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February, 2005 : Essay:

Deciphering the Text Foundations of Traveller

In the science fiction game Traveller, players take on the roles of wandering interstellar adventurers who are willing to take on dangerous and/or illegal jobs for pay. The genre sources for Traveller (now known as “Classic Traveller” or “CT” for short) are as obscured as a medieval palimpsest, yet a careful sifting through the evidence reveals the hidden roots, which in turn point to the pathways of genre evolution from 1965 to 2001.

First published by Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) in 1977, CT provided the new medium of role-playing games with a science fiction setting comparable to the fantasy setting established by Dungeons & Dragons three years earlier. CT was not the first science fiction role-playing game (SFRPG), but it was the most successful of those appearing in the ‘70s. There can be no doubt the game benefited from the release of Star Wars in the same year and the subsequent market boom in science fiction, yet CT was not initially inspired by it or any other media SF. In contrast to other early games like Gamescience’s Space Patrol (1977), which took its name from the 1950s TV show, and Fantasy Game Unlimited’s Starships and Spacemen (1978), which was the first role-playing game to imitate Star Trek, CT was driven by written SF. Classic Traveller sketched out a universe based upon a mixture of elements drawn from a number of science fiction novels, just as Dungeons and Dragons had done for fantasy, but where D&D was open about its source texts (naming in the rules book such classics as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Vance’s The Dying Earth, and Moorcock’s Elric books), CT was more cryptic.

There are two good reasons for CT’s roots to have been obscured, one legal and the other aesthetic. In the beginning, both TSR (publisher of D&D) and GDW (publisher of CT) were encouraging their customers to “do it yourself” in adapting favorite genre works to their respective games. TSR was so blatant about borrowings that they quickly ran afoul of copyright holders: Warriors of Mars (1974) presented Barsoom without license and brought the ire of the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate; Deities and Demigods (1980) contained unlicensed material belonging to H.P. Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock, sections of which were dropped from the second edition in 1981. [Games based upon legally licensed media SF also came in the 1980s: FASA’s Star Trek (1982) and West End Games’s Star Wars (1987).] On the aesthetic side, GDW clearly did not want to be bound to reproducing the entirety of an author’s universe: they just wanted to take what they considered to be the best bits of a few and make a new, organic whole of it. Call it the Frankenstein approach, where a new creature is made from parts taken from anonymous donors.

The look and feel of CT is internally consistent and somewhat generic, yet still rather difficult to match with a precursor. One would expect a science fiction role-playing game set in a galactic empire to look like Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1942-50), the granddaddy of all galactic empires, yet CT does not—eschewing Asimov’s atomic ashtrays, blasters, the full-metal planet Trantor, and a stardrive of such speed that a trip from the galactic rim to the core can be done in a honeymoon jaunt. Likewise CT does not look or feel like Frank Herbert’s Dune (1960s ecology SF), or Larry Niven’s “Known Space” (1960s hard SF), or E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Lensman"(1930s space opera). It might seem strange that an SFRPG based on SF texts would somehow miss all the so-called classics, but the problem is that these classics are mutually exclusive—they cannot blend well together. What the creators of CT were after was science fiction adventure, featuring freelance “adventurers” (with all the connotations of gold hunters, mercenaries, and trail blazers that this term implies) who could live or die in the course of pick-up games. They seem inspired by adventure movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Wages of Fear, and The Man Who Would Be King; noir movies like Yojimbo and Kiss Me Deadly; “heist” movies like Rififi and Le Cercle Rouge. All of which amounts to the polar opposite of Star Trek (where everyone works together for the government, the government is good, there is a moral code in the “Prime Directive,” and nobody important dies).

The amoral (or morally ambiguous) and violent nature of these adventures is attested to by the game’s rules:

The key to adventure in Traveller is the patron. When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success. . . . A patron will, if he decides to hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task. Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as the hiring of guards or escorts; other tasks may be the location and procurement of items of great value (Book 3, Worlds and Adventures, 25).

The earliest mini-adventures published in the magazine The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society followed this pattern: “The Ship in the Lake” (1979) describes a sunken treasure in a war zone; “Planetoid P-4638” (1979) is a job of industrial espionage and covert operations; “Salvage on Sharmun” (1980) offers sunken treasure on a proscribed world. The first double-adventures expanded the range somewhat: “Shadows” and “Annic Nova” (1980) are essentially two “dungeon crawls,” one in an alien pyramid complex, the other in a derelict starship. “Across the Bright Face” and “Mission on Mithril” (1980) are both “wilderness adventures,” one on a hot world, the other on an icy planet.

Supplement 6: 76 Patrons (1980), goes much further, providing 60 basic jobs for adventurers. Of these missions, some 10 percent are morally good (three cases of missing persons, one case each of “find a hidden place,” anti-smuggling, and anti-theft) and 20 percent are neutral (bodyguard, ship work, and “guard a place”). The remaining majority of 70 percent are criminal activities, including eight burglaries (five in a Watergate style), four assassinations (two of them political leaders), two cases each of hijacking and kidnapping, and one noteworthy case of global terrorism with a weapon of mass destruction.

This is not to condemn CT but to establish its noir character beyond any shadow of doubt. The universe of CT is definitely not that of Star Trek, nor that of Star Wars, nor even that of L. Sprague de Camp’s “Viagens Interplanetarias” adventure stories. CT is hard-line noir, as exemplified by the logical “sequel” to 76 Patrons in the form of the full-length adventure Prison Planet (1982).

