Traveller and Film Noir

March 2, 2011

I wrote this to one of the players in our campaign. (hey we like to talk that is one of the reasons we play the game!) It summarizes the tone of the Classic Traveller milieu as I see it. Obviously, others may not see things the same way I do. The adventures I have put together have this tone.

Traveller is a different kind of RPG. Many RPGs assume the characters are at the center of the action and that their story is primary. In Lord of the Rings as a literary parallel, the Fellowship’s actions and omissions shape the primary arc of the story. Yes there is a War of The Ring going on, but what really matters is the little Hobbits throwing the damn ring away.

The Classic Traveller milieu’s point of view is different. The players are “travelling” — i.e. making their way through — a universe which is much larger than they and in which they are not that significant. There is a film noir quality about it. Traveller is closer to Casablanca or the Maltese Falcon than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Rick says at the end of Casablanca “It’s easy to see that the problems of three little people don’t add up to a hill of beans in this world.” He does that while making a personal sacrifice that keeps one key Resistance leader in the fight against fascism. This juxtaposition of apparent powerlessness and small but effective application of purposeful action makes the story a good one and a big one.

The CT milieu assumes forces beyond one’s control that have to be weathered or managed or borne. It also assumes that the progressive discovery of those forces is the primary thread that holds the macro story together regardless of the tactical situations presented to the characters. The unfolding of the world and the progressive understanding of it IS character progression, not the accumulation of skills, stuff or cash. It is the journey not the destination.

Many people have had and still have a problem with that view. To some extent, the various versions of Traveller have wrestled with that frame of reference. MegaTraveller shook that view by assassinating the Emperor Strephon in 1117 and breaking the Imperium up into a Civil War of massive proportions. Why? to change the milieu so that players could reasonably be at the center of bigger and arguably more interesting events – leading fleets or invading planets.

The follow on version — Traveller: The New Era (or TNE) — infected all computer systems in the Imperium with an artificial intelligence virus (think Skynet) that yielded the mass destruction of computing and technological power throwing many planets back to pre-computer tech levels. Again, this version created a more human scaled world and a main story line of crusade in a Terminator-esque war against the machine. It demanded more human levels of technology and much more local adventures. It was akin to the world of the 5th and 6th centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire and like the dark future world of Twilight 2000 where everything was falling apart.

Subsequent versions have handled things differently too. One assumes an alternate non-assassination time line, one sets the action back to the founding of the Third Imperium a thousand years before we are playing. In effect, each creates a central mode in which adventures are hung. People choose to play in one that they like.

I like film noir. What can I say?

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