The Traveller Solution

Although the terminology is more recent, the “sandbox” vs. “themepark” divide (such as it is) has been around for a very long time. Even within the confines of D&D there were people taking what was recognizably one approach or the other clear back to the early days. On the one hand you had D&D’s canned adventure modules, each of which provided a gaming table with a detailed location, usually with some semblance of a storyline to hang the place on. The locations and usually the story were pretty linear, as dungeons could be progressed through in a finite number of ways — sometimes only one. Even then, though, there were products like 1981′s Dwellers of the Forbidden City, wherein the location described was a huge ruined settlement that you could approach in a number of different ways and potentially in whatever order you liked.

But you also had such things as Judges’ Guild’s City State of the Invincible Overlord and its companion Wilderlands of High Fantasy, along with Columbia Games’ Hârn, that gave you some huge expanse, whether it was single large city or a vast wilderness or a whole island with some measure of both, that came without the presupposition that this thing here was what you were supposed to be doing there. You got a world, and what you did with it was up to you.

Certainly products such as Dwellers of the Forbidden City and Hârn fit somewhere on the “sandbox” continuum. But even in such cases the playing field was presented for you. The ultimate sandbox came with GDW’s Traveller, released in 1977 in the wake of and openly influenced by Star Wars, which gave you the tools not just to explore a whole game universe, but to create one from scratch. Building worlds down to the level of the alien critters you’d find on them was right in one of those little black books — and rules for designing your own starships were in another. These were simple systems that you could get whole subsectors of space or fleets of starships out of with just a pencil and paper and an hour or two. Eventually, supplements and new editions, in particular MegaTraveller (GDW 1987) and its third-party supplement the World Builder’s Handbook (Digest Group Publications 1989,) expanded these procedures substantially, to the point where with the same rules you could design a starship or a grav tank or an atmospheric fighter, and the rules for designing your own space were enlarged similarly, covering not just important worlds (“Mainworlds” in Traveller parlance) down to terrain, critters and planetary customs, but the solar systems they were in as well, along with all the other worlds found therein.

This all got to be a bit much to manage if you were creating it all by hand, but on the other hand, a single subsector (of 8×10 parsecs) could easily accommodate years of adventuring, and there were computerized aids to do the generation for you even very early on. The official Traveller setting consisted of a couple of sectors that were at least partly hand-designed and dozens more that were generated entirely procedurally.

In the game’s first edition (known today as “Classic Traveller“) you didn’t generate much beyond the UWP or Universal World Profile, a compact 8-character code (in hexadecimal!) that told you the planet’s size, atmosphere, population, government type and such, and the individual referee would figure out what those ratings actually meant. How does that tainted atmosphere, low-tech world manage a population in the billions? Maybe it’s recovering from a catastrophic nuclear war, with the huge population crammed into vast underground shelters, maintained by technology the locals no longer understand. The ultra-tech world with no atmosphere, a population in the dozens and a Law rating that’s through the roof? A secret Imperial bioweapons research facility. Filling in these kinds of details became part of the fun of setting up a Traveller universe, and while eventually a lot of extra detail was available via the procedures, there was still plenty of room to interpret things creatively.

As far as actual gameplay was concerned, there were a number of avenues open to players with support for them written into the rules. One common campaign style was the tramp trader game, wherein players had their own ship, probably mortgaged to the hilt, and they would travel from system to system taking whatever jobs, passengers and cargo they could to scrape enough credits together to make the payments and still be able to afford berthing fees, fuel and dinner. A simple system was provided for this, letting the group buy stuff at one world and hope that they’d be able to sell it for more in the next. Back in the Classic Traveller era the trade system was a bit problematic if you played it straight up without additional complications — it was very easy to game it and get stupidly rich — but if you mixed in Firefly-esque tribulations at every port, it worked very well and was an incredibly strong foundation for a campaign. Indeed, many feel that Joss Whedon must have played Traveller at some point, so closely does Firefly mesh with this kind of Traveller campaign.

