Monday, 23 April 2012

A to Z: T is Traveller

What is Traveller? Is Traveller the rules system, or is Traveller the setting? This is a debate that crops up from time to time on various discussion boards.

If Traveller is the rule system, then which rule system is Traveller? Classic Traveller, published in 1977, and still my favourite version; MegaTraveller, published in 1986 and including the Task System developed by Digest Group Publications; Traveller: the New Era, published in 1992; Mark Miller’s Traveller (also known as T4), published in 1996; GURPs Traveller, published in 1998, adapted Traveller to the GURPs 3rd Edition rules; Traveller 20 (or T20), published in 2002, adapted Traveller to the D20 system; GURPs Traveller: Interstellar Wars, published in 2006, adapted Traveller to the GURPs 4th Edition Rules; Traveller Hero, published in 2006, adapted Traveller to the Hero System; Traveller 5 (also known as T5), CD-Rom released in 2008 as a “play test document”, and Marc Miller’s latest working of the rules – still in development; Mongoose Traveller, published in 2008 and the latest version of the rules.

I have managed to pick up most of these rule books over the years. I still enjoy Classic Traveller as it is the system I know the best. I liked GURPs Traveller as a concept, and GT has some of the best support material written for the game, but find aspects of the GURPs system very clunky and annoying. I like Mongoose Traveller a lot, as it marks a return to a lot of the stripped-down simplicity of the Classic Traveller rules. I find Mongoose’s continued production faults increasingly irritating, though – if I’m shelling out $NZ30 - $NZ40 for a rule book or supplement, I expect it to be proof read, and I expect it to be edited by someone with a vague understanding of Traveller and the Traveller setting. Traveller 20 had a very interesting setting, but I really don’t like the D20 system – it’s too much like Dungeon and Dragons for my taste, which doesn’t work, in my opinion, in a Science Fiction game. Of the others, while each seems to have its fans, I have never played them.

At the end of the day, it appears that the best version of the Traveller rules is the one you feel most comfortable with. For me, I want a system where the mechanics are easy to remember, there’s a bit of on-line support with apps for designing ships, characters, star maps and systems, and the mechanics don’t get in the way of the story telling.

If Traveller isn’t the rules, but the setting, then which setting? The original Classic Traveller rules had no setting – you could do anything you liked. Later, what is now called the ‘Golden Age’ of Traveller formed the backdrop – the 3rd Imperium in the year 1105, on the eve of the 5th Frontier War with the Zhodani Consulate. MegaTraveller took the 3rd Imperium and destroyed it, and then nuked the ruins with a sentient computer virus called, (drum roll, please ...) Virus. The blurbs on all the material were so gor-blimey that for years I couldn’t take the MegaTraveller or Traveller: The New Era settings seriously. Some of the material, like “Path of Tears” is well written, evocative, and incredibly depressing, and some of the material, like “Vampire Fleets”, is creepy in a haunted-house/2001: A Space Odyssey sort of way, and immanently stealable for other games but, on the whole, left me with a feeling of “meh”.

The setting for Traveller: The New Era attempted to put the wonder of exploration back into the Traveller Universe, but it is a story of re-contact and rediscovery as the characters shuffle through the ruins of fallen empire. GURPs Traveller sidesteps the entire rebellion storyline and carries on with the same-old, same-old. With T4, Marc Miller was quite clever and decided to go back in time to examine the birth of the 3rd Imperium. This was a gentler way of gaming exploration and first contact than picking through the bone worlds of Traveller: The New Era. Traveller T20 explored the Solomani Rim War period, but set in the Gateway Sector – an Imperial backwater looking out over a turbulent neutral zone towards the alien K’kree. This is a fascinating area of space, and some excellent adventures were set here, often with both T20 and Classic Traveller stats. GURPs Traveller: Interstealler Wars explores humanities’ initial encounters with the Vilani Imperium. Finally, Mongoose Traveller has taken the setting back to 1105 and the “Golden Age” – though to date, Mongoose has concentrated pretty much on rewriting Classic Traveller material rather than contributing new material.

So, if Traveller isn’t about rules or setting, and we have seen that rules and settings can change, then what is it about?

The two consistent things about Traveller are that there is no faster-than-light communication, and that Jumps last approximately one week. The best description of what Traveller is comes from the little black box that the little black books came in, way back in 1977. Traveller is “science fiction adventure in the far future”.