Category Archives: Traveller

Dark Nebula: Traveller Edition

I keep coming back to the idea of using the Dark Nebula as a sandbox setting that I can run under any of my SF RPGs; the legacy of the Arioniad, perhaps. So for the next few posts I’m looking at some possibilities; as usual I will squeeze as much juice from the map as I can.

The topic for the second post in the series is Traveller because, as you’ll see next time, it’s easier to work out Stars Without Number in a consistent manner if I do Traveller first.


What we already know:

  • Primary systems (including the two capitals, Kuzu and Maadin) can perform civilised maintenance on starships, and refuel them. They have good planetary defences. Some independent Primary systems can build Transport starships, others can build military non-starships called Monitors.
  • Secondary systems can perform civilised maintenance on Monitors, and refuel any ship. They have average planetary defences.
  • Tertiary systems can’t maintain or refuel any kind of ship, and have no defences.

Let’s ignore the non-starships, because they complicate things. Civilised starship maintenance I will equate with the capability to carry out annual overhauls; that means all Primary worlds must have at least a Class B starport, which I’ll bump to Class A for all the ones inside the Hierate or Confederation, and Mizah, which as we’ve seen begins the game with a Transport squadron. Given the amount of ships they can handle in a boardgame turn, they have liquid water and/or a gas giant, probably both. Note also that all primary worlds have offices of the Travellers’ Aid Society.

Secondary systems can provide fuel (not necessarily refined fuel, because the consumers in the boardgame are military units) but not maintenance; that makes them Class C-E, with liquid water or a gas giant. I can get roughly the right statistical distribution if I say that Secondary systems with 4-5 jump routes are Class C, those with 3 routes are Class D, and those with 1-2 are Class E. Inside the Nebula, though, all of them are effectively Class E; without the ability to make hyperspace jumps, why would you build a starport? This puts me slightly at odds with the Savage Worlds view of things, though, since a SW Basic spaceport would be at least a Class D. Have to decide which way I want to bounce on that one at some point.

Tertiary systems always have Class X starports, because they have no planets, thus no flat spots of bedrock to use as a Class E, and no gas giants for wilderness refuelling. It is also implied (though not explicitly stated) that they have no population.

Oh look, we’ve done gas giants by accident on the way through. Let’s do bases as well while we’re at it; A Class ports in the Confederation and Hierate get both naval and scout bases, Mizah gets a Confed scout base to support offmap activities against insectoid raiders and because scouts, and Godoro gets a naval base because of all the Monitors.

Travel zones? All Tertiary systems are Amber, because you can’t refuel there. Hope you brought a tanker. Or some low berths… Simba is also Amber because of the insectoid raiders offmap beyond it; whatever they’re raiding, Simba will get hit first on the way in, and last on the way out. I may add other zones later, and once the war kicks off in earnest, pretty much everything will be Amber, if not Red.

(As an aside, we now have everything you would be able to see on a CT starmap; world name, starport class, gas giants, bases and travel zones. At some point I may create CT starmaps to show that, just for the fun of it. But not today.)


These are actually the hardest things to work out from the map.

What we already know: Primary systems are naturally habitable. Secondary systems are not, but have planets. Tertiary systems have no planets.

Straight away, this tells us that tertiary systems have size, atmosphere and hydrographic percentage all at zero.

In the Rules As Written, naturally habitable means an atmosphere type of 5, 6 or 8, since otherwise you need some sort of breathing apparatus; and there seems to be a scientific consensus that a habitable world would need liquid water, so a non-zero hydrographic rating is also appropriate. Primary systems therefore have both those attributes, and secondary ones may have one of them, but not both.


What we already know: All Primary and Secondary systems are inhabited by intelligent race beings. We don’t know which ones are where, so I’ll put what I like, where I like, when I feel like it; but by default it’s all humans, except for the Hierate, which are Aslan/Rakashans/reskinned Hochogs.

After some experimentation, I settled on these rulings; the best I can tell you is that they give a spread of populations I’m happy with:

  • Capital systems have population level 9.
  • Primary systems other than capitals have a population level equal to their number of charted hyperspace routes plus three; for example, Mizah has five routes and thus population level 8.
  • Secondary systems have a population level equal to their number of charted hyperspace routes plus one; Hasara, with two routes, has population level 3.
  • Tertiary systems have population level 0, as does any system inside the Dark Nebula – at least, as far as anyone knows.


