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.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Of Rank and Fighting Ability - a rant

I'm thinking about the major NPCs of my City on the Ice-Choked Sea setting for D&Dish weird fantasy. Part of it includes deciding what to do with the high-level NPCs I've detailed earlier for that setting. And here I come face to face with a very common trope: many video games and face-to-face RPGs equate social (or military) rank with fighting prowess. and i don't think that this should be the case.

Assuming that fighting prowess equals social or military rank is assuming that the society or military force in question is a perfect meritocracy centered on fighting ability - where the more competent people are promoted to positions of power. While this might be true for groups such as pirates or viking raiders, where people literally fight their way up the rank ladder to the top (and have to keep themselves in good shape to stand against challengers), many more civilized organizations and societies do not work this way.

Examples of this abound. In the typical western state, the military is, ultimately, under the command of a civilian politician, who may or may not have any military experience; this is quite extreme in the USA where the President - an elected civilian - is actually the direct commander in chief of the military. But this is not only a case for democracies - not all medieval monarchs were warrior kings; many were even invalids, yet had armies at their command.

Furthermore, even inside the military hierarchy, ranking officers need not be high-level Fighters. After all, climbing the ranks and administrating armies require quite different skills than fighting in the battlefield. And this is not to mention the even less meritocratic forces where a noble (or other dignitary) could earn a military rank by the virtue of his social status... In many cases, indeed, a Sergeant might be more experienced as a soldier than the Lieutenant he answers to, especially is the Sergeant has plenty of real combat experience and the Lieutenant is fresh out of officers' college...

So the game stats of people in power will vary in my settings. Some would have powerful stats, other will be (in LotFP terms) be level 0. But in many cases, a low-level (in game terms) person in a position of power will have mighty warriors at his or her disposal - bodyguards, elite units and the like.