instantly fell in love with. I especially liked how using Book 2 you could design our own ships. Back in my early days of playing Traveller, I didn’t not really understand that Book 2 is designed for smaller Adventure-class ships, but when Book 5 High Guard came out I instantly realized that this was the book for big battlewagons. This was the book that would allow me to create a Battlestar Galactica or an Imperial Star Destroyer in my Traveller adventures. It’s no wonder that my copy of Book 5 is probably the most beaten up of any book in my collection; I loved it and played it that much.
“…construction of very large vessels…”
While High Guard gave me rules for creating naval characters, let’s not kid ourselves; the primary draw of the book always has been the ship design rules for very large ships. High Guard talks about ships up to one million tons (p. 20). The design sequence itself is very simple. Even today, I am impressed at just how simple the sequence is to follow. Best of all, one could do it on a worksheet (provided in the book) or a 5″x8″ notecard (I found a 3″x5″ a bit too crowded). While a calculator is certainly handy, a piece of scrap paper for solving a few equations was really all that is needed.
When I was playing Traveller in the early 1980’s, the two main sci-fi pop culture influences I had were Star Wars (the real Stars Wars, not that Episode 4 crap…Han shot first!) and Star Trek. Actually, my Star Trek influence was through Star Fleet Battles, a licensed derivative wargame based on the Franz Josef technical manual for Star Trek. In practice, this meant in those early days the main influence on my Traveller gaming was that starship were either Star Wars or Star Trek-derived.
Which was actually a bit boring.
It took me a few years, but after a while I really came to understand—and respect—how High Guard shows technological progression and differences in design. The Star Wars universe is actually very simple; hyperdrive, turbolasers, and torpedoes. Star Fleet Battles was a bit more creative with Warp Drive and Phasers or Disruptors and Photon or Plasma Torpedoes. Traveller, and especially the High Guard book, had a much wider variety of weapons. At first everything I designed was Tech Level-15 but after a while I started paying attention to the technology level limits. I started to see the real difference between a TL-15 starship and a TL-8 system boat. This also made me start thinking about different fleet doctrines and how that influences ship design.
High Guard gave me a simple model that I could use to see how different technology levels lead to different design choices which in turn feed into development of doctrine. Such an evolution is almost totally absent in Star Wars—all the tech is similar and fleet doctrine, what little we actually see in the movies, is driven by cinematic needs and not based on any sort of rational choice. In Star Fleet Battles there was a bit more, and at least the different weapons made for some tactical choices that should of led to fleet doctrines. However, even in the early days of Star Fleet Battles ships were “different” between empires but were “balanced” for the game. While the later Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron would introduce a “balance”—the same budget—High Guard kept the focus on technology levels. In many ways the lessons I was learning in Traveller High Guard were applicable to other wargames like Harpoon (ATG) or MBT (GMT Games)—as well as real life (like why is the US M1A1 Abrams tank so superior to a Soviet T-64?)
Take for example two different planets in my B’rron Subsector. World DA-4 in the Dr’ke Arm has UWP A373CCA-9 . This means it can build starships up to Tech Level 9. In what may be the most under-appreciated rule in all of High Guard, the Computer Models table gives us a ship building size limit. This table tells us that in order to build a ship 10,000 tons or larger, you need a Model/4 computer—which is Tech Level A (10). At TL9 that Model/3 computer can build ships up to size “J” at 9,000 tons (technically up to 9,999 tons). Compare this to the capital of the Bradii Reach which is UWP A72AA98-F. At TL-F (15) they have computers that allows then to build ships larger than 1,000,000 tons!
So what does TL-9 allow you to do?
Size: >10,000 tons
Power Plant is 3% Ship’s Tonnage per number
Hull Armor is most expensive where space is computed at 4+4a (where a is desired armor factor)
Major Weapons: B-Factor Particle accelerator (at 5,000 tons)
The starship combat section of High Guard has always interested me. Some people absolutely hate it because, they say, it is too abstract a model. I’ll admit I struggle with it at times, but back in the day this simple combat model allowed us to play out gigantic battles on the lunch room table with nothing but our ships on 3×5 notecards and some dice.
