When I was but a lad of thirteen, there was this new game that everyone was talking about…and then there was this other game that fired my imagination.
The year was 1980, and the game everyone was talking about was Dungeons & Dragons. And according to who you asked, it was a harmless and fun imaginative past-time or the first gear shift on the highway to Hell (spoiler, it wasn’t Satanic in the slightest). However, the game that I discovered in D&D‘s shadow was a little gem called Traveller.
Always a greater fan of things science fiction over the sword and sorcery stuff, I picked up my first set of “three little books” Traveller at the Black Forest Hobby Shop in Kettering, Ohio and was off to other stars in light seconds.
Traveller is/was a role-playing game designed by the now-defunct Game Designer’s Workshop back in 1977. Originally designed as a generic set of rules for space-opera type play, it has evolved into an incredibly detailed universe with sophisticated politics and history. But in 1980 much of that complexity had yet to be written, and my friends and I (yes, I had friends) only needed the three little books that came in the original box set to contend with.
My guess is that the folks at GDW didn’t have a lot of money to invest in printing, as the game was laid out in these three staple-bound books with little interior art and not even a cover image–just a black book with a red stripe. The books were 1) Characters and Combat; which told you how to create a character through a series of tables that somewhat randomly assigned you skills and attributes, 2) Starships; which listed fifteen ready to fly ships and a ton of rules on how you could design your own from scratch, and 3) Worlds and Adventures; which explained how you could create your own universe from worlds to governments.
To be frank, some of the rules were a bit weird or awkward so my friends and I just chose to ignore what was cumbersome and play it for the fun. And it was glorious fun indeed. We traversed lightyears in a week’s time and landed on frontier worlds. We engaged in starport shootouts and outer space dogfights. And we were free to invent and contrive whatever possibilities suited our fancy as movies like Dune, Alien, Empire Strikes Back, and Wrath of Kahn, dazzled our eyes and books like The Stainless Steel Rat, Dorsai, and Foundation filled out heads.
I had never before found a template that so suited my imagination and am still a fan of the game to this day. Traveller has proven the inspiration for much of what I write as a science fiction author today, and I make no apologies for that. But beyond my personal interaction, the game deserves credit for many innovative concepts that dominate gaming today. Ever heard of society described as having Teck Levels? Thank Traveller because that idea was found on page seven, Book 3) Worlds and Adventures. How about characters having skills? If you didn’t know, in the original D&D characters had no skills, but chose a “class” whereby certain abilities were allowed and others forbidden. However, in Traveller, your character learned and could improve on skills without boundaries.
The game has earned numerous awards over the decades and been re-written dozens of times even before GDW went under. You can now play Mega-Traveller, Traveller New Era, GRUPS Traveller, Mark Miller’s Traveller, Mongoose Publishing Traveller, Far Future Enterprises Traveller, and on, and on. But as for me, I’m a down to basics kind of guy and three little books is enough.
So roll some dice over a table with like-minded friends and keep it flowing simple and free. Let your imaginations go wherever the heck you want them to and if you get the chance to play a good old fashioned game of Traveller, as we said int he 80s, go for it!