As with many games that have been revised and reissued regularly since the 1970s, Traveller is in the precarious position of having a rather startling number of different versions of it available. This is particularly the case if you consider that actually the term Traveller refers, in the minds of many, to two connected and distinct things: there’s Traveller in the sense of the game systems that have carried that name, and then there’s Traveller in the sense of the Third Imperium campaign setting which became the default setting of the game reasonably early on in the lifetime of its original incarnation (known today as Classic Traveller).
As far as the setting goes Marc Miller, its creator and custodian of most of the old Game Designers’ Workshop RPG back catalogue, has been very generous with the licensing rights over the years, so if you want to play in the Third Imperium there are an embarrassment of choices available. Hero system? There’s a Traveller for that. D20? There’s a Traveller for that too. GURPS? Why, some people swear that GURPS Traveller is their absolute favourite presentation of the Third Imperium! I admit to losing track of which of all these variants are still in print, but I do remember getting the impression a while back that the answer was probably “too many” – although each licence probably gave Miller a nice injection of royalties, at the same time I do wonder whether they have been a double-edged sword: each successful adaptation can only have fragmented the fanbase further (with a big question mark as to whether it grew the fanbase sufficiently to compensate for that), whilst each unsuccessful one can’t have done much to build the fanbase further.
If you just look at the system, though, that’s had a convoluted history of its own. Once upon a time there was just Classic Traveller – available in many forms (the original boxed set, the expanded Deluxe Traveller box, the Traveller Book which edited together all the stuff in the boxed set and sprinkled on some extra Third Imperium setting material and adventures, the Starter Traveller set which provided a basic version of the rules…), but basically the same game in all its iterations. Edition wars were unknown, the game sold extremely well – easily becoming the dominant science fiction RPG in the English-speaking world – all was golden.
Then there was MegaTraveller, an ambitious revision of the rules which incorporated much more Third Imperium-focused material into the core set. Whereas the original Traveller box had presented a mostly generic set of rules (albeit one whose systems presented an implied setting which the Third Imperium ended up closely resembling, much like the original D&D rules presented an implied setting that the likes of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms would closely follow), over time the product line had become more and more intertwined with the Imperium, so this change made sense. It also made sense to farm out a lot of the work to Digest Group Publications, a third party outfit who had been turning out exceptionally well-received support material for the game.
Unfortunately, due to a basic incompatibility between the word processor software used by DGP and GDW, all the books had to be retyped by hand, and as a result a startling amount of errata creeped into the game. On top of that, it was decided to majorly shake up the setting by having the Emperor get assassinated, shattering it into warring factions. Whilst a cool idea in principle that made the setting feel less static, it would be a change which would bring about the first, albeit minor fragmentation in the fanbase: some people didn’t like the idea of the civil war, whilst others who might have gone along with it soured on the execution, since DGP and GDW struggled over the course of the MegaTraveller product line to give a real sense of what was going on with the war and how PCs could pitch in. (GURPS Traveller actually presents an alternate timeline where the Emperor’s assassin died in a shuttle accident on the way to do the dirty deed, preventing the civil war from kicking off in the first place – and there’s a substantial number of Traveller fans who embrace it for precisely that reason.)
This was as nothing compared to the fan backlash faced by Traveller: the New Era, which made a series of decisions which… well, let’s sit down and list them.
- The game system that had originated in Classic Traveller and had been refined for MegaTraveller was tossed out of an airlock and replaced with the GDW house system that had been developed for the second edition of Twilight: 2000 after a long gestation period drawing from the original Twilight: 2000 and 2300AD. (The latter game was originally published as Traveller: 2300, confusing everyone since it had nothing to do with Traveller in terms of setting or system.)
- The civil war in the Third Imperium ended with an anticlimactic stalemate. Nobody won, everybody lost to a varying extent, nothing anybody did during the civil war accomplished anything beyond making galactic society frighteningly vulnerable so that when a major crisis came along it collapsed completely.
- The collapse came about due to an AI computer virus inflicting a massive apocalypse on the galaxy by infecting everyone’s ships. This felt a bit out-there in the context of the comparatively sober style of hard SF that Traveller had previously been known for. To be fair, the Virus was inspired by a minor feature in an obscure (but official) Classic Traveller adventure, so it wasn’t as though it came entirely out of left field, but it would have seemed that way to anyone who didn’t own the product in question (which had been out of print for years due to being a Classic-era release), and the means of the Virus’ propagation involved inventing a starship part which hadn’t been mentioned before (an identification transponder) and then giving that transponder massive access to all the other onship systems, which many found wrecked their suspension of disbelief.
