Thursday, July 13, 2023

What does Classic Traveller Do?

I have followed with interest  Brad Walker's postings on his blog about game design, and the wargame roots of the RPG hobby. In a recent post he says:

Classic Traveller retains its power despite being decades away from the spotlight, such that every other space adventure game is compared to it- including its successors. It has a separate and distinct play experience from both of the aforementioned, and has itself influenced many others after it (e.g. Twilight 2000).

I thought about Traveller's design and why the game has endured so long. This is by no means a definitive essay on the subject, merely my thoughts at this point.

What do the Classic Traveller Rules Do?

By the way, the short answer is
"enable players to have Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future." But you knew that already.

The rules explain to the players how to be a Traveller. Which is, a person who goes from place to place seeking adventure, accepting big risks to gain big rewards. There are game systems for creating characters and designing starships. There are systems for travelling across worlds, or between solar systems. There are systems for buying and selling goods, getting jobs from patrons. Rules for interacting with people, organizations and governments are there.

The rules let the Referee create worlds, organizations, enemies, allies, dangers and rewards. The rules guide the Referee in impartially resolving uncertain outcomes. The rules explain to the Referee how the setting functions once you set it in motion.

Travellers use their attributes, skills and equipment to conquer obstacles, and defeat opponents. These can be man, man-made and natural.

There are two main incentives in the game, money and starships. Money is access to assets: people, gear, weapons, information. Starships are freedom to go where you want to go, when you want to go there. To reach new places or escape the current one. Incentives spark action, bold action gets rewards, and the PCs use them to move towards their goals.

What goals? Goals like social advancement, owning or controlling territory, commanding fleets, or amassing fortunes. Or any other goal the player decides upon. Winning at Traveller is reaching the goals.

I am being general to avoid restricting the scope possible in Traveller. The universe is a big place, with all kinds of locations to encounter. The goals remain the same whatever the setting.

In a sense, Traveller is not 'about' anything. Star Wars is about fighting the Empire. Gumshoe is about being a detective. Doctor Who is about being an inter-temporal busybody. But you can do all those things in Traveller, too. Part of Traveller's enduring appeal, then, may be that not-aboutness. You can do nearly anything (see my post modeling Marvel’s Avengers).  Despite this, the game does not lack structure.

The difference between structure and setting is generic to specific. Structure is ‘’what components are there?” while setting is “how do the components look and act?”

Every game has to have a setting. This is the envisioned place where the game takes place. Even chess has a setting. It's a flat featureless plain between two small armies, but it's a setting. Traveller's setting is the galaxy. It can easily zoom in to localities, and zoom out to whole sectors of space (See the Traveller Map).

The rules, particularly those on world and subsector creation are structure for building the setting. Included are things like size, atmosphere, type of government, technology, population. These enable the players to visualize what this or that world is like. Also how they could or should act while there, what they can and can't get away with. Then the Referee can add or subtract what he wants to make it memorable.

This distinguishes Traveller from toolkit games like GURPS or Savage Worlds (I've played both). Those games do not provide any structure so any setting can be imagined. This comes at the cost of the Referee having to create the structure out of nothing, the explain it to the players.

I am not criticizing those games or concerned with what they might 'get wrong'. I am talking about what Traveller gets right - which is a lot. The rules as a ‘technical manual’ (to use Walker’s phrase) are organized and presented in a way that’s comprehensible to beginning players. Traveller is easy to get into; the rule books don’t get in the way.

And in relation to another one of Walker's posts about game design, The Traveller rules are not cluttered up with extraneous illustrations. There were NO pictures in the original Little Black Books. The Traveller Book (my preferred version) has some accent illustrations, to give the text some flavor, but rarely take up even half a page. 

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