The Traveller RPG was originally released in 1977 as a game system in which players could explore generic space adventure games. (One of the game’s creators, Marc Miller, claims the idea came from wanting to do Dungeons & Dragons in space.)
If you like playing games set in space – whether space opera, hard SF, planetary romance, or space cowboys (you know who you are) – you might want to check out Traveller‘s flexible system to help supplement your gameplay. You can find out more from their current publisher, Mongoose Publishing, or go to the source of all (questionable) knowledge, Wikipedia.
Today, we’re presenting three reviews from the pages of Black Gate which focus on Traveller materials. Two are of new supplements from Mongoose and the third review is for a CD-ROM containing many supplements and modules from earlier editions of the game.
If you’re a Traveller fan with one of the earlier supplements about the alien Aslan, you might think you have enough information on the race and that you’ve seen it all before, and you’d be wrong. If you want Aslan characters or adversaries in your campaign, this book is practically a must have.
For those not in the know, the Aslan are one of the most powerful of the non-human races in the Traveller game, and are described as being vaguely lion-like, with a society similar to feudal Japan. They’re brave, honor-bound warriors dominated by land-seeking males and managed by shrewder females. Their cultural features, strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities are discussed in detail within the new release.
At $34.95 Mongoose’s new Aslan module is a hefty investment, but it’s so complete it’s practically a game in itself. It includes a thorough character creation system specifically tailored for Aslan, dozens of pages of deck plans and ship statistics for Aslan ships, adventure scenarios with Aslan culture or characters, and an entire sector near Aslan space, with many interesting worlds to visit (Hanrahan went all out — there are some great plot hooks on dozens and dozens of these worlds). That’s sixteen subsectors, with about thirty planetary systems, each system statistically detailed, and two or more systems in each sector written up with enough detail to provide plot hooks and setting information. The pages are made to count, too, for there’s no fluff, only solid, well-written, and entertaining information.
If I have one problem with this module, it’s the art. I don’t mean that it’s is bad, either. I’ve just got a useless fund of knowledge of how Aslan have been pictured over the history of the game. Though described even in this very book as “vaguely lion-like” (those italics are mine) they’re drawn throughout the module as anthropomorphic lions. The art is consistently fine, excellent even, and head and shoulders above much of the art used to portray the Aslan previously. They look great… but they don’t look like the Aslan I always imagined.
Aside from my quibble with the art, my only other complaint is that there are a few paragraphs missing on one or two pages. Mongoose has already made the missing text available online, and further printings will correct the error.
All in all, this book is chock full of good stuff; I’m eager now to see how Mongoose will address the rest of the major Traveller alien races. Their new Vargr supplement is due to be released any day, and I for one am looking forward to flipping open the cover.
Traveller has an incredibly rich setting, so rich that it’s easy to get lost amongst the details. Over the course of its 30 + year history, hundreds and hundreds of canon worlds have been generated in various supplements, each complete with climate, trade classes, law and population levels… but converting all that information into an actual campaign can sometimes feel like an insurmountable obstacle. I wish publishers realized that more often, because then we might have more products like Tripwire.
Tripwire is a campaign based in a single subsector of Traveller space – a map unit with 22 systems. It presents more than basic statistics for these worlds; each write-up provides cultural information, and, better yet, adventures. Tripwire is an entire campaign based in the Jewell subsector, and writer Simon Beal creates motivation that carries players to every world.
There are several branches of humanity in Traveller canon, and one of the most powerful controls a huge section of space that butts up against the Third Imperium, the most detailed of the game’s default settings. Most characters reside within the territory of the Third Imperium, or along its borders, and many are veterans of its space navy, where they accumulated their skills prior to game play. In game history the Third Imperium has had no less than five major conflicts with the nearby Zhodani, masters of psionics. The player characters in Tripwire stumble upon a Zhodani plot to weaken the entire subsector, perhaps in prelude for another invasion.
Things begin simply enough; the assumption is that players are wandering merchants, much like the characters of Firefly, trying to make ends meet by taking on passenger and cargoes and flying them from world to world. That’s been one of the most popular choices for Traveller campaigns since the advent of the game back in 1977. When the players take on a passenger who turns out to be an intelligence agent, they’re swept up into a complex web of intrigue and counterplot. The agent needs their help, and soon the characters discover a traitor is determined to stop both the agent and themselves. They must foil an assassination attempt, and get to the root of the information accumulated about the Zhodani. It seems the psionic masters have located an ancient set of devices that, when activated, will disrupt jump space travel throughout the sector.
Shorter adventures and additional hooks are provided to flesh out the longer scenarios that make up the main campaign. Location maps, ship deck plans, a timeline, and other relevant details round out the book.
