Traveller: Using Sorcerer and Sorcerer & Sword

Started by Christopher Kubasik, October 11, 2008, 07:01:39 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Christopher Kubasik

Playing Traveller has been a dream of mine since I picked up the books at the Compleat Strategist on 33rd Street years ago.  I knew there was a game in there I wanted to play... the setting was amazing, the color incredibly evocative.... but the resolution mechanics always let me down.

Several threads on Story-Games over many months prompted me to take a look at using a different set of rules.

And after rummaging through all the new-fangled systems we have these days to make the play of Traveller more in line with what I always wanted, I settled on Sorcerer & Sword.  The port was strangely easy; the system and the tools of the rules lined up to my needs almost 1:1 to what I wanted.  There are no Demons in this game -- it's straight up Third Imperium Classic Traveller.  But there are things like Psionics, Ambition, Social Standing, The Ticket which replace Lore and that can gum up a character's Humanity.  Humanity in this game is defined as Friendship.

Here's the link to The Rules I built for my players: the rules.  I'm sure there's a lot of cleaning up to do.  Inside, you'll find:

  • A few pages of world background.  We're using the Classic Traveller Third Imperium, utilizing the FRAMEWORK of the setting (the Imperium, the Spinward Marches, the Zhodani, the Vargr, the Alsan, the noble house structure and politics, the Planet Creation Rules and subsector maps, and all the implied details from Books 1, 2, and 3 from the Traveller Black Box).  However, we're stripping out all the specifics of the worlds, creating our own worlds and subsectors within the Spinward Marches.
  • Character Creation Rules (which strangely didn't have to be altered that much!  The Descriptors for Stamina and Will are lifted straight from Sorcerer & Sword)  The biggest change is switching Lore to "The Rift" which are the things that can separate people from their friends.
  • A section on what I wanted to play in Traveller, and how I ended up choosing Sorcerer & Sword.
  • Pages of material from the Mongoose's Traveller System Reference Document (open source) since most of the Players had little interaction with Classic Traveller and I wanted them to see equipment lists and World Creation stuff

And here's a link to the character sheet.

Of significance, to my way of thinking, this game is more Sorcerer & Sword than Sorcerer. By that I mean Sorcerer is soaked in alienation. The game begins with the PCs in dysfunctional relationships.  It is a given they are deeply involved in Lore and the dehumanizing effects of Lore.

In Sorcery & Sword, having a bound demon is an option; one need not start off with a dysfunctional relationship.  In fact, one might never get into one.  The definition of Humanity is Friendship, and I consider the game a "warmer" game than Sorcerer.  Lore is a part of the world, and Old Ones and ancient artifacts certainly can tempt PCs to greater power.  But, at least in the Conan stories, we are not entangled by definition with these de-humanizing activities. 

The Traveller game I want to build is like more like Conan-styled Sorcerer & Sword stories: The PCs are friends, and friendships the point of view norm.  They can take actions to threaten their sense of friendship, but it is not a given.  It is a threat they carry with them in their own desires and ambitions. 

There are no demons the game we're going to be playing.  Lore has been shifted to "The Rift" -- the slang term for the distance between stars that tears friendships apart, as well as the coldness or selfishness that can separate friends.  How this is all going to play out has yet to be determined.  But the germs of the mechanics are in the pdf.

My Players (Eric, Vasco and Colin) started Character Creation a week ag Sunday night, and damn if we didn't start getting some great PCs.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Last Sunday Vasco, Eric, Colin and I gathered for character creation.  I'm still waiting on the finalized character sheets, but here's a summary of what happened.  While reading all this, remember that the definition for Humanity is Friendship in this game.  It echoes across all the decisions the Players made.

There was a great deal of brainstorming and sometimes the backstories started getting very convoluted and complicated.  At one point there was an emphasis on Spec Ops for one of the PCs, and I could feel the whole game shifting to some bizarro space-hack Bourne Identity game -- which had nothing to do with what I wanted to play.  So I made a call: The PCs were either Marines, Navy or Army.  That's it.  Things went much faster after that.

