Jeffro Johnson takes on Traveller’s “Middle Passage”, the implications of setting and space-faring adventures on and between disparate worlds in this retrospective look at “Toyman”, the third book of E.C. Tubb’s gripping Dumarest Saga!
The Traveller role-playing game has ended up being as frustrating as it is endearing over the years. Of course, people that are fluent in hundreds of pulp science fiction stories are going to be quite capable of interpolating all kinds of scenarios from a stray world profile code, a rumor, or a random patron result. But not everyone has that kind of deep genre knowledge on tap, and even with some of the impeccably well-crafted setting supplements for the “official” setting, the sheer scope and sprawling nature of the background material can sometimes get in the way of a novice referee getting a game off the ground. Fortunately there is a path through this Scylla and Charybdis of Traveller gaming, and surprisingly enough the key turns out to be inside a nearly-forgotten series of novels.
There is an additional reason for these books’ obscurity beyond the mere passage of time, however. While both Traveller and AD&D both have a rich range of literary antecedents, Traveller’s sources were never explicitly cited the way that Gary Gygax did for his in his Appendix N list. For those of us that are just beginning our excursions into what things were like before the overwhelming influence of blockbuster movie franchises, it’s surprising how much that playable results can be obtained by looking at the games’ most immediate influences. Just as Sterling Lanier’s “Hiero’s Journey” can give you new insights in just what is really going on in the Gamma World setting, so too can Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories inform your handling of the sort of epic level play that people could take for granted in the seventies. And for the Traveller referee’s time and money, E. C. Tubb’s forgotten 1969 novel “Toyman” is about the best value around if you’d like to reinterpret those iconic “little black books” through a far more pulpy and action-oriented vision.
Just as one example, a staple of Traveller gaming is of course the now-classic idea of tramp free traders picking up passengers, cargo, and mail and transporting them to nearby star systems in an effort to “keep flying.” The passengers famously come in three varieties: High, Middle, and Low. The pilot for the Firefly television series just so happened to capture the overall sense of both extremes with the courtesan Inara traveling in the high class accommodations and the super-powered River Tam coming along in a hibernation chamber. Combine this with ex-Army characters and the “guns in space” premise and it’s no wonder that so many people leapt to conclusions when Wash shouted “Hang on, Travellers!”
But the original inspirations for these gaming elements are surprisingly different from even what many Traveller fans would expect to see. By now, most players are aware that Traveller’s high death rates for low passage (one-in-six chance normally, one-in-twelve for passengers revived by someone with Medic-2 or better) are due to the fact that in the Dumarest setting, the most desperate of Travellers were willing to take a chance on riding in “boxes designed to hold livestock.” (Derai, page 17) So one of the more befuddling elements of classic Traveller was pulled directly from this series of novels, but the reason for it was left behind! This ends up being one more thing that a referee has to either explain or explain away in order to convey his Traveller Universe to his players.
You see something very similar happening at the other end of the travelling spectrum as well. Going by the books, it turns out that Traveller’s High Passage is called “travelling high” not just because it includes all of the “high-end” amenities. The passengers are actually high on the drug called quick-time, which slowed their metabolism so that “time streamed past and a day seemed less than an hour.” (Derai, page 18) Meals were anything but fancy even for the rich; smaller ships would not even be able to serve anything other than “basic”, a warm liquid that provides a day’s rations in a single cup. One again, the discrepancies here are due to an idea being taken straight out of the Dumarest novels without also taking along the reasons behind them.
A starship’s voyage in the Dumarest universe would thus include passengers that were either frozen or else walking around in slow motion, experiencing time at entirely different pace. Where does that leave the folks travelling “middle”?
Early as it was the establishment was open for business. It was, Dumarest guessed, never closed. A place mainly catering to those who rode Middle, the men who crewed the metal eggs which travelled the gulfs between the stars; a taste of adventure who spent their lives in a grey monotony of emptiness. (Toyman, page 79)
This is wildly different from Traveller where Middle Passage was more or less equivalent to riding “coach”—the ticket cost twenty percent less, but the service and the food were much poorer. The passenger was also on standby and could be “bumped” by anyone that was willing to pay the higher rate for High Passage. In contrast to this, the thing that set it apart from the other two modes of travel in the Dumarest stories was that (a) it was primarily how the starship crews went and (b) it was mind-numbingly boring. It was so boring, a starship crewman was liable to unfreeze someone that was travelling “Low” three days before making planetfall just to have someone new to talk to. (This is exactly how the Dumarest series begins in the first novel of the series, “The Winds of Gath”!) The reason that this didn’t survive the translation process into the Traveller role-playing game is obvious: operating a starship was intended to be at least half the fun!
