Unplugging the Trader Model

In my opinion, the biggest pitfall for anyone running a Traveller campaign is the reliance on the trader/patron model. It grew out of the need to have/own a ship and attempted to address the question – how does one earn enough cash to keep such a large investment afloat (no pun intended)?

While the Patron concept is a nice hook for games, it does create a problem when used as the sole device for adventure design; session’s winds up feeling like the Sci Fi equivalent of a random dungeon generator which ultimately leads to that sense of random, disconnected episodes. For me, the solution has often been to give the players a different way of “being engaged” in the universe around them.

Mongoose’s version of Traveller actually addressed this problem by creating skill packages for different “types” of groups — traveller, mercenary, trader, starship, explorer, diplomat, investigator, and criminal. By having the players define what kind of group they’d like to form beforehand, you ensure that each player has the basic skills they need, regardless of their career path.

It also gives the GM options on what kind of overreaching story arc s/he can use for their games. This is essentially the key to unplugging the free trader model in Traveller. If you can give your group a purpose, beyond economics, you can easily create campaigns that will keep your players engaged.

For my part, I’ve always been partial to three variations when it comes to group foundation – scouts, belters, and criminals. The easiest of these is the scout as it allows you to design games in a near linear manner. This, in my opinion, is the real obstacle many GMs face when moving from a fantasy-based game to a hard Sci Fi game, as you’re suddenly working without the traditional boundaries and physical parameters of a dungeon setting. The belter and criminal campaigns can also be linear, but have the benefit of being equally usable in a sandbox mode.

The nice thing is that any of the three can be used to justify owning a small ship and all of them maintain a certain level of “off camera” guidance for upcoming adventures. This doesn’t unhook the randomly appearing patron, however, as any of them can be formatted in a way that can integrate side adventures and personal storylines. I rather like this as I enjoy plugging in regular side excursions that put the players in contact with all manner of people/environments.

While I’ve never used it, I think the “investigator” format could create an interesting backdrop as well, and would certainly allow for linear design. The drawback, as I see it, is that you’d need to be careful how you designed it so it wouldn’t preclude taking occasional side jobs.

With a little time and forethought, it’s easy to move a group away from the one-dimensional games that seem to trap so many travellers. Even as I write this, I’m tinkering with my own self-sustaining backdrop for a game that will hopefully be used in a large campaign.

As I bolt pieces together, I plan on outlining what I’m doing (and why) in the hopes of giving other Traveller GMs (or would-be GMs) some insight into what I’ve found useful. I’ll no doubt continue to spool out other entries for Traveller as well – including Patrons (adventure seeds), Ship’s locker (new gear), Casual Encounters (NPCs as possible adversaries or contacts), and maybe even a few Bestiaries as well.

2 thoughts on “Unplugging the Trader Model

  1. I think like so many things it just depends on who you are and who you game with. For me though, it’s just never been the best model. I appreciate it, and certainly see the appeal when done properly (e.g. Firefly), but I tend to want a larger arc to my games.

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