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Alternate Visions of Traveller

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue.

I’m not in Marc Miller’s generation (he falls about midway between my father and I), but I’ve read and watched most of the science fiction that was loved by the generations older than myself, and thus Mr Miller and I have many of the same literary influences. When I first saw Traveller, my initial thought was, “You could run a Dumarest game with this!” My second thought was, “Or an Andre Norton game!” And I was amazed to learn just how right I was.

Traveller is a game meant to emulate space adventures. Its influences, at least in its initial incarnation, were the pulp magazines, the movie serials, and the fiction that was written for the page and screen up to its publication date in 1977. You, playing from a perspective in the 21st century, can choose to play any kind of game you like; and your choices may include genres that came later. Cyberpunk, Transhuman, Military SF, whatever you choose. Mr Miller congratulated himself that Traveller could be used to play games set in the Star Wars universe (the first movie was released that same year, after Traveller had been completed), and has stated that his intention was to provide a system for playing any flavor of science fiction. My Traveller is the science fiction I grew up with, that Mr Miller grew up with, filled with exotic alien vistas, weird dangerous creatures, unfathomable sentients, brave fragile ships probing the cold void, and vast armadas tearing each other apart with terrible energies. Mine are stories of stalwart heroes, evil villains, and the drifters who populate the gray area between the two. I’m emulating the science fiction that Traveller was based on, the fiction that means “science fiction” to me. But apparently, there’s a group of players who seem to think that “science fiction” means something else.

I’ve lived and gamed in both the Los Angeles area and the New York City area. I’ve been to an awful lot of conventions all over the USA, played a lot of different rules sets, and I’ve read a lot of gaming magazines. But now, with additional generations of gamers having reached adulthood, with the ubiquitous internet, and the mainstreaming of science fiction, I’ve encountered some Traveller viewpoints that are new to me.

When I play Traveller, the primary goal is adventure. The secondary goal is ‘Sensawunda’ (look it up). The rules system takes a back seat to the ‘game’ in ‘role-playing games,’ and I give myself permission to ignore whatever might hold me back at any given moment. Because the entire purpose of a game is that it’s supposed to be fun! I play up characters, using bad accents and silly mannerisms. They must be larger than life, otherwise what’s the point? I try to pump up my descriptions. I hope things happen that are unexpected to both my players and to me! If something pops into my head in the middle of role-playing, I’ve found that just going with it will make for encounters that are much more memorable than what I had planned. Everything takes a back seat to playing out a story. Not that I don’t like rolling some dice; that adds unpredictability and danger to resolving the action!

I’ve been spending some time in online groups that discuss Traveller, and I notice that some folks’ take on how the game is ‘supposed’ to be played is, to my way of thinking, rather dry. It seems to me that they’ve made a Virtue out of stressing the ‘science’ in science fiction, or the nuts-and-bolts of a rules system, at the expense of the adventure. At the expense of role-playing characters. I’m not quite sure why that is, or what exactly they mean by it. (Of course, without the internet I never would’ve even been aware of that attitude at all!) The appeal of elaborate rules mirrors a similar trend in other games, that has waxed and waned over the years, as evidenced by various notorious rules systems. But it’s only now that I’m confronted, actually confronted, by folks who take every opportunity to tell me what Traveller is, and how it should be played. Really? You’re gonna school me?

Let me ask briefly, what is science fiction? I have read its description and would agree that it is a story, set in a glimpse of a future that differs from our own time with respect to what new technology is common; and how that impacts the lives of the protagonists. That’s pretty broad, but that covers what is necessary to qualify. One thing I’ve observed is that some people today seem very concerned with parsing everything down into very small and finite subsets. One has to argue about what exact labels apply to Barsoom. It cannot be science fiction, it cannot be fantasy; is it sword & planet, or sword & sandal, or science fantasy, or simply pulp? What about Doc Smith’s Lensmen? Is it science fiction, or space opera, or science fantasy? I recently read a comment that dismissed something as being ‘space opera,’ as opposed to being ‘science fiction!’ Really? In the books and magazines and conventions I know, everything was lumped together and enjoyed equally. You could have Burroughs and Asimov and Howard and Lovecraft in the same magazine, edited by John Campbell. And we were fans of all of them, and discussed them at the same conventions! While these sub-sets that you impose might satisfy the obsessive-compulsive, they serve only to limit you; especially as a gamer.