The creators of CT wanted the anarchic, amoral, and violent adventure of fantasy role playing translated into a science fiction setting. They also wanted a kind of science fiction that used more “hard SF” than even Niven’s work. They categorically rejected New Wave SF, which made them allied to the Old Wave, except that GDW wanted a gritty, noir setting (where the Old Wave is characterized as upbeat and moral). This made a lot of sense: the mystery genre had long since gone noir, and more recently Westerns had followed suit (starting with Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964), so it seemed a safe bet that SF would leave the New Wave and “go noir” in the near future.

In short, GDW wanted a form of science fiction that was as reinvented and redefined as the Western movie had been transformed by the “spaghetti Westerns.”

GDW published CT with plenty of DIY (“do it yourself”) encouragement for its buyers to make their own settings, since initially they were purchasing a game system with only a vague Imperial background. The contradictory streams of encouraging DIY universes and providing official Third Imperium material began with the first supplement and continued for some time: an appendix in 1001 Characters (1978) provided a list of heroes “drawn from the pages of science fiction” (43); the fourth supplement, Citizens of the Imperium (1979), had a second list of famous SF heroes and villains, and a citation of the sources for both lists. Aside from showing the versatility of the game system in being able to handle famous characters from divergent universes, this was also a possible opportunity to quietly reveal the heretofore hidden sources of CT itself.

Of the fourteen source-text titles, three are single novels and eleven are series (media SF is covered with two characters from Star Wars and one from Star Trek). To be fair, the context of the list was “famous SF heroes and villains that could be used in CT,” but most of the settings seem like a stretch for the CT milieu (the universal psionics of The Stars My Destination; the comedy of the Stainless Steel Rat series; and the hospital drama of the Sector General series, to name a few). On the following table, “Ease of DIY” is the estimated difficulty for a referee to create a given setting, with 5 being the easiest and 1 being the most difficult.

TitleNotesEase of DIY
Barsoom seriesOne planet, fantasy feel4
Lensman series1930s Space Opera2
Deathworld TrilogySingle planet3
Dumarest sagaGalactic wanderer5
Niven’s “Known Space”Big scale, FTL4
Panshin’s StarwellDetective comedy/parody3
Flandry seriesWorking for empire3
Demon Princes seriesDetective/Revenge3
The Stars My DestinationEveryone teleports mentally1
The Stainless Steel RatThief Comedy3
CoDominium seriesFTL jumplines, force fields3
Sector General seriesSpace hospital1
Retief seriesDiplomat Comedy3
The Stars, Like DustFoundation universe2

Of all of these, only one scores a 5; the one title that turns out to be an authentic source of inspiration for CT is E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest saga.

E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series (1967 onward) portrays its titular hero as a far future Odysseus trying to find his way home across a galaxy that has forgotten Earth completely. Each novel is slim and action-packed: Earl Dumarest arrives penniless at a new planet where he must use his wits and his reflexes, not only to survive but also to make enough money for passage to the next planet. From this series, already 17 books long in 1977, CT got such details as: low passage (a deadly hibernation system); mesh armor; the drugs fast, slow, medical slow, and combat (i.e., two-thirds of the drugs in CT); the weapon “blade”; and perhaps the psionics.

In some cases the original context was warped: in Dumarest’s universe, low passage kills one in six human passengers, just as in CT. But it was never meant for human use; it is for animals only (so the high death rate for CT’s “frozen watch” of the Imperial Navy is an artifact of this warping). In Dumarest the wealthy passengers travel “high passage” whereby their subjective time-frames are slowed down by expensive drugs called “quick-time” so that the long voyage between stars goes by more quickly (similar to CT’s “Fast” drug, but CT avoided that New Wave “high” passage for aesthetic reasons). Everybody else travels middle passage, that is, in real time.

Classic Traveller Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra
CT Low Passage Dumarest Low Passage
“Transportation while in cold sleep (suspended animation) is possible at relatively low cost to the passenger. . . . Unfortunately, the low passage system involves some intrinsic dangers to the passenger, and he runs some risk of not surviving the voyage. Throw 5+ for each passenger [i.e., 17 percent death rate]”“Riding in the bleak cold sections in caskets meant for the transport of livestock, risking the 15 percent death rate for the sake of cheap travel” (Lallia, 6).
CT “Mesh” Dumarest’s signature armor
“A jacket or body suit made of natural or synthetic leather and reinforced with a lining of flexible metal mesh, similar to chain mail but lighter and stronger”“Looking down he saw scratches in the gray plastic of his tunic. They were deep enough to reveal the gleam of protective mesh buried in the material” (Jester, 13)
CT “Blade” Dumarest’s signature weapon
“A hybrid knife weapon with a heavy, flat two-edged blade nearly 300 mm [11.75 in.] in length, and a semi-basket handguard. Because of the bulk of the handguard, it is generally carried in a belt scabbard” [note that the CT dagger is 200 mm (8 in.)] “Transferring it to his left hand he drew the ten-inch knife from his boot, poising it as his eyes searched the darkness” (Toyman, 6).
CT “Slow Drug” Dumarest Slow-time, diluted
The user experiences the world as being two times slower than normal. It is used as a combat enhancer through speeded-up reflexes.“[a diluted dose of] slow-time…to him, time had slowed so that he could do more in a second than could a normal man” (Jester, 9).
CT “Medical Slow Drug” Dumarest Slow-time
The user experiences the world as being thirty times slower than normal. It is used to promote rapid healing and has sedation built in, but it is often used in conjunction with “Medical drug” to promote further healing.“Beneath the [transparent] covering he could see the flesh almost totally healed. Hormones, he thought, or perhaps even slow-time, the magical chemical which speeded the metabolism so that a man lived a day in a few minutes” (Jondelle, 12). Used in conjunction with sedation and intravenous feeding.
CT “Fast Drug” Dumarest Quick-time
The user experiences the world as being sixty times faster than normal, used as an emergency form of suspended animation.“The magic of quick-time…slowed his metabolism down so that he lived at one fortieth the normal rate. He, the girl, the others who traveled on High passage” (Kalin, 23).
CT “Combat Drug”Dumarest Slow-time while conscious
Provides user with enhanced strength and endurance.“You said that you knew what you were doing but few have used slow-time in the conscious state” (Gath, 163). “He was living at about forty times the normal rate” (Gath, 165).

