The Heart of the Classic Traveller Rules — For Me

Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 11.07.55 AMart: Jaime Jones

Different people focus on different things in Classic Traveller.

For a lot of people Classic Traveler is:

  1. Generating Characters
  2. Generating Subsectors and Main Worlds
  3. Making Starships

That’s where the fun is for a lot of people and for a lot of people it’s enough.

This makes sense. The three actives listed above are, in of themselves, fun. It’s also stuff a person can do on his or her own without needing to gather a group. I think the fact that those three activities are fun and can be done alone is one of the reasons Classic Traveller has stirred the imaginations of those in the hobby for so long.

But here’s the thing. For me those three elements are not what Classic Traveller is about. In fact, what I think Classic Traveller is about is something that I a lot of people who love Classic Traveller even think much about.

For me characters having adventures is what the Traveller rules are really about. That is, characters, in motion, in play, doing things. You can generate lots of player characters and never get around to putting them in motion. You can generate lots of worlds and a player character will never set foot on them. You can build ships and a player character will never travel in it.

Now there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the enjoyable aspects that have nothing to do with putting characters into motion. But, again, my focus is player characters caught up in adventures. That is, my interest is to getting characters into motion in exotic worlds having great adventures. That is, my focus is on playing the game as an RPG.

This is why so many of the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box posts have been about Referee driven play and how to handle Throws. Because when characters are doing things in play the Referee and the dice will be stepping up to see things moving.

Now for a lot of people the rules of Classic Traveller are either broken or nonexistent when it comes to how to adjudicate situations or handle Throws. It is why The Traveller’s Digest #1 invented a new way of handling skills in 1984, and why many people focus on the character creation, the building of subsectors, the designing of ships.

In my view however, as discussed in many of my posts, the rules work fine. In fact, more than fine. They are the strength of the game.

With all that in mind, my view these days is that those three systems above take a back seat to getting around to playing the game.

And what is the rule for playing the game?

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

If you made me choose between that formula and the character creation system found in Classic Traveller, I can tell you right now I’m choosing the formula.

Because what matters to me most about creating a character in Traveller is that the character has six characteristics, skills, a prior occupation of some kind, and an age. With those four qualities I can use the flexible, on the fly system found in Classic Traveller to adjudicate any situation and keep the game moving along quickly.

I posted an example of this approach a couple of weeks ago. Because of time constraints (it was a convention game with a four hour slot, and I wanted to try the rules in a non-SF setting as an experiment) I bypassed the standard character creation system. As I wrote:

I handed out an index card to each player for characters: “Assign the values 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to STR, DEX, END, INT, EDU, and Social Status. Add +2 to two of those, or a single +4 to one. Give yourself a profession and write that on the top of the card. You character can do all thing things that that profession can do. Then add three more skills, the things you are really good at, which might tie to your profession or be something else. Assign a +1, a +2, and a +3, respectively to each of the skills as you see fit. Tell me who your character cares about in the village. Tell me about the god your character pays homage to. Give your character a name.”

Although we didn’t use the character creation system per the rules, what I did have was characters with the numbers I need to adjudicate situations on the fly and handle Throws as needed. Because how we made the characters is not the priority for me. The player characters in motion in an adventure is the priority for me.

Strangely, some people said I had gutted the game by blowing past Classic Traveller’s character creation rules — which they consider the “heart of the game.”

To which I say, “No, playing the game is the heart of the game. And that heart is found in the Players doing things with their PCs and the Referee adjudicating and moving things forward to the next things the Players want to have their characters do.”

To sum up then, the heart of the game is this:

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

All the pieces of the game lead to this simple formula for creating Throws. Character Creation, Law Levels, Animal Encounters, the Reaction Table, the Personal Combat System, the Starship Combat System… all of it. This is the heart of the game, the brilliance of Classic Traveller. Because it lets you play the game. If you have this, the Referee can keep adjudicating, the adventurers can keep adventuring, and the game keeps moving.

11 thoughts on “The Heart of the Classic Traveller Rules — For Me

  1. One reason the three things you mention were oft considered the “heart of TRAVELLER” was that the rest of the game…wasn’t.

    Rolling up a 60-year-old curmudgeonly merchant skipper was fun. Trying to break even in an economic system that made no sense even to an engineering student–while making payments on your ship’s mortgage–which won’t be paid off in your lifetime,and maybe not your son’s–was not.

