TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Some Thoughts on Skill Use in Classic Traveller


This post is from a series of posts from my TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series about using only Classic Traveller Books 1-3.

The question I’m exploring with the series is: What happens if:

  1. You only use Book 1-3
  2. You assume the game doesn’t need to be fixed but works fine as is
  3. You explore what sort of game that comes out of assumptions 1 and 2

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to play the game or say you’re doing it wrong. These are my impressions of how the game was written and meant to be played. But I don’t assume they are definitive.

A Limited List

The list of skill found in the six services is not meant to be comprehensive. The service skill lists reflect the opportunities that characters in those services might have for skills. If it were comprehensive it would work against the design philosophy of the game. Traveller is a game of limitations. You never have the cards you want, you have the cards you were dealt. Now, what are you going to do with them?

Skills are Not a Limit on What Characters Can Do

Any character can try to do anything in Traveller, whether they have a skill or not. They might not succeed. And the Referee might make a ruling that the current circumstances mean there is no way the Character will succeed.

But it is important to remember that the skills a character possesses are not a limit on what a Character can do. They are what the character was trained to do in his or her respective service.

Having a skill level of 1 or higher means the PC might be able to use the skill value for employment or as a +DM for Throws. Along with a skill of 0, a skill level 1 or higher means that a PC can make Throws without a concern for -DMs in situations where the skill would be required.

Limits are Vital to the Spirit of the Game

Let’s say your characters to hunt some creatures on an alien world. They don’t have Hunting (it doesn’t exist) and they don’t know the world or the beasts. How do they solve this problem? There’s no roll to make.


The trap of lots and lots of skill rolls is that the Players can simply roll their way out of any problem that comes their way. And what’s the fun of that?

Instead, how do they learn to hunt the beast they need to hunt? Here’s one idea:

They have to go to a tribe on the world and get someone to help them track the beast or give them the methods to hunt it (“Use this meat and place it in this area…”)

Now, instead of a role, what do we get? Adventure, complications, debts, conflicts, more adventure. The PCs have to go talk to someone. This might go well, or badly. They have to get something from someone. This might be easy, or cost them something the own, or they might have to get kill the chief of a neighboring tribe to get the information. They have to go out and do the instructions they’ve been giving. Things might go wrong on their way to capture the beast.  And so on.

The fact is the skills the PCs have are—on purpose—a small fraction of the skills they might wish they had by the time any adventure is over. But if they don’t have those skills, they need to find their way into a new solution. That means doing all the things we love to do in an RPG: poke things, prod things, come up with ideas and schemes, generate possibilities from the Referee as we ask, “Is there a tribe nearby that might be able to help us…” and so on.

By not having a skill for everything, the Players are in the same position of Players in a solid game of Original Dungeons & Dragons. Apart from fighting, thief skills, and magic, the Players have to figure out ways of defeating, circumventing, and succeeding at challenges in ways that never involve die rolls.

Traveller is from that same tradition. We shouldn’t forget that when we look at the Traveller rules. Skills offer possibilities of actions for the Player Characters. But they are not the sum total of those possibilities. And it is from these other possibilities that the best play and most memorable moments will arise.

Characters Can Often Make Throws Even if They Don’t Have the Skill (Though Often They Can’t)

Anyone can make a Throw if a situation warrants it, even if they do not have the skill. Anyone can try to Bribe someone, whether they have the skill or not. Anyone can try to repair a piece of machinery on a starship, whether they have a skill or not.

An example from the rules:

Air/Raft: The individual has training and The air/raft is the major transportation experience in the use and operation of the vehicle on most worlds with high enough tech air/raft, floater, flier, and all types of grav levels. Most people are aware of the basics of vehicles operation for such vehicles.

The air/raft can be dangerous to operate in high speed situations or in bad weather. A basic throw of 5+ to avoid an accident or mishap in bad weather, chases, or high speed maneuvers should be used. DMs to be applied: per level of expertise, +1; if weather is extremely bad, if the craft is old, or if gunfire is involved in the chase, – 1.

Referee: Generally, roll once for a short chase, twice or three times for longer flights. Book 3 provides a more complete description of the air/raft.

Notice that it is assumed that anyone from the implied culture of the game setting can use an air/raft. Throws are not needed for every day use, only for extreme circumstances where things might go wrong. The skill Air/Raft is not required to make such roll, but will provide a +DM if available.

