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Traveller

1977. Game Designers' Workshop (GDW). Designed by Marc Miller.

The publication of the first edition of Traveller launched what is probably the most commercially successful science fictional role playing game franchise to date, as well as one of the earliest. The original game was developed in an unusual way; after the publication of the initial rules and supplements, much additional work was done by other companies such as FASA and Gamelords, operating under licences from Game Designers' Workshop which gave them the right to develop particular sectors of space. (The sf writers Andrew Keith and his brother William H Keith Jr created a great deal of early Traveller material under this system.) Eventually, the body of writings concerned with the game and (especially) with its default milieu of the Third Imperium grew to become what is probably one of the largest collections of text concerned with a single fictional universe in the whole of science fiction. Ultimately, however, despite the sophistication of its background and the elegance of its design, much of Traveller's popularity may be due to its primacy. Commercially successful RPGs are often the first to appear which allow their players to participate in the stories of a favourite literary subgenre. As the earliest well constructed and well supported system which implemented the narrative conventions of space opera, Traveller's dominance of much of the science fiction role playing market may thus be the result of its having become a standard.

Gameplay in the original edition of Traveller differs in several ways from that of earlier RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons. Characters do not belong to specific "classes" (such as fighter or magician); instead, they have lists of learned skills and abilities. Rather than amassing hoards of valuable artefacts, players will often design their own possessions; creating deck plans for a personal starship has always been a popular aspect of the game. Perhaps the most revealing difference is the type of reward a player might expect after successfully completing an adventure. Rather than gaining personal power, a character in Traveller often benefits by acquiring information about alien races or the secrets of the Imperium, a classic science-fictional device.

Initially, the Traveller rules were intended as a generic system for running science fiction adventures, for which the Third Imperium was an optional setting. In practice, however, the milieu proved to be highly popular, while the details of the original mechanics have now been largely forgotten. The Third Imperium is part of a tradition of hard sf-based romantic space adventure (described as "Ruritanian space opera" by the critic Gary Westfahl in the 2003 Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction) which may have reached its peak in the written genre in the years immediately before the first publication of the game; Poul Anderson's Technic History could be seen as epitomizing the form. Acknowledged influences on the Third Imperium include E C Tubb's Dumarest series as well as the Technic History; others can be inferred, notably H Beam Piper's Space Viking (1963), Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium sequence and Andre Norton's Free Traders books and (perhaps) her Star Rangers (1953; also known as The Last Planet). More recently, Walter Jon Williams's Dread Empire's Fall and the television series Firefly (2002) demonstrate the continuing vitality of this kind of sf. It is significant that none of these works explore such recent science-fictional themes as nanotechnology or posthumanism; current versions of the Traveller rules explicitly suggest that such elements should be excluded, in order to maintain the feel of the game.

In the distant past of the Third Imperium a forerunner species (the "Ancients") transplanted early humans to a wide variety of other worlds. One of these groups, the Vilani, developed a high level of civilization and a faster than light drive thousands of years before humans on Earth, and formed a galactic empire in which Vilani nobles ruled a feudal society of humans scattered by the Ancients. The Vilani empire lasted for more than fifteen centuries, but collapsed in a series of Interstellar Wars after contact was made with the Solomani, Earth humans who had independently discovered faster than light travel. The Second Imperium, formed by the Solomani military to rule the conquered territories, also disintegrated, and interstellar humanity fell into a long night of barbarism until the establishment of the Third Imperium. The original edition of the game is set in the fifty-seventh century CE, a Golden Age when this empire is at its zenith. Other interstellar groups exist, including the Zhodani Consulate (a separate human society which makes extensive use of psionics), the Hivers (a radically alien, and largely non-violent, species which deters potential aggressors with the threat of psychohistoric retaliation), the lion-like Aslan race and the Vargr, descended from Earth wolves uplifted by the Ancients, but none of them present a serious threat to the Imperium.

The second edition of the rules is MegaTraveller (1986 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, created collaboratively by Game Designers' Workshop and Digest Group Publications. While various minor improvements were made to this edition's mechanics compared to those of the original, these alterations were not perfectly realized, making them of questionable value. More significantly, perhaps, GDW attempted to resolve a perceived flaw in the design of the Third Imperium – that its high level of civilization made many kinds of adventures credible only if they took place beyond its borders – by decreeing that the emperor had (apparently) been assassinated, triggering a chaotic struggle for power within the Imperium. In this GDW became one of the first groups of role playing game designers to add an overarching narrative to their gameworld, an innovation that they had prefigured with their introduction of regular news updates from the Third Imperium in the game's dedicated magazine, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (1979-1985; subsequently incorporated into the games magazine Challenge). Traveller: The New Era (1992 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, David Nilsen, Lester Smith, Loren Wiseman is a further revision which borrows the more complex mechanics used by Twilight: 2000 (1984 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick and 2300 AD (1987 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, Timothy Brown, Lester Smith, Frank Chadwick. The eponymous epoch is another long night, one which descends when the various wars and rebellions of the MegaTraveller era are ended by the release of a self-replicating berserker artificial intelligence which infects starships and uses them against human populations. Stylistically, the New Era is grimmer than its predecessors; the ambience is sometimes suggestive of C J Cherryh's Merchanters novels, particularly Downbelow Station (1981) and Rimrunners (1989). Game Designers' Workshop ceased operations not long after the release of the New Era and the rights to Traveller reverted to Miller, who assigned them to a new company, Imperium Games. This group then released Marc Miller's Traveller (1996 Imperium Games) designed by Lester Smith, Marc Miller, which abandoned further development of the future history in favour of a game set in "Milieu 0", the early years of the Third Imperium. Unfortunately development of the game appears to have been rushed for commercial reasons, and flaws in the resulting mechanics (which were largely based on those of the first edition, but included some changes) resulted in the game's commercial failure.

