Traveller 1977: Hiraeth

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Hiraeth (n.) a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

I seem to have run out of ideas for the moment, though there is no guarantee that will last. While it does, though, what have we learned from this extended stroll down memory lane?

Things Can Only Get Better

Like other first-generation RPG writers, Marc Miller is on record as being surprised by the demand for additional content. In the early days, authors assumed that players would only ever need the core rules, and would make up everything else for themselves. That was a reasonable assumption, as those authors were wargamers, and that’s how wargames worked in those days; scenarios and settings were something you researched in fiction or real history, or created for your own amusement. (Miller said at the time that, among other things, he intended Traveller as a way for players to explore parts of their favourite fictional universe that the literature hadn’t fleshed out.)

However, roleplayers turned out to be a slightly different breed, who wanted more info. There was clearly a demand, and a market, for supplemental materials, and so the games companies provided it. Rules changes that would previously have been available only at one referee’s table, or perhaps in a fanzine, were widely distributed and became canon.

(As an aside, I was working at White Dwarf around this time, and it was noticeable how much less likely players became to argue with rules as they shifted from handwritten notes, to typed copy, to a magazine article, to something in a published supplement.)

Much though I love the 1977 edition of Traveller, I must admit that some of these changes were good things:

  • Once the idea of a large empire off-map has been introduced, it explains so much, so easily, that it’s hard to ignore it. You can if you prefer – the game is extremely flexible – but it’s more work to do so.
  • Red and Amber zones achieve the same effect as space lanes, but with much less effort. There’s a good reason why space lanes disappeared almost immediately.
  • Giving scouts two skills per term aligns them better with the military and merchant careers. Not sure why they didn’t do that for the Other career as well, although Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium made that career largely obsolete anyway.
  • Allowing players to convert death to being discharged on medical grounds saves a lot of time and angst, and helps with character backstory.
  • Players wanted more advanced weapons than those in the core rulebooks right from the start.

I can see the logic of removing jump-capable message torpedoes and expanding available vehicle skills, but I’m not completely convinced they’re good ideas. By the time the computer programming rules came out in the first Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, I had already dropped them in favour of using the computer model number as a DM – this made cruisers even nastier as they were usually rolling at +4 to hit and -4 to be hit, but what the hell, a cruiser was going to kill you anyway.

As One Door Opens, Another Closes

As Traveller developed from the 1977 edition through to MegaTraveller in 1987, the gaps in the rules were gradually filled in, the incongruities smoothed over, and the setting solidified into a deep, rich background.

However, as with other games on a similar journey, while these developments made Traveller more consistent both internally and between campaigns (so long as you used the Official Traveller Universe), and reduced the effort demanded of the referee, I felt they also greatly reduced the need for, and encouragement of, referee creativity.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, that depends on what kind of game you want to run. Nobody’s making you use the OTU, although it was definitely the path of least resistance for a long time. Now, there are plenty of other universes to choose from, like Clement Sector or Hostile; and you’ve still got your dice and hex paper if that suits you best.

Space Noir

Traveller has always had a gritty, downbeat feel for me, and working through the original rules has only reinforced that. 1977 Traveller is cyberpunk without the cyber.

  • Politically, feudalism is common, and space has a large number of relatively small interstellar powers, ranging from single worlds to pocket empires of perhaps half a dozen planets.
  • The TAS is quite possibly the largest, most widespread, and most influential organisation in human space. It has military veterans on the payroll and I’d say they’re being used for hostile takeovers, regime change, and whatever else will move the stock market the way the TAS would prefer.
  • The Psionics Institute is almost certainly involved with organised crime, and quite possibly with one or more intelligence agencies or governments as well. It’s not clear who is a front for whom.
  • Starships are small and scarce; there are only a few hundred in the subsector, and no more than half a dozen in a given port at any one time. They’re also fragile, to the extent that a single hit will cripple most of them, and boarding actions are fought with cutlasses.
  • Ports, navy and scout bases are also small, often something a bunch of tooled-up PCs could feasibly knock over.
  • Starship combat consists of duels between individual ships, and military actions conducted by one world against another are special forces missions carried out by squads or platoons, often using commandeered or chartered merchant vessels. The military – and especially the navy – has close ties with a widespread noble class.
  • The scout service is very probably in cahoots with the space pirates. The navy and yacht owners are also quite possibly pirates, at least when no-one is looking.

Space noir? Not half.

What Would I Use Today?

Or alternatively, if you’re getting into Classic Traveller for the first time, what should you buy?

  • Some version of the basic rules; Books 1-3 (1977 or 1981 edition), the Traveller Book (1982), or Starter Traveller (1983). Starter Traveller has the advantages of having all the charts and tables in one place, and space combat based on range bands, so it’s the most accessible; but they’re all valid, and you don’t really need anything else. I’d probably go for the 1977 version because I prefer the simpler encounter tables.
  • Book 4, Mercenary. Your players are going to bug you until they have high-tech weapons, and you may as well save yourself the time and effort of making them up. It also has a better option for character advancement, mass battle rules, and a bit more gear.
  • Supplements 2 (Animal Encounters), 3 (The Spinward Marches), and 6 (76 Patrons). These are all genuine time-savers; rolling up animals and subsectors absorbs time better spent creating scenarios, and as my players burn through content faster than I can create it, I benefit from having ready-to-run adventures on tap.

Actually, I’d recommend getting the CT Canon on CD from Far Future Enterprises. There’s enough there to keep your game going for decades.

Many thanks to Chris Kubasik for his series of posts on Classic Traveller: Out of the Box, which inspired me to go back and look at this game again, in detail and with feeling. Thanks Chris!

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