Perhaps more importantly, CT got the name “traveller.” In Dumarest’s universe this is the term for an adventurer who has no ship of his own and goes from world to world. After the handler has revived Dumarest from the low passage coffin, he asks, “What’s it like being a traveler? I mean, what do you get out of it?”

It’s a way of life,” said Dumarest. “Some like it, some don’t. I do.”
“How do you go about it? What do you do between trips?”
“Look around, get a job, build another stake for passage to somewhere else (The Winds of Gath, Dumarest #1, p. 5).

Nine books later, an observer notes: “A traveler. A man who moved from world to world. . . . A wanderer who had seen a hundred worlds” (Jondelle, Dumarest #10, p. 6).

On the CT side we find this expressed as: “Looking for work is a constant chore for travellers” (back cover of adventure Expedition to Zhodane, 1981).

In his novels, Tubb uses “one-L” traveler, the American spelling of the word. By using the older, British, “two-L” form, GDW deftly evokes an imperial history of far-flung territories: the exotic English-speaking world beyond the American shore: South Africa, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, etc.

CT owes a lot to Dumarest: at the detail level there is a ship’s locker worth of equipment; at the thematic level there is the gritty, money-grubbing “traveler” which serves as the symbol of the CT adventurer. One critical thing missing from Dumarest is a galactic empire—for this the creators of CT went to another cryptic source, a text that forms another strong root for CT even though it does not appear in the “heroes and villains” list. This unmentioned elephant in the corner is H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking.

H. Beam Piper’s “Terro-Human” series, a future history of novels and stories covering 30 centuries, had a big collective influence on CT, but none were so powerful as the novel Space Viking. Here was a warrior aristocracy for good and for ill, but not for ridicule (as are the nobles in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy). Here were space raiders with no blasters or even lasers, instead using gunpowder weapons and nuclear bombs. (Piper was a gun-nut with quite a personal collection, and his use of gunpowder weapons in an interstellar setting is a good match for CT, where laser pistols were forbidden as “fantasy.”)

Space Viking opens on the planet Gram, with hero Lord Lucas Trask’s bride Elaine being killed at their wedding by the submachine gun-wielding madman Lord Andray Dunnan. Dunnan then steals a starship to escape the Sword-Worlds and Trask sets out to track him down, beginning an interstellar manhunt for revenge, with worlds for plunder along the way. The chase goes on for years, with Trask building up a low-tech planet named Tanith into a Viking base while Dunnan purposefully imitates Hitler in subverting Marduk, a civilized welfare-state planet: only Trask’s Space Vikings can save the world.

CT’s supplement The Spinward Marches (1979) depicted a frontier region of Imperial space, a map for the settings of many published adventures. Near the center of this map lies a group of planets called “the Sword Worlds,” each one named after a legendary sword (Excalibur, Gram, etc.)—just as they are in SV. But sword names are not copyrighted, so there is no way of proving that these sword worlds are taken from Piper’s Sword-Worlds.

Space Viking has very little description of the Sword-Worlds themselves. Piper writes of the planet Gram, “the huge red sun hung in a sky as yellow as a ripe peach” (Space Vikings, 1). Before long he compares Gram and Excalibur while thinking of his coming honeymoon with Elaine: “And she would see clear blue skies again, and stars at night. The cloudveil hid the stars from Gram, and Elaine had missed them, since coming home from [college on] Excalibur” (Ibid., 2). Gram’s leader, Duke Angus, later calls himself King and exerts control over the other Sword-Worlds.

GDW’s planet Gram has this code: “A895957-B.” The first “9” describes the planet’s atmosphere as “dense and tainted,” which is what one would expect for a world with a constant cloud veil and a “yellow” sky. Gram is also the subsector capital, the administrative seat of all the Sword Worlds.

GDW’s world Excalibur has the code: “B324755-A.” The “2” means that the atmosphere is “thin and tainted.” The stars shine bright on such a planet.

From the micro details of a few planetary settings we move to the macro detail of planetary and interstellar government. Among CT’s planetary government types, an elegant Aristotelian spectrum ranging from “Anarchy” to “Religious Dictatorship,” there is the curious term “Feudal Technocracy.” Curious because such a government type is not known from history, yet this seemingly archaic-futurism is the most desired type of government in the Imperium. Feudal Technocracy seems to come straight out of SV, wherein Piper sets forth a libertarian/medievalist model in direct contrast to Asimov’s anti-medievalist position.

