10 Traveller RPG Tips For Newbie GMs - Roleplaying Tips

10 Traveller RPG Tips For Newbie GMs

From Timothy Collinson

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #635

Traveller wasn’t quite the first science fiction role-playing game, that honour went to Metamorphosis Alpha, but it can easily be regarded as the granddaddy of them all with several editions, a vast setting and material published for it in every year since it first appeared in 1977. Still going strong after nearly four decades, Marc Miller’s creation continues to let travellers experience “science fiction adventure in the far future.

If you are a Traveller GM, or thinking of becoming one, here are 10 tips to help you get more enjoyment from the game.

Look Forward To Great Adventures

One of Traveller’s strengths, and perhaps a reason for its longevity, is it allows all kinds of adventure: exploration of the unknown, mercantile trading, military combat on the ground or in space, mysteries, high noble intrigue and much more.

Traveller enables all sorts of characters. It’s possible to play lowly alien garbage collectors or the Emperor of a vast interstellar polity.

And Traveller’s rules are also flexible. You might like intricate miniatures play, high level dynastic politicking, or free form role-playing with little recourse to any actual dice rolling.

Because you risk choice overwhelm, start with some idea of what you’re interested in. Make a wishlist of things you want to do in gameplay. Create a campaign concept to help narrow down ideal character options. Think about what part of the setting you want to adventure in. And gather preferences from your players so they can get their itches scratch in the game too.

Death In Character Generation

Let’s get this out of the way early. Even those who know nothing about Traveller have heard one thing: you can die in character generation. Yes, it’s true. Or at least it was. Only the first rule sets insisted on this. From the early 1980s onwards an optional rule converted death to injury.

More recent editions have done away with death in character generation altogether – although you might still be injured. Character generation can be a mini-game in its own right, and is an essential part of the role-play experience.

Don’t Panic!

Traveller can be used as set of rules for just about any kind of science fiction. But over the years an official background has developed that some consider to be quintessentially Traveller. Decide if you want to use this background. If you do, take a deep breath – it’s a vast setting – possibly the largest for any role-playing game.

It’s Traveller Map big in size and Traveller Integrated Timeline rich in history. The latter currently runs 138 pages and isn’t even complete. And the former is about as close to a Total Perspective Vortex as has ever been created. Both are labours of love anyone interested in Traveller should find useful.

Traveller RPG is invaluable because it collects articles on all manner of subjects within Traveller and about Traveller. For a very quick overview, try the Wikipedia article on Traveller_(role-playing_game).

However, you don’t need to know all this at once. Introduce things slowly, and research and explain what’s needed as the game progresses. A convention game should have limited scope and explain just the necessary background as an ‘info dump’ (usually called ‘Library Data’) or as events unfold. If you have your own home grown setting, or are using some of the newer alternate settings such as Judge Dredd, Clement Sector, Strontium Dog, or the forthcoming Star Trek crossover, approach these universes the same way rather than get overwhelmed up front.

In addition, hundreds of books have been published across the years and most of them are still available in one form or another. Again, you don’t need all of these. Perhaps a core rulebook and one or two supplements of interest.

Key Things To Remember About The Official Or Traditional Setting

The official Traveller universe (OTU) doesn’t have to be used. You can create your own setting. Any single OTU is a nebulous thing in any case, with as many variations as there gaming groups and convention sessions!

But in general:

  • Faster-than-light travel is possible but only via Jump drive, which always takes about a week regardless of whether it’s one parsec or six. There is no faster communication, so it takes time to get to places and it takes time to send messages.
  • The Third Imperium is a 10,000+ world (human) empire a thousand years old (although there are some sourcebooks covering other periods in the future history).
  • Because of the limits to communication, the Imperium is run along feudal lines with an Emperor who cannot control everything immediately, and thus employs nobles of various ranks ruling or present in domains, sectors, and worlds.
  • In general, the Imperium rules the space between the worlds and each world is (usually) allowed its own form of government.
  • There are various alien races surrounding and within the Imperium that can be used as player characters as well as NPCs. Some are humanoid, some are not. Six are known as ‘major races’ because they invented Jump drive. There are numerous minor races.
  • Technological levels vary from world to world, with 16 being top end and the Imperial average being 10-12, which allows artificial gravity, fusion power, and robots.
  • Mental powers called psionics exist in some but not all sophonts, although these powers are generally shunned by the Imperium. Their neighbours the Zhodani, another human race, embrace them however.
  • Cybernetics and body modifications are not widespread or well developed, although it is possible they might be included in an adventure.

Know The Rules

You don’t need to know everything, but have a grasp of the basics. Traveller is almost always based on six-sided dice (Traveller: The New Era and Traveller20 are the exceptions); usually has ‘tasks’ of various difficulty; and has characters with skills of various levels as well as physical, mental, and social characteristics – often listed in a six digit string and called a UPP or Universal Personality Profile.

Combat is kept fairly straightforward and can be deadly. Think twice before getting involved in a firefight. Usually there is a ‘to hit’ die roll, modified by weapon, armour, skill, range, environmental factors, and so on. Damage is inflicted on characteristics until the character is unconscious or dead.

Worlds are generally described with a six digit string called a UWP or Universal World Profile, but these have various extensions and are often accompanied by longer descriptive texts depending on the needs of the adventure or campaign.

Different rule editions vary, so it’s worth being aware of the options detailed in the next tip. Note that the traditional fantasy game idea of levels doesn’t apply here. You can, if you wish, start with a young and inexperienced character, but you can also start with an older, more mature character who might have quite a number of skills. Gender is irrelevant in terms of ability in Traveller.

Traveller is collaborative. Characters attempt to achieve some shared goal together rather than being competitive. If that’s not the case for an adventure, you should give players fair warning that, perhaps towards the end of a session say, there might be player-on-player conflict.

Rule Sets

There are several rule sets, two or three of which are current.

Mongoose Traveller

  • The most straightforward rules and closest to the original Traveller.
  • Has a huge wealth of support material from Mongoose Publishing and a wide variety of third parties.
  • Is available in German, French and Spanish.
  • For a beginner this is probably the best place to start.

Traveller5

  • Pretty much brand new with only one or two items of support thus far.
  • Has a doorstop sized core rulebook that brings together construction (and other) rules for just about everything in one volume.
  • Introduces several concepts new to Traveller to widen its appeal and extend the science fiction possibilities and variations.
  • As yet, there are no setting details for what’s often called T5, although a couple of adventures have been published.

GURPS Traveller

  • Could be considered still current although there are no new books being published (The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society continues, however, as a fortnightly online subscription magazine edited by Loren Wiseman one of the original creators).
  • Has high quality background books.
  • A huge amount of compatible GURPS material can be used in conjunction with GURPS Traveller.
  • The general rules (GURPS core rules – or GURPS Lite) are additionally required and are least like classic Traveller.
  • Some rules also struggle with the non-metric units usage.

It’s still possible to buy original Traveller material, often called Classic Traveller, as individual PDFs from the likes of DriveThruRPG, or on CD-ROM collections from Far Future Enterprises, or on the second-hand market.

Much of MegaTraveller, the second edition, can still be bought electronically. And all of Traveller: The New Era which followed into a darker setting and Marc Miller’s Traveller (or T4) that returned to the start of the Third Imperium can also still be purchased.

At The Table

Much of the advice for any role-playing games are applicable to Traveller – turn up on time, be respectful of others around the table, don’t allow distractions to spoil the game, etc – but a few things might help newbie Travellers.

If you run a gaming group, have players generate characters with you so you can help guide a workable array of character types and builds that suit the campaign concept and adventures you have in mind. And encourage players to form connections between their PCs each other.

At a convention you’ll want to use pre-gens suitable for the adventure. Point out to players the salient features of who they’re playing: characteristics (UPP), skills, and equipment.

Encourage players to be open-minded about what gender, race or kind of character they’re given.

Let players swap PCs if they want to. And let them change minor details that don’t affect the adventure of stats.

Design pre-gens appropriate to the adventure and ensure they’ll have opportunities to make their mark.

Write character names on name cards or badges, as Traveller names can be hard to get grips with on occasion and it helps players stay in character. It’s not a bad idea to add player names as well to help everyone get to know each other.

Find free cheat sheet online per the system you’re using and print them out for players to help you with the rules. Or consider making your own to help learn the rules and remember them.

Keep obsession with exact rules to a minimum. Traveller is supposed to be fun, so have a relaxed attitude to just how closely the rules are followed. Given there are so many rule sets with variations, players with wide varieties of experience, different GM approaches, and various home grown rules, there are many ideas of what constitutes Traveller. There are few situations where everything will be exactly as your book says.

Ask players to pay attention to the set up of adventures. Let them know, as Traveller is science fiction gaming, they can simply assume real world normality. And give hints about what’s coming and clearly state what’s different in this game to either the real world or the standard setting. For example, perhaps in your adventure Jump drive hasn’t been invented yet or perhaps psionics are widely accepted in the Imperium.

