Theodore Beale interviewed Marc Miller, the co-founder of Game Designer’s Workshop and designer of the Traveller science fiction role-playing game, for Black Gate on April 21st, 2010. For the previous part, read Part I of II.
MM: Well, first of all, when Dungeons & Dragons appeared, it revolutionized everything. It changed everything. We had to make our own formal rule that you couldn’t play during the workday because everybody was playing and nobody was working. This was 1975 or 1976. We all understood it immediately. Frank Chadwick did En Garde! in 1975. It was an alternative system and Gary Gygax really liked it because it was not a copy of Dungeons & Dragons. It was real role-playing without being a D&D imitation. I frankly sat down with D&D, looked at it, and said, there is no space game out there like this and we should do it. I set about doing that. I spent close to a year just thinking about what it would be like, and as you noticed, what I came up with was a character generation that is totally derived from what the military does. Here’s an army, here’s a navy, here’s space marines, and here’s how you generate characters. We just went from there.
TB: Traveller is obviously the game that you think of when you think about space and science fiction role-playing. But it never reached the level of cultural consciousness that AD&D did. For some reason, despite the fact that there is a fair amount of space and science fiction out there, we haven’t seen Traveller make the leap into the mainstream the way some other science fiction stuff has. How do you explain that?
I think that Dungeons & Dragons really captured this sense of the fantastic for what people could do. And there is basically one fantasy realm in which people play, as opposed to 100 science fiction concepts. The generic Lord of the Rings concept is, in one form or another, what most fantasy is about. The fantasy settings that range outside of that, they’re esoteric. I think that Traveller didn’t make the leap because Traveller tended to facilitate a solitary pursuit of the game. Although it wasn’t billed as solitaire, there were so many things that people could do alone that it was very popular with people who ended up doing a lot of things alone and preparing to play without actually playing.
I did a lot of that myself. I was fortunate in having one friend who would play it with me, but I spent a lot more time reading the books, going through the system, and spending more time preparing than actually playing.
With Traveller, as a designer, I had a hard time coming to grips with telling people “this is how it works.” As a result, Traveller was a lot about giving people tools to do anything they wanted. Not here’s a list of the fourteen worlds in our universe and here they are, no, here’s how to create a million worlds. You create them and deal with what you created. It was telling them how to create a million beasts to encounter instead of me saying that this world has Blink Dogs and this other world has Octopuppies.
Looking back on it from the perspective of a computer game designer, it seems rather apparent that whereas AD&D and some later RPGs such as Vampire: The Masquerade and so forth, those were more like the Unreal, the Quake, the actual games, whereas Traveller was more similar to SSI’s Wargame Construction Set or perhaps Little Big Planet.
Oh, absolutely… absolutely! There was a review, a very early review, the first review of Traveller I saw, and it consisted of the reviewer saying “this is great, but I won’t play an RPG that won’t give me scenarios and tell me the background.” And the editor inserted his own editorial comment saying “And I won’t play a game that forces me to play in a certain background.” So, I had to deal with different consumer attitudes in literally the same review. But we soon found that there was a demand for the background. We wanted Traveller, naively, I think, to be all things to all people. We wanted to address all possible science fiction situations and we very soon found that wasn’t possible. So, we started building our own background because people wanted to know more about it. That was one of the fun parts about it, because every time we turned around, somebody wanted to know some other thing, some other piece of information. So we had to start logicking out what people wanted to learn.
I’m a Classic Traveller fan, but let’s talk about Megatraveller, New Era, and some of the various reinventions. It seems Traveller has had more reincarnations than Star Trek.
What other role-playing game has three editions currently in print? There’s GURPS Traveller, there’s Mongoose Traveller, and there is the reprint version of Classic Traveller. The other versions are still selling nicely on Ebay all the time. Classic Traveller was this first run, this draft, so to speak. It just came together very well. It lasted a long time. So, almost ten years later, when we came out with the next edition that was Megatraveller, we were implementing all of the understandings we had learned and worked around all the kinks that had come up along the way. We implemented tasks, which I think was a major innovation and at the same time we introduced the Rebellion. And again, we didn’t please everybody, some people didn’t like that. New Era was forced by the company being in trouble and not having the resources to manage the many role-playing games that we had. GDW had Twilight 2000 and it had Traveller and it was difficult for them to adequately manage all of the rules operations that were going on. So, they tried to fold Traveller into the Twilight 2000 rules system. At the same time, they tried to move Traveller forward out of the Rebellion and into a new era that was supposed to be chaotic. Frankly, GDW always tried to create chaotic situations which provide the player a lot of opportunities to do many things. And then immediately started moving that chaos towards order, it was one of the problems with Twilight 2000. We created the devastation after WWIII and then immediately started repairing the damage as opposed to enhancing the chaos so people had more opportunities to adventure. I think the same thing happened with New Era.
One of the things I found fascinating about Traveller are some of the ancillary wargames designed around it. Fifth Frontier War, Azhanti High Lightning… the scale of the games is remarkable.
Thank you. We always felt that instead of telling somebody this is the course of history, we wanted to give them tools to work it out. That was what Fifth Frontier War was about, that’s what Invasion Earth was supposed to be about. Some of the smaller games, Mayday and Snapshot, were meant to be little toolkits to resolve battles in Traveller. We were aware that a lot of people just liked to fight out little skirmishes and do things that were not necessarily role-playing. Our roots were wargaming, we liked wargaming, we liked not necessarily knowing why we were having this space battle but fighting it out anyway. That’s what those games reflected.
