Tales to Astound!

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


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 TravellerIn the next post I’ll talk about the practical applications of this point of view when Refereeing and playing Traveller.