[ Freelance Traveller Home Page | Search Freelance Traveller | Site Index ]

*Freelance Traveller

The Electronic Fan-Supported Traveller® Resource

Travelling in David Drake’s RCN Universe

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue.

The standard Traveller setting is often analogized to the Age of Sail on Earth. The universe of David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, also called the Leary/Mundy series, may actually be a better far-future match for the Age of Sail than the Third Imperium.

Interstellar Travel

As in ‘stock’ Traveller, the speed of travel is the upper limit on the speed of interstellar communication. Neither effective speeds nor distances are ever given, though occasionally travel times are, so the speed of interstellar travel is the ‘speed of plot’, though it should be considered comparable to standard Traveller jump for interstellar trips – that is, days to weeks, not hours (though hours from an outer planet to an inner planet in the same system via the matrix is normal, and matrix jumps of seconds for maneuvers in battle are also done).

The general ‘feel’ of the universe is that of being a ‘small ship’ universe, and the interstellar ‘drive’ system really does make for ‘sailing’ ships, complete with a starship having masts, spars, and sails, and being handled by riggers. Crew sizes tend to be large as compared to Traveller, but most of the crew will end up being NPCs (riggers, spacehands, etc. – the equivalent in the various Star Trek TV series were the anonymous crewmen that wandered around looking busy but never actually getting any real ‘screen time’) – the “real” crew (PCs) will be the commissioned officers, warrant officers, and NCOs (petty officers).

Because of the nature of ‘the matrix’ (you might as well think of it as a hyperspace), managing the rigging must be done through manual, mechanical, and hydraulic means, not electrical or electronic; thus the large number of ‘riggers’. Similarly, communication in the matrix cannot be by radio; the riggers use hand signals, and there are hydraulic/mechanical ‘semaphores’ on the hull to allow the bridge to transmit instructions to the riggers.

Navigation uses ‘dead reckoning’ plus the ‘Sailing Directions’ or ‘Fleet Handbook’ (depending on which empire you adhere to), which are, for all intents and purposes, combinations of a compilation of previous trips’ ‘rutters’ and the CIA Factbook, and one can get There from Here by simply following the Sailing Directions – but a good navigator can go out on the hull with the riggers, look at the matrix, and perhaps shave some time off the ‘rated’ trip time from the Directions. The best navigators can ‘read’ the matrix well enough to be able to ‘blaze’ new routes to established areas, or to open up new areas for exploration and settlement. ‘Reading’ the matrix can be taught, but the student still needs to have a ‘knack’ for it – some would-be students simply can’t see the fine differences that good navigators not only see, but interpret in terms of predicted effect on the ship’s voyage.

‘The matrix’ (or ‘sponge space’) has something that might as well be considered to be like a topography, so Getting There from Here might involve a necessary stop at Somewhere Else.

Staying in ‘the matrix’ for too protracted a length of time will have a psychological impact, primarily exhibited as hallucinations. A good captain/navigator with a good crew and high morale can probably make some record runs between Here and There, and will do so in an emergency – but nobody actually likes it, and will avoid it where possible.

One maneuvers in realspace using either plasma thrusters or the ‘high drive’; both are, in effect, reaction drives (not reactionless drives like the Traveller M-drive), but the ‘high drive’ can’t be used in atmosphere because the reaction is provided by matter/antimatter annihilation. The plasma thrusters for use in atmosphere can answer to the description of HEPlaR from Traveller: The New Era; anything can be used as ‘working fluid’, but easily the most plentiful and most easily loaded and processed is water. As a result, most starports are also harbors, complete with jetties, basins, quays, breakwaters, bumboats, water taxis, and so on. Skilled starship pilots can land on lesser bodies of water (small lakes, wide spots in rivers, etc.) or even on solid ground, but doing so isn’t trivial; practically every spacer has heard stories (true or not) of a ship trying to land on bedrock and being flipped over by the plasma backwash reflected from the ground.


Technology is clearly above what we’re familiar with – but it feels like it’s only ‘just’ beyond the familiar, and perhaps its penetration into society is not so thorough as one would like.

