In a recent post I discussed my search for a #TravellerRPG wargame for use in ground combat. In the course of that posting, I talked about several different wargames and what I liked, or didn’t like, about them. Since I started down that rabbit hole, I decided to dig a bit further by taking a deeper look back at the original personal and vehicle combat systems for roleplaying games from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981). Along the way I discovered:
- I didn’t remember as many things about early Traveller as I thought I did
- There is more variety to the systems than I remember
- Technology plays a much lesser mechanical role then I remember.
The Traveller Combat System
When I started my review, I immediately discovered there is not one single “Traveller Combat System” though, as you will see, there is a something called the Traveller Combat System. Indeed, between 1977 and 1981, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems. Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own game, are:
- Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
- Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
- Mercenary, or the Abstract System found in Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, 1978 (Tactical?)
- Snapshot, Classic Traveller Game 2, 1979 (Personal)
- Azhanti High Lightning, Classic Traveller Game 3, 1980 (Personal)
- Fifth Frontier War, Classic Traveller Game 4, 1981 (Strategic)
- Invasion Earth, Classic Traveller Game 6, 1981 (Strategic)
- Striker, Classic Traveller Game 7, 1981 (Tactical)
[Of note, Dark Nebula, Classic Traveller Game 5 (1980) is basically a reskinned Imperium and I don’t treat it as a separate game system.]
In this post I’m going to look at the five Personal/Tactical combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. A later post will look at the strategic systems. For now, let’s go back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby, and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).
Personal / Tactical Systems
The Little Black Books (1977)
The original rules for the Traveller roleplaying game were laid out in the three Little Black Books first published by GDW in 1977. Book 1: Characters and Combat detailed the first iteration of what came to be known as the “Traveller Combat System.”*
The Traveller Combat System is a combat resolution model for personal combat or what many wargamers often refer to as “skirmish” scale. The system was designed to resolve combat actions between individuals or small groups (like a party of travellers). Each round of combat represented 15 seconds.
I term the Traveller Combat System “semi-abstracted.” The combat procedure in the Traveller Combat System is very simple and straightforward but lacks many usual wargame-like details. In every battle the players and referee step through a simple four-step process:
- Determine surprise
- Determine initial range
- Determine escape/avoidance
- Resolve combat wherein each character declares both a movement status and an attack.
The roll for surprise is subject to several modifiers. I was a bit surprised to see that three of the seven possible modifiers relate to military associated skills – which makes sense given the character generation rules that emphasize military experience. A further three modifiers relate to whether a vehicle is used and the size of the party. The last modifier is for Pouncer animals; very useful in wilderness encounters!
Terrain is a possible modifier for determining range. Encounter distances are broken down into five bands; Close (touching), Short (1-5m), Medium (pistol range, 6-50m), Long (rifle range, 51-250m), and Very Long (extreme range, 251-500m).
Rather than a square or hexagon-gridded map, the Traveller Combat System uses Range Bands. The rules recommend (and I clearly remember using) regular loose leaf lined paper. The number of lines away determines your range. Movement was by bands.
Combat in the Traveller Combat System is based on a simple “Roll 8+ on 2d6 to hit the target.” Die modifiers come in several flavors:
- Melee Weapons require Strength with strong or weak characters gaining an advantageous or weakened blow modifier
- Ranged Weapons require Dexterity, again with advantages for high Dexterity characters
- Using the Weapons Matrix, cross reference the Attacker’s Weapon with the Defender’s Armor yields another DM
- Using the Range Matrix, each different Attacker’s Weapon yields another DM; this is also where the damage (expressed in number of d6) is found.
Wounds in the Traveller Combat System are determined by different number of d6. The total of the first hit is applied to one personal characteristic and can be enough to render the character unconscious. After the first hit, the dice in subsequent attacks are spread out over the Strength-Dexterity-Endurance characteristics (i.e. if your attack scores 2d6 hits, the total of die #1 can be applied to one characteristic and the total of die #2 to another). When a single characteristic drops to zero the character is unconscious. When two are reduced the character is seriously wounded and if all three go to zero the character is killed. Bottom Line: The Traveller Combat System is DEADLY.
In keeping with the personal combat focus of the Traveller Combat System, the personal characteristics of strength, dexterity, and endurance are very important in combat. As already mentioned, strength and dexterity grant a bonus, or penalty, in combat. Endurance is essential in melee combat; every “blow” takes endurance. Once all your endurance is gone no more blows are possible until after a rest period.
Character skills also factor in the Traveller Combat System. Knowing how to use a weapon grants a bonus (with more skill granting a bigger bonus); untrained is a penalty. Expertise is also used to parry in brawling or blade combat.
One rule I did not remember in the Traveller Combat System is morale. Basically, when at least 20% of the party is unconscious or killed, you must start making morale throws. Failure means the party breaks and runs. I absolutely do not remember this rule; I think we ignored it because it took away player agency. Or maybe we just didn’t use it because the combat system is already deadly enough that we didn’t get into combat unless we were very sure of ourselves.
I also notice now that there is no vehicle combat rules in Book 1. A party can be in a vehicle at the start of combat, but there are no rules for fighting vehicle to vehicle.
In 1978, GDW published what nowadays we would call a splatbook for mercenary characters. Not only did Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary include expanded character generation rules, it also included new combat rules. Actually, it makes references to three different rules systems:
There are three means of resolving a mercenary mission: the standard Traveller adventure/combat system, the abstract system included later in this section, and a free-form system created by the referee. All three are discussed to a greater or lesser extent, but it should be born in mind that these are intended only as a general guide to the referee, not as a definitive miniatures rules set.Book 4: Mercenary, “Battles”, p. 31
When introducing the Abstract System, the designers tell us, “The abstract mission resolution system is particularly valuable in resolving a mercenary mission involving large numbers of troops on one or both sides and in which player characters are not primary participants (serving as NCOs in an infantry battalion, for example).” It is telling that the Abstract System has no time or distance scale; it has all been abstracted out.
Combat resolution using the Abstract System in conducted in two broad parts: preparation and resolution. During preparation, the characteristics of the opposing forces is determined, to include the Mission, Tech Level, Size of the force, and Efficiency. This is accomplished through a series of die rolls. At this point the referee also needs to determine a preservation number for the force.
Once the two sides are prepared, the Abstract System moves to resolution. Once again, a series of die rolls determines the Element Engaged, the Encounter Type and then the actual Combat Resolution. Given the involvement of player characters, there is also a chance of Personal Casualties which is addressed at this point.
Although I call the Mercenary Abstract System a tactical-level battle system, the reality is a bit fuzzy. The size of the force and element engaged can range from a Fire Team nominally of four soldiers up to an entire Brigade of 1500 troops.
The Abstract System lives up to its name; it is highly abstracted to the point all the tables necessary for preparation and resolution are on one digest-sized page in Book 4. The combat results table is actually a Firing Matrix where the firing unit is cross-referenced with the Target Unit to get a die roll modifier (DM). At this point, the Tech Level difference of the two units is used as a +/- DM. Casualties are expressed in percentage of the force with personal casualties dependent upon how much of the force was put out of action. The battle continues in rounds until one side or the other reaches its preservation level and withdraws.
When it comes to vehicle combat, Mercenary is very silent on the issue. Like the Traveller Combat System, no vehicle combat rules are provided. The closest Book 4 comes is a discussion of military vehicles at different tech levels.
The next personal combat system in the Traveller universe is Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future. The title alone should tell you the focus here; combat between individuals within the closed confines of starships. The rules even go so far as to state they are not intended for outdoor encounters or ranges greater than 50-60 meters.
In order to make Snapshot work, GDW uses the same 15 second rounds but instead of the range bands in the Traveller Combat System they introduce a square grid. Each grid square is 1.5m, conveniently the same scale used to draw starship deck plans. With the introduction of grid squares, many other wargame-like rules are introduced. There now are stacking limits and facing considerations.
Instead of the move/attack action in the Traveller Combat System, in Snapshot each character is allotted a number of Action Points (AP) equal to the sum of their Endurance and Dexterity (with a minimum of six). Every action has a different AP cost. This is where one of my favorite wargame rules, The Expletive, is found.
Combat resolution in Snapshot is virtually identical to the Traveller Combat System except the separate Weapons and Range Matrix tables is collapse into one table. Wounding is the same with hits being applied against personal characteristics.
Snapshot, being focused on close encounters aboard ships, has no vehicle combat rules.
Azhanti High Lightning (1980)
The next combat system GDW gives us for Traveller is Azhanti High Lightning (AHL). AHL is both a sourcebook on a class of ships and a new combat game. It is a further progression of the Traveller Combat System and Snapshot. Like Snapshot, each combat round in AHL is 15 seconds and each square is the same 1.5m.
The major evolution of the AHL system is that each turn now consists of multiple action phases instead of the single action phase in Snapshot. In the Decision Phase the player secretly determines what the “strategy” of the turn will be: cover fire, aim, or move. Like Snapshot, players have AP to spend, but unlike Snapshot where the AP is determined by the sum of characteristics in AHL each character has a flat 6 AP in each of the five action phases.
The second major evolution in AHL is the combat system. The Weapons Table divides range into Effective, Long, and Extreme ranges each with its own base to-hit number. In many ways this new Weapons Table “builds in” many previous die roll modifiers. However, once a hit is made the resolution system from that point forward totally changes from pervious versions.
