“This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone. Mayday, Mayday.”
If roleplaying games had made it out to Waterloo Oxford District Secondary School in the 1970s, nobody told me. My first exposure to RPGs (or rather, the fact that RPGS even existed) was 1979’s “On Tabletop Universes,” an essay by a then twenty-year-old John M. Ford, published in Asimov’s. I thought the whole idea sounded pretty stupid.
Actual exposure to RPGs had to wait until fall 1980 and my first year in university, when I was introduced to Game Designers Workshop’s  Traveller. I blame this game for the thirty-plus years I’ve spent playing the damn things, not to mention the twenty-plus years I spent and working in various capacities in the RPG industry.
And the three little black books looked so innocent.…
Traveller (now called Classic Traveller to distinguish it from later editions) was first published in 1977, which made it among the first wave of RPGs to follow Dungeons and Dragons, the daddy of all RPGs. Where D&D was fantasy, Traveller was science fiction; Traveller also distanced itself from D&D with a simple, eye-catching cover.
and interior art by artists like Donna Barr.
The three core books for Traveller, the ones sufficient to generate characters and run a campaign, were Book One: Characters and Combat, Book Two: Starships, and Book Three: Worlds and Adventures. By the time I encountered Traveller (in a commandeered classroom on the third floor of the University of Waterloo’s Math and Computer building) there were expansions available for the core system — but those three books were the heart of the game and they are what I will review.
[I am cheating a little because I don’t have copies of the Little Black Books on hand. I have my 1982 The Traveller Book, which collected Books One through Three, plus something called Book Zero, which I won’t get into.]
Book One: Characters and Combat
Whereas other RPGs tended to focus on characters at the beginning of their lives, Traveller offered characters who already had experience. First came the six Universal Personality Profile stats: strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education and social standing. The first three stats were also the character’s hit points, which meant not only were characters with high strength, dexterity and endurance likely to be better at physical tasks, they were more likely to survive the various dangers they would no doubt encounter.
Players then had to randomly determine how the character’s career had progressed prior to play. While players had some choice regarding which the service the character entered, the rest of the character’s career was up to the whim of the dice. Would you be playing someone who had been kicked out of the army after one four year term? Would you be playing a scout who had been exploring the galaxy for twenty-eight years? Only the dice knew.
Character skills depended on choice of service, service length, and random selection. Older characters tended to know more, so there was some incentive to avoid retirement for as long as possible. There were two complications: first, after age thirty-four, characters had to roll to determine how well their characters were aging. Physical stats might decline with time, leaving the player to choose between (A) playing a character who was vigorous but inexperienced or (B) playing one who was experienced but not as spry as they used to be.
The random factor in skill selection could produce some odd characters, like my not particularly bright baron who came from some dinky world with not much more than an estate’s worth of people. He only had one skill, shooting pistols, but he had it to a hilariously excessive degree. The random factor could also result in parties dangerously short on necessary skills, as one party I was in discovered after we ejected the navigator into space after a conversation that had not gone as well as it might have.
A more important complication was the result of a rule for which Traveller was quite notorious: at the end of each four year term, you had to roll to see if the character had survived the term. There was always a chance that the character would die in the middle of the term, leaving the player to begin the process once more. The longer the service, the greater the chances that the character would die.
Pre-play careers leaned towards the military: navy, marines, army, scouts, merchant and other (given the skills on offer, choosing other seemed to mean deciding to be a career criminal).
It was always useful to have at least one scout or one merchant in the party, because those were the two careers where a character might possible muster out with a starship, Scouts got a one-hundred-ton scoutship, merchants got a two-hundred-ton Free Trader (although neither of the rewards were guaranteed). Both rewards came with plot-generating complications. The scoutship was loaned to the retired scout at the pleasure of the government, which meant that players could find themselves suddenly on government service. It was like being in the reserves. The merchant ship came with a mortgage; you had to come up with 150,000 credits per month for the next forty years. Plus maintenance fees, of course.
The rules were very explicit that player characters could be of any race and any sex. Over in fantasy RPGing, race and sex often came with modifiers; Traveller rejected that entirely; you might be limited to human player characters (many of whom came from lineages that last saw Earth hundreds of millennia ago, lots of time for divergence) but which sort of human you played had no game mechanic effects.
Combat was straightforward and deadly. The most interesting aspect might that be that game designer Mark Miller borrowed a page from H. Beam Piper and stuck for the most part to weapons that were familiar to players in the 1970s. Weapons R&D was assumed to have hit a plateau of sorts in the 20th century. Aside from some laser weapons (which I remember as being more trouble than they were worth), characters generally wielded perfectly conventional firearms.
One Traveller oddity was that there was no useful way to accrue experience and skills over the course of most campaigns.
Book Two: Starships
This book covered:
- the rules for interplanetary and interstellar travel
- trade economics (very important for ex-merchants expected to fork over 150,000 credits every month)
- starship design
- starship combat
The odds were good that the characters would find themselves in a Free Trader or a scout ship, but those weren’t the only models of ships in existence. Ship design was fairly straightforward, and the rules were flexible enough to allow a wide variety of ships. The rules pertaining to computers were hilariously dated, even by 1980 when I encountered Traveller. Apparently Moore’s Law didn’t apply in the Traveller universe.
Combat was also straightforward and generally worth avoiding. Players were likely to find themselves in ships not equipped with heavy armament. Space pirates seemed to be created by entirely different character generation tables; their ships didn’t lack for laser cannons and missiles.
