TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I)

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This is kind of esoteric, and I’m not quite sure how to articulate this in a concise way. For some of you this might be stone-cold obvious. For others it might seem like the dumbest thing ever.

But here we go:

I was chatting with some friends online about how I’m beginning to see how Refereeing Traveller (and original D&D) required a different kind of approach than that used by roleplaying games that came after it.

I’ve tried several times to clean top the ideas contained below. But I have failed. So I’m gong to post the original comments in their raw form. They might be of interest to some, but not to others!

I wrote the following:


I’ve discussed on one of these threads the idea of Refereeing I work with taken from Free Kriegsspiel and Braunstien… That the Referee is the impartial adjudicator of events, making decisions sometimes without even referring to rules.

Rolls are made when the Referee is uncertain, but the idea really is a REFEREE. He provides opportunities and obstacles to the Players, sits back, lets them make decisions and take actions, and then says, “Ummm…. here’s the call.”

It goes without saying that this entire system of play is dependent on the Players TRUSTING the Referee. Whether this is a GOOD idea, is beyond the scope of these posts. But that’s what we’re talking about.

So… skill rolls in Traveller and skill rolls in other games, and rolls in general.

It occurred to me that given the above framework, I really do, when I roll, hand off the power of fate to the oracles. I really have no agenda. I’m just looking to see what happens along with the Players.

It is an impartial act to find out what happened so we might find out what the Player Characters do next.

An Implication for Traveller Throws:

Keep in mind that I don’t think Classic Traveller has a Skill System. It has a Throw system (throw 2D6, equal or beat a number, add DMs from a variety of sources (skills, characteristics, and circumstances). Not everything Throw has a Skill DM. THAT IS IMPORTANT!

Because it we have a system for Referee saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Roll these 2D6 and we’ll find out what happened.” All sorts of modifiers can come into play depending on what the roll is about. It is a universal system that looks like it has not system! (Every later edition of Traveller has a skill system, tying all rolls to skills.)

So, I’m thinking about this, and thinking about how I see this as different than I see, let’s say, skills in Cyberpunk 2020. (I’m using CP2020 as an example, but really it’s a stand in for all RPGs after 1980, and some before 1980.)

Because in CP2020 the roll doesn’t seem impartial at all. As a Player, that skill roll is my skill roll. If I hit it, it’s not because we’re turning to the oracles to find out what happened. It’s because my guy was That Fucking Awesome.

The distinction I am trying to express is strange and subtle. I don’t even have words to describe it yet.

In the case of Traveller we are making an impartial roll to discover a result that my PC’s skill can influence. In all later RPG skill systems, the roll is about my skill.

That is all. Like, I don’t know where to go with that, exactly. But I do know this shift in understanding (clearly seeing what I’ve been thinking about the Traveller rules) makes perfect sense to me.

And I don’t see it squaring with other RPGs. (But I might be missing something. Like I said, it’s all new and kind of weird.)

This ties into the early RPG ideas where the Referee made all or many of the rolls. Maybe it wasn’t because he was fudging, but because the rolls weren’t about the Players making the roll or about “The Characters succeeding or failing.”

Maybe because it was part and parcel of the impartial nature of the revelation of events, offering a new set of obstacles and opportunities for the Players to deal with.

I think communicating this idea is important for how I’d like to play Traveller.

We could play the Lamentations of the Flame Princess I’m running the same way, with an understanding the hiding in shadows is not about whether “You are good enough to hide in shadow” but about “Whether you are seen.” There’s a distinction here, right? It is using the dice in completely different ways. The effect is the same, perhaps, but it is a distinctly different point of view about how one approaches the dice and the game. And, in turn, I think this shift changes a great deal about how one sees play working out. It really reinforces the nature of the Referee as impartial judge, the dice as oracles, and the rolls not as “skill rolls” but as impartial tools to determine outcomes. The point of the roll is not to see “How well the character did,” but to see what happened when the character did something, which in turn leads to the character having to do the next thing, based on the outcome of the roll.

But I also think I might melt the brains of people used to thinking along lines built out during the last 35 years of the hobby.

My friend Jesse then commented:

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with Raggi. A situation came up in my D&D 5e that involved the players trying to turn a congregation against their spiritual leader using illusions and other magic. It was a pretty good idea. I had the player who had concocted the play make a Deception skill check.

