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Entry updated 17 April 2023. Tagged: Game.


Role Playing Game (1977). Game Designers' Workshop (GDW). Designed by Marc Miller.

Traveller is the most commercially successful science fiction Role Playing Game to date, as well as one of the first. The game was developed in an unusual way; after the publication of the initial rules and supplements, much additional work was done by other companies such as FASA and Gamelords, operating under licenses from Game Designers' Workshop which gave them the right to develop particular sectors of space. Andrew Keith and his brother William H Keith Jr created a great deal of early Traveller material under this system. Eventually, the body of writings concerned with the game and (especially) with its default milieu of the Third Imperium grew to become what is probably one of the largest collections of text concerned with a single fictional universe in the whole of sf. Ultimately, however, despite the sophistication of its background and the elegance of its design, much of Traveller's popularity may be due to its primacy. Commercially successful RPGs are often the first to appear which allow their players to participate in the stories of a favourite literary subgenre. As the earliest well constructed and well supported system which implemented the narrative conventions of Space Opera, Traveller's dominance of much of the science fiction role playing market may thus be the result of its having become a standard.

Gameplay in the original edition of Traveller differs in several ways from that of earlier RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons. Characters do not belong to specific "classes" (such as fighter or magician); instead, they have lists of learned skills and abilities. Rather than amassing hoards of valuable artefacts, players will often design their own possessions; creating deck plans for a personal Starship has always been a popular aspect of the game. Perhaps the most revealing difference is the type of reward a player might expect after successfully completing an adventure. Rather than gaining personal power, a character in Traveller often benefits by acquiring information about Alien races or the secrets of the Imperium, a classic science-fictional device.

Initially, the Traveller rules were intended as a generic system for running science fiction adventures, for which the Third Imperium was an optional setting. In practice, however, the milieu proved to be highly popular, while the details of the original mechanics have now been largely forgotten. The Third Imperium is part of a tradition of Hard SF-based Space Opera which may have reached its peak in the written genre in the years immediately before the first publication of the game; Poul Anderson's Technic History could be seen as epitomizing the form. Acknowledged influences on the Third Imperium include E C Tubb's Dumarest series as well as the Technic History; others can be inferred, notably H Beam Piper's Space Viking (November 1962-June 1963 Analog; 1963), Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium sequence and Andre Norton's Free Traders and (perhaps) Central Control books. More recently, Walter Jon Williams's Dread Empire's Fall and the television series Firefly (2002) demonstrate the continuing vitality of this kind of sf. It is significant that none of these works explore recent science-fictional themes such as Nanotechnology or Posthumanism; current versions of the Traveller rules explicitly suggest that such elements should be excluded, in order to maintain the feel of the game.

In the distant past of the Third Imperium a Forerunner species (the "Ancients") transplanted early humans to a wide variety of other worlds. One of these groups, the Vilani, developed a high level of civilization and a Faster Than Light drive thousands of years before humans on Earth, and formed a Galactic Empire in which Vilani nobles ruled a feudal society of humans scattered by the Ancients. The Vilani empire lasted for more than fifteen centuries, but collapsed in a series of Interstellar Wars after contact was made with the Solomani, Earth humans who had independently discovered faster than light travel. The Second Imperium, formed by the Solomani military to rule the conquered territories, also disintegrated, and interstellar humanity fell into a Long Night of barbarism until the establishment of the Third Imperium. The original edition of the game is set in the fifty-seventh century CE, a Golden Age when this empire is at its zenith. Other interstellar groups exist, including the Zhodani Consulate (a separate human society which makes extensive use of Psionics), the Hivers (a radically alien, and largely non-violent, species which deters potential aggressors with the threat of Psychohistoric retaliation), the lion-like Aslan race and the Vargr, descended from Earth wolves Uplifted by the Ancients, but none of them present a serious threat to the Imperium.

