May 12 2010 12:12pm

Traveller: Reexamining the old-school RPGs

This post is the first in a series dedicated to role-playing games. Old-school role-playing games.  Back when you had to, yanno, use pens and pencils.  And dice.

I know better than to start with Dungeons and Dragons. We need to work our way there in easy stages….

So why not kick things off with Traveller? Its 1977 publication established Marc Miller’s Game Designers’ Workshop as a force that even TSR would have to reckon with, particularly as the game quickly outgunned TSR’s own science fiction contender, Gamma World. Turns out that swashbuckling space opera resonated more than a scenario in which Earth had been microwaved and a bunch of mutants were left to fight over the scraps. One can speculate that perhaps in the Cold War throes of the 1970s/1980s, post-apocalyptic environments seemed a little too real. A dose of healthy escapism was in order.

And Traveller was made to fit the bill (we’ll get to Gamma World later). The essence of a particular strand of science fiction is a bunch of guys cruising around the galaxy on a beat-up spaceship, and that’s what you got with Traveller, as GDW happily cranked out adventure after adventure within that basic framework. Miller’s team also worked to release various supplemental booklets that expanded the rules to include mercenaries, merchants, planets, and fleet battles of various sizes. In doing so, they were drawing on the incredibly rich world they’d created, with a robust timeline and— perhaps even more importantly—ultra-cool maps.

Speaking of, let’s take a look at the overall one:

Ah, the Traveller version of the World of Greyhawk. I used to spend hours gazing at it, imagining the journeys between the stars . . . the strange planets . . . the weird aliens. And this map goes one better than the original, as you can zoom in on various sectors (via the controls in the upper right-hand corner). Like all good RPG creators, the Traveller brain trust was into serious detail….

They were also into a realistic sense of the vastness of space. This may look like a wide expanse of terrain—and indeed it is—but those map controls will show you what a tiny portion of the overall galaxy all that Traveller play was going down in. This isn’t a Foundation-style universe, where humanity spreads across the entire galaxy. Partially that’s because of the sheer size of the Milky Way, which was compounded by how Traveller envisioned jump-technology—you could only go star by star, guaranteeing the party all sorts of mad adventures along the way.

But the “narrow” expanse of play was also due to humanity finding itself hemmed in by several alien races. Which of course is where the Traveller universe really comes alive. The leonine Aslan, the doglike Vargr, the oh-so-buglike Hivers . . . . all of these were poised to give humanity (and PCs) a serious run for the money. Most of the adventures occurred in the fringe spaces between these various races, with the Spinward Marches being the classic default setting for any state of play.

Like any of the more succcessful old-school RPGs, Traveller went through all sorts of iterations, eventually being integrated into the GURPS format for a while. Purists can debate the merits of the various systems; for now, I’ll leave it at that and welcome suggestions about which RPG you folks want to hear me discuss in my next post.

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy (The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and the forthcoming The Machinery of Light). More about the world of the early 22nd century at

James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
Champions? Chivalry and Sorcery? FATAL?

Tekumel deserves a mention, if only because of the Empire of the Petal Throne Curse, which dooms all who publish it. Except DAW.

I had a lot of fun with Chaosium's Futureworld despite the fact that the entire game setting, chargen, world details, zap guns and all, fit onto sixteen pages.
James Davis Nicoll
2. Ryk E. Spoor
Space Opera?

Metamorphosis Alpha?

Villains and Vigilantes?

Arduin Grimoire (back then it was more supplements, of course)

Rolemaster/the LAW series?

Tunnels and Trolls?
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
I liked Classic Traveller a lot. More so than Mega-Traveller, which is the only other version I'm even a little familiar with.

It did have it's problems. Character creation took a long time, although it was also fun. Boring for everyone else at the table, though.

It also had problems with the skill mechanics and improving skills. That may have been the biggest problem, really. But it was fun and left plenty of room for actual role-playing.

Oh and on the subject of old systems, did anybody else out there play Warlock from the guys at CalTech?
James Davis Nicoll
5. James Davis Nicoll
Top Secret? The first edition?

Ah, fond memories of our demolitions guy getting confused between left and right and accidentally planting a mine on a yacht belonging to a high-ranking member of the House of Orange-Nassau.