The Players decided that they had served in the Imperial Marines together.  They also decided that after mustering out, the three of them started a mercenary company... a small one of about 20 guys and a starship crew working off a tramp freighter.  The handle both small unit jobs, as well as getting subcontracted for larger mercenary tickets.

Colin decided that Herne "Mak" Makarios had been on a world working alongside rebels that the Imperium had encouraged to violence.  Just when the final assault had been called, the ruling power sued for peace with the Imperium and negotiations finalized.  When the Imperium got what it wanted, the war was called off and Colin's battalion ordered off planet.  This left the rebels without the backup they needed and the ruling government slaughtered untold rebels.  (Colin explicitly based this on the actions of the Bush Sr.'s call to the Kurds to rise up again Saddam after the First Gulf War.  Eric and Vasco decide their characters had been on the world as well.)  Colin said this would be the basis for his character's Price. 

It ended up serving his Kicker as well. His merc company is offered a job by ruling government to finish off the Vargr rebels he once fought alongside.  As the offer is made, Mak finds out that an old buddy of his is still fighting for the Varger on that world.

Vasco created Broyce "Bear" Yenko, and decided his character's price was tied to something criminal in Bear's past that had caused him to be BRANDED and kept him moving around from world to world. I pointed out that space was big and that if people on world to world knew what the brand meant it would have to be some sort of capital crime under Imperial law, and suggested his Imperial Citizenship had been revoked -- which would be as big a deal a citizen of the Roman Empire losing his citizenship.  Vasco liked this idea, and built on it: he had been branded in his teens, and had enlisted in the marines to find a place to belong.  He was essentially set up as canon fodder -- but proved himself with marital skill and loyalty time and time again until he DID find a place he could call home.  When he mustered out, he stayed with the two guys he'd bonded with.  This was his home. 

His Kicker is that if he he's offered his citizenship back as part of his payment for taking the Mercenary Ticket.  Vasco said, as we discussed the idea, "You know, at first I didn't think the citizenship thing would mean that much to my guy, but actually, I think it means more than... yeah... I really like that."

Eric created a son of a noble family of Imperial politics: Zishan "Zee" Fujita.  His father is the Duke of a subsector within the Spinward Marches, but Eric's character is rebellious and has lots of trouble with authority.  However, he's a very good and responsible leader to his men.  Although he could have advanced quickly through the ranks because of his noble lineage and his ability, he constantly screwed up his behavior on purpose and remained a sergeant... which is exactly where he wanted to remain.   He was on a world where the marines where fighting a last stand battle during an in interstellar conflict, and losing badly.  An admiral called a retreat to redistribute the forces to world that had a better chance of surviving, but Eric's character destroyed the communication equipment and rallied the troops and locals to a bloody defense.  He said, "Like a whole Alamo thing," which became a shorthand for the incident for all of us.  (The three of them decided to call their company's ship "The Alamo."  Colin added, "In this setting, in the future, The Alamo is shorthand for, 'Fucked over by the officers.'")

Eric's Kicker is Zee's father has used his influence to seize control of The Alamo to shut down the mercenary company.

A few other details surfaced -- which didn't apply right away, but that I knew I would use because the Players were interested in these things:

Colin said, "I want some sort of religious crusade.  Somehow."  The other guys nodded.  I made a note.

Eric, free-associating off of some of the ideas we'd had, discussed some reading he'd been doing about Israeli/Palestinian dynamics, telling a specific incident about how Israelis upstream of a Palestinian settlement cut off the water to the Palestinians -- and how terrible it would be not to have the power to do anything about that.  Okay... imbalance of power between political entities... noted.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

We rolled up one world, the Ticket Planet, using the Classic Traveller World Creation chapter.  We ended up with a desert world with tainted atmosphere, with a balkanized government, several hundred thousand people, and a Class D (poor quality) starport.  We decided that the planet had been in better shape the last time they'd been here; that nukes had been used while they'd been gone that had reduced the population, tainted the atmosphere and several damaged the planet's infrastructure.  We imagined that the reason the Imperium had used the rebels years earlier to gain leverage on the ruling government was to gain access to fuel's used for interplanetary Jump Drives.  The planet was rich with the stuff.