But it got me thinking. How do you adjudicate that in LotFP? I know Raggi is against using stat resolution (i.e. roll d20 get under CHA). It bugged me so much I just decided to ask him.

He told me that he’d just make an NPC reaction roll. And at first I thought, “Ah! Okay makes sense.”

But the longer I thought about it the more it bugged me because a flat NPC reaction roll in no way takes into account who the characters ARE.

And I think that ties into what you were saying. “Throws” center the situation as a whole. Stuff is happening. Could go lots of ways. We throw to see what branch we go down. Skills center the characters. This one is better at X and that one is better at Y.

And I think that represents the drift over time. We start out with a war game. Players are units. It’s a pretty birds eye view. Hell we have a “Caller” who speaks for everyone. But over time, people start wanting who there character *is* to matter more and more.

And I replied to Jesse:

And what I would add to Raggi’s note is a DM for the Awesomeness of the Magic. A Reaction +3 … or whatever … based, as you say, off the situation at hand, with the roll to determine where we go next.

You wrote: “But over time, people start wanting who there character is to matter more and more.”

Exactly… because this is also the shift away from Player focused play, to Character focused play. (“Player Skill, Not Character Abilities” in the parlance of the “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.”)


That was the exchange. What follows below are a notes for context.

I’ve discussed before how I see Refereeing Traveller in the context of how Referees work when playing Free Kriegsspiel (a Referee driven war game).

Here is the passage on Free Kriegsspiel from the Wikipedia entry on 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.

In my research into the gaming culture and kinds of games surrounding the creation of Roleplaying Games in the 1970s I also looked and Braunstiena Referee driven precursor to Dungeons & Dragons.


Barons of Braunstein is a historical role-playing game, but one incorporating ideas and inspiration from the original Braunstein by David Wesley in the 1960s. (You can see the character sheet for the game above. I want you to really pay attention to how much information isn’t on that character sheet.)

The following sample character demonstrates what a finished hero might look like:

NAME: Mite
SEX: female
LITERACY: illiterate (+2 LUCK)
LUCK: 12
SOCIAL CLASS: commoner
BACKGROUND: Mite is a young street urchin with no knowledge of her birth name. Although willing to steal, she is protective of the weak and helpless.
EQUIPMENT: backpack, bedroll, knife, picks and tools, rations

Here is the important part: the Referee is supposed to use those few scattered elements to decide on the fly what the character can and cannot do in different circumstances.

For example, there are three “Social Classes” in Barons of Braunstien: Clergy, Commoners, and Nobles. Based on those three classes alone, the Judge must often decide what sort of skills or abilities a character might possess, what he might be able to do or not do at all, how difficult certain acts might be, and so on.

Here is the passage from the rules of Barons of Braunstien about “Doing Things”:


Some actions are easy. The player does not roll dice because their character is automatically successful. Other things are simply impossible and never succeed under any circumstances, although judges can always intervene (a matter of common sense and good judgment). Everything else requires the roll of 2d6, based on conditions:

Simple  —  ordinary walking/talking 
Easy  7 or better  elementary/little interference 
Moderate  9 or better  harder/distractions present 
Difficult  12+  daunting/dangerous conditions 

Notice that it is up to the Judge (the Referee) to decide if an action is automatic, impossible, or possible but requiring a roll. Note, too, the Judge decides what the difficulty will be. These matters will be influenced by  who the character is (background, history, social class and so on, as originally described by the Player).

Someone who is “willing to steal” (as in the example above) might have an easier time picking a pocket than a parish priest. It is up to the Judge to decide how difficult it might be for either the street urchin or the parish priest to pick a pocket based on nothing more than his own common sense and interpretation of the world.

One might say that this kind of rules system is kind of loosey-goosey! YES! And I suggest this sort of loosey-goosiness was part and parcel, and expectation, of playing both original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller.

I bring all this up because I believe if one reads the rules for original Dungeons & Dragons or original Traveller and it seems they are “broken,” “incomplete,” or “need to be fixed” it is because the person reading them is lacking the context of how the Referee worked in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien. (And we all know how much effort has been spent trying to “fix” the “Task System” for Classic Traveller over the years!)

This doesn’t mean this method of play is better, or should be played at your table. (Current RPG design certainly works to avoid this kind of play!) But it is a viable method of play.