On the civilized world Marduk, Trask is asked about the government of the Sword-Worlds, the interstellar association he grew up in:

Well, we don’t use the word government very much,” [Trask] replied. “We talk a lot about authority and sovereignty. . . but government always seems to us like sovereignty interfering in matters that don’t concern it. As long as sovereignty maintains a reasonable semblance of good public order and makes the more serious forms of crime fairly hazardous for the criminals, we’re satisfied.”

“But that’s just negative. Doesn’t the government do anything positive for the people?”

He tried to explain the Sword-World feudal system to them. It was hard, he found, to explain something you have taken for granted all your life to somebody who is quite unfamiliar with it.

“But the government. . . doesn’t do anything for the people!” one of the professors objected. “It leaves all the social services to the whim of the individual lord or baron."

“And the people have no voice at all; why, that’s tyranny,” an Assemblyman added.

He tried to explain that the people had a very distinct and commanding voice, and that barons and lords who wanted to stay alive listened attentively to it. The Assemblyman changed his mind; that wasn’t tyranny, it was anarchy. And the professor was still insistent about who performed the social services.

“If you mean schools and hospitals and keeping the city clean, the people do that for themselves. The government. . . just sees to it that nobody’s shooting at them while they’re doing it.”

“That isn’t what Professor Pullwell means, Lucas. He means old-age pensions,” Prince Bentrik said (Space Viking, “Marduk” section III).

The pointed contrast is between a welfare state and the gunpowder-feudalism of the Sword-Worlds. While this feudalism shows some of the checks and balances found in the early United States, some might be tempted to label it “fascism” for the blatant militarism and piracy it displays: yet the text is clear in equating Dunnan with Hitler (“Maybe [Dunnan] was reading about Hitler. . . he was planning conquest. . . by subversion” [215, Marduk VII]), making the Space Vikings anti-fascist pirates.

Later SFRPG products from GDW continued to exhibit Piper’s influence: the source-book Star Vikings (1994) being the most obvious case, and the “growler” (an intra-mouth device allowing humans to speak with a species of aliens in Ranger, p. 24-5, 1989) being perhaps the most obscure (coming from Uller Uprising). The popular Piper novels about “Fuzzies” had no discernable effect on CT, presumably because the fuzzies are too cute for Traveller.

TerroHuman series
1st century AEFour-Day Planet (1961)
4th century AEUller Uprising (1952)
7th century AEThe “Fuzzy” books (1962, 1964, 1984)
9th century AECosmic Computer (1963)
1st to 9th century AEFederation (short stories, collected 1981)
16th century AESpace Viking (1963)
16th to 30th century AEEmpire (short stories of centuries 16 to 30)

From the reasoning above, it appears that the two most important written SF influences on CT are Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series and Piper’s Space Viking. Dumarest answers the needs of adventurers lacking their own ship; SV points the way for ship owners. The works of other authors had some influence: for example, Poul Anderson’s world-building was inspirational for many involved in shaping CT; David Drake’s “Hammer’s Slammers” stories of galactic mercenaries (collected 1979) probably contributed to the combined role-playing/war gaming found in CT’s Mercenary (1978); and so on, down to the possibility that perhaps CT’s emperor “Cleon I” is the sole minutia mined from Asimov’s Foundation. But these traces can hardly be weighed against the elements from Tubb and Piper.

Traveller and the history of SF (1965 to 2001)

CT offered a new subgenre where hard SF mixed with noir situations, offering easy, deadly violence. CT achieved all of this within the realm of RPGs, establishing a brand that was the reigning standard for several years, yet this success did not trigger a “hard noir” or “spaghetti SF” trend in written SF. To examine CT’s legacy within the context of written SF, it is necessary to sketch out four different SF periods: New Wave, Star Wars, Cyberpunk, and Millennial Fever.

New Wave period (1965–77). The SF New Wave was a literary infusion of the “juvenile” genre. On the one hand this meant more adult-themed material (including sex and violence), and the sense that SF was “finally growing up.” But on the other hand, there was a move away from hard SF to soft SF, as well as an abandonment of space adventure in favor of inner space psychedelia. This gap is where CT created its niche.

One of the milestones for the New Wave is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions series of anthologies. Dangerous Visions (1967) had sold an incredible 50,000 copies in hardcover (plus 45,000 book club copies) by the time Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) went to press.

Star Wars period (1977–83), from Star Wars (1977) to Return of the Jedi (1983). The first movie was the number one top grossing film for 20 years (squeezed out by Titanic in 1997), and the other two are in the top ten as well. This is a cultural phenomenon much larger than the genre community, and its arrival effectively spelled the end of the New Wave.

Star Wars represented a return to the “juvenile” form of SF. Like CT, it was a space adventure rejection of New Wave, with a certain grittiness in machinery, and something of a noir-hero in Han Solo. But Star Wars also rejected hard SF and went in the direction of 1930s-era blasters and space opera, which CT had avoided. (It is also noteworthy that the "Star Wars" movies followed the D&D model: the hero is a young, unskilled farm boy who acquires skills and powers in the course of his adventure; i.e., he essentially “goes up a level” from time to time. This is the opposite of CT, where characters go through a career, get skills, and then go adventuring without getting further improvement.)

CT was boosted along, despite the differences. The SF movies of the period that come closest to CT are the "Mad Max” series and Blade Runner. Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior (1981), and (slightly out of period) Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) are morally ambiguous and violent, but set in the anarchy of a post-apocalyptic Earth rather than among the stars. Blade Runner (1982), film noir to the point of retro-stylings, features technology that is a good fit for CT (the “spinners” are CT grav cars; Deckard’s pistol is CT’s “body pistol”), and while the story is Earth-bound, there are hints of off-world colonies and interstellar warfare.

