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Ian Cooper and Classic Traveller

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Hello @Ian Cooper,

I listened to your interview on the Grognard Files yesterday. Thanks, I really enjoyed it!

One thing caught my attention:

You mentioned that when your group first played Traveller (your first RPG!) you had a great time rolling up characters... and then didn't quite know what you were supposed to do with the game. 

But then, after playing games like Call of Cthulhu and others, you were able to go back and play it successfully.

Could you list some of the qualities, tools, techniques that you brought to Classic Traveller that let you play it on your second go-around? I'd really like to hear about this!


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Was there ultimately a reply?

My $0.02 would be that it would have been nice to have more generic traveller-style background development tables for players in RQG, and then have CAMPAIGN BOOKS for the regions that then offered detailed chronologies for the various relevant cultures.

Honestly, among the other to-do's that are on my list if I were to adopt RQG wholeheartedly, would be to make Traveller-style background tables for the backgrounds in RQG, plus maybe some more.  (No, unlike LBB traveller, you couldn't DIE).

While I like the concept, I found the way RQG presented history gen was not terribly satisfying (TBH I thought it was a bit-off-more-than-can-be-chewed moment; to try to parse the span of events of -arguably- THE MOST INTERESTING BIT OF GLORANTHA into a unified set of tables might have been a little...ambitious.  It was either going to sacrifice characters on the altar of a more-or-less linear timeline, or sacrifice the timeline to really be dynamically interesting).

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I can't speak for Cooper but I can testify that the original setting for Classic Traveller was very generic.  Sure, there was an Imperium out there somewhere that justified PCs possessing their service skills and maybe a used Honda Civic of a spaceship -- but it was far off and very decentralized and the adventurers were quite on their own.  There was no Prime Directive to restrain them and no Starfleet Command to protect them.  The local space warlord had a much bigger influence on their fortunes than some emperor dozens or hundreds of parsecs away.

What we think of today as the Official Traveller Universe evolved gradually as GDW published the Spinward Marches maps, the various alien modules, and assorted Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society articles.  By the time we got to MegaTraveller suddenly fun bits intended to spur a GM's imagination and maybe save him some work were locked into canon as official history.

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I didn't realize that I had the same experience as Ian when it came to playing Traveller before playing any Chaosium games. I bought the Little Black boxed set in the late 70s. My friends and I enjoyed rolling up characters (with the obvious common goal of getting a free scout ship out if it) and then we too, like Ian, were at a loss for what to do, and where to go. We played a few one shots, but never got into any sort of campaign before moving on to other games. Unlike Ian though, I never really played Traveller again. I bought a lot of the Traveller LBBs over the next decade or two at auction, but that was mainly just to read them to see if the game would respire some interest, but it never did. I designed a big ship inside an asteroid after I bought High Guard in the early 80s, but that was just for fun. Now the books mostly just sit on as shelf.


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My experience, also, was similar. Enjoyed rolling up characters, looking at the ship plans, reading about the Spinward Marches, but there was little guidance in the original LBBs, much like the original D&D books. Even the scenarios back then were little more than frameworks, and we never got around to role-playing in the Traveller universe. But we played the board games aplenty – Imperium, Azhanti High Lightning, 5th Frontier War and Mayday.

After a few decades out of gaming, and thus missing the plethora of Traveller material produced in that time, I now find myself running a Mongoose 2e campaign, and I have to say the game is in much better health. We’re all enjoying it, probably helped by the fact that we are old enough to remember 70s/80s sci-fi, which is how I tend to describe the tech in Traveller if people want a quick handle on it; as a Brit, Blake’s 7 is the easy example, and I even have sneaking feeling that the classic scenario, Annic Nova, was inspired by the Liberator, the ship Blake’s crew found and commandeered in the show. 

I see, Rick, that there are a few copies of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society in you collection. They were hard and costly to get hold of in the UK, but they were where the world really started to live. 

