Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Classic Traveller’s Original Supplements

Christopher Kubasik continues to uncover fascinating tidbits about the venerable space rpg Classic Traveller. His latest comes from the back of the box, which I just realized I had never even seen before…!

Entire games can be patterned after any of the many science fiction novels available, with the action following the story line, or diverging when something interesting happens…. The plots and structures of virtually all of science fiction become available to the players, to be altered or expanded whenever desired. 

Now, the game really is more tightly coupled to assumptions built into the works of H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb, Andre Norton, and Poul Anderson than this blurb indicates. But this really means that Traveller had (at the beginning) far more in common with D&D than people might think. The SF game that took hold was the one that was predicated on a loose amalgam of many literary sources rather than presenting a single coherent setting. Rather than having to get into another referee’s head space (ie, “how do things really work in Billy Bob’s space setting?”), game masters saw impressions of whatever they’d already been reading. This lead to them (a) immediately knowing what to do with the material and (b) interpolating missing material with something they were already intimate with. We no longer have the luxury of creating games in quite this style because the marketplace is made up of people that lack the sort of familiarity with sff canon that could be taken for granted in the seventies.

For myself, this sort of shameless pillaging of literary sources is a tremendous help in game mastering. I’d long struggled with how to really run Gamma World, for instance. But paraphrasing a few paragraphs from Heiro’s Journey to convey the overall strategic situation facing a small polity to establish a campaign and following that up with scenes dealing with the looting of ruin pulled directly from Starman’s Son, it made improvising a game session and keeping it going a pinch. Rules that were largely inscrutable before suddenly became a toolkit for fleshing out a world that I already had complete command over. But before… trying to interpolate the implied setting from what looked like very mediocre rules to me… it was all but impossible!

It’s not so much that the designers of the original three Little Black Books for Traveller assumed that they’d be supplemented with the existing range of written science fiction stories of the time…. I think it’s more accurate to say that the original Traveller rule set was intended to be a supplement for the stories themselves!


18 responses to “Classic Traveller’s Original Supplements

  1. Cambias November 12, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I’m going to be the oldest of fogies here, because I actually started playing Traveller when the Three Little Black Books were all there was. And, yes: the implied setting was basically “all SF novels published before about 1976.” Especially Poul Anderson (the only illustration in the Characters book was a merchant captain who was a dead ringer for Nicholas Van Rijn), H.Beam Piper, C.J. Cherryh, E.C. Tubb (whose influence Jeffro has already documented in detail), and Andre Norton.

    What’s kind of interesting is how the focus started to narrow once GDW began publishing more background source material. The Imperium (which arrived around the same time as Star Wars and The Mote in God’s Eye) locked us into a large-scale “Galactic Empire” setting which arguably didn’t actually fit well with the wandering free traders, star mercenaries, and lone scouts of the original books. Especially the Scouts: once the folks at GDW and Judges Guild could use their TRS-80 and Apple II computers to spit out randomly-generated subsectors, charted space in the Traveller universe got so big there wasn’t any frontier left to explore.

    Seriously: you’d have to travel at least 150 parsecs to get from the Spinward Marches (the home base of most Traveller supplements) to the nearest unexplored space. In a standard scout ship it would take a year and a half just to get to someplace to explore!

    • jeffro November 12, 2015 at 10:56 am

      The Alien Modules contained some absolutely fantastic design work. But boxing in the Third Imperium was kind of a dumb idea. I mean… you have to play a racist Solomani character if you want to get out and explore strange new worlds…!

    • ckubasik November 12, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      “What’s kind of interesting is how the focus started to narrow once GDW began publishing more background source material. The Imperium (which arrived around the same time as Star Wars and The Mote in God’s Eye) locked us into a large-scale “Galactic Empire” setting which arguably didn’t actually fit well with the wandering free traders, star mercenaries, and lone scouts of the original books.”


      And I just ordered the first book of the The Technic Civilization Saga. Thanks for getting me on that!

