"Traveller"-like settings for SF RPGs

Episode 56: It all comes down to fire in the end

In August 2017, Mike and Roger gave advice to the GM of a new travel game, and considered the thousands of worlds of a Traveller-like setting. What makes them interesting. How can his work?

One of the topics that the Sages of High Wycombe discussed in Episode 56 was settings like that of Traveller, in which there are hundreds, thousands, or myriads of inhabited worlds, each with its own divergent society. I maintain that the value of such settings is that they allow parties of PCs to have serial encounters with people behaving bizarrely, whose behaviour has to be decoded and either exploited or at least circumvented to prevail in their conflict.

When you’re designing a setting for a game like that there are probably things that you can do to make it work well and other things that you ought to avoid because they make it work badly. One of the things that occurs to me (perhaps because I was for many years a transport economist) is that you have to get the technology of interstellar transport and communications right — for which my solution is “rather slow, and not very expensive”. It’s also handy to have a list of freakish features of governments and societies to jog he imagination when world-building. Here are a few that I put together in a thread on the forum at SFRPG-discussion.net.

When you are setting up a campaign to make the most of a setting like that it helps to have some sort of campaign postulate that will take a party of PCs to world after world and give them a procedural or dramatic task to accomplish there. I have made 64 suggestions in a thread on the SFRPG discussion site.

Here is the text of the e-mail that I sent to podcast@tekeli.li to provoke the discussion in Episode 56: It all comes down to fire in the end. We’ve heard Mike’s and Roger’s main thoughts on the subjects I raise. Now I should like to hear yours.

There is a category of sci-fi settings that consist of myriads (or at least chiliads) of worlds inhabited by people who are (mostly) effectively human but who have madly diverse cultures and sometimes physical environments. Protagonists and player characters are usually cosmopolitan or not too different from people of the readers’ or players’ culture, and they visit world after world in the setting to encounter the strangenesses. It’s a set-up for serial adventures involving confrontation with anthropological &c. oddities, for serial duels between the one sane protagonist and a world gone eccentric*. Examples include Vance’s Oikumene, Gaean Reach, and Alastor Cluster settings, the implied setting of “The Worlds of Magnus Ridolph”, Poul Anderson’s Technic History, H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future setting, the setting of Asimov’s “Foundation” and later “Robots” stories, the implied setting of Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”, the setting of Stephen Goldin’s “Family D’Alembert” (attributed to E.E. Smith), Larry Niven’s Known Space, and Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium/Empire setting†. For that matter the setting of E.E. Smith’s “Lensman” series is supposed to be like this, though I think he cocked up the world-building on that one. The venerable SFRPG “Traveller” at first assumed some sort of such setting and then exuded a specific example: the Official Traveller Universe.

I would like you to don your very fetching setting-designers’ hats and ruminate for a while about these “‘traveller’-like” settings. What’s the appeal? What makes them tick? What are their limitations and weak points?

Here are a few points on the subject that have occurred to me. You might like to address, endorse, or dispute some of them.

  1. It seems to me that the oddity of an alien societies made up of beings with an alien psychology, is neither so provoking as humans behaving strangely, nor does it so strongly afford the possibility of the PCs solving the puzzle of the Vancean society. I maintain therefore that “Traveller”-like settings work best with myriads of planets occupied by beings that are essentially human. Which is not what we expect to find, and which, therefore, requires a justification. Justifications range from e.g. “Arisians effected panspermia and intervened in evolution, and they guided a myriad of species to evolve more or less like their early selves: half the alien species are very like humans because they like humans are like proto-Arisians” through “the Forerunners for inscrutable reasons collected early humans &c. from Earth and established human populations widely” to “humans emigrated from Earth after the time of writing but before the time of the adventure and settled all these planets; social oddities either reflect the preservation of minority cultures on Earth (Pournelle) or developed in isolation on the planets, from founder effects, social drift, misguided social engineering, and adaptation to strange environments.

