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The Classic Traveller Skill System

This handy reprint is one of the best single-book games in the business. This edition is compact enough you can take it anywhere… and you can put it through some serious punishment without feeling like you’ve ruined a priceless artifact.

Every time a game is on the operating table in preparation for a new edition, some meathead will wander into the conversation and suggest eliminating the charts, changing everything to be roll-under, and retooling everything to have a central unifying mechanic. Every. Stinking. Time. I can sort of see the point, I guess. I mean… doing that kind of groundwork is a big part of what made the GURPS system into the definitive word on role playing game design. And why not make things easier, eh? Still, I don’t necessarily want to take every other game that’s been made down that exact same path. You can lose something in the process– charm not being the least among them¹.

But what about Traveller…? This is one of the first systems to decouple abilities from classes (or careers in this case) by introducing a more general skill system that is used by all of them. Being so early onto the gaming scene, the task resolution system pretty well boils down to, “just make up a throw.” But if you look a little deeper, there is a method to its madness: a method that had many wrinkles that were forgotten in later editions of the system.

We’ll start by looking at how attributes get used within the game system. They get referenced here and there in the various rules subsystem. Usually it is to get a bonus of +1 or +2 to a roll. Other times, you have to have a certain minimum score in order avoid a penalty. While many recent rules systems stick to rolling under attribute + skill, the original Traveller rules only explicitly allowed an attribute bonus to skill rolls in a just a few cases: Electronics, Jack-of-all-Trades, and Mechanic. Note that all of those skills relate directly to jury-rigging repairs, constructing gadgets, and tinkering with stuff.

But how big a deal is an actual skill level in Traveller? What does it mean? Well… for the advanced education skill tables, any level of skill will get you a job. Level two is pretty competent and level three… well, that’s equivalent to being a doctor or surgeon. How big of an effect those skill levels have depends on the skill:

  • Forward Observer and Vacc Suit each get a +4 DM per skill level.
  • Administration, Engineering, Forgery, and Ship’s Boat each give a +2 DM per skill level.
  • Most of the other skills give a +1 DM per skill level– Air/Raft, ATV, Computer, Electronics, Gambling, Gunnery, Navigation, Ship’s Boat, Streetwise are specifically described this way.
  • And most unusually, with Jack-of-all-Trades, your skill level makes no difference! (No amount of J-o-T can surpass skill-1.)

Almost all of the skills have different targets. And only a very few have explicit defaults for unskilled characters: Administration [-3], Air/Raft [usable in routine conditions only], Bribery [-5], Forgery, Streetwise [-5]. (If everything had a default roll, then Jack-of-all-Trades would be useless. Handing out lots of “free” zero level skills also undermines the value of Jack-of-all-Trades.)

One last nuance of the skill rules will give you insight into both the implied system and the implied setting: many skills are available only in a subset of the career options. This factor of the design can be a strong influence on which skill tables you choose to roll on during character generation.

Below are the notes I compiled for my “cheat sheet” for use in running convention games. The letter codes after the skill name stand for Navy, Marine, Army, Scout, merchant, and Other.

Administration [NMAm] [Requires EDU 8+] (Throw 7+, -3 for no skill, double skill bonus otherwise) The Imperium is effectively a gigantic impersonal bureaucracy. Require these rolls to avoid harassment from various authorities and/or to cut through red tape. While this can be used as a measure of raw management skill, it is unclear how it coordinates with Leadership.

Air/Raft [A] (Throw 5+ for risky and/or dangerous situations only, normal skill bonus, penalties at referee discretion) Most people can operate these vehicles under routine conditions– but only the Army trains people in epic defensive driving techniques. It is unclear to me whether unskilled characters get a default. The number of rolls required varies with the length of the trip/chase.

ATV [MASmO] [Vehicle cascade] (Breakdown– roll 11+ daily; skill provides DM to avoid getting stuck.) Terrain, weather, and enemy fire presumably determines the basic throw. The skill is, however, not just related to driving, but also includes repairs, preventative maintenance, and stunts. It’s not clear if skill applies a DM to the breakdown roll….

Bribery [mO] (-5 penalty for the unskilled!) The basic throw is determined by the world’s Law Level. Don’t forget to check the reaction roll before rolling this!

Computer [*all*] [Requires EDU 8+] This skill is insane. Based on the skill description, it is used primarily to create programs from scratch for Book 2 space combat.

Electronics [*all*] (DMs based on “education, dexterity, intelligence, and the availability of parts and tools.”) This is a very general skill that is used to “understand, assemble, repair, or operate” electronic devices which are “ubiquitous” in “advanced technological civilizations.” The throws required for this, however, are entirely at the referee’s discretion. This is the first skill that explicitly acknowledges modifiers due to attributes.

Engineering [NSm] [Requires EDU 8+ except for navy] (Double the DM due to skill level.) This skill is pure Scotty and Kaylee: this skill is primarily concerned with the operation and maintenance of a starship’s drives and power plants.