The second edition of the rules is MegaTraveller (1986 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, created collaboratively by Game Designers' Workshop and Digest Group Publications. While various minor improvements were made to this edition's mechanics compared to those of the original, these alterations were not perfectly realized, making them of questionable value. More significantly, perhaps, GDW attempted to resolve a perceived flaw in the design of the Third Imperium – that its high level of civilization made many kinds of adventures credible only if they took place beyond its borders – by decreeing that the emperor had (apparently) been assassinated, triggering a chaotic struggle for power within the Imperium. In this GDW became one of the first groups of Role Playing Game designers to add an overarching narrative to their Game-World, an innovation that they had prefigured with their introduction of regular news updates from the Third Imperium in the game's dedicated magazine, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (1979-1985; subsequently incorporated into the Games Magazine Challenge). Traveller: The New Era (1992 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, David Nilsen, Lester Smith, Loren Wiseman is a further revision which borrows the more complex mechanics used by Twilight: 2000 (1984) and 2300 AD (1987). The eponymous epoch is another Long Night, one which descends when the various wars and rebellions of the MegaTraveller era are ended by the release of a self-replicating Berserker AI which infects starships and uses them against human populations. Stylistically, the New Era is grimmer than its predecessors; the ambience is sometimes suggestive of C J Cherryh's Merchanters novels, particularly Downbelow Station (1981) and Rimrunners (1989). Game Designers' Workshop ceased operations not long after the release of the New Era and the rights to Traveller reverted to Miller, who assigned them to a new company, Imperium Games. This group then released Marc Miller's Traveller (1996 Imperium Games) designed by Lester Smith, Marc Miller, which abandoned further development of the Future History in favour of a game set in "Milieu 0", the early years of the Third Imperium. Unfortunately development of the game appears to have been rushed for commercial reasons, and flaws in the resulting mechanics (which were largely based on those of the first edition, but included some changes) resulted in the game's commercial failure.

Subsequent iterations of the game have generally returned to the Golden Age of the Third Imperium for their setting, this being the milieu which most players prefer. The first such version was GURPS Traveller (1998 Steve Jackson Games [SJG]; rev 2002) designed by David Pulver, Sean Punch, Loren Wiseman, authorized by Miller and based on the GURPS mechanics. In this variant it is explicit that the assassination which led to the rebellions described in MegaTraveller did not occur, allowing the Golden Age to continue into an indefinite future. The UK's Mongoose Publishing then licensed Traveller as the basis for a generic science fiction role playing system which could be used to implement various milieux in addition to that of the Third Imperium – such as that of 2300 AD – and made available to other designers under a legal framework similar to that of the Open Gaming License (see d20). The mechanics of this version, designed in 2008 by Gareth Hanrahan, again resemble those of the original edition, with some relatively minor improvements. While the Mongoose game is now the primary version of Traveller, GURPS Traveller is still available, and Miller has released a version of Traveller5 (2009 Far Future Enterprises), his own vision of an ultimate set of rules for the game that will finally perfect the design of the first edition.

Game Designers' Workshop also published a number of Wargames set in the Traveller milieu. The most well regarded, Imperium (1977 GDW; 2001 rev vt Imperium: Third Millenium) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller, is a strategic board and counter game set during the Interstellar Wars between the First Imperium and the Solomani which can be used to construct a "grand narrative" of the setting's Future History. Other Traveller-related board and counter Wargames include Invasion: Earth (1981 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller, based on a war between the Third Imperium and a splinter group of Solomani supremacists; Fifth Frontier War (1981 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, which describes a war between the Third Imperium, the Zhodani and the Vargr in a frontier region known as the Spinward Marches, and Dark Nebula (1980 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, which deals with a conflict between the Aslan and the Solomani. Several other games were based on expansions of portions of the original Traveller rules. Thus Mayday (1978 GDW) designed by Marc Miller simulates ship to ship combat in space, Snapshot (1979 GDW) designed by Marc Miller deals with individual soldiers, usually on board spacecraft, Striker (1981 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick models squad and vehicle combat using miniature figures, and the much praised Azhanti High Lightning (1980 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller describes person to person combat on board imperial warships of the eponymous class. Three more games were produced by Game Designers' Workshop to be used with the New Era rules: Striker II (1994 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, an updated version of Striker; Brilliant Lances (1993 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, a starship combat game, and Battle Rider (1994 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, which models starship battles at the fleet level, using a system compatible with that of Brilliant Lances.

