The Traveller Book – Introduction

Recently I picked up a POD copy of the Game Designers’ Workshop book The Traveller Book. First printed in 1982, this book is a collection of the Traveller rules first published in 3 separate books by Marc Miller in 1977. Traveller is a science fiction adventure RPG set in the “far future”, an age where mankind has spread out amongst the stars, travel faster than the speed of light is possible, and merchants, militaries, pirates and others vie for a piece of the universe to call their own. Largely a “space opera” style game, traveller envisions a massive universe with a powerful (but distant) government, and communication speeds that are limited to the speed of starship travel, and intends players to be “retired” characters from a previous career seeking some new fame, fortune, glory or home.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be reading through the book calling out some sections and thoughts as I go. So let’s get started…

The Traveller Book opens with an introduction to the universe and to roll playing games in general. The 1982 rules for Traveller are not quite identical to the original rules published in 1977, and within the first sentence, one of those differences appears. The Traveller Book starts by welcoming the players to a world where “interstellar travel will be as common as international travel is today.” The original 1977 rules do not make this statement and most of the rules regarding interstellar travel make it much more dangerous than any form of modern day international travel. The sentence should probably then be read as a statement of how the Traveller universe believes the (Traveller) future will be, but not as it is at this very moment. As we will see when we get to later chapters, interstellar travel is dangerous, and it’s likely very few folks are hopping in a star ship for a weekend on another planet.

From there the book describes the basic assumptions and structures that Traveller will play by, and describes some of the differences between Traveller and other popular RPGs of the time. Of note, Traveller does not expect all player characters to be neophytes to the larger world. They don’t “start at level 1”. Instead as we will see later, Traveller characters are generated by starting with an 18 year old kid fresh from the block and having them enlist in a career in 4 year stints, for up to 28 years, earning skills and material items along the way. Play with these characters begins after they have left their previous career. As a result Traveller does not expect (or require) that all player characters have equal numbers or levels of skill.

One point the book makes for budding referees (Traveller’s term for the game master) is that the system is flexible. In fact, the book mentions that the basic rules describe only the major workings of the universe and expect the referee to fill in the details to make the universe fit whatever universe the players envision. This was a common theme to a lot of early RPGs, where the rules were intended as a starting point, but not as the end all be all.

The next section of the book describes the materials required to play Traveller. All the usual suspects can be found here, the rule book, a space to play (although it does mention that miniatures are not required), paper, writing utensils etc. In this section, we’re also told that the Traveller rules provide for “solitaire and unsupervised” play (relatively unique among RPGs) but that the “highest form of the game” requires a referee, to provide mystery and uncertainty that is absent otherwise. Lastly we are reminded that “the most important requirement … is imagination”, without which Traveller would be nothing more than a “dull, tedious routine of rolling dice and reading tables.”

The book then goes on to define a number of terms and abbreviations that will be used throughout the game, and then on to the procedures of playing the game. First and foremost we are admonished that while the referee represents and controls all the obstacles and things that can go wrong or interfere with the players, care should be taken not to develop an antagonistic relationship where the players are always seeking to thwart the referee and the referee is always seeking to pile disasters on the characters as fast as possible. The book specifically notes that the referee will simply be having a different type of fun, as compared to the players, when running the game.

We’re next given some instruction for the first few sessions of the game, including advice about pacing and plotting that might be old hat for experienced referees, but helpful for new ones. One note of humor and interest in this section is found when the books describe how the referee and players can draw on real world inspiration to fill in the universe. In particular the book envisions a scenario where the characters are attempting to rob a bank. It is suggested that the referee might note that the bank has a similar layout to a real world local bank, to assist in everyone being able to visualize the environment. The book then warns that players should be discouraged from “casing” the real wold bank, noting that real life security guards and real life problems are likely to follow. This is something of an odd admonishment and I wonder if its presence is related to the anti-role playing hysteria that occurred in the late 70’s and 80’s, as the Egbert / steam tunnels incident was a mere 3 years before publication, Mazes and Monsters was a year old, and the same year, BADD would be founded by Patricia Pulling. Needless to say, neither The Traveller Book, nor the management here at iDungeon Crawl advise mixing fantasy and reality.

Next we move on to the largest section of this chapter, the Referee Responsibilities. First and foremost we are advised that a good referee has 3 main attributes. Imagination, improvisation, and a sense of proportion, noting specifically that characters should find their first few months to be a constant scramble for money and resources rather than falling into the trap of rewarding outsized treasures for minor tasks in an attempt to keep players interested. The section speaks often about the need of referees to strike balances, noting both that a referee can (and should) change the results of die rolls if they don’t like the result, but also that this should be done in a fair manner as players won’t enjoy things occurring simply by fiat.

From there we get quite a few paragraphs on the importance and use of NPCs, and the suggestion that the referee should use characters generated while learning to use the system as NPCs. In fact, as we will see later, character creation in Traveller comes with the risk of character death. Often these dead PCs can be (and should be for the sake of the referee’s sanity) reused as fleshed out NPCs.

Like D&D and many other early RPGs, Traveller makes specific mention of the importance of keeping good track of the passage of game time. In fact, several paragraphs are spent describing both the needs of the referee to be aware that something that takes a lot of real world time to work out may take only instants in the game, but also that something which takes an instant in the real world might represent weeks or months passing in game. One interesting suggestion is that the referee allow in character conversations and discussions amongst players to proceed unhindered both as a way to get a break and organized, but also as an effect in game as well.


We are then warned that a referee should resist the desire to interfere in the universe. Noting that it is poor form both to “help out” with unknowable information or contrivances and likewise poor form to “ex-machina” corrections and fixes for anomalies or bizarre occurrences. At same time the referee is advised that both allowing the dice to fall where they may, allowing a character to die to foolhardy or simply unlucky events, and simultaneously showing moments of mercy and providing the occasional miraculous escape are important tools for the referee. As I said, striking a balance is a theme in this chapter.

One of the final words of advice to the referee is something that is in my opinion extremely important, both for new and old game masters and players alike. We are advised that the referee owes the players a calm, collected referee who does not lose their temper, and by the same token the referee owes themselves and the other players a disruption free game. If any player in the game is continually disruptive and obnoxious and not receptive to warnings about their behavior, they should be ejected from the game. This is very important and near to my heart. Gaming is supposed to be fun, this is a hobby and if you’re not having fun, then there’s no point. Never be afraid to dismiss a player that is causing people not to have fun.

The last part of the chapter gives a basic overview of the die rolling conventions in the game. Specifically it tells us that the most common roll (or throw) will be 2d6 (abbreviated in the game as 2D since the game only uses d6) and that the targets for such throws will be noted as something like 8+ or 6-; meaning 8 or higher or 6 or lower respectively.

Overall this is a fairly decent introduction to the book. It’s interesting to me that so much referee advice and procedure is front loaded here, but in some ways it makes a lot of sense. Even if you’re not going to referee the game, understanding the model the game assumes will help make the game more enjoyable.

Next time, Characters…

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