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Traveller5: First Impressions

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.

Editor’s note: At the time we printed this review, there was no ‘official’ cover image for this product, nor had the editor had received his copy.

It’s been a long time coming and much anticipated, but the new Traveller5 Core Rules are finally here. This reviewer understands that the Kickstarter funding broke records for speed of achieving its goal and the amount by which it surpassed it, but by any measure it’s certainly been a project that has come through in spades following a long gestation in Beta form. Marc Miller’s labour of love it clearly is and it shows the maturity and extensiveness of over 35 years of thinking and planning. Landing on doorsteps and desks of Traveller fans around the world is a truly monstrous volume – some 656 pages of hardback gorgeousness and weighing in at just a shade under 2kg! There isn’t a Traveller book that is physically bigger. Or more daunting.

Externally, the plain black cover of Traveller continues with the red strip and title ‘Core Rules’ above; the Traveller5 logo and ‘Science-Fiction Adventures in the Far Future’ below with ‘Far Future Enterprises’ in red along the lowest edge. Interestingly, the PDF version of the volume has the red trim as a near magenta colour on screen. The back cover of the book is largely plain black with the red strip continued around from the spine. Three logos (Traveller5, FFE Games and ‘Zirunkariish’) together with a QR code for www.traveller5.net and the product barcode adorn the lower edge. The inside front cover has the T5-001 blank character card (front and back) while the inside back cover and endpaper has a double page spread of a map of Known Space marked with many but by no means all sector names and the icons of key polities or personalities – from the Aslan to ‘Zarunkarish’ [sic]. The final 15 pages of the book are ship illustrations on glossy paper – one of the stretch goals of the project – that are extremely attractive and nicely round off the otherwise plain paper and black and white illustrations of the rest of the book.

For the main contents there are seven chapters: introduction, basic information, characters and life, combat, starports and starships, stars and worlds, and adventures. These quick and early first impressions can’t possibly hope to do justice to all the detail that’s offered here, nor the implications for gameplay that multiple dice, varying characteristics, the task system and other rules will have. There is such detail in the book that’s been glossed over rather quickly in what’s to follow. Many sections could sustain entire reviews and analysis by themselves, but that will have to be left to a later date and those more experienced in the nitty-gritty of certain systems than this reviewer. However, a brief overview of what’s here may give some guidance for those thinking of investigating further.

The Introduction comprises some 12 pages and provides a useful overview of Traveller as a game and its setting – listing many of its eras. Basic information covers nearly 40 pages on subjects such as ‘ehex’ – the extended hexadecimal system, the ton, range, distance and various benchmarks such as cost, size and temperature. There are several pages detailing how dice work in the game and listing the probabilities of throwing up to 10D (ten dice). The concept of flux is also introduced.

Characters and Life is easily the biggest segment of the book with nearly 150 pages devoted to it. Here you’ll find explanations of the six standard characteristics but also their variants for detailing aliens of one sort or another; the 13 careers on offer; tasks and skills as you’d expect; but also pages on genetics, clones, androids and more. ‘Personals’ revisit the MegaTraveller idea of opposed tasks and there are also additions such as ‘Knowledges’ (replacing or adding to the strict list of 64 skills); ‘Talents’ (for example hibernation, or morph) generally set aside for non-humans; ‘Senses’; and QREBS which is a system for evaluating the quality, reliability, ease-of-use, burden and safety of equipment and objects.

The Combat section covers, as do each of the remaining chapters, some 100 pages. It’s probably best left to those much more expert to offer a detailed analysis but it appears to be comprehensive running from personal combat right up to weapons of mass destruction and even includes ‘Behind-the-Screen Damage’ for moments when the rules don’t cover a situation and reasonable results are needed quickly. The chapter then goes on to include the GunMaker, ArmorMaker and VehicleMaker whose purpose should be obvious and consist of rules and then tables for creating all manner of weapons, armour and vehicles. The latter would include civilian as well as military transportation.

Starports and Starships has a marvellous few pages on starports before moving onto the bulk of the starship design sequence and tables including a couple of pages on missions. Then there are short sections on fuel, Jump Drive, Manoeuvre Drive, Sensors, Weapons, Screens and so on. Finally starship combat is dealt with in ten pages or so.

