Just over forty years ago, Game Designer’s Workshop released the first version of their SF roleplaying game, Traveller (reviewed here ). Over the years, there have been many editions of Traveller, released to varying degrees of enthusiasm.
In 2016, Mongoose Publishing released the second edition of their version of Traveller. How does author Matthew Sprange’s version stand up?
This provides a brief overview of the setting, the game, and possible campaigns, as well as of available game resources.
The order in which those are handled reveals a significance difference between this edition and Classic Traveller ’s first three Little Black Books (see the linked review above). The original rules did not describe the setting. Descriptions of the default setting, the Third Imperium, were left to supplements. Mongoose puts the Third Imperium at center stage.
As in the original, once characters’ basic stats have been randomly generated, the player then rolls for the character’s history. It’s only after that that real play begins. The original Traveller favoured military occupations. The Mongoose edition provides a wider range of options. Lives are broken into four-year terms, each of which may let the player gain skills and ranks, or succumb to calamity or death.
Unlike the Classic Traveller , players may choose to play not only as humans, but as aliens. Two extra choices are given: the uplifted canines known as Vargr or the leonine Aslans.
In this recent version, characters cannot die during character generation, although they might emerge from their careers stalked by violent enemies bent on their deaths. As in the original, characters may well find themselves with a dubiously useful assortment of skills and crushing debt. [Editor’s note: just like college degrees in the US! ]
There’s a reason at least one reviewer called Traveller “Mid Life Crisis: The Roleplaying Game.” By the logic of the character generation system, almost every character begins play after having left, for one reason or another, their chosen career, on top of which they may have declining physical abilities, a hefty mortgage, and massive medical debts.
Character generation reveals something interesting about the Imperium. There’s nothing like single-payer healthcare, at least not for characters. Instead, characters may have a portion of their heath care costs paid for by their employers at a rate that can vary from 75% to 100% for military personnel, 50% to 100% for civilians and 0% to 75% for scouts and criminals. Not only do scouts usually die in service, they can look forward to crippling medical debt if they do survive.
Mongoose Traveller is funnier than Classic Traveller . For example, players who end up as nobles can choose to follow the Dilettante career path, ascending upwards from Wastrel to Ingrate, Black Sheep, and Scoundrel.
I also found this edition somewhat suggestive. (No, not like that. Perish the thought.) The rules suggested novel characters and adventures. For example, the alphabetical coincidence that placed Noble and Rogue side by side made me wonder how hard it would be to transfer from one career path to the other. If it was good enough for the Scarlet Pimpernel…
Skills and Tasks
This section lists possible skills and explains how the skill system works. Examples are given.
I noted with some interest this set of examples under diplomat:
- Greeting the Emperor Properly: Difficult (10+) Diplomat
check (1D minutes, SOC).
- Negotiating a Peace Treaty: Average (8+) Diplomat
check (1D days, EDU).
- Transmitting a Formal Surrender: Average (8+) Diplomat
check (1D x 10 seconds, INT).
A player is more likely to find themselves in hot water trying to say hello to Emperor Strephon than they are trying to negotiate peace with the Aslan. Court life could be an interesting setting for a campaign. Game Masters looking for an interesting source on which to base their campaign could do worse than to review that classic tale of loyalty, manners, and comradeship, the Akō incident.
It’s perfectly possible to play an entire campaign exchanging heated words rather than blows. However, it would be unwise to bet that things will play out that way. In recognition of the near inevitability that characters will try to deal with setbacks, such as crushing medical debts, by shooting enemies, bill collectors, etc., the designers provide a helpful set of rules for violent conflict-resolution.
Experimentation with combat rules suggests that gunfire is bad for your health; artillery fire is deadlier. As one might expect. However, spaceship weapons are generally considered mere artillery. Just a FYI for anyone considering using the ship’s pulse lasers to deter law enforcement officers.
Encounters and Dangers
Designers have imagined situations ranging from environmental hazards like radiation and vacuum, to animal encounters, to bellicose strangers encountered on the street. How dangerous the situation might be depends on type of situation and luck. Danger may also be sparked by a player’s propensity toward violent conflict resolution.
As in the first edition, animals are defined in terms of ecological niche, a detail I like. It did occur to me while reading that many spaceships will include at least one crew member who tries to tame or at least habituate every unfamiliar animal they encounter. [ Editor’s note: here kitty kitty kitty … ]
Equipment ranges from communications devices to environmental protection gear to many many weapons.
Stock SF tropes march on. Now the basic kit includes the option to turn characters into glittering, nigh-superhuman cyborgs. This may prove a popular choice, until players first find themselves stranded on a backward world without cyborg repair facilities. Oops!
What it says on the tin. This also covers (non-spacecraft) vehicle combat.
This edition retains an option that has puzzled me since Classic Traveller : the air raft, which is essentially a flying car, lacks a roof. Not only would that make for an exceptionally breezy ride, but passengers would have to watch their elevation lest they succumb to high-altitude anoxia.
Rules pertaining to the operations of spacecraft. Straighforward, what?
Traveller is not a game where machines left to themselves will keep functioning as designed. Poor maintenance can be an express route to adventures, such as sudden exposure to radiation or ship fragmentation during atmospheric re-entry. Sounds dull? Consider all the plot twists Star Wars ginned up from the Millennium Falcon ’s dodgy avionics.
In accordance with the pulp material that forms part of the inspiration for Traveller, players may encounter disturbing psionic echoes in some areas of older spaceships.
Exactly what it says on the tin.
Space combat would seem to be an excellent choice for players who are bored with their current characters and want to roll up new ones.
Exactly what it says on the tin.
I have an irrational fondness for the deck plans that came with the original game, but the new plans are quite functional.
Thanks to the efforts of John W. Campbell, magical woo powers are a standard feature in settings evoking classic SF. This section covers the special abilities possessed by a minority of people.
In Classic Traveller , finding one of the secretive Psionics Institutes was extremely rare. In this edition, players have a 1 in 216 chance of encountering such an institute any time they roll on the life events table. Any decently populated world would have millions of psions, each one subject to grotesque levels of prejudice and abuse if they’re ever exposed.
I don’t know if basing the hidden-in-plain-sight culture of the psions on the gay scene of New York in the 1960s will be considered egregiously appropriative, but at least there’s abundant research material.
There is a fair chance that players will try their hand at legitimate commerce. These are the rules they will need. It may be that players will then decide that their characters’ best interests lie in less legal forms of commerce. That’s covered too.
World and Universe Creation
You too can create planets and stellar sectors with only a few rolls of the dice!
This is still a pretty barebones system, but it provides enough detail that any imaginative GM can create dozens of distinct worlds pretty quickly. GMs will be pleased to know that planetary law levels have been amped. Player characters who indulge their larcenous tendencies on the wrong worlds will regret it.
The average planet of significance still seems to be about the size of Mars. It has a thin atmosphere and an ocean covering half the planet (generally tide-locked or they would be if the system tracked stellar types, which it does not). It is populated by hundreds of thousands of people ruled by a feudal technocracy and a sufficiently rigorous legal system that many popular stratagems/shortcuts/sneaky moves are illegal. Of course, that’s only the average planet. You may find yourself on a planet that diverges widely from the average. As you should.
The Sindal Subsector
This is a sample subsector (collection of adjacent stellar systems), with adventure suggestions.
There is enough material here for GMs to set up and run a campaign. Rather than trying the partial reboots of Megatraveller and Traveller New Er , Mongoose has opted to update the mechanics while staying true to the old continuity. The result is a worthy successor to Classic Traveller .