We posited further that the oceans had been burned off during the nuclear war and that the old mining facilities in the sea canyon walls were now the safest place to be.  The ruling government had shelter and technology on their side.  But the outcast/slave cast living in the wilderness died off at early ages and were dwindling in numbers.  However, missionaries from a nearby world (the Crusade!) had arrived with arms and supplies and were helping them wage a last battle against the Imperials allies.

This is the world of the Player's Kickers.  This is where they'll be heading for the game -- or not!

The whole process of creating the worlds in Traveller is a blast.  You roll random details about tech level, planet size, government and law type and so on... and you then use that as "a prod to the imagination" as the Classic Traveller rules say.  As we built up details it seemed like a mix of the imaginative prod of In a Wicked Age...'s Oracles and the setting creation system from Shock: as we took a combination of interesting, randomized and suggested elements and built a setting of conflict out of them.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

A couple of days later I started working on some background notes for setting and situation, based off the Players' Characters.

I decided to create some subsectors, again, using the standard rules from Traveller.  A subsector in Traveller is a unit of political space -- an area about 8 by 10 parsecs in size.  If it's part of the Imperium there would be a duke ruling over it on behalf of the Imperium.  Sixteen subsectors make up a sector.  For sectors make up a domain.  There are about nine domains in the Third Imperium.

(Communication in the Third Imperium can only go as fast as space travel. As space travel takes weeks and months between stars, the Imperium holds itself together by family ties and loyalty -- families and noble rules must act on their own and in the best interests of the Imperium using only their own judgment and authority in moments of crisis.  Sometimes, of course, the system fails.  But for the most part, it has held the Third Imperium together for 1000 years.)

A subsector map is made up of an eight by ten hexgrid map.  You roll a dice to see if there is a world in a hex (I set it at a 40% chance) and then roll up the world details.  I rolled for the stars, but have only made notes for about four worlds in addition to Vaerr, which is the Ticket World tied to the PC's Kickers.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

I should note that all of those dots on the map above represent the "main world" of a star system.  Normally, you'd roll up all the worlds and fill in a lot of data and, as GM, create about 30 worlds.  It took a LOT of discipline NOT to do that -- because it's really fun building worlds!

But in this game I want the Players to participate in World Creation, so they have a stake in what is interesting about the world.  Moreover, I'm taking a page from Sorcerer & Sword and building the details of the map out slowly.  I can't tell you how much fun I had years ago creating several subsectors' worth of worlds, politics, and potential conflict -- only to never get anywhere with the information in play since the Players had no way to plug their interests into the setting.

Here's a five page document about the Brill Subsector. 

I decided the rebels on Vaerr had been Vargr, a race of creatures created out of Canine stock from Sol thousands and thousand of years ago.  They stand about five feet tall and can use equipment and weapons designed for humans.  They have their own cultural quirks, and I'm seeing them as loyal to whoever treats them best lately.

The Vargr had settled the Brill Subsector long before members of the Humanti race arrived.  When settlers from Sol did arrive, the Vargr aided the settlers and kept them alive during the Long Night -- the fallow period that took place between the Second and Third Imperiusm.  Together they built the Utheng Federation -- which once contained the worlds listed on the map, as well as the worlds in the Llako Protectorate and the worlds of Helius and Arzul.

When the Third Imperium showed up some eight hundred years later, the human settlers refused to become part of the Imperium.  The Vargr got caught up in the middle, used by either side to hurt the other. 

