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Traveller Core Rulebook Hardcover – June 4, 2008
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The Skill System
At the heart of Traveller is a very elegant and consistent skill based system where characters are defined not by class but by a collection of skills in which they excel. These skills cover everything from social carousing to plotting jump coordinates for interstellar travel. Unlike most other skill based rpgs, Traveller avoids the power gaming problem by requiring a very random, yet choice driven character creation process. Once completed, most characters will be competent, yet fairly specialized toward their career choices.
Using skills is trivial. Players determine what they wish to do and the Referee determines which skill and characteristic best represents the task. The player then rolls 2d6+ Skill level+ characteristic modifier. If the result is 8 or better, it is a success. Depending on the task, opposed rolls may be used for npcs or degrees of success may be implemented for non binary outcomes. The referee is advised to apply modifiers in the range of -6 to +6 depending on the situation and difficulty. In play, this has proven to be the simplest and most intuitive skill system I've ever used. The rule set wisely suggests that rolls be saved only for tasks which present risk or raise the tension, making an explicit recommendation against excessive rolling.
Character creation is one of the most compelling traits of Traveller. The seamless blend of player decision making and dice rolling completely removes the tedium of character generation which can so often overtake even the most well known systems. Every character starts at age 18 where the player chooses a career path. Success and qualification in the career depends upon the natural characteristics of the character. Throughout a four year term in that career, the player will roll dice to determine a series of events which shape the character by granting skill levels, acquiring friends and enemies, and building the background history of the character. Upon completion of a four year term, the player then chooses whether to continue on in the career if they weren't forced out, change career, or retire and begin their journey. The entire process is fun and rewarding for everyone. By the time the party has been created, there will be enough pre-generated content to build an entire campaign around with almost no effort. It's brilliant.
My cousin had a promising career in the navy before his starbase was attacked during a commemoration. The ensuing catastrophe left him floating in space, his lower half of his body exposed and his upper half trapped in an air locked chamber. He was found in character creation by another player who gave him medical treatment. He now has an almost entirely mechanical body, but he could only afford the economy line of robotic parts.. he is affectionately known as "rust bucket".
The ship rules are just plain cool. Traveller is fairly low end sci-fi in technology terms. There is no futuristic magic technology which solves all problems. Ships are glorified fuel tanks with low efficiency that take a week or longer to get to their destination. Flying them is challenging and equipping them consists of believable limitation, logistics and cost.
Acquiring a ship is fairly easy. The players more or less pool their starting resources into acquiring a ship if they want to. What they pick is up to them, but no matter the ship, it will be extremely expensive. A basic trading ship will cost upwards of 200,000 credits per month to maintain- including the mortgage to pay it down. Such mortgages last up to 40 years and have serious repercussions if monthly payments are not made on time. This believable economic model compels the players to continuously stay active and seek out risky yet lucrative ventures.
Traveller ship rules feel a lot like EVE Online for those familiar. You have a specific assortment of slots which you can fill with all sorts of equipment. Each piece of equipment has a number of costs most basic of which is the monetary cost. However, keeping the equipment in top shape requires maintenance, and some forms of equipment use fuel, ammo, or other resources. It is possible to customize ships considerably, but it is unwise to take a merchant vessel into combat no matter the choices.
Unlike many fantasy games, Traveller is fairly mature in some of its default assumptions. The lore is steeped in corporatism. Star travel has opened up a new frontier akin to the wildwest but in space. There are no infinite engines or warpspeed, no lightsabers or crazy pseudoscience. The most effective weapon is still a bullet flinging gun, and for all the advantages of a laser pistol, they are specialized and come with plenty of downsides.
Players should not expect to level up or acquire magic items. Nearly everything is bought and sold with money, stolen, found, or salvaged. The usefulness of an item and its availability is dependent upon the players and their financial situation. Eventually, players may go from a vagrant who rents ship rooms at bargained prices to owning an interstellar fleet of ore mining vessels. The sky is the limit, and everything from primitive sword fighting to epic space battles with 100+ ships is both possible and practical.
Skills don't change much over time. A fresh player can expect to spend roughly 10+ weeks to raise a single skill level, and the time cost only goes up from there. Players improve themselves through acquisition of resources, relations, and decisions.
Speaking of swords, ships, being full of fuel and sensitive equipment, often require subtle incursions to take over effectively. It is common in lore for sword fighting and other close range brawls to be superior to gun combat. While there is no eastern martial artistry to overcome bullets, the risks can be high enough that a skilled swordman is the best way to capture a crew or ship without risk to the ship's integrity. Cool stuff as it gives a believable reason for fantasy lovers to blend the two paradigms of Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
Combat in Traveller is ruthless. HP is merely the sum of the 3 physical characteristics, giving players a maximum of 36 hitpoints and a much more likely value of 20 or so. Compounding the low HP, the average old west era pistol does 3d6 damage! If two of the 3 stats are reduced to 0, the character is out of the fight, if all 3 go to 0 then the character dies and there is no resurrect spell in Traveller.
