I was going to hold off on further installments of this feature until I made it past my personal life’s present logjam, but the news of Loren Weisman’s passing compelled me to crank out a bit of commentary regarding one of his most famous creations —
– one that just so happened to be the next entry on my role-playing game chronology.
The decision to pick up GDW’s Traveller box set was motivated by my little brother and coincided with the peak of his Star Trek fandom. The kid was interested in playing a sci-fi themed RPG, and I was more than happy to oblige. Why I settled on Traveller — as opposed to FASA’s licensed Star Trek game or Star Frontiers — remains something of a mystery, though I suspect it ultimately came down to the asking price and the prevalence of ads for GDW’s Traveller: 2300 system in Dragon Magazine.
While I knew the games were two separate entities, I assumed the relationship between them was along the lines of D&D and AD&D — similar engines with different levels of complexity.
I didn’t realize how wrong I was until after I’d dropped the cash (at a hobby store in a dying Essex County mall) and surveyed the contents of the starter box.
Even by first edition D&D standards, the original Traveller rules were an incoherent agglomeration of non-intuitive rules passing for a comprehensive game system. Any dreams of lightsaber combat or frantic orbital dogfights died beneath a staggering array of tables with minimal clarifying text. The space combat rules were a plodding wargaming system dragged and dropped into an ad hoc tangle of mechanics at odds with the promise of exciting space opera action.
The weirdly pedestrian take on galactic high adventure permeated the entire system. Aliens, cybernetics and sentient robots were nowhere to be found in the core rules. Marginally futuristic projectile weapons were the norm, apart from a few expensive and cumbersome energy weapons. Even the character creation system centered around terms of organizational service in a press-your-luck scenario in which the chance of obtaining starting cash or a potentially useful skill was hazarded against physical debilitation or death before player began their first adventure. Who needs Han Solo or Buck Rogers when you can play as an arthritic middle-aged military vet who never managed to acquire a single weapon skill?
The pack-in and published adventures further emphasized the humdrum aspects of the genre, with scenarios involving looting ruins or battling giant-space possums for the salvage rights to some cosmic garbage pile.
Lil Bro was not impressed, and neither was the rest of my gaming group. We ran only a single Traveller adventure, a homebrew bug-hunt I whipped up that road the coat-tails of the Aliens movie. The characters were offered increasing amounts of loot to explore and cleanse a warren of xenomorphs on a jungle planet, got overconfident, and suffered a total party wipe. It went over well enough at the time — thanks to the popularity of the obvious source material — but didn’t inspire any further interest in the game itself.
Eventually I did pick up a copy of Traveller: 2300, which will be covered in a future installment, and contemplated picking up the revised and streamlined Megatraveller reboot of the core system. I never did, though a clearance aisle copy of MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy was the first game I played on a hand-me-down PC my uncle gifted Lil Bro and me in the mid-1990s.
It, too, was a complicated mess with insufficient documentation of essential mechanics.