Government and Law Level are assigned using an equivalent nation; as an example, Mizah is a Turkish word, so I base it on Turkey, giving it government type 4 (it’s a parliamentary democracy) and law level 4 (pistols may be owned by private individuals with a licence, but assault and automatic weapons are banned – you can check this stuff easily here).


What we already know:

  • Some systems can build starships, and we’ve already seen that those worlds are Gazzain, Kuzu, Maadin, Mizah, Omyl, and Vaxt.
  • Based on the allocation of neutral counters, we also know that Godoro can build non-starships.
  • All Primary and Secondary systems have access to planetary defences, described as beam and missile batteries. (The Dark Nebula rules are silent on whether these are in orbit or ground-based, how many there are, what kind of beams and so forth. I could approximate how powerful they are if I had enough detail on the ships, but let’s not worry about that for now.)
  • Secondary systems are not naturally habitable, so must have access to suitable life-support technology.
  • The neutral counter draw also tells me that Bulan can build grav tanks.

The lowest-tech beam weapons in Traveller are beam lasers, which appear at Tech Level 9 (missiles are TL 7). So all Primary and Secondary systems have access to at least TL 9 items, whether they can make them or not. The worlds with Class A starports must have at least TL 10, because starships; since one of the benefits you can get from researching the Nebula worlds is in effect an experimental jump-2 drive, arguably no world has better than TL 10, and that research bumps you to TL 11.

If I go down that route, I have to say that a jump-1 drive can take you anywhere on a charted jump route, but (as per Dark Nebula) you actually have to stop in each system, unlike the shorted jump routes in CT 1977, which would allow a jump-3 ship to travel from (say) Hasara to Simsek in one jump. In that case, merchant shipping wouldn’t have anything better than jump-1, and military ships would only have bigger drives as a way of retaining jump capability in the face of battle damage.

Instead, I’m going to say that Capital systems have TL 13, because I already know the players are going to want powered armour, and it explains where all the randomly-encountered Type C Cruisers come from – wouldn’t want to start redesigning those.

So: Capital systems TL 13, Tertiary and Nebula systems TL 0, everywhere else as close to TL 10 as die rolls would permit.


This is actually quite straightforward, isn’t it? Although I suspect the systems are going to be quite homogenous. That’s fine with me though.

Next up: Stars Without Number

New Year Resolutions 2015

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” – G.K. Chesterton

It’s like this: When I’m tired, or irritable, I run off in all directions, learning new games and creating or converting new settings; but when I’m calm and rested, I keep coming back to a handful of them.

That handful is All Things Zombie, Traveller, Dark Nebula, Dungeons & Dragons, and Savage Worlds (in which I include Beasts & Barbarians).

So, for 2015, I’ve decided to embrace those and focus on them, building a greater understanding of how they work and the kind of detailed settings and backstories I admire so much when other game masters provide them.

Consider this post a line drawn under what has gone before, and a reboot for such games as survive. (I thought about deleting the old stuff or starting a new blog, but I usually regret doing that later.)

Moving forward, since I think of my campaigns as action-adventure TV shows, I will focus on each of them for 26 weeks in turn, that being how long a season of a show used to last before the writers’ strike and the adoption of mid-season breaks.

We’ll start with the Dark Nebula. Buckle up, sports fans. It’s going to be a fun ride.

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.

Once More Into The Nebula

This year’s sci-fi campaign is gaining momentum now, after a certain amount of dithering over what rules and setting to use. Some of my previous groups have had firm ideas on what should be used, but the current players are very laid back about that, so I can use whatever I want.


Much as I love Classic Traveller, it has holes. Character generation is too random, there’s no levelling up to speak of, and the range and armour DMs for combat are too clunky. I could house-rule my way out of that, or we could learn a new game (say, Mongoose Traveller or Stars Without Number), but you know what, we’re already familiar with a game that will do the job, and that’s Savage Worlds. So there’s the core rules set.

There are things SW does not do well, mostly around setting generation; but that’s fine, because I have a setting in mind already.


The Official Traveller Universe is too big and too detailed not to use, but by the same token I want to tweak the setting too; that and my affection for the Dark Nebula map have taken me away from the well-trodden paths, towards that region of space.

