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


[A note before we begin. This is the second part of how I approach the uses of Throws in Classic Traveller. (The first part can be found here.) I make no claim that this is authoritative. It is a personal project, built off my own taste of how I want to use the rules and the kind play I want to find at the table. That said, these ideas are built of the text found in Traveler Books 1-3 and, per Part I, looking at the historical context of gaming and RPGS in the mid-70’s when Traveller was first published.]

It has long been noted that the Classic Traveller does not have a unified task resolution system. Instead it has an ad hoc system of Throws, with different Throws for different skills, and many of the rolls left without any sort of specific procedure or definition. For many, many people this is a problem. People want to know how the game works in a simple, consistent manner.

And it is important to note that most of RPG design in the decades since Classic Traveller’s release worked specifically toward the goal of making unified task/skill resolution systems.

The fact that so much design effort was spent in making such task/skill systems and that consumers responded positively to this new design philosophy certainly means that:

  1. later design philosophy is a distinct design philosophy from that found in the original Traveller rules
  2. many people prefer the later designs over the early RPG designs found in the original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller rules
  3. people prefer the later designs because it offers a certain kind of play that many people prefer

It is my thesis, however, that the Throw system found in Classic Traveller is still quit efficient, works wonderfully well, and produces a kind of play that many people enjoy.

But because RPG design has changed so much in the intervening decades since Classic Traveller’s release it is difficult in a way to tease out exactly how it is supposed to work. To this end, in this post I present my general outline of resolving moments of tension and crisis using the rules of Classic Traveller.

Here is a passage from the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 1. This passage does not appear in any later edition of the rules:

Skills and the Referee: It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates.

The significance of this passage is that it tells the Referee and the Players how to play the game.

Without the passage to make it clear that the lack of unified skill or task system is by design people are left to wonder how all the pieces of Classic Traveller fit together in a unified system. And, of course, as the passage was cut from later editions of the Classic Traveller rules (the 1981 edition, The Traveller Book, and Starter Traveller) people did scour the rules looking for the unified and logical system that would tell them how to make the rules work.

But the game wasn’t designed in that way. It was designed for the Referee to step up and handle situations ad hoc as defined in the passage above.

The logic of the passage grows from the kinds of gaming and Referee driven game play that Classic Traveller grew out of. (Again, as covered in Part I.) The fact that many, many players wanted something different from an RPG (that is, a game with a unified and comprehensive Skill/Task system) doesn’t change the fact that this kind of play works.

Once we put that passage back into the rules we can see that instead of turning to the rulebook to adjudicate how to handle moments of tension and crisis we now turn to the Referee to handle them. In this way the Referee in the rules of original Traveller is exactly like the Referee found in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien (as discussed in Part I of this series).

However, this does not mean the Referee is acting willy-nilly or left truly adrift in how to run the game. When I read the rules of Classic Traveller I see an order to how to resolve moments of crisis and tension and how to keep the game moving forward. I defined this order below.



I do not think original Traveller has a Skill System. I believe has a Throw system. (Later editions of Traveller do have Skills Systems or “Task Systems”). Again, I’m not claiming this is “true” or “authoritative.” I’m only claiming that after digging into the original Traveller rules, (Books 1-3), and looking at all the text holistically, this interpretation makes sense to me.

Here is how I see the Throw system working for original Traveller:

