art: Lazar Kacarevic
A while back, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Soon-Yuin) posted at his blog:
Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the “player”, who inhabits him).
Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It’s your decision. Nobody else’s.
In this and many ways, RPGs are – perhaps uniquely among games – an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don’t have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can’t just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that’s true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.
Does this mean anything? I’m not sure, but I’ll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them.
I post this in reference to the original Traveller rules, because for some people the rules seem too light. “Who is my guy?” they might ask. Or, “My character only has six characteristics and two skills. Who is she?”
David’s point is that who your character is is what your character does. Using the characteristics of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, Social Standing, and your skills, as well as age and career branch, as a springboard for understanding your Player Character, you get to create your character based on what they want, what actions they’ll take to get what they want, and how they’ll go about getting what they want.
Modern RPGs are insistent that all these matters should be on one’s character sheet. (And certainly I love games that record matters of character, like King Arthur Pendragon.) But there is a wisdom as well in letting the rules sit back a little, offering the Players characteristics and skills that affect the odds of die rolls but letting the Players fill out the rest. This allows the Player Characters to be discovered as play rolls on, and change in significant ways, without bogging down the game with excess rules and die rolls that move the game away from choosing to do things and seeing how they turn out.
Always remember the example of character creation found in Traveller Book 1. Marc Miller invests the character with all sorts of details from the process that go well beyond the mechanical die rolls of rolling up skills.
JAMISON: Having just finished school, Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world. Taking stock in himself and his personal qualities [generate all six characteristics; he rolls, consecutively 6, 8, 8, 12, 8, 9] he soon decides that his UPP of 688C89 adapts him best for the Merchant service. He visits the local starport, checks out the situation [required roll of 7+ to enlist, with a DM of +2 allowed for his intelligence of greater than 6; he rolls 5 (+2=7)] and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on.
During his first term of service [survival roll required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+2=13)] he faces no great dangers, merely ordinary day-to-day events. His application for a commission [required roll of 4+, DM of +7 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+1=8)] is a mere formality. As a 4th Officer, he proves hard working and efficient, [promotion roll required of 10+, with a DM of +1 for intelligence; he rolls 10 (+1=11)] and quickly receives a promotion to 3rd Officer. Jamison clearly feels he has found his place in life, and decides that he would like to continue in service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 7] and reenlists. He has become eligible for four skills during this term of service (two for initial term of service, one for obtaining a commission, and one for being promoted): the work as 4th Officer was, at times, strenuous [Table 1, roll 1= +1 Strength] but he certainly developed his muscles. While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people [Table 1, roll 5= blade combat] he learns to handle a dagger. Routine operations [Table 2, roll 2= vacc suit] require that he learn to handle himself in a vacuum suit. Finally, [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] he takes an elementary course in electronics.
In his second term of service, the rapidly maturing Jamison finds himself faced with some danger [survival throw required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 3, which is the lowest possible and still survive (3+2=5)] possibly a pirate raid, but does stay alive. His continued efficiency [promotion throw of 10+ with a DM of+1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 12 (+1=13)] gains him his desired promotion to 2nd Officer. He signs up for a third term of service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs, he throws 6] and is accepted. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service, one for his promotion): He goes on a physical fitness kick [Table 1, roll 3= +1 endurance] and learns to better defend himself [Table 2, roll 4 =gun combat] using the small body pistol.
Jamison’s third term is rather uneventful [survival roll of 5+, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 9 (+2=11)]. Unfortunately [promotion roll of 10+ required, DM of +1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 8 (+1=9)] he fails the examination for 1st Officer by two points, and does not receive a promotion. Determined to succeed, he reenlists [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 10], He is eligible for one skill: [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] and studies electronics to increase his knowledge.
The fourth term begins easily enough [survival throw of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)]. This time he passes the 1st Officer exam [promotion throw of 10+ required, DM +1 for intelligence; he throws 12 (+1=13)] easily, receiving his promotion and his master’s papers (including automatic pilot-1 expertise). Reenlisting again, he signs the papers to allow a fifth term of service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he throws 10]. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service and one for his promotion): he trains himself in the martial arts [Table 7, roll 5 = blade combat] choosing the cutlass and [Table 2, roll 4= gun combat] and, of all things, the submachine gun.
