Traveller and Poul Anderson – A Review of a Future History, and Its Influence on the Classic Traveller Role-playing Game

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction by Poul Anderson recently. The multi-award-winning Grand Master has always been a favorite of mine, but when it comes to reading I’m a grazer. I don’t normally set out to read everything that any one author has ever written. I just grab what looks interesting at the time, most likely from an author I know and like.

However. Lately I’ve made a concerted effort to read a bunch of Anderson’s science fiction, specifically those stories that take place at various points along the future history we associate with his characters Dominic Flandry, Nicholas van Rijn and David Falkayn. I’m still not finished. But not only am I enjoying it very much, I’m also struck by the obvious influence on my favorite science fiction role-playing game, Classic-era Traveller (as published by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977, with an update in 1981). I mean, huuuge influence.

In Anderson’s epic timeline, humanity sets out to explore space from good old Earth. Eventually the big power isn’t government, but the Polesotechnic League. This is a riff off history’s Hanseatic League, which was a giant guild of German traders that originated in the twelfth century. This science-fictional Hansa can be found in the “Classic” edition of the Traveller role-playing game as the Merchant career, especially in the book Merchant Prince. Allow me to elaborate.

They’re shipwrecked. van Rijn is the guy in the back.

A Traveller Merchant character will be a member of a large or small line, or a free trader. The large lines cover a sector or multiple sectors of space, and are the equivalent of Anderson’s Solar Spice and Liquors, which is run by a Falstaffian character named Nicholas van Rijn.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff

Nicholas van Rijn is a big deal in the Polesotechnic League, and is a real riot. Trust me, if you like Falstaff, you’ll like van Rijn. Anyway, in Traveller the small merchant lines handle areas within a sector of space.

A bit of Free Trader action from Andre Norton. But that’s not what we’re here for!

On the other hand, Traveller’s Free Traders are based off the works of Andre Norton and her Solar Queen stories. But we’re not here to discuss Norton, we’re here to discuss Anderson!

Artist Kelly Freas’ vision of Nicholas van Rijn

The League is a for-profit association, but with something of a conscience. It’s profitable to move goods among the stars, and there are so many planets that many of them are ignored by humanity. Goldilocks planets are plentiful, so why bother with the inhospitable ones? The spaceships zoom all over the place, land on planets, meet interesting aliens, and sometimes fight with them. Anderson studied physics in college and it shows. He really, really enjoyed working out what a planet’s surface would be like under various conditions, and what sort of life could develop there. He said that he was doing his best to emulate his friend and fellow author Hal Clement, but felt he came in second-best. Anyway this means that to a certain type of science-minded reader, Anderson delivers the goods justifying what his characters encounter. I will confess that I’ve developed the habit of skimming over those passages, but that’s just me. There were and remain plenty of fans of that type of hard SF.

Jamison, the sample Merchant character from the Traveller rules. I KNEW that older picture on the left existed, and wasn’t just my mind playing tricks on me! That was the original, van Rijn -inspired illo from the first edition. The guy on the right was the cleaned-up version from the later publications. Humph.

So this huge expanse of space that humanity is scooting through, along with its economy, can definitely be found in the Traveller game. Especially with respect to character generation, although you are encouraged to develop your own setting for the game. Traveller comes with samples of “megacorporations” that act almost like nations. In fact, you can find a counterpart to Nicholas van Rijn in Traveller as a sample character, Merchant Captain Alexander Jamison.

David Falkayn, who works for van Rijn. Obviously well into his career when this portrait was painted.

Another fun character of this era is David Falkayn, who works for van Rijn. We see him get his start, and then he gets set up with an AI-driven ship and two co-workers, a little cat-alien named Chee Lan, and a Buddhist dragon-centaur named Adzel. Falkayn is a womanizer like his boss, and the team-mates’ banter is very entertaining. Their hi-jinks can be improbable but the stories are fun. I think my favorite story from this era was Satan’s World. All the recurring League characters are involved, the story is wide-ranging, there are plenty of guest-characters, and everyone gets their moment in the spotlight.

