Sunday, October 4, 2009

Traveller - boring and still excellent

A few days back, I found a whole box of science fiction rpgs in my basement. I opened it up, and when I looked inside I realized that there was no point in me bringing them all up to the apartment. In fact, I realized that my extensive Traveller collection was of no interest to me. Well, you see, I love to read about that game. It's also a game which I love to think about. But, it's a game which just bores me when I try to play it, and sometimes even when I read it. Still, it's an excellent game!

So. Why doesn't it work for me? I think I might finally have understood why.

Looking at two things, it will become clear why I think I've found out why Traveller wont make me tick. If you have any of the adventures for Traveller published by GDW, take one of them out and look at it. Chances are that in the booklet in front of you, there are descriptions of a vehicle of some kind. There's a very high probability it's a spaceship. Since it's a science fiction game, there will be space ships. Nothing odd. Then there are probably a list of personnel of that spaceship, and some text describing the capabilites of said vehicle and where in the Third Imperium it can be found and what it might be doing there. Maybe it migh even be a tracked terrain vehicle, and it is in one place and has to be driven to another place. You start to feel excited about this adventure yet?

Then, secondly, let's take a look at the rules of the game. We can skim most of it, but look a bit closer on those bits about space combat and trading goods in space. The space combat system is different in every edition I've read. Nobody seem to like the rules of their predecessors. One thing seem to be common through all of them, though. None of them say much about what happen to the people involved, i.e. it's fairly abstract and board gamey. Looking at the rules for trade, and keeping the rules about the cost of running a spaceship in mind, we see the same trend there. I get the feeling I see a complex field like economy rendered into simpler rotes you can follow, and while it might look like filing your tax return it is called a game. Are you excited about this kind of thing?

So. My problem is that I have played Traveller, and realized it wasn't having much fun. I guess the easy way to handle that would be to just stop doing that unfun thing and leave it be. Naturally, I had to figure out why it wasn't fun, since I wanted it to be so. Playing something else would not let me get rid of the lingering ache that it could have been fun, if I only did it right!

My two examples above of things which rubbed me the wrong way always looked insular to me, but now I think I see a commonality. Playing the rules is what are supposed to make it fun!

The adventure where I'm not seeing interesting tensions between NPCs with goals and ambitions, or plots and stories waiting to be unfolded, are to be used in a different way than I expect them to. This is confirmed when I look at those other issues. When I see chores which looks like homework, some other gamer will see something else. Probably interesting abstract shapes to be manipulated and combined according to specific set of rules in order to create new shapes and forms which in themselves have beauty, but also as an aesthetic act in itself. Playing the rules is what are supposed to make it fun!

Maybe my big problem with Traveller is that it seem to lack some sex, melodrama, sweat and emotion. I'm not saying it can't be brought to the game! It sure can. The thing is, I know that I've met people who think the great fun with a fantasy game (like, say D&D) is to move their character like a chess piece and optimize its potential and utilize its resources in order to gain tokens which show the success of that process. Like, killing things effectively with a minimum of resources to gain as much XP and gold as possible. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. But, what I am saying is that while nothing ever stopped me from doing that while as the same time engaging in immersion and talking in funny voices and taking decisions which were sub-optimal since they were based on "in character" emotions and impressions. I don't need rules telling me it is ok to do that. But, for some reason it is just not happening as easy in Traveller. In fact, I think the rules are in some places (like the trading and spaceship economics) written in a way which makes me think it never struck the designers as a possibility that you would want to do that. While being fairly bare bones, the rules of Traveller 1977 makes me think of the straight jacket school of design I associate with D&D 4th ed! Sketchy and everything nailed down at the same time.

I still think Traveller is an excellent game. For example, I think the life-path character generation is a stroke of genius! Great fun for a gamer without a group of her own, and also a marvellous way to build a back story for your in game persona. Also, the idea that you start the game as skilled and mature is a novel and great idea. There are so many things I like about this game. But, that adventure Across the Bright Face, brought home to me that the game was designed with a different perspective than mine. There are nobody to interact with during the whole adventure except the other player characters. The game can very easy be a long string of skill rolls to untangle the group from external threats you encounter during the trek. Maybe you even have to figure out as a player some novel use of skills and equipment to solve problems, but it is still a string of skill rolls. It's the ultimate victory of "rollplay" over "roleplay". Now, it has been said that you can make any game sing with the right players and attitude, but I must confess I don't understand what I need to bring to the table to make this game work. It's definitely not just gathering a bunch of "story gamers" and start gaming. For some reason the game just bends my effort into its own path and I find myself where I don't want to be.

While the situation probably isn't unsolvable, my box of science fiction rpgs will stay in the basement. Rifts, TORG, Fading Suns just work for me, but Traveller will collect dust a while longer.


