There was a great deal of interest and speculation surrounding Steve Jackson Games' announcement last year that they would be publishing a new edition of the venerable SF RPG, Traveller. I was also very curious about this latest incarnation of an RPG that I had many fond memories about. After purchasing it last week (it was officially released in September), and reading through it, I thought I would share my initial impressions with everyone. To show my biases up front, I'll be comparing this set of rules to that of Classic Traveller (CT), the version I'm most familiar with.
First a little background history. One of the earliest of all RPGs, and the first major SF RPG, Traveller has been around for a very long time, since 1977 in fact. The original rule set, written by Marc W. Miller (with assistance from Frank Chadwick among others), was composed of three little black books. Book 1 was "Characters and Combat", Book 2 "Starships", and Book 3 was "Worlds and Adventures". "Classic" Traveller was a hit with the fans; a chance to adventure in SF worlds with simple and flexible rules, the interesting and evolving background of "The Imperium", and for those who enjoy solitaire play chance to tinker with starship construction and amateur astro-cartography. Traveller was the major SF RPG for many years, and over 40 official products (supplements, rule-books and adventures) eventually became released, along with many pages of writing from professional and amateur RPG magazines. Over the next 20 years GDW and others changed Traveller with subsequent editions; first with MegaTraveller, then Traveller: The New Era, then Traveller (4th Edition) [Note: The Imperium Games release was officially called Marc Miller's Traveller .-Ed.]. And now GURPS Traveller, which avidly mines this rich database of information.
I'd like to state up front that GURPS Traveller is incomplete as an RPG by itself. As clearly printed (on the back cover), one needs the GURPS Basic Set to play, along with Compendium I: Character Creation, and GURPS Space. You are also told that GURPS Ultra-Tech and Ultra-Tech 2 will be useful to play. GURPS Traveller is aimed squarely as a sourcebook for running SF adventures in the old Classic Traveller universe; as a game by itself, it is lacking (more on this gripe later), and to play this game in full you need to outlay a good deal of money up front.
In physical appearance; GURPS Traveller is similar to other SJ Games products; a perfect bound book 176 pages in length with an index, and profusely illustrated in the style of other recent SJ Games releases. The cover will be very familiar for those familiar with the original boxed set; a stark black cover with a thin horizontal red stripe. And there is that very familiar quote; "This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone..." It's written by Loren K. Wiseman, who has been involved with Traveller and GDW since the very beginning, which is a nice touch.
The contents pages of GURPS Traveller include the following headings, and gives you a little idea on what is covered (as well, what is not covered) in this particular product. It is reproduced below:
1. The Universe of the Third Imperium
2. Details of a Universe
4. Equipment and Supplies
5. Travel, Trade and Commerce
6. Character Conversions
Appendix A: Starships
Appendix B: Modular Starship Design
Appendix C: Space Combat
The introduction chapter is nicely done. A review of the history of the RPG, a large sector map covering the official Traveller universe, a "nutshell" history of the Traveller universe and the six races that inhabits it, the type of adventure campaigns possible in such a vast milieu, etc. The last topic is a little too terse; in fact, only two pages on campaign ideas and suggestions for both novice Traveller GMs and players. More on this gripe below.
The background for GURPS Traveller, as outlined in Chapters 1 and 2, suggests an alternative timeline to the official timeline that GDW developed (much to the dismay of many fans of CT). Jumping back in time to the era of "classic" Traveller, there was no assassination of Emperor Strephon (which heralded the premise for MegaTraveller), and no civilization leveling "Virus" (the premise for Traveller: The New Era). Instead, the continuity of the universe of "The Imperium" was back on the same rails beloved by many. A fat sixty pages of "Library Data" alphabetically covers everything from the Ancients to the Zhodani, with plump side bars covering the history of the Vilani, details of the major Traveller alien races, Imperial history, customs, and more. Leafing through these pages was quite nostalgic for me (reminding me strongly of a combination of Supplements 8 & 11), and invaluable for those GMs and players who are meeting the Traveller universe for the first time. There is also side-bars about the caveat of introducing such features as nanotechnology and cybertechnology into the current Traveller universe (which do not contain such rules in this book), but do mention where such rules can be found.
