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#15: Twenty Weeks of Traveller: Publisher Lessons Learned

Editor’s Note: The initial Fifth Imperium column was published on the RPG.Net website in July 2009, and appeared in Freelance Traveller’s initial issue in November 2009. This column originally appeared on the RPG.Net website in December 2010, and in the January 2011 issue of the downloadable PDF magazine.

Over the last year and a half I’ve been running a Spinward Marches Traveller campaign using the Mongoose Traveller rules. You can now read the complete AP of all twenty weeks of play at http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=451150.

Having closed things out (or at least having ended “Season One”), I've decided to take some time to write about it.

First up, I’m going to be talking about lessons learned. I’ve roughly divided my lessons into five that concern the publisher(s) of Traveller and their products (which I’m talking about this month) and five that concern the elements of a Traveller campaign (which I’ll talk about next month). Then, in a third article on the topic, I’m going to offer up the plot seeds for my 20 sessions, as possible plot hooks for your own campaign.

A Few Lessons Learned: About the Publishers

1. Mongoose has created a robust and clean Traveller System. I have to admit that I had some compunctions when I first approached Mongoose’s Traveller system, primarily because it was so close to the original. You see, I’d gone down that path once before, with Imperium Games’ T4, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Fortunately, Mongoose ain’t Imperium.

Mongoose’s Traveller is definitely a simulationist game, full of simple mechanical systems that don’t have many storytelling elements hung upon them. But, it’s done that very well. The system at its core is very clean and consistent. For task resolution and combat I barely have to think when I’m adjudicating. That’s all to the plus.

In my old age, I might have preferred a game with more storytelling elements, like those found in FATE, but if that’s really what I want, maybe I should be playing Diaspora or Star Blazers.

2. The best Mongoose books have crunch. Or at least, I should say the books that got used most in my campaign were the crunchiest ones. That’d be in large part the Mongoose “Supplements” line: Traders and Gunboats, Fighting Ships, Central Supply Catalogue, Civilian Vehicles, Military Vehicles, and 1,001 Characters.

I’ll make an exception to my rule of crunch for Mongoose’s series of Third Imperium books—which I thought were the strongest element of the entire Mongoose Traveller line. Without a single rule in it, The Spinward Marches provided excellent background. The three Alien Modules were even stronger, because you had more great background, but this time backed up by some crunchy rules.

3. The other best Mongoose books are what you need. Considering the entire collection of Mongoose Traveller books can be very daunting. Fortunately another thing that I learned is that you only really need the ones relevant to your campaign.

This is most true for the “Books”, each of which covers a different set of careers within Traveller. Before I read them, it wasn’t evident to me that they tended to go further than being just about careers and ended up being genre books. Thus, if you want a military command, get Traveller Book 1: Mercenary, if you want to put lots of focus on psionics, get Traveller Book 4: Psion, and if you want a criminal campaign, get Traveller Book 6: Scoundrel.

This applies equally to those Supplements and Third Imperium books that I spoke so well of. Great or not, if the players are just passengers on star liners, you probably don’t need the starship books, and if you’re far away from the coreward side of the Third Imperium, Vargr is equally irrelevant.

4. The huge backstock of Traveller publications remains very relevant. One of the reasons that I started my campaign was because I’d started reading through my collection of Traveller books that extends back over 30 years. I wanted to use all of that old material, and I was delighted that I could.

Over the course of the game, I ran two classic adventures, Nomads of the World-Ocean (TA #9) and Research Station Gamma (TA #2), half of a double adventure in Death Station (TDA #3), and a few Amber Zones from Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society.

I also pulled background material out of the great GURPS Traveller line (especially their Spinward Marches book, which got used almost every week) and some of the DGP Megatraveller books (their Vilani & Vargr book comes to mind, as it’s one of the very few looks at the Vilani anywhere in the literature).

This material all worked best as background. There’s more than one evening that I searched through books to find an adventure seed for the next day’s gaming. However, for the Traveller and MegaTraveller books, I could pretty easily convert the systems (on the fly, by the end of the campaign). Traveller was a pretty straight conversion, while skills got a little higher in MegaTraveller and thus needed to be toned down a little.

With that experience in hand, I heartily suggest a good library of old Traveller books if you want to expand any Mongoose Traveller game.

5. The classic Traveller adventures are generally weak as adventures. Though I just wrote that it’s easy to use the older material, and that I had used several different Classic GDW Traveller adventures, I should mention that I feel like they’re very weak as adventures.

What GDW called adventures back in the late 1970s and early 1980s are largely what I’d call setting books. They tended to describe terrific and evocative settings. I love the world revealed in the World-Ocean book. However, they fall down not only in figuring out ways to get the players involved in the plot, but sometimes even in offering up much of a plot at all. Several of the earlier adventures are particularly bad because they're just a step above dungeon crawls.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t suggest using them. I think there's something inherently cool about presenting an adventure to players that was written three decades ago and has been run by people all around the world. Just expect to do some work.


That’s it for this month. Next month I’ll be back with another five lessons learned from my recent Traveller campaign—this time talking more about game and plotting styles, including some of the challenges that Traveller presents.