  1. Yikes! I hope that won't be true for the Traveller campaign I just started… None of us have ever played it, we all wanted some Science Fiction, I didn't want Star Wars SAGA edition, so we decided to give Mongoose Traveller a try. Spent some time writing a subsector generator script, and a hex mapper for it (warning lights?), another player wrote some Excel sheets to try and optimize trade (more warning lights?), uhm... I guess I should try and push those NPC interactions, add some backstabbing and archeology, avoid the number crunching of trade and starship combat even though there are rules for it…

  2. wow, really good thoughts here i've been trying to articulate myself, even though i've been reacquiring a lot of my lost GDW Traveller LBBs and supplements in the hopes of finding players and starting a new campaign. for some reason, i have this odd feeling that i'd be more open to a play by post game of Traveller than i've ever been willing to try for any FRPG.

    the rules just cover so many areas that it seems a bit overwhelming at first, but if you look at AD&D it's really the same or more so - it's just that there are nonexisting technologies in Traveller that need to have rules written up for them, not to mention the game "space" itself. but i totally get where you're coming from, and can't put my finger on it exactly either. perhaps keeping a campaign grounded, as it were, on a particular planet for an extended number of sessions might help me somehow.

  3. It certainly seems to be a matter of taste. The way you describe traveler is the way someone will describe something like Accounting.

    In the comparison on Accounting and Traveller, it all depends on who is playing or who is reading it to determine the level of excitement. The pieces you see is boring to you, and unfortunately it seems you can't draw empathy why other people can appreciate it and relate it to your own tastes. Lately I'm trying to study accounting, but I can't help but use Traveller to pique my excitement about the topic (breaking down the business expense of a starship).

    I admit 10 years ago, I would have found Traveller boring, but with older friends who were kind enough to be patient with my younger impulses helped a lot into making me understand why they enjoyed it. Growing older and more mature I realized that a lot of my required readings on science, technology, information, culture, politics, and current events of the present day are elements I can work into my Traveller game. Especially in combination of of the awesome amount of material shared in the internet.

    When you speak about sex and melodrama, I'm kinda of surprised because I tackle with a lot of the shades of gray Current Events litters our media with. Hard decisions where Personal Beliefs, Changes in Culture, Technology, and the Greater Majority can further complicate.

    Aspects of culture that would change if one would eliminate the Western Christian Perception of sex for instance. Will monogamy still be in vogue when the state redistributes the responsibility, technology free women from pregnancy and allow them to pursue careers just like men, or how longer lives and better quality of life will affect culture and the task of raising children.

    Then there is the melodrama of Class Struggle, Defining Humanity, the Status Quo, Progress, Pursuits of Happiness, War, Victims of Change...

    All sorts of topics both great and small. It really depends on how you approach the sand box Sci-Fi setting of Traveller.

  4. Don't misunderstand me, Nikolas. I see all the potential there, just like you. My problem is just that I can't bring it out, and make it sing.

    The interesting thing is that nothing of the things you mention is mentioned in the rules. Sure, it's all there as potential, but when I bring those rules to the table something else happens.

  5. ze bulette, I'm still not really finished articulating these thoughts. Just like you i do collect the LBBs and other material.

    I don't think the existence of rules for a lot of things is the only thing shaping my experience of play, either. But, the way the adventures from GDW are written gave me some indication to how they might have been intended to be used. Even without that knowledge I somehow replicated those motions even though I wasn't enjoying it. I will think more about that.

  6. Don't worry, Alex! A lot of people seem to be able to enjoy Traveller even though I'm not.

    It's a little bit like Ars Magica, though. That's another game which I want to like, but don't. Generating subsectors, mapping, generating the covenant and all that work just puts me to sleep!

    I do think that the rules and the themes of Traveller are somewhat responsible for my experience. But, the other constant was the presence of me. The combination of me and the rules are a bad one. Until I've figured out what it is I am doing you might be safe. ;)

  7. A thought-provoking post... good observations, I think.

    Although the absence of PC v NPC roleplaying you mention might indicate that the designers actually played a lot of PC to PC roleplay and so didn't note the lack that you see. That is, the rules don't focus on interactions because of the designers didn't need any rules support themselves.


  8. Thanks Vincent!

    This post was a bit thinking out loud, so I'm glad that it worked as well it did for anyone but me.

    I have some more thoughts about these issues, and will come back to them in another post. Your observation is excellent, and I suddenly feel a strong urge to go and find some GDW designers to talk to.

  9. Traveller was the very first game I ever played or ref'd - it remains one of my favourite games - probably second only to T&T. The character generation system delivers you with a playable character with a built-in history, the systems are simple and user friendly and it has a gritty future feel to it. I don't think I've every played or ref'd a game that I or the other players would consder dull.