Chapter 3, on character creation, is a bit of a surprise for those more used to classic Traveller than to GURPS. Gone are the old character generation checklist in CT, which was almost a game in itself. No more having a set of personal characteristics, picking one of six services and then rolling on both the prior service table (hoping for commissions and mustering out benefits, and trying to avoid the dreaded "death in the line of duty" with a failed survival roll), the acquired skills tables, and warily eyeing the aging table. Instead, a character template system (supposedly first introduced in GURPS Wizards) is suggested. Beyond the familiar Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants templates, there is an expansion of the old Traveler "Other" category; Athletes, Belters, Barbarians, Diplomats, Hunters, Medical Doctor, Reporters, Rogue, "Remittance Man", and many more. Side-bars on having Vargr and Zhodani character types are supplied, but none for Droyne, Aslan, Hiver or K'Kree are supplied, a curious omission. Characters can also be created using the GURPS Basic Set, with the new advantage of "Ship's Patron" (where you can possibly gain use of such star vessels as Scouts, Merchant ships, and Yachts. A final option is to simply generate your Traveller characters "the old fashioned way", and then convert to the GURPS version using the supplied conversion rules.
Chapter 4, "Equipment and Supplies" is a slim chapter covering the basics of weapons, armour, drugs, gadgets and other personal equipment used by folks in the Traveller universe. No surprises here. Chapter 5 on travel (interplanetary and interstellar) with Jump drives, mishaps, etc., is also familiar stuff. Interstellar mapping conventions are provided (alas, with no blank maps, or means of generating your own worlds). The Traveller UPP code is introduced, with GURPS equivalents provided for atmospheres, starports, governments, law levels and more. [Note: Most recent discussion on newsgroups and the Traveller Mailing List refers to the UWP, 'Universal World Profile', to avoid confusion with UPP, 'Universal Personal Profile', discussing the personal characteristics of a character. The UPP referred to here is the 'Universal Planetary Profile', the original name for the UWP. -Ed.] Trade and commerce is briefly touched on in this chapter, but not in as great detail as in the original rules. The final chapter on Character conversions consist of six pages of rules and suggestions for skill comparisons for all four main versions of Traveller: Classic, MegaTraveller, TNE and T4.
The three appendices are meaty. Appendix A: Starships covers just that; two page descriptions (a deck plan using a hex grid, and a page description) on such vessels as the Sulieman-class 100-ton Scout/Courier, the Beowulf-class 200-ton Free Trader, and the Empress Marava-Class 200-ton Far Trader; the three most common variety of PC controlled star ships. Slightly smaller descriptions for Yachts, Safari-Ships, Fighters, Launches, Lifeboats, Mercenary Cruisers, Gigs, Skimmers, Ship's Boat, Pinnace, Shuttle, Modular Cutter, Laboratory Ship, and Subsidized Merchant. A grand total of 16 pages of space ships. Appendix B: Modular Starship Design covers in 13 pages a set of rules for starship construction fully compatible with GURPS Vehicles. A step-by-step design sequence allows ships to be bolted together like Lego®, and looks fairly straightforward. Lastly, Appendix C: Space Combat, has a set of rules derived from Dave Pulver's GURPS Vehicles to have ships built with Appendix B's rules square off against each other. While I haven't tested them, the space combat rules appear functional and elegant (somewhat superior to the original Classic Traveller rules). A nicely detailed 2 page index rounds things out.
Gripes about GURPS Traveller
One of the criticisms of the original Classic Traveller (CT) was that it lacked guidance to GMs and players for running campaigns set in the Traveller universe. This deficiency was gradually dealt with, with the periodic release of new rule-books, supplements, adventures, and the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society. It's unfortunate that GURPS Traveller didn't make use of this wealth of material for the a new generation of Traveller players, since this source book has this same problem. The chapter containing "Library Data" has the information on the Imperium Traveller background, but I was unhappy to see that nowhere there are suggestions for how information is to be integrated. This is a terrible problem to the novice Traveller GM. If I were a referee beginning Traveller for the first time, I wouldn't know where to start with this product. Would I set a campaign on a world such as Earth or Capitol? Would I concentrate on the Spinward Marches, the Old Expanses, Ley Sector, or...? The lack of even a simple introductory adventure for folks naïve to Traveller to get started on is sadly felt. It seems puzzling to me to have set out all this material, and not show how it can be used. Perhaps SJ Games is saving this for a future supplement?
Another gripe I have about this source book are the interstellar maps, or rather the lack of them. There is a large scale two-page sector map for the entire Traveller universe, and a single example of a sub-sector map (in Chapter 5)--and that's it for the entire source book. This sub-sector map has no accompanying planetary statistics or remarks to make it useful; other than marks on the map itself (noting system names, Red and Amber zones, and X-boat links), there is no accompanying information. The map itself does not include such standard CT world characteristics such as world type, bases, starport types, presence of gas giants, and whether the world has no water present, water present or is in fact an asteroid belt. While I recognize this map as the infamous "Spinward Marches: Regina Subsector" from CT, there is no identifying label on the map itself. The lack of planetary descriptions complements my complaint that this sole source book is extremely unfriendly to novices to the Traveller universe. Providing a couple of background pages on this subsector, at least the UPP, world remarks, and so on, would have been awfully easy to do; I'm surprised it wasn't done.
