Review of Mongoose Traveller

I’ve been all Travellered out for a while, but recently I started thinking about coming back to it. The question was, which version? There are at least 9; Classic Traveller (1977 or 1981 flavours), MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era, Traveller 4 (AKA Marc Miller’s Traveller), GURPS Traveller, Traveller20, Traveller 5, Traveller Hero, and Mongoose Traveller. I’ve tried all of them except the last two, and so far nothing has really captured the feel of the original.

Until now. Read on, and learn more.

In a Nutshell: Retains the Classic Traveller feel, while integrating ideas from other editions. 194 page PDF or hardback book. Intended as a base rules set for a variety of SF settings.

Contents: Introduction (3 pages); Character Creation (42 pages); Skills and Tasks (11 pages); Combat (9 pages); Encounters and Dangers (17 pages); Equipment (19 pages); Spacecraft Design (9 pages); Common Spacecraft (23 pages); Spacecraft Operations (9 pages); Space Combat (6 pages); Psionics (8 pages); Trade (7 pages); World Creation (15 pages); Index; Adverts; blank Character and Subsector forms.

INTRODUCTION

This gives the usual quick introduction to what an RPG is, explanations of dice and tech level conventions, short descriptions of various campaign types, and an example of play.

CHARACTER CREATION

The usual six characteristics are diced for on 2d6; Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education, Social Standing. Characters begin at age 18, with 3-6 skills at level 0, depending on their Education, then choose a career from a list of 12; grognards like myself may think of this as the basic six careers, but with Other split into 7 sub-divisions, much as in Supplement 4.

A dice roll determines whether the character is allowed to join or not, failure offers the choice of the draft or entering the Drifter career, gaining level 0 in the service skills for his career (up to 6) as basic training. Once in a career, the character selects one of three specialisations – for example, a Scout might select Courier, Survey or Exploration as his speciality. The character then cycles round the familiar Traveller sequence of acquiring a skill, rolling for survival, rolling for advancement (used to be called commission and promotion) and so on. A new addition is Events; each term, the character rolls for an event, which may result in a variety of things which enhance or degrade him either mechanically (e.g. new skills or bonuses on later rolls) or by expanding his backstory (romance, illness). These also generate Contacts, Allies and Rivals – NPCs whom the character knows. At the end of one’s career, one receives mustering out benefits, which may be cash, ship shares, combat implants, characteristic increases, weapons, other equipment, or membership of the Travellers’ Aid Society (which provides free starship tickets bimonthly).

Characters can have two different careers, which used to be limited to Vargr, but only gain basic training for the first one. There is also a Psion career, buried in the Psionics section as it was in T4.

Players are intended to generate characters as a group, since some of the events tie your character to those of others in the group; each such connection gets you an extra skill. Finally, once careers are completed, each character gets one or more extra skills, to ensure that the group as a whole has the skills needed for the chosen campaign type, and that every character in the group will be able to contribute something. It also means that the larger the group, the more highly-skilled its members are likely to be, which feels a bit counter-intuitive; but the referee can always limit the number of terms served to balance this.

The combination of ship shares, aging crises and medical bills for injuries mean that both individual characters and groups as a whole are likely to begin the game in debt, giving an immediate motivation for adventuring.

Optional rules are provided for generating characters as individuals rather than as part of a group, and for point-buy character creation. The section closes with traits for alien races, allowing GMs to create new ones and players to generate characters from the major races of the Third Imperium, the default setting.

SKILLS AND TASKS

The task system is a streamlined and tidied-up version of the one from MegaTraveller. One of the attractions of Traveller is that almost everything is rolled on 2d6, and a score of 8 or more indicates success. The 2d6 roll is modified by skills, characteristics, and circumstances; one key penalty is the –3 for lack of the relevant skill, though that penalty is reduced one point for each level of Jack Of All Trades skill known.

There are now nearly 50 basic skills, most of which split into various specialisations. Knowing the basic skill allows you to try anything in that arena without the –3 penalty, with your specialisation providing a bonus on tasks in that specific field.

COMBAT

Traveller combat has always been brutal and deadly, and this edition is no different.

Combat is essentially handled as a series of skill checks. At the start of combat, everyone rolls 2d6 for initiative, modified by Dexterity and possibly Tactics skill – this is simpler and neater than MegaTraveller’s roving DM pool, if less tactically flexible.