Stars and Worlds also cover familiar ground starting with The Galaxy and some intriguing hints about things we don’t (yet?) know about. It then move on through Known Space to how to build individual systems and then worlds. Perhaps the most striking novelty here being different world maps for each different sized world. This has the advantage of making world hexes a standard size of 1000km or so, but the disadvantage of producing what must be some of the ugliest looking blank world maps imaginable (size 1 and size 15 or 20 as prime examples). It will be interesting to see if they’re widely adopted. Also in this section are notes on trade and commerce, technology and computers, an intriguing couple of pages on ‘The Lifespans of Intelligent Species’ and finishing up with ‘Personalities and Brains’.

The final chapter on adventures includes nine pages of rules on psionics – which seems an odd placing – why not immediately after ‘The Senses’ for example? – and material on sophont creation and robot construction before moving on to the BeastMaker and general animal notes as well as a ThingMaker – a dozen pages on creating and describing any equipment that can be imagined. Some 22 pages of equipment is then listed but this is clearly intended to be a ‘starter’ with sections explicitly omitted which might presumably be covered in future work. The last few pages on types of adventures and designing ‘EPIC’ (easy, playable, interactive, checklist) adventures looks particularly useful to this reviewer as a newbie referee!

Throughout the book there are illustrations ranging from classic old pictures which are a delight to see again to more modern work. Just occasionally the reproduction from a coloured page has ‘shown through’ in an unsightly background fill, but there’s good range, good quality and a mixture of the familiar and the new. Some of the illustrations can be found in colour in the PDF version, although oddly some of the colour of the Beta version of the PDF has now become black and white or greyscale (for example the terrain type graphics).

There are omissions – perhaps to be saved for later volumes – such as no alien races descriptions or alien character generation even though there are 25 generic pages on generating sophonts. Often there are large sections of tables which could have used much more in the way of explanation and descriptive text or examples – although one appreciates that the book probably couldn’t have been realistically much larger as a single volume. Creating believable plants and vegetation receives the short shrift it has in every edition of Traveller – i.e. none at all to speak of – which always seems odd for a game which encourages the design of complete alien worlds. And there are no sample adventures although there are ten wonderfully helpful pages on designing adventures. There are also curiosities such as Traveller20 being missed from the otherwise exhaustive list of previous editions, odd pink spots on the map of Known Space included in the PDF, and the use of NAFAL for Not as Fast as Light rather than STL (Slower than Light) which was new to this reviewer – although that may only show his ignorance! These however are nit-picking at the edges of a volume that’s a delight to browse through and fascinating at every turn. What’s most intriguing are the detailed looks at things that have been covered very cursorily or not at all in previous editions of Traveller even though they might be considered fairly crucial aspects of the game. Noble land grants, fame, the Senses, and even alien genders might be examples.

Some of the material will of course be familiar to users of T4 (or Marc Miller’s Traveller). This is clearly a hugely extended version of that edition of Traveller rather than the return to the roots of Traveller that the Mongoose edition represents. This may be more or less attractive, depending on your view of the two flavours. What is clear is that the length of time in production would at first glance mean that this edition has been done ‘right’ in terms of attention to detail. Whether it’s ‘right’ in the larger sense of being playable and/or attractive to new players is perhaps more debatable. For newcomers there is a vast amount of detail and in places some considerable complexity to absorb. While it can be used lightly, you’d need to be familiar with previous incarnations of Traveller to be able to pick and choose wisely. There’s very little in the way of guidance here as to how to get going quickly, or how to navigate around the various segments.

There is, however, much to be admired and this reviewer hasn’t failed yet to open the book and find something new and eye-opening about either the universe of Traveller, or rules to help the imagination along when it’s struggling, or even simply new ways of thinking about life, the universe and everything in some of its systems which will be helpful. For experienced referees there will be deep veins to mine for some time to come. But it’s certainly to be hoped that the widespread interest in this edition and encouraging start to a whole new universe of adventure, both inspires those who’ve been around for any number of previous editions as well as attracts a new generation of Travellers to what must still be counted as the premier science fiction role-playing game of all time.