TRAVELLER: Out of the Box: Why I’m Not Fond of Rolling of Characteristic Throws


In the comments of the previous posts on Traveller Skills, Christopher Thrash wrote:

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.

I agree with Thrash’s points. It reminded me of a post I wrote over at Citizens of the Imperium about the introduction of Characteristic Rolls in Adventure 1: The Kinunir. As I noted in the previous post, Traveller Books 1-3 does not mention rolling against the value of Characteristics at all. Instead, high and low Characteristics provide +DMs or -DMSs for Saving Throws created by the Referee. But in 1979, two years after the core rules came out, Adventure 1 contains the following paragraph:

Generating Throws: In situations where no specific throw is stated, the referee must usually create the throw himself. Often such a throw may be determined by referring to the characteristics of the player-characters involved. Such characteristics may be used either raw, or subject to DMs based on personal skills. For example, a character may be faced with a very unusual navigational problem hitherto un-encountered. The referee can easily create the required throw to solve the problem by using the character’s intelligence (or less), thus, in effect, stating that anyone with that level of intelligence has that probability of solving the problem (per day, per hour, or whatever). Each level of navigation skill would then be used as a DM of +1. Also, a requirement should be imposed that some navigation skill is a prerequisite.

Even if the notion of Characteristic rolls was introduced in the Traveller adventures I’m simply not a big fan of Characteristic Throws. Here are some of the reasons why–in general and using the example above as a specific case:

1. Inelegance. When I first dug up a copy of the LBBs a few years ago and ran a convention game (which turned into all this writing I’ve been doing about Traveller) we used the Characteristic Throws. What happened was every time I asked for a Throw, the Players had to stop and remember whether they were rolling over or under. Because, of course, with some Throws you are rolling over, and some you are rolling under, and there’s nothing intuitive about the difference. And then, god help us, if you need to add modifiers, you have switch the -DMs to +DMs and the +DMs to -DMs, on the fly, always focusing on which direction was up.

Because here’s the thing: At it’s core, this is the basic instruction for determine if things go south in Traveller2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw

With that, you can determine almost anything you need to determine. The thing is its all very flexible already. What the DMs are and what the Throw number is all get to be determined on the fly, with guidelines already suggested, but made concrete in the moment.

Adding Characteristic Throws makes the system more flexible, yes. But in my experience, it made it so flexible it was like a wet strand of spaghetti. And we didn’t enjoy it, as we had to remind ourselves whether we were going up or down each time, which slowed the handling time. It’s a small thing, to be sure. But it did bump us every time.

I’d rather stay focused on the core formula and build from that.

2. Easy Odds. In the example given from the text quoted above, let’s assume that the PC has an INT of 9 or 10. We’ll call it 9. Something high enough to assume he makes the cut. This means that when the PC makes the Throw he will succeed 72% of the time (if I’ve done my math right). That’s a really big chance for success on something that’s supposed to be a problem. But it really isn’t much of a problem because the Player, without doing much but rolling dice.

We might as well be saying, “Throw 6+” (same odds as Throw 9-) but that sounds less interesting, I suppose. But the key is, anyone with a high Characteristic has very, very good odds on something that, within the fiction, at least, is supposed to be a challenge.

The way the odds of Characteristic Throws like up then seem off to me. They are independent of the situation Is solving the problem difficult or hard? Who knows? If you have an INT of 9+ you’ll be solving anywhere from 72-100% of the time.

I’m not saying this should bump everyone else. But it bumps me.

3. Static Odds. Using Characteristic Throws means everyone knows how easy or hard it is to solve the problem even before a problem arrives. The odds of the Throw are baked into their Characteristic. Touching off the previous point, I want some mystery and some fictional details of the circumstances to set the Throw. That’s how I like to play. But I do think something is lost without the ability of the Referee and the Players to sort out the details of the world beyond the PC — which doesn’t happen when the problem can be solved within the PC’s characteristic alone.

4. I don’t want dice rolls to solve everything. I don’t like Players to be able to solve problems with a roll.

I’ve been running a Lamentations of the Flame Princess for months now, and it’s going gangbusters. It’s an OSR style game based on the B/X Dungeons & Dragons rules. I’m learning a lot about how I would run Classic Traveller from the game, as I consider Classic Traveller squarely in the Old School tradition.

One of the things I’m seeing that works so well is limited mechanical options to solve problems. The Players have the ability to fight, to do a limited set of skills (climb walls, check for traps, and so on), and cast magical spells (which, like Traveller, provide a broad range of unique skills the Players can use to solve problems). In the rules there are no Attribute Rolls. (They appear in later editions of Dungeons & Dragons.)

The thing is, the list of things they can do with die rolls is really limited. If, for example, they want to figure out what the strange planetarium they find the wizard’s keep is for (let alone use it) they can’t just make a roll to get an answer or mastery of it. (Some magic spells will provide veiled and incomplete information, but that’s it).

Instead, to solve problems and deal with crisis, what must the Players do? They must interact with the fictional world.

They talk to me. I talk to them. We build details. They have their characters poke and prod the fictional elements of the game. I give responses as to what the effects are.

Let me lay this down clearly: This is why I play the games. When I play, I want to create fictional details and moments with my friends, imaginatively and in the moment. I want an accretion of details. I want us building up images and pictures as we discover what the Characters do, and the Characters discover the strange world around them and the effects of their actions.

If the PCs come upon the wizard’s strange device and make an Intelligence rolls and succeed, well, that removes the need to poke and prod and the sense of actual discovery and the risk they’ll blow themselves up. And I don’t want to lose any of that.

I understand that for some folks getting on with it is part of the charm of using skill rolls. But I’ve discovered that’s not my thing.