    And your crew was often no happier. Getting into trouble because you’re hard up and looking for a big score was one thing. Getting into trouble because it was that or starve on a backwater world trying to earn enough for a low passage? Not so much. And if you wanted a noble cause? Fuggedabouddit.

    The only games I actually remember were the ones where the GM tossed the quasi-Dumarest background, rolled his own subsector, and gave us a different reason to be in his sandbox. It also (sometimes) gave us an excuse to use those new starships we’d rolled up.

    I never heard anyone complain about the system–either version.

      • My fault, probably. If I had a point, it was that the people who told you the heart of TRAVELLER was the three things you listed did so because the rest of the game was an anticlimax. TRAVELLER was a good system weighed down by its setting–and the total lack of hints to help a newbie Referee adapt if his players *didn’t* want to play in that setting.

        As to the game mechanics, they worked pretty well. Classic may have worked better with a good Referee–we had college sophomores who were using Megatraveller rules by the time they’d mastered the art, so I can’t comment on that.

        I was mostly saying that, while the system may be the heart of a game to the guy running it, a player would say the heart of the game is the part that’s fun. And in TRAVELLER, that was the preliminaries–for reasons that were no fault of the system.

        You seemed puzzled by the players’ attitude. I was trying to explain it. If I was explaining something obvious, I can see that coming off as a non sequitor. If so, I apologize in turn. The points you’ve been making have clarifed some things for me (forty years too late, but still…), and I certainly didn’t mean to toss a monkey wrench.

      • No, no. Just trying to track.

        So, I think you’re saying that “the setting” was the part that wasn’t fun, yes?

        I ask this since the an underlying premise of this blog assumes that Classic Traveller (or, specifically the original three Traveller Books, which is what I really write about here) are utterly independent from the GDW’s setting of the Third Imperium and that the Referee *should* (if not must) create his own setting for the rules and play to be effective.

        I’m one of those players who never clicked with the Third Imperium. It never worked for me as a setting for play.

        I do need to point out, however, that in the actual Dumarest books Dumarest was constantly fighting for the underdog and the troubled, and putting himself on the line for what he considered moral causes.

  2. No “reply” option on your last message, thus the “restart.”

    Yop are correct, but it’s a little deeper than that. I remember when the Third Imperium first appeared, and that’s when the game really did become almost entirely about creationg characters and building ships. But it had been a problem well before that.

    TRAVELLER’s setting has always seemed to assume that the PC was adventuring because he had no choice. The economic system seems designed to make it impossible to ever get hold of one of those cool ships they let you come up with. The subsectors seem designed to either trap you in civilized areas (what does a Scout *do* that’s so dangerous?) or wander around in a “Mad Max among the stars” situation (You’re going to routinely go trading in the wilderness with a ship that will eventually kill you if don’t constantly feed it fuel that *isn’t available*? Really?). And even CLASSIC TRAVELLER gave no hint about how to tweak the system to fit a different milieu. The Third Imperium just nailed the lid down.

    A Referee in your class could bypass that. A teenager who’d just heard of this role-playing stuff couldn’t.

    Best game I can stremember started with us rolling up characters. Then, when each of us said “I’m mustering out,” the Ref said “No you’re not. You’ve been assigned to our first ship to leave this subsector.since we rediscovered stardrive. Your mission: See what happened to everyone else.”

    We had a blast. It was what we’d *thought* TRAVELLER was supposed to be from the beginning. I liked *reading about* Dumarest of Terra, but I’d never wanted to *be* him.

    • I think you’ve touched on a really important point, which is the one real critique I have of the original Traveller rules: that expressed lack of goals.

      It is my believe Miller assumed that the Referee and Players would sort this matter out on their own… but there’s no real mention of the matter in Books 1-3. (The only real goal mentioned is making mortgage payments on ships — which is why I think people latch on to that. But the fact is only a few PCs will ever start with a ship, let alone one requiring a mortgage payment. So we have to assume he meant for there to be many another goals available.)

      In the game you described as fun your GM handed you a GOAL. And that is awesome. And I think that is what is most missing when people pick up Traveller. Third Imperium or not, most Referees have the PCs make up characters, dump the PCs into subsector, and ask the Players “Okay, you can do anything. What do you want to do?”

      But there’s not enough information to make a choice; too many possibilities to focus.

      I talked about this in some posts over at the big Traveller thread at I’ll quote myself from that thread here:

      I think it also calls out a vital piece of vanilla play that is missing from the original rules but suggested in later material: The idea of a GOAL that the PCs have. Money alone is not enough of a goal (in my view) for sustained play; going from Patron to Patron alone is not enough.

