Retro review: Traveller

TravellerI have to admit I own a lot of different roleplaying games. Some I haven’t even completely read, some I haven’t even tried out and there are a few that have very fond memories connected to them. One of these games is the original Traveller, that I bought probably around 1990.

My copy is the second printing of the german translation of Traveller that was published under license by Fantasy Productions. When you open the 160 pages paperback book you will immediately notice that this game hails back to 1977. It completely black and white and printed on matte paper. Compared to modern rulesbooks with glossy paper and many full-color illustration this book looks very bland. But it’s probably on par with other rulebooks from that time.

Traveller is a SF roleplaying game and possibly the first SF roleplaying game ever (correct me, when I am wrong). Although Traveller was intended as a generic SF roleplaying system that can be used with a lot of different settings, the rulebook contains the implied setting of the “Third Imperium”. The Third Imperium was heavily inspired by a lot of classic science fiction books like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League (two of my favorites). I am pretty sure you can run a Foundation campaign with Traveller rules without a problem. Just don’t use any aliens and you’re done.

The rulebook starts with the chapter about characters. Character creation in Traveller is very random. You start by determining your Stats (like Strength, Dexterity, Social Status, etc.) by rolling the dice, these stats are then combined into your UPP or Universal Personality Profile. The UPP uses hexadecimal values to give a shorthand for all stats. A possible UPP would be 747B85 for example. After that you roll on several tables to determine with kind of service the character enters, what skills he or she learned, if any special events happened or if he or she was reinlisted for another tour of duty. It is even possible that a character dies during character creation. When a character finally leaves the service he or she is ready for adventure. This character creation method creates some quite interesting characters. You don’t even have to come up with a background story since most important events where already rolled up during character creation. BUT you have almost no way to control what kind of character you roll up. Imagine you want to play a dashing navy officer but you end up with a dead space trader. Bummer!

The next chapter describes combat in Traveller. The combat system is pretty standard, perhaps a bit on the easy side but has some strange damage rules. There are no hit points but weapons damage the three physical attributes Strength, Endurance and Dexterity. If one of these value drop to 0 or below the character dies. For every point in Dexterity you lose, you have to reduce your combat rolls by one for example. The system works but I would have preferred to have some hitpoints or something like that instead. When I remember correctly that was one of the things I changed when I ran Traveller as a GM.

The following chapters give detailed information about space travel, trade, space ships and space ship construction, computer, space combat, worlds, encounters with animals, encounters, experience and many more. This part of the game still can be used today even if you prefer different rule systems. Travellers system for creating star systems helps even the science-illiterate GM to create believeable star systems. In many ways the classic Traveller rulebook reminds me of GURPS Space. And although Traveller was created with the “Third Imperium” setting in mind, you can easily adopt it to other science fiction settings.

The rulebook even includes two adventures, some details on the “Third Imperium” and a complete region of space for you to explore. But it also lacks a lot of stuff that is usually included in modern games. Although alien races are mentioned, you don’t get any details on how to create alien characters. There are no stats for common NPCs, so the GM has to do all the work himself.

If you are interested in running a SF campaign with an “old school” atmosphere, you can easily pick up and play Traveller. If you still can get a copy, that is. But you will probably have to plan in quite a few hours to prepare things. If a game from 1977 is a bit too old school for you, check out one of the newer incarnations of Traveller. But I am sure that there are still some people out there that enjoy a game of classic Traveller once in a while.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

9 thoughts on “Retro review: Traveller”

  1. Traveller (the original, 1977 edition) was the first RPG I ever played, back in 1978, and I loved every minute we spent playing in the Third Imperium. We created hundreds – if not thousands – of characters, not to mention countless subsectors, sectors, starships and the rest. My copy lives in the top drawer of my bedside table and I still read through it occasionally.

    Sad, I know. But in a good way.

    <abbr><abbr>greywulfs last blog post..Quick and dirty OD&D to 4e D&D conversion</abbr></abbr>

  2. "For every point in Dexterity you lose, you have to reduce your combat rolls by one for example."

    In my copy of Classic Traveller, this is not true. It's a bit more complicated than that.

    Melee weapons require a certain Strength to use, lacking that gives a malus to hit; they also have an "advantageous Strength" level, where if you have that or more you get a bonus to hit. The same goes for ranged weapons and Dexterity.

