Traveller: Characters & Combat

I have been slowing making my way through classic Traveller. Though I’m not speeding through the text, I am enjoying it, particularly the sober approach to character power. What follows are my impressions of Book 1: Characters & Combat. All dice in Traveller are d6s.

The life path character generation system is the primary reason I became interested in classic Traveller (the secondary reason is for historical knowledge of RPGs: Traveller is one of the first sci-fi games, maybe second after Metamorphosis Alpha). I gather there is something similar to the life path system in Warhammer Fantasy but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet.

Character skills are selected by choosing a career and then rolling for what happens during that career before play starts. The career options are almost all military: navy, marines, army, scouts, merchants, and other. This also gives all characters the framework of a backstory with no work required. Famously, one can die during character creation in Traveller (or take significant penalties due to aging). This is not as silly as it sounds. Once you have used the system, you will realize that danger is required to balance the utility gained from accumulating skills.

The analogue to D&D’s ability scores are called characteristics. The characteristics are strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and social standing. They are generated using 2d6 in order but then are modified by life experiences and aging. The max score for any ability is 15, or F in hexadecimal. Using hexadecimal makes possible the universal personality profile (or UPP) which uses a simple string of characters, one per characteristic, to represent a character. You have to memorize the standard order of characteristics to understand UPPs, but that should be easy for anyone who has played D&D. For example, a very strong but otherwise average character might be represented as B77777. That’s pretty slick.

The combat system is very simple and has some interesting aspects. To attack, you roll 2d6, add bonuses for characteristics and skills, apply penalties based on the opponent’s armor, and if your result is 8+ you hit. Damage is applied to physical characteristics; there doesn’t seem to be a separate health score or hit point total. This also means that as you take damage in combat, your combat effectiveness decreases (which is realistic, but seems like it might lead to death spiral situations). When one characteristic is reduced to 0, a character is incapacitated. Two characteristics at 0 results in a wound. Three at 0 and the character is dead. (This sounds like it could be used as an interesting set of house rules for D&D using strength, dexterity, and constitution.)

Most weapons do several dice of damage, so like in OD&D a single average hit is likely to incapacitate an average character. There is armor, and it makes characters harder to hit rather than absorbing damage. High-tech weapons can do significantly more damage (for example, a laser carbine does four dice of damage).

The tactical relationship between combatants is tracked by a distance system using range bands, which is sort of halfway between imagining everything and using a full two dimensional combat grid. It’s an elegant compromise, and I can easily see using this in D&D for some situations (especially in the wilderness) though it does not support things like flanking and area of effect very well. Morale applies to PCs too, which is one mechanical use for social skills like leadership.

There’s really not much sci-fi in book 1. The play example could just as easily be set in modern day New York (there’s a bar, and some taxis). Even the equipment list is pretty low-tech. Sure, there are a couple of laser weapons, and a few space ships (along with mortgages!) that you can begin with but the weapons list is dominated by entries like cutlasses, halberds, and normal firearms.

This is a sci-fi game?

I don’t think I have read much of the inspirational literature behind Traveller, because this sort of equipment does not seem to fit any science fiction I am familiar with (though it looks like fun; pirates in space). Maliszewski’s Thousand Suns, which is supposed to model “imperial science fiction” has an Appendix N which may be applicable. I have read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and I’m pretty sure there are no swords (though it has been a while). I haven’t read many of the books on that list though. Somewhere (probably also Grognardia) I picked up the idea that Anderson’s Ensign Flandry series (which I have not read) is one of the major influences. This cover illustration does seem to bear that out (man, that is one bad moustache):

Possible Inspiration

Book 2 is on starships. Presumably there will be more sci-fi there. It will probably be a while before I get around to finishing it, but that will be the focus of my next Traveller post.

This is my first classic Traveller character. He survived character creation! The process took me about 30 minutes (not counting making it pretty with HTML for public consumption), though it would probably be quicker the second time around. I would also probably need to buy some more equipment before playing if this was a character for an actual game.

