Classic Traveller - session report with reflections on the system [long]

pemerton

Legend
Recently I've been re-reading my Classic Traveller books, and yesterday I GMed a session. It's the first time I've played Traveller for at least a couple of decades.

One of the distinctive things about Traveller is its use of random generation to deliver content and flavour. For PC generation, I had written up some tables that were pretty close to the original ones (from Book 1 and Citizens of the Imperium), but with a few of the newer skills overlaid.

My collection is Books 1 to 8, Supp 2 and 4, a few adventure, The Traveller Book (an early-80s single volume re-release of Books 1 to 3 with a few updates), and MegaTraveller books 1 to 3.

I generally don't like MegaTraveller much - it replaces random PC gen with too many skill choices, which somewhat defeats the purpose of the system; and it has a uniform task resolution system that I also don't like (I think it increases rather than reduces fiddliness). But one change I do like is the introduction of a "special duty" line on the basic PC generation tables, which allows extra skills rolls. I did include that on my tables.

We approached PC generation in a fairly leisurely fashion, and with only one copy of the charts to go around. So we did it term by term, with everyone seeing how everyone else's PC was doing, until we had two characters each for the three players. (I was re-reading some advice from early White Dwarf - I think by Andy Slack - which suggested 2 PCs per player, and it was good advice, at least for our group. It worked out well.)

Of the seven PCs generated, only one died during generation (necessitating generation of another PC for that player). That same player would have had a second PC die too, except that We were using a rule that if you fail your survival roll by 1 - which he did - you can muster out instead with a shortened (2 year) term and a -1 penalty to the roll for special duty.

In preparation for GMing, and to give my charts a test-run, I had generated about a dozen characters of my own (and I've hung onto these as potential NPCs), but PC gen was much more fun in a group. Each character really does unfold with a story. We ended up with the following PCs (sheets attached):

* Roland, who served 4 terms in the Interstellar Navy but never received a commission despite finishing a PhD (Educ D);

* Xander, a pirate who didn't even make it to Henchman status in 3 terms of service and ended up being denied "re-enlistment" - clearly this meant he'd been marooned by his piraticals shipmates!;

* Sir Glaxon, who started with Soc A and so "enlisted" as a noble, only to be denied re-enlistment after 1 term - the player tried for a roll of 6 on his one mustering out roll (to get a Yacht), but got TAS membership instead;

* Methwit, who had poor physical stats but good Edu and Soc and served as a diplomat - it quickly became clear (given his skill rolls) that his status as 3rd Secretary was a cover for some sort of espionage role, and after 3 terms the player decided there was no reason to hang around and risk aging rolls, so Methwit "retired" from the diplomatic corps to make himself available for a wider range of "irregular" operations;

* Tony, a 6 term Merchant who made it to 3rd officer, hung on in hope of further promotion but was not going anywhere (and hence had no hope of getting a ship in mustering out), and who spent his last 4 terms of skill rolls rolling to maintain his stats agaist the ravages of aging - his Str survived but his End still dropped, leading to the conclusion that he'd been dosing himself on some bad steroids;

* Vincenzo (Baron of Hallucida), the replacement for a belter who died in his first term (crushed between asteroids!), was rolled up last - with Soc B the player went noble to try for a yacht; this looked pretty unlikely when he failed his second term survival roll (by 1) and so had to muster out early with Gambling-2 and Bribery-1 his only skills, and just a single roll for mustering out benefits; but the die came up 6 and everyone cheered - now the group would have a ship.​

Given that all the players had submitted to the randomness that is Traveller - and had got a pretty interesting set of characters out of it - I had to put myself through the same rigour as GM. So I rolled up a random starting world:

Class A Starport, 1000 mi D, near-vaccuum, with a pop in the 1000s, no government and law level 2 (ie everything allowed except carrying portable laser and energy weapons) - and TL 16, one of the highest possible!​

So what did all that mean, and what were the PCs doing there?

I christened the world Ardour-3, and we agreed that it was a moon orbiting a gas giant, with nothing but a starport (with a casino) and a series of hotels/hostels adjoining the starport (the housing for the 6,000 inhabitants). The high tech level meant that most routine tasks were performed by robots.