Inbetween the Fourth and Fifth Frontier Wars, the Imperium rallied a Vargr Rebellion on Vaerr and nearby worlds -- which culminated in the incident that Colin described as his Character's Price.  The worlds around Llako surrendered to the Imperium, broke away from the Utheng Federation, and became a Client State of the Third Imperium.  Trade ties between the Llako Protectorate are growing stronger, and nobles around the subsector believe they can conquer the Utheng Federation and draw the Brill Subsector into the Third Imperium in the next 50 years.

The "Alamo" world Eric created is Helius, which also used to be part of the Utheng Federation.  I decided that the battle took place during the Fifth Frontier War, and once again the PCs and their fellow marines were fighting alongside Vargr -- Vargr who had broken away from the Humaniti and Vargr of the Utheng Federation and wanted a safe haven for Vargr in the subsector.  The Imperium had promised them Helius if they helped fight of the Utheng Federation and the Zhodani Consulate who had joined forces to attack the Imperium border worlds.  When the battle on Helius went south, the order came to retreat... but this time the PCs refused to abandon the Vargr and fought like hell to protect it.  The losses due to the actions of Eric's character were horrific (Eric added that detail) but the marines defended the planet and the Vargr have a safe world now.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing back on Vaerr... religious missionaries and troops have arrived from the Z'hande Caliphate sprinkling food and medicine to the Vargr across the Llako Protectorate.  Loyalties between humans and Vargr are split all over the place, and members of the Z'hande Caliphate are gathering converts and allies as they prepare to make their own play for control of the subsector.

The PCs are returning to the world where they once betrayed allies, allies who now get weapons and instructions from a religiously inspired civilization that threatens the Imperium,

Which way they'll jump as old and new allies appear and friendships are broken, tested and formed is what the game is all about...
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik


It's an old game, and many people might not be familiar with it.  In particular, many people who do know about it might know it from several "re-boot" editions: MegaTravaller, or Traveller: The New Era.  Even folks who know the "Classic" Traveller might have fused all the background material created for GDW's Third Imperium setting as "part" of the rules.  (The Traveller Book, published in 1983, took the rules found in Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 and wove a great deal of information from the setting into the pages.)

So, many people might not understand how STRANGE the original Little Black Books for Traveller were when they were published in 1977. 

The books came in a box (  The cover had no art, only the text of the evocative S.O.S. from the free-trader Beowulf.  The back of the box showed a soldier -- a soldier that seemed both contemporary and futuristic.  The interior was artless, or near artless (one edition had a portrait of the captain of the Beowulf.) 

Compare this to other RPGs which often seemed as much about the art as the game, and depended on the art to invoke setting, tone and place (whether or not the game's rules supported this setting or tone!)  Whereas most games are about selling the setting, the boxed set of Traveller had no specific setting to play in, and promised only the bare-bones rules for an implied hard-SF game.

The traveller rules implied a setting, or conditions of setting, but did not demand or expect one kind of setting over another.

Here are some of the setting details woven into the rules of the game, looking only at Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 (Characters and Combat; Starships; Worlds and Adventure, respectively):

  • ship travel was slow (no instant travel times nor negligible travel times -- more like the Age of Sails than Start Trek or Star Wars);
  • communication could only move at the speed of travel (no FTL communication);
  • a remote centralized government, possessed of great technological and industrial might, but because of travel times and the extent of its empire, unable to exert its control everywhere; a feudal system of honor to help keep peace across the far-flung empire;
  • frontiers with extensive home rule provisions (the World Creation rules created an interstellar civilization of random disparity in terms of society, technology, law and politics);
  • an emphasis on military skills as being the skills adventurers would need to adventure as PCs in this world (Book 1 options are Army, Marines, Navy, Scouts, Merchant Marine and Other (years of random wandering, maybe underworld activity);
  • equipment based off hard-sf tropes of varying tech levels -- from swords to plasma rifles;
  • characters started as veterans of service in the military, and, as they continued to age, began losing the value of their stats;
  • an assumption that speculative trade between worlds would not only be an important part of the setting, but an interesting part of play;
  • an aggressively dangerous combat system that discouraged thoughts of easy combat;
  • ship design rules that accounted for the ship's tonnage down to the cargo hold, life support systems and so on...
  • formulas and diagrams for calculating travel times according to g forces, planetary gravity and so on...

