Interview: Jason Morningstar on Traveller

Jason Morningstar posted on a Story Games thread about things he learned playing Traveller in his youth and I immediately sent him an e-mail:

Now I really want to get the story of how Traveller taught you kinematics, stock market and planetary science. Were you gaming with scientists and economists?

GDW’s Traveller was published in 1977. If you were a gamer in 1977 you had access to crappily-produced games like Dungeons & Dragons that looked like zines assembled by slightly deranged high school students. The art alternated between pervy and terrible. In contrast, in the same format (a digest-sized box with three books) Traveller was professionally laid out and edited and had made a few passes through a Linotype machine. The text was crisp and clear, sans serif, in an austere black box. There was no art, because art was for people who were not serious. It was revelatory and awesome, and just looking at it made you want to be a better player.

And then reading the actual text – the actual well-edited, concise, well-written text – was even more eye-opening. Marc Miller, Traveller’s designer, is a decorated Army Captain and the game reflects his experience and influences. In many ways it is a game about service, even though the core activities of many traveller PCs are grey market tramping, piracy and mayhem. A tired joke about Traveller is that you can die during character creation. This is completely true. As a guy who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam no doubt knows intimately, it is also true in real life.

I mentioned that it was serious in tone, and that is reflected in every corner of the design. There is an assumption of realism throughout, even though the gloss is space fantasy. This realism extends to space travel, which is relativistic until the hand-wavey FTL kicks in (and even that is reined in by hard and fascinating limits). It also extends to planet and system design and fighting, on every scale from the shoving match to cracking planets in half. You can compare this approach to, say, 1976’s Metamorphasis Alpha, just to see the gulf in design approaches. Traveller doesn’t always succeed but at least it tries. It is serious.

As an elegant adjunct to this, the game relies on the majestic 2d6 bell curve for pretty much everything. You don’t need a Crown Royal bag full of special dice that look like an elf’s magic jewels to play Traveller, no sir. You need randomizers, six-sided, quantity two. That and a thorough grasp on the metric system and you are good to go. Traveller taught me the metric system and, of course, the 24 hour clock.

Perhaps the most unappreciated piece of Traveller is the setting, which is presented in media res as a living thing, and with the lightest of touches. There’s an Imperium, which rides herd over a loose coalition of semi-autonomous regions of space. There are the military services which define the Imperium. There’s a name tossed out very occasionally – a planet here, an Emperor there. And that is about it. If you come late to the traveller party (and by late I mean after 1979 and the game’s second supplement, High Guard) you may be confused by this, because a crushing history and metaplot second only to Glorantha has subsequently developed. It is roundly stupid and sad, because the first little black books straight-up told you to make your own damn universe.

Which me and my brother dutifully did. We couldn’t afford any additional books anyway. We made our own Imperium in our own universe and it was a fantastic place full of danger and adventure, precisely calibrated to our interests, enthusiasms, and attention spans. We made up characters until a merchant mustered out with a heavily-mortgaged ship, no small task. That ship became our home away from home, and keeping her solvent and operational was the alpha and omega of our game play. Mortgaged? Yes, for 40 years. Playing Traveller introduced me to the concept.

One of my brother’s friends, flush from a job-related in-game windfall, suggested we go into commodity trading. There weren’t any rules for that, per se, but we all agreed that if we could do it on Earth they must do it in the free market future of Traveller. So we traded commodities, using actual products and actual firms and actual stock market data, pulled at each game session from that day’s newspaper. Playing Traveller introduced me to the concept (and also the concept of losing money in the stock market). Our ship tooled around on a semi-profitable trade route we had built. Occasionally we were beset by pirates, which is how I learned about applied kinematics and the intricacies of delta-V. Traveller taught me that. It taught me how lasers work, and how to foil them with sand. Planetary science, how atmospheres work, gas compositions and why some were better than others to breathe, how to get fuel from a gas giant, hell, what a gas giant was. Traveller, Traveller, Traveller. It was, for tiny me, extremely hardcore.

Your game was so adult with mortgages and investments. I am really fascinated by how the book’s lay-out inspired you to take the game seriously. Are you looking at your lay-out choices for Bully Pulpit with those kinds of eyes when a game is coming together, thinking to yourself, What does this inspire a reader to do with it?

Regarding Traveller’s book design, I think it was influential in a subtle way to me – it demonstrated that digest sized could be a genuinely cool format. Compact, succinct, easy to handle and reference, easy to use and browse. Digest and trade formats were more or less abandoned until small press publishers reclaimed them many years later, and I think that’s fantastic. Maybe it also taught me something about how to present information in a way that communicates both rules and tone, but that’s more of a stretch.

You wrote:
“We made up characters until a merchant mustered out with a heavily-mortgaged ship, no small task

Do you happen to remember that ship’s name?

Thinking back on it, I don’t think our ship *had* a name. Why
would it need a name? It was our ship! I remember one very bad day when we were boarded by pirates, and we fought them off in the corridors of our ship, the ship we were working so hard to keep from being repossessed by the space bank. In the end there was one pirate who survived, and we had him duct taped to a chair, and we put him in an airlock and cycled it without a second thought. I remember being viscerally livid, just furious, and that horrible execution seemed like justice. We loved our ship. I was like ten years old.

How does one get fuel from a gas giant?

Traveller Jump Drives use hydrogen, so it is possible with the right equipment to skim the atmosphere of an appropriate gas giant to top off your tanks with unrefined l-hyd. Gas giants are so important to the Traveller universe that “presence of nearby gas giant” gets its own letter in the Universal World Profile.

Did one of you GM or did you take turns?

My brother, who is four years older than me, was our GM. I didn’t start GMing until I started playing with my own peer group some years later – with Traveller I was the punk kid among my much-cooler elders.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Jason.

This design and more in the Science Fiction Collection…

3 thoughts on “Interview: Jason Morningstar on Traveller

  1. Wow – so much like my exeriences back in ’79-’83. Playing Traveller and reading Niven, Asimov, Clarke, Haldeman and Clement really gave me a solid foundation in science. Building Traveller ships, and designing fleets for Billion/Trillion Credit Squadron also taught basic geometry and algebra. Made making Champions characters a cinch later on…

  2. Pingback: Latest Bundle of Holding: Traveller PDF | The Githyanki Diaspora

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