Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Review: MegaTraveller (1987)

MegaTraveller Players' Manual
It is 1987.  The year I graduated from High School and my first year in University.  I knew about MegaTraveller, anyone that read Dragon Magazine even as infrequently as I was then knew about it.  But again it is not a game I played.  I do recall seeing it* played at a local con (SIU had a bunch of them) but (and this is the asterix) I could not really tell if it was Classic Traveller or MegaTraveller at the time.  They had a lot of cool spaceships on a black hex map.

I would not actually read MegaTraveller until the late 1990s.  I was working on my Ph.D. and commuting all over Chicago.  I found a local library that would honor my U of I Chicago library card and they had a copy of the MegaTraveller Player's Manual.  I can't recall my impressions of the time all that much, just a memory of being on the commuter train and reading it.

Rereading it now I find the rules are largely similar to Classic Traveller.  I know some clarifications and changes have been made but I am not qualified enough to pick them out. 

The thing that is most obvious is the setting.  The Emporer has been killed along with all his heirs and his assassin is claiming the throne.  And so are about half a dozen or more people.  So the empire has fallen and this is called the "Time of Rebellion."   Does Traveller have...Star Wars envy??  I am sure that is not 100% true.  

I have NO data to back this up, but my perception is that MegaTraveller was a hit. I think it appealed to people that wanted to play but not have to get into 10 years worth of back product.  In many cases my D&D analogy extends here with MegaTraveller as AD&D 2nd Edition.  The Jim Holloway art certainly helps that along. 

My understanding is that MegaTraveller came as a boxed set. With Players's and Referee's books. Today you can get them as PDF via DriveThruRPG or from Far Future Enterprises.  I will be considering the PDFs from DriveThruRPG for these reviews.  It is nice to have these now after so many years.

In general, the scans are ok to good.  Some attempt has been made to clean them up, but they are obviously scanned from printed products and not the original files. They are OCR'ed and have bookmarks.  The scans look fine on my PC and on my iPad, but I don't think they would work well for Print on Demand yet.

MegaTraveller Players' Manual

PDF. 108 pages. Color covers, black & white interior art. 

This book covers everything the player needs to create a character, including Basic and Enhanced options, learn about the core mechanic (and the Universal Task Profile), skills, combat, and psionics. 

Reading through this I do get the feeling that this is a cleaned-up and updated version of Traveller.  While I can see the larger changes, the subtle ones are less clear to me.  My impression is that a MegaTraveller character could operate in a Classic Traveller game. 

Layout and rule-wise there are a lot of clarifications. For example, Page 9 details Task Resolution and the Universal Task Profile.  This would be called setting a difficulty level in other games.  There are the levels of difficulty and what you need to roll over (3, 7, 11, and 15) which is different (slightly) than the "just 8 or better" of Classic Traveller.  Rolls can also be altered by skills, risk, time, and other factors.  This page gives a great overview and the first place I see a real improvement.  Now my understanding is that many of the rules here came about in various publications, both books and supplements from GDW (Merchant Prince and Mercenary seem to be prime sources here) as well as periodicals.  IT IS POSSIBLE that by 1986 people were playing with rules that resembled this.  This the codification of all of those rules.

Character creation, both basic and Advanced/Enhanced are covered.  This is largely similar to what I saw in Classic Traveller (CT) except I did not see anywhere where you can die before mustering out.  The tables have been expanded to include military and non-military careers including Scouts and Merchant Princes.  Even the example is a Doctor now. 

Skills are detailed and this list seems to get larger with each new edition.  What I like about MegaTraveller is that skill advancement is right after this section and much clearer. 

Character creation and skills take up half the book.

SIDE NOTE:  A lot of the tables and other character creation details (like character flowcharts) are set to one page or two pages.  So printing out material from your PDF is easy.  I can take a page with me to know what my character needs to do to advance for example or keep a list of all the skills with me.  Page 9, the UTP is a prime example of this layout feature.

Combat comes up next.  Again not a surprise since combat is an important part of Traveller.  I don't think I expressed this before, but maybe MegaTraveller makes it more obvious, but combat looks like it is a deadly affair.  Again, no practical experience here, but going through the numbers I am surprised I did not notice it before.   There are charts of weapons and damage, but not the catalog of guns we found in Traveller 2300. 

The last dozen or so pages cover special rules, like mapping and special types of combat.

At the end, where it always is it seems, is the section on Psionics.

Throughout the book, there are little boxed texts that give some more background on the fallen Imperium.  Little bits of history and background to add flavor.  This new time period is the big deal with this edition. 

The inside cover maps of the Spinward Marches and the Third Imperium look like they were taken from a previous version of Traveller.  The Imperium map is dated 1115 and this game takes place in 1116 and beyond.

MegaTraveller Referee's Manual
MegaTraveller Referee's Manual

PDF. 108 pages. Color covers, black & white interior art. 

