Was Firefly Inspired by a RPG?

Joss Whedon is an American producer, director, screenwriter, comic book writer, and composer. He's had a hand in bringing to life a wide variety of geek-friendly franchises, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Toy Story to the Avengers. But in gaming circles Whedon is known for one of his smaller television series, Firefly, because rumor has it he was influenced by a...

Joss Whedon is an American producer, director, screenwriter, comic book writer, and composer. He's had a hand in bringing to life a wide variety of geek-friendly franchises, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Toy Story to the Avengers. But in gaming circles Whedon is known for one of his smaller television series, Firefly, because rumor has it he was influenced by a tabletop role-playing game he played in college.

Pilots-Guide-to-the-Drexil (1).jpg

Firefly and Serenity

is an American space Western drama television series that ran for just one season in 2002, executive produced by Whedon. The series is set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a "Firefly-class" spaceship. Firefly's blend of Western tropes in a sci-fi setting is noteworthy in how it differentiated the series from other sci-fi shows. The series did well enough to launch a 2005 film, Serenity, which continued the story of the series and wrapped up some of the storylines. Wikipedia described the inspiration for the show:
Whedon developed the concept for the show after reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara chronicling the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. He wanted to follow people who had fought on the losing side of a war, their experiences afterwards as pioneers and immigrants on the outskirts of civilization, much like the post-American Civil War era of Reconstruction and the American Old West.
But if rumors are true, that wasn't the only inspiration.

The Rumor

In an interview that is no longer online, Whedon allegedly stated that the Firefly universe was inspired by a campaign of a "major sci-fi RPG" -- a campaign he quit playing after college. But which game?

Much of the detective work in determining what game Whedon might have played is explicated on Scifi Stack Exchange, using Whedon's college years (1982-1986) as a reference point. It's also worth noting that Whedon was in the U.K. at the time, so the mystery game would likely be distributed worldwide.

The verdict? Traveller. Traveller was one of the few sci-fi games featuring projectile weapons (slugthrowers), ship creation rules, and a focus on the mercantile lifestyle. ak_aramis lists the similarities:
  • Tech level range
  • Lack of inexpensive energy weapons (Tho' the setting does have laser weapons)
  • nature of the intended adventures
  • travel times
  • engaging the long-distance drive in atmosphere is a bad idea
  • highly variable local goverment and law
  • locals expected to protect their own interests (see The Train Job)
  • unreasonably small bodies with breathable atmospheres. Down to a couple hundred KM
  • Size range of ships
  • nature of the carried cargos
  • Presence and nature of psionics. (River's about PSR12)
  • Many names in common. Over a dozen from Sup 3... plus several more from other sources. This is, however, the weakest of the lot evidentiarily.
  • The dynamics of the group are much like those of most RPG groups - there's little reason they should be so loyal to each other, but they are. Even, after a while, Jayne.
  • Shuttles lack interplanetary range
  • Many episodes are "patron" driven adventures.
Clave Jones sees more parallels:
  • Traveller features “slugthrowers” as weapons, as does Firefly.
  • Traveller has a mercantile focus, just like the Firefly verse does. In fact, the game itself is about living hand-to-mouth, trying to pay off debts by trading, smuggling, or whatever else it takes to survive.
  • Traveller has a big, bad government. Classic Traveller adventures often have PCs living outside the law to do good deeds in the end, and/or to make enough money to keep flying. The central government is often the enemy in those adventures.
  • The Firefly class is very much feature-for-feature comparable to the specifications for the Type R Subsidized Merchant in Traveller.
  • In the opening episode Wash shouts, “Hang on, Travellers!” during some sharp maneuvers.
  • Regina is a major world in both settings. Bellerophon is a water world in both settings. Ariel appears in both. Persephone is a low-population world in the Spinward Marches. In Traveller, it’s an Imperial Way Station, with a thin but breathable atmosphere, close to Earth size.
  • In War Games Wash reconfigured the launch controls on the shuttle in a manner eerily similar to an “in character” Traveller write up for space pilots. Meanwhile, Mal, Zoe, and Book all seem like textbook Traveller characters.
  • In 1984 the Traveller release A Pilots guide to the Drexilthar Subsector by J. Andrew Keith described “Reavers Deep” being laden with pirates.
There are several worlds in common too:
Regina is a major world in both settings. In CT, it's a subsector capital, and important trade center. Bellerophon is a water world in both settings; See CT Adventure 9: Nomads of the World Ocean. Ariel (Ley Sector, Ikhnaton subsector, hex 0103) is a significant world in the Judges' Guild produced Ley Sector - on a major route, but not actually core. Persephone is a low-population world in the Spinward Marches. In Traveller, it's an Imperial Way Station, with a thin but breathable atmosphere, close to earth size.
Finally, there's the ship itself, as per ak_aramis:
Of the possibles, the number of coincidences is high if it's not based upon Traveller - the Serenity can be seen as a variant of either the type A or type R. My money's on a Type R - especially with the forward opening cargo bay. A lot depends on just what the dimensions of the cargo bay are. I make her externals to be roughly a 400-600 ton ship... a type R with 2 launches and a 30'x60' x30' cargo bay puts her with the right amount of cargo. (The Serenity RPG, however, would put her with a much smaller bay - 30'x40'x30' - commensurate with a variant type A - but the Type A carries an air raft, not launches. Come to think of it, Serenity does carry both a small ATV (the mule) and an air-raft (in the movie).
For further evidence, we can look to the scripts themselves.

