Traveller Core Rulebook. RPG review

Traveller Core Rulebook, Mongoose Publishing, £36.99, Website

Reviewed by Rick Hudson

Back in the mid-late 70s, when Role-Playing games were a new thing, other than Dungeons & Dragons there were a few minor and short-lived RPGs of varying quality published by very small, often amateur, outfits. There were also a number of disingenuous band-wagon jumping products released that aimed to cash in on this new RPG ‘craze’. Of all these pretenders to D&D’s throne, only two games marked themselves out as real challengers and had any significant impact on gaming. One was Chaosium’s Runequest, the other Traveller, written by Marc Miller and published by GDW in 1977. Although Traveller came hot on the heels of a film called Star Wars (I don’t know if you’ve heard of it), it chose not to exploit Star Wars’ romantic science-fantasy approach to sf, but embed itself firmly in ‘hard’ science fiction.

Despite being noted as the science fiction equivalent of D&D, Traveller had a number of noteworthy differences from its rival. Principal amongst these was the mechanics of its game system. Loved as it was, D&D had a notoriously complex and scattered set of rules that followed no particular design logic at all. If Darwinian principles of evolution had any play in the gaming industry, D&D should have died there and then and not have developed into the phenomenon it has become. Traveller’s system was simple, unified, logical and extremely playable. Indeed, its core mechanic of determining success by rolling under a target number on dice subject to conditional modifies has become the standard operating system of pretty much every RPG since. Also, Traveller utilised the same basic mechanic to govern all in-game situations. While this idea seems almost common sense now, back in the Eoarchean Era of RPGs it was as a radical move. So why did the cumbersome reptile D&D survive and prosper and the small rodent-like mammal Traveller fade into obscurity, only to be played by the devoted and initiated? The answer is quite simple: approachability.

Despite its simplicity and logic in its design and mechanics, Traveller was not very user friendly. The rulebooks, though quite snappy looking, were not written with great clarity and assumed a great deal of prior knowledge of physics and astronomy. For example, the rules told me how much a Mass Driver weighed, how much volume on my ship it would take up, how much power it would use, but not what a Mass Driver actually was, other than some sort of weapon. This assumption of knowledge also extended to the game world itself. Traveller’s 3rd Imperium setting is the longest running RPG universe, and a great one. However, there was no World of Greyhawk for Traveller. Sure, there was The Spinward Marches, but essentially that just gave you a bunch of maps and numbers. There was no real colour or detail, and little to provide background for adventures. What background GDW did provide on the 3rd Imperium was dealt out incrementally and parsimoniously in little sections in various published adventures and supplements, which was quite frankly unhelpful and irritating.

Despite being rather critical of Traveller, I confess to being a long-serving Traveller player and do love the game. I have always thought of the original GDW Traveller as the proper and only real version, irrespective of its flaws. I have disregarded and dismissed numerous re-launches and re-iterations of the game and always gone for my little black booklets. That is until now.

What Mongoose have quite cleverly done is re-release Traveller utilising the original rules, background and atmosphere but with two key differences: firstly, they explain things clearly, whether this be rules or background material; secondly, they have gathered information together into a rational order. In some instances Mongoose have expounded on the original rule-set or made slight alterations, but always remained faithful to the real Traveller in character and spirit.  The layout, illustration and deck plans will please nostalgia fans and wearying purists such as myself as they are imitative of those found in the original rules.  Essentially, the Traveller Core Rulebook gives you the material from the original three rulebooks that came in the boxed set; most of the stuff from Mercenary; it ditches all that stuff about spaceship design (which was always more like maths homework than adventures in space anyway), but gives you details of all the standard ships; and there’s also quite a nice section at the end giving details of a subsector with adventure leads for each planet.

This version of Traveller is a collated and rationalised version of the original game, and – some people are going to want to nail me to a cross and set me on fire for saying this – being so it is not only as good as the original – but better than it. Anyway, must dash. The crew of the Free Trader Beowulf are on the com, whining about something …