Use handouts throughout the game. Traveller is known for lots of great possibilities to create real life objects to help focus the attention. World maps, starship deckplans (or even models), Library Data entries, mocked up photographs, perhaps even a ‘found’ diary or log entry. Add information, atmosphere, and clues through the use of such game aids.

Be sensitive to the ‘edges’ of the universe. This is true for any role-playing game, but given the far-reaching nature of Traveller, it’s particularly pertinent. You won’t have generated every possible outcome of player actions beforehand, and can’t be expected to have an answer for everything that might come up.

Try to ensure players get a fair share of your attention and their characters get a fair share of the action. And don’t get so wrapped up in telling your story that you don’t give them breaks when required.

Be wary of introducing some new technology or feature of the universe as a way of saving players or bringing the adventure to a climax. It’s a no-no in science fiction writing, and it’s equally poor form in a Traveller adventure. If you are going to introduce something out of the ordinary, make sure the players and their characters have the chance to know about it or experience it – perhaps in a lesser form – earlier in the adventure.

At the end of the game, ask for feedback. Be prepared to receive honest but fair feedback, and don’t take criticism aimed at you personally – player sometimes don’t know how to distinguish between the game and the person when giving feedback.

Between Games

A lot of Traveller can be enjoyed as stand alone, solo gaming material. Whether it is creating a character, designing a weapon or a starship, or handcrafting an entire planet with lovely crinkly coastal zones, there’s much that can be enjoyed between gaming sessions.

There are even a few solo adventures or small sub-systems for adventuring or trading without a referee to manage affairs. And there are a lot of online opportunities for discussions about Traveller, mailing lists, play-by-email gaming, or games run via chat.

It’s a fair bet that if you’re interested in Traveller, you’re probably interested in science fiction. Between fixes of actual gaming, reading SF can give you a greater appreciation of Traveller adventures and the SF genre. Sub-genres and tropes crop up often, and the more you are familiar with them, the more comfortable you’ll be in the fictional universe and the better your GMing of NPCs and situations.

Consider The Future

Isn’t Traveller already about the future? Yes, but what about real life? If you’ve enjoyed playing Traveller – perhaps as a one off game – you may find you want to go further.

One way is considering writing something for publication. There are several outlets for doing so from fanzines to the more formal publications; from those that pay for contributions to those where you’re writing for the love of it. Freelance Traveller is always looking for submissions.

Another strength of Traveller is the shared universe anyone can contribute to. It’s easy to start small and try writing up a character you think is interesting or an adventure seed of just a couple of paragraphs. Combining several elements may allow you to write at more length. Or perhaps you have an artistic bent and can draw futuristic scenes, map alien worlds, or model 3D starships. Editors are often crying out for good quality material.

We’re All On A Journey

However you play Traveller, whoever you play with, whatever you find takes your fancy about this incredible game, enjoy the experience. Explore the universe, explore novel situations, explore your characters’ place in the cosmos. And perhaps along the way explore your own abilities and reactions and decisions. Travel to a new place as GM as well as a gamer.

Safe travelling!

Read A One Page Traveller Overview

Timothy also created a one page overview of the Traveller game rules.

This is a great way to see what the rules are like. You can also print off copies for new players to help them get a jumpstart on the game.

Download the one pager » An Introduction to Traveller

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Brief Word From Johnn

Theatre Of The Mind

Chatting with a friend at work, he was musing how players form unique and independent pictures in their imaginations of what’s happening in the game.

Each person brings to the table their individual world views, experiences, array of entertainment consumed, philosophies, experience with the game and gaming in general.

What I’m picturing in my head as I’m describing NPCs, places, and situations is going to be quite different than what each player portrays in their minds.

I thought this was quite interesting to ponder. I’ve never asked my players, “So how did you envision that encounter?” Or, “How do you each picture Trogdor the Invincible?

I think it would be fun to try this out. I bet everyone’s ideas of what things look like are vastly different.

Do this next game and let me know how it goes.

Congrats To The Combat Missions Contest Winners

There were 81 entries for the recent Combat Missions giveaway. I rolled a d81 on Saturday to draw random winners. Thanks to everyone who entered!

The winners have all been emailed with prize download instructions.

Keep an eye out for more contests and giveaways in the future.

Have a great week!

Cheers,
Johnn

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Reader Tips

Free Web Tool For Custom Item Cards

From ithilwen

As I read your newest RPT, I was reminded of the Tabula Rasa itemcards. These are customizable item cards with wonderful illustrations.

You can generate a PDF of up to 18 cards at once, each with individual illustrations and the possibility to add text, either in the editor or by hand when printed.