Forgery [O] (Throw 6+ for an official to detect forged documents; DM -2 per skill level.) Remember, check daily by rolling a world’s law level or less to see if papers are checked.

Forward Observer [NA] (Basic throw to-hit 11+… DM +4 per skill level, +1 per turn of adjustment, and -4 if unskilled.)Fire support is effectively useless without someone with this skill being on the ground to direct it.

Gambling [MAO] (Basic throw depends on the type of gambling… DM +1 per skill level. See the full skill description for details.) The chance of the NPC’s cheating make this an unusual skill– the referee is explicitly directed to roll in secret due to this.

Gunnery [NSm] This skill explicitly does not cascade. As with computer, the information on how this skill is adjudicated is in Book 2. Note that this skill also applies to weapons mounted on ATVs and Air/Rafts.

Jack-of-all-Trades [NSmO] This meta-skill is the key to interpreting much of the implied system. Skills with no explicit default may not be attempted by by unskilled characters. Characters with J-o-T effectively have skill-0 in everything. Additional levels in J-o-T unfortunately have no effect— the justification is to prevent the character from equaling or surpassing skill-1 in something without actually having the skill. (Though one wonders whether J-o-T-3 would be better than J-o-T-1 in something like Forward Observer or Vacc Suit.) Even with that limitation, the roll can be modified with “appropriate personal characteristics (intelligence, education), availability of equipment (drugs, medical instruments), and other factors (weather, shelter, the specific situation.)”

Leader [MA] [Requires EDU 8+] This skill is requred to control groups of six or more npc’s and generally just modifies reaction rolls. The person with the highest leadership is obeyed. People with Leadership-3 or more are obeyed unquestionably.

Mechanical [*all*] This skill is somewhat vague, but specifically excludes the starship Engineering disciplines. Required throws and DM’s are entirely at the referee’s discretion, and can be modified by “tool availablity, personal strength and dexterity, education, and situation.”

Medical [*all*] [Requires EDU 8+] This skill gets you a job on a starship at level one. At level two, it gets you a bonus to revive people from low passage. At level three you become a doctor… and with Dex of 8+ you’re a surgeon. The nature of this skill’s rules strongly influence how many other skills are interpreted.

Navigation [NSm] [Requires EDU 8+] This is another skill that will automatically get you a job on a starship. In a neat twist, it also includes both astrogation and navigation. The more creative uses of this skill are only needed if you are travelling in unexplored territory.

Pilot [NSm] [Requires EDU 8+] Not only will this skill get you a job, but it is also the most important one aboard a starship. The skill includes both jumps and in-system travel… and (at a penalty) includes boats and small interplanetary craft.

Ship’s Boat [N] This skill’s writeup contains an extensive example of how to improvise off-the-cuff throws for pursuit and evasion. This is another one where (implicitly) there aren’t any modifications due to attributes.

Steward [m] This skill description contains almost no information on how to adjudicate it.

Streetwise [mO] This skill has an explicit penalty for the unskilled (-5) and allows a DM equal to the character’s skill level.

Tactics [MA] A fantasitically unclear skill description: it can either determine how much information you get in a hidden movement game or else apply as a DM to “critical” rolls.

Vehicle [MASmO] A cascade skill that allows operation of a specific vehicle type. Skill gives a DM to avoiding an accident and also covers maintenance and repair rolls.

Vacc Suit [NMSm] (Avoid an accident on 10+ with a DM of +4 per skill level.) Note that a separate roll with different modifiers determines if the problem can be “remedied” or not.

¹ I’m not opposed to changing things, improving them, or even reworking old games. But I would like to see some evidence that the people pushing for change actually understood how and why the old stuff worked before the wrecking crews get called in.

8 responses to “The Classic Traveller Skill System

  1. MishaBurnett July 3, 2013 at 6:22 am

    I started with RPGs playing D&D in a campaign that was basically dungeon crawling–locate monster, smite monster, repeat. When a friend started up a Traveler game it was much more about role playing, the emphasis was on talking our way out of trouble rather than just blasting everything in sight.

    Obviously, the individual GMs created their own campaigns based on their own personalities, but there is no doubt that the different skill systems had a big effect on the way the different games developed. D&D rules (and I’m talking real old school here, pre-Greyhawk and Blackmoor) covered combat and not much else, which made sense, since it grew out of tabletop war games (anyone here remember “Might & Magic” or “Chainmail”?).

    Traveler, it seemed to me, was designed from the onset to be based on role playing rather than combat. I still remember rolling up our first characters–I had a Marine who left he service with a shiny new cutlass, while my buddy who had been a Scout ended up with his own spaceship. Not that I’m still bitter about it or anything…

  2. Bob Weaver July 30, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I added a link to this post at the conclusion of a post series I did on the Classic Traveller skills, and their relation to the setting. The series starts here: Check it out, I’d like to hear your take on it.

  3. Pingback: Modified Character Sheet for Classic Traveller and Some Notes on Traveller Skills | Tales to Astound!

  4. Pingback: Old School and New School: Foolish Consistencies | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  5. Pingback: Atv Mechanic Job Description

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