Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

We interrupt our scheduling programming to answer a question from Umberto Pignatelli (ciao, Umberto!), who wanted to know whether so much detailed world building is necessary to run Traveller.

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer, at least my longer answer, goes like this…

Traveller is a child of its time, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s, back when the Old School was the New School. Original D&D had been available for about three years, if you knew where to look for it, which in 1977 meant Games Workshop in Hammersmith (yes, that Games Workshop, but pre-Warhammer) or a couple of other places in equally seedy sidestreets.

In those days, the GM was expected to fill in the gaps in the rules and create his setting from scratch, himself. That was a natural result of where RPGs came from; initially they were written by, and for, tabletop wargamers, who were used to doing that and had all kinds of tricks for it, mostly spread by word of mouth as I recall. RPGs then were all sandboxes; the GM had to generate material for everywhere the players might go and everything they might do, because until the players sat down nobody – not even them – was sure what they would do next. This meant that games had to have random tables for things like encounters, which you’ll notice have largely disappeared from the current generation of RPGs.

After a year or two, games companies realised that one of the big obstacles to starting a game – and therefore, indirectly, to selling their products – was the amount of time, effort and imagination the GM had to put into generating the setting before anyone could play; at that stage, the only generally-available RPG with a setting was Empire of the Petal Throne. And thus setting books (and eventually adventure paths, which are a different answer to the same problem) were born; in the case of Traveller, the first published adventure – the Kinunir, in 1979 – had several pages of setting material in it, a pregenerated subsector with a map and some vague hints about the Imperium. Soon after, Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches, was released, and then things kind of snowballed.

The Rules As Written assume that you will generate at least one subsector for the players to adventure in, maybe 30-40 worlds. When you’re familiar with the rules, that takes about an afternoon to do, maybe longer if you want to draw a nice map, and then as much time thinking about backstory and plots as you need. (As an aside, a number of GMs went crazy and generated hundreds or thousands of star systems, but those campaigns tended to be stillborn, crushed under the weight of their own statistics.)

One of the beauties of this approach is that you can run a campaign with no GM, especially if you have a Free Trader starship, because that gives you a spine to build the rest of the game around – trading. A group of us did that for a while with a crew of scouts; the mission was to explore a subsector, and we diced up each world as we arrived, then either took it in turn to answer questions as they arose, or used reaction tests to answer them, almost a primitive version of Mythic.

But there are other ways, ways that don’t need so much prep time; it depends on the kind of game you want to run. Here are some I’ve tried:

  • You can make stuff up. Traveller’s world generation rules are actually intended for the situation where you’ve run out of ideas, and you need another planet. Until you run out of ideas, you just allocate stats to match your vision of the world, and give it a concise write-up in the form of a Universal World Profile.
  • You can use one of the published settings.
  • You can use a setting from books, movies or TV. A lot of people did this, and in fact one of the stated aims of Traveller was to allow people to explore aspects of their favourite setting that hadn’t been covered in the source material.
  • You can limit the players to one world, if necessary by having their starship break down – now they’re stuck until they have enough money to fix it. (I have fond memories of a game like this that my brother-in-law ran, set in the universe of Andre Norton’s The Beast Master, which had a definite Wild West vibe.)
  • You can make all the worlds the same, so you only need one set of stats. This works well for a universe like C J Cherryh’s Alliance/Union novels, where most star systems have only a space station as a colony as there are few habitable worlds. (This is the gaming equivalent of early seasons of Stargate: SG-1; all planets look like the same stretch of Canadian forest.)
  • You can allocate worlds as you go. In my last Dark Nebula game, I stayed a couple of worlds ahead of the exploring PCs – wherever they went, I pulled the next world off the stack and that’s where they were. Then that got written into the GM’s notes as if it had always been there, and I generated a new one to replace it in the stack. I also had a “default” secondary system in case I ever ran out – that’s what every system looked like until somebody went there.

There’s another angle to this, though; Traveller tends to attract the kind of player or GM who enjoys generating worlds, or characters, or starships.

For the average Traveller GM, generating worlds isn’t a chore, it’s more like a solo mini-game within the main game.

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3 thoughts on “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

  1. Generating subsectors and systems was always a fun part of Traveller for me. My longest-running campaign was a Free Trader “No Strings Attached” trading and generally having adventures round my Outreach sector (actually just four sub-sector maps). It wasn’t intended to be this big at first, but a misjump caused by skimping on refined fuel caused the ship to go skittering off the first map into a neighboring subsector. This involved a journey back through uncharted space (long before ST: Voyager this was!). I don’t have the campaign records anymore; I didn’t use the Imperium as I recall; there wasn’t an interstellar government I don’t think (or it might have been the Union of Planets or something; the players didn’t really care anyway) The Game ended with the PC’s stranded on a TL3 planet with the ship’s launch wrecked and the ship in orbit. The group broke up soon after so the dilemma was never resolved.

    Happy Gaming Memories

    (Hmm… wonder how the Monday Gamers would take to reviving that Game?)

  2. Understood! Thanks for the long answer! Younger players like me (well… not so young) always have to learn from graybeards… ehm “veterans of the hobby” :).

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