Traveller 1977: Skills and Characteristics

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This is a slightly updated version of a 2011 post from my previous blog, but I think it fits nicely into the flow of this category.

The assumptions behind the Traveller skills system weren’t clear to me when I refereed the game in the 1970s and 1980s. Only now, after 40 years of gaming, do I think I understand them anywhere near correctly.

RPG rules were combat-heavy in the 1970s, because interpersonal skills were handled by talking to the game master rather than dice rolls. In line with this, early Traveller had a different skill for every personal combat weapon, but much broader skills elsewhere – Admin covered everything from filling in forms correctly to brokering multi-million Credit cargo deals and beyond, but knowing how to use a carbine was no help at all if someone gave you a rifle.

Weapon Expertise


Since the dice really only came out in earnest when the lead started flying, weapon skills were a special case.

Traveller weapon expertise wasn’t really a skill level in the way that we now understand the term. All player characters had expertise 1/2 in all weapons, meaning as a PC you could pick up anything from a club to a laser rifle and use it. (NPCs did not enjoy this privilege, suffering severe penalties if they tried to use a weapon without expertise.) Expertise with a weapon in early Traveller is more like D&D weapon specialisation or the Savage Worlds Trademark Weapon edge; it is a statement about the character’s signature combat style and his favourite tools for the job.

However, compared to the die roll modifiers for range and target armour, the effects of expertise are quite small; the way to take a foe down is to pick the right tool for the job, i.e. the weapon with the best modifier against his armour type; adjust the range band to give yourself the best chance of hitting; and get the drop on the opposition to make use of the “first hit” rule, which means that the first attack on an unaware target effectively does triple damage. All of this emphasises tactics, planning, and ambushes.

This meant that some weapon skills were pretty much useless to the power gamer creating a combat god. Possibly for this reason, players got more choice in selecting a weapon skill than other skills. If the service said you were learning Medical, then that’s what you got. For combat skills, they said you had to learn a gun, but you got to pick which one, supporting the idea that weapon expertise is about signature style. The check on this is Law Level in Book 3; the nastier your weapon, the more likely it is that starport customs and local law enforcement will try to take it away from you.

(It is possible in the 1977 rules to generate a planet with a negative law level. I ruled at the time that this mandated the minimum weaponry your character had to carry, rather than the maximum. “Sorry sir, I can’t let you leave the starport unless you have at least a rifle with you. It’s dangerous out there.” If you think that’s nuts, check out this clip about Svalbard.)

Background Skill Level


The rules assumed that NPCs had expertise level 1 with whatever weapon they were carrying, and were silent on what other skills they might have. Setting aside considerations of Strength, Dexterity, armour and range, the base chances to hit were:

  • No expertise: 13+ on 2d6 or 0% (-5 for lack of expertise, and opponents get +3 to hit them as well – it sucks to be an untrained NPC in this game)
  • Expertise Level 0 (sorry, 1/2), PC default: 8+ or 42%.
  • EL 1, armed NPC default and the minimum an Army/Marine PC starts with: 7+ or 58%.
  • EL 2: 6+ or 72%.
  • EL 3: 5+ or 83%.

For a long time I’ve believed that each successive iteration of the Traveller rules increased both the number of skills a character had, and his expertise level in each skill. Using those supplements with NPC statblocks (1, 4 and 13) it’s relatively easy, if somewhat time-consuming, to check the baseline.

  • Supplement 1, 1001 Characters: Sample of 680 characters (I left out Others since they don’t follow the core rules, and scouts get two skill rolls per term as in the 1981 rules), average number of skills 4.17, average number of expertise levels 6.02, average expertise level 1.44, most likely best expertise level 1.
  • Supplement 4, Citizens of the Imperium: Sample of 480 characters, average number of skills 3.01, average number of expertise levels 4.31, average expertise level 1.43, most likely best expertise level 1.
  • Supplement 13, Veterans: Sample of 212 characters (several dozen are illegible in my copy of the book), average number of skills 7.74, average number of expertise levels 9.90, average expertise level 1.28, most likely best expertise level 2.

So, the average Book 1 character has about 6 expertise levels split over about 4 skills. On average, a Book 4 character has nearly twice as many skills, and 50% more expertise levels in total – so somewhat to my surprise, his average expertise level is slightly lower, but his best expertise level is more likely to be 2 than 1 – note that in Book 5, the average starman is said to have level 2 in his main skill.

Other points that caught my eye:

  • A character has about a 20% chance that his highest expertise level will be 3 (slightly higher under Book 4, but not dramatically so).
  • The chance of a character’s highest skill level being 5 or more is about 1-2% (slightly lower under Book 4).
Characteristics


Something that I can’t remember seeing in published material prior to Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak is the idea of rolling two dice against a characteristic and succeeding if the score is that characteristic or less – for example, forcing open a door if the roll is Strength or less.

That was handy for things that had no obviously relevant skills, and could have done with being stressed, or at least mentioned, in the rulebook – I understand Marc Miller uses it extensively himself.

I also remember using Strength as a rough guide to a character’s height and weight, so that for example a stolen uniform would fit your PC if the guard’s Strength was within a point or so of your own.

Finally, for a brief period just after Book 4 came out, I used a character’s terms of service to derive expertise levels in certain skills – for example, it seemed to me that Scouts should have Survival skill, but in 1978 they had no way to get that during prior service; so I gave them half their terms of service, rounded down, in Survival – a three term Scout got Survival-1 for free.

Self-Improvement


A key assumption of Traveller was that people do not improve their skills much over time, maybe one expertise level every couple of years. This is explicitly stated in the rules, along with the point that experience and advancement apply to the player not the character – the character becomes more effective over time because the player learns how to make better use of their PC’s characteristics and skills.

This means that in videogame terms, one should view Classic Traveller as a First-Person Shooter, not as a Role-Playing Game. Success comes from familiarity and tactical sense, not from building up your in-game persona; if you want to buff your character, the best way is to get it some cool toys.

Abstraction


Traveller personal combat is abstract, played out in range bands. Tactical movement and cover are subsumed into the evasion rules, and you could play space combat the same way using the abstract movement rules towards the end of Book 2.

More recent games like WFRP3, 5150 and Bulldogs are shifting towards abstract movement zones; as is often the case, Traveller was there first.

Coda


All of this stuff was right in front of me from the very beginning, yet it took me decades to grasp. The lessons I take from this are to play the Rules As Written for any game, strive to understand why they were written as they were, and minimise house ruling.

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