The Tool and the Spirit

The Real Thing

To start, a quotation from Peter McAlesse:

Lots of young soldiers these days put in a lot of time in the gym. All well and good, but physical fitness on its own is not enough. It’s time to sweep away the action-movie stuff; fantastic muscle tone and fancy gear is not going to save you in a firefight. You will live or die by your fieldcraft; old-fashioned skill maybe, but it’s your ability to close with the enemy and kill him that decides it in the end….

[T]here is more to it than techniques, more to it than excellent levels of fitness. I use the term ‘hardness’. A mate of mine is currently serving a thirty-year jail sentence in Zimbabwe. He was part of a team that went in to do a job, but got caught on the Zimbabwe border as they made their getaway they’ve been bubbled. The guys had to make a run for it: they got out of the car and cleared off. Three made it, one got caught, an ex-2 Para guy. I asked one of my former colleagues in the Rhodesian SAS what happened, and he said, ‘Peter, S— had lost his hardness. He’d been working in a hotel for two years.’ It’s not something you can put right just by going to the gym. You’ve got to have that hardness in your soul. Have the bush in your blood, the fresh air in your lungs. There is no substitute for being out there, in the field.

Traveller is a role-playing game, built on D&D, which is built on the wargame model. It isn’t meant to be a substitute for serving a term in your national army as an infantryman, tanker, or artilleryman.

That being said, we play games to either 1) get ready for the real thing and/or 2) to enjoy doing an imitation of the real thing. The original wargames were meant for the use of actual general staff of actual armies, after all. And, even if we stay off the literal battlefields, there’s plenty of hardness that will be needed if you want to forge a worthwhile life in an tough world.

Modelling the Real Thing

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

As a military model, Traveller has done rather well for a game written in the 1970s, based on technology of the 1950s, grounded in political paradigms of the Age of Imperialism (with a dash of mid-20th century one-party state totalitarian racialism, in the Solomani Confederation.) But it is rapidly approaching obsolesce.

(I never would have guessed that Traveller and D&D would be effectively indistinguishable for someone born in AD 2300. “Both universes have arbitrary rules that locks their universes in obsolescent paradigms and unchanging technological limitations, after all!” Strange, how time flows…)

So why play it?

Certainly not as an actual model of warfare of the 56th century!

  • First, it was never really meant as an accurate model of the Far Future. It was always meant as a place of adventure, powered by scientifically-understood technology rather than by magic.

    (Usually: the FTL drive is more than a little funky, and psionic power doesn’t quite fit in…)

  • Second,  it was meant as a storytelling framework, big enough for all sorts of questions to be asked, and all sorts of trials and challenges to be faced.

    That’s why the Age of Imperialism model was used: to insure that there were lag times in communication, so the men on the far frontiers had greater freedom of action.

If you focus on the spirit of the adventurers, and not on the tools, Traveller can still be quite useful. Difficulties must still be faced, challenges must still be overcome, and hardness is still an asset, long after firearms have been replaced by grav-shredders, micro-guided missiles (at pennies per missile!), or whatever the future of battle holds.

The plans we make in the Traveller universe cannot be directly applied to the real world. But the Referee can still teach the basics of tactics, the importance of deception, and the pain of unavoidable sacrifice to his Players.

“You discover the true worth of friendship only after you send your friend to certain death.” vs. “No man has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” The bitter thing is, both quotes can be true at the same time.


Looking from a strictly materialistic perspective, Augustus’ three lost legions, armed with swords and shields and spears, would be pathetic as an armed force today. But you know and I know that you could pit the spirit of those soldiers against any military force today, and – if those three legions of ~80,000 men were trained well in modern equipment and modern tactics – those legions would be a terror on the modern battlefield.

In just the same way, you can still feel the pain of their loss when Augustus cried out to Varus to give him back his legions. Their loss permanently crippled the Empire, branding it as yet another finite government, bound in space and time, never to truly encompass the world.

Traveller can teach us these lessons better than D&D can, precisely because it has less magic, and more hard ‘realistic’ limits on what you can and can’t do. More sacrifices must be made, the costs are higher… and there are no resurrection spells, or ways to cheat reality (excluding psionics & FTL).

And if you focus on the first three Little Black Books, you can even make a case that small-unit operations (rather than mass armies) was predicted in Traveller. If you assume that you can’t make ships larger than 5000 tons in size, practically all military operations end up being a highly-trained Special Ops job, with any reasonably sized, TL 9+ world able to cut off mass military incursions. That’s not too far from the “most-likely future” I suspect will occur in reality.


Here’s the thing that Traveller cannot teach, due to it’s materialistic assumptions: what is all that hardness for?

Traveller is grounded in wargames, not a life simulation: so if that’s your cup of tea, there is no real need to answer the question. It (abstractly) teaches you how to fight, how to endure, how to win: but you have to decide why you are fighting. Any reason will do, as it is basically unimportant to the action.

However, there is such a depth and a complexity in Traveller – from NPC contacts, to world and culture generation, to the history behind the universe – that I simply cannot tolerate that answer. And I will not tolerate hardness for its own sake: that road leads to nothing but tyranny, which is the most boring thing in the universe.

Most here already know my answer. What’s yours?


Still, even after all that, I am not willing to despise hardness: II Timothy 2:2-4 and Hebrews 12:10-12 insists that hardness has a purpose that is to be respected. But hardness – like masculinity, or power, or creativity, or even love – is an aspect of creation: something to be harnessed and used for a holy purpose, not a god to be worshiped in and of itself.

About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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