In many games, combat is a slow slog through numerous opponents, but in Traveller, fights are fast and decisive. It rarely takes more than one solid hit to down an opponent. The free flowing nature of it means turns are fast and easy to resolve. There are no detailed case scenarios to consider or multiple hit locations to calculate. It's very theater of the mind in style and elegantly handled by the intuitive skill system.
Traveller is a fantastic system which plays better than it reads- a rarity in the business. Character creation is both a fun and rewarding game in and of itself that rewards player decision without allowing power gamers to overrun the system. The skill system is incredibly simple and intuitive to use. Combat is fast, loose, and incredibly satisfying.
The setting is evocative, allowing for all kinds of themes from the time tested medieval up through old west and into the far future. Everything is handled believably as it pertains to scientific explanation, and the economic system promotes near endless opportunity for growth, adventure, and risky enterprise.
Overall, Traveller is simply incredible.
The book is well-bound and sturdy. The layout isn't fancy or flashy, just black and white with grayscale tables. The art is mainly black and white line illustrations. I might have hesitated to pick this up at the $40 it retails for at most game stores; that price is the result of the brutal pounds sterling to U.S. dollar exchange rate (Mongoose is a British publisher). Incidentally, the Amazon price is the best one that I have found for this game, and brings the price point very much into line with other rpg core books.
As for the contents, they are well-written, nicely organized, and easy to read. The game starts with a very brief introduction to the Traveller setting and the dice conventions. Basically, you roll 2d6, add the level of any appropriate Skill and any positive or negative modifiers for a relevant attribute (Dexterity if shooting at someone, Intellect if trying to crack a computer code, for example) and try to roll an 8 or higher to succeed.
The next 43 pages cover character creation. Just as in the original Traveller, players roll their character's six core attributes (Str, Dex, End, Int, Education, and Social Status) and then choose from a wide variety of career paths (Agent, Army, Citizen, Drifter, Entertainer, Marines, Merchants, Navy, Nobility, Rogue, Scholar, or Scout). Each career path has three specialized sub-paths that players must choose from. For example, an Agent could be a law enforcement officer, an intelligence agent, or a corporate espionage person. You don't get to just choose your skills in the standard character creation system--you roll to gain entry to a career and must make survival and advancement rolls to continue in it. Fail and you get kicked out of that career, collecting benefits based on how many four-year terms you've served. Then it's off to try another career path. Once you've served 4 terms overall, you start making aging rolls, which start off pretty kind and get harsher the longer you serve. Most players will probably start with 4-6 terms, which generate either a decent range of average skills or a few excellent skills and some basic knowledge, depending on how well you roll.
The process is really a lot of fun--there are lots of events on the tables designed to spark creativity and help create both a backstory and ties to other characters. There's also a simple point-buy system if you prefer that approach.
The next twelve pages deal with skills, with examples of tasks for each skill at varying degrees of difficulty. Then you get nine pages on Combat, seventeen pages on Encounters and Dangers (lots more tables here in the old Traveller tradition), nineteen pages of Equipment (which covers a very good range of armor, weapons, vehicles, and other gear), and about 47 pages on designing and operating spacecraft, including game statistics and deck plans for 18 spacecraft common to the Traveller setting. This is followed by rules for Psionics, Trade, and basic World Creation.
It's a very complete package, with pretty much everything you need to play a game in the vein of Firefly or classic Imperial science fiction in one book. The rules for creating aliens aren't very sophisticated as presented in this volume, but you can do most of the humanoid style aliens you see on television shows. The random roll tables are actually quite thorough and often creative in the types of events they produce. Career events are nicely tailored to each general career path, for example. It's all clearly done with the goal of producing usable results/inspiration for gamemasters without requiring lots of planning or lengthy writeups for NPCs (spaceships may require a bit more, but there are plenty of premade designs to choose from).
There isn't a whole lot of background fluff on the Traveller setting, but the mechanics/equipment provided reflect the assumptions of the Traveller backdrop quite well. Being more generic actually makes it easier to adapt these rules to other settings. I particularly like how the descriptions of the technologies feel less dated than the original Traveller material (based in 1970s science fiction) but stay grounded and easily accessible to most consumers of contemporary cinematic science fiction, much less readers of more sophisticated written s.f.
Overall, this is a very nice set of core rules that pleasantly surprised me with its accessibility, clarity, and quality.