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Some Thoughts on Skill Use in Classic Traveller

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue.

Author’s note: This article is from my TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series about using only Classic Traveller Books 1-3. The entire series can be found at <https://talestoastound.wordpress.com/tag/traveller/>.

The question I’m exploring is what happens if…

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to play the game or say you’re doing it wrong. These are my impressions of how the game was written and meant to be played. But I don’t assume they are definitive.

Editor’s note: The author uses the term ‘throw’ frequently. This is synonymous with such terms as ‘roll’, ‘die roll’, et cetera, and generally means “rolls two six-sided dice and compares to a target number”.

A Limited List

The list of skill found in Books 1-3 is not meant to be comprehensive. The service skill lists reflect the opportunities that characters in those services might have for skills. If it were comprehensive it would work against the design philosophy of the game.

Traveller is a game of limitations. You never have the cards you want, you have the cards you were dealt. Now, what are you going to do with them?

Skills are Not a Limit on What Characters Can Do

Any character can try to do anything in Traveller, whether they have a skill or not. They might not succeed. And the Referee might make a ruling that the current circumstances mean there is no way the Character will succeed. But it is important to remember that the skills a character possesses are not a limit on what a Character can do. They are what the character was trained to do in his or her respective service.

Having a skill level of 1 or higher means the player-character (PC, hereafter) might be able to use the skill value for employment or as a favorable modifier for throws. Along with a skill of 0, a skill level 1 or higher means that a PC can make rolls without a concern for adverse modifiers in situations where the skill would be required.

Limits are Vital to the Spirit of the Game

Let’s say your characters decide to hunt some creatures on an alien world. They don’t have Hunting skill (it doesn’t exist) and they don’t know the world or the beasts. How do they solve this problem? There’s no roll to make.


The trap of lots and lots of skill rolls is that the Players can simply roll their way out of any problem that comes their way. And what’s the fun of that?

Instead, how do they learn to hunt the beast they need to hunt? Here’s one idea:

They have to go to a tribe on the world and get someone to help them track the beast or give them the methods to hunt it (“Use this meat and place it in this area…”).

Now, instead of a roll, what do we get? Adventure, complications, debts, conflicts, more adventure. The PCs have to go talk to someone. This might go well, or badly. They have to get something from someone. This might be easy, or cost them something they own, or they might have to kill the chief of a neighboring tribe to get the information. They have to go out and do the instructions they’ve been giving. Things might go wrong on their way to capture the beast. And so on.

The fact is the skills the PCs have are—on purpose—a small fraction of the skills they might wish they had by the time any adventure is over. But if they don’t have those skills, they need to find their way into a new solution. That means doing all the things we love to do in an RPG: poke things, prod things, come up with ideas and schemes, generate possibilities from the Referee as we ask, “Is there a tribe nearby that might be able to help us…” and so on.

By not having a skill for everything, the players are in the same position of players in a solid game of (original) Dungeons & Dragons. Apart from fighting, thief skills, and magic, the players have to figure out ways of defeating, circumventing, and succeeding at challenges in ways that never involve die rolls.

Traveller is from that same tradition. We should not forget that when we look at the Traveller rules. Skills offer possibilities of actions for the PCs. But they are not the sum total of those possibilities. And it is from these other possibilities that the best play and most memorable moments will arise.

Characters Can Make Throws Even if They Don’t Have the Skill

Anyone can make a throw if a situation warrants it, even if they do not have the skill. Anyone can try to bribe someone, whether they have bribery skill or not. Anyone can try to repair a piece of machinery on a starship, whether they have a skill or not.

An example from the rules:

Air/Raft— The individual has training and experience in the use and piloting of the air/raft, or floater.

The air/raft is the major transportation vehicle of most worlds, and most persons are aware of its basic operation. In any type of high speed situation, or in bad weather, it can be dangerous to drive. A basic throw of 5+ to avoid accident or mishap in bad weather, chases, or high speed maneuvers applies.