Edited by Cloud64
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Traveller was the first RPG I bought in 1981, though I was already playing D&D by then. I read it and tried some systems, but I didn’t try running it until I had an adventure, Annic Nova, to run. 
The most fun I’ve had playing Traveller was a 3 day free form at a Canberra convention in the mid- to late- 1980s that was co-written by Garth Nix, the author. 

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I had a similar experience as others. Rolling the characters almost was the game. I did stick with it and played quite a few one shots and eventually the Traveller Adventure. It's only now that I can appreciate the many sub-systems of that game such as trade, system building and starship design, which remain exemplars of science-fictional game design.

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I, too, bought the black box in the late 70s.  I enjoyed creating sub-sectors and characters.  I understood that world/sector generation was the way to create the sandbox for actual play.  I recall the heady way in which the slow unfolding of worlds and societies created that sandbox and I looked forward to seeing the adventures unfold as player's directed their characters through that world. 

Alas!  LIFE happened (in a somewhat cruel and uncompromising manner) and I was swept away before I was able to get very far.  I recently found evidence, in my boxes of old notebooks) that some adventuring in that brave new world did occur, but that's all.  Now, I want to return and find that adventure. 

In fact, that experience colored my desires for RPG play.  I don't want scenarios and adventures that have been written by others.  I hunger for that glorious sandbox play within which I and the players co-discover/co-create the adventures as we poke around in the world that is revealed through our adventuring.   Whether through Traveller (Classic, MG2, or T5), or M-Space, or even Mindjammer, I hope to one day find my way to the experience that I crave.

Edited by ThornPlutonius
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Ian's and Rick's experiences with D&D-->Traveller-->BRP resonated with me, too.

I did a year or so of AD&D 1e before discovering Traveller in the summer of 1980.  I was very excited to find a Sci-Fi RPG, and really enjoyed the crisp, professional minimalism in its presentation.  Our initial experience was similar to what others described.  coming straight from a D&D dungeon-basher mentality, we quickly acquired a Scout ship and Battledress and engaged in a session or two of mayhem before realising that in a modernistic context we really felt like sociopaths.  Then along came Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, with a wider variety of character options and -- more importantly -- other rationales for operating ships.  Two of our players opted for the Noble profession, both got a Yacht, we agreed to pool their resources to supe-up its performance, and the Spinward Marches were suddenly opened up for touring.

Traveller became my stomping grounds as Referee/GM, and is where I really cut my teeth in developing that improvisational skill.  It's also the game in which I so thoroughly understood the published setting that I could adapt as it evolved in publication and really see the 1s and 0s cascade in streams before my eyes.  I got it.  I could do anything with it.  I spent countless hours designing ships, subsectors, solar systems, and populations of NPCs to make them spin.

Sadly, the same group could never wrap their heads around Glorantha, so my efforts to start up games in that world fell flat, but they sure did take to Call of Cthulhu.  From that game, really, BRP became my go-to set of mechanics to model anything in any scenario, and served as the foundation and framework for creating uncounted one-shots and mini-campaigns.


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So here is what happened.

We could not figure out how to write an adventure for Traveller. It was our first RPG. What did you actually do?

I think the designers didn't really know either, because all the early adventures, Shadows/Annic Nova, the Kinunir and Research Station Gamma are essentially dungeons. Here is this place described on graph paper, go explore it.

Traveller moved away with two key supplements.

The first was Twilight's Peak. Twilight's Peak was fairly revolutionary in that it essentially pitched Traveller as a hex-crawl game with a mystery, and a dungeon at the end of it. So it became a little clearer, that you played Traveller more like a D&D Wilderness sandbox (today we would call that a West Marches game), or for this board, like Griffin Mountain.

But Twilight's Peak also leads from CoC, a mystery that you follow and the layers peel back. And CoC gave us that, the idea that a good Traveller campaign had some kind of mystery that the players would uncover layer-by-layer. You can see the design not only in the Ancients for Traveller, but also in the broach in The Traveller Adventure. So the players are not just exploring the wilderness, there is a common thread pulling them.

