“The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence.” Underlying all passionate Traveller fans is a desire to tell and participate in grand science fiction narratives. We can worry about Canon and setting and what game Traveller is supposed to be. Or we can write sweeping histories such as “These Stars Are Ours!“. Published by Stellagama Publishing, its goal is to provide an immersive Traveller universe that explores a variety of themes and stories, drawing upon well known science fiction tropes. A consequence of separating the “engine” of Traveller from the “setting” is that it liberates writers and publishers to create their own settings for adventures. Echoing the great product the Twilight Sector, “These Stars Are Ours!” is a successful and comprehensive setting that includes new and modified rules relevant to the setting and takes advantage of Stellagama Publishing’s existing work in extending the Cepheus Engine. It entrances the reader immediately and provides a powerful basis for Traveller adventures.
Alegis Downport has already written an informative review. The comment thread below the review already contains positive responses from the publisher promising further material for the setting – great news for fans. This review will comment more on the history and nature of setting itself.
The star charts draw upon Stellagama’s earlier work “Near Space“. It makes Earth (“Terra”) the centre of the setting – and so players have an immediate stake in the game, connecting to the future of our own planet. The setting approximately 400 years into the future, not thousands, also making it more immediate to us as readers and players. The period is clearly parallel to Traveller 2300 but this setting has a very different flavour. The Reticulans are the almond-shaped-eyed aliens of Area 51 fame who conquer Terra and rule it with an iron fist until thrown off by the free-spirited, fighting and proud Terrans. Play begins in the aftermath of this revolutionary war.
The history of the war itself is a great read. This reviewer saw clear parallels to the Russian Civil War of the 1920’s and to World War II – there was even a ‘Stalingrad’ moment in this setting’s history. While the ‘fighting Terran’ spirit is reminiscent of fiction such as Starship Troopers, the setting is also clearly influenced by the gritty realism of Firefly and its themes of the real social consequences of war and oppression. This theme carries through in describing the history and culture of the various non-human sophonts of the setting. None are cardboard cut-out “bad guys” and all have redeeming qualities as well as flaws. How these various aliens react to the Reticulan Imperium and the United Terran Republic causes us to reflect upon the reasons for our actions – the best part of role play games (although I also enjoy blowing things up).
The patrons provided are all great hooks firmly grounded in this detailed and nuanced setting. There are familiar industrial espionage, smuggling and exploration themes, but all layered with the particular history of the setting, including a mysterious race of Precursors who have left artefacts. But on top of this there are very specific adventures interacting with the various alien races in ways other than at the other end of a weapon. The Reticulans are divided into competing feudal houses. The Zhuzzh are untrustworthy and nomadic – but as a wise man once said, you can always trust an untrustworthy man to be untrustworthy. The Cicek are fierce fighters and dashing pirates, but also divided along gender lines Aslan-style. The Ssesslessians are mysterious respecters of ancient traditions. Once more familiar with the setting, all of these species would make interesting player characters.
This setting book also offers careers and advanced career rules including setting-based events that affect characters, drawing players into the history and engaging them with the background. All of the new rules and alternate career paths are clearly based on the story needs of the setting. This is an excellent use of a rules engine: it obeys the story needs, not the other way around.
While the deck plans and starship designs are few, the generic ship designs from the Cepheus Engine will fit this setting well. The publishers have promised further ships for the setting in the future. The ‘flying saucer’ designs were a real treat, and the text justifies ‘mysterious UFOs’ at TL13 by showing how mysterious true gravitics would be to 20th Century earth – but always by example, never by telling the reader. This kind of excellent descriptive writing strengthens the setting and is an excellent example of ‘show don’t tell’ in RPG writing.
The star maps provided give plenty of contrasting settings for adventure, right on the border of four different political entities. “The Frontier” is always a good source of adventures and conflict. What These Stars Are Ours! shows is that you can pack a lot of adventure and campaign ideas into just two subsectors. This is plenty for a typical Traveller sandbox campaign.
Priced at a very reasonable $20, any Referee can pick this up and plan adventures for hungry players quickly. You will not regret the purchase.