DMs: +1 per level of expertise. −1 if extremely bad weather, the craft is old, or if gunfire is involved in the chase.

Referee: generally, roll once for a short chase, twice or three times longer flights. See Book 3 for a more complete description of the air/raft.

Notice that it is assumed that anyone from the implied culture of the game setting can use an air/raft. Throws are not needed for every day use, only for extreme circumstances where things might go wrong. Air/Raft skill is not required to make such a roll, but will provide a +DM if available.

Thus, I would say most drivers in the U.S. have a Automobile-0 skill (or no Automobile skill, if I’m being unkind). This does not mean that they cannot drive a car. It means they can drive a car just fine until something goes wrong. At that point, a throw is required. Someone with Driver-1 will have a 5-15% edge (depending on the Throw) over someone who has no rating in the skill. But anyone can try to stop from smashing into a tree if making a turn at too high a speed.

The Rules Are Templates for Adjudicating Throws

The skill list section of Book 1 notes negative DMs for certain throws if the PC does not have a pertinent skill. In other cases, depending on circumstances, the Referee might decide set a throw higher or lower if what he or she deems to be a vital skill is present or not.

For example, there is no way for PCs to gain the ability to ride beasts in the services listed in Book 1. But this does not mean that the PCs, if they go to a world where people ride beasts to get around, cannot ride a beast. Instead, I would use the rules for Air/Raft noted above as an analogy After all, domesticated horses are trained for people to ride them. Pretty much anyone can get on the back of a horse and use it to get from one place to another. No real skill or training is needed.

On the other hand, if someone is racing over rough terrain or caught up in a gunfight while riding, having enough training in Riding to have the equivalent of Beast Riding-1 or more is certainly going to help get through these tricky circumstances.

In other words, we simply apply the rules from Air/Raft to the needs of riding beasts and we’re done. There's no need to add Beast Riding as a skill to the Service Tables. In fact, there’s no need to add Beast Riding to the game at all, since we can see how to adjudicate such matters from the rules already present.

Adding New Skills

But let’s say a PC wants to get better at riding the beast he’s on. He wants whatever +DMs he can get his hands on for some tricky riding.

Once again, we turn to the rules… this time the Experience section of the game. (No one pays attention to the Experience section. But like the rest of the game it is part of the toolkit… with some wonderful tools in it to build things that you might want for your setting and game.)

In Book 1 we find this:

“The above list of skills is certainly not exhaustive. Additional skills may be encountered.

Creating New Skills: The experience rules of Book 2 indicate methods by which an individual can learn additional skills after he or she begins actively adventuring. Those rules also cover the requirements for creating a new skill not otherwise detailed in the Traveller rules. For example, if a new weapon is developed (perhaps a laser pistol), a new skill would be required to enable its use.”

Going to Book 2 we find the methods of raising Characteristics, Weapon Expertise, and Skills. As written, one could not learn Beast Riding as a new skill unless one spent a year dealing with a Technical School. But that doesn’t feel right to me as the Referee. The text make it seem as if the PC is learning something very involved and complicated, like Pilot or Mechanical. Riding a horse doesn’t seem to fit that.

If the PCs are on a planet spending lots of time riding around on these strange beasts and a Player wants to get a skill rating in it, I would let him use the Weapon Expertise slot for the Beast Riding-1 instead of a weapon. It might be against the letter of the rules. But it feels to me like the spirit of the rules. So that’s what I would go with.

Mixing and Matching the Examples in the Rules Creates the Tool Kit

The previous example is a vital part of all this. Classic Traveller, as the text itself says at the end of the 1981 edition was never meant to cover everything. But it is my belief is that the three Little Black Books cover enough to provide examples and analogies for Referees and players to sort out whatever needs they have to make a moment of play work. It isn’t about writing new rules for every new circumstance, but taking the rules that are already there and applying them as needed.