Thursday, May 20, 2010

Traveller on Random Generation

Here's an interesting quote from Book 1 of the 1977 edition of Traveller:
Obviously, it is possible for a player to generate a character with seemingly unsatisfactory values; nevertheless, each player should use his character as generated. The experience procedures and acquired skills table offer a genuine opportunity to enhance values, given only time and luck. Should a player consider his character to be so poor as to be beyond help, he should consider joining the accident-prone Scout Corps, with a subconscious view to suicide.
While I'm sure lots of us will be drawn to the comment about suicide, far more fascinating, I think, is the comment about "seemingly unsatisfactory values" and the use of "should" in reference to playing a character as generated. These both point to a philosophy of game play and design that's quite different to the one that's become dominant in the last couple of decades.

I'll probably have more to say on this later, but I'm rather busy at the moment and might not have a spare moment till the weekend.


  1. These both point to a philosophy of game play and design that's quite different to the one that's become dominant in the last couple of decades.

    I think it points mostly to a philosophy of game design that's changed, and not game play. In my experience, characters with sub-par ability scores were typically junked by their players, even when the game system suggested otherwise. Maybe I just play with a group of "win at all costs" sort of guys, but it was always the prevailing view in our group that it wasn't much fun to play a character that sucked. Game designers picked up on that feeling pretty quickly, and started introducing point-buy and other "balanced" systems into their games.

    The common example is: imagine that you and your friend are both playing fighters. He rolls a couple 18s, you have nothing on your sheet above a 13. His fighter is going to be a lot better than yours, and probably a lot more fun to play. He'll be hitting more often, doing more damage, he'll probably survive longer, and he'll level up faster than you. If your the sort of person who derives fun from having an effective character, this is a miserable situation. Situations like this come up fairly often if you use random character generation.

    I should note, that as an adult, playing a character with low stats does have a certain appeal to me, in that there's a real challenge to it, like playing D&D on a higher difficulty mode. In my younger days, I didn't feel that way.

  2. That's one of many reasons that I love "old" games more than "new" :-)

  3. "Play the ball where it lies" is good sportmanship and a handy hallmark of whether someone is worth gaming with.

    Some of the best players I've known have been reflexive, untrained adherents to the "contested point? Dice for it" school.

  4. Here's one place where I think D&D has had it wrong for some time--I always thought the experience bonus should be reserved for those characters with a prime requisite below a certain score (say, 15? 14?); such characters would then have a little more allure and would be more balanced vis-a-vis their more randomly gifted brethren. Just a thought!

  5. I think balance is overrated. :)

  6. There was a definite shift away from play it as you roll it with the AD&D DMG which provided several ways to roll "better" characters.

    I think it came along with more mechanical weight to the characteristics. Traveller characteristics were valuable for positive DMs in prior experience, combat, and as hit points. Most skills were not affected. OD&D characters got a few +1 bonuses or 5% or 10% experience bonus.

    Then along came Champions and GURPS which really shifted gaming towards designed characters (even though point buy was around way before that).

    The challenge is to make sure that poor characteristic rolls don't consign a player to significantly less participation in the game. That's the only "balance" that matters.

    I do like Traveller's official mechanics for abandoning a poor character though. Of course it can still backfire (the character can wash out too quickly, and then not only do you have poor stats, you also have poor skills). And sometimes you end up with a 7 term scout with poor characteristics that has his own ship!

    These days, with random character generation, if a player really wants to re-roll, I'll let them. I may provide a few mechanics to help make a marginal character more interesting (for example, a single re-roll and a swapping two attributes in OD&D), but the main fallback would be "If you really don't like it, roll up a new one."


  7. "You only need a 9 to qualify!"

    It's commonly heard around our AD&D table.

  8. I'm not sure it's practical to take character generation advice from a game in which it is possible for your character to die before the first session even begins.

  9. "Here's one place where I think D&D has had it wrong for some time--I always thought the experience bonus should be reserved for those characters with a prime requisite below a certain score (say, 15? 14?); such characters would then have a little more allure and would be more balanced vis-a-vis their more randomly gifted brethren. Just a thought!"

