Traveller: Galactic History and Stellar Governance

Since my primary GMing responsibility for the near future lies with the preparation of my Traveller campaign, I thought I’d treat you folks to some of the work I’ve been doing on the background – mainly, I admit, as a spur to me doing the actual work, but still, it’s the thought that counts right? If you’re interested, the goodies are after the cut, if you don’t care about me blabbering about my homebrewed campaign setting move on, nothing to see here.

One of the nice things about Mongoose’s edition of Traveller is that, like the original release of the game, it doesn’t assume you are using the default Third Imperium setting of the game. In fact, the core book includes rules for things like variant forms of interstellar travel and different ways to generate areas of space depending on what sort of game you want to run.

For my campaign I don’t want to run with the default setting, but I do want to keep the basic assumptions of classic Traveller, which are:

  • The particular progression of tech levels as outlined in the book.
  • Starship travel works on the basis of the Jump drive, so every Jump takes approximately 1 week, Jump distance depends on how high-tech your engine is, and if you want to travel further than a single Jump can take you then you are going to need to plot out a series of Jumps with sufficient opportunities for refuelling along the way.
  • There is no faster-than-light communication independent of starship travel; the fastest method of communication would be to put a message on a Jump-capable craft, make it Jump to the message destination, and have it beam the message to the recipient on arrival.
  • Space navies exist, at least one body for space exploration and surveying exists (the Scouts), there is an outfit called the Travellers’ Aid Society which provides services and information useful to space travellers, there is sufficient interstellar trade to support adventurous free traders.
  • Sometimes a star system will be designated as a Red Zone and be subjected to a naval blockade.
  • Psionics exist but people can be nervous about it.
  • Starports are neutral territory; the starside part of the ports (this’ll be the bit after you’ve gone through customs when on an outward-bound trip) are beyond the jurisdiction of the planetary governments and are administered by an interstellar body.

In the default Traveller setting, the Imperium is responsible for the Scout service, the Navy, the starports, and the Red Zone blockades, and also demands the allegiance of the planetary governments without giving a fuck whether planet A is a psychotic dictatorship whilst planet B is an anarcho-syndicalist commune. In my Traveller universe, I want a central body to provide starport services but at the same time doesn’t pretend to be a galactic government, so there’s scope for smaller, more compact, and more agile interstellar states to run their own navies and scout services if I want them to.

What I want is a body whose main job is to keep interstellar trade flowing via the commercial starports. (Advanced planets would most likely also have government starports, but obviously those won’t be open to commercial traffic for the same reason aircraft carriers, army bases and Area 51 aren’t.) They should probably have naval resources, a scouting service and manpower to hand, but this is likely to consist of a “foreign legion” type core of folk who’ve left behind their old lives and citizenship in order to enter the service, supplemented occasionally by forces donated by those planets or interstellar states who can sustain their own navies and scout services. What we’re really looking at here isn’t an interstellar government so much as a multinational body – not something sprawling and generalised like the UN, but something with a specific mission which is so clearly of benefit to planetary governments that only utter pariahs refuse to sign up to them. So, who are these people and what is the galactic history that gives rise to them?

I’m going to take a leaf out of George Lucas’ book: what could be a more exciting faction in a space adventure setting than a good old-fashioned Trade Federation?

It's a shame such a gloriously retro-SF logo had to be wasted on racist caricatures in The Phantom Menace. So I'm stealing it.
It’s a shame such a gloriously retro-SF logo had to be wasted on racist caricatures in The Phantom Menace. So I’m stealing it.

Here’s the backstory I’ve worked up for the Federation, with the occasional OOC note to explain why I have made certain decisions.

Waaaay back in the mists of time, when humanity was first colonising the stars, the early colonies were (obviously) highly dependent on technical support and a flow of colonists from the cradle of mankind, the Sol system, and the Sol economies depended on the raw materials flowing back from the colonies. The consequence of this was that from an early stage the colonies accepted a large degree of central planning and control from Earth, and this became sufficiently ingrained over time as to become the norm; when the first wave of colonies matured to the point that they were sending expeditions out to even more distant systems, the same model was adopted, and so on down the chain.

