Episode 110: I'm A Perfectionist and I Don't Have the Rent to Pay

This month, Roger and Mike review Mongoose’s Traveller . (We had a lot of lag, which I’ve tried to fix.)

We mentioned

Cthulhu Awakens (Kickstarter from 15 February), The Laundry Files RPG, Mongoose Traveller, Flandry, Dumarest, Demon Princes, The Mote in God’s Eye, Ribbon of Memes talking about Aliens, Traveller in general, The Traveller Companion Firefly, Traveller 2300/2300 AD, High and Dry, Deepnight Revelation, the book about containers, Space Above and Beyond, and Honor Harrington.

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.

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I think Lake Geneva might actually be closer to Chicago than Normal is. It’s certainly closer to Milwaukee, at one time (possibly still) the beer capital of the USA. I don’t think Lake Geneva was ever particularly rural.

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Fair enough - just a difference in individual outlook, then. Thanks!

It is true, there is Cthulhu with everything these days.

Oh, and I bought a boxed set of Traveller 5. I may get round to reading it properly at some point.

BITS - well, they keep running games at conventions.

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Thinking of the pirates of Drinax, we have found “arms dealers of Drinax” and “radioactive isotope salesmen of Drinax” are much more successful at earning money and buying shiny toys, and the money all helps fuel Drinax’s ambitions.

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I’ve always been attracted to the aesthetics of Traveller’s little black books, scout ships, and (ancients help me) droyne. I never got a chance to play it, but I always wanted to.

*Grandfather as a concept was dumb raised to the power of dumb, but I like droyne and think they could have worked better than presented.

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The genuinely alien aliens were one of the things I very much liked - which is really the ones who aren’t in the Mongoose core book. K’kree, Hivers, Droyne, the ones that thought differently from humans. I mean, yes, the Aslan have the territorial imperative thing and the Vargr have the charismatic leader thing, but it’s not enough for me.

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Weirdly, despite it being practically the only science fiction game on the market when I started gaming, and despite me being far more interested in SF than in fantasy or horror, I have played hardly any Traveller. I never owned a copy until Mongoose edition 1, and I only bought that because I’d bought the Hammers Slammers RPG and needed the core rules to go with it.

I never found the Traveller setting particularly attractive, as presented by the GMs in the few games I was in. Dog aliens. Meh. Cat aliens. Meh. A social status statistic to reinforce the fact that the ‘aristocracy’ are better than you. Triple Meh with some Fek Off sprinkled on top. You kill people and you take their stuff (meh)… in order to pay off your mortgage. WTF?

I also hated the random rolls to get your skills. What I want to be is an explosives expert. What I got is Medic and Drive.

So we played a lot of science fiction games and military SF games in my student days, but mostly they were hacks of the Cthulhu system. Then GURPS happened and we switched to that.

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Regarding the lack of character advancement (except through long training times), it makes complete sense in context. If it takes a 4-year term of service to gain a couple of skill ranks during character creation, it would be out of place to improve skills over just a few in-game weeks once the campaign starts.

On the campaigns: I believe all the published Mongoose campaigns except Aramis: The Traveller adventure and Secrets of the Ancients are for 2nd edition, and they just did a reissue of Secrets of the Ancients for 2nd edition a few months ago.

On aliens: The problem with really alien aliens, as the much-maligned Hiver and Ithklur book for the much-maligned Traveller: The New Era points out, is that they’re fundamentally impossible. Even the Hivers are going to be played by humans, and therefore ultimately guided by human concerns.

That said, aliens in Traveller are a very mixed bag on the basic concept front, but quite a bit of effort has been put in to making even the troperiffic aliens come off as psychologically distinct and consistent. The implications of a sentient species with a pack mentality or a combination of cowardice and curiosity are fairly well thought out for both the societies and the individuals.

On killing people and taking their stuff: Even in the early days, Traveller was less about that than most other early RPGs. Killing people because somebody is paying you to is a venerable Traveller campaign premise, but killing people who weren’t trying to kill you nist never seemed to be part of the intended play style to me.

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There’s definitely a release of The Pirates of Drinax for MgT 1E - that’s the one @Lordof1 ran for us in 2016 and I think was PDF-only. The full book version is indeed for 2E and dates from 2017.

I know people who played Traveller as murder-hoboes who’d use the ongoing travel as a way of not getting caught for their crimes (I believe @MichaelCule was in games of this sort) but it was never my experience. The way I see it, the party is a bunch of outsiders who probably have better gear than most of the locals, aren’t involved in any local factional disagreements, and know how to look after themselves in a rough-and-tumble, so they’re ideal people for a local faction to hire if for whatever reason they can’t use or trust official entities (or those entities don’t exist). You’re the only ship in-system that can reach the other ship before it falls into the sun; you’ve got an air/raft so you can get to the site of our friend’s distress beacon in the wilderness faster than the official ambulance ATV could; our orbital research platform has gone dark and we’re pretty sure you’re not in the pay of the guys who have been sabotaging us. That to me is what Traveller adventures are about.

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As I recall, some of the early LBB supplements introduced the Instruction skill, which was the first way characters could advance - by passing skills to each other. Albeit capped at one less that the instructor’s levels in both Instruction and the skill being taught. (So Instruction-1 was fairly useless as written…) Learning a skill took six weeks.

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Guilty as charged.

