Thursday, January 22, 2009

Now That's Hardcore

Flipping through my Traveller books, I came across a section I'd forgotten about: the experience "rules." One of the really interesting things about this game is that, unlike in OD&D, characters don't start out as inexperienced youths looking to make a name for themselves. No, they start out as experienced middle-aged guys looking to make a name for themselves. The average Traveller character, in my experience, is between 38 and 50 years of age and starts play after 20+ years of service in one or more military careers. Compared to a level 1 OD&D character, he's pretty bad-ass -- "bad-ass" being a relative term, since high tech weapons make it easy to eliminate most Traveller characters if they're not careful.

So how do these characters improve over time? Here's what the game itself says on the matter:
The experience which is gained as the individual character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he has assumed.
What that means is that characters don't improve in Traveller but players do. How old school is that? To be fair, there are rules for taking courses, including by correspondence, to slowly improve one's skills, but this avenue takes years of game time, costs money, and isn't guaranteed. As in real life, it's quite possible to take a course and come away with no meaningful benefit for one's efforts.

What's funny is that, as a younger guy playing Traveller, we never even noticed the lack of experience rules. I can tell you for a fact that not a single one of my players ever asked to have his character attend the local technical university to improve his Computer or Electronic skills. Even though level advancement was deeply ingrained in us through regular play of D&D (and, to a lesser extent, Gamma World, whose advancement system is a bit peculiar), we just took it as given that characters who were in the mid-40s probably didn't get much "better" over time, although they did become richer, more influential, and more knowledgeable about the universe around them -- and we were OK with that.

Makes me wonder what RPGs might have been like if OD&D had been built on similar presumptions about experience and learning as Traveller ...

21 comments:

  1. Did you not play OD&D the same way...

    DM: Amidst the Dragon's hoard, you see a gnarly old stick with some runes the side.

    MU: I detect magic...

    DM: It radiates magic and you don't seem to be able to read the runes. However, they are enchanted.

    MU: I point the stick at Zack (the evil assassin PC who tried to backstab the Magic User earlier).

    DM: Make a Saving Throw, Zack...checks the table...ok, Zack, you made it with only 3D6 Damage...let me see that is 12pts.

    Zack: "What just happened?"

    DM (coyly): "There was a release of magical energy in the proximity of the barrel of the stick but other than the stick will need further examination."

    Paladin: "MU, I think, you need to put away the stick, right now..."

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  2. The setup never bothered my (all teen-aged) group, either. My guess is that the emphasis on "getter better all the time" in most RPGs is largely inherited from D&D. I don't think the leveling-up scheme matches up very well with most sword & sorcery fiction (the biographically scattered Conan stories, especially with his later career "pumped up" by other chroniclers than Howard, being perhaps an exception). Don't we usually meet the heroes at the prime of their prowess?

    One neat thing about Traveller is that there's no need to ask "what level" a scenario is for. It may be helpful to have certain skills in the team, but the precise levels are generally not important -- and rarely (if ever) are any really necessary. The same holds for Metamorphosis Alpha, and a few other games; I find it especially well suited to casual play.

    "Experience" expressed in game stats builds in a sort of story arc. It's a cliche that a D&D player's description of his character is likely to be a list of game-mechanical data and magic items.

    The emphasis in Traveller seems more clearly not on what characters "are" but on what they do.

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  3. Do the later versions of the game (including the Mongoose version) have levels and experience points instead?

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  4. The implicit story arc was put to good effect in RuneQuest, with the goal of becoming a Rune Lord or Rune Priest. "Acquiring such a Rune by joining such a cult is the goal of the game, for only in gathering a Rune may a character take the next step, up into the ranks of Hero, and perhaps Superhero." Unfortunately, we had to wait a couple of decades for the game detailing that next step!(Moreover, it's quite different from RQ.)

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  5. In the Traveller campaign we're currently involved in, apparently the rules are:

    1. You need to have a character with Instruction skill at least one level higher than the skill level being taught - i.e., to teach Pistol 1, you have to have Instruction 2.

    2. The person being taught needs to have instruction taught to them for something like an hour a day every day for six months. I believe our GM said if we miss a day or two here and there it would be OK, but if there's any prolonged absence of training, you have to start over again.

    So far, no one's bothered to learn anything more than Bayonet, since we happened to have an NPC with Bayonet-1 and Instruction-2 and a lot of free time on our hands. My PC (before a skills-reevaluation due to discovering we did his skill creation all wrong in the beginning) was learning Pistol 1, but spent too long without training and lost the time due to a mission.

    Of course, I think the way we play Traveller (keeping track of the events of every day we're not in jump space) isn't how we should be doing things - if the game was more episodic, long periods of training "downtime" would seem reasonable.

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  6. Although I only ran a handful of Traveller game. It heavily influence my approach to sandbox gaming.

    Basically it showed me how effective advancement in the setting can be as form of character reward. Otherwise known through traveller grognards as playing off that damn ship mortgage.

