I bought the game I saw on eBay last night, the one I once owned many years ago but lost: the 1982 hardcover edition of Traveller by Games Design Workshop.
There’s not a lot I can say about this game that hasn’t been said by others. It came out around the same time as the first Star Wars movies, but was more influence by the “hard” sci-fi novels like Asimov or Cherryh. It wasn’t “Space Opera” or “Sci-Fantasy,” but instead maintained dictums like the easiest way to kill a man would be to transfer kinetic energy into his body through a projected bit of mass, rather than something as energy-inefficient as a laser.
If you’re one of the few people unfamilar with Traveller, it is considered by many part of the “Old School” canon. It’s game mechanics have been soundly rejected by almost every RPG that has come after, but yet are held dear by any fan of the game. Character reaction was random, even deadly. You were less likely to play the fresh-faced young adult of OD&D and more likely to play a person in their thirties or forties, maybe even older. You also had little options to increase your character’s abilities in the classic sense (higher skill or stat rankings) but instead just increased your network of contacts and weath. The hardcover featured fun little qualities like the Nagel-inspired artwork (making it distinctly an 80’s product) and the iconic sample characters.
It’s almost impossible to not mention in a post about Traveller the it-has-to-be-derivative television series Firefly and its capstone movie Serenity. I dont’ know if Whedon played Traveller, but it would be hard to imagine a sci-fi geek not knowing about it, because for a long time Traveller was the only successful sci-fi game that was a licensed product (like Star Wars or Star Trek) or a dog with fleas like SpaceMaster. You can, if you watch the pilot, almost imagine the stats and skills of each character scroll along the bottom of the screen (Mal and Zoe: Army, Wash: Scout, etc…) The elegaic Firefly also represents what most GM’s wish for in a campaign–a fairly standard RPG set-up, the “free trader campaign” in this case–transcending into something greater.
I read through Traveller as a young man and have a distinct memory of being struck by an RPG that required multiple books to just play, much less judge. I enjoyed reading through the hardcover edition I eventually bought secondhand at some used book store and being struck with the novelty of character-creation as narrative, but at that point was into the notion of having total control over character creation (Champions was the haute couture at the time) that I never seriously considered the game.
But now, I’ve gone back to considering it the Sci-Fi RPG. Don’t get me wrong, I own loads of “sci-fi” RPG’s: Star Wars (both the d6 and the d20), Star Trek (both FASA and a later incarnation), Alternity, d6 Space, Fading Suns, Blue Planet, and even the Mechanoids trilogy to name a few. But when a friend in my gaming group was consoling me regarding the twice-failed start to my D&D game he said, “you should just run sci-fi and have people go in and out of the ship” I immediately pined for that old hardcover book.