I am fully aware of the controversial Eurisko that uses the High Guard ship construction rules along with the adventure Trillion Credit Squadron. I’ll save my commentary on that for later. For now, I will only say that back in the early 1980’s as a middle and high-schooler those controversies were way above my level—we were game players not computer programmers…and we couldn’t go to a national tournament anyway!
While some other critics of the High Guard starship combat model complain it is not “cinematic,” I contend what High Guard always has done well is highlight the design differences between ships. In other words, the High Guard starship combat system compliments the starship design system. The starship design system asks architects to make design decisions, but the impact of those decisions are not seen until the ships get tested in combat.
In High Guard, no matter what weapon is fired the “relative computer size” is very important. This makes designing a ship more than simply finding the right computer to fit the Jump Drive. The emphasis on computers in High Guard actually helped me understand the Book 2 ships computer rules better. By the mid-1980s the microcomputer revolution was well underway, and many people focused on how “ridiculous” the space needed for ship’s computers in Book 2 (and later Book 5 High Guard) was. High Guard helped me to understand those “CPU” rules in Book 2 and how a better computer gave ships the capability to not only run more programs, but better ones. The computer rules in High Guard and the relative computer rating in combat were abstractions of Book 2, but that abstraction gave me a better understanding of the more finite model. It goes a long way towards explaining why the canonical System Defense Boat (SDB) found in Supplement 7 Traders and Gunboats has a Model/5fib computer. That computer often means the SDB has a significant to-hit advantage over most commercial—and pirate—vessels and often can stand toe-to-toe with larger warships.
In many ways the different tech levels in High Guard presaged the different “generations” of weapons we have today. The difference between a 5th Generation fighter like the F-35 and a Cold War MiG-23 is night and day, like the difference between a TL11 ship and one of equal tonnage built at TL15 in High Guard.
The High Guard space combat system makes extensive use of the Agility rating of ship. The concept of Agility in High Guard has always been one of the hardest concepts to grasp about the entire game. I mean, we all know that tiny snub fighters can run circles around giant Star Destroyers, eh? In High Guard the explanation of Agility is buried in the ship design section under Energy Points:
Agility: Energy points remaining after weapons, screens, and computers have been installed may be applied toward the ship’s agility rating. Divide the remaining energy points by .01M; the result is the number of agility points a ship has. Drop all fractional points. Agility is the ability of a ship to make violent maneuvers and take evasive action while engaging hostile targets. A ship’s agility rating may never exceed it maneuver rating. For each power plant hit received in combat (cumulative) the ship’s agility rating is reduced by one.
High Guard, p. 28
This definition has always been confusing to me. In Traveller, a ship moves (non-FTL) using a maneuver drive. So how can a Maneuver-1 ship have higher “agility” than a Maneuver-6 ship, especially when agility is tied to violent and evasive maneuvers?
Regardless of what Agility is, a target’s Agility rating is a negative DM on the to-hit roll. The more you can “jink” the better chance you have of not getting hit. It is also important to note that the Pilot skill also adds to Agility in the same way Ship’s Tactics add to computer size.
Size (and Shape) Matter
Two other design choices in High Guard have importance; size and configuration. Smaller ships are harder to hit, and different configurations matter when it comes to the biggest and baddest of the major weapons, Meson Guns. I welcomed those who wanted to build a huge Imperial Star Destroyer; that USP Code 1 Needle/Wedge was a better target for Meson Guns, unlike the ungainly USP Code 7 Dispersed Structure that was the hardest to score damage against.