Ex-army Lt. Colonel UPP: 6A449C Age 34 4 terms Cr20,000

Skills: Rifle-1, SMG-1, Forward Observer-1, Auto Pistol-1, Electronic-1, Admin-1, Laser Carbine-1, Vehicle-1 (winged craft)

Equipment: auto pistol

Additional benefits: 1 high passage, 1 middle passage, 1 low passage

Characteristic Start Mods Final
+1 +1
Social Standing

Social Standing of 12 means he is a baron.

Enlist army
9 +1 (Dex 6+) +2 (End 5+) = 12 >= 5 (accepted)
Default army skill: Rifle-1
First term
Survival: 3 +2 (Edu 6+) = 5 >= 5 (barely survived)

Commission: 4 (no)
+1 Edu, Forward Observer
Second term
Survival: 10 +2 = 12 (yes)
Commission: 6 (yes); rank 1 (Lieutenant)
Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 2 (Captain)
+1 Dex, Gun Combat (auto pistol), Electronic, SMG-1 (Lieutenant)
Third term
Survival: 8 +2 = 10 (survived)
Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 3 (Major)
Admin, Gun Combat (laser carbine)
Fourth term
survival: 7 +2 = 9 (survived)
Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 4 (Lt. Colonel)
Edu +1, vehicle
Fifth term
Reenlistment denied
Mustering out benefits
4 (terms) + 2 (rank 4) = 6
Benefits: 10000 Cr, 10000 Cr, gun (auto pistol), high psg, mid psg, low psg
18 + 16 (4 terms * 4 years each) = 34 (Endurance -1 from aging)
Based on these scores and experiences, I think he is not terribly bright or strong, but is a hard worker. His one outstanding quality is his agility. Because of those scores, I see him as thin and lithe (perhaps even athletic) but not very tough. He’s a good shot.

Most of what he has achieved through life so far is most likely based on his social station (his family probably pulled strings to get him into the army and fast-track his promotions, even though he didn’t want special treatment), so he is quite sensitive to implications that he didn’t earn his advancement. Thus, he has turned into something of a risk taker in order to prove people wrong (and this is probably responsible for his close brush with death during his first term in the army).

18 thoughts on “Traveller: Characters & Combat

  1. faoladh

    The commission makes you a Lieutenant. With the promotion in the same term, you become a Captain. The upshot is, you should have been a Lieutenant Colonel when you mustered out.

  2. faoladh

    Also, with Vehicle skill (like with Gun Combat), you need to select a vehicle type immediately. Choose from: Aircraft*, Grav Vehicle, Tracked Vehicle, Aircraft*, and Watercraft (the * skills have further selections to choose from).

  3. jeffro

    “as you take damage in combat, your combat effectiveness decreases”

    I’ve never understood the rules in that way….

    The three most argued rules in Traveller: how to allocate weapon damage to characteristics, whether or not ships with higher jump numbers should get more money for transporting passengers, and how to deal with mixed batteries in High Guard.

    1. Brendan

      The reason why I read it that way is that it does not mention something like a “damage total” which is compared to the characteristic. The word used is “reduced,” which makes me think that something is actually happening to the characteristic. From page 34:

      When any one characteristic is reduced to zero by wounds, the character is rendered unconscious. When two have been reduced to zero, the character has been seriously wounded. When all three have been reduced to zero, the character is dead.

      There is also the passage “wounded to a strength of 4” and “return to full strength” (page 34 again).

      It is ambiguous though, and I could see it going either way (particularly because of the use of the verb “apply to” rather than something like “subtracted from”).

    2. jeffro

      The bulk of the debate seems to be on how to allocate the damage dice. When I was younger, I assumed that it is randomly assigned. Reading it today, it seems like the player can choose which attribute the damage “goes” to. In any case, that first hit is all going to be against a single attribute….

    3. Brendan

      The way I read it was that the player could choose which characteristic to apply the damage to. I can see how this might be a point of contention though.

      One further odd side effect of this system is that it seems to be impossible to kill someone with a single hit, no matter how powerful. It looks like you need one hit to knock a character unconscious, another to wound them, and then a third to kill. Is this correct, or does extra damage spill over into other characteristics?

