TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Notes on the Personal Combat System (II)


Here’s a fact about the Combat Rules for Classic Traveller:

If your Player Character fires a shotgun at a target wearing no armor who is standing 3 meters away from your character, you need to roll 2 or better on 2D6 to do effective damage. This means you don’t need to bother rolling to see if you do effective damage. You can simply pick up the damage dice and roll and find out what the damage is.

For a lot of people this is a problem. “How can there not be a chance of a miss?” they ask. “I automatically hit?” It really rankles a lot of people.

But I have come to believe this view is overstated as a problem. Not overstated as a fact, but as a problem.

The fact is, the game rules suggest that yes, if you are trained in weaponry, and if you fire an automatic rifle, shotgun, or submachine gun at an unarmored target who is standing still 1-5 meters from you, you will, in fact, hit that target and deal damage.

For some reason that doesn’t strike me as strange. Here are some of the reasons why:

The person doing the shooting has been trained in the weapon. Characters who have no training in a weapon have a DM -5 to their Throw. Many NPCs will have training in one weapon, but suffer the DM -5 in other weapons. Per the rules, however, all Player Characters get an expertise of 0 in all weapons due to their training.

PCs are the exception in this regard. Which means that the odds are not just a matter of weapon and armor. The skill-0 in all weapons means the PCs know what they are doing when handling a firearm to a much greater degree when compared to most other people.

In my view, I assume that the skill levels of weapons are not simply going to the range and shooting at targets. The people who have skill-0 or above in weapons are people who are used to combat situations, know how to fire under stress and when bullets are flying, and have muscle memory that goes far beyond anything to do with shooting ranges or hunting. Anyone who does not suffer that DM -5 knows what they are doing in a gunfight.

Thus, if a trained combatant fires at an unarmored opponent who is standing still at a range of 3 meters I believe it is reasonable to assume the target will suffer horrible damage.

Of course, the target has options to counter this…

The base matrix values assume the target is standing still.

May I suggest boldly that if you are at short range and unarmored and someone is shooting at you not do this?

The rules provide the option of Evade:

A combatant, at any range, may state evade as a status. The person may
not make any attack. He or she receives an advantageous DM in the defense, based on range from the attacker

  • -1 if at short or close range
  • -2 if at medium range
  • -4 if at long or very long range

I am well aware that the DM -1 on the attack might not help at all. But here’s the fact: If you try to avoid someone firing at you with a shotgun or submachine gun at three meters, trying to rush out of the way might not help.

In other case it will help… but just a little. The odds of the automatic rifle against an unarmored target at 1-5 meters moves from 100% to 97.2% to deal effective damage. Still horrible, of course. But what for goodness sake are you doing standing 3 meters from a man with an automatic rifle pointed out you who wants to kill you? At some point this is your fault.

Meanwhile, if you are unarmored and out in the open at medium range (6-50 meters) even if you are evading, unless other circumstances intervene, you will be take damage from a man who knows what he’s doing with an automatic rifle.

Because of this, might I suggest…

The Traveller Book introduced rules for Cover and Concealment. Note that even in the rules found in Traveller Book 1 the Referee could (and should) apply DMs for cover and concealment if he sees fit. The rules are now part of the errata for Traveller Books 1. They rules state:

Cover and Concealment: Cover is any solid object between an attacker and defender capable of protecting the defender from a weapon attack. Concealment is any object that prevents viewing or sighting of the defender. Cover may also be concealment, concealment is not necessarily cover. 
 Targets are considered under cover if they are behind a solid object which a shot cannot penetrate (such as a wall, rock, or heavy bulkhead).

An individual under cover cannot be attacked; an individual in concealment cannot be attacked unless the attacker has some reason to shoot into the area. A target may be partially concealed by walls, objects, atmospheric conditions, or darkness. Targets are considered concealed if they cannot be viewed by an attacker. If fully concealed, a target cannot be attacked.

Individuals who attack from cover become visible and may themselves be attacked; because they retain partial cover they are eligible for a defending DM of –4. Individuals who attack from concealment provide reason to believe they are present, and may be attacked; because they remain partially concealed, they are allowed a defending DM of –1.

If you must shoot back from cover, sort out the best range you can. For example, with the DM -4 for anyone shooting at you as you shoot from cover, if you attack someone with an automatic rifle his odds of his doing effective damage against you drop from 100% to 72.2%. Still terrible you say? Guess what? You’re in a gunfight. Horrible things happen to people in close quarter gunfights.