Moreover, I believe it is an excellent approach for playing Original Traveller. In the next post I’ll talk about the practical applications of this point of view when Refereeing and playing Traveller.


17 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I)

  1. Growing up with a father who played wargames, getting into roleplaying was a revelation… but very much an extension of wargaming. I remember that my own Games Mastering style developed with this element at the heart: players make decisions for their characters, GMs make decisions for everyone else. But there is a detached mindset as GM that many modern players seem to find unusual; it’s summed up by me making decisions that would fit the non-player character at hand combined with the detached curiousity about “what happens next” that you leave to the dice. Playing this way, fudging dice doesn’t make sense because if you feel certain about how and event would pass, you simply rule that outcome. A side-effect of this approach is that, as the GM, I find myself talking through the logic of a call to players… and often in getting their input to the situation. This is a social game that discovers the story as it unfolds before us.

    • Hi UbiquitiousRat,

      Thank you so much for your comment! Just before I read it (while I was out walking the dogs this morning) I realized I’m in an odd position: I was given a copy of the Holmes Dungeons & Dragons set in 1977, and bought my copy of Traveller the same year. But I was a member of no club, I had no older mentors. I was culturally cut off from any help or aid as to the roots of the game or how to apply them. Traveller, especially, confounded me. With it’s loosey-goosey style (in so many areas, especially in terms of the application of skills) the game kind of confounded me. I wanted to play it! I was drawn to it like iron filings to a magnet. But every time I looked to it to explain to me how to play, I would get a bit dizzy.

      The thing is, Traveller was written by adults — for other adults. The guys at GDW sat around playing D&D at lunch, and then Miller decided to create an SF version of this new thing that was on the market. And then he played Traveller with his adult friends. When I got D&D and Traveller, I was 14 years old.

      The notion that one could assume a neutral, impartial judgment based off of wide ranging experience, facts, education, and common sense simply was beyond my understanding — because I did not possess a lot of experience, facts, education, and common sense!

      I ended up cobbling together a gaming group from the creative writing and lit study kids I hung out with. We used AD&D and had a lovely couple of years of fun. But Traveller, despite the way it pulled me, always seemed a kind of mystery. I knew there was something there that worked. I just couldn’t see how to make it work.

      Clearly Traveller stuck with me. It nagged my brain and I could never let go of it. Hence all these posts as I’ve tried to dig in and figure out what I had been missing as a 14-year-old. But because I had no mentors nor gaming culture I was a part of I have had to go backward in time and approach the game almost like an archeologist looking at clues trying to sort out what all this stuff was about. I’ve had to look at the text holistically and sort out what the logic might have been. I’ve had to look at the fiction that preceded the game and figure out what Miller might have been assuming in the game’s underlying (but not stated) logic. And I’ve looked at the other games and the gaming culture before and at the time of Traveller’s publication, all to get a handle on what I was missing in my understanding decades ago.

      I make no claim that all of this is “right” — only that I’m digging into these elements and finding a method that makes Classic Traveller — as written — work, and work quite well. As an adult I can see how the pieces fit together, and I now have enough experience, education, and common sense to cobble together a technique of play that works.

      Your post matters to be because it is a confirmation that the clues I’ve been digging up make sense and are correct. That my interpretation of my “archeological dig” is close enough. Thanks so much for the comment. Greatly appreciated!

      • You’re welcome. I think we are on a related and similar journey: I am finding my way back to the style of play that I grew up with… which later games, GMs, and players steadily led me away from. That’s not to say that I learned nothing of value from later games, GMs, and players. It’s more that I am returning to some older principles of play. Your post reminded me of something that I’d held onto subconsciously. Now it is once more conscious. It allows me to let go of my worries about the things people tell me I SHOULD do when I Games Master. It consciously clues me back into the style of play that feels most at home.

        Thanks for unlocking my memory.

    • By the way, I forgot to call out this portion of your response:
      “A side-effect of this approach is that, as the GM, I find myself talking through the logic of a call to players… and often in getting their input to the situation. This is a social game that discovers the story as it unfolds before us.”

      I think this is the thing that I find most appealing about this path I’ve been following in digging into the functional play style of Classic Traveller. Yes, the Referee is the final adjudicator of outcomes. But before that adjudication, this play style really hangs on the back-and-forth conversation between the Players and the Referee.

