This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.
Far Future Enterprises http://www.farfuture.net
Having played and collected Traveller RPG material from every version since the original “Little Black Books,” I was intrigued by Marc Miller’s incarnation, Traveller5. Having seen it in beta testing for the last several years, I hesitated to jump in to last year’s Kickstarter based on its long troubled history and hefty price tag. At $75, it’s a highly priced book by RPG standards. However, on the surface it is fairly good value at under $.09 per page. That said, when one of the original Kickstarter books came available on the secondary market at an incredibly low price (including accessories and dice), I jumped at the opportunity to add it to my collection.
So what is Traveller5, anyway? In a word: overwhelming. The physical 656-page book, with its iconic solid black cover with red and white title lines, harkens back to the days of the original “Little Black Books” and reminds me of the 4th Edition Talislanta hardcover in its sheer size and density. Yes, this book could stop a bullet! The book itself is well-constructed, with a solid binding. Internally, the book is almost entirely black and white, save for the 16-page glossy color Ship Recognition Guide at the end of the book. The internal front cover has a character card printed upon it (both front and back), which one could possibly copy for game use. The back internal cover, including the last page of the book, has a black and white map of the known Traveller Universe. Illustrations are scattered throughout the book and are of varying quality.
The book’s introductory pages include the usual publishing and copyright information. Of interest, it also includes a list of the various Traveller editions throughout the years. Conspicuously absent are the Traveller20 and Hero System editions; I’m not sure why these were overlooked.
The book itself is broken down into several sections that I will refer to as chapters for clarity:
- Introductions – 9 pages
- Basic Information – 36 pages
- Characters and Life – 140 pages
- Combat – 96 pages
- Starports and Starships – 114 pages
- Stars and Worlds – 109 pages
- Adventures – 114 pages
- The Traveler’s Guide to Starships – 16 glossy color pages.
Each chapter includes a varying number of sections. Two observations: first, there was no established break between chapters, whether a blank page or chapter title page, that helped narrow things down. Second, the Table of Contents listed various sections with a particular title, while many of the sections had a slightly different title. Although it was fairly easy to figure out, it proved frustrating. That said, let’s take a look at each chapter.
The 9-page “Introductions” chapter includes the following sections:
- Absent Friends (1 page): pays homage to several deceased gamers and RPG industry individuals who have influenced Traveller through the years. While I found it totally unnecessary in a role-playing book, it was a nice touch.
- Traveller is About… (1 page): attempts to highlight what Traveller is all about, and gives players broad ideas of how to approach the game. It’s the basic “what to do” section to get people interested.
- Traveller is a Role-Playing Game (2 pages): attempts to explain what type of game Traveller is, how to play it, how to resolve activities such as tasks and combat, who the key people are (referee, players), and what the game rules are. Given just two pages, it obviously must do this in extremely broad terms.
- The Galaxy (1 page): provides a scaled picture of the Milky Way with basic astronomical facts and one big supposition.
- A Brief History of the Universe (3 pages): attempts to tie together historical information from Traveller’s various editions into a coherent timeline, fairly successfully.
- Foundations of the Universe (4 pages): looks at the game itself from various angles to establish Traveller’s themes. This is, essentially, the “flavor” section of the book.
Overall, the “Introductions” chapter does an adequate job introducing the Traveller game and world.
The 36-page “Basic Information” chapter covers the following sections:
- Dice (12 pages): details the dice required to play, basic dice-related terms, and page upon page of dice probability tables. While nominally interesting, the copious tables could best be described as referential overkill.
- eHex (1 page): describes an expanded hex code. For those unfamiliar, hex code plays a major role in detailing various facets of the Traveller universe, including characters and worlds. While not necessary, this expansion is meant to help players grow reference tables beyond the limitations of the original iconic hex system Traveller has historically employed.
- The Ton (1 page): describes in detail the standard volume unit, the displacement ton.
- Range and Distance (12 pages): provides various detailed tables related to people, worlds, space, and time.