If I may be bold: If you are unmarred and someone is hunting you with a powerful firearm, I would recommend getting to cover or hiding as quickly as possible. This encourages characters of all stripes to not stand out in the open, to seek covered, to move from cover to cover, to depend on distractions and suppression fire from friends, running around a piece of cover while being chased, trying to close on an enemy using a long weapon to defeat him in hand-to-hand combat, and so on. All of this builds more compelling fights

Might I suggest, if these odds are still aren’t working for you…

It’s a roleplaying game. The rules are designed to put the squeeze on anyone in a fight. The Classic Traveller rules are not design to be a tabletop milsim where were move little men around knowing some might be sacrificed for the greater good. We care about the guy we are playing. And if he’s unarmored and someone is coming after him with an automatic rifle it would behoove him to come up with some idea or plan which will let him get the hell out of there, get the drop on his assailant somehow, or otherwise turn the tables and increase his odds of survival.

The point is that the Player or Players better come up with something to shift the situation around. Not because this is the way the world really works… but because this is the way science fiction adventure fiction (which is what Classic Traveller was built to emulate) works: The protagonist is in a really tight spot, the odds are against him, and he has to come up with something interesting to turn things around. That interesting part? That’s what makes the memorable moments. That’s what makes memorable game sessions. You want the screws turning against the characters to make them sweat and come up with something smart.

Now, you might be saying, “I’m not talking about getting shot at. I think it’s weird that I can take all these unarmored men down with one attack and never miss.”

Well, first, you’re playing an awesome dude who knows how to handle a weapon and handle it well. And second, you’re firing against unarmored men. Which begs the question…

Do you need to kill them? (Because the system is going to let you kill them very easily. You are awesome after all.) But will they have friends or family who will come after you. Is killing actually the best plan forward? What do you need from them? From the situation?

Instead of spending 35 minutes or more of typical RPG combat where were constantly grind each other’s Hit Points or whatever down, the Classic Traveller system lets you move on. You want these sad sacks dead? They’re dead. There. You did it. Tossing dice back and forth till one side finally drops isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is the fallout from the death. Or imprisoning them after you get them to surrender. Or negotiating with them after you don’t kill them. Or whatever.

After all why spend a lot of time going back and forth rolling dice when ultimately one side is going to loose or not. Let’s get to that. And then see, based on the choices the PCs made, what the fallout is.

Because for me, that’s where (along with clever ideas and tactics and the genuine need to come up with plans for survival as describe above) things get interesting.

I know that may not be what some people focus on. But I’m talking about what’s in the rules as applied. I completely understand someone might want something else.

In Classic Traveller the throw required for doing effective damage with a shotgun against a target in no armor at short range is 2 or better, while the same weapon used at the same range against someone wearing mesh is 8 or better. The issue isn’t whether or not the attacker hits the target in either case (the odds of hitting the target with shotgun pellets would presumably be the same in either case). The issue is whether or not the attack does effective damage to the target.

This means that in Classic Traveller a failed combat throw doesn’t necessarily mean the bullet did not strike the target. The bullet might well have struck the target but the armor protected the character, or the bullet only did a grazing blow, and so on.

When a weapon used at a certain range against a target wearing a certain kind of armor gets an automatic success it means that that a trained man or women firing the weapon will manage to not only hit but hit effectively.

An important point from this: Long weapons are dramatically less effective at Close range. If you can manage to close on an assailant with a rifle, shotgun, carbine, or submachine gun and engage him in hand-to-hand or melee combat you drop his odds of doing effective damage with his firearms than they are at Short or Medium range.

I’m not saying it is easy to close on an assailant armed with a long weapon. I’m not saying it’s safe. But if you can come up with a clever scheme (see above) to distract the assailant or otherwise approach the assailant from a direction that isn’t straight toward a blast from his weapon you’ll stand much better odds of survival in the long run.

With the First Blood rules the character may or may not die when effective damage is applied. The Damage dice might be enough to drive the three physical characteristic to 0… or not.

It’s a random roll. If the Player Character has STR 8, DEX 5, and END 7 and an attacker automatically hits with 3D6 for 11 points of damage the character will be wounded… but not dead. And this is where traveling with people you can count on comes in. You might get shot at. Someone might get hit and suffer wounds or be knocked unconscious. But as long as you’ve got other people at your back you might come out of this alive.

And since we’re talking about teams, never forget about…

People often forget about the Surprise rules in Classic Traveller, as well as the Range rules. But they are there, and they are there for a reason. (All the the rules in Classic Traveller are there for a reason. They interlock with each other in very important ways.)

When an encounter occurs it isn’t always a straight up fight out of the gate. Even if you are unarmored the edge of surprise gives you options that will help you survive. Military experience, Leadership, and Tactical expertise all offer DM +1 to the Surprise die roll. (Roll one die for for either party: if one party has a die roll of three or more greater than the other party, the higher rolling party has achieved surprise.)

A party with surprise can try to avoid the encounter before it takes place. A party with surprise gets a free rounds of attacks before the enemy can counter attack. (And if they can do so without raising alarms of any kind they keep their surprise and can do it again.) A party that is under attack can try to escape the conflict.

