Yonder out yonder

This is Traveller, in one of its early-early publications: 1981, Game Design Workshop, which as far as I can tell is about the same as the original 1977 publication. A quick point: this isn’t anything like Traveller as stamped iconically into gaming culture. There is no setting, no Imperium, no canonical starmaps, no campaign-planning, nothing but the presumption that you’ve read a few Dumarest of Terra books. Even including a GM is actually optional. It may also help to recall that nearly all the modern reference points for science fiction were either barely-introduced (not yet a franchise) or did not yet exist.

The videos begin with our second meeting. The first went through most of character creation, then we finished it and began to play as shown here. We’re having some fun about the quirks or phrasings, but even during the first session we’d fallen in love with the process.

The two characters differed profoundly and productively: Jones served seven terms and was never commissioned, whereas Mike served a single term which promoted him to captain and showed him to be a brillant administrator – then was dropped from the service right away. As both turned out to be from wretched backwater planets and also well-eduated, all of us found it inescapable that they were buddies via disgruntlement and inclined to screw the military back if they got the chance.

I worked up the subsector for this session, which is rolled through a detailed sequence. I took the option in the rules to adjust the likelihood of a system in a hex, as 50% struck me as a little dense, and used the standard of 5-6 on d6. I expected the rules to result in some sort of pattern or clustering that would strike my imagination much as the character creation had struck us collectively, and that’s exactly what happened. [A minor point: I messed up some of the rolls, which became clear when the results stopped making any sense. Going back to do it right showed me how well-tuned the sequences of rolls are to prior results.]

The planetary and solar-system details provide immense content to work with as long as you point it all “toward one another.” For example, Abraxus and its associated worlds.

  • Starport type B, no base; system includes a gas giant
  • 4000 miles diameter, thin atmosphere, 40% water
  • Population: 10s of millions, government: charismatic dictator, Law 9
  • Tech 9, agricultural

It’s near two other systems/worlds, each with type C starports. One of them, Vargas, has a captive government and is quite livable and wealthy, and the other, Nimbos, is also agricultural with a civil service bureaucratic government. All three came together in my mind as a fine combination: a tinpot teapot very-mini-empire, which I decided was rated Amber (caution to travelers) as they are prone to “admitting applicants” out of anyone who goes here.

That’s just one detail of realizing “what was in front of me.” The bigger scale version was deciding upon the lanes for star-travel, and even bigger, the notion of the subsector as an edge-region, with the sectors to the left, right, and bottom of the page being almost absent solar systems. One of the reasons is that the system-conglomerate you can see near the bottom is a terrible hellhole, full of wretched planets and lawless corporate development and brutal environments. I developed a strong unifying concept for the whole subsector which unfortunately I can’t share except through play, and it’s why the map you’re seeing is the one for players. Mine might be a little different.

As an example for this coming up in play, the whole patron concept and what Taggart says and wants, are grounded in this preparation. I don’t think I role-played it very well, but that’s not improvising you’re seeing – I’m working with known material, merely not as readily as I will be able to after another session or two.

I had arrived prepared with a list of the rolls which were required in merely getting along there. Upon seeing that, I also prepared some “if” material, e.g., if there were an encounter, what was in it (the two fugitives); if they found a patron, who was it (Taggart). Merely knowing these things helped a lot as well, to establish the sense of a moving world and available content, even if they didn’t happen – although, in fact, they both did.

The lesson for me was how quickly things can move. Playing this game requires adjusting to what just happened and running with it as a new mini-situation (scene) with its own required rolls, and the shifts can be extreme. For example, we established that Mike had Administration 3 (which is +6 to the roll!) during this session, and that juxtaposed directly with the super-law dictatorship-society processing at the base on Abraxus, popping him and his chosen friend into a much more institutionally privileged status than the “lone potential mercs” default. As we continue, I won’t know if or when they might find themselves in the outback having monster-encounters, or in jail due to some legal crisis, or in space on their way in the patron’s cause, or captured by rebels, or what.

I also learned, upon this “touch it and try” play, about what sort of additional preparation is involved, or at least, what would work best for me. For example, I found myself a bit off in playing the encounter. Knowing that it would be these fugitives, I should have thought a bit more about their priorities and their larger circumstances, so I’d think more clearly in the moment about what they might do. I already have certain prevailing concepts about the society and why there are fugitives, but some more little anchors, like a Trollbabe-like list of names, will be just right for me.

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12 responses to “Yonder out yonder”

  1. re: the bonuses towards the physical fitness if you are of lower intelligence…

    I was that weirdo who played RPGs, played football, power lifter, and did shot put and discuss. I did find the text amusing as you were going over it.

