CT: Skills are a profession

In Classic Traveller books 1-3, player-characters get relatively fewer skills than later books, and certainly later editions. This is a game design decision which should be reflected in GMing style. There are two basic ways of looking at the skills on a character sheet:

  • inclusive: that which is not listed can be done, even if not as well
  • exclusive: that which is not listed cannot be do
    ne at all
Long lists of possible skills, as in GURPS, encourage an exclusive mentality. "I'm sorry, but longsword use is completely different to shortsword use." Shorter skill lists, as in AD&D1e (a character class is simply a very broad skill) encourage an inclusive mentality. "Sure, you can climb a rope." 

Part of the change from an inclusive to exclusive way of looking at skills is a change in Western society. When roleplaying games began in the 1970s, it was fair for a GM to assume that almost all of their players could swim, shoot, climb a rope, start a fire and so on - they may or may not do these things quickly or well, but given time and effort and the right tools they could do them. Now in the 2020s this is no longer so, as people live their lives in airconditioned comfort, in some countries people are not permitted to carry pocket-knives, starting fires is considered a sign of a future serial killer, and children spend more time sitting gaping in front of screens than outside in the mud with a stick and ball. 

The game writer or Game Master will thus say to themselves, "Well, I don't know how to do these things, so unless it's on their character sheet, they can't do them, either." If their character is a middle-classed computer geek this may be true, but it won't be true of a medieval warrior or a hard-as-survival bread space pilot. 

A more expansive view of what characters can do even if it's not listed means shorter character sheets - if it's something everyone can do then we don't need to write it down. We only write down that which they are particularly good at. 

Books 1-3 refer to this as "acquiring skills and expertise." As we will see, the word "expertise" is important. Most skills listed have severe no-skill penalties, and many offer a bonus of more than +1 for each +1 of skill. Let's roll up a character and look at some examples with the skills he gets. 

For his stats we throw Strength 8, Dexterity 6, Endurance 9, Intelligence 7, Education 8, Social 6, written as 869786. The first term of service will grant 2 skill levels or stat improvements, the second and subsequent terms 1, though a commission or promotion will give another. He enlists in the Navy, in his first term he gets Pilot and Admin; he survives his first term and receives no commission nor is he promoted, but is taken for a second term where he gets Vacc Suit. Again he survives (though only just - judging from the picture he may have almost passed out pulling some high gees), is not promoted and he decides to leave the service after this second term. On mustering out he receives a Low Passage and a Blade - a ceremonial cutlass

Pirx the Pilot - Age 26 - Navy 2 terms
Admin-1, Pilot-1, Vacc Suit-1
Low Passage, Cutlass

Admin: If you have to deal with officials you need to throw 7+ on 2d6 to avoid a hassle. Someone without Administration skill will be at -3, which is to say will need a raw roll of 10+ (6 out of 36 possible results). But each level of Administration grants +2, so even the first level will take it to 5+ (30/36). That is, from Admin-0 to Admin-1 takes it from an 17% to 83% chance of avoiding trouble. If are travelling from one system to another and know you'll have to deal with bureaucrats at either end, would it be worth hiring this guy to help? 

Pilot: this skill is straightforward enough, but of note is that a pilot of level X is required for a ship of Jump X. For example a Pilot-1 cannot handle a Jump-2 ship, and without a pilot a ship cannot Jump at all. This if nothing else will secure Pirx employment. 

Vacc Suit: a basic throw of 10+ is required to avoid mistakes in any dangerous situation, such as jumping untethered from one ship to another. Each level of Vacc Suit grants +4 to this, so that while Vacc Suit-0 succeeds on a 10+ and thus 17% of the time, even Vacc Suit-1 succeeds on a 6+ or 72% of the time. Vacc Suit-2 would succeed on 2+ or 97% of the time. If a dangerous incident does occur, getting out of it can be achieved with a throw of 7+; but Vacc Suit-0 means a -4, and so success on 11+ which is 8% of the time, and Vacc Suit-1 means a +2 requiring a throw of 5+ or 83% chance of success. Compared to someone with the skill, he is much less likely to get into trouble, and much more likely to be able to get out of it. He could even get into a power loader and toss an alien menace out the airlock. 

As for combat skills, it is well to consider that those who are untrained have a -5 penalty to use a weapon in which they have no expertise - but all characters who have been through one of the Book 1 careers have "an expertise of 1/2" - which brings this to +0. The basic to-hit throw is 8+, which means that the untrained person needs a throw of 13+ on 2d6, whereas even a player-character with no listed weapon skill at all needs 8+, which by itself would be a hit 42% of the time. Of course, there are other bonuses and penalties due to the weapon wielded and the target's armour, such as a bayonet giving +2 to hit someone in no armour, and the person with 9+ strength getting +2 to hit, so the untrained person is not completely without hope if they choose the right weapon, ambush and so on. Nonetheless, having +0 rather than -5 in every single weapon in existence is a fairly powerful advantage. 

Thus, our man Pirx with but 3 listed skills can get you past bureaucratic idiots fairly often, smoothing your way at every starport and police checkpoint in the known universe, he can pilot your ship for you, he can engage in some shenanigans in a spacesuit and not go spinning off into the void, and he can pick up any weapon you care to name and hit a target with it almost as often as not. And he's broke, so he'll work for cheap. Any one of those skills could keep him employed - and his fighting skills could at least make him a bouncer, foot-soldier or general thug. 

And so, skills in CT Books 1-3 are better thought of as expertises or professions - even a single level in one secures you employment, you can do things distinctly better than those without the skill, who will usually have awful defaults, or even not be able to perform the skill at all, like Pilot. 

Roleplaying: An inclusive rather than exclusive view means shorter skill lists in a game - you don't need to list every trivial thing humans can do when you can handwave most of it as basic life skills - and also on the character sheet. You will see too a difference in play at the table. When every possible skill is listed, as the GM says, "And what do you do?" everyone looks down to their character sheet - it's the drop-down menu effect. "I need to apply skill X to situation Y," they think to themselves as though they're at home on their own playing a computer game. But with a shorter list of skills, and few of them on their sheets, the players quickly look back up and... talk to other players. "Well, what do you think?" and they toss ideas back and forth. 

RPGs are a social way to be creative with friends, and shorter skill lists and briefer character sheets encourage more creativity among players, and more socialising. They talk to each-other rather than looking at their character sheets. Play becomes more interesting. 

In conclusion: Have an inclusive rather than exclusive view of skills, keep your skill list short in your game and shorter on your character sheets, and play will be more interesting. And even if a player forgets their character sheet they can probably remember it off by heart. 


  1. This is a good summary; people scoff at Secondary Skills in AD&D but honestly, they came to great use when the party waded unknowingly into a green slime pool in White Plume Mountain recently. Suddenly "leatherworker" became very important to them!

    But, there's no "making shoes +2" ability...suddenly the players who laughed at having been leatherworkers before they became lifetakers and heart-breakers found themselves asking "Well, can we use it to make shoes? Can so-and-so's Carpentry ability help us make hard soles and heels? etc. They thought outside the box. Which is as it should be, in an archetype/avatar based game, like AD&D or, as you say, CT.

  2. Nice reference to Stanislaw Lem 😉


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