These are important parts of the game to keep in mind because they remind us the personal combat system isn’t about two lines of people standing in an open field shooting at each other.

The elements of Surprise and Range expand the fictional details we can focus on: sneaking, shelter, terrain, maneuvering for silent attacks, and so on. All of these element can downgrade or eliminate the threat of automatically taking shotgun pellets to the gut even if one is unarmored.

Keep in mind that the Surprise roll and DMs are based on a particular circumstance–two parties being either aware of potential danger or both unaware and about to bump into each other. But if one side or another has set up an ambush, for example, they might get extra DMs in their favor. Thus, if the Players/PCs are clever (see above) and set up circumstances in their favor with roleplaying and tactics, the Referee might hand them them surprise over their opponents.

As far as I can tell, then, the Classic Traveller personal combat system is designed to encourage the following then engaged with firearms:

  • Gain the element of surprise
  • Strike from an advantageous position
  • Wear armor
  • Seek cover during a firefight
  • Be clever
  • Defeat the advantage of the firearms by moving to Close or Longer ranges

All of this seems not only perfectly reasonable, but awesome, to me.

If you wish you can check out the Weapon Cards I created that combine the distance and armor matrixes weapon by weapon, and it offer a clear view on the odds per weapon.

Here is the post Notes on the Personal Combat System (I).

And here is the an important post on the distinction between Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War in RPGs. (Hint: Classic Traveller’s combat system is built as Combat as War.)

17 thoughts on “TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Notes on the Personal Combat System (II)

  1. In a post at discussing the Classic Traveller combat system, Rupert wrote:

    “One thing that’s easy to miss about CT (and many other older games) because it’s often not spelled out in them is that they expect player skill/intelligence to be rewarded. In CT the character’s skill level is usually in a fairly small range (0-2, with more than 4 being extremely rare), but DM for situational modifiers are quite large. The result of this is that players are strongly rewarded for sensible and/or clever play, by getting big bonuses for arranging circumstances to be in their favour. In keeping with that one should, IMO, be generous with bonuses for using cover, especially if they’re giving up being able to return fire in exchange for moving to and setting up in cover.”

    Which I couldn’t agree with more. And why I keep hitting the word “clever” above.

  2. “It’s a random roll. If the Player Character has STR 8, DEX 5, and END 7 and an attacker automatically hits with 3D6 for 11 points of damage the character will be seriously wounded… but not dead”

    They’ll be unconscious… it’ll take 12 to possibly seriously wound them, 13 to probably seriously wound them, 15 to guaranteed seriously wound them.

    • Right.

      If one characteristic is reduced to zero then the character is unconscious for 10 minutes.

      If two characteristics are reduced to zero then the character is unconscious for three hours.

      But the character is not dead. Which was my point. Unless I’m not understanding your point (which I might be!) we are not disagreeing about anything.

      • My point was just that “seriously wounded” is a status in Traveller (at least in my ’81 book), and that that character won’t reach that status with that damage. It’s best to avoid using a specific term in the rules to describe something other than that specific term.

        “Badly wounded”, “out of combat”, something other than the term of art from the rules.

        Though I’m just being picky really 🙂

      • It’s a good point!

        As a side note, the 1977 edition of the rules gives no labels to the wound statuses. One is unconscious with one characteristic or two characteristic to zero, and dead at three characteristics to zero. There is a distinction between one and two characteristics to zero in terms of lingering damage and healing. But both are enough to knock you unconscious and leave your characteristics impaired for a while.

  3. Love the idea of the weapon cards! I’ve been trying something similar in Excel. I think I must be misunderstanding how to read them though. For example, taking a SMG against no armour, I list DM modifiers as (Close/Short/Medium/Long/Extra Long):

    SMG: -4 +3 +3 -3 -9

    The card has:

    SMG: 7 0 0 9 12

    What am I missing?

    • First, there may be errors! I pulled the numbers from the old Judges Guild Traveller Referee Screen. I proofed as well as I could… but there were LOTS OF NUMBERS swirling in front of my eyes. So if people find errors, please let me know!

      As to your point:

      I think they are right, but let’s walk through it.

      1. The DM for SMG against No Armor is +5.
      2. The DM for SMG against the five ranges (as you note) are -4 +3 +3 -3 -9
      3. When we combine these two DMs (which is what the Weapon Card matrix does) for No Armor at the five ranges, we get +1 +8 +8 +2 -4
      4. We then applied these five DMs (which combine the DMs for range and armor) to the required hit roll of 8+
      5. The final numbers printed on the card represent what the Player needs to roll or better on 2D6.

      For example: No armor, close range is DM +1, meaning the PC needs to roll a 7.

