I’ve been seriously drawn towards running a science-fiction roleplaying game for most of the past couple of months. Of course, being me, the problem has been working out what flavour of science-fiction to play. It has increasingly dawned on me that, at heart, the kind of science-fiction game that I really want to play has its roots in 1977 Traveller.
When I say Traveller in this context I want to be clear that I am not talking about the set of rules nor am I talking about the Official Traveller Universe of Charted Space, aka The Third Imperium. As much as I love those things – and have deep nostalgia for that old game – I am inspired by something that my 1977 Traveller boxed set game me which I have for too long ignored: the methodology.
Traveller gives the Referee a bunch of tools. You have Book 1 with the character generation rules, the combat rules, and the skill list with its own rules for different entries. In Book 2, you are given Starship rules for economics, construction, combat, trade and commerce, plus a couple of oddities around drugs and experience. Book 3 is where the game gets really interesting, however, because you get given tools for building Worlds and Adventures.
What is inspiring me at present is the underlying methodology that is implied and only occasionally explicitly encouraged. In modern parlance we might call it sandbox play but that really doesn’t quite do the whole thing justice.
The Referee is instructed to map out a subsector of star systems and use the world creation system to generate a range of places for the player characters to visit. From this starting point, the Referee is encouraged to provide the player characters with encounters – some of them routine interactions with “ordinary people”, others generated as random encounters, but the main focus being on the patron encounter:
One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power. Such patrons will, if they hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task.Traveller, Book 3 Worlds and Adventures (1977), page 20
The first thing I love about this approach to play is that it is necessarily freeform. The players have complete agency within the subsector(s) of space that the Referee presents. The assumption is that the default goal is “the pursuit of fortune and power” but this is, I feel, a pretty open proposition. There is no pre-planned “plot” for the players to negotiate but rather the Referee provides a Patron encounter on the roll of a 5 or 6 once per week.
The second thing I love about this approach is that it is emergent play. The Referee might conceive of an interesting Patron encounter on a given world ahead of the session, but there is no guarantee that the player characters will encounter it. The Patron Encounters table (page 22) implies that the Referee can generate for themselves some inspiration to riff off if nothing else exists in their notes. One of the entries, interestingly, is a rumour.
As I get older, I find myself drawn to this approach to play. To provide an interesting and steadily deepening “world” or “universe” within which the player characters are unleashed is appealing to me. Dropping in lots of potential patron encounters – jobs the players can choose to engage with – but running each session as an emergent sequence of play in which they drive the action is exciting.
While I feel that I much prefer the detail and grounded rules of GURPS for my roleplaying, the methodology of open sandbox play draws me. By combining the principles of Open Table gaming with this approach, I believe a compelling and easy-to-run campaign could be run essentially indefinitely.
Traveller’s subsystems around encounters (including animal encounters), trade, and the economics of starships are all largely portable as-is. Which particular set of game rules you use to power the game and run combats is less important. Adding in the later stuff about mercenary tickets, in-depth interstellar trade, scout exploration, and so on simply offers the Referee guidance on how to respond when players choose these as goals.
While I have dabbled with the individual sub-systems Traveller gave me, I’ve not seriously taken the opportunity to put them all together. I find myself inspired to do so.