    For example, if you have a sword, then you need at least Str 6 or you get -2 to hit, and if you've Str 10 you get +1 to hit. So if your Strength goes from 12 to 10 you still have +1, or from 9 to 6 you still have +0. It's only if it drops past 10 or 6 that the bonus/malus changes.

    In addition, you can only take as many swings or blows in melee as you have levels of Endurance, and after that you've a malus to attack. For example, someone of End 6 could make 6 blows with their sword, and the seventh and later blows would be at -3 to hit. So if your Endurance was wounded, that'd lower the number of blows you could swing; for example our End 6 PC fights for 5 rounds and then takes 3 points of damage to Endurance, now they have End 3 – the swings they've already done now exceed their Endurance, so any further swings will be at -3.

    "The system works but I would have preferred to have some hitpoints or something like that instead. When I remember correctly that was one of the things I changed when I ran Traveller as a GM."

    This is something I've playtested recently. Not hit points as such, but in many systems, what we have is,

    – character is wounded on some hit location, or suffers "wound levels" to whole body

    – wound gives malus to attribute/skill use

    Classic Traveller cuts out the middle bit, going straight to the malus. If a blow to the leg has the effect of reducing Dex from 7 to 5, why not just forget about the first bit and go straight to the loss of Dex?

    More succinctly put, we can have actual wounds described and then figure out the game mechanic effects, or get the game mechanic effects and then describe or forget about the actual wounds.

    The CT approach has the advantage of simplicity. It has the disadvantage that it's not very evocative. "I was smashed in the leg" gives me a more interesting mental picture than "I lost 3 Dex… um… I suppose maybe I got smashed in the leg?"

  3. Hehe! This is true in my copy too, but I didn't want to write down the whole combat damage rules but give one example. As you see with your comment, it would have made the post much, much longer. 🙂

    But thanks for giving us all the details.

  4. All you had to say was, "as you take damage, this may affect how you perform in combat."

    Or adding, "not one-for-one but as you pass certain thresholds depending on which weapon you have."

    As it was, you said something specific which was wrong. You can say something vague and short but right, or something specific and long but right; but if you say something specific but wrong your readers will just think you didn't read your review copy very well.

    Which does happen with reviews from time to time…

    <abbr><abbr>Kiashus last blog post..Cavern of the Dead! Benny Hill style</abbr></abbr>

  5. Hmm, I have read that part of my review again and I have to agree that what I read can easily been regarded as wrong.

  6. I've tried Traveller, but never got into it. My players, who play everything from stone age fantasy to steampunk, didn't really like it. Traveller: 2300 though, that one clicked, but it was more than 15 years ago.

    The thing that irked me about Traveller (or was it MegaTraveller) was the whole debacle about dying during character generation. What was the deal with that?

    <abbr><abbr>Jens Alms last blog post..Science Fiction for Fantasy GMs I, aka Orcs in Spaaaaaace!!!</abbr></abbr>

  7. Traveller uses a lifepath character creation method. And it was in fact possible to die during character creation. Back in the day we just ignored that result. But aside from that I like lifepath systems. You not only get a character but a basic character history as well.

  8. Love Traveller! I loved making characters even more than playing the actual game. My GM was perhaps not the best but we still had fun back in the days. Actually dying in character generation was a good thing! It gave you the chance to start over. Lifepath system rocks, just look at Cyberpunk, Wastelands, etc.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..A Paper Craft Castle On the Ocean =-.

  9. I'd say it's a fair review. The save vs death mechanic was put in there so that the player had to choose whether to re-enlist or not, thus risking death in a service such as Marines, or riding it out rather easily (with less skills) in the Merchants.

    Miller & Crew didn't want superhero types with access to fleets, all over the place. A character that survives to become an admiral or free trader captain [Ship paid off] pretty much deserves it, within the setting. Otherwise, it's a bunch of semi-retired mid-30s to 40s guys with some guns and cash looking for work.

    Particularly in the new Mongoose version, they've much improved the path flavor, adding in an actual Events chart that gives you bonuses or penalties.

    Also, way back in 1975, James M. Ward wrote Metamorphosis Alpha, the first sfrpg to my knowledge.

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