So, the game group was off on travel, or other things, this week, so I dropped in on the local gaming Meetup here in Albuquerque. They were playtesting Traveler, the “ultimate edition” or “5th edition.” Sounded good — I liked Traveler back in the day, had a lot of the wee black books, and it was our sci-fi mainstay through the ’80s.
There were other sci-fi games that hit the shelves in the first big RPG wave: Star Frontiers, which was D&D’s d20 but with aliens; there was Universe — which had a gorgeous star map and not much else; and the execrable Space Opera, which along with the original The Morrow Project, remain my benchmarks for unplayability. Traveler really was the only game in town through most of the ’80s. The system mechanic was simple tests had a base 7 or lower, with mods, rolled on two dice. That was it. It was hard-ish science fiction, you could get dead quickly — so quickly, in fact, that your character could die in character creation.
There are a lot of died-in-the-wool Traveler fans who like this. It’s still as stupid as it sounds.
Traveler got the GDW treatment in the late ’80s with Megatraveler and Traveler: 2300, which was Twillight: 2000 in space! There was a reprint of the original rules in the ’90s. There was the d20 3.5 edition version Mongoose put out. Now there’s The Ultimate Edition! by Marc Miller himself!
My first whiff of trouble was when the guy running it mentioned the book was 650+ pages. The original rules were something like 70. Worse, he told us that on the game’s forums you weren’t allow to say “it wasn’t a game…” What the hell did that mean? We found out quickly. A quick perusal of the table of contents shows the “characters & life” chapter to be 140 pages long. There are entire — good! — games with a core book that long. Combat is 96 pages. Ninety. Six. To be fair, only 24 pages of that is actual rules; the rest is a mind-numbing collection of charts and rules for making just about everything.
We decided to do a short run from one world to another in our trading vessel. Time to buy some cargo and get passengers. This took 20 minutes (no role playing, 20 minutes of chart checking), 3 charts, and a fucking calculator. I wasn’t in as bad a shape as the other players, as I remembered the world rating scheme (eHex, Miller calls it now.) well enough to remember where the tech ratings, etc. were.
So the night be fore we shipped out, we decided to hit the bar for drinks and the inevitable barfight. A throw beer bottle injured one of the characters, then we had 20 minutes of talking about the new Captain America: Civil War while the guy tried to decipher the rules for a simple punch up. Everything is based on range in T5, and you get the number of dice for a test on the range increments. 2d6 seems to be the standard for most tests, rolling below the attribute and skill. Fair enough.
But for fisticuffs, it’s a straight attribute+skill minus the other guy’s to get the base number to hit. With normal mundane guys packing 7 for stats and nothing else, we found we could literally not punch a guy, and the one character could not, under any circumstances be hit physically. If they backed off and lazed his ass, sure, but apparently, no one bruises their knuckled in the Third Imperium. It was the single worst set of mechanics I’ve seen since, well, Space Opera. (That’s not fair…we could never finish character creation in Space Opera. Just in case you haven’t pick up on the subtlety: Space Opera is one of the worst games ever committed to paper.) The entire combat system seemed to assume you would shoot each other.
So, deciding that after 30 minutes of close dancing with the yokels would lead to terminal boredom, we shipped out. Well, tried. We have to jump three sectors, so that’s three dice to roll, but one of them is a “fate” dice, or something similar. The GM rolls it and keeps it secret to work against your roll. So the navigator rolls against his 15 in attributes and skills, and rolls a 10. In any other game, a success by five’s pretty good…but the GM rolled a six, so we were hosed. We could “recalculate” our results, which we were informed takes 24 hours, and would require him to roll three dice (so it would be harder than the initial roll.)
One of the players pointed out that this was similar to debugging code, yadda yadda, and was realistic. I pointed out my iPhone has enough computational power to do orbital mechanics in a few minutes. Why recalculate asked another player. We could get drunk for 24 hours and just start from scratch easier.
We decided to just forgo space combat tests at this point, as we had wasted two hours of our lives. In short, this was one of the worst gaming experiences I’ve ever had — the system was absolute dogshit. The mechanics looked almost like some sexagenarian Grognard decided that all this playability and focus of story and characters in recent game design was missing the point of gaming — charts, you see, charts! are the centerpiece of a good game. And who wants to be able to just roll dice and know what happened? It’s so much better when you need to rent time on the local supercomputer to hash out if your character died before you started playing it.
Traveler 5 is one of the worst bits of game design I’ve ever seen. There’s no design cohesion from one section to the next, and the entire point seems to be to wring the last chance of fun out of play. I don’t seem to be the only one saying this, either.
Style: 2 out of 5 — it’s all black and white, save a few glossy pages, and is dense typeface. Substance: 4 out of 5…if you love charts and dense mechanics that are difference for every situation, otherwise it’s 2 for the utter lack of playability. It’s the Space Opera of the 21st Century.
Is it worth it? Not just no, but fuck no. Go buy the old black books and have fun.