This post stems from a discussion I was having with a friend of mine the other day (in Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, in front of the RPG section, Purge the Unclean – a supplement for Dark Heresy – clutched in my greasy paw).
I don’t remember quite how we got onto the subject of Traveller vs. 40K, but we were both very much of the opinion that Traveller was kind of boring but the various 40K games made us want to get playing, and we started chatting about why this might be.
Traveller has its good points – and I’m not just saying that because I worked on Mongoose Traveller – primary among them the game of character-building. In a fit of contrariness the first character I ever made for MGT (and the only one I played) was a barbarian warlord whose background was pretty uneventful except for the bit where I found Space-Excalibur wedged in an asteroid. Other notable characters were the one-armed space postman (who had once started a war and couldn’t afford enough cybernetics to cover all his missing body parts) and the space equivalent of Paris Hilton (a wealthy debutante with no skills of note).
But the game itself is lacking something, and I reckon that something is agency. The default game mode of Traveller seems to be a group of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying not to get stuck in dead-end systems where they can’t get enough water to fuel their stardrives and attempting to make as much money as possible. The thing is, you can’t really achieve much. The Traveller universe is a vast place and the scale so sensible that anything individuals do is unlikely to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. You might save (or doom) the occasional ship or planet, but it never feels like what you’re doing matters.
Compare and contrast with Rogue Trader, which is also a game of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying to get rich. When you play RT you don’t start out scrabbling in the dirt like Traveller characters – you start out with so much money that on a personal scale it’s near-irrelevant. You start out with a warp-capable starship (with tens of thousands of souls aboard) and a bit of paper that says you can do anything you damn well like, so long as it isn’t heresy. When an RT character acts they leave a mark on the setting, because that’s the kind of scale they act on.
It’s helped by the 40K setting. Not only is it dripping with flavour that the Traveller setting lacks, but for all the GRIMDARK and the waffle about “to be a man in this time is to be one among countless trillions” it’s a setting where individuals can and do change the shape of worlds. The precendent is all over the fiction and the wargames. A single unchecked enemy – an unlicensed psyker, a genestealer, a chaos cultist – can bring about global destruction, which means that even in Dark Heresy (the 40K RPG where you are grubbing about in the dirt) your actions have major, meaningful consequences.
So, that’s what I think of that. If you want to create a scifi setting, either dial down the scale (Eclipse Phase) or dial up what characters are able to achieve with their actions (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch).