So I've been listening to a Traveller podcast for a while and Arthur has started a Traveller campaign (not featuring me, alas). It's always seemed like an interesting system, and I've heard particularly good things about its character creation process. Actually, rephrase that: I've heard particularly intriguing things about it, including the well-known trope that you can die during character creation.
Arthur's latest post on Traveller character creation finally spurred me into checking once more for a legal PDF (I can't justify buying any more hard copy RPGs, especially ones I'm not playing any time soon) and finally finding one. It's partly a matter of sheer curiosity, and partly also because I'm vaguely trying to write a game at the moment and any subsystem that gets rave reviews from Arthur needs serious consideration.
Obviously, I'm not actually playing a game, and I haven't yet had time to read through the book in detail, but I've skimmed it, I know a bit about the system from elsewhere, and I've tried generating a few sample characters to get a feel for things. The weakness there is that without actually playing, I don't have an accurate feel for how effective or fun any of these characters would be. However, I have noted down a few thoughts on the process itself; like Arthur, I think the first impression of a game created by trying to generate characters can be very important.
These are very much gut reactions, not hard-hitting formal analyses, and I'm sure anyone who knows more about the game could pick all kinds of holes in them (please do).
At first glance, the process is intriguing, but a bit daunting. That's partly because I had to roll up homeworlds, rather than having any in place to pick. It's also because the richness of the process also makes it quite complex, with lots of flicking back and forth between sections, tables and references to work out what things actually mean. On the other hand, glancing over the tables, it seems full of interesting possibilities.
My first character looks fun: sturdy, quick-witted, clumsy, with a background on a temperate desert world that gives her a range of survival-type skills only partly inspired by the early scenes of Star Wars. Unfortunately, things go very badly. I botch a string of rolls, failing to get into Field Research and ending up as a "Barbarian" wilderness guide, then leaving the career after a crippling accident that cuts four points off my Strength, halving it. Because I failed the survival roll, I gain no exit benefit from the career path.
Because previous 'careers' penalise your chances of entering one, I just fail another qualification roll and end up drifting again, this time grifting around starports. I manage to advance a bit in this rather dismal career, then get attacked and injured again, reducing my Strength to 2. The choice of stat was metagaming, but I decided that one very poor stat that I could work around was better than reducing my average Dex or losing my Endurance bonus. I finally manage to make an actual career in my fifth term, in Intelligence - I decided that someone with Strength 2 was never going to make it into a physically demanding field. Somehow, working as a spy improved the Endurance of someone raised on a harsh desert world who'd spent years as a wilderness guide and hanging around polluted spaceports.
I know this isn't even for a real game, but getting bad rolls for your first term can be very disheartening - I tried to maintain enthusiasm and generate good background for my character regardless, but there's something about failing interviews and then being horribly maimed that tends to damped my enthusiasm. I appreciate that skills technically are more important than stats, and gaining several skills means that even losing 4 points of stat probably leaves you ahead of the game, but it doesn't quite feel that way. Also note that that's only true in your first career, where you're gaining a lot of skills free through basic training.
I was genuinely quite ticked off by how punishing that initial set of rolls was, and how brutal the chargen rules are in that situation. I couldn't get the career I wanted, halved one of my stats, and got no benefit at the end because I'd failed to survive the full term. While I appreciate this is a random set of rules that produces interesting results, it's still not necessarily fun. I suspect after a few games it'd probably be less of an issue, but as an introduction to a game it does not make a winning impression. In fairness, there are rules to ameliorate the situation, allowing you to spend money to regain lost points through surgery. It's not that obvious, though, and also requires... money.
The randomness also means that things don't entirely make sense. My hard-living desert girl, for example, gained Endurance twice in bizarre circumstances, first by living in a slum (which I could just about rationalize) and then by working as a spy, of all things.