Players could ignore the above -- you could use the rules to play Star Trek or Star Wars. But it meant turning your back on the only scraps of color in the books.  And for me, a great many of the details above were only color, even though the were presented as rules.  In other words, did I have any desire to figure out how many days and hours it would take for a ship traveling from the third planet of a system's sun to the fifth?  Not on you life.  But I dug the idea of a space game that felt GROUNDED in the nuts and bolts of reality.

It is important to note that Traveller was published in 1977, which meant that it was on its way to the printers when Star Wars came out.  In other words, it was written before anyone knew anything about Star Wars and is a pre-Star Wars game!  It's hard to imagine anything SF in gaming culture not having been touched by the passion for Star Wars, but there it is.  Traveller was a product of hard SF, not Lucas' space opera. 

To contrast the kind of tone and feel that is woven into the rules and implied setting in the rules against the looser, more space-opera like feel of pulp science fiction, one can look at the last page of Supplement 1, 1001 Characters.  The page listed nine characters from fiction that had been statted using Traveller attributes and skills, and challenged readers to guess who the characters were. Of note is the paragraph that introduced the characters:

"The following nine characters are drawn from the pages of science fiction. While they are expressed in terms of Traveller characteristics, they do not represent any specific generation system, and certainly do not meet any normal requirements given in Traveller. After all, they are heroes."

So, while John Carter of Mars and Kirth Girsen from the Demon Prince novels can be statted in Traveller numbers, they couldn't actually be generated using the Traveller system.  More significantly, here is the quote from the top of the page that listed the characters:

"The following nine characters are drawn from the pages of science fiction. While they are expressed in terms of Traveller characteristics, they do not represent any specific generation system, and certainly do not meet any normal requirements given in Traveller. After all, they are heroes."

So, if the characters of Traveller are NOT heroes, then what are they?  They are Guys...  Soldiers who served, just guys who served, who mustered out, and now, not knowing what to do next, but trained in the skills and trade of war, have to make a living. So, space is big, the history enormous, the mysteries of science and forgotten races scattered across worlds... but our guys?  They're just guys.  There's a tension there between the mundane scope of our PCs and the fantastical nature of a sprawling, SF based civilization that seems similar to me as the themes Greg Stafford wove into Pendragon, where he purposefully mixed the blood-in-the-mud reality of medieval life and the bigger-than-reality of magic, fairie and chivalry.

After Books 1, 2, and 3 came more books.  Some detailed more rules (Book 4 Mercenary (for futuristic ground combat); Book 5 High Guard (naval design and combat).  Others began extrapolating the hard SF setting implied in Books 1, 2, and 3 and weaving a detailed setting called The Third Imperium (Supplement 3 The Spinward Marches  (16 pregenerated subsectors along the edge of the Imperium); Supplement 8: Library Data (N-Z) (a compilation of facts from "the galactic encyclopedia of the Imperium; and Alien Modules, that described the "Major Races" of the Third Imperium).  These all came from GDW.  Other companies, in including Judges Guild, FASA, and Digest Group Publications also produced setting material and adventures in the growing "canon".

Thus, Classic Traveller it is two games in one.

One game is a strangely open ended box of tools to create a wide variety of space settings.  You create worlds, generate characters and create a whatever kind of tone and feel you want.  This is the game found in Books 1, 2, and 3 within the Classic Traveller box.  Yes, there are implied setting details, as listed in the bullet points above.  But even within those details there is enormous leeway.  And you could throw them out completely.  You could, of course, run Star Wars, Star Trek, or Dr. Who – blowing off the slow travel of Jump Drives, the lack of FTL communication and other implications woven into the game.

