From its debut in 1977, Traveller, the first successful tabletop science fiction roleplaying game, has been the roleplayer’s default path to the stars. Traveller‘s original publisher, Game Designers’ Workshop, established the game’s interstellar setting, the Imperium; multiple editions and dozens of supplements took the Imperium from supremacy through civil war, collapse and halting recovery. After GDW ceased operations in 1996, new publishers sheltered Traveller and spread the Imperium into alternate timelines. In rulebooks, modules, novels and computer games, hundreds of writers have fashioned Traveller‘s Imperium into the field’s most developed space setting.
This long journey began with Marc W. Miller. In 1972 Miller, then 24, had finished a four-year Army hitch. He already had a B.A. degree in Sociology from the University of Illinois; now, on the GI Bill, he wandered back to college at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal with, as he has said, “no real ambition, no real purpose in my studies.” There he bumped into the ISU Games Club, “which was Frank Chadwick and Rich Banner.” They taught Miller how to play early board wargames. He became instantly addicted and within a month the three were designing their own games. “Rich Banner knew the University would provide funds for clubs if asked politely. We bought a thousand 22×28-inch blank hex sheets (900 on white, 100 on pale blue for naval games) and were in game designer heaven. We sat around and drank Cokes and designed and played wargames all night long for months.
“Illinois State University [had] instituted an ‘innovation in education’ project, funding a variety of projects intended to explore how to better achieve the general goals of the university. Rich Banner and Frank Chadwick established SimRAD (Simulation Research and Design) to produce simulation games designed to specification for use in the university classrooms. We had offices on campus and established relationships with the faculty. One game was about the deforestation of the American northwest. Another game was about the 1896 presidential election campaign. I designed Chaco for a Latin American History class (and discovered you can’t put a hex-grid wargame into a one-hour classroom).
“Ultimately the University had to choose the ‘best’ innovations… we didn’t make the cut. The winner was a plan to put small branches of the University library in dorms.
“We never used up those sheets; I still have some on my shelf and use them from time to time.”
In June 1973 the three formed Game Designers’ Workshop to publish one of their historical wargames, Drang nach Osten. More wargames followed, including several science fiction games. Then they encountered a new kind of game: Dungeons & Dragons.
Miller was already familiar with roleplaying. “My first experience with roleplaying was with political science Professor Lou Gold at the University of Illinois. He conducted political roleplaying exercises in his classes, which were an innovation in the late 1960s. But in roleplaying at the time, participants had to make up their roles. Dungeons & Dragons introduced ‘digital’ roleplaying (as opposed to the previous ‘analog’ styles), and everyone at Game Designers’ Workshop instantly understood what it was about and how to play.”
In 1975 GDW published its first roleplaying game, Chadwick’s En Garde!, a 48-page booklet for Three Musketeers-era roleplaying. “It was radically different from D&D in several ways,” says Miller. “It was meant to be played in an evening session – when it ended, it ended; if you played it again, you started over. And it had a variety of defined events, and players moved through them in their climb up the social ladder. By defining events, the game could dispense with a gamemaster, allowing everyone to play. Gary Gygax liked the game precisely because it was not a copy of D&D and its principles. He would talk about it as an example of the potential of roleplaying.”
Meanwhile, Miller had noticed there was no good science-fiction RPG on the market, and he wanted to see one. In what he calls “some extremely productive months in 1976 and 1977,” he designed the game that would set the path for much of his future.
The first edition, now called Classic Traveller, featured many original touches. It expressed character ability ratings in hexadecimal (base 16) notation. The character creation system produced player characters who started play as seasoned veterans, often skilled in, and scarred from, several professions.
Though jocular commentators have always derided Classic Trav‘s char-gen for allowing a small chance the character could die even before starting play, this alleged flaw (removed in all later editions) highlights one of the game’s neglected virtues. The risk of death, along with the many decisions about career paths, made character creation a little solitaire game in itself. Many Traveller rules systems rewarded solitaire play; you could have a great time just generating ships or star systems, or make and lose fortunes shipping cargo between worlds, all without a gamemaster. This rare quality derived from Miller’s inspirations, which differed from that of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D’s roots lie in military miniatures. Though it adopts many D&D design ideas, Traveller also draws deeply from a different wellspring, hex-grid wargames, where solitaire play is common.
