#RPGThursday Retrospective – Marc Miller’s Traveller (Imperium Games, Inc., 1996)

The 1990’s was a very dark time of my RPG history. I only bought three games in the entire decade, all of them science fiction-based. Prime Directive 1st Edition was the first and Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition (T4) the second. Later I added The Babylon Project.

I had been a longtime Traveller player using the (now) Classic Traveller (CT) system from the late 1970’s and 1980’s. I had stopped buying RPGs in 1986, and missed out on MegaTraveller (MT) in 1987 and Traveller: The New Era (TNE) in 1992. As such, I missed just how much Traveller changed, with each edition not only using a different core mechanic but also covering a different milieu.

In the first section, The History of Traveller, Kenneth E. Whitman Jr. (now the infamous Ken Whitman) relates the five goals Marc Miller has for this new, 20th anniversary edition:

  1. A return to the similar structure of Classic Traveller while allowing for multiple levels of complexity depending on the needs and interests of individual players and referees.

  2. The production of a game design that encourages and promotes the fun of playing an enjoyable, exciting background.

  3. The opening of multiple eras or milieus to facilitate playing the Traveller science-fiction game system throughout the span of history, from 300,000 BC to 5,000 years in the future.

  4. Remaining consistent with previous editions in regards to historical events and game system results. Previous history as provided in any edition of Traveller stays largely the same in this edition, with certain details clarified or re-stated for consistency.

  5. Explicitly stating a standard of quality that promotes wholesome adventure and eliminates sexually-flavored art or content, unacceptable or vulgar language, and gratuitous, unnecessary violence. – p. 5

I don’t remember ever reading #5 before, and looking back in the mid-1990’s I apparently was blissfully unaware of whatever controversy this relates to.

The next section of T4, The Foundations of the Traveller Universe, lays out the themes of the setting background. I find it interesting that three types of players are addressed:

Casual Players: Anybody can play Traveller. The concepts are intuitive: travel, exploration, interaction, negotiation, combat, and all kinds of action. Individuals can role-play diverse characters or they can play themselves. Casual players can be so casual that they know nothing about the game system at all.

Detailed Role-Players: Traveller provides dedicated gamers the opportunity to role-play complex characters with strong motivations and intricate backgrounds. The Traveller system can be as informal or rich as the participants want.

System Engineers: The Traveller system presents referees the materials necessary to explore [the] Traveller universe in detail. Aspects such as starship design, world generation, vehicle descriptions, trade and commerce, animal generation, and encounters, are designed to meet two specific goals; as a prod to the imagination, and for creating custom equipment or information. – p. 8

I think most outsiders commonly see Traveller RPG players as only System Engineers!

After the obligatory “what is roleplaying” section, the book moves to character generation. In T4, there is virtually no difference in the character generation process from the CT-era. In keeping with goal #1, there are only 10 careers presented (an 11th, Psionisist, appears later).

Skills presents a very familiar list of skills and skill cascades along with Default (Level-0) Skills. I think this was the first time I recognized Level-0 skills in playing Traveller, and welcomed the addition of skills inherently simple enough to attempt without any formal training.

The heart of T4 was the next section, Tasks. Here I ran into problems. When reading through the brand-new T4 back then, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find the rule for “roll 2d6>8 for success.” That was because T4 uses a different task resolution system, one that involved four separate elements:

  • A target number – typically a skill matched with a primary attribute.
  • A dice code appropriate to the innate difficulty of the task.
  • The possibility of one or more difficulty modifiers, reflecting factors influencing the event, such as bonuses for helpful equipment or penalties for troublesome conditions.
  • Finally, the result, whether a success or failure, and the possible spectacular result. (p. 49)

The Target Number is really quite simple; add Primary Attribute plus Skill. For success, the player had to roll this number OR LESS. The Dice Code assigned difficulty and then gave the appropriate dice pool to be rolled. This was confusing because some difficulties, like Staggering, called for 3.5D. What was a .5D? Unfortunately the definition of a half-die was not in Tasks, but all the way back on p. 13 under Definition of Terms for Die or Dice. Difficulty Modifiers were often for equipment or environment and usually associated with an item or condition specified in the book. The modifiers change the Target Number. I also was confused at Uncertain Tasks which called for the Referee to roll dice for the players! Finally, the Result was usually a binary Pass/Fail condition, although Spectacular Results hinted at extraordinary outcomes. The rules specified the referee would decide the extent of the result, with player input welcome but not required. This was in keeping with the low player agency approach Traveller has always had.