In AHL, once a hit is made you check the damage table. This die roll is modified by the Penetration Value of the weapon and any cover or armor for the target. Instead of applying damage to characteristics, wounds are described as Light, Serious, or Death with unconsciousness also possible. A new Melee combat system is also introduced using Melee Ratings of combatants.
Rules for integrating AHL with Traveller are provided. The formula for a Melee Rating is given, as well as other special rules about Danger Space for weapons. Interestingly, no skills are used as modifiers in AHL; here skill is subsumed into a single weapons skill rating on a counter. Morale and leadership bonuses are generated using the Mercenary system.
Again, I was very surprised to discover that AHL has no vehicle combat rules.
To understand what Striker represents to Traveller players, I think it is worth quoting the introduction at length:
Striker is a set of rules for science fiction ground combat using 15mm miniature figures. each player will command a force ranging from a platoon to several companies, consisting of a few dozen to over a hundred men, plus artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The rules are intended to be easy for the beginning player to understand wile at the same time providing a comprehensive and detailed treatment of ground combat from the beginning of this century to the far future.
On important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership. For a more detailed discussion of this point, read Firefight, at the beginning of section II of this book.
The science fiction background of Striker is drawn from the universe of Traveller. All weapons and military technology described in Traveller (including Book 4, Mercenary) are included in Striker. These rules may be used in conjunction with Traveller or by themselves; no familiarity with Traveller is required.
In Striker, as in Traveller, technology is rated by tech levels; these rules cover weapons and equipment ranging from tech level 5 (about World War I) to tech level 15 (the level of Traveller’s Imperium). Present-day earth is about tech level 7.Striker, Book 1: Basic Rules, “Introduction,” p. 4
Striker changed scales yet again, with each turn now representing 30 seconds and one millimeter on the table equaling 1 meter. Units are described principally by their morale (Recruit-Regular-Veteran-Elite) and an initiative rating. The sequence of play moved closer to a classic wargame with a Command Phase followed by First Player Movement – First Player Fire then Second Player Movement – Second Player Fire with a Panic Morale Check Phase at the end. As befits the core focus, command, communications, and morale all factor prominently in what a unit can, or cannot, do.
Instead of Action Points, units in Striker are assigned orders. The number of orders and how long it takes to communicate them are the heart of the command and communications rules. A single order can consist of three components: movement, fire, and a rally point. For example, an order might be, “Move to the crest of Hill 17, through the forest, at fastest speed. Fire at enemy units detected. Rally Point: Little Star crossroads.”
Fire combat in Striker is an evolution of the AHL system. Hits cause casualties (Light-Serious-Destroyed) like in AHL, but in Striker the impact to morale is also considered. Morale checks are made when proximate to an enemy, when taking casualties, or if a unit routed nearby (to avoid panic). Four different results of a failed morale check are possible: Suppressed, Fall Back, Forced Back, and Routed. Surrender is also possible.
I was absolutely dumbfounded to realize that it was not until the publication of Striker in 1981 that vehicle combat officially came to the Traveller RPG universe. The system is interesting; when shooting at a vehicle the firing player declares either a “high” (vs turret) or “low” (vs hull) shot. The angle of attack is also considered. After that the fire procedure is basically the same as any other combat in Striker.
[I went back and looked to see where vehicle combat may have had a start pre-Striker. I found the Judges Guild product Lazer Tank (1980) that has a very simple vehicle combat system but is unlike anything anywhere else in Traveller. I also identified vehicle rules in the Amber Zone article “Pursue and Destroy” from Issue 7 of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. This article, published in 1981 from Frank Chadwick, apparently still predates his Striker rules as it refers to using Mercenary and Azhanti High Lightning to resolve combat. A methodology for converting AHL wound levels to vehicle damage is provided. The first published adventure to feature the chance of vehicle combat is Adventure 7: Broadsword that was published in 1982 and recommends using Book 1, Mercenary, and Striker.]
Striker also includes sections describing Planetary Defenses (Book 2: Equipment, Rule 76: Planetary Defenses) as well as Rule 77: Jump Troops. Rule 79 is Integration with Mercenary while Rule 80 is Integration with Traveller. Both focus on skills or the impact of morale and changes necessary to move between different wound systems.
However, it is the Vehicle Design Sequence that truly sets Striker apart from its predecessors. This “game within a game” aimed squarely at Traveller “systems engineers” is the foundation of every vehicle design system used since in the Traveller universe. Here is a methodology to create a vehicle that is described in common game terms and comparable across multiple tech levels. Truly an astonishing achievement.
Which One Should I Use?
When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.
