The Emperium

13 Oct

I think it’s worth taking a blog post to write about the official Traveller setting, specifically because I have never used it.

When MegaTraveller came out, I shifted to that system. It included some rules that were significant improvements on the Classic Traveller. For one, it was way better organized and compiled. All the rules were in one place now. I didn’t have to try to remember which little book or supplement I needed to look in to find some specific rule. Also, it allowed for a lot more customization. You kind of had to be a bit of a math nerd (which I suppose you can guess that I was given that I’ve already admitted to knowing Lojban), but you could take some time out and design an entire line  of space fighters, or cars, or hoverbikes. This kind of detail didn’t exist in Classic Traveller. But finally, what made me switch was the Universal Task Profile.

Why should anyone care about the Universal Task Profile?

In table top role-playing games, there are two type of contests, two ways in which you determine if a character performs an action successfully, the way the players describes it, or if the character fails. The first way is called a standard contest. This is when a player declares, “My character wants to shoot the orc,” and the game master looks up the situation in the rules and the rules say that character has a 30% chance of hitting the orc with an arrow at that range in that lighting, using that bow, given the orc’s agility and the character’s skill, etc. Standard contests are what makes RPGs thick books that take a long time to read and difficult to remember how to play without the rule book handy.

The second type of contest is a negotiated contest. This is when a player announces, “My character is going to use the bioscanner to try to figure out what kind of alien fungus is infecting the cabbages,” and the game master knows damn well that there is no rule in any of the rule books that tells you what to roll or what chance the character has of successfully figuring this out. And that’s when the negotiation starts. The GM says, “He has a 30% chance,” and the player responds, “But my character has a high quality bioscanner,” so the GM gives a bonus, and the player says, “Also, he has a degree in xenobiology,” so the GM gives another bonus, and the player says, “And I’m going to ask our native guide,” but the GM says, “No, the native people have never seen anything like this, so that doesn’t help.” And after all the negotiation, the player rolls some dice, and the story moves forward with the character still unaware of what the fungus is, or now armed with knowledge of the alien fungus. Negotiated contests are why people still play tabletop RPGs when we have such good MMORPGs nowadays. In a tabletop RPG you can negotiate with an actual person so your character can literally try anything.

The Universal Task Profile streamlined that by such a large degree that one page of rules could clearly show 20 standard contests, and standard contests were made so simple, that a negotiated contest could be resolved almost instantly, recorded in a notebook, and from then on, be a standard contest. The game master didn’t have to think about what dice to use or what kinds of things constituted bonuses. There was now one way to do everything, see if a blaster hit a foe, see if an engineer fixed a spacecraft, see if a linguist understood an alien communication, everything. It was in fact such an advance, that today, all role-playing games organize their resolution systems this way.

So yes, I switched to MegaTraveller. MegaTraveller, the way it was written and presented was not like Classic Traveller. Classic Traveller had rules, and then in supplements, it introduced a setting, the Third Emperium. The first reason I didn’t use the setting of the Third Emperium was that I didn’t own those supplements. I didn’t feel like I needed those books. I’d read the Dune novels, the Foundation series, the Dorsai series, the Ecumen novels, etc. I’d watched Star Wars and Star Trek. I knew what the deal was. I could make up a world of interstellar adventures. I didn’t need Mark Miller to make it up for me. But in MegaTraveller, all the setting information, all the details about the Emperium, the K’Kree, the Aslan, the Vargr, the Zhodani, etc. All of that was built into the game. It was all presented right alongside the rules. The book with all the high tech equipment lists in it started with 50 pages of information about the setting of the Third Emperium, including the recent assassination of Emperor Strephon by Archduke Dulinor I, the Usurper.

So why didn’t I use the setting of the Third Emperium, why not even then?

Well, I’m sure that part of the reason is that there is a lot of fun to be had using Traveller to engage in world-building. Because of all the charts and die rolls, setting up a game can be almost as rewarding as playing the game. One subsector in Traveller generally contained 40 worlds. We all tended to think of this as the minimum amount of space that was necessary to play around in. Those 40 worlds each had a 7 digit hexcode that was randomly determined by the roll of dice and told you things like, how big was the world and how much gravity it exerted, what sort of atmosphere it had, how much water was present, how many people lived there, how did they govern themselves, etc. Based on all those random things, you decided on one interesting thing to say about this world. Or if the players seemed interested in a particular place, if it seemed like their characters would linger for a while, then you could use the hexcode as inspiration to come up with a page or two of interesting details about a world.

In the Worlds and Adventures book of Classic Traveller, there are charts and rules to help you come up with random charts of animal encounters, in case the world has a low population and an atmosphere that doesn’t preclude exploring the surface, and you want to make up the exotic alien ecosystems that the players can encounter exploring the planet. In the Scout Book of Classic Traveller there were charts and rules to allow one to randomly generate every planet in a stellar system.  Few systems would be as complex as our solar system (4 planets, 4 gas giants and 2 belts, the asteroid belt containing Ceres, and the Kuiper belt containing Pluto and the even larger body, Eris). But if you really wanted to get into all these details, you could, and there were charts and graphs and rules and dice to help inspire you every step of the way. If you knew the players wanted to explore a system to find a lost space pirate ship there, you could sit down with no preconceived notions and a few hours later you could have a star system full of fun details that would make Pandora seem like a boring and heavy-handed metaphor.

