Skills, Trade, and Traveller

My idle project is a trade-based seafaring game. This naturally inclines me towards Traveller, which is probably the oldest system to which speculative cargo trade mechanics are central. The trade system in CT is remarkably simple: the GM rolls to determine the best available good and quantity available, the party rolls to determine purchase price. The party may then roll to re-sell those goods wherever they bring them. All of these rolls are subject to modifiers, and those modifiers are predictable enough that the party can engage in some guided speculation. The fairly-reliable profits of these ventures are then used to pay the basic overhead of the spaceship (wages, supplies, maintenance) and to service the party’s significant debts.

None of this, of course, is in any way specific to science fiction, and a few of the core conceits of Traveller’s system (two, really: the rate of interstellar travel, and that interstellar communication should never exceed that rate) make the translation from space-opera to fantasy that much more direct. So direct that the work has already been done for me (Notably in Paul Elliott’s Roman-Empire hack, Mercator).

Traveller hews away from the OSR/NSR zeitgeist, however, in its adherence to a skill system which gamifies a lot of things which might be better left ungamified. Skills such as Tactics and Streetwise abstract elements of roleplay which are very fun to act out.1 This project of mine involves enough dungeoneering and hexcrawling that I would prefer it to play like a dungeon-crawler in situations where the party isn’t sailing between islands. Hacking Traveller, Mercator, or even Worlds Without Number directly would give primacy to that skill-based resolution mechanic. I wish to avoid that layer of abstraction. This would be trivial, but the trade system relies on that very abstraction. And so I need to replace it with something.

A lot of social skill-checks can just be replaced with referee-player interactions. The NPCs being convinced or not is not too hard to adjudicate in typical cases, where a typical dungeon-crawling band of miscreants are trying to parlay with a member of society. It is largely binary, and outcomes of social interactions do not feel especially probabilistic when we encounter them in life, so dice checks are hardly a flawless solution in the first place. I waver when I consider haggling; it no longer feels reasonable to expect a GM to fairly arbitrate an NPCs negotiation of prices or other matters of bookkeeping. For one thing, the NPC knows more about the matter than the referee can be expected to simulate. For another, their reasoning is utterly divorced from the referee’s– the referee, by nature, is exclusively considering the needs and wants of the players, and not the virtual agent within the game fiction. This can be papered over when it happens occasionally. If it needs to happen as the backbone of the game loop, it will fall apart. The nature of the referee’s fiat is too arbitrary. It feels like fudging a die.

The simplest answer, then, is to excise all references to player skill and hope the calculations shake out. Without even testing it, I assume they won’t. A die modifier of +1 to the Traveller Actual Value’ table imparts somewhere between 10% and 100% of the total value of the goods being traded, and it imparts this bonus at purchase as well as at sale. This will probably have to be replaced. I could do this by making the trade environment more friendly than in CT or Mercator, by changing the table itself, or by trying to find some more player-focused way of getting a +1 on that table, something the party can try to do proactively to further their odds of profit. Ultraviolet Grassland does the latter by having the party spend time and money. I could also use dice modifiers for NPC relationships, or for information.

I find it interesting that for such a skeletal component to the Traveller gameplay loop, the trade system is dead simple. It fits on three pages of CT, with the tables included. I might strip naval combat down to the bearings and yet I’m tempted to add layers to trade economics.

  1. I find this less a problem in practice than in theory, when I play CT. Nobody is ever tempted to roll Tactics in the middle of a gunfight. Still, it is never truly clear how much use we are supposed to get out of a zero or a one in such skills.↩︎

August 10, 2023