The Referee's Manual opens with the various factions vying for control in the Imperium.  Just a page, but it really set the tone for me. I can see how this would be a great game to play with the various factions working with and against each other for ultimate control while the PCs work whatever angles they can to either get more power or just stay alive.  I was skeptical of change when I first read it, but now re-reading it many years later I am very excited about it. 

This book covers similar territory as the Players' book, save from the game master's perspective.  Again I am drawn in by the parallels of the format and layout of this game as AD&D 2nd Ed. which will hit the stands in another 2 years.  I am not suggesting TSR copied GDW but instead that this was something that was a logical extension of many 2nd Edition games released around this time. 

There is a longer breakdown of Tasks and resolutions here that makes me happy to see. I never ran a Traveller game, but with this book I think I could.

Star System and World Creation is next including a discussion on world profiles. It is detailed, without being overly so, and will get any Ref going on world creation.  It doesn't have the same feel to me as the Classic Traveller section doing the same thing, but I think that is fine.  Lots of tables here and no equations to solve.  Kinda miss that. 

Sections on Animals and Encounters are similar to their Classic Traveller counterparts.  Detailed enough to keep you going for a while  

Trade and Commerce cover the next 10 pages.  Again, brief but enough to start. I imagine that entire books can (and maybe have) been written on this topic. I also imagine that this is an area where the Imperium's fall would also be a prime place for adventures.  Smuggling cargo, protecting shipping lanes, getting something like medical supplies to another part of the system but other factions want to stop you or steal what you have?  Yeah, lots of ideas.

Craft Design and Evaluation cover the next 34 or so pages. More craft seem to be available to the MegaTraveller character/group than the Classic Traveller ones. If this review is late in posting it was because I was making starships again.  With CT I like system building more, here I like starship building more.

This is logically followed by Starship Combat

We end with a couple of stellar maps. 

Reading through these now I kind of lament not getting in on this fun back then.  Classic Traveller with all its supplements, and add-ons, and alien modules, and board games seemed like a steep hill to climb.  I erroneously felt MegaTraveller was the same way.  Just looking through was DriveThruRPG and FFE have on their sites it doesn't seem to be that much to me know.   It is still far more than want to buy right now and far more than I'll ever play, but it is nice to know it is all there. 

More Notes

It appears that MegaTraveller, in addition to being a pencil and paper RPG was also a couple of video games, as if my Traveller Envy wasn't enough already. MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy and MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients were released in 1991 for the Atari ST and MS-DOS systems and in 1992 for the MS-DOS and Amiga systems respectively.  These might be fun to try and find for the retro-gaming computer I built over the winter. 

GURPS Traveller

GURPS Traveller was released in 1998 for GURPS 3rd Edition.  It covers the same time span as MegaTraveller, but there was no rebellion.  I guess the idea was to preserve the feel of Classic Traveller. 

I like GURPS well enough, but I have stated before that GURPS has no soul to it; at least not to me. IT's too bad really since I do enjoy a good Universal game.  Their supplements have always been top-notch though. I have never been so happy to spend money on game I know I won't play.


Lance Duncan said...

I bought a set of mega traveler, it was 4 books I think, no box, a few years ago real cheap at a flgs. At the time I was still planning on getting classic traveler or the new reprints. But after doing some research recently I've decided not to because as you said the rules are pretty much the same, I like your analogy of a 2nd edition. I still haven't gotten a chance to run or play it though, gotta get a group for that...

Dick McGee said...

"GURPS Traveller was released in 1998 for GURPS 3rd Edition. It covers the same time span as MegaTraveller, but there was no rebellion. I guess the idea was to preserve the feel of Classic Traveller."

The Rebellion metaplot (and even the idea of having a canonical metaplot at all) was not universally well-received by veteran players from the LBB/Classic days, and when New Era made it clear where that metaplot was intended to go there was a pretty widespread rejection of everything involved with it. GURPS Traveller was in many ways designed to attract players who'd turned their back on that timeline in disgust by punching a reset button. They're not at all subtle about it. Archduke Dulinor (the guy who started the whole chain of events by murdering "Emperor Strephon" - actually just a double) dies in a shuttle explosion in GURPS canon just before he would have attempted his coup, and it's clear that it was an Imperial black op to forestall him trying permanently.

No Rebellion, no Civil War, no Hard Times, and most especially no Virus/Collapse/New Era/Star Vikings, for better or worse. Certainly appeased the fans of the classic, stable Third Imperium setting. If it had used the classic Traveller engine instead of GURPS I suspect it would have launched an OSR-style Traveller revival in 1998, but the unfamiliar system limited the number of old GDW players willing to switch over.

Still, GURPS sold damn well for the store I was working for when it came out new, much better than anything GDW put out for New Era and (going by old sales records from before my time) a fair bit better than most MegaTraveller products outside of the core set.

faoladh said...