I’ve set up Fifth Frontier War several times but I’ve never actually played it. My goal is to get the VASSAL module completed so that I can actually play it for once in my life. John O’Neill and I were discussing it over email and one day we are going to play that beast. But that’s the past. Tell us about the future.
We’re currently working on T5, the fifth edition of Traveller. It’s supposed to be the ultimate, the be all and end all. In a sense all of this stuff we have done for the past 30 years is playtesting on a fine scale and on a gross scale, and all of that activity has been lessons that have helped us structure what we’re finally doing. Let me give you one example. Fire, Fusion and Steel was this vast attempt to show how to use the laws of physics and design rules to create anything you want in the way of equipment. The rules are wonderful reference material, but they don’t give much guidance and they have proven to be less effective than they should be in creating equipment and weapons that we want to use. In Traveller 5, we have thrown that all aside in favor of a series of what we call Makers. We have a Vehicle Maker, a Gun Maker, even a Knife Maker. They are tables to roll on, or to pick from, that end up giving you a wide variety of possible weapons and equipment, that do a wide variety of possible things.
It sounds like 76 Patrons.
That was a lot of patrons, but in that case each patron stood alone. Here’s the difference. Classic Traveller has this advanced combat rifle which is what a lot of soldiers carry. In T5, by looking at how you can customize it, we end up with 82 different varieties of Advanced Combat Rifle depending upon which choices you make, each of which has some benefit, or detriment, with regards to the others.
I don’t think you’ll have much trouble explaining that concept to anyone who plays Modern Warfare 2 and agonizes over the Bling Pro options. So, when is T5 scheduled for release?
So, the people with whom I am working tell me that I can’t say anything about when T5 is coming out because giving timetables doesn’t work. It’s basically in beta, we have a disc of about 550 pages of everything you need to know about making this work in people’s hands now. It’s incomplete, but it’s workable and we are going through and fixing every little detail that need to be fixed, and revising all the things that don’t work as well as they should. That text will support anyone who wants to play Traveller. It covers everything that you saw in Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and the other systems. It’s meant to be a support text for adventures which become rules-independent. So often you read adventures and they start telling you rules in the middle of the adventure to cover things that hadn’t been thought of in the construction of the original rules. We’re really working at making this cover most all of the situations that you’ll need so that you’ll be able to play an adventure without having to have the rules written into it.
What are you looking at doing for the storyline? Earlier, you were saying that some of the reasons Traveller didn’t fly as high as it might have before was because the story elements were not as rigid as was the case in the more successful RPG systems. Is that something you’re looking at addressing as well?
Certainly we are. We have something we call the Epic Adventure system. It’s not complex, but it’s too complex to get into detail here. Here’s how it works. It gives you a series of stages or episodes that have to be resolved. When you have completed your quota of those episodes, you have enough information to do the final resolution of the adventure. It’s possible to play two or three of these adventures at the same time, doing an episode from this one and an episode from that one, and only when you reach the point that you have all of the information you need in order to resolve everything, does the referee carry you into the final resolution. But the players don’t necessarily know that this encounter is involved in Adventure One or Adventure Two.
All they know is that they have to go and collect 15 wolf pelts?
Yes, yes, yes… I think so often that’s what people have to do. It’s so arbitrary, you have to go out and collect 15 wolf pelts. But the example I give is to imagine the solar system, a classic pulp science fiction solar system, and you have to go to the solar power fields of Mercury because the referee knows you have to get something there. If you’re a naval crew, your ship is sent there. If you’re a trader, you have a contract to go there. If you’re a soldier, your orders take you there. You’re under the thumb of the referee who guides you because he is assumed to be competent. So, you do these three or four tasks, visiting Mars, Mercury, Venus and whatever, and once you have completed those things, you are ready to go to the middle game where you have things you have to resolve. And by the time you’ve done that, you have every piece of equipment, every piece of knowledge, every fact that you need to now find the secret jump drive research base that’s going to invent jump drive and you have all the clues that will help them get past the scientific impasse. You participate in that final leap to the stars. But how you get there is resolved by the referee. The adventure is essentially rules-independent, you could play it with Classic Traveller, Megatraveller, or Traveller 5 rules. Traveller 5 is the ideal one because it provides the most detail, but the point is that the adventure is full of adventure and background information for the adventure, not rules. We think it’s exciting because it really enables people to play, and that’s what we want people to do, to play.
Let’s close with what you’re doing on the digital front.
Twenty years ago, on an Apple II, I created a little text-interface adventure game for Traveller. We had material which would generate sectors and all the star systems in them, and this was a little navigator which would show you which stars you could jump to. When you’d get to a star, it would look at the trade goods you could buy, sell, and make a profit on, and all you did was cruise around on a star map from Traveller. It occupied me for days at a time, I found it compelling. I’m working with a guy who has done the same thing independently, so we think that would be a compelling game. Just trading probably isn’t enough, but we’re adding all the various elements that will make an interesting starship role-playing game. It’s not oriented towards characters, but a ship. We envision a Facebook game starting where you’ll get an email from your friend which says, “Your friend Rob has given you a starship.” You get a starship loaded with fuel, a cargo which you can sell, and it’s all controlled by the conceptual rules of Traveller.
Will it be a Traveller-branded game?
Absolutely. We see it working with several parallel modules. A space trader game, an explorer game, an asteroid mining game, a space courier game. There’s much more to it than I’m describing here, but the important thing is that it will provide you with the ability to have adventures, conflict, and partnerships with other people.