Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mongoose Traveller

I actually wrote this for my game store blog back in May 2012.  I'm reposting it here because I need filler at the moment.



You won't see RPG reviews here very often.  The simple fact is that RPGs take a great deal of time to evaluate; probably a good six months of play at the least.  Even then, RPGs are a highly individualistic medium; everybody wants something different from the game and RPGs let you alter the rules to suit your particular game group.  Despite that, I will try to provide an objective look at an RPG from time to time.

This time we're looking at the Mongoose Publishing edition of a long-lived role-playing game; Traveller.  Traveller was originally published by Games Designer's Workshop (not to be confused with Games Workshop) in 1977 and has been around in various forms ever since.

Traveller has always been a science-fiction role-playing game, where the players can go wandering around a universe in a mortgaged starship.  Even if a character somehow end up owning a starship straight out of character generation, there is still monthly maintenance costs, fuel costs, and life-support costs to pay.  Simply put: starships aren't cheap.  The need to pay the bills typically drives the player characters to take on odd jobs or seek a way to make a fortune.  It is up to the players to determine how they go about paying the bills, making the game very much a sandbox.  Mongoose Publishing has not changed this formula, and actually uses a cleaned up variant of the original Traveller rules from 1977.

Character generation, like classic Traveller, uses a series of life paths to mold your character's history and experiences.  Because of the random experiences and tests for entering and surviving a given career (as Traveller calls the life paths), your character does not always turn out as you intended.  A typical Traveller character starts play at 38 years old with 20 years of real-world 'experiences' under his/her belt.  They will come out of their career with friends, rivals, and enemies.  They will have had good fortune and survived disasters.  The purpose behind this is two-fold. One- every player gets a really good sense of who his character is and what shaped them into the person they are.  Two- the game moderator has a load of built-in plot hooks to make life "interesting" for the player characters.

As I mentioned before, Traveller is very open-ended.  You do not need to own a starship, but a literal universe of possibilities opens up for the characters if you do.  You can do just fine exploring a single planet; after all look at how much time and effort is spend trying to understand just our planet Earth.  This open-endedness is what most of the rules are written to support.  That is to say, the majority of the rules written for Traveller are there to support whatever activities the player characters may get up to.  There are indeed a great deal of different things characters can do; from interstellar trading to contract mercenary work.

The rules also support a great deal of improvisation on the GM's part.  With other game systems I've used, unpredictable player-character actions can quickly derail the game into "Uh, hold on while I make this stuff up" because the GM doesn't have any notes on Over There.  Traveller, however, has a lot of tools to allow the GM to make stuff up on the fly, from planetary systems to local animal life.  The core resolution mechanic is also simple enough that a reasonable extrapolation can cover most situations the rules may not handle.  These elements and tools seem, at least to me, absolutely necessary in a game where your players can roam the universe.

Perhaps the most attractive thing is that all anyone really needs to play is the main rulebook, which is around $40 USD for the hardback.  Mongoose Publishing also produces a smaller softcover version of the core rulebook and core 'rules expansions', for around $20 USD each.  The rules expansions are not strictly necessary, but they can be used to greatly enhance and expand a Traveller campaign.  There are books dedicated to the major alien races within the default setting of the Third Imperium, because the aliens are deliberately alien to the human psyche and require that much room to explain how these aliens think.  That is to say that the aliens are truly alien, not humans with bumpy foreheads.

I presently run a Traveller campaign, which has been a lot of fun for both the players and myself.  It is definitely the grandfather of Sci-Fi RPGs, and is often cited as an inspiration for more recent sci-fi RPGs (like Burning Empires and Diaspora).  In turn, Traveller draws a lot of inspiration from older science fiction like Space Viking and the Known Space series by Larry Niven.  Traveller is definitely worth looking at if you're a fan of science fiction.

(2014/5/25- You can get Traveller PDFs from all editions from DriveThruRPG.  The books should still be available from Mongoose Publishing as well. )