Thursday, April 17, 2014

Character Experience and Development in Traveller

  In this post I will discuss the topic of experience in Traveller, and ways to have characters grow in the absence of meta-game processes like XP and levels. I think that it is worthwhile for me to repeat what The Traveller Book says on the subject of experience. To paraphrase, the primary means of experience is the player's ability to play the role that they have assumed. That's right, Traveller experience is in the realm of the players, not the characters. 

     The format given in TTB for character improvement represents a major effort of study, akin to a tech school education which assumes, rather than states, that the character is out of circulation for four years to devote themselves to study. For simple skill progression, that route is slow but steady and preserves game balance. Still, there are ways to model in-game growth and development of the character that does not require the long term hiatus. I am going to discuss Education, Contacts, Reputation and Grants.
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      I mentioned in my House Rules page that Education (EDU) is meant to model both formal and informal schooling. That is to say, if there isn't a specific skill to cover the situation, just about any knowledge task can default to EDU. Any time a player has to determine if his character knows some bit of in-universe information, roll 2D (or 3D) vs EDU, and apply modifiers based on the obscurity of the information sought.
This is what real experience looks like. PC's know about more things than just the skills listed on the character sheet. If a PC has been visiting planet Snog regularly for years, he is more likely to know about the local flora, fauna and society than someone who is visiting Snog for the first time. Therefore, positive dm's to the regular visitor. This kind of in-game knowledge can benefit EDU, SOC, Admin, Broker, Streetwise, or any other socially-related skill rolls. Here are some other examples: a Police character could more easily detect a swindle or con, or tell how local law enforcement are likely to react to the PC's activities. A Merchant Captain would be in a better position to know the economic condition of a planet or region, a Navy Captain would know about Naval Base security protocols, or recognize the class of ship the scanners just detected.
 Both the players and the referee should keep notes of the character's experiences and the types of information with which they come into contact. Anything could be useful again in the future, as the referee might employ them as plot points or hooks. The character sheet should have space on it to note the subjects with which the character is familiar. 
      There are at least two ways in which a character can be said to be familiar with a subject: background experience and current study. Background experience comes from character generation & prior careers. Use some common sense – what kinds of things would be likely experiences for a person in the Navy or the Scouts? This gives the players an opportunity to flesh out their character's back story – what happened during their time in their prior career? Tell stories about your character; anything that can be justified by story that won't be a stealth skill-level or otherwise game unbalancing should be allowed. A Navy veteran may have seen, served on or helped build the latest TL-15 Imperial Battlecruiser, but that may not mean they can scratch-build a Black Globe, or give them Naval Architect skill (see Book 6).
      While short-term reading programs (what better way to spend a week in jump-space?) will not lead to new skills or skill levels, studying a topic “just in case” or out of curiosity can add to the list of specific subjects known. The referee should set up some parameters for how much time is needed to grasp the subject matter, and can require some INT or EDU rolls to confirm that the character has really gotten it down. This should lead to the referee and the players doing some real-world research, and learning a few new things themselves! Of course, the referee is always free to decree that the character's information was wrong or out-of-date to keep things surprising, but this should be rare, or the players will feel cheated.
      Another advantage of this kind of detailed record keeping is that it gives the game setting more detail and depth, which always makes it more interesting to the players and the referee. A planet that has known social oddities, animal life and even a planetary history is a far more interesting setting for an adventure than a planet which is only a string of digits in the UPP. (See my post on planet-building for more on that topic).

      Characters interact with others (NPC's) all the time. Most encounters are routine and not memorable, but sometimes enough of an impression is made that one party or the other will remember it. Any time a very positive or very negative reaction is rolled on the reaction table, the referee should take note; maybe that character will appear again in another setting. Significant and powerful people with whom the PC's interact could call on them again, or be called upon by them. 

     Referees should let the players predetermine a number of contacts from their prior career; the number could be based on number of terms or rank or SOC. You can leave contact 'slots' blank, but that leave open the possibility of the player inventing a contact on the fly to have someone to get them out of a tight spot. Of course, this can be turned into another adventure hook, as the contact will some day want a return of the favor.

Social Reputation
      Your players know that they've arrived when the President of planet Eternia calls them up and asks them for their help. I've written another post about social standing as a campaign theme, but even if the PC are not actively social-climbing, there can be numerous social benefits from successful adventuring. Public honors, awards, buildings named after them can come from usually more honest endeavors, and can result in an improved SOC, or more practically, a reputation. Their names are out there, people (both private and governmental) know who they are. 

    Being well-known is no guarantee of an improved SOC, a well-known criminal is still a criminal. Reputation can be both a good thing and a bad; a PC with a good reputation will get more job offers, and the 'man on the street' may react more favorably to them, but they may also have to deal with the likes of tabloid journalists, or the supporters of the other side of the PC's last conflict.

      Money is always a good reward for adventuring, but not if it just accumulates as a number on the character sheet. The referee should not just offer the characters money as reward for services; sometimes the wealth should be in the form of something that can be used later as a story device: real estate, vehicles/vessels or even shares in the business the PC's have helped. There is an article in JTAS issue #6 describing how to model a planetary stock market. If the PC's own stock in a corporation, they will be interested in seeing that corporation succeed. Maybe that means doing criminal stuff to their competition, or defending the corporation from other criminals' stuff. PC stockholders are motivated troubleshooters. 
      Not everyone is going to be awarded a knighthood and a fief, but governments or private entities can grant land. In the Social Climbing post I mentioned some published articles that give guidelines for property ownership. A landowner PC is now involved with the culture of the world and its politics, and this opens a whole new avenue of adventure possibilities, just as business ownership does.
      Lots of players want their characters to buy a starship, and earning the money for one can be a great campaign, but even being granted one opens up all manner of new possibilities. Now that the PC's have one, why should they not try to raise a whole fleet?
      Real estate ownership, starship possession and business investments create associations with the planet from which the grants came, and make them more real. A more developed setting is one that the players are going to care more about, and this makes the story, and the whole game more fun. 
      In conclusion, people play Traveller to have fun, and have fun by telling stories. The player's experience at playing the role, combined with the character's in-game experience of the people, places and things in the game world combine to reinforce the storytelling. Meta-game processes like 'experience points' do not add to either the players' or the characters' experience and can become a distraction by making the accumulation of XP the goal instead of the story.

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