TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Automatic Competency & Proving Competency

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A blog post called “You Only Roll When…” over at Wild Hunt Studios credits a post from this site about how I think of the Traveller skill system with helping understand better a design mechanic he was working on.

I think the WHS post is worth a read. It restates and gives good examples for many of the things I’ve been talking about. The author’s approach isn’t mine across the board… but who would expect that?

More importantly (for me) he gave me some phrasing that helped me understand better the final, long post I’ve been working on about how I approach the Traveller Throw system. In particular he uses the phrases “rolling to prove competency” and “automatic competency” which is at the heart of how I see the Classic Traveller system working well. It is also the the opposite of the way lots of people us “skill systems.”

From the blog post:

The reasoning behind setting it up this way was because I have always found “rolling to prove competency” creates disappointing, unrealistic situations: the famous archer who can’t hit a barn from two paces, the ex-army werewolf warrior who doesn’t land a single blow in an entire game session, the master thief who can’t pick a stumbling-drunk dunce’s pocket, the strongman who can’t lift a small crate, etc. These kinds of situations, and similar, have inescapably created frustration and annoyance for players; they do not add to the fun, promote realistic characterization, or create tense drama.

Automatic competency is about letting character concepts shine, about the characters being what they say they are, and then pitting them against odds greater than what they are capable of. It’s about making what matters really matter–letting players show off their characters so that when it all comes down on them, everyone at the table knows this is a true test, a real turning point, because now you have to roll.

The author also states:

The players have their characters do something, and the GM has other characters respond with something or has something happen in the environment in response to that, and the characters respond to those things, and the GM responds again to those things. And they do this until there is a real crisis point–a big one–that the characters are desperately trying to get out of because otherwise IT’S GAME OVER MAN! GAME OVER!

Then dice start rolling. Because that’s what rolling the dice is for.

But note, not for mere need or danger. Only once the characters are deep into the shit, when they have gone beyond whatever trouble has already been established, the situation absolutely requires something outside what they are normally capable of and that will result in death or injury or explosions–in things becoming much worse than how bad things already are–at which point, whether or not they could normally, characters can try anything, even things normally outside their purview.

This sort of play encourages the kind of play I like: conversational, tense, and creative.

I’ll be writing a fuller post about this later. But this key notion, that you simply move on with most tasks if it looks like the Player Character should be able to do something is very much, I think, in the spirit of Classic Traveller.

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