  2. It seems to me that in setting up a “Traveller”-like setting a world-builder ought to consider carefully his or her transport and communications technology, because those determine the ability of player characters to engage in serial encounters and the plausibility of a wide array of strange and unfamiliar cultures.

(2a). If interstellar travel is quick and cheap (like intercontinental air travel today) then large numbers of people will travel between worlds. There will be tourists. There will be numerous large interstellar firms shuffling managers around and sending them to business meetings. People will migrate easily and either visit or be visited by relatives. On one hand this will make people from the PCs’ home culture somewhat familiar with other cultures, undermining the essential wrestle of the protagonist/PCs with the bizarre unknown culture. On the other that broad current of contact will result in cultural influences that will lead to cultural convergence. Gotta keep the cultures isolated to keep ’em distinct!

(2b). If travel is really, really slow then protagonists/PCs will never be able to go home and trade will be unrewarding. Virtually no-one will travel, and those who do will be very special, heavily subsidised, and about important business. (See Ursula le Guin’s “Hainish” cycle.) It’s not a recipe for serial adventures or for conflict over personal stakes. I think that “Traveller”-like settings have to feature FTL travel as an enabling conceit.

(2c). If travel is very expensive there will be few travellers enough to keep the cultural influences in check, but those there are will be very rich and very idle, or very important to very rich patrons and engaged largely in important business.

(2d). If travel is expensive and kind of slow you’ll have the same problem as (2c).

(2e). That’s why my solution is for FTL travel to be inexpensive but kind of slow. If travel is inexpensive then there is broad enough interstellar trade to produce interstellar concerns that PCs might be involved in, but if a typical interstellar trip takes weeks then people won’t be flitting to Zawijah for a couple of weeks on their annual holiday, still less for a weekend at Sailmakers’ Beach on Alphanor or a four-hour business meeting on Cassilda. But people with a low value of time in transit or who earn their livings by travelling will travel: there will be migrants, spacehands, and soldiers and administrators travelling to take up long postings on distant worlds, plus students, travel writers, correspondents. Unimportant people on low wages will travel on business of no great import to anyone else.

(2f). The obvious other case is moments of transformative change. e.g. in John Barnes’ “Thousand Cultures”, in which the first novel begins just as a new means of rapid travel is coming into use. This suggests the exploration campaign in which PCs travel the worlds as explorers, doing serial first contact adventures, and rendering the unknown known as they go.

  1. Moving on to communications, it seems to me that high bandwidth, low-latency communications threaten (a) to make it implausible that any culture that PCs were likely to encounter should be little-known, and (b) to effect such broad cultural contact as to homogenise the cultures of the setting. Furthermore, even narrow bandwidth low-latency signals are likely to lead to organisations micromanaging from the centre. Whereas one of the charms of a “Traveller”-like setting is that it affords a great deal of independence to even quite low-ranked Johnnies on the spot, such as might plausibly be PCs. Another charm is that of arriving in system six weeks after the dispatch of the latest signal you’ve received. More “dealing with the unknown”, which is what we like these settings for. On the whole I’m very happy in these settings to go with “Traveller”’s formulation that there is no communication significantly faster than a spaceship.

  2. Vance wrote many excellent novels about their protagonists’ extended encounters with different cultures. But that’s not typical for a roleplaying campaign. Mostly, players are going to want to have multiple such confrontations with different strange societies, and to me this speaks of iconic characters in procedural adventures (dynamic characters in dramatic adventures get used up or worn out by repeated personal growth). So it seems to me that a campaign that makes the most of a “Traveller”-like setting ought to involve the PCs making up a group or team that has a job, mission, commission, or business that takes them to world after world with a goal to achieve or a mission to accomplish while they are there. It seems to me to behove any “Traveller”-like RPG to include a list of possibilities, for which I have suggestions here: (http://www.sfrpg-discussion.net/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=2924&p=32203).

