Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

Playing Classic Traveller in 2020

Finally playing Classic Traveller

A friend of mine who was in my gaming group back in the 1980s read the article Traveller: A Classic Science Fiction Simulator at Tor.com and found it interesting. We discussed it, and he downloaded Starter Traveller from Drivethrurpg.com (it is free) and started reading it. I had the PDF already, and I printed it out and started reading it as well. I also found a physical copy for sale on the Internet, so I ordered that as well, and it was much more convenient to use than my printout in binders.

My Gaming History

My experience with Traveller back in the 1980s was minimal: another friend had the little black box with the three little black books (LBBs), and we rolled up characters (which at the time seemed way more complicated than D&D, which we were used to). Then we tried to figure out what to do, which was not immediately obvious to us. D&D has the obvious core activity of going down in a dungeon and killing monsters, but Traveller was a lot more wide-open. My friend hadn't bought an adventure (which I find very useful for getting an idea of core activity of a game) and he'd bought the Basic Set, so there wasn't an adventure in the box. We didn't realize that we could use the various checklists and procedures to improvise an adventure on the spot. So we didn't get far, alas.

I bought several new editions of Traveller over the years (Megatraveller, Traveller: The New Era, Traveller 4, Traveller 5) but never found the chance to play them. But my interest in Classic Traveller grew once I found it being talked about in Internet forums and blogs. I bought a copy of the original rules and many other LBBs, and some of the farfuture.net reprints and CD-ROMs.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon I went over to my friend's house with my Starter Traveller box and some other Classic Traveller materials for show and tell, and then we rolled up three characters each, 2D6 for attributes in order. I had two survive character generation (because we were using the hardcore “you can die in character generation” rule that was the default in Classic Traveller), both had been in the Army, both having miserable strengths (one of them couldn't carry his rifle and a clip of ammo; don't know how he made it through the Army), and the weakest only had one term and the other only had two terms, though he made Lieutenant. My friend had one character survive character generation, also from the Army, and he had more terms that either of my characters, though I don't remember how many, and ended up a Lt. Colonel if I remember correctly.

Then we ran a practice combat between my friend's character and my better character: Submachine Guns at short range (1–5 meters) in a forest! Classic Traveller doesn't have initiative, so everything happens simultaneously, and we both shot the other and each had an attribute reduced to zero, so we both fell unconscious. After ten minutes we both woke up, and decided to not try to kill each other again. Since he had Medical-1 he used his medical kit and healed us both.

Then we tried our hand at what some think is Traveller‘s core activity: shipping cargo to another planet (once we finally figured out that standard shipping of non-speculative cargo is covered in the “REVENUE” subsection of “STARSHIP ECONOMICS”, and not near “TRADE AND COMMERCE” section that we mistakenly thought it would be near). So, we rolled up some cargoes and High, Middle, and Low passages for our arbitrarily chosen world. Then we worked out all the expenses for our ship, the standard Type-A Free Trader, to see if we could keep up with them. And we could, though there seemed to be little slack. Success! This lead us back to the “REQUIRED STARSHIP COMPONENTS” subsection of the “STARSHIPS” section to figure out how much fuel was available for maneuvering in-system after a jump. (10 tons out of 30 tons of fuel was available for the maneuver drive and the power plant, if I remember correctly.) We looked at speculative cargoes a bit, but didn't actually try them. We weren't sure how you found the selling price once you were at your destination. (A second roll on the “Actual Value” table?)

At some point we looked at experience and character development in Classic Traveller. As far as we can tell, that section is missing from Starter Traveller, though it is in the 1981 LBBs and The Traveller Book. (Is it in the 1977 LBBs? I'll have to check. 1) Anyway, basically you do a 4 year self-improvement program, and if you succeed in staying the program (Roll your Determination, and you need an 8+ on 2D6), the program improves a couple of skills temporarily by 1 level of expertise. You can then do another 4 year program to make those gains permanent. (There are similar but slightly different procedures for improving physical attributes, weapons skills, and education.)

Anyway, we had a lot of fun. Next time we get together we're going to design a starship or two and try space combat!

Reflections Afterward

The version of Starter Traveller available at DrivethruRPG.com seems to be a better scan than the one off the Classic Traveller CD-Rom at farfuture.net, and is arranged in three separate PDF files, one for each of the three books in the set, which is much more convenient for printing and for viewing more than one at once on a screen. Alas, neither of them had select-able text, each page being a scanned image.

I had brought my copy of the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, 3 digest sized (5½×8½ inches) booklets in the classic box, along with some of the other books/supplements/adventures in that format, the Quick Link Interactive reprint of the 1981 LBBs in one volume, and the hardcover edition of The Traveller Book. I find the pamphlet format of the original Classic Traveller books charming: they're an easy size for reading away from the table, they seem to have lasted pretty well over the years, and it is relatively easy to refer to two of them at once. On the other hand, Starter Traveller's division into a book of the Core Rules, another book of Charts and Tables, and a final book with adventures, is very handy at the table where you have room enough to have both Core Rules open and Charts and Tables open to the the specific pages for the tables matching what you're reading in Core Rules. Also Starter Traveller has a “TYPICAL ACTIVITIES” checklist on p. 9 of Charts and Tables (that I can't find in the 3LBBs) that basically outlines how you could improvise a Free Trader-based adventure at the table. The hardback The Traveller Book is sturdy and easy to use at the table, but not as convenient as Starter Traveller‘s split into Core Rules and Charts and Tables. The Core Rules booklet had helpful page references to Charts and Tables for each of the major sections, and these were usually a 2-page spread with all (or nearly all) of the tables for the subject being discussed. Despite the charming nature of the LBBs, I think having the separate Charts and Tables book from Starter Traveller is so convenient that we'll continue using it at the table.

I found it useful to have multiple versions of Traveller available while reading Starter Traveller to cross-check things: I found an erratum in Starter Traveller this way.

1

I remembered that Megatraveller had a different method for character advancement/experience, so I looked that up when I got home.

You can learn a new skill by experience, observing and trying that skill and gaining 1 Adventure Tally (AT) per session if the referee it played a significant part in the session. Once you've acquired enough ATs, you need to roll a 15 or more on 2D6 with a Dice Modifier (DM) from Intelligence (if it is high enough) and the number of ATs you've accumulated. Use the same procedure to improve a skill. There is a similar procedure for improving characteristics. (This is similar to getting skill “Ticks” in RuneQuest or other Basic Roleplaying-based systems.)

You could also learn a skill by formal training. (1) You have to roll 7+ on 2D6 (having an applicable skill gives you a DM; the skill depends on what kind of training you're seeking) to find the training. (2) You have to roll 7+ on 2D6 (with a DM from your Determination characteristic) to stay determined to complete the training. Finally, (3) You have to roll to see if you were successful by rolling 11+ on 2D6 (with DMs from the skill you are training if you already have it, or other related skills you already know, and your instructors Instruction skill). The training takes on average 200 hours, and costs approximately Cr10 per hour. There is a similar procedure for improving characteristics, except for Social Standing, which can only be improved by actually acquiring money and spending it.

Amusingly Megatraveller, in contrast to Classic Traveller's relative lack of character improvement, points out that increasing skills and characteristics by accumulating ATs encourages characters' participation, keeps them interested in the game, and makes them aware of the benefits they can achieve in a session. I'll note that this is just like leveling in D&D or getting experience points in skill based games like Hero System or GURPS.

Finally, my quick look through the Megatraveller Players' Manual gave me the impression that Megatraveller is just much more complicated that Classic Traveller in every way, a typical second-system effect.

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