    The point of the XP bonus was to encourage players to play to type, not against it. Fighters were supposed to be strong, magic-users smart, etc. If you wanted to play against type, you were allowed to, but you would be penalized.

    An alternative would simply be to flat-out state that your class was determined by your highest ability score or, if you had two or more scores of 15+, you could choose.

    Later versions of the game put a lot more mechanical significance on ability scores, making them far more important. In that context, the XP bonus didn't make as much sense.

    I think the best solution is to simply minimize the abilities: no penalties, and a score of 15+ gives a simple bonus: strength +1 to hit with melee weapons; wisdom +1 to save versus magic; dexterity +1 to hit with missile weapons and +1 initiative; constitution +1 hit point/level; charisma +1 reaction and loyalty rolls. No bonus for intelligence, except for the 10% XP bonus for magic-users which is pretty critical. If abilities are determined using 3d6, this means that roughly 10% of characters get a bonus in any given category and about 40% of all characters get at least one bonus, while at the same time allowing pretty much any set of scores to be a viable character: even six 3s would not be a huge disadvantage, with no penalties for very low scores.

    Of course, this wouldn't play well with players who see ability scores as an important way of differentiating one character from another, but then again, with point-buy systems, most characters end up looking fairly similar ability-wise anyway.

  10. Back in the day (1982-ish) a fellow player rolled up a character with poor stats. He got in an argument with the DM because he wanted to reroll and the DM wanted him to use the character as is.

    Player: "I jump off a cliff".

    DM: "You survive and are now a quadriplegic".

    The player stewed for the rest of the session as the rest of us were made to carry him around on the adventure. He got to roll up a new character the next day.

  11. Dude, I LOVED the Traveller character generation. Not sure what version I played, because it was at the LGS, and the owner was the one with the book. I managed to roll up one character, who went through so much crap in character generation he was widely considered by everyone at the table as a jynx. Needless to say when I failed by roll to move a nuke and killed everyone, no one was surprised. That's the type of character generation that you just don't get with 3d6. Adds dimensions and depth and back story. Man, I got to find me a copy of that game...

  12. As I recall, it was always the Belter that was the suicide class for us in TRAVELLER, not the Scout. That being said, one of the best Traveller characters I ever had was a completely hopeless schmuck who went in for Belter... and survived. He came out with the most unbalanced set of skills you've ever seen, so I played him as a spaced, suicidal miner.... and he KEPT ON SURVIVING. Great fun.

  13. I'm not sure it's practical to take character generation advice from a game in which it is possible for your character to die before the first session even begins.

    Why not? For a lot of us, character generation is the first session and a huge part of what made the game fun to play. If your character survived -- and it was a lot more common than gaming urban legends would have it -- you had a character with a past, often one filled with oddities you'd never have chosen given the choice. That's a wonderful thing and something few other games have ever managed to achieve as simply as Traveller did.

  14. In my experience, characters with sub-par ability scores were typically junked by their players, even when the game system suggested otherwise.

    That's a common experience. Heck, Gygax suggests as much in the PHB in 1978, so it's not at all unusual. That said, I think it's an approach that misses out on a lot of the fun that's possible when you play the character the dice give you rather than the one you think you want to play based on some plan beforehand.

  15. I once rolled up a Traveller character with very low strength and endurance, but great dexterity, intelligence, and education. I ran him as someone who grew up in a microgravity environment. He was a Merchant, survived seven terms, and ended up with a paid-off Free Trader.

    The character's name? Arameth Gridlore. I played him, his extended family, and descendants for years. He's even made it into official Traveller canon.

  16. Rach's reflections: You should give it a try before you knock it. The "death in creation" rule provided a useful tool for the environment that Traveller was presenting. It is also a balancing tool, of sorts, in that it pushed characters toward occupations that fit the players' inclinations: a methodical, conservative player would probably tend toward the high-survivability Merchant, while a cavalier, swashbuckling player might turn toward the romance of the Scouts, with the resulting skillset of each.