      I call it an “accretion of fictional details” — where everyone at the table helps build the specifics of the world as required and needed in specific moments of play. These details in turn not only provide the basis for further additional details, but illustrate what matters to every everyone at the table. The kinds of details, the kinds of logic, the kinds of character details that people want to share and focus on. As you say, it’s a conversation — and this kind of play allows the conversation to be part of the eventing’s play.

      • Checked out ubiquitousrat’s post as well. Think we’re having a similar experience with this ootb series.

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  3. I will definitely be referring to this, and pointing my players to it. You are really preaching the good word on how to run Classic Traveller (and OD&D). I think this all works and can be fun, however, the players have to buy into it. Maybe not upfront outright trust, but at least buy into the idea. We can and should fine tune things as we go.

  4. Social contracts before a game is started helps players agree on how die rolling will be handled at the table. Role-play doesn’t get interrupted by players asking how to roll during a game.

    • Exactly.

      A problem, however, is that so many people assume “roleplaying games are roleplaying games” — which leads to all sorts of confusion when people arrive at a table with completely different expectations of what “roleplaying games” are.

      Not only different games but different play styles offer a vast variety of ways of rolling the dice (when to roll them, how often to roll them, what the rolls mean, what the results mean, who interprets them, and so on.)

      As you point out, having this sorted out ahead of time is very helpful!

  5. There is certainly a subtle difference between having a situation that is affected by skills and making a skill roll. Subtle enough that some people might not even see a difference, but I think that it is there and real. That said, I think that it is mostly a matter of perspective and less a matter of rules. That is, it is possible to approach CP2020 in the same way, despite the way that the rules frame things. It will at least affect when the Referee chooses to have a roll occur and perhaps what specifically needs to be rolled. It will also affect the way that the rolls are described in play – “roll 10+. You can add your Shmortening skill level to the roll if you have it” instead of “roll a Shmortening check against a difficulty of 10+”. The focus changes to the roll, away from the character sheet.

    As I think back to the Traveller games that I ran in the early ’80s, it occurs to me that we rarely made rolls outside of combat situations, relatively speaking. I mean, we did, but it was mostly in service of the sorts of situations you describe here. Generally, events that occurred had a specific, obvious outcome, either success or failure. It was in cases where the outcome was both in doubt and either result could move the adventure forward (in different ways, of course) that it came time to make a roll.

    This is a matter that has been occupying my thinking, off and on, since I ran a disastrous game of Unknown Armies a few years back. That game assumes that you aren’t going to be making rolls very often, for much the reasons we’re talking about here, but I applied the habits that I’d gained from ’90s-era gaming to it. The players were pretty unhappy with the results, and so was I.

  6. Maybe one way to put it, is that one way is a bit more of cooperative story telling. The other is ROLLPLAYING, beating the system, which is how most RPGs work. There are a few cooperative story telling systems out there, but I don’t recall which ones they are.

    • Maybe. I don’t know.

      The fulcrum I’m focusing on is between the Player ability and Character ability.

      In the first, we assume that the players at the table matter. That their imaginations, ideas, problem-solving, and commitment to the shared imagined space of everyone at the table matters. The Referee says, “There’s a tear in the vacc suit. What do you do?” And the Player says something. And the Referee might well say, “Huh. That’s good. You fixed it!” No roll needed.

      In the second, we offload that work from the Players to the Character. The Referee says, “There’s a tear in the vacc suit. What do you do?” And the Player says something. And the Referee says, “Okay, roll your character’s Vacc expertise to see if it works.”

      In the first, we might have what you are referring to cooperative storytelling, I supposed. But I don’t think the second is beating the system. It’s matter of assuming some sort of simulation wherein we test the PCs skills and abilities in the simulation. The Player’s input is pushed to the side (lightly or harshly) because the Player is not part of the simulation. Moreover, if the Player (in the first case) comes up with a great idea that doesn’t even require a roll to work, he’s still “winning” — right? He came up with a great idea and kept his character alive.

      (Pro Tip from the days of original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller: If you reach a point where you have to roll the dice you can fail. Thus, you are better off creating fictional details and circumstances on behalf of the PCs that make so much sense that the Referee simply says, “Sounds good. It works.”)