Media SF began to have an impact on CT: Trillion Credit Squadron (1981) brought the sort of fighter ships made popular by Star Wars and TV’s Battlestar Galactica (1978) into the Third Imperium.

Cyberpunk period (1983–92), from Jedi to Clinton. Written SF finally went noir, embracing hardboiled sentiments, criminal activity, and easy violence, all part of the CT mix. But contrary to CT, cyberpunk was never about space adventure; in fact, its signature “brain/computer interface” notion, taken from Delany’s award-winning space adventure Nova (1969), was just a fresh coat of paint on the New Wave’s “inner space.”

During this time, CT was revised as MegaTraveller (1986–91), in which a strong influence of Star Wars is evident: the Third Imperium, having been stable for eleven centuries, suddenly enters a period of civil war and rebellion.

Traveller: 2300 (1986) was initially a prequel to CT, but later it was spun off as a separate universe with 2300 AD (1988–91). This SFRPG featured the hardest “hard SF” of the day. It was influenced by the movies Alien (mainly art of Sigourney Weaver-type warriors and their weapons) and Blade Runner (building on that movie’s implied extrasolar colonies), as well as cyberpunk novels of brain/computer interface.

Millennial Fever period (1992–2001), from Clinton to September 11th. The USSR fell without a nuclear apocalypse, a miracle that took some years to see out. The arrival of the Internet spelled the end of cyberpunk, and the “post-industrial economy,” a dead pipe-dream of the 1980s, suddenly seemed to be coming true with the Internet’s new economy (cyberpunk’s scary “megacorps” had morphed into warm-and-fuzzy “dot com” start ups). The coming of the new millennium furthered the feeling of newness and transcendence: Vernor Vinge’s “singularity” (the near future “event horizon” of magical technology) being a perfect icon of this SF eschatology/evolution.

The “Baroque Space Opera” of Vinge’s award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) brought another surge of hard SF, but along with it came that pesky space opera. In addition it seemed at times as though the “hard SF” had been completely co-opted by the New Wave: nanotech, biotech, smart dust, personality uploads, grey goo, post-humans. . . all the “new” signs and symbols were outside the scope of Traveller.

Traveller: the New Era (1992) replaced MegaTraveller. The gaming company GDW ceased to exist in 1995, but Traveller itself sprouted up in new places: Marc Miller’s Traveller, or T4 (1996–98), GURPS Traveller (1996 and currently), and T20 (2002 and currently).

In media SF, the best approximation of CT appeared at this very late point in the form of an anime TV series and movie from Japan: Cowboy BeBop (1998). Noir and stylish, it features: space adventure; real brand-name guns in space; money-grubbing bounty hunters struggling to get enough money for their next meal; streetwise connections; combat enhancing drugs; shady alliances; double-crossing; treasure hunting; and more hard SF than just about any other anime to date.

Traveller was a vision powerful enough to dominate the SFRPG world, but never strong enough to break out of that niche. Written SF has cycled through three movements in the decades since Traveller premiered, yet none of these trends were quite the “hard noir” blend that Traveller represents. As a result, Traveller has remained on the margins of genre rather than being the heart of a subgenre—call it “the game that would be king.” It remains a sturdy creation inspired by war gaming and noir adventure, built upon a solid foundation of lesser-known SF texts.

Works Referenced

GDW. Adventure 6: Expedition to Zhodane. Game Designers’ Workshop: Bloomington, Illinois. 1981.

———. Double Adventure 1: Shadows/Annic Nova. GDW, 1979.

———. Double Adventure 2: Across the Bright Face/Mission on Mithril. GDW, 1979.

———. Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society (issues 2, 3, and 4). GDW, 1979.

———. Supplement 1: 1001 Characters. GDW, 1978.

———. Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches. GDW, 1979.

———. Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium. GDW, 1979.

———. Supplement 6: 76 Patrons. GDW, 1980.

———. Traveller, Deluxe Edition. GDW, 1981.

Piper, H. Beam. Space Viking. Ace Science Fiction: New York. 1983.

———. Uller Uprising. Ace, 1983.

Schick, Lawrence. Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games. Prometheus Books: Buffalo, New York. 1991.

Tubb, E.C. The Jester at Scar. Ace, 1982.

———. Jondelle. Arrow: London, 1977.

———. Kalin. Arrow: London, 1976.

———. Lallia. Ace, 1982.

———. Toyman. Ace, 1982.

———. The Winds of Gath. Ace, 1982.

Dumarest of Terra (first 17)

———.1. The Winds of Gath (1967)

———.2. Derai (1968)

———.3. Toyman (1969)

———.4. Kalin (1969)

———.5. The Jester at Scar (1970)

———.6. Lallia (1971)

———.7. Technos (1972)

———.8. Veruchia (1973)

———.9. Mayenne (1973)

———.10. Jondelle (1973)

———.11. Zenya (1974)

———.12. Eloise (1975)

———.13. Eye of the Zodiac (1975)

———.14. Jack of Swords (1976)

———.15. Spectrum of a Forgotten Sun (1976)

———.16. Haven of Darkness (1977)

———.17. Prison of Night (1977)


Copyright © 2005, Michael Andre-Driussi. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Andre-Driussi

Michael Andre-Driussi has been studying anime for several years. His articles on sf anime in general have appeared in NYRSF. His main claim to fame, however, is Lexicon Urthus, a dictionary for the New Sun, now in its long awaited Second Edition.

