TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Notes on the Personal Combat System

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Following up on Omer Joel’s excellent post about Complexity Creep, Modifier Creep, and Scale Creep, I had some thoughts about Classic Traveller’s very (very) abstract personal combat system and its place in roleplaying game design at the time of its release in 1977.

Roleplaying games are a descendent of war games, as most people know and are quick to point out. In particular, Dungeons & Dragons descended from a set of medieval miniature combat rules called Chainmail. Quoting Wikipedia:

It included a heavily Tolkien-influenced “Fantasy Supplement”, which made Chainmail the first commercially available set of rules for fantasy wargaming, though it follows many hobbyist efforts from the previous decade.[3] Dungeons & Dragons began as a Chainmail variant, and Chainmail pioneered many concepts later used in Dungeons & Dragons, including armor class and levels, as well as various spells, monsters and magical powers.

Chainmail is referenced continuously throughout Volume 1 of OD&D (“Men & Magic”) and how it integrates into the game. However, on page 19 an “Alternative Combat System” is introduced. It is much simpler than the detailed miniatures game found in Chainmail, focusing on the exchange of blows of personal combat.

Within a year of the publication of OD&D, Gygax advised using the Alternative Combat System as the default system (The Strategic Review, Vol 1, No. 2), and the “Alternative Combat System” quickly becomes the official system of D&D.

I suspect this was because it was easier to use and allowed the game to remain more in the “first person point of view” that was an essential component of RPGs.

I thought about this shift from one system to a more abstract system the other day after reviewing the combat system from the 1977 version of Traveller. As with the 1981 edition, it has range bands. What you might not know  is in the 1977 edition doesn’t translate the range bands into meters. That is, it’s really abstract.


For RPG play, the very abstract nature of the combat system allowed the game to keep going quickly and allowed the Referee and Players to make up details and bits of tactical business on the fly if desired. The text of the 1977 edition makes it clear that the Range Bands themselves preclude any kind of tactical concerns… which is true as far as goes. But in retrospect I see how tactical details can be introduced without building a full miniatures game.

The Referee put very much in the position of a Referee from a Free Kriegspiel. The original Kriegspiel rules put off many officers who trained with it because of all the page flipping through the rules and the mock combats took so much longer than an actual combat. (I’m using the term “Free Kriegspiel” loosely here, to illustrate the spectrum of play and rules from “The rules have everything” to “The Referee handles a lot.” Admittedly, the Traveller Referee handles a lot.

As we read in the Wikipedia entry about Kriegsspiel:

“Free” Kriegsspiel”
Kriegsspiel in its original form was not particularly popular among the Prussian officer corps; The rules were cumbersome and games took much longer than the battles that they were supposed to represent. It was not until 1876 that General Julius von Verdy du Vernois had the idea of placing more power in the hands of the gamemaster in order to speed up the game and reduce the number of rules. von Verdy’s “Free” Kriegsspiel did away with many of the movement and combat rules in order to save time, giving the duty of deciding the effects of orders and combat to the gamemaster. This allowed players to play a game in real time, giving the players a better feel for the tension of actual combat. To retain military accuracy, von Verdy emphasized the necessity of using military experts as gamemasters. The new “Free” Kriegsspiel soon gained more popularity than its predecessor (now known as “Strict” Kriegsspiel”); The Prussian (later German) General Staff used it both for its internal exercises and as a training tool.

And here I think is where the Traveller Referee also comes into play and how the game was designed:

Rather than sorting out every detail of a particular terrain, every detail of building, and having a rule for every kind of situation, Traveller was originally written for a much more fluid play style. Modifiers and more, based on circumstance, actions, and results are adjudicated on the fly by the Referee. Admittedly, the Referee has to have the real spirit of an impartial Referee to make this work — just as in Kriegspiel. The Players are trusting him to provide challenges, risk, and practical rewards for good thinking — even while adjudicating the environment, tactics, and enemy combatants.

During combat the Players come up with clever ideas, and the Referee adjudicates the actions of the PCs, creates DMs for Throws, checks to see if NPCs fall for the PCs’ plans with Throws he makes up on the spot. All of this, I postulate, should be done in the style of Free Kriegsspiel play, with the Referee not bound to a specific list of DMs and actions, but creating a conversation with the Players, back and forth, creating clever, fun details, tension over the results of attacks, and so on.

My own view is that this style of play can work gangbusters if everyone is onboard. It can create a really loose, fun, imaginative “theater of the mind” combat, with the Referee and Players building on details as they get introduced.

This isn’t to say maps can’t be used. If someone has deck plans and there’s a fight aboard the ship, use them to get a better sense of relative position. For a larger scale environment,  a sheet of paper, a white board, or an erasable mat can be used to quickly sketch out terrain details. Not to scale, mind you–there’d be no need to get that precise. But a rough sketch, with players marking where their characters are, erasing them or crossing them off as they move through the terrain would be enough to add an desired clarity. In all these cases, there’s be no need for miniatures. In the spirit of the original rules, one could use markers of some kind (small squares cut from paper), or, as mentioned, marking and erasing as combat rounds ensued.

Of course, not everyone is onboard with this style of play. Nor should everyone be onboard with it. It’s fast, loose and interpretive, built to move on to other aspects of play (exploration, puzzle solving, and more).

Original Traveller is so for toward being a Free Kriegspiel-like style of play that the pendulum had to swing back the other way. So in a reverse move from Kriegspiel moving to Free Kriegspiel, the abstracted Classic Traveller system  moves toward Snapshot, AHL, and Striker over time to make the combats for tactical and rules driven.

For the people who want this kind of detail in combat, it is great. But, clearly, each new game shifted the focus of play from the original game.

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3 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Notes on the Personal Combat System

  1. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I) | Tales to Astound!

  2. Pingback: From TRAVELLER: Out of the Box to the Third Imperium | Tales to Astound!

  3. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Expectations of a Traveller Referee at the Start of the Hobby | Tales to Astound!

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