Thursday, January 26, 2017

Worlds in Abundance: After 40 Years, Traveller Remains Compelling

Those of us who grew up in the era of tabletop role-playing games often find that the scenes and characters those games created occupy more of our mental landscape than any book or show. Teachers know that students learn more effectively when they actively engage with the material they study; a similar principle applies here. We may find Lord of the Rings or Star Wars exciting and deeply moving, but we are likelier to remember worlds that we have manipulated and developed ourselves. I’ve written before about one of these peculiarly resonant gaming worlds, that of Dungeons & Dragons. Many of its players can remember fond hours spent “rolling up” characters, sketching dungeons and ruins on graph paper, and poring through bestiaries of fantastic creatures and compendia of magical treasures.

For me, though the gaming milieu that had the strongest presence in my imaginative life wasn’t Gary Gygax’s eccentric fantasy world but Marc Miller’s eclectic science-fiction game Traveller. First published in 1977, this first caught my attention in elementary school, and I continued to play it, off and on, through graduate school. Traveller was no great shakes as an actual game. Its first edition became mildly famous as “the game where you can die during character generation,” and the rules for starships and space combat grew so complicated that by the second edition one needed a computer even to design spacecraft. Traveller’s appeal lay, rather, in its setting, a vivid melange of space opera (typified by the “Third Imperium,” with its nobles and distant emperor), well-developed alien species, low-technology personal combat a la Dune or Firefly, and grubby adventures for PCs, usually involving larceny, spying, smuggling, or some other shady activity. Principal designer Marc Miller borrowed heavily from Earth’s history and from an array of middle-shelf sci-fi novels, notably E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest series and H. Beam Piper’s Star Viking. Later designers added in space battle scenarios derived from STAR WARS, elements from Larry Niven’s Known Space novels, and a scenario or two based on the film ALIEN. 

This sounds like it should have become an unholy mess, but Miller and his colleagues made it work, partly by leaving a lot of details up to the gamemaster, partly by allowing adventures to occur on many different physical scales. As an adventurer one could salvage abandoned spaceships, explore alien ruins, fight mercenary battles for interstellar corporations, carry (or smuggle) exotic cargoes from starport to starport, or explore backwater worlds both on and off the main travel routes. Those worlds comprised Traveller’s most compelling cast of characters. The game provided simple rules for determining the basic features (atmosphere, population, etc.) of alien worlds, and allowed GMs and designers to flesh out those numbers into dozens of compelling adventure settings. There was Azun, whose small landmass held 26 billion people, crowded into towering arcologies; Bellerophon, an ocean world harboring the island-sized daghadasi (and the nomads who hunted them); Dinom, a vacuum planet of sun-baked flatlands and rebellious mining cities; Mithril, a barely habitable iceball with short-lived “ephemeral glades” of flora; the wildernesses of Pagliacci, the pitchblende mines of Newcomb, the reclusive nobility of Sainte Foy, and many others. All suggested a universe of fractal complexity, a galactic-level civilization that retained its variety and dynamism at whatever magnification one viewed it. And since Traveller was a role-playing game, authors like Miller, Loren Wiseman, and John M. Ford presented these worlds as places that the reader (or his/her 57th-century surrogate), not some improbably heroic character from someone else’s story, could explore. This was a compelling offer to one who wanted to travel, wanted to escape the gray and restrictive world of home and school, but had no physical or financial means to do so.

More on some of Traveller’s many worlds in future blog posts, I suspect. 

(Image above from, which holds the rights thereto.)