Civilization in Traveller Setting


Cosmic Mongoose
This leads into a question, but largely it's just an excuse to discuss a setting I find fascinating. What are forums for, after all?

The classic Traveller setting has a very broad scope and a complex depiction of civilization; its weaknesses, stresses, expansion, purpose; and of the drives within a society, a nation, an empire. It’s a setting rich in themes of order/stability meeting vigour and conflict, conformity meeting plurality, tradition meeting innovation. It's one of the stronger influences in my own writing.

All of the major factions, considered together, form a neat puzzle about the fears that drive people to form societies, civilizations, empires.


If there’s a story to the setting as a whole, it’s arguably “the Vilani try to feel secure by crushing the universe under the weight of comforting bureaucracy, and get annoyed when it won’t fit.” This is particularly striking when you consider Agent of the Imperium, in which the protagonist Decider is not only of Vilani descent but is literally named for it (implicitly his ancestors were the Vilani family in a Solomani-majority community, so we assume). Vilani, of course, are defined by order based in pre-existing order, by legitimacy determined through tradition, by family line as the basis of identity (even before feudalism became seen as necessary to govern an interstellar empire). Before even touching the other ironies -- of being arch-conservatives who formed the most expansionist nation in charted space, of being wary of technology while using their jump drive accomplishments as the marker to justify their “major” status relative to rivals -- they are the driving force behind the setting’s story, while being defined by the desire to have everything stop changing.


The Solomani were the underdog -- who won, realized they couldn't handle it, tried to backtrack, and formed a sense of identity based around their exceptionalism and their ancient origin, while not realizing that in doing so, they were behaving like, well, Vilani. Solomani are fascinating among the many “Earth humans go to the stars” characters in fiction, for having that accomplishment stolen from them even as they gained the kudos of being a Major Race. The humans burst on to the scene, free from mother Earth... and the humans, those bastards, had gotten there first. Terrans were the root stock of humanity, but also, in terms that mattered to the galactic order, young. They took to space, full of enterprise, the "human spirit", going boldly... and then they jumped to a nearby star, realized they were on the edge of a vast, stilted, stagnant, human empire, and the clerks there said “ah, yes, hello. You appear to be using the jump drive. We have the patent on that, you owe us royalties. Please fill out this paperwork -- correctly.” Cue record scratch, followed by deep disappointment slowly turning to resentment. In resisting the overbearing Vilani empire, the Terrans in time wound up inheriting that empire, almost accidentally. Later, after dropping the ball (and then reacquiring it thanks to the Sylean-Solomani-Vilani nexus), they tried to recapture their sense of heady potential by “reverting”, drawing back from the conquest and its resultant conglomerate of culture. (Perhaps captive Vland conquered its rude conqueror after all; “ah, you’re new. Yes, you appear to be using Humaniti. We have the patent on that”....). Of course, the Solomani Confederation also couch their retreat from the Imperium in terms of superiority, be it snobbish cultural supremacy, or racial and/or species hierarchy. Truly, the Solomani Movement is Solomani-as-Vilani, trying to re-achieve an ideal denied to them long ago while marked by the foreign influence.


The Vilani-Solomani fusion that is the default Imperial human, and which can also split off distinct Solomani and Vilani identities (however subtly defined by the other's influence) isn't the full picture of Humaniti-the-empire-builder. The Humans of Terra and Vland squabble over how to make a secure and stable (Vilani) or prosperous and individually rewarding (Solomani) empire, yet another branch of humans already has all the answers, having attained both. The Solomani, Vilani and Imperials simply don't like the method.

What defines the Zhodani, beyond causing the Imperium problems in the Spinward Marches ("You see, the culprit was..." -- *pulls off mask* -- "Old Man Joe!")?

Potential. Not in the rash Solomani sense, of getting out there into the universe as quickly as possible while proudly proclaiming your heritage, but in unlocking the capabilities of a disciplined mind while knowing your place. You are a prole, not an intendant or noble... but your children, they might legitimately be intendants or nobles. In time, potential is unlocked. The Zhodani borders have been fixed for centuries, Spinward spats aside... but there’s that little matter of a massive, multi-generational exploration mission. What's out there? What's within? Can the human will change the universe, and does the active universe shape the human will? Reach for the answers... in the correct time, in the correct place. Of course, perceptions of what is correct can change. No-one in the Consulate uses "change my mind" as a challenge...

That's the other defining trait -- stability. Not in the crushing, tradition-comforted, backward-gazing Vilani sense, but stability through willingness to change. By being both utopian and tyrannical to the point where the distinction is meaningless. Change the circumstances to suit the individual or change the individual to accept the circumstances, it could go either way. You feel frustrated because a colleague at work was promoted over you and your talents are being wasted? Here comes the government to help (already the Solomani are wincing and possibly checking that their weapons are at hand). The conclusion might be, “We must find you a more rewarding job at once, one that fulfils you”, or it might be “we can fix these unfortunate feelings by altering your perspectives... quite directly”.

Imperials value a right to security of self (albeit with different poles, "liberty" and "self-determination" for Solomani, "familiarity" for Vilani). Zhodani value a right to happiness and fulfilment.

The tragic thing about this divide is that the Zhodani know so much about the threats out there -- the Wave, etc. -- but can't bring themselves to trust those insane other humans who reject psionics and experience things like crime and falsehood. Would you trust your people's future to, say, a nation of fanatics who won't allow a child's life to be saved because medicine is of the devil and so they burned the textbooks (and the professors)?


Aslan are a reflection of all three human major races (and are also, of course, cats -- that is, obligate predators sure of themselves to a fault. They can look proud and fierce even while doing something stupid). They have the youthful drive and cultural chauvinism of the Solomani, but without the racial angle. In fact, that's the key thing with Aslan -- they are conceptual, not physical, in their rigidity. If you live by fteirle, you are Aslan, whatever your biology. If you don't, you are barbarian, regardless of how much fur you have, dewclaw or otherwise. (Something similar governs their ideas of alien gender. Absolutely rigid in what is male and what is female, but designating based on the role, not the biology.) The Aslan society -- and certainly their sprawling empire -- is defined by the male Aslan's inherent obsession for land, for physical territory... or is it more the idea of land? For a people obsessed with the dirt beneath their feet, they expend more energy exploring the clan relationships and honour relations that are tied to that land, through the person of the ko. Implicitly, this is because of something interesting noted in the background material -- Aslan descend from solitary animals, not like humans. Humans didn't have to develop society and politics, those came inherently. The Aslan, implicitly, had to construct them. Civilization and society is to Aslan as consciousness is to Hivers: something they had to make, not something they were burdened with. Are Aslan always afraid of what happens if they lose their framework for society? While having Solomani drive, they also have the Vilani’s obsession with ensuring a homogenous, closed system of tradition (they had their own Consolidation Wars, we must remember, and it’s fascinating to consider that their nation might be on a wide orbit of divergence, through forced conformity, back to divergence, currently being shortly removed from the conformity peak.) Conservative and rigid culturally, even as they sprawl across space with no real unified government, just clan systems.


The Vargr are the anti-Vilani; fragmenting, changing, valuing the man (well, the dog) over the office, disinterested in the larger picture. They frustrate the Vilani notion of what a Major Race should be. (Arguably, given that they're an uplift, they frustrate the notion of what a sophont species should be. They are literally dog-people, after all). They're a powerful force in civilization, yet fly in the face of what the masters of civilization consider to be the basic principles of functionality. The Imperials are arguably lost as soon as their rigid feudal structure is gone; any given Vargr state probably lost the government last week and only just noticed. They might get around to forming a new one in a bit. Or two or three new ones, more likely. The humans see Vargr as second-fiddle; those in the imperium are loyal friends to humans but arguably second-class (so, dogs), those outside of it are a piratical threat (wolves). But Vargr achieved the jump drive and control almost as many worlds as humans, while stemming from only a single start point rather than forty. The chaos dogs are outdoing the Vilani, even as the Vilani think they need to have their collective nose forced into the Extents they've left all over the coreward reach while being told "bad dog".

