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Building Your Own Road: Replacing the Third Imperium

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue.

Looking Back

Back in the earliest days of Traveller, before I was born, there were three Little Black Books. Loved even today by almost every Traveller fan, they lack something many players expect today: The Third Imperium. All they provided was the props of a setting, leaving the Referee and their group to create the actual details of the political backdrop. In those days, with no Imperium or published setting, everyone created their own, leading a massive proliferation in details, many of which crossed with each other as groups and Referees communicated at game stores, via letters, and at conventions.

One thing almost all had in common was size – big interstellar governments were pretty rare, and many Referees limited theirs by the delay leaders were willing to let creep into their command and control times, which was mostly a month or so (with fast couriers, this allowed up to two jumps away).

This had several advantages: there was no overarching government, plenty of opportunities for war stories, and even more potential for trading (With very few cross-governmental businesses, free traders had a lot of potential cargo waiting). There were downsides, such as “Why were all military careers almost exactly the same between nations?”, “who issues the credit?”, “Why is the starport always extraterritorial?”, “Where do all these nobles come from?” and so on. Most of these had to do with details that many other groups could overlook, or even explain with “The Traveller’s Aid Society is accepted across known space and unofficially suggests regulations to help trade and travel”. Others were big questions, but nobody had really anticipated the 3I. Where you stand on that subject is where you stand, and damn all the people who disagree. For those who like the OTU, have no fear: this article should be good for use in your game when creating small nations outside Imperial borders. If your next game takes place on the fringes or is a Scout game, this should help with creating the interesting political situations that drive adventure.

Standards: Answering the Big Questions

By this point, you should have already answered the question of “Am I going to be using this?”. Now, it’s onto several big points: Credits, Starport Classes, Shipbuilding, and various other standards like timekeeping and mortgages. Are these just game abstractions, meant to reduce bookkeeping? Or are they enforced by custom, an NGO, or even imported from some government? Let’s look at the possibilities:

One of the lazy answers, this just assumes that each world and government has its own standards, which become roughly analogous to each other on the big scale. This laziness also goes away when detail-oriented groups start picking at things: finding spare parts outside the ship’s original system becomes hard, necessitating penalties to repairs and a good workshop to finagle parts into working. Paying the mortgage becomes harder when you need to convert currencies to one the bank will accept (and skipping out on the mortgage can be easier, but many banks will take measures against it). Trade also becomes harder, as Starports are not extraterritorial and local governments might confiscate or tax cargo. Local governments also might not accept your permits for equipment issued elsewhere, making adventure even harder. There are other possibilities, and you may think of ones I can’t.
The real lazy answer. This assumes that at some point, a widespread standard was around, and it has remained. While there are some deviations (see Abstraction above), most of the time you can find compatible parts, you won’t have a hard time finding a currency the bank will accept, trade and starport standards means that you won’t face as many issues between worlds, cargo not meant for the world (usually) won’t be confiscated, and so on.
Non-Governmental Organization:
This will likely be the preferred standard for games without the 3I. It presumes that corporations, concerned citizens, and some governments will cooperate to create reasonable standards for interstellar trade. This then spreads via Custom, making the standard even easier to find. At about this level one will find extraterritorial starports, a standard trade currency most banks will accept, standardized parts, a widespread financial calendar, and organizations such as the TAS (which might be part of the trade NGO) – many of which will offer permits recognized by member worlds. Deviations are not that common. Work for this option requires creating the NGO, and its varying rules and regulations. You can also create standards different from what’s expected, such as a different calendar.
This should be the standard for games in the OTU. The standards of the Imperium (or other large government) have spread via Custom, or even been Imposed by corporations from that government (or via trade agreement). In games without the 3I, this means that some government has been very aggressively spreading their standards, possibly via a NGO. Things will be run as according to the book (and the groups selected deviations from/expansions on the book), and materials meant for the 3I (or another big government setting) can be used almost as-is. Deviations are very rare, and mostly based in political motivations.

With those questions answered, and some basic work done on the big details, we can move onto the next step: not creating the governments, but mapping the area they occupy. Don’t worry, it’s far less intense than actual mapping, and leaves most of the rolling for later (possibly in the game).

Note: This method assumes the Jump Drive. If using a different drive, several items in the article must be adjusted to account for the differences.

Creating The Area

Now comes the second question: how big of an area do you need? A subsector is fairly small, depending on how many worlds your dice roll up. A domain is ridiculously huge. My suggestion is a Sector, and Quickrolling.

