Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Best RPG Cover of all Time

This is the cover to the original 1977 Traveller boxed set, now commonly referred to as "Classic Traveller." Because of this iconic cover, May 1st is celebrated as "Traveller Day."

There's been a lot of talk lately about RPG covers in the last week (thanks WotC). So I thought, what better time to reflect on the finest one of all?

I insist that this is not merely old school rose-colored nostalgia. It's not merely "good for its time." I really think this is perfect in a way that no other RPG cover has achieved before or since. Change a single word, a single punctuation, a single nanometer to the kerning, and you have something lesser. And if you're not convinced, then I'm going to explain everything that I like about this image and why. Everything. Yeah, this post is ridiculous overkill. About as bad an idea as explaining a joke. But I want it all to be said.

Setting the Stage

For most games, the cover's purpose is this: set the right expectations as effectively as possible. And in order to do that, you need to first understand what the game inside is all about.

So, what is Traveller about?

Traveller is a science fiction RPG made by Marc Miller. It's old. Really old. It's had about 12 editions or so, changing hands from one publisher to the next as the decades have gone by. But the classic version from 1977, just three little black booklets in a box, remains a respected and well-loved game.

It's the granddaddy of its genre in this medium. In the same way that people use D&D as a catch-all option for any fantasy premise (epic quests, treasure-hunting, exploration, survival, mystery, horror, politics, warfare...), Traveller is the same thing but for spaceman stories. But also like how D&D still has a "default campaign" in the form of the dungeoncrawl, the default Traveller campaign could best be described as "space truckers." A very common comparison is the TV series Firefly, although it can become a lot like The Expanse if the players get ambitious. It's grounded and gritty.

The design highly prioritizes strict simulationism, especially for things which can seem... irrelevant to the act of adventure. Instead, gameplay usually focuses on the mundane. It's kind of a slice of life game, where you imagine all the less exciting parts of what it's like to work a blue collar job in the far future. It's a game about paying your mortgage, going through customs at space ports, maybe doing some market analysis if you're feeling frisky. Everything that other games would normally choose to handwave. Dwell on the little things. Even better, all this attention given to the non-exciting stuff serves to deepen those sporadic moments of thrilling drama and danger.

But in addition to the life of spacefaring adventure played with your friends, Traveller also contains a second game just for the referee to play. The task of worldbuilding is formalized into a procedural activity, meant to be enjoyed on its own separate from the "main game." The text offers you a blank template to make a star subsector, rules and tables for populating it, and prompts for bringing it to life. Later editions of the game eventually committed to a canonical setting for the franchise, fleshing it out with more and more products to sell you. But the spirit of the classic era is to make it up yourself. The phrase "In My Traveller Universe" (IMTU) is an iconic part of the game and is routinely invoked within the community.

Lastly, Traveller is also known for being horribly unforgiving. Chances are, if you know nothing else about it, the first thing you'll probably hear is that "it's the game where you can die during character creation." They aren't joking.

So with all that in mind, how does a cover achieve its goal? Most games do it chiefly through subject matter. That's why D&D-likes always show a group of brave heroes locked in combat with mythical creatures. But Traveller's cover shows... a distress call. What does that tell you to expect?

This is a game about flying a starship.

A starship is a piece of equipment with lots of technical facets.

Flying a starship is dangerous.

Building a Visual Identity
Why isn't there any art where the art is supposed to go?

It's not just the cover. If we look inside the three little black books, we find a layout that many would probably call "boring." But to me, they are a master class in effective minimalism.

The heading font is Optima. It's an aggressively functional font. Clean and plain and easy to read, both sans serif and yet also a little serif-y, even meant to be also used body text. Extremely middle of the road, almost totally lacking any character. But in a book so committed to stark minimalism, what font could be better? The body text is in Univers, a similarly understated choice. Optima blew up in the 80's and eventually became really overused. But Traveller got to it first, and there's really no better choice for its style.