I’ve used the Nebula as a setting before, in the playtest campaign for my work on GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and 3, and I expect to have a couple of the same players. To avoid awkward questions and allow me to apply lessons learned in the intervening 15 years, I turn the clock back from 1105 or so Imperial to 3400 AD and the very start of the Aslan Border Wars. That’s during the Long Night, 650 years after the fall of the Rule of Man, so there’s a major difference – this game will have the feel of re-emerging into space after centuries of rebuilding, much like Stars Without Number or Traveller: The New Era, either or both of which may be mined for resources.

It also means the Solomani Confederation doesn’t necessarily have to be the Stalinist Nazi hybrid of the Official Traveller Universe; that’s 2,000 years in the future from the PCs’ viewpoint.


I promise I will eventually stop redrawing the map of the Nebula; but not today. I hope this will be the final version, although I admit it never has been before…

This version has the rescaling and rotation I normally apply, but I worked out how to do double star systems in Hexographer so added those back in. Doing that revealed that I could have a more authentic jump route network by moving a couple of worlds as well; since one of the conceits of the tweaked setting is that one can only move along jump routes, this has no effect.


Worlds are colour-coded; red dots are homeworlds, blue ones are primary systems, orange are secondary, grey are tertiary. (Using dots for everything makes it easier to do the map key in MS Word for player handouts.)

Jump routes are in green; solid lines for charted ones, dotted lines for uncharted. Hyperspace jumps are only possible along charted routes; my rationalisation for this is that the map is a 2D representation of 3D space, so worlds that appear next to each other may be too far apart vertically to allow a jump; there is an explanation for the uncharted routes, which I’ll come back to later when I do some world writeups.

That means I can suppress the hex grid for clarity, since the players will never use the hexes. Then, the map looks like this:


The map uses the original 1980 terms for the interstellar states, Solomani Confederation and Aslanic Hierate; this is so that any Traveller-savvy players who join the campaign will immediately realise this is an alternate Traveller universe, not the official one.


The period of tension and intrigue leading up to the First Aslan Border War is a great time for roleplaying adventures, the straight-up combat after war breaks out not so much, at least not for the players I have in mind. This is a good thing, because otherwise I would feel compelled to work out the war in detail – which naval squadron is in which system on what date, how long the Battle of Valka lasts and who is involved, that kind of thing – and the campaign would collapse under the weight of my notes.

So instead of using the Pacific War of 1941-45 as a real-world analogue, the campaign is going to be more like the 1930s, which will suit the pulpy feel of Savage Worlds very well.


The PCs will be those from Back in Black; converting them to SW is a cinch because they are actually SW archetypes converted to CT.

None of them have a ship, or ship-related skills, so for the moment all I need to worry about is their base world; this is going to be Mizah, and I’ll look at that in the next post.

Back in Black

Unexpectedly, I found myself running Classic Traveller again last weekend.

It happened like this; everyone who turned up for the family lunch was a gamer and a Firefly fan, we discussed the theory that Firefly is based on Joss Whedon’s game of Traveller, and then it seemed like a good idea to try out the game. I’m confident in playing CT off the cuff; I’ve been running it on and off for nearly 40 years now, and I can do it in my sleep.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I have, at some point.

I didn’t want to deflate their enthusiasm by taking them through the complex mini-game which is character generation, so I did a quick on-the-fly conversion of the archetypes in Savage Worlds (it’s just as easy going that way as they other, takes me less than a minute for each one) and let them pick the ones they wanted. So it was that we wound up with a party composed of a Marine and three Others:

  • Captain Joe "Cap’n Crunch" Williams, ex-Marine, hot-headed veteran of a war with “the space bugs”, who is AWOL and wanted for desertion.
  • Fromar the scientist.
  • Ms Posey Avril, retired pirate, whose pension represents the income from the gastropub franchise and doughnut shop she started to launder her ill-gotten gains, and who has taken her lucky gun “Elmira” out adventuring in search of more money (as she needs extensive dental work).
  • Lisa Andrews, healer with secret psionic powers.

I know. Roll with me on this.


The party found themselves mustered out on Regina in search of work, and I dropped entry 15 from 76 Patrons on them; break into a corporate executive’s mansion, swap his prized US $1 purple postage stamp for a fake, and return the original to the patron (who was called Mr Johnson as a nod to everyone’s experience with Shadowrun). I also dragged out GDW’s Merc: 2000, which I keep around for the generic location plans, and used the Mansion and the Remote Estate for the target’s mansion.

