TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–What We Mean When We Say “Encounter”

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Over at The Alexandrian blog, I stumbled across a series of posts by Justin Alexander about playing with the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules. What is interesting about the whole series is how the first post seems incredulous about the contents of the three booklets, but as time goes on Alexander and his group seem to find more and more enjoyment from the gameplay.

A specific blog post of his I want to reference touches on a theme I bought up in my post on The Casual, Improvisatory Nature of Early Traveller Play.

In the post, Reactions to OD&D: Wandering Adventures, Alexander makes the following observation:

But in quickly re-checking the OD&D rules for wandering monsters in the wilderness in order to make sure my memory was accurate for the details, I realized that I had been inadvertently glossing over a potentially fascinating distinction. From Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg. 17-18:

At the end of day (turn) the referee will check to see if a monster has been encountered. The matrix below is for travel afoot or mounted. For travel afloat or in the air two die rolls are made — a 5 on the first one indicates an adventure in the mid-point of the day with waterbourne or aerial monsters; a 6 on the second die roll indicates that there is a normal adventure at the end of the day, and the table below is used.

What I want to call your particular attention to here is the phrase “the second die roll indicates that there is a normal adventure at the end of the day”.

He gives an example of what happens when one uses the tables to generate the encounter, and then goes on to write:

My point with all this is that the OD&D rules for wandering monsters in the wilderness are not rules for generating random encounters in the sense commonly understood by later editions: These rules do not generate a single combat encounter. They are procedurally generating an entire adventure…

…the encounter tables are telling you that you’re entering an area currently plagued by a large tribe of bandits [in the example given]. Does that mean getting waylaid on the road? Being forcibly deputized by the local lordling to deal with the problem? Being hired by a wealthy merchant whose daughter has been kidnapped? Being press-ganged by the bandits themselves and tasked with kidnapping the merchant’s wealthy daughter? All of the above? A dozen or so dice rolls have me pretty much brimming over with ideas.

In any case, the point is that you’re generating an adventure, just like the book says — something that the players can engage or ignore; bypass or be ambushed by; become embroiled with or skim past.

I bring this up in the context of original Traveller because for many people the notion of “Encounter” has been corrupted (as Alexander notes above and in the blog post). We tend to think of it is “a fight.” You stumble across such-and-such NPCs and there is fight.”

But in the rules Alexander stumbles across in Volume 2 of Dungeons & Dragons, it is clear that what is generated with a Random Encounter is a situation, not a battle. A battle might occur, but that all comes down to how the situation falls out.


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Marc Miller has made it explicit that Traveller grew from the inspiration of Dungeons & Dragons. He changed things, he added things. But there is no denying that if you look at the LBBs of D&D and the LBBs of Traveller one can see both the influence and shared assumptions from one game to the next.

I understand that many people cannot fathom how I can say Traveller is anything like Dungeons & Dragons. I can only suggest that they are viewing Traveller from the vantage point of 40 years of material, all condensed into one thing called Traveller, as if the whole of various product lines always existed at the same time throughout for decades. All I can say is that these blog posts are about looking at the original Traveller rules. And if one actually reads Books 1-3 in the format of, specifically, Books 1-3, the connections between original Traveller and Dungeons & Dragons are quite clear and many rules that might seems strange become clear.

One such set of rules is the Random Person Encounter (above). The Referee is supposed to roll for a chance of encounter once every day. The roll is 1D6, with an encounter on a 5 or a 6. If there is an encounter, the Referee rolls two D6 consecutively and checks the table above.

And then… what?

Two things:

As the rules note, roll on the Reaction Table (Book 3) to determine the disposition of the NPCs. Also, determine the range between the PCs and the NPCs on the Encounter Range Table (Book 1). Also roll to determine if either side has Surprise (Book 1).

But really, what is going on? Why are the NPCs there? If we assume that the NPCs are not there simply to beat up the PCs, what is happening? What is the situation?

Are the Thugs roughing someone up for cash? Are the Workers in need of protection from a strange beast native to the world (are they being attacked by the creature right now)? Are the Tourists on the run from abusive government officials? Are the Fugitives hijacking a vehicle?

Are the Bandits allocating the spoils of their robbery at backwater bar? Are the Bandits in the middle of an arms deal at their base?

Are the Researches under attack by natives? Do the Researchers need help getting to the lower depths of a mine to finish their studies? Are the Researchers being marched at gunpoint by local authorities trying to hide a secret?

Are the Marines or Soldiers or Naval Security Troops part of the local world’s forces? From off world (and thus at war with the local world)? Or part of the interstellar polity of the setting? Why are they out in the field? What is happening? Have the Player Characters walked into battle? A battle that is about to occur? A covert operation to kidnap or kill a high value target? Do the PCs know of this target? They could be looking for the target themselves. Or perhaps the had only heard of the man, and now realize he’s in trouble.

It is incumbent upon the Referee to turn the simple category of NPC listed in the Random Person Encounter into a situation. Something is happening. Things are in motion. Sometimes the situation will be obvious. Other times the situation will require investigation.

Sometimes the situation will involve the Player Characters directly (the NPCs are looking for, in conflict with, or looking to offer to help the PCs). Other times the connection with the PCs will be indirect (the PCs have heard rumors of “such-and-such” (a person, an object, a growing conflict) and the Encounter gives them a chance to learn more about it or dig deeper into the matters at hand.

But often (and I would suggest more often than not) the Encounter will have no direct bearing on the PCs at all. The world is in motion, after all, and not everything is about the PCs. However, and here is the key, the PCs can choose to get involved.

And this is the key. This is why there is a Reaction Table for the NPCs. This is why the Referee determines Range when an Encounter is rolled. This is why Surprise is rolled an checked. Because all of this provides the Players with a chance to decide what to do about the situation.