That ancestry also influenced the game’s setting, an array of star-spanning polities warring for resources and influence across vast reaches of space.
Originally Traveller was meant to have no official setting at all. “I envisioned a generic rules set that would enable any science-fiction situation, from space opera to serious drama. One of the first reviews of the game said something like ‘I won’t play a roleplaying game that doesn’t provide background and adventures,’ and the editor interjected, ‘And I won’t play a game that constrains me like that.’
“I’ll confess that was an awakening for me, and I realized I couldn’t make this game all things to all players; I had to choose. Our reasoned corporate choice was to provide background and adventures for those who lacked the spare time to make up their own.”
Elaborating on the setting Miller originated in the wargame Imperium, he and other designers – Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, William and Andrew Keith, and many more – drew inspiration from respected science fiction writers (Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series) along with, as Traveller writer Loren Wiseman has put it, “a little Roman Empire, a little Star Wars, a lot of snippets of this and that from history and literature, all melded together.”
Unusually among early RPGs, Classic Traveller made explicit some of its setting’s baseline assumptions and requirements – for instance, interstellar communication is limited by the speed of travel. The Traveller support line articulated one of the earliest adventure design patterns, a plot description using five narrative elements: the Enigma (the lure that draws the player characters into the adventure), the Push (their motive for escaping their current circumstances), the Pull (the reward they expect), the Gimmick (the, uh, gimmick) and the Twist (a narrative surprise).
But the Classic books gave little hint about the nature of these elements or what the designers expected PCs to do. A 1980 collection of mini-adventures, 76 Patrons, provided an eye-opening hint: Most of its mission-givers were crooks hiring the PCs to commit theft, espionage, kidnapping and murder. Other supplements introduced many legitimate professions, such as mercenaries and planetary scouts.
Few roleplaying campaign settings betray any sense of the designer’s personal politics. Though some of his source materials (notably Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories) express overt political ideas, Miller took a more low-key approach. Nonetheless, “The Traveller universe of the future was indeed reflective of my own personal politics,” he says. “One of the important phrases in character generation (written back in 1977) was an admonition that characters could be any gender or any race. Today it’s a no-brainer that a character can be a woman rather than a man; back then, I thought it was a no-brainer as well, but I heard plenty of approving feedback for saying it explicitly.”
Miller expressed a similar idea with the Imperium’s Major and Minor Races. “The Traveller universe chronicled six Major Races that dominated charted space, and lots of minor races that were inferior in influence or power. The game spent three or four years detailing this institutionalized racism throughout the universe, and then began to show the fallacies of the concept. We showed there wasn’t even firm agreement on which Six Races were members of the Major Race concept. Then we revealed that one of the Major Races (the Aslan) didn’t meet the criteria we had previously stated.
“So we were showing an institutionalized racism as part of the all-pervasive culture of the future, and getting players to buy into it as part of this fictional universe, and after they did, tearing it down and showing its flaws.”
MegaTraveller (1987) plunged the Imperium into civil war, and The New Era (1992) pushed it to complete collapse. Today each version still has loyal fans, and there have been more third-party products than the Imperium has tramp freighters. Leaving aside the various open game licenses popular today, Traveller (along with Call of Cthulhu) has been licensed to more different publishers than any other major RPG system or setting since the earliest D&D days. “People have always wanted to participate in Traveller as a product,” says Miller. “Its coherent background cried out for many, many products, and there were always people who had great ideas.”
The game company FASA started as a Traveller licensee before publishing hits like Battletech and Shadowrun. The Mongoose Publishing edition of Traveller is the company’s best-selling game; Mongoose has adapted its rules to support both the Imperium and many other science fiction settings. Traveller‘s largest presence on today’s store shelves may be the full-scale support line, edited by Wiseman, for GURPS from Steve Jackson Games; these books describe an alternate timeline where the Imperium never fell.