There's an article in doomed forays into role-playing games by wargaming companies that didn't really get the idea of how to market RPGs. SPI is the obvious example (Dragonquest, Universe) but Where Avalon Hill Went Wrong with Powers and Perils, Lord of Creation and Runequest could generate a few words.
James Davis Nicoll
6. James Davis Nicoll
BTW, some amusement can be derived by updating classic Traveller with real star maps, as can be found at sites like this:

One interesting detail that drops out is that your Jump-2 workhorse starships can only reach two star systems from Sol: Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star. From Alpha C the only choices are Sol or Barnard's Star. From Barnard's Star, the choices are Sol, Alpha C, and Ross 154. The only star within Jump 2 of Ross 154 is Barnard's Star.
Marcus W
7. toryx
The Classic Traveller was definitely a good time. I think the point you made about the vastness of space is a good one. It was one of the few RPGs that really had a sense of space.

Other systems I was fond of and would like to see discussed would include Call of Cthulhu (not quite that ancient), Paranoia and definitely Gamma World. Of the three, Gamma World is probably the only one that is really truly old school, but it's been a good 20 years since I played Paranoia last and CoC has always been one of my favorites, especially to run.
James Davis Nicoll
8. Stefan Jones
Traveller was up against Metamorphosis Alpha, not Gamma World.

I was at the ORIGINS game convention where both of these were let up on the world!

As I Recall, it took several years for the Traveller setting to firm up. Little bits here and there in the magazine, then GDW gave away (?) copies of the Imperium map at a convention several years after the first set came out.
Chuk Goodin
9. Chuk
That online map is great.

I loved the duodecimal codes in Traveller. Also how your character could die before you started playing.

My vote for next game is Gamma World. Just because I like it, and it was the first RPG I ever tried to buy. ("Tried" because the only box at the store I went to had nothing in it except the world map.)

You can skip D&D if you want.
James Davis Nicoll
10. mrfred
There's something special about a system where your PC can die during character creation.
James Davis Nicoll
11. Harry Connolly
The Fantasy Trip
CE Petit
12. Jaws
You can have my first editions of Traveller and Chainmail and D&D when you pry them from my henchman's cold, dead fingers.

One gripe: If I recall correctly, some of the alien races originated in third-party supplements not produced by GDW... including some aspects of the Spinward Marches backstory that were eventually adopted as canonical. At least at gaming cons Back in the Day, the GDW people were always much more open to "outside" and "unauthorized" influences than were those from TSR.
James Davis Nicoll
13. Christopher Palmer
The map highlights one of the best things about Traveller - the coding system and random sector/system/planet generation system that lets you quickly create new places to visit. When you combine that with a deterministic seed random number generator, you get the ability for old games like Elite to generate thousands of planets complete with details on culture and politics "on the fly". I'd pretty much put money down that several SF authors, particularly Peter F. Hamilton, use the system generation rules to sketch out their galactic space settings. He even used some of the same terminology. It's cool that you can zoom in on this map down to the system level and, by decoding the graphics and string of characters there, know what kind of planet it is, its tech level, the size and type of atmosphere, the population, the politics, what kind of refueling is available, whether there are gas giants in the system, whether it has a Naval base, etc. Then you can use these numbers as modifiers on the trading goods tables to determine which cargoes are available and determine if they would be a good investment based on the stats of surrounding systems, like buying grain on an agricultural paradise to sell to a nearby industrial mining base on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere. Good times!

The rest of Traveller's system was a bit clunky (particularly skills and combat, although it was a fun solo "adventure" just to create a character), but the system generation and trading rules are still top-notch and we still use them today with our SF games.
Ken Walton
14. carandol
Nice to see you're looking at old RPGs. I didn't really get into role-playing until the mid-80s, so I missed the *really* old school games. I could get misty-eyed about first edition Warhammer FRP and it's splendid "Enemy Within" campaign, though. And HarnWorld.

But I think it's worth pointing out that Traveller is alive and well and being published by British RPG company Mongoose Publishing. I'm currently running a campaign, and we're having a great time. Mongoose have smoothed off some of the rough edges of the rules and it's one of the easiest systems I've ever run.
James Davis Nicoll
15. joelfinkle
Traveller was sometimes more fun creating characters than actually playing them.

The opposite was true in Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World as originally envisioned by Jim Ward. If you ever played in a game he ran, you quickly learned that there's no point in getting attached to characters, building them up, developing personality... it was just a matter of how long you could avoid gruesome death.

