So here it is in all its glory, the latest incarnation of Traveller, harking back to the original 'little black books' of 1977 but brought bang up to date with a ruleset honed by over 30 years of play, discussion and revision. It's nice to see a nod to the original even in the cover - the spaceship that's getting a hammering has Beowulf painted on the side! (Veterans will remember the radio message that graced the original ruleset, a mayday sent out by the Free Trader Beowulf pleading for assistance...)
The Introduction sets it all out. A science fiction game of the far future, with which you can run just about anything you can think of... although there's the well-established setting of the Third Imperium to visit if you don't have time or inclination to create your own universe. Or perhaps you want to bring a favourite science fiction TV show or film to life on your tabletop (or even a book, although they don't mention that for some reason). There's the usual explanation of role-playing, the part players and referee (the traditional Traveller term for a game master) play... and the intriguing reminder that Traveller contains several 'mini-games' such as world creation, trade, and even character creation that allow much of the game to run on 'autopilot', leaving referee and indeed players free to concentrate on the adventure to hand. Naturally, if the result of a die-roll in one of these mini-games doesn't suit, the referee should feel free to change it! Some campaign ideas are provided - broad sweeps, these: do you want to be engaged in trade or military exploits, would you prefer to explore uncharted swathes of space or perhaps the classic Traveller campaign that can involve a bit of all of these takes your fancy? Seeds sewn, this section rounds out with a list of other Traveller books, conventional terminology in gaming and a summary of what Tech Level is all about, with a couple of sentences illustrating each one from TL0 to TL14 (we are at TL7/TL8 if you're curious).
We then begin with Chapter 1: Traveller Creation in which we learn how to generate characters. Holding true to the original (in both senses of the word) Traveller concept in which the process begins with an 18-year-old ready to start his career - no doubt full of ideas about what he will accomplish - and then follows him through it acquiring both skills and a backstory to end with the fully-developed character ready for play. The whole process is fascinating of itself and from the initial inception of this game, many people (myself included!) have amused themselves generating characters without any real intention of using them in an actual game. The interesting thing about this process is that characters come out very realistic - the plans of that eager 18-year-old may or may not have worked out quite like he intended, just as happens in real life.
First of all you roll your character's characteristics, six values that describe your initial physical and mental capabilities, and then a little background based on which sort of planet he grew up which gives a few skills to start with. Then you start building a career in 4-year blocks with each one giving skills, other benefits (money or items) and events. You might choose (or be obliged) to have him change careers once or twice, he might be injured, he might even end up serving time in prison... all this before you decide to begin adventuring. There are always trade-offs: a military career gives you combat skills but if you put yourself in harm's way, you might get harmed, and so on. It's recommended that you generate a party together, taking opportunities to find links as you build your characters' pasts rather than setting out as a handful of complete strangers who inexplicably throw their lot in together and head out to see the universe. It's all human-centric - if you want to play an alien you'll have to wait for the appropriate supplement!
Chapter 2: Skills and Tasks looks at how you use those skills you've just determined that your character has. It describes the task resolution system, which is still based on the classic 'roll 2 dice against a Referee-set difficulty' but the use of modifiers other than those based on the character's own capabilities has been replaced by the use of extra 'boon' or 'bane' dice. These come into play when conditions are beneficial or adverse to the attempt being made. A third die is rolled. If conditions are favourable, the player discards the lowest roll and uses the other two dice to resolve the task as normal. If things are against him, he discards the highest die roll before resolving the task. Neat, and a lot easier than having to determine just how beneficial or otherwise the circumstances might be! The idea is that task difficulties and applicable modifiers ought to be fairly standard for any given task, all you need to decide is if the circumstances under which you are trying to accomplish it warrant a boon or a bane die to be added to your roll.
Next, Chapter 3 explores Combat in great detail. This is also based on the task resolution system, with specific refinements and options appropriate to fighting rather than any other activtiy. Combat is still deadly, and relatively speedy. Characters use their skill in the weapon they are using, and wield them in initiative-order sequence in combat rounds. The system has been streamlined and integrated with personal combat, vehicle combat and starship combat all working the same way. Brawls are not the only dangers to be faced in the far-future, however, so Chapter 4: Encounters and Dangers provides loads of hazards and the game mechanics necessary to deal with them. Environmental dangers abound... but fortunately there is also a section on healing. Animals (which may or may not be hostile) are also covered here with a broad outline of a system to create animals and encounters with them. Several examples are given - and it can be great fun thinking up exotic critters for the worlds the party visits in its travels. Animals, of course, are not the only beings they will encounter, so there is also a section about NPCs which includes quick generation of them and the sort of encounters that may be had... there's even a rudimentary patron encounter system here for generating really fast adventure seeds on the fly.
Next, Chapter 5: Equipment provides a vast array of items that the prudent Traveller ought to think about taking along with him. It starts, however, with a discussion of money in the far future, standards of living, encumberance and such like details, before presenting 'The Core Collection' - an illustrated catalogue of everything from weapons and armour to augments (bodily modifications), medical equipment, and survival gear. It's good-looking and realistic - some parts read like advertisements! - as well as providing the game mechanical information that you need.
The next chapter covers Vehicles - both the types of vehicle that you can have (starting fairly generic but with a very customisable design system) and how to conduct combat and chases using them. Oh, and how to mend the damage caused afterwards too! This chapter is about ground, sea and air vehicles of all sorts, spacecraft get two separate chapters next, one covering operations (everything from running costs and fuel to travel times and repairs and shipboard security) and the other devoted to space combat. This is handled more boardgame style, particularly for ship-to-ship combat, and also looks at boarding actions.
Now we know what to do with them, Chapter 9: Common Spacecraft presents an array of vessels ready for use. Many of them will be familiar to long-time Traveller players, but the presentation is spectactular, with ship statistics appear in a neat panel that gives you all you need to know, whilst deckplans have gone isometric. This gives a nice impression of what it would actually be like to wander around the ship in question and matches up well with the external views. They won't work so well as old-style deckplans for people who like to run combat aboard like a miniatures skirmish though. This has been addressed in the PDF version by supply a separate file of 2D deckplans for at least some of the ships listed. There's a good range of standard craft here from traders and scouts to liners and yachts.
Tucked away next is Chapter 10: Psionics. Not everyone likes to use them, so they are kept separate from the rest of character creation - you'll need to incorporate material from here if you do want to use psionics in your game, although some of the life events give opportunities to discover if a character is psionic or to get training. In the Third Imperium, psionics are frowned upon, indeed mostly illegal... but your universe may be completely different. This chapter gives you all you need to bring them in if you so wish.
Next comes another specialist area: Trade. Many Traveller games include trading - even if it's merely a means to fund your party's travel - and here are all the rules necessary to make it work, with a delightful layered approach that enables you to abstract it to a few die rolls or make it a prominent feature in your game depending on what you prefer.
Finally, there's a chapter on universe and world creation and an overview of the Sindal Subsector, which will be the 'home' of this edition of Traveller. World creation in itself can be as absorbing as character generation, and you can get very detailed if that's your delight. The Sindal Subsector includes several well-developed worlds, so there's somewhere to visit straight away.
Overall, this is a worthy successor to the books that have gone before, beautifully presented and with rules honed by the 30-odd years the core game mechanic has been around, updated and refined to suit contemporary styles yet with the same simple charm of the original little black books it all begin with!