While the Dumarest stories did provide a great deal of material to serve as the backbone of a science fiction themed variant of the original “little brown books” of original D&D, many of the more extreme aspects of the setting were largely smoothed away in the translation process. The overall trend of the Traveller ethos is to lean towards a much more conventional spin even when a wild pulp style series from the late sixties was being cannibalized to get the gaming franchise off the ground.
This is especially evident in depictions of Traveller’s air/raft, the default on-world transport for ex-Scouts operating a Type-S ship on a reserve basis. They inspire warm feelings of nostalgia for gamers to this day in spite of their hum drum utilitarianism. It’s hard to imagine them being used to systematically to mop up survivors of an over-the-top arena battle, but that’s exactly how they debut in the pages of Toyman. The picture on the back cover of the UK edition shows them manned by credibly intimidating goons in Cylon-like armor, scouring the countryside in a raft that has odd claw-like panels extending upward on either side of the pilot. It’s strange, but changing just this one aspect of the default setting would yield an entirely different flavor for the game.
One item that came in more or less unchanged, however, is mesh armor. In Traveller, it is “a jacket or body suit made of natural or synthetic leather and reinforced with a lining of flexibile metal mesh.” In other words, it’s a surprisingly durable outfit not unlike the suits worn by Matthew Murdoch and Wilson Fisk in the first season of the Daredevil TV series. According to the rules, they grant the wearer a -4 on to-hit rolls against him from daggers, blades, and foils and a -2 on to-hit rolls from spears, halberds, pikes, and cudgels. With to-hit rolls starting at 8+ on 2d6, these are fairly significant penalties that show just how effective the designers intended this item to be. The rules perhaps contradict this to some extent, but judging from this passage from Toyman, mesh armor would also serve rather well against certain types of animal attacks:
Slowly, spider-like, he crawled up the vertical wall. The wind pressed against his back like a giant hand.
His fingers brushed twigs, the structure of a nest perched on a ledge. He moved his hand, pushed aside the obstruction, clamped fingers on the smeared surface. A bird screamed and flung itself at his back. The blow was hard, punishing, only the metal mesh buried in the grey plastic saving him from the vicious beak. Its neck broken, the creature fell, its place immediately taken by its mate. Dumarest released his right hand, snatched the knife from his mouth, slashed as the bird lunged towards his eyes. Feathers spun in the sunlight as the headless creature plummeted to the sea. Grimly Dumarest continued to climb. (pages 44-45)
As gritty as the Dumarest stories are with desperate travellers engaging in knife fights and routinely betting their lives on a 15% chance of death in Low Passage, the setting nevertheless includes a degree of biotechnology and genetic engineering that is rivaled only by the Ancients of the “official” Traveller setting:
Dumarest turned as the light grew brighter, ducked through a door, found it gave onto a flight of stairs leading down. He followed it, another, two more. He must now be at ground level, he thought, or even lower. The air held a musty dank smell despite the soft breeze from the air-conditioners. A passage lead into darkness, water splashing at the far end. He hesitated, then, as sounds echoed from above, ran down the corridor.
Halfway along something grabbed him by the ankle.
He fell twisting so as to land on his shoulders, kicking out with his free foot, feeling something yield beneath the impact of his boot. Water splashed and a faint green phosphorescence illuminated the area. In the dull light Dumarest could see an amorphous shape floating in a tank of water, a naked skull in which shone blue eyes, a fringe of tentacles, a lipped mouth from which came bubbling words. ‘Come, my pretty. Come to me. Share my home.’
He slashed with the edge of his stiffened hand as a tentacle reached for his throat. Another wound around his waist, tightening, dragging him to the edge of the water. Desperately he leaned forward, thumbs stabbing at the shining blue eyes. The thing screamed, threw him backward, threshed the water into foam.
‘Cruel!’ it blubbered. ‘Cruel to treat me so!’
