TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Rules are Not Your Friend

Petra-Spaceport-OutlanderThere is no comfort to be had in the Basic Traveller rules as written.

For years people have pointed out that making a profit with a freight hauler in Traveller is hard if not impossible. They claim the rules are broken since people should be able to regularly and safely make a profit.

Here’s a thought: What if that isn’t true? What if given the setting implied by the rules found int Books 1-3 making a profit is supposed to be very hard, if not impossible? What would happen then?

Lots of things!

For example, a crew of Player Characters might end up with a ship. The ship might have a mortgage. There are rules for paying the mortgage. But if the crew isn’t making a profit, they can’t pay that mortgage. Does this mean the rules for trade are broken?

Not if we remember that this passage has been part of the game since 1977:

Skipping: Most starships are purchased against a mortgage or loan, and the monthly payments required against the multi-million credit debt are staggering. The owner or captain may decide to steal the ship himself instead of remaining under that load. Passengers have no way themselves of determining if a specific ship is in such a status. The referee should throw 12 exactly to determine that a commercial ship is of this type.

Ships which have skipped are subject to repossession attempts if they are detected by the authorities or by collection agencies. Such attempts may range from the formal service of papers through legal injunctions to armed boarding parties. A repossession attempt will occur under the following conditions: On each world landing, throw 12+ to avoid such an attempt, apply a DM of +1 per 5 hexes distance from the ship’s home planet, to a maximum of +9. If the ship has called on the same world twice within the last two months, apply a DM of –2. This procedure also applies to ships owned by player characters who have skipped.

See, the underlying assumption of the Basic Traveller rules is that things go wrong. The rules for skipping make this assumption explicit. Your business venture as a tramp freighter crew might well go south. Why else have rules devoted to skipping out on your mortgage?

But this is only part of the pain the rules offer.

The rules of Books 1-3 dwell on combat, animal encounters, run-ins with the law, hijackings, pirates, hostile encounters in space and on planets, ship holds that don’t fill up, jump drive failure because of being unable to find refined fuel, and the fact that many worlds lack the parts or technology to repair anything from firearms to starships.

This doesn’t mean that any given setting has to be like this. Everyone should make the setting they want. If you want a setting where everything is clean and shiny, refined fuel is plentiful, and ever ship leaves port with a full cargo hold… go for it!

But the implied setting found in the actual rules of original Traveller assumes that things fail, that things go bad, and that things are always on the cusp of turning into the next disaster.

The implied setting of play assumes that travellers deal with trouble regularly. Traveller by definition put themselves in harms way, go to extraordinary places, and live lives most people would not risk. The rules make this clear.

When it comes to starship economics, the rules assume play will take place in a patch of space defined by depressed population levels and worlds with sub-starship technology. Profit margins will be narrow if not nonexistent. All of this is by design.

So, yes… if the crew of a ship can make their mortgage payments that’s great. It will be one less source of trouble if they don’t have people after them to repossess their ship. On the other hand, the rules take the time to explain how one bolts from the responsibility of paying that mortgage. The rules then explain how one can get into trouble for this choice and avoid that same trouble.

The soil of the Basic Traveller rules is science-fiction adventure fiction. The rules of the game are designed to create stress, conflict, and trouble. This helps drive the player characters to bold choices. It means taking high risk/high reward jobs. It means coming up with bold schemes to get contracts or find treasures. It means doing deeds for powerful patrons to get hold of better resources. The PCs might even skip the mortgage payments or become pirates. This is all part and parcel of the implied environment of the game fostered by the rules themselves.

No interpretation of the rules demands that trade in the implied section of space created by the rules works efficiently. In fact, if one looks at the expectations of the rules one finds the opposite.

Please note there is a discussion of these ideas taking place in the comments. Make sure to check them out. The points you want to make might already be under discussion!

26 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Rules are Not Your Friend

  1. Bang on! Traveller was fun the first time I played it simply BECAUSE it was hard. We’ve forgotten, with our heroes brimming with powerful abilities and packing state-of-the-art weaponry, that (back in the day) roleplaying was about taking what you were dealt with and making something of it. The game was designed to be about adventure, not about easy.