Remember that at certain ranges and with surprise on their side the PCs could simply slip away undetected. Or they could use that surprise to sneak up on NPCs. Or the could make overtures to parley, only to discover the NCPs are hostile.

Why are they hostile? The Referee will make this up as he goes. That’s what this kind of play is about. The Brigands or the Marines might try to enlist the aid of the PCs, or they might try to kill them on the spot. Either possible and like the Random Generation of Main Worlds, these rules are “a prod to the imagination” to make the Referee come up with stuff he would not otherwise come up with.


All of this means that while the PCs are heading off in one direction to explore the ancient ruins they’ve heard about, they might get caught up in the conflict between a group of bandits and the local villages they’ve been pillaging… and this is fine.

The early days of RPG were not about plotted adventures. They were not about the Referee having a “story” to tell. No campaign was planned.

In this way, the kind of “story” that is created is a series of stories… the picaresque. A group of adventurers, wandering in and out of adventures as they arise, choosing goals and adventures as they present themselves. This kind of story structure, the inspirations for both OD&D and Traveller, grows naturally from the rules as presented in the original versions of these two, early RPGs.

If you look at the early game materials–the random encounter tables, the encounters in the hex crawls, and so on–one sees that the entire flow of these games in the early days was much more improvisational. New elements would occur that might pull the Players and their Player Characters in whole new, unexpected directions. What starts as a simple encounter might be something that turns into a cheery meeting of fellow travellers, a firefight, three sessions worth of play, or the focus of the campaign.

The Referee would make rolls for encounters, introduce these unexpected NPCs or situations, the Players would make decisions and take actions, the Referee would adjudicate the responses of the NPCs, and–and this is the important part–the Players would have their characters respond in turn.

The last part matters because what the Players chose to pursue and focus on is what the game became.

Now, please note, this is not saying the Referee is at the mercy of the Players. They are not telling him “what happens.” The Referee, after all, creates the setting. The Referee controls all the NPCs. The Referee controls everything but the PCs.

But in this style of play, part of the fun of being a Referee is listening to the Players, responding to their interests, building up the NPCs, the environment, and situations that they’re leaning into.

Thus, if the Players decided the PCs are going to go wipe out the band of bandits terrorizing the locals, the Referee gets to decide who the bandits are, what they are like, whatever weirdness he want them possess, and so on. But it is a give and take between the random, the Players, and the Referee, all working together to create a string of incidents and adventures that no one could have anticipated before hand.

15 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–What We Mean When We Say “Encounter”

  1. Thank you for another insightful post on early Traveller. I am itching to find a few players and give these techniques a fresh try someday soon.

    As an aside, I am reminded that one of the D&D house rules I encountered at my first convention in 1976 was along these lines. The DM set a chance that any wilderness encounter you had might be a double encounter, with the two randomly rolled things already in interaction with each other. This being early years, it was understood that this interaction would be improvised on the spot by the DM.

    • Over at Citizens of the Imperium, Mike Wightman explained how he used multiple rolls on the Patron Table to create situations for the Player Characters to get involved with. This isn’t the same as what you describe (they’re not Encounters). But I think it shows how multiple rolling on tables can be used to greater effect than a single roll. Here is the example he gave:

      Easiest way is with an example (note that this is using the 81 version of LBB3 – Starter Edition and The Traveller Book actually have much more comprehensive tables)

      I roll on the patron table and get:

      rumour, avenger, army

      next I roll on random person encounter

      workers, animal encounter (a roll of 6,n I take as animal or alien) and ambushing brigands.

      I pick the starting encounter:

      Lets say the players encounter some workers who are obviously agitated, discussion with them reveals that the industrial plant they have been operating has been closed due to rumours of some violent native beast, and that some hotheads are thinking of going to hunt the animals down. There is a rumour that the animals in question have highly valuable (insert whatever you want here – anagathic glands, valuable fur, expensive blubber – whatever).

      Players may or may not join the hunt, but they have been seen talking to the workers.

      Next encounter depends – if they go on the animal hunt then they may encounter the ambushing brigands who are also after the animals, or they may encounter the army patrol guarding the industrial site and containing the animals.

      If they don’t go on the hunt they are approached by the avenger who has lost (family member, best friend, whatever will pull players in) and offers to guide the players past the workers/army guards to get to the animals.

      If they went along with the workers they may still encounter the avenger being attacked by the brigands/army patrol.

      It’s fairly organic – I may decide to change the encounter order in response to player actions, and reaction rolls may make things more tense than they need to be.

      And at some point I have to generate the animal stats…

    • I had not seen that before! That’s great! That’s the kind of stuff I think is implied in the expectations of the CT rules, but never made explicit.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen the (from Lamentations of the Flame Princess) or Yoon-Suin (from Noisms Games) but both do a great job of listing not only NPCs for encounters, but motivations and interactions with other randomly rolled NPCs. These books (and others) I think step up the game a bit by putting all the NPCs in motion in the way you advise in your post.

  2. These examinations of Traveller are spot on. Help me get out of my fourteen year old brain and into a mature adventure creationists. It is great to see the game come alive when you know how the tools given were intended to be used.

  3. Great post. GMs tend to spend far too much time trying to come up with “stories” when they could simply use the resources provided in the books to generate all manner of fun adventures they never would have thought up otherwise. That is the real beauty of well designed random tables.

    • I always liked trying to explain encounters and hook them up with traveller npcs I’d generated. They’d always suggest things I’d probably not have come up with – thus avoiding getting into a rut. And making the time spent coming up with stories much less of an effort because half the work was done for me.

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