The second game is the the first game with this MONSTROUSLY HUGE background worked out by over a dozen publishers.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Different Kinds of Traveller

Like Dungeons & Dragons, which became a million games among a million groups, Traveller, too, varied greatly.  Not just among which rules were used, but with what was emphasized in setting and what people thought the game was about.  Even those folks playing in the Third Imperium used the setting in completely different ways.

For some people, the game was about creating whacky mix-and-match settings where Dr. Who and the Capt. Kirk interact with the PCs as they tried to sell cargo among the stars.  For other people, it was all about trying to figure out how the technology laid out in the fictional setting "really" worked.  Inspirations for campaigns ranged from Larry Niven's novels to Star Wars.  Some settings felt like Buck Rogers, where EVERY planet had floating cities.  Others had more of the hunkered down submarine feel of Outland or Alien, where a floating city might bring "Oohs" and "Aaaahs" from the Players and the PCs.

The Imperium itself became a kind of hobby for some.  It was a kind of model train set and spent months and years discussing and building an elaborate civilization, filling in the details left blank by publishers.  For them, playing with PCs was not the point, and might even wreck their construction.

For others it was all about space fleets and the battles that ensued.  Or about the Solo Play (which is specifically discussed and encouraged in Books 1, 2, and 3) of rolling up worlds and subsectors, rolling up characters, playing out cargo runs, ship battles or fire fights all on one's own.

But while many people might emphasize different parts of the rules, the mix and match of the setting -- rather than rules, as is the case in the history of D&D -- is the bulk of arguments and discussions about Traveller

You can find a 190 Post thread about this subject here -- – in a thread entitled What is Traveller All About?  The thread is not definitive at all.  It's dozens of people tossing up their ideas about what they thought the game is all about.  A consensus, of course, is never reached.  For one person on the thread, "What really defines "Traveller" is a set of technology assumptions and how the universe works."  On the other hand, I wrote, "one of the unique features of this game: that in a sprawling universe of potential adventure, your character still had to get the bills paid; in a universe so big your character could never reach its end, your PCs bones were already getting creaky at the prime of his life; in a stellar empire of infinite possibilities the choices your character had made in his youth limited who he was in his 40's."

Very different emphasis.

So, what I'm doing with this Traveller game is something I never would have had the confidence to do before.  I'm making my version of Traveller, the version that I saw in all those implied details from Books 1, 2, and 3.  I'm using the Third Imperium as a backdrop, and setting the game in the Spinward Marches.  But I'm gutting the actual subsectors and rebuilding to focus on the themes and details that most intrigued me when I was a kid.

These would include middle aged men and women making their way through a life of adventure and what that means as opposed to the youth who adventures; the camaraderie the characters from a military service would share; the contrast of the mundane concerns of daily life against the staggering implications of traveling space, ancient civilizations that once engineered life among the stars, and a sense of history that dwarfed the importance of anyone's life.  (In this last quality, I find similar interests with Greg Stafford's Pendragon, another game I love.)

Other qualities I care about are the conflict between worlds of disparate governments, law and culture.  The attempts to hold peace together when self-interests or ambition or slights can spearhead savagery. Religion, history, and loyalties of family and friends should pull the PCs in million directions.  This was always the scale and scope of the conflicts that most interested me about the Traveller setting.  The politics of a subsector, in my view, should be as rich as any setting take out Greg Stafford's Glorantha. As was so often the case for me, the SF technology was never the focus, but simply a means for creating more tension and conflict.  How do you hold things together when the distances are so BIG.

And speaking of Glorantha, I remember reading Ron's enthusiastic reviews of HeroWars when it first came out.  My first reaction was, "Glorantha?  Isn't that the place where you get a limb cut off on a crit?"  Ron's enthusiasm made no sense to me.