Attack – Defend
Every weapon in High Guard has advantages and disadvantages. While to-hit is affected by range, computer size, agility, and target size, once a hit is achieved the defenses must be penetrated. The penetration tables also show which defenses are relevant. Every weapon in High Guard has a corresponding defense:
Attacking Missiles are defended against by Sandcasters or Beams as well as Repulsors and Nuclear Dampers
Attacking Beam weapons are defended against by Sandcasters
Meson Guns must defeat Meson Screens and deal with different configurations
Particle Accelerators must deal with armor.
Armor is perhaps the most interesting defense because it actually affects most weapons, but it not factored into combat until damage determination. Damage comes in three forms; Surface Explosion, Radiation, and Interior Explosion. Different weapons roll on different tables:
Energy Weapons, Lasers, and non-Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion only
Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
Particle Weapons roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
Meson Guns toll Radiation and Internal Explosion.
Armor is a positive DM (better for defender) on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (except for Meson Guns). A nuclear missile gets a -6 DM on the Surface Explosion table. Pulse Lasers also get a -2 DM on that same table.
There are two rules in High Guard that go a long way towards making this combat system more “friendly” for large ships. Any ship firing with a “battery” factor of 9 or less gains a +6 DM on the damage tables—in practice this means smaller ships tend to “chip away” at their opponents and don’t get critical hits. Conversely, the heaviest combatants with major spinal mount weapons gain extra damage rolls with bigger guns. The canonical Plankwell-class dreadnought in Supplement 9 Fighting Ships mounting a factor-T Meson Gun will get 17 damage rolls on BOTH the Radiation and Interior Explosion damage tables if it hits and penetrates!
Look again at the Arm of Justice I designed above. What can we expect about the ship in combat?
Computer: A Model/3fib is the best computer available at TL-9…but is disadvantaged against a higher tech opponent sporting a better computer
Agility: Agility 0 confers no advantage in Initiative or combat
Size: Size J is right in the sweet spot of combat with no modifiers
Particle Accelerator: The PA Bays are not affected by range, but they are less than factor-9 and must deal with armor on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (two damage rolls per hit) which leads to many “chipping” hits
Laser Turrets: The small factor makes these offensively all but ineffective against anything but undefended targets; best to save these for use as defense
Sandcaster Turrets: Not much defense but at least a little to make it harder for lower-tech opponents to penetrate
Armor: An armor factor of 9 makes this one a tough nut to crack and offsets the nuclear missile DM-6 on the Surface Explosion damage table.
I started playing the Traveller roleplaying game in 1979 using the original 1977 Little Black Books (LBB). Very quickly I started picking up other expansions, the first of which was Traveller Book 4 Mercenary (GDW, 1978). For a wargamer (of which I was a nascent one at the time) this book was a digest-sized heaven. Here I had both wargame and roleplaying game coming together. Forty years later, my perspectives have changed, but Mercenary still remains an absolutely essential part of my Traveller gaming universe.
“Frank”-ly, A Wargamer’s RPG Expansion
Traveller Book 4 Mercenary was designed by Frank Chadwick. Yes, “designed” is how he is credited in the front matter of the book. It’s important to realize that Traveller is not just a set of core gaming mechanisms, but in many ways a collection of related game systems. Only years later would I come to understand just how lucky we are that Mr. Chadwick was not only a wargame designer, but a major creator in the Traveller RPG product line. Frank brought his wargame design chops to bear in important Traveller game systems, especially in combat. The Traveller Combat System in the LBB was his creation. The Abstract Combat rules in Mercenary are also his.
While some out there may want to deny that roleplaying games evolved from wargames, I hope none of them are ignorant enough not to realize the contributions wargame designers had in multiple products. Mercenary is an excellent example of the immense value-added wargame designers bring into the RPG hobby.
