Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not-So-Obscure Games: Traveller Through The Years

As most people know, there are four editions of Traveller that have seen print from companies with which Marc Miller is or has been directly involved, one edition from Mongoose, and a few editions converted to other game systems (or "engines", as some would have it). The two most well-known of the latter are GURPS Traveller and T20 (the D20 system Traveller conversion), but others such as a HERO System conversion and even a D6 System conversion exist. These seem like quite different animals to me, as the conversions, by necessity, focus on the default background, while the Marc Miller games (and the Mongoose edition; in fact, the Mongoose edition offers several alternate settings) can be used with that background or with any other the Referee wants to design. In addition to those editions, Marc Miller is about to print a "definitive" edition, Traveller5.

Here's a quick overview of the editions, including some notes as to how they differ from each other.

First was classic Traveller. Often called "CT" or the "LBB Edition" (for "Little Black Books", which was the context that I first heard that acronym used, only later seeing it used for the Little Brown Books of original D&D). This was actually several sub-editions. In the very first edition, the space combat rules used a scale of an inch on the table being 1000 miles scale, and a turn being 15 minutes. One G of acceleration for one turn gave a vector of 2" on the table. This was changed quickly to a scale of one cm on the table being 1000km scale, and a turn of 1000 seconds, or 16 ⅔ minutes. In this version, one G of acceleration for one turn gave a vector of 10cm on the table. Other than that change, the game was largely the same through all printings of the LBBs and the squarebound paperback edition called The Traveller Book. This was the edition in which a character could famously die during character creation (which made more sense than it sounds, but I'm not writing an apologetic here). Combat was arbitrary, with armor and weapons cross-indexed on a table to determine a modifier to the attack roll, and damage being rated in an absolute number of dice if a hit was scored. Damage points were applied directly to the physical characteristics of a character. The only dice used in the game were six-sided, frequently used as a 2d6 roll. As time went on, a lot of additions were written, such as the "enhanced" character creation for Army, Navy, Marines, Merchant, and Scout characters, vehicle design (the first in gaming that modeled the mechanical parts of a vehicle and derived a set of ratings for the game from those, in the Traveller miniatures rules called Striker), alternate combat systems (in Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning, mainly, but Striker had an influence as well), robot design, enhanced star system generation, and so on.

As those various details accumulated, the game started to become somewhat unwieldy. A new edition was called for (this was 10 years after the game was released, so it wasn't like they rushed into this), and the result was the second full edition, the atrociously-titled MegaTraveller, which is usually abbreviated "MT". Character creation was revised a bit, to give players a little more control over their characters and to reduce (but not eliminate, thank goodness) the "death in character creation problem" that some perceived in the original game. Many aspects of Striker combat were incorporated into the game, such as the vehicle design system (expanded to starships, though the derived ratings were different for starship combat, since it was treated much more abstractly even in terms of damage effects) and the combination of weapon penetration and armor ratings. Because the systems were not perfectly integrated, damage became a little complicated, and characters tracked two entirely different sets of hit points! One of these was the traditional Traveller system of applying damage to the characteristics of the character, while the other was derived from Striker damage ratings, and was a pair of hits ratings (the first for unconsciousness, the second for death) based on the "Life Level" of the character, which is the sum of the first three characteristics. Again, this works better in practice than it sounds, but it is still an obvious kludge. Personally, of the published editions so far, this is my favorite, though I strongly dislike the "Rebellion" background and the events that follow on from that. As time went on, a number of additions were made to the game, many of them from the company called Digest Group Publications (DGP) that belonged to the people who did most of the work in revising the game, and it continued to grow, but never became the unwieldy mess that classic Traveller became from its additions.

[ADDENDUM: 26 June 2012] In the spirit of the game, let me take a moment to issue a correction, and point out that one of the biggest problems with MegaTraveller was the immense amount of errata and corrections that were issued over the six years of its active publication. Most of those have been consolidated, and you can find them, for instance, here. There is also errata for the other editions there, but none of them approach the extensive errata issued officially for MegaTraveller. Well, the errata for T4 comes pretty close, I suppose.