As much as I like not only the concept of a subsector campaign and this book itself, it’s not flawless. Over the course of the campaign the author expects the characters to gain information several times via interrogation of prisoners. It may be that other groups don’t have as much problem with that as mine does, but my players and I have never enjoyed gaming out descriptions of interrogation scenes, and when I run Tripwire I’ll be reworking the material so that the information can be gained in some other way.
Aside from that nit, I highly recommend Tripwire, and hope that it’s only the first of a whole line of subsector campaigns for the new Mongoose. The Spinward Marches, the most detailed of campaign settings for Traveller, features 16 subsectors, and I can’t help wondering if Mongoose might be planning campaign booklets for each of them.
A few issues back I reviewed the complete Classic Traveller Canon on CD-Rom. Marc Miller, Traveller’s principal creator, has been gathering more Traveller material from the 1980s, and a heaping helping of it is available on this volume. Early on, Miller allowed other companies to buy a license and produce compatible products, long before there was an open D20 license. As you might expect, some companies did a better job than others. The booklets from two of the best of those companies are included here: FASA and Gamelords.
Two of the best known Traveller freelance writers are responsible for a goodly amount of the material for both companies. The Keith brothers, William H. Keith Jr. and J Allen Keith, under their own names or pseudonyms, wrote an entire forest of Traveller related books that have been out of print for decades but carried a sterling reputation amongst game fans who’d encountered them. When I popped in the CD-ROM and started reading, I wondered what I’d find, and whether or not their work would hold up 20 to 30 years after its creation.
A good portion of the CD-ROM is dedicated to ship deck plans. Merchant ships, fighters, cruisers, yachts, luxury liners… you name it, there they are, adaptable for just about any space game. The plans are sleek and well designed. I can’t speak to the mechanical specifications and how compatible they are with any of the updated rules – I was never one of those who enjoyed the ship-building – but the ships look good.
Here’s the thing, though – these are virtual copies of material crafted in the 80s, so if you can’t stand reading typewriter font or single-spaced material, this material isn’t for you. On the other hand, the information is organized well enough that it looks pretty easy to adapt.
Probably the least useful material is found in three booklets dedicated to specific environments – the mountain, desert, and underwater environments specifically – because the detailed tables and charts are only useful for Classic Traveller – although the charts could conceivably be converted for use to the new Mongoose version, which seems fairly compatible. But even these supplements aren’t a wash, because the information about survival techniques and hazards particular to their environments is useful for any system. Clearly some time was spent on research so that the game master doesn’t have to in order to bring the information in each setting to life for the characters.
The deck plans are great to have on hand, and the environments are nice, but the chocolately center of the collection is the adventure supplements. As I mention in my review of Tripwire, Traveller is so data-rich it can sometimes be hard to know where to plan a campaign. The two subsector guides included in the Gamelords section go a long way toward correcting this issue. The Keith brothers apparently understood that it’s no fun going somewhere if it’s not interesting when you get there, and they loaded their subsectors with interesting worlds, most with adventure hooks and mysteries. Then, designed as companion volumes for each of the environmental guides are adventures based in those specific environments. And these aren’t throwaway adventures; most have elements of mystery and all challenge the player to use brains and brawn to find their way to the solutions, be it locating a monstrous crop harvester lost in a desert, or tracking down the location of an long-vanished pirate culture over the course of three modules, or even two books of smaller adventure seeds if you’re a game master needing help for a night or two of play. Not every encounter or idea is a home run, but the quality is so consistently high that I found myself understanding, fairly fast, why the Keith brothers had such a fine reputation. They wrote good adventures, and I for one am now seeking out more of their work.
As for this CD-ROM, so long as you don’t mind the presentation from a simpler time, any game master running adventures in outer space, particularly Traveller, will find material galore for enhancing his game. Highly recommended, and a bargain besides, as finding all the rarities included on this volume would be expensive and challenging. Some of the individual modules are available for download from DriveThruRPG, RPGNow and others, and if you’re not interested in everything here, I’d at least suggest purchasing The Pilot’s Guide to Caledon and Drexilthar that way. [Blog Note: As of the time of this posting, neither site carries electronic editions of The Pilot’s Guide, though I did find a couple of used copies on Amazon.com. – AZJ.] But once you see just how talented the Keith Brothers were, you’re probably going to want most of this material.
These reviews appeared in Black Gate 14.
Howard Andrew Jones (no relation) is the managing editor of Black Gate magazine. His first novel, The Desert of Souls, is scheduled for release in February, featuring characters who were introduced in the pages of Black Gate. His second novel, Pathfinder Tales: Plague of Shadows, is due out in March. You can find out more about his active writing life at his own website, HowardAndrewJones.com.