Roland, having left the service and now wandering the universe (paid for by his membership of the TAS), was working as a medic in the hospital, overseeing the medbots. Vincenzo was a patient there - the player explained that Vincenzo had won his yacht in the casino, and the (previous) owners had honoured the bet but had also beaten Vincenzo to within an inch of his life (hence the failed surival roll).

Xander, meanwhile, had been marooned in a vacc suit in open space - but Traveller vacc suits have limited self-propulsion, and so he'd been able to launch himself down to Ardour-3 (burning up his vacc suit in the process, but for some parts which he sold for 1,500 credits - his starting money). He was hanging out at the starport looking for a job and a way off the planet.

Tony was also at the starport, working as a rousabout/handyman (no technical skills, but Jack-o-T-3) - and it was decided that he was the one who had bought Xander's vacc suit gear and fitted it onto a vacc suit that he modelled himself (paid for out of his starting money).

Glaxon and Methwit, meanwhile, were at the casion - Glaxon getting drunk and Methwit keeping his ear to the ground, having been sent to Ardour-3 as his final posting.

With the background in place, I then rolled for a patron on the random patron table, and got a "marine officer" result. Given the PC backgrounds, it made sense that Lieutenant Li - as I dubbe her - would be making contact with Roland. The first thing I told the players was that a Scout ship had landed at the starport, although there it has no Scout base and there is no apparent need to do any survey work in the system; and that the principal passenger seemed to be an officer of the Imperial Marines. I then explained that, while doing the rounds at the hospital, Roland received a message from his old comrade Li inviting him to meet her at the casino, and to feel free to bring along any friends he might have in the place.

In preparation for the session I had generated a few worlds - one with a pop in the millions and a corrosive atmosphere; a high-pop but very low-tech world with a tainited atmosphere (which I had decided meant disease, given that the world lacked the technological capacity to generate pollution); and a pop 1 (ie population in the 10s) world with no government or law level with a high tech level - clearly some sort of waystation with a research outpost attached. (File with world details attached.)

Given that I had these worlds ready-to hand, and given that the players had a ship, I needed to come up with some situation from Lt Li that would put them into play: so when Roland and Vincenzo (just discharged from medical care) met up with her she told the following story - which Methwit couldn't help but overhear before joining them!

Lt Li wondered whether Vincenzo would be able to take 3 tons of cargo to Byron for her. (With his excellent education, Roland knew that Byron was a planet with a large (pop in the millions) city under a serious of domes, but without the technical capabilities to maintain the domes into the long term.) When the PCs arrived on Byron contact would be made by those expecting the goods. And payment would be 100,000 for the master of the ship, plus 10,000 for each other crew member.

Some quick maths confirmed that 100,000 would more than cover the fuel costs of the trip, and so Vincenzo (taking advice from Roland - he knows nothing about running a ship) agreed to the request.

Methwit thought all this sounded a bit odd - why would a high-class (Soc A) marine lieutenant be smuggling goods into a dead-end world like Byron - and so asked Li back to his hotel room to talk further. With his Liaison-1 and Carousing-1 and a good reaction roll she agreed, and with his Interrogation-1 he was able to obtain some additional information (although he did have to share some details about his own background to persuade her to share).

The real situation, she explained, was that Byron was itself just a stop-over point. The real action was on another world - Enlil - which is technologically backwards and has a disease-ridden atmosphere to which there is no resistance or immunity other than in Enlil's native population. So the goods to be shipped from Ardour-3 were high-tech medical gear for extracting and concentrating pathogens from the atmosphere on Enlil, to be shipped back to support a secret bio-weapons program. The reason a new team was needed for this mission was because Vincenzo had won the yacht from the original team - who were being dealt with "appropriately" for their incompetence in disrupting the operation.

(I had been planning to leave the real backstory to the mission pretty loose, to be fleshed out as needed - including the possibility that Li was actually going to betray the PCs in some fashion - but the move from Methwit's player forced my hand, and I had to come up with some more plausible backstory to explain the otherwise absurd situation I'd come up with. And it had to relate to the worlds I'd come up with in my prep.)