These first few books have no artwork. Just a few diagrams (in fact, this is literally all of them). But Traveller has never been about "the look." Here's an illustration from an early Traveller product (drawn by William H. Keith Jr.).

Yeah, it's not really doing it for me, either. But in case you're really hungry for something better, I can offer you this: "cassette futurism." My own group usually refers to Ridley Scott's Alien as our main touchstone. Equipment is chunky and noisy, not sleek. Clothing is utilitarian and unassuming, not stylish or outlandish.

Did we get that from the artwork? A little bit, but not really. It comes through in the text.

As mentioned, Traveller has had many editions. Eventually, they started included more and more artwork. And you know what? It's not impressive either. Just astonishingly boring. Certainly not as appealing as all that juicy cassette futurism in our imaginations. Compared to the art of the Classic era, it's clearly higher fidelity, higher skill. But no real impact. Why even have it?

Because the market demands it. In the modern RPG industry, art is everything. There's a lot of competition, and buyers have made it very clear that they will almost always choose to spend their money on a book that's pretty to look at over nearly anything else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I definitely own some RPG books that I bought primarily for the visuals. And a lot of good RPGs are made into great RPGs by the addition of excellent art direction. The kind that's done by an artist with a distinct, bold style of their own.

Clockwise from top left: The Electrum Archive by Logan Stahl, Veins of the Earth by Scrap Princess, MÖRK BORG by Johan Nohr, and BREAK!! by Grey Wizard

But that's definitely not the norm, is it? The vast majority of RPGs seem to instead have incredibly generic, indistinct digital art that you already forgot the moment you turned the page. The kind that makes you suspect the creator commissioned the barest minimum needed to cover their ass. Just enough to give their product a chance at being commercially viable. A cheap McFantasy Meal ordered at the drive-thru because you're late for work.

Clockwise from top left: Stars Without Number, Kingdoms & Warfare, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, and Star Trek Adventures. Apologies to the artists. But seriously, is it possible to have negative personality?

And yet, those books sell. In fact, they sell in large part because of the artwork. That's how big of a factor it is. So when viewed through this context, the choice to have no artwork on the cover at all, not even an abstract pattern, feels fucking unthinkable. Commercial suicide.

But as an enjoyer of good art myself, the thing I'm most drawn to is confidence. And compared to all the bland schlock out there, Traveller's unflinching commitment to pure minimalism is insanely bold. For pete's sake, how many covers ask you to read?

So What Kind of Visuals Do We Get?

Black, white, and red. Maybe a bit overdone at this point, but it's an extremely striking color combination. Classic Traveller's aesthetic is usually quite sparse, but one consistent element is this look that recalls early wireframe graphics on a monochrome CRT monitor. Just thin, glowing red lines on a black display. It sizzles.

The box cover is almost all black. Another trope that some people feel is overdone (see: CyberpunkThe Dark of Hot Springs Island, Shadowdark, a whole lotta deluxe special edition collectible variant covers, etc.). But fuck you. Traveller owns this one. It's not just a game featuring outer space. It's about outer space. Your character will spend at least 80% of their life out there in the black. Featuring any other scenery would be dishonest.

The biggest element on that field of black is the title. Which brings us to Traveller's branding.

Like everything else about its visual design, it's excruciatingly plain. Any, any other RPG would feature an illustrated logo. Some heavily-stylized piece of flavorful typography.

But not Traveller. Less is more. Literally just the same vanilla font used everywhere else in the text. The only difference? 1) All capital letters, and 2) the slightest italic slant. If the italics were any stronger, it would risk looking goofy. See how over the top this would be?

Mockup for demonstration purposes. Handle with caution.

Don't overdo it. Just the right amount of slant to suggest energy. To suggest speed. As you're reading the cover text, the moment you reach that title and the lettering acquires that ever-so-slight skew, you feel this "kick" of sudden motion. You instinctively lean forward and the needle drops. You immediately hear the epic sci-fi music.