  2. I find it interesting that popular sci-fi on TV is more like Traveller than DnD. Be it Firefly or The Expanse the characters are “common” folks with Skills but no Feats who have to make decisions – often ones that skirt the law – to survive. As you point out, the Implied Setting in Traveller reinforces this view of the world. Like Che above this is why we played then and why I still play today.

    • On the other hand, Traveller is about professionals doing dangerous stuff. This is not about farm boys taking a rusty sword to beat up some goblins and eventually become a level 20 demigod. This is about highly experienced, highly trained professionals applying their expertise in dangerous situations, either for profit, for thrill (AKA the archetypal “4 old geezers in a Type-S out to see the Universe”), or for their “country” (in active-service military/espionage campaigns).

  3. Han Solo was deep in debt to Jabba the Hutt and thus had to take a very dangerous job with very shady characters – enemies of the Empire – to pay his debt. This didn’t work out well and he got into even worse complications.

    This is how Traveller works. This is how you get into exciting adventures.

  4. As I wrote some time ago:

    “Space is a dangerous place. Traverse the dark gulf between the stars – and risk your life. Looks at the Scout career in the core book, for example. With the basic rule according to which a failed Survival roll means death, a good portion of Scouts perish during their careers even if they are hardy enough. Exploring the stars is dangerous. Scouts have a 41.66% chance of dying per 4-year term if they are regular, healthy human beings. If they are particularly hardy (END 9+), they still have a 16.66% chance of dying per 4-year term. Beyond the obvious game-design need to balance the easy acquisition of a “free” Type-S Scout/Courier, this also has in-universe implications. Traversing the stars is dangerous. If you boldly go into the Uknown, you often find out that the Unknown has teeth, claws, and tentacles and that the Unknown wants to eat you. Space, indeed, is a dangerous place.

    Interstellar passage aboard a liner or trader is expensive – Cr8,000 per jump for Middle passage or Cr10,000 per jump for the more comfortable High Passage. Even highly paid professionals such as pilots do not make so much money in a whole month, some would not even make such a sum in half a year, even if you ignore life expenses. The only other option is to travel by Low Passage – essentially go into freezers originally intended for livestock (so it was in the source material), which is not only extremely uncomfortable and demeaning but also risky – 16.66% to die en route, 8.33% even with a highly skilled (Skill-2) medic, and an unhealthy passenger (END 6-) has a 27.77% chance of death due to freezer failure! Even if you pay for Middle Passage, and even if you are riding a legit, fully maintained liner, once the liner goes through routine or frontier starports (C or worse) – and in most cases it will – it uses unrefined fuel, and has a risk of 2.77% per jump to develop a potentially deadly drive malfunction and a risk of 2.77% per jump for a dangerous misjump. All of this – without accounting for the threat of piracy, or other risks of traversing the interstellar frontier.”

    From here:

      • I don’t think golan is saying it isn’t worth the risk. He is simply pointing out that the implied setting found in the rules is one of danger.

      • Exactly what ckubasik said – many of these risks are very much worth it, but they are risks nonetheless. Some of them very major risks taken for very major payoffs.

  5. I once ran a traveller campaign, for almost 3 years where the crew managed to make ends meet using the trade rules. They were not a bunch of gun bunnies , but a mix of Merchants, Scouts and others. One of which managed to generate a skill Admin 4 and basically nothing else, that skills affect on the trade tables was most of the reason for the monetary success.

    • To be clear, I’m not saying it is impossible. I’m saying it isn’t designed to work easily.

      Also, I’m talking about cargo and passengers here. These are the rules people often refer to as “broken.” The speculation rules (which is what Admin affects) is a whole different kettle of fish. I see them as part and parcel of the crew taking risks, seeking out investments on their own, and hauling those risks around.

      In other words, the dependance on the speculation rules reveals an implied setting without a strong economic center. The free traders and subsidized merchants will be better off risking trade and speculation. They are jumpstarting an interstellar economy that doesn’t exist in this patch of space yet.

      And yes, an Admin-4 is going to come in really handy when it is time to sell those goods the PCs have purchased.

      Ultimately, though, I’m not sure where the term “gun bunnies” comes into play. Again, the original Traveller rules were built to emulate “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” as inspired by SF tales and novels from the 40s through the mid-70s. There’s no shame in action and adventure in those tales… and I don’t think there would be in any Traveller RPG play as well.