The PCs stocked up on some gear - combat and non-combat related - and we made some rolls for the content of the ship's locker. Methwit also made sure that they stocked up on a high-end medical kit with good pathogen analysis and vaccine-development capabilities - "just in case".

Then they headed off: Vincenzo was master of the vessel, Glaxon piloted it, Roland did double duty as engineer and medic while Tony served as engineer and steward (it is a noble's yacht after all). Xander was taken on as Vincenzo' bodyguard, and Methwit was clearly the mission leader, given his extra briefing from Li.

The distance-per-time chart showed that with 1G acceleration it would take them about a week to travel beyond 100 planetary diamters of the gas giant for a safe jump. An encounter check showed a scout ship - Lt Li's ship passing them with its 2G acceleration, and sending a brief "good luck" message - but nothing else happened en route to the jump point.

A jump-1 took them to Lyto-7, where Vincenzo decided to engage in some commercial speculation and paid 30k+ credits for 5 tons of ambergris-like substance (taken from the deep-sea creatures the researchers were investigating). (Because they were using refined fuel, and they had an engineer on board, the checks to avoid misjump and drive failure succeeded automatically.)

Another jump-1 took them to Byron, where Roland (with Admin-1) negotiated their entrace without having their papers or cargo checked too closely. Their ship not being streamlined, they needed to ferry their goods down to the planetary surface; but they wanted to use their own small craft (a yacht comes with a ship's boat) rather than a commercial service, so as to keep their cargo under wraps. Methwit (with Recruiting-1) was able to find a ship's boat pilot on the station orbiting above the on-world starport, but (the roll being pretty bad) she was taking her "day off". So Vincenzo used his Bribery-1, and an offer of Cr 700, to persuade here that she should revisit her timetable. And so they flew down to the surface of Byron, parking their boat and cargo while heading to town via the monorail to await contact. At about this point, Methwit briefed Roland on the true situation - that they were part of a bio-weapon development scheme. Thankfully for the mission, Roland seemed pretty relaxed about that.

Contact took six days. (A six on a roll of one die.) In the meantime, Roland found Vincenzo a broker to help sell his goods, and (even after broker's fees) Vincenzo made a tidy profit of about Cr 15k. Unfortuntely Vincenzo then went out to find a casino, only to learn the hard way that gambling is illegal on Byron - and he had to pay a Cr 120 bribe to the two police officers who informed him of this fact to get them to leave him alone.

The session ended at the point of contact, with the PCs heading back to the starport to transfer the "cargo" to the contact's free trader. Hopefully we'll get in at least another session or two over the next couple of months, to find out how things resolve. (And given that Methwit has Wheeled Vehicle skill, and the yacht comes with an ATV, and two of the PCs have vacc suit skill and the party is equipped with five vacc suits, I'm pretty committed to finding some way to get the PCs out in either the corrosive or disease-ridden atmosphere with nothing between them and near-certain death but their ATV and some vacc suits.)

Given that this is a 40 year old system, I think it holds up really well. (Although the original generation rules give very low-skill PCs - whereas I thought the addition of the special duty roll made our PCs, even the ones with only a term or three, interestingly well-rounded.) We did't have any combat yesterday - and Traveller combat is ridiculously brutal, hence the need for two PCs - but the rules for social encounters, dealing with officials, and the like all worked smoothly. The only source of complaint was from Vincenzo's player - "I didn't want to play an accounting game!" An abstract resource management system would probably make the experience of running a starship a bit smoother.

The other thing that I was struck by is how bleak the default setting of Traveller is. The chance of dying during low passage transit is 1 in 6 for an ordinary person (1 in 12 with proper medical personnel overseeing the process). That's really high, and yet the rules are full of starship with low berths and passenger tables that show plenty of people willing to pay to travel in them. So the impression one gets is of worlds full of poor people willing to face a really high risk of death in order to travel to worlds that offer better propsects (but only 1 jump at a time!), while nobles lord it over the populace in their ridiculously expensive yet largely pointless intersteller yachts.

And this bleakness came out even in the worlds I generated - who would want to live in the universe of Ardour-3, Byron and Enlil?

For what it's worth, I recommend this system.
 

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pemerton

Legend
Thanks [MENTION=205]TwoSix[/MENTION] and [MENTION=87131]Bravesteel[/MENTION] for looking at my post!