  1. The game is a conversation between the Players and the Referee. The Players have their characters do things, the Referee has the world and the non-player characters respond. In general, things simply move along. Even moments of crisis can often be resolved without referring to a Throw. If a character has a shotgun and out of the blue announces he’s going to fire the weapon at someone standing right in front of him, I might well have him roll damage (or simply kill the NPC outright) rather than have a Throw for a hit.
    Other matters, from doing daily repairs to hacking into a civilians computer if one has Computer-1 or greater, often will require no roll. The Referee adjudicates whether a roll is required. He does this by thinking not in terms of “story” or what would be interesting, but honestly trying to be impartial judge of the elements of the world, reflecting back to the Players the forces and logic of the fictional setting already established.
  2. The Referee can also decide certain actions are impossible, and not even a Throw can make it happen. Some Throws will be impossible because a PC lacks a needed expertise, or a high enough expertise. In the same way, if a Player declares, “I jump to the moon!” it is in the Referee’s realm to prohibit a roll for it. It’s the Referee’s job to set the bar of “reality he wants for his game.
  3. Notes on the expertise of the Player Characters:
    • I use the term “expertise” rather than “skill.” The term expertise was used in the 1977 edition of the Traveller rules, and I think it better reflects the power and strength of any trained character. Expertise means a character is an expert in whatever skill is at hand, whether it be rifles or medical ability. It means they can be hired at better rates because they are very, very good at what they do. Remember that DM+1 on a 2D6 bell curve is a very big deal. A Rifle-1 doesn’t mean you can handle yourself on a shooting range; it means that in a combat situation, with that rifle in hand, you are above the average soldier. (The average soldier in the original Traveller rules will have an expertise of 0. He does not suffer the DM-5 of the untrained man using a firearm, but he gains no bonus either.)
    • Player Characters are not limited to doing the skills listed on their character sheet. The list of skills
  4. If the Referee decides the outcome is uncertain, or he cannot determine what the result should be, he calls for a Throw of the dice.
    • The Referee determines the Throw based on the circumstances of the fictional situation at hand. It is, for example, easier to perform CPR than surgery.
    • Various positive and negative DMs might be applied. Here are qualities that might provide DMs:
      – possessing a pertinent expertise
      – lacking a pertinent expertise
      – having the proper tools for the job
      – possessing a high or low characteristic that might provide a -DM or +DM
      – any other factors the Referee or Players deem important in the situation
      It is important to note that for me this part of the Throw (sussing out the fictional details involved in the Throw) is a continuation of the conversation mentioned above. This is not “stopping” the game for me, this is the Players and the Referee focusing on the Player Characters, their actions, the details of the environment, the specific actions being taken. It’s like a movie, where the camera is pointed at the pertinent details, revealing their importance to the audience. It makes the game (for me at least) richer and more real as we say, “Well, my guy is really strong (STR 10), and I think that’ll help him use the crowbar to leverage the wheel on the bulkhead door as the air is being sucked out of this section of the ship.” And then I say, “Right. Take a DM+1 on the Throw to get this door open before all the air is gone.”
  5. A key point of play for me is providing Players choices and then seeing how they handle them. (I call this “Providing them with Opportunities and Opposition.”)
  6. 2D6 are rolled. If the roll is equal to or greater than the value of the Throw, then success occurs. If not, then not.

The short version: 2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw Value equals success

The reason I don’t consider a Skill System is because not every Throw involves a skill. A character might try to bluff his way into a fancy party, with his Education or Social Standing (if very low or very high, as appropriate to the situation) as a DM.

Or the Referee could use the number of terms a character served in a service as a DM in a case where his is trying to influence members of that service to bend the laws for him, and so on.

In this way, original Traveller seems very similar to me to the Braunstein rules. That is, anything on the character sheet is fair game for a DM.

Moreover, even things not on the character sheet could come into play. If the Player Characters have been hanging around on a world for a while learning its language, and then travel to another world where they see some ancient inscriptions in an alien language on an old temple wall, the Referee might give them a roll to understand the langue because they had learning a similar language on the other world. In the same way, an NPC Reaction Roll might suffer a -DM if the Player Characters interacting with citizens of a world that the empire they are from recently conquered.

The point here is that not every roll is based on or modified by a skill. Anything from service branch, terms of service, rank, any of the six characteristics, history in play, circumstances of the situation (are they trying to track someone in the rain?), and anything else that seems pertinent, as well as skills, might influence the Throw number or DMs. There might be a expertise DM, there might not be. Sometimes the DMs based on skill rules will be positive, and sometimes, if lacking, will be negative. Sometimes a characteristic value will be a +DM, and other times, a -DM.

When we play this way we are building the imaginative qualities of the situation, with the roll made to determine, impartially and with finality, what the outcome is.

For me, this system works well as it encourages the Referee and the Players to add fictional details to the situation, the actions of the Player Characters and so on, in an effort to really determine how hard or difficult a situation might be, if a roll is required at all, and so on.

By layering these details we end up making the moment concrete and specific (and thus memorable) in the heads of everyone at the table. And that is the kind of play I like best.

In the next post I’ll expand on what I mean about “this kind of play” as well as discuss some of the implications of this kind of play for creating characters, building conflicts, and running games.


25 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part II)

  1. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I) | Tales to Astound!

  2. Wow, we must be mind brothers. Like you I have been rereading my ’77 LBBs and finding a whole lot of narrative play between the covers. Narrative because the rules are looser than many of today’s systems and that looseness promotes narrative exchanges between players and the GM.