Check them out here » Tabula Rasa – Item Cards

DIY Geomorph Tiles And Infinite Player Generated Dungeons

From Sean Murphy

I tried something recently in a game I thought you would like to read about. I’ve had a fair amount of success using geomorphs to make dungeon maps. But recently I decided to try something new with the geomorphs.

First off, I downloaded a bunch of geomorph tiles.

Next, I took the geomorph files down to Office Max and had them print and laminate them. I cut them apart and ended up with about 100 1″ square tiles.

In one campaign, we used the tiles to generate a dungeon randomly simply by shuffling the dungeon tiles and dealing them out. For extra fun, in one particular dungeon we dealt the tiles face down so we had to explore each and every location, flipping the tile only when we had reached that point.

In my next game map project, I did something a little different. Using the geomorph tiles, I would deal a 5×5 grid face up, and allow the players to explore it. Once they wanted to explore an area that was off the map, I would deal a new piece to the map and remove the previous piece from the other side of the map and shuffle it back into the deck. This literally made the map a “dungeon crawler” as the map crawls with you.

One evening, I decided to open the map up even further and allow player input. They had just defeated a vast array of monsters, and had some serious loot burning a hole in their pockets. So I allowed the players to spend gold to determine how the map tiles went down.

When I dealt out a new tile, the players could spend gold to determine how the map was built. To spin the maptile, it cost 10 gold for every 90 degrees the tile was turned. It was 50 gold to replace the tile being dealt with a new randomly drawn maptile.

This was an amazing success! The players enjoyed spending their money to get little bonuses like determining the makeup and rotation of the map tiles, and at the end of the game they even pooled their gold together to make a shortcut out of the dungeon.

One thing I forgot to mention is to hide the geomorph tiles. You can see the tile through thin paper. So here’s my deck:

I deal out the map one tile at a time. This is a 3×3 grid.

“Oh GM, I can’t make it through that trap, door, hallway, etc. May I rotate the tile?”

“That’s going to cost you 10 gold.

Here you can see how easy it is to rotate a tile, and how much the map can change when a tile is rotated.

Also, when players reach the edge of the map, I deal another set of tiles and pull the ones from the opposite side to keep the map going.

So that’s my story. My question is this: Are there any other really good ways to use Geomorphs in a game?

Pre-Draw Maps To Speed Up Gameplay

From Scott in Arizona

One thing I’ve done that really speeds up game play is pre-drawing the maps. I own several battlemats, so I tried it using those, but sometimes marker lines left on for a long time are hard to get off. So I started using Gaming Paper.

At $4 for a 12′ long roll I was able to pre-make all the anticipated maps, covering unexplored areas with gaming books until that area is revealed.

This greatly speeds up play and ensures the battle map is correct. I’ve also experimented with cutting out small sections of gaming paper to overlay on top of previous maps so I can re-use them for different areas.

[Comment from Johnn: I purchased a box of Gaming Paper awhile ago and it’s great. You can cut the paper with scissors easily, yet the paper is hard to tear. I especially enjoy using it for frequent locations the PCs visit – we just grab the map we drew last time for the place.]

Mind Map Session Notes

From Dan

After having a lot of frustration with keeping track of lots of ideas and world details with various wiki sites, and not losing the ideas by the time I opened the browser and logged in to whatever host, found the page to edit, and then wait for the editing page to load… Finally, this summer, I found the trick: mind map software.

With a mind map you can quickly add a thought and then add details and connect it with other thoughts. Though many of these programs try to focus on fancy graphical connections and clouds, there are some like FreeMind which are simple and clean, and free. The best mind map program I’ve found, with a decent html export, is TheBrain, though they think they can charge an arm and a leg for it by adding in corporate business templates, it’s worthy of $20, but not $220 they ask, unless you’re rich.

But FreeMind is a great free organizing tool, though html export could be better. Which is where the trial of TheBrain can be handy, once your topics are set and exported, you and any player can edit the html pages for each thought. I quickly built over 10,000 pages of organization notes in a few days, and using it for everything in my life now, not just gaming/writing but my photography and groceries lists attached to recipes.

[Comment from Johnn: I have not tried session logging with mind map software before – I might give that a try. I like iThoughts HD as my mind mapper of choice. Also, Google Drive has several free graphic add-ons you can use for mind mapping.

Thanks for the tip Dan.]

Fun Dice Games In Sessions?

Chris Smith asks: “Does anyone have any pointers/examples/rules for simple dice games that can be incorporated into a session?

Gabe Tanenhaus: Ship, Captain, Crew is one I’ve used with some success.