Another couple of thoughts:

Re-reading Book 3 (Worlds and Adventures), I was struck by the extent to which this 1977 RPG system envisages shared contribution to the fiction by players and GM. In the world creation rules, for instance, it says that if the generation system produces "combinations of features which may seem contradictory or unreasonable", then "the players or referee will generate a rationale which explains the situation".

It was one of the players who made the initial suggestion that Ardour-3 was a gas giant moon.

And the PC gen system gives details - like Roland's naval service, or Vincenzo's ownership of a yacht - that feed very naturally into the referee's framing of the situation.

Second, the resolution system seemed to handle "fail forwad" resoution pretty handily. Though there are some mechanics - a bad mijump roll, and the whole combat system - that produce pretty hard fails, but they didn't come up in the session we played.

If we get in some more sessions, I'll be interested to see how hard the system (those bits I mentioned, or other bits we haven't encountered yet) pushes against the way I prefer to run games - if at all.
 


aramis erak

Legend
To be blunt, you have to F-up pretty hard to get a destroyed result on jump...
16+ to get killed off on 2d6 plus...
Within 100 diameters of world +5
Within 10 diameters of world +I0
Using unrefined fuel + 1
If naval ship - 1
If scout ship -2

A scout ship has to be inside 100 diameters and using unrefined fuel, or inside 10 diameters...

It's one of those "informative, not normative" elements.

Bleak is that most ( about 55%) of the citizens of the imperium (those pop 9+ worlders are ≥95% of the total population) live in lawlevel 9+ authoritarian hell-holes.
 

pemerton

Legend
To be blunt, you have to F-up pretty hard to get a destroyed result on jump...
16+ to get killed off on 2d6 plus...
Within 100 diameters of world +5
Within 10 diameters of world +I0
Using unrefined fuel + 1
If naval ship - 1
If scout ship -2
I'm using +3, not +1, for unrefined fuel, which is the DM from Book 2. I think it makes the choice to use unrefined fuel more meaningful (though also opens up the chance for hard failure).
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Thanks [MENTION=205]TwoSix[/MENTION] and [MENTION=87131]Bravesteel[/MENTION] for looking at my post!
Very interesting so far! One of the players in my group recently expressed some interest in trying a few sessions of Traveler after our current game wraps up, so it's quite timely that you've posted an interesting write-up for it. I'm definitely curious to see where this goes, and some of the playstyle changes needed to accommodate the system.

Re-reading Book 3 (Worlds and Adventures), I was struck by the extent to which this 1977 RPG system envisages shared contribution to the fiction by players and GM. In the world creation rules, for instance, it says that if the generation system produces "combinations of features which may seem contradictory or unreasonable", then "the players or referee will generate a rationale which explains the situation".
Beyond the Wall is my personal favorite system for combining old-school randomness with a ton of player participation in world creation. Thematic playbooks which require the player creation of important village sites and NPCs, scenarios which leverage the player creations to create stakes, and the expansion book has a system for creation of adventure sites based heavily on player input.
 

pemerton

Legend
Very interesting so far! One of the players in my group recently expressed some interest in trying a few sessions of Traveler after our current game wraps up, so it's quite timely that you've posted an interesting write-up for it. I'm definitely curious to see where this goes, and some of the playstyle changes needed to accommodate the system.
What version would you be using?

As my OP said, I'm an advocate for Classic - though like all those old systems it could benefit from an edit of the action resolution rules (which are mostly coherent, but are scattered throughout skill descriptions, various sorts of resolution notes in the combat and starship rules, etc).

Beyond the Wall is my personal favorite system for combining old-school randomness with a ton of player participation in world creation. Thematic playbooks which require the player creation of important village sites and NPCs, scenarios which leverage the player creations to create stakes, and the expansion book has a system for creation of adventure sites based heavily on player input.
I don't know this system - tell me more!
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
What version would you be using?

As my OP said, I'm an advocate for Classic - though like all those old systems it could benefit from an edit of the action resolution rules (which are mostly coherent, but are scattered throughout skill descriptions, various sorts of resolution notes in the combat and starship rules, etc).
Couldn't say for sure, the various versions of Traveller are mostly opaque to me. I'll ask my friend at our next session.