In each combat round, each character gets on significant action (make an attack or other skill check), one minor action (move or reload), however many reactions he wants (dodge), and however many free actions the referee thinks is reasonable. Every time you take a reaction, though, your initiative and effective skill levels for the round take penalties.

Attacks are a skill check, with modifiers for equipment, range and conditions.

Damage is inflicted on the character’s physical characteristics, as in CT, but unlike CT you always start with Endurance, and reduce it to zero before moving on to another characteristic (the original CT approach is available as an optional rule). When two are at zero you are unconscious; when three are at zero, you die. Even with armour (which reduces incoming damage), one or two solid hits will kill almost any character.

There is a section on vehicle combat, but that doesn’t enter into my games often, so I skipped gaily past it.

ENCOUNTERS AND DANGERS

This section covers animals, environmental hazards, healing, NPCs and planetside encounters.

Animals are generated in much the same way as in previous editions, starting from their ecological niche (e.g. scavenger), type (e.g hijacker), then branching out into size and game statistics. Modifiers to various attributes are based on the local terrain.

In two departures from the plain CT approach, the referee is encouraged to select a quirk or theme which is shared by all animals encountered on a particular planet (a random table is provided to get you started); and animals have characteristics (based on size) and skills (based on type) much like PCs or NPCs. The creature’s Strength then determines its damage, and its Pack score (equivalent to Social Standing) determines how many are encountered. This all looks like a good expansion of the CT rules, and half-a-dozen example creatures are listed.

Environmental dangers includes rules for disease and poison (make an Endurance check every so often, take damage each time you fail), extreme temperatures (take damage every time period), and weather (penalties on skill checks), falling (take damage depending on height and gravity).

Next come rules for fatigue, unconsciousness, and recovery from wounds, whether by natural healing or various forms of medical treatment.

Then we have a section on NPCs. The referee is encouraged to split these into NPCs who appear in a single scene only (who get a name and a personality trait or two), and recurring NPCs, who get characteristics and skills as well. While the latter can be generated in the same depth as PCs, one is advised to simply assign characteristics and a few skills, with the guidance that a skilled professional has expertise level 2-3 in what he does for a living, and level 0-1 in half a dozen other skills. Tables are provided for random determination of personality traits and careers, the latter intended for NPC contacts, allies, enemies and patrons.

A few patrons are listed, with adventure seeds in the venerable Supplement 6 format – patron, required skills, rewards, player and referee information, with the last including several different possible outcomes.

There are also random tables for determining the patron (much like the CT patrons table), the mission he wants the PCs to undertake, its target (person, place, or thing), and likely opposition. This is again a good expansion of the basics in earlier editions.

The old random encounter table of CT has been split into starport, urban and rural encounters, 36 of each type.

Finally, there are two pages of stock NPCs with game statistics – thugs, guards, ship crewmen and so on.

EQUIPMENT

Tools and gear do a lot to set the tone of a game setting, and Mongoose Traveller is no exception. There are discussions of the game currency (Credits) and the forms it can take, long-term subsistence costs, and then we dive into the equipment catalogue, where each item is described, and assigned a cost, mass, tech level, and sometimes an armour value, required skills, and combat statistics. Most equipment can be modified by added options, which are listed separately at the end of each equipment group.

For most sections, such as armour, communications, computers, medical, drugs, sensors, tools, weapons, vehicles and survival gear, this chapter essentially gathers and harmonises the equipment lists of previous editions, usually with variations by tech level – generally higher-tech versions are more expensive, lighter, and easier to use. There are a few new items such as stunners and laser pistols, things players always wanted but referees often had to house rule.

CT originally ignored cybernetic, genetic or surgical augmentation, as befitted the 1950s and 1960s SF stories it emulated. However, such a game is less credible to a modern audience, and rather than go the retro route like, say, Slipstream, the author has added a variety of enhancements and implants which a character can buy. These manifest themselves by giving bonuses to particular characteristics or skills, or giving the character the attributes of a piece of equipment.

Robots and drones were an optional supplement in CT, but here they are treated (sensibly) as just another type of equipment. A few stock robots are described, but there are no rules for creating one’s own – no doubt the Robots supplement deals with that.

SPACECRAFT DESIGN

This is a welcome return to simplicity after the relentless increase in complexity seen as previous editions were published. Pick a hull; select some options; choose drive components from the relevant table; add fuel, bridge, computer and electronics; add components such as staterooms, weapons and small craft. The process is much like the original CT, the main difference is the broader range of options.