The faster-than-light drives were slow and limited. They were rated by number of parsecs the ship could cover in a week. Most of the ships the players could access were Jump One or Jump Two, which translates into about 170 to 340 times the speed of light. Given the need to refuel and trade, effective speeds were much smaller. The jump number was also the number of parsecs the ship could cross in a single jump. Given fuel restrictions, it was a bad idea to jump into interstellar space, so ships had to pick their way along routes determined by closely spaced stars. This also reduced the effective speed of the ship, as trade routes tended to meander; it also increased the chances for adventure, since players were forced to stop at each system along the way.
One of the interesting things one could do with jump drives is to try to jump while too close to a planet. This could result in a misjump, potentially covering much longer distances than a standard jump. While sometimes useful (if say, one was on the run from pirates or angry bankers),taking the Misjump Express was a somewhat risky maneuver. Not only was the destination completely random but there was a certain chance the ship would simply explode. Which would be bad.
Book Three: Worlds and Adventures
Although GDW had by 1980 begun to flesh out a standard adventuring world, what you got in the basic three books was the ability to create a setting, rather than play in one that had been created for you . The rules pertaining to subsector (regions of space) and world generation were straight forward. For the ease in mapping, stellar maps were two dimensional (a detail that greatly annoyed me) and each system was assumed to have a single interesting inhabited world.
Traveller ignored stellar types. If the referee cared about the difference between red dwarfs and blue giants, that was up to them to set it up. Worlds were provided with a handful of characteristics: starport type, size, atmosphere type, hydrographic percentage, population, government type, law level, and tech level. It was up to the referee to flesh out their worlds from the bare numeric data.
Traveller adopted an interesting approach to the animal life on each world, which is that it was defined by ecological niche.
Referees were provided with encounter tables, tables that covered everything from potential patrons for the player characters to the people the PCs encountered in bars .
Oddly, this was where GDW stuck the rules pertaining to psionics, something many characters wanted and few ever had.
Those three short books, some paper, a pen or pencil and two six-sided dice were all a gamemaster and their players needed to generate adventures and campaigns. The system was lean but flexible. Author Mark Miller was influenced by SF authors like Piper, Norton, Niven and Pournelle, and so on, The system favoured adventurers, adventurers who might be wondering where their next meal was coming from or how they’d pay the monthly nut to Big Ganimakkur’s Completely Legal and Aboveboard Starship Mortgage Company (“The friendly company where you pay us on time and maybe move some packages for free without asking questions and we don’t drop your battered corpse into a star!”). Adventurers who were open to accepting commissions offering substantial profits for risky ventures.
My first Traveller session was fairly uneventful; all our characters did was try to get from one location on a poorly fleshed out world to another location on the same poorly fleshed out world while a group of armed people tried to stop us for no reason that was ever explained. I was instantly hooked. Although I’ve played many other systems, Traveller will always have a special place in my heart. I still find myself dreaming up new  campaigns from time to time, although I doubt I will ever get to run one.
In its day, Traveller was very popular. It was also very influential; many games either copied ideas from it directly or presented alternatives clearly intended to avoid various Traveller peculiarities. For example, SPI’s Universe’s Civ Level was Traveller’s Tech Level under a different name but Universe had a 3D map and provided a lot more civilian alternatives than the basic Traveller did. But I don’t think any other company ever managed quite the same combination of ease of play and flexibility that those three black books offered.
The books did have one flaw that GDW tried to address by moving from the folded in half and stapled 8 ½ x 11 format to other formats, which was that the Little Black Books were comparatively expensive per page. As a result, there were many groups where one person bought the books and everyone else photocopied them.
Over the years there have been many versions of the game, some (like GURPS Traveller) were OK, some (like Megatraveller, and Traveller: New Era) less inspired, and others (like Mark Miller’s Traveller) utterly disastrous. The first edition of Traveller, flaws and all, managed to bottle a kind of magic that too many of the changes to the system squandered. Fortunately, not every edition of the game was a disastrous misstep . Mongoose Game’s edition of Traveller manages to build on the foundation that Mark Miller created in 1977 without betraying or undermining it. That edition, which I recommend, can be purchased here.
1: The odd thing is that I could swear I read that essay in the spring of 1980, walking down the road to New Hamburg from a place I lived at my final term of high school.
2: Not to be confused with Games Workshop, which is a totally different company,
3: Except by implication. For example, the social standing stat gave titles of nobility above a certain value, so universes were assumed to have aristocracies along European lines. Also, the world generation rules assume a galaxy where pretty much every world that can be settled has been settled or perhaps nobody is interested in empty worlds.
4: As one can expect from random tables, sometimes the encounters didn’t make much sense. I recall one time when the player left to go to the bathroom and the GM decided the player character did as well. A couple of rolls later and the player returned to be informed that his character had run into a dozen men armed with pikes in the bathroom. What was the PC going to do?
“I get in line.”
5: Mostly having to do with replacing the two-dimensional maps with three-dimensional maps. Using real star maps reveals the interesting detail that at least in our part of the galaxy, jump one and jump two ships have a limited number of viable route options. If you’re starting at the Sun, for example, jump one is insufficient to reach any other star system. Jump two can get to Alpha Centauri A, B, and C, Barnard’s Star. Alpha Centauri is jump two from Sol and Barnard’s Star and nothing else. Barnard’s offers a route to Ross 154, but frustratingly, Ross 154 is further than jump two from AX Microscopii.
Aren’t you glad I put digressions like this in the foot-notes?
6: “Disastrous missteps” seemed to be GDW’s company motto throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Following a series of financial set-back and with the core creative staff burned out, GDW closed down in 1996.