(Translation: the game is set in a universe where space colonisation has been going on for so long that human societies have had a chance to establish themselves, fall into a dark age, and then claw their way back onto their feet – or fail to, as the case may be. Since the old days of the Human Republic are equal parts ancient history and utter fabrication, I’m only going to develop those features I feel will be required to give support and context to the present setting. The economic model above is a little ropey but ultimately IRL economics and the economics of a Jump-based stellar empire are likely to be rather different anyway.)

Early independence movements were blunted by various crises like the Man-Kzin Wars or the debacle surrounding the creation of the Vargr by human scientists (they wanted a species who could be sent ahead and pre-colonise worlds ready for human colonists; they got a race of piratical dog-people selling their services as mercenaries to the highest bidder – and the Kzinti bid high), but the thing which really kept central control tight (and made the amazing explosion of human interstellar colonies possible) was the widespread use of cloning technologies to produce instant populations for colonies – moreover, an instant population which would feel an intense connection to their parent world, since each individual would be a clone of some citizen of the parent star system, and would consequently feel an intense connection to the parent world and bring up their children to feel the same. A consequence of this was that interstellar travel for the average citizen was rather restricted – clones were banned from interstellar travel outright to prevent unscrupulous clones returning to their parent’s star system and claiming to be a long-lost heir (or even, if the parent had been using anagathics to preserve their youth, murdering their parent and taking their place), so in effect most of the first generation of a colony world would be unable to participate in interstellar travel at all.

(Translation: Cloneships, aside from being a cool idea, are a convenient explanation as to why humanity was able to expand so quickly and a slightly less convincing but still useful explanation as to the cohesiveness of the old empire. They also form the basis of a pyramid scheme which brings the empire down a bit later.

(Note also that I have changed up some of the aliens. The “Aslan” I have renamed Kzinti because the Aslan are a blatant ripoff of the Kzinti and I ain’t playing that weasel-word game, the Vargr are still uplifted doggies but they were uplifted by human beings because I’m not running with the Secret of the Ancients as developed in the official setting. More details in a later post.)

Between this, the large amount of  central economic planning, the massive government cargo ships going back and forth between colonies and parent worlds, and the tendency of planetary governments to squeeze exorbitant taxes over every piece of cargo which passed through their system, independent operators were simply priced out of the market: only governments and massive corporations could afford to participate in trade, and the colonial governments and megacorporations were all intertwined with the structure of the Human Republic. The few human worlds which were not members of the Republic were mistakes; late-generation fully AI-operated cloneships very occasionally went a little screwy and dumped fully-grown populations of clones on planets without any educational imprinting whatsoever – or an extremely patchy and nonsensical one – resulting in some worlds existing in a markedly regressed state of development. One infamous cloneship’s computer actually went insane and started doing this deliberately, misusing the biological equipment onboard to generate multiple generations of clones which it planted on a whole swathe of frontier worlds. The Republic had a strict policy dealing with such worlds of writing off the loss and forbidding contact with their inhabitants, choosing to regard these as “social experiments” and giving the parent world funding to send another cloneship to a different world.

(Translation: I want independent starship operators like the PCs to be a particular characteristic of the present era, because I’m hoping that this will help lay the groundwork for the players feeling that what the PCs are up to is significance despite the scale of the universe they live in. I also want mad AIs because mad AIs, dude, mad AIs.)

Of course, when you combine clones, malfunctioning AIs, and enclosed environments things do get a bit odd.
Of course, when you combine clones, malfunctioning AIs, and enclosed environments things do get a bit odd.

Despite egregious errors like this, the manufacture of cloneships accelerated to a ludicrous extent towards the end of the Republic, as colonies further down the pyramid desperately needed to colonise more and more worlds in turn in order to obtain the raw materials they needed to send upstream to Earth. Indeed, the more errors happened, the more cloneships were sent out, the sloppier the missions got and the more hetereogeneous and confused the resultant societies became. In the Fringe sectors, it’s pretty much impossible to work out which planet colonised which, especially since the central archives of Earth are forever lost.

<I>(Translation: There’s that pyramid scheme I was talking about – plus an excuse not to worry about which planet is which’s parent world.)