After lengthy debate, the party hires sturdy mounts (which they decided were giant riding beetles, so now there are giant beetles on Regina) to case the joint, persuading their random police encounters (park rangers on grav belts) that they were tourists. Armed with knowledge of the general layout, they spend about 90 minutes brainstorming and discarding plans, until they settle on sealing themselves in crates and having themselves delivered by courier to the mansion while the boss was away on business.

We’re now about two hours in, and the only dice rolls necessary so far have been the check against law level for police harassment, and police reaction rolls to the PCs’ story. While they were discussing their approach, I discarded the rest of the situation and dreamed up a couple of plot twists.

Cautiously cutting their way out of the crates, they realise they are in a garage, under camera surveillance, with a  couple of air/rafts to hand. With a cunning plan and a couple of lucky Computer rolls, they gain access to the network via a cable under a workbench and set the cameras to loop yesterday’s surveillance. They realise the shortcomings of this, but it’s the best they can do. While the scientist dismounts the GPS and tracking devices from one of the air/rafts to give them a getaway vehicle, the others poke their heads out of the skylight and observe the unexpected return of the target and a couple of other suits.

(I know, but they do not, that the business trip was a diversion to cover a meeting with other corporate types about insider trading.)

Fromar ransacks the garage, A-Team style, and comes out with a long list of items including glue and a nailgun. Captain Williams then leads the motley crew stealthily across the garden to the stables, where a pair of riding dinosaurs (actually poni, the six-legged brontosauri in the Scout Service logo) are minding their own business in stalls. The party now shoots them with the nailgun, causing them to stampede out of the stables past the mansion.

With the occupants thus distracted, Our Heroes move up to the mansion and gain entrance through the rear door, finding themselves in the kitchen with the catering staff, who are preparing cocktails and canapes for the meeting upstairs. Swiftly discarding their plans of violence, they pass themselves off as frightened delivery men, looking for somewhere to hide from the dinosaur stampede. Manufacturing an excuse, they check the mansion plans they found online earlier and rule out the entire ground floor, deciding that the stamp must be either in the master bedroom or the office, then scuttle upstairs towards those rooms.

At the top of the stairs they find the three suits, but given that there are stampeding dinosaurs outside and one of the bodyguards has panicked and opened fire on them, it seems logical that the suits are looking out at the carnage from the balcony. Thus it is that the party manage to sneak up behind them, intending to knock them unconscious (by this point they have forgotten they are supposed to get in and out without being noticed). Using Hands at Close range (+2) against non-combatant NPCs (+3) in no armour (+1) means they can’t miss, and they start to understand how deadly CT combat is. However, none of them do enough damage to put down their targets.

It’s at this point they notice the large, newly-arrived, black air/raft outside, with the cargo doors sliding back, and the men in black ski masks inside with auto rifles pointing at the group on the balcony. Williams, Avril and Andrews grab the suits and drag them away from the window towards the stairs, while Fromar dodges away into the office, where he sees the stamp in a nitrogen-filled display case.

(Beyond thinking someone wants the suits dead, I have no idea what’s going on here. One of the joys of sandbox play for the GM is you can do stuff like this and leave the players to come up with a reason for it.)

This leaves everyone except Fromar in the beaten zone for the auto rifles, and Posey, Andrews and one of the suits are hit and knocked out while all six are tumbling down the stairs. Thinking quickly, Williams browbeats the two suits still standing into helping him drag the wounded into one of the servants’ quarters.

Fromar smashes the case, reasoning that any investigation will blame the firefight, and swaps the stamps before picking up one of the suits’ tablet PCs and escaping through the office window. While in the garage earlier, he had thoughtfully set up the air/raft’s autopilot for remote operation, and now summons it to the windows by the servants’ quarters. Everyone piles in, while outside the ski masks are abseiling down from their air/raft and finishing off the staff and bodyguards.

