Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Traveller Book

Reading old rpgs is weird. Because there is definitely a date in the past where I would have loved The Traveller Book (Marc Miller), but it's not necessarily a date in my past. If it's the year 1983, well, then John Frazer is just a wee little baby and not in much of a position to have an opinion on the relative merits of rpgs. And if I'm 15 or 16 years old, well, that's 1998 or so and rpgs have had a lot of time to get more sophisticated. Even though I can see the line of influence that leads from The Traveller Book to White Wolf's Trinity, plain as day, young me would definitely have preferred Trinity.

But there's a hypothetical scenario where I'm magically transported as my adult self back to the early 80s, absent my knowledge of roleplaying games, and if I'm coming into The Traveller Book straight off of AD&D 1st edition, my thought is "whoa, this is an amazing breath of fresh air."

The question I'm forced to grapple with in 2024 is how much of a curve am I supposed to be grading on. Forgive my harshness here, but The Traveller Book manages to achieve absolutely astonishing levels of blandness in its sci-fi worldbuilding. I'm sitting here at my computer. I've finished reading the book less than an hour ago, and here's what I can remember without consulting my notes:

  • Space feudalism: the major interstellar government is called The Imperium and it's ruled by an Emperor (not sure if he was given a specific name).
  • The current government is actually the third empire, having emerged from a period of technological regression known as The Long Night.
  • Some trading vessels are subsidized by the government.
  • The origin of the human species is murky, but prior to recorded history there were human populations on multiple planets. No one's sure how they got there.
  • There's a group called The Traveller's Aid Society. The benefits of membership are unclear, but it takes a million credits to join.
  • There are psychic powers, taught by The Psionic Institute. One of the big populations of humans, who decided not to join the empire, has a noble class that trains psionically.
  • There is no special FTL communication aside from FTL travel itself. The empire is held together by mail carriers who operate a "pony express" style relay service.
  • The Emperor and nobles invest heavily in megacorporations, interstellar businesses so large that their various divisions don't always know about each others' existence.

And that's pretty much it. It's not bad, by any means, but it acts like it has nothing to prove, and it absolutely does. It's like if you took Star Wars or Dune and filed the serial numbers off so hard that all that was left was a series of vague bumps that communicate the idea of a setting. Though maybe I'm putting too much on a slim volume whose main purpose was to consolidate and reprint the books from the original Traveller boxed set. According to the last page, even at this early date there were almost a dozen supplements, a similar number of adventures, various boardgames and a quarterly magazine that had been running for at least two years. It's likely that this is a Forgotten Realms type situation, where you've got a setting that emerged from the primordial ur-chaos of the late 70s wargamer/speculative fiction fandom overlap in which roleplaying was born. I once dinged the Alternity core for making too many unearned assumptions with its implied setting, but in retrospect, it's obvious that they ware following a path laid down by Traveller. As they say, the devil's in the details, and I'm sure there's plenty of complex, specific canon by which Traveller fans can distinguish it from the alternatives.

Although, not much actually made it into the book. Fair enough, for a reference volume that has no greater ambition than giving you the rules to play in a pre-established science fiction universe, but not an ideal entry point for someone coming into the franchise totally ignorant.

Mostly, though, I think it's a branding issue. The Traveller Book carves out a niche for itself not by being distinct from other sci-fi settings, but by being distinct from Dungeons & Dragons. I mean, yeah, one of the adventures is a keyed map where you explore an ancient ruin, but the ruin in this case is a mysterious alien pyramid with anti-aircraft lasers on a planet where the corrosive atmosphere is gradually, but inevitably eating through the characters' space suits. It would have blown my fucking mind if my only frame of reference was AD&D.

The game itself is also pretty well designed . . . relative to its age. It feels like I've unearthed a fascinating transitional fossil between two distinct species - the "wargame with a narrative overlay" of early D&D and the "story game with a tactical combat system" of more modern games. There's a lot of talk about character motivations and interacting with NPCs to drive story-style plots, but then it's all superimposed on a table-driven hexcrawl that seems like it's going to be the bulk of the actual campaign. It's like you're trying to wrangle this mechanistic procedural generation into a coherent narrative using the power of improv. 

I think a more self-aware version of this approach could yield a really interesting game, but The Traveller Book came too early in rpg history for that self-awareness to be possible. It didn't have enough to contrast itself against to know how to play to its strengths.

Take the book's most infamous mechanic - it's possible to die during character creation. It's a weird, wild idea that burned itself into rpg legend. I've heard it talked about many times over the years, always with a tone of reverent awe at the sheer audacity, but I didn't realize until I read the character creation chapter that this was that book. 

In context, it's not as daring as I was imagining. It's more like a structural artifact of its rudimentary lifepath system - the more times you roll on the table, the more powerful a character you can get, so each time you roll there is a small, but significant chance that you'll have to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. It's a fun luck-pushing mini-game that runs the risk of becoming dangerously addictive - no other rpg I've read so far has inspired me to create multiple test characters in my notes (I think my favorite was the naval officer who kept rolling really well for the degeneration rolls, but absolute crap for the promotion rolls so he wound up being a middle-aged junior officer who was unceremoniously discharged after 30+ years and given a one-way ticked for steerage-class passage to anywhere he wanted to go). However, it only really works because The Traveller Book hasn't entirely shaken off the idea that characters are disposable pawns. One of them dies, you just play the next one in line. 

It's actually kind of inspired, but it doesn't seem to realize it's dancing on the edge of a paradox - the lifepath system creates disposable pawns with a complex backstory. What I really want to see is more exploration of that idea. There are a couple of different ways you can go with it. You could dramatically increase the specificity and size of the tables, leading to a maze of character creation options that give you an entire history to try and make sense of. Alternatively, you could lean into the abstraction and give the table entries broad and thematic, requiring the player to provide the specifics. There's a whole range of possible synergies between the mechanistic randomness of the dice and the limitless possibilities of player creativity and The Traveller Book barely scratches the surface.

And that's where the weight of history comes into it. There was a time when that surface was totally unscratched. That we can have such bizarre mutations as Dungeon Crawl Classics' system of creating a half dozen random characters and playing the one that survives the first adventure or Nobilis 3rd Edition's challenging and abstract lifepath based on the language of flowers, that can all be attributed to the fact that someone else went there first, blazed the path that split into so many interesting directions. Looking back more than 40 years, without any particular nostalgia for the series, do I give it credit for all the things that it inspired or do I set it aside for being impossibly basic?

Cop out: I'm going to do both. It's the best tribute I can possibly pay to the game's own deep contradictions.

Ukss Contribution: There's really only one possible choice: the mysterious sci-fi pyramid. It's one of those classics that never go out of style. It probably felt really obvious, even in 1982, but also, like, you gotta have one of those things or can you even call it space opera? Don't call it a cliche, call it a staple.

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