The only other element of Classic Traveller's branding is that horizontal line. What's the deal with that? You'll find it repeated throughout the text of the game. It's literally just a thick divider that accompanies every chapter heading. A fairly basic, if blunt, layout device. A lot of other RPG books find more subtle ways to achieve the same function. But Traveller weirdly chooses to take this mundane typography element and elevate it into being the entire brand. It's consistent across all Classic Traveller-related material.

And yet this too is kind of the ideal choice. It somehow reinforces the speed and energy implied in the title. To me at least, the iconic Traveller red line reads like a contrail. I envision a starship zipping across the page, leaving behind a bright red glow in its path. Why, then, does it terminate before reaching the right edge? Well, that obviously must be the point where the starship entered jump space. Where it became even faster than we could keep up with.

The Distress Call

I don't think I've ever come across anything in an RPG product that has stimulated my imagination as much as this paragraph. In the intro, when I claimed that every word, every punctuation, even the kerning is perfect? I meant it. I love how weirdly long the ellipses are. You ever know someone who overuses ellipses?

I think a lot of us have been trained to just read right past them. It's supposed to represent a pause, but I don't think people read it like a pause. They tend to treat it like a comma. But by spacing them out like this, it gently corrects that habit and reminds you to read it as an actual pause. Which brings me to the main idea at play:

All art is collaborative. The author and the audience work together. Of course, there's some art where the author does almost all the work while you just sit back and take it in. The chef prepares a dish for you to enjoy, fully-formed according to their vision. But the kind of art that doesn't hold your hand, that burdens you with most of the work, is uniquely potent. It involves you. It immerses you. It allows you to take ownership over your experience. This is true of games, obviously. But it's also true of reading.

Most amateur writers have a bad habit of over-describing. They mistakenly think that the key to immersion is to dump tons and tons of details on their reader. "Paint a clear picture in their minds." This is usually a bad idea. Books aren't paintings. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that's a bit misleading. By the time you've written the thousandth word, you've lost all of the power and awe that would have been contained in the picture equivalent. Use words to do what only words can do.

The words making up the distress call utterly refuse to do the work of images. You are provided no contextual information whatsoever. No text describing the setting, like "interior: starship cockpit. Alarm blaring." No character names to attribute the speech to. No idea how many characters are actually speaking, in fact. There's not even quotation marks. We really take those for granted, don't we? They aren't actually a part of real speech. They exist only in text, as a visual tool to help provide additional information. But even though this text is indeed meant to represent speech, it withholds the punctuation that would confirm this. The words have to speak for themselves. You have to decide that it's speech. You have to create the context in your head. You have to get involved.

Here's a question for you: when you read these words, do you hear them in the voice of the character, coming from their mouth, from within the cockpit? Or do you hear it from the receiving end, an electronic and static-y transmission coming through your own ship's radio? Which starship are you on? Do you read those ellipses as the transmission getting broken up? Or as the speaker actually pausing in their words, because they're frantically multitasking? You could argue that we, the audience, are in a position more analogous to the receiver. The total lack of visuals means we have just as much information as they would. But personally, I can't help but identify with the speaker instead. It's practically a rule that, if an RPG cover features a character on it, then it's implied to be a player character. Setting expectations, remember? And in that framing, how could I read those words any other way? How could I not take this as a prophecy of my own fate?

Ultimately, the text won't confirm any of that for you. Your brain has to decide on its own. Which is often more compelling anyway. It's like in a horror movie. Better to keep the monster hidden and let the audience's imagination do the work.

But even more importantly, this demonstrates one of the key concepts of minimalism: it's just as much about what isn't included as the stuff that is. It's all about knowing what to cut. The more stuff you don't say, the more it maximizes the impact of what you do say. And in this case, while the text certainly suggests lots of ideas into your head, there's only one idea that it unambiguously confirms: desperate urgency.