Also, the way that benefits build up over a career means that if you end up failing your first entrance roll and become a drifter, it seems sensible to stay that way because you'll accumulate better retirement benefits if you can gain ranks. Staying with one four four terms gives you an outside chance of reaching rank three, which is typically far better than rank two, whereas in two separate careers you're incredibly unlikely to make rank three. The ranks also grant you free skills. However, that also traps you in a dead-end and quite risky career, with quite poor retirement benefits in the first place.
Finally, the penalties for previous careers don't entirely make sense to me. Wide experience is often valued in recruitment, particularly if it seems directly relevant to a new career. This felt to me like it was trapping the character in an unwanted career path. I'm also a bit disappointed by the very limited options if you fail a career roll, given that each term covers four years of life - easily time to try corporate work if you fail to qualify for science, or get into trade if you can't pass the Army exams.
This could certainly be an interesting character to play, and Strength aside she's ended up fairly competent, but I still feel like getting your stats (the starting point for your character) hacked down like that tends to estrange you from a character a bit.
This character's homeworld is a bit odd.
I manage to get two average stats and four below average, suffering penalties for them. I leave my pathetic little homeworld on the first Army recruitment drive that passes, going into support because I have at least a chance of surviving there and not ending up back home or anywhere even worse. Much to my surprise, I manage to pass a string of survival rolls and even several promotions, leaving me with a decent and fairly competent character.
The world-generation tables can throw up some very odd results because there are no conditionals: how precisely does a world have a Balkanised faction? Let alone that faction being one of four power blocs in a moderately-populated small planet.
The tables are also rather confusing in some places. For example, Tech Level has DMs based on other elements of the world, like starport. It lists things like 12 (C) with a +2 modifier to TL. However, the Starport chart also has a C entry, which is the starport's rating corresponding to a roll of 7-8. Eventually I worked out that the C-class rating is irrelevant for TL modifiers, and that numbers of 10+ on each chart are also marked with a letter because... well, actually I don't think it's explained anywhere? A forum thread somewhere suggested that this was to reduce confusion, in case anyone misread "11" as two 1s, which... is technically possible, I suppose, but in context would clearly not mean anything. Bizarre.
I have to say he doesn't feel especially compelling, somehow, but maybe that's the poor stats talking. I could certainly construct something interesting out of his background, rapid ascent and the string of bitter Rivals he picks up along the way. If this was a Call of Cthulhu character I'd be happy enough with him, but in a system with a heavier emphasis on mechanics I'd be reluctant to play someone so comprehensively hampered.
I'm also slightly unsure about a system that mixes up mechanical, plot-point and background in the way this does, but more on that later.
This homeworld is a miniscule place with nearly zero gravity, trace atmosphere and a temperature that swings wildly from day to night. Its tiny population inhabits a buried colony ship that went off course, where they have a collective mystical government. Nevertheless, they have a brilliant starport.
I get a decent set of stats (two plus, one minus) and manage to enter a scientific career. I try to move into Scout Exploration after a couple of terms for background reasons (starry-eyed backwater kid wants to see the universe), but fail the roll and have to enter the Navy instead. I survive the term, manage to move into Exploration this time, and do pretty well for myself, leaving with a fairly interesting character all round.
I find the world-traits system a bit weird, in that the quite extreme worlds I've randomly generated so far nevertheless manage not to have traits (which affect character generation). So this waterless world doesn't get the Desert trait, fractionally misses out on being High-Tech despite its really very high Tech level (and lack of any other traits), isn't Poor because... it has too little atmosphere to be poor..? and has too much atmosphere to be a vacuum. Despite its bizarreness, therefore, it has no notable traits whatsoever. It strikes me that the absence of a planetary trait for gravity is particularly odd. It seems like there should be some fall-back traits to make sure any interesting world has at least something mechanically different about it.
Being less negative for once, I ended up with what strikes me as a really interesting background (admittedly my fluff, but their random charts) which led me on to make some fun career choices. I would quite happily play this character.