(Just created as an exercise…)

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I think it’s charitable to describe Traveller as a product of the '70s. The boxy or wedgy spaceships (which were expected to land on the planets rather than being cheaply unstreamlined and sending shuttle down from orbit), the tendency to treat only planetary surfaces as important and space as just the thing you passed through to get from one scenario to the next, and the inclusion of John Campbell-style psionics, gave it a 40s/50s feel for me. (A cartoon caption - unrelated to SF - that I used to borrow as a description of the game was “I have seen the future - and it’s '50s revival!”) It all seemed rather pre-Star Trek to me, and definitely passe compared to things like Larry Niven’s stories, which were my touchstone at the time.

(Yes, I know that Trek and Niven had psionics, which were still being treated as hard SF in the 60s. But they both had a glossy, ultramodernist, high-energy aesthetic which was missing from Trav.)

At a guess, I’d say that the strongest influences were the Dumarest stories (competent adventurer uses spaceships as a way to get from one Earthlike planet to another and takes an odd job on each), and to a lesser extent Jack Vance’s SF stories (the heavy emphasis on what we should have called the picaresque).

It also seems in retrospect that Traveller was even more clearly the product of wargamers fumbling their way towards inventing roleplaying than D&D was. Scenarios were tactical challenges for small groups of ex-military professionals to resolve; there was a feeling in many quarters that any scenario or mini-campaign had to come with a pregenerated set of PCs, suited to tackle it - you weren’t going to throw interesting problems at people’s characters, you were going to give people characters and a problem for those specific characters to solve. The party was a one-off group to match the one-off scenario. Which makes the random character generation rather weird, but heck, we were all younger then.

Then the implicit background idea from things like the star system and sector generation rules was made more explicit, and GDW’s boardgames were tied into it, and we got huge and active stellar empires instead of independent star systems in tenuous contact through a skimpy network of free traders. Which didn’t really suit the initial concept of “You wander into town and turn out to be the only people who can solve the local problem”, but everyone fudged it. It now seems to me that, if you’re going to use the canon future history, the best period for classic Traveller games would actually be the Long Night - no stable interstellar empires, lots of lightly-populated independent worlds just hanging on to some kind of technology, trade and communication limited to the efforts of a few independent free traders, stuff to excavate from a lost age of higher technology, and heck ,really ambitious PCs could even try to create interstellar states - but that’s one period that’s never been written up properly, I guess because Tubb and Vance are less influential than Star Wars.

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Here’s Word of Miller from WD23 (“Feb/Mar 1981”): Flandry, Dumarest, Demon Princes, are the specific named high-level influences, and the latter two started in the 1960s – though it would be fair to say that they were in an older style compared with the New Wave that was the hot new thing of the 1970s, or even compared with Niven’s relatively hard SF of that era.

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Several of the early published adventurers do list suggested PCs (or at least sets of stats and skills), which would be consistent with the idea of the adventure as isolated challenge. And some of them are definitely less “here’s what’s going on” than “here’s a static situation; overcome it”.

The closest publication to what you’re describing was New Era, I think, which we’ve talked about before and which as I recall it was generally reviled because “they broke the Imperium” much more than for its own flaws.

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Some of the New Era hate came, I think, because it tried to have both an even grittier, harder SF setting and an absolutely magical sentient computer virus at the same time. Want both ultra-realistic space drives that require gobs and gobs of fuel and OS-independent computer viruses that can be transmitted via transponder pings? We’ve got the setting for you!

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Well, okay, ultra-realistic may be overstating it, but fuel consumption for maneuver drives went way up between editions.

Have just listened to this, and it puts the Whartson Hall game into better context. It’s interesting that both Michael and Roger were unsure about Traveller 5 (best described as a set of rules to include rather than a game system), and no-one mentioned Marc Miller’s Traveller 4 - with the ‘year zero’ end of the Long Night setting.

Traveller was one of my favourite games ‘back in the day’ and I still collect it. Only ever played it at the National Student War Games Championships, since my usual groups went from AD&D to Cthulhu to MERP to Space Master (!)

As an inveterate gear head, I loved the starship and vehicle generation rules, and the star system generation rules were amazing.

I’ve just realised that I haven’t any real point to this post, apart from reminiscing . . . . :flushed:

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I’ve come to realise that any space drive which allows both high thrust and high impulse is basically magic, whether you treat it as a proper non-physics-breaking reaction drive or not. There is no theorised process to support such a thing.

(As distinct from e.g. fusion rockets, for which we have a workable theory, just no way of building one that didn’t immediately melt from waste heat.)

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Now for Traveller 4/“Mark Miller’s Traveller” there was a supplement called Pocket Empires. It was all about rich people cashing in their family holdings, leaving the Sylean core (because they could see the way things were heading, and that a new Imperium would be founded) and setting themselves up as overlords of somewhere unimportant, and carving out their own empire. The mechanics involve spending economic units to get dice rolls to take over planets, moving military units about (but actual battle has a chance of wrecking the planet you want to conquer) and improving infrastructure.

It turns out what you really need is a big world full of people at a 1970s level of technology desperate for the future to arrive, as they will welcome you in and you can then turbocharge their economy and have enough money to conquer nearby worlds.

This version also has Trav’s dullest supplement, “First survey” consisting of a set of maps with outdated statistics from a thousand-year out-of-date survey, and then the maps with the real post Long Night stats. It’s dull, but they wanted to support people playing out the “expanding out of the Long Night” theme.

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