Tales to Astound!

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-Character Creation


I have this theory that character creation is (or should be) part of play for RPGs. It isn’t the thing before play begins. It is when playing starts. I know I might be rare in this regard. But I do believe it firmly.

Now, here’s the thing that happened at local convention when I ran Traveller and had people make people create characters at the table. People had a blast rolling up characters. Some of the characters died in character creation. The Players rolled up a second character in this case. But even those Players who had their first character survive… they immediately wanted to roll up another character. I said, “Sure! Roll two, pick the one you want!”

It worked great.

Notice, I said that during character creation characters died.

In the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, it was possible for Characters to die. Later editions of the game kept this rule, but offered an optional rule where the character, instead of dying for a failed survival roll, was drummed out of the service half-way through the term with some sort of injury.

I think this optional rule is a mistake. Here are some thoughts on why I think the Traveller character creation system works like gang-busters as originally written.

Traveller character creation is the beginning of understanding the basic mechanics, training a player to see how the odds work (so as to know what risks to take in the future), a glimpse of the skills available while looking at the table (since all PCs can do most of the skills in the game, whether they are trained or not), and more. The character creation system is a training ground for the game as a whole once play begins.

Here are the things that the character creation system teaches players about the game:


The character creation system teaches the core mechanic of the game:

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw

Whether the Player is making rolls to enter a service, get a promotion in a service, or survive a service, applies this basic formula again and again. This teaches a Player how one gets things done.

Now, what kind of DMs get applied and how the Throw is determined is the result of many decisions and factors. But this formula is the method for determining results in Classic Traveller.


In original Traveller, like original and B/X Dungeons and Dragons, there are no rolls made against Characteristics. (Yes, later editions of D&D introduced Characteristic rolls of d20 equal to or less than DEX and CHARISMA and so on, and The Traveller Adventure introduced Characteristic rolls of 2D6 equal to or less than a PC’s Characteristics. But in the early versions of the games, these rolls don’t exist yet.

Instead the Characteristics provide modifiers for attack and skill rolls in various ways. Some examples:

The Traveller character is similar. When you have a Characteristic at either extreme of the scale, it can end up as a positive or minus DM. The chartcter creation system teaches Players that their Character’s Characteristics can act as Die Modifiers in this game when they make Saving Throws.

When the Players look at the service tables they have to weight the risks and rewards, trying to move their character forward with the best chance of improvement while mitigating the risk of death.

Without DMs, the chances of survival for different services are 83%, 72%, and 58%.

However, with survival DMs included the odds of survival jump to 97%, 92%, and 83% respectively, with the bulk of the services at 97%. That an amazing carrot to encourage players one way or another.

And those jumps in the odds occur with only a +1DM or a +2DM. Which teaches the Players that in the narrow bell curve of a 2D6 roll, a +1DM or a +2DM is a big deal.


The Players don’t only have to concern themselves only the service Survival Roll. They also need to eye the rolls for Enlistment, Commissions, and Promotions, as well as which of their PC’s Characteristics can provide the best DMs for Enlistment, Commission and Promotions, and S

There’s is rarely a “best” Service for a PC. His Characteristics might help him with his odds for Enlistment in a particular Service, for example, but he might not have the Characteristics he needs to get a +DM for Survival or Promotion. And so on, in various permutations.

This is another lesson about Traveller: There are plenty of choices, but no right choice, and many choices that have an upside in one situation have a downside in other situations. The guns and armor matrix reveals that there is no optimal weapon or armor. Crews can to their best to get a ship full of cargo and passengers before making the next jump, but if they wait too long they’ll start losing money as they sit around. Owning a ship means freedom, but also upkeep. Living without a ship means no overhead, but travel is limited to where other ships go. Combat might get you what you want, but to open fire means risking the same chance of death you’re raining down on your enemies and must be weighed carefully.

On the other hand, the player might make the choice, boldly, to go to a riskier service without the Survival DM for a certain chance of a certain gain that service. Without those lower base odds of survival those risks aren’t stark. (And, as Mike points out, four of the services start at a base chance of survival of 83% without DMs, so the risks might be worth it.)

Traveller offers no “best” or “optimal” way to play. It never offers the decision for characters. Instead, decisions are made between a series of suboptimal options. The game is about characters who are willing to take risks to get what they want. But even in that, decisions about what risks to take, and which odds matter most, are revealed. And the Traveller character creation system revels in that from the get go.

Which leads, of course, to death…


Death is a part of Traveller.

At least the way I Referee it, it is, with all of its Old School sensibilities intact. The combat system is lethal on purpose. Failed Saves in moments of crisis can lead to death in a variety of ways (getting shot, coming out of Low Passage, failed medical care on a battlefield, ship decompression).

The character generation system teaches Players there is a chance of death. It teaches it because the chance of death in character generation really leads to death on a bad roll!

Moreover, it teaches Players that this is all right–because as soon as the character is dead, they pick up dice, roll up another character, and get right back into play. This is an important lesson. When your Character dies, you just do it again.

But the threat of death has one other, vital, aspect that makes it crucial to the character generation system…


As others have said throughout Traveller’s history, the character creation system is a mini-game all to itself. You try to get as many skills and as many Credits as you can. But every term you stay in the service means you make a Survival roll that might get your character killed.

The risk of death is what gives the mini-game teeth. If you take out the risk of death there is not reason not to stay in the service indefinitely. 

The risk of death is where all the elements mentioned so far–the Throw rolls, the DMs, suboptimal choices, and death–all come together to make the mini-game what it is. Each Player must decide how far he will push the chances for his character in the risk for gain against the risk of death.

And this, of course, is a mini-version of the game of Traveller itself, whether it be a one-shot session at a convention or a long-term campaign: How much am I willing to risk to get what I want? The game asks this again and again. And this question is first posed to the Players when they pick up the dice to make a character.


That said, in the 1981 edition of the game the rules were changed from the original 1977 rules were changed from a failed Survival roll equaling death to this:

Optional Rule: If the referee or player so indicates prior to character generation, then a failure of the survival roll can be converted to injury. The character is not dead, but instead is injured, and leaves the service (after recovery) having served only two years of the four year term.

I’ve never understood the appeal of this rule. It guts the live risk of both choosing one service or another, and serving another term for more benefits at the risk of losing the character completely.

I think those two choices are best made when the risk is stark and dangerously clear, because, again, it echoes the nature of the game.


By the way, a note about character death in Traveller character creation:

I’ve seen people talk about how common it is for characters to die in the character creation system, how it’s so frustrating, how it happens all the time…

I don’t think these people have spent much time looking at the actual rules. So here’s some math:

Without any Survival Roll DMs, four of the careers offer an 83% chance of survival every term. Can one make several die rolls with a solid chance of survival? Sure you can! The odds are with you!

But let’s say the Players select the service that will give their characters a +DM for the survival roll, per the Service Table. With the survival DMs included the odds of survival jump to 97%, 92%, and 83% respectively, with the bulk of the services at 97%.

Seriously folks, death is a possibility. But it’s not like the system is weighted to destroy your ambitions to create a character.

By the way, here is another excellent post on the topic.