TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–You are Not Your Numbers

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art: Lazar Kacarevic

A while back, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Soon-Yuinposted 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].

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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.


The New Yorker Magazine Covers Dungeons & Dragons

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As a long time New Yorker Magazine reader I was startled and surprised today to find a lengthy article about Dungeons & Dragons and its enduring, if even currently surging, popularity.

This passage sums up much of what I’ve been talking about on this blog in terms of play style…

A decade ago, when developers attempted to bring Dungeons & Dragons into the twenty-first century by stuffing it with rules so that it might better resemble a video game, the glue of the game, the narrative aspect that drew so many in, melted away. Players hacked monsters to death, picked up treasure, collected experience points, and coolly moved through preset challenges. The plotters of the game’s fifth edition seemed to remember that D. & D.’s strength lay in creating indulgent spaces (get lost in your gnomish identity, quest or don’t, spend time flirting in the tavern) and opposing whatever modes of human industry prevailed among the broader public. D. & D. now has vastly simpler rules than those found in an iTunes terms-and-conditions agreement. The structures the designers made are also simpler and more subjective. If a player thinks of something clever, you don’t have to thumb through a handbook for a strictly defined bonus. The Dungeon Master can ponder the idea for a moment—could a dwarf with low charisma, with a few well-chosen compliments, really convince a city of elves to love him?—and then decide to reward the player with an extra chance to succeed.