There was also strong support for playing small mercenary bands, with or without a ship, or scouts conducting surveys of unexplored worlds. A “patrons” mechanic allowed the game to present a variety of adventure hooks, some of which you could blow off or play through in under a single session, while others could be explored to form the basis of an entire campaign.

Most interesting in relation to the topic of leveling systems that I’ve been discussing of late, though, is that the character advancement system in Traveller… well, it almost didn’t have one. Characters fresh out of character creation were not necessarily rustics straight off the turnip transport, and in fact could be very experienced. There’s an old saw about parties filled with retired Admirals and former CEOs that probably didn’t happen nearly as often as the story suggests.

The way this worked (and indeed still does in the current Mongoose edition) was that you’d start with the aforementioned 18 year old yokel, who would then go through a number of 4-year terms in one or more services such as the Navy, merchant marine or whatever. You had to roll to re-enlist, but sometimes you’d be forced to re-enlist. During a given term you would get an extra skill point or two, and could also get promoted or even killed, which was made optional or watered down to “injured” in later editions. This whole arrangement made Traveller character creation sort of a minigame in its own right, that might have been tedious save that it took only a few minutes to play through the whole thing, rolls and all — and as a result you could knock out a replacement character for one who just got killed in play very, very quickly.

One thing such a replacement character would not suffer from is being terribly behind the rest of the group in terms of power. In Traveller your options for increasing your mechanically-represented abilities like stats and skills were very limited, demanding a considerable investment in both money and time. When you exited the character creation process those ratings were, more or less, how they would be for the rest of your time in the game, and your character’s progress would largely be financial or in terms of intangibles like contacts and in-game accomplishments. This excised the easy hook of character levels or even skill rating as a measure of accomplishment, but it was also kind of liberating to not have to worry about those metagame constructs while you were playing. Comparatively few other RPGs in any medium ever adopted this particular strategy, and even later editions of Traveller would get away from it to a greater or lesser extent.

Traveller has a complicated history in terms of both publication and mechanics, and that’s something I may get into in future posts. But the current go-to edition is a licensed version from Mongoose that hearkens back to the Classic era rules (and setting) in many respects. It pulls bits and pieces from later editions but is very nearly as simple and elegant as the Classic rules, and it’s where I would point people interested in running Traveller these days.

Vanguard, Skyrim and EVE

Ad astra per aspera, I said in the last posts comments, so it’s fitting that we now move the discussion from fantasy sandboxes to the stars – from Vanguard, considered by many a failure as a game, a sandbox and an MMO, to MMO gaming’s most successful sandbox, EVE Online.

Every fantasy MMO is based on Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that was in turn influenced by D&D, including Ultima Online, a title lambasted for its problems in its heyday but now held up as a suspicuouly rosy sandbox icon. Like Vanguard, EVE is a game I love but have deep issues with, and unlike Vanguard has a history of growth and prosperity despite a rocky beginning. But EVE, too, has its lessons to be learned from Skyrim.

That EVE is the most successful sandbox in the virtual world space cannot be disputed; it has true emergent gameplay and a near-infinite variety of ways one can approach its gameplay. But it does have its failures, both in the banal nature of much of the gameplay and in its failure to provide immersive elements.

By that, do not misunderstand me; EVE is very immersive as MMOs go and more so that most. But the universe of EVE is only minimally interactable: asteroids are depleted and wormholes are closed by player action, and the market is shaped almost entirely by in-game activities, but it’s only in this last aspect that it truly fulfills the potential of the virtual world. NPCs are static photos that never change or move. Stations are great monolithic that are only destroyed in videos that don’t reflect gameplay. Players can build and destroy structures, but is that alone such a huge step up from copper nodes in Elwynn Forest that despawn when you deplete them?