So, in the example above: A character is faced with a very unusual navigational problem hitherto un-encountered.

Awesome. It’s a space game, and there’s a problem involving navigation. In my game, it’s a game about adventure and stuff, so we need to solve the problem not with an Intelligence roll (because where is the adventure in that) but with action

a) First, I want the Players to come up with their own ideas of how to solve the problem. They might not work, but I do want to here them. I want them to try them. If they make sense, sure! They work! Because that’s the fun of it. But as opposed to the INT roll, the solution will be specific and imaginative — and that’s the stuff my game play thrives on.

But they might not. Or the solution might be more complicated. Here are some ideas:

b) The Player Characters might have to travel somewhere to triangulate the information they already have to produce the results they need. The problem can then be solved. But getting to that point might create problems. There might be obstacles or dangers.

c) Or the PCs might need to find someone to talk to give them what they need. Once they do this, they can reduce the Throw number and see if they can now accomplish what they could not before (more on this below).

d) Of the PCs might sit around the ship and solve the problem. They describe what they’re doing, what plans or machinery they are bringing to bear. We are building a world with detail. As they build the detail, I, as the Referee, set the Throw and offer the +DMs for the details they’re adding. Again, this back and forth, for me, is the source of fun in play

5. Why Are We Rolling? The thing about Characteristic rolls is that, because they are easy, they encourage lots of rolling. And lots of rolling is not, in my observation, a good thing.

Again, this comes down to personal preferences and style of play. And I’m being upfront about this: This is my personal preference and the style of play is Old School. So all I can ask is that folks keep that in mind.

But from what I’ve seen in the LotFP game, there’s lots and lots of fun to be had with the Players poking and prodding and testing and checking and not having mechanical gears and levers that solve every problem for them via some sort of die roll baked into the rules.

As I stated in the link to post above, I’m coming down squarely on the notion that for the most part, skills in OSR games seem to work best when used when everything is going wrong, and before that, the game is just talking between the Referee and the Players: Exploring, building details, examining things. There’s no need to make rolls most of the time. The Referee is giving out information based on what the Players have their characters do, rather than handed out because of mechanics. This encourages the Players to poke and prod more. But because they can’t use mechanics to solve the problem, there’s an element of danger and risk: “If we poke and prod too much, what bad thing might happen?”

And so I turn to the example from the quote above: Why the heck are we rolling anyway? Are the Players in any sort of danger? Are they just curious about something? Do they have all the time in the world? Do they need to solve the problem in thirty minutes?

All those questions are valid possibilities for excellent play in a session of Classic Traveller. But each one will be handled differently. And I don’t think any of them are helped by having an Intelligence roll solve the problem for the Players.

If they are in danger, that means there’s a lot going on. The number of actions the PCs might take is varied, and the fun is seeing which paths of problems solving they decide to pursue. I don’t want them to solve the anomaly problem with a single die roll. I want to know how they shore up their defenses, or delay the danger while they work on solving the problem, or seek the answer to the problem while the danger is after them.

If it’s a problem of a ticking clock, each roll is now interesting. But it would be more interesting if the Throw is very difficult at first. Not a 72% chance of success, but 11+ or even 15+. And then for every hour or day (or whatever unit of time is required for the Throw) the Throw number is reduced as the research is conducted. But this means the Players must make decisions: “Is the risk the time spent on the research worth it if we might be attacked at any moment? Do we abandon ship now?” And so on. Because the circumstances are part of the Throw now, not just the character’s INT. (Note that, as stated in the blog post, I would be offering a +DM for a high INT in such cases. The point is, I’m not making the PC’s INT the sum total of the Throw.

If the situation is casual, and the PCs are curious about the anomaly, what I really want to know is why are the Players curious? What do they want from this? How do they want to explore this? I’ll let them describe the process of the PCs to me so I can learn what interests them, and then feed them more along these lines. A straightforward INT Throw cuts all this short. In other words, it is possible the Players might solve the problem without ever having made a Throw. There is a power and fun to this that I don’t think a Characteristic Throw, which cuts short all mystery and exploration in an instant, can ever match.


3 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box: Why I’m Not Fond of Rolling of Characteristic Throws

  1. I share many of your concerns about ability checks but B/X does have them – see Moldvay Basic p. B60 and the “There’s always a chance” rule.

    • Oh, absolutely it’s there. Buried in the “Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art” section of the book. That is, separated out from the rest of the rules.

      And the text reads:

      The DM may want to base a character’s
      chance of doing something on his or her ability scores
      (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth).

      Emphasis added on that “may.” For me, I choose not to. It seems to me that it was a rule added to solve a problem that the author didn’t know how to solve (how to explain a subtle concept to the reader), but actually makes things murky.

      But that’s my read on it–and obviously, not at all something I expect anyone else to care about. But the key for me is the concept isn’t in the core rules, but shunted off to one side near the back as something the Referee might want to do. I find that to be weak sauce.

      • Never liked the stat roll as stated either for much the same reason. So i came up with a simpler rule for use IF it seemed to fit. 7-8 in a stat were +0. Every two points above were +1. And every two points below were -1. So still roll 2D6+/-DMs and aim for 8+ as usual. If that didnt seem right I’d tweak the target no. And eventually settled on what they call rule 68A over at COTI. This was all inspired by the way existing traveller 77 worked at the time – along with some discussion with my friends. I think the key point as stated or implied in so many of your posts is that the rules as written are not the end-all. They’re a guide. You’re allowed and expected to make the game your own by being creative and adding as needed, tweaking as needed. So many people didn’t and still don’t seem to realise that they’re allowed to work things out for themselves.

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