Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Simplest RPG System Out of This World

 No single roleplaying game can cover all demands. No, not even that one; or at least not without spending oodles of money. Some systems are easier than others at being flexible, as long as the system itself is divorced from setting. Some are inextricably tied to the setting. The marvelous (and marvelously complex) Skyrealms of Jorune comes to mind, for instance or, to a lesser extent, Empire of the Petal Throne (both of which I love, incidentally). 

More to the point, no single roleplaying game can cover all demands simply and with little modification. i believe that fantasy games that include a magic system are the big culprit here. Magic systems require an underlying philosophy or set of mechanisms that stray from the core thrust of what it means to roleplay. It is a beautiful appendage or is so tied in with setting that, like the two examples above, it is inextricable. And, well, it's magic, so it's supposed to be something out of the norm, something extraordinary. It doesn't behave by the same rules that govern "normal" human interaction (even if the "normal" interaction is thrusting a sword through a dragon). 

When I want to introduce someone to roleplaying, and they want to play a fantasy game, I default to AD&D (a mixture of 1e and 2e) or, more commonly, Dungeon Crawl Classics. If they want to play a horror game, I use Call of Cthulhu (7e) or, more recently, Trail of Cthulhu/Casting the Runes, as these all have solid, fairly simple rules for sussing out information.

In all other cases, when I want to introduce someone to roleplaying and want to keep the emphasis on the roleplaying and not merely rolling dice (not that there's anything wrong with that, you roll how you roll), I like to use an unlikely contender: Traveller. Or a stripped down version of Traveller. Let me explain.

Traveller is often thought of as one of the original scifi RPGs, and this is true. Oftentimes the setting is conflated with the system in people's minds, but the setting came after the fact of the game itself. Yes, the Imperium is a rich setting that I recommend quite strongly, as the abundant resources allow you to enter a rich universe and explore it with your players. However, the game came first, the setting second. To quote creator Marc Miller from the interview linked above:

"I envisioned a generic rules set that would enable any science-fiction situation, from space opera to serious drama. One of the first reviews of the game said something like 'I won't play a roleplaying game that doesn't provide background and adventures,' and the editor interjected, 'And I won't play a game that constrains me like that.'

"I'll confess that was an awakening for me, and I realized I couldn't make this game all things to all players; I had to choose. Our reasoned corporate choice was to provide background and adventures for those who lacked the spare time to make up their own."

I would argue that Miller's first sentence is an understatement. While I don't think one can safely scratch out the words "science-fiction" from his response, one could feasibly do so, if one adds the word "almost" in front of the word "any" (his bold, not mine). Again, magic is problematic, so if anyone wants to take the time to concoct a workable magic system on the skeleton of Traveller, I am all ears. I don't have enough lifetime left to do so, with all the other RPG projects I'm currently working on and have lined up for the future. So, have at it!

Barring magic, I believe that the skeleton of Classic Traveller can bear the muscle of just about any genre or setting you'd like to tackle. 

Classic Traveller has been lambasted for the fact that one's character can die before even entering play. A valid concern (that I don't share, but that's a different story). So . . . skip that whole process altogether. Simple. Here's how:

First off, you need to roll your character's stats. They are, in order:






Social Standing

Roll 2d6 for each, in order. If you are into hexadecimal notation, you can shrink just about everything you need to know about your character into one line of hexadecimal code. Numbers 1-9 are just that, the numbers 1-9. The number 10 is represented by the letter A, 11 is represented by B, etc. So, for a character with STR 10, DEX 8, END 6, INT 11, EDU 9, and SOC 7, you would have:


Easy peasy. You have everything you need to play.

No, seriously, that's it. 

How do you determine if a task is "doable" by your character? First, pick the stat that you think is relevant to the task. Justify this to your referee. "I'm looking for hidden clues. Since we're in a library, I'd like to use my Education," or "I'm trying to hold on to this cliff. I could use Strength or Endurance, but my Strength is higher, so I'll use that." Fine. Second, the referee should determine if there are any modifiers. They will add to your ability score if conditions are favorable, and subtract from your ability score if conditions are unfavorable. Third, roll 2d6. If you roll under, you succeed.