In between trashing the old system completely, abruptly ending the major metaplot of the previous edition with a big fat “nobody wins” fudge, and transforming the setting radically through a mechanism that a lot of experienced Traveller players found difficult to stomach, GDW bravely and self-sacrificingly offered a chilling example for the education of the rest of the industry. If you want to know why radical changes to well-loved games are an enormous risk which might do incredible damage to the health of a previously successful game line, one edition transition provides the absolutely archetypal example. Before WFRP 3rd Edition, before Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, Traveller: the New Era saw GDW vandalise the product line that put them on the RPG map for reasons which I am sure made sense at the time, but which are, shall we say, a wee bit difficult to appreciate now.
For what it’s worth, the part which bugs me the most about The New Era was the junking of the system in favour of the House System one. GDW already had a perfectly good SF RPG with a system substantially closer to the House System than Traveller – namely, the aforementioned 2300 AD, which wasn’t a monster hit but it was pretty respectable in its time and had been out for a fair few years by the time Traveller: the New Era came about. What possessed GDW to imagine that anyone interested in a sci-fi game using a Twilight: 2000-influenced 1D10-based system was not already playing 2300 AD? What made them think that the masses of Traveller players would embrace the new system if they hadn’t migrated to it already? Part of me wonders whether someone at GDW simply didn’t like the original Traveller system and wanted to squash it, used the titling of Traveller: 2300 as a test balloon for the idea, and eventually managed to push through their agenda with The New Era.
GDW shut down in 1996, a mere 3 years after putting out The New Era. The business had endured a run of bad luck and was quite troubled at the time, and Marc Miller reports that whilst they weren’t flat-out forced into bankruptcy, most of the main players there were burned out from the workload of running GDW and churning out products at the rapid pace the company had set for itself. This is an explanation which sounds credible to me: I can see why they’d decide to pack it in whilst some glory still remained rather than get involved in a tough and draining fight to save a job that just wasn’t fun any more – and I’m sure the fan backlash from Traveller: the New Era can’t have been fun either.
But the major reason I am inclined to believe Miller’s take on the end of GDW is a simple one. Traveller: the New Era isn’t really the sort of product you’d put out if you were really invested in and cared about the Traveller product line, and in many respects the decisions involve bear all the hallmarks of GDW trying to make life easy for themselves rather than trying to do what was best for the game line.
Think about it: dumping the civil war and advancing the timeline by centuries means that the designers don’t have to worry about keeping things consistent with the MegaTraveller-era setting material, save for references to history. Dropping the system and substituting in the GDW house system means that designers don’t have to keep up to speed with multiple different game systems. Using the Virus to wipe the slate clean on a galaxy-wide basis means that the resultant setting ends up much simpler and easier to handle. If you are on the verge of publisher burnout, I can see how all that would feel extremely attractive.
The same year that GDW closed its doors, a fourth version of the game came out from Imperium called Marc Miller’s Traveller. Rush-released and sloppily edited, by Miller’s own admission, it brought back the old system and presented setting material from the foundation of the Third Imperium, but wasn’t a hit. It has its advocates, but its reputation has never been great (the botched editing will do that), and is likely to get worse in retrospect due the game being published as part of a business collaboration with Ken Whitman. Ken’s got a long history of such dealings unravelling under cloudy circumstances, and he has been attracting a wee bit of mild controversy lately, due in part to the spectacular collapse of a series of Kickstarters – including one for Spinward Traveller, which was supposed to be a pilot for a Traveller-inspired TV series. Given how Whitman has burned a lot of bridges in the RPG community in general – and the Traveller community in particular thanks to Spinward Traveller – I suspect that for more than a few people, the prospect of tinkering with an edition of Traveller that Whitman was intimately involved with may be hard to stomach.
As a matter of fact, part of me worries a little that Whitman’s various high-profile blunders might hurt Traveller as a whole, at least in the short term. Marc Miller can be forgiven for being burned by Ken Whitman’s tendency to let people down back in 1996 – after all, who knew back then? – but Miller came in on Spinward Traveller as an executive producer. Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice,
won’t get fooled again shame on me; although I don’t think Miller’s reputation has been irretrievably stained by what happened, I do wonder whether at least a few fans who were burned by the deal resent him a little, especially if they backed the project on the strength of his name being attached to it. It doesn’t help that whilst Jolly Blackburn of Knights of the Dinner Table fame – another business partner left holding the can by Ken – has been extremely visible and active in trying to make things right for the backers of the KoDT Live Action Series project to whatever extent he can, I’m not aware of Miller taking similar actions.
Anyway, at some point in the 2000s Miller ended up deciding that the best way to go with Traveller was to fork the system in such a way that two games would have the Traveller mantle at once, a situation which is a bit confusing but which, considering how many other systems had Traveller versions put out for them by that point, probably didn’t seem like it added too much complication and may have been a necessary step for Miller to accomplish his creative ends. Mongoose would get to make their own version of Traveller, whilst Miller would turf out the vastly more complex Traveller5 – a game whose editing and index issues and complex approach hasn’t exactly made it a monster hit.