The second was 76 Patrons. 76 Patrons is a revolutionary piece of adventure design that gets too little credit. Now, Traveller is really an early story game, very light on procedures despite the gearheading in world building. And 76 Patrons was one of the first supplements to introduce 'Story Now' way before the indie crowd named it. You create a situation, that demands attention - " a young woman is being kidnapped in front of you" - and asks "what do you do?" of the players. But the book doesn't give a plot beyond that, the GM improvises from that, and the possible outcomes in the text. The text suggests rolling for the real story, I would suggest pick whichever one seems closest to the player's response.

That idea, that you could run without prep and improvise was fairly revolutionary. But Traveller prep was low, fling together an profile, or just pull some numbers out of 1001 characters and you are good.

It took a long time for me to understand the improvisational style that Traveller was encouraging with 76 Patrons and 1001 characters. Now I get it, but back then, we played dungeons.

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Hi @Ian Cooper, thank you for the reply. (And everyone else as well!)

Like others here, when I bought Traveller as a teen decades ago I did not know what to do with it. Trained by early D&D to think in terms of location specific situations, the idea of a sprawling subsector worth of entire planets (let alone a sector worth of planets--on average 640 planets!) seemed overwhelming? How do write an adventure where the adventures can go anywhere? How do you plan for that?

However, and this is crucial, the game had a hold on my imagination! The character creation system, with its compelling life paths; the idea one could roll up worlds with odd combinations of results for their Universal World Profile and daydream about what kind of world the results meant; a combat system that seemed fraught and tense; skills that could help you do things. Staple that to my love of space adventure stories and my childhood fasciation with the Apollo space program and I was definitely in. Even though I never ran a regular game of Traveller, I spent time on and off through the years making characters, rolling up subsectors, and daydreaming about interstellar civilizations. 

A few years ago, as part of my exploration of the OSR, a I did a deep dive into Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3. After all, if Original Traveller was part of the same soil as Dungeons & Dragons (and it seemed to me it should be)there should be a shared styles of play and techniques for both. Perhaps the OSR would help me understand how to run this game that had never let loose of my imagination! (I would soon discover Miller had a copy of the original D&D booklets on his desk as he wrote Traveller, using it as a template for his own, science-fiction themed adventure game.)

I called these three books "Original Traveller" to distinguish them from the entire Classic Traveller line. The distinction matters, I think, since the original boxed set as written by Marc Miller and published by GDW was seen as a complete and done upon publication. They assumed that people would create their own settings and adventures with the toolkit in the original box and that was that. Other material started coming out two years later, when GDW realized there was a demand for new material. Like the rules for Original Dungeons & Dragons, Original Traveller doesn't pretend to be a complete rules set, but rather a framework to begin play, with each group adding to the rules through rulings or specific mechanics as needed. This kind of play and design would not last long in the RPG hobby, but I found that, digging into it, I really liked it.

All of which brings me to Ian's point: Traveller  is built to be run without prep, but with improvisation. This solves the problem of you Referee an RPG where the adventures can hop in a starship and travel several light years all within ten minutes of play! How do you prepare for all this? You don't!

I will offer, however, that the the team at GDW did know exactly what to do with the game. 

One need only look at the overall design of the game, specifically the ease of creating a stat block for characters and all the random result tables.

For the first point, recall that in Original Traveller all one needs is six digits and a few defining skills to stat up an NPC for any encounter. ("Hit Points" in combat are a function of the characteristics Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance.) That kind of ease is perfect for working up any NPC as needed--and in most cases the need may never arise. Most encounters can be played as the Referee wishes, perhaps noting down characteristics with a space pirate or university scientist after the improvised scene has begun and the Referee learns more about who the NPC is through play.