  3. Like your reasoning. It does make more sense if you’ve seen the earlier games you mention, Kriegspiel etc – which I’d not until you mentioned them in your posts. But I find the key thing for me here is the shift in perspective, the idea of the resolution roll (or ‘throw’), rather than a *skill* roll. I have few rpgs left from back then (70-s & 80-s) but I remember that many had a more war gamey feel and had a roll to see if you succeed based on potentially many things, one of which would be your skill. The old FGU game Flashing Blades particularly comes to mind. I think it is a shame that the passage you quote is missing as that would make a difference – it does hand back power and responsibility to the GM if you put it back in the written rules, as you say. While I certainly like the idea of consistency in game mechanics and so rather like many of the task resolution iterations that came later – I would have preferred that they kept it more general rather than being so skill focussed. And it encourages flexibility – e.g. to allow a roll of 8+ based simply on having served 2 or more terms in a service to ‘know’ how it ‘works’ if you’re trying something that otherwise might rely too heavily on admin or streetwise. I figure space navy and marines know more about naval and marine bureaucracy than say an army guy or a scientist, no matter how much other experience they’ve had (unless it was with Nay and Marines). And thanks for the odds table. Never thought of combining them like that before. I just write them out on a scrap piece of paper when I need to.

    • Thanks for the summation. Those are lots of the ideas I’m getting at.

      So, yes. Someone might have the Classic Traveller skill Admin. But if they are dealing with bureaucracy of a military institution they served in then they might get DMs from both their Admin expertise but also their time spent in that service. I mean, why not? It ground the PC in their own history, makes the setting feel more connected and real. It encourages the Players to track the reality of the world around their fictional characters!

      • I find it funny that while I have been doing this since the late 70s, I never really thought of it as a big deal until I have run into some other styles of play in other games with GMs who are very rules focused. It makes sense that I don’t see eye to eye with some GMs who run rules tight on later games. To me, they are guidelines. 🙂

  4. Very interesting posts.
    They help clarify my own thinking about how I approach the games I play, which are mostly D100 based off of Runequest’s system. RQ/BRP definitely self-describes as a skill system but I think the approach you describe is still open to it and has always been in the back of my mind while running/playing it.
    I know that I much prefer GMs who have a similar holistic approach to determining if a thing can be done, and how easy/difficult it is… rather than focusing on just one stat/skill.
    In a recent game we needed to sail up a river on a small sailboat, but none of us had a ‘sailing’ skill or had been employed as sailors… but I was able to bring up all the time we’d spent on sailing vessels previously, that we’d been on this same small boat for days with an able crew… so between us we should have SOME idea of how to get it going… and the GM let us give it a (successful it turned out) try.

  5. Pingback: An Improvised Classic Traveller Convention Game | Tales to Astound!

  6. Pingback: Classic Traveller Rules In Action, But Not In Space | Tales to Astound!

  7. Pingback: TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Expectations of a Traveller Referee at the Start of the Hobby | Tales to Astound!

  8. Pingback: The Heart of the Classic Traveller Rules — For Me | Tales to Astound!

  9. I really like this, but if this is the case, that the Referee susses out the bonuses and penalties purely based on situation and character expertise, why oh why did they then put all those DMs and rules about how various skills worked? For instance, an Admin roll must be 7+ to succeed, -3 DM for no expertise, and +2 DM for each level of Administration skill. The other text of the game seems to belie your evaluation.

    • I can see how reading the text a certain way can support your point. However, I see plenty of text that supports the points I make above.

      First, if we look to the description of Mechanical in Book 1 we find this:
      “Specific throws for specific situations must be generated. Obviously, the throw to fabricate a new main drive bearing as a starship plunges into a flaming sun would be harder than the throw to repair a broken air lock hatch while in port. Success in any mechanical enterprise is also affected by such variables as tool availablity, personal strength and dexterity, education, and situation.”

      This suggests, to me at least, an openness to creating Throws and DMs in other elements of play as well.

      Further if we scour the text of Traveller Books 1-3 for references to the Admin skill, we find these mentions:
      • “Admin might allow a +DM when looking for drugs or other goods where dealing with low or high level bureaucracies might come into play.”
      • “If characters are skilled in Admin they may apply the expertise as a DM for the sale of speculative goods. In any given transaction, such DMs may be used by only one person.”
      • “Admin may be used as a DM on the Reaction Table when determining the response of a person to business offers or deals.”
      • “When searching for a Psionics Institute on a world a DM +1 per level of Admin can be added to the roll.”
      • “Admin expertise may affect whether documents that have been forged are inspected.”

      Each of the above bullet points are quotes pulled from Books 1-3. Given these quotes, we know Admin is not limited to use as it is described in skill description list in Book 1, but is in fact a DM variable that can be applied in various circumstances.

      Finally, my first point above might seem too elastic. “Sure,” someone might say, “the description of Mechanical says the Referee has to come up with Throws and DMs — but the other skills don’t have that.