Of all these versions, by far my favourite is the first edition of Mongoose Traveller. You look at the cover of the book and you instantly (if you know your Traveller history) see what the intention is – going back to basics and recapturing the anything-can-happen spirit of the original box, which the game does with great success whilst giving the systems a bit of modern polish. The end result is a game which has successfully updated the approach of Classic Traveller for the modern day whilst at the same time making substantial improvements to it.
I have written previously about how much I enjoy Mongoose Traveller‘s character generation process, and I stand by that article; it provides more depth (and medical debts as a useful alternative to dying in the middle of character generation!) than the Classic Traveller version, plus allows you to create a character who has had terms of service in different careers quite elegantly, and yields a character sheet which by and large will be entirely comprehensible to someone who has played Classic Traveller, MegaTraveller or Marc Miller’s Traveller. Characters will tend to have more skills than in Classic Traveller, but as I discuss in the comments of the prior article that makes sense given how the task resolution system is implemented here.
On which note, the inclusion of a decent task resolution system is probably the deciding factor in putting Mongoose Traveller ahead of Classic Traveller in my estimation. Though I find a lot to love in Classic, it’s seriously hampered by the lack of any sort of unified task resolution system. Every individual action in Classic Traveller has an associated task roll which is assessed in a slightly different way, which allows for flexibility in task design to a certain extent but I suspect slows down play quite a bit. It’s no surprise that when DGP did MegaTraveller they added a task resolution system as a high priority, basing it off the Classic Traveller task resolution they had presented in some of their earlier supplements.
Various subsequent editions have had mildly different mechanics, but Mongoose Traveller has a fairly solid one: you roll 2D6, you add situational modifiers, a modifier for your skill (or an unskilled penalty, if applicable), and a modifier for one of your attributes, and you try to get 8 or more. In situations where the degree of success or failure is important, you subtract 8 from your roll to get the level of Effect – Effect 0 means you just about scraped a success, positive Effect gives additional benefits, negative Effect is a measure of how badly you failed.
The application of a set bonus to rolls based on the governing attribute may be borrowed from D&D 3.X – which Mongoose got their start churning out third-party products for – but it works out well in practice and feels like a natural part of the system, particularly since Classic Traveller was crammed with tasks where having especially high or low scores in a relevant attribute would give you a bonus or penalty, so the move has the effect of standardising a feature which was already kind of present in the original game rather than introducing a brand-new concept into the mix. In general, in fact, the task resolution system feels like a very natural addition to the game.
For the rest of it, Mongoose Traveller‘s core book provides an updated equivalent of more or less everything in the original Traveller box – space travel and combat, ship design, world and sector creation, trade, psionics, and so on and so forth. What is notable is what isn’t included: aside from the inclusion of some alien races from the Third Imperium setting (a very useful way to illustrate how the system can be used to model alien races, so I’m basically cool with it), there isn’t that much in terms of explicit setting information. This is, in fact, by far the most setting-agnostic version of Traveller since the original box, and I think that is greatly to the game’s advantage; like the original game, it provides you all the tools you need to craft your own universe in a compact and easy-to-use package, and making it as generic as it is not only helps encourage those who aren’t sold on the Third Imperium setting to take a look at the game but also opened up the door for Mongoose to do a range of neat setting tie-ins, like a Babylon 5 line and a serious of supplements based on 2000AD properties like Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog. (In an ironic twist for those who remember the Traveller: the New Era debacle, Mongoose also released an adaptation of the 2300 AD setting, scrapping that game’s system so it could be used as a Mongoose Traveller setting. Some would call that karma.)
All good, right? So why am I not upgrading to the 2nd edition?
Part of that answer is that I don’t like what that edition takes away from the core. From the original release of the beta onwards, Mongoose were quite clear about their plans for the starship creation system: they weren’t going to offer one. At least, not in the core book – there, they would offer a bunch of example ships, but if you actually wanted to design and customise ships of your own you would need to get the new High Guard supplement. This was a major gear change both from 1st edition Mongoose Traveller, where a basic ship design system was provided in the core book and High Guard simply provided an advanced equivalent of it, and also Classic Traveller, which Mongoose took that model from. It also means that the core 2nd edition book is intrinsically less complete and less useful than the 1st edition core book. Whilst the old version had everything you needed to create and customise your own universe in one book, just as Classic Traveller gave you everything in one little box, this new version now requires you to buy multiple separate products to get the same functionality. (And not even the same functionality – since 2nd edition will have no “basic” ship design system as a compromise between just using off-the-shelf ships and using the full High Guard system, those who really want the customisation but would prefer to keep it reasonably simple are left out in the cold.) This feels like both a significant step backwards and a major betrayal of the ethos of the previous edition.