Second, inspired by the encounters tables found in Dungeons & Dragons, Miller uses some of the same random tables and adds more. We find random tables for:

  • A possible random encounter with NPCs made on a daily basis
  • A possible random encounter with law enforcement (based on the severity of the planet's law level) on a daily basis; independent of the roll above
  • The type of NPCs (everything from soldiers to tourists to religious pilgrims)
  • The range between the NPCs and the adventurers
  • Possible surprise for one party, or both, or neither, during an encounter
  • Possible moral failure during a violent conflict
  • A random roll to determine the reaction/temperament of the NPCs to the adventures
  • A possible random roll for an animal encounter, several times a day, in specific environments
  • A possible Patron Encounter on a weekly basis if the adventurers are looking for a Patron (this can also lead to hearing of a Rumor)

Most of these existed D&D and have fallen out of use over the years. But if one takes the use of these rules to heart, one realizes two things quickly:

  1. The notion that one should have "an adventure" pre-planned is nonsensical, because at some point all these random encounters and whatnot will distract everyone from whatever they are "supposed" to be doing and drive the adventures off the course of "the adventure"
  2. If one uses these random rolls, and the Referee weaves actual characters and interesting situations from the rolls, a lot of adventure material will be conjured on the fly

For example, while Supplement 6: 76 Patrons does, indeed, offer dozens of job offers and situations that the adventurers must respond to one way or another, the Patron table and system found in Traveller Book 3 creates situations of the similar sort... but less fleshed out. The adventurers have been hanging out act the bars of a city outside a local space port looking for employment. They successfully roll on the Patron table and are approached by a "Scholar." Now what? The Referee may or may not have anything ready on this front. What happens now? He starts thinking up, on the spot, in the context of the campaign's events and setting material developed thus far, who the Scholar is, what he might want, what the opposition might be, and off we go!

We can also see a more open-ended style of play revealed and expected in Adventure 1: The Kinunir. Yes, there are deck plans of the Kinunir class ships. But most of the play is not on board that ship, and significantly, it isn't about exploring ships of that class. As James Maliszewski noted in his retrospective of the module on his blog


What's interesting about this booklet is that it provides four short outlines (plus rumors and library data) for adventures but each of these outlines takes up no more than a single 8½" x 5½" page of text. Most of the details are left to the referee to determine and each of them has quite different assumptions from the others, which enables the Kinunir-class vessel to be reused multiple times -- once as a prison ship, once as a derelict, etc. Like a lot of early Traveller products, Adventure 1 is an efficient little product, packing a great deal of utility between its few pages.

But make no mistake: this is not a "ready-to-go" product. Though it labels itself an "adventure," it is, as I say, more of an adventuring locale with some suggestions and resources for using it as part of an adventure... For me, Adventure 1 functioned much like a supplement, providing me with ideas I worked into my ongoing campaign... One of the adventure outlines involves the characters being hired to rescue a dissident noble and senator from a Kinunir-class starship turned into an orbital prison for political prisoners; that was one of the first scenarios I ever ran in Traveller and it colored my presentation of the Imperium for years afterwards.

I often wonder whether an adventure like The Kinunir would meet with much success today. On the whole, Traveller adventures were a lot less structured in their contents in presentation than were many other adventures at the time.

Not only are the four outlines only sketched out in the book, they are are barely connected. Adventure 1 assumes the player characters will be moving in and around the rest of the subsector doing other adventures, picking up more rumors about the Kinunir class ships before the encounter a new patron among other patrons that leads to an adventure involving a Kinunir-class ship once more. Ultimately, a Referee using Adventure 1: The Kinunir would be responsible for working up maps, NPCs, encounters, buildings, security systems, the reactions of marines, nobles, and planetary governments on the fly.

All of this bogged my brain when I first encountered Adventure 1 in my youth. In the first outline in the book, The Scrap Heap, involves the adventures gathering two corroborating facts from three possible sources about the nature of the decommissioned Kinunir-class battle cruisers once manufactured by General Shipyards of Regina. One can hack into the General Shipyards computer systems; bribe an employee or former employee; or break into the shipyards and gather the information off a scrapped hull of one a Kinunir-class ship. With three possible routes one would expect a great deal of information to follow to help the Referee along. In fact, as Maliszewski states, the Referee is given a sketch of some possibilities about how the adventures might approach the three routes and some possible ideas for resistance and fallout.