Sickened, Dumarest climbed to his feet, raced down the passage. A woman, he thought. The thing had once been a woman or a scrap of germ plasm which would have grown into a girl had not the biological engineer interfered. She had cut, altered, adapted, grafted a new gene pattern, stimulated with chemicals, treated with forced growth under the impetus of slow time. Created a freak for the titivation of her fellows. A pathetic thing destined to provide a momentary amusement. On Toy not only the weather was cruel. (pages 57-58)
What keeps the Dumarest setting from descending into some sort of transhuman nightmare society? A combination of widespread poverty and the extreme decadence of the average world’s nobility. In contrast to the more or less static nature of the Third Imperium setting, worlds in a Dumarest story are liable to have significant shifts occur in their government types. For example, the world depicted in Toyman has had rapid and fairly recent transition from a corporate world government (Traveller code 1) to a Charismatic Dictatorship (Traveller code A):
‘Do you know anything about the economics of Toy? It is a corporate world,’ she continued, not waiting for an answer. ‘Every original settler was a shareholder. In theory the system works perfectly. All share in the wealth of the planet. The dividend credit cannot be accumulated, so a constant stream of money is in circulation, thus providing work an expansion. Exports ensure a check on inflation and a market for our surplus.’ She snatched up her glass, drank, set it down half empty.
‘For a while the system worked and then the inevitable happened. First outside labour came to the planet, men who had no real share in the economy, and thus a hereditary aristocracy grew up. Then greed reared its head. More stockholders wanted larger amounts of stock. There were struggles, challenges, manœvrings for power. In such a situation those that have the most get more. The Toymaster has always had the most.’ (page 149)
The Dumarest universe lacks the sort of Imperial Navy that could keep the peace. There really is no indication of any sort of centralized interstellar government holding everything together. Worlds are far more isolated here than in the typical Traveller campaign because space travel is a luxury reserved only for an elite fraction of society—and the most audacious of space hobos that don’t mind taking on extreme risks and the most desperate of jobs in return for a means of moving on to a place where they can do it all again.
Needless to say, this sort of premise is going to be inconsistent with the kind of heavies that emerged in the course of Traveller’s development. There are no land-grabbing Aslan elbowing their way into human space. There are no militant vegetarians picking fights with worlds that patronize hamburger franchises. There is no amalgam of Soviet Russia and the KKK waging a massive interstellar war against an Imperial juggernaut. The materiel for these sort of epic level space battle shenanigans just isn’t there.
The stakes in a typical conflict in a Dumarest story not only take place at a much smaller scale, they are invariably far more personal than standard Traveller fare. The recurring bad guys just don’t have a massive armada that would make a group of player-characters more or less irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Instead they have a cabal of mentat-like cyborgs that are in direct competition with the building-sized computers that grant worlds independence from this clique that would monopolize the flow of information. The model for conflict in a Dumarest story is not derived from Cold War era superpower politics, but rather the much more insidious subversion of Cultural Marxism:
Qura looked at him, eyes soft with her woman’s intuition. ‘You hate them,’ she said. ‘They have hurt you terribly in some way.’
‘Yes,’ he said shortly, not wanting to think about it, to arouse old memories. ‘I hate them and I know them. They spread, touching world after world, insinuating their way into a position of power. Oh, they don’t rule, not openly, but where you find a cyber you find the power of the Cyclan. And they have power. Subtle, unnoticed, but very real. A word, a prediction, a guiding of opinion. They almost won Toy. Take warning, they will try again and yet again. They do not like the opposition of your machine. It makes you independent, others too.’ He paused, looking at his hands. They were clenched, the knuckles white. Slowly he forced the fingers to uncurl. ‘The Cyclan does not like independence,’ he said gently. (page 187-188)
It’s a pleasant surprise to read this book because while it is full of off-beat Traveller elements this really is unlike anything I’ve ever considered running with a Traveller session. And given how many people have complained about the near-impossibility of player characters to have a meaningful impact on the Official Traveller Universe, I think there are answers here to things that have stymied a great many referees in the course of actual play. A big part of this is that the “official” Traveller setting was established with an eye towards accommodating a line of hex n’ chit wargames and miniatures rules. And given that the Traveller role-playing game was designed originally with no thought in mind of bolting the Imperium boardgame onto it, it’s not terribly difficult to take the original “little black books” and a couple of old E. C. Tubb novels and go off in an entirely different direction. If you’re working up a subsector of your own, you may want to consider tilting things toward the kind of setup that inspired the game in the first place rather than work around the kind of design decisions that were optimized more for people that had to get product out the door on a positively grueling basis.
Jeffro Johnson is the author of Castalia House’s long-running Appendix N series, for which he received a Hugo nomination in 2015. He is also the proprietor of Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog and has been writing about vintage games there for over a decade.