  2. In listening to you GM, I noted that a lot of the language you used in presenting was natural. Devoid of anything too overwrought in attempting to give a sense of place. It might be that this is common and I just never noted it before, but I was wondering if this is a phenomena of the game itself? Normal people, but in space is how it comes across. No or little lingo. No weird accents, etc…

    Again this could be nothing but I took note of it and wanted to inquire.

    • I think it’s characteristic of my GMing and general play. It’s related to my points about the medium, being neither radio theater nor delivering a single homogeneous visualization.

      With two details: first, that I think I’m still finding the right mind-set for whatever details I do introduce, and from what kind of bank of information, and therefore I’m kind of boring in this game so far. The second session (just played) was better than the first, the third will be better, et cetera, so that eventually I’ll be doing my job with the content. Second, that when I get excited, sometimes I disregulate a little and lose volume control or go over the top in playing a character, as player or GM. It’s not portrayal or performance so much as cognitive/social slippage. You can see that here and there throughout videos I’ve posted.

  3. “The lesson for me was how quickly things can move. Playing this game requires adjusting to what just happened and running with it as a new mini-situation (scene) with its own required rolls, and the shifts can be extreme.”

    This is what I found so rad about Classic Traveller. Its a game that is dynamic. The interplay between Patron/Encounters and Reaction Rolls created so many different and varied situations.

    The game I was Refereeing, the player character, Gene Cooker (best name ever), turned into an amoral corporate smuggler. When we (the player & I) looked back at play, we realized that Reaction Rolls defined the social reality around the player. Gene would roll well with bourgeois, and awful with the proletariat. So, why wouldn’t Gene want some *real food and wine* for smuggling arms to a bunch of strike busters?

    Likewise the encounters that kept coming (escaped prisoners trying to steal the player’s ship) further entrenched Gene into the corporate power structure of the subsector.

    I can’t wait to see the next session.

    • My hope is to orient myself well in terms of this feature. “An animal,” “soldiers,” et cetera, isn’t enough for me actually to play, and in that absence, the dangerous option is to start story-telling and inventings things based on what I’d like to happen next.

      Rather than import procedures from, say, Trollbabe, I decided to work from inspiration and re-read one of my Dumarest novels. I have almost all of them but as a whole, I find them to be beta enjoyable at best. However – as with the game authors – there’s enough concept there to be exciting. First, obviously, whatever messed-up injustices or dangers emerge from the environment, tech, and culture of each planet, that’s easy (and very Trollbabe). Second, I’m seeing what else I need right away.

      In the books, it’s the prevailing institutions which might be found in active/less-active, strong/weak combinations almost anywhere, and their relevant technology: the Cyclan with the affinity twin, and the Church of Universal Brotherhood with the benediction light. The immediate situation at any location is nuanced and significantly altered, in terms of Dumarest’s options, relative to these; even the absence of both is a situational-condition of its own.

      So, I’ve worked up a couple of similar groups and tech – not imitations, based on ideas of my own – which I think will do the job.

    • That should approach should do the trick. I know after the second session in, I zeroed in on the institutions and local situations to avoid a “Mr. Johnson has a job” structure or the “its random moments between the real adventures” mode of play.

      I found out how much a random encounter might dramatically alter play when I had to roll one during a session. It was with a noble and their entourage. I knew the situation at The Outpost (a large mining base in an asteroid belt) involving high-level negotiations with a major mining conglomerate from a nearby system (Zeta), and the various owners of the larger independents operations in the system.

      Much like with System Creation, you have to look at the existing context in a straightforward and un-clever manner. So with where the PC was at, it meant the noble had to be slumming it to blow off steam during the negotiations. The Reaction Rolls made the noble just a real prick and his cronies were awful too.

      This mid-session encounter roll, and the following reaction roll started a chain of events that over the next couple sessions lead to a firefight, an exciting escape and a political change in the sector.

  4. Here’s our second session of Traveller, in what seems to be an escalating series of our interest in the content (“what’s going on”) and in the system itself.

    I knew I’d prepare for this session a bit more systematically, so the first was to nail down all the “knowns.” Given that the patron has arranged a trip to the other end of the sector, I decided upon a proper vessel for it, which entailed risks at both departure and arrival. I knew this would be context for any encounters that might occur at those points. The ship’s contents mattered too, given three modules for the cutter’s design, the necessary living space for our characters (who are not the crew), and necessary fuel for the long haul off the shipping lanes. There would have to be a cover story, hence, a trading venture, so I rolled for that too with notable results: a maximum cargo of precisely the most advantageous and desired possible materials, given the planet of origin and destination. Obviously Taggart knows what he’s doing.

    Here’s the scan of my notes …

    … which show that I’d listed “active entities,” which in turn led to the sensible realization (or that’s what it feels like) that last session’s fugitives were, in fact, Taggart’s agents to be the crew.

    Here’s the link to the videos, inside the playlist.