Thus, I would say most drivers in the U.S. have a Automobile-0 skill (or no Automobile skill, if I’m being unkind). This does not mean that they cannot drive a car. It means they can drive a car just fine until something goes wrong. At that point, a Throw is required. Someone with a Driver-1 will have a 5-15% edge (depending on the Throw) over someone who has no rating in the skill. But anyone can try to stop from smashing into a tree if making a turn at too high a speed.

The Rules Are Templates for Adjudicating Throws

The skill list section of Book 1 note -DMs for certain Throws if the PC does not have a pertinent skill. In other cases, depending on circumstances, the Referee might decide set a Throw higher or lower if what he or she deems to be a vital skill is present or not.

For example, there is no way for PCs to gain the ability to ride beasts in the services listed in Book 1. But this does not mean that the PCs, if they go to a world where people ride beasts to get around, cannot ride a beast. Instead I would use the rules for Air/Raft noted above as an analogy After all, domesticated horses are trained for people to ride them. Pretty much anyone can get on the back of a horse and use it to get from one place to another. No real skill or training is needed.

On the other hand, if someone is racing over rough terrain or caught up in a gunfight while riding, having enough training in Riding to have the equivalent of Beast Riding-1 or higher is certainly going to help get through these tricky circumstances.

In other words, we simply apply the rules from Air/Raft to the needs of riding beasts and we’re done. There’s no need to add Beast Riding as a skill to the Service Tables. In fact, there’s no need to add Beast Riding to the game at all, since we can see how to adjudicate such matters from the rules already present.

Adding New Skills

But let’s say a PC wants to get better at riding the beast he’s on. He wants whatever +DMs he can get his hands on for some tricky riding.

Once again, we turn to the rules… this time the Experience section of the game. (No one pays attention to the Experience section. But like the rest of the game it is part of the toolkit… with some wonderful tools in it to build things that you might want for your setting and game.)

In Book 1 we find this:

The above list of skills is certainly not exhaustive. Additional skills may be encountered.

Creating New Skills: The experience rules of Book 2 indicate methods by which an individual can learn additional skills after he or she begins actively adventuring.

Those rules also cover the requirements for creating a new skill not otherwise detailed in the Traveller rules. For example, if a new weapon is developed (perhaps a laser pistol), a new skill would be required to enable its use.

Going to Book 2 we find the methods of raising Characteristics, Weapon Expertise, and Skills. As written, one could not learn Beast Riding as a new skill unless one spent a year dealing with a Technical School. But that doesn’t feel right to me as the Referee. The text make it seem as if the Player Character is learning something very involved and complicated, like Pilot or Mechanical. Riding a horse doesn’t seem to fit that.

If the PCs are on a planet spending lots of time riding around on these strange beasts and a Player wants to get a skill rating in it, I would let him use the Weapon Expertise slot for the Beast Riding-1 instead of a weapon. It might be the letter of the rules. But it feels to me like the spirit of the rules. So that’s what I would go with.

Mixing and Matching the Examples in the Rules Creates the Tool Kit

The previous example is a vital part of all this. Classic Traveller as the text itself says at the end of the 1981 edition_ was never meant to cover everything. But it is my belief is that the three Little Black Books cover enough to provide examples and analogies for Referees and Players to sort out whatever needs they have to make a moment of play work. It isn’t about writing new rules for every new circumstance, but taking the rules that are already there and applying them as needed


3 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Some Thoughts on Skill Use in Classic Traveller

  1. One important insight in the classic Traveller skill set is what’s missing: there are no knowledge skills. No languages, no scholarly disciplines, no sciences. Every skill allows you to do something tangible, not just answer a question or remember a fact. The result, intended or not, is that information is valuable. In the absence of a developmental experience system, increasing your character’s awareness of the setting is one of the few non-monetary paths to improvement. Rewards for successful adventures are not just money and loot, but clues to the next big score or the next big danger over the horizon.

    • Excellent point! And, importantly, OD&D and B/X D&D lacked this as well. (Though Ability Score rolls were introduced in B/X as optional rules.)

      This, again, leads to the Players needing to sort things out, come up with plans, and work their way forward with imaginative solutions… not to depend on die rules.

      So much of early RPG play, as far as I can tell, was about exploration. That is, exploration the Players did through their avatars… not primarily the exploration of the PCs.

  2. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box: Why I’m Not Fond of Rolling Against of Characteristic Throws | Tales to Astound!

Leave a Reply to ckubasik Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s