Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Experience

"As characters travel through the universe, they already know their basic physical and mental parameters: their basic education and physical development have already occurred, and further improvement can happen only by dedicated endeavor.  The experience which is gained as the individual character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he has assumed..."
Starships, page 40
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This section, much-maligned since Traveller's first appearance, is perhaps the biggest difference between Traveller and Original D&D.  My original title for this post was "Experience - the Anti-D&D" simply to illustrate this very real divide.  Instead of the bildungsroman aspect of D&D, in which player-characters are completely inexperienced and then develop over time, Traveller's designers assumed that characters would be capable and competent before the start of play.  It's a natural result of the character creation system, but we did not fully understand that back in 1977, and judging by commentary on various Traveller-related forums and mailing list, still not properly understood to this day.  Kenneth Bearden, however, has done some excellent work exploring this issue on the Citizens of the Imperium message boards.

Conceptually, it is fairly simple.  The life-course development model, using terms of service, was an elegant way of encouraging players to roll up characters who were not too young and not too old.  Too young and they would lack the skills necessary to adventure and travel.  Too old, and they would be infirm and too fragile to adventure.  But the deeper implication was that in-game development of skills and ability was very limited - and coming from D&D, that seemed a little strange to many Traveller players.  However, there were options for improving Education as a stat, weapons expertise, skill improvement, and physical fitness.

I recall some attempts to use the Traveller experience system back in the late '70's, but most of the time it was taken as a cross between "on-the-job training" and "I wanna better character."  I think this ended up skewing our understanding of the assumptions underlying Traveller, and made it more difficult to see how the system worked.  In other words, the deeper assumptions implicit in the rules were more of a control than any stated background (e.g. educational institutions in the Third Imperium).

The above is the only ordinary method of self-improvement available to characters.  Highly scientific or esoteric methods of improving personal skills and characteristics are logically, provided the characters search hard enough for them.  Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems.  Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.
 Starships, page 41
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This quote from the end of the Experience section, taken with the one above, reveal just how different Traveller was in the beginning from what has developed since then.  The idea that experience developed during game play improves player ability runs in parallel with more recent ideas about Old School game play. Additionally, the absence of a defined background setting for Traveller meant that referees had to come up with their own settings and universes - and the experience rules actually suggest ways in which a referee might develop something different.  In this sense, Classic Traveller provided a blank canvas - and encouraged referees to make it their own - and the experience rules were no different than the rest of the game.

Next Tuesday: Worlds

Editorial note: something odd happened with my attempt to post this last night.  It obviously wasn't there or went away.  I've restored it, but let me know if you actually see this post - comments, as usual, are always welcome.


  1. Was there supposed to be, like, words and stuff? Or--hang on--was this a terribly succint way of pointing out how Traveller succeeded in having no real experience system?

  2. Matthew - ha! No, something went wonky with my original posting. I've restored it here. What do you think?

  3. I can see it. Whatever happened seems to be fixed now.

    I have to say, I've been enjoying this series. I like the original Traveller rules. When I first got the boxed set (which was the revised set, but I didn't know it then), I had all these great ideas. Then I found people who actually played, and I got bombarded with Third Imperium crap so much that I almost didn't want to ever play again.

    But I still love the basic engine, and do want to actually play it sometime.

  4. Ah, there we go.

    I agree 100%--didn't get it at the time; appreciate it very much now. Someone was working on a fantasy version of Traveller that looked nifty, although I've lost track of it. It made the differences crystal clear--you are middle-aged guys who've done all this stuff and learned all these things and what the hell do you now?

  5. While I like a lot of the implications of the Traveller experience system, one thing that is challenging is what to do with a one or two term character. It's hard to believe that they would have almost no ability to improve their skills over time.

    My compromise is to allow advancement, but to make sure it's slow. I use the system Paul Gazis popularized which is documented on his Eight Worlds Overview page.


  6. I admit that I never really "got" the system. We never even tried using it.

    That thread at CotI is an eye-opener. Wow.

  7. One of the aspects that wasn't really well understood both then and now is just what a "skill level" represents. We almost automatically assumed that you needed a skill level of four or five or six to be considered "good" enough. However, when you consider that these are modifiers to a roll for 8+ on two dice, suddenly things start to look a little different. Consider the probability of getting the number listed or better:

    12: 1/36 = 0.028
    11: 3/36 = 0.083
    10: 6/36 = 0.167
    9: 10/36 = 0.278
    8: 15/36 = 0.417
    7: 21/36 = 0.583
    6: 26/36 = 0.722
    5: 30/36 = 0.833
    4: 33/36 = 0.917
    3: 35/36 = 0.972
    2: 36/36 = 1.000

    ...so a modifier of +2 or +3 can make a really big difference. The implication of this is that skill levels really do represent fairly lengthy periods of study. Thus a skill level of 1 is fairly thorough training in a subject, while 2 is then advanced training, and 3 becomes a recognized as highly experienced in it, and 4 would be a relatively unusual level of expert, etc.