Ship weapons are high-drive-powered missiles, with plasma weapons for point defense and ‘point-blank’ range. Most ships have limited magazine space for missiles; the ‘hero ship’ of the series, the Princess Cecile, is classed as a corsair, and has a full load-out of only twenty missiles, plus ‘two in the tubes’. Plasma weapons can do damage to a ship’s sails, but in taking that damage, the sails can protect the hull. Even if the sails don’t take damage from a plasma bolt, they can pick up enough charge from it to make entering the matrix dangerous – so a tactic that is occasionally used is to fire plasma weapons at a ship that may be out of range, in hopes of ‘fouling’ space around it enough to keep it from retreating into the matrix, and closing with it enough to practically guarantee missile hits.

Personal weapons are slug-throwers, either conventional chemical propulsion (‘gunpowder’) or ‘impellers’, which can answer to the description of coil guns (or Traveller ‘gauss weapons’) except for not having huge power packs.

Power for ships is fusion-based; power plants planetside include fusion, but aren’t obviously exclusively fusion; while it’s not discussed except where needed for story, it’s clear that some worlds have a low-enough level of technology that one can assume lower-technology solutions to the power question.


One of the early books in the series mentions that there are nonhuman spacefaring species, but for the most part their environmental needs don’t overlap with humans and thus there little or no reason for interaction. With one exception for one individual in one story, aliens do not appear; the setting can be treated as a human-only setting. There are installations and artifacts that might have been created by aliens thousands of years ago, in story terms, but they’re left as enigmae, and the creators never actually appear.

Campaign Types

Although the stories themselves are limited, there is enough detail of the setting presented that Traveller adventuring in the classic modes is possible: mercantile, mercenary, exploratory/scientific, intrigue, politics, … it’s all there, and against a backdrop of an intermittently hot-and-cold war between two major ‘imperial’ powers (the Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars), with client states, tributary possessions, and independents – and even an empire’s clients and tributary possessions may be involved in activities that the empire may disapprove of, such as piracy or slaving. Actions at the ‘player-character’ level can have ramifications at high levels, possibly even unintentionally; it’s not like the Third Imperium setting where the player-characters really can’t make a difference in the universe.


While the gradations of social status aren’t as clearly drawn – or as finely divided – as in the stock Third Imperium setting, Social Status in the Traveller sense really is a Thing, and while one’s social status isn’t firmly coupled to wealth, there is a general expectation that one will act like it is (which means that a high-SOC character could very well be quite beholden to others – possibly of lower actual social status – who are in fact funding his public face). However, high SOC also carries a high degree of care for one’s honor and that of one’s family (even if one is ‘on the outs’ with them); defending that honor may go as far as duels.

High SOC also implies a certain attitude toward one’s own privilege vis-à-vis those of lower status; while treating one’s lowers as slaves or peons isn’t entirely acceptable (they’re peasants, not peons), the American view of equality simply is well outside everyone’s worldview, including those who are on the bottom of the social heap (and who would lose respect for those at the top if they didn’t act like they were at the top).

Coupled with high SOC is also a certain arrogance, best exhibited in one of the stories where Captain Leary visited a head of state of a not-hostile world, and told that head of state that [paraphrased] “when you go to Cinnabar, you do things the Cinnabar way. When Cinnabar comes to you, you do things the Cinnabar way.” (One might surmise that during a period that the Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars were not in active hostilities, contact between members of the respective governments might not have exhibited the same level of arrogance.)

Social status is a factor in the military, it takes “interest”, which rises from one’s own social status and/or that of one’s patrons, to get good assignments and timely promotions, even if one has an exceptionally good record. Lack of such interest – or interests opposed to yours that are higher-status – won’t outright prevent promotion, but it can certainly delay it, and prevent high-prestige assignments.

A shipmaster needs to take decent care of the ship’s crew, providing adequate amounts of food of acceptable quality, paying competitive salaries in full when due (usually at the end of a voyage), allowing shore leave at reasonable intervals, and running a ‘tight’ ship without abusing the crew. A shipmaster that fails of this will find some portion of the crew ‘jumping ship’, and if word gets around about poor treatment aboard a ship, only desperation will see crewmembers take a berth. This is somewhat less true of military ships during times of war; a ship that returns to Cinnabar for repair or refit could very well see the crew impounded pending reassignment, to prevent desertion to merchant crews.