Sunday, February 21, 2010
Traveller - Old School Science Fiction RPG
I was lucky enough to grow up near Waterloo Hobbies on Long Island. Waterloo was a very well stocked game store and I spent hours there swimming happily through a sea of role playing and board games. As many people know the first generation of fantasy role playing games (rpgs) was dominated by Dungeons and Dragons. Authors of the day also delved into genres like wild west, superheroes, and science fiction. The most famous science fiction rpg at that time was Traveller.
Ironically I found Traveller consistently frustrating and underwhelming throughout high school and college. The game is set in the future and there are spacecraft and a variety of planets to visit. The original books, however, give no setting whatsoever. You are in The Future, but the social structure, government, star atlas, and all other background details are absent. Further, the equipment available to you is essentially no different than what's available at the present day. Admittedly you may purchase a laser rifle but there are no phasers, blasters, light sabers, force fields or androids. I missed the color of amazing weapons and bizarre aliens that Star Trek (and later Star Wars) flaunted so shamelessly. Further, characters in Traveller were generally military veterans with a few randomly determined skills. I put down the rules for twenty years.
Last night I pulled the set back out and ran a beginner's game for some friends. Interestingly it was a good success. A lot has changed in the gaming world in twenty years. Contemporary science fiction games are tremendously colorful and dripping with exotic weapons, genetic abilities, aliens, and nanotechnology. Two examples include Dark Heresy and Eclipse Phase. Yet my players won't go near either of those games because they are so very detailed and rich in setting. Playing either requires several hours of discussion and character generation.
In comparison we were able to create characters for Traveller in thirty minutes. Then I plonked the players down in a derelict spacecraft and let them search for escape pods while being chased by mutants. The players immediately grasped the ideas at play- flickering lights, ship is lurching, and those packs of howling creatures with blue spears are probably unfriendly. As a side note I ran them through the movie Pandorum (an underrated American remake of Eden Log, an underrated French SF film). Everyone had a good time and will probably play again, at which point I'll run them through a version of A Planet Called Treason.
For purposes of the blog I mention Traveller because it has good potential as a beginner's rpg that a parent could run for teens. The rules are simple, the characters are easy to create, and you can be up and playing in no time. The downside to the game is that you have to supply your own science fiction universe but if you're creative (or, like me, just read and watch a lot of SF) then this shouldn't be a problem.
I would guess that a teen who enjoys Traveller may move on to some of the games listed above, or others on the market that deliver more color and detail. That's what I did. But that doesn't downplay the accessibility and ease of play of this old school game.
You can find Traveller on eBay, or you can buy a collection of the rules from Far Future Enterprises. The Far Future collection represents the original set of rules which have been revised multiple times in the last few decades. Mongoose Publishing has the latest version. This version seemed at first glace to be more complex than it should be, without the exotic color of more modern games- thus a sort of lose-lose.