Hivers and K'kree

The Hivers and the K’kree are interesting because they’re foils for one another. The Hivers are peaceful, the K’kree aggressive. The Hivers are “first among equals” in their empire, the K’kree forcibly suppress others. The Hivers are largely lacking in sentiment, the K’kree are sickeningly saccharine and tender among themselves. The Hivers think all events of real significance are the work of lone, clever individuals, the K’kree act and think collectively. Yet the two races have, at heart, the exact same motivation: “the universe is full of scary things that will eat us. We must control the universe around us so that doesn’t happen.” They’re, both of them, like the Vilani in being expansionist as a means of security -- also curiosity is a drive for Hivers, admittedly -- but they have no use for all the justifications the Vilani wrap it in. There's no formalised political agenda -- the Hivers barely have a government and everybody's doing what they want (or what others have convinced them to think they want), while the K'kree need no justification beyond instinctive aggression ("that which we find inherently threatening and illegitimate must be removed") balanced with pragmatism ("we can't actually kill all the meat-eaters, we'll have to settle for uneasy peace and/or hope for education with many of them"). Unlike usurper Solomani, chaotic Vargr, "actually not a major race, that's an open secret now" Aslan, or "we forgot to make an empire" Droyne, these two races fit the Vilani model for a Major race -- invent jump drive independently, expand and carve out a sprawling empire -- but they then fail to meet Vilani expectations anyway. They don't act like nice, neat, carefully controlled empires with complex sociopolitical structures. It's just "big happy anarchism loosely held together by Hiver meddling" and "one massive crusading family begrudgingly agreeing that it can't stomp on everything it dislikes."

(Can none of these major races get it right? Well, there's one major race that does, and it's the one Imperials are not able, politically, to admire, because they are the Bad Guy Rival. Bother.)

The Hivers are also unlike Vilani in that they have no regard for tradition (though they do like precedent, since that’s an individual accomplishment...) and will rewrite their history at a whim. Also, while the Vilani response to something anathema to their order is to clinically remove it, the Hivers are bizarrely accepting. (“Violence is bad and everything must be safe and friendly” says the Hiver; then some Ithklur go past covered in blood, saying ‘hi, we went to the zoo and let the tigers out so we could have a tiger fight, it was great. I’m taking Bob to the hospital to reattach his arms, oh also there are tigers around now, just a heads up” and the Hiver simply sighs, while apparently okay with this.)

(The former is the Hivers, the latter the K'kree :wink: )


The Droyne are the anomaly, of course. There’s no drive there. They're not motivated by a need to justify themselves and leave their mark. They don’t need to pursue worth, be it through standing out while also paradoxically fitting in (humans), through loyally following or leading (Vargr), through territory (Aslan); they have their worth inherently. Meagre as it is by the standards of the fearful races, they don't need any more than that. Nor are Droyne reactive (as Hivers and K’kree are). They’re not afraid at all. They know who they are, even if none of the other races do. They each know their worth and their place. They don't fear death, they'll happily die if their function to the oytrip is no longer needed (most of the time...). Grandfather was different, of course, he was afraid. He had to find answers. To everything. No wonder he used hominids as his original experiment/servant stock; he was a human born in a Droyne body...

The Droyne don't build or need empires. Except for that time when they had one for thousands of years spanning thousands of systems, because Grandfather felt the need. The Droyne were playing human before the humans were even really a thing. Of course, it all fell apart in the end due to, essentially, generational conflict. Which I'm sure won't happen to the human empires that mirror theirs...


Then you have the Minor races, of course, defined by the Major (whether they like it or not). The Vilani have their Bwap henchmen (the one race to actually benefit from annexation, since their worldviews aligned well enough, meaning the natural conservatives were ironically most adaptable to the conquest... but then the Bwap order is a tree, it’s a living, growing, root-tunnelling thing. Trees might look like they just stand still, but they’re aggressive and persistent things in their way).