I do think that the Rebellion was in part Star Wars envy, since the SW RPG was very much taking over the SF gaming world at the time. More importantly, though, I think that they wanted to dial back on the amount of control that the Imperium could exercise over the players in a given scenario in order to make a more free-wheeling adventure environment. I think the original intention was to take the Hard Times concept to its logical outcome and have a bunch of small "Imperiums" surrounded by wild, adventure-filled, lawless regions that the player-characters would attempt to bend toward some idea of justice. Then someone took the idea of making machine intelligence, as initially hinted at in Signal GK, a more significant part of the setting but they couldn't figure out a way to logically make it less cataclysmic, and so Virus became a thing around about the time that GDW was trying to shift everything toward a house system (which had developed out of design concepts originally tested in Space 1889 and Traveller: 2300/2300AD, mainly).

Personally, I am not fond of the Holloway art. I think it detracts from the tone that Traveller has usually had—though I don't have the same complaints about Donna Barr's art, so perhaps I am merely kvetching in this regard. Still, the Holloway art has always bothered me about MT.

There is still a Survival roll in MT character generation, but actually dying as a result of failure is relegated to an optional rule. A good compromise was in Traveller's Digest issue 13, in which a failure was treated as a Mishap, with the resulting damage and possibility of having to replace limbs, organs, or whatever (that issue also had greatly expanded prosthetics/bionics rules, and was part of a series of articles expanding the medical system in MT).

A significant change to basic character generation in MT is the introduction of Special Duty and the consequent increase in average number of skills for a character of a given age. This is necessary in order to accommodate the new Task System's small changes to assumed outcomes. By the way, CT never had a universal 8+ success assumption; that edition was really wild and all over, and multiple people came up with various codifications similar to the DGP Task System that became the basis of MT.


faoladh said...

The basic Skill List in MT is definitely longer than that in CT, but it is a consolidation of the wide array of skills that existed in supplements and third party products, making the total list shorter than CT had developed into. Even so, I think that it could have done with a more complete rationalization and edit, but deadlines are deadlines and priorities are set thereby.

I'm extremely fond of the streamlining that combat sees in MT, though I know that some people dislike the fact that it moves attribute adjustment to the end of combat. After being fixed for errata (which I believe the current PDFs have the errata already incorporated), it's really the best Traveller combat system outside of, depending on your preferences, GURPS.

Quick note on the Task System: the various types of Task are intended, I believe, to make things easier on the Referee by providing suggested templates for resolving various situations and to give scenario writers a consistent framework. If a Referee wants to do something in another fashion for a particular situation that comes up in a game, they can do so and still be playing MT. You will find that there will be some small, semi-official variations on the Task System in later supplements, especially ones published by DGP. The idea of "cross-checks", not included in the main rules but very important in the Starship Operator's Manual from DGP, is a prominent example.

Starship combat in MT is another area where deadlines and priorities conflicted with the ideal rules. I have long wanted to convert Battle Rider and Brilliant Lances from TNE into a space combat system for MT (HEPlaR thrusters and all).

The boxed set of MegaTraveller also included the Imperial Encyclopedia, which in addition to providing a lot more background doubled as an equipment and vehicle catalog, with pre-designed ships and other vehicles.

The MT computer games are pretty easy to find on abandonware sites. Getting them to run on a modern machine is another story, but it can be done. That said, a lot of abandonware sites have set things up so they can be run in a browser as well as downloaded, such as this one. Here's a link to the sequel at the same site.

rmckee78 said...


The CRPG Addict did playthroughs of both MegaTraveller games a few years ago. He usually posts throughout playing and then wraps up with a rating post. There may be a description of the ending before the rating discussion, just skip down to the word GIMLET and the numbered list if you are worried about spoilers.

MegaTraveller 1: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2015/01/megatraveller-won-with-final-rating.html

MegaTraveller 2: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2017/08/megatraveller-2-summary-and-rating.html

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Lance, Hope I helped!

@Dick McGee, This is all great stuff. I am so pleased you have been commenting on these posts since your Traveller knowledge far exceeds mine. I might have to dedicate some time to GURPS someday and include this one in the mix.

@faoladh, Thanks for these! Yes I have seen the games on abandonware sites. Thankfully, for me, my skills at getting old hardware and old software running again are pretty good. I am also not a fan of the Holloway art for this. He was great for Chill 1.0 and the absolute perfect artist for Paranoia. But not this.

@rmckee, OH! Thank you for those links!

Dick McGee said...

"@Dick McGee, This is all great stuff. I am so pleased you have been commenting on these posts since your Traveller knowledge far exceeds mine. I might have to dedicate some time to GURPS someday and include this one in the mix."

Thanks, but you're nearing the end of my personal experience with the game. Once it got past GURPS I just stopped bothering to keep up with the new stuff and either stuck to GURPS or (more often) reverting back to LBB Classic. Haven't played much of any Traveller since 2010 or so. The closure of GDW was very disheartening for me and once Steve Jackson's license ended I really lost interest.

I admit I've paid enough attention to the Mongoose version to at least know how to play it, although I haven't done so. That's mostly thanks to a youtuber named Seth Skorkowsky and his coverage of the game. Heartily recommend his eponymous channel for vids on Mongoose Traveller, among a variety of other roleplaying subjects.