Games of Yore: Traveller, from Classic to Mongoose

Gaming, like many other facets of popular culture, is a fast-paced industry – new games and rulesets come out constantly, publishers rise and fall, licenses change hands, and what’s in and out of style changes on an almost monthly basis. The frenetic action of the tabletop gaming community makes it even more impressive when a rule system stands the test of time, and few tabletop roleplaying systems are as long-lived and well-loved as Traveller.

There have, however, been a large number of changes made to the Traveller system and setting throughout time, and in celebration of the greatest games of yore, it becomes more and more important to consider the path it took to become what it is today. For this particular look, we’ll examine the original 1977 version of Traveller (commonly called Classic Traveller), to get some insight into the game’s roots, and one of the most popular versions of the game, the 2008 version by Mongoose Publishing (commonly called Mongoose Traveller).

Traveller first got started in the heyday of science fiction – inspired by classic sci-fi tales like the Foundation series, Traveller first was published in 1977 in a series of small black books that constituted the forerunner of the “splatbook” system often seen in tabletop games today. Traveller’s iterative design – one book focusing on player characters, another focusing on ships, and so on – heralded the kind of piecemeal, universally compatible source book system that tends to dominate the tabletop market into the modern day. The Traveller system, whatever the iteration of it, is based in futuristic, spacefaring settings, largely focusing on the kind of “maverick traders/mercenaries” plot line mirrored throughout the ages, up to and including the Star Wars RPG systems that find their second home on d20 Radio, making the Traveller game an archetype for creativity as well as for the games industry.

The first and most essential element to discussing any tabletop game is how exactly it works. Classic Traveller had myriad, very specific dice requirements, all based around the general idea of rolling several six-sided dice; usually, two were rolled, with some checks (or, in the preferred parlance of the game, saving throws) requiring one or three instead. Characters rolled against set difficulties, with a specific number meaning that number had to be rolled, a number and a plus sign meaning that number or higher must be rolled, and a number and a minus sign meaning that number or lower must be rolled; for instance, if a difficulty is 7, a character must roll a 7 to succeed; if a difficulty is 7+, any number from 7 and up would work out; if a difficulty is 7-, a character must roll a 7 or below to succeed. Dice modifiers, or DMs, would act to modify the roll made, not this target number; for instance, hitting an enemy in combat usually was an 8+ difficulty, but shooting at a person using an automatic pistol at medium range (-4) on an open, uncluttered roadway (+3) would keep the difficulty at 8+ but lower the 2d6 dice result by (-4+3=)-1.

Compared to Classic Traveller, Mongoose Traveller has more of an emphasis on adaptable skill rolls, with most rolls comprising an attribute (for instance, Social Standing or Dexterity) and a skill (for instance, Pilot [Spacecraft]), plus any modifiers and trying to roll 2d6 to get an 8 or better. Essentially, Classic and Mongoose Traveller both involve the use of 2d6 to get 8s or higher – the major shift between the editions was in how customizable and adaptable the skills are, keeping the dice mechanic the same through 31 years of tabletop gaming.

Both Mongoose and Classic Traveller have a character generation process far out of the norm for tabletop games, as each edition allows you to roll through a series of events in the character’s “career,” differentiable sets of events and occasions with their own rewards. A particularly lucky member of the Navy, for instance, could end up pushing his luck and being awarded a ship upon retirement; a particularly unlucky member of the criminal element might leave his old bosses penniless and pursued. One major shift between the two editions is that the later Mongoose version of the character generation rules have a far larger amount of variability and narrative effects, but the more famous change is that in Mongoose Traveller, a character can be injured or maimed in their career before starting play; in Classic Traveller, the gloves were off, making Classic Traveller one of few tabletop games wherein a player character could die during character generation.

The shift from a bad character generation roll taking a limb instead of the character’s life is a sign of the times, but also marks a shift in the atmosphere of the games. In Classic Traveller, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Dune, with flamboyantly-dressed nobles attempting to find their fortunes; society in this version is largely feudalistic, with the Imperium reigning over and theoretically uniting the countless feudal lords and fiefs, each of whom might be expected to rule a world or system or even sector. According to one of the creators of the system, the goal was to be able to “play D&D in space,” and it shows – melee combat and sworn knights are common sights, with the universe operating much like a rather large-scale D&D setting. In contrast, Mongoose Traveller is somewhat more modernized – though nobles still are a large part of the politics and economics of the setting, technology more closely represents how 21st-century gamers imagine the future, with soldiers in powered armor getting assistance from tactical analysts surrounded by holographic displays.

Overall, the systems comprising Traveller are numerous and varied, covering everything from 70s pulp sci fi to GURPS to glimpses of a postmodern society, but the overall ethos – that of exploring a vast universe filled to the brim with threats and opportunity, flying in space ships that would easily find a home in early 80s pulp TV shows – remains strong. The Traveller system is unique not only in its strong atmosphere but in its tendency to pioneer, to stand out from the crowd and establish creative and mechanical standards that bring the whole tabletop industry up as a whole.

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Dain Simpkins

Dain Simpkins

Law student with aspirations for better and more. Long time writer, slightly less long time tabletop gaming aficionado, and current contributor to the greatest gaming blog in existence.
Dain Simpkins

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