Friday, February 13, 2015

Avoid Skill Bloat! - Using Characteristics in CT

A while ago, I wrote about an aspect of the Classic Traveller rules that is not the most popular, the skill limit. Simply, a PC or NPC can have only as many skill levels in total as the sum of his INT+EDU. In CT that was not often a problem, an 'average' character could have 14 skill levels. But with the expanded character generation options like in Mercenary and High Guard, this would come up. MegaTraveller expanded the skill list a lot, and I understand that later versions of Traveller had more extensive skill lists as well. 

I get the impression from things I've read on the Web, and some conversation with other gamers I know, that big long skill lists have had the unfortunate effect of unconsciously convincing players that their PCs can only do things that have a defined skill on their character sheet. The well-known essay Quick Primer on Old-School Gaming explains this well. It's worth reading. When I referee, especially for my kids, I want them to experiment, to try creative solutions to problems, and experience the fun when something they thought up succeeds.

To allow characters the freedom to try lots of things, and to not run afoul of this balancing rule, I rely on characteristic-based task resolution. Skills to me are the things that you have to be trained in to do competently (think of the NPC-only no weapon skill penalty) but there are plenty of activities that anyone might try to do that aren't covered by CT's brief skill list.

My guiding principle is this : Whenever possible, associate tasks with existing skills & characteristics instead of requiring new skills.

Lock picking is a reasonably common thing for PCs to try, and while a defined skill in lock picking is very plausible, it eats into a PC's skill limit, and can only be applied to one very specific activity. Better, I say, is to associate that activity with Mechanical or Electronics skill, depending on the lock's TL. Lots of PC's have this skill already, and it allows the PCs to try something 'off-book' without encumbrance. 

If there isn't a skill (there's always J-o-T) that makes sense to associate with an activity, then the referee can associate it with a characteristic. I like the EDU stat a lot. Maybe because in real life, I'm a college librarian and I deal with academic books all day, and I just like learning new stuff. Whatever the reason, I see EDU as being key to all kinds of activities in Traveller that aren't covered by the rules. If it's scholarly at all, EDU covers it. History, geography, the sciences, literature, art; any time these topics come into play, ask yourself: how well educated is my PC?

Referees can just decide on a target number, and what characteristic value would provide a DM; that is the CT skill system in one sentence. However, if you prefer a more structured approach, here's my house-rules system. 

Roll 2D+DM for the characteristic or less in order to succeed.

Add DMs based on the degree of difficulty:

  • Simple: DM -3
  • Routine: DM +0
  • Difficult: DM +3
  • Formidable: DM +6

Example: PC “Joe Average” falls from a cliff. Referee says it's a Difficult task to avoid falling damage. Joe rolls a 6, but adds 3 to the roll for the difficulty level, making 9. 9>7, so Joe takes falling damage.

Characters like Fenton Tukachevski who have really high stats will always succeed at simple and Routine tasks, but the latter two categories leave some possibility of failure, so there's still a challenge for these folks.

Characteristic-based activities

Strength: Throwing things, lifting things, forcing stuck doors/valves, climbing things, jumping up or down, swimming

Dexterity: Catching things, balancing, jumping across, escaping bonds

Endurance: Resisting environmental stresses, running long distances, resisting collision damage, staying awake

Intelligence: Puzzle solving, figuring out unfamiliar technology, attempting unskilled technical skills, cryptography

Education : Knowing facts or information, current events knowledge, general research or science, general history, appraising value, technical bluffing

Social Standing: Recognizing famous people, interacting with different social levels, acting correctly in a foreign culture setting, knowing the local laws; knowing current events of significance; savoir-faire at social events

Combination Characteristics

Social Intuition ([INT+SOC]/2)  Social intuition is used to detect motivations and attitudes, and degrees of truthfulness, social bluffing.

Technical Intuition ([INT+EDU]/2) Used as a form of investigative skill. Determining 'what happened' based on physical data, what a device does apart from observing it in operation, and judging general technological achievements.

Intimidation ([STR+SOC]/2) “leaning on people” to get cooperation.

Social Bluffing ([SOC+INT]/2) Social bluffing can get you into a private party, convince someone you are someone that you're not, or get you in to see the CEO without an appointment.


  1. This is a very important post. My number one issue with CT Books 4-7 and Mongoose Traveller is the large bloat in skill number, with all sorts of niche skills which rarely come to play, such as Recruiting in CT Book 4, Naval Architect in CT Book 5 or over-specialized Science and Engineering skills in MGT. Almost all CT skills are very useful in a wide range of situations, with the potential exception of Forward Observer (which would be much more useful if there would have been rules for using ship weapons in player-character-level combat, especially vs. tanks and the like). If you have Vacc Suit or Autopistol or Electronics or Forgery or even ATV - you'll have a lot to do in a lot of game situations. Naval Architect might come in handy once or twice in the campaign in most cases, and Recruiting would be useful mostly for hiring Mercs (why can't you just do that with SOC? Or an Admin roll modified by SOC?). Most MGT Science skills will not be very handy in a typical high-adventure campaign.

    I love your characteristic-chek system as it fills all the CT skill "holes":
    - Stealth? Roll a DEX check.
    - Diplomacy other than what is covered by Admin and Streetwise? Roll a SOC check.
    - Perception? Roll an INT check.

    Simple and clean!

  2. I like using EDU as a "knowledge" check. Great post, especially for someone who only has the Starter Set.

    1. The Starter Set has everything you need to have a good Traveller game, in my opinion. It is fun to add in stuff from other Traveller pubs, and other game systems, but I often let things get cluttered up by trying to shove in every cool idea I come upon.

    2. The Starter Set has all anyone needs. Basically the same as The Traveller Book or Books 1-3.

  3. Hmm, I never noticed this rule but also can't recall any characters with that many skill levels anyway. Some games just have way too many skills and too many of them overlap too much, like games with acrobatics, tumbling, breakfall, and gymnastics as 4 separate skills to acquire.