We have the restless cultural and racial blocs within the imperium -- the Geonee, the Suerrat, the Luriani, the S’mrii from the Dagudashaag materials, the Vegans... all repressed, all smarting from Vilani dominance, all vacillating between being proud parts of the empire and hungering for independence. That dynamic tension is both what holds the Imperium together and threatens to break it. You have races like the Virushi and Hlannsai, where their psychology is such that you can see how they built societies but not technological civilizations, yet were also happy to slot into other races’ high-tech empires when visitors came from the stars. The Solomani have their Dolphins and Apes, ironically created to give Terra allies against the Ziru Sirka but later struggling against the apparent entrenched assumption that they are still less than human. A home-grown Terra for Terra-as-Vland, struggling for respect and recognition from the crushing cultural power of the elder.

The Hivers have the irreverent Ithklur, who are both deliberately obtuse and simultaneously "in on the joke", who don’t share the Hiver urge for security and pleasantness, since they have life worked out in all its joyful mayhem... and yet, they form a functional, even essential part of the Hivers’ vision, and are constantly upholding the social order they thumb their nose at. The K’kree have the Girug’kagh and their twisted culture of status distinctions and amusement at the suffering of those who dare buck the system (“G’naakbusters” was a joke that I think almost works seriously as the root of a campaign. Given the Girug’kagh proclivity for humiliating reality TV and Schadenfreude, a Girug’kagh film crew following the antics of a K’kree warrior band in a region being pacified by the Two Thousand Worlds strikes me as a very amusing possibility. “This human thinks he can eat a ham sandwich. But he’s reckoned without... the G’naakbusters”. And then the K’kree burst through the wall and trample the human to death.)

It's such a rich tapestry.

So, my question -- if you were expanding the universe in your own Traveller, if you wanted to include a new angle on these themes, what do you think you might add to expand the picture further?

Oh, and if you can find a suitable Aslan song, that would also be great :wink:
I actually have a major race I want to introduce (although its shamelessly stolen from elsewhere).

This race takes individual power to an extreme - one member of the race is about the equivalent of a noble admiral in the Vilani (meaning, they control both the firepower and the economy of a planet - poor planets with low pop for the weak members, but the stronger ones may literally have an armada, both in firepower but also the economy required to support it). They hate each other with a passion, and they usually hate other life forms as well. But, since their goal is ultimate personal empowerment, they dont care about stopping others. The ultimate in 'non zero sum' thought processes.

Of course, they still get into conflicts, but everything is about what they want, and most often, if someone is preventing them from getting it, then you make that person an offer they cant refuse - or you go somewhere else. Conflict, either physical or economical, isnt very helpful, since you lose valuable assets AND it doesn't matter what the other side has.

That's why they developed jump tech - when you run out of resources on one country/world/system, you COULD fight.. or you can go somewhere else.

It also never occurs to them to be afraid, because they are individually so powerful - what could possibly threaten them? Almost as importantly, WHY would anything threaten them? That would just cost their attacker valuable assets. And you dont get warlike assets to throw them away, only for your own defense. And the best defense is simply to leave, and come back later. Human notions of war and home are literally alien to them (although things like slavery and ultimatums are common).
As someone who loves both the OTU and 2300 I'm interested in how the aliens are treated differently in both. In 2300 there seems more the sense that "the aliens" might well be significantly superior to Humanity; I like that. There's also more of the sense of the great unknown out there which does exist in the third Imperium but it just feels that to get there you have to travel a long way.

I never really went for the Rebellion and even less so the Virus. What I think could be a great existential threat to Known Space could be something unknowable (and hence distinctly sinister) and... coming our way. Some of Alistair Reynold's books, especially the Revelation Space theme provide great, for which read very, very nasty, ideas and an adversary who you can't reason with or understand their motives.

To me one of THE major challenges for a Traveller GM is making aliens appear realistically alien rather than the human in a rubber suit. Even with the host of OTU material to hand going way back it can be very difficult to avoid humanising aliens, in fact in many ways how can one not do so?