COMMENTS!

Jan 31, 20:48 by Bluejack

Has anyone else played this game? Personally, Traveller was my first non-D&D RPG. Ok. I'm a geek. But I doubt you're surprised.

(Michael Andre-Driussi's analysis is here.)
Feb 1, 05:36 by Nathan Ballingrud
I've never played Traveller, though I've always wanted to, and still do. I'm leery of its current incarnation, though (Steve Jackson's GURPS). Since we have Steampunk and Traveller in the same issue, I feel it's also safe to ask: has anyone here played GDW's Space: 1889?
Feb 1, 13:31 by Yoon Lee
I haven't played Traveller either, although I did get GURPS Traveller *and* some of the omnibus reprints--I regret that I never found a group running it. (The crowd I found was pretty well ensconced in AD&D, Legend of the Five Rings, Seventh Sea, occasional others...)
Feb 2, 12:13 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Hello there, I'm the article-writer! I'm interested in how Traveller started out as opposite to D&D, yet market forces smoothed some of the differences. D&D comes from a fairy tale starting point ("you are a young [wizard, warrior, etc.] leaving your village to seek adventure"), where Traveller is the noir setting more like a midlife crisis where one has just left one's mundane job (nobody says it, but pensions are not enough <g>). Where D&D has self-improvement ("kill Orcs, improve your lock-picking!"), Traveller was first the losing battle against Entropy (characters could easily die in the generation process, before even entering the game; not to mention the sobering effects of aging)...but self-improvement became such an expected feature of rpgs that eventually Traveller offered it. In D&D one kills monsters; in Traveller one kills people...Traveller developed more "monster-like" aliens, but still kept a pretty tight rein on that. In D&D one gets magic weapons; in Traveller one gets weapons banned by modern Geneva Conventions (flechettes; like the poison gas used in an early "Hammer's Slammers" story). GDW was hard against laser pistols, but the demand was so great that by issue two of their magazine (1979) they were saying "do it yourself." Many early rpgs were obvious D&D-clones, but Traveller was not--still, it had to bend in ways that were shaped by D&D as well as other user expectations.
Feb 3, 16:14 by John Farquhar
Mantis -

What a surprise to come across this article. Traveller was the first rpg that I "owned" having picked up a used set of the small paperbacks circa 1980. Not long afterward, I tried adapting it to a "Hitchiker's Guide" theme with only a little success. And, without much thought toward it over the last two decades, I only recently began wondering if it were still available. Apparently, I've missed much of the game's evolution. Thanks for giving me an historical context as well as informing me on it's developments.

jf
Feb 3, 19:39 by Michael Andre-Driussi
"Hitchhiker's Guide" ala Traveller would be very difficult, it seems to me! If you still have an inclination to say "Get out your Kill-o-Zap rayguns!" I think your best bet would be to start with one of the jokey sf games, like TWERPS ("The World's Easiest Role-Playing Game"). TWERPS Space Cadet and TWERPS Rocket Rangers might do it. Or maybe TWERPS Twek (for the Star Trek approach)? Then there is a more recent (non-TWERPS) product, "Spaceship Zero," which might be worth a look (it sounds sort of like British TV show "Red Dwarf," fwiw). Thank you for your kind words on the article!
Feb 4, 00:50 by Bluejack
One of the things I recall about the original Travellers was that, while the role-playing rules, and the background universe were all pretty open ended, the characters were very distinctly from a structured, disciplined quasi-military background. You had to roll your way through any number of years in some sort of training academy in order to end up in command of an extra-terrestrial vessel, which more or less seemed to assume a human-dominated space culture.

But, that character generation mechanism aside, I think any motivated game conductor could certainly re-apply the rules to a more open-ended space. Think Gamma World + Traveller + some sort of Asimovian I-Robot, and I think you would have a pretty good basis for... hey... anyone in Seattle want to kick off a game?
Feb 4, 07:42 by Adrian Simmons
Great article. SOunds like some classic sci-fi fiction. But I have to wonder... does anybody actually play this game? I had friends who raved about it, yet never played. Yet they would play STAR FRONTIERS* (and bitch, unceasingly, about how it was not TRAVELLER).

So, anybody except the author ever play? Anybody? Hello? Bueller? Bueller?