Now Anderson is thinking way ahead when he thinks about a timeline for the future. This dominant non-governmental free-trade League eventually collapses, but after the usual post-collapse chaos a man who would be emperor manages to take charge. Now we move into phase two of Anderson’s future history, The Terran Empire!

The Imperium board game from GDW, the Traveller company.

So we get feudalism… in… spaaace… and it’s glorious. Anderson refers to his empire as “the Imperium” on several occasions. He talks about more than one “Grand Survey.”

Anderson has his own version of a “jump drive,” and he has characters bemoan the fact that there is no “interstellar radio,” a limitation that Traveller shares. There are several species of cat-people.

Ubiquitous cat-people

And who is our main character for the Empire years? Dominic Flandry. His father is a minor noble, his mother an opera singer, he the result of their encounter.

See? More cat-people with Ensign Flandry. Michael Whelan’s image won’t match those by Dave Seeley below, but Anderson mentions that Flandry alters his appearance. Voila!

Starts out as a young naive ensign, ends as a fleet admiral, knighted, hobnobbing with emperors. This is so Traveller I can hardly contain myself. He prides himself on cultured affectations, he loves the ladies, but he is cursed in one particular story and I won’t spoil anything here. Suffice it to say that Flandry is James Bond of the future.

Flandry is James Bond of the future

Dominic Flandry was even a “guess who this is” quiz character in one of the Traveller books.

What are these stories like? Grand space opera mixed with espionage. Clever plots that move right along, philosophy, distinctive characters with motivations that are not always obvious. An arch-enemy. And over all, Flandry resigns himself to the inevitable collapse of a society in its decadence. His goal is only to delay the slide into the Long Night of barbarism for as long as he can. Geez, didn’t expect that in a space opera, did you?

I’ll go ahead and let you know that Anderson actually carries the story line past the Long Night and gives us a glimpse of The Commonality, the civilization that follows. Just to reinforce his notion of time running in cycles.

Time for Flandry to pass the torch.

There’s a lot more I have to say on this topic, but it will go into another post. I want to talk about Traveller, its “implied” setting, its published setting, and what all that means. So keep in touch.

8 thoughts on “Traveller and Poul Anderson – A Review of a Future History, and Its Influence on the Classic Traveller Role-playing Game

  1. I seem to remember seeing ads and articles for Traveller when I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine in high school. It looked interesting, but wasn’t available in my small home town. I could only get Dungeons and Dragons books by buying them second-hand off older guys in high school or in a bookstore on the occasional school trip. I did manage to get Star Frontiers at one point and enjoyed that. Is it similar to Traveller?

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    1. Hi! Well, Star Frontiers is like Traveller in that it’s a science fiction RPG. There are some differences, mostly in the “feel.” When Traveller was first released in 1977 there was very little setting information; it was supposed to be a toolkit you used to game in whatever type of SF setting you liked. Its inspiration was the classic SF stories of the 50’s and 60’s. Its *implied* “feel” was grittier and less glamorous than the cartoony Star Frontiers. You didn’t have blasters. Your crewmate didn’t look like the Pillsbury doughboy. 😉 I mean, stripped down to bare rules you could use either game to play however you want. Star Frontiers had the big TSR name behind it, so it got a decent shot at popularity. But Traveller had been there first, and had already gathered a lot of fans. As I like to say, if you liked science fiction, you had played Traveller. As of today, there are still some Star Frontiers fans out there, but there are a lot more Traveller fans. On the other hand, the Mongoose edition of Traveller these days is a lot more like Guardians of the Galaxy than like the fiction that originally inspired it. The mood has changed. That’s why I still play what has become known as “Classic” Traveller.

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      1. Thank you for explaining the difference between them. I looked up Star Frontiers on Amazon out of curiosity. The books and the box set are going for silly money. But so is everything else these days . . .

        Liked by 1 person

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