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.
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.
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.