Tales to Astound!

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.