That sounds like an awful way to play, but no, he was a lot of fun. He ran a tournament at an early GenCon where the winner was the last man/robot/thing standing... or if I remember correctly, when the last four characters were destroyed, it was how much of the body was identifiable.
David Williams
16. DavidJWilliams
@carandol - -yeah by "old school" I don't necessarily mean "extinct." Good clarification.

On Gamma World vs. Metamorphosis Alpha. .it'd be fascinating to see the sales figures for those two games across the late 1970s. My sense is that TSR got GW into the market quickly precisely because they realized MA was too narrow a "universe" to lend itself to the kind of longstanding campaigns that tend to engender gamer loyalty. (Certainly among the kids I grew up with it was all GW and very little about MA. Which is too bad really . . .)

And on games to cover next: so no one wants to hear me talk about AFTERMATH? Sheesh. . .
James Davis Nicoll
17. Eugene R.
I see your Aftermath and raise you The Morrow Project.

Traveller really caught GDW's equal propensities to deliver realistic, gritty details and then toss 'em away in pursuit of high-octane melodramatic action. This dichotomy came out best in their later sf variant, 2300, where they created some wonderful worlds and then bashed 'em to pieces in a "Kill the Bugs" campaign arc. Similarly, Twilight:2000 ran the gamut from mil-spec style guidebooks to wild-and-wooly battles against New American rebels in the Ozarks with high-tech dirigibles.

As for Metamorphosis Alpha, if you sneezed, you missed it Back in The Day. Gamma World was far more popular. Both are still alive, with Jim Ward re-publishing MA in 2002 (Fast Forward Entertainment) and 2006 (Mudpuppy Games). Wizards is promising/threatening to bring out a new Gamma World in October 2010.

And it's Marc W. MillEr, by the way.
Max Kaehn
18. mithriltabby
Some longtime Traveller fans who wanted to use some more modern storytelling-game ideas have created Diaspora, using the FATE v3 mechanics.
James Davis Nicoll
19. Daniele A. Gewurz
What about (the first editions of) "Ars Magica" with its rich system to create and improvise spells?
James Davis Nicoll
20. Neon Sequitur

Thanks for the heads-up on Diaspora! I quit playing Traveller years ago -- it hasn't changed in 30 years, while the SF genre has moved on. So I'm always looking for more 'up to date' SF rpg's. Diaspora looks like a great add for my collection.
Max Kaehn
21. mithriltabby
If you liked Ars Magica, be sure to read Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters. Hard SF where the science is Aristotelian— great fun!
Andrew Foss
22. alfoss1540
Creating ships and travelling was a lot more interesting than the actual role playing. Characters were much easier to deal with than D&D
James Davis Nicoll
23. Harry Connolly
I'd also like to see some coverage of CHILL and other horror rpgs.
erick sibert
24. lollygags
This will be a fun series to read and bring back the memories. I'm looking forward to the Gamma World article and would love to see one on Twilight 2000.
john mullen
25. johntheirishmongol
Lots of different games that I have enjoyed but havent played in a lot of years. I still have my Arduin books along with some supplements that we put together in game development.

I also have played Morrow project, which was a blast, especially using a flamethrower

One other I haven't seen listed is Paranoia which is a great game and a lot of fun.

ICE was another game that thought should probably be reviewed.

And just for fun, should probably add the Larry Niven/Steven Barnes book, Dream Park
James Davis Nicoll
26. Alfvaen
I confess I never managed to actually play Traveller. I liked designing sectors, planetary encounter tables, and even generating characters. I got annoyed with the fact that your characters couldn't easily improve their skills, though. And, when you think about it, having a two-dimensional grid map for a galaxy which is, patently, more than two light years thick, is ridiculous. Also, having no more than one habitable planet per system.

So I spent more time generating systems in Universe. There, you got an actual three-dimensional star map of the solar neighbourhood, out to 30 light years, and you can have multiple planets in your star system. (No gas giants, but you can't have everything.) Plus you can advance your skills, and your character creation system is probably even more baroque. Of course, you have to make up your own adventures. And there are no alien races supplied either.

If you want an obscure game, though, do Jeffrey Dillow's High Fantasy.
David Levinson
27. DemetriosX
Alfvaen @26

Actually, one of the very earliest supplements to Traveller allowed for both gas giants and multiple inhabited worlds in a system. I'm not sure which one, but probably within the first 5 or 6. Certainly early enough to be standard to the game.

