Classic Traveller Skills

The assumptions behind the Classic Traveller skills system weren’t clear to me when I refereed the game in the 1970s and 1980s. Only now, after over 30 years of gaming, do I think I understand them correctly.

CT was a child of its time – RPG rules were combat-heavy then, because interpersonal skills were largely handled by discussion with the game master rather than die rolls. In line with this, 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.

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 a skill level in the way that we now understand the term. All player characters had expertise 0 in all weapons, meaning as a PC you could pick up anything from a spear 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 CT 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 low; the way to take a foe down was 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 meant that the first attack on an unaware target effectively did triple damage. All of this emphasised 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 take it off you, or at least try.

(It is possible in CT to generate a planet with a negative law level. My view was 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 shotgun with you. It’s dangerous out there.”)

BACKGROUND SKILL LEVEL

The rules assumed that NPCs had expertise level 1 with whatever weapon they were carrying. (Medical-3 indicates a fully trained and licenced doctor or surgeon, so level 3 is pretty good.) 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, PC default: 8+ or 42%.
  • EL 1, NPC default and the minimum an Army/Marine PC starts with: 7+ or 58%.
  • EL 2: 6+ or 72%
  • EL 3: 5+ or 83%

SELF-IMPROVEMENT

Another key assumption of Traveller was that people do not improve their skills much over time, maybe one expertise level every few years. It explicitly states this in the rules, along with the point that experience and advancement in CT 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. Actually, you could say the same for Original D&D, too.

STATISTICS

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 the CT NPC supplements (1, 4 and 13) it’s relatively easy to check the baseline.

Supplement Rules Sample Avg # Skills Avg # ELs Avg EL Most Likely Best EL
1 (1001 Characters) Book 1, 1981 680* 4.17 6.02 1.44 1
4 (Citizens) Book 1 (ish) 480 3.01 4.31 1.43 1
13 (Veterans) Book 4 212** 7.74 9.90 1.28 2

* 1001 Characters actually has 816, and Others are done in a strange way so I left them out.

** A couple of dozen of the characters in my copy of Veterans are illegible.

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.

Other points that caught my eye:

  • A character has about a 20% chance that his highest expertise level will be 3 in any of the systems (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).

I might do this for later editions as well, but not for a while as it is quite time-consuming and there are other, shinier things for me to do.

REFLECTIONS

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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