I don't know this system - tell me more!
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/113405/Beyond-the-Wall-and-Other-Adventures

The basic premise is that all the characters are young people from your typical bucolic medieval village. The inspirations are some of the more classic YA adventure series, like Earthsea, Prydain, and the Dark is Rising.

The core of the game is basic OSR (6 stats, d20 for attacks, checks, and saves, etc.). Each player picks a playbook, which is based around a village trope, like the Woodsman, the Witch's Apprentice, the New Watchman, or the Village Hero. Each playbook has 6 or 7 tables, where you randomly to answer questions about your backstory, and which also grant you stat bonuses, skills, and class features.

For example, one of the questions in the Young Woodsman playbook is "What did you find in the woods that no one knows about?". Then you roll a d6. If you get a 4, the answer is "An odd friend who knows older roads than you," and you gain +2 Cha and a "strange ally who often remains unseen." Or you roll a 5, and the answer is "Some strange ruins built of foreign stones, long abandoned, but recently reclaimed," which also grants you a +2 Con and a "piece of an ancient marble statue."

One of the best features is that one of the questions in the playbook specifically asks a question involving the PC as well as another character, giving the two characters a shared history (and also grants the second character a stat bonus).

The base game has playbooks for standard "young villager" concepts, but the (free!) expansion packs also feature playbooks for children of nobility, elves, dwarves, halflings, and mentor characters (who start at level 2).

Magic is also different than standard Vancian. Mages can cast one spell per level per day, of whatever spells they know. They also learn cantrips, which can be cast at-will, but require a check. If the check fails, then there is either a misfire (where the DM and player are encouraged to improvise, based on the cantrip), or the mage loses the ability to cast magic until they rest. Rituals are more powerful magic, but require a long casting time and the gathering (and often expenditure) of specific material components.
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=205]TwoSix[/MENTION], some of that - the playbooks, the choice to misfire or lose cantrip casting, the PC gen that links characters - sounds like it's inspired a bit by Dungeon World/PbtA. Is that a fair thought to have?
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
[MENTION=205]TwoSix[/MENTION], some of that - the playbooks, the choice to misfire or lose cantrip casting, the PC gen that links characters - sounds like it's inspired a bit by Dungeon World/PbtA. Is that a fair thought to have?
There are certainly similarities, but the DW playbooks are more "forward-facing", I guess, and focused more on determining moves and paths of advancement. The Bonds in DW are closer in feel. The BtW playbooks are more random and focused on backstory, more like Traveller.
 






aramis erak

Legend
I haven't got it in front of me, but I'm pretty sure it's 1977 and I imagine it's a first printing - it was purchased in Australia in the late 70s (at a guess, 1978, though it could have been 79).

Probably 2nd printing, actually... ISTR Marc and/or Loren mentioning 1st printing selling out by Chrismas 77... but definitely first edition. All the 1981 and later are second edition...
in any case, I pulled my numbers from CT2E - Specifically, from both Starter Traveller and The Traveller Book. But I've cross-checked them all - only 1E says +3.
 
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Given that this is a 40 year old system, I think it holds up really well. (Although the original generation rules give very low-skill PCs - whereas I thought the addition of the special duty roll made our PCs, even the ones with only a term or three, interestingly well-rounded.) We did't have any combat yesterday - and Traveller combat is ridiculously brutal, hence the need for two PCs - but the rules for social encounters, dealing with officials, and the like all worked smoothly.

Traveller definitely holds up. It's a game I still have a ton of time for despite it's age, and in the little black books it probably has the most iconic and recognisable graphic design of any rpg. It certainly stood out from the crowd in the late 70s and early 80s.

The takeaway from your AAR (in my view) is that Traveller can sustain a really lively pace. You can buy cargo, jump through a couple of systems, get stopped by customs, bribe the cops, broker and sell your goods, refuel the ship, get offered some contraband and drop that off at an orbital station and go for some R&R while waiting for ship maintenance - all in a session.

There's some accountancy, but the rolls enable a lot of action if the players keep things moving.
 

pemerton

Legend
the little black books it probably has the most iconic and recognisable graphic design of any rpg.
Agreed.

the rolls enable a lot of action if the players keep things moving.
The rest of this post is a bit of a ramble that was prompted by your comment.