- Benchmarks (8 pages): attempts to establish baseline standards for everything from the cost of living to the size of things.
- Money (1 page): provides a high level micro and macroeconomic overview of wealth and trade in the game.
- Humanity (1 page): establishes humans as a benchmark player character race and provides a brief history of humans in the Traveller universe.
Overall, this chapter provided a lot of reference information, but did little to live up to its title, often serving more as information overflow.
The 140-page “Characters and Life” chapter covers the following sections:
- Characteristics (10 pages): details a character’s basic characteristics such as strength and intelligence, as well as the Universal Personality Profile (UPP) that utilizes a Hex string to provide a quick numerical character reference. It actually refers to the UPP as an eHex string, but gives no characteristic descriptors beyond the normal hex range. It also details how to perform characteristic checks using a 2d6 roll-under mechanic.
- Characters (24 pages): details the character creation sequence, breaking it down into five steps: 1. Create a homeworld; 2: generate characteristics; 3. Consider education and training; 4. Select career; and 5. Muster-out benefits. It is well-detailed and fairly straightforward.
- Careers (13 pages): details a single career on each page. Each career is described in one sentence, leaving the player to flesh out the details.
- This section is followed by an unlisted 12-page section that talks about various things including noble lands, aging, education, life events, secrets, ship shares, and fame. These compartmentalized topics vary in guidance provided, with little connectivity outlined in the character generation sequence. In addition, their placement in the book seems odd when considering the general flow of topics.
- Life Pursuits and Experience (2 pages): details skill emphasis and improvement, providing an example to flesh out a particular job title or occupation in game mechanics requirements.
- Genetics (6 pages): attempts to provide a mechanism to emulate the Pendragon RPG’s generational role-playing theme. Unfortunately, it comes across as overly complex and disconnected from the classic Traveller game.
- Clones (4 pages): details every facet of character cloning. Cloning thus appears to be a standard Traveller practice, which I would argue is not remotely close to standard.
- Chimeras (2 pages): discusses combining species in general terms. It also mentions a “Sophont Creation Card” on page 122, but fails to say where this is found (page 546).
- Androids and Synthetics (4 pages): actually titled “Synthetics,” it details organic- and biologically-based artificial beings, as well as how they are built and supported.
- Tasks (24 pages): begins with a Dice Tables For Tasks that apparently references back to the tables in the Dice section. It then provides a detailed description of task, including format, resolution, type, and creation. It also provides specific task examples as employed by characters with varying characteristics.
- Skills (42 pages): outlines skill and their details. It also includes Master Mods Tables designed to provide task modifiers.
- Personals (6 pages): describes personal interactions in game terms, as well as how to resolve them.
- QREBS (7 pages): details an equipment identification system.
- The Senses (13 pages): provides rules to resolve sensory perception activities in game terms.
Overall, “Characters and Life” is incredibly detailed and, seemingly, compartmentalized. There is no discerning between basic game-required information and mechanics from optional game-required mechanics, nor is there a character creation example to guide players through the process.
The 96-page “Combat” chapter includes the following sections:
- Personal Combat (26 pages): Explains combat ranges and scales, and describes the Traveller Personal Combat System (TPCS), the combat round, injury, armor and protection, artillery, explosions, WMDs, environmental effects, and battle damage. It provides a plethora of reference tables, but once again doesn’t seem to flow logically given the name of the section.
- The Armory (4 pages): provides a brief overview of personal weapons that might be found in an armory, including scale pictures. This section, unfortunately, doesn’t seem of any value.
- GunMaker (20 pages): details a system to create all manner of guns based on the reference tables. It is incredibly detailed, although design accuracy is not necessarily demonstrated. In addition, there are no examples illustrating the sequence or its accuracy.
- BladeMaker (1 page): provides tables to create blades and cutting weapons, but fails to provide examples.
- ArmorMaker (19 pages): discusses various facets of armor for all manner of uses, as well as details a complex system to create armor similar to that illustrated in GunMaker.
- VehicleMaker (24 pages): as with the other “makers,” discusses various facets for all types of vehicles and details a complex system to create them.
