Monday, December 5, 2016

Once again on Classic Traveller skills

Vacc Suit-2 skill in action
The question arises many times - what do Classic Traveller skills represent? How competent is my character? If he only has Vacc Suit-2 (for example) and no other skill, is he useful in gameplay?

I have written about this in the past, but I think that this warrants further discussion.

The first thing to remember is that Traveller characters are competent. Skill-1 is employable - you are good enough with it to get a paying job using this skill. Skill-3 is a professional - typically enough to get you a license in one of the Professions, such as being a Medical Doctor or a licensed Engineer. In ordinary situations, they do their jobs competently. Under CT rules, for example, First Aid and even Surgery for Severe Wounds do not require a roll - you got the paramedic (First Aid) or the surgeon (Surgery), you get results. They only need to roll dice when there is a significant chance of failure even for a professional, and when failure will have dire consequences. For example, if a doctor character would try to perform the above-mentioned surgery in some colonial hellhole when only the local TL-3 tools are available, and not in the default TL8+ Medlab.

Again- Skill-1 is enough to work at an actual, skilled job. Most people, both in real life and in Traveller, do not have too many such employable skills. Most of the things you do rarely go over Skill-1. As a typical person living in a modern, industrialized country, you probably have Ground Car-0 and Steward-0 if you know how to drive and cook/entertain guests, respectively. However, unless you have specific training, these would not be enough to work as a professional driver or a steward (or chef), respectively.

For example, I, the writer of this post, am a highly skilled and experienced Hebrew-English-Hebrew translator, as well as a skilled writer and game designer. I deal quite a lot with official documents. I can cook a decent meal and know my way around a car. I also have a good education and a Master's Degree in Geography. In Traveller terms, I will probably be:

Omer, UPP 4759C7 Other, 4 terms, age 34, Linguistics-2, Art-1*, Admin-1, Ground Car-0.

Enough to earn a decent living while holding a quasi-professional job. Am I an adventurer? No. An adventurer will typically have different skills, for example, Gun Combat or Pilot or Vacc Suit instead of one or more of my skills. The number of skills, however, is quite typical. Someone with a good military career will usually have one or two additional skills. Of course, there are the rare elite soldiers who enjoy a meteoric rise through the ranks - the maximum is ten skill points at age 34, DOUBLE what a typical civilian like myself has. These are the officers with stellar careers who reach the rank of Commander or Lieutenant Colonel by the age of 34 - unlikely in real life even for a successful officer, and unlikely in Traveller as well. These people are exceptional, but most Traveller characters are not - this is a game about ordinary people doing wildly extraordinary things and going on hair-raising interstellar adventures.

Skills are a Big Deal in Classic Traveller. Pilot-1 alone can land you in a 6KCr/month job - very well-paying for a 22-years-old character. Medic-3 alone is enough for being a licensed physician, and with DEX 8+ you are actually a surgeon! Most people - even sci-fi heroes - will not have too many skills. The game mechanics also reflect this - on a 2d6 curve, DM +3 is a Big Deal, and skews things very far in your favor. Add to that Characteristics DMs, and a talented, skilled professional can be a highly successful expert.

But what about all the other adventuring stuff? you ask, If my character only has Vacc Suit-2 and Computer-1, what about combat skills? Driving a vehicle? Well, my friends, for this you have the Skill-0 rules. For starters, all Traveller adventures have Skill-0 in all common small arms. With a good gun at good range, especially with good Characteristics, they'll make very decent combatants even with Skill-0. With Vacc Suit-1, you can wear Combat Armor, and with Vacc Suit-2, you can wear a Battledress! As a Referee, I'd also assume Vacc Suit-0 and a Skill-0 in one Vehicle skill for the typical character. Most "passive" knowledge skills are subsumed in the EDU Characteristic. Finally, this is Old School - your character can do a whole load of "adventuring" stuff without having a specific skill listed on their character sheet.