Tabletop games have a unique asset that video games lack: a human gamemaster to administer the universe and react to events. Computers aren’t there yet, but a game like Skyrim shows me that a convincing simulated environment isn’t so far away as many of us think; Skyrim has its glitches but it’s pretty freaking close. It’s something few MMOs even attempt anymore.

The developers of EVE had the notion that you should be able to get out of your ship and interact with more stuff. In practice that turned out to be fairly half-baked, to be honest, and longtime EVE players rallied against it when it seemed to be competing for developer time against the core gameplay. EVE is balanced around that core gameplay, and taking too many players out of a vast space much of which is already empty would be very, very dangerous. So the solution was to minimize the appeal of off-ship activity and shunt the more exciting stuff off to a different game, Dust 514. The goal of integrating EVE and Dust is pretty audacious, but more ambitious still would be a game with a smaller space but more room for characters to operate within it. And you can’t subtract space; EVE players would throw a justified fit.

As with Vanguard this is a failure in fundamental design, one that probably cannot be addressed with ad hoc later development. You’d have to design the game around a mixture of starship and off-board operations from the get go. And no, Star Trek Online, a game that incredibly fails in more places than EVE and Vanguard combined, did not succeed in doing that, and in my opinion didn’t try very hard to.

This is ironic because EVE is one of the few games not defined by its adherence to the D&D paradigm that conventional MMOs almost invariably follow fairly closely through a long lineage of adaptations onto silicon. EVE descends from Elite and thence from Traveller, a game designed by people who didn’t know all that much about D&D but were well-schooled in the possibilities of science fiction, and who had been blown away by Star Wars a year earlier.

The irony cuts deep because Traveller is very much a sandbox game from thirty years before that term was ever applied to video games. Instead of D&D’s structured, linear adventures and campaigns you had tools to develop a universe and set the characters loose in it. You could run a sandbox using D&D, but that was never the expectation. In Traveller, even the adventures forced you into a sandbox.

EVE – Traveller‘s descendant in the modern realm of online virtual worlds – got a good chunk about what Traveller was all bout right, but it left out two-thirds of the possibilities. The Traveller party would never spend all their time in their ship; it was a home base and a huge asset but also a source of tribulations and difficulties. It’s hard to imagine how an EVE where you might lose a ship and be stranded doing odd jobs on some backwater planet and have to work your way back up to one might even work – in Traveller it was a common adventure hook, and getting a ship and the freedom to roam the stars – or plunder them – that came with it was a major goal.

It might be tempting to think of such an MMO as two discreet games bolted roughly together, as Star Trek Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are, although one would hope that one of the faces wouldn’t be quite so gallingly weak. But even two games in one that were equally good would be a failure to really reach for the stars. No, you’d want seamless integration between the two in a setting specifically designed to encourage it – one much like the rough implied Imperium presented in the Little Black Books in 1977.

Making such a setting truly interactable would be a huge challenge. It would be a setting with all the possibilities of an EVE combined with the possibilities of the other two-thirds that never saw development. Vast planets, although not necessarily a vast volume of space with thousands of stars that would spread players too thin. A single subsector, eight by ten parsecs, would be enough to start, and you could accommodate thousands of players in all the nooks and crannies of its worlds and asteroid belts and starport dives. You’d have to be clever about populating it with NPCs, alien critters and AI starships, since the simulation cannot be even close to perfect, and you’d have to be very careful the let both the player and NPC parts of the universe evolve on their own, organically and synergistically with as little manual moderation as possible. But clever design can hide a lot of soft underbelly, and Skyrim makes me think it’s possible.

As much as I talk about fantasy MMOs, that there is my dream title. Traveller Online, and a lot of the guts that you would need are already there in 34 years of lovingly developed tabletop product; algorithms for procedurally generating worlds and stars and ships and guns and freaky alien stuff. Sure the science in it was stale as hell even in 1977, but popular science fiction (as opposed to SF in the written word) hasn’t really evolved that much since the days of Flash and Buck.

It could be done. To the stars, my friends, along a rough road.