Finally: A Traveller Post

When I started this blog with a brown background this past spring, I had every intention of talking about my love of Traveller, too, from time to time. I haven’t managed to get around to it until now. Today, we’re going to talk about Traveller. For some of you, this is not a dungeon or a possum, so you’re safe to click back on your browser and read something else instead. For the rest of you, who are Traveller fans or at least Traveller-curious, or who just have nothing better to do for the next five minutes you’re gonna spend hiding in the restroom to avoid your responsibilities anyway, let’s talk about Traveller.

Traveller, for those who don’t know, was published first by Games Designer’s Workshop in 1977. It is largely the brainchild of Marc Miller, though he had help from Loren K. Wiseman, John Harshman, and Frank Chadwick; in subsequent editions over the decades, he would be a recurrent figure in its history. Traveller is a science fiction game, and though it was intended to be suitable for settings of the players’ invention, it has become linked in the minds of many with its Third Imperium setting. Mechanically, it is resolved with standard d6 dice, and its mechanics are very consistent throughout. In many ways, it has felt polished since its inception, though it was not without its own numerical errors and other causes for errata and consternation. Traveller, or Classic Traveller as we are wont to call it nowadays, came in three stark “little black books” which were very clean designs for their time and which remain underrated even to this day. Simple, crisp little things. Not perfect, but great for their era. Subsequent books were produced in similar styles. Some of the later print runs of this edition collected the three little black books into a single, larger book borrowing all the same design notes, while others collected the booklets into a single volume with a colorful sci-fi art cover.

In the years since that first GDW edition, there were several followups.

  • First was 1987’s MegaTraveller, which introduced a boatload of new mechanics, many of which had previously debuted in the Traveller’s Digest magazine published by Digest Group Publications. With DGP’s help, Marc Miller added lots of optional mechanics and expanded options to Traveller. It was largely compatible with Traveller and it was not a complicated process to play with both together. 
  • Following this second edition of Traveller came the third edition in 1993, complete with all of the trappings of that largely-terrible (or at least, largely-weird) era of gaming – the game was called Traveller: The New Era (or TNE for short) and it made an absolute mess of the Third Imperium setting in an effort to shake things up. It also chose to forsake the compelling simplicity of Traveller’s existing mechanics in favor of the more peculiar, technical, “realistic” mechanics found in GDW’s other game, Twilight 2000. In my opinion, those mechanics should have stayed out of Traveller, but I wasn’t in close contact with GDW in 1993, since I was a child who had yet to play a game of Traveller; my dissent remains unjustly unrecognized by history. 
  • Following up on this disaster fairly quickly, Marc Miller released T4: Mark Miller’s Traveller in 1996. I understand it tried to undo some of the bad decisions that led to TNE but which I’ve never played nor known anyone to have played, though I did buy some of the books, used, many years later. It was known for being so broken at release as to require literally dozens of pages of errata. As far as I can tell, this is a curio that just about everyone ignored, but I’d be interested to learn about a diehard T4 fan – if you’re out there, let me know. I remember clowning on this on a Prodigy bulletin board via dialup with all the smug self-assuredness of a kid who had never played it. 
  • Then there were a series of Traveller conversions into other systems, such as GURPS and Hero. I bought the GURPS book, Interstellar Wars (by Loren K. Wiseman), as I was a GURPS fan at the time, and was terrifically upset with it. It again upended the Third Imperium, which again I do not think anyone was terribly clamoring for. I think there were other GURPS Traveller books, possibly without the stuff I didn’t like about Interstellar Wars, but I didn’t get a chance to look at any of them.
  • In 2008, Mongoose Publishing produced Traveller, commonly called Mongoose Traveller or MGT. It has a number of numbers tweaks, but it is largely compatible with classic Traveller and MegaTraveller (whereas no other editions of Traveller are truly compatible without a bunch of conversion work and nonsense). It also hearkens back to the original in visual design language, much to its benefit, and was quite successful with Traveller fans after several disappointing editions and spin-off conversions. Mongoose’s production plan is largely to reprint the Classic Traveller line with their updated, cleaner mechanics. 
  • In 2012, Marc Miller reappeared to the public to reclaim the Traveller mantle himself and lead his GDW successor, Far Future Enterprises, to glory with Traveller5 (aka T5). He ran a wildly successful Kickstarter for it, securing $294,000+ from an original goal of just $24,000. Behind the scenes, T5 had been in endless development hell since at least 2008, when dedicated Traveller superfans keeping track of Marc’s progress on the project could get their hands on a CD-ROM from Marc himself with the draft edition. When finally it reached primetime with the Kickstarter in 2012 (for delivery in 2013), it was a monumental, overwhelming 650-page brick without an actual index and a thousand deeply specific ideas and sub-ideas which Mr. Millar decided to make into strict systems. What was once three little black books, which weren’t simple but certainly weren’t opaque, had become a monolith. Next year, Far Future Enterprises plans a three-book slipcase edition. I don’t know anyone who plays this edition, though I know a number of people who own this edition (don’t look at me, do not look at me in the eyes right now.)
  • In 2016, Mongoose Publishing launched their 2nd Edition, remodeling their books from 2008 into a new edition with full-color art. I haven’t read these yet, but they exist, so now you know about them.

So where did I come in? Late and outdated, just like with D&D. In 1995, growing up a super poor kid in a very rural community, I was given a couple of milk crates of RPG books (and several full of fantasy and sci-fi novels) by a cool nerdy older kid in my small town who was going away to college. One was an assortment of D&D books. One was the miscellaneous crate, and in there were some little black books. There were also some random MegaTraveller supplements I don’t remember clearly and never made much sense or use of, and various other things unrelated to the topic at hand. I was a fan of Star Trek as a kid, and so these were right up my alley. I was playing the original Traveller in the mid-90s, and talking about it on email groups and Prodigy bulletin boards.

My first games were actually sort of settingless, as the three little black books were settingless themselves. I stole heavily from Star Trek. I played around in that barely-a-universe with other half-interested, half-confused kids from my town for awhile before my mind wrapped around enough of another thin little booklet that contained the Third Imperium. I couldn’t tell you off-hand which it was; I lost my Traveller things when I moved across the country, back to my hometown, away from that tiny rural village; and even if I still had it, it would be back in my home country nowadays with the majority of my RPG hard copy collection. Maybe it was a MegaTraveller book (but I don’t think so, because in my memory all the MegaTraveller things I had were very colorful and this was black). But whatever booklet it was, it was a thin little booklet of some sort, and for the first while I had ignored its dense text and long timeline – as I recall now thinking back, possibly incorrectly, the timeline took up several pages. When it finally aroused my interest and I absorbed it, I found myself daydreaming about it. What must it have been like in the Vargr Crises? What was it like to fly about on a massive capital ship on the reaches of the rim? What would you see? It was like Star Trek to me, but engrossing because there wasn’t seasons of visual information to answer these questions for me. I had to think about it, all of it, and imagine what the stories were. And so I began to play my games as strict stories set in the various parts of the timeline that interested me. I imagine this wasn’t terribly much fun for my players, but this was a town of a hundred people, miles from anything else, and I was the only kid in town with a computer or satellite television, so it’s not like they had much else to do besides suffer through my flights of fancy between bike rides to the same six places we always went to.

Later, having moved across the country and lost most of my RPG things in the process, I found the local game store, and made a habit of visiting semi-regularly with my friend. On one such trip, I found the store’s used books bin (why don’t the shops near me nowadays have these?!) and bought everything I could find in Twilight 2000 and Traveller flavors, which resulted in a sour taste when I got to experience TNE and T4 first-hand. Then came GURPS Traveller Interstellar Wars (a special order at the same shop) and with that disappointment, my time with Traveller was ended for about five years.

In 2011, I was walking through a game store and saw a familiar little black book on a rack and dove on it – only to learn it wasn’t a pristine GDW book at all, but Mongoose Traveller. I immediately purchased it and ran home like the store might ask for it back at any moment. Mongoose Traveller brought Traveller back to me. It was the Traveller I remembered, shinier and new again. It was cleaner mechanically, and it offered more elegant solutions to Classic Traveller’s idiosyncrasies without losing them. I can’t profess to know what the Mongoose folks were thinking when they licensed Traveller from Marc Miller and set about making their own little black books, but from my vantage point on the couch with the softcover in my hands, it sure looked like a passion project made with a genuine love for the original game of Traveller. It was terrific, and I enjoyed it very much – and still do.

My Traveller games back from my hiatus were run with some friends via Skype, because I had entered the phase of my life where no one I knew played Traveller locally. A grim thing, that. We played, of course, in the Third Imperium – the Solomani War – and we had a blast. By the end of the game, only two of five original characters remained alive, and with three replacement characters they had formed something of a haphazard “espionage” business, though that might be giving them too much credit. Mostly they were petty criminals trying their best to operate close enough to the spirit of the law to avoid the notice of law enforcement. Is there anything more Traveller than a bunch of misfits setting out to be involved in a grand frontier conflict like precious idealogues and opportunists, only to end up establishing a half-assed, mostly-illicit “spy” business just to pay the bills? I suspect sooner or later I’ll have to dial them all up again and start up all over again to scratch my Traveller itch.

My family, with whom I play D&D currently, are new to gaming, and though I have made them giggle at the prospect of dying in character creation or being fired from your job for some vague form of scandal before you’ve even started playing, I haven’t been able to trick them into eschewing swords and golden dragon idols for space – and when I do, given the audience, I’m almost certain to wind up running them through some flavor of Star Wars. Oh well.