The Life Events are rather annoying. They're by far the most likely result to come up when you roll to see what happened during your term of service, and frequently lack any mechanical effects, giving only background, which I'm quite happy to make up myself. Plus, random background is quite likely to be unwanted. Where they do have any effect, it's largely negative (there are, it seems to me, too many results in this process that give you crippling injuries - though I notice, none that reduce your skills, which is interesting). If I'm pursuing a career in an exciting field, I want to get interesting career-relevant events, not generic stuff that may be mundane or even inappropriate. In addition, because only some results give Life Events, they contrast badly with the mechanical effect of the more interesting results (particularly those that give bonuses).
My fourth character's homeworld is a cold, toxic, low-tech place run by a xenophobic oligarchy. My character is poorly educated, but astonishingly hardy (END 12) and well-respected. I decided to be a local celebrity, some kind of athlete who'd achieved popular fame. Unfortunately, my attempt to move into high society as a sports star fell flat, presumably being a bit too nouveau riche and wide-eyed for the oligarchs. Rather than admit defeat, I accept a place in the Scouts as a survey operative (the only one not reliant on EDU), where I do so well I'm compelled to accept a promotion for another term (double six). Predictably, he's injured in a disaster, but only slightly - I metagame by dropping Strength so he's not mechanically penalised. I gain another promotion and Jack of All Trades 0, a skill which helps with using untrained skills - but not at level 0. Hmm. I manage to retire with a fair chunk of cash and an EDU boost that cancels my only penalty score. Despite his great success in the Scouts, he still can't get acceptance as an aristocrat, and ends up navigating belter ships, but he's so bitter he just makes an Enemy and gains nothing but a weapon. Abandoning grand ambitions, he hopes to make it into the police for a steady career, but fails the qualification. Thoroughly fed up, he heads off into the mountains to shoot space grizzlies, surviving only thanks to his incredible toughness.
This character has had a pretty bad run of IC luck (albeit he escaped any really serious consequences), but I think would be fun to play. He's got an interesting history, a decent range of skills and a good set of stats (in fact, above average). Job's a good'un, all told.
I don't understand the inclusion of the Jack of All Trades skill. While a very useful skill in play, it's only usable once you reach level 1 or higher, which means randomly rolling it twice in character creation - you apparently can't improve it during play. The odds of doing that are very low, especially as it only crops up in a few advancement tables. This means that gaining JOAT 0 is often just going to be a waste of a roll. Again, maybe I've missed something.
I appreciate it's unlucky that I've failed such a high proportion of my qualification rolls, but it does show what's possible. Characters do tend to end up drifting or in the armed forces - and you can only Draft once, and can't even return to that if you fail to qualify for something else.
Another interesting background - a sizable desert world (four of five have been deserts) ruled by an absolute military dictatorship under crippling restriction, but idolising space travellers. My character runs into a band of daredevil smugglers and seizes the chance to escape. I take up free trading to see the stars, but after a few years of decent success a war breaks out, forcing me to flee with only the clothes on my back. Imbued with an intractable loathing for the uniformed services, and too restless to be a colonist, I move into field research and end up running a secret jump drive project, surviving a diplomatic mess and earning a promotion. Having had a relatively successful and interesting career with no crippling injuries, I muster out with 5,000 and two ship shares.
I note that almost half the possible careers are in the armed forces. I'd have maybe liked to see some more civilian options, but I can appreciate that it might get tricky to differentiate them mechanically (though I notice there are a few splatbooks). If your group's willing to refluff, you can probably treat a couple of the military careers as civilian ones, particularly things like Engineering.
As expected, this system does indeed produce a range of characters with interesting backgrounds and skill sets, give the player a certain amount of choice, but throw in random elements that adjust those choices in unpredictable ways. All of the characters are probably playable, particularly as there's rules for treating injuries and even funding that treatment through debts.
