Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Characters

Classic Traveller is iconic.  It was the first really successful science fiction role-playing game, preceded by Metamorphosis: Alpha and Space Quest and a number of other largely forgotten games.  What made Traveller different was that there was actually a minimum of background provided in the rules - most of the other games has assumed a great deal about the background setting for a game.  In providing little background, the designers clearly followed the path of Original D&D, which did not attempt to model any one fantasy setting, but instead drew from many different authors and backgrounds.  (Whether or not this was completely intentional isn't clear - we might ask Marc Miller or Loren Wiseman.)  But the advantages of this are difficult for people to see today, after 30+ years of accretion in the GDW house campaign of the Third Imperium.  My intention in this series of blog posts is to go back to the original 1977 rules set, looking at it from a fresh perspective as informed by the recent Old School Renaissance, over a series of Tuesdays.

Traveller came out in the summer of 1977.  If I recall correctly, it made its debut at Origins that year, and by August, copies were beginning to arrive at The Little Tin Soldier Shop in Minneapolis.  Almost overnight, people began to try the game out - generating characters, building spaceships, designing settings.  One of the secrets of Traveller's success was that each of these elements was itself a kind of mini-game within the framework of the rules.  (More on that later.)

Looking at the game, it appeared in a 6x9 box, with a black cover wrap.  Inside were three digest-sized booklets, clearly modeled on the Original D&D set: Characters and Combat (Men & Magic), Starships (Monsters & Treasure), and Worlds and Adventures (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure).  So any referee picking up the game would already have a notion of what was in each book.  I read all three avidly from cover to cover.

Book 1, Characters and Combat, starts off with a basic assumption about the game: "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.  Nevertheless, 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 the bold adventurer's travels."  This is a fairly important point: while the specific background was left to the referee, the rules made certain general assumptions about how things worked - many of which were immediately altered by gamers buying the game.

Traveller also exclusively relied upon six-sided dice.  Most of the gamers I knew already had handfuls of Gamescience polyhedral dice, but in places where such things were rare, this reliance on d6's may have given the game a boost in accessibility.  In fact, the game was completely playable out of the box, albeit without any adventures.  Then again, the concept of prepackaged adventures was relatively new in role-playing at the time.

Possibly the first hint of embedded background comes on page 4: "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."  That's it - no "Imperial Scout Service" but the "Scout Corps" - whatever that might be.

The above quote is also important for showing that generating characters was seen as being a game within the game: even if you have a "bad" character, see what you can do with it - and if he dies, roll up a new one. Since 1977, Traveller has acquired an unfortunate "bum rap" from the notion that characters could die during character generation.  I believe this misses this mindset of treating character generation as a kind of mini-game with an uncertain outcome - such a notion is almost antithetical to today's emphasis on "character builds" and extensive player design.

The choices of careers were themselves interesting: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, and Other.  None of these were explained in any way, except by reference to actual character generation.  Thus "Navy" represented the "space navy" while "Marines" might be anything from "Mobile Infantry" a la Heinlein's Starship Troopers to the Marines in Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye.  "Army" could be Andre Norton's Star Guard to Pournelle's Falkenberg Legion.  "Scouts" were less clear, but "Merchants" had several science fiction inspirations, ranging from Andre Norton to Robert Heinlein to Poul Anderson (see below).  Lastly, the "Other" occupation was conspicuously opaque in inspiration: were such characters criminals?  (Mike Ford thought so)  Or possibly spies?  (My reading at the time.)  In any case, each career provided a range of possibility, and thus invited a player to spend hours generating characters - which everyone I knew at the time sat down and did, almost immediately.

The emphasis on the human race is marked: the first mention of aliens comes on page 15, as an aside about the Streetwise skill: "(This is not to be considered the same as alien contact, although the referee may so allow)."  Other hints about background assumptions come with the "air/raft": "The air/raft is the major transportation vehicle of most worlds, and most persons are aware of its basic operation."  Mentioned in passing earlier, the mustering out benefit of "Travellers'" is revealed on page 22 as "Travellers' Aid: The Travellers' Aid Society is a private organization which maintains hostels and facilities at all class A and B starports in human space.  Such facilities are available (at reasonable cost) to members and their guests."  There are also details regarding the benefit of starships: "Free Traders" for merchants, and "scout ship[s] in reserve status" for scouts.

To assist in all of this, GDW wisely included an example of character creation.  But the later example of "Alexander Lascelles Jamison" is not to be found here, at all.  Who do we have?  "Jamison" - a merchant captain, who ends up the owner of a "Type A merchant ship (30 years old) and he owes 10 years (120 months) of payments before he will have clear title."  It's telling that the picture provided bears a clear resemblance to Nicholas van Rijn, from Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories:  "...His several chins quivered under the stiff goatee....He sighed like a minor tornado and scratched the pelt on his chest.  In the near tropic temperature which he insisted on maintaining his quarters, he need wrap only a sarong about his huge body." (Trader to the Stars, pp. 8-9)

What is important to note about all of this is how GDW deftly drew on gamers' previous familiarity with both Original D&D and with popular science fiction to provide a sense of comfort with their new game.  Not too surprisingly, Traveller players and referees made good use of "space opera" to shape their campaigns, long before the Third Imperium was introduced to them.

Next Tuesday: 1977 Edition Combat


  1. Sadly, like D&D, layer upon layer of additional information was added.

    Like OD&D, the original Traveller books openned up untold imaginary worlds.

    I remember trying to recreate Niven's known space, using the original Traveller rules.

  2. Ah, yes, but with the availability of reprints and the CD-ROM from Far Future Enterprises, it is possible to strip away all that detritus, and run the game you want to run.

  3. As a bit of follow-up, Niven's Known Space would not be impossible (I remember a number of people trying the same thing), but some of it would be difficult (e.g. General Products hulls, Outsiders, etc.) but certainly worth doing!

  4. That would explain why the default player name in Elite, a game heavily influenced by Trav, was always "Commander Jameson"