This method doesn’t care about details such as gas giants, only the location of stars. Pick two dice of different colors, and designate one for odd rows and the other for even rows. Roll both and go down a column, two hexes at a time.

As you build the map across the entire sector, you’ll notice the jump-1 chains forming, with jump-2 and 3 voids forming. These form natural border areas, meaning you will have a general idea of where most governments will focus their efforts.

Once the sector is done, let’s move onto the big governments. These are the ones with the technology and the drive to expand into interstellar space. Maybe you have an idea of them already, but I’m going to assume that you don’t.

Creating The Governments

Interstellar governments will form once FTL is available, period. Not every planet capable of doing so will, but they will happen.

For the number of such governments, roll 1D+1 for the total. If you roll more than 3 or 4, be ready to adjust their later spread. Then move onto Control Style.

Control Style
1D Style Regions
1, 2 Centralized 1—There are no subregions; the polity is administered as a unitary state.
3, 4 Distributed 1D+1—This includes the polity’s capital as also the capital of a subregion.
5, 6 Loose 1D+1
A centralized government has one center of control, which all worlds report to. While officials on the scene have a lot of latitude, Control and Oversight is a courier behind them – and political situations at the capital can punish a local official for doing an unpopular thing.
This style divides its territory to reduce the overall bureaucratic load on the capital, but is otherwise similar to the Centralized style. Distributed governments are split into Regions, with one designated as the Primary Region – where the polity’s main capital is. The remainder are placed in a circle around the Primary, at 1.5 to 2 times the Spread value (see below) between the polity capital and the regional sub-capitals. This means that more territory can be controlled, with local command and control loops remaining at what the government has deemed reasonable levels, at a cost of a increased loop between the frontiers and the polity capital. As a side effect, the polity capital becomes more concerned with longer term policy overall.
Loose governments are essentially Distributed ones that gave up on maintaining true central control. Some have no true capital, acting as very tight alliances of regions that conduct policy by sending focused diplomatic missions to the others. Others maintain a capital, but its function is ceremonial, record repository, is focused entirely on long-term policy, or some combination of the three. Regional capitals are typically placed at twice the Spread from each other, but there is no requirement for placement in relation to each other, other than border contact – they could be a cluster, spread along a J1 main, swing over a J2 rift, anything, as long as their borders touch along a usable route.

Obviously, Distributed and Loose governments can get huge, but so can Centralized ones. It’s just easier for types D and L, but the actual size depends on the next two numbers – Spread and Jump/TL.

Spread is determined with a straight 1D roll, and this is the number of Jumps before the government becomes worried about control – no politician likes being behind the curve on what’s happening, but some can make compromises for the tax money. Doubling this gives the number of weeks before a border world can get an answer to a message they just sent, or before the Capital can get a “message received” to an order (the Command and Control Loop). To make it easier, have a table. Most notes apply for Centralized governments, but regional governments can have the same notes applied.

Jump/TL is, again, a straight 1D. Jump Technology is directly linked to Technology Level, and this determines the best Jump drive available to the government, and thus how far their control can extend. To get a TL instead of a Jump number, roll 1D+9.

Spread and C&C Loop
1D Jumps C&C Loop Time Notes
1 2 Weeks Conformity of Culture, Policy, and World Governments very high at this level. Very low local autonomy is typical, as Capital can send freshly-briefed officials anywhere in the territory, effectively reducing locals decision making to emergencies.
2 4 Weeks  
3 6 Weeks Most worlds will be somewhat similar to the Capital at Spread 3 and 4, and local autonomy is fairly decent – most worlds make their own decisions, but Capital can send special instructions that are decently accurate for the world’s current situation.
4 8 Weeks  
5 10 Weeks  
6 12 Weeks Cross world conformity is very low, local autonomy is very high. Policy must be long-term goals, or be able to survive slow implementation.

After generating the raw geography of each government, look at your map, then look at your numbers. This is where you want to adjust them – like the J6, but don’t want it to be L6 and Spread 6? Either drop Spread to 1 or 2, drop the number of regions, or both. You can decrease the number of governments, or keep most of their territory “off map”. All these numbers can be tweaked to create the game environment you want. If you’re mapping a really big region (and want to create similarly big governments), see if these guidelines fit: Two sectors should receive the same treatment as one sector, but with less tweaking of the final numbers.

