Raiders of the Lost Ark in Traveller: The Sky Raiders
The is the first of two articles covering FASA’s published adventures in the Sky Raiders trilogy for Traveller.
The Keith Brothers, J. Andrew and William, were prolific and significant contributors to Traveller in the 1980s, often writing under pen names to avoid entire products being obviously written by the two. They wrote the classic Murder on Arcturus Station (you can see my review here). In 1981, they published via FASA (a notable RPG published with licenses to produce Traveller RPG supplement and adventure material), the first in a trilogy of adventures: The Legend of the Sky Raiders. This was followed in 1982 by The Trail of the Sky Raiders and The Fate of the Sky Raiders.
The trilogy is a planet hopping adventure focusing on hunting down the mysteries of the Sky Raiders, a lost civilization. The Legend of the Sky Raiders minces no words in the tone and type of adventure they are going for:
“Dedication: To Indiana Jones, who would feel right at home here.”
The trilogy taps into the popular adventuring tropes of ancient civilizations, greedy bad guys, dangerous environments, and startling finds. As with any RPG, of course, it puts the characters into the action and making the consequential choices.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders starts with the players stranded on the planet Mirayn. The adventure makes no effort to provide a reason why they are there — just that they’re on the planet and out of money. A referee (the term Traveller uses for the game master) could fashion an adventure or find other suitable means to persuade the players to engage in the adventure, though being desperately short of funds is a good motivator. In this predicament, they get an offer from Lorain Messandi. Funded by a small grant, she has come to Mirayn to find archeological evidence that links the planet to the Sky Raiders.
The Sky Raiders function a bit like the alien myths that circulate here about visitors with higher technology in our ancient past. I mean, the History network has had the Ancient Aliens series on since 2009 that discusses such things on earth. Stonehenge and the Pyramids were not the work of humans alone — no, they were provided the technology by a more advanced visitor from another planet. Religious texts and myths abound in oblique references to these visitors. Even Ridley Scott used the basic notion in Prometheus with the stone carvings of the Engineers.
Lorain Messandi’s father, Jothan, wrote a book, Hoard of the Sky Raiders, outlining the Sky Raiders hypothesis and visit to Mirayn. Widely ridiculed or ignored, that did not stop others from attempting to prove that ancient ruins or relics or references were connected to the Sky Raiders. Nor did it stop Jothan, who disappeared on his last trek on Mirayn. Lorain wants to prove or disprove once and for all her father’s work by attempting to complete his last expedition.
Mirayn supports a large number of adventuring tourists seeking archaeological treasure in the dense jungles of the planet. So much so, that Mirayn continues to thrive as a tourist destination while the local government imposes harsh penalties on anyone attempting to smuggle antiquities out. Due to the value of these antiquities, a number of unsavory folks operate in Mirayn as well. The primary antagonist to the players is Eneri Kalamanaru, head of Kalaman Enterprises. Eneri appears in all three adventures attempting to thwart the players and obtain the archeological treasure for himself.
The Legends of the Sky Raiders starts with the players accepting the job from Lorain and then prepping for the trek into the jungle. Due to the natural thick canopy of the jungle and a perpetual mist and low-hanging cloud cover, Mirayn’s jungle have yet to be adequately mapped and surveyed. Thus, enlisting the aid of a scout is recommended along with obtaining other suitable supplies along with the requisite government permits. While the starting budget of 200,000 credits may seem large, it will quickly disappear.
Players are generally free to approach supplying themselves as they see fit. They can pay the outlandish permit fees but limit their equipment purchases. They can attempt to bribe for cheaper permits but risk running into one of the few honest bureaucrats. They can also attempt forging the permits, but again risk being caught. Nor will Lorain take a kind look at dishonest attempts (though she will, if necessary, turn a blind eye to them).
The information the players obtain — if they seek it out — before venturing into the jungles will make their trek easier with positive die modifiers to rolls for traveling and navigating once the expedition begins. Information gathering comes at its own potential cost, however: Eneri learns of their interest and sends a few henchmen to crack some skulls.
One of the potential encounters is with Lindon Greene. Living on the streets of the city and clearly having suffered the physical distresses of jungle adventuring, he will claim to have a map and a notebook from Jothan Messandi’s lost expedition, of which he was a part. The players