The autopilot starts heading back to the starport, but the black air/raft turns in pursuit. Fortunately, one of the suits can fly, and seizes the controls, swooping into nearby woods where they might evade pursuit. Unfortunately, he gets shot in the back of the head and dies. Fromar takes control and pulls back on the joystick to avoid crashing into the trees; he can’t fly, but anyone knows that will pull the nose up. Everyone falls out of the air/raft except Williams and one of the suits, who manage to grab onto something, and Fromar, who knew this was coming. Their pursuers take advantage of this to start walking auto rifle fire down from the nose of the air/raft into the passenger seats. Fromar wrestles wildly with the controls, but has no idea what he is doing and winds up flipping the air/raft broadside on and spinning it along the long axis. Everyone jumps clear as the two air/rafts collide and explode.

(This saves me from revealing the third plot twist, which is that one of the hired killers at the mansion is an old war buddy of Williams’. I’ll save that for later.)

A few minutes later, as the wounded recover consciousness, the party explains that they are members of a super-secret counter-terrorist unit, acting on a tipoff to protect the suits. Leaving the suits where the park rangers can find them, they vanish into the night and repair to the starport to lick their wounds.

Mal Reynolds would’ve been proud of them.


Classic Traveller, even the 1977 edition, still does the job. It’s noticeable that the players came up with detailed backstories and personalities with no Edges, Hindrances, Ads/Disads or whatever you want to call them. You really don’t need rules for that stuff, you know.

Play is very liberating once people get used to the idea that it’s all about player skill, the character statistics are largely incidental, and going off-piste is not only permitted but actually expected and encouraged; everyone focussed on the story and their cunning plans.

The party psionic, forgot she had psi powers and didn’t use them. I don’t know why this happens in my CT games, but it almost always does, whoever plays the psion; it’s one reason I’m relaxed about allowing them in the game.

None of us felt the need to pull out any figures, whereas with Savage Worlds or Shadowrun we always do that instinctively.

I’d intended this to be a one-off, but the players loved the speed of play and freedom of action, got really attached to their characters, and they want to carry on with them. In addition, all of them want to try Original D&D as well now, with a wilderness adventure. I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord; OD&D as written is just too disorganised. So I guess 2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Retro Gaming.

One of the group, who runs a Shadowrun game with about a dozen players and has been complaining about how long it takes them to do anything, took the battered 1977 rulebooks away to read, saying he would try converting his campaign to CT to speed it up.

All of this just reinforces my long-held belief that the rules don’t matter. We had just as much fun in the 1970s, and last weekend, with the simplest of rules and scenarios, as we do with any current RPG.

Dark Nebula: Setting Inferences

“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey

Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.


Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.

Jump Routes

There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.

J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.

However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.

This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)


Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with “high populations”. That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.


As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.


The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.


Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.


The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.

As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.


As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.

Review: Star Trader

No, not the boardgame that came with Ares magazine, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth; an expansion for Mongoose Traveller, which expands the trading rules into a solo game. 28 page PDF by Zozer Games, written by Paul Elliot, £2.80 from RPGNow at time of writing.


Of the 28 pages, you have five pages devoted to cover, contents list, publisher info and the Open Gaming Licence,  leaving 23 pages of meat.

Introduction (2 pages): This discusses solo gaming, why you might want to do it, and the need for an ongoing goal to act as the spine of the game, which for this product is trading.

The Starship (5 pages): This begins by recapitulating ship costs, then offers four options for tracking them; full fat application of all costs and revenues, assume that the background items like life support and passenger staterooms always have average values, ignore the background items, or rent space on someone else’s ship. This allows the player to vary the focus on speculative trading from just one more item among many to the only thing he’s tracking. It’s up to the player to decide what ship he’s operating, why, how much he still owes on it, and so forth.

We next examine the crew. The book assumes that you generate NPCs, or pick some from a supplement; but the new item is the NPC Relationship Table, which has 36 entries. You roll once for each crewman, and each has a relationship, good or bad, with one of the others (including the player’s avatar), for example A is secretly related to B, but only one of them knows that. There are dark secrets, romantic relationships, rivalries and so on. This bit’s a keeper; highly entertaining and easily portable to other games, Traveller or not.

There’s a fast play space combat system, reminiscent of the Ship’s Boat combat rules from the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller; throw to escape, and if you fail, throw to avoid being hit, if you are hit you can be crippled or destroyed.

The section ends with an example ship trading sheet filled in for a type R subsidised merchant and its crew.

Keeping Track (4 pages): To record the campaign, this section recommends a diary. This acts both as a declaration of intent (no do-overs once you’ve written something down) and as a way to pick up where you left off after a hiatus.