On top of that, some of the flexibility of the core book systems has actually been dialled back. For instance, the world creation section in 1st edition includes options for tweaking it to create a more hard-SF or more space opera-esque interstellar society than the default – as I understand it, that is no longer there. Once again, parts of the core book I consider extremely important – I really enjoyed the world creation process – seem to have been made less useful and adaptable in the new edition.
The other part of the answer to “Why won’t Arthur buy MongTrav 2E?” is that I don’t like much of what has been added, and those bits that I don’t actively dislike don’t seem to be enough to compensate for what has been taken from us. Throwing in a sample subsector in the core book is a nice courtesy, but takes up page count that could have given us a ship design system and feels a bit redundant given the sheer volume of setting material you can dig up for the game by yourself. The Traveller Map website presents a mass of sectors with world information for all the star systems depicted for free – point people there, recommend a good starting point, and most competent referees should be able to get cracking. In addition, incorporating an explicitly described sample setting into the core book undermines its generic nature, which I think threatens to undercut one of the big strengths of Mongoose Traveller.
The major system tweak is the changes to task resolution – variable target numbers have come back, and Boon/Bane dice are in. This is a mechanic similar in intention but not effect to the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in 5E D&D. Positive circumstances can give you a Boon on a roll, negative circumstances give you a Bane. If you have a Boon, instead of rolling 2D6 you roll 3D6 and drop the lowest; with a Bane, you roll 3D6 and drop the highest.
Rob Conley in a discussion of the new edition made some nice charts using AnyDice to illustrate the different effects of the mechanics. D&D-style advantage and disadvantage basically applies a steady incline to the formerly flat probability distribution, whilst MongTrav2-style Banes and Boons shifts the bell curve and changes its shape somewhat. The peak of the bell curve shifts up or down, but the probability of your roll hitting that peak exactly actually remains the same, whereas the probability of getting 1 point away from the peak, or 2 , or 3, or whatever does change, but only by a few percentage points either way – a difference slight enough that I frankly think that if you just gave a +2 modifier instead of Boons and a -2 instead of Banes, whilst the probability distribution would be different on a mathematical level the difference in outcome wouldn’t really feel that different to the participants in actual play.
Actually, there is one significant difference that the Boon/Bane mechanic makes: because it shifts the bell curve without increasing or decreasing the range of outcomes, it means that adding on Boons and Banes doesn’t change the extent of the Effect possible from the roll. If your target number is 8 and you roll 2D6+2, your potential Effect is -4 to +6, whereas if your target number is 8 and you roll 2D6 with a Boon your potential Effect is -6 to +4 – exactly the same as if you were rolling 2D6 with no bonus. This is significant because Effect has many more, well, effects in 2nd edition Mongoose Traveller, but I frankly don’t like the implementation. The way the system works, if you have advantageous circumstances and get a Boon out of them, it’s mathematically impossible for you to get a better Effect than if circumstances were against you and you had a Bane – and if you have a Bane, you can’t screw up worse than someone who has a Boon. Frankly, that doesn’t make much sense to me.
The other thing which bugs me about the Boon/Bane mechanic is the half-assed way it’s apparently implemented. Whereas in D&D advantage/disadvantage is applied to radically scale back the use of little bonuses and penalties here and there, allowing 5E to run much more smoothly and easily than 3.X in my experience, and apparently earlier versions of the MongTrav2 beta did strip away a lot of modifiers, many modifiers ended up getting patched back in during the playtesting process, which ends up undermining one of the major advantages of such a system.
I haven’t walked away from Mongoose completely here. There’s apparently going to be a companion book coming out in the near future which delves into the system and shows ways to adapt it to a range of different settings, and there’s still enough in common between the two systems that I reckon that release will still be useful with MongTrav1. But I won’t be upgrading to the new system at this point. Engaging in fusspot edition warrior bullshit like this is a terrible habit of gamers, especially when they get hung up on what are only minor changes between editions. That said, if the changes are that minor, it seems just as unreasonable to put out a new edition as it does to refuse to adopt the new edition, and when it comes to major changes like differences in the way the task resolution works and the complete removal of a crucial subsystem from the book it suggests that Mongoose are taking the game in the direction I have no interest in going in.
At the end of the day, MongTrav2 seems like it has hit the worst of all possible worlds – the significant changes it makes are big enough to turn me off (and I don’t think I’m alone in this), whilst at the same time not really seeming big enough to revolutionise the game, and in the long run I suspect it will have the negative effect of further fragmenting a fanbase which really, truly, honestly doesn’t need to be fragmented any further.