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April 17, 2007

I realize I am probably in the minority among roleplayers, certainly among roleplaying game writers, who believe that the elaboration of setting to the point where a game becomes about the setting rather than about things the player characters do in the setting is the death knell of any RPG. I quoted above an essay from a very early issue of GDW’s Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, in which no less a luminary than J. Andrew Keith argues, in effect, that Traveller represents a quantum leap in conceptual design over an unnamed game involving dungeons because it details a world beyond what the characters know and experience — a “real world,” to use Keith’s phrase. This certainly is the seed from which the current unhappy state of Traveller grew but I think it nicely reflects what I feel are the problems in current game design and why very few contemporary games hold much appeal for me.

When Traveller was released in 1977 (before the release of Star Wars, if I recall correctly), the game of “science fiction adventure in the far future” had no setting other than an implied one. The fact that jump drive worked a certain way, that there was a stat called “Social Standing,” the higher levels of which conferred a noble title, and so on suggested a number of things and certainly restricted the scope of imagined worlds possible under the rules set (somewhat) but that’s a far cry from saying it had an actual setting. Traveller made a lot of setting assumptions — most broadly that its players wished to play in Piper, Anderson, Pournelle pastiches — and the rules supported and reinforced those assumptions but that’s the extent to which the game described its implied setting.

As further rules expansions — and that’s an important point — came out for the game, it included small expansions of the implied setting as well. Old time Traveller fans will recall the “Standards and Assumptions” section at the beginning of every book, which laid out in the most basic terms things like the existence of a distant, feudal government called the Imperium. Beyond that, though, individual players and GMs could portray the setting however they wished and I know very well that my earliest Traveller campaigns portrayed the Imperium as a far more dissolute, decadent place than it would later become. Yes, we did get the Spinward Marches, with hundreds of worlds placed on a map, along with names, world profiles, and very tiny bits of detail. And, yes, it did talk about the psionic Zhodani, the alien Vargr, and a few other points of color. Yet there was little to no information on what these things meant. There were certainly no detailed histories or timelines. Except that the Imperium was the third of its kind and 1100 years old, we didn’t know a lot about it — and that was just fine.

The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society changed this paradigm, of course, with its detailed “Contact!” articles and emperors lists and its integration of the previously independent game Imperium into the Traveller setting. As a buyer only of Traveller books and supplements, though, this was all unknown to, I expect, the vast majority of players of the game. I believe less than 10% of Traveller players probably read the Journal and, in those heady days, individual Traveller campaigns varied quite widely, even if they were all set in the Spinward Marches of this nebulous Imperium.

Over time, material from JTAS started finding its way into Traveller books and supplements. The details of the Imperium started to become thicker on the ground — “Library Data” became more than just little tidbits of random information to give players but the driving force behind a lot of adventures and even “rules” expansions. By the time Supplement 8: Library Data A-M was released in 1980 (that it had to be split into two volumes is telling), the writing was on the wall and henceforth Traveller was no longer a game of “science fiction adventure in the far future” but a game of “science fiction adventure in the universe of the Third Imperium.” It may seem like a small distinction but it’s a significant one.

J. Andrew Keith was right in saying that Traveller was different from D&D because, by the time he wrote that, the game had ceased to be a rules set with an implied setting like D&D but instead had become a game with a very specific setting, the details of which came to matter more and more, to such an extent in fact that the much-needed revision of the game rules in 1987 not only tied the game forever more to the Third Imperium setting but did so in a way that pretty much required you to absorb and utilize reams of setting material to make sense of it. The ridiculously named MegaTraveller took place during the similarly ridiculously named Rebellion (later called the Second Civil War), in which a failed coup and the consequent succession crisis shatters the Imperium and spread war throughout charted space. If one wishes to point to the moment when the core concept behind Traveller definitively died, it was with the publication of MegaTraveller in 1987, though it had been dying since at least 1984, if not earlier.

Since then, every attempt to revive Traveller and return it to its former glory has done so within the context of ever increasing esoterica about the Third Imperium setting. MegaTraveller gave way to Traveller: The New Era, a setting twice removed from the original, as it depended on not just understanding the disaster of the Rebellion/Second Civil War (re-dubbed yet again as the Final War) but also the society that existed before it. Marc Miller’s Traveller (aka T4) sought shelter in the past, returning us to the founding days of the Third Imperium and igniting endless flame wars as various fan factions argued over both its under-playtested rules and its “violations” of Traveller “canon.” GURPS Traveller likewise retreated into the safety of “ignore all that other stuff” while riffing off the fact that its audience knew full well of the existence of that other stuff. It even explicitly introduced a dreaded meta-plot into Traveller (which, to be fair, had existed in the game at least as far back as the Fifth Frontier War — another fiasco but I digress) that likewise played off the fact that its readers — and by this stage, most of Traveller’s fan were readers rather than actual players — knew the material it was rejecting and/or re-interpreting and could have a jolly chuckle at the collective in-joke.

There are a lot of lessons here, lessons I’ve taken to heart in writing Thousand Suns. First and foremost, games that are about a setting will always inevitably collapse under the weight of details. As soon as a conception of “canon” develops, you’re already well on your way to senescence and death. This is not to say that there’s no place for specificity in an implied setting — far from it! — but I am saying that there is a vast difference between acknowledging the existence of the Imperial Navy and talking about its ranks and structure and detailing exactly which fleets exist in which subsectors, who is in command of them, and what ships are in those fleets. It’s fine to provide a sample sector or two but all of them? It’s fine to have library data for color but hundreds of pages of it? When things get to the point where a GM feels he needs to consult multiple books not to check out game mechanics or rules but background information, that’s the point where the game has too much background. Background and setting should exist to facilitate adventure conception not constrain them.

For a few years that’s exactly what Traveller did and it coasted on the momentum those few years gave it but, eventually, it could coast no more, the weight of canon stopped it dead in its tracks and, despite multiple well-intentioned attempts to revive it, every single one of them has been done under mistaken premises. If Traveller were ever to live again and regain its pre-eminent position, it’d need to be more like the game it was supposedly an advance over, Dungeons & Dragons. It would need to be a game of science fiction adventure in the far future again, a rule set with some implied, even heavily implied, setting details but one where those details do not overshadow the rules or stifle creativity. Until Traveller is again a game where multiple GMs can run it in multiple ways in multiple interpretations of the implied setting, it’s dead and should remain so.

2007 is the 30th anniversary of Traveller. I raise my glass in honor of a true classic of roleplaying game design. We shall not see its like again.

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