Because, of course, Ron was responding to the possibility of the fiction in the setting of Glorantha.  And he finally had a rules set that could tap all of that.  All I knew about Runequest, from minimal contact years earlier, was an overly encumbered combat system – and that, for me, had defined the setting.

I find myself in a parallel position about Traveller and the fiction of the Third Imperium.  I always saw the thrilling possibilities of astounding and engaging stories within that world – as exciting as any fiction and series of conflicts as might be found in Glorantha (which I've come to love).  I see many kinds of similarities in the underlying issues of Glorantha – and of Robert E. Howard's work and other adventure fiction. Not in terms of the color – this is not space fantasy nor pulp SF.  But in terms of the pull of loyalties and the wearing down of muscle and bone as a man struggles to make a life in a world where the stakes and sweep of history are larger than one can imagine, and one needs to fight hard to make a stand that matters.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

An example of how the tone and feel I'm building mixes with the color and setting of GDW's Third Imperium:

I'm using the GDW Traveller setting as my background. In that setting The Ancients, a race of beings that settled the stars about 240,000 years ago, had technology whose level was apparently unmatched by the Imperium, and seeded sentient beings including Humaniti across various worlds of the galaxy. The took samples from Sol -- including humans and animals -- and manipulated the biology, settling them across the stars. The purpose is unknown. The Vargr race is one of those experiments.  The Vargr play an important part of the setting I've built for the game we're starting tonight.

Heres' the run down from some Traveller stuff: Intelligent Major Race derived from Ancient genetic manipulations of Terran carnivore/chaser stock, apparently dating from approximately the same time that Humaniti was scattered to the stars.

Inhabiting a region rimward of the Imperium, the Vargr were for years a puzzle to Imperial xenologists. The Vargr biochemistry and genetic makeup are almost identical with a number of terrestrial animals, but differ radically from most of the flora and fauna indigenous to Lair, the purported Vargr home world. Researches during the early years of the Third Imperium concluded them to be the result of genetic manipulation of transplanted Terran animals of the family Canidae, almost certainly of genus Canis. The obvious conclusion, supported by archeological evidence, is that the race known as the Ancients was responsible.

I think The Ancients are a cool part of the GDW Traveller universe. They've left behind all sorts of ruins, weird science stuff, and strange mysteries tying together lots of interstellar history. I think the trick isn't to see the Vargr as "Dog people" -- though someone could and certainly use them that way. They are a concrete product of a highly advance and mysteriously vanished civilization. This kind of "science as unexpectedly weird" is, I think, an important part of Traveller. In my view, looking only at Books 1, 2 and 3, the setting and the game is very grounded in mundane details, feel and tone. It isn't Star Wars at all. And yet... there are hints at extraordinary aspects to life among the stars.... the mysteries we will never understand, the technologies that exist or existed that will never be ours to use. There is this tension between the very mundane feel of so much of life in the Traveller setting butting up against the extraordinary. In a way, it reminds me of what Greg Stafford built with Pendragon, with rules that created a tension between the very muddy and mundane on one side, and the fantastical and idealistic on the other.

Of course, tone, presentation and application matter.

Here's a passage from an email I sent to my Players:

When he was shooting Revenge of the Sith and Fellowship of the Ring back to back, Christopher Lee commented that on Lucas' film, everything was shot on an utterly clean soundstage, while on Jackson's film the actors ended up with dirt under their fingernails.

You know how Jackson's film felt like it has a weight and concreteness to it, no matter how fantastical?

That. That is what we want for this game.

So, even though we've got Dog People, they're not Dog People. They're Vargr. And they should have weight and substance and emotions worthy of Jackson's WETA team down in New Zealand. They are race of creatures being overrun by Imperial expansion and choosing alliances or making last stands or pushing back as best they can to survive.

If we use them as just background or color we've screwed up. We see them as goofy or whatnot, we've screwed up. If we see that as improbable and strange and maybe even impossible -- but treat them as any extraordinary collection of people that have their own hopes and desires -- but are still OTHER -- then we've won.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

One more comment about the Traveller rule books:

When I re-read the Traveller rules the other night, I came across this passage on the last page of Book 3. It's under the last section of the rules called, "A Final Word."

