Monday, October 20, 2014

Traveller And Dying Before You Play

The other day, I was talking on someone else's blog about old-school gaming and how it differs from the new schools. One of the things I mentioned was a tendency toward wide-open games, in which players are not limited in their choices beyond in-game justifications (for instance, the game "physics", represented by the rules, or concern for social penalties within the game setting; metagaming concepts like "story" or "plot" or even "spotlight" don't influence the choice-making abilities of the players within the rules), which have become latterly known as "sandbox" games. This particular play style tends to be well-supported by older game designs, which (for example) minimize the penalties for playing "wrong" and losing a character in play by making the creation of a new character a matter of a few minutes at most.

There is at least one notable exception among the pre-1980 game designs in regard to this idea of simple and quick character creation, which is the system developed in Traveller. Now, Traveller is among my favorite all-time games. I've noted it before as my #1 game, in its incarnation as MegaTraveller (which is a name I still dislike intensely, even as I love the game itself; as an aside, I still need to get around to a comprehensive review of Mongoose's edition of Traveller). In Traveller, character creation is not only slow, with the player required to roll dice repeatedly to generate a lifepath of sorts at four-year intervals, covering a number of different aspects (each with its own dice roll), but also, in the original game and to some extent in MegaTraveller, faced the distinct possibility that the character being created might die before ever seeing regular play. As a result, it was not uncommon to have to generate several characters in a row before one came up that managed to make it to the point of being actively played. Or to cheat, which was a common response to the issue. In any case, this results in a rather extended character creation process. It is usual, I've found, for Referees of a Traveller game (with the sometime exceptions of Traveller: The New Era, which uses a radically different method, or GURPS Traveller, which uses the GURPS conventions of character design) to schedule character creation entirely separate from actual play.

Later editions of Traveller, beginning, in fact, with MegaTraveller, altered the situation or lightened the blow. MegaTraveller, while retaining the "Survival" roll, offered the option that it might represent a mere shortening of the current term and loss of the benefits associated with it (with the penalty of a couple years being added to the character's age), followed by an automatic mustering out into play. Other versions of the game either eliminated the "Survival" roll or altered it similarly.

But why was it there in the first place? Obviously, the designers thought of it as a simulation exercise. While it is preferable to have characters with some level of previous experience, they perhaps wanted to express the facts of life: if you join the military, you might not live to tell your story (though, entertainingly, in the original career charts, one was slightly more likely to survive to play as a member of the Army, due to the significantly lower characteristic requirement to qualify for a dice bonus to the "Survival" roll, than as a Merchant, for example).

More importantly, though, the "Survival" check offered a sort of evolutionary pressure on characters. Some characters would be more likely to survive to play, and there was system-based selective pressure for characters with higher characteristics to be among those. Furthermore, some careers were less likely to include survivors, and those careers tended to give greater benefits to the player, such as a cheap starship, access to better skills (such as the dramatic availability of the extremely useful Jack-of-all-Trades skill to characters in the Scout career), and so forth. The "Survival" roll allowed characters to pursue those careers, but offered a tendency to keep those benefits in check to some degree. The player would be less likely to keep going for too many terms of service (four years each, remember), and so less likely to gain excessive levels of the more useful skills and benefits.

Let's examine the Scout specifically. In the original game, the player had to roll a 7+ on 2d6 for survival each term. The dice roll would get a benefit of +2 if the character was rated with an Endurance score of 9+ (the normal range of rolled stats is on 2d6, so this is significantly above average). That means that, of characters with an Endurance of 8 or less (that is, 72.2% of characters at the start of generation, before gaining any improvements during creation), 41.7% will die during their first four years of being in the service, and so cannot possibly see play. The lucky ones with the higher Endurance score will do better, but still fully 1 in 6 will die in that first four year term. As compensation for this, Scouts get two skills in each term (other services get only one, though they may gain bonus skills by being promoted), and have maximum access to the coveted Jack-of-all-Trades skill, with the skill appearing on 3 out of the four skill charts available to Scouts. Three other careers have access to the skill (Navy, Merchant, and Other), but all three only have the skill appearing on one of their available skill charts, and Others have it on the chart that is only accessible to characters with a high Education rating. If skill charts are chosen randomly (assuming high Education), a Scout will gain an average of 0.25 levels of Jack-of-all-Trades skill each term, where a Navy, Merchant, or qualifying Other will gain only a sixth of that or so! (Without the Education requirement, the Scout gains 0.22 levels per term, while the Navy or Merchant gain 0.056. Note that these numbers can be boosted by sticking to the specific skill charts in question, but other than Scouts this tends to push the character away from other cool and useful skills.) These numbers are brought slightly closer together because the non-Scout services actually gain a base of two skills in their first term, which is then balanced yet again by the Scout gaining a useful skill (Pilot) in their first term for free (only Army and Marines characters also gain a free skill in their first term: Rifle for the Army, Cutlass for the Marines).