An interesting sci-fi example comes from the Alien(s) movies. Ellen Ripley from was not a soldier and didn't really have good combat skills. At most, she has the usual Traveller Skill-0 in common weapons. In Alien, she killed the xenomorph without using a weapon by using her Pilot and Vacc Suit skills. In Aliens, she does shoot guns and throw grenades (Skill-0, right?) but her real kickass moment is when she uses her excellent Vacc Suit skill to slay the xenomorph queen with the industrial/loading equivalent of a Battledress.

Her Classic Traveller stats would probably look similar to this:

Ellen Ripley, UPP 67C997 Merchant 4th Officer**, 3 terms, age 30, Vacc Suit-2, Pilot-1, Navigation-1, Admin-1.

Another sci-fi example is Commander Shepard of Mass Effect fame. Canonically she*** is 29 years old at the beginning of Mass Effect, but to keep with Traveller character generation rules, I'd make her 34 years old - the earliest age you can reach the rank of Commander in the Navy. She is an N7 - an elite special forces soldier of the System Alliance Navy/Marines. In Traveller terms, she got Commissioned and Promoted on her first term and Promoted on each subsequent term. She is the poster-girl of the best you can achieve in the Navy in a stellar (so to speak) Naval career.

Her Classic Traveller stats would probably look similar to this - assuming the Infiltrator class I always play in Mass Effect 1:

Shepard, UPP 7CA875 Navy Commander, 4 terms, age 34, Rifle-3, Autopistol-2, Admin-1, Computer-1, Vacc Suit-1, Electronics-1, Forward Obs-1****.


On a final note, the above also explains why it is difficult to learn new skills in Classic Traveller. Learning a new employable trade - not to mention a full-blown profession - at a later stage of life is difficult. Possible, but difficult. Certainly, you can learn a new profession - Skill-2 - by taking a Sabbatical - once per lifetime. You can also vastly increase your Education Characteristics by up to six points through study. You can train new weapon skills, but this takes time, dedication, and effort to become permanent. You can also train skills - it takes 8 years to increase one of your skills by one level. This all makes sense in the context I have described above.

* Additional skills from the Cepheus Engine/MGT1.
** Roughly Classic Traveller's Book 1 Merchant Service equivalent to the movie's "Warrant Officer", which is a senior non-commissioned officer.
*** FemShep FTW!
**** Actually uses this skill several times, most notably in Mass Effect 3.


  1. It's also worth pointing out that some skills grant DM +2 or more per skill level.

    1. Exactly! Thus skills are very useful even at "low" levels.

  2. An observation: you can increase two skills in eight years in CT.

    A question: why is Shepard's SOC so low? That's probably not really relevant, and it would be easy to set it wherever, but is there something in Mass Effect which would indicate that she comes from a lower middle class or well-off working class background?

    1. Thanks for the observation.

      Regarding Shepard, she has three possible background you choose at the start of the game; each brings a mini-quest later on:

      1) Spacer: Both of your parents were in the Alliance military. Your childhood was spent on ships and stations as they transferred from posting to posting, never staying in one location for more than a few years. Following in your parents' footsteps, you enlisted at the age of eighteen. Probably SOC 8-9.

      2) Earthborn: You were an orphan raised on the streets of the great megatropolises covering Earth. You escaped the life of petty crime and underworld gangs by enlisting with the Alliance military when you turned eighteen. SOC 5 at best.

      3) Colonist: You were born and raised on Mindoir, a small border colony in the Attican Traverse. When you were sixteen slavers raided Mindoir, slaughtering your family and friends. You were saved by a passing Alliance patrol, and you enlisted with the military a few years later. SOC 5, possibly.

    2. Yes you technically can raise two skills in 8 years, however, you have to make two 8+ rolls with no DMs, so it's really only a 1 in 6 chance.

  3. I don't *disagree* with any of your analysis. I think you are spot on with what Traveller means and how it plays.

    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.

    1. I did not say that Classic Traveller is suitable to every taste. There are plenty of games allowing granularity, special powers, and faster character advancement - such as Stars Without Number (which I adore) or T20 (Traveller D20). Classic Traveller offers a certain kind of gameplay which, of course, suits certain tastes, but not all of them.

      And yes, Classic Traveller is DEFINITELY Old School.