From The Ashes is a short supplement for the Cepheus Engine (‘CE’) and the Traveller SRD (‘SRD’) published by Stellagama Publishing written by Omer Golan-Joel. It covers five expansions characters united by the theme of character death and recovering from fatal injuries.
It firstly adjusts the usual meaning of ‘character death’ within normal play. If all three physical characteristics are reduced to zero, instead of rolling up a new character, From The Ashes provides straightforward rules for rushing a character to trauma surgery and recovering. But the devil is in the detail: there may be some permanent new injuries. This can add history to characters – the loss of a limb or eye makes them more interesting.
Secondly there is an adjustment to character generation, replacing the standard injury table which draws upon the definitions carefully established in the first expansion. It makes character injury during generation harsher but with more detail.
The supplement then provides for simple optional rules in combat for critical hit bonuses for Effect 6 hits, aligning hits against personnel with hits against vehicles. This does make the game generally more lethal.
Finally, two higher technology solutions to near-death injuries are presented: Cybernetic replacements at TL12, and complete body renewal at TL16. However, both come with possible serious side-effects in the spirit of the trauma rules.
At 15 pages total with 10 pages content, this is a very readable supplement that offers a variety of interesting expansions for characters who suffer from fatal injuries and have one last roll of the dice depending on the TL of their surroundings and the skill of the doctor operating. At the same time, character generation and combat get a bit more fatal. The result can be used by Referees to rescue NPCs from death but now they have one leg, or are blind, bitter and have history with the PCs.
But, of course, the primary aim is for PCs to have options to trade death for the possibility of an interesting set of scars.
The short Mongoose Traveller adventure ‘The Bronze Case’ by Richard Hazlewood was published by Stellagama Publishing in May 2016. On the surface, the adventure concerns the transport of a Bronze Case through local areas on a backwater planet after the players respond to a struggle in their hotel in the middle of the night. But Hazlewood is also interested in involving the players in the politics of local gangs, industrial espionage, a climactic car chase, and the promise of a reward to intrigued player characters. Hazlewood and Stellagama Publishing aim to provide a Referee with everything he or she needs for a quick side adventure on a local world. It can easily fit into an on-going Traveller campaign.
The adventure is structured to clearly present each encounter or scene in the story in chronological order. No Traveller era is mandated, just a suggested world profile where the adventure might take place. The local gang politics and local history are generic enough to slot into many worlds. The Referee is provided with full character profiles for all important NPCs, and detailed references to the Mongoose rules for vehicles, equipment and other props needed for the story. The different encounters provide detailed advice to the Referee to deal with common player responses to the situation.
The Bronze Case takes place in a world where the law level has recently been raised to 9 as the result of local political developments which give rise to the complications with gangs in the adventure. Although the broad history is detailed, the local police force culture is not, but this leaves the Referee free to fill in details. At the beginning of the adventure we are introduced to an alluring woman who wants help dealing with a mysterious attack in the middle of the night. It is completely up to the players to respond – or the adventure ends at the beginning! Some good Refereeing may be needed to get this started without railroading the players; but this is an age old problem for all Referees. When the players respond they are drawn into her circumstance, and are made an offer of money to help. The apparently simple problem is to help “Amy” get a case to a particular facility. What is not revealed immediately is who is after it and why – but the Referee receives a full briefing on the background of gang territory and the local politics that produced the current situation. The climax is a vehicle chase and possible fire fight to overcome thugs who want the case for themselves. The ever-present threat of rival interest in the case keeps the story moving and provides motivation for the players to see the adventure through.
The layout is simple but effective. Castellani’s illustrations of “Amy” set a suitable action mood for the story. While there are only two graphics, the layout provides a Referee with easy access to all of the information needed. The short nature of the adventure means after one read-through, the Referee is ready for a session.
Hazlewood and Stellagama Publishing have successfully presented here a quick-paced side adventure with everything a Referee needs to run it. For those Referees who play other versions of Traveller, the information provided is easily enough to quickly convert to other Traveller systems. If successfully navigated, players will be rewarded with interesting contacts, and a Referee is free to flesh out further details in store for players’ return to the planet.