It's not just one skill, either, no matter how valuable it might be in play. There is also the matter of starship availability. Scouts are one of two careers in the basic game that might get access to a starship before play starts. Of the two careers with that access, Scouts are the only one that might get a starship without having to make payments on it. Furthermore, a Scout is much more likely to get access to a ship, since the other career with starship benefits (Merchant) requires that the character have reached a rank of Captain (Rank 5), meaning that the character will have been in the career for at least 4 terms - gaining Commission and Promotion in the first term, followed by Promotions in each subsequent term. The Scout, on the other hand, has no ranks, and even a 1-term Scout might gain access to a Scout/Courier starship. Assuming he survives.

Most of the other services have a base "Survival" roll of 5+ on 2d6, or a 5 in 6 chance of surviving each term, and can gain a +2 bonus, giving only a 1 in 36 chance of not surviving each term, with (usually) a much lower characteristic, usually a 7+ in one characteristic or another. The Marines have a "Survival" roll of 6+ (and need an 8+ Endurance for the bonus), Others need a 9+ Intelligence for the bonus to their base 5+, and Army characters get the best "Survival" roll of all, needing a base 5+ to survive, and getting a bonus with only a 6 or greater Education score.

So, what does this mean for the game? Army characters will tend to have long careers, since it is very likely to survive any given term, and thus have a large number of skills. They get the smallest amount of material benefits on leaving the service, however, and with the lowest valued cash table. However, this is compensated by the worst chance to successfully reenlist of all 6 basic careers, so their careers are frequently cut short by forces beyond their control. They do manage to rise in rank very quickly, for as long as they can stay in, so that benefits them, as each rank increase sees a bonus skill roll. Merchants have a pretty good chance of survival, almost as good as the Army, and have an excellent chance at reenlistment, so their careers tend to be the longest of any of the six branches of service. They find it easy to become an officer, but very difficult to rise in rank after that. Navy careerists have a very hard time getting a commission, but they get promotions pretty regularly after that. Scouts don't have ranks (again, though, they don't need the bonus skill given by promotion since they get double skills each term), and their reenlistment is nearly automatic, but their main stumbling block is that very high risk nature of the career, meaning that the player making the choices has to balance the risk of one more term against the probability that they will need to start again from the beginning.

Those numbers did not change substantially in MegaTraveller, though as I noted there was an option to take the sting out of failing a "Survival" roll. And, of course, I am not analyzing the "Expanded" character creation systems found in Books 4-7 of the original game, also included as options in MegaTraveller. Those systems change the level of detail, determining the history of the character on a year-by-year basis instead of in terms of four years each, but they also dramatically alter the way that survival is determined, since "Survival" is then based on the particular assignment during each year, rather than a simple number. I really like the "Expanded" systems, but they were only ever finished for the five basic careers of Navy, Marines, Army, Scout, and Merchant (though "COACC", also known as Flyers or aerospace service, were added to this list during MegaTraveller's run). There were a few other occupations, such as Law Enforcement, which saw "Expanded"-style systems in third party products (I think that the LE one was in Dragon, actually), but those are of course "unofficial". The biggest problem with the "Expanded" generation systems is that they don't fit well with the normal generation systems, meaning that if anyone uses them, all of the players are more or less limited to the services that have "Expanded" versions.

But what does it mean? Some people are of the opinion that when you do work to generate a character, that means that particular character is then the one that you are playing. That's a fine way to look at things, too. On the other hand, there's the "funnel" approach of Dungeon Crawl Classics, in which several raw characters are generated and filtered out during the initial play session, presumably resulting in the characters with more talent and so on ending up as the actual characters for the rest of the campaign. That's only slightly different than the Traveller method of filtering out unsuitable (or overreaching) characters prior to actual play, especially so since the character creation process is a fairly enjoyable mini-game in itself (even more so with the "Expanded" generation methods). Of course, the extra time required to both roll each term (or year) individually followed by the possibility of having to create another character entirely due to a failed survival roll can annoy some people. Also, the possibility of getting one's hopes up for a promising character followed by losing it to the dice can be frustrating.

There are different ways to approach games. Some people prefer to get to the "story" part as fast as they can, others prefer to wait and let the story come to them. Some people want high efficiency, some want robust resilience. And we come again to the idea that different people want different things out of their games. I hope that I was able to illuminate, to some degree at least, why the original Traveller design was put together the way it was in this regard.

