(For my alternative to 3D mapping, scroll down.)
I’ve been revisiting Traveller RPG. One thing that’s not changed over the years is that the star charts are flat. Here’s an example (right). As a kid I hated this. I’d have said that it was because it just wasn’t a proper simulation! Space is 3D, right? I actually spent — wasted — time trying to make 3D star charts.
Then a game called Space Opera came along and that did have 3D charts. I thought this was the best thing since the BBC B Micro computer — 32K!
Unfortunately, the maps were way too hard to comprehend. Navigation was a chore… a trigonometric chore. They also didn’t really add that much to what play we got out of the game.
It was simply too much overhead and too overwhelming. A truly 3D star chart needs a computer interface — not available to me back in the 1980s, and a bit of an intrusion into tabletop gaming, not least because it would be hard for a GM to add stuff on the fly without breaking flow to fiddle with the laptop.
This brings us back to flat star charts as “good enough”.
There’s a particularly compelling blog post (here) that makes the simple argument:
…when the PCs reach new worlds there will be things they don’t know, whether it be details of the environment, changes in local politics, and so on. And then, when they turn around, they’ll be making the same calculated risk (or broad gambles) they made when they made the half of the journeys. The Age of Sails is a common reference in Classic Traveller (and rightly so). In this tradition, the Player Characters travelling half way up a subsector are like sailors make their way from England down and around the Cape of South Africa
So flat star charts are an abstraction like Zones in Fate. It certainly works well enough — the Traveller universe is well-loved and well-trodden. I was a fool and should have gotten on with enjoying the actual roleplaying.
Even so, I still don’t like the Traveller 2D astrogation charts! My reasons are the same as when I was a teenager, however — three decades later — I am better able to articulate them…
The careers and incidents of Traveller’s character generation clearly emulate a sprawling universe where:
- Colonial style warfare is endemic, much like in 19th century — e.g. marines take part in planetary assaults, get stuck behind enemy lines.
- There are vast reaches of terra incognita — e.g. scouts survey new systems and make first contact.
The rules in general support genre tropes consistent with this:
- Marginal or forgotten human settlements — where adventure can happen.
- Interstellar trading is an adventure.
- Imperfect travel information — there is no Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Traveller Galaxy.
Though the Referee can make all these things so by fiat, a flat map presents too ordered, too known a domain for them to emerge organically.
I mean, where are the blanks in that map? Sure, there are some systems that probably require surveying, but we’re talking a brief phase of exploration. Where are the hot spots? Where is the overwhelming freedom of choice?
In short, the Traveller rules support Dumarest and Firefly, but the map does not.
My Solution: Fractal Space
I have a tentative fix which I call FRACTAL SPACE. I shall be trialling it on my own sandbox game and am already using in a forthcoming novel. Here is a rough attempt at it:
It’s not rocket science! It’s probably not the first time somebody has come up with it. Here’s how it works:
- Wormhole connections are fractal, like several big trees growing out of the galactic centre.
- Each system potentially has several wormhole connections, however only a few are known.
- The branches are not (generally) cross-connected.
- Twigs are occasionally connected by “runners”.
- There’s usually only one known route between given systems.
New wormholes potentially connect to:
- Useful new shortcuts.
- Backdoors into hostile empires!
- Unlimited unexplored worlds (because each system has new exits.)
- Undiscovered civilisations.
The effect on adventure-friendly activities is:
- Scouting: There’s always new exploration to be done (because fractal). The activity can’t be automated (because any wormhole may lead to contact with aliens etc.)
- Trading: Wiley traders may know shortcuts.
- Archaeology: Ancient history has strategic significance, because investigations may reveal evidence of lost wormholes, especially runners.
- Military: All borders are potentially porous. An undiscovered wormhole may, at any time, disgorge an armada of genocidal aliens!
- Colonisation: Assuming habitable worlds, the frontier is endless, giving rise to countless quirky settlements or near-empty planets.
- Travelling: It’s possible to wander the stars almost indefinitely.
For me, as both a writer and a GM it has the following advantages:
- Star charts still make intuitive sense.
- Strategy implicit in charts.
- Possible to plug-in new settings almost anywhere.
- Almost endless possibility, but still manageable.
- The thrill of exploration.
I’ll let you know how this goes…
M Harold Page is the author of The Wreck of the Marissa (The Eternal Dome of the Unknowable #1), a modern Pulp space adventure about a mercenary-turned archaeologist and his quest for the ultimate alien artefact.