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Traveller J Core Rulebook (Beta)

This review originally appeared on rpg-resource.org.uk in Sept. 2015, and was reprinted with permission in the January/February 2016 issue.

Traveller J Core Rulebook (Beta). Matthew Sprange.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mogoosepublishing.com
248pp., PDF
US$20.00/UKú13.19 (Credit toward final PDF purchase from same source)

OK, so why do we need a new set of rules? Let’s see what is here and how it improves on what has gone before. It is supposed to be broadly backwards-compatible with existing Mongoose Traveller materials, but will of course have resources—sourcebooks and adventures—crafted specifically for it in due course.

The Introduction begins by explaining what Traveller is: a science-fiction role-playing game of the far future that can be used to play out whatever you fancy—and adds that if you have a favourite SF film or TV series (or presumably book!), Traveller ought to be able to replicate it on your tabletop. It touches on the Third Imperium (the Official Traveller Universe, as it’s known) and gets a little muddled in the distinction between the players of the game (that’s you and me) and the characters that they play. I am not (alas) a Traveller, my character is, the lucky tode! It talks about the sort of adventures and campaigns you can enjoy and runs through some game conventions (standard terminology) before explaining the concept of Tech Levels and, in brief sentences, showing what each one means from TL0 to TL15.

Next, Chapter 1: Character Creation introduces the unique Traveller ‘life path’ character generation process. It is recommended that a group of players generate their characters together, primarily so as to establish connections between them—it’s also to be noted that lots of players enjoy creating characters as a game in its own right even when they don’t need one! (However there is a new connections bonus that can lead to an additional skill level for both characters involved.) The process is well explained with plenty of detail (and suggestions, even here, for adventures) and there is a large flowchart that makes the process clear. As a double-spread page that would be fine, it’s worth printing out at least those two pages from the PDF to get the full benefit. Each career—and the pre-career options of university or military academy—provides the character with not just skills but life-events that have in-game consequences as well as game-mechanical ones. Overall, the actual process has not changed much, but it is laid out and explained well. Character generation is primarily human-centric, with a brief mention of aliens and scant details of Aslan and Vargr—the intention is that they will be covered in separate sourcebooks. Tucked at the end is a new career, that of the Prisoner. It’s not one that you choose for your character, but events that may arise during character generation will land him there without the option!

This is followed by Chapter 2: Skills and Tasks, which gets down to the business of explaining how to use the skills that your character has and the task resolution system. Although still based on the classic ‘roll 2 dice against a Referee-set difficulty’ the use of modifiers other than those based on the character’s own capabilities has been replaced by the use of extra ‘boon’ or ‘bane’ dice. These come into play when conditions are beneficial or adverse to the attempt being made. A third die is rolled. If conditions are favourable, the player discards the lowest roll and uses the other two dice to resolve the task as normal. If things are against him, he discards the highest die roll before resolving the task. Neat, and a lot easier than having to determine just how beneficial or otherwise the circumstances might be! The idea is that task difficulties and applicable modifiers ought to be fairly standard for any given task, all you need to decide is if the circumstances under which you are trying to accomplish it warrant a boon or a bane die to be added to your roll.

Chapter 3: Combat then takes a long, hard look at how fighting is run within the game. Combat is still deadly, and relatively speedy. Characters use their skill in the weapon they are using, and wield them in initiative-order sequence in combat rounds. The system has been streamlined and integrated with personal combat, vehicle combat and starship combat all working the same way.

Naturally, getting caught up in a brawl is not the only danger to be faced in the far future, so Chapter 4: Encounters and Dangers provides loads of hazards and the game mechanics necessary to deal with them. Environmental dangers abound… but fortunately there is also a section on healing. Animals (which may or may not be hostile) are also covered here with a broad outline of a system to create animals and encounters with them. Several examples are given—and it can be great fun thinking up exotic critters for the worlds the party visits in its travels. Animals, of course, are not the only beings they will encounter, so there is also a section about NPCs which includes quick generation of them and the sort of encounters that may be had… there’s even a rudimentary patron encounter system here for generating really fast adventure seeds on the fly.

Next comes Chapter 5: Equipment. Starting off with notes on money and standards of living it soon launches into The Core Collection, a catalogue of much of what the well-equipped traveller might need—which is presented like a real-world catalogue complete with illustrations (well, some of them, and plenty space earmarked for more) and sales-speak as well as the necessary game mechanics to use them. As well as the weapons, armour and gear you’d expect, the Core Collection also includes augmentations—cybernetic or biological modifications to improve on or even add things to the standard human.

Chapter 6: Vehicles follows; but here the emphasis is on what vehicles can do and how they are operated. It also includes vehicle combat. Quite a few examples are provided for those who want to get going quickly. This is followed by Chapter 7: Starship Operations which looks at the bread and butter of running a starship and starship encounters, including things like running costs and starship security. There’s a separate chapter for starship combat, which allows characters to play a part in different roles—and makes starship captains worry about how much power they are using! Both ship-to-ship combat and boarding actions are covered here.

Next, Chapter 9: Common Spacecraft looks at ships which are familiar to the experienced Traveller player, but presents them in a new and visual manner. Statistics appear in a neat panel that gives you all you need to know, whilst deckplans have gone isometric. This gives a nice impression of what it would actually be like to wander around the ship in question and matches up well with the external views. They won’t work so well as old-style deckplans for people who like to run combat aboard like a miniatures skirmish, though. There’s a good range of standard craft here from traders and scouts to liners and yachts.

Separated out—not everyone likes to use them—is Chapter 10: Psionics. (They are, however, mentioned within the lifepath parts of character generation: with several opportunities to be contacted and tested. If you don’t want to use them, you’ll have to roll again if you get one of those results.) The default model is that psionics are rare and viewed with offical caution if not outright hostility—in the Third Imperium, for example, they are banned. If you do choose to use them, psionic strength and skills are covered here as well as the psion career path.

Next comes Chapter 11: Trade. This provides a system for conducting interstellar trade that manages to be quite detailed and yet abstracts the process to a few die rolls, a neat method that allows a party to focus as much or as little attention on it as they please whilst still providing the possibility of a rationale for their travels and an income to fund it.

Finally, where are you going to travel to? This is covered by Chapter 12: World and Universe Creation which lays out the way in which worlds, systems and sectors are described and how to design them, and Chapter 13 which details the Sindal Sub-Sector in the Trojan Reaches—the new setting to be developed for this latest iteration of Traveller.

Overall, this book presents something that is still recognisably Traveller but with the benefit of 30-odd years of game design building on the original concepts. It shows great promise particularly in terms of integration and streamlining of game mechanics, and presentation values look as if they will be good too—although of course in this playtest version quite a lot of the art is missing. There are also a few typos which will hopefully be caught before the final version… but it bodes well for the future of the game.