  7. Like others I’m glad to see you back posting your OOTB thread. Ive had some time of late to re-read things on this thread and the other blogs you reference, and this post plus the replies bring up a couple of things.

    Firstly, I think I finally get your comment about traveller not having a skill system. With the focus on skill and stat focussed mechanics in many games, including recent iterations of traveller, it took me a while to work out what I think you mean. Forgive me for being dumb, but I take it you mean Traveller has a task resolution system, which you could also call an event resolution system, or a problem resolution system, or a challenge resolution system. This can involve a variety of situational modifiers, which include but are not necessarily restricted to (nor in fact necessarily require) skills and stats. Which is good, because it allows more flexibility. For example, sometimes I just allow people to use their terms of service in a relevant career as a DM, or alternative DM. Or use their career history to judge they have a 0 level skill, or that no roll (except to perhaps determine some idea of quality) is required.

    Secondly, you and others discuss having a dialogue between the Ref and Players on how to resolve a situation. I think this is a good thing and it certainly has worked well for me, but is not for everyone. But it works well for my current group of players. The three games that really got me more into the habit of such dialogue were Pendragon, Amber, and Over the Edge, and it has been useful to me to carry it over into other games I’ve run. Including, now, a return to Traveller. I used to play Traveller quite regularly from 1980-1995-ish, but it got phased out in my then groups by newer games, and by people becoming obsessed with rules and the OTU. They also were mildly obsessive over having and playing the latest DND and keeping to the monster stats as written – so adapting to actually play a fantasy setting that was ‘fantasy’ not ‘DnD’ was like trying to play Traveller that wasn’t OTU. I started playing OTE because it required less set up work, was more flexible (for me and my target player group), and because I thought one day I’d like to try running Traveller with this. I find that many of the approaches with OTE that I’ve adopted for my current traveller game (including this dialogue/“accretion of fictional details”) seem to match (or be simpatico with) philosophies in this OOTB series.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      I’m curious: For your current Traveller game are you using Over the Edge? Or a set of Traveller rules?

      I know you had thought of using OTE (as have I!). If you didn’t what shifted you from OTE back to a set of Traveller rules?

      • I’ve had a couple of one-offs to experiment with OTE – mostly disguised in an aside from an OTE game to deal with some ‘side treks’ as the DnDers used to call them. I ran a Traveller-esque scenario in OTE with Striker/OTE combat mechanics over several sessions. Thinking about it, I used OTE like I used original Traveller, as a framework for running the game I wanted (only tenuously following the published setting). For the current traveller, its basically Mongoose traveller where I find those rules do what I probably would have house ruled anyway. I am using slightly modified striker (using some OTE concepts) for combat. For handling duelling (yet to come) I’m going to be adapting Flashing Blades rules. And more and more I’m running the ‘universal task profile’ type of mechanic as a ‘problem resolution’ mechanic, not a skill or stat roll. I’ve got a noble and 2 marines making their fortune on the frontier, and when I look at the fiction that inspired Traveller, and real history, and see what sort of real life characters did what, this less straightjacketed approach lets the players do more with their characters and match the fiction and history I’m trying to emulate. They’re quite imaginative players, so not being bounded, I get some pretty interesting ideas out of them. And so I get to have a lot of fun. So do they else I’d not still be running.

        To finally answer your question: the players were interested in playing Traveller so I kept with that rather than engage in a full on playtest experiment with OTE. They didn’t mind me futzing with the rules so long as it didn’t take too long out of play, was over with relatively quickly, and was a consistent and improved result. So, an OTE traveller is still in the future, if you’ll pardon the pun. BUT I’ve adapted an OTE approach (which I think is rather old school in its way) while retaining mostly traveller rules. And its really pretty much in line with your appreciation of T77. If you’re interested I’ll let you know how I go with a Traveller version of OTE.

        The main borrowing from OTE, aside from approach, is to allow a +3 skill or stat bonus to be converted to +d6. And to allow for bonus and penalty dice. Not always, I’m still feeling my way, but it has worked so far. I’m still thinking about the exact mechanics – and I think that these might provide a good or better way of handling Jack of All Trades. While the concepts are on the books, dice rolls have been 95% traveller I’d say because a lot of the time if what the PCs want to do is sensible, I don’t bother rolling. I roll mostly for encounters and reaction rolls and then combat. Most else is straight forward.

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