"The Players themselves have a burden almost equal to that of the referee: they must move, act, travel in search of their own goals."

(Emphasis added.)

I had forgotten about that passage, but I can tell you, that one sentence bore a hole through my head when I first read those books nearly three decades ago because one of my grails of RPG was finding a system and group of players that encouraged -- if not depended on -- Players moving, acting and traveling in search of their own goals.

That's what I wanted, but rarely got it. The tools weren't in place to help the GM find a focus that didn't depend on some sort of scenario, and the publishers certainly didn't want Character driven play, since that wouldn't make any sense for published modules. The guy who hires you in the tavern or the patron in Traveller or the Mr. Johnson in Shadowrun and so on were convenient shortcuts to get an adventure going, to be sure... but they darted around the notion that passionate driven Player Characters could be engines to create exciting conflicts and adventures as they drove toward their own goals.

So, I would say Sorcerer's toolkit, which does provide a character creation and play-set that easily handles Characters-as-engines play answers my needs because that's the play I always wanted. We have lots of games that deliver this in spades these days (In a Wicked Age... delivers it front and center!) But I think it's important to remember that while player could (and did) shift the assumptions of rules and setting assumptions to have Characters-as-engines play, it was not how most texts assumed play would go, and the rules really didn't support it.

But I'd also say that it was Traveller, which I didn't realize till two days ago, that put that very specific idea in my head.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Play kicks off tonight.  Here's some final color hammered out by my players:

There was just a big discussion via email about the name of the merc company and other fiction matters, and Eric, one of my players, just pumped this out:

All right, our company is The Eight Six. Our logo looks like one of the old, antique military insignias but where the Imperium banner and colors would be, instead our banner displays the symbol for the Credit ( $ ). You have to look twice to recognize it's a privateer logo.

An illustration of a sultry, buxom woman leaning against a flag with "86" and the unmistakable silhouette of the Spire in Gorzol (the "town center" we managed to hold) has been laser-painted onto the nose of our ship. And underneath that, red shapes that designate achievements our unit has defeated. There are a handful of "holy shit you guys once took down a Zhodani armored division?" type symbols on there; a library of stories we players can invent as needed for backstory etc.

I'm so falling in love with the fiction and details these guys have made up so far I'm almost afraid to play for fear of screwing it all up!

Eric came up with the history for the term 86 in a previous email:

Back in the Fourth Frontier War there was a legend of the 86th Company -- a group like the Alpha Dogs, mixed races of Vargr, Humaniti and Aslan thrown into one group for suicide missions, and the 86th turned the tide of the war in a kind of "300" way. Today any massive victory is considered an "eighty-six" in military slang, and since that legendary battle there have never been any official 86th company in the Imperium forces, which means a private mercenary organization could get away with that name.

After I got the latest email about the ship's art, I added:

On Helius, when Zee rallied the tattered remains of the 149th and local Vargr forces, the name 86th got bandied about among the troops -- at first unofficially, and then as a given by the end of the third week of fighting during The Siege of Grozol. Cut off from communication and support from Imperial forces, the mixed forces in Gorzol began marking their armor with "86th," and using flags and signals referring to the 86th. Not only did the confuse Zhodani intelligence operations, but it built a unique and unified identity for the mixed troops that helped win the day.

I love the Bomber nose-cone art; it really grounds the concrete feel I want for the game.  It's taken a while, but I think the work to get everyone on the same page in terms of color has paid off.  (One of the players is pure Star Wars Fan.  Getting him to see the otherside of the SF genre was a key goal of mine.)
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Chris, thanks a lot for this, particularly the 50-page reference booklet.  Our little group has just started playing Mongoose's Traveller, and I'm having a difficult time buying into the premise.  Your hard work is helping more than just your own players.