Traveller: No Hero’s Journey

During the preparation of my upcoming Traveller campaign I realized something about Traveller: it’s different in one important aspect from most other roleplaying game. Characters don’t get new abilities over time. There’s no (mechanical) character advancement. The skill ratings you have at the end of character creation will be the skill rating your character will have at their demise. The only changes you can expect are because of aging.

In a way this actually makes sense. In Traveller (at least most of its editions) a skill rating of 1 is enough to get a job in that field. With a skill rating of 2 you might have a bachelor’s degree, with a rating of 3 your skill level is equal to someone with a master’s degree, and so on. In most other games a skill rating of one doesn’t mean much.

You acquired these skills during character creation which simulates several terms of service in one of the available careers. It often took 4, 8, 12, or more years to learn and practice those skill, so it doesn’t really make sense that you can easily improve on those skills during gameplay.

A lot of games, especially fantasy ones, tell the classic “hero’s journey”. Traveller doesn’t want to tell that story. In Traveller the character’s journey begins after they left their previous careers behind. Your character is not a spring chicken, but someone with perhaps 20 or more years of professional experience under their belt. You are also not playing superheroes, but common people.

I actually find it quite nice to play characters of my age from time to time. In games like D&D playing an older character always felt a bit weird. Even though your backstory said you’re an old veteran, your skills and abilities are basically on the same level as the ones of your 16-year-old comrades. Of course you could let older characters start at a higher level, but that opens another can of worms.

Aside from Traveller I don’t know that many games in which your characters don’t improve their skills and abilities during gameplay. It’s definitely one of the more common tropes in roleplaying games. Even games that boast “RPG elements” often just take the “levelling up” mechanics and disregards the other aspects.

In a game like Traveller not having skill advancement makes sense. It fits the kind of stories the game was designed to tell. What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think mechanical character advancement is a must? Or can you live without it? Please share your thoughts below.

P.S.: The crew of the Nostromo (as seen in the image above), hasn’t been harmed during the making of this blog post. 😉

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

10 thoughts on “Traveller: No Hero’s Journey”

  1. I can think of another pretty big RPG out there where you don’t really improve: Fate. In Fate Core you characters change over time, but it’s not an improvement as much as it’s moving your various aspects and skills and stunts around to reflect your character changing focus in life rather than mechanically becoming any better.

    Personally though I like the option of advancement at least, and there are many such optional systems out there for Traveller as well. That said I’ve never minded that Traveller doesn’t have an experience system or anything like it because of… well, the things you listed above.

    There are some exceptions though: I think characters should be able to change in stats in Traveller, to some extent. Social Status is the obvious big one here, as a character who is for example knighted in the Imperium during the course of the game definitely should get a marked increase in the stat, but given that Traveller often involves timeskips of several weeks at a time due to jump travel the same could be said for Strength for example, as a month of working out with nothing else to do on board a ship definitely should allow for that stat to improve, if only a little bit. So far I’ve just handled these sort of things ad-hoc, and it’s been fine, but it’s something to take into consideration anyway.

    1. Ah, FATE! Of course! And I full agree with your ideas. If a character reaches a higher social status, this should be reflected in the stats. Also improving strength by working out should be a thing. But in any case it should a slow process. Not something you do achieve after couple of sessions.

  2. In theory, GURPS characters improve. In practice, many games have point accrual happen so slowly that they basically don’t. And then there’s Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green, which are races to the grave.

  3. I think Traveller is amazing. It makes a lot of sense as skills take a long time to learn and practice. I would think it’s something like EVE Online, it takes days and months to gain skills. It’s not like fantasy ones where you kill an enemy and you suddenly learned a spell or a skill out of nowhere through experience points.

  4. I turned 40 in October and in the past year-and-a-half, I “leveled up” more than the previous10 years combined. Huge growth. Not a brag, just pointing out that in a game without character advancement, this kind of personal growth isn’t possible.

    That said, I like Skill-based games where advancement is more realistic and where you start as a “pro” instead of a wet-behind-the-ears punk.

  5. When we played Traveller back in the very early 1980s it always seemed weird that we didn’t “advance” like we did in D&D, but honestly we didn’t think too much about it. We had a great time anyway. Also, great blog!

  6. Classic Traveller DOES have character improvement, it’s just not easy and it’s slow. Look in Book 2… You choose two skills to practice, and then make an 8+ roll with no DMs, if you succeed, you immediately get +1 in those two skills (you must already have the two skills at least at level 0 – if combat skills, they must be a gun and a blade). After 4 years, if you were improving from level-0 to level-1, the increase becomes permanent, otherwise you must spend another 4 years (with another 8+ roll) to make them permanent.

  7. Quick point of clarification on the Hero’s Journey: that is a journey for common people, not superheroes. Tough life choices, insurmountable odds, turning points, acting above and beyond, facing fears and conflict rather than running away, etc.
    Also, I agree with Robert above, I would think that if you’re playing a chara ter through a several year (in-game time) campaign(s), that each conclusion should award experience that translates in to skills. Ffilz mentioned possible growth mechanics for CT and I think Mongoose 2e has something similar.
    But, I could see rolling on the Life Events tables, or GM/Player negotiatied skill advancement based on adventure “learnings” as a viable growth mechanic.
    I’m about to GM my first game and I think I’ll hack this aging/advancement skill thing a bit. Including the option to port skill points from one of the physical skills (Str, Dex, End) to one of the non physical skills (Int, Edu, Soc) every 4 years… or so.

    1. add to that: skill tracking cor advancement. If you use a skill successfully X times (consecutive or total?) than you can advance it, or the attribite DM… just brainstorming…

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