For me, science fiction is about adventure – in the future. As I recall reading more than once, a character in a science fiction story uses his tools without overt explanation. “Quick, hand me the molecular fusion wand, the core’s shielding is coming apart!” He doesn't describe what it is, what it does, how it works, or what new imagined developments led to its application in this future scenario. And you, playing a game – neither do you! It’s a tense moment, it’s a dangerous obstacle that has to be overcome in order for the character to survive and for the story to continue. He doesn’t have time to be pedantic, or there would be no peril. He doesn’t have to explain it to his companions, because they all live in this future and they already know this technology exists. The audience only needs to know enough to understand that there is danger, and how high the stakes are. (Believe me. This is my career.) And the same with the players. Unless you make it a plot point: “How could his pistol have produced such a devastating blast? No known power source could support it!” And if you do, then guess what? You don't have to come up with a technobabble explanation in imaginary pseudoscience, because it's fiction! NONE of it exists! And any technology you can’t explain, (to paraphrase), is MAGIC to you, you puny 21st century primitive.

Now, in some genres, for example where a character has travelled into the future from our present, we see the advanced technology through eyes as unfamiliar with it as our own. This is a plot device, but not one that’s used in bog-standard Traveller, where we play characters who originate in the time period in which we play.

What should the future be like in a game? It should be an environment ripe for adventure, because we’re playing a game where characters go on adventures! Just as in a book or movie, we’re given the descriptions of what is different, and then we proceed. Given this, the science of the future is a tool, no more, to give us the ‘sensawunda’ the genre requires. The story is in the characters. Did John Carter care how a radium pistol worked, or why a green martian could be so tall, or that red martian women who laid eggs still had mammaries? He did not. Was Northwest Smith angry that the Shambleau’s biology didn’t ‘make sense?’ He was not. Does Earl Dumarest demand to know how Basic can support life, does he refuse to use air-rafts because they don’t mass enough to carry a generator of sufficient power, or get a tape measure and confirm that the displacement of his latest ship matches imaginary specs? He does not. Are you kidding me? Because it doesn’t matter to the story. Characters are presented with the facts of our new environment, and may then use whatever is at their disposal to accomplish their goals and advance the story. I see similar arguments among fans of TV shows (my vocation). They want to know why a ship was designed in that particular way, they insist that it “doesn’t make sense,” and they hate it when I tell them that it’s set up that way to make it all fit on the sound stage, or because of budget limitations, or because they hired an artist to make a visual or a model and then ran with what they got. There is no ‘science’-based explanation, because it’s ‘fiction!’

It doesn't bother me if the life-form I describe ‘makes sense’ in any way. It’s what I say it is. And I would argue that makes for a more exciting and unpredictable story. These creatures can fly, even with tiny wings. Those creatures are displaced in time exactly one second, at will. This plant can turn a human into an automaton, and that planet over there is made of living rock. Does the science matter? What, you’ve accepted jump drive, but you can’t accept this?

Let’s look at a few Traveller adventures. Take a step back. “Murder on Arcturus Station” is a simple, people-driven murder mystery. It should play out like an adventure. There is no need to check your science textbook before you can play. “Leviathan” is a simple Star Trek game. Go out and explore, interact with the cultures you meet. They can be as exotic as you can come up with, pull out all the stops. “Prison Planet”. “Annic Nova”. How could you play these adventures as dry, dull, tied to some pre-determined set of expectations? Why?! What a waste! Who would want to play it out if you make it sterile white?

When I need a ship in my game, it is what I as story-teller need it to be. Although I know some people like working with the Traveller ship-design system, I have never met or role-played with such. “It does Jump-2,” I say, looking at my subsector map, because that’s what I want. It has this many staterooms because that works for my scenario. In decades of playing Traveller, I have never designed a ship, or a vehicle, or a weapon, by any rules system. I make it what will work for the campaign I envision. If you give me detailed specs, I will ignore some, change what doesn’t work for me, and I don’t care if that means the item is now “too large” or “too small.” I don’t care if the planets are far enough away from their star, or if they’re in the right zone. I don’t care if my planetary description fits within the possible parameters of some published table, and I wouldn’t hesitate to choose whatever results I’d like regardless of their ‘probability.’ It’s make-believe! Not based on any science we can understand, and impossible by any standards we know anyway! Do you think Bradbury cared how scientifically-accurate his version of Mars was? No! He was telling a story! This frees me up to be as creative as possible. It’s also an incredible time-saver. Hand-wave it!

Traveller is a game in the science fiction genre, but only in its widest definition. The definition I grew up with, that allowed for Northwest Smith, and Dumarest of Terra, and John Carter of Mars. Don’t try and tell me that it must read like a science text – especially since there is no science we understand today that can explain its assumptions. No, in role-playing games we go on adventures. That’s what Mr Miller had in mind when he wrote the thing, a science-fiction version of D&D. You’re limiting yourself if you make your worlds sterile and soulless. See if you can manage to take the blinders off, and take your players on some real adventures!