My roleplaying game life began with Dungeons & Dragons, because that was the only roleplaying game there was back in the summer of 1977. But that changed very quickly. That same year, Game Designers' Workshop published the first science fiction roleplaying game: Traveller.
I got my copy of Traveller some time in 1978, possibly at Christmas. My parents got it for me on the advice of my older sister, who had friends who played it. She deduced that if I was a big D&D fan despite not liking fantasy fiction very much, just maybe I'd be an even bigger Traveller fan since I loved science fiction.
When I opened that little black box I fell in love. Traveller was just so neat. The compact books, with their clean design and minimalist layout looked much slicker than the Dungeons & Dragons books with their slightly embarassing artwork. And the rules were equally clean and minimalist. Where Dungeons & Dragons was written as an introduction to the hobby for people unfamiliar with the concept, Traveller assumed a more knowledgeable readership. I liked that. I have little patience for being told what I already know, and I had even less when I was thirteen years old.
So what was in that box? Just three books. The first was called Characters and Combat. It had a style of character creation which was new to me — you didn't just roll up your six attributes, you worked out that character's entire back history. You listed your attributes using a string of cool "hexadecimal" characters, where 10 became "A" and 11 became "B" and so on. So your character's stats became a nifty little string of digits like "7669A8" or "6778C6" or whatever. Your history could be twenty or thirty years in the space navy, or as a merchant, or a soldier, a scout, or the mysterious "Other" career.
If you know anything about Traveller, you know that the career history character generation system included the possibility for your character to die before play actually began. Other people found that baffling but I loved it. It made character generation into a game in and of itself: the chance of death meant you had to balance that risk against the possible rewards of remaining in a dangerous service for multiple tours of duty. Without the risk, all Traveller characters would be 65-year-old retired admirals who are supplementing their pensions with smuggling and light thuggery.
The second book was Starships. It had rules for designing spacecraft, which meant picking the right combination of drive speed, interstellar range, weapons, and cargo capacity. It also had a space combat system based on vector movement — which is to say, Newtonian physics. Between developing algebraic tools to optimize my spaceship designs (no personal computer, no spreadsheet software back then) and the basic physics of the space battle system, that game vastly improved my math and science abilities. I was using the things I was taught in school.
The third book was called Worlds and Adventures. It was all about creating planets, planetary societies, ecosystems, and trade networks. That book had a profound influence on my life. I've re-written it twice, once for HERO Games and once for Steve Jackson. I studied astronomy in college because of that book. My science fiction gets praised for my world-building because of that book.
I ran Traveller games for my friends for the next couple of years. I never used GDW's "Third Imperium" setting because they hadn't really published that when I started. But I did use a fair number of the published adventures, which meant I wound up doing some rewriting to shoehorn them into my own fictional campaign universe.
One interesting feature of Traveller was that it had no "experience points." Your character was already a veteran of many adventures when play began, so there wasn't really any room for self-improvement. Instead, the emphasis was purely on material rewards: the PCs (one can't really call them "heroes") were out to get rich. And get rich they did. Especially when my players came up with the extremely clever idea of incorporating the game group as a partnership — which meant that even though individual characters might die, their wealth and possessions lived on. I commend this approach to all roleplayers as a way to keep those magic items from vanishing.
The only store in New Orleans which sold Traveller books (at first, anyway) was Hub Hobbies on Broad Street. That shop was about three and a half miles from my house by bike, and I made that seven-mile round trip almost every weekend to see what new GDW merchandise had turned up in the mildewy cardboard boxes on the shelf there.
I even dreamed once, very vividly, about a new Traveller product — not just a book but a whole new product line — with distinctive multicolored covers. I distinctly remember the sense (in the dream) of great excitement and anticipation as I found a whole box of those new Traveller books. But of course, in the dream I couldn't read them. My dreaming brain could imagine the covers, but wasn't quite clever enough to generate new game book text for me. (I had to do that myself, when awake.)
Traveller changed my gaming in another way, too: I started creating game adventures as stories rather than as "dungeons." I started paying more attention to how stories were put together. Would I have become a writer if I hadn't played Traveller? I can't say. But I am willing to bet that I would be a very different writer if I hadn't. So since I owe much of who I am and what I do to the game they created, I'd like to thank the men who made Traveller: Marc Miller, Loren Wiseman, Frank Chadwick. They changed my life and I'm grateful.