The cause of the emergence of psionics towards the end of the Republic period is a mystery which the Republic itself never managed to solve – and since the subsequent wars have destroyed most of the evidence, it seems unlikely anyone else will solve it. Was it the result of the hyper-advanced technology of the late Republic – perhaps an attempt to give humans an unreplicable advantage over the AIs who were rapidly gaining exclusive control over macro-scale Republic policy? Was it the consequence of tampering with the colony-seeding cloneships, either by unknown human parties or by one of the more subtle alien races like the Droyne? Was it a random and extremely fortuitous mutation which, thanks to the Republic’s cloning processes, was rapidly disseminated across numerous worlds? All of these theories are likely.

(Translation: A nice mystery for the campaign setting, plus an explanation as to why we don’t have psionics today, plus an explanation as to why psionicists are generally regarded with distrust in a wide range of human cultures, a big fat signpost to the fact that at its height the Republic had tech way beyond the TL15 maximum the Trade Federation has these days, a notification that the Droyne are a power in this universe – I’m tooting my own horn here but I’m really kind of proud of the above paragraph.)

What is certain is that in the wake of the rise of the psionicists came the psionic cults, which saw the coming of psionics as the dawn of a new and superior race. Utilising their abilities to maximal advantage to acquire power and influence, the cults started out small, but as leaders of these cults with compatible views as to the future trajectory of humanity began making alliances with each other they became more and more dominant. Soon these cabals were using a combination of high technology, drugs, and exotic powers to take their abilities to the limit. Legends tell of the more powerful cliques merging mentally (or, in some of the more outlandish tales, physically) into group hiveminds of startling power.

The fall of the Human Republic is commonly ascribed to the outbreak of a religious feud between two rival psionic cults who had accumulated a disturbing amount of power over the Senate. It is true that this was the flashpoint, and the Psionic Wars caused massive suffering on an interstellar scale to the point where psionic cults are deeply distrusted these days, and those psionicists who operate openly tend to do so through scrupulously secular bodies – the various guilds, academic bodies, government ministries, military psi corps and so on usually referred to collectively as the Psionic Institutes.

(Translation: There are psionicists in this setting but despite the whole Trade Federation thing, there’s no Jedi. Non-sociopathic psionicists tend to treat their powers as an unusual physical phenomenon – an interesting one, but not a source of spiritual or moral superiority.  The creepy, culty psionicists who buy into the idea that their powers represent the next step of human evolution or a blessing from the Force or something – the ones who group together to revive the bad old ways – usually end up blurring the mind/body/individual/collective lines in disturbing ways reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s classic-period body horror: Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome, all that good stuff.)

However, the real issue was that the Republic was never geared up to deal with a crisis which saw multiple key systems in the centrally-planned logistical chain either being entirely destroyed or being disrupted to the point where they couldn’t fulfil their commitments to the systems they had logistical ties with. Central planning from Earth was gone, and whilst plenty of systems never saw fighting, a sufficient number of key systems did get trashed that the flow of vital resources was disrupted. Some colonies – the more marginal ones who had only just been established and needed the most help from their parent systems – went extinct startlingly quickly, particularly those on less Earth-like worlds; the resources they needed to keep their life support systems viable simply never arrived from home, having been diverted to deal with the parent systems’ own problems, and the populations died as soon as the food tanks packed in or the oxygen generators gave up the ghost. Many others ended up in bitter disputes with their parent systems over allocation of resources, arguments which often led to one system invading another in order to secure vital supplies of raw materials. The Republic quickly disintegrated into a balkanised patchwork of interstellar states, most of which consisted of a “family” of parent colonies and child colonies, many of which didn’t quite have the right resources handy to keep their infrastructure going. Had there been a sufficient pool of independent traders at this point, further deterioration might have been prevented; as things stood, with tensions high and some resources required absolutely urgently – too urgently to wait for diplomacy – further wars between the stellar families soon broke out. WMDs were launched – ranging from highly technological weapons to simple asteroids accelerated to high speed and pointed at enemy worlds – and many worlds were literally bombed back to the stone age. Piracy and banditry became rife, with even some naval forces turning to raiding isolated worlds.

(Translation: RPGs thrive if there’s remnants of fallen empires knocking about, here’s that fall.)