So, what’s the point of all this rambling? I dunno. I don’t know if I’ll post content for Traveller regularly, or anything like that. I just really wanted to put a mark on this blog for Traveller, to plant a little flag in the form of some long, meandering love letter to the game. So here it is:

Marc, Loren, Frank, and John,
Thanks for making Traveller.
Thanks for keeping it going in all its forms, even the ill-advised ones, over the years.
Thanks for stewarding its journey so its rights didn’t get swallowed up in some corporate buyout only to languish behind a terrible pay-to-win cellphone game and die forever.
Thanks for making sure companies could try their own take on Traveller just in case their mechanics were better (they weren’t, besides Mongoose cleaning the original rules up, but it’s the thought that counts).
Thanks for giving us so many years of adventure and imagination. The world might remember D&D first and foremost, but those of us who have played Traveller have a hard time not mentioning it in the same breath as Gygax’s game given half a chance.
Cheers, and see you in the Spinward Marches sometime.

The last thing to do here is to link the majesty that is The Lord Weird Slough Feg’s 2013 concept metal album, Traveller – a triumphant album if ever there was one.

[EDIT: It looks like my theme won’t allow this Spotify web player embed to display despite the fact that a plain Blogger interface will, because of course it won’t, so here’s a plain old link to the album: The Lord Weird Slough Feg – Traveller]

So give me a shout in the comment below or over on Twitter @dungeonspossums and let me know when you started playing Traveller, what your favorite version was (especially if you’re the T4/TNE weirdo I long to meet), and/or just generally yell at me for not talking about D&D.

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11 comments on “Finally: A Traveller Post

  1. Jeff Bernstein

    The first time I saw Traveller was the little black books, second printing with the Imperium stuff in it. I couldn't figure out how to play Star Wars with it so I passed on it and went back to playing Melee/Wizard/In the Labyrinth by Metagaming.

    The second time I encountered Traveller a buddy of mine was all excited to play it. Me and a friend of his weren't all that excited to play it. My buddy presented the hook, me and his friend ignored it, went a different direction and left the space station. The end. Kind of a dick move but we where like that sometimes. We just wanted to play Car Wars anyway.

    Now, decades later, another buddy is running a Mongoose Traveller 2nd edition for me and a number of other friends and we're having a great time playing it. Once I saw Firefly years ago I realized science fiction gaming didn't have to be Star Wars, Star Trek, or even Gamma World. Happy to be playing Traveller today.

  2. Ian W

    Incoherent screaming about the audacity of not writing about dnd.

    Traveller is one my favorite games I will never get to play. I love the aesthetic of CT. I feel like I've said that before.

  3. Brian

    I played T4 and I still own the codebook and a couple supplements. It's fine. I like it's character generation it has a good mix of schools, careers and skills. I don't know about any errata issues, we played pretty loose after character generation anyway. I love the Chris Foss at panels and covers, done of the other art is rubbish though.

    The Interstellar Wars GURPS book was the start of Traveller for 4th edition GURPS, and it takes Traveller into a new alternative post-3rd Imperium setting. If you want actual 3rd Imperium the GURPS 3rd Edition Traveller books are probably the most comprehensive write up of the setting.

    The little black book you remember with the history will have probably been one of the Library Data books. Either that or one of the various Introduction books which sometimes came with the box sets.

  4. Unknown

    I envy your game! How is Mongoose 2E? I have not so much as seen them, though I've heard they're full-color affairs.

  5. Unknown

    Don't despair. If there's any hope for any of us, there's hope for you!

    CT does have an aesthetic of its own. It reminds me of the immense animated saga Legend of the Galactic Heroes – or rather, just the opposite; LotGH reminds me of CT. I have always admired CT (and its follow-ons) for being itself rather than giving in and adopting more and more of Star Wars and Star Trek.

  6. Unknown


    I suppose I should go peek at SJ Games and see about the 3rd Edition GURPS books. I can't say for certain, but I don't think I've ever been aware of these, so thanks very kindly for the tip!

    As for the skinny little book, thanks for the direction. My CT set had lost the box before it came to me, so it's always been hard for me to conceptualize of a lot of things; some printings came with stuff I haven't seen but others take for granted as being innate to the set. I can't recall what it was but I'm sure one day I'll stumble upon it. πŸ™‚

  7. Brian

    I've had a look through my collections of the Classic books. The Black Box initially contained B1, B2 and B3 but later printings included B0. I thought that might be the book you remember but looking through it it is just a guide to role playing with no setting details. So almost certainly the book you remember is one of these:

    The two books give a concise overview of the 3rd Imperium.

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