The most vital element is the use of repetition. There's a suggestion that the speaker is cycling their transmission. But it's not a perfect cycle. The phrases aren't being repeated in the exact same order each time. The situation is too hysteric for that.

Repetition makes logical sense given the situation. The person speaking has to repeat their cry for help multiple times simply as a matter of practicality. They can't just say it once and then go silent. They have to keep repeating the message over and over again. Someone out there could pick up their signal at any moment, so they have to keep reiterating the basic facts just in case somebody has only just now tuned in. And yet, the repetition also makes emotional sense. It reinforces the desperation. When you're totally helpless, and all your efforts are futile, what do you do? You tend to keep repeating those efforts, even though they make no difference. Because it's all you can do. 

And with each repetition, it becomes less and less likely that your efforts will pay off. After all, if what you're doing was going to work, then you'd probably only need to do it once.

I'm also really struck by the choice of words. This doesn't sound very much like the way my own players talk during D&D. Someone listening in on our table will hear a tone that's much more casual. Sarcastic, jokey, unserious. 21st century slang, movie quotes, memes. Even during a crisis, it's still just a goofy game.

Traveller wants to set a different tone. This character sounds more professional than any D&D adventurer ever has. The word "Mayday" is technically a piece of jargon. It's the standardized procedure phrase used by aviators and other radio operators to signal a life-threatening emergency. It comes from the French word m'aidez, meaning "help me." But obviously it's not exactly obscure or opaque, is it? And yet, at the same time, it's also not something you would ever instinctively say if you were in that scenario. You're just some ordinary normie who's never set foot in a cockpit. Let's face it, you'd probably just be screaming and crying, right? The speaker's use of the word "Mayday" implies training.

Likewise, each of the details that the speaker shares serves to reinforce this. They're providing situational updates about the ship's degrading status in between each of the scripted phrases they repeat. Again, don't get me wrong. These complications they're describing are not at all beyond your understanding. They're pretty self-explanatory. But the fact that the speaker knows to say them implies training. They know that the listener on the other end of the transmission is a fellow starship pilot. They know that they have to be extremely succinct. And only they know which specific pieces of information are the most important to prioritize within that moment.

But then, that steady professional tone is briefly interrupted.

With only two words, you momentarily lock eyes with the human on the other side. You hear that unmistakably human fear.

Technically, these words aren't actually communicating anything new. That information was already contained in the word "Mayday," which the speaker has said multiple times. But it's not the same thing. These two words take over the entire paragraph.

Lastly, there's that final "Mayday" offset far to the right. Ellipses imply a pause, but that long stretch of blank space implies a much, much more chilling silence. Nothing could be more hopeless.

The Philosophy of Classic Traveller

Let's revisit that one question from before: why wouldn't the cover include an illustration?

What follows is not necessarily my own philosophy on the subject. I mean, I really love RPG art. I certainly talk about it a lot, don't I? But I want to maybe make the case for why this choice absolutely does fit the philosophy of Traveller.

The first thing to remind ourselves is that RPGs are not a primarily visual medium. I know that's painful for many of you to hear, but it's true. The act of play is something that exists in conversation and imagination. Even when a rulebook has breathtaking art and graphic design, it still usually doesn't make a difference to the majority of the people who are going to be sitting at your table. Most RPG players don't read RPG books very often. The most common way to learn rules is by having someone teach you.

You can certainly introduce visuals into the game. Show the players a picture, make a drawing, use some minis. If you know me, then you know that I love incorporating visual elements. Sometimes for practical benefits, other times just for flavor. But no matter what, it is ultimately a way of working against the medium. Compensating for a communication gap.

GMing is an impressionistic art form. Occasionally showing the players an image is useful because it gives the GM a brief moment of control over everyone's imaginations. Just one vivid, canonical snapshot of the story before the player resumes mentally "drawing the picture" on their own. But if you aren't careful, you could overdo it. You can take away too much work from the players. Take away too much ownership.