So not (necessarily, but who is to say) a new Major Race but underlying/hidden themes attract me. I reckon you could have more fun with the Humboldt family and their hangers on in the Spinward Marches/Deneb than the Fifth Frontier War just as long as the GM can keep who the Big Bad Boss is secret for a couple of decades and when you do find out well, what are you going to do about it and who are you going to tell... who isn't in their pocket? It isn't Paranoia (what?) when you KNOW they are out to get you. For the Humboldt's read Grandfather's kids, a star spanning Illuminati or just a particularly powerful underworld cabal. And then of course to spin that on transfer the "Humboldt's" to the Hierate or perhaps more challenging and therefore more fun the Hivers (if they aren't ALL Humboldt's) or more mind-bendingly the Zhodani - not quite sure how i can rationalise that one but the idea of the Zhodani as less seemingly monolithic appeals.
My major race is defined by their own tripartite braid of necessity:

(1) They have a mission -- a Great Work -- that they, as a race, must achieve or life as the galaxy knows it will be lost. What is The Great Work? Sorry, you're not cleared for that, but it's very, very important that you fulfill your part in it. How can we trust you? Easily; thank you for fulfilling your role. Wait, what? You did well, very well. We'll be back for phase 43.

(2) They have the necessary sense of the absurd to see it through, for there is no way to accomplish something this momentous without appreciating just how funny it all is: Trying to save Life when we we each must die. Lying to tell the truth. They act in the here and now, but only on their way to the then and there. Always good for a laugh, though you don't really know the punchline, and maybe they don't either.

(3) They do not have territory. Instead, they pass through in waves. They are just passing through, a fleet of a thousand thousand subtle starships spread in a wave so vast it will touch all of Charted Space as it slips by. Saving the days in hundreds of worlds en route to saving another hundred days a dozen parsecs away.

They are slender and clawed, and possess light, iridescent, hairy scales. They have an aura that encourages trust. It may be psionic, but it appears to work on Hivers. It may be pheromonal, but it appears to work on Jgd-ll-jagd. Hell, it even appears to work on them. It's a good thing that they're working to save us, isn't it?

To me one of THE major challenges for a Traveller GM is making aliens appear realistically alien rather than the human in a rubber suit. Even with the host of OTU material to hand going way back it can be very difficult to avoid humanising aliens, in fact in many ways how can one not do so?
There's a lot of material to make the majority of Traveller aliens be reasonably alien. But once you want them to be playable races, you immediately have to severely curtail their alien-ness, which is already impaired by the fact that the GM (who is probably human) has to play them. But the GM at least only has to portray them in small doses and controls the situations in which they appear.

Making your Aslan as diverse as humans (why wouldn't they be?) while still making them clearly distinct from humans is definitely a challenge. Only made more difficult by the general tendency by authors (and players) to lean into the 'cat people' interpretation (instead of "aliens who resemble lions if you squint enough, but don't behave like cats").

But, in general, I don't think that its any different than making your elves or dwarves not just humans with a different phenotype. It can be done if you want to. Not everyone wants to.
Dave Nilsen of TNE fame drew a lot of flack for pointing out the nature of the Traveller rubber alien suit.
Vargr are dog-men and all act this way - put on your Vargr mask and act like this to play a Vargr.
Aslan are all lion-men and all act this way - put on your gendered Aslan mask and act in this way to play an Aslan

An alien culture may well be a human culture that is very different to yours, there is a peculiar western liberal mindset that makes people think that everyone thinks like them or would have the same views if given the correct education and opportunity.
Rick and Morty tends to have some promising candidates.

On the whole, it's a question of motivation and outlook, rather than visuals.
1700 years of the Long Night + 1000 years of the Third Imperium. I have the impression that, apart from Vland and its surroundings as well as the Solomani zone, people are much less attached to old cultures or religions. The fall of the Rule of Men was 2700 years ago (!). Christian civilization is 2000 years old. People will be more attached to their planet than the fact that a few thousand years ago their ancestor walked on Sol.
And the vast majority are of Vilani not Solomani descent...
57th century (1105) is a long time from now.
How many western liberal democracies were there 3.6 millenia ago?
Politics tend to be local, and there is a communications lag.

Cultural imperialism either has to be imposed, hard power, or be attractive, soft power.