  3. There is a certain convenience to having at least one Federation, Commonwealth, Empire, Oikumene etc. to employ PCs in many of the occupations that provide serial opportunities for adventures. They can also be useful in keeping the warfare down to a dull roar if desired, or employing PCs in military or naval adventure where that is wanted.

  4. If you want to make an easy entry for players such as can’t be bothered to study up on the weird culture and society that their character is supposed to come from, it is a great convenience to include at least one planet of Yanks¶ in Space (etc.), which a player can play a native of with minimal awkwardness or study.

  5. I’m a big fan of having nigh-universal languages spoken throughout at least an “Orlanthi all” of my “Traveller”-like setting. RPGs are such a talk-based form that I have never found it fun to role-play the encounter between two characters who can’t talk to each other. This consideration tends to dominate my approach to point 1 (above).

* I feel that Robin D. Laws missed this in his design of the “Gaean Reach” RPG. I don’t like the way he narrows designs to a single core experience anyway, and I don’t like the way that his mechanisations push players towards author stance — “off the stage and out of the auditorium and into the writers’ room” — but even accept that I think his analysis of the core experience of a Vancian protagonist (which is that it is a revenge plot) is in error or at least oversimplified: Vance’s revenge plots are a vehicle for the serial encounters with social oddity.

† And where-ever it is Earl Dumarest lives, I’m told. But I’ve never read any E.C. Tubb.

¶ Or Poms in Space, if you have an Empire rather than a Federation.

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I guess that one of the appeals of a Traveller-like setting is that it can be Planet-of-the-Week, and thus it can mimic pop culture such as individual TV episodes (Blake’s 7, Star Trek, Dr Who) or short stories/novels in a series (you mentioned several) and so on. The players can ‘kill people and take their stuff’, and since they never go back to Metebelis 3 or Auron or wherever, there are no consequences for murder-hobos.

The cultures on the myriad planets are never more than sketched in, usually with a One Noticeable Change. They people of Planet Bob are exactly like middle class Californians, except that they sacrifice their 3rd born child to the Volcano God. The people of Planet Zed are exactly like middle class Californians, except that pensioners refuse to go outdoors on a Tuesday.

I think that’s to avoid player frustration. If you’ve spend 2 sessions trying to solve the plot, and keep having cultural quirks you had no inkling of and no chance of deducing thrown at you, the whole game boils down to a suiccession of Anthropology and Savoir Faire rolls, followed by the GM infodumping.

I’ve run an awful lot of this stuff in my time, and I’m going to have to disagree with you on three points.

I run very few games for murder-hoboes, edging on to “very few indeed”. Much of my material in my Traveller-like setting involved the PCs being law enforcement officers, much of the rest involved their being clandestine operators, and almost all the rest involved their being officially-sanctioned explorers conducting an ethnographic survey in a naval vessel. Killing people was always something that PCs in my games tried to minimise or avoid, and taking stuff was usually limited to collecting evidence for use in court or collecting specific McGuffins for intelligence purposes.

I pride myself on doing a lot more than that (for the few planets that PCs actually visit, not the whole chiliad in my setting). And I have received enough compliments on my anthropological, sociological, economic, and political world-building, from enough different players, to be comfortably confident that I also do better. Also, Vance does more, better.

Perhaps this is a matter of communicating with prospective players and only recruiting to a game the ones that are interested in it. Perhaps it is a matter of presenting collisions between the PCs and the local quirks as plot developments rather than as dead ends. Perhaps it’s my policy of not allowing dice rolls to abstract away the core activity of the game I’m running†. Whatever the reason, that is not something that happens in my games.

I like serial rationalised planetary romance as a genre for RPGing, and I find that for me, with players who want to play it, it works very well.

† I don’t allow mystery scenarios to boil down to a succession of Forensics, Interview, and Criminology rolls followed by GM infodumping. So I don’t allow the analogue to occur in my Vancean scenarios either. If I’m going to be running mystery I recruit players who want to figure out where and how to look for evidence, and to solve the puzzle it presents. If I’m going to be running Vancean planetary romance I recruit players who what to figure out the social puzzles themselves because they enjoy doing that.