Right now we're watching the rise of overly-produced, cumbersome, 3D Virtual Tabletop software, likely soon to take over Dungeons & Dragons entirely. And that makes me miserable. When I want to play a video game, I play a video game. But when I play an RPG, it's because I want something else. Something that can belong to my friends and I, because we made it.

In my opinion, the art of GMing is in large part the skill of learning how to say the most you can with as little as possible. It requires precision. What can you say in only one sentence that will have the most impact? What can you tell the players that will linger in their minds the longest? Focus on a singular striking image, detail, phrase, feeling. And nothing I've ever seen in an RPG teaches that lesson as effectively as the "distress call" cover.

If you think about it, we could easily flip the question around. If the goal of most covers is to set the right expectations, then why would you include an illustration? It's not like playing the game is going to feature lush, cinematic CGI renderings. Get too attached to that expectation and the big companies might threaten to make it come true.

The Traveller cover tells you to expect a game primarily experienced through words and imagination. Better yet, it convinces you that just those two ingredients alone can be more spellbinding than any picture ever drawn.

I have spent countless words on this blog gushing over RPG artwork. I will continue to do so after writing this post. But I think it's worth taking the time to appreciate this exception. This daring statement of a game's philosophy.

What is Traveller about?

Attention to detail. Dwell on the little things.

Quality over quantity. Less is more.

Create a universe in your imagination. Live in it, die in it, but make it yours.



  1. Wow, this was a deep, deep dive into such a simple book cover. I love it! I bought the original Traveller POD hardback years ago, but have never run the game, and now this post makes me wanna grab it off the shelf and run a Peter F Hamilton / Ian M Banks / Alistar Reynolds inspired campaign.

  2. Totally agree. Sadly, the obvious drawback of nailing the cover on the first try is that every subsequent attempt suffers in comparison.

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  4. I think you're very right that it's the "calling anyone...please help" that pushes an emotional response out of the reader. The loneliness and the desperation hit you. The knowledge that, as another game put it, you will not be missed.

    Honestly I think it's perilously close to 'baby shoes for sale, never worn' as a triumph of short fiction.

  5. Amen to that! I have several things I'd like to add.

    Firstly; The singularity of the size of the book and what is read would come across to a person reading this in a shop as an actual distress, in a peculiarly meta way - as if somebody was sending the signal from within the universe of the book.
    Secondly; the phrasing is so particular. In addition to what you have said, it communicates a frantic call to anybody out there, and is an invitation to go help (as well as communicating what you might get into.) Free Trader Beowulf is an odd name, familiar, but not overly so - it hints to a larger world of names which have been used, of a cultures so massive as to have taken parts of ancestral stories and built on them. The those who know, its daring, tells you that there is some serious adventure to be had. What irony is there that Beowulf should be in such danger!

    Another RPG which really describes well the cassette futurism style is Orbital Blues. It lacks, but makes up for in pure vibes.

  6. This has always been my favourite RPG cover. Thanks for explaining why!

  7. I love Optima as well (as might be obvious -- I have written about my own choice to use it elsewhere) but the interior type is Futura while the title is indeed Optima. Futura is even more consistent with the minimalist (maybe even brutalist) overall art design and is kind of the ultimate in the impression of non-nonsense clarity. By comparison Helvetica is almost baroque.

    Love the essay -- covers all of the things I loved about the Traveller art design. I would also include the UK spelling of Traveller with two Ls. Essential choice.

  8. Sorry, but the interior type is Helvetica, not Futura (except for the top-level headings, which are Optima).

  9. I've made a correction. I claimed that CT used Optima for its interior text but I was mistaken. It's actually Univers (commonly mistaken for Helvetica and several other fonts but the difference is plain as day if you find a capital J, G, or Q). I'm coming at the typography stuff mostly as an outsider so I appreciate folks keeping me honest about that.

  10. I stand corrected! Univers is spot-on. Great write-up.