  17. Trav chargen was a game in itself. It was fun. It was a gamble. It was also fun to play what you got.

    But, in Trav and in other games with random elements to their chargen, you can come up with some pretty lame characters. Yes, many advanced players enjoy an rp'ing challenge, myself included. But sometimes you're just not up to it. We usually had some way to make things more palatable, either some stat swapping, point trading, trashing a character, or allowing the player to roll up a second char and then choose between the two. Sometimes we had arbitrary rules (if you have no stat above 13) and sometimes not.

    The one thing that random chargen doesn't work for is if you have a firm char type in mind before you start the game. If you love mages, and just can't seem to qualify for one, then something needs to be done at some point. You can't doom a player to continue week after week playing something he really just isn't interested in.

    Moderation in all things.

  18. Baron Greystone: One of the things about Traveller character generation is that it is possible to modify it to cover those sorts of situations. For instance, a GM might allow a player to choose any result (or perhaps just shift any roll by 1 in either direction) on the skill tables, or perhaps roll which table the player may choose from randomly. For stats, allow the player to arrange the rolls in whatever order preferred, or even roll 12D6 and divide them up two to a stat. The best part about these solutions is that it allows players who want fully random chargen to mix on an equal basis with those using the choice systems.

    As a result, I've become fond of character creation systems that are designed around random generation, which can then be modified to include varying levels of choice. Character creation systems that are based on point-buy are generally less effective at including random generation for those who want it (though Greg Stolze's Reign is a notable exception).

  19. James: It was meant to be a pithy wisecrack.

  20. These days I have fun with the Traveller Character Generator (referenced in a previous Grognardia post). Sometime you get a character that you just HAVE to play. Using the program, I started out with a UPP of 989344 which didn’t look promising, especially given an intelligence of 3 out of 15 possible (7 being average). So Norton joins the Army and not only is accepted, but becomes an officer in his first term (this is so much like real life, eh?). By his third term he was promoted to Captain, Major in term 4, Lt Colonel in term 5, Colonel in term 6, and GENERAL in term 7! After nine terms of service (36 years) he retires.

    So now we have General Norton, UPP 776497, with a pension of 12,000 credits a year plus another 67,000 credits in the bank. For a General he noticably lacks skills; no Leadership or Tactics or the like. He does have Brawling-3…obviously he subscribes to the school of Leadership-by-Fists!

    At 54 years old, I see General Norton as the type of guy that angles to lead a small backwater world army or mercenary force. Definately low-tech…he doesn’t get his message across with sugar but with bloodly knuckles!

    The thing is I couldn't have ever created a character like this if I wanted to. This is the BEAUTY of random generation!

  21. Didn't Warhammer FRP have random character generation. I seem to remember that you could roll up all sorts of unheroic, but very interesting, starting characters. Characters of the career that no-one would choose - they'd all choose to be mercenaries or troll-slayers - but that was grimdark fate for you.

    But, unfortunately, this atmosphere was undermined by the pre-gen characters for some of the adventures - Doomstones in particular. All the pre-gen characters were mercenaries or troll-slayers or wizards, with no rat catchers or beggars (not even ex-rat catchers or ex-beggars), suggesting that players should be pumped-up heroes from the off.

  22. As a friend of mine would say, “This guy is shaping up to be a belter.” And, yes, I think any belter that did survive would be a whole lot of fun.

    When I ran a classic Traveller campaign a few years ago, no-one in my group had played it before. These are all people who really like Wizard’s 3e of D&D. They embraced cT chargen and had a lot of fun with it. Sometimes they choose the death option when they missed a survival roll. (This the quote above.) The point being, that despite whatever arguments we may bring to bear on either side, cT chargen is fun (at least for some people), and you don’t have to be a grognard to think so.

    By the book, characteristic scores don’t have such a huge effect. Low scores aren’t a great hinderance. The way I read it, a lack of skills shouldn’t be too much of a hinderance either. Skills can give you a bonus and can occasionally allow you to do something that not every character can do. The way I play it, a character with no skills could still be viable.

    Despite the randomness in cT chargen, my own experience is that I’ve nearly always been able to get the PC that I was aiming for. It might not be exactly the character I would have crafted, but it’s generally what I was going for with some details I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

    While I like point-buy games, there are things that random chargen can do that are really hard to put a point-price on. I can’t imagine considering sacrificing characteristic and skill points in order to afford a mortgage on a spaceship.