A Thing I Always Say, or at least talk about, is Poul Anderson’s planet-as-puzzle stories (which he probably didn’t write as many of as I remember; I think I may have read too many of them in quick succession). Basic plot: Our Heroes are shipwrecked or marooned or whatever on a weird planet, and have to figure out how it works (and how to get away) before it kills them. Sometimes it’s a geophysical puzzle, sometimes a societal one.

But I don’t think this fits well into a setting with star catalogues. If other people have come here, there ought to be a record in the ship’s library, and with plausible computing tech a ship’s library is probably in every PC’s phone. So you need to set things up so that for some reason the solution to the puzzle isn’t immediately available.

I did five things to address this problem.

The first is exploration. The 600-odd primary colonies were settled directly from Earth using a technology that allowed travel no faster than light. Then there was a 400-year collapse. Then when FTL travel was invented And explorers started moving out again they had records of what the planet had been like when first scouted, how many people had migrated there and with what equipment and intentions, and in the cases of the nearer-and-older ones, what had happened on them down to four hundred years ago. This left plenty of time for development and change, so that planets (which almost never developed according to plan) could be pretty surprising to a survey mission. The solution to the puzzle wasn’t in everyone’s datastick because ti was the PCs’ job to put it there.

The second was anomaly. As Imperial law enforcement officers, Imperial clandestine operators, clandestine operators for interstellar NGOs the PCs can be anomalous people doing anomalous things with anomalous authority and anomalous equipment, and often dealing with anomalous opponents, events, and crimes. The standard ethnographies don’t convey exactly how the social features will interact with, say, extraordinary crimes. The briefing on Nahal tells you not to wear a gun without tattoos or tattoos without a gun, how to be polite enough not to get shot, etc. And they tell you that Nahal doesn’t have any law or law enforcement and what it has instead to deal with the issues those things deal with. But it doesn’t tell you how to solve the difficulties that you are going to face as a first Imperial law enforcement officers on Nahal, “law”, “enforcement”, and many of the other aspects of your duty being either incomprehensible or an affront to right-thinking Nahalese.

The third, perhaps not wholly different from anomaly, is times of transformative local change. Such as the arrival of the Empire, the establishment of Imperial law enforcement, the growth of population and herds on the New Tobolsk prairies reaching the carrying capacity of the land. History starts happening, and the standard references were out of date.

The fourth, also perhaps not wholly distinct from anomaly, is to deal with the particular on a human scale. That is, I would face the PCs not with the puzzle of fixing the big features of the planet that are in the reference works, but of dealing with some individual circumstance that arises out of and interacts with the Hat of the Planet. The idiosyncrasy of one particular NPC’s difficulty with his or her own or adopted society is not in the Handbook.

Finally, I cheated. If players forgot something that was in the briefing or failed to take it into account properly I did not over-rule their character play. Which meant sometimes the players having to put things together for themselves, such as “next time, send men to execute a search warrant in the locker-room of a ‘men’s health club’ on Cockaigne”.

My bad. I though you were asking a question about Traveller type multi-world settings (in general), not your own games in particular.

I was. I described my games as a counter-example to what I took for a universal “never”.

I’m sorry if I seemed a bit prickly.

Taking up this one after some delay, I’m struck by the thought that my current fantasy campaign (whose worldbuilding Agemegos contributed to, very productively) is sort of a Traveller-like setting for fantasy. The protagonists are co-owners of the first merchant ship from their home city-state to venture across the open sea to Occasia, the western continent, away from their homeland on Terra Media. Both their shakedown cruise with a crew assigned by the Seafarers’ Guild and their real voyage with a volunteer crew had them encountering societies and cultures with notably different assumptions; and not just “elves” or “trolls,” but more than one culture for each race.