Of course, in our modern age of specialization, you will say "but my character is a doctor, shouldn't she have medical skills?" Of course. This is where skills come in. Determine ahead of time (or, better yet, on the fly, if your referee is cool with it - I would be!) a skill you might have, given your training, background, etc. WARNING: This is where things get touchy, statistically speaking. I would strongly recommend having very few skills, as these represent a high degree of specialization and because you don't want to be a slave to your character's background. They're here to grow and change and become better, right? So, keep those skill levels very low. A "1" shows specialization. A "2" is extremely exceptional. A "3" is almost unheard of, near godlike. Be careful you don't skew your game into ridiculousness, unless you're trying to emulate Toon (again, if anyone would like to shoehorn Toon into Traveller mechanics, I'd be delighted to see and play this)! 

Now, when you make your 2d6 roll for success or failure, you simply add the skill level to the chosen character attribute to determine your "roll under". For example, let's say our character above is a doctor with medical skill who is trying to resuscitate a companion who has stopped breathing. She uses INT (at an 11) + a medical skill of 1, so she needs to roll 12 or under on 2d6. Practically guaranteed success. Hopefully this also illustrates how ridiculously unbalanced the game might become with even a skill level of 2. Again, be careful (or dare to be stupid)!

One potential twist was introduced to me (and others) by Marc Miller when we played in a two-hour session of Traveller that he refereed at Garycon a few years ago. Yes, I was star-struck and a bit giddy. But I remember it well because it was so quick and clean. We rolled our stats, I asked about skills and he said "sure, you're all Imperial marines, so you'll have a skill of Rifle-1," and that was it. We were playing in about three minutes. Now, the twist: since this was a two hour session, and to avoid repetition, he had us rotate the stats we used. Once we used a stat in that session, we couldn't use it again. If you did a strength-based check, that was it, the rest of your checks that game had to use something other than strength. This was a neat way of limiting any one character who was overly-powerful in a particular area and spread the spotlight time to everyone at the table (there were eight of us playing). In a campaign, if you wanted to use this caveat, you could reset the board, so to speak, with each session. It's not necessary to successfully use the Traveller skeleton, but it does make things a little more . . . democratic?

He recaps what happened better than I can in an interview done not long after this session at which I played:

Stargazer: While rereading Classic Traveller recently I noticed that the encounter tables and other parts of the rules hint towards a certain play style. It seems as if the referee was supposed to basically use the random generated events as inspiration and improvise at the game table instead of meticulously planning adventures beforehand. Is this how you planned the game to work?

Marc Miller: I think that players can adopt any style of play they prefer. As the designer, it is my responsibility to make materials available that will support them in their choices. On the other hand, there are players (and referees) who come to the game without experience in other games, or without specific preferences in how they will player and what they will do. In my designs, I want to make available some guidance in what to do, and you see that, however imperfectly, in the texts and tables.

I recently refereed (we use referee instead of GM or DM) a two-hour session of Traveller at GaryCon. In that sort of situation, the focus is on having a good time rather than slavish adherence to rules that some players have not even read. I used random events to control the action. Specifically, I imposed a “force field” around their ship as an obstacle, and they had to overcome it. Frankly, I had no idea what the field die, except that it was big, and they couldn’t get through.

Everything after that was driven by random events and the players’ responses. Someone used his strength to push on the field, and it budged a little. Another used dexterity to try to wiggle a knife into the field, and he succeeded. I was as surprised as they were that something DID penetrate the force field. They tried many things that didn’t work, but ultimately, two of them forced their rifle barrels into the field, and then levered them to create a bigger opening. They succeeded, and made a space big enough to crawl through.

What I liked was this particular scenario took a winding path to a destination even I had not thought of. On the other hand, imagine the smartest of the characters pushing against the field and saying, “I’m testing to see if this field is impenetrable.” He would have checked Intelligence, probably succeeded, and the logical answer would have been: “Yes, it is.”

I was one of the guys who forced my rifle barrel into the force field. Yay, me.