Beginning term of service number five, [survival roll of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)], he stands for promotion [required promotion roll of 10+, DM +1 for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+1=12)] and is so promoted. At this point firmly entrenched in the merchant service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 3] the service falls upon hard times, and in a cut-back, notifies Captain Jamison that it will no longer require his services after the end of this term. Because he has served five terms, he is eligible to retire (at CR 4000 per year). His service entitles him to two final skills: [Table 4, roll 5=pilot] He studies to improve his piloting skill, and [Table 3, roll 3= electronics] he continues his interest in electronics. Jamison now musters out of the service after 20 years of active duty. Because he is a Merchant Captain (of rank 5 on the scale of ranks), he is entitled to two extra rolls on the mustering out tables, in addition to the 5 rolls (for 5 terms of service) he has coming. He also is allowed, by virtue of his rank, +1 on all rolls on Table 1. Jamison elects to make one roll on Table 2 [he rolls 4= CR 20,000] and six rolls on Table 2 [he rolls 5 (+1=6) = +1 education; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 2 (+1=3) = one middle passage; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) =merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship]. His rolls indicate that Jamison has probably been participating in a long term purchase arrangement for the ship he has been serving on; at this point he has possession of the ship and 30 years of payments have already been made. Jamison is 38 years old, and is subject to 2 rounds of aging (one round should have been made at the end of term of service 4, but is instead being resolved at this time for simplicity; the other round is due to the end of term of service 5). He rolls twice (once for each round of aging being resolved) for strength reduction [saving throw is 8+; he rolls 12 and 9], twice for dexterity [saving throw of 7+; he rolls 7 and 6] and loses one point, reducing his dexterity from 8 to 7, and twice for endurance [saving throw 8+; he rolls 9 and 11].
To recapitulate, Captain Jamison is now a 38 year old retired merchant captain, UPP 779C99. His skills are shown in the inset. He owns a Type A merchant ship (30 years old) and he owes 10 years (120 months) of payments before he will have clear title. He also has one middle passage, worth about CR 8,000. He has a re-tirement income of CR 4,000 yearly, and has already collected the first year’s bene-fit, which, when added to his other monies, gives him a balance of CR 24,000.
It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career.
Notice how much life Miller imagines for Jamison as the character makes his way through the character creation process. Notice how much attitude and point of view about himself and the world around him Miller invests in Jamison based off the rolls.
Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world…
…and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on…
While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people he learns to handle a dagger…
It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career…
…are only some of the examples. None of these qualities of character or bits of history are dictated by the numbers or written on the character sheet. But the Player had decided that for his character “dealing with people” requires a dagger!
A different person might come up with a completely different set of assumptions about who Jamison is, what his attitude toward life is, what the rolls meant, and what his history with the Merchant Marines was like.
This is the gift that a system life the original Traveller rules offers. It is less specific in nailing down the character on the character sheet… but thus much more open ended in terms of letting the Player inform the life of the character as his own imagination sees fit.
Arguably, most editions of Traveller have had this kind of scope to interpolate. As a system, there are sub-games there: starship design, world building and character generation. They can be fun on their own.
I suppose. I mean… yes, you are right in your statements. But I’m not sure how that ties to the theme and idea of this post. But I’m curious to hear more! I
I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I’ve found that the various design sequences cause you to fill the gaps from random generation. The world building rules are very good for that, because the random elements can be quite quirky and you end up trying to find good reasons why the stats have appeared the way they are. Sometimes the DMs drive this, sometimes it’s just the roll. I guess it doesn’t steer the narrative or the background as much as the character generation sequence does but I’ve always found it makes me want to fill in the gaps why.
Reflecting on the starship sequence, that does it in a different way (and to be honest, I’m mainly thinking Book 5 second edition here rather than the pretty broken first edition). The design sequence there is fundamentally a compromise, and that gives the ships their own characters. It’s less random and explicit than the character or world systems, but it does help drive the creative process but with more of a conscious choice.
I’ve really liked these posts that you have on Traveller (but it’s a game I’ve loved since I started gaming in 1983). The elements in character creation that you highlight here are one of the strengths of the game; they’re there in less form in other parts of it.
Nice article. Incidentally, I’ve updated my Traveller Reading List: http://www.mindspring.com/~ffilz/Gaming/traveller-reading.html
And now my reading list should be found here: https://ffilz.github.io/Gaming/traveller-reading.html
As always you have hit Traveller RPG spot on. I build my characters like Marc wrote – the stats and process is the bones but the flesh comes from the imagination.
I always thought the example of Jamison was a touch of sheer genius. It demonstrates how to go about rolling up a character, what the numbers mean, and how to extrapolate a personality from a series of randomly generated numbers. It also makes the game colorful with the references to pirates and daggers and being kicked out of the service. There’s so much implied in it that a reader might not consider otherwise given the rather dry writing style and absence of any setting Traveller. Every time I roll up a character for Traveller, I wonder who it will be! Great post, CK.