Overall, this chapter is big on details and small on results, lacking in any appreciable examples to validate the various systems described, especially with regard to the various “makers.”
The 114-page “Starports and Starships” includes the following sections:
- Starports (8 pages): describes various facets of a starport or spaceport in adequate detail.
- Starship Design (40 pages): outlines a thoroughly detailed 23-step design process, including a handy ship design checklist. Unfortunately, it supplies only one minor example in one section, with no actual full ship design sequence example to validate the provided system’s accuracy.
- ShipSheets (6 pages): extremely detailed breakout of a ship’s design for use in combat.
- Adventure Class Ships (2 pages): provides a brief overview of common starships, along with a small illustration. Unfortunately, not a single deck plan is provided.
- Fuel Benchmarks (3 pages): breaks down various fuel types, sources and characteristics.
- How Starships Work (41 pages): details how various systems function, including maneuver, jump drive, power systems, sensors, weapons, and screens. This tracks sequentially in relation to the starship design section. In addition, each subsection includes various rules and tables with further detail on the particular system.
- Starship Combat (14 pages): details combat elements and the combat round, including its SMART phases. No combat examples are provided.
Overall, the “Starports and Starships” chapter is incredibly detailed, but lacks concrete examples, as alluded to in previous chapters.
The 109-page “Stars and Worlds” chapter supposedly starts at page 418, but actually begins at page 416 with a galaxy graphic similar to that found on page 14, with some additional Traveller-specific details, along with a “secret” graphic of the galaxy highlighting demographic regions based on an Imperial survey. This chapter includes the following sections:
- Sectors and Subsectors (2 pages): map of charted space nearly identical to that found on the interior back cover of the book.
- Star Systems and Worlds (18 pages): describes yet another detailed system to develop and map star systems, with several reference tables, and details the iconic Universal World Profile (UWP). Interestingly, it provides the following advice up front: Map Only As Really Necessary (MOARN). Similar advice could have been included in many of the sections and systems highlighted.
- Charting the Stars (6 pages): provides a good overview of the Traveller star mapping scheme, as well as blank sample sector and subsector maps.
- Mapping Worlds (33 pages): details the world mapping and generation system, further highlighting the UWP. It also includes several blank map templates for various representations based on view and world size.
- Trade and Commerce (20 pages): Highlights interstellar trade, including large tables describing trade goods by category and classification.
- Technology (17 pages): Describes technology levels (TL), expanding them from the classic 15 up to 33. It includes a comprehensive table outlining various broad categories in TL terms. In addition, it discusses intelligent species lifespan, tangentially in terms of TL.
- Computers and Consoles (8 pages): highlights computers and computer-driven systems at various levels of complexity and power, as considered from a starship or industrial perspective. The section doesn’t take into account real life technology advances (ie tablets and smart phones) and their potential implication on starship or industrial systems.
- Personalities and Brains (5 pages): discusses transhumanism in general terms, with a few minor rules detailed. This section doesn’t seem like a good fit for the chapter.
Overall, the chapter does a great job at highlighting one of the things Traveller does best: world design.
The 114-page “Adventures” chapter includes the following sections:
- Psionics (10 pages): explains what psionics is, how it manifests itself, and how it is used in game. It offers no concrete examples, nor explicit seeds to connect the section with the chapter.
- Sophonts (23 pages): explains the Sophont Creation System (SCS) in excruciating detail, including relevant terminology and a myriad of tables as part of the design sequence. Once again, no examples are provided.
- Robots (14 pages): details robot characteristics, types and an in-depth design sequence similar to other design systems in the book.
- BeastMaker (12 pages): similar to the other “makers,” this details an intricate system to create creatures based on various characteristics such as structure, size, locomotion, type, and reaction.
- BeastMaker Events (2 pages): describes various random encounter events, but surprisingly provides no prebuilt tables.