    • What I have to wonder is whether the Traveller “net” is crawling with ads about paying off your starship in “3 easy steps” or “if you’re over 55 and own a starship in Reaver’s Deep” or :how to pay off your ship mortgage in only 10 years”. 🙂

  6. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other here, but I think that it’s telling that A. lots of people find it difficult to make their ship mortgage payments as a trader, but B. only 1 in 36 (“12 exactly” on 2D6, or a little less than 3%) of commercial ships should be in the “skipped” state. If it’s really that hard, shouldn’t the rules reflect that by a higher percentage? Possibly the rules understand “commercial” to be a particular class of ship or trader, perhaps incorporated and with a board of directors overseeing operations, as opposed to “free traders”?

    It always seemed to me that the trade rules gave you a halfway decent shot at staying ahead, given decent information flow – scraping together payments most of the time, interspersed with a fairly decent shot at making a killing on something every once in a while.

    • Ian, from what I can tell a lot of people who say “the rules don’t work” are doing so from the position of spreadsheets, not from the actual actions of crew members doing speculation, taking high risk jobs, and using the ship to bring in profit beyond cargo and passengers.

      My point is that Book 3 creates a light-trade interstellar environment. Trade might be easy one day, but it isn’t now. And so the crew members of ships plying these lanes are outliers in many ways, the first to arrive, the first to try to exploit the untamed circumstances. Their actions and choices provide results that go beyond anything a spreadsheet might reveal.

  7. All of my best game memories are the result of things going wrong, whether sci fi, super heroes, fantasy, Western, what have you…that’s when the really fun and hilarious things happen, when the daring strategies come into play, and we see what our characters are really made of. Personally I’ve always found the lower “levels,” if you will, to be the best fun to play.

    And anytime I read “this rule is broken,” I assume it’s most likely a cover for “this rule doesn’t make things work the way I want them to.” I’ve seen many games called “broken” or “unplayable” by folks who have usually never played the game, or played it once and it didn’t work out for them…haven’t ever really seen an unplayable game so much as a game I’d rather not play. In any case Traveler ’77 is lots of fun as written.

    Bucking the odds and taking the challenge is why we’re out on the fringes of known space, isn’t it?

  8. I guess some counter arguments would be that if you need to roll a natural 12 to find a skipping vessel, 35 out of 36 captains are making enough to pay the bills. Plus, if you generate an older character, you can have a paid off ship, implying that you’ve been making ends meet for decades.

    • Absolutely.
      The question is: are the crews making ends meet doing so easily and without stress? Or working hard, facing stress, and struggling like any entrepreneur?

      I think some people are reading the post as if I’m saying all ships fail. I never said that. I said there’s no guarantee the income will be easier. It is a post countering the notion that a freighter in the implied setting created by Books 1-3 should be able to make a profit if you just run the numbers on a spreadsheet — and if the numbers don’t add up the system is “broken.”

      My point is that a ship beyond the edge of a solid interstellar economy will have to do things that go above and beyond the basics of cargo and passengers — and many of them do just that. Hence, many crews are up to date with their payments.

  9. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Educated Aliteracy, Bold Choices, Intellectual Cotton Candy, and Overwhelming Strength –

  10. Understanding the meta-game desire to have the PC’s struggle to make ends meet, and their corresponding inclination to take (possibly irrational) risks — that is, to have adventures — the problem is this:

    “In addition, the bank will insist that the purchaser submit an economic plan detailing the projected activity which will guarantee that monthly payments are made. Unless a character has some form of guaranteed income (perhaps large rents from some property he owns), this condition will generally rule out purchases (at least financed purchases) of yachts, military vessels, or exploratory vessels.” Book 2, p. 5 (identical in both 1977 and 1981 versions).

    The bank, at least, had to believe it was possible (guaranteed, even) for the PC’s to make their mortgage payments, without resorting to illegal activities or depending on unpredictable, random opportunities. Otherwise, why would they hand over the keys to a mobile asset worth tens of millions of credits? That economic plan might have been the most boring possible — shuttling between a high-tech Industrial world and its low-tech, non-Industrial colony, say — but if the rules as written don’t allow the ship to make payments and break even without resorting to adventures, something is wrong.

