Traveller (1977)

Here, finally, is the original little black box of Traveller (1977). I love Traveller, it’s a super important RPG, but it is hard to post about because all the good stuff is trapped in nondescript, largely illustration-free packaging. Still, it’s beyond time to get this one up.

So, not the first sci fi RPG, but the first important one. For my money, it is also the first RPG that feels free of imitation D&D DNA. You can see the difference immediately. The first booklet establishes character creation as a solo game unto itself, less interested in attributes than in creating a fictional history. The player enlists the character in branches of the Imperium’s military, or for terms of service with the merchant fleet. Dice rolls then determine the results of service by awarding and increasing skills, abilities, ranks and salary. In rare cases, a character can even die. This changes play in important ways. First, it gives you a sense of the universe before you even get into the game – there is an interstellar empire, a robust military, intergalactic trade and so on – and establishes your character’s place within it.

Then there is the chapter is called “Starship Economics.” I know that sounds dull as dirt but it winds up teaching you as much about the universe as it does the rules. Starships are expensive. That expense centers the Traveller experience – you can’t just go off gallivanting; fuel costs money. So do empty staterooms and cargo holds; you’ve got to marry adventure with commerce. And that’s in the unlikely event that a bank trusted you enough to extend credit for you to buy a ship. More likely, you’re part of a larger crew, working for wage or passage, and subject to the whims of a captain, or his boss, the actual owner of the ship. These layers of fiscal responsibility create narrative friction before you’re plotting your own goals. And because there is no experience point system or real incentive to fight, Traveller opens vistas of potential. You can’t help but want to explore when you read it.

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