Friday, November 7, 2014

What does Game Balance look like in Traveller?

As I understand it, in many current RPGs, of various genres, there is a concept called game balance, by which the Referee/GM scales the size and capability of monsters or NPC groups to the capabilities of the PC group, so that the PCs have an even chance of being victorious in the encounter.

Classic Traveller . . . has none of that. That concept is nowhere to be found. I have reviewed 35 Amber Zone adventures on this site, and I own all of the GDW Adventures and Short Adventures. None of them have any discussion in the preparation section for how many PCs should be part of the crew, or what skills or weapons the PC group should have. There's usually a pre-generated list of eight characters in the standard Traveller short form, but no indication that all of them need to be included.You've just got to be prepared for anything.

Over on the Facebook Traveller-RPG page, there was a discussion last month about this matter. A new member asked the group if there was in Traveller an analogue to D&D's challenge rating. Several posters replied that Traveller just don't work that way. I won't quote, since I don't want to take the time to ask permission, but several responders gave advice like this:

  • Running away may sometimes be the PC's best option. You can and will be outnumbered or outgunned.
  • In-game aspects like Tech Level and Law Level will influence how hostile NPCs are equipped, but that's an aspect of the game world, not game mechanics.
  • Avoid encounters with NPCs that have fusion guns and Battle Dress.
  • Learn to negotiate. Use the Reaction Table!
  • Traveller PCs are not meant to be super heroes or demi-gods. They're talented and adventurous, but normal people. More Dominc Flandry and Slippery Jim DeGriz than Conan the Barbarian or Gandalf. 
  • Remember that NPCs should also have motivations beyond being an obstacle for the PCs. 
 For all of the assertions that Traveller combat is deadly, I have to note that a while back on the Citizens of the Imperium board I asked how often did players have PCs get killed in a game, and most of the answers were "not that often". Perhaps they just heeded the advice to Run Away, or depended more on sneaking about than fighting. 

However, the following weapons, if encountered, should be avoided:

The PGMP/FGMP series of 'high energy' weapons.  The least bad of this lot will dish out 12d damage, enough to kill an average PC twice (average 42 dmg vs stats 777[21]). 

The VRF Gauss gun. This is a fully automatic hopper-fed rail gun spraying 10 round bursts. Whole squads can get mowed down in one round by this one. Duck and cover!

The Gauss rifle. One of the most popular weapons in the game. Semi or full auto, integrated electronic sights, 4D damage with autofire bonuses and an Armor DM profile to make the lowly shotgun jealous. 

The LAG (light assault gun). A modern rifle in old flintlock calibers (.60+). Multiple ammo types and good range. 

Laser Rifles. They've got good armor DMs, except against Reflec, and great range, and are available by TL 9. 5D damage has almost a 1 in 4 chance to kill an average PC in one shot.

The lowly shotgun. Nothing says Traveller like Shotguns in Space. Range isn't great, Armor DM's aren't great, but against weak armor a 4D blast will put you on the mat in a hurry. And they're legal just about everywhere, and so low-tech that you can find them anywhere.

Please note that with even the basic, simplified CT rules on wounding and recovery, if two stats are reduced to zero [777>bang> 070], the PC is unconscious and without Medical-3 care recovery is not possible. Auto pistols are capable of inflicting this level of damage, so treat the big guns with respect.  With the advanced medical rules detailed in JTAS 11, we get the deterioration rule which ticks off additional wound points if aid is not rendered pronto. So the advice to sneak and run is well worth heeding.


  1. As I understand it, the question of Game Balance in D&D is not just about characters having encounters which they have a chance to defeat but also about characters relative to other characters. Because while D&D has levels and claims that different characters of the same level are comparably effective, that is largely not the case. Classes may in some cases either effective or useless in nearly all situations, or may vary greatly depending on the type of challenge. When you combine that with a level system wherein high level characters can survive situations that are certain to kill lower level ones, or can trivially kill enemies that their lower level counterparts are outclassed by, That mix of massive power inflation and massive power disparities among D&D characters means that the game needs some reasonably objective measure of power.

    A legitimate comparison in Traveller would be devising a challenge for a group where some characters had battle dress, grav belts, and PGMPs; others had flak jackets and shotguns; and some had revolvers and a large suite of psionic powers. And those are abilities that they have because of the character they are rather than the equipment they have. Also, high level ones can survive several shots with a PGMP-14, regardless of whether they're in armour or not.

  2. I agree 100% This meshes well with my opinion about death and lethality in old-school RPGs, such as here:

  3. Yep. I'd add, though, that the various adventure seeds in 76 Patrons were categorized by how many people were in the adventuring party (and in a few cases further qualified by required skills), and Mercenary-style Tickets were similarly classed by size of the mercenary group.

    I'd further add that the Traveller rules presume that the Referee knows what characters their players have, and that any necessary adjustments can be done by the Referee to suit the particular situation. Not a lot of that is needed, in my opinion, because in the end it all comes down to cleverness and determination, not so much to numbers on the page.