For example: "If a bribery attempt is turned down, the authorities will be alerted, and security at computer banks and at the scrap yard will be increased." What does that mean? What happens if the adventurers are caught by the authorities? What happens if the authorities end up in pursuit of the adventurers? Adventure 1 has nothing to offer for such situations. It is assumed the Referee will figure it out.

Ultimately, and this is important, I think the rules of original Traveller are not particularly suited for "dungeon crawling." Once the ball gets rolling when using Adventure 1: The Kinunir, the key thing that is going to happen is characters talking with character, making plans with characters, bribing characters, trying to get a better deal from characters, making alliances with characters, threatening characters, and so on.

The key inspiration for Miller when he wrote Traveller was the Dumarest series. These pulp science-fiction books were about a traveling mercenary who goes from one world to the next on a quest to get back home to Earth. On each planet he encounters strange and unique cultures and gets caught up in struggles of characters, siding with or opposing different people or factions as he sees fit. Dumarest is a "traveller" (a term from the novel, as the author was British) who navigates his way through strange societies and people with competing agendas. In other words: It's all about the people.

I think the sweet spot of Traveller, then, is about the interaction of character with each other. And this, too, lends itself to improvised play. The Referee doesn't have to have well drawn maps with cleverly constructed traps, or whatnot. He needs to have characters with agendas in conflict. And then, like a good western or detective story, the adventures insert themselves into the conflict and make choices about how they'll respond and which side, if any, they'll take.

That Marc Miller had faith in people to sort out improvised play can be seen in issue 40 of The Space Gamer. I wrote a blog post on the article so I won't sum up everything here. I'll simply say that Miller, without any prep beforehand, reads a planet entry from Adventure 4: Leviathan, and from a string of Universal World Profile digits and two paragraphs of text describing the planet's culture in the briefest of terms, spins an entire evening's entertainment on the fly for his players.

Inspired by this research, I ended up running an improvised Traveller session at a local game convention, and another improvised session using the Traveller rules but in a mythic setting during an eternal Winter

My point of all this: I don't think this kind of play was "revolutionary." I think, drawing on the early experiments of Dave Arenson and others, this is exactly how people played in the first few years of the hobby.

What was revolutionary, and then commonplace, was building detailed and plotted "adventures" that the payers and their PCs were supposed to follow along with. While not all players went down this road, publishers realized that people wanted this sort of clear plot structure "to run their players through" and obliged. And certainly some writers and companies liked writing adventures this way. (Most modules and scenarios for almost all of Chaosium's game lines work very much this way.)

This is why, I think, many of the Traveller modules after Adventure 1 leaned more toward being something like "dungeons crawls" or scripted scenarios.It is easier to publish something like a dungeon or scripted scenario that feels useful to the buyer than offer up some sketches of ideas for scenarios that leave a ton of work on the part of the Referee to sort it out.

Of course, this "work" only needs to happen if you think you need to have everything worked out ahead of time. In the earliest days of the hobby this was not the case. And as Ian notes, the Story Now crowd (of which I consider myself a member) picked it back up heading into the 2000s.

I would credit Ron Edwards' Sorcerer, back in 1999. The game made explicit the idea the GM should have no plot of any kind prepped, that the GM should put the PCs on the spot with obstacles and opportunities that demanded choices on the part of the PCs, and that the direction of play ("the story") should be driven by and created by the choices the players make for the PCs. Edwards didn't invent any of this, of course, but he argued for this kind of play not only in the rules of Sorcerer by in general online. 

