Traveller: Why Can’t More Character Creation Processes Be Like This?

Yesterday we had the character generation session for my upcoming Traveller campaign. I think it might be the most fun character generation session I’ve ever presided over, and it’s due entirely to the way Mongoose’s edition of Traveller implements its life path mechanics. Mongoose Traveller, like Classic Traveller, uses terms of service in various jobs and institutions as the primary means by which characters get skills and other benefits in character generation. (Unlike Classic, it does give some means for obtaining a few extra skills here and there for the sake of rounding things out, but for the most part the focus is still on those terms of service.) In Classic, however, what goes on in a particular term is actually rather sparse; you might get promoted, you might get fired, you might die, that’s more or less it.

Mongoose, conversely, have modified the Classic “survival” roll so that if you fail it you don’t die, but you do have a randomly-generated mishap which causes your ejection from the particular career you had been pursuing. Even if you don’t have a little accident, you still roll on an Events table to get some flavourful incident to spice up that term. This means that no four-year tour of duty is uneventful, and soon enough not only do characters obtain colourful personal histories, but these histories also sometimes generate unexpected synergy with other features of the term. (For instance, one character accidentally caused a small war in one of their terms – at which point they received a promotion, when they hadn’t received any recognition for more heroic actions earlier in their career. Obviously, we decided, the powers that be had been hoping to kindle that war for ages before the PC finally gave them the casus belli they needed…)

On top of that, events which happen to coincide suggest linkages with the characters. For instance, two players were ejected from the Navy and Army respectively due to military disasters blamed on them by their commanders, which has led us to infer that about 8-12 years before the campaign started there was a big war which both characters were involved in – and in fact it was the same commander who framed both of them.

The way I ran the session was to have the players generate their basic characteristics and do their other preliminaries simultaneously, then go around the group running through each player’s first term of service one at a time, then each player’s second term, and so on. (We eventually stopped at 4 terms of service, at which point the characters had become quite well rounded out and the players had, despite various mishaps, managed to obtain roughly the sort of PCs they had been aiming for from the start of the process, and I had enough adventure hooks to plan the first session properly.) This was actually enormously entertaining, and everyone seemed to be engaged by the various twists and turns of each others’ fortunes, so despite the mild added complexity over Classic character generation I think the overall process was far more fun than any character gen process I can recently remember participating in.

The character gen session for my AD&D game was also nice and painless, and also notably heavily based on randomness – thanks to the stat-generating method we used there was little dithering about character classes because people often didn’t qualify for any of the fancy classes and the choice between mage, fighter, cleric and thief was fairly easy to make. I think what gives Mongoose Traveller the edge, however, is the fact that it’s not only quite random but also generates interesting events and synchronicities. I do find that when participating in games with people who are new to RPGs their enthusiasm for the process can be dampened right at the start of the game by a stodgy character generation process which combines lots of book-keeping with lots of choice (because choice tends to involve staring at a shopping list and dithering) and is distinctly lacking in surprises or interesting plot developments. If the process of making a character is difficult and time-consuming and involves lots of concentration and little laughter,  then that’s going to be intensely offputting to new participants, and they can be forgiven for wondering whether the rest of the game is this painful.

In short, I think character generation systems should ideally do at least one of three things:

  • Be short and simple, so you can get the job done within half an hour and get going. AD&D accomplishes this, so does Call of Cthulhu.
  • Build enough entertaining features into the process that generating a character is almost a fun game in its own right. This is what Mongoose Traveller does; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does the same if you go full random, though interestingly I don’t think the 40K RPGs succeed to the same extent because they seem to have more points where you are picking options from very long and complicated lists.
  • If you absolutely must be slow and stodgy because you have a target audience which loves character choice and optimisation and dislikes random wackiness, at least have the courtesy to include a robust process for bypassing a heap of these choices so players who are new to this sort of thing (or just find character optimisation impossibly tedious) can bypass all that and jump into the game quickly. A nicely developed template system can help a lot here.

Lessons learned:

  • Character generation can be fun and if it isn’t fun that’s a completely legitimate complaint.
  • Coincidences create plot opportunities.
  • Mongoose Traveller could well be Best Traveller.

9 thoughts on “Traveller: Why Can’t More Character Creation Processes Be Like This?

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  3. I’ve been digging into Classic Traveller lately and looking through Mongoose Traveller…. One of the potential issues I’ve run into if used without some customization (specifically in CT) is that one character may only can a skill or two while others will be very well rounded which causes a gigantic divide between characters in a starting group. How do you feel is the best way around this?

    1. That’s definitely much more of a thing in CT than in Mongoose Traveller, which generally assumes that everyone will do the same number of tours of duty and start play with more or less the same number of skills.

      In a Classic Traveller context, I think it’s worth keeping a few things in mind:

      1: Because your skill selection is essentially random, characters with only a few skills can still end up being important to the game because of the specific skills they have.

      2: CT does not have a unified task resolution system; each task described in the book is basically its own little subsystem. Sometimes a penalty for being unskilled is applied, but sometimes no such penalty applies – for instance, anyone can drive an Air/Raft and the skilled is only needed at all in dangerous driving situations. This means that characters with few skills can get by if they avoid areas where a lack of expertise either imposes a penalty (as with Bribery) or locks them out of using the skill altogether (like computer programming).

      Conversely, Mongoose Traveller has a universal task resolution system, which on the one hand makes GMing much easier but on the other hand imposes an unskilled penalty on all actions, so in that context it’s much more important for each character to have a decent number of skills each.

      3: CT was written at a time when having PCs start out at a broadly similar level of competence hadn’t become the standard orthodoxy yet. Randomly rolled characters were the order of the day, and it was the nature of most character generation systems at the time that some characters would just be objectively better than others at the start of play.

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  6. In my experience if a character fails qualifications, promotions, event skill checks resulting in characteristic reduction or medical bills they’re already not going to play the character. Traveller is TOO random in that it has about a 30% chance of sabotaging your character’s core concept by a lack of skill, characteristics, or failed qualification, Survival and advancement rolls. Most people do not want to play some completely random guy who has a garbage scattershot of abilities that don’t actually work usefully in actual adventures.

    Old D&D has the same problem though to a lesser degree, attribute score bonuses for Str, Dex and Wisdom are so important to certain classes at low levels that most people won’t play those classes if they have poor rolls, unless you raise them to third level to start with. And having played many RPGs for over thirty years I know exactly why. Most people don’t have the time, patience or investment to create characters over and over and be super careful in game play, they want to pursue a certain agenda and meet with some success in the amount of time they actually are willing to dedicate playing make believe. Unless you are a full time war gamer, in which case you probably play computer games and not D&D, you probably don’t have the patience, knowledge, or time to play games on hardcore mode and actually have any fun. I am a NeoGrognard myself but 95% of players are NOT. A lot of them never even read the core rules.

    1. I think it’s definitely the case that Traveller is one of those systems where you are better off coming to it without expectations, generating a character, and then coming up with a concept that fits the rolls after the fact, rather than one where you have a concept in mind which you then steer your character towards. The latter approach is very much a product of the 1980s and you’re right that a lot of people these days default to that and are not interested in the former approach, and many iterations of Traveller simply don’t cater to concept-first character gen.

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