That being said, my first and fourth characters showed pretty clearly that you can end up pretty comprehensively foiled by the system, which may well be frustrating if you're invested in a particular character concept. I think you'd need to be clear from the beginning that there's no point planning anything, and you need to work with whatever comes your way. Even picking careers that would work well with your stats - or compensate for weaknesses - is a chancy endeavour. You can probably control things a little better than I did if you know the system inside and out, or are less concerned about fluff issues like whether someone with a Strength 2 would keep applying for physical jobs. As it is, I got quite into a particular idea of my first character, so when everything went pear-shaped I'd likely have just scrapped her and started again. That's a fairly big deal, as I tend to pride myself on playing whatever I roll; moreover, Traveller chargen involves building connections with other PCs through sharing your events, so it would be a pain all round.
The fact that I failed six of thirteen qualification rolls - mostly needing only a 4+ or 5+ on 2d6 - is bad luck, but also demonstrates the possibilities of a system like this.
Another thing to note is that I lost out here by not having the connections rules to bring in. These connections to other players should really help to strengthen characters (fluff- and crunch-wise, as you get bonus skills) and keep you invested in them, as well as potentially taking the edge off mishaps. So I've probably overstated the negatives here.
While I've griped about it a bit, the promotion system (and the mustering-out benefits) do produce a complicated set of choices, in that you have to decide whether it's worth risking your existing career to try and break into something new, and the longer you've been in it, the riskier it is. However, at times the mechanics of it do chip away at the realism - it's artificially better to leave after one or three promotions than after two, for example.
If I were ever to run this myself, I might sit down and work out some mild hedges for the more extreme, boring or ineffectual results so that people aren't going to feel cheated by bad luck. I'm also not entirely happy about the Events where you have to make a skill check to gain anything, and potentially have a horrible accident despite having passed your Survival roll.
I might also tweak the rules so you can apply for a new career while employed, and only have to leave your current one if you pass the recruitment roll. This is more realistic for one, and also means you're not going to get screwed over as much if you botch a roll. It makes shifting careers much more appealing as an option - by default it seems quite a bad idea to voluntarily leave a career, because not only does it stop you building up promotions and benefits, but also there's a high risk of being stuck in a dead-end path by failing a roll, since you can never return to a previous career (also unrealistic, but not worth tinkering with). Drifting would be a final option for the sacked, or for anyone who wants that in their background.
Another thing I'd be tempted to hack is the application process, because I find it ludicrous that you can apply for only one career in four years, and your only fall-back is petty crime or war. The world is full of people who end up stuck in call centres, restaurants and other tedious jobs that - importantly - very rarely involve getting shot at. Off the top of my head, I would either whip up a list of fall-back jobs (specific undemanding ones with low Survival requirements), or just plain allow you to keep applying until you get somewhere. As in real life, people might then start with their most tempting career option and move gradually towards less appealing ones. In the present system, it's very dangerous aiming high because you can only crash and burn - you can't simply fall short. Moreover, it seems to me like the fall-back systems will lead to more generic and less interesting characters, because it tends to draw people into a small number of careers: nobody leaves the navy and ends up busking in starport bars until they get a record contract, nobody fails their entrance exams and leaves for a new colony in an angry huff.
As I mentioned above, I'm really quite sceptical about the way Events mix up types of "reward". There are mechanical effects on your character, which you can provide your own fluff and inter-character connections for in a way that suits you. There are plot-point outcomes, like Contacts and Rivals, which are only relevant when they can be worked into the campaign, and which aren't intrinsically more interesting than any other plot point. Finally, there are pure fluff events like "someone close to you dies" or "romantic entanglement". Now I can see why the designers thought these might be interesting, but in fact it's very easy for that sort of thing to infringe on someone's character concepts, rather than enhance them. I think it's a reasonable thing to include in a game, but I think it should be an optional table that's an addition to the mechanical rolls of character generation, not mixed in amongst them.
Fundamentally, I think my issue is that I can roll something as simple as a Steward increase and decide that I had a romantic entanglement with a passenger's valet and exerted myself to the utmost to keep them happy - whereas if I roll "romantic entanglement" I don't get to allocate myself a mechanical bonus (you can, I admit, use the Connections rule to involve another player and gain a free skill - but you can do this with any event, so a Life Event is still mechanically worse). It's very possible for one character to get a career skill, a promotion that gives another skill, a rank skill and an event bonus from their term, and another character to get a single skill and an unwanted romantic interest with no mechanical impact. The second character is objectively worse off.