      Dumarest takes on jobs from patrons because he is trying to get somewhere. He travels from world to world because he wants to solve a mystery. (He wants to get back to earth; and he needs to find out where earth is.)

      I think any Traveller game that wants a campaign in the vanilla mode would be best served by having the Players pick some sort of goal they want to reach… something that traveling and taking jobs for credits can feed rather than being goals in and of themselves.

      There is no experience or leveling system in Traveller (of the sort most other games have, where growing in power over time is a key component of a reward cycle).

      Money and gear is often offered as the key element of reward for Classic Traveller play. But this can wear thin after a while. Especially because gear and cash can be lost, wasted, taken, ruined because of events in play. Such items do not always improve or gather in greater number or quality.

      What can matter, as a mark of moving forward or improving, is getting closer to objectives. The party learns where the nemesis’ base is. The party finally finds what world the fabled treasure is on. The party is given a ship by a noble house to raid an opposing noble houses resources — moving them one step up the ladder.

      Now there are two ways of setting up a game in the kind of framework I’m talking about:
      1. The Players create characters, and the character head off into the subsector, explore and adventure, and as they explore and adventure they bump into clues about things they might want to pursue, and then set off after those goals.
      2. The Players created characters with a goal in mind (or a kind of goal: “We want to find a treasure” and then the Referee comes up with a treasure for them to find; “We want to destroy the man who slaughtered the people of our planet” and the Referee comes up with a suitable villain.) And then they arrive in the subesector with not enough resources, but the tools to get closer to what they seek.

      Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. But the advent of number (2) is that you avoid the problem a lot of starting Traveller campaigns hit: Too many choices, not enough focus, a sense of being lost or uncertain.

      But if the Players and Referee have worked out a kind of agenda (perhaps off a formalized list of options the Referee creates ahead of time of possibilities he likes) then the Referee can also arrive with a list of rumors that grow from that goal, allowing the Players to still have options to choose from to pursue, but tailored and limited to something that the Players have already agreed they care about.

      • That’s part of it. The other problem is, that the setting as described, and the rules that “enforced” it, gave most characters one goal that outweighed all others: Don’t starve.

        We generally dealt with that very simply: Always have a ship. If nobody rolls one, then you keep rolling till somebody does. If this requires airlock accidents, so be it.

        If you had a Scout, you could simply go looking for trouble, within limits. If you got a Free Trader, you were far more constarined, but still far less desperate than you would be otherwise.

        The next step was generally to make lots of money. With a Free Trader, this usually involved a character with a high Admin score (airlock accidents as needed until you get one) and a lot of speculative trading.

        Once you were rich enough, you traded your rolled ship–and your riches–for something useful, and went looking for *interesting* things to do. Think of it as levelling up.

        It wasn’t much fun, but it gave you the other thing (besides a goal) that could make one of these games fun. Something I just now realized the name for.


        Dumarest did what he did for two reasons: He had an all-consuming goal, and his sheer badassery gave him a level of agency that few of his fellow travelers had. Most of us never rolled that high.

        With a consuming enough goal, you have a good start. With enough independence and/or resources, you can choose a goal. But most of the time, you need some of each. And the TRAVELLER setting seemed determined to deny the average character both. Or so it seemed to me.

      • Yeah, the whole whole concern about “Don’t starve” as somehow being the only drive in the game…? Or somehow that’s the baked in default?

        I’m not seeing that at all.

        The PCs are all capable characters with training in their field, if nothing else. The rules offer rolls for Patrons on a weekly basis that will offer money for work. The PCs can self-motivate to their own goals as well.

        Further, Books 1, 2, and 3 are bluntly based off Marc Miller flipping through Dungeons & Dragons Volumes I, II, and III. In D&D it assumed the PCs are going to go live lives of adventure. The PC adventure *because they want to.* The PCs of Traveller assume — lacking any other narrative based motivation — the same goal. They could settle down and retire. But they don’t. They want to go live a life of exploration and adventure. And they do.

        This isn’t to say the group or groups you have played with didn’t somehow see the game as a struggle against starvation. I’m sure they did. But it never once occurred to read the rules this way, and I’ve read too many accounts of different settings and games that never went down this road.

        However, that said, I’d love to hear more about this. Especially how the rules reinforced this notion. Because I love hearing about how people approached Classic Traveller. (Though I believe in your case it was MegaTraveller — but I might be wrong about that.)