    • ckubasik November 12, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      Oh, also this…

      “Especially Poul Anderson…”

      I’ve noticed that what “mostly” was the source of inspiration for Traveller changes from person to person. The fact is, like OD&D it was a mishmash of inspirations stewed together for a Referee to use in HIS stew in whatever proportions he wanted. The introduction of the 3I — and the way it took over Traveller — put a kabosh on that. Suddenly there was a “right” universe to be sorted out, with the recipe proportions predefined.

    • jlv61560 November 12, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      Yep. Same deal here. I remember when Traveller first came out, we all thought, “Cool, now we can play out some of our favorite space novels!” Not “Cool we get to explore a specific future universe set-up by one ‘guy’.”

      Like the original D&D, it really wasn’t about Blackmoor or Greyhawk, it was about what could WE make up. It was only later that it became “necessary” slavishly follow some pre-ordained world. I’m not trying to slap Ed Greenwood around here, either — his Forgotten Realms were a triumph of imagination and story-telling — just not my, or any of my friends’, imaginations or storytelling! In the earlies, it was all about us and our dreams and fantasies and what we all wanted to experience, not edition wars, or “Forgotten Realms rocks and The Known World sucks” kinds of exchanges. And sure, our games probably didn’t make as much “sense” as pre-packaged game worlds do, but then again, neither did the fantasy and Sci-Fi we read back then. Just look at Appendix N, and you can see we were collectively all over the place.

      Sure, we played D&D modules — but as often as not, they were one-shots, played outside the context of our basic game world/campaign. New characters were created just for those adventures. No one I know EVER put Tomb of Horrors in their campaign world, or even White Plume Mountain!

      I think that, over time, as so much material has become available, things have become so much less flexible than they were before. In a sense, it’s sad, though I’m sure everyone nowadays enjoys it as much as we did — it’s just that what they enjoy now is completely different from the original experience. Really, to my mind, Cidri (in The Fantasy Trip) was the last attempt to really break the pre-packaged world paradigm; basically Steve Jackson said, “Here’s a pre-packaged world; it’s ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING you want it to be — go forth and imagine!”

      After that, the Dragonlance novels and the novels set in the Forgotten Realms (plus TSR’s and WOC’s canonical approach to the game), and the general restriction to “fantasy” as a specific set of things that make it “fantasy” began…I don’t know…maybe “destroying individual initiative” is too harsh, but that’s what I think started to happen.

      • Cambias November 12, 2015 at 6:39 pm

        Being an Old Fogey of Gaming, that has always been my experience. I buy a game, I create my campaign world, and then the publishers come out with an “official” setting after I’m already up and running that contradicts everything I created. The one exception was Space: 1889 because I could sneak parts of my game world into the adventures I wrote for GDW’s house magazine.

      • ffilz April 3, 2017 at 11:04 pm

        While I had Traveller at least by 1979, I really didn’t play it much until a bit later, and then I didn’t use the RAW…

        Now on D&D/AD&D, I did place many of the modules into my campaign, anyone who has a decent Wild Hunt archive can find Glen Blacow’s write up on an expedition into White Plume Mountain that didn’t end well when a PC polymorphed into an ancient huge red dragon in a 10′ wide corridor (Glen kept trying get the other player to understand the size of the dragon vs. the size of the corridor…). The writeup MIGHT have made it into A&E (sadly I haven’t been able to find it in what remains of my TWH collection – which has mostly all been disassembled and only the zines I was most interested kept, though supposedly most all of Glen’s)>

        I did make use at various times of published settings: The Blackmoor of First Fantasy Campaign, which was mostly a cool map with cool names and a few descriptions. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy which was more expansive than Blackmoor but still pretty slim descriptions except for a few locations described in modules. I also ONLY run RuneQuest in Glorantha, but again it’s mostly derived from the cool maps (most recently the map from Trollpak) the cults, and tidbits from the cults books and modules (though one should not assume everything described even in Cults of Prax beyond the mechanics of each cult necessarily applies. In other words, I used the settings as toolkits. Had I purchased Supplement 3 – The Spinward Marches I might have used it in the same way, but by the time I purchased more than Classic Traveller ’77, Mercenary, and 1980 High Guard, I was running in my own setting that had originally been cooked up for a RuneQuest SF homebrew with starship design inspired by the Starfire boardgame. Most of the supplemental material did get incorporated in some way (even the alien modules, I forget when the bad guy empire “North” of the PC’s home polity became the Zhodane, but my Zhodani were more inspired by “The dream police they live inside your head…” than the official material.

