Now, Traveller

Let's first set the stage. I indulge in writing for roleplaying games. Fan supplements, adventures, modules. All of it compatible with the games, and all of it entirely unofficial.

Also, all of it entirely my weird take on the game universes. And weird it is, too, because among other things, I love writing about psionics in the SF adventure game Traveller. You know - telepathy, clairvoyance and so on. Mind Over Matter and the like.

So I've been defending psionics on the Mongoose Traveller forum against some people whose capacity for imagination I shall not impugn here, save to say that they only seem to want to approach Traveller with some sort of Puritanical mindset; that's the best I can describe it. Their arguments all sound the same - "Psionics is hogwash!" which, on the surface, sounds reasonable to say. However, the undercurrent is "Faster than light travel - I can accept that. Gravity deckplates on Starships - I can accept that. Humanoid sentient aliens - I can accept that. Telepathy, however, is too much like black magic, and I can't accept the Devil in my stories."

I have to say that Traveller doesn't seem to allow a lot of sex, of any sort, or women, or transgendered individuals, or gays, or bisexuality, in the milieux either, and all of the complainers to date have been men. Every. Last. One of them. Cockblocking the psi like tweed-jacketed pipe-smoking grey-haired maths professors, "Oh, come come, you know that the world doesn't work that way."

Of course it doesn't, but I don't see you hopping a shuttle on Sunday to blast off to visit your auntie on the Jump transfer point off Io, drop by for a spot of Sunday tiffin and back again for Monday either.

I've written a choking great load of pro-psi stuff within the science fiction genre, and it keeps getting dismissed by the critics - which proves the old adage, "Some minds rest best asleep. Stir not those who would not waken otherwise." Some of it I have reproduced here, but this is my current response.


I teach Physics for a living. I still wouldn't dismiss Traveller as not being science fiction though. There is a lot of good stuff in there that, certainly for kids, gets people to think in scientific terms a lot more than some other material I be can't bothered to mention. You're mileage will vary as to how much real science you want to bring into the game, but the avenues are there for you to do that, with the caveat that it is a fictional universe it is representing.
You could teach kids about mathematics, logic and science in Legend, given the right scenario. Even in a rampant fantasy, cause always precedes effect - even if the connection, the means, is outlandish, such as a spell or telekinesis. The cause is weird, but it's still a cause - someone did something, and something else happened as a direct result.

In Traveller, for example, the reason why there are staterooms rather than acceleration couches on board Starships is because deckplates, and they work because magic. It's fiction. But it's consistent. The workings are pure technobabble - you might rip open one of those deckplates and find that they contain nothing but flour sacks stuffed with Cavorite.

A man waves his hand upon a rooftop, and a King dies. Magic - or a perfectly mundane code signal sent to an assassin observing the man through high powered lenses? A young woman predicts that the crops will fail in the Autumn. Sorcery, or a solid understanding of local weather patterns and ecology, and the knowledge that the local farmers have not been rotating their crops and letting fields lie fallow as they are supposed to?

I've read fantasy stories where the character manages to solve a puzzle based entirely on the knowledge of how metals expand and contract with changes in temperature. He used science to reason how to release an iron metal pillar from the brass collar holding it, by cooling one so it would contract. He then used magic to reduce the temperature.

In another part of the same story, he summoned a demon from the netherworld, a tiny little mote of an imp, and set it a task to channel hot air out of one end of a tube, and icy air out of the other. The imp revealed that it had last been summoned to serve "a great wizard" called Maxwell.

And need I go into The Phantom Tollbooth, and its long, wonderful paean of praise for mathematics, as well as Lewis Carroll's legendary Alice fantasies?

The other day, one of my oldest friends told me that he roleplays World of Darkness stuff to get away from science. All his player characters are scientists.

The thing about Traveller is that while a lot of the correspondents immerse themselves in the setting and think that it's about the science, nobody's realised that the other half of the phrase "science fiction" has to have its due, too. There is a narrative flow to a Traveller adventure, things get done not through following some scientific principle but because drama.

Drama, the part that brings the game to life, follows its own rules, its own logic. It involves people - the players, the NPCs - and the story is about what the player characters do unto others and what those others do unto the player characters.

People. Not things. Not concepts. Traveller is not a scientific laboratory. It is a story about adventure; about people who, against all rationality, derelict their duties and head off to explore the universe and maybe seek their fortune. And against all rationality, the Referee has to ensure that they get what they want - all the happily ever afters the human imagination can deliver.

You might as well put full stops between the first three words of "Science Fiction Adventure In The Far Future," because inasmuch as Traveller focuses on science, those other two elements - fiction and adventure - have to have equal time on stage, too.

So stuff happens in Traveller that looks like nonsense to you. Fine. The universe of Traveller just did something it shouldn't. A lightning storm in space. A hole opening up into the past, or another dimension. A man waving his hand, and his enemy flies back against a wall, pinned there by a force he cannot see.

The fiction part, the part that seems to defy science, is stuff happening that should not be happening - but it does, so what are your characters going to do about it?

Or maybe it isn't defying science - it's using some principles of a science you are not currently aware of. The biggest part about suspending disbelief is the knowledge that you do not know everything there is to know - that nobody does, or even can, know everything there is. Suspension of disbelief, the essential component of getting into Traveller and into roleplaying games and science fiction as a whole, comes from indulging in that gap in your understanding; in wholeheartedly exercising the faculty for fabrication and fabulation to imagine how something can happen that doesn't seem to have any logic behind it ... but which nonetheless still has a cause.

A psionic phenomenon has to have had some psionic agency or mind behind it, whether present, past or future; and the laws of drama - like Chekhov's Gun - pretty much require that the Referee reveal the cause to the player characters during the course of the adventure, so even if you the player don't know how it happened, the player characters do, the psion does, and you the player can have your characters respond accordingly - such as pumping five rounds rapid into the man who slammed your team buddy against a wall with telekinesis.

The one thing that Referees have to do, in Traveller as in any other roleplaying game or work of fiction, is to keep it consistent. If someone uses telekinesis through a solid wall in one story, you know that it can be done - so if you encounter a locked room mystery in the next story you would have to show that there is no way that the murder could have been done via telekinesis through a solid wall like last time. If you encountered teleporters in one story, you have to show that the killer in the locked room mystery could not have used teleportation. Tough row to hoe, but that's the way it is.

You're thinking like real world scientists, and not letting go of your disbelief enough. The universe you and I live in is crazier than Traveller can ever be - if anything, psionics isn't crazy enough for this real world. But because it's consistent, it's a useful narrative tool in fiction, which is useful for Traveller because it adds an exotic element to your roleplaying adventure.

If you want adventure that is pure science and no "hogwash" ... book a visit to the Adler Planetarium or something, or go and watch Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mythbusters.

And let's not forget one other thing.

You don't play Traveller to teach people about science! If you're a scientist or an engineer, why do you think you'd want to drag the laboratory home with you and into your imagination? Roleplaying games are about adventure, nor learning. Don't expect the stuff I write about in Traveller to have to teach the players anything. I write stuff that will make their hearts pound against their sternums with excitement, if I pitch the adventure right and the Referee is half awake. When I write stuff for Traveller, I leave the agendas at home.


I swear, they abhor psi not because of the lack of scientific proof - we have no proof that NASA will ever get their FTL drive working, and the existence of the Higgs boson may well prove that FTL really is impossible even with the Alcubierre drive - but because it's psi, and therefore it's black magic. Honestly, they're like Christians confronted with D&D. The psi frightens us. We banishes it.

When you sit down to play Traveller, you're there to have a good time - not to learn bloody science.

Honestly, I might as well have been writing about sex.

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