“Realistically, how much do you know about an international destination you have visited just once, perhaps on vacation? Let’s say you visit Jamaica. After having visited this holiday island for a week, do you know the name of the prime minister, or the names of its major cities and provinces? Do you know its history, decade by decade, the method it uses to elect its judiciary or the national level of literacy? Of course not. Why expect a player to pay the slightest bit of attention to these same facts? There are plenty of ‘quick guides’ to Jamaica on the internet, imagine if something similar existed for Deneb or Algol…” – The Universal World Profile
A world-building supplement for Cepheus Engine and other 2d6-based science fiction games *cough* Traveller *cough*. 62 page PDF by Zozer Games.
It’s a useful adjunct to Traveller world creation, with some good advice on how to interpret world statblocks; if you prefer another game, it will be less useful.
Could I Do This with Stuff I Already Have?
Sure; the value of the book is that the author (Paul Elliot) has done a lot of the research for you, and summarised it in a usable form. But, if you have the time, inclination, and either an internet link or access to a good library, you could replicate that.
Tell Me More…
I’ve become aware that without any deliberate intent on my part, Zozer Games has been slowly and quietly taking over a corner of my hard drive. ZG products are unassuming, but useful at the table, which gives them a longevity many other games lack.
This latest addition is based on the earlier World Creator’s Handbook, which was explicitly for Traveller. It’s divided into four main parts; Introduction, Star Systems, The UWP, and The Process. After that, we find a blank subsector map and some legal information, but I won’t go into those.
Introduction (2 pages): This explains the purpose of the book; generating Traveller-style planetary statblocks and then turning those into short descriptions that the players can use to understand the world, and the GM can use to inspire scenarios. The author also explains where his thinking comes from; his background in physical and human geography, geology, and ancient history.
Star Systems (2 pages): This gives a quick recap of how star mapping and system generation works in 2d6-based SF games.
The UWP (44 pages): Here’s the meat of the book; a recap of Traveller-style world generation, followed by a more in-depth look at each of the eight characteristics a world has under that system, and what can be inferred from them, which turns out to be quite a lot. Section by section:
Size suggests surface gravity, density, vulcanism, and notes one can use rotation, axial tilt and orbital eccentricity to explain the other stats, what weather you create by doing so, and likely impact on local lifeforms and colonists.
Atmosphere focuses on the possible pressure and composition of the local air, and likely effects thereof. It touches on a problem I’ve often noticed, namely that all airless and trace atmosphere worlds tend to turn out much the same in play; Elliot recommends placing settlements at interesting locations to make them stand out in the players’ minds.
Hydrographics splits worlds into dry, wet, and waterworlds, and speaks briefly to the implied physical geography; it’s one of the shorter sections.
Population is likewise divided into low and high; the author’s contention is that the high population worlds dominate the subsector and determine the culture of the subsector as a whole (and in his home game he caps population at 8 to control this), but the low population ones are the frontier locations where the fun happens; and since the low population worlds are dependent on their high-population cousins, the book recommends thinking about what that relationship is exactly, and flavouring each world accordingly to make it unique.
Government is covered in more detail, and is used to “provide form or shape to the lump of clay that is the population”. I won’t go into detail, but each possible government type gets about half a page of examples and suggestions. I tend to focus on how the author of such works – for there have been several – handles government type 5, feudal technocracy, which has no real historical counterpart; Elliot advises treating them as cyberpunk corporations headed by a noble family. I’ll have to try that, as well as his suggestion that charismatic oligarchies are historically transient governments, created as a reaction to an unpopular regime and quickly morphing into something else. (This made me realise that I’ve never really considered where my planetary governments came from or where they’re going, they just are; maybe I can freshen them up a bit by thinking about that.)
Law levels again are divided into bands; none, low, moderate, high and extreme, with a paragraph or two about the implications of each. This is a short section – understandably so as Law Level has actual rules about its effect in the source game.
Technology level is treated by the book as a guide to the technology currently in use, as this is easier to explain than why a planet of a few thousand nomads can produce its own grav vehicles. Each tech level in turn is discussed, explaining what technology is likely available at each; the author considers TL 12-15 as so closely related as to be arguably subdivisions of one tech level.
Starport type comes at the end of the generation sequence in Cepheus Engine, rather than at the beginning as in Classic Traveller. Starports are adequately defined in the rules as things stand, so the useful addition here is the set of examples comparing starport types to modern airports. The most useful part of this section is the advice on using the starport to introduce the planet and its unique aspects.
The author recommends not using the later addition to the process, temperature, as it constrains the outcomes too much; better to apply it later, with malice aforethought. This matches my own experience; I tried using temperature in Mongoose Traveller world generation and found that it slowed the process and stifled creativity without actually adding anything that helped me. YMMV of course, but judging by the published materials not even Mongoose themselves use the temperature or factions rules.
Trade classifications are derived from the other statistics, and while originally intended as an aide to interstellar trading (showing what goods are cheap, or expensive, locally), this does allow one to infer a good deal about local industry, agriculture and so on.
Bases are assumed to be naval, scout or pirate bases, and there are a couple of paragraphs on each type, considering their likely size and impact on the local economy and population.
Likewise, the two restricted travel zones – amber and red – are briefly considered, with short discussions of possible reasons for their status, and how interdiction might manifest itself.
Next, we move on to a brief discussion of interstellar governments and trade routes, something that isn’t much covered in the core rules. To be honest, it isn’t discussed in much detail here, either.
The Process (7 pages): Here, the author explains his process for creating worlds, first looking at the physical characteristics, then the social ones and trade codes, then flipping back and forth between the two to explain the social as a logical development of the physical, and finally creating a unique hook for the world, a gimmick to tie things together if the statblock doesn’t inspire – note that this is not necessarily a plot hook for a scenario. Three specific examples of the process are given, and leave me with the impression that the author treats a high law level as an indication that the government is unpopular; food for thought there.
You’ll notice that if you only want to generate a subsector for play, you can pretty much do it with this book. This makes it a useful supplement not just for Traveller, but for other games whose world generation systems either don’t exist or aren’t to the GM’s taste; it’s a mini-game you can drop in to another RPG for that purpose.
The book is liberally peppered with examples from the real world and science fiction movies and literature, which helps in visualising the author’s ideas.
The obvious comparison here is Stars Without Number, but it has a different approach. The Universal World Profile is more Old School, in that it generates random statblocks and seeks to explain them, thereby generating scenarios; Stars Without Number starts by assigning tags (its equivalent of what this book calls hooks and trade codes), which link directly to adventures, and only then generates the world background, which – at least in the revised edition – is then edited to fit the tags. In fact, I’m sure you could create an SWN sector just using the tags. Other contemporary SF games tend not to go into such detail about worlds, often because they have a set list of worlds baked in to the setting.
Either the SWN or the Traveller approach works well in game prep; SWN is faster, but the Traveller-style rules create worlds I find easier to use at the table, principally because they speak directly to the starport and government types and the law level. That’s probably because my players and I have a lot of Traveller experience and thus certain expectations of what one should know about a world, rather than because of any innate superiority of the rules.