There is a fast mission resolution system, necessary as occasionally randomly-encountered patrons will ask you to do something for them – you assign the mission a danger rating, assign the character’s plan as shaky, solid or foolproof, and roll some dice; this determines whether you succeed or not. You can opt to play these out using the main Traveller rulebook, and I probably would, but again the player can focus exclusively on the speculative trading if he wishes.

The rest of the section is a month in the life of our example type R, showing encounters, trading, and fights between the crew caused by their relationships – and incidentally, how to keep the game log.

The Route (2 pages): This is about choosing your setting. You need to create, or pick, a fairly civilised subsector with a range of trade codes, and (if your subsector is not already detailed) expand on each world by writing an explanation for the world profile, bases, trade codes etc.

Trading Checklist (7 pages): This lists the sequence of events in a “turn”, namely search for cargo, buy it, have an encounter on the world (d66 table provided), pay warehouse fees, meet a contact, starport event (d66 table provided), search for a ship (only if you don’t have your own), finalise details, space or ship encounter on the way offworld, jumpspace event (d66 table provided), arrive in new system and sell cargo, then start over.

The meat here basically consists of the d66 tables mentioned above.

Ship Encounters (3 pages): Expanded encounter tables, along the lines of those in the core rulebook but bigger, and (nice touch) each entry has a list of half a dozen possible names for the vessel. There’s also a further random table showing what the ship wants to talk about when you hail it, which can lead to an exchange of data, a sub-mission as the ship needs help, or an attempt to arrest one of your crew.


Colour cover, wrapped around single-column black text on white, laid out to resemble the old A5 Classic Traveller booklets. Simple, effective, gets the job done. No internal illustrations.


There’s a filled-in example ship trading sheet, but no blank one for me to copy. Not a huge problem.

Update 5th September: The product has been revised, and now has a blank trading sheet and a new cover. Huzzah!


Traveller is perhaps uniquely suited for solo play, and the intrepid merchant plying the trade routes is the character type best suited to it. The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society had an article on that in the early 1980s, and to my mind this product is an extension of that piece, which essentially consisted of a checklist of what the ship did each day during a typical fortnight.

Star Trader is a nice piece of work, the sort of thing that would have made a good Special Supplement back in the day; and although it’s clearly aimed at Mongoose Traveller, I think any incarnation of that noble game could make use of it, except possibly the GURPS and Hero versions. I was sorely tempted to kick a game off right away, and while I haven’t done that, I could see it happening in a month or two when real life is hopefully a bit less hectic.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I keep getting the urge to play some solo Traveller again, and this would fit the bill nicely next time I do.

The Universal Empire Profile

One thought that has been meandering around my head for a couple of decades now is using the Traveller Universal World Profile to describe interstellar states.

By definition, such a state would have starport class A. The size, atmosphere and hydrographics codes don’t really work, although given that most Traveller states focus on controlling the communications routes between worlds rather than the worlds themselves, you could set them to 000. It’s the last half of the UWP that intrigues me the most.


On average, a group of 36 worlds will have one Population 10 world, two Population 9, three Population 8 and so on, which will give it a total population of 12,345,654,321. That’s using the standard Traveller rule of 2d6-2 for Population; the Mongoose space opera and hard science options are interesting, but too much work to figure out, as Population then depends on a lot of other factors.

The Imperium is said to have 11,000 worlds; that’s enough for any local fluctuations to cancel each other out, giving it a total population of 3,772,283,264,750.

Or in UWP terms, Population 12. The other major states in the Traveller universe are smaller, but not by a factor of ten, so we can use that as a rough guide to the population of any star nation.

(As an aside, the average population across that group of 36 worlds would be 342,934,842. Notice that the couple of really big population worlds skew the average a lot; the most common population is 100,000, on one world in six.)


This is 2d6-7 + Population. With Population 12, your interstellar empire has a Government type ranging from 7 (if you rolled a 2) to 17 (if you rolled a 12), with the most likely outcome being 12. In the canonical Traveller universe, we have:

  • Government Type 7 (balkanised): Aslan Hierate, Vargr Extents.
  • Government Type C (charismatic oligarchy): The Third Imperium, the Zhodani Consulate. You could make a case for the Imperium being Government Type B, but the Emperor’s personal influence on the Marches is minimal – for example, the entire Fourth Frontier War happened before he had time to respond – so I think actual power lies with the nobility and the Navy.
  • Government Type D (religious dictatorship): The Two Thousand Worlds, the Solomani Confederation. I put these at D because their loyalty is more to abstract ideals than to a group of sophonts.