For a full Domain, you might drop the Centralized style and reserve it for minor governments. Another option is to make the regions roll for D and L into 2D+2. Distributed governments can add additional layers of Regions surrounding the core ones. Spread can also be increased by 1D or a constant.

Beyond a full Domain… I suggest that you use this article as a secondary source.

With what you have here, you can start doing what Travellers do best – stringing numbers together into codes that make no sense on the first glance. This is only the first part of our UNC (Universal Nation Code), but the rest will come after initial border mapping. Let’s start with an example: Tiji/F0101 C13B-123

Everything after the dash can be ignored right now, as it deals with specifics of the government, and we’ve only generated the geography. The first part (Tiji/F0101) will be added during mapping, and deals with the capital. It consists of the Sector Name/Subsector and the location of the capitol system. The second part (C13B) is what we just generated. The first space is the Style: C is Centralized, D is Distributed, and L is loose. The second is Regions: for a Centralized, this always 1. The third is Spread, and goes 1 through 6, and the fourth is the Jump/TL. It’s easier to write this down as the TL code than the jump number, because it gives a general idea of capabilities.

Mapping The Governments

At this point, with a good idea of how big the governments are going to be, take a look at your map again. Follow the J1 mains, look at the gaps between them, find the J2 (and more) bridges, and prepare to have to erase and redraw over and over. Keeping backup copies of your initial star map is always a good idea, and keep in mind potential campaign ideas as you figure out where the capitals are going to be. Then you start drawing, keeping in mind the available jump and the spread. If a max-jump puts you in empty space, see if a world is in range of that spot – a fuel depot can always be set up if the government is willing to put enough money into grabbing that area. Otherwise, look for a world within Max -1, and then jump from there, or go closer if you still can't. Same thing when you get to the borders, see what is in range and compute the next jump of the spread from there.

Look out for border zones – having three or four borders right against each other in the same subsector makes sense, but also makes for a tense area, ready for a war story. On the other hand, those same borders, partially filling the subsector, and the rest is small buffer states and independents? That supports a lot more stories. Smuggling, spying, cold war clashes, and more can be found in that one small area, if you include buffers.

But not every border needs buffer states, and keeping a border area tense with tracking smugglers and pirates makes good politics – and politics is one of the drives of adventure in Traveller. (Great, now we added the P-Drive. Thanks, reality).

And when it comes to borders, they will be mutable. Borders running into each other, or overlapping, will drift from their planned limits as the governments either fight, make concessions, accept their limits, covertly start secession movements, or even set up buffer states. No matter the choice, the borders will dip back and forth, and will rarely be at the spread limit. In fact, make sure that some spread limits will overlap, since that means those governments have a mutual interest in those worlds – and that drives conflict, which drives adventure.

Now, speaking of buffer states, it’s time to make some minor governments. These have a lower maximum jump than the major governments (generally J1 or J2), but not all of them can produce it locally. Many of them are also mutual-defense pacts, or economic unions. These states are either Centralized or Loose, but their style code is M, they have a Region code of 0, not 1, and their TL code is A or less (roll 8+ for TL A, otherwise TL 7-9 with a good starport). Roll 1d3 for their spread after you finish the big boys, then start dropping them in, preferably making them interesting. Don’t be afraid to carve them out of borders, especially since the small nation of smugglers between two borders is a nicely justified trope in sci-fi – after all, both the big boys see the advantage of having a small guy to pin their covert gaffes on.

For a single Sector, 1D+3 is a good start, but don’t be afraid to add more.

When you’ve finalized your map, look over what you’ve created, and note the different sectors that most obviously support different game styles. Some are better for merchant campaigns, others are great for mercenary or pirate games, and yet others will support just about every game type out there. Now, relax, the hard part is over. The hardest part is coming after the next section.

Finalizing the UNC

We finally move back to the governments. But we’re not going to touch government yet. Our next task: how much local autonomy is there? We have several factors here: the level of central control, the style of government, and the C&C loop. Level of Control focuses on two factors: allowable deviation from the overall government plan, and allowable deviation from overall law code.