I'm hoping to get in at least a little bit more Traveller GMing experience. To me it feels like there are two main demands on the Traveller GM (hopefully not generalising too gratuitously from a limited experience!):

(1) Making the system (ie 2D + DMs = target number) work properly, rather than just be a ritual covering for GM fiat. My mental arithmetic is pretty good, so my real-time sense of probabilities and numerical distributions is OK. Remembering past rulings and being consistent with them could be trickier, though - the rulebook says that the GM should write these down to establish precedents and house rules, but in practice I'm not that organised (not even at work half the time, let alone when engaged in a leisure activity!).

One example that I came up with in the session, and that I do remember, is making a check to find a broker: 2D + Admin, with every full 3 (ie 3, 6, 9, 12) allowing a broker of 1/4 that degree of skill (ie broker 1, 2, 3, 4).

The rulebook does have some of this sort of stuff - the social interaction/bureaucracy stuff, and some rules for repairing broken-down vehicles, and some other vehicle and vacc suit rules; and of course the trade stuff - but over time I think you'd want to build up more of these sub-systems to help support the system's connection between skill levels, action declarations and fictional outcomes.

One interesting feature of the systems that are in the rulebooks is that one skill level isn't always just a +1 (eg for many Admin checks it's +2 per skill level; for many Vacc Suit checks it's +4 per skill level; etc) and I think good GMing would require keeping that possibility in mind for these house subsystems too.

(2) The other GMing demand is managing the fiction. In itself that's obviously not unique to Traveller - but the demands from SF are (at least for me) different from the demands for fantasy, and require maintaining something where all the implied setting (which I think is very rich as per my OP) is kept together, and the action keeps moving along at a nice pace. The animal encounter subsystem, and the trade goods subystem from Book 7, are two examples of what I have in mind - the rules give you abstract results, but as GM you have to clothe them in SF colour/flavour.

I didn't have to do any animal encounters in the session I GMed, but if the PCs go out in their ATV then this should come up. I did have to do trade, but thankfully the player worked out what the goods were (ambergris, or something similar, from deep-sea creatures - I was able to add that it was harvested as a by-product of research, and that it was valuable because only these fairly high-tech researchers could get so deep into the world's oceans) and so I didn't have to work it all out for myself.

I think this aspect of Traveller seems to really support a high level of player participation in the content generation/specification process (both to take some of the burden off the GM, and to help ensure a genuinely shared conception of the gameworld) - as Book 3 seems to suggest, and somewhat at odds with 80s/90s RPG orthodoxy.
 

To me it feels like there are two main demands on the Traveller GM:

(1) Making the system (ie 2D + DMs = target number) work properly, rather than just be a ritual covering for GM fiat.

(2) The other GMing demand is managing the fiction...where all the implied setting is kept together, and the action keeps moving along at a nice pace... I think this aspect of Traveller seems to really support a high level of player participation...

Good stuff!

Traveller is something like 40 years old now, and it's interesting to read this kind of retrospective to see how well the game works when subject to modern playstyles and assumptions.

It's on page 1 of book 1 of the first edition, that Traveller was developed with one eye on 'solitaire or unsupervised play'. This would help explain your point 2 above - that the game supports a high level of player participation... because it can be played with nothing else :)

I've never done that, but I could see how it would be possible, potentially quite fun to try and keep up the monthly payments on a scout or free trader using a map of the Spinward Marches, and some trade and encounter tables. Traveller will do that bit perfectly well on its own...

...which means the referee is just adding the twist - the moment of something unexpected when the dice say to do so. I think this goes to your point 1 - it's not that systems ever really address 'fiat' per se. Traveller isn't resistant to GM fiat because of the dice mechanic - it's resistant because the game doesn't necessitate a 'plot' or 'adventure' which the players are expected to conform to.

In this it is no different from Burning Wheel or Apocalypse World - GM force is obviated because it is contrary to the principles of play, which (to me) are 'make the characters' lives interesting' , 'present the universe as vast, compelling and profitable' and 'inspire wanderlust in your players'.
 
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