As for the map, I ran a homebrew galaxy and simply decreed that the map did not depict actual space, but rather travel times. No reason you couldn't build a 3D map if you wanted, though.
James Davis Nicoll
28. AlfredTungstan
TMNT - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Our DM placed the setting in our own home town in the Ozarks with a local big name company as the source of the mutagent. Nothing more fun then spending the night as a bunch of large intelligent badgers and whatnot fighting for their survival against a bunch of rednecks in pickup trucks with shotguns.
Nathan Martin
29. lerris
Rolemaster. I got my start with the second edition and the many companion volumes. At one point we joked that the system had every skill except "use/remove toilet paper". Shortly thereafter, a companion volume was published which introduced the skill "hygiene".
Church Tucker
30. Church
@5 James Davis Nicoll "There's something special about a system where your PC can die during character creation."

THIS! This is what was awesome about char creation in Traveller. It was like deciding if you should double-down at a casino. "Yeah, I want a grizzled vet, but will he make this next roll?"

@12 Jaws "One gripe: If I recall correctly, some of the alien races originated in third-party supplements not produced by GDW"

Hrm? Some were clearly influenced by outside sources (The Aslan were pretty much the Kzinti) but I don't think any were technically created outside the shop (unless there were others that I missed.)

And the final bravo moment of Traveller: it only required 3d6. If you had a couple boardgames in the closet, you could find the dice.

d20 Traveller is an abomination.
David Williams
31. DavidJWilliams
@Eugene R: thanks on the nomenclature error, fixed...

Meanwhile, I think there's no question that Metamorphosis Alpha needs to be next. Stay tuned...
James Davis Nicoll
32. barbara/kitten
Back in the day, when I was still in denial about being a gamer, I played Traveller. We had Stump and Furrbutt action figures...and the guy who sold cheese. It was fun. Also played Space 1889, and Twilight 2000. And in the past year we have played Gamma World. I'd love to see GW done right.

I'll have to check out Diaspora.
James Davis Nicoll
33. Ashley Grayson
Does anyone recall the Concordat of Archive series of SF novels by Jeff Swycaffer published by Avon back in the late 1970s? They were military SF adventure set in the Traveller universe. One of the tales appeared as a game module in a gamer magazine.
Kendall Bullen
34. kendallpb
Yay, you're going to do Metamorphosis: Alpha! More interesting (if kinda limited) setting than Gamma World.

RuneQuest was mentioned above--I second that. Glorantha had some awesome stuff, though over the years it's gotten weird/boring and I lost touch.

I also second Tunnels & Trolls. "Can't find anyone to play with, and you've done the three RuneQuest solo adventures? Play T&T!" ;-)
Jim Fallone
35. jfallone
I would like to see you focus on games that are based in original worlds rather than licensed properties.

I think that the literary value of roleplaying games has been tragically unrecognized. Particularly the user/community contribution aspect of these worlds. RPGs are first and foremost social games and the industry embraced the idea that the end user created their own content as part of the process and often incorporated this fan generated content into future material.

The current buzzword in Hollywood is Transmedia but RPGs have been Transmedia since the beginning with boardgames, miniatures, action figures, card games, novels, comics, live action gaming, computer games, Saturday morning cartoons, and movies all living in the same narrative universe.

My suggestions: Dark Sun, Journe, Shadowrun, Deadlands, Space 1889, BattleTech.
James Davis Nicoll
36. Robert L McCARTHY
Are you going to DO the orginal Top secret? it's not SF/Fantasy but having bought a copy super-cheap just last year it's a fun game!
David Williams
37. DavidJWilliams
Oh, I'm going to do Top Secret, rest assured. I spent enough time getting lacerated on Operation Rapidstrike that I wouldn't miss it...
James Davis Nicoll
38. Baron Greystone
Classic Traveller is awesome. I'd happily play it tonight. I'd also like to see you do Tekumel, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. All favorites of mine.
James Davis Nicoll
39. James Davis Nicoll
What about looking at tie-in products for written SF like the Ringworld RPG?
David Williams
40. DavidJWilliams
Funny you should say that, I was thinking about the Ringworld rpg earlier this week. . .
James Davis Nicoll
41. Eugene R.
One interesting aspect of RPGs to examine is the appearance of mechanics for ROLE playing (as opposed to ROLL playing). I would look at Chaosium, starting with Call of Cthulhu, where the Sanity attribute and the Sanity loss abilities of the horrendous Mythos critters really led players to adopt the attitudes of Lovecraft's oft-overwhelmed investigators of Things Humans Were Not Meant to Know.