In theory (and play), the T4 Task System is very easy. Making an Admin check to see if your paperwork passes? Lets see, Skill -1 plus Education 7 is a Target Number of 8. Referee says its an average (2D) check with no other modifiers. Roll 2D  for a 7 – Success!

Ground Combat uses the same basic approach except that range determines difficulty. Shooting a target at Short Range is a Difficult (2.5D) task. Depending upon the weapon, one might get a bonus if it is capable of shooting at longer ranges. Damage is given in whole die increments, with armor negating dies of damage.

Equipment, Surface Vehicles, Spacecraft, Space Travel, Psionics, World Generation, and Encounters all would of been familiar to CT players with two exceptions. Spacecraft used a new ship design sequence, called the Quick Ship Design Sequence (QSDS). Much like the old CT Book 2, this is a very modularized, building block, seemingly assembly-line ship design sequence focused on simplicity. These days I understand it was a radical change from the exceedingly complex and detailed Fire, Fusion, & Steel of TNE. The second change was in Space Combat. The ship-to-ship combat game focused on Adventure-class ships and was a mix of CT Book 2 and CT Book 5 High Guard. Again, this was a great step down from detailed TNE ship combat systems like Brilliant Lances or Battle Rider.

Section 14: Referee’s Introduction, actually includes rules for Skill Improvement, Learning, and Improving Characteristics. Coming once again from my CT background, these were dramatic changes that shocked me (as welcome as they were). There is also the obligatory Running Adventures and Campaigns which I too often skip. The next section, Trade and Commerce, is very near the familiar trade system of CT.

T4 includes two sample adventures. I didn’t pay much attention to these, instead focusing on the map for the Core Subsector in Milieu 0. I also closely read the updated Library Data.

What I Though of It Then – When I first read T4 I was lost. So much was the same as CT yet the core mechanic was totally different. That difference was enough to lose me. In those days, I was a concrete learner when it came to RPG mechanics. I was closed minded to nearly anything other than 2d6. Part of this was sci-fi elitism; I didn’t play d20 D&D because 2D6 sci-fi was far superior! At the same time, T4 was not different enough from CT to make me want to dig much deeper. I was also very comfortable with the Golden Era of the Third Imperium setting – I didn’t feel the need to explore Milieu 0 or any other alternative setting. Thus, T4 was put on the shelf and remained untouched.

What I Think of It Now – Over the years, T4 got a reputation of being a “hot mess.” Often times, this criticism revolves around poor editing of books or rules that seemingly contradict themselves. The criticism is justified at times; when reviewing the core book for this retrospective I found numerous cross-referencing errors, especially in the combat examples. Production values of the books were suspect. The layout is very unimaginative and many people feel the use of Chris Foss’ color art was not appropriate for the Traveller setting. T4 is seen as a useless edition and not worthy of even being talked about.

These days I take a more charitable view. In looking at the five goals set out in the book, I think T4 actually succeeds. This was probably a disappointment to those System Engineer players who seemingly want more detail. Part of why I love Traveller is that the world-building system is internally consistent and generally works together across a broad spectrum of equipment and information. I see T4 as aimed at the more Casual Player with a nod towards Detailed Role-Players. This iteration of Traveller steps back from the System Engineer dominance of TNE and it shows through the simplification of the rules. I also happen to be a fan of Chris Foss, and absolutely love his spaceships.

As much as T4 tried to embrace Casual Players, and entice Detailed Role-Players, the system ultimately suffers from a lack of narrative control and dampened player agency. The referee is clearly in charge in T4, like he has been since Classic Traveller. This lack of narrative access, combined with a reduction in System Engineer game subsystems, is what I think really doomed T4. It is very interesting to look at the 2008 release of Mongoose Traveller (MgT) and see just how much T4 and MgT are alike. Of course, MgT uses the classic 2d6 mechanic – maybe that made all the difference.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Highly simplified mechanics)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Consistent world-building game systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few concessions to narrative play; low player agency)

Marc Miller’s Traveller, Copyright (c) 1996 by Imperium Games, Inc. Traveller is a registered trademark of Far Future Enterprises. Used under license by Imperium Games, Inc. 

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2015 Far Future Enterprises.”

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