Vietnam in the Stars
Paging through Mercenary, the first real content one encounters is an illustration of a soldier. What always strikes me, as much now as it did then, is just how un-advanced the soldier looks. The soldier is wearing loose-fitting fatigues with a very Vietnam War-era flak jacket and helmet with a visor in front and an antenna-fed commo link on back. The most advanced piece of kit is the carbine attached to a power cord running to a pack on the back. In 1979 this was about as far from Heinlein’s concept of Starship Troopers as you could get, and seemed almost quaint in the years following Star Wars and white armored Storm Troopers.
Shadows of the (Third) Coming
Traveller ’77 is a setting-less set of rules.However, the popularity of Traveller was such that there was a clamor for a default setting. In Mercenary we get the first shadows of what would eventually become the Third Imperium:
Traveller assumes a remote centralized government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium), possessed of great industrial and technological might, but unable, due to the sheer distances and travel times involved, to exert total control at all levels everywhere within its star-spanning realm. On the frontiers, extensive home rule provisions allow planetary populations to choose their own forms of government, raise and maintain armed forces for local security, pass and enforce laws governing local conduct, and regulate (within limits) commerce. Defense of the frontier is mostly provided by local indigenous forces, stiffened by scattered lmperial naval bases manned by small but extremely sophisticated forces. Conflicting local interests often settle their differences by force of arms, with lmperial forces looking quietly the other way, unable to effectively intervene as a police force in any but the most wide-spread of conflicts without jeopardizing their primary mission of the defense of the realm. Only when local conflicts threaten either the security or the economy of the area do lmperial forces take an active hand, and then it is with speed and overwhelming force.
Mercenary, p. 1
Small local conflicts needing trained soldiers was perfect for—mercenaries:
Within this vast Imperium there is a role for mercenary combat units: The combat environment of the frontier, then is one of small, short, limited wars. Both sides must carefully balance the considerations of how much force is required to win a conflict with how much force is likely to trigger lmperial intervention. At the same time, both belligerents will generally be working with relatively small populations, with only a negligible number of combat experienced veterans. In this environment, the professional soldier will find constant employment. Small, poor states faced with invasion or encroachment will hire professional soldiers as cadres to drill and lead their citizen militias. Larger states will be able to afford to hire and equip complete mercenary contingents as strikers, or spearhead troops. Small commando units will be in demand as industrial espionage is waged between mega-corporations virtually nations unto themselves. In addition, the hired soldier will always be in demand as security or bodyguard troops, as force remains the only true protection against force. The Golden Age of the Mercenary will have arrived.
Mercenary, pp. 1-2
Many science fiction fans reading that passage today likely say, “Hammer’s Slammers!” You may not realize it, but in 1978 when Mercenary was published the entire Hammer’s Slammers universe consisted of only a small handful of short stories; the first book was not published until 1979! For myself, I didn’t get a copy of Hammer’s Slammers until after I had Mercenary in hand.
Even without Hammer’s Slammers I found the situation depicted in Mercenary very believable. The late 1970’s was still the Cold War and while the two superpowers didn’t trade blows, there were plenty of proxy wars fought. I could see the role of a Mercenary soldier in the real world which made imagining it in Traveller that much easier. More importantly, this was NOT Star Wars. This was NOT a large Empire chasing a small band of rag-tag rebels. Players were not constrained into a good-bad, light-dark binary conflict. Like the real world, there was plenty of room for ambiguity.
Soldier of Fortune
The character generation system in Mercenary was also my first encounter with the “expanded” character generation rules. Whereas Traveller used simple four-year terms, Mercenary dug a level deeper and followed characters in yearly increments. Looking back on the rules today, I certainly can see some rough edges, like the need to use both Book 1 and Book 4 together to make a character as not all the needed charts and tables were duplicated. That criticism sounds harsher than it really is as there was room in the LBB box to add Book 4 meaning it was easy to carry all you needed.
Ticket to Raid
The next section of Mercenary introduced “tickets.” These were legal contracts to hire mercenaries. To be honest, at first this part of adventuring was hard for me to understand because, once again, only a few example tickets were included. If you wanted more tickets the referee had to create them. I also didn’t understand why a junior officer leaving the Army would take a NCO position.