Of course, one of the big questions is "how do I resolve combat" - because we feel that in RPGs we are somehow obligated to kill things. First of all, is that really an obligation? Nope. We did the above scenario with no killing at all, no combat at all, though we did fire our rifles at the force field in a vain attempt to get through it. But if you insist, here's how you handle combat. Again, this is going to involve some negotiation with your referee. First, pick a stat, probably DEX if you're using a firearm, laser, wand, etc, or STR or DEX if you're in melee (note that you will have to make an exception to the "only use one stat per session" caveat if you've invoked it). Add any skill level (note that we all had Rifle-1, which we could add to our stat to for our under-roll), and, if the weapon is magical, high tech, etc, the referee may determine that a bonus will apply. Roll under the target number to hit. Now, this is where you need to get more detailed. How much damage does a weapon do? Depends on how deadly you want combat to be. I'd suggest that a "goodly" amount of damage is 1d6. Firearms should probably do 2d6. High energy weapons, lightning bolts, a halberd swung by a giant, etc. 3d6. But you decide with your referee. The person who suffers damage then picks one of their physical characteristics, STR, DEX, and END, and applies the damage to one of those stats. Then, if there is any "spillover" damage, that is, damage accrued beyond the statistics' point value, the player may divide the "leftover" damage between the remaining two stats. Any one stat being brought to zero indicates unconsciousness. Two stats brought to zero equals death. You may want to make it such that unconscious characters bleed at a point a round unless given successful medical attention. Then again, I like my combat deadly, for a number of reasons, including risk versus reward and the avoidance of combat to resolve issues leads to more creative ways to resolve issues. Your mileage may vary.

So, in the above example, our doctor is attacked by street thugs. One of them takes a shot with a one-shot derringer and rolls 2d6 for damage, for a total of 7 points. Our doctor doesn't fancy passing out at this point, so she chooses to take the damage to STR, leaving her with 3 points of STR. She shoots back and hits one of the miscreants, downing him, just as the other raises a weapon and fires at her. This second thug is also successful and rolls a total of 10 damage. At this point, the good doctor has no choice but to slip into unconsciousness. She applies the damage to her DEX score, leaving two "spillover" points that must be spread between her STR and END scores. She decides it best to push the extra damage into END, rather than putting any of it into STR, which would put her in a very precarious position, indeed. She passes out, but she's alive . . . for now.

As you can see, combat is nasty. Receiving a combat injury affects your ability to engage in further combat. It's best to avoid it, if you can (and immerse yourself in some juicy roleplaying instead).

Lastly, so you like "leveling up" when you've been successful? Great! You and your referee should decide on a skill, preferably one that was used during a series of adventures, and your character receives skill level 1 when you and/or the referee deem it appropriate. Or, if you, say, educate yourself by spending hours studying those mystic tomes left by some mysterious monk from the distant past, maybe you could bump your EDU up by 1. Again, be judicious, unless you want to be ridiculous. When is it appropriate to level up? I can't tell you that. Each group of players and referee is going to be different. Do what thou wilt, as they say.

Are there holes in this paradigm? Probably. But if you want quick, clean access to roleplaying, especially with a group of people who has never played before, you can do this in a jiff. 

So, break out that dusty yahtzee game, hand out some dice, get a 3X5 index card, heck, get a post-it note, and a pencil and go for it! The universe, just about ANY universe (again, with the magical caveat) is yours to explore.


  1. 100% agreement on this. Traveller is underrated as a "generic" system.

    There are actually a few Traveller-compatible 2d6 magical systems available, of various levels of complexity. Some of these are specifically designed for the Cepheus Engine, but should work with Classic Traveller as well.

    2d6 Magic
    Sword of Cepheus - full Cepheus Engine based RPG
    Fast Magic
    Flynn's Guide to Magic in Traveller

  2. Love this post.

    If you don't mind a tiny bit of math then I know of two ways to handle the "running out of room" in the roll under format (which I do love because it is an echo of Fighting Fantasy and who doesn't love both FF and Traveller?)

    1. If you scan the classic traveller the DMs for characteristics are a little all of the place *but* the general gist is - do you have a characteristic of 9+? add a +1 DM to a roll when relevant (and like wise 5- is a -1 DM.) This works well skills in the unskilled through 3 range and the general target number of 8+.
    2. The other way I've seen it handled is to set the target number for characteristic throws to 10+. Then take half of your characteristic (round down) and add it to the result. If you have STR 7, then roll 2D6+3. Works fairly well across 2-12 range.

    Hope those ideas help whomever stumble across this magnificent post!