An interesting addition is the page of rules for alternative FTL drive systems and power sources, including warp drive (which I expect to see in the 2300AD sourcebook for this system), teleport drive (instantaneous jumps) and hyperspace drive (which reminded me of Babylon 5, and might be used in the B5 sourcebook – which I haven’t seen yet).

Tables of software and crew requirements are included, with the option of running minimum, average or full crews. Skeleton crews are cheaper, but react more slowly to crises.

COMMON SPACECRAFT

These are the old favourites, rated for the new rules: scoutship, seeker, free trader, far trader, subsidised merchant and liner, lab ship, close escort, yacht, mercenary cruiser, corsair and small craft. New standard vessels are the heavy freighter and the police cutter, which is a 100 ton System Defence Boat. Each ship has descriptive text, a worksheet breaking down components, mass and cost, and deck plans. My only complaint with this section is that the deck plans are nigh on unreadable as they have been greatly reduced.

SPACECRAFT OPERATIONS

This chapter covers boarding, docking, landing, maintenance and its costs, encounters in space (a random encounter table, much expanded from CT days), jump travel, hazards of spaceflight such as radiation, types of passage (i.e., tickets). repairs, sensors and their use, onboard security measures and how to defeat them, and travel times at various accelerations.

SPACE COMBAT

This functions much like personal combat, being a series of skill checks. Unlike the earliest versions of CT, the boardgame approach to space combat has been replaced by a system of range bands.

Initially, the referee determines the range to the opposition and each side rolls for initiative. The players also specify who is doing what aboard their ship – this determines what skill checks they can affect.

Play then proceeds in turns, each composed of a movement phase, a combat phase, and a miscellaneous action phase for things such as launching small craft, making running repairs, or conducting a hyperspace jump.

For those so inclined, there is an abstract method of resolving boarding actions.

Each ship system has several levels of damage, which are checked off as incoming fire inflicts harm. There are rules for the damage crew take if they are in the affected area, and also for using ship weapons in personal combat. (You know you want to.)

PSIONICS

This will be familiar to any player of previous editions; rolling for psionic strength, the Psionics Institute and testing for talents, and the talents themselves: Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Awareness and Teleportation. As ever, the referee has the option to add other powers, collectively called "Special".

One innovation here is that while each talent acquired makes it harder to acquire the next, as usual, some talents have die modifiers which make them easier to learn.

A second is that characters do not have to "level up" their psionic skill to use higher-level powers; you either have the talent, or you don’t. However, using powers is a task, based on psionic strength and your skill level with the talent, so higher skill levels make one more effective. Cost to use a power is also affected by range and other factors.

Finally, as per T4, this section includes an additional career – psion. Given the secretive and prurient nature of psi-powers in the default setting, this is likely to be used more for NPCs than PCs.

There are a number of new powers for each talent, and new items of psionic equipment. This is interesting to read, but while I have always allowed psionics, they never play a large part in my campaigns, so I probably won’t use this section much.

TRADE

Perhaps slightly out of a logical sequence, this covers interstellar trade – the PCs as crew on a tramp freighter, a la "Firefly", has always been a common campaign type.

The section explains how to make money with a merchant starship; passengers, freight, mail contracts, and speculative trade. This last is high-risk, high-reward; rather than shipping freight containers for a flat fee, the PCs use their own cash to buy goods low and sell them high.

The trade goods tables have been modified somewhat since I last played, as have what goods are available on which worlds – each world type has some goods that are always present to buy, which takes some of the guesswork out of trading.

Over the last couple of decades, trading has faded into the background of my games, because I have much less time to play than previously; this section, I would mostly use for solitaire or postal play.

WORLD CREATION

Again, this will be familiar to any player or GM from previous versions. An 8×10 hexmap for each subsector; select how frequent worlds are in that area, and dice for the presence of one in each hex; make a variety of 2d6 rolls for starport type, size, atmosphere, hydrographics, population, government, and law level; roll 1d6 for tech level. Most of the rolls have modifiers depending on the results of other, earlier rolls, and the combinatios of the results determine trade classifications, and thus what goods fetch the best prices on that world. Each result is looked up on a table to determine the type of atmosphere, government and so on. There are some interesting optional rules for space opera or hard SF settings, which apply additional modifiers to the rolls to reflect those genres more accurately.