Subsequent iterations of the game have generally returned to the Golden Age of the Third Imperium for their setting, this being the milieu which most players prefer. The first such version was GURPS Traveller (1998 Steve Jackson Games [SJG]; revised 2002) designed by David Pulver, Sean Punch, Loren Wiseman, authorised by Miller and based on SJG's GURPS mechanics. In this variant it is explicit that the assassination which led to the rebellions described in MegaTraveller did not occur, allowing the Golden Age to continue into an indefinite future. The UK's Mongoose Publishing then licenced Traveller as the basis for a generic science fiction role playing system which could be used to implement various milieux in addition to that of the Third Imperium – such as that of the GDW game 2300 AD – and made available to other designers under a legal framework similar to that of the Open Gaming License. The mechanics of this version, designed in 2008 by Gareth Hanrahan, again resemble those of the original edition, with some relatively minor improvements. While the Mongoose game is now the primary version of Traveller, GURPS Traveller is still available, and Miller has released a version of Traveller5 (2009 Far Future Enterprises), his own vision of an ultimate set of rules for the game that will finally perfect the design of the first edition.

Game Designers' Workshop also published a number of wargames set in the Traveller milieu. The most well regarded, Imperium (1977 GDW; 2001 revised as Imperium: Third Millenium) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller, is a strategic board and counter game set during the Interstellar Wars between the First Imperium and the Solomani which can be used to construct a "grand narrative" of the setting's future history. Other Traveller-related board and counter wargames include Invasion: Earth (1981 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller, based on a war between the Third Imperium and a splinter group of Solomani supremacists; Fifth Frontier War (1981 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, which describes a war between the Third Imperium, the Zhodani and the Vargr in a frontier region known as the Spinward Marches, and Dark Nebula (1980 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, which deals with a conflict between the Aslan and the Solomani. Several other games were based on expansions of portions of the original Traveller rules. Thus Mayday (1978 GDW) designed by Marc Miller simulates ship to ship combat in space, Snapshot (1979 GDW) designed by Marc Miller deals with individual soldiers, usually on board spacecraft, Striker (1981 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick models squad and vehicle combat using miniature figures, and the much praised Azhanti High Lightning (1980 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller describes person to person combat on board imperial warships of the eponymous class. Three more games were produced by Game Designers' Workshop to be used with the New Era rules: Striker II (1994 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, an updated version of Striker, Brilliant Lances (1993 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, a starship combat game, and Battle Rider (1994 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, which models starship battles at the fleet level, using a system compatible with that of Brilliant Lances.

Two computer role playing games were developed by Paragon Software (PS) using the MegaTraveller ruleset with several different displays, of which the most common is a two-dimensional overhead view. Despite the inclusion of the MegaTraveller version of the RPG's mechanics, the games appear to take place in the Golden Age setting of the original Traveller rather than the fragmented Imperium of its successor. The first entry in the series, the somewhat frustrating The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990 PS) designed by Jane Yeager, Christopher Straka, concentrates on real-time combat and the details of character simulation. A brief linear storyline depicts a plot against the Imperium, which can be resolved by hunting down a Zhodani spy, while various modular subplots encourage the exploration of a large number of (somewhat shallowly depicted) solar systems. The sequel, Quest for the Ancients (1991 PS) designed by Glenn Dill, F J Lennon, Marc Miller, is generally superior, though still strongly focused on combat. The highly modular plot revolves around the need to discover more about the titular forerunner race before a mysteriously reactivated artefact destroys a human colony world. This work benefits both from improvements made to its combat system and interface as a result of experience with its predecessor and from a markedly more interesting and better developed story than that of the original videogame.