        I know that one thing that influenced my game play was that I had not read THAT much of the earlier SF, being more inspired by later C.J.Cherryh, Niven, and Pournelle.

        My high school and college mind was also heavily influenced by the supplement treadmill.

        These days, I’m taking a different tack.

        OD&D based on Books 1-3 plus the Thief from Greyhawk and monsters from wherever I choose set in the Wilderlands or FFC Blackmoor.

        Traveller based on Books 1-3 plus Supplement 4 (with skill charts re-written to minimize introduction of new skills set in my own setting.

        The big exception would be RuneQuest which would use all RQ1, RQ2, and most RQ3 materials (though again, as described above not necessarily in toto).

        Of course for none of these would I turn down a tidbit from excluded material. Several GDW adventures already have a place in my Traveller setting.

  2. yacheritsi November 12, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I vaguely recall a relevant anecdote: Marc Miller went to see Star Wars in the theater. After watching it, he remarked, “Traveller could do that.”

  3. Robert Eaglestone November 12, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I do wish the “Imperium” had some frontier. More significantly, I wish some early Traveller authors had created material that was ON a frontier. I don’t begrudge the Imperium being the largest polity and the center of cosmopolitan space. I only wish someone had spent time on the ragged edge of civilization for us.

  4. Timothy Newman November 12, 2015 at 11:25 am

    I think the original idea was that the Spinward Marches were the frontier region with “parts beyond” largely unexplored. Adventure 4 certainly suggested parts of the Trojan Reach were hardly known beyond the presence of systems. That this gradually changed reflects a slightly different approach. Not that I can talk too conclusively, my own setting has/had a real “Age of Exploration” approach. Of course real exploration is still possible for polities that aren’t the Imperium.

  5. Ken Burnside November 12, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    One of the reasons why I think Jeffro would like Dungeon World is that the entire premise of the game is that the GM doesn’t build a world in advance so much as he generates problems and situations the players have to Immediately Deal With.

    The term of art is the “front” – which is a set of antagonists, their generalized goals, and Ways For The Antagonist’s Actions To Come To The Attention Of The Players.

    This isn’t a big metaplot – this is basic Pulp plotting: Start with the characters in a hole, pour live scorpions into the hole, listen to their plans to deal with the scorpions, find out who put them in the hole, figure out why they did that, and rock it forward in a very improv-plot kind of way.

    Of course, Dungeon World was actually written this millennium, and is a bit of a “motivation matters for character advancement” game, so, maybe not. :)

    • jeffro November 13, 2015 at 8:26 am

      I’m looking at a Fate based space rpg right now. Slowing trying to wrap my head around it. If I can make it another chapter without failing a fright check…!

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  9. Christopher Griffen April 3, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I understand all this desire for freedom and breaking free of the shackles of canon, but there’s also a certain satisfaction in taking a well-developed setting, steeped in decades of history (eons in gaming terms), and making it your own. There’s a certain kind of unrequited collaboration that happens. You know others are also participating in and enjoying the established storyline and that their characters exist in the same universe as yours. Even if you’ll never meet them, they’re out there and there’s something intrinsically cool about that.

    • jeffro April 3, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      Sorry, no. Absolutely not. Synthesizing neato things from the sprawling canon is an interesting intellectual exercise when authors take the time to do it. The GURPS line was pretty good at that, at least when they turned guys like Hans Rancke-Madsen loose. Never mind that people in later lines overturned and/or overlooked the painstaking efforts that went on with this. The problem is that the act of turning this into a game unto itself by people that “play with Traveller rather than play Traveller” is a distraction to people that show up and just want to get a space game off the ground. For a game… this is a game over type move.

      Besides, all these people tinkering with the same game universe do is argue with each other and complain about everything wrong with the most recent iteration of the franchise.

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