With only six data points, that spread could happen by chance; but maybe there is an extra dice roll modifier I haven’t taken into account.


2d6-7 + Government. Range: 2 to 17, most likely is 12. However, anything over 9 is much the same. This is the rating that makes least sense, since it suggests any interstellar empire aims for rigid totalitarian control of its citizens. I rationalise this by analogy with the Imperial Rules of War; if you disturb the Imperium, it comes down on you like a ton of bricks, but as long as you don’t wake the sleeping giant by messing with its sovereignty or economy, it’ll leave you alone – not because it wants to, but because even a stellar empire doesn’t have enough money and troops to keep an eye on everyone, all the time.

The difficulty for the freebooting adventurer is that the rules are not codified; the Imperium makes them up as it goes along, so you’re never quite sure what will draw its attention. However, as the high tax revenue, high tech level, high troop levy worlds are those with Population 9 and 10, any star empire would focus its legal muscle on those – and we find that they have generally high law levels.


There are too many variables for an analysis as simplistic as this, but somewhere in your 11,000 worlds is a Population 10 world with Size 0 and a Class A starport (probably just the one), and that has a Tech Level of 1d6+13. So the best tech level in your empire is probably in the range 14-19, and in Traveller’s Charted Space we find that the racial capital worlds typically have TL 14-15.


You can represent an interstellar empire by a UWP code something like A000CCC-E, if you’re prepared to stretch the rules a bit. If, like myself, you are wont to run random adventures without necessarily generating a bunch of worlds, you can use that as shorthand for the empire as a whole.

This exercise also reminds me how powerful and flexible the Traveller world generation and coding rules are. They have not changed significantly since 1977, unlike pretty much every other aspect of Traveller. Marc Miller definitely got it right there.

End Game

In the absence of any players, I find myself re-reading my oldest Traveller rulebooks – the 1977 Little Black Books. To my current eye, Book 1 – Characters and Combat – is the most dated of the three original LBBs.

But, the thing about character generation in the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller is this: It’s the end game.

Fresh out of character generation, the typical PC is in his late 30s or early 40s. He’s the same age as Conan was when he seized the throne of Aquilonia. He’s done the spacefaring equivalent of all that dungeon-crawling crap, served his time in the trenches, and now he is ready to concoct "daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power", as Book 3 put it.

Comparing the weapons skills statistically to the other game we all played at the time, Original D&D, we see against an unarmoured target at optimum range, the hit probability for expertise level 1-2 (which covers most characters) is roughly equivalent to a D&D fighter of 4th to 6th level. Expertise level 3 is about the same as a 7th to 9th level fighter, level 4 to 10th-12th level, and level 5 to 13th-15th level.

9th level for an OD&D fighter (Traveller expertise level 3) is when he builds his castle and starts playing the Game of Thrones. In this regard, CT is more like contemporary FATE-based games like Spirit of the Century and Diaspora, in which the PC begins the game as good as he will ever be as far as skills go, and improves in other ways – power, wealth, influence.


Conan is about 5th level ("he had already taken wounds which would have killed any four normal men"), so in CT terms would have Sword-1. Given his Strength of 12 (at least), he’d get another +1. Against an unarmoured opponent at optimum range, he hits on a 2; that’s every single time. He’d hit a stock NPC with Sword-1 and Mesh ("the mailed chief of Akif") on a 6, 72% of the time; untrained NPCs (-5 to hit and +3 to be hit) are as grass before his blade, he can carry on hitting them every time, indefinitely, even when fatigued.

A character with Dexterity 8 and a telescopic sight already has +3 to hit at very long range (over 500 metres). He only needs to roll an 8 to hit an unarmoured target, so expertise level 3 or better guarantees a hit every time – there are no automatic failures in CT. If the target is in Cloth armour, that drops to hitting on a 4+, or a mere 92% of the time. Note that with 3D damage and the first shot rule, if he hits the average NPC, they are incapacitated, no ifs, ands or buts. There’s your world class sniper, right there, and interestingly he corresponds to the 7th level D&D fighter I’d use as a template for Olympic-level archers in that game.