      Throw required to hit 8+
      DM +1
      Throw required is 7+
      And so on down the line.

      In this way, the Player only has to look down at the card and read the Throw number required.

      Does that make sense now?

      • Wait, that means that an SMG at Short or Medium range against an unarmoured character automatically hits!!! That seems like a problem….

        … only joking 😀

        Thank you for taking the time to explain, makes perfect sense now. As a player, I’ve mostly not known exactly what armour a foe has or hasn’t been wearing (so far I’ve only fought beasties in the dark and thugs in smoke at range), so the Judge has been adjudicating that side. Suffice to say, I have a healthy respect for any combat and want to avoid a stand up fight at any cost.

    • Sadly the original file is on the drive of a laptop that crashed and I haven’t gotten the file off it yet.

      As soon as I do (whenever that is) I’ll post.

      • Looking forward to your file recovery and the followup post. Those original posts involving those weapon cards and the weapon cards themselves did *so* much to improve the speed and feel of play for my group. I used to be a striker convert. And for those who didn’t have striker the Mongoose 1e rules didn’t seem too bad, but in using them I started to examine my prejudices about the old CT combat, and then I remembered some excellent games using them with some very patient refs who had obviously sorted something similar to make the combats flow quickly. So much so that the campaign has reverted pretty much to CT.

      • That is fantastic to hear!

        Can you talk more about how combat plays out? How you use and handle combat?

  4. One thing about the back and forth is that it allows scope for morale effects. It is absolutely a classic error in D&D play that the morale rules are generally ignored but it opens up a lot of other options, including of course the question of dealing with prisoners. Instant-death eliminates that possibility. Which is not to say that it’s unreasonable for a shotgun to automatically hit someone ten feet away.

  5. You asked how it played out.

    Players wrote out their own 3×5 weapon cards, but to get started quickly (we hadn’t actually intended on gaming that night) we each chose different weapons and just shared the cards. Didn’t take long using your provided PDFs.

    And we started with a simple scenario: their employer had a business partner go missing out in the wilderness. They had a fix on where the air raft went down. Grasslands / African Veldt style with a variety of predators. The PCs were a trouble shooting team (2 ex marines, 1 ex navy), so they were ‘scrambled’ to find the missing person before corporate rivals or hungry wildlife did. So they just had what they normally have in their ‘go bags’. And locked securely in their ‘land rover’ in their secure accomodation.

    After that quick set up, play skipped to the vicinity of the crash site. They landed. There were some roleplayed decisions about searching, tracking etc once the wreck was found and checked out, and the standard encounter rolls. It was meant to be a simple test of the rules with just a little flavour, but it became more than that. They ran into some animals inspired by Jurassic Park velociraptors (I plagiarize movies/tv/books ruthlessly when I’m winging it).

    They were downwind of some creatures that had been moving purposefully but had stopped. Had they sensed the PCs?

    Determined Its Just Very Long range.
    Players looked at the weapon cards, the range, what they could glean about the targets ‘things’ stalking them.

    The wind shifted. They were now upwind of whatever it was ahead. The animals started to move toward the PCs and to go to both flanks. There were at least 3-4 of them. The team rifleman engaged at 300m range to see if that would deter them. It didn’t. He is a good shot. He rolled reasonably well. It didn’t seem to penetrate is what one of the other characters doing ‘observer’ duty with binocs noticed. So, armour rather than hit points. from PCs.

    The animals charged. I think one of the marines readied his cutlass as a last resort, while another had his pistol instead: both players, looking at what was going to happen should ‘whatever it was’ last long enough to get to short or close range, made choices based on their weapons & their skills. Quickly. They then returned to their longarms and switched to ‘auto’, and engaged.

    The last creature collapsed at 20 m.

    The whole feel of the encounter was different. Weapon choices based on effectiveness vs perceived ‘armour’ at a given range. And, much *quicker* to ref, quick to choose on the player part. So, a greater action feel.

    Now, having prepped weapon tables etc will do that for many a system. But in this case it took an onerous system (as perceived by me, at least) and made it shine. Very impressed. So were the players.

    So, the weapon cards make it quick. No looking at a book or your pdf on your device – its *all* on the cards in front of you. And the choices are less abstract. They’re all about the characteristics and behaviours of the weapon you’re using. Very atmospheric. And you have your target number right there and you roll it. And you’re done.

    Result – a very enjoyable session where the firefight enhanced the story, and didn’t dominate it. We all had fun. And we’ll be trying this again.

  6. PS: love the photo of Sean Connery. Aside from his Bond movies, Outland (along with Time Bandits, Highlander, and the Man who would be King) is probably one of my favourite movies.

  7. Pingback: Comments and Conversations about the Previous Post on Classic Traveller Personal Combat | Tales to Astound!

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