Traveller 5 review: second impressions

As I keep reading the new Traveller 5 rules, I am becoming more and more impressed with them.

The underlying mechanics – roll under a target number (often Characteristic + Skill) on a number of 6-sided dice representing difficulty – is simple and intuitive. What’s more, the system is highly structured and designed to work with the same mechanic. Want to shoot something? The number of dice you roll is the range band of your target. You get a bonus to your target number (Characteristic + Skill, of course) equal to Range – Target Size. Everything is classified, everything is harmonious. It’s an elegant system.

I’m also coming to the conclusion that I’m bang in the middle of the target audience for this edition: a committed Traveller player who left the fold with the Traveller: New Era debacle. Traveller 4 didn’t do enough to bring me back; GURPS Traveller was fun, and remains a favourite incarnation, but lacked the full Traveller spark; and Mongoose Traveller seemed somewhat regressive.

To give an idea of the commitment to each incarnation of Trav, I own pretty much all the GDW publications from the Classic Trav era, though I’m missing a number of JTAS volumes and have none of the board games (Fifth Frontier War, Azhanti High Lightning, etc). I have Beltstrike and Tarsus. I have Striker. I’ve most of the Megatraveller material from GDW and DGP. I own a TNE rulebook, which has never seen action, and a copy of Brilliant Lances, likewise unused, an unused copy of the T4 rulebook, a couple of T4 background books (First Survey. Regency), a copy of T20, and Traveler Hero, the Mongoose rulebook, with a lot of the supplements in PDF form, and I have everything published for GURPS: Traveller.

In other words, I committed to Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and GURPS Traveller, but other versions left me rather cold.

My favourite incarnation of Traveller was Megatraveller, which I’ve stuck to, on and off, for the last 25 years, with frequent forays into GURPS Traveller since that came out. I like Megatraveller for a couple of reasons: a unified task system, logical tactical combat and design sequences that let me build vehicles as well as ships, and use them in combat, as part of the core rules. It was complete.

Traveller 5 does that and more with (so far) far fewer errata issues than Megatraveller.

While combat is simpler than earlier editions, it can be an all-or-nothing affair, particularly when it comes to NPCs. This is, I assume, intended to cut down GM paperwork. For example, to put an NPC out of action, you need to do 10+ hits in one shot; fewer means the NPC functions at full capacity; if he’s wearing Cloth armour (AV 14), this means doing 24+ points with one shot; good luck doing that with your Bullet-3 magnum revolver or Gauss Carbine – and even a Bullet-5 Advanced Battle Rifle will struggle (the odds are 5.88%). Since armour, once penetrated, becomes ineffective for the rest of the ‘situation’, a second shot will usually take the NPC down. By the way, for the uninitiated, Traveller’s cloth armour is ballistic (bulletproof) cloth, something akin to Kevlar. A woolly jumper or Jayne’s hat won’t protect you from gunfire.

Will it attract new players to Traveller? I don’t know, but it may have an uphill  struggle. I took my copy of the rules to the Gulf Roleplaying Community’s minicon last Friday and non-Traveller players were not just unimpressed, they were intimidated by the size of the book and its stark cover. ‘It looks like a textbook’ was one complaint.

But those like me who played Traveller in the past have been almost universally intrigued by the new edition. Several friends have mentioned they’re very interested in getting a copy.

There’s a lot of criticism of the new rules in blogs and the like, most of which seem to focus around its size, its organisation (or lack of it) and the errata.

I think the errata is a pretty minor issue. Most errors identified so far are simple grammatical errors which don’t affect playability at all. Actual mistakes in rules or tables are much rarer – not non-existent, but nowhere near as bad as you’d think reading some reviews. Don’t believe me? Check out the errata document on the T5 thread at the Citizens of the Imperium forum.

Size? Well, although T5 is physically bigger than Pathfinder Core I suspect its word count is lower. Point size is bigger, and an awful lot of space is given to charts codifying certain aspects of the rules – if you have the PDF you can print these out and run a session from them.

Furthermore, much of the content is intended for use away from the gaming table. Gun, armour, vehicle and ship designs are not intended for use in play. Traveller’s always had a certain solo appeal – even in the days of the little black books it was fun to create characters, design ships, create worlds or indulge in trade and speculation. These elements will scratch that itch.

In fact I’ll have to use them: there are some sample weapons and armour, but none of the standard Traveller vehicles or ships are pre-designed. That’s a little frustrating, but at least it will get me using the makers.

Complaints about Traveller 5’s organisation are more valid, I think. Certainly, it desperately needs an index. And much of the benchmarks chapter, including dice probability charts, that occupy the front of the book could have gone into an appendix. Traveller 5 is an excellent, elegant system, but the best that can be said of the organisation is that it doesn’t help you use it (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it actively hinders use of the system). But what’s done is done. For me, it’s not a deal breaker. The organisational quirks continue with the PDF as well – it isn’t bookmarked, which I find annoying) but, as well as the full rules, an html index page links to each chapter, chart and section, all of which come on the CD as separate PDFs. Why? Fortunately, Marc hasn’t locked the PDF, so it’s a fairly easy matter to create my own bookmarks since I own a decent PDF editor (Nitro Pro).

Enough of rules and rulebooks. Traveller 5 introduces some new setting material as well.

Perhaps the most notable is that, while the Imperium’s maximum tech level is still 15, the various charts go up to TL-33, after which societies go through a technological singularity; brief rules for this are provided).

This means that Jump-6 is no longer the best available, though as a TL-15 development it remains the best commercially available in the Third Imperium. In fact, jump can go as high as 9, after which it’s superceded by the Hop drive (10-90 parsecs range), the Skip Drive (100-900 parsecs) and more advanced drives. With the rules on experimental and prototype items, there’s a strong implication the Imperium could have top-secret experimental ships capable of better than Jump-6 – in fact, it’s capable of early Jump-7, prototype Jump-8 and experimental Jump-9, as well as experimental Hop-1.

Jump itself is investigated a little more thoroughly. As well as a picture of what jumpspace looks like, there’s a discussion of several ways of creating a jump field, including the jump bubble, jump plates and a jump grid, each of which has its own pros and cons. The last time I recall anything in that much detail was in an old JTAS from the Classic Trav days.

Another variant is Oversize and Titan armours. These special forms of Battle Dress are double and triple the size of standard armour respectively, and can carry oversize weapons to match. The Titan Battle Dress is pretty much a mecha.

Psionic training is handled in much more detail than CT or MT; characters now go through 5 stages of training, from testing through to master. Interestingly, at the fourth stage, a player must choose his character’s personality: order or chaos, good or evil (or neutral on both axes). Yes, that’s the D&D alignment system. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, beyond the fact that it amuses me.

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