Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In Defense of Dying in Traveller Character Generation

A common complaint about Classic Traveller is that characters can die during character generation. At the surface of it, it looks like a very strong and robust complaint - why should character generation be based on chance rather than the player's choice, and why should a character die even before starting the game?

However, there are actually good reasons to follow this controversial, and lethal, rule.

First of all, Classic Traveller game starts not after character generation, but rather at the beginning of character generation. It is a mini-game all by itself - a game of chance, if you will. And like all gambles, it has its own thrill in it. Will your character survive multiple terms of combat as a Marine? Will you muster out a General, or, alternatively, finish your career at a state funeral reserved to military heroes? Go on, gamble!

Another thing to keep in mind is that, as long as you stick to Book 1 and Supplement 4, Classic Traveller character generation is FAST. VERY FAST. Once you know the system well, generating a character takes a mere five minutes. So even if your character dies, you don't lose much time - in fact, you've only played a little game of dice for several moments, no harm done.

But the real reasons for the chances for character death in Classic Traveller character generation are twofold: from a setting perspective and from a game-mechanics perspective.

From a setting perspective, a military career, especially in actual combat service (when you can learn all these nifty combat skills), is a risky thing. Combat is no picnic, after all. You don't earn combat experience by sitting behind a desk, but rather by shooting and being shot at. Soldiers die in many cases; that is the nature of war. And the game reflects that.

From a game-mechanics perspective, keep in mind that Classic Traveller - like most versions of Traveller - uses the 2d6 curve for task resolution. This curve is highly sensitive to modifiers, so even a mere +1 is significant; high skill levels will skew the curve much towards the character's favor, and thus are highly valuable. The chance of death during character generation, therefore, exists in order to make higher skills rarer and more valuable. Otherwise, why not just stick in, say, the Scouts for terms and terms on no end and have a character with Pilot-5? This presents the player with a choice: do you muster out now alive but with a smaller amount of skills, or risk a certain chance of death in the line of duty to earn better combat experience? Are you determined enough to become an officer to risk your life in the line of duty, or do you muster out as a Private and stay alive for the time being? Choices. Choices. And risks. This is the essence of Classic Traveller character generation.

I hope that these few arguments would make you think again about the reasoning behind these seemingly arbitrary mechanics.


  1. And the GM ends up with a nice stack of NPCs by recycling the dead characters - oops, did I say that out loud?

  2. Or the player has a deceased relative to use as character background fluff and possible story creation ideas for the GM to work into a campaign.

  3. My group prefers to make "death" mean that your character is now finished, and now your adventure begins, like it or not. We also don't give you any mustering out benefits for the term in which you "died".

    BUT I'm a little more hard-core (LOL) and I agree with your premise. Maybe I can use your post to convince my players. :)

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  5. I first heard about how a character in (classic) Traveller could literally die during the creation process from a reader commenting on a Dungeonmastering.com article about non-D&D games. I admittedly thought that this 'death-before-playing' was a waste of time. But after reading the explanation here I think it's actually some clever game design.

    And then adding in Kobold's thoughts for instant NPCs + Spartan117's for background & story ideas gives a very good way to make use out of the unusable.

    Anywho, here's the conversation from DMing:

    Thanks for the info!

  6. A point worth considering. It's fun!