This is where eventually reading Hammer’s Slammers helped me understand Mercenary. The interludes in Hammer’s Slammers are prime setting background material for Mercenary. As I read one, I played the other. This perfect marriage of fiction and gaming is how Mercenary finally made sense to me.
[In the mid-1980s I finally was able to see the movie The Wild Geese (1978). After that Mercenary really made sense!]
I’ve written previously about the different combat systems in Traveller.As much as I wargamed I actually had lots of fun with the Abstract System in Mercenary. This was a combat game we could play at the lunchroom table throwing dice with one hand and stuffing a PB&J in our mouth with the other. Sure, we could set up a more hex & counter wargame but this was the original fast, fun, and furious Traveller combat game.
Ironmongery was a word I had never heard before Mercenary; after this it became a part of my life. Starting a few years before finding Traveller I had been taken in by the many Jane’s type of weapons books. The ironmongery section of Mercenary showed me how to “cross-walk” a real-world weapon into my roleplaying games. That skill also enabled me to start creating my own weapons system in wargames. Many years later I finally realized that what was I was doing was creating models for use in a simulation. That skill has served me well over the years; though I was never a wargame designer that skill set has been essential to my career. Yet another influence Traveller had on my life.
You’re in the Army Now
Feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided to go back to Mercenary ’78 and create a character. Let me introduce you to Onche Sm’th (starting UPP: BAA885).
Onche joined the Cavalry Branch of the Army. After completing Basic Training as a Combat Rifleman (ACR-1) and a heavy weapons gunner (Hvy Wpns Autocannon-1), somebody thought this monster of a being would make a good medic as he was sent to Specialist School and picked up Medic-1. Year two saw Sm’th fight in a Counter Insurgency. Year three was a training assignment, but year four was a Police Action in which Onche received both the Meritorious Conduct Under Fire (MCUF) and a Wound Badge. In the last two years Sm’th also moved from gunner to driver, learning the intricacies of driving wheeled combat vehicles (Driver Wheeled Vehicle-2).
While Onche was in the hospital recovering from his wounds he heard about the mercenary life. Deciding that if he was going to get shot he wanted to be much better compensated, he got out after his first term seeking fame and fortune.
Resume: BAB885, Army, One Term, Enlisted in Cavalry, Final Rank – Sergeant
Special Assignments: Specialist School
Awards & Decorations: Meritorious Conduct Under Fire (MCUF), 2x Combat Ribbon, Wound Badge
Equipment Qualified On: ACR, Autocannon, Wheeled Ground Vehicle
Full of himself, Onche couldn’t wait to get out and immediately tried to get hired on. Alas, he quickly learned that a one-term Sergeant isn’t a high-demand person. In his first three weeks, Onche was rejected for a Security and two Commando tickets. As the month was ending Onche was getting rather worried, but finally he was able to hire onto a small Cadre ticket as a Squad Leader.
[I’m playing these “games” in my B’rron Subsector, the geopolitics of which I laid out in a previous post.]
Background: The Quinto Expanse has a problem. There are rumors that “The Heresy” has plans to expand, and the Quinto Expanse is the nearest star nation to face them and logical first target. The QDF needs to bolster their defense force and it needs experienced cadre.
Mission: The Quinto Defense Force has hired a small cadre force (not to exceed 12 personnel) at double standard salary to train and lead a particular company of the QDF. There are four junior officer commissions and nine NCO positions. The company and all three platoons are led by a mercenary officer with a QDF deputy. NCOs are seeded throughout leadership positions in the platoons. Normal salaries are paid to individual soldiers with additional salaries to the unit for profit and disbursement of shares.
Onche is quite happy to be a squad leader. His squad is carried in a TL-9 armored infantry fighting vehicle with a pintle-mounted autocannon.