Jefferson P Swycaffer wrote a number of novels set in the Concordat universe he developed for his own Traveller game, making the books Ties to the first edition's rule-set and fictional technologies but not to the universe of the Third Imperium. The first, Not in our Stars (1984) is a competently told, if somewhat confused, story of the tragic downfall of a military Hero. Notably, with the arguable exceptions of Fred Saberhagen's Starweb inspired Octagon (1981) and M A R Barker's 1984 publication of The Man of Gold (see Tékumel), Not in our Stars appears to have been the first science-fictional novel to be published which was based on a game. The remaining books in the initial sequence of four are Become the Hunted (1985), The Universal Prey (1985) and The Praesidium of Archive (coll 1985). The Empire's Legacy (1988), Voyage of the Planetslayer (1988) and Revolt and Rebirth (1988), written for a different publisher after a gap of several years, are generally superior; of these, The Empire's Legacy is perhaps the most interesting, and the most evocative of the original game. Arguably, Swycaffer's artistic ambitions in these novels tend to exceed his grasp. The New Era books The Death of Wisdom (1995) and To Dream of Chaos (1995), both by Paul Brunette, are (mostly) well told Space Operas. Of all the various Traveller related novels, they are perhaps the most evocative of the milieu; this is not a characteristic they share with Pierce Askegren's rather more routine Gateway to the Stars (1998), set (probably) in the Milieu 0 of Marc Miller's Traveller. The Brunette novels were intended as the first two volumes of a trilogy, the third part of which was apparently lost when Game Designers' Workshop closed down. Marc Miller eventually commissioned Matthew Carson to write a new final volume, The Backwards Mask (2011 ebook), after which the original version was rediscovered and published as The Backwards Mask (2011 ebook), by Paul Brunette. Several other Traveller Ties have been published in very limited editions (or electronically) by various Small Presses: Dale L Kemper's Force of Destiny (2001), set outside the frontiers of the Third Imperium in its Golden Age, and the New Era novels A Long Way Home (2007 ebook), by Terry McInnes, and Diaspora Phoenix (2002), by Martin Dougherty.

Traveller was perhaps the single greatest influence on the early years of science fiction game design, leaving its mark on works as diverse as Elite (1984) and Reich Star (1991). Ultimately, it has come to stand for a certain kind of Space Opera, a flamboyant fusion of problem solving exploration and intricate intrigue which has survived in the game even as it has become largely extinct in the written genre which gave it life.

Related works: GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars (2006 SJG) designed by Jon Zeigler, Loren Wiseman, Paul Drye is a supplement to GURPS Traveller set during the conflict between the First Imperium and the Solomani. TNE 1248 is an updated setting for Traveller: The New Era, featuring a nascent "Fourth Imperium"; several supplements have been published for this milieu, beginning with Out of the Darkness (2006 Avenger Enterprises) designed by Martin Dougherty. Traveller 20 (2002 QuikLink Interactive) designed by Martin Dougherty, Hunter Gordon is a version of the game using the d20 rules, set in the Third Imperium a century before the Golden Age of the original game. Traveller Hero (2007 ComStar) designed by Rob Bruce, Kevin Walsh, Randy Hollingsworth similarly adapts Traveller to the HERO System (see Champions). Power Projection: Fleet (2003 British Isles Traveller Support [BITS]) designed by Dominic Mooney is a Wargame focusing on combat between Traveller's capital ships, using an adapted version of the Full Thrust rules; the related Power Projection: Escort (2002 BITS) designed by Dominic Mooney concentrates on smaller vessels.

Paragon Software [PS] made two Computer Role Playing Games based on MegaTraveller. The first, the sometimes frustrating The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990 PS, AtariST, DOS; 1991 Amiga), deals with a plot against the Imperium, while the generally superior Quest for the Ancients (1991 PS, DOS; 1992 Amiga) revolves around the need to discover more about the titular Forerunner race before a mysteriously reactivated artefact destroys a human colony world. Both games exactly transpose the MegaTraveller rules to a Videogame format, using the then conventional two-dimensional overhead view. StarCrystal I – Mertactor: The Volentine Gambit (1985 Ba'rac Limited, AppleII), designed by Terry Gray, Jeff Billings, Ken Maniscalco, Jim Long, is a text Adventure set in the Golden Age of the Third Imperium. Traveller AR (2011 ingZ, iOS) is an unfinished Space Sim set in the Third Imperium which is played in a persistent Online World. The "AR" refers to "augmented reality" (in which simulated objects from the game are overlaid on the real world as seen through a digital camera), though the game's actual use of this technology seems somewhat superficial. [NT]

see also: Slough Feg.

further reading

  • Timothy Collinson. The Traveller Bibliography (Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire: British Isles Traveller Support, 1997) [nonfiction: details Traveller game publications: pb/photocollage]
    • Timothy Collinson. The Traveller Bibliography (Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire: British Isles Traveller Support, 1999) [nonfiction: exp rev of the above: pb/photocollage]
      • Timothy Collinson. The Traveller Bibliography (Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire: British Isles Traveller Support, 2018) [nonfiction: ebook: much exp rev of the above: na/photocollage]
  • Timothy Collinson. The Periodical Bibliography (Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire: British Isles Traveller Support, 2000) [nonfiction: notes magazine articles based on the game: pb/photocollage]
  • Jim Dietz, editor. Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying (Charleston, Illinois: Jolly Roger Games, 2000) [nonfiction: includes a detailed analysis of the origins of Traveller by Marc Miller: pb/uncredited]


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