So, for example, they had some trouble with the elitist elven aristocrats of Insulae Piperis, a culture totally focused on controlled breeding. And later they paid a visit to Folia Rubera, an elven realm on Occasia. Now Folia Rubera had a social pattern that partly derived from the opposition of Seelie and Unseelie: They had an upper class of aristocratic plantation owners, and a serving class of plantation workers. The upper class weren’t actually indigenous, though; they were exiles from Insulae Piperis who had disagreements with the monarchy and the genetic planning elite, and who crossed the sea to found their own realm where the old aristocratic ways would survive, and brought some of their culture’s advances along, which they classify as “gifts.” Their original culture doesn’t have this duality; all elves are a courtly society, with members of other races being bred for domestication and performance of specialized tasks.

And to make things more complicated, there are some elven newcomers, refugees from Saltus Profundi, a tropical realm with smaller, somewhat tribal societies, who fled when the ghouls to the south of their land started burning down their forests to produce clearings and dead bodies to eat. They’re kind of a strange fit, neither seelie nor unseelie, but are able to play a middleman role. And they reacted really badly when they saw that two of the protagonists were ghouls, signalling each other with drums and assembling their work elephants to attack.

The protagonists didn’t know that Folia Rubera worked like that, and in fact they might very well never have found out. And they still haven’t figured out the backstory, nor its ties to the main storyline, a key historic event of three centuries ago that they’re only just learning about.

And that ties to another concern: How much exposition to provide. The way I did this was to figure out the cultures of the world, and a couple of key historic events, but not to tell the players most of this. I told them what the seven humanoid races were like, and I let each player look at the list of cultures for their chosen race, and pick one; but that left men, elves, and dwarves totally unknown to them, and for the most part they didn’t remember the other cultures of their own chosen race. But they got information when it was relevant to how they would portray their characters, which gave them a strong motive for thinking about it and paying attention to it.

Usually each culture is inspired by 1-4 Earth cultures, but often with some wholly invented features taken out of legend rather than ethnography or history.

Now, does that seem to fit the “Traveller”-like description?

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There certainly seem to be many features in common; I think that one of the key features of this style of game is that you can run away from the problems you’ve caused, but you mostly don’t want to, because (you might want to come back some day, there’s a bigger government that exists to deal with inter-polity people, etc.).

As for avoiding infodumping, I think the trick is not to have the successful roll give rise to a five minute lecture, but to have it result in the PCs learning a crucial fact.

So, for example, in my last session of Tapestry, the PCs were faced with anomalous weather; in effect they were sailing into the start of Fimbulwinter. And the ship captain wanted to know if her people’s literature (orally transmitted) said anything about such things. The player got a critical success, so what I said was, “Actually, you remember that in the song of the founding there are lines about the chieftain Jorma using a silver ring he was given by a dwarf to tame the spirits of waves and weather and allow his fleet to sail to Refugium Marineris.” And that led to a whole series of inquiries that uncovered mentions of four other enchanted rings: a copper one worn by a man, a lead one by a trollwife, an iron one by a ghoul, and a mercury one by a nixie—not with equal detail in all cases, of course, but there was a pattern.

On the other hand, this worked because my players were mostly cognitively active and couldn’t ignore a puzzle like that. If other players are less inclined to try to make sense of fictional worlds, this technique probably wouldn’t work as well.

That’s fine once play has started. My problem with big complex settings is that the players don’t want to soak up very much up front; my solution is to build the setting as the campaign progresses, and then not use it again. That isn’t necessarily a good solution, but it does at least mean I’m not afraid to have big changes happening. (And a Thing I Always Say is that I have a taste for transformational moments in settings – as the zombie outbreak is happening, for example, rather than six months later when everyone’s settled down to long-term survival.)

Well, yes, I can see that. I was responding more to Dr. Bob’s comment about “the whole game boils down to a suiccession of Anthropology and Savoir Faire rolls, followed by the GM infodumping”; presumably that takes place during play, not before it.

