Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Combat

While technology will certainly progress in the centuries to come, it will also remain a fact that one of the surest ways to injure or kill an adversary will be to subject him to a large dose of kinetic energy, and a simple easy way to administer that energy is by bullet impacts…Some weapons, such as the laser rifle and carbine are not currently available weapons.  Referees may feel free to create other weapons to suit the needs and desires of traveller society [note the lower-case “t”].  For example, laser pistols (very expensive, and perhaps unreliable), pneumatic guns functioning on compressed gas, and relatively silent, or light machineguns (heavier and of greater effectiveness than the automatic rifle).
Characters and Combat, page 40
Traveller, 1977 edition
The above quote is worthwhile for understanding the perspective of the designers of Traveller, all of whom had considerable experience in historical wargaming, as well as being well-read in science fiction.  Thus the choice of weaponry available for a science fiction role-playing game did not include “blasters” or “ray guns” or “phasers” – such weapons were clearly “Buck Rogers” in character, and Traveller was clearly intended to have a “hard SF” feel to it.  This somewhat conservative approach has been mistyped as being backward and anachronistic, but I believe that criticism misses how Traveller paid homage to its literary roots.  If anything, Traveller was true to those roots in science fiction of the day, particularly that of H. Beam Piper (as I wrote about before):

“Something I found while raiding on Tetragrammaton,” he said. “I thought you might like to have it.  It was made on Gram.”  It was an automatic pistol, with a belt and holster.  The leather was bisonoid-hide; the buckle of the belt was an oval enameled with a crescent, pale blue on black.  The pistol was a plain 10-mm military model with grooved plastic grips; on the receiver it bore the stamp of the House of Hoylbar, the firearms manufacturers of Glaspyth.  Evidently it was one of the arms Duke Omfray had provided for Andray Dunnan’s original mercenary company.  (Space Viking, 1963)

While only a very brief selection, this quote reveals many of the elements that were incorporated into Traveller from the beginning: an emphasis on known and predictable weapons technology, raiding other planets, feudal technocracy, and mercenary companies.  (I’ll get back to these later.)
The combat system itself is relatively abstract and in retrospect fairly elegant, using a straightforward determination of surprise, initial range between parties, determination of escape or avoidance, and then resolution of combat, including movement and attack.  Initial range, in particular, was dealt with abstractly, using a system of “range bands”  (short, close, medium, long and very long range) which I’m sure now was designed as an alternative to a more precise (and therefore complicated and fiddly) miniatures-related system.  However, I don’t recall many of us at the time using the combat system as written. The advantages of the abstract character of combat were something that I think many of us missed at the time, unfortunately.

As in the first half of Book One, there are very few references to background setting in the combat system.  Rather, I suspect that the designers at GDW assumed that people interested in a game like Traveller would recognize the sources of their inspiration, and either adopt them or make their own modifications to fit their own campaigns. Some hints of background included the following:

  • The cutlass: “The cutlass is the standard ship-board blade weapon and is usually kept in brackets on the bulkhead near important locations” – this triggered almost endless debates about the relative utility of blade weapons in spaceships, Valerian space-axes notwithstanding.
  • The body pistol: “a small, non-metallic semi-automatic pistol designed to evade detection by most weapon detectors.” We made much of the exotic technology of being non-metallic in nature, Glocks being a decade at least in the future.
  • The rifle: ” the standard military arm” – oh? we all thought.  Why not laser rifles?
  • Battle Dress – “the ultimate in battle armor, military battle dress consists of a complete vacuum-suit-like array of metal, synthetic and electronic armor….Battle dress is strictly military, and not available to civilians in most circumstances…Vacc suit skill is required before an individual can even think of using battle dress.  In the powered mode, battle dress doubles personal strength, and eliminates any endurance requirements or restrictions.”  Starship Troopers Mobile Infantry were the obvious reference here, and most of us caught that.

Some of the first things to be added to the weapons locker included laser pistols and light sabers, Star Wars having appeared at just about the same time.  One of the interesting moments of cognitive dissonance was that George Lucas had insisted on using real guns as the basis for the weaponry in Star Wars – Sterling SMGs as “Imperial blasters” and a Lewis LMG with water jacket as some heavier blaster, all of it capped by Han Solo having a tricked-out Mauser with muzzle flash hider as his personal sidearm.  Was it any wonder that people wanted both machine guns and blasters?

Previous: The other “three little booklets” 
Previous: The influence of OD&D 
Previous: Our original inspiration 
Previous: 1977 Edition Characters
Next Tuesday: Starships

10 thoughts on “Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Combat

  1. You also must remember Traveller was the game that limited the Ships computer to only 16K of RAM. GDW vision of the future sometimes fell a little flat.

  2. Imredave: oh, definitely. I'm getting to that. Even back in 1977, we were a little dubious about the limitations of spaceship computers.

    There's a marvelous scene in Space Viking reflecting this, in an indirect way: "I could have made it a little closer. Need three microjumps, now, and I'll have to cut the last one pretty fine. Now don't bother me." He began punching buttons for data and fiddling with setscrews and verniers.

    There's a clear implication by this quote and other sections of the book that Piper's spaceships were pretty mechanical. The other end of Piper's cybernetic spectrum was found in The Cosmic Computer (originally Junkyard Planet), where Merlin the computer is massive but also is capable of "psychohistorical" analysis (a la Asimov).

    Don't get me wrong – I agree with you completely about GDW's limited vision. I'm just pointing out that it is in keeping with the science fiction that inspired them to write Traveller. So it's not like they got it "wrong" all on their own.

  3. I think the whole Traveller computer thing was conceived before they came up with that computing rule, something about the speed and capacity of computers doubling every two years, and the size shrinking by 1/2?

    Can't fault Marc Miller for not being wholly prescient, can we?

  4. That quote from Space Viking was so dead on. That was almost exactly what I was thinking, way back when. MarcMiller

  5. Thank you for the comment, Marc! I'm glad to see my analysis confirmed, as much as I'm getting any of it right. (I sometimes forget that many of our original authors are around, active, and might read my stuff. 🙂 )

  6. I just finished Jondelle (book 10 in the Dumarest saga). It was interesting to see things that show up in Traveller there. Of course there was low, mid, and high passage. The book started out with a fight where Dumarast uses a blade. Travel was by "raft" (clearly an air/raft, though it seemed like it was able to carry a bit more than a Traveller air/raft). And yes, there were laser guns, but most of the weapons were slug throwers or missile launchers (the missile launcher was called a lance, and apparently came with a 10 round clip or something).



  7. Funny you should start this now, I just finished listening to the Trader’s Diary series of audio books by Nathan Lowell (starting with Quarter Share) and now I've got the Traveller bug again.

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