Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: Traveller!

Popular science fiction works tend to fall into two broad camps: Those that focus mostly on exploration stories, such as in Star Trek's various incarnations, which deal with venturing into the unknown. Then there are battle stories championed by Star Wars and its many imitators, which deal with conflicts and wars, either overt or covert, fought between various factions in a fantastic setting.

But there is a third, less often seen type of science fiction adventure, which the Traveller tabletop RPG champions so well: the scifi road trip.

Like most freeform tabletop RPGs, Traveller can encompass almost any type of story or activity within its setting. It all depends on tastes of the GM and players. But the game is set up almost always the same kind of overall structure: the player characters travel around in small, often beat-up starships, visiting planets within a gigantic interstellar civilization called the Imperium, with no nobler intention than earning a living and just seeing the sights.

They may be merchants, trying to stay one step ahead of the mortgage on their 30-year old merhcant trader. They may be enjoying retirement cruising around in one of the scout service's old surplus starships. They be ex-military bouncing from one mercenary contract to another. They may be scoundrels or refugees or agents fleeing their past. But no matter how you slice it, Traveller campaigns tend to feel like the far future equivalent of setting off on an open highway with a whole continent ahead of you. But instead of a beat-up chevrolet and untold miles of asphalt, you have a worn-down scout/courier starship and the thirty thousand star systems of Charted Space.

Traveller is definitely a working man's, middle-class, vision of science fiction. There is great emphasis in the game on just making a living, including an elaborate system on working out trade and money-making cargoes, and the like. Granted, the characters make a living in what to us seems a very exotic way, hopping from star system to star system, but they need not engage in anything loftier than the pursuit of the Imperial credit if they don't want to. The characters are also not great movers and shakers, and probably won't be determining the destiny of the galaxy. And they most likely won't be going anywhere that hasn't already been charted and explored at least cursorily by someone else. But its new to them and what happens along the way is important to the people that they meet. Like any good road trip, its about the experience and personal discovery, and that's what has always helped to make Traveller such a rewarding RPG to play.

The game has gone through many different revisions and updates since its introduction in 1977 by Game Designers' Workshop (GDW.) The original incarnation of the game, what's now called "classic" Traveller, ruled for the first ten years. It was set in the 57th century, when explored space was dominated by the 11,000-world Third Imperium and its surrounding states. In 1987 GDW updated both the game mechanics and the background, called MegaTraveller as the Imperium shattered into more than a dozen warring states after the assassination of the Emperor. In the early 90s, GDW introduced a new update, Traveller: The New Era, which took place seventy years later as interstellar civilization tried to recover from the apocalyptic war that ultimately resulted from the shattering of the Third Imperium.

Unfortunately, GDW suffered the fate of many game companies of that time as the RPG market imploded. The license was picked up by STEVE JACKSON GAMES and was released as GURPS Traveller, which took place in an 'alternate' timeline where the Third Imperium never disintegrated. The games' original designers tried to reboot the game on their own, with a version called Traveller 4 or more simply T4. There has also been a D20 version.

Today, Traveller lives on at MONGOOSE PUBLISHING and is backed by many of its original creators. The game's historical clock has been set back to the beginning year of Classic Traveller, with the future of its fictional universe wide open. Steve Jackson Games also continues to support its own version of the game.

One aspect of Traveller's game mechanics I always really enjoyed was its character creation. It was way ahead of its time in creating nuanced, interesting player characters, when most other games had PCs who were mostly collections of basic stats and an alignment.

InTraveller you don't just create a character, you create a career for him or her. After rolling base attributes, you 'enroll' him in a chosen job--soldier, starman, merchant, etc. Then you work the character through year by year, gaining skills, rank, and benefits. The more years your character goes through before mustering out, the more skilled he will be, but the older he will be as well, and may be subject to the dreaded aging rolls, that could decrease strength or endurance or such. Thus, most characters don't enter the game as snot-nosed young punks, but people in their thirties or forties (sometimes older) with a lot of life experience and stories already behind them that the GM and player can draw upon for inspiration in the game.

Another very cool aspect of the game, at least for a techno-nerd like me, is its vehicle and starship design systems. Its changed somewhat from version to version, but allows one to create almost any kind of customized, detailed vehicle for use within a campaign. One can design anything from a basic gas-powered motorcycle up through a 500,000-ton interstellar battleship. Many a fan website of the game is overflowing with such original designs.

The game's setting is one of the most highly detailed ever created, either for a science fiction setting or an RPG universe. In fact, in the late 80s, it purportedly surpassed both Star Trek and Star Wars in terms of sheer amount of written material created for it (of course in the years since both those franchises have catapulted ahead again.) Just check out the TRAVELLER WIKI to get a taste for its expansive universe.

The Third Imperium is a very wide and diverse place to explore, with a very classic space-opera feel to it. Humans and human variants dominate explored space, thanks to a mysterious race of 'Ancients' who trasported prehistoric humans from Earth to dozens of different worlds to use as slave labor (a plot point also used by the Stargate franchise years later.) In fact, two of these 'other' human races beat us Earthers into interstellar space by thousands of years.

There are also major non-human races, such as the Aslan, the Hivers, and the K'Kree; and hundreds of 'minor' races who never achieved interstellar flight on their own. In fact, one of Traveller's great strengths as far as its background goes is the amazing amount of detail and verisimilitude it gives its alien races. They all come across as believable.

But despite being a classic-type space opera, the game's setting is also very nuts-and-bolts when it comes to its technological details. The idea of detailed Tech Levels on OV originated with Traveller (but it also has been borrowed by many others as well since), and the Imperium is made up of a huge diversity of planets at different Tech Levels, from Rennaissance-level worlds, to those equivalent to modern day Earth, to worlds with Star Wars level tech or better. Each world is allowed to develop on its own and tend to its own affairs, as long as it pays at least token tribute to the Imperium. This technological diversity, along with the huge variations in physical conditions and culture and inhabitants, creates an amazing array of possible worlds that player characters can visit, pretty much ensuring that their interstellar road trip never need be boring.

Of course, not every aspect of the game is rave-worthy. Some compromises had to be made in order to keep it accessible to the average, non-science-savvy player. For example, the Imperium and its neighbors inhabit very three-dimensional space, but all the game's star systems are mapped out on two-dimensional hex grids. I also never really liked the game's use of psionics; when I ran a Traveller campaign years ago, it turned out to be the single most unbalancing element of it.

But even so, if you have a gaming group and are getting tired of endlessly bonking orcs and hoarding gold pieces, you may want to give the interstellar adventure of Traveller a try. Its well worth the time to seek out its source material, both old and new.


Zot said...

I have heard Traveller is the 'Hard Sci-Fi Star Wars' but never really read much of its material.

Heavy Gear is another nicely done sci-fi universe. It is best known for the two computer game adaptions by Activision but the reading material is where the detail is at.

Heavy Gear has a richly detailed world complete with its own cultures, languages, traditions and societal systems and everything is grounded in what is possible according to current physics, and there is no psionics. The books also tell the story of a huge and complex meta-plot that spans several decades.

As in Traveller, you can create pretty much any kind of vehicle, from that motocycle to a landship (gigantic ground effect vehicles that comprise Terranova's 'Navies'); the construction system is designed in a way to keep it plausible (you cannot place a Heavy Autocannon, a size 5 weapon and its size 5 ammo on that size 1 vehicle) while still offering a high degree of customization.

You can also create a character to follow any kind of career, though the game's main focus is on its metaplot.

The art for Heavy Gear is very well done too, praised enough that they even released an art book.

Paul Lucas said...

I had almost the opposite experience--I've heard of Heavy Gear and seen its material around forever, but never really had a chance to check it out. From your write-up, though, it definitely sounds like something I'm going to look into first chance I get.