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Multi-Skills, or ‘Skills’ as Certifications

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue.

There is always a temptation on my part to add dozens of more skills to Traveller. The acquisition of skills is for me at least a fundamentally important aspect to the pleasure of the Traveller experience. Now I have communicated with various players who mentioned how satisfying it was to take a character with very few skill levels and make him successful. I can appreciate their perspective. And others have been concerned with the issue of skill bloat—having so many different skills to choose from that they cannot be kept up with. That is also a valid concern. Some rule-sets have taken the path of over-simplification. They lump all vaguely related skills together under a single heading (e.g., all of the sciences into one skill called Science).

I believe this robs the system of its charm. You might as well have one skill called Starship which combined piloting, engineering, and electronics. Or one skill called Combat which includes all weapons, whether handheld, mounted, or shipboard. The system is highly technology-oriented and that is reflected in the technical skill sets. The interpersonal element is also not neglected in the skills as they play a major role in interaction with NPCs.

Traveller is supposed to be based on “Hard SciFi”. If it is science fiction based – where is the science? There is plenty of evidence of technology in the ships and weapons and other gear. A space fantasy like Star Wars also provides technology. But where is the Zoology? Where is the Geology? What about Botany or even Paleontology? It would not be so difficult to construct scenarios that make a scientific discipline integral to the plot. Rather than assuming that technology is the “god” that magically comes to the rescue, let’s have characters with scientific training who have to investigate for answers.

Is a mapping expedition reacting badly to something in a forest that is making people sick? Let a Botanist figure it out. Is a native species of animal inexplicably attacking a newly established colony? Bring a zoologist on board. Does the engineer need some germanium to repair the power system? Someone with geology can acquire and refine it for him. A museum on Porozlo is offering a finder’s fee for an intact fossil of an extinct five legged specimen of a bear-like creature. Some paleontology would certainly help.

When you start tacking on advanced skills like astrophysics and biochemistry the threat of skill bloat looms large. But there is another way to address this without adding skills: Reinterpret existing skills in such a way as to enhance the character. I call these ’multi-skills’, or multi-disciplinary skills. They do not have levels; instead, they act more as a certification. Here are some examples.

To get this certification… …the character should have these skills
Biochemistry Biology 2+ Chemistry 2+
Biophysics Biology 2+ Physics 2+
Geochemistry Geology 2+ Chemistry 2+
Geophysics Geology 2+ Physics 2+
Astrophysics Astronomy 2+ Physics 2+
Quantum Chemistry Chemistry 2+ Physics 2+
Veterinary Medicine Animals 2+ Medic 3+

Combining skills in meaningful ways to produce certifications can give the character more dignity. But the combination needs to be meaningful. Combining two levels chef with two levels of gun combat to use a broccoli bazooka – well … it just doesn’t quite “cut the mustard” for meaningful.

I do have issue with the Engineering skills. They are used to operate and maintain the drives on the starship as well as certain various other systems. The term engineer has been used for at least 150 years now to describe some who originally operated and maintained steam engines on trains. That went on to include all forms of engines and power plants on trains, ships, and others. A modern engineer, however, is more likely to design and modify all manner of systems, devices, and structures depending on his specialty. It is the technicians and operators who operate, maintain, and repair said devices or assist engineers in the design process through testing and such. (For example, in the New York City subways, the person who makes the train go from one station to the next is a train operator, not an engineer. -ed.)

So a Starship Technician would operate, repair, and maintain jump and maneuver drives and power systems. A Fleet Engineer would design the Jump and Maneuver Drives and modify them for specific hull configurations. If a Captain were fortunate enough to have an actual engineer aboard, he could even adapt an engine from a different class of ship, even an alien one, to his ship at need. The Engineer Skill slot could be opened for Civil Engineers (surface structures), Chemical Engineers (polymers and ordinance), Electrical Engineers (power systems), Mechanical Engineers (naval and starship hulls and engines) , Avionics Engineers (control systems, sensors, and communications), Photonics Engineers (energy weapons) and Computer Engineers.

Getting back on topic, having a multi-skill system in place could help motivate a character to try to get that one last level of a skill he needed to qualify for a certification and achieve the satisfaction that comes with it. Perhaps Biology 2+ & Chemical Engineering 2+ to get Biochemical Engineering …