*this actually happened: the ranged combat in STAR FRONTIERS was so bizarre that at one point I had a character stop shooting his electrostunner and start pistol-whipping people with it, it was the only way he could hit anything!
Feb 5, 11:16 by Michael Andre-Driussi
More influential texts show up in round-about ways, like in adventures themselves. (I find this interesting but I couldn't work it into the article.) The world Victoria (where human colonists live only on high altitude areas) in JTAS #2 is based upon the flawed (imho) sf adventure novel PRISONERS OF THE SKY (rather than Anderson's High America or Niven's Plateau). Adventure "Across the Bright Face" (written by Marc Miller, Traveller's main inventor) is related to Nourse's story "Brightside Crossing," but amped up a bit, almost like noir adventure film "Wages of Fear." The planet Vior in the space merchant explorer adventure "Leviathan" is, by itself, a simple "cannibal island" setting (classic from Homer's day to the Age of Piracy, at least), but when Marc Miller (who didn't write "Leviathan") ran it for a weekend pickup game (as reported in Space Gamer #40, 1981), he seems to have blended in Leiber's "A Pail of Air" and Dante's Inferno! I find this very interesting, for some reason, and I'm always happy to find or learn more examples.
Feb 7, 17:10 by mantis
Variant Traveller campaign: William Burroughs. The gritty, grubby, low-life details (price lists for living in motels, eating package food)...the aimless quality (patrons are the =key= to jobs)...the injection drugs...these are a few of the details that make me think Traveller could serve as an easy basis for a Wm. Burroughs type of campaign! (Related notion: Dumarest of Terra brought some of that Burroughs mode into a more mainstream form.) And yet, strangely enough, the only example I personally know of a person running a Wm. Burroughs game was based upon ... "Space Quest"! (Which doesn't strike me as being as easy for the job as Traveller would be.) The players were scooting around in their starship, looking for adventure to show up (the nature of "Space Quest," <sigh>) when they came across a comet with a starship at its center. Inside the starship was Hamburger Mary...but the players had already abandoned the game at the preposterous nature of an iceberg with a ship inside of it...
Apr 24, 12:32 by Angus Glashier
Great article, sorry I only just found it. I'd always wondered what the literary inspirations of Traveller were. Some of the aliens were very well developed for a game, like the pacifist hexapod Hivers and the extremist vegetarian K'kree. 2300AD took this even further with some truly alien creatures (except for the risible Kafer general-purpose bad guys).

Just a nitpick: Traveller 2300 was never part of the Classic Traveller universe, it just had the word "traveller" in the title and many people jumped to the obvious conclusion, which is why they changed it to 2300AD in the second edition.

By the way, the Traveller Mailing List is the place to go for more info on the game than you're likely to find anywhere else (and plenty of convoluted discussions on the logic of jump drive technology). Some of the game's original creators still hang out there.
Apr 26, 13:03 by mantis
Great article, sorry I only just found it.


Thank you! Glad you like it.

Just a nitpick: Traveller 2300 was never part of the Classic Traveller universe, it just had the word "traveller" in the title and many people jumped to the obvious conclusion, which is why they changed it to 2300AD in the second edition.


Granted the "Traveller 2300" situation is confusing, and I wanted to treat it very lightly so as not to get bogged down, but I thought it was somewhat more confusing than your explanation.

That is, I dimly recall some early magazine articles by GDW people that introduced the game as a Traveller game (along the lines of how to integrate it and/or convert old Traveller into this new form). I don't think this was the article "Prologue--Adventure in the Not So Far Future" (on "backdating your Traveller campaign") from JTAS #20, but that title is very suggestive of what I'm talking about.

I could be misrembering the alledged article, but at the very least, this sort of thing was in the air in 1984-85: a near-future Traveller campaign; a more "hard sf" approach or reinvention. Coming not from the fans but from the publisher.

I'm not so sure that the confusion was limited to the consumers, but I acknowledge that this has been asserted by GDW people after the fact. (I don't mean to be cryptic: it seems like there were a number of missteps in "MegaTraveller," "Traveller 2300"/"2300 AD," and "Traveller: the New Era"; branching out into "Space: 1889" was also a questionable move, in my opinion.)

Thank you for your comments, Angus Glashier!
May 6, 10:09 by travitt hamilton
whoa.
May 7, 14:19 by Bluejack
Viruses for our Chinese friends, maybe?
May 8, 17:13 by Joy Ralph
The dreaded comment spam, or why people like Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden lock their old comment threads. Bah. Or perhaps Hurrah, we've arrived. *shrug*
May 14, 10:36 by Bluejack
Spam deleted.
May 15, 08:18 by Angus Glashier
That is, I dimly recall some early magazine articles by GDW people that introduced the game as a Traveller game


Yes, it was a Traveller game in the sense that the sort of campaigns that were inevitably played in 2300AD were more or less the same as in Traveller, but the canonic 2300 setting was entirely incompatible with the canonic Classic Traveller setting. Same approach, different material.

I don't mean to be cryptic: it seems like there were a number of missteps in "MegaTraveller," "Traveller 2300"/"2300 AD," and "Traveller: the New Era"; branching out into "Space: 1889" was also a questionable move, in my opinion.


True. But if anything I think GDW didn't diversify enough: GURPS has sourcebooks for everything under the sun, but it's still going strong (at least for a game that isn't D&D).
May 15, 13:10 by Michael Andre-Driussi
To expand a bit, and include other readers who may not know some of the details:

The missteps with MegaTraveller are plain: the product is so riddled with mistakes and omissions that it is not usable "out of the box." This is very strange, since the project should have been easy, simply compiling all the additions and refinements (mostly gleaned from published adventures and supplements) to the original, and adding the task system (from Digest Group Publications, iirc), to create the final form of the game (as well as the system, which we might call "2d6" in the style of "d20," the game system with roots in D&D and twenty-sided dice).

On the one hand, "MegaTraveller" was the spearhead of a company push. The two computer "MegaTraveller" games attest to this. Yet on the other hand, it seems the company's heart was not really into it, as shown by the poor quality of text, and the subsequent abandonment of "2d6" for "d10". The one hand does not seem to have known what the other hand was doing.

Angus wrote:
But if anything I think GDW didn't diversify enough: GURPS has sourcebooks for everything under the sun, but it's still going strong (at least for a game that isn't D&D).


My criticism isn't against diversity, so much. It is more against incoherent behavior.