So, in the 1977 flavour of Classic Traveller, expertise-1 is Conan. Expertise-3 is more like Jason Bourne or the Batman.

I wish I’d understood that at the time, and been able to convey it to my players through exciting descriptions. Oh well.

What CT ‘77 Got Right

Holidays, babies and exam revision have removed my regular group from play for a few weeks, so today you get another rant instead of the usual Monday evening game report.

I’ve already mentioned that I prefer the subsector generation rules in the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller to anything written since. The same is true for several other areas:


These grew increasingly complex as the rules developed over time; that’s especially true of ship encounters. I have never felt the need to move on from the originals.


The concept of generating critters by ecological niche was brilliant. The rules created beasts which worked the same mechanically whatever they looked like, with appearance and habits assigned by the referee. If he (or she) didn’t feel like doing that, the game lost much of its atmosphere but you could still play.

I still remember the PCs hunting 30-ton pouncers in AFVs. Man, that was nuts.


You have the basic stock designs, and a very simple system for building variants. Initially I spent a lot of time designing ships and house-ruling new ship systems, which was fun, but eventually I came around to the viewpoint one of my players put forward: The ship is only there to transport the PCs to the next scenario. Starship design grew increasingly complex for the next few editions of the rules, and for me at least, it stopped being fun.

As the number of stock designs increased, the ship encounter tables grew more complex too. See comments above.


There aren’t any. Nor do you need them.

At first I felt they were necessary to explain who was handing out thirty million Credit starships to retired scouts of good character, but consider this: A population 8 world with an average per capita GDP of Cr 50,000 (about the same as the contemporary USA), which spends 2% of its GDP on its armed forces (unusually low in the modern world), has a total defence budget of about a hundred billion Credits per annum. If half of that went on starships, and was spent so that an even amount of money (somewhere around 9 billion) was spent on each of the six types of standard starships, that one planet would could buy roughly 250 scout ships per year, and assuming upkeep is 10% of purchase price, the total scout fleet could be over 2,500 Type S for that one planet alone. If you say that one person per annum qualifies for the constructive possession of a ship, and that person just happens to be in the party, it seems plausible. Perhaps originally the President’s daughter wanted a ship, he signed it into law to get her one, and the bureaucracy never got around to repealing that law…

What about all those scout and naval bases? Well, if the planet has the technology and population to operate them – say TL 10+ and Population 7+ for the sake of argument – then they belong to local forces; otherwise, they belong to the nearest planet with those capabilities which already has bases (if it doesn’t have a base itself, it probably doesn’t project power abroad either). It’s easy to envision some sort of subsector-wide agreement for scout services allowing them to refuel at each other’s bases; that actually amplifies the argument for some scouts being spies, as you now need to spy on each other’s scout bases as well.


There were only the vaguest of guidelines for this, but there were also enough random tables that it could be done, hanging a campaign off the spine of interstellar commerce – keep dicing up characters until you get one with a ship, use the others as crew and other NPCs, then take your ship and crew around the subsector trading and dodging pirates.


Of course, it wasn’t perfect; but then, the expectation in the 1970s was that you would use the rules as a starting point, and tinker with them.

There was no point-buy option for character creation. Players, including me, often had a specific character concept which the dice disagreed with. If I want my dreams crushed by random events outside my control, I don’t need to play a game for that, thank you, the real world is more than adequate. To be fair, in 1977 no other RPG really had that option, and you could always house-rule it in.

Combat was clunky; actually, it was OK except for the separate range and armour die modifiers. That was in line with the way D&D theoretically worked at the time, although I never played with a group that used the armour modifiers; but RPGs now have moved towards using range as a modifier on "to hit" rolls and armour absorbing damage. That is much better in my opinion, but again, no RPG in 1977 really did that. Traveller didn’t really catch on until Mongoose Traveller came out in 2008, although obviously the GURPS and Hero versions had that option.

Ship combat should have used range bands like personal combat. Starter Traveller adopted this idea after a few years. That bugs me less now, as space combat doesn’t appear very often in my games.


I really wish I had worked all this stuff out in the ‘70s, you know; my games would have been very different, and cooler. Still, we all had fun, so close enough.


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