    I like the events, as they turned out. There were a lot of risks, including Jones’ and Mike’s respective situations to smooth over the security breach Jones had caused by reporting the fugitives, the potential for problems when the two pairs of characters realized who the others were, the increased risks in the context for an encounter when leaving Nimbos due to the rushed departure, and possible issues with further interactions during the trip. Superficially, “nothing happened,” but only because our characters were sensible thinkers with some successful rolls. And some of the details are worth keeping in mind: Corby’s and Marek’s view toward Mike, the yacht they’re using as necessary cover on the approach to Xanders, and many similar things.

    Schedules are keeping us from play for another week or two, but after that, more is on the way.

  5. I am thoroughly enjoying this Traveller game. It’s encouraging as a gamemaster to see this boot-strapped, just-in-time, simple style of play. Just enough is done at any point to keep the game moving forward. Everyone is learning the rules as they go and the Ron isn’t too proud to enlist the players to help with rules. It’s also a good example of how setting, situation, and character can be created through a few simple tools (subsector generator, life path character generation, encounter system) to spark the imagination with incremental development of necessary detail during play. I thought it was interesting how the Admin skill roll was applied without a very specific scene in play – the action and results were abstracted into an expositional summary – almost like an opening montage to quickly get the players established in their environment. Also how the skill roll was left as a standing marker to represent how the player was perceived and how effective he was in routine performance of his duties going forward. This roll also helped to establish something of the relationship between the characters (i.e. Mike used his admin influence to get Jones a job – even though he was younger character).

    Ron would you have found it useful to have the players talking more to each other (in our out of character) about their understanding of and speculations about the situation? I do not mean this as a criticism of the players who did an excellent job – I’m just wondering if such player inputs in the process would have been welcomed as a means of providing you with potential ideas.

    • I’m still not quite bringing the necessary content in this session, as far as I’m concerned, as I’d prefer not to improvise constraint-and-consequence into play at the moment it’s relevant, which is a kind of fakery. But it’s much better than the first session, and I’m finding my feet pretty well as we go, partly because the game’s stated procedures “point” to one another so much more thoroughly than I’d thought. (I’d hoped for that, but didn’t realize how well it would be fulfilled.) My next batch of notes, for the next session, feel good in terms of “now I can play from these” when the next moments of interest appear.

      Regarding GMing and rules-running, or rules-knowing, I learned a while ago that play is so much better when GMing (playing NPCs, knowing more back-story, et cetera) is decoupled from or at least, not confounded with, the “only guy who knows and shows the rules” role. In this game, in which all of us have the same relation to the textual instructions, there is no “holder of the book” so anyone can look things up or explain a procedure to anyone, especially when the recipient is busy with something else. We’re all on the learning curve and all of us are scaffolding one another. As a related point which you can see in other videos, I often encourage one person who loves to learn and use the textual procedures to be our go-to explanation source, as they have all the rules-y-text-y virtues the mythical “God-Rules-GM-Story-Guy” is supposed to have, so why not let play benefit from them, a real person, and not this abstract being whom I’m not inclined to cosplay anyway. I might know the rules well but I’d rather have someone else handle the details and referencing of the moment for everyone including me.

      Regarding the players’ input about the situation, in or out of character, I’m seeing a fair amount of that in the second session, e.g., it features the first time that Mike and Jones differed in their outlooks and thoughts on what to do. Both Johan and Nathan are rather notable in bringing characters to life and (specifically) to idiosyncratic, motivated action, without rushing it, which would be another form of fakery. This is the first time they’ve played together and I think you can see them inspiring one another. So my answer is “yes,” I definitely want more of that input especially in terms of actions and dialogue, but it’s not “want” in terms of a present lack, rather, it’s enjoyment of seeing it appear bit by bit, as authentic play.

  6. Hi Ron,

    from what I know, the 1981 differs from 1977 regarding the implied setting. In CT 1977, the tables suggest a broad E.C. Tubb/Jack Vance scifi setting without citing the Third Imperium in any way; e.g. the space travel encounters table. From the reprint in 1981 and onwards, the tables clearly refer to the Third Imperium.

    I post here the Kubasik’s article on the matter (if I can).


    Is there a particular reason you have chosen to play the 1981 version over the 1977? Thanks in advance for the reply.

    • I have already spoken at length with Christopher about early Traveller, and unlike him I’m not passionate about the details.

      The file I’m using includes the indicia for 1981. However, there is not a single word anywhere about any Imperium, and my reading matches my admittedly spotty memories of the original from long, long ago. I have no explanation or claim to make about that. Maybe this file is a combination of sources, maybe it represents some intermediate publication, or maybe there’s a mess of opinions about what was what that no one can untangle.

      As for why I’m using this version (or whatever it is), it’s the only one I have. I suppose it would be nice to own the original publications for all the early role-playing games, but whoever can do that is much luckier and wealthier than I am.

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