I'm sure we can agree that GURPS works because it is a single coherent game system "3D6"; Chaosium did a similar thing with d100, starting with their own original game "Runequest" and adding licensed material branches for Moorcock's Elric and Lovecraft's Cthulhu. Both companies seem to have done well. Even <ahem> TriTac did this with "FTL: 2448" and "Fringeworthy" and "Bureau 13," iirc... (TriTac didn't do so well in the marketplace).

Things might have worked out differently if GDW had stuck with 2d6 and diversified, so that "Twillight: 2000" (T2K) and "2300 AD" (2.3K) and "Space: 1889" were all just Traveller variants, the sort of thing alluded to in TNE's "Fire, Fusion, & Steel" on the subject of customized campaigns.

(Not to mention the other GDW games, like "Dark Conspiracy" and whatnot.)

T2K and 2.3K were part of a big plan, ambitious in scope, and politically challenging if not "unthinkable" (the idea that the world would survive a full scale nuclear war tomorrow and rebuild to the stars in a few hundred years). But I question whether there was ever sufficient market for T2K. Were "Gamma World" and/or "The Morrow Project" doing so well in the marketplace? It doesn't really compare, since those two (and just about every other post-apocalyptic game I can think of) are set centuries after an apocalypse and T2K is the generation of the apocalypse itself. But it isn't exactly "The Road Warrior," either, since it is military rather than civilian...more like episodes of old TV show "Combat!" only with NATO/Warsaw Pact gear.

"Space: 1889" is another narrow niche, or so it seems to me. Maybe it was ahead of its time. There was a computer game made of it, iirc.

Changing from 2d6 to d10 seems suicidal to me, but if it must be done then maybe it would have worked out better if it were divorced from Traveller from the beginning, i.e., no "Traveller 2300" and no "Traveller: the New Era." Just declare Traveller over and done, perfected and finished with a useable MegaTraveller, and move on to the d10 system with different campaign books to add on.

In a nutshell:
"MegaTraveller"--unuseable out of the box, built up yet abandoned 2d6 system.

"Traveller 2300"/"2300 AD"--needless repeated confusion with Traveller where a clean break was necessary; additional confusion as company and players try to figure out the new d10 system; abandoned.

"Traveller: the New Era"--the third try, finally linking real Traveller with a d10 system that has been shaken out a bit. In a way, what "MegaTraveller" should have been, but at the same time rather dramatically cut off from all the Classic Traveller material (except through the laborious process of conversion).

Then again this is all 20/20 hindsight.
Mar 26, 07:20 by Ed Martz
In media SF, the best approximation of CT appeared at this very late point in the form of an anime TV series and movie from Japan: Cowboy BeBop (1998). Noir and stylish, it features: space adventure; real brand-name guns in space; money-grubbing bounty hunters struggling to get enough money for their next meal; streetwise connections; combat enhancing drugs; shady alliances; double-crossing; treasure hunting; and more hard SF than just about any other anime to date.


A year late to the party, but another example of media SF that very closely approximates CT is the Firefly/Serenity verse.

Good article. I bought the original boxed set of CT when it first came out, and have almost every one of the add-ons, as well. I bought most of the following products, too, all they were never as intersting to me.
May 24, 04:03 by James Roy
Fantastic article! I'm delighted to find it, even after more than a year. I've been playing Traveller since 1985, and it's fascinating to see this close a read into the text. I'd sussed out the Piper influence, but there's plenty you point out that I hadn't known about before - got some reading to do!
May 24, 04:04 by James Roy
I've played Traveller *Sticks hand in the air* Since '85!
May 24, 04:04 by James Roy
I've played Traveller *Sticks hand in the air* Since '85!
May 24, 18:25 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Hello there, article author here!

DXMachina wrote:
A year late to the party, but another example of media SF that very closely approximates CT is the Firefly/Serenity verse.


Yes, that's a good call. There are many points in Firefly that seem very much like CT: drugs, psionics, guns, starships, and most importantly, the "grey area" jobs of salvage and smuggling. CT never did the Western angle, which is good since Firefly is the one case in a thousand where it actually works! The Alliance is not much like canonical CT Imperium, but eh.

Alas, the fate of Firefly shows that the world =still= might not be ready for the basic concept.

While we're at it, the remake of Battlestar Galactica is another CT candidate (just add "High Guard" and "Robots"!), and seems to be faring better than Firefly.

James wrote:

Fantastic article! I'm delighted to find it, even after more than a year. I've been playing Traveller since 1985, and it's fascinating to see this close a read into the text.


Thank you!
Sep 8, 10:21 by Dan Eveland
What a great article. I am not a reader, but enjoy reading Traveller books/supplements/adventures. Thanks to your article, I am trying my hand at some of the fiction you mentioned.

I just love Traveller, but have a hard time finding local players.

I also wrote my own rules set here.
Mar 19, 19:55 by irosf@sockmonsters.com
Thanks for flagging the Dumarest series. I hadn't even heard of it, despite being an avid Traveller fan.

It's very Traveller.

I've only read a few chapters so far and aside from the different types of passage (which can notably be traded for cash) I'm also seeing psionics, the air/raft, the strange presence of noble rank/social status as a stat, skills such as carousing, gambling, jack-of-all-trades and also the odd fixation on 'space safaris' being a thing and on exploring ecological mystery.

We also seem to have a character called 'Cyber Dyne' that caused a few SF ripples...

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