Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Less-Travelled Road: In Defense of Dying in Traveller Character Generation

By Omer Golan-Joel

 Art by David Reddington

A common complaint about Classic Traveller is that characters can die during character generation. At the surface of it, it looks like a very strong and robust complaint - why should character generation be based on chance rather than the player's choice, and why should a character die even before starting the game?

However, there are actually good reasons to follow this controversial, and lethal, rule.

First of all, Classic Traveller game starts not after character generation, but rather at the beginning of character generation. It is a mini-game all by itself - a game of chance, if you will. And like all gambles, it has its own thrill in it. Will your character survive multiple terms of combat as a Marine? Will you muster out a General, or, alternatively, finish your career at a state funeral reserved to military heroes? Go on, gamble!

Another thing to keep in mind is that, as long as you stick to Book 1 and Supplement 4, Classic Traveller character generation is FAST. VERY FAST. Once you know the system well, generating a character takes a mere five minutes. So even if your character dies, you don't lose much time - in fact, you've only played a little game of dice for several moments, no harm done.

But the real reasons for the chances for character death in Classic Traveller character generation are twofold: from a setting perspective and from a game-mechanics perspective.

From a setting perspective, a military career, especially in actual combat service (when you can learn all these nifty combat skills), is a risky thing. Combat is no picnic, after all. You don't earn combat experience by sitting behind a desk, but rather by shooting and being shot at. Soldiers die in many cases; that is the nature of war. And the game reflects that.

From a game-mechanics perspective, keep in mind that Classic Traveller - like most versions of Traveller - uses the 2d6 curve for task resolution. This curve is highly sensitive to modifiers, so even a mere +1 is significant; high skill levels will skew the curve much towards the character's favor, and thus are highly valuable. The chance of death during character generation, therefore, exists in order to make higher skills rarer and more valuable. Otherwise, why not just stick in, say, the Scouts for terms and terms on no end and have a character with Pilot-5? This presents the player with a choice: do you muster out now alive but with a smaller amount of skills, or risk a certain chance of death in the line of duty to earn better combat experience? Are you determined enough to become an officer to risk your life in the line of duty, or do you muster out as a Private and stay alive for the time being? Choices. Choices. And risks. This is the essence of Classic Traveller character generation.

I hope that these few arguments would make you think again about the reasoning behind these seemingly arbitrary mechanics.


  1. I always use this, even with MGT. In MGT, if you roll Survival EXACTLY, then you use the Mishap table (and may muster out with a decoration (Purple Heart, George Medal etc.)) If you fail the roll then you are DEAD DEAD and go into the NPC file for later use. A very pleasant evening can be spent with a bottle of wine, 2d6, pencil and paper and a set of CharGen tables. Due to their nature, the tables generate a character backstory directly tied to the character.

  2. Exactly.

    I think that the designers of later Traveller products (anything after LBB1 and Citizens of the Imperium) missed some major points about how the system should work. Characters should have a few, low skills and not a large number of high skills. Death is a deterrent against trying to get too many skills (which break the system).

    Oh, and generating LBB1 characters is very easy - 5 minutes per character (I timed myself generating them), so it isn't a big deal if your character dies.

  3. I find character creation for Classic Traveller to be a fun game in and of itself, and character death is part of that game. While some of the characters end up serving a short number of terms, most of the ones I made were in the five to seven terms range. Some of them would get great skills, like the Scout I remember with a Pilot-6. Now, granted, he had few other skills, but he could fly any ship out there. I never really saw character death as a deterrent to continuing in service. My problem tended to be making the roll to get a skill or a promotion.

  4. I think that the best solution to the vast variety in skill levels between different characters is to let each player roll three characters (i.e. three characters who managed to survive until mustering out) and then choose one to play.

  5. Keep the records of the ones that died and use them to fill up your NPC files. Halves your GM workload to start with.