#1: Setting a Campaign: Eras of the Imperium
When you're ready to start GMing a game of Traveller, the first question you have to ask is where and when will you be setting your campaign. The most obvious answers are "in the year 1105" and "in the Spinward Marches of the Third Imperium" as those choices are the basis of Mongoose's version of the game.
However, Traveller's Third Imperium is a very rich background that has been expanded upon for over 30 years, and as a result you have many other possibilities. In this article, I'm going to look at the major time periods for Traveller's Third Imperium, spotlighting the books you'd want to pick up for each. I'll follow it up in the next article by looking at the major places that you can run Traveller universe games in.
Though the late Third Imperium period is by far the best documented period of Traveller history, you can play in games over a 4000-year span, going all the way back to the dying days of the First Imperium.
Here's your options, if you want to stay with eras that have received at least some development from various publishers. Besides the listing of top books for each era, you can also see a listing of everything tagged for the era by clicking on the tag icon; this is based on the gaming index, and much of the categorization is still in progress.
Interstellar Wars (-2404 to -2215): This is the most Earth-centric era for Traveller, as it covers the emergence of Terrans into the galaxy in the early 2100s AD, their meeting with the corrupt and decadent First Imperium, and the wars that follow.
This era is the basis for the GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars RPG, which is also the prime source on the era. It's the default Traveller setting for GURPS Fourth Edition.
Milieu 0 (0+): As the name suggests, Milieu 0 was the time of the foundation of the Third Imperium, as it crawled slowly out of the Long Night to once again spread civilization among the stars.
This era is the basis for Marc Miller's Traveller ("T4"), with the most specific sources for the era being the books First Survey (which is sadly all but worthless) and Milieu 0 (which is better).
Gateway Era / Milieu 1000 (993-1000): About a hundred years before the standard Traveller campaign, this era is one of conflict to the rimward side of the Imperium, as the Solomani Rim War has just kicked off.
It's called the "Gateway Era" because it's closely tied with a location, the Gateway Domain, which is not too far from the Solomani Rim. It's the basis of the T20 set of rules with Gateway to Destiny being the main sourcebook.
Classic Golden Age (1100-1116): This is the default setting for Traveller, where things are relatively calm across the Imperium, though the Fifth Frontier War intervenes in the Spinward Marches from 1107-1110.
There is no specific book highlighting this period, though all of GDW's Classic Traveller books and all of Mongoose's "Third Imperium" Traveller books are set it in. If I were going to suggest a pair of books for background, they'd be Library Data: A-M and Library Data: N-Z, from GDW. Mongoose's The Spinward Marches also has a long section providing an overview of the Imperium in the period.
Alternate/Extended Golden Age (1117+): In the Original Traveller Universe, bad things start happening at the end of 1116, as we'll see. Steve Jackson Games didn't want to focus on this increasingly chaotic setting, and so when they came out with the GURPS third edition version of GURPS Traveller they envisioned an alternate Golden Age extending from 1117 onward that was bad-stuff-free.
Of all the eras, I find this one the least interesting for a new Mongoose Traveller player because it's so similar to the Classic Golden Age that you might as well use the era that perfectly links with Mongoose Traveller instead of this one. Of course, the advantage of the Alternate Golden Age is that SJG put out a number of hefty books to support it. (However, those are still 80% usable in a Classic Golden Age game.)
There are numerous books highlighting this era, including pretty much every GURPS Traveller book, except the GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars release.
The Rebellion (1116-1124): In 1116, the Emperor of the Imperium is apparently assassinated and everything quickly falls apart as conflicts develop between several warring factions. The fighting is largely ended by the end of 1124, though the Imperium remains shattered thereafter.
This is a pretty exciting time period if you can figure out how to reflect the big-scale movements of emperors and pretenders inside the small-scale of a campaign. GDW never did.
The Rebellion was the basis of the second edition of Traveller, MegaTraveller, with the Imperium Encyclopedia and the Rebellion Sourcebook being top references for the period.
Hard Times (1125-1128): The Rebellion ground to a halt because the warring forces had largely expended their resources not because the Imperium had been restored. What immediately followed in the shattered Imperium was "Hard Times", a darker and grittier version of Traveller.
The Hard Times were the default setting for the very end of the MegaTraveller period of the game. The nominal Hard Times book is the main reference.
The New Era (1200+): In 1130, a super technology Virus was released which ended up destroying most of the warring states. The New Era is the story of a galaxy 70 years later just crawling back from the brink. The Virus still runs rampant and the universe is a very, very dangerous place.
This setting was a very controversial one because GDW utterly annihilated the Imperium that they'd been building for 15 years. They hadn't just torn it down, but they also refused to refer to any of their continuity until just before the company went under.
This era was the official setting of the third Traveller game, Traveller: The New Era. That rulebook was probably the best background on the setting overall. Other books built up a couple of sectors as campaign bases.
TNE 1248 (1248+): The most recent setting is TNE 1248, which moved the timeline forward another 50 years to a point where interstellar society actually existed again, but only in small pockets, still surrounded by "Wilds."
Martin J. Dougherty, the author of 1248, states that he was trying to produce a setting that allowed the advantages of many different eras, including the exploration of the various expansion eras, the politics of the Rebellion era, and the central stable states of the Golden Age. He did a pretty good job of it.
This setting was released in system-free books by Comstar Games and Avenger Enterprises. The core book is 1248 Sourcebook 1: Out of the Darkness.
Most refs are probably going to set their Traveller games in exactly the exactly the era you'd expect: the Classic Golden Age. However, as you can see, there are lots of other options that offer the possibilities of lots of different sorts of Traveller games. If you'd prefer the grittiness of Hard Times, the militarism of the Interstellar Wars, or the rebuilding of Milieu 0, I invite you to start hunting down the relevant books.
A lot of these campaign eras have implicit campaign sectors associated with them. In the Interstellar Wars, you'll be running near Terra. In the Milieu 0 era, you'll be exploring around Sylea. The Gateway Era is of course set in the Gateway domain. However for the campaign settings nearer to the Golden Age in the timeline, there are a variety of options you could choose for where to put your game, and that's what I'll be talking about in the next article in this series.