      But I have to point everyone to the passage I quote above under the heading “The Missing Rule”, found on page 20 of the 1977 edition of Book 1. The passage is found at the end of the skill description list, there is this paragraph that was dropped from further editions of the game. It is the centerpiece of the post above and is so important I’m going to quote it again:

      Skills and the Referee: It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates.”

      Although this paragraph was dropped after 1977, the essence of the design philosophy is found throughout Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3. The text of the skill descriptions is “a guide” and the text should be “followed, altered, or ignored as actual situation dictates.”

      Given all of the above it’s clear (at least to me) that the description of Admin in Book 1 is a starting point for using the Admin skill, not limitation on how to use it. And this applies to all the other skills as well.

      • This is why I find the 68A system with Ref-defined mods to be a good one. My tendency would be to simply run with all Throws being Ref-defined, and not use the “Admin is a 7+ with +2 per level of Admin” mess defined for each because it is too hard to stop playing to reference the rules.

      • When I took apart the skill descriptions and wrote out the formulas, I found that they were less wild and wooly than I had anticipated.

        Also, I have fallen in love with the passage from The Traveller Adventure that suggests the Referee should roll 2D6 to determine difficulty for the Throw.

        I love this because I, as a Referee, often have no clue as to how hard it should be (for example) to open a jammed airlock after a decompression. (Like, seriously, given all the factors involved in each case, how the hell would I know?)

        I like to play as an impartial Referee, adjudicating without concern for steering toward any sort of outcome or trying to build climaxes or whatnot, so the cold roll of the die to determine difficulty if I’m not certain solves lots of problems for me.

        I would might well weight the roll (D6+6, for example) or roll straight 2D6… but it seems like a perfect way of determining the difficulty.

        I also love (in the passage from The Traveller Adventure) that when you roll a Reaction Roll that becomes the Throw value when trying to influence the NPC. So if you get off on the wrong foot have a harder time of it than if you rolled high. (Because of how like to always be rolling over, I would take the result of the Reaction Table roll, subtract it from 14, and that would served as the Throw Value for social interactions with that NPC.)

        In all of this I like the broader range of possible Throws than 68A provides, as well as always using whatever output gets generated (for example Reaction Rolls, Law Levels, an NPC’s characteristic, and so on) to use for the Throws.

        But, as always, that’s me.

      • I may reconsider after more Ref experience with the system, but for now, 68A gives me a framework to hang decisions on. Is there a complete, concise list of the RAW Throws given for skills?

  10. So, back in the day, I think we most often used the 8+ throw as a default. The only reason I can think of, some 36 years later, is that it was the base throw to hit an opponent in combat. It seemed reasonable enough. Add DMs based on skills, and you were good. In hindsight, the probability of rolling 8+ (unmodified) is about 41%, which might be considered a “hard” task. Of course, we didn’t roll for most things, and a character with 1-2 levels in a skill made that roll a near sure success.

    • Quick question:

      During combat did you use the Range and Armor DMs? And did you use the DMs for high or low Dexterity (for firearms) or Strength (for melee weapons)?

      Also, in the combat section one would see this in oversized, bolt type set apart from the rest of the text:

      I think that image burned into the brains of lots of folks and helped it become the default. (Even though, if one is applying the DMs from Armor, Range, Strength, and Dexterity the Throw values will range from 2 to 12 or higher.)

      Finally, in a passage from the The Traveller Adventure (quoted in the post linked to below) the game suggests that the Referee roll 2D6 to randomly determine the difficulty of a situation.

      I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who used this method. But I think it is genius and will be putting a post about this in the next couple of days.

      • Back in the day, I also used the 8+ as a base number. For the period of time that I used the Traveller combat system, I did use the armor and range mods as presented (actually using the Judges Guild screen or the Snapshot charts). I also mostly did NOT use the sample rolls from the skill descriptions, rather using a standard 8+ target (modified by difficulty) with a +DM equal to skill level.

        While I have had The Traveller Adventure for some time (I’m not sure when I picked it up, probably at some 20 years ago), I never read it in detail to see that suggestion, and my purchase of it was well after my active Traveller play.

      • I think I’m beginning to understand why people say the Cepheus Engine is just like the original LBBs. It isn’t, because the rules are very different from the rules found in the original Traveller rules. But they are very similar to how people PLAYED original Traveller in spite of the rules. If nothing else i can scratch one more mystery off my bucket list!

  11. Quick question: A lot of people are showing up from Facebook for this post… but there is no way for me to track down where on Facebook. Can anyone tell me where the link to this post is? Thanks!

  12. Pingback: CLASSIC TRAVELLER: What “The Traveller” Adventure had to Say About Situation Throws–Randomized Situation Numbers | Tales to Astound!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s