If you used the setting provided, the Spinward Marches of the Third Emerium, some of that work was already done for you. And if you find world-building fun, that’s not cool. You paid GDW to sell you a game, not to play it for you.

But also, I think I didn’t like the Third Emperium. I mean, the Emperium was this weird anachronistic thing. For some reason, the speed of travel is equal to the speed of communication, like in the 1600s, but the government is medieval, like the 1200s, but they have loans for millions of credits, like in modern times. How do they keep tabs on their debtors with such slow communications? And why would they extend a loan to buy a merchant ship in a world with space pirates? Wouldn’t it be too risky? How does the Emperor maintain his aristocracy if his peasants can get their hands on starships? Wouldn’t they just leave?

I liked it far better that there was no overarching governing structure, just a kind of loose agreement on exchange rates and technological standards. It was simpler and allowed me and my games more diversity.

And the aliens weren’t very interesting. The Zhodani were just psychic. They could read minds. They weren’t alien. They just had a super power. Players wanted to be Zhodani. The Aslan might have been interesting if I’d read any of those Kzinti novels, but… And well, since they had the cat aliens, they needed to have dog aliens, the Vargr. At least they had aliens who were starfish, called Hivers, and some who were a cross between bees and pterodactyls, the Droyne.

And you didn’t really need aliens. Humans don’t have any warrior cultures that might be cool in space? We don’t have any cultures that value logic and reason? We don’t have any cultures that esteem sensitivity and expanding the mind? The trend in sci-fi to make human culture a culture of Western discipline and science, and alien cultures, everything else, always struck me as a little racist, not like evil racist, but annoying, like turning on a sci-fi TV show and seeing a black guy and thinking, “Cool, one of the heroes of this sci-fi show is a black guy, just like Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, Left Hand of Darkness.” But as you watch you realize he’s not a negro; he’s an alien. Human heroes don’t have brown skin.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m remembering you don’t really need psychic powers either. Psionics as they were presented in the rules were too weak to make a Lensmen game, or Dune style game, and there were too many of them to do a Star Wars or Star Trek style game. I almost always omitted them or changed them. Once, inspired by Dune and the very first space sci-fi role-playing game, Starfaring (it’s a link because I know you’ve never heard of it), I made a chart that could be rolled on instead of any skill throw. It represented spending your time experimenting with Mazige, a rare drug that altered perception and allowed the user to bend the rules of time and space. There was no Psi-Strength. You just had this stuff as skills, and could do things with them. I’ve lost the chart but it was something like this.

2 ) Fold Space
3 ) -1 End
4 ) -1 Int
5 ) -1 Soc
6 ) Streetwise
7 ) +1 Edu
8 ) Hypnosis
9 ) Telepathy
10) Healing
11) Astral Projection
12) Precognition

Yes, I remember clearly that there was a 1 in 3 chance that doing Mazige would actually mess you up, give you uncontrollable telepathy that makes you distracted (-1 Int) or unpleasant (-1 Soc), or disfigure you like a Guild Navigator (-1 Soc), or you get caught by a narcotics officer because it’s illegal on the world you were on (-1 Soc) or you overdose or become addicted and afterwards you are weaker (-1 End). But there was also an almost 1 in 3 chance that it would make you better, make you empathic (extra level of Streetwise) or expand your mind (+1 Edu), and there was a slightly over 1 in 3 chance that it would give you a cool power.

Fold Space gave you an extra DM in combat equal to your level in the skill, plus you could move a starship a number of parsecs equal to your skill, but only once a month. Precognition gave you a positive DM equal to your skill level on almost everything. Hypnosis and Telepathy gave you phantom DMs on the NPC Reactions table, so if you rolled 4 (Hostile), but you had two levels of Hypnosis, you could get them to do stuff that would represent a 6 (Unreceptive), which is enough to make diligent guards ignore you. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Telepathy let you communicate silently with your friends and family in the same system, regardless of distance, and gave a phantom DM to NPC Reactions but only for gaining information. “His thoughts give him away.” Healing was just like Medical skill but you didn’t need a medical kit and you couldn’t get a job as a ship’s medic. And sometimes psychic healing would let you heal stuff that Medical was no good for, lepers and cripples kind of stuff. Astral Projection did just what it said, with a range in parsecs equal to the level of the skill. And finally, I think I let characters who had Astral Projection and Telepathy access to a sort of intersystem communication, like they could visit their friends in dreams, as long as their friends were within Astral Projection range.

And that’s just one of the ways we changed psychic powers.

So there was a setting with a Third Emperium attached to Traveller, but the game was a lot more fun without it. I don’t think I’ll ever play in the Third Emperium. If, after the move, I get together a group to play Mongoose Traveller, I’d hope we’ll play Strontium Dog. If I actually meet people who want to try Traveller 5, I’d suggest we create an Uplift style setting, like David Brin’s, so we’d get to play with all the slick Sophonts and Geneering rules in T5.

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