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Wednesday 30 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Traveller (Mongoose edition)

The RPGPundit Reviews: Traveller Core Rulebook (Mongoose)

This is a review of the new Traveller rulebook; well, one of the new ones.  I'll note it was sent to me by an interested party in light of a debate thread on theRPGsite, where people were debating the virtues of the Mongoose Traveller vs. Traveller 5e.  I had commented how I had played with Classic Trav in the good old days but had not looked at either of the new editions. So a thank you to my benefactor (and a Mongoose Trav partisan) who sent me this.

Let the record show that this is a review of Traveller: Core Rulebook, published by Mongoose; based on Classic Traveller by Marc Miller, and the new edition written by Gareth Hanrahan.  Its a hardcover book with the cover art being a recreation of the cover of the classic booklet-rules; black with a sleek red line and the title in red. The book is 190 pages long; its interior art is from a mix of sources; ranging from the spectacular to the really sub-par (I was really unimpressed with the Aslan and Vargr illustrations, for example).

I would not call myself a Traveller fanatic, but I do have very fond memories of this game.  In my roleplaying infancy I had bought the basic Traveller boxed set and later several other Traveller books, and I ran quite a lot of games with it.  More recently, I had bought the T20 Traveller rules, which I quite liked, and ran a spectacular campaign for about 3 years with it.  So in a way, I guess I would be exactly the kind of person the various purveyors of new Trav editions would like to get as a customer.

Now, on a purely personal level, I can tell you that what I loved about Traveller was: its character creation rules (which for an old-school game were truly amazing in how they created a whole backstory for your character through a series of rolls and choices), the simplicity of play, and the variety of campaign themes you could run with.  A Trav game could be very military, or not at all; it could focus on exploration, or on trade, or be set entirely on some world (be it a distant frontier, or a crucial planet in the heart of civilized space). Games could be very high-mortality or (like in the case of my last T20 campaign) could run for years without a single fight (there's not many old-school games where that's a common occurrence!).  And yes, I loved the rules for creating systems and planets.
The things that weren't particularly interesting to me were overly complex mechanics on things like starship creation or space combat; that just wasn't my thing.

So what do we get in Mongoose Traveller? Well, for starters, the whole system is really very familiar to me.  I had a lot of trouble being able to really recognize what parts of the book are new material and which are just directly the original Traveller Rules.  It is in no way a radical departure from Classic Traveller. The mechanical differences I was able to see stand out to my dulled memory were only on a couple of significant points; the rest I was not sure about.

As to those points, one of them was probably a sensible necessity: the updating of technological standards.  The other I felt somewhat less sure about, and that was that in the basic setup of the rules your character can no longer die during character creation (though they still present this as an optional rule for those who want it, which mollified me).

If you're totally unfamiliar with Traveller's system, here are the basics: the core mechanic is based on a 2d6 roll (+/- characteristic modifiers and skill modifiers) against a difficulty number (typically 8, for an average check).
Characters have a set of stats (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing), which are generated using 6 rolls of 2d6 with the results put in characteristics by player choice. Stats have modifiers, which technically range from -3 to +3 but in fact range from -2 to +2 in the 2-12 range.  Skills are presented as bonuses to rolls, with basic training providing a +0 modifier, while an "untrained" attempt at a skill check has a -3 penalty.
The Skill list is quite thorough, and Mongoose Traveller provides lengthy details on all skills, including "skill specialties", which are sub-skills that must be taken in some skills if a PC gets more than a +1 rank in them.
I'll also take this moment to note that unlike most RPGs, Traveller has no "experience point" system or "levels"; advancement in mechanical terms only happens (after character creation) through specific training in skills which takes time and effort in-game, and becomes progressively harder the more skills one has.

Characters begin with some basic background skills, and are assumed (at the START of the character creation process) to be 18 years old.
At this point, characters may begin to follow a lifepath-type process of selecting careers, trying to go through various 4-year "terms" in those careers, which grant them certain benefits but accumulate certain risks too.

In the Classic Traveller game as I recall it, there were three big factors that limited how many terms you could (or would likely choose) to serve in careers: first, some careers had significant dangers and could lead to the character dying in the character creation process! As I mentioned before, this no longer exists in the main rules. Second, certain results could lead you to forcibly "muster out" and no longer be capable of continuing in the process.  In the Mongoose version of the rules, players can try to continue in other careers (and may automatically continue as a "drifter" even if he cannot qualify for any other career), effectively indefinitely.  Third, characters begin to suffer aging penalties after age 34.  In the new rules, this has also been lessened in difficulties for a PC as the character can take drugs that hold off aging.  In short, I wonder if the changes to the rules might not make it too easy for a PC to keep going for quite a long while and ending up with a very old but very powerful character? Granted, even with anti-aging drugs and a relatively safe set of careers, a player character who is too old will still be likely to have significant disadvantages, but this could be used as a kind of min-maxing by certain player characters.
There are, however, optional rules that can deal with this potential problem; optional rules allow the GM to set a maximum number of terms for his campaign, and allow the option for the GM to restore risk-of-death in character creation.