I love the Traveller Combat System. It is the most pure and simple, and probably the most supportive of good narrative play. The rules are super light and easy.
The Abstract System from Mercenary is good for “background” action. It can also be the primary system for resolving mercenary tickets if the players are running a mercenary company.
Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning are good at what their focus is; shipboard combat. Comparing them, Snapshot is more RPG-like whereas AHL is more “wargame-y.” What I mean here is Snapshot, with action points determined by characteristics, is closer to the RPG but Azhanti High Lightning is the more refined rules set.
Since forever, I always assumed that Striker was the miniatures rules set for the Traveller roleplaying game. Reading the introduction, Traveller does not get mentioned until paragraph three. Instead, what we actually have in our possession is a set of miniatures rules for 15mm figures suitable for playing out small scale/unit actions with a set of rules that allow one to simultaneously employ multiple levels of technology. As important a role technology plays, the true focus of the game is actually on Command and the ability of leaders to communicate and coordinate on the battlefield. This makes Striker the most “wargame-y” of the group. As I already mentioned, the vehicle design system is a truly foundational part of the Traveller universe. However, the focus on command and not characters makes Striker’s use in a Traveller campaign a bit questionable.
I also note that the vehicle combat rules found in the modern Cepheus Engine version of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game did not appear in the early years of the GDW era. The Striker -based rules were still in use through at least 1994 when Striker II: Miniatures Warfare in the Far Future was published as part of Traveller: The New Era. The modern rules for vehicle combat use the same “actions” approach of personal combat in Cepheus Engine where each crew member gets one significant and two minor actions in a combat round (six seconds of time). I’m not absolutely sure, but this mechanic may have first appeared in the Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition published in 2008.
I also found it interesting to look at what happened to these games after publication. Looking through the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society (JTAS) brought some further enlightenment.
JTAS 2 (1979)
This issue contains a very interesting rebuttal to an article in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon. JTAS editor Loren K. Wiseman responds to criticism of Mercenary with the comment, “To criticize a set of rules or a game because it has omitted some vital aspect of its subject matter is one thing, but to downgrade rules because they do not cover something beyond their scope is a little like saying ‘Squad Leader is a fairly good game, but I would have liked to have more air-to-air combat in it.'”
JTAS 12 (1981)
This issue had two Striker-related articles; “Striker Errata” and “Strike it Rich” where author J. Andrew Keith talks about using Striker as a new combat system or as a valuable source book.
JTAS 14 (1982)
Articles include “Civilian Vehicles for Striker” and “Foxhound” by J.D Webster (later famous for his Fighting Wings series of air combat wargames). “Foxhound” is billed as a Striker variant but a close reading reveals this is really a system for fitting flying vehicles into the Traveller Combat System, especially since it uses the same range bands. That said, weapons fire uses Striker….
JTAS 16 (1983)
Contributor Michael Wharton serves up “Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems.” He focuses on converting the Striker damage levels to the point system of Traveller and adjusting Striker “to hit” at short ranges. During the course of the article, he hits on the major difference between Striker and the Traveller Combat System:
By its own admission, Striker is designed to deal with fairly large scale actions fought at moderate-to-long ranges. At the short ranges of many Traveller firefights, however, confined as they often are within starships or barrooms, the Striker hit determination tables become somewhat unrealistic. That an 8+ is required to hit a target only two meters away seems unlikely. Also, the difficulty of using long arms at very short range is not addressed.“Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems,” JTAS 16, p. 43
JTAS 17 (1983)
Both feature articles in this issue are for ground-pounders (almost). “Air Strike: A Close Air Support Rules Module for Mercenary” by T. McInnes provides what I call a very loose set of rules for integrating air support into the Abstract System. The second article, “Hunting Bugs: Striker Meets Horde” by John Marshall explains how to use Striker when playing Double Adventure 5: The Chamax Plague/Horde. Hmm…
JTAS 21 (1984)
The feature article, “Striker Weapons Systems Analysis,” does not appear in the Table of Contents. Some useful design notes to consider here but nothing really in the way of combat rules mechanics.
JTAS 22 (1985)
Two feature articles are included. The first, “‘Til They Glow in the Dark: Nukes for Traveller/Striker Campaigns” seems out of place for the Traveller default setting when one considers the Imperial Rules of War that forbid the usage of nukes. I guess this article can support alternate Traveller universes. The second article, “Seastrike – Underwater Combat in Traveller” mixes Striker with the ship design system High Guard.
JTAS 23 (1985)
Whoops! Forgot to print the “Striker Expanded Nuclear Warheads List” in issue 22. Here it is!
*Interestingly, the Traveller Combat System was never called TCS. Within the Traveller rules system, TCS is the abbreviation for “Trillion Credit Squadron.”