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  7. To be honest, leveling up in D&D always struck me as deeply weird - I could only understand it as the path to PC divinity, well before the CMI of BECMI came out. Why should hit points go up? is a question I asked myself every time I was putting together any campaign for any game system. Generally, I decided they shouldn't, and that experience should always be handled ad hoc. My Traveller players were therefore game-rewarded by being able to buy stuff, which lead to an unhealthy fetishisation of ships and weapon systems...

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  8. Richard- Obviously the character is getting a little tougher, a little nimbler, and a little better at fighting overall.

    In fact, I've always ruled that a human with more than six hit points is relying mostly on positioning and defense, unless he's supernaturally tough for some reason. A bit like the d20 Star Wars's vitality and wound points system.

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  9. No, they start out as experienced middle-aged guys looking to make a name for themselves.

    In mine own experience most of the basic Traveller characters tended towards the status of retirees rather than middle-aged. Often making it a case of being the only RPG where anagathics was the most sort after drug.

    I do remember the moment when I discovered I had become old quite clearly though. I had just rolled up a Traveller character who was younger than I was...

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  10. Rach - I can see that working great up to, say, second level. It's the 11th level fighter looking like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, cheerfully fighting on through a hail of goblin arrows that bothers me, and has bothered cartoonists at least from 1980 on. It kind of works in a Moorcock or Castle Amber genre setting, where individuals frequently take on armies of grunts single handed, but it seems problematic for many of the other pulp fantasy sources.

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  11. I do remember the moment when I discovered I had become old quite clearly though. I had just rolled up a Traveller character who was younger than I was...

    Me, too!

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  12. The emphasis in Traveller seems more clearly not on what characters "are" but on what they do.

    A cogent observation.

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  13. Do the later versions of the game (including the Mongoose version) have levels and experience points instead?

    No version of the game uses levels, but most possess some kind of skill advancement system.

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  14. In mine own experience most of the basic Traveller characters tended towards the status of retirees rather than middle-aged. Often making it a case of being the only RPG where anagathics was the most sort after drug.

    Most players in my game would never risk getting above about age 50, since they worried about aging crises. They also knew that I'd be a bastard about acquiring anagathics and they had enough troubles without having to get in hock with organized crime to stave off the effects of old age.

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  15. To be honest, leveling up in D&D always struck me as deeply weird

    I think leveling up made sense to me because I was an 8-year-old kid with a 14-year-old cousin playing nose tackle on his high school football team. So he really was gaining hit points every year, as far as I could tell. I imagined myself a first-level fighter, who might die from a single hit from a stout club; my cousin was clearly third or fourth level by the time he was on the varsity team, and could obviously withstand three or four solid hits from a club.

    At some point, I figured out that first-level fighters were not, in fact, 8-year-olds, and then hit points stopped making so much sense to me.

    Richard- Obviously the character is getting a little tougher, a little nimbler, and a little better at fighting overall.

    That makes sense when hit points are solely used for fighting. I don't think it's ever obvious.

    This didn't seem to go through; let's try again and see if I can avoid the dreaded double-post!

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  16. All good points above. I have to say that the most interesting part of the Traveller character creation process was the fact that your character had a reasonable chance of dying before you even started. Now that is hardcore!

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  17. I rolled up a LBB CT character the other day and was amazed at how few skills there were. Like UWPs, the amount that goes unspecified is maddening and/or inspiring.

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  18. Like UWPs, the amount that goes unspecified is maddening and/or inspiring.

    That's really well said.

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  19. ""I rolled up a LBB CT character the other day and was amazed at how few skills there were.""

    In my Traveller games, skills and characteristics merely aid in the process. That was the great innovation of the MT task system (which does exist in a CT form, if you have access to Traveller Digests or the various Home Rules out there). As a Referee, your job is to balance the improbable with the impossible.

    For example, a player with no Grav skills could still pilot a Grav cycle...ewoks anyone? Similarly, if players can provide ample justification how they are going to do something then skills merely enhance that experience. As a balance to the official rules I like to throw in props. eg. if they are attempting a lockpicking exercise, I would throw 4 dice and ask them to duplicate the roll. For every level in lockpicking, mechanical, electronics or whatever relevant skill they have they get an addition chance at picking the lock without the lock getting fried.

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  20. I do remember the moment when I discovered I had become old quite clearly though. I had just rolled up a Traveller character who was younger than I was...

    Me, too!


    I was thinking about rolling up a few characters...but now I don't know. It might be too depressing.

    When I used to roll up characters I would usually try for 5 terms. The idea of putting in 20 years in the military and then retiring to a second career seemed realistic to me.

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  21. To me, adventures and in-game accomplishments and acquisitions have always been reward enough. But then, I started with Traveller.

    It occasionally bothers me that, due to the influence of D&D, so many player’s first question about a new system is about advancement. And if it isn’t as fast as D&D, it is considered “slow”.

    On the other side of the coin: I never even knew the experience rules existed back in the day. We used them in my recent cT campaign. With all the downtime during jumps, turns out that those rules aren’t nearly as “slow” as they struck me when I first read them.

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