16 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for that facinating analysis. I never really gave much thought to the "game within the game" that is Traveller character creation. I just sort of went where the dice took me but given all we know of Mark Miller, I should have guessed there was a lot of math behind it. I really find it interesting that the survival roll was used to limit certain types of characters. My guess is that fudged dice rolls (aka cheating), or at least prseverence, rarely limited these characters in practice.

    The same tactic taken by AD&D where the more powerful classes had much higher ability requirements and were, theoretically, much more difficult to attain and thus much rarer. I say, theoretically, because, in practice, if I wanted to play a Paladin, I always managed to get that 17 for my Charisma one way or the other.

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    1. Yeah, I expect that there were a lot of fudged characters. In part, because the reasoning was never really made clear.

      AD&D's method was somewhat different, as it just plain denied characters without the right stats. Traveller didn't prevent that, but it did make certain stat combinations less common among certain careers, so long as cheating wasn't employed.

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  2. Heh. I remember playing the original box set and going through the character generation process several times. Never crunched the numbers the way you did, but it tracks with my experience. Of course, you go and do all of that and your character takes an RPG in the chest first time out. Start over.

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    1. Which is one of the potential weaknesses of the game. When one runs into something like that, though, it means that one needs to adjust one's approach. For instance, why put the character in the situation of getting an RPG potentially to the chest? Unless the Referee is running a railroad (the absolute wrong way to run Traveller), there must be other possible solutions to your problem.

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  3. I would like to point out that Indian casinos were only legalized in 1988, so unless you lived in Vegas or Atlantic City, Traveller was really your only chance to play craps in a manner that would confuse police, but not get you arrested.

    I think part of it was, you are clearly not starting with a 1st level character here. Chancing the survival rolls helped you feel you "earned" those skills and bonuses. Also it has an element of character balance. "He has a ship because he took risks with his character. You did one term in the army."

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  4. My thoughts on the dreaded Survival roll:

    http://spacecockroach.blogspot.com/2011/07/in-defense-of-dying-in-traveller.html

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  5. I love traveller. One thing we did was allow a d4 for number of skills after each term if someone wanted to use one the 4 year term careers out of citizen's of the imperium.

    Where does it say scouts get 2 skills per term? I never noticed that of forgot it.

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    1. My copy of the original 3 LBBs is the first printing, so I can't point you to it there, but in The Traveller Book, the notation on page 24 under Basic Skill Eligibility (just below the Character Generation Checklist) reads "Note: Scouts receive two skills per term of service."

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  6. Just read my original LBB and could not find it, I wonder if that is a difference between the original boxed set and The Traveller Book. We did not make Scouts back in the day, and part of the reason, besides the lethality, was no promotions, so no bonus skill.

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    1. My understanding is that it wasn't included in the earlier printings, but that it was fixed fairly quickly in the boxed sets.

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  7. Did the same rule apply to the "other", they also did not get commission or promotion, so would have fewer skills, or were they stuck with 1 skill per level?

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    1. Nope. Other was a poor choice, overall, in my opinion. The thing is that it was a nearly automatic avoidance of the Draft (not that that was much of a recommendation), fairly easy survival rolls (though Army, Navy, and Merchants are better off, so not too great), and the potential, if very lucky and possessed of Gambling skill, for very large amounts of money on mustering out - potentially as much as Cr300,000! Of course, Scouts do better there as well, having a much larger average payout on the cash table (but there's still the need to survive). That said, the skill mix is frequently more useful than the other careers for the sorts of adventures that Travellers typically find themselves involved in, with a whole lot of skills dedicated to the less savory aspects of life in the spaceports and cities of an interstellar civilization, so while there may be fewer of them they are more targeted to extralegal matters (none of the other careers, for instance, have access to Forgery skill, and Others have better access to Streetwise than Merchants, who are the only others who can get it at all).

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    2. I should note that Scouts have a higher average payout than Others even though they can't get Gambling skill! The average amounts per roll by career are:

      Navy Cr15,167 (can't get Gambling)
      Marines Cr12,000 (Cr18,333 w/ Gambling)
      Army Cr9500 (Cr14,167 w/ Gambling)
      Scouts Cr33,333 (can't get Gambling)
      Merchants Cr16,000 (can't get Gambling, surprisingly)
      Others Cr14,333 (Cr30,833 w/ Gambling)

      So, if you want money, and also to be alive, Other is a fair choice, though you need to hope for Gambling skill (which has a pretty high incidence on the Other skill tables).

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