Jefferson P Swycaffer wrote a number of novels set in the Concordat universe he developed for his own Traveller game, making the books ties to the first edition's ruleset and fictional technologies but not to the universe of the Third Imperium. The first, Not in our Stars (1984) is a competently told, if somewhat confused, story of the tragic downfall of a military hero. Notably, with the arguable exceptions of Fred Saberhagen's Starweb inspired Octagon (1981) and M A R Barker's 1984 publication of The Man of Gold, set in his own world of Tékumel, Not in our Stars appears to have been the first science-fictional novel to be published which was based on a game. The remaining books in the initial sequence of four are Become the Hunted (1985), The Universal Prey (1985) and the collection The Praesidium of Archive (1985). The Empire's Legacy (1988), Voyage of the Planetslayer (1988) and Revolt and Rebirth (1988), written for a different publisher after a gap of several years, are generally superior; of these, The Empire's Legacy is perhaps the most interesting, and the most evocative of the original game. Arguably, Swycaffer's artistic ambitions in these novels tend to exceed his grasp. The New Era books The Death of Wisdom (1995) and To Dream of Chaos (1995), both by Paul Brunette, are (mostly) well told space operas. Of all the various Traveller related novels, they are perhaps the most evocative of the milieu; this is not a characteristic they share with Pierce Askegren's rather more routine Gateway to the Stars (1998), set (probably) in the Milieu 0 of Marc Miller's Traveller. The Brunette novels were intended as the first two volumes of a trilogy, the third part of which was apparently lost when Game Designers' Workshop closed down. Marc Miller eventually commissioned Matthew Carson to write a new final volume, The Backwards Mask (2011), after which the original version was rediscovered and published as The Backwards Mask (2011), by Paul Brunette. Several other Traveller spinoffs have been published in very limited editions (or electronically) by various small presses: Dale L Kemper's Force of Destiny (2001), set outside the frontiers of the Third Imperium in its Golden Age, and the New Era novels A Long Way Home (2007), by Terry McInnes, and Diaspora Phoenix (2002), by Martin Dougherty.

Traveller was perhaps the single greatest influence on the early years of science fiction game design, leaving its mark on works as diverse as the prototypal space sim Elite (1984) designed by David Braben, Ian Bell and the RPG Reich Star (1991 Creative Encounters) designed by Ken Richardson, Simon Bell. Ultimately, it has come to stand for a certain kind of space opera, a flamboyant fusion of problem solving exploration and intricate intrigue which has survived in the game even as it has become largely extinct in the written genre which gave it life.

Related works: GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars (2006 SJG) designed by Jon Zeigler, Loren Wiseman, Paul Drye is a supplement to GURPS Traveller set during the conflict between the First Imperium and the Solomani. TNE 1248 is an updated setting for Traveller: The New Era, featuring a nascent "Fourth Imperium"; several supplements have been published for this milieu, beginning with Out of the Darkness (2006 Avenger Enterprises) designed by Martin Dougherty. Traveller 20 (2002 QuikLink Interactive) designed by Martin Dougherty, Hunter Gordon is a version of the game using Wizards of the Coast's d20 rules, set in the Third Imperium a century before the Golden Age of the original game. Traveller Hero (2007 ComStar) designed by Rob Bruce, Kevin Walsh, Randy Hollingsworth similarly adapts Traveller to the HERO System used by the superhero game Champions (1981 Hero Games) designed by George MacDonald, Steve Peterson. Power Projection: Fleet (2003 British Isles Traveller Support [BITS]) designed by Dominic Mooney is a wargame focusing on combat between Traveller's capital ships, using an adapted version of Ground Zero Games' Full Thrust rules; the related Power Projection: Escort (2002 BITS) designed by Dominic Mooney concentrates on smaller vessels.

StarCrystal I – Mertactor: The Volentine Gambit (1985 Ba'rac Limited), designed by Terry Gray, Jeff Billings, Ken Maniscalco, Jim Long, is a text adventure set in the era of the original Traveller game. While its presentation of the background is impressively detailed, various technical faults make it a somewhat frustrating game to play. Traveller AR (2011 ingZ) is an unfinished space sim set in the Third Imperium which is played in a persistent online world. The "AR" refers to "augmented reality" (in which simulated objects from the game are overlaid on the real world as seen through a digital camera), though the game's actual use of this technology seems somewhat superficial.

further reading

  • Timothy Collinson. The Traveller Bibliography. 1997. (Details Traveller game publications.)
  • Timothy Collinson. The Periodical Bibliography. 2000. (Notes magazine articles based on the game.)
  • Jim Dietz, ed. Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying. 2000. (Includes a detailed analysis of the origins of Traveller by Marc Miller.)

web links

  • Mongoose Traveller: http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/rpgs/traveller.html
  • GURPS Traveller: http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/traveller/
  • Marc Miller's Far Future Enterprises: http://www.farfuture.net/
  • British Isles Traveller Support: http://www.bitsuk.net/
  • Traveller AR: http://www.traveller-ar.com/
  • Traveller Bibliography: http://www.travellerbibliography.org/
  • The Traveller Map: http://www.travellermap.com/
  • Michael Andre-Driussi. "Deciphering the Text Foundations of Traveller" (February 2005 Internet Review of Science Fiction): http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10119
  • Freelance Traveller (Tribute Site): http://www.freelancetraveller.com/


All Contents Pseudonymz Ltd unless otherwise noted.