Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Implied Setting, Implied System, and Old School Design

“Traveller is necessarily a framework describing the barest essentials for an infinite universe; obviously rules which could cover every aspect of every possible action would be far larger than these three booklets.” — Traveller, Book 3

Traveller is endlessly fascinating. The character generation rules by themselves are one of the most quintessential relics of the dawn of the role playing hobby. For most people they are the object of ridicule– Traveller is infamous for being the game where you can actually die in character generation. But a closer look reveals a tightly engineered system. Sure, everyone wants an experienced middle-aged character with a fat pension and tons of skills. But your old-man character will have to roll for aging effects that will degrade his attributes. If you actually find a psionics institute in the game, then suddenly those younger characters with only one or two terms are going to find out that they are the ones with the decent chance to develop spiffy powers of the mind. And the chance for death, if anything, keeps a player honest. If he has a four term character with decent attributes and a good range of skills, when he goes for the fifth, the referee can ask, “do you feel lucky, punk?” People with terrible attribute rolls can always elect to join the scout service where their chances of survival are quite slim. (How’s that for a “hopeless character” rule?)

But those character generation tables contain dozens of hints about the nature of the Traveller universe. Marines all end up knowing how to use a cutlass, but only a few of them end up with the vacc suit know-how they’ll need to be able to use the game’s uber-munckin combat armor. If you’d like the other players to refer to your character as “sir”, then the navy is the place to sign up. They not only have a chance to get +2 Soc on the benefit table, but they can also pick up some extra Soc by rolling on the personal development table instead of going for a skill. Scouts will muster out with not even a single skill level in blade combat, gun combat, leadership, tactics, or admin. And unlike the other services, they do not roll for promotion.( How exactly do they operate without the usual shipboard chain of command thing…?)

This kind of deft minimalism carries over into the game system as well. What exactly the attributes represent is not quite nailed down to any sort of hard and fast specifics. And if you’re looking for some sort of grand unified task system, then you’re in the wrong decade. But none of the dice mods for attributes on the career and weapon tables ever get past +1 or +2. And some skills have explicit defaults. Admin, for instance, grants +2 per skill level with no attribute modifications at all. Engineering is liable to be successful only with multiple attribute modifiers! If you dig around enough, you will find a method to the madness. And that implied system will often yield more details about the implied setting.

You want old school? Try this: there is no “strategy” skill in Traveller. Because it “deals with the reasons for the encounter and the intended results of the encounter; strategy is the realm of the players, rather than the characters.” (Emphasis mine.) In that exact same passage that’s discussing the tactics skill, the referee is given only the barest guidelines for adjudicating it: “it might influence the type and amount information in the miniature figure resolution of a battle which uses hidden movement….” That is a situation that is far beyond the scope of the Book 1 combat rules… and close in spirit to a “real” miniatures game. This is a ruleset that trusts the referee to extrapolate the core range band system into whatever a situation needs… and then resolve the tactics skill throws in whatever way he sees fit.

You might think that there actually isn’t any rules here… that this “system” merely consists of a loose pile of suggestions and off the cuff referee advice. But if you look back at the original Traveller line, you’ll see that when the rules were compiled into one volume, they were pretty well unchanged. Starter Traveller did the same thing, but took stuff out. And the Alien modules… almost unbelievably, they adapted almost every rules system in the game to their particular spin on the setting: basic character generation, advanced characters generation, “citizen” character generation, new patron and encounter tables, and even modifications to the usual world and ship generation procedures.

The rules were… well.. they were still the rules. And to the designers, they were the game. They were inseparable from whatever Traveller was. Oh, they would extend it all the time: three space combat systems, two trade systems, five combat systems, and so on. But the idea that they needed to go up a level of abstraction and make everything consistent with some sort of hypothetical ur-system… that never seems to have crossed their minds. Developing that sort of thing was never really on the to-do list– in fact… GDW handed responsibility for that off to DGP with the release of the bigger-better-tougher MegaTraveller game so that they could focus on Twilight 2000. When GDW took the game back to do Traveller: The New Era, they were more interested in adapting it to their house system than they were in uncovering something closer to the platonic ideal.

And that leads us to today… where we have a positively gigantic T5 on our hands. What’s so interesting about it is that it actually does seem to go back to the original Traveller game… and then find the sort of system that would accommodate everything that was done on an ad hoc make-it-up-as-we-go basis back in the day. And strangely enough… I find that reading T5 actually helps me to better understand how to adjudicate the original three little black books…. Like I said, Traveller is endlessly fascinating. And the fact that the T5 CD-Rom includes the complete rules for first four editions of Traveller as well as the new T5… well, there’s plenty here to think about. Man, I love this game.


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