Careers are listed with far more detail than in the old edition but the basic concepts are the same. Entering into any career (except drifter, or being drafted for military service) requires that you pass an attribute check; your first career gives you a set of starting skills.  After that in each 4-year term you spend in a career you get to choose a skill table to roll on to gain one new skill (or sometimes to get an attribute raised). You must also make a "survival roll" where failure leads to some kind of mishap (these are consequences that can include things like being drummed out of the career, suffering an injury, or gaining an enemy or some social problem, among others). If you pass the survival roll, you roll to see what random event occurs in the term; these include the potential to gain extra skills, personal events in your life, bonuses to other checks in the process, mishaps, or promotions. You roll for Advancement, to see if you gain a new rank in your career (in this process you may also be required to leave your career, due to forced retirement; this chance increments the more terms you spend in a career).  You can continue to take more terms in your career, or attempt to switch to some other career; if you leave your current career or are forced to quit, you will roll to see what "mustering out" benefits you obtain; you get a certain amount of rolls that depend on how many terms you served in the career, and can choose between cash benefits or "other benefits" (which vary from one career to the next, but can include attribute increases, special items, contacts, or even a starship).

As with Classic Traveller, making a character in Mongoose Traveller is clearly a whole sub-game in itself, and tremendously good fun. More significantly, by the end of the process you have a character (be he young or old) that has a significant background of life events pre-loaded through a mixture of choices and random determination.

Some alternate rules for character creation are provided in the book, including rules for a point-buy system in the place of the lifepath system; but seriously, who'd want to do that?!

After the material on careers we get into the section for Alien PCs.  These are not explicitly listed as optional, but I think that its clear from their placement in the order of things that they're meant to be.  You get here the standard list of aliens from Traveller's de-facto "Imperium" setting, but some hints as to how one could create their own alien races too (with a list of special qualities a GM could choose from for creating an alien race profile).
Again, if you're unfamiliar with Traveller, the included "standard" aliens are: The Aslan (lion-like humanoids), the Droyne (a winged race with a rigid caste system), Hivers (a totally weird multi-limbed monstrous-looking race that are highly intelligent and civilized), K'Kree (centaur-like humanoids), Vargr (uplifted wolf-like humanoids), and Zhodani (a race of humans transplanted by a now-vanished race of "Ancients" that evolved on different lines and have a much higher prevalence of psionic ability, which form the upper class of their very authoritarian society).

The absolute basics of combat in Traveller are extremely simple. Effectively, the mechanic is the same as any other; and to this you just add initiative checks, and then rules for making attacks, modifiers, defending yourself, etc.  One interesting detail is how dodging and parrying work: you can choose to actively defend yourself, but every time you do it reduces your spot on the initiative list; meaning that you could effectively keep yourself from ever getting to do anything other than defend.
Damage is calculated by the damage of the weapon in question (expressed in a number of dice; ie. d6, d6+2, 3d6, etc) plus the "effect" (how far over the difficulty one rolled when hitting).  The damage is done directly to attributes; first to Endurance and then to Strength or Dex. If any two physical attributes hit 0 the character is unconscious, if any three get to 0, the character is dead.  Armor reduces damage.

There are of course several other rules for combat: things like automatic fire, recoil, cover, communications, etc. I think it pretty well covers the gamut of what you need for a sci-fi combat situation.
There's straightforward rules for vehicle combat as well.

There's a detail-rich chapter on "encounters and danger" which gives tables and rules for animals; rather than providing a very lengthy "monster manual" the focus in the rules is on Tables for generating alien animals (given that in a setting with tens of thousands of planets, it would be kind of pointless to provide a great number of specific alien animals). Instead you have general types of animals (ie. scavenger, omnivore, carnivore) and more specific types within that (grazer, hunter, chaser, pouncer); and these give you modifiers to generating the creature's size and physical attributes as well as natural weapons (and the damage those weapons do) as well as armor; and number encountered.  There's a couple of examples of how to do this process, and a small list of basic sample animals. 
The benefit of this subsystem is that its quite generic, and could be used to generate alien animals for just about any context pretty effectively.  The downside is that it doesn't give these animals any tremendous flavor; it will depend on a very good GM to make sure that the specific animals have a memorable aesthetic.

There are rules for other hazardous encounters as well: disease, poison, weather extremes, falling, all the usual. This section also contains rules for healing.