A problem I’ve encountered a few times with big complex settings is that as a player, I get shown a big list of parts, with no idea how they fit together. Lots of names of persons, organisations and planets, but no framework for interpreting them.

Describing how things work in the setting, at a basic level, builds player understanding much faster than lists. Dr Bob’s Squaddies scenarios do this rather well.

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Agreed. Lacking a canonical structure in which to represent the real world*, it’s always tempting to say “the government hierarchy is like this” or “the list of planets is like that” and use that as a template for everything.

My current best practice is to write a bunch of stuff at a variety of different levels, ideally including “this is what daily life is like for most people”, and see what the players ask for more information about.

* anyone who hasn’t read In the Land of Invented Languages really should.

I’m not sure what you mean about using a list of planets as a “template.” Can you give an example of how this would work?

I mean that there’s one overall outline into which everything has to be fitted. Here is the list of planets, and for each planet we talk about what happens there including adventuring opportunities and government types and trading… and really there should be a separate chapter of government types, so that each planet listing can say “representative democracy but with these things that make it unique”, or something of that sort.

In other words, you can’t have a single-rooted structure that contains everything without it coming over as very forced.

It sounds as if what you’re talking about is what would result if you used, say, the GURPS world generator to create Earthlike worlds or solar systems containing such worlds. That’s not a practice I’ve ever gone in for much. My preference is to envision what the world is like, and then to use the planetary statistics as a language in which to express what I’ve envisioned. That is, for example, how the system in GURPS City Stats is meant to be used; I never even attempted to come up with a “roll the dice and get this city” approach.

I note that Agemegos says in the new thread that he set up his system for rolling up worlds—and then ran it 169 times to get a list of worlds that he actually liked. That’s not the same as just randomly creating a list of planets; perhaps part of what determined his sense of “this is an acceptable list” was an intuitive sense of “this list will give me details that I like on things that aren’t defined by the primary statistics.” And some of the things he talks about are matters that I don’t think would drop out of the planetary generation rules.

I’m evidently expressing myself badly; I’m talking about the overall principle of arrangement of a game document, and suggesting that there should be multiple “roots” rather than trying to fit everything into a single hierarchy.

The problem may be that I’m not getting a specific impression from “game document.” For example:

— Are you thinking of a document that describes a setting, one that presents options for character creation, or one that presents rules for play? Or are you envisioning a single document that does all three?
— Are you envisioning a document that will be handed out for players to read, or one that will be used by the GM as a reference?

If I try to imagine a world description for present-day Earth, I can envision a document with a chapter for each continent or each culture area (Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East/North Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and so on), with a section for each country, and with a standard entry for that country’s basic statistics, and then with a block for each important city, with city stats. Or I can envision a document that has a section on terrains, and then a section on climates and vegetation, and then a section on mineral resources, and then a section on economic activity, and then a section on political and legal systems, and so on. In the second approach, I would mention, for example, that Australia is predominantly Desert and Plains, with fringes of Woodlands and Jungle, and with Island/Beach at the edges where most of the biggest settlements are; and I would note that its Woodlands are of the Mediterranean subtype. Then I would mention Australia as a predominantly capitalist economy with modest redistributive aspects, and would discuss what the important occupations and industries are, with bonuses to searching for certain types of services. And then I would mention its being a representative democracy with a nominal remnant of monarchy, and (if I have this right) that its governmental structure is parliamentary rather than congressional with a separate executive, and that its legal processes are predominantly adversarial rather than inquisitorial, and I would add notes about political assumptions specific to the Anglosphere and to Australia’s strong working class identification. (I realize I’m giving Agemegos plenty of chances to say that I’ve gotten something wrong!)

But it seems to me that if I did an entry for “Australia” in a Guide to the Present-Day World, I would include all of that content, too, and probably with all of those supporting details and nuances. So I’m not sure why the two approaches seem greatly different to you.