Andrew Murphy:

We used to play a simple dice game in our rpg game. You need:

  • A pool of 6 sided dice
  • A cup each
  • Some gold (or silver if you’re slumming it)

Each player takes their cup and puts in 1-6 gold.

Then everyone reveals their coins, puts them in the middle, and takes a number of dice equal to their gold coins contributed.

Then each player rolls all of their dice and places them together, keeping the rolled sides up.

Ideally you want no duplicates.

Then, one player rolls the decider die.

If the die matches no one’s number then it is rerolled.

If it matches the number of just one player, that player wins the pot.

If it matches the number of multiple players, the player with the least number of dice wins.

If there is draw after the above, the two players split the money as evenly as possible, and the remainder stays in the pot for the next round (or tipped to local barkeep – by leaving on table) if it is the last game.

Milton Murphy: How to Play Bar Dice Here’s a page with a couple of other simple dice games as well.

I’ve also played a variation on Tally Hold where the number of rolls are part of the process.

Everyone puts in a gp.

First person rolls 5 dice, attempting to assemble matching dice as high as possible. Max 3 rolls.

Next person attempts to beat them in the same number of rolls a the previous person.

So for example, I roll five dice and get two sixes. I can choose to stop and the next person has to get three or more sixes to beat me in one roll. If I choose to roll again, and let’s say I do and I get another six and stop there, then the next person has to get four or more sixes in two rolls. Whoever holds the top spot when it goes all the way around the group gets the pot.

Beating the previous player is pretty straightforward. Two threes beats two twos, three fives beat two fives, etc.

Andrew Y.: Shut the box is a great one.

Holger Müller: Pig Dice is a nice one.

Use The Uncanny Valley To Make Undead Scary

From Alexander T. Greene

I came in to this a bit late. People have already made their comments on encounters with undead. None of them really touched on the main theme of being undead.

The undead are not walking slabs of mindless meat, a rich source of consequence-free XP. They are dead people.

There is something called Uncanny Valley. Everybody gets that feeling. Something looks kind of human, but they’re not quite right. A prosthetic hand, a glass eye, a CGI face. There’s a natural revulsion from looking at something that is not human, but looks like it wants to be human.

635 Mori Uncanny Valley

Every undead characters encounter should be a person they once knew, heard of, even just met briefly during some casual encounter somewhere. Play on the memories of the character interacting with the person. Maybe get some names – Mandana the innkeeper’s comely daughter; Old Granny Candlewax who used to make such lovely decorative candles for people’s houses come the Solstice; maybe that rancid Stephos Mindin who used to make the character’s life a living hell back when they were ten years old, and who grew up to be a bit of a loser.

Then bring them back as undead, and have the characters realise what they are looking at is lacking something behind the eyes. Mandana’s idiot Joker grin is a stretched-out parody of the warm, welcoming smile she always had for the character, and her rosy cheeks are pallid and bloodless. Granny Candlewax now looks young and gorgeous, but her voice is hollow and she leaves no shadow or footprints where she walks. Stephos is ragged and lop-sided, his neck canted at an odd angle from the broken spine which had killed him, but the smell of his sickly cologne is fresh – and always will be.

Remember the scene in the Donald Sutherland movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when the aliens hybridized the banjo player and his pug, and the pug came along with a human face, making random banjo noises as it moved? The final scene, where Sutherland turned and squealed like that? Or every scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing? That’s the feeling you should be reaching for as a DM.

When the characters first bump into undead, have them roll Int or Wis to realise what they are seeing. And when they succeed, they suffer total shock and paralysis, the first time. If the character meets undead on a recurring basis, the shock diminishes into a penalty on all combat actions. It is not total paralysis from fear like the first time, but the deathly chill of dread in the soul never entirely goes away.

And then tell them this is not some magical effect or “Aura of Dread” power. Dispel Magic and divine spells to disperse sorcery won’t work, because there is no magical effect for them to work on. This is a normal expression of fear, and it cuts through all of their magical shields and defences.

Then make the next undead they meet someone they knew closely and loved. A parent, sibling, lover, old flame. Someone they only just said goodbye to half an hour before. Perhaps a former team member. Even a former character the player once ran. People the players would never expect to see turning up as undead.

Make it clear to the players these undead aren’t just some faceless, nameless hordes to grind for XP. Make them horrifying and uncanny by emphasizing how they are former people. The world’s always diminished by the loss of people one knows and loves. But undeath is a sick, dreadful perversion of that, stabbing the characters with cruel mockery in the heart of their shock and unexpected grief.

However powerful they get, show them they should never get over their fear of undeath.