Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why are there no Experience Points in Traveller?

     I have played Traveller for probably 30 years now, most of that time using the Classic Traveller rules set, so in this essay I am speaking specifically about CT. During that time I've also played lots of other games that use class/level systems and games that use point-buy systems. Traveller uses neither, and I think that is a good thing. Traveller's game philosophy is reflected in its experience rules. Traveller keeps the focus of the game on the story, and off the meta-gaming elements like XP.

     Marc Miller, the creator of the Traveller game, laid out the philosophical basis for the experience rules in The Traveller Book: “Experience gained as the character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he or she has assumed.” 

     That's it. You know that you've succeeded in Traveller when your last adventure is more developed and fully realized than the one before. Like a character in a novel, a Traveller character should be a person, with goals, habits, attitudes and relationships. Most of that happens within the game world, not on the character sheet.

      In the course of my reading, I came upon an article from the old White Dwarf magazine, issue 20 (1980) p. 25 by Bob McWilliams, who wrote the regular Starbase column supporting Traveller. Mr. McWilliams felt it important enough to mention in the first column in the series that "levels . . . are not to be found in Traveller. It is in keeping with the logic of the game system, and more truly 'role-playing' that it is the player, rather than his character who is rewarded by the increasing facility with which he negotiates the rules of the game and the situations thrown at him by the referee; he becomes more skilled at coping with the universe as, one hopes, all of us do in the real world. I feel that players enjoy participating rather than 'winning', much more when freed of an artificial system of measuring their ability."

      A good player can come up with in-game goals and a good referee should provide sufficient in-game rewards for the characters that all-F stats and skill-5 in everything does not become the goal for the players. This kind of mindset makes no sense within the game world; while people can and do desire power and influence, they think in terms of money, position and authority not in terms of skill ranks or stats.

      I think that tying character improvement to the acquisition of meta-game 'experience points' has colored the mindset of many gamers, to accept the idea that the players haven't really succeeded until they attain some sort of god-like level of power. By way of comparison, D&D invented the terms for the two most famous versions of this problem, the Monty Haul game and Munchkinism. Both of these produce an unbalanced game where the PCs are too powerful for the setting, and therefore the game loses its dramatic storytelling quality. A game without challenge is a dull game. 

      I have almost no knowledge of Traveller being afflicted with these kinds of problems. I did a search over at the Citizens of the Imperium discussion board, and while I found mentions of the term Munchkinism, it was mentioned only in passing as a derogatory towards a particular player's actions, not as an endemic problem of the game.

      However, CT is vulnerable to unbalancing where there are too many modifiers, because of its 2D6 game mechanic, as my fellow blogger at The Space Cockroach's Hideout explains: In Defense of Dying in Traveller. I have participated in several threads at the CotI message boards on the difficulties of refereeing characters with high skill levels. Skill level translates directly into a positive DM for task rolls, so it is important for the maintenance of game play that characters rarely get the level of die modifiers that make success automatic. It is possible for a Traveller character to improve stats and skills, but it is a slow, gradual process. I'll talk about that in another post.

       By limiting the player's ability to modify and 'improve' their characters, Traveller  remains faithful to its literary antecedents. Asimov, Niven, Heinlein & Piper did not write stories of demi-gods, their heroes were mortals like us. Dominic Flandry may be great with the ladies, and the Stainless Steel Rat can pick locks the way others pick their teeth, but they're still human. 

     Travellers can become heroes, but they become so by the choices they make, the risks they take and the goals that they set for themselves. In short, they become heroes by their stories, and to me, that's what role-playing is about.


  1. Here, here, cheers, cheers, three more rounds of beers!

  2. Many thanks for linking to my blog! :-D

    Also, the one thing I miss in Classic Traveller is not experience (it already has good enough experience/training rules in the three little books) and skill/stat advancement, but rather rules for increasing your influence and power in the game world - such as Stars Without Number's Faction rules or the ACKS stronghold/domain/thief-guild rules. I.e. rules for forming and building your own merchant-house, space-pirate gang, noble house, smuggling operation, mercenary unit, private security firm, corporation and the like. The guidelines in Book 4: Mercenary are a bit lacking and the Traveller 4 Pocket Empires rules are a bit too complex for my taste, though.

    But also note that in Classic Traveller you are NOT limited by your skills - especially since you have several "skill-0" skills and the ability to roll characteristic checks (i.e. roll under). You are also always "proficient" (again, skill-0) with all common weapons, and can do much even if you only have one "skill-1" and several "mediocre" stats. You can shoot, you can hit, you can sneak (DEX check), you can figure out mysteries (roleplaying assisted in some cases by INT or EDU checks) you can do EVA (typically PCs have Vacc Suit-0 for the very least), you can talk with NPCs (though less efficiently in some cases than with Streetwise or Admin). Your UPP 777777 character with, say, Vacc Suit-1 and Mechanic-1 is NOT useless as some newer-school players may tend to think! Oh, and your character can still try to learn Psionics!