The apotheosis of role-playing mechanics, of course, is Pendragon.
James Davis Nicoll
42. James Davis Nicoll
I still have my copy. And The Ringworld Companion And Different Worlds 37. Not Dragon 95, though.
James Davis Nicoll
43. David Jaques-Watson
Demi wrote: "earliest supplements to Traveller allowed for both gas giants and multiple inhabited worlds in a system."

Book 6: Scouts.

- Hyphen
David Levinson
44. DemetriosX
David @43

Was it Scouts? I suppose that makes the most sense. But in my memory the book with the full system rules was blue and Scouts was yellow. I spent a lot of time rolling up systems while watching TV 20-25 years ago. I know roughly where my books are, but it's a lot of trouble to dig them out. I'll take your word for it.
James Davis Nicoll
45. Kyria Nightstorm
Tunnel and Trolls - my favorite variation was Tunnels and Thompsons. Nothing like adding machine guns into the fantasy genre.

Amber, based on the Amber chronicles by Zelazny.


Star Wars - you know, the first one where you could blow a force point and roll a double handful of d6's and take out a cruiser with a blaster.

Ah - those were the days
Andy Leighton
46. andyl

Dream Park was turned into a RPG somewhat later as well.

My choices are.

Obviously Runequest is a good one to examine. Over three decades of history with expansions into board games and fiction.

2300AD is a good hard SF RPG which tied in to a greater future history with Twilight 2000

Talislanta which has recently been released for free download (not everything is there yet - people are still working at scanning / clean-up).

As James Nicoll says a look at tie in to written SF would be good as would one on TV/film SF. It is interesting to see what works and what doesn't.
James Davis Nicoll
47. James Davis Nicoll
As James Nicoll says a look at tie in to written SF would be good as would one on TV/film SF. It is interesting to see what works and what doesn't.

I may be an extremist here but the first criteria I use on a tie-in product is "can this system be used to replicate the events of the work for which it is a tie-in?"

The Aliens RPG, for example, used an FTL system completely incompatible with what was shown in Alien and Aliens.
John Carr
48. CyricPL
I'm going to love this series, as a "youngster" who didn't actually start playing D&D until 2nd ed in 1993 but who is obsessed with the history of the form.

And I'd like to echo someone else's sentiment from above - don't even bother with D&D. There is such a wealth of info easily accessible on the history of the game that it seems unnecessary to go over it again here.
Paul Madison
49. pmadison
Another great aspect of Traveller was the crunchy bits: equations for calculating entry orbits, equations for calculating the distance between star systems in 3 dimensional space [in Traveller 2300].

Tekumel is amazing if for no other reason than M.A.R. Barker's incredible world building abilities. In my opinion his only other peer is Tolkien.

Bunnies and Burrows was a fun beer and pretzel RPG from the 70's and Hackmaster is a great parody of 1e/2e D&D.
James Davis Nicoll
50. A Paladin In Citadel
Boot Hill deserves some love as well.
Rick Rutherford
51. rutherfordr
Just FYI, you should know that there is book called "Hobby Games: The 100 Best", published in 2008, which has covered a lot of this territory:
James Davis Nicoll
52. jeff37923
Mongoose Publishing is doing the current version of Traveller, which is quite similar to the original Classic Traveller. The game can be found at

while the Traveller forums can be found at

If you are interested in all of the Classic Traveller books as PDFs on CD-ROM, Marc Miller is selling them here at
James Davis Nicoll
53. StormBringer
This is as good a place as any to plug the Citadel of Chaos. Stop by for discussions of Vintage Game goodness, including Traveller, Gamma World, Rolemaster, and all the games you remember from the 80s!
( )
James Davis Nicoll
54. Robert Dushay
Delightful reviews. Keep up the good work. I would also direct interested readers to the Museum of Roleplaying Games which goes over much of the same ground in perhaps too much detail. We've already reviewed many of the suggestions listed here. (Disclaimer: it's my site. But everything I said was true.)

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