    4. jeffro

      “first blood may immediately incapacitate or even kill”

      “Once a characteristic has been reduced to zero, further points may not be applied to it; they must be applied to other (non-zero) characteristics.”

      So… if you were Str 8, Dex 4, End 2… a first hit of 7 or less will not drop you. A first-time hit of 8 to 11 knocks him unconscious… 12-13 seriously wounds and knocks unconsious… and 14+ kills.

    5. faoladh

      Jeffro: The first hit is applied to a random characteristic, so a hit of 2 or more could potentially knock that character out (if End was the characteristic that came up).

      The Traveller Book, p.35: “The first wound received by a character, however, can be sufficient to stun or daze him or her, and is handled differently. This first wound is applied to one of the three physical characteristics (strength, dexterity, or endurance) determined randomly. If that characteristic is reduced to zero, then any remaining hits are distributed to the other physical characteristics on a random basis. As a result, first blood may immediately incapacitate or even kill.”

    6. jeffro

      Sure enough, you’re right. That text matches Book 1.

      So… the first set of damage dice is randomly assigned… but later hits are allocated at the player’s discretion. The thing is… you have apply each die as separate chunk.

      Okay; I think I have it now. A guy with Strength 12, Dexterity 2, and Endurance 11 has a glass jaw.

    7. faoladh

      Yeah, The Traveller Book is a straight-up reprint of Books 1-3, plus art. I would have quoted Book 1, but my copy is first print, which has some variance from the final (skills in character creation are slightly different in places, spaceship combat is in inches and thousands of miles with 15 minute turns, changing all of the formulae, etc), so I am never sure if other people will match my copy.

    8. faoladh

      Also, any damage has to be allocated. So, if you have a guy who is down to Strength 4, Dexterity 3, Endurance 2 who takes a hit of 1, 3, 5, he’s gonna die – even if you take the 1 on Endurance and the 3 on Strength, the 5 is going to have to take out the rest of the points, even though they are on separate characteristics.

    1. faoladh

      Yes, but you only need the first three characteristics, so they are usually generated by rolling 2d6 three times for each NPC, by setting them all to 777, or by being determined by the Referee.

  4. Tony

    Hi Brendan,

    Great article! The case has been made that the biggest influence for Traveller was the “Dumarest of Terra” series, popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Many concepts were put forth there, like “high passage” (where the passengers were stoned on “fast drugs” to make the boring time in transit go quicker) and “low passage” (using sleep pods originally designed for livestock transport and therefore unreliable for humans). Armour types like mesh and jack were used, and blades were common weapons. I suspect another influence was presumably the 40’s-60’s era writing of H. Beam Piper, who’s stories featured contra-grav but weapons were generally bullet-firing.

    In the context of Traveller, low tech weapons are included due to the presence of low tech worlds. (As well, the question of “why do I travel in a starship yet still use a Cutlass” has been raised for decades.) More advanced military weapons (like Gauss Rifles, Plasma Guns, Advanced Combat Rifles, RAM Grenades, etc.) are introduced in Book 4: Mercenary. To a degree, bullet-firing weapons are common because they are still efficient ways of delivering damage, and many Imperial worlds are really not all that much more advanced than present-day Earth. Still, Traveller does lack the wide variation of energy and exotic weapons you’d expect from an SF RPG. So you’d see bandits wielding shotguns and SMGs and wearing Cloth (Kevlar) instead of armed with gravity whips, particle projectors and having subdermal chitin or nanoweave or whatever. Part of the idiosyncratic charm, I guess.

    I think for damage points lost are not subtracted from the actual characteristic itself. This is clarified in The Traveller Book. Page 36: “Wounds do not affect characteristics as they are used to influence blows, swings or shots. For example, a still conscious character with strength reduced from 9 to 7 would still function as if he had strength 9.” I dunno, I kind of like the actual reduction of characteristics in combat due to damage, otherwise, a PC that has Minor Wounds (less than 0 in any characteristic) seems to have little effect, despite having been shot or stabbed, perhaps multiple times.


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