Of course, most of this is material I wouldn’t provide to players! There is no reason that someone who was playing an Australia who was on the first expedition to Mars would know most of that information about Japan, or the Philippines, or South Korea, even if the expedition had a crew member from each of those countries. If we pretend that none of them knew anything about Earth from general education, I would want to give them very brief descriptions of regions they might be from; and once they had chosen a background I would give them more information on that specific background.

But I’m not sure where what you’re describing fits into this, or whether I’m even talking about the same thing you are.

There’s a contradiction here. As you point out, it is best to have a wide variety of locations and societies with which to interact. On the other hand, one key feature of a “Traveller-like” setting is that the PC’s are, in general, not exotic – they are comprehensible and comfortable for the roleplaying audience, with a minimum of intervention. (Contrast this with Transhuman Space or World of Darkness, where alienation is a major theme and prompts a fair amount of effort.) The diversity of societies and cultures (not to mention a healthy reserve of ruins and derelicts to explore) implies a long history of space flight and colonization, which points to a setting in the “far future.” Yet the values and norms of the PC’s point to a culture not too far removed from our own, either in accumulated drift or in technological development. (I don’t think the “Planet of Yanks/Poms/etc.” you mention later resolves this problem, however: at worst, it would make the PC’s strangers in their own interstellar culture.)

These contrasting goals are difficult to resolve without either invoking aliens (past or present) as human stand-ins, or implicitly assuming that the baseline society from which the PC’s are drawn has come to resemble 20th/21st century Western civilization in many particulars, perhaps due to a cyclic model of history.

The latter is the largely unexamined, implicit approach used in the pulps and, by extension, in much of the source literature that Traveller draws from. We don’t need a big infodump on the customs and mores of the dominant culture because it is assumed to be similar enough to present-day Western European (and derivatives) to pass without comment.

The one glaring exception – still almost unexamined in context – is the astonishing number of aristocracies in the source material. Traveller is clearly not an outlier in incorporating this feature: Anderson, Asimov, Burroughs, Laumer, Lucas, Panshin, Piper, Pournelle, and Tubb all employ hereditary nobles in their baseline societies, often as main characters; Harrison and Vance use them extensively on a local level; Smith’s Lensmen are a “naturally superior” variety.

The problem here is that, without careful preparation, there won’t be anyone else out there to contact. It is no doubt possible to build a campaign around the minutia of planetary survey without exotic cultures to contact, but I suspect it would have to turn inward, to interactions among the team, to find gameable sources of conflict.

Faster or more comprehensive communication can exist, so long as it doesn’t run where the PC’s are going. After all, radio and telegraph did not preclude pulp adventures – they simply took place where the modern world did not reach.

There is much to be said for clearly distinguishing the “civilized” portions of the setting, where adventures (if they occur) are focused on intrigue and finesse, from the “wilds” beyond the rule of law, where broad improvisation is encouraged. Vance’s Oikoumene draws a sharp boundary between the two, but the Official Traveller Universe deals with this notion inconsistently, if at all.

I think you have to be careful here, that the places that the PC’s get sent do not become “civilized” simply by virtue of the fact that the organization(s) that hire and dispatch them have the resources to do so. It’s also hard to see much of a sweet spot where the organization can afford to produce teams like the PC’s, but few enough that their remit isn’t either so specialized as to be boring or so over-broad as to be unrealistic. (I think of this as the “NCIS problem.”)

You seem to have done well at treading the fine line between “the PC’s are expected to resolve unprecedented problems” and “the PC’s are expected to behave as part of a larger structure, with rules of its own.” I would normally expect that to be very difficult in a role-playing environment, with multiple player-driven points of view, as opposed to a literary, author-driven setting.

I much prefer that the PC’s be freelancers, outside both the local power structure and the remote, centralized interstellar government, and able to act entirely on their own initiative as a result. I submit that this is the default condition for a “Traveller-style” campaign setting, though of course not the only possibility. This does imply that most adventures take place in the “wilds,” where Authority is thin on the ground (if present at all).