Over the course of four terms, you'll naturally tend to average out, but the problem is this doesn't prevent extremes. At the far end, a character could get sixteen highly useful improvements and leave with fabulous career benefits. Or fail every qualification roll, become a Drifter, be horribly mutilated four times and lose 24 stat points, but gain four unwanted skills. Or gain level 4 in a niche utility skill and have four romantic entanglements - even if you wanted them to be asexual, now their only notable feature is a string of would-be suitors.
Power disparity between characters doesn't have to be an issue, of course, but I think it's a drawback to the system that's worth bearing in mind. However, I do think the mechanical/plot/fluff mash-up in the tables is a problem. The other issue is something Dan mentioned when constrasting the varying crunchiness of D&D editions: stifling imagination (I think his original point was that having, say, a tripping attack power, actually creates the idea that you can only trip people using this ability, and that other classes cannot do it at all). It strikes me that if you explicitly include generation of background fluff in your character generation process - and even more so if it's mixed up with mechanical attribute generation - it can both shut down options for the player to create their own fluff, and tacitly establish an idea that background is something provided by the game. In this sense, I think again that the most personal fluff (generated by Life Events) is the most problematic, because events that kick you out of a career or have you pulling off some professional coup do control your fate, but allow the player to decide how, why and what it says about the character. In contrast, "romantic entanglement" decrees that you're a character who has romantic entanglements and this one was significant to you. I suppose you could decide to ignore it entirely, but then you're not following the intended chargen process, and you wasted that term's event (and you don't get many), and unlike some other games there isn't much chance to modify characters once chargen's over.
So have I learned anything useful that I can apply to Monitors?
Firstly, this never actually came up for me, but cross-party connections as part of chargen can be quite powerful in building characters you're invested in, and creating convincing background (and reason to work together). It strikes me that the way this is incorporated here, giving targetted mechanical benefits for involving other PCs, is probably quite a good way of doing things.
I also think mixing different levels on the crunch-fluff continuum as possible outcomes is a mistake. I was going to say "unless your game is not only balance-light but quite light-hearted", but I think I want to go stronger than that and remove the disclaimer. If you have a completely ridiculous and rules-light game, then background may be far more interesting than mechanics; conversely, in most situations, mechanical results are both more relevant and less likely to impinge on player choice, while creating space for player interpretation. I think there are very few situations in which both are equally strong, and character generation of all things is not one of them. This is, after all, the time when you are trying to get invested in a character.
Life-paths with random events are clearly quite a good way of creating interesting characters, while giving the player some degree of control. Control is based on things like:
- How much is down to player choice versus random rolls;
- Whether choices are conditional on success rolls (or other success mechanisms);
- The probability curves associated with random events;
- Whether players can influence unwanted outcomes after the fact (as with the Draft);
- Whether random outcomes offer choice, and how much
The amount of control will, I think, influence the tone of the game. A more random system is more likely to leave characters' fates to chance, which gives a merciless and turbulent tone to the game, perhaps most suited to comedy games or those where a lot of investment in characters isn't called for. A very controlled system allows players to build exactly what they want, and invest in the character (though it will privilege experienced players), but will have less potential for incorporating unexpected elements in interesting ways, and requires a character concept in the first place.
The kind of elements generated will also affect the tone, even if they differ mostly in description. If the system generates accomplishments, it imparts a bit of heroic flavour. If it generates things that befall you, it emphasises things like the chaos and unpredictability of the setting. One that generates exotic adventures that you've had, it suggests an adventurous and rather wild tone, while something that talks about shifting social relationships will make those seem more significant.
I do like the use of homeworld and career backgrounds, and I can see both of those being useful in some respect or other. I probably won't be generating detailed planets, though, so I'd probably go for more of a keywords list that players can pick suitable backgrounds from; also I might want origins to be more important than they seem to be in Traveller. But that's all something for another time.