The end of the Dark Ages of Humanity began at Alpha Centauri, which as the earliest space colony had always been the most self-sufficient; as a result, though Centauri was badly hit by the Psionic Wars, they were able to recover their lost technological infrastructure more quickly than many others. Within a generation, the Centauri had finally cleared enough land to grow food for their own population. Within the next few generations they bickered over exactly what sort of political system the world would be governed by. A few generations passed during which the world actually broke up into individual countries like Earth used to have, but eventually they got their shit together and became stable and wealthy enough to redevelop an infrastructure which would support space travel. After a few centuries of isolationism (during which they were waiting until their expeditionary ships weren’t met with unrelenting hostility whenever they visited a neighbouring system) the Centauri government began the process of developing diplomatic contact with other star systems. It was against this background that the Trade Federation arose. Initially, they were a rag-tag gang of adventurers who saw an opportunity to enrich themselves through interstellar trade. The secret of their success was down to many factors:

  • Firstly, they had access to high-quality starcharts of the core worlds from the old Republic Scout Service, which had maintained a data store of low-priority unclassified information at Centauri. This helped them determine which worlds would require resources from which other worlds and plot out viable trade routes.
  • After spending decades working on the free trader model, a bunch of Federation members pooled their resources to set up the first viable interstellar megacorporation of the post-Republic era: a combined scouting, surveying and couriering service. This was the beginning of the Federal Scout Service, through which the Federation lent support to governments’ own scouting and surveying efforts and also improved the trading starcharts the Federation was working from.
  • At around the same time as the Scout Service was being set up, another group of more action-oriented Federation members began taking a proactive role in hunting down pirates. From this bounty hunting service, the Federation soon began developing a profitable sideline in hiring out space mercenaries to root out pirates in systems where the planetary government didn’t have the manpower to spare or the technology to send out an effective naval force. These mercenary bands would eventually become the Space Corps, a Foreign Legion in space under the command of the Trade Federation.
  • By this time plenty more people were getting into the independent trader game, so the Federation developed a cordial relationship with the Travellers’ Aid Society, a private club of interstellar wanderers and adventurers that most free traders aspire to belong to, which gave them access to a pool of talent for special missions – particularly useful when the official bodies of the Trade Federation had grown from their original status as a bunch of adventurers to full-blown interstellar institutions.
  • After a few generations – once they hit the point where they were acknowledged by most of the core worlds as a crucial interstellar organisation – the Federation began developing a series of diplomatic space stations established in neutral territory where ambassadors from various human and alien governments could come together in peace (the Federal Consulate system). Of course, these stations would become hubs for trade and those seeking scouting or naval services, which helped the other branches of the Federation become even more successful.
  • Sixth, and most crucial, once they had spent a good long while running the Consulates the Federation managed to cultivate a reputation for impeccable, unimpeachable honesty and fair dealing this was when they brought it all together to put forth the Federal Starport Treaty.

The Federal Starport Treaty is really more like a contract between the Trade Federation and those worlds who are signatories to it. It provides for at least one starport in each signatory system to be designated as the Trade Federation recognised commercial spaceport for that system, and specifies that the spaceside part of that port is neutral territory under the direct jurisdiction of the Trade Federation. Systems can – and highly advanced systems do – have other starports, but unless they offer extremely tempting concessions for the users of those starports most commercial space travellers, tourists, explorers, and other such wanderers find it easier to use the Federal Starport.

As part of the Treaty individual governments give up their right to tax or confiscate any trade goods which happen to be passing through their systems on the way to destinations beyond their jurisdiction; unless traders bring the goods through customs at the Federal Starport, or unless they bypass the Federal Starport to land on territory which is the sovereign jurisdiction of the local government, then the tax men can’t touch it – and the Trade Federation pointedly refuse to police cargo unless they believe said cargo represents a physical threat to the Federal Starport itself. (Of course, if traders try to smuggle goods onto a world without going through customs, then they’ve put themselves beyond the Trade Federation’s protection.)