The artwork in GURPS Traveller is somewhat uneven. I sorely missed W. H. Keith Jr.'s beautiful pen-and-ink starship illustrations from Classic Traveller. Even worse, the artwork of aliens and adventurers could be somewhat cartoon-y and goofy in depiction (somebody had been playing WEG's "Paranoia" lately, if pages 27 and 117 are any indication). There was no sense of wonder or awe provided by the included artwork, which made me wonder, why bother with it at all? The ship deck plans were competently drawn, though the darkness of the underlying hex-grid was somewhat annoying.
As mentioned in the character creation chapter, it is astonishing that character templates for only one of the six major alien races of Traveller, the dog-like Vargr, is provided (well, two if you count that offshoot of Humaniti, the Zhodani). No stats for any of the other major alien races are supplied, either. If you pit an Aslan against a Droyne, who will win? Ditto a Hiver against a Human. Perhaps this is awaiting a future supplement, but their omission from the basic source book is a glaring one.
A reference list of what long out of print Traveller rule-books, supplements, magazine articles, etc., were referred to and raided to create this work would have been a nice touch to have. A list of what GURPS products which could be used GURPS Traveller, and their availability, would have also been useful, especially for those new to the GURPS product line.
Finally, here's a personal gripe, one I admit is somewhat unfair to state. The original Traveller was fun not only for the background, but for the fast and flexible rules, too. While there was a great deal of material for using CT to game in GDW's house universe and setting, there was also a great deal of material for having Traveller campaigns set in alternative SF backgrounds. That was part of the fun of CT, coming upwith consistent SF backgrounds created entirely from the mind of the GM, else one borrowing heavily from SF books, movies, and so on. In the past, I could use CT to game in a Star Wars variant background (heck, I still have the Martian Metals 15 mm Darth Vader miniature!), as well as one based on H. Beam Piper's "Space Viking" and "The Cosmic Computer." There have been published variant backgrounds for Traveller based on the works of Jack Vance (ie. his "Planet of Adventure" and "Demon Prince" sequence of novels), Poul Anderson's "Flandry" series, Harry Harrison's "Death World" and "Stainless Steel Rat" books, C. J. Cherryh's "Chanur" series, and so on. While I could and did use CT to game in these worlds, I can't use GURPS Traveller to do the same with David Weber's "Honor Harrington" books or Peter Hamilton's "Reality Dysfunction", since GURPS Traveller emulates the Traveller Imperium setting, not the then (and still today) innovative Traveller rules itself. I'd have to use GURPS Basic Set and GURPS Space alone, else go back to my original Traveller rules to emulate these new and interesting SF backgrounds. In fact, because of this gripe, a better name for this product is "GURPS Imperium", since this sourcebook is solely for the Imperial SF background of CT, and not for the CT rules themselves.
GURPS Traveller: Summary:
GURPS Traveller is a nice product, though incomplete in itself; it is really just a source book rather than a complete set of rules. There is a nice summary history of the Imperium, a terse encyclopedia of "Library Data" covering the Traveller universe, along with a useful toybook of starships and rules for space combat. But to create that SF staple of aliens for your GURPS Traveller campaign, you need another book (GURPS Aliens); an extraordinary omission are rules for PCs to play or fight characters from the major Traveller alien races, such as the Aslan, Hivers or the K'Kree. To create worlds and populate them with alien ecologies, you need another book, GURPS Space. If you want planetary or stellar maps for areas detailed in the Traveller universe (such as the Spinward Marches), you don't even have another GURPS rule book to refer to (though there are rumours for other GURPS Traveller works to come out). You can't even make your own Traveller maps ala CT, since blank map forms aren't included in this current source book.
GURPS Traveller is only useful to those GMs who already have many of the out of print Classic Traveller products--stellar maps, adventures, supplements for creating worlds, aliens, robots, etc. -- that they are willing to convert and so use with the current in-print GURPS rules. Everyone else is directed to other GURPS books (ie. GURPS Space, GURPS Ultra-Tech 1 & 2, etc.), and even then those GMs must create much of the detail of their GURPS Traveller campaign de novo (along with spending great wodges of cash). Until SJGames releases more products in their GURPS Traveller line (ie. a Traveller space atlas or an adventure book), I wouldn't recommend this current product to the naïve GURPS GM. As it stands, this product is most useful for that GM who has a slew of out of print Traveller materials which he or she wants help to both translate into GURPS terms, as well has having some of the background material (either for themself or for their players) all in one convenient spot. Persons who don't have access to this material must either wait for SJGames to release further materials, else pay a small fortune at conventions and used gaming stores for this hard to get, out-of-print material (perhaps paying as much as it would for all the books suggested by SJGames to be prerequisites for this item).
Brian Christopher Misiaszek can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org