Here we explore and disect the pervasive story about how new editions of classic role-playing games create characters that are over-powered and impossible to kill.

I will first take a dive into two of the earliest RPGs ever created, Dungeons and Dragons, and then Traveller, and compare the editions then and now.

First classic Traveller. First published in 1977 in 3 little black books by Game Designer’s Workshop, Traveller was the default hard sci-fi RPG from the beginning. It is said that Traveller is the only rpg where your character can die during creation. It had it’s own universe (the Third Imperium), and an entire system of Faster than Light travel (using Hyperspace).

Fast forward 4 decades and we are into the 5th Edition of Traveller, having travelled from Classic (or the little black books) through the GDW comic book style paper cover, Mega Traveller, Mongoose Traveler (2 editions) and Marc Miller’s 5th Edition - with a side trip into T20 Traveller using the OGL D20 system rules, about which we will say no more. Other than that last brief foray, Traveller has used a simple, elegant 2d6 game resolution system.

Every edition after the first (and even the first, once High Guard, Mercenary, Merchants and Merchandise etc. were printed) has had expanded options for character creation that are more powerful than the original Book 1. So, we find “OSR” game masters like to require “Classic Traveller” character creation only, to reduce the chance of over powered characters.

Is this a fair characterisation? Let’s explore. Luckily there are a number of online character generators - at least for classic traveller. Here I give as an example, a Classic Traveller Character:

Zoe Taylor, Merchant 3rd Officer BBA985, 3 terms, age 30 JoT 0, Electronics 2, Engineering 1, Navigation 1, Pilot 1

Now obviously I lucked out with some phenominal attribute rolls, but I then discovered the GM didn’t allow attribute bonuses on skill checks. Hmm, whatever.

Now let’s look at a 3 term character in the same service from Mongoose 2nd edition. It’s a bit more complicated. We start with a “backgroun skill” from our homeworld.

Let’s assume Zoe hails from an Industrial world, and gets:

Trade 0

Then we can opt for higher education (let’s forgo that for this example). Zoe still underwent formal secondary education, and with her EDU of 8 she can choose 3 disciplines, so she picks

Medic 0 Computer 0 Life science 0

Then we choose our career. Mongoose expands our choices to 12 careers including 6 civilian options. We are choosing Merchant to compare apples to apples.

In basic training, Zoe will get all the service skills at level 0:

Drive (any) 0 Vacc suit 0 Zero-G 0 Mechanic 0 Engineer (any) 0 Sensors 0

She then earns 1 skill roll per term, the same as Classic Traveller, and an extra roll for commission and promotion. merchant’s don’t get commission in ZMongoose, so Zoe has 2 extra skills for a total of 5.

So here, we can see that Zoe is exactly the same in terms of skills at levels 1 and higher. The only difference are the bunch of 0-level skills based on her background and high school, and a suite of skills drummed into her during basic training - also at level 0.

It is worth pointing out here, that due to the 2d6 resolution mechanic, a level 1, or even level 2 skill is significantly better than level 0. Let’s take a look at the probability matrix.

Total Dice Modifier Target Number % Chance of Success
–5 or more 13+ 0
–4 12+ 2.78
–3 11+ 8.33
–2 10+ 16.67
–1 9+ 27.78
0 8+ 41.67
+1 7+ 58.33
+2 6+ 72.22
+3 5+ 88.33
+4 4+ 91.67
+5 3+ 97.22
+6 2+ 100

For a routine task, a character with Level 0 skill still has a 27.78% chance of failure. No-one would trust a Level 0 skilled character to do such a task when there was any significant consequence attached to it.

As another example, if your task is diffcult, with level 0 your success probability is 16.67%. At level 1 it becomes 27.78%, and at level 2 your chances are 41.67%. If the task is Very Difficult, then success at Level 0 will be 2.78%, Level 1: 16.67% and Level 2: 16.67%.

I hope I am making it clear here that Level 0 is just “I can do ‘Simple’ tasks in that field”, and “Easy” tasks carry an 8.33% chance of failure. Doing Difficult tasks is very risky. Granting a skill at Level 0 is really just “basic training” as a background, not true expertise.

By contrast, a Level 2 skilled character can do Easy and Simple tasks 100%, and Routine tasks at 91.67% success. Here we should note that with attribute bonuses, these skills get better (or worse).

I hope that by now I have made it clear that Level 0 skills are not a “give away”, and do not make characters “OP”. In my view, they merely flesh out a character with a bit of “I have some basic idea how to” do a few things beyond my career specialisations. If a party is faced with a difficult task, they would be foolish to allow a character with a level 0 skill to attempt the task (with only 16.67% chance of success), especially if there are consequences to failure (like landing a starship).