(Translation: A lot of the above is important to the Traveller ecosystem. Starcharts are just plain necessary, full stop. The Scouts, Navy and Marines are both sources of PC pre-game careers and sources of jobs. The Travellers’ Aid Society is both a delightful quirk of the original character generation tables in Traveller that’s been there since before the official setting came in and is, again, a nice source of jobs. The idea of spaceports being neutral turf is fairly crucial to the trading system and, again, is good for generating job ideas. Imperial Consulates are a little different in the official universe but screw it, Babylon 5 knockoffs are a great source of jobs too.)

This concession is vitally important because it makes it much more viable for free traders – and, for that matter, larger trading concerns – to plan multi-jump trading routes and journeys without having to pay tax for the cargo for every single system they pass through – tax can only be levied at the systems they buy the materials at and the systems the materials are ultimately delivered to. (Many traders, in fact, do all of their trading at the spaceside part of Federal Starports and let their customers deal with the customs fees to take goods into and out of the spaceside area, so the traders themselves never pay a shred of tax.) For many governments, this is a good enough reason to make that concession because it makes it much more viable for people to trade with their world – and after the debacle accompanying the fall of the Republic few wanted to cut themselves off from interstellar trade. Governments signing up to the Treaty also get a swathe of other benefits.

First off, signatories are guaranteed access to the surveying services of the Federal Scout Service, the antipiracy services of the Space Corps, and the diplomatic facilities of the Federal Consulates; the Trade Federation still accepts payment for these services from those governments who can afford it, but those who can’t can get them at a subsidised rate (or for free if they are well and truly impoverished, although there’s usually payment of some form exacted down the line). The Trade Federation’s rules explicitly forbid it from denying access to these facilities to Treaty signatories who file a proper request – although in frontier areas where the Scouts and Space Corps are spread thin, services may have to be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. (Still, it’s good to be in on the Treaty to guarantee yourself a place in the queue ahead of any non-signatories.)

Secondly, letting the Trade Federation run part of your planet’s spaceport can bring Federation investment to raise the standard of your main starport – or to construct one in the first place if you haven’t got one. This explains how some planets can possess starports which are well below the ability of the local infrastructure to construct.

Thirdly, if your world urgently needs a particular resource you can’t get through other means the Trade Federation will use its connections to obtain it for you. In practice, this benefit isn’t called on as much as you might think – the price the Trade Federation charges for the service is deliberately excessive to stop governments using the service to undercut the market, and the process of justifying the request can also involve revealing rather more about your world’s problems and weaknesses than you might want to let on. Still, the option is there if going into massive debt to the Trade Federation feels like a better option than dying because you can’t fix your oxygen generator.

Fourthly, the Treaty requires signatory worlds to levy a monster tax on incoming goods from nonsignatory worlds. This is the killer clause which means even powerful interstellar governments who have their own navies and scout services and embassies and in principle could run their own spaceports sign up to the Treaty anyway; in this fragmented galaxy, nobody’s so big that they could really afford to give up interstellar trade altogether, and everyone would rather be one of the signatory states extracting fat stacks of cash out of what goods do trickle out of any local nonsignatories than be one of the nonsignatories who don’t get any benefit from this at all.

Fifth, the “dictator clause” for those leaders who do not give a fuck about their world’s economic health and prosperity: all planetary rulers of signatory worlds get complimentary membership of the Travellers’ Aid Society and high-passage tickets on any starship leaving their starport for themselves and a limited number of companions of their choosing. This is ostensibly to allow planetary rulers to ensure that they personally or their chosen emissaries can have a suitably comfortable and soothing trip to diplomatic functions, but let’s not play dumb: it’s a “get out of lynching free” card for any despot who’s able to make a dash for the spaceport before the angry mob storms their palace.

(Translation: The above list is a mix of justifications for why most worlds encountered in the game are going to be signed up to the Starport Treaty and sowing seeds for potential jobs. It’s always nice to give the PCs a reason to lie to the authorities (point 4), or to shoot someone on the doorstep of a starport (point 5).)