(Disclaimer: Jonathan Sherlock was both a beta tester and a kickstart backer.) Traveller 5th Edition (T5) is an ambitious reconstruction of Traveller. The central mechanic, the task system, combines “roll under a characteristic” with the universal task system. The core of T5 also details basic assumptions about range, time, and money. All of these benchmarks are used repeatedly throughout the T5 core rules, making the game system both consistent and flexible.
The Traveller tradition of characters who are generated with some life history continues. But careers have been consolidated into 13 types, although some of them have many sub-types. The emphasis is on fluid, quick play while constructing a character history and defining their abilities. The different careers now have slight variations on how terms are resolved, stimulating the imagination for a character’s history in different ways. Characters can be of any Sophont species, and the Sophont generation rules plug-in directly to character generation. Built into the core character generation rules are the possible variations for non-Human Sophonts. More on this later. Skill acquisition now makes a distinction between Skills and Knowledges. There are a defined list of Skills, but most skills are further divided into Knowledges which can be added to in a flexible manner. For example, Fighting is divided into different kinds of knowledges associated with different weapons – but Referees are free to add new Knowledges as the needs of their campaign dictate. Characters perceive the universe with five standard senses (well, OK – reduced to four by combining smell and taste), but the rules systematically allow for extension beyond Human norms, and additional non-Human senses. Interpersonal interactions also get an entire chapter, such that the game not only simulates combat, but other forms of interaction.
Combat is highly abstracted, and does not include detail such as ammunition tracking and line of sight. The view is that there are two sides, we have a rough idea of the terrain, the two sides are either closing or withdrawing, and they are shooting / hacking at each other. Resolve damage, and leave it at that. This may present some problems where an exciting situation based on three positions in a triangle, or an enemy running away from some players while chasing others. The Makers mean that every conceivable piece of equipment in the full range of Traveller combat technologies can be easily designed with a few simple choices. With the QREBS innovation, the rules cover all devices from beginning faulty prototypes to advanced tech ultimate versions.
Starship Design returns to the Classic Traveller mold. Take given hull sizes, configure them, and plug-in the required locomotion, weapons, and other utilities. Only two design constraints are used – cost and hull volume. The design system acknowledges the lessons learned from earlier systems, and is vastly easier to use than either MegaTraveller or TNE. This allows for quick imagining of ship missions and then designing them by selecting options. The design system only covers Adventure Class Ships – that is, ships the players are likely to own or commonly contact. Future T5 supplements will include Battle Class ships.
The core World Building mechanic remains unchanged from Classic Traveller – all Traveller fans will still be able to read UWPs. An interesting addition is “hospitable zone” worlds that are an orbit either side of the traditional HZ, for hot and cold (but hospitable) worlds. System generation still uses similar mechanics that started with Classic Traveller Book 6. What has been added is a detailed chapter on building world maps. The mapping in T5 also “zooms in” on individual world hexes, facilitating detailed mapping. How the world surface interacts with vehicles and travel is now clearly and systematically laid out. Beasts that might live on worlds are now described and rules for taming them are included. They are no longer just annoyances for players or a possible source of food. This reviewer would enjoy a future World Building Supplement in the style of Digest Group’s publication for MegaTraveller for fleshing out further detail.
The EPIC adventure format is a clear framework for scripting adventures. It follows the standard narrative convention (orientation, complication, resolution) but allows for events to unfold in different orders depending on the action of the players. An interesting aspect of this adventure format will be how it plays out when players want to shove things in their own direction. This latter sandbox style play might need some juggling to fit in an EPIC adventure format: but the question of balancing story progression with player initiative is as old as role play gaming itself. Psionics fit neatly within the skill and attribute systems established in Character Creation. A huge variety of robots and synthetic life forms fit neatly into the universe, and without complex vehicle design construction rules. The focus is kept on imagining classic science fiction elements.
The chapter on generating sophonts excited me the most. Millions of possibilities are consolidated into tables and charts that stimulate the imagination. The Referee is encouraged to select options as much as roll randomly. No alternate careers are presented for non-Human species, and all statistics for any species are now standardised – but the system allows for millions of possibilities. This means future Alien supplements will focus much more on culture, role playing and stories than on presenting charts and statistics. Any Sophont generated by the Referee can be immediately used in Character Creation, and equipment that is specific to that species can be designed in the Makers.