  8. @Victor Raymond: I couldn't agree more on that. I remember many discussions about how a PC sucked because he only had Pilot-1, or something.

    I always argued that most professional pilots (using today's aircraft pilots for an example) had Pilot-1, most fighter pilots probably had Pilot-2 or 3, and only the very best stunt pilots or unbeatable fighter aces had Pilot-4 or more.

    Skill level 1 meant you were competent on a professional level.

  9. Wow...while I've PLAYED Traveller using the original books, I've never owned/read them. However, their take on "experience" as posted here echo my own thoughts...and in fact those thoughts worked into my first-couple game designs. And here I thought I was pretty outside-the-box original...ha!

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  11. Keep in mind, too that original traveller sets a skill level 3 as an MD level of experience, and that unless one has Jack of all trades, not having a skill level in a task gives a -3 to success. So level -1 represents a +4 over an untrained person.

    Later, having a +3 was the minimum to compete - particularly with other player characters.

    Part of the disconnect of later editions cam with the term micromanagement (and consequent skill level inflation) of Mercenary and the advanced Chargen systems that later morphed into Megatraveller. Players had lots of terms to roll for (2-4 times as many opportunities), but about the same lists of skills (no more than 20-30% increase in specific skills available) -so one tended to pile up repeats, and thus higher levels.

    As to Classic traveller levels, I once explained it to a D&D player trying to sort it out that the problem was the word "levels" in "skill levels" implied that a traveller level was equiv to a D&D level. In fact, I'd suggest its closer to 4:1 (conservatively 3:1). So, having a traveller sword level 2 was actually very high looked at as a D&D level, when compared to a mook fighter in D&D. -The TravPC with a sword has a +5 to hit and -5 to be hit compared to the mook. Mook is dead dead dead. About what one would expect from a heroic level character.

    So, increases in level need to be looked at as 4 or five levels of overall D&D experience....which makes the effort to get a +1 look less unreasonable, as I saw it.

    And yes, it isn't linear - but it's that big +4 from mook to level 1 that matters, though. That's HERO level stuff in D&D terms.

    Looked at this way, a two term wonder is a good enough shot to be dangerous compared to a half trained militiaman, and can carve up an untrained knife armed mugger.

    The key is the word "trained" -anyone can carry a knife or gun , but relatively few are well trained with it just "familiar".(NOTE: this is one of the reasons I don't like the whole level 0 skills in Mongooose traveller very much: it seems to contextually devalue higher level skills)

    In some ways, the skill levels are the D&D classes for specific specialities -so MrTwoTerm with Gun one sword 1 is in fact a dual classed level 4/4 swordsman/gunslinger ; not too shabby, eh. ? and a level 8 3.5 character.....so another +1 is going to take work.

    Did that make any sense ?

    Oh by the way, Hi to all ! Hope you don,t mind me sticking my oar in all sudden like.

    (also captainjack on COTI/MGT and others)

  12. Doc Grognard and others: glad you've stopped by!

  13. Hi Victor: I have been following your posts about Traveller's origins, and was thinking yesterday about the whole issue of the Third Imperium's non-embeddedness in the original black box Traveller.

    This has been very hard for me to "believe" in spite of what is on the page. It defies so-caled common sense for me, in very much the same way that Judith Butler does in "Gender Trouble", where she deconstructs the whole feminist notion of an always-already prior-and-fallen feminist matriarchy.

    Then yesterday, it hit me. I was reading this blog post, as well as Maliszewski's most recent post on Traveller (and the comments) and I realized that, yes, my first experiences with the game (black box sans supplements) had nothing to with the Third Imperium. They were games within the game: character generation along different career paths, creating sector maps, and doing trade runs.

    We never really figured out how to create scenarios or campaigns (the problem was precisely that the universe was too open), but we definitely weren't operating in the Third Imperium.

    And all that without regression hypnosis.


  14. John: "We never really figured out how to create scenarios or campaigns (the problem was precisely that the universe was too open)"

    That's something I want to come back to in my examination of Book Three. :)

  15. Huge fan of Classic Traveller here.

    I ran the game many, many times, but never got to play. :(

    My players were sometimes bummed at the lack of char advancement within the campaign, in spite of the rules and my own house rules. Personally, I was fine with it. Same with original Gamma World, you just played the char and had fun. So what that D&D had chars advance levels? It's a different system.

    Maybe someday I'll get to play. Got it, I'll teach my daughter to run a campaign! Perfect!

    Gotta go...