However, GDW was making some… let's call them "interesting" decisions in the early 1990s. One of them was to create a "house system" to which all of their various games would be converted over time. This was based on the second edition of their popular (at the time) Twilight: 2000 game, and was an outgrowth of the system that they had developed for the excellent Space 1889 game (I'll talk about that one another time). Since the Rebellion background was growing interminable, they also decided to, in effect, reset the background. In my opinion, this was the biggest mistake that GDW made in its entire history. Through a dramatic plot device, nearly the entirety of known space in the Traveller default setting was subjected to an apocalyptic computer virus that nearly wiped out the spacefaring races. One area was spared this fate (through the foresight of its enlightened ruler), allowing more traditional Traveller games to continue if desired, but the idea was now that players would be trying to rebuild interstellar civilization. The new edition was called Traveller: The New Era, often abbreviated "TNE". I'm not really going to discuss this edition, as it was a dramatic change from the traditional Traveller system. It did include a book called Fire, Fusion, and Steel, which was a complete design system for everything from robots and guns to cars, tanks, ships, and even spacecraft. This was the forerunner of such gearhead books as GURPS Vehicles and CORPS VDS. Some of the "alternate tech" in the book made it clear that GDW intended to convert its other SF RPG, 2300AD (formerly known as Traveller: 2300, but changed when it became apparent that too many people were confused by the similarity of the title to Traveller, and another game that I intend to discuss on this blog in the future), into the system, but this never occurred. I do like TNE, but not enough to make it a regular option at my table. It did include some excellent supplementary material, such as the space combat boardgames Brilliant Lances and Battle Rider, a superior edition of the miniatures game (Striker II), a colony mini-game designed to be integrated with a roleplaying campaign (The World Tamer's Handbook), and so on. It was also a little frustrating, since it came out only 6 years after MT was released, and lasted less than 3.

Sadly, GDW closed its doors, relegating TNE to the dustbin of history (though you can get PDFs of it, from RPGNow or DriveThruRPG). Three years after releasing TNE, a new company formed by Marc Miller, FarFuture Enterprises, would release a new edition of Traveller which went back to its roots. Taking a cue from MT, it made character creation more player-friendly (enhancing choice, reducing pre-play lethality). Combat was greatly simplified such that now armor simply reduced the dice of damage rolled when a hit was scored, and damage was returned to its CT elegance. However, this edition, called Marc Miller's Traveller or Traveller4 (abbreviated almost always as "T4") was plagued by typos and insufficient development. A number of supplements were released (notably, the superior Pocket Empires, which introduced a mini-game of interstellar economics and politics), but the problems in the main rules and in the new Fire, Fusion, and Steel attached to it helped prevent the game from gaining any traction.

That brings us to today, 16 years after T4 was inflicted on an unsuspecting world, and 35 years after the game was first released. Later this year, Marc Miller's Far Future Enterprises will be releasing, at long last, Traveller5. With luck, this will be a definitive edition of the game, incorporating the best of all of the editions. I doubt that sunny prospect will occur, but I can dream.

If it doesn't, I notice that Mongoose's edition of the game includes the OGL, allowing third parties to use large portions of their text verbatim. You can find a link to their developers' kit toward the bottom of the sidebar on the left side of this blog. I would be interested in using that to put together my own version, taking what I consider to be the best of each edition (and stealing liberally from other games as I desire). You can bet that it would look a lot like MT, just integrated more thoroughly. But I have a lot of other projects to get to first, so I am hoping that T5 is all it can be.

The other major option is GURPS Traveller, which makes use of an alternative timeline in which the Rebellion of the main background did not occur. I like this, since one of the reasons that I am no longer as fond as I once was of the Imperium background is that we know how it is going to turn out. Everything is for naught. Anything you build will only fall into the pit of Virus and have to be rebuilt. The setting is not endowed with the infinite possibilities of the future, since we know what the future must be. I hate metaplots, is what I'm saying. GURPS Traveller's alternate timeline erases the metaplot from the setting and allows players to chart an uncertain course into a dynamic future again. Unfortunately for me, Steve Jackson Games has chosen to present the rules updated for GURPS 4E such that they focus on the very early part of the setting where Terra is taking its first tentative steps among the stars, and meeting with the old and decadent Imperium (later to be called the First Imperium, as the Imperium of the main part of the setting is called the Third Imperium). This is unfortunate because it means that they have not converted a lot of the technology over to 4E standards. Ah, well. It's not like I haven't been moving away from GURPS recently. Designed, point-bought characters just don't meet my needs at this time.


  1. This was interesting. I know nothing about traveler or it's editions and Jeff Gameblog has piqued my interest lately so this is helpful.

    1. Glad to hear it! Jeff's recaps of his playthrough of Leviathan made me happy in a special place.