Original Traveller and original Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs born in the 1970s, assumed Player Character death as a given possibility during play. There are no levels or buttons or bennies of the sort found in most modern RPGs to protect the PCs or keep them elevated from harm’s way. A fickle roll of the die means–BLAM!–that’s it, the PC is dead.
This all flies in the face of the notion of “The Crew” that I’ve often seen on blog sites devoted to Traveller games just getting underway. By that I mean a campaign is beginning and a group of Player Characters (often with elaborate backstories) is created. The campaign assumes that these characters will be the focus of the game. This setup assumes, obviously, that these Player Characters will not die.
But, again, this is the opposite assumption of how early RPGs were played. Characters had slight backstories. Death was always on the table. A Player might end up playing several PCs over the length of long term play. (Backstory is what gets built during the first sessions, as the Players decide their goals, and who they want to hurt most for having hurt them!)
With all this in mind, here’s something I think is a valuable notion for Traveller play:
There is the valuable notion of NPCs as employees and part of adventures. It is an extension of the notion of hirelings in original Dungeons & Dragons, and hirelings and henchmen in later editions of D&D. (I think original Dungeons & Dragons has of information about how to approach original Traveller, as Traveller obviously leaned on original D&D for a lot of its assumptions and underlying logic.)
Remembering, too, the tradition of miniatures games that both games grew from, the idea that the PCs were the “leaders” of a sometimes larger unit of forces would make sense. And certainly the rules assume that not only can PCs be hired on as crew on someone else’s ship, but that the PCs might hire NPCs as crew.
Here is the text on the matter from the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 3:
EMPLOYEES AND HIRELINGS
When travellers require employees, for any purpose, they must find them in the course of their activities. This may require advertising, visiting union hiring halls, or active efforts in barrooms or clubs. Hiring is done by stating a requirement to the referee, who indicates persons presenting themselves for employment. The interview consists of generating the person’s characteristics and experience. While decisions to hire are made on qualifications, the number of persons applying for employment may be limited.
And here are further details added to the 1981 edition of Traveller Book 1:
Loyalty and Dedication
In most cases, non-player characters will be dependable and loyal (assuming the absence of bad treatment by their employers); the possibility exists, however, that a seemingly loyal non-player character has foul play at heart. The referee should utilize the character reaction table (in Book 3) to determine such potential, and note such possibilities as they exist. Continued loyalty of non-player characters is ultimately dependent on the quality of treatment and level of skill of their employing player-characters
MULTIPLE PLAYER CHARACTERS PER PLAYER
The 1977 edition of the game assumed you would most likely be rolling more than one character–since death was on the line in character generation itself. That notion that that “this character I’m rolling” is “my character for the campaign” is a notion introduced in RPG play as the hobby continues. But in the early years of the hobby… nope.
But if we start with the original assumption that you will roll multiple characters over time, and given that character creation is fun, fast, and (in Traveller) frankly addictive it makes sense (to me) to have Players create several PCs all at once.
Each Player then picks one (or maybe two or three) PCs to have in play, probably focusing on one in particular. But, in any case, a “stable” of PCs (either actively in play, or holding some in the wings) makes sense to me.
There are several advantages to this:
- It avoids the problems mentioned up thread of particular skills missing for the campaign focus. With multiple characters created the Players will have the characters they need to get the game as desired up and running.
- By having multiple PCs death is always allowed to be on the table as a risk, since new PCs are ready to go right away. This means the Referee is never in the position of having to fudge rolls or manipulate events to keep a PC alive. (I believe this is one of why the 1977 edition of the rules placed death front and center as a possibility–to make clear how the game worked and that death was always lurking.) Having death be an active risk has fallen out of favor in RPG play and design over the years. But in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I’m running right now (an OSR game based on Basic D&D) I’m finding that death on the table is much more awesome than I would have thought–for the Players. They are engaged and alert and invested in every action and decision. I think Traveller was designed to work this way originally. While the game has certainly changed over the years with different expectations (and play styles have changed drastically as well), I think Books 1-3 would work well with this style of play.
- Whether because of healing, or sabbaticals, or imprisonment or whatnot, in Traveller a character can be taken out of play for a while, whether from choice or by force. The game simply makes this a possibility in the very rules. Having several characters to choose from means that one PC can be put on the sidelines for a while, even as another character moves to the center of play. Again, this isn’t how most people play now, but the rules seem to assume that a PC might take off for two years to learn a new skill. What does the Player do during that time? Another PC solves that problem.
- Finally, filling out the roster. As Frankymole said, NPCs can be hired on to fill out the needs of a group (either as crew or as a strike force). But it is also possible to have each Player in charge of two to three PCs, just as hirelings or henchmen worked for D&D in the past. Or the Referee can run some of them as hirelings (less loyal, prone to more moral checks and such) and the Players run some of them as retainers (more loyal, capable of becoming PCs if required). The dynamics can be worked out by the group. But basically, this lets the Players a) create a bunch of characters; and b) decide what sort of group of PCs and NPCs they want to use for form their group of adventurers.
The terms used for this purpose would probably change from Hirelings to “Crew” or “Team” or “Mercenaries” or “Employees” whatever is appropriate and feels right.
Here is the description of this concept from Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules (again, a game based off early Dungeons & Dragons play). The game uses the word “Retainers” for the concept I’m discussing here:
An adventuring party is often more than just the sum of the player characters. A support network of NPCs is often necessary to really allow an expedition into the unknown to reach its full potential. Once the expedition reaches its destination, who is going to excavate the area around the Pharaoh’s tomb so that the entrance can be discovered? Afterwards, who is going to carry all that treasure back? Are the pack animals efficiently utilized? Who is guarding the camp? And what is to be done with all that treasure after it has been recovered? Surely the player characters are not a traveling gold caravan? Where do the player characters live? Surely not in a hovel if they have become successful treasure seekers. If so, who looks after their household when they are away? These support characters are called Retainers.
Later, a specific type of Retainer is describe, the Henchman:
Henchmen are different in that they are not exactly hired help, but actually adventuring sidekicks. They also are classed characters. Characters can only hire henchmen that are at least two levels below their own. Henchmen are often found during adventures as allies, and make for great replacement player.
While Traveller does not have levels, I think the concept of the difference between “employees” and “adventuring sidekicks” is a notion that could fit very well into the game.
Again, this might be a bit of a tangent from solving the problem of how to guarantee a Pilot skill if the focus is one PC per Player. But I think this other way of thinking about the matter removes the problem entirely and opens up a bunch of other positive results.
A final note: I’m not suggesting this is the “right” way to play the game. As I’ve noted above several times, what people expect RPG play to be like has changed a lot since 1977.
That said, if and when I get a Classic Traveller game going, I’ll be hewing as close as I can to the sensibility of the play style the rules encourage. It just seems like things will run more smoothly. And the notions above all seem to flow easily from the rules as written, from Character Creation, to Salaries, to Death, the Experience, and more.