What Does Traveller Mean to Me?

[Essay sent to Marc Miller, 29/08/2020]

What Does Traveller Mean to Me?

Well, it's the hex grid.

(Let me try to explain.)

I've been thinking about this question more over the last few years, and I think it finally gelled due to two things: Greyhawk versus the Forgotten Realms, and Tom Baker.

Why did I like Greyhawk more than the Realms? I mean, the Realms is fine; it has a rich background, lots of reasonably interesting characters, and an interwoven history. But Greyhawk has all that, too. So what's the difference?


The Realms has much better cartography: it's maps are drawn very well, and have a realistic sense to them. But for me at least, it just seems... more lifeless. I don't care as much as I ought. In contrast, the map of Greyhawk is on... a hex grid! Its mountains, hills, forests, and oceans fall neatly into hexes, with no "colouring outside the lines". It's cartoonish, but in a good sense. The rich history is superimposed on this "map", almost with a wink at the audience as if to say, "don't take it all too seriously". This is after all, a game; it's something to be played with and enjoyed. And somehow, when I return to Greyhawk, it has the warmth of an old friend who's dropped in for tea, cake, and a chat.

It just seems more fun.

And Tom? Well, recently I saw old footage of Tom Baker being interviewed about Dr Who by an entire class of Australian school students, unearthed from the ABC TV archives. He answers all their questions and says yes, you're right. The stories can be scary. The monsters can make you want to hide behind your lounge chair. But... it's melodrama! The baddies can't shoot straight. The Bad Guy says, "I'm going to kill you, Doctor — but not just yet!" And then you get to escape, and the baddies all miss. And you trip over your scarf — or the baddies do — and you win again.

How on Terra does this relate to Traveller (this is about Traveller, right?)?

In the Official Traveller Universe, we see before us a huge stage, drawn across hundreds of parsecs and thousands of years. There is a rich, detailed history and a tapestry of interesting characters. Furthermore, you can even make your own! There are all sort of mini-games included: character generation, vehicle design, starship construction, even the creation of entire star systems — all out of the box! You can run a game at all sorts of levels and with all kinds of tropes, ranging from a single tramp freighter, to an exploratory scout, to star-mercs waging mini-wars, to a political campaign with the nobility, right up to meeting the Emperor himself! It all depends on what you want. Your characters can have agency at all sorts of levels.

But here's the secret: it's all based on a hex grid!

After all, if anything "should" be in 3D, you would think it's a space setting, right? But when people have tried to place worlds, systems, and backgrounds into a 3D version, it very quickly becomes complicated and overwhelming to keep track of. And it misses the point. The cartoonish nature of the underlying map, like with Greyhawk, reminds you that this is a game; you are meant to have fun. The baddies are not meant to shoot straight, only sometimes. Your characters are meant to survive. And win, if possible. It's very easy — especially in Traveller! — to kill off a character. But that's not what it's about. If you need more convincing, just look at the aliens! Yes, there's often a great deal to be said about how they should be played with finely-drawn nuances. But at their core they are cat-people, or dog-people, or lizard-people, or horse-people, or starfish-people. You can build on them, but these tropes are still the base. We write pages and pages about the nobility of the Aslan, but we still laugh at jokes about them chasing laser pointers. Or corndogs and Hivers. The Emperor takes off his shoes and paddles in a fountain during an interview.

Traveller has both depth and warmth. The warmth of an old friend.

It's the hex grid. It grounds us and reminds us the game can be serious, but it's also meant to be fun. And if you're not having fun, why play at all?

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