    I'm a bit perplexed but from my experience. Traveller rocks. ;-)

  10. It do have a lot of system elegance, which is why I'm wanting to dissect this experience.

  11. Back in the Day Traveller was our ultimate game. We used it for every concievable genre from Hard SF to High Fantasy. Back then we enjoyed playing with mechanics a lot more than I do today.

    These days I don't want lots of complicated crunchy rules, I want an interesting setting and deep characters to interact with. Or elsesimple rules and lots of action. Complex detailed mechanics are just not fun any more. d20 doesn't hold my interest, it seems too much like work these days to write anything for it.

    I looked at my old Traveller stuff and it left me surpisingly cold. I remembered a game with simple mechanics and a great setting. Some how the setting seems to have evaporated. I remembered it being like Dune or something, the Imperium, the Vargr and Aslan the lurking Zhodani, etc, but it all seems so dull reading over it now.

    I'm hoping for that animating spark to return.

  12. Well, the setting is kind of interesting. My biggest problem was that it was a little to static, since you got the Imperium wide perspective, but your players could never aspire to anything more than fame in a few systems, to speak nothing of actually making an impression on a wider scale.

    Oddly, considering how it is a common perceived problem with Traveller, I never saw that as a major problem. I got stuck on that intangible feeling of unfun I posted about.

  13. Sorry, I guess there is the fine difference between a relatively objective criticism vs subjective criticism and I failed to see the underlying subjectivity. I do admit that I also have a subjectively negative assessment of ars magika.

    Although, i do want to address what you bring to the game table beyond the rules are still an aspect of the rules because there is a kind of a precedent of thinking created by the rules. The way hard sci-fi game and a fantasy games rules sets a mental precedent of how the game in enjoyed.

    in DnD you have a precedent that accommodates the level of fantasy much like the inspired novels and other novels of similar in scale, genre and scope, but its rules tend to lack in accommodating a game style like GRRM's Game of Thrones RPG.

    Although, if you want a more interesting Traveller some friends of mine like their's with a bit of Twilight2000, WH40k and Fading Suns mixed in: Dark, Desperate, Depressing, and very Dangerous. Same rules but different in the telling. One is free to Twist Canon Fluff in interesting ways- like the empire being something starwars-ish, to age of sail bright and glorious Imperium, to dark ages Byzantine empire slowly spiraling to certain tragedy and disaster.

  14. This is something really interesting:
    Although, i do want to address what you bring to the game table beyond the rules are still an aspect of the rules because there is a kind of a precedent of thinking created by the rules.

    I'm struggling what that, and the relation and feedback it creates. Very interesting, and a bit hard to grasp and thus take control over. As noted, the commonality in all my Traveller experiences have been me, so the Fail must be something I bring. I'm still unsure what.

  15. I wrote something about this a while back: rules will afford (invite, encourage, suggest) a certain play experience.

  16. Alex, some more thoughts found here ties into that a bit. I have written before about the relation between rules and the resulting game. It's far from as simple as it seems, though. I'm not convinced either social contract or rules is fully responsible. It sure is a complex mix, anyway.

  17. The first time I ever played Traveller it was introduced to me by a friend's older brother. I believe I was 10 or 11 years old and had already been playing D&D for two or three years. Much more a fan of science fiction fan than a fan of fantasy, I jumped at the chance to play this 'new' RPG.

    Ten minutes into the game I could not get away fast enough. Here was a Sci-Fi/Space Adventure RPG with no alien races, slow Faster-Than-Light travel, no FTL communications and guns with bullets. Bullets? "Its the frickin' future!" I remember thinking. This was not Larry Niven's Ringworld, Poul Anderson's Space Patrol novels, E.E. Smith's Lensmen, Star Trek, Star Wars or even Flash Gordon. This was boooring. And I was 10.

    A good five years later I saw that a friend of mine had Traveller and he let me borrow the Traveller Book so I could figure out why he and so many others loved this game so much.

    Long story short, now its one of my all time favorite games and I still run campaigns of it every couple of years. Why? Because "Playing the rules is what is supposed to make it fun!" could not be further from my idea of why gaming is cool. The story, the characters, the worlds, the creatures and the adventures containing those elements make a game fun. Laughing and eating funk food with your friends makes a game fun. All the rules should do is facilitate the outcome of challenges where success is in question. I've played Traveller for years and I don't think I've ever once used the written Trading Rules you speak of. I never needed them. We traded based on the plot or the interaction between a NPC who needed something and the players that had it or tried to find it. For me accounting isn't Adventuring!

  18. This is where I find something very interesting in your post:
    All the rules should do is facilitate the outcome of challenges where success is in question

    While it is true, it's also true that the existence of rules for something will influence when you question success.

    Personally I have never had much problem ignoring rules before, but this time it gave me grief.


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