Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Another perspective on Not Using Experience Points in Traveller

 A perspective on Leveling ad Experience from the Tao of D&D

Over the decades, many folks within the RPG hobby have observed critically that Traveller is lacking for having no XP or advancement. This presumes that level-based games are the standard, and Traveller is the exception. No, it is another paradigm that has held up just as well. Traveller is only 3 years younger than D&D, and has survived and flourished along side it for four decades.

This criticism lacks force for two reasons. First of all, it does have Experience rules. Second of all, Traveller is not dependent upon Leveling up for rewarding game-play.

I quote here from the post referenced above although his main point is about something else. It is a good argument against D&D having levels. It also works as a defense of Traveller for not using a leveling system. This was also the first time I'd heard a fan of that game questioning the importance of the leveling system. Maybe there are others, I just haven't encountered them.

Begin quote, emphasis added:

This is my problem with circumventing rules about distribution or reward for the sake of 'fun' or ensuring that player entitlement to rise up a level every two or three sessions is ensured. It isn't a reward any more. It isn't even a measure of relative game play. After all, what if the characters never went up? What if the level was perpetually 5th, without any experience whatsoever? Would it mean there were no goals to fulfill? No achievements? No threat from battle? No reason to play?

Or is it possible, just possible, that we could all agree not to care about levels? Suppose the game simply had no sense of improvement, the players just acted upon their agency or in the stories the DM fabricated. . . would it be any less of a game?
. . .
Play as a 5th level forever or as a 15th level forever, the sense of overcoming obstacles, solving problems and achieving triumph would be the same, would it not?

What is it that makes the level matter?

My answer to his questions is that D&D is a Power Fantasy. To sustain the fantasy, there must be ever higher levels of Power available. Because leveling is mechanistic, it is easy to grasp, and can easily become a substitute within the game for any other goals.

Traveller, without a leveling system, does not have that issue. Players must set in-game goals for their PCs because there are no meta-game goals to set. By the end of character creation, you've already Leveled Up several times. Traveller adventurers are veterans from the get-go.

It should be obvious that the author believes that the game would still be playable and enjoyable without the leveling-up aspect. Traveller concurs.

The author goes on to say:

I'm not interested in players whose attention span depends upon advancement.
. . .
I run a world. I place things in it, I introduce the people and show the pathways. I provide the hooks and manage the strange happenstance that drives tension, hilarity and drama. I fill the coffers that pour out when the coffers are found and I put the monsters and other things between the players and coffers when necessary.

But I guarantee nothing. Zilch. The party misjudges the enemy or rolls a string of bad numbers and that is going to be the ball game. Three strikes, that is all anyone gets, and yes, get ready because the pitches are going to be overhand and as hard as I can throw. There ain't no packed lunch, there ain't no sympathy in the big city, there ain't no sanity clause and nobody rides for free.

That is how I would like to play Traveller. These days my game group is playing super heroes in another system. Maybe some day I'll get to do this.


  1. At the end of last year I was reading some posts on The Alexandrian blog about why dungeons were a good thing, or at least, why they were the first successful framework for an adventure game (IIRC, they provide enough choices to be interesting without being overwhelming, and there is a clear objective - leveling up). It's interesting that that doesn't really match the fantasy literature that's cited as inspiration, but gained more audience interest than say En Garde's social climbing, or following the career of a Car Wars autoduelist. I think it has taken a while for people to figure how to play in an open world. Thinking back to early D&D or Traveller, the adventures didn't have much story, or memorable characters

    1. "I think it has taken a while for people to figure how to play in an open world."

      Or: it's taken a while for gamemasters (and computer game designers) to figure out how to create an open world.

  2. Building a bad-ass character still seems to be what people do when they start gaming

  3. It can be hard sell for those used to ever increasing abilities and stats. And the random character generation also throws off people who are used to designing a character. But as told here and elsewhere: it is the story that really matters, the game and the characters. Plus science fiction really does not lend itself to the same kind of levelling that fantasy games do.

    1. I've run a lot of open game tables and found that players get into it pretty quickly. And at the other end, if their character dies... they're actually happy. "Wow, we can die in this... that's... wow, that's cool, actually."

      The way games were written in the 1974-84 period is actually pretty natural to people. The subsequent decades have too often been the game designer foisting their ideas on players, and it's been capped off by computer game designers taking the limits of computers and imposing them on players. "No, no, THIS is the right way to play."

      That's why so many adventures are railroads - because computer games can't handle truly open worlds. And it's why stats matter so much - because computer games can't handle a player thinking of something not part of The Plan. Thus the uncrossable three foot wall and all that.

      But the ideology of the game writer and the limitations of computers do not apply at the game table. Games like AD&D1e, RQ, CT and so on give players and referees creative freedom, which people have forgotten they have.