Traveler vs. Traveller

"Traveller" as a title is distinct from the American spelling of "traveler." It doesn't necessarily mean it's an endorsement of the RPG, but the phrasing and the spelling together seem like a curious coincidence. Wash shouts, "Hang on, Travellers!" during some sharp maneuvers while trying to evade the Dortmunder in the pilot. And from a leaked shooting script (Bushwacked, Act 1):
Zoe: Travellers pick 'em up cheap at government auction. A few modifications and they serve well enough for a one-way push to the outer planets.
Also from the pilot script:
We see a sparse but none-the-less inviting spread - Book and Kaylee have made a salad of tomatoes, and grilled up some root vegetables along with the pasta and protein/starch mush that is the usual diet of space travellers. To us, not much. To this crowd, a banquet.
And then there's the man himself.

What Does Whedon Have to Say About It?

Whedon's geek cred is well-known, but he has surprisingly little to say about gaming in general. In reference to a possible Firefly-themed massive multi-player online game, he said:
I always felt this universe absolutely lends itself to gaming, and the kind of really immersive multiplayer gaming where there are so many planets, so many agendas, and so many things to do besides shoot at things. I think it’s absolutely a perfect fit.
And of course, things have come full circle with a Serenity tabletop role-playing game.

Was Firefly inspired by Traveller? Until Whedon weighs in we may never know. If the setting was inspired by a tabletop role-playing game, Traveller seems like the most likely fit.

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


I was a completist for many years (I have a lot of the small press stuff from early days as well as some of the rarer boxed sets). My first box was Deluxe Traveller (Books 0 to 3 and a map of the spinward marches if I recall). I bought into CT, MT, TNE, T20, Gurps Traveller, Mongoose Traveller 1.0 (I really didn't like T4 mechanics and T5 is just too monstrous a product for my liking). I've even found passable miniatures for Imperial Marines and Zhodani Marines to do tactical skirmish.
I have an early boxed set - Books 1, 2 and 3 in the 1977 edition though probably a 1978 printing. I have Book 7 (Merchant Prince) and Supplement 4 (Citizens of the Imperium) which I picked up back in the day (ie around 1984/5). And from second-hand shelves at my FLGS over the past two-to-three decades I've picked up Book 4 (Mercenary), Book 5 (High Guard - the revised version I think), Book 6 (Scouts) and Book 8 (Robots) as well as Supplements 2 (Animal Encounters) and 6, a couple of Double Adventures, and the early 80s Traveller Book which is the 3 black books of the 1981 edition put together with some further text (maybe from Book 0 of Deluxe?) and a couple of sample adventures (one of which - Shadows - is also in one of my Double Adventures).

I've also got the 3 volums of MegaTraveller that a friend somehow ended up with (maybe he bought a box of stuff at a con?) and gave to me. I don't like MegaTraveller much. And over the past year or so I've bought some PDFs - around 8 adventures/supplements and the 1981 LBBs to serve as a reference.

still one of my favourite game systems
My group currently has an active campaign.

It is the 1977 version but with some changes to the PC-gen tables to incorporate some of the later skills and (from MegaTraveller) a "special duty" line that gives the chance to get more skills (necessary given there's more of them), and with gear added to the lists from various sources.

As I said in my first post about our current campaign,

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.


For what it's worth, I recommend this system.
And as I recently posted, I think in another current Traveller thread, I think that Traveller is the best of the "classic" games. While there will be many RQ devotees who disagree, I think Traveller does a better job of delivering a playable game that (as promised) provides Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future, than RQ does of delivering adventure gaming in a fantasy bronze-age world.

log in or register to remove this ad

aramis erak

I don't know if I'd call those 5 systems. There are five sun-like objects, all gravitationally bound together, and at distances reachable on normal human timescales without FTL travel. That sounds like one big system, to me, astronomically speaking.

Now, there's a really big question about whether that's a stable configuration.
Each has its own orbiting planets. There are 5 stars, all have planets inside their own Hill spheres, and a few of the planets have occupied worlds.. Note that astronomers often refer to the Jupiter system or Saturn system in reference to the moons thereof.

Each star is canonically¹ possessed of a system of planets of its own; the inner worlds (orbiting the main primary or its closest companion) are relatively close to each other, sufficiently so as to support the core mentality. The further remote stars are, at "firefly present" (series through Serenity timeline wise) further from each other and from the core two than the core two to each other,.

So the use of systems (plural) is appropriate, contextually. As is reference to the whole mess as a quintinery or quituple star system (singular).

@pemerton The Traveller Book covers the same ground as Books 1-3 1981 edition, but has over a dozen easily missed but significant changes. Starter has a few more from TTB.
The following blog post will lead you to a comparison of the editions. Classic Traveller Editions–A Section-by-Section Comparison
Last edited:

I'm pretty sure I heard Joss Whedon say in an interview once that he got the idea because he was reading (the aforementioned book) about the civil war and that made him start thinking about the Millenium Falcon, "as things often do".

Obviously that's just the legend he wanted to tell in that interview, but still, I've always liked the anecdote. At least if I didn't just imagine it.

Voidrunner's Codex

Related Articles

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads