On the Traveller Role-Playing Game’s Third Imperium Setting. Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?

I dunno about you, but I see plenty of empty space

I’ve read posts from three different bloggers recently, and along with my own recent re-reading of classic Science Fiction (Poul Anderson, I’m looking at you) I’ve been prompted to respond with this post about the Traveller RPG, mostly regarding the “Classic” edition as published by GDW. Surprisingly the first incarnation still comes up a lot in online discussion, in spite of the popularity of the current re-write from Mongoose Publishing.

Classic Traveller, a generic toolkit

It’s been clearly stated in the books that there was no “setting” assumed for either edition of Classic Traveller, 1977 or 1981. Rather it’s a toolbox with which to create your own setting for gaming. I just went and peeked at the Book 1 introduction to the 81 edition; yep, that’s what it says. Looking quickly at Book 3, author Marc Miller specifically states that the collection of random tables are just prods to the imagination, and are there because it’s a stretch to expect the referee to just straight-out imagine hundreds of worlds. One last look, at the Final Word section in Book 3. Sure enough, the Traveller books are to be considered just a framework. You have to tailor the game to your imagination.

sample page

So the various tables can and should be modified to suit your setting and preferred mode of play. Regarding the specific tables provided to us in print, they appear to me to be the most generically useful. That is, if you imagine that you want players to have “adventures,” things have to be dangerous where they visit, and so the environment needs to include wild areas and a frontier and the opportunity for something to go wrong. It may seem too dangerous to be credible, but where would be the fun in that? Not that you can’t have adventures in Connecticut, but really, they’re not too likely. On the other hand, if you go to Manhattan you will most definitely find adventure in spite of the fact that there are quite a lot of well-to-do folks partying it up on the island.

Since everything in the game is specifically provided with the expectation that you will modify it to suit your own ideas, I don’t see the utility of trying to divine a setting that was “intended.” But some bloggers do. Perhaps it’s a form of mental exercise, but since the author specifically stated the lack of an “intended” setting I can’t really relate.

All that having been said, we know that as time progressed and customers requested it, setting details for an imagined “Third Imperium” were provided, and it was developed in greater detail as time went by and the products sold. Much as TSR learned that gamers really would buy accessories rather than writing material on their own.

Some folks opine that gamers were less likely to create their own Traveller settings as GDW gradually produced a setting of their own, beginning with that crime of ‘implied setting creep’ in the rules themselves. I wonder if they feel similarly about, for instance, D&D and Greyhawk? Perhaps only Traveller is singled out for this abuse.

I’m sure everyone felt compelled to play D&D in Greyhawk once this was published. Right?

There were no setting details with most early RPGs (games set in Star Trek’s Federation and Greg Stafford’s Glorantha being two obvious exceptions since those are “game as setting”), yet as the years went by published settings grew common. So can we say with any kind of authority what the predominant mode of play is? It can be difficult to determine what’s happening “in the wild.” The total player base fluctuates, as does the number of products on offer. By polling folks who read magazines or who frequent internet sites you’re not counting folks who just break out the books and play. And nowadays there are folks who say online that they buy a ridiculous number of gaming products that they regard simply as reading material, without any concrete plans to ever bring them to the table. Thus even sales numbers are going to be skewed.

Personally I never saw the need for a published setting for every game. But if one is provided, I’m perfectly free to either ignore it or steal bits from it. I’m not intimidated, and I don’t feel that my efforts are somehow ‘invalidated.’

There may be gamers whose interest is piqued by the release of a setting. And they might give it a try. That doesn’t make gaming in a homebrew setting any less attractive to the potential game buyer. On the other hand, some posters actually think the Third Imperium is too overwhelming, and that its existence might even cause gamers to pass Traveller by!

But how could you conclude that the simple existence of the Third Imperium setting somehow *prevents* ANY significant percentage of referees from creating their own setting? (I’ve seen this stated.) Certainly the core Traveller books tell us we don’t need more than one subsector. That subsector you create using those very attractive rules could have anything just beyond the edge of its borders. Who’s to say what galaxy it sits in, what wilderness or pocket domains surround it? While at the same time your subsector will hold many, many worlds that can keep your party busy for years of gaming. The systems you create can literally exist in a vacuum, but should you someday long for more you can easily expand your map using the provided tools. There’s absolutely zero need to buy any setting material.

Another thing I’ve noticed in reading online posts is the folks who see the Third Imperium as an impediment to exploration or conquest. One blogger literally said that the existence of Third Imperium products “invalidated empire-building as a campaign goal!” Really? Well, how about you don’t set your campaign in the capital system of the empire, then? The Spinward Marches are on the fringe, so you can head outwards and conquer all you want. You can put anything out there. Plus there are big gaps within the Imperium you can explore. And who’s to say how much the non-human empires have explored within their borders? You could go there. Then there are all the areas in the neighborhood of the 3I that we’ve seen published by small publishers like Gamelords and Judges Guild, if you need something to build on. Those are full of opportunity, and have lots of little pocket-empires and wild space.

Looks like plenty of room in that subsector

One aspect that I’ve given a lot of thought to, that I don’t see discussed, is the Traveller maps’ apparent 2D nature’s impact on exploration. First of all, the representation could be viewed as just an abstraction. All those “blank” hexes might have systems that are above or below the mapped “plane,” and you could add such systems above or below existing systems on the map. Who’s to say that you can’t spot one of these somehow, or misjump there, landing in a system or network of systems that are either unknown or “lost” from current databases?

And of course you can always emulate a book or TV show that you like, in addition to creating your own setting. Any of this is using Traveller as it was intended to be used.

So I can’t imagine why some posters believe the existence of the Imperium influences gamers to avoid creating their own settings, or stifles adventuring. Instead, I’d point to the enthusiastic flood of player-designed alternatives that have seen publication over the decades since Traveller hit the gaming table and say, “This is what you’re supposed to do. Create.”

Personally I love the Third Imperium, and I love the works of Poul Anderson that appear to have in the main inspired it. LINK

But I’ve only ever used tiny bits of it, and its existence doesn’t stifle my creativity. Nor do I feel that Classic Traveller suffers from ‘insidious setting creep.’ And I’ll back up my position by mentioning the custom setting I’ve been prepping recently. So get out there and game!

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