Onche is not quite as happy when he finds out that his unit is being lifted—without their vehicles—to the almost-moon desert world of Castaway for “training.” Castaway has only .35g and a trace atmosphere. Onche is not trained in low-grav environments nor vacc suits. He tries to pay attention to the training he is given (Vacc Suit-0, avoid untrained penalty) but he is not so sure that this is better than three-squares a day in the Army…
After looking back at my Little Black Book Traveller ’77 tabletop roleplaying game—which doesn’t have a default setting—I set out to make my own subsector for adventure. I decided to use Cepheus Engine Deluxe for my core rules because it is the updated version of Traveller and closest to the 1977 version. Besides, many of the subsector generators online use algorithms that just weren’t there in 1977!
For those not familiar with the Universal World Profile (UWP) below this is how you decode it:
World Name / hex / UWP / Bases / Trade Tags / Notes
1= World Diameter (Earth = 8)
2= Atmosphere (Standard = 6)
3= Hydrographics (% water covered)
4= Population (order of magnitude)
6= Law Level
T= Tech Level (TL)
You will see below that all my world names are generic tags. When I’m worldbuilding the names of worlds are one of the last things I do…if I get around to it. More often than not the tag suffices. One mark of a great adventure is when your players are leaving the planet and ask, “So, what was that place that nearly killed us?”
In the B’rron Subsector Jump-3 is the longest jump drive possible. To build Jump-1 drives takes TL9, Jump-2 is TL11, and Jump-3 is TL13. In combination with the starport rules for ship construction (only A-class starports can construct starships; B-class can construct system ships, and C-class can only do small craft) this means not every polity will actually be able to build starships. As you will see, building Jump-3 ships is actually limited to only two planets throughout the entire subsector.
I assumed that the B’rron Subsector was settled long ago and allegiances were established amongst worlds one parsec (1 hex) distant from each other. This created six major political entities.
Here is the B’rron Subsector. [Subsector map generated using https://campaignwiki.org/traveller/edit…with hand drawn embellishments!] The subsector map shows three loose groupings. The Coreward Cluster with the two worlds of the Stra’zer Arm, the Bradii Reach, and Amiltin Reformation. The Central Worlds consist of the Dun’i’gan Federation, Dr’ke Arm, and Quinto Expanse. There are also four “independent” worlds without allegiances though one, a high population and high technology world ruled by a religious dictatorship, lies at the rimward edge of the subsector.
SA-2 / 0201 / B522A78-7 / Scout Base / Water World
Late in the design process I decided that the Sta’zer Arm is an alien empire. I haven’t defined the alien…yet. The worlds within B’rron Subsector appear rather poor. Why SA-1 is not a Red Zone is unknown. The jump-3 trade route between SA-1 and the Bradii capital is a very recent development and drawing interest as it is the only known jump-3 trade or communications route in the whole subsector.
Led by the religious dictatorship on AR-C, at TL10 the Amiltin Reformation has the technology but not the shipyards to build starships. There are rumors of a secret research project on AR-2 (Red Zone, and nobody believes there is only an X-Starport or that the tech level is 7).
The balkanized AR-5 has become a planet of intrigue. Lying two parsecs from both the Amiltin Reformation and Bradii Reach capitals, the planet nominally owes its allegiance to Amiltin. However, several groups on the planet openly advocate alignment with the impersonal bureaucracy of the Bradii Reach, which has the Amiltin religious dictatorship on edge.
Ship Construction – 0303 TL10 System Ships
Bradii Reach (Orange border)
BR-C / 0401 / A72AA98-F / Naval Base / High Pop, High Tech, Industrial, Water World / Gas Giant / Capital
BR-2 / 0501 / E454677-7 / Agricultural, Garden
BR-3 / 0601 / D595886-5 / Low Tech / Gas Giant / RED ZONE
BR-4 / 0701 / AAA59AA-D / Naval Base / Non-Water Fluid Oceans, High Pop, High Tech / Charismatic Dictator
BR-5 / 0801 / C31478A-8 / Scout Base / Ice-Capped
With the highest tech level planet in the subsector (BR-C TL15), Bradii Reach should easily dominate. The shipyards in BR-C and BR-4 are the only yards in the entire subsector capable of building Jump-2 or Jump-3 starships.