As well as establishing the Trade Federation as a crucial – if somewhat laissez-faire – component of the interstellar infrastructure, the Treaty is the Federation’s main tool for expansion; uncontacted worlds are located by the Scouts, who find the local boss (or bosses in the case of balkanised worlds) and say “Hey, would you like a starport?”, beginning a conversation which usually ends with the boss (or bosses) signing the Treaty. Refuseniks tend to be hardcore isolationists with a massive hate-on for the rest of the galaxy, occasionally necessitating the occasional establishment of Red Zones where Space Corps blockades are in effect. (Red Zones are also established for other reasons – say, if the Scouts have established a particular world contains a nightmare disease which must be contained at all cost – and can be declared by Treaty signatories if their space navies are going to be blockading a system; war between rival governments who are both signatories to the Treaty usually begins with each government declaring a Red Zone against one or more of the other governments’ territories, although the Federation only acknowledges Red Zones on its star charts if one of the parties in the war is actually able to maintain an effective blockade in an area.) The Travellers’ Aid Society also operates an Amber Zone system to indicate that a world contains particular dangers for traders – for instance, lawlessness, or draconian law enforcement, or a dangerous political situation, or worlds where travellers may have to provide their own life support rather than rely on what the locals offer.

(Translation: Aside from providing the explanation for the Red Zone/Amber Zone system here and establishing that it works in much the same way as regular Traveller, this bit points out how two planets or interstellar states could go to war whilst at the same time still keeping good relations with the Trade Federation: namely, the Trade Federation doesn’t give a fuck so long as it gets paid and so long as noncombatants’ trade routes aren’t disrupted.)

The Federal Starport Treaty also established a unified calendar system for the purposes of international trade – a necessity since almost all worlds had diverted from Earth calendar systems by this point. The months, days and weeks are based on the old Earth Gregorian calendar for sentimental reasons (including leap years), with the original signing of the Treaty being the start point. The current year is 468 AT (After Treaty); the Treaty’s remarkable longevity and spread has been ascribed to three factors:

  • Any world which isn’t part of a large, powerful interstellar state would be cripplingly disadvantaged if they weren’t in the Treaty.
  • Any large, powerful interstellar state only manages to get that way because they were able to take advantage of the benefits the Treaty brings when they were small – and with no exit clause, they’re not about to leave.
  • Governments lose remarkably little sovereignty by signing the Treaty since the Federation is studiously apolitical.

In fact, the Federation has proved to have survived far longer than the vast majority of the governments who have signed the Treaty over the years – nations are conquered, planets are invaded, and systems are overthrown all the time, but the new rulers almost always rush out a declaration that the Treaty will be abided by. The longevity of the Federation itself is ascribed to two things: its infrastructure is too diffuse for any one enemy to attack concertedly, and it exclusively serves two purposes which most human beings can sympathise with: getting rich and adventuring in space.

(Translation: Explaining why the Federation has become the established status quo whilst simultaneously explaining why this has done remarkably little to make the galaxy a safer place to live in aside from making life difficult for pirates and planets which make a policy of shooting all approaching ships out of the sky without warning.)

The Kzinti and Droyne, the two other major space colonising societies that humanity is currently aware of, have reciprocal arrangements with the Federation; the understanding with the Kzinti is formal, the one with the Droyne is less so. The Kzinti are glad to receive visits from free traders, mercenaries, and other adventurous sorts, but do not want to receive embassies from any human government and will treat any naval-class ship that enters their space as hostile; in return, Kzinti mercenaries and bounty hunters are able to dock at Federation starports, though it’s down to planetary governments as to whether they’ll let them through customs. The Droyne, by contrast, will occasionally show up at a starport and pay an extravagantly excessive berthing fee (payment usually coming in the form of rare raw materials or enigmatic technological artifacts) in order to occasionally stop over at a Federation starport, though they almost never show any interest in going through customs or trade and it is believed that these rare stopovers might be emergency stops for repairs.; likewise, the Ambassadors – the Leviathans’ enigmatic diplomats – do occasionally establish embassies in Imperial Consulates (again, in return for massive fees paid in unusual currency), though this is usually for the purpose of giving bizarre, mildly nonsensical jobs to free traders. The Vargr, being an Earth-originating race, are sufficiently intertwined with humanity wherever they arise that they don’t need an independent arrangement with the Federation because almost all of them are citizens of member worlds anyway.

(Translation: Explaining how aliens relate to the Federation – and I think that’s the past piece of the puzzle. I’ll talk about aliens next time.)


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