Rolls are also made for the presence of gas giants (allowing free refuelling, if your ship can cope with unrefined fuel), naval bases and scout bases. The GM assigns travel zones and other bases, which have no specific effects mechanically, but are a good source of scenario ideas.

A new idea is that of trade routes; specific world types within four hexes of each other may have a regular trade route. Communication routes are assigned by the GM, as in every version of Traveller since 1977.

Another new statistic is world temperature, which is modified by other statistics.

Law levels are expanded to show the likely response by the police to anti-social behaviour, and sentencing if the case goes to trial. (Anti-social behaviour by PCs? Surely not!)

Finally, there is a table of cultural quirks which can be added to taste.

OTHER

The book closes with an index, some adverts, and the obligatory character sheet and subsector map. I should also mention the numerous snippets of background data for the default setting and optional rules, which are scattered throughout the main text.

CONCLUSION

This is a worthy inheritor of the Traveller mantle, close in spirit and feel to the original Little Black Books.

Over the years, I’ve drifted away from the random lifepath approach to character creation, so I can’t see myself using the character generation rules. I’ve also stopped designing new starships, the standard ones will do me just fine, so I won’t use the starship design rules either. If those items float your boat, though, they are here, well thought out and clearly explained.

As I’ve said in numerous reviews, I also don’t go in much for equipment chapters in any RPG – my campaigns are designed to play like action adventure movies, and I believe the SF hero needs only his wits, his weapons, and a communicator. That’s just me, and you can find any number of campaigns where (as the Universe RPG put it) the setting is defined by what equipment is available.

The things that do interest me are the expanded world creation and trade rules. If I get the time and the inclination, I might apply those as a stucco over the Imagoes subsector, if only to see what difference they would make. Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, if you want a 21st century update of the grand-daddy of all SF RPGs, this is a good choice. Mongoose are taking Traveller in a direction Marc Miller mentioned in the 1970s as one of his objectives, namely that of using the game to explore aspects of SF settings that the books and movies don’t cover. So far I have seen setting books which customise the base rules for Babylon 5, Judge Dredd, Hammer’s Slammers, and Strontium Dogs, with a 2300AD adaptation said to be in the works. I can see myself building a collection of those… my wish list for future setting books includes Aliens/Predator, the Honorverse, the RCN series, the Serrano Legacy, and of course the Dumarest Saga. What about you?

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6 thoughts on “Review of Mongoose Traveller

  1. I have to agree that MGT is a worthy heir to the throne. I missed out on Traveller when it was fresh (the first “new” edition I was privy to was T:NE), but it was one of those games I wish I paid more attention to when I was younger–I might have found a table then.

    One of the things I like about the game is the group dynamic of the character creation. I’ve played too many games where the PCs are a number of individuals, as opposed to one team with a common bond/heritage. MGT offers some decent ideas (that were new to me, at least) that solve that problem.

    I’ve got mixed hopes/feelings about the 2300 update. I *LOVED* 2300AD when I was younger but I’m not so sure that it’s got a niche anymore. One of the selling points is how cutting edge it was technologically, but what we know about technology has changed so much that keeping up would make the game virtually unrecognizable. For my “realistic” hard-SF game, I’d look more to Transhuman Space, personally.

  2. The best thing about a space opera type game like traveller was that they featured starships, the coolest job in the game was flying a starship. Hence like you I always liked to play a scout, after all the first thing they showed you was how to fly a starship, and spend enough time in the career you would be given a starship to play with. :)

  3. Great review.
    Made me finally take the plunge and invest in a load of the Mongoose Traveller books.
    I love the career/lifepath character generation, even though the dice consistently plot against me ever rolling up a good Scout character! And I never get a ship as one of the benefits!

  4. Wow so good to see the name Andy Slack next to TRAVELLER again! Bad press against Mongoose kept me away, finally bought it and was thoroughly impressed.

    Perhaps you can again answer the question you brilliantly asked and answered at White Dwarf. What modifiers to hit? I’m hanging upside down from a flying air raft……in a hurricane.

    That was probably my favorite work by AS.

    • Why, thank you, kind sir!

      Hmm… well, I’d say -8 offhand; -2 for being upside down, -2 for the flying air/raft (unstable platform), and -4 for hurricane force winds and driving rain. The table on p. 49 of Mongoose Traveller only goes up to -6, though. :D

      You’d have to use your minor action hanging on, I think.

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