Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Traveller is not a Power Fantasy

Omer the Lizard King has written another post elaborating what skills mean in Traveller. We've both talked about this in multiple places. Traveller PCs can be powerful, yes, but it doesn't look that way from the character sheet
A commenter on his post sums it up well:
"I think the problem (to the extent that one can say a game with so many fans has problems) is that a certain segment of players *wants* granularity, *wants* special powers, and *wants* character advancement.

In a sense, Classic Traveller still offers the sort of characters that OD&D offers - lean, streamlined, not very differentiated mechanically. To a gamer who is used to 3.5E, 4E, or 5E, the old OD&D characters feel bland, like they are missing something."

In Traveller power comes from player ingenuity, and an understanding of how the Traveller universe works.  Traveller does not provide the power fantasy of easily overcoming enormous obstacles and defeating large & powerful enemies.

Let's face it. When you compare a 'competent' Traveller character to a character from most other RPGs, especially D&D in its later editions, the Traveller comes off looking, well, lame.

Yes, we know that my 4-term Marine with UPP 9998A8 and Cbt. Rifleman-3 is a tough hombre in a fight, but even so he can still get capped by a thug with an auto-pistol. A Barsoomian White Ape will make dinner out of him quickly, unless the PC is lucky and the player is smart. 

Compare this to a Pathfinder character with his feats and bonuses and class abilities, and huge hit points pools. Plus those games have more dramatic interior artwork. Behold:
I always assumed this was Battle Dress. It is not.

TL-3 version of Battle Dress. Probably magical.
See what I mean?

The power creep in D&D and in video games has left Traveller behind. I wonder if even John Carter could keep up with the dizzying spiral of power-ups that define a lot of action/adventure games. There's also the trend in first person shooters and action/adventure movies where the protagonist mows down waves of mook opponents - like the main characters in Star Wars, or Jason Bourne. Traveller is not set up to produce those kinds of scenes. It is very hard to produce on the tabletop the visuals currently popular in other media. Traveller was never meant to do that (but there are lots of games which are); it was meant to bring the worlds of classic/pulp sci-fi literature to life.

Video games also have 'save game' functions that make character death merely a pause in the game play. In Traveller, there is no 'raise dead' spell; once you're gone, you're gone. Combine that with all of the things in the Traveller universe that can kill you, and merely surviving should be considered a major accomplishment. Survival in other media is assumed, but not in Traveller.

What is to be done about this? I say: Nothing. Nothing at all. Let Classic Traveller be what it is.

Acknowledge up front that Traveller is not a video game, or an adolescent power fantasy. What it might be is an adult power fantasy. Let me explain.

I know I'm not cut from the mythic cloth of John Carter or Dominic Flandry, and my alter ego/PC is also normal guy. With just a few skills and some moxie, this normal guy can go out into the TU and (with determination and luck) make a big fortune, or get a peerage, or control a fleet of ships, or any number of other accomplishments. Successful Travellers are those who use their brains more than their brawn, who out-think and out-maneuver their opponents. But it takes planning and careful play, because Traveller doesn't offer power-ups as shortcuts. All it offers is a universe in which to make your plans. It's up to you to make those plans as big as possible.

Traveller not-BD image credit David R. Dietrick, taken from Starter Traveller rules booklet. 


  1. Traveller relates to D&D the way Star Trek relates to Star Wars. PCs/protagonists in Traveler/Trek sometimes have to deal with powers that are more than they could have (Yaskoydray/Q/hostile environments) and solve those problems without having powers to throw around - using their ingenuity, largely. In D&D/Wars, there are beings with special powers and PCs/protagonists who have special powers to oppose them with. This is incidentally one reason why I don't think Star Trek and Star Wars are the same 'Science Fantasy' genre, at least in terms of writing a game that could manage both.

    I don't actually agree that Traveller characters look in any way lame compared to characters in other RPGs. I think they look exactly right for the genre they're in, which is more Lois Bujold/Gordon Dickson/Poul Anderson than Star Wars/EE Smith/James Schmitz. What you manage to do despite your limitations is surely as impressive as what powers they bring to play.

  2. Real power in Traveller is economic or political power. You are powerful when you can get others to do your dirty work. On a civilized planet, a character with Admin-3 and SOC 8+, which is essentially a lawyer* can cause massive trouble to his opponents by bringing the power of the state apparatus to bear against them. On a lawless planet, money and political power can buy thugs and mercenaries to serve as a force multiplier - and ultimately, kill and get killed in your name.

    Becoming a Merchant Prince, a mercenary commander, a smuggler king - or becoming a ruler of one planet or pocket empire or another - this is the true meaning of "character advancement" in Traveller.

    This is not abou "pluses" on your character sheet, but about the power you actually wield in the game universe.

    * This is Proto-Traveller - no specialized "Law" skill here as in Book 7 (IIRC) or MGT.

  3. I am a Traveller Fan D&D fantasy level based games never appealed to me. Traveller is more realistic on many levels. The simplicity of the characters is what makes the game amzing. I am a fan of zero level skills, I home rule one level-1 homeworld skill so for say you grew up on Mars. You would know Vacc Suits inside and out or an Ice World like Star Wars's Hoth Survival-1. That skill is completely up to the referee. Also I give the characters a free roll on personal development and a choice of which table to pic based on a 1 die skill roll. They also can choose to raise existng skills instead of rolling on tables. This gives the character a better ability to build there character as they would like. It gives them a few more skill. 2/3rds of education is also awarded in zero skills either home world or basic service table. Plus they get level-0 in brawling and gun or blade combat based on their homeworld law level.

  4. there was an old Andy Slack suggestion that you just give people 50 points to allocate to attributes and skills. While it means you don't have distinctive skill lists for different careers, it allows you to avoid oddities you don't like (scimitars in space, etc), and 50 points roughly mimics CT characters (Omer would be 44 points, Omer's Ripley 55 and Omer's Shepard 59; you could take a leaf out of GURPS book and dial the number of points up or down depending on the 'level' you wanted to operate at). I think there was still the rule that you couldn't have more skill points than INT+EDU

    1. Footnote - as Omer's examples indicate, 50 points is tight. Andy's example characters looked like the ones from the early Double Adventures - each could do something, but they'd need to team-up to do everything

  5. The way I express it is this: it's Greek (or American) heroes vs British. The extraordinary person who does extraordinary things, or the ordinary person who does ordinary things. It's Achilles vs Hector.

  6. This post, and your posts about high level Traveller, are some of the best I've ever read. Great explanations about what sets the game apart from the rest. So, so good.