I loved MegaTraveller. But after coming back to Traveller after many years, I started realising just what a nightmare the vehicle / starship design system really was. I am a bit of a gearhead. But now that I Referee for a mix of 9 and 11 year olds (with another friend who is my age who helps the play along by being a good PC). What keeps them entertained? A moving storyline! I want to be able to grab the props I need quickly, with ready to go stats that suit the story, and be able to make them up quickly to account for unforeseen circumstances. Sure, most equipment the players will come into contact with will be in the standard lists. But now we can customise equipment for different worlds, sophonts and environments. The Benchmarks established early in the book come into their own in the Makers. The QREBS system is mostly a way of adding flavour to the game – how reliable is that equipment? What is its quality? Will it break down at an inopportune moment? But when coupled with TL’s, we can quickly create that early prototype Plasma Gun at a lower tech level, with the resultant higher cost and bulk and lower reliability. The QREBS system combined with the various Makers make it possible to populate the Traveller Universe with all kinds of early prototype through ultimate hi-technology examples of the same item. This makes sense: a TL15 combat rifle would perform better than a TL7 one, even though TL15 troops would probably use energy or gauss weapons. Vehicles are now straightforward designs around an array of missions and technologies. It is possible to quickly create air ships, cars, grav tanks and nautical craft, and all of them fit straight into the travelling and combat rules. The chapter on Money comes into its own with ThingMaker. Now that the Credit has been standardised to 15 minutes of unskilled labour, this means that Cr4 can be considered the minimum wage. In an Australian context, the minimum wage is $15.96 per hour – say $16. This means that Cr1 is approximately $AU4, which gives a starting point for costs for Referee invented items. The minimum wage varies by country and there are limits to how far you can take this, but T5 lays out a system that fits together.
Unfortunately, T5 went to press with substantial errata. The errors in the print edition I have found include tables with headings one column shifted and the like. There is a growing errata document on Citizens of the Imperium. Fortunately the electronic versions of the rules can be re-issued easily; unfortunately the lovely printed book is harder to fix. Ultimately Marc Miller and Don McKinney had to make a call on getting the books to the printers. Without a deadline, nothing gets done and projects sit around and get stale. So my criticism is one of degree rather than kind – it is my belief the project would have benefited from a longer time for beta testers to read the document. As a community, a set of beta test activities could also have exposed errors or unexpected results in the rules.
The presentation is kept simple in the style of the Classic Little Black Books, but is now One Big Black Book. Well loved illustrations taken from JTAS abound, especially the very recognisable work of William H. Keith. As a personal aside, his illustrations always gave Traveller that gritty feeling of a Film Noir like The Third Man or The Long Goodbye. The order of chapters can seem confusing – there is a lot of information to take in all at once. The Introduction chapters go beyond “what is a role playing game?” to deeper questions about what makes travelling an adventure. It also clearly delineates the boundaries of Traveller – which means it will continue to develop its jointly shared canon while making that universe flexible for visitors and anyone who wants to modify or provide an alternative. Conventions, benchmarks and measurements are provided for in their own section. Only some of this information needs to be read in detail by the beginning player. The chapter on dice rolls at first glance seems a waste of pages, but during a game when the Referee is trying to convince the players that they are not just being “unlucky” it will prove a useful reference. The Player’s Book will be a welcome addition to T5 so that Referees can lend / give players a book to get them started without overwhelming them. In the meantime, Referees will need to guide newer players into the game.
Traveller was never a conventional role play game. It always had a feel of a Referee managing a simulation to some extent. The layout of the T5 One Big Black Book is not conventional. T5 takes the strengths from previous systems and forges them into a new game that will cover all Traveller canon periods and allow Referees to generate their own ideas for play. All interaction between characters and the universe around them has been systematically and carefully laid out. Although there are substantial errata that need fixing over time, this core rule book is a solid foundation for the rebirth of Traveller. Edited May 27. Just one paragraph that might have been confusing.