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What was the inspiration for Joss Whedon’s Firefly?

Every day I close my eyes, cross my fingers, and hope that I’ve been mistakenly flung to an alternate universe filled with goateed Fox executives. Then, like a vagabond interstellar traveller, I find my way home to this present dimension to discover that not only has Firefly not been cancelled, but it has been renewed for its 15th season.

And Wash is still alive, landing ships on trains.

Alas, that doesn’t happen. Even after I stayed up all night putting those animal bones into just the right shape to summon Garzoid the Reaver-Flayer. What a waste of time. But Garzoid is a lousy god, Clave! We all told you this!

I’m sorry, was that all too dramatic? My wife says I can get too dramatic sometimes. It’s just that I really love Firefly

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But since we can’t talk about the future of our beloved Joss Whedon show, let’s talk about it’s past. Specifically, what was the inspiration for Joss Whedon’s Firefly?

There have been quiet rumors that Joss Whedon’s based Firefly on an old RPG that he played in college. That RPG is Traveller, and it was first released in 1977.

Is there any substantiation behind these rumors? Who cares? This is the internet. Speculation is easier when don’t don’t take anything like evidence into consideration, that’s for certain. Besides, it’s much easier and faster to just make up false hyperbolic statements, which would leave us time to squeeze in another viewing go War Stories, the shiniest Firefly episode.

But let’s do this right. We’ll first see if there is any evidence connecting Joss Whedon to Traveller, and in doing so, we’ll learn about the game of Traveller itself.

Joss confirmed in an interview that the Firefly verse started as a campaign of an old Sci-Fi RPG that he refused to identify. He’s also stated that he quit playing RPG’s after college. Since he graduated in 1986, we’re looking at 1982-1986.

The timing lines up for Traveller, so let’s bullet point some similarities:

  • Traveller features “slugthrowers” as weapons, as does Firefly.
  • Traveller has a mercantile focus, just like the Firefly verse does. In fact, the game itself is about living hand-to-mouth, trying to pay off debts by trading, smuggling, or whatever else it takes to survive.
  • 's-Guide-to-the-Drexil
    Traveller has a big, bad government. Classic Traveller adventures often have PCs living outside the law to do good deeds in the end, and/or to make enough money to keep flying. The central government is often the enemy in those adventures.
  • The Firefly class is very much feature-for-feature comparable to the specifications for the Type R Subsidized Merchant in Traveller.
  • In the opening episode Wash shouts, “Hang on, Travellers!” during some sharp maneuvers.
  • Regina is a major world in both settings. Bellerophon is a water world in both settings. Ariel appears in both. Persephone is a low-population world in the Spinward Marches. In Traveller, it’s an Imperial Way Station, with a thin but breathable atmosphere, close to Earth size.
  • In War Games Wash reconfigured the launch controls on the shuttle in a manner eerily similar to an “in character” Traveller write up for space pilots. Meanwhile, Mal, Zoe, and Book all seem like textbook Traveller characters.
  • In 1984 the Traveller release A Pilots guide to the Drexilthar Subsector by J. Andrew Keith described “Reavers Deep” being laden with pirates.

It seems unlikely that Joss Whedon would have come up with so many similarities to the Traveller system without having played the game. So I think it’s safe to say that this myth has been confirmed: Joss Whedon based Firefly on the Traveller RPG he played in college.

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It fun to imagine Joss Whedon circled around a table with a group of college buddies, chucking dice. All the while, these creative story moments were being seared deep into Whedon’s subconscious, where years later they would burst forth as Captain Mal Reynolds and Shepherd Book.

You can still occasionally run across old beat-up Traveller pamphlets in used bookstores. But their soft cover bindings and monochrome color doesn’t really hold up against modern RPGs like D&D 5th or Starfinder.

Despite it’s science fiction setting, Traveller feels dated. And while there has been some attempts at newer versions of the Traveller RPG, perhaps the ultimate expression of Traveller we’ll ever see was in 14 glorious episodes of the greatest nerd television show of all time.

At least I like to think so.