The section on NPCs contains excellent random tables for generating NPC contacts, allies, enemies, and patrons; what they want, what they're doing, what kind of missions patrons have for the PCs (including tables for tasks, targets, and opposition) and random encounter tables ordered by regions.  There are several sample patrons fully fleshed out, and there's also a long list of basic NPC templates for typical characters the PCs might run into.

As one would expect from this kind of sci-fi game, the Equipment section is very complete.  Equipment includes an important classification: Tech Level.  There are tech levels from 0-15 (with 2012 Earth's tech level somewhere between 7 and 8). The core areas of the Imperium have tech levels that range from 10-13, but of course there are plenty of fringe worlds that will be lower, and unexplored worlds who's natives might have much lower levels. TL15 is not a hard limit, it is only the absolute limit of the tech levels of the Imperium itself; the mysterious "ancients" would have had far higher tech levels, for example. In addition to the normal lists of weapons, armor and equipment there are considerations for things like legality, as well as regular costs of living by social status.

One area that I believe was not in Classic Traveller is the rules on cybernetic and genetic augmentations.  There are some kind of artificial limits to augmentations for the sake of game balance; for example, a character can get a "skill augment" but only to +1 and only for one skill ever. There's some rules for computers (that I think kind of under-value what computers can do or would be able to do at higher Tech Levels); and there's no artificial intelligence.

Next we get to the part I was truly dreading: Spaceship creation.  In Traveller (classic, and this one) you can build/design your starship up from scratch, in great detail, with 12 steps and 5 substeps. For some gamers, I'm sure this is a joy. For me, its like pulling teeth. I have no interest in it. There are all kinds of details and modifications, a cornucopia for build-fanatics. That has not really changed, though some of the particular details of the construction process may have.
Thankfully, there's also about 20 pages of samples, of "common starships" of different types and sizes, including pictures and floorplans. So if you're like me, you can just skip the whole "do-it-yourself" process.

Of more interest to me is the section on spacecraft operations; here you get details on all kinds of situations that you have to handle in actual play if your PCs own or run a starship. There's rules on boarding, docking and landing; on standard monthly costs for maintaining the starship, and some excellent tables for space encounters. There's also rules on space travel (through "jump drives"), problems like life support failures or radiation, taking on passengers (along with tables of costs and random passenger tables), repairs, sensors, security, and travel times.

Ship to ship combat is not exactly simple, but it is straightforward and well-explained. In essence, it operates along similar lines as regular combat, but this doesn't mean its just abstracted. On the contrary, there are thorough rules for ranges, missiles and beam weapons, boarding actions, and all kinds of other special details and conditions.

Its worth noting that the Psionics chapter has been put close to the back, apart from the other details on characters and character creation.  Without going so far as to say it, the implications seem clear: Psionics are potentially optional. You could keep them out of the game entirely and it would not require any great adjustment.  That said, psionics has been a part of Traveller since the Classic days, and the rules here are fairly good and detailed.  Characters must be "tested" for psionic powers, this can happen during character creation or afterwards, in play. However, the older a character is, the less likely he is to have psionic potential. For most characters, psionic powers will be few and limited; but this chapter also includes Psionic careers, for those who end up making a full commitment to their psychic craft.  I should note that in the default "Imperium" setting, psionics are suppressed, giving GMs a handy excuse if they don't want PCs to be able to take full-blown psionic careers.

One of the best features of Classic Traveller was the rules on interplanetary trade; some of the best Traveller campaigns I ever ran or played in were all about a free trader trying to make a credit going from planet to planet and playing the markets.  Mongoose Traveller continues in this tradition, with the trade rules very much as they were, only expanded. There's a stunningly impressive level of detail for everything you need to run an "interstellar businessmen" campaign.

On the flipside of the starship creation, when we get to the World Creating I feel an inner glee building up. I guess you can tell I'm a "humanities" guy and not an "engineering" guy; the thought of custom-building a starship bores me to death, but the thought of creating a world with specific values for things like government, law, culture etc. is totally awesome.  Of course, one more difference between the two is that the starship-building rules in Traveller are all based on construction (you could say "point buy", where "points" are things like cost, size constraints, etc); whereas the world-creation rules are based on random tables and rolls with modifications.

Traveller does this by starting with the general and moving to the specific.  Before you create worlds, you randomly generate a galactic subsector (a space hexmap, where star systems will be randomly placed).  After that (and a few other considerations like whether the star system has a gas giant) you roll for the size of the world, the quality of space port, atmosphere, presence of water, population, government, law level, tech level, and whether there are military bases, as well as what kind of trade the world engages in.  Earlier rolls can end up modifying later rolls (for example, the size of the planet will affect the type of atmosphere it might have; and both of these will affect its water level).
The rules here are very similar to those in Classic Traveller, but as in other chapters, there's a few additions and some elaboration: for example, you have rules on generating factions in a planet (rather than a single government), rules governing how law level directly affects a group, rules on crimes and punishment, cultural quirks, contraband, etc.