The charismatic dictatorship on BR-4, just a step behind in technology (TL13), believes they are the rightful leader of the Reach and is willing to fight for that recognition if necessary. This tends to keep the capital focused inward instead of outward, much to the relief of the Amiltin Reformation.
DF-C / 0507 / C996ACA-C / Naval Base / High Pop, High Tech, Industrial / Gas Giant/ Capital
By some measures, DF-3, with the B-Starport, could very well be the Federation capital. Maybe in a few generations, but for now the higher-tech DF-C—connected via communications route to the Quinto Expanse and Dr’ke Arm—remains the capital.
Like AR-5, planet DF-1 is another planet of intrigue. A member of the Federation, it lies two parsecs from the Amiltin Reformation capital and two parsecs from the high population and high technology DF-3. Amiltin sees it as a potential pathway into the Central Worlds while the Federation sees it as a defensive bulwark to prevent the spread of the Reformation.
The Dun’i’gan Federation is lukewarm to the idea of a Confederation. As they are dependent on others to build starships they fear they would be seen as the junior-most partner in any grouping.
Ship Construction – 0406 TL11 System Ships
Quinto Expanse (Red border)
QE-C / 0509 / A7648C9-9 / Naval Base / Agricultural, Garden / Gas Giant / Capital
The Quinto Expanse is fiercely independent, but is at risk of being overwhelmed by the higher tech Dun’igan Federation and Dr’ke Arm. QE-2, with trade route connections to two other polities, is often referred to as “Kasablanka”—a reference with an origin lost in time.
The Quinto Expanse has mixed feelings about a confederation. As a relatively small empire they feel a bit threatened by the Dr’ke Arm, yet they also seek allies as they fear the “rise of the Heresy.”
Ship Construction – 0509 TL9 Jump-1 Starships
Dr’ke Arm (Black border)
DA-1 / 0803 / X492357-5 / Scout Base / Low Pop, Low Tech / Gas Giant
DA-2 / 0704 / X241463-0 / Low Pop, Low Tech, Non-Industrial / Captive Government of 0706
Te Dr’ke Arm has two faces; the rimward worlds are relatively high tech and populous but the coreward worlds are extremely poor. The Scout base in 0803 serves as a forward outpost against the Bradii Reach. DA-2 is an early colony set up by DA-4.
The Dr’ke Arm is the greatest proponent for confederation, mostly because they see themselves as the natural leader.
Ship Construction – 0706 TL9 Jump-1 Starships / 0707 TL12 System Ships
“Heresy” / 0210 / A565DDA-A / Naval Base? / High Pop, High Tech / Religious Dictatorship
“Castaway” / 0309 / X410100-3 / Low Tech
The planet in 0107 is a known pirate stronghold.
Corp is known as a corporately controlled world, though where the corporation comes from is unknown. Some think the corporation and pirates are aligned…
“The Heresy” is the nickname given to an unknown religious dictatorship. Ship Construction – TL10 Jump-1 Starships.
The few people living on Castaway are not some primitive race, but the crew of a ship lost that “went native” and refuse to leave. There are rumors that this may actually be an elite special forces team from the Quinto Expanse sent to man a secret listening post to defend against The Heresy and pirates. Who knows?
The “intrigue” worlds at the crossroads of multiple polities are good locations for adventures. If the players want to trade, these are also good locations to work from. There is always great opportunity to get involved in the political or military machinations between various factions. There is also the rimward/spinward threats that seem very distant but…
Hmm…I wonder if a mercenary striker could find employment? Looks like Traveller Volume 4 – Mercenary is up next!
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.