It might be hard to remember that twenty years ago this kind of play was crazy rare in the wild. When I was talking about Sorcerer's style of play on a popular gaming forum I was told to take my outré talk of improvised play to the Game Design Subforum. The idea that the GM would not have a pre-planed story for the PCs to encounter was too much for some people to consider. 

But Edwards was only trying to return a lost form of RPG play back into the hobby. That many of us didn't know what to do with Traveller when we first got it speaks to the fact that we weren't part of the initial experiments of the hobby before the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, and that many of encountered Classic Traveller after getting used to dungeon based play or modules with firm "stories" in them.

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It was a bit different for me, maybe I started a bit later. I first learned about Traveller (and RQ and in fact everything beyond blue book D&D) from White Dwarf magazine. It had articles and scenarios and reviews of products, so I had a decent idea about it before getting it. We started out just planet hopping using the trading system and exploring.

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I'm playing a Coriolis campaign at the moment. I'm finding that Traveller-inspired randomised improvisational style really useful for it. I'm sure the Coriolis writers use this too; it has its own d66 random tables scattered throughout the rulebook.

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My own experience ...

I began playing RPGs in high school in the mid/late 70's, with Gamma World (1e) and D&D.

I played RuneQuest & Traveller beginning in 1980, if memory serves.  Both arrived in my world with those precursor RPGs already "under my belt," so "what do you do" seemed self-evident to me.

I remember being both impressed and appalled at things like 76 Patrons (and other, even briefer, plot-seed elements Traveller offered).  Impressed at how they clearly expected the GM to grab something tiny -- often a 1-liner -- and create a whole adventure from it!  But appalled at the sheer volume of WORK involved in fleshing-out those micro-prompts.  I'm reminded of the authors' advice -- "Ideas are a dime a dozen, even GOOD ideas -- ones that are worth a whole novel; anyone can have a good idea.  What MAKES the novel is the hundreds or thousands of hours of labor of actually writing it, and the quality of the craft in doing the writing."



Edited by g33k
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  • 3 weeks later...

Not sure if anyone mentioned this or not but by the time I purchased Traveller in 1979/1980 ish there was a lot of stuff published for fantasy games, and the one of the biggest differences to me is the lack of illustrations in those LBB.  

D&D had really established a euro centric medieval style game with Tolkien inspired elements.  You could page through the books looking at the illustrations and get a good feel for the settings. 

The lack of illustrations, and more importantly a set of standardized norms for a sci-fi setting was a big detriment to running the game. The problem with the wide range of technology that I could imagine was that every single activity that the players undertook took explanation.  Was this Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.  Were there transporters, photon torpedoes, fighters, laser swords ?  What did the bridge of the starship look like ?  What are the procedures to land a ship ?  What do the different types of weapons and armour look like ?   What do the star ships look like ?

The big advantage that Star Wars rpg and Star Trek rpg have is that to understand the look and feel of the setting takes one viewing of a movie or a couple of episodes of a TV show.  Those games are also lavishly illustrated.

Any time a Traveller book was published with an actual illustration was a big deal to me.  I can still remember most of those illustrations.

To me it felt like the GM had to literally invent every aspect of everything the players were going to do.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  Without those illustrations the GM had to come up with those thousands of words of description for the most mundane activity.

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34 minutes ago, wbcreighton said:

The lack of illustrations, and more importantly a set of standardized norms for a sci-fi setting was a big detriment to running the game.

I realise that I'm in an odd minority, but I found that the absence (not lack) of art and description explicitly defining appearance and tone was liberating, and allowed me to apply the rules to a variety of source material.  Same goes for the implicit lifepath of character generation, which I feel is applied explicitly and  hamfistedly in certain other games, most notably the Mongoose iterations of Traveller, effectively limiting imagination and development of personal backstory.  Yes, I realise that many others -- perhaps most, especially those who are new or only visitors to RPGs -- want fashion ready to wear off the rack.  But some styles are more versatile by design, while more fashionable pieces are so specialised as to limit how, when, and where you can wear them.

How's that for a tortured metaphor?


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