        Also, EDITED TO ADD: I wanted to ask about this part:

        “Once you were rich enough, you traded your rolled ship–and your riches–for something useful, and went looking for *interesting* things to do. Think of it as levelling up.”

        What were the “useful” things you got? What where the “interesting” things to do?

    • Just so you know, I didn’t stalk off in a huff. 🙂 I’m just kind of short on time at the moment, and careful recollection of gaming syles from forty years ago take more of that time than I’ve had the last few weeks.

      I will mention that most of our Referees were (at the time I’m discussing) college freshmen or sophomores who were avid wargamers. There was a lot of “the rules as they were written” in our play (the SQUAD LEADER rules were not particularly open to interpretation, and it wasn’t obvious that TRAVELLER was that different, in that sense). This may have made play a bit more mechanical, especially early on.

      But there was also an “feel” to the setting that seemed to limit your choices. And many of the elements of that setting were inherent in the rules as they were written. Just as an example: the jump drive. Neither exploring strange new worlds not SOLAR QUEEN-style Free Trader-ing works well in a ship that can’t make a round trip to much of anywhere. Either you *know* you can get fuel on the other end, or you’re jumping blindly off a cliff. And your destination is pretty much next door. And your greatest danger is your own engines.

      In the Andre Norton books, long voyages were merely risky, just as, in the old two-fisted adventure tales, even a fairly small coasting schooner could, and often did, cross oceans. In TRAVELLER, it’s not even an option. The rules have defined at least two kinds of adventures you *can’t* have.

      This is rather disjointed, I know. I didn’t set out to do more than apologize for not getting back to you, so my thoughts aren’t particularly organized. Sorry ’bout that.

      As to your question, their idea of “useful things” generally included *capable* ships and lots of weapons. We *are* talking about college-age guys here. When the supplements brought in things like P-GMP’s, they immediately went on the shopping lists.

      I ended up a bit of an outlier, since I didn’t have that much of a merc mentality. This may have colored my outlook somewhat. On the othe hand, when some of the guys played with writing their own game, the points I’ve mentioned were prominent among the changes they worked on, so maybe they saw the same problems.

      Couple that with the original observation you made–that many players think character creation, etc., is the *heart* of the game…

      (By the way, we started with the original rules. As new editions came out they were embraced (especially if they brought in neat new toys), so we did end up doing MegaTraveller, but we didn’t start out there.)

      • Hey, thanks for the reply! And I didn’t think you stormed off!

        I think this has a lot to do with the themes I’ve discussed in recent posts:

        “There was a lot of “the rules as they were written” in our play (the SQUAD LEADER rules were not particularly open to interpretation, and it wasn’t obvious that TRAVELLER was that different, in that sense)”

        I think the nature of “war-games” and what we consider war-games changed during the middle of the 20th century.

        Before the mid-70s most war-games were referee driven, with a referee using a mix of rules application and off-the-cuff adjudication to keep things moving along. In this kind of play there is no “rules as they were written” since it is assumed that the referee is there to make adjudications based on “the logic” of the situation as he or she sees fit based on the fictional details created in play so far.

        I discuss this kind of play here:

        In 1954, however, the war-game Tactics was published by The Avalon Game Company (later Avalon Hill). Revised and re-released over the next few decades it is credited with being the first commercially successful war-game.

        The game was successful, I think, because it does away with the referee. The game uses rules that are “self-contained” — like those of Chess or Monopoly, allowing two players to simply play the game per the rules. No adjudication is required. One applies the rules and one is done.

        Squad Leader (and almost any game anyone considers a “war-game” these days) clearly comes from this second tradition of war-games.

        Both the original D&D rules and the original Traveller rules are built from the first kind of design philosophy and assume a Referee handling adjudications that go beyond the rules in this manner.

        This is why I’ve taken the time to lay these points out in blog posts. Because if one approaches games like original D&D or original Traveller with the assumption that they are going to play like most games (Chess, Monopoly , Squad Leader) where one applies the self-contained rules then the whole experience is going to grind to a frustrating halt. Because the rules are *not* all there in the rule books. They are a frame works for Referee to make adjudications. (And this is why I state that the heart of the original Traveller rules is in that simple formula:

        2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

        Because is it is the application of this formula — *used in the spirit of the first kind of war-game rules play* — that makes original Traveller work so well.

        That all said, over the years most RPGs moved away from Referee-driven, adjudication-driven play. Just like the shift in play found in Tactics, publishers realized most people wanted games that don’t depend on a Referee to make adjudications on the fly and would rather have self-contained rules in the text that are applied consistently time and time again.

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