Traveller Zero

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Traveller is one of those RPGs that I have had more of a theoretical interest in over the years, rather than actually having much chance to actually play it. I ran Traveller 4th for a one-shot back in the late 90s, and ran a short campaign following the actions of an Imperial special forces team about a dozen years ago using my own YAGS rules, so it’s not a system or setting I have a lot of experience in running.

Last night we had our first session of Mongoose Traveller, and just about managed to finish character generation. It took a while, but we got through the random career system without too many problems.

One complication was that we had a Vargr character, so I used the Vargr careers in the Aliens module, which is for 1st edition. There were some differences to how characters are done in 2nd edition, and it wasn’t entirely clear how much that was due to Vargr being different and how much was due to changes in the rules. The PDF for the core book also isn’t hugely screen reader friendly, which caused some problems for one player.

Character Generation

Traveller character generation (and I’m specifically talking about Mongoose Traveller, though it has many similarities with other editions) is definitely interesting. It’s designed to be random, though in different ways to a game like Zweihänder.

In Zweihänder everything is rolled, so it’s easy to get a character that doesn’t make much sense because they end up being a warrior with low physical attributes. This can be especially annoying if you were really wanting to play a spell caster.

In Traveller, the six basic characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education and Social) are rolled with 2D6 and arranged as desired. The exact stat is rarely used, instead they are used to provide a dice modifier to checks, so 6-8 gives a +0 modifier, 9-11 +1 and 12 +2. Low stats give similar penalties. I allowed 2D6 to be rolled 9 times, dropping the lowest 3, to try and provide a lower chance of rubbish characters.

Vargr have Charisma rather than Social as a characteristic, but are otherwise the same with a few modifiers.

During the game, skill checks are done using 2D6 + characteristic bonus + skill level, and if you roll over the difficulty (generally 4 – 12) then you succeed. Most people will have a skill level of 1 or 2, with 4 being the maximum during initial generation.

Career Terms

Each character then starts going through a sequence of careers. Starting at age 18, each career lasts four years and can provide one or more skills, as well as events that shaped your life. Though the player can select which career they want to go for, it’s not guaranteed to get in. Most require a check for admission, and if you fail you can end up as a Drifter or get drafted into the armed forces for each term.

So though you get some choice, you’re not guaranteed to get exactly what you want. Much like life. Whether that’s good for a game may vary from group to group.

Which skills you get from a career term is also random. There are groups of skills, and you can select which group you want to go for, then roll a D6 to see which actual skill you get. You might get something useful for your character concept, you might not. I think this is where this sort of system can have problems – if a player has a concept for the sort of character they want to play rather than just going with the flow and seeing what they get.

If there’s one thing any RPG player knows about Traveller, is that it’s the game where you can die in character generation. This is no longer true in Mongoose Traveller, but you can come close. After rolling for your skill, you make a survival check to see if you can stay in your career, and if you fail then there’s another table of interesting mishaps that can happen.

We did get one very bad injury result, which would have crippled the character, so we decided to instead allow a choice of mishap rather than have an unplayable character, or restarting again. Reading through the rules now, I realise we forgot that there’s a medical care option which allows such injuries to be healed for a cost, and given the career of the character they probably would have got most, if not all, the cost paid for anyway.

It is a problem going through complex character generation systems and trying to remember every option and rule.

Eventful Times and Mustering Out

Assuming you survive your term, there is a roll for an event, and this is one thing that is quite nice. An event is a random thing happened to your character, and may provide the option to gain extra skills, enemies or contacts. There is also an option though to connect two characters together during an event. Doing so allows both characters to get an extra skill rank (it can be done at most twice during character generation), but it provides a means for characters to have history together.

This ensures that when the game starts PCs aren’t strangers to each other, and have some reason to be adventuring together. Even if their paths have merely crossed briefly in the past, when they come together they have a reason to trust and know each other.

You can continue a career for several terms, or you can change career (or be kicked out, depending on events and survival checks). When you leave a career, you get a chance to roll to see how much you came away with in terms of cash or special benefits. The former can be very random, the latter very interesting.

We have someone with TAS membership (Traveller’s Aid Society, which gives various benefits during the game) and a Lab Ship of their own (well, 75% of it is owned by the bank), and others with shares in ships and sizeable amounts of cash.

Just like in life, it’s possible to end up with 6 figures sums of money, or almost nothing and large medical bills, depending on how well you roll.

Finishing Up

It took us about 4½ hours to finish character generation for three players, and we ended up with a Vargr and two humans with reasonable connections between them.

  • A Vargr corsair with good ship skills (and a dex of 15, which is high)
  • A Vilani (human) scientist and medic with a navy background
  • A Vilani (human) ex-intelligence agent turned criminal

The final part of character generation was to choose a final skill package. This is a way of getting basic training in a set of skills in order to round out the group. Each package provides eight skills, and characters can take it in turns to select one. This is a good way to ensure that any major skill gaps are filled, and I quite like it as a mechanism.

Going through a new system which nobody really knew well, online, was hard work. Career progression is an interesting way of generating characters, and it does provide a better idea of how your character got to where they are, but it’s a lot to keep track of.

I’m still not a fan of random character generation, and though it can lead to interesting characters it can also cause problems. If someone ends up with a character they really don’t want to play, then that might be okay for a one shot, but if you’re expected to play that character for the next 6 to 12 months then it can be annoying. If players are allowed to start over, or avoid the bad results, then it breaks the balance with random really good results.

There is a non-random option in the rules, but I decided not to go with that because the career path method is the classic way of generating characters in Traveller, and a large part of the feel of the game. For our first game, I wanted to go with the default rules to see how it really plays out.

Since we’re playing on Roll20, we’re using the Traveller Roll20 character sheet, which isn’t ideal. The skills page is a bit clunky to use, and could really do with listing specialities for skills rather than leaving players to check the skill descriptions in the rules. It’s definitely not as complete as the Pathfinder character sheet. I’m considering writing some APIs to simplify some of it (much like I’ve done for Pathfinder), though I’m not sure when I’ll get the time.

But, overall, it was an interesting session and I think everyone has come away with characters that they are happy with. We should be ready to begin the first adventure next week, when I’ll be running Islands in the Rift.

Samuel Penn

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