Some time ago, I recommended the long out of print MegaTraveller role-playing game supplement World Builder’s Handbook as a helpful tool for creating believable planets and star systems. Since then, I have begun work on a new series of tie-in novels based on the classic Traveller setting. Working in conjunction with Traveller’s original creator, Marc Miller, is a dream come true for this old Traveller fan, and has also given me a chance to work with some old friends (like Mel Odom and Erik Scott de Bie) and some new friends (like Robert E. Vardeman, Martin J. Dougherty, and Darrin Drader). It’s also given me early access to the new, Kickstarter-funded edition of the game: Traveller5.

And you know me, I don’t work on game properties I don’t actually play, and though I am a Traveller fan from way back—as early as 1979—it’s been a while since I’ve actually sat down and rolled some six-sided dice to explore the 11,000 worlds of the Third Imperium. Now I have the new rules, a book line in progress, and this New Years Resolution: PLAY MORE GAMES.

So I went to the 21st century version of the game store corkboard, Meet-Up, and, well . . . met up with some fellow Travellers (pun both intended and enjoyed) to start up a new game.

And wow, did it take me a long time to get back into the old Traveller habits. Back in the day—about twenty years ago—I used to stay up until the wee hours of the morning pouring through Traveller’s extensive rules for creating worlds, starships, robots, and all sorts of other stuff. I was obsessed with designing starships in particular and had a three-ring binder full of stats for all manner of interstellar vehicles. It was part hobby, part obsession, and part worldbuilding school.

Oh, and when I said it took a long time to get back into the Traveller habit I meant I started staying up late within an hour of deciding to start this new campaign. Since then I’ve designed a system defense boat and the small craft and vehicles that go with it, a bevy of characters, a few more vehicles for the first adventure, a whole star system, a robot, some weapons, a space suit (in Traveller parlance: vacc suit), and even a sophont.

Wait . . . a sophont?


This is a blog about writing science fiction and fantasy, not (necessarily) RPGs so here’s where we get into some writing, or at least worldbuilding, tips.

As wholeheartedly as I recommended the out of print and hard to find World Builder’s Handbook I want to even more stridently recommend Traveller5, especially for science fiction authors, but for fantasy authors too.

Now, the Traveller universe is copyrighted material, and you won’t be able to set your own stories there, but what you can do is use Traveller5’s rules for creating things as helpful guidelines for your own monsters, alien races, technology, and vehicles.

Over and over again I’ve preached the vital importance of plausibility in SF and fantasy, and to do that you need to set your own rules for how things like technology and magic work. If those things work consistently throughout your story they’ll be plausible, believable, and your readers will appreciate the effort.

If you’re not actually playing Traveller, you don’t have to get too deeply into the numbers, but the step-by-step processes this massive, 656-page large format book have to offer can help inspire you, and help you think through what you might need to know about these various things to better tell your story.

I’ve been purposefully working through the new rules to help with my edits of the novels, and now even more deeply for my own game. In an effort to try everything the book has to offer at least once, I decided that one of the non-player characters (NPCs) that will join my players as the crew of a system defense boat will be what in Traveller parlance is called a “minor race.” These are the potentially millions of intelligent, even technological species throughout the galaxy who have not independently developed a faster-than-light drive. A few have been featured in various adventures and other supplements over the years (decades, actually) but Traveller’s universe is a big one and it’s assumes that there are more—lots more—than have yet been described in published material.

The new rules set has taken this concept to the next level and provided rules for generating sophonts (sentient creatures) that is simply brilliant.

Here’s what I came up with, using random die rolls by the way (with a few instances of hmm . . . that’s not really going to work . . . followed by a re-roll or just a choice on my part):

First we start with a homeworld, preferably one with a population of zero, since the Imperium doesn’t count natives (they’re like that), and I wanted them to be fairly low tech compared to the interstellar community that surrounds them, so I shopped through the online Traveller Map (which is one of the coolest things on the internet, by the way) and found:

Ovant (Foreven 0840 E577200-6)


Without retyping all the basic Traveller rules, this is a planet with an E-class starport (which sucks), is size 5 (8000 km in diameter), has a type 7 atmosphere (standard, tainted), the surface is 70% water and/or ice, the population is between 100 and 999, there is no government, no law to speak of, and the last digit is the tech level. Six is roughly equivalent to 1950s Earth.

Now that I know where my aliens come from (and I assumes the hundreds of people there represent an Imperial delegation of researchers and advisors) it’s time to start describing my new sophonts, step by step:

They are native to this planet.