In computer games, Traveller‘s influence starts with Elite. The 1984 space trading classic owes an obvious, if uncredited, debt to Traveller. Elite in turn shaped Privateer, Freelancer and other star-trading games down to EVE Online.
“I still have conversations with people who played that game [Elite], enjoyed it, and believed that it was a Traveller clone,” Miller says. “In a sense they are wrong: Both Elite and Traveller describe play of a more universal concept of space adventure. But in a sense, they are right: It’s hard to believe that the program’s designers didn’t have a set of little black books open on their desk for inspiration as they were designing the system.” Especially when you realize “Jameson,” the hero of Elite, is also the name of the sample character in Classic Traveller‘s example of character creation.
Miller left GDW in 1991. Once more, for a few years, he wandered. He sold insurance, which he has said gave him “valuable experience and a grounding in non-game business operations.” He wrote the storylines for several Microprose computer games based on GDW properties, including MegaTraveller I and II – “a very well executed collaboration between Traveller and the computer people to create a game that was fun and was faithful to the game background.” And when Magic: The Gathering launched the trading card game industry in 1993, Miller designed and produced the second TCG, Super Deck!
With his wife, Darlene, Miller started a consulting company, Heartland Publishing Services, to advise new and would-be game publishers. In a 1986 interview in The Traveller’s Digest fanzine, he had suggested every game designer would do well to study business. “[A]ny game designer is going to get involved in the business, the advertising, the merchandising of games. He can’t help it. Most game designers are self-employed. Half of those who aren’t self-employed work for game designers who are self-employed, and will be called upon to write advertising copy, to do good writing, to keep accounts or to do merchandising. I don’t think it hurts to know how to give business advice. If the ball falls out of your court, you can always use those skills in the real world.”
Of his current work through Heartland Publishing he says, “In about half of my consulting opportunities, I tell my client that the project isn’t practical or potentially profitable, or both. I have a duty to be straightforward with them and to share my experience with them. For the other half, I help them not have to re-invent the wheel. My job is to show them the ropes, discuss with them the practicalities of designing and publishing, and guide them toward a successful publication.
“Some don’t really understand being an entrepreneur, and they are the ones who risk not following through or devoting enough time and energy to the project. Those who do understand the concept of entrepreneurship sometimes need advice on what is and isn’t practical; their enthusiasm sometimes overwhelms practical considerations.
“I can’t say I wish potential publishers out there knew any different facts: it’s my job to provide much of that information. But I wish some of them understood there’s a process for arriving at conclusions or decisions, and (properly done) that process will save them money and heartache. I also believe a publishing venture is a process rather than a destination. If the process isn’t going to be enjoyable, then it probably isn’t going to work.”
In 1996, after almost 23 years, GDW shut down. Rights to Traveller reverted to Miller, and he started Far Future Enterprises to sell reprints – and nowadays, CDs packed full with .PDFs – of the GDW books. He started yet another company, Imperium Games, to produce a fourth edition of Traveller set in the Imperium’s earliest days.
Today Miller remains central to the game’s ongoing development. For several years he has led careful development of yet another edition, Traveller5. “Traveller5 is in – I suppose we should call it ‘beta’ – and the kinks are being massaged out. It’s a gigantic project, and we want it to be worthy of its expectations. Then again, it isn’t supposed to replace Mongoose Traveller (or any of the other versions); it’s a step up after someone has started playing Traveller and ultimately wants more.”
Meanwhile, the Millers still love to travel, nowadays at a more measured pace. “Curiously, we find travel works best when work forces us to travel. In 2002 (in the aftermath of 9/11) we had to go to Las Vegas for a game industry trade show and decided to drive rather than fly. Did you know it takes nearly three weeks to get from Illinois to Las Vegas by car?”
Allen Varney is a writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. He has written over 60 articles for The Escapist.