- The Beastiary (8 pages): details a handful of creatures for use within the game. Unfortunately, the section is extremely sparse and less than representative of the myriad of beasts and environments available in the Traveller universe. At best, it helps referees and players visualize various creatures.
- ThingMaker (12 pages): another in the “maker” series, this section focuses on equipment. Thankfully, it actually provides some examples at various steps throughout the design process.
- ThingMaker Equipment (23 pages): details various equipment items, some with characteristics relative to technology levels. It also references the QREBS system.
- Adventures (4 pages): details adventures in terms of type, size, style, and tone. This is more of a descriptive section, wholly lacking in rules, simply meant to help define one’s adventure focus.
- EPIC Adventures (6 pages): provides a system for creating adventures based on the EPIC (Easy, Playable, Interactive, Checklist) format. Again, this is more of a descriptive system to help one’s adventure focus.
The “Adventures” section serves as a catchall to highlight a variety of things that would be used or encountered, either directly or indirectly, in an encounter. It provides a good starting point for fleshing out various facets of an adventure, but lacks examples (and credibility) in some areas.
The 16-page “The Travellers’ Guide to Starships” provides players with a set of color illustrations to better visualize various starships, both iconic and otherwise, in the Traveller universe. It’s helpful, if only to place a picture with a starship name.
Having read through the entire book, I come away with various questions:
- What was the thought process behind its organization? While the table of comments seems fairly organized, although sparse, the book fails to deliver a cohesive product that flows in a logical order to properly demonstrate the game and play. For example, many of the systems illustrated (i.e., the “makers”) are actually optional. Reading through the book, however, a player can’t differentiate between what is required and what is not. It’s as if Marc Miller and his colleagues assumed the reader would already understand the difference. In addition, given the magnitude and scope of the book, I’m shocked no index was included. There is so much detail in this book, with much crossover from system to system (such as the Universal Task System and QREBS), an index would have made a huge difference in helping locate said systems and entries.
- How much time was devoted to editing the book? Several grammatical errors are dispersed throughout the book. In addition, there are accuracy issues with the various “makers” and subsystem designs, including misplaced and missing information, which will undoubtedly turn many people off.
- Who is the target audience? Clearly, the target audience is not someone new to gaming, but someone intimately familiar with the Traveller RPG in general. I don’t see this book expanding the Traveller playing population.
- Is it meant to be a role-playing book? I’m not sure. Having read it cover to cover, it lends itself more to a Traveller-specific RPG encyclopedia or gear heads toolbox than strict RPG. In fact, it reminds me of those Gygaxian Fantasy World books (Cosmos Builder, Nation Builder, etc); basically toolbox books to aid referees in game development, but by no means a standalone RPG. More to the point, the “Traveller is a Role-Playing Game” section explicitly states “much of Traveller is solitaire.” While there have historically been solo role-playing games, this doesn’t lend itself to what many would consider a mainstream RPG. Those interested in Traveller specifically would be better served by the original rules or Mongoose Traveller as an entry vehicle.
- Is it playable? On the surface, no. While I’m sure it can be played by those intimately familiar with previous iterations of Traveller, with some modification and house ruling, it would prove extremely difficult (if not impossible) for others new to the system, especially given its lack of organization and apparent modular design. Again, those interested in Traveller specifically would be better served by the original rules or Mongoose Traveller.
- Should I buy this book? If you are a hardcore Traveller fan who understands what you’re getting into, then I would say the $35 PDF is well worth it as an encyclopedia/modular toolbox. Even for all its flaws, it does a good job of driving creativity. Otherwise, the book, while large, is overpriced as an RPG given its complexity, and overwhelms the reader with systems and minutiae while simultaneously under-delivering in terms of a coherent game.
On style, I rate Traveller5 a 2 due to its lack of organization, poor editing, and sporadic cartoonish art, and iconic cover. On substance, I rate Traveller5 a 2 based on its overwhelming, if underachieving, content that does not lend itself to game play, as well as its high price. If you understand its many flaws going in and accept it for what it is, you might find value in it... If you can find the physical product at a deeply discounted price or don't mind the electronic version.