They evolved in desert terrain.

They are “walkers,” which means they have legs.

They are omnivore/gatherers.

So far they sound a bit like us!

Now we determine their stats, which is RPG parlance for a numerical value representing certain basic physical characteristics. In this case, I determined what those categories will be (some are different for different species) then I determined how many dice a player would roll to determine the value of each characteristic. Traveller’s baseline is two dice (2-12) for humans.

My species ended up like this:

Strength: 1D

Dexterity: 1D

Endurance: 1D

Intelligence: 3D

Instinct: 2D

Charisma: 2D

This means that they’re half as strong, agile, and hearty as the average human, and that (according to the rules, and a dollop of logic) also makes them smaller. But they are potentially half again as smart as the average human.

Next I randomly generated their genders. Who says everybody comes in male and female?

Turns out my sophonts have three genders: female, male, and “bearer.” This also determined some plusses and minuses to the characteristics of each race. What you see above is female standard. Males are somewhat less strong but have somewhat keener instincts. Bearers are stronger and heartier than females but rather less dexterous, and their instincts are even less acute than females’.

This will get too complicated for the purposes of this post, but I then went on to generate some shockingly specific aspects of their senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch, awareness, and perception).

Then I determined their life stages, which is to say at what point they achieve physical maturity, through to their average life expectancy. For the record, you’re an adult at age eleven.

I then discovered, thanks to a roll of the dice, that they have a verbal language that manifests as whistles.

Then I rolled up what their bodies look like:

They have bilateral symmetry, a head that contains their brain and sensory organs (like us), a torso (which is nice), and four legs. They have a bony skeleton, blood, and a hairy pelt. They, like us, have no natural weapons to speak of. Their characteristic dice places their average weight at 36 kilograms (about 79 pounds).

And that’s it . . . at least as far as the charts and tables are concerned.

Now is when you get creative.

I need them to be able to interact with the other characters on a spaceship, so decided that their front legs end in hands, and their back legs in paws, so they may walk on all fours, but can stand up and use tools, too.

It has a head, okay, but what does its face look like?

It has fur, but is it soft or bristly, and what color is it?

What are they called?

For my aliens, I remembered they evolved in a desert so used my handy translation widget to come up with something that (I think) means something like “dry people” in French and mashed it together to call them the seclesgen.

I looked at my three genders and my life stages and thought, hmm, wouldn’t it be neat if each seclesgen actually morphs into each of the three genders based on age? So I made the decision that every seclesgen is female at the age of maturity (11) through age 34 at which time they spend a year hibernating and morphing into a male and stay that way from age 36 through 59, then spend their 60th year hibernating and morphing again, this time into a bearer, which is how they spend the rest of their lives, another ten years or so. This mean in order to have a baby you need one young adult (female), one middle-aged adult (male), and one senior citizen.

Then this idea came to me: The species as a whole is known as the seclesgen but refer to themselves as SEClesgen when they’re female, secLESgen when they’re male, and seclesGEN when they’re bearers.

Please keep in mind, though, that if you’re using these rules to spark your imagination for your own stories, seize control of the rules. Let them help you and suggest things, but don’t ever let anything bind your creativity.

I’ll leave it at that, at least for now. I have to sit down and use the ArmorMaker rules to design my characters’ uniforms and the BeastMaker rules for . . . spoiler alert!


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Jevon says:

    Cool. I want to write a story with 6 different worlds so this really got my attention. While the method really brings out the imagination, it seems it bit cumbersome though.

  2. As a Battletech player since the mid 90s, yep I still have a collection of 1st & 2nd Ed releases, I am very happy to see the resurgence of these types of generic source books. They are a wealth of imagination poking start points for any sci-fi writer and can help form the basis of any universal lore…

  3. C.D. says:

    Funny. The set I have isn’t Traveller5 or Traveller 2000 but … Traveller. The original with the mayday quote on the box cover. And it’s stuffed with alien modules.

    Game rules and detail sheets are a way to remind you to think about character and locale elements. One thing that’s interesting about GURPS is that its game rules also permit one to compare characters’ relative balance against one another – something that’s very hard with dice-driven character-generation rules.

    But to create characters that work on the written page, details that aren’t on character sheets (or world stats) should be considered. If the air is tainted … what’s that do to color? smell? tastes of foods people brought with them? body odor? And the characters — character sheets don’t normally have places to add written-page quirks like dialogue tags, colors/phrases that evoke particular character, etc. I’d love to see sheets designed to capture THAT.

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