So, to sum up: Mongoose Traveller is a lot like Classic Traveller, with only a tiny handful of big changes, and a lot of additional clarification and extra flavor-material.  And really, when you are making a new edition of a classic old-school game, that's pretty much what you ought to do; there's little point, if people are looking for Traveller as a game, to try to sell them something that in no way resembles what the game was.

And what it was, and is now again in the Mongoose edition, is a truly excellent semi-hard Sci-fi RPG.  The book is of very good quality, and it has reminded me of and rekindled my love of this classic game.
I'm not entirely sure if its really worth getting if you already have the entire Classic Traveller range of books (or should I say "booklets"?); except maybe for completeness in a single volume or to get those few points slightly updated that might have needed updating.
But if you weren't around to get those, or you have long since lost them (as is my own case), then Mongoose-edition Traveller is definitely recommended.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Brebbia no.7


  1. Good summary of Mongoose Traveller. I really like Character creation rules. The Ironmongery section in the Mercenary book was disappointing (a four barreled magnetic dinner plate launcher as an infantry support weapon?), but otherwise the book was well done. You did nail the artwork. Really slick to the disappointing. The former was good enough for me to give a pass on the latter.

    I have a very complete set of CT (and MT/TNE/T4/T20/T5), so I won't be going for the full set of MT products. It is a good set for someone who doesn't have a collection of CT material.

  2. Great review - one point I would make is that the lack of AI isn't quite true - there's limited AI in the form of Intellect and Expert programs which allow you to a) give a computer skills and b) talk to it like it's a person, which doesn't quite constitute strong AI as people generally tend to imagine it these days but how big the distinction is comes down to GMing style to a certain extent. (For instance, in my Traveller universe computers with Intellect programs have a decent shot at passing the Turing test and have Genuine People Personalities, because programming for emotional responses turns out to be easy - what's genuinely difficult is programming in creativity and inventive leaps, which is why computers with Intellect and a Computing Expert program can't just start programming themselves to be smarter.)

    I think scaling back the extent of genetic and cybernetic augmentation is a good call for keeping the assumed setting of the book within the style and aesthetic of the original game - namely, the more adventurous end of hard SF, or the more hard SF end of space opera. There's a nice cybernetics supplement for the line which not only provides more support for cybernetic enhancements, but could also form the basis of playing a much more cyberpunk version of the game if that's what you want. One of the nice things about the Mongoose line is that the supplements are a nice split between solid collections of stuff for your games (ship collections, vehicle collections etc.) for those that don't have the time or inclination to spend lots of time pregenning that stuff, and on the other hand providing supplements which open up whole new vistas for the game whilst still ensuring that the system retains that Classic Traveller feel - the cybernetics supplement does this brilliantly (in the sense that it makes me genuinely consider running a cyberpunk game with Traveller, whereas I wouldn't have before), as does Dynasty.

    I also agree that character creation is an absolute blast with this version. It reminds me of MegaTraveller generation done right - MegaTrav had basic Classic-style character generation rules for a wide range of military and non-military careers (based off the core Classic rules and the Citizens of the Imperium supplement), but only gave advanced character generation rules (based off Mercenary and other such supplements) for a subset of them, and characters generated with the basic rules and advanced rules weren't remotely balanced against each other and it seemed weird that the game offered such detailed rules for making a Merchant but didn't give a similar treatment to Scientists, which you'd think would be a very obvious character type to explore in a *Science* Fiction game. For what it's worth, in my campaign I found it useful to set a specific term limit for character generation and have people create characters to that limit, so everyone had reasonable skills and comparatively substantial backstories. (In fact, doesn't the book specifically warn you that starting characters beyond a certain number of terms aren't a good idea?) As I said elsewhere, I completely agree that character generation is a fun game in its own right in Mongoose Traveller and I honestly wish that were the case in more games.

  3. Oh, one more thing - I really like the way characters can hop from career to career in character generation in this if they're kicked out of a particular job, because it feels more appropriate for PCs - you want people who are willing to jump from opportunity to opportunity, or who have a history of drifting around between whichever ramshackle outfits would accept them, rather than career officers where it isn't entirely clear why they've abruptly thrown away a 16-year career in favour of going off to be a space bum in a high-risk adventuring outfit. More or less none of the PCs in my campaign spent their entire backstory in one career and the transitions between careers always gave an opportunity to generate plot for the campaign itself.

  4. Yeah, I quite like that feature too, but I do have to wonder whether it doesn't tend to create characters that are a lot older and a lot more powerful than most starting CTrav characters were.

    1. Classic Traveller's characters were more attribute-based than skill-based for certain mechanics of the game. Mongoose went with attribute modifiers and higher skill levels for its more universal skill check mechanic.

  5. I see. I don't really much remember that difference, but I defer to your greater experience.