  4. I seem to remember that somewhere in High Guard there is some comment on calculating DMs, plus or minus, for use with characters if you adapted the rules for RPG campaigning. And I think in those rules it assumed a skill level of 2 for Naval personnel in the relevant positions (gunnery, whatever). I used that to rule that 'effective' professional skill levels were - 2 rather than 3. So '1' correspondingly didn't seem so bad 'cos many people at the time pointed to medic-3 as doctor and complained about their skill levels. That and zero level skills got most of those who complained to a point where they adjusted and we all enjoyed ourselves. Those who didn't went on to play other things instead. All good.

    On a side note, I started running some friends in traveller 2-3 years ago. They'd not played a lot of traveller. After covering 4 years in game time, I gave them 2 skill levels, as if they'd done a full on term, which seemed fair. I think that having some simple system (the rules as written, or house rules) to allow advancement does help. Even if it seems stingy compared to other types of game, having it being possible rather than not makes a difference.

    1. Classic Traveller does have a system for advancement - which requires training and essentially grants 1 skill per 4 years in-game, but also requires a dedication throw. Sounds fair to me.

    2. I looked closely at the experience rules in Book 2 and they really aren't very generous. It takes an 8+ dedication roll (no DMs) to start the 4 year program. That then entitles you to a temporary increase of 1 level in 2 skills (if you do combat, you must do one gun and one blade). After those 4 years, you must make a 2nd 8+ dedication roll to continue the program to make those skills permanent. If you interrupt the program for any length of time (including missing the 2nd dedication roll), you lose the gains so far. Weapon skills that are increased from 0 to 1 only need the first 4 year program and then are permanent.

      The net of this is about a 1 in 6 chance of doing the 8 year program to increase two skills...

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  6. One word that was used in the 1977 edition of the rules, but later dropped, was "expertise." It is used interchangeably with "skill," as in "The character has an expertise of 1."

    The word, I think, is valuable. "Expertise" sums up so many of the concepts in your post above. It isn't the *ability* to do something (as if not having the listed skill prevents you from trying anything); it is being an *expert* in the thing listed.

    Later RPGs would use skill to mean any level of training in any given subject. Hence percentile values, allowing a broad range of skill in any given subject. But someone with a 15% skill in Vacc Suit or Air Raft does not have *expertise* in handling Vacc Suit or Air Rafts. He would, per the _Traveller_ rules, have a Vacc Suit-0 or Air Raft-0.

    He's no expert, but he at least could get far enough into an endeavor to get himself into trouble -- and then find out if he could get himself out of it despite bad odds. Like any adventurer worth his salt making up his plans on the fly.

  7. Interesting article! I've always considered the skill levels in Traveller to be logarithmic, in that someone with skill-2 has X times as much expertise than someone with skill-1, who in turn would have X times more expertise than someone with skill-0, which represents at least some familiarity with the issue. This reflects the idea that a basic understanding of a skill (i.e. skill-0) can be learnt reasonably quickly, while becoming proficient (skill-1) takes a certain amount of dedicated training and field experience. To become expert (skill-2) requires a considerable amount of practice and dedication. Mastery (skill-3) would take many years to develop. Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to master something seems apt here. Skill levels of 4 or higher would indicate some innate natural ability, AI implants, or decades of practice.

    What the value of X might be is hard to determine. If we take X as 10, that would indicate 100 hours practice to reach skill-1, 1000 hours to reach skill-2, and 10000 to reach skill-3. These hours would be mostly actual practice, combined wth rehearsal, study and simulation.

    For instance, in the UK, to acquire a private pilots flying license currently requires logging at least 45 hours of flying time plus studying and passing exams. This would equate to pilot-1, so the 100 hours doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to me.

    Put into the context of my Traveller campaign I'm happy to give players skill-0 in activities they might have done extensively in the course of an adventure, or been given some basic instruction in (i.e. vacc suit). Also I'm happy to let them study for skill-1 in something as long as they spend enough time with a trainer and get field experience too. For skills-2 or higher, the required sabbatical and dedication rolls come into play.