Roll 1D-Spread. Centralized Governments add +1, Distributed -1, and Loose -2. (See table)

Level of Control
Roll Description
0 or less Full local autonomy, except certain regulations covering multiple worlds (e.g., common currency, or measurement standards), or ‘common cause’ mandates (e.g., military obligations, diplomatic/trade). Many treaty groups fall into this, as does the Third Imperium. Member worlds can even start wars with each other without revoking their status. The capital rarely sets goals for individual regions, instead setting government-wide goals – but letting local regions decide how to fulfill them. Sub-capitals will often rough in the details of goals, but the general attitude is “What the capital gets is what they got.” World TL fully variable, and may be higher than capital.
1 Worlds have wide autonomy, but must follow certain rules (e.g., sophont/citizen rights); standards and ‘common cause’ mandates are still followed. Goals are sent, and a regional sub-capital (if there is one) may add potential plans of action, but how to fulfill them is up to local officials. Law level and TL are variable – but most worlds will be upgraded over time to about TL 5 or 6 – enough to allow ease of communication. Some worlds may have a TL higher than the capital.
2 Worlds have limited autonomy and restrictions on government structure; minimum law level (typically 2 or 3) is prescribed. Widespread regulatory mandates imposed. Roughly detailed goals are sent to worlds, with any local sub-capitols modifying some details for local conditions, but locals are allowed to decide implementation. World TL minimum will be mostly at 6 or 7; may occasionally go higher than the government standard.
3 Worlds have highly restricted autonomy under prescribed structures; law level minimum 4+, but higher is common. Somewhat detailed goals are sent, with possible implementation plans. Most worlds will get upgraded to TL 7 or 8, with very rare ones being at a TL higher than the capitol.
4 Detailed goals are set every C&C Loop; plans are detailed frameworks that local officials drop details into, as the capital realizes that they never have all the information. Contingency plans sent with the packet, but they are still frameworks. Approval of deviations from government standards is unlikely, but not impossible. World government code is 6; law code may have limited variance, based on local conditions. World TL may be 1 or 2 below capital; never higher than capital.
5 and up No real local autonomy. Government code 6 (captive); law level set by capital for entire polity. Officials sent detailed goals, with strict plans of action and preset contingencies for every deviation the capital could think of, every C&C loop. Local authority is limited to specifics of dealing with emergencies affecting the plan, plus allowable deviations relating to local conditions. Deviation approval is almost impossible. World TL is often at -1 in regards to the capital, sometimes -2, but never more – the capital would have mandated all the technicians upgrading their technology to equal, and sometimes even moving entire universities and research stations to where the politicians can watch.

Government Type and Law Level: This part is generated with your preferred world generation tables, but instead of adding population, add Control. I would suggest picking your result, possibly inspired by the roll. Type 0 (none) is replaced with type T (Treaty) – each world dedicates part of its leadership to maintaining compliance with the treaty. Type 6 (Captive) is questionable – it could be confusing, but it could indicate that it’s a partially independent region, which should not be indicated in the code, but in the notes.

Law level requires thought – you want it to be low enough that you can have adventures there, but how low depends on Style, Spread, and Control. Obviously a L60 is going to have a low law, but what about a C15? Government plays a part as well, but you want to avoid creating an obvious villain. A law level of 1-4 is fairly reasonable if the government allows private ownership or control of starships – but if they don’t, then that’s an obvious Traveller villain, and you should double check why you have that nation as the villain.

Generating Details: There are so many different sources out there to help with this, but let me give you some advice.

When old gamers talk about how they spent months of work on their setting, they’re usually not mentioning that most of that work was done in the middle of the campaign. So don’t panic, get a few basic ideas down, and create as needed. Those basic ideas should include a positive trait, a negative trait, an internal problem, and an external problem. As you blindly panic and create more details as the players press you to see how much work you did before hand, remember those basics, take notes, then extrapolate and expand upon previous facts with gleeful abandon.

They won’t be able to tell the difference.

The Hardest Part: Congrats, you got some basic details of your setting assumptions, a barely-there sector map, and you know where the borders are. Now you get to actually roll your subsectors, going through and modifying UWPs to fit the governments that rule them. If at first they don’t fit, ask “Why?”, and then modify if you can’t answer the question. I had a subsector with plenty of size 2, atmo and hydro 0 worlds with small populations on them. I asked Why?, and got a mining corporation that was run like branches of a noble family. If you can solve an issue with the introduction of a new faction, do so, and add even more future plot hooks as you expand upon their role and nature.

At this point, it’s out of this article and into your notebook. Happy Travelling, and be a Bob Ross Referee – We don’t make bad rolls, we cause interesting little situations.