    That is not to say that Bad Things ™ won’t happen to even the most prudent people, that many people aren’t prudent and take unreasonable risks, or that ships don’t fail and wind up skipping. (Most real-world businesses fail in the first five years.) But the system has to work on some level.

    • If you look at the quote from the rules again you will note that the ruled out vessels are yachts, military vessels, and exploratory vessels.

      Merchant ships are not ruled out. It is assumed that the ship buyers have a plan based on cargo and passengers that does work. That is the guarantee.

      The second, separate issue you bring up is that the rules make it unlikely this plan will work.

      My answer is simply that the ship economic rules are built for the PCs and not for ship economics in general. It is the same way I look at character generation from Book 1: people should not try extrapolate their general populace of a Traveller setting from the game’s character creation rules. (I understand people do this all the time. I believe it is wrongheaded.)

      The same is true of the Encounter rules. If the general population ended up in threatening situations as often as the PCs do civilization would most likely collapse. But PCs are trouble magnets. At least they are in CT with rules as written. The game universe bends differently around them.

      I understand my claim that the PCs live under one set of starship economic rules and NPCs make a living under a different set of rules will make some people reading this grind their teeth. But what is to be done? It is the easiest way to understand the rules in a fashion that works. It acknowledges that the game is designed to facilitate Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future (and not be a simulation of interstellar economics in the far future, to the chagrin of many people!) And Miller is on record as making it clear this was all focused on the PCS — not everyone in the setting.

      All of the rules in CT are rigged to force complications and hard choices on the PCs. This is by design. And it is all independent of any simulation or model of space society in general. Traveller was built before RPGs tried to model “reality.” It is best approached with this fact in mind.

      • “If you look at the quote from the rules again you will note that the ruled out vessels are yachts, military vessels, and exploratory vessels.”

        It says these are precluded; it does not say that they are the only examples.

        “My answer is simply that the ship economic rules are built for the PCs and not for ship economics in general.”

        These are, specifically, the ship economic rules that PC’s operate under. If it is not, generally, possible to create the viable economic plan that the financial arrangements “assumed” using the stated revenue-generating systems, that is self-contradictory.

        “It is the same way I look at character generation from Book 1: people should not try extrapolate their general populace of a Traveller setting from the game’s character creation rules… The same is true of the Encounter rules.”

        These are selection effects. The PC’s, who self-selected to become adventurers in part because of their unusual background and qualifications, are choosing to put themselves in dangerous situations that the vast majority of the population never experiences. There’s no contradiction here.

        [On the other hand, there are inferences one should be able to draw from the character generation system: the captain of a merchant vessel won’t normally be less than about 30 years old (start of Term 4), for example. If she is, that fact should tell you something unusual is going on.]

        “I understand my claim that the PCs live under one set of starship economic rules and NPCs make a living under a different set of rules will make some people reading this grind their teeth.”

        It is exactly the same as saying that nameless NPC’s should be easier to kill because they are just mooks, or that PC’s should have “hero points” or “plot immunity” to save them from their worst impulses. Only the sign is reversed.

        This is irrelevant, however. The problem occurs when the PC’s can’t fulfill the (assumed) requirements of their own economic system, even in theory.

        “But what is to be done?”

        Oh, I don’t know – maybe tweak the economic system until it is possible for a PC ship to break even? It’s not that hard. Then, when the PC’s fall on hard times, it is a direct result of bad luck or their own poor choices, not because the system is rigged against them.

        “Miller is on record as making it clear this was all focused on the PCS — not everyone in the setting.”

        Mr. Miller and others have also rightly pointed out that this was GDW’s second role-playing game, ever, and the first time that anyone attempted to write these particular types of systems. I am all in favor of seeing and trying the rules for what they are, but I don’t understand the “Biblical literalist” approach that insists they were divinely inspired and necessarily perfect in every respect right out of the box.

      • Interesting.
        “people should not try extrapolate their general populace ” (or even the service… for instance, maybe the reason travellers are good is that they are exposed to higher risk than normal in their professions (i.e. a marine’s marine, or whatever).

  11. I like the system being rigged against them. Others do too.

    You don’t. I get that

    You are on your path to either buying or creating the game that works for you, or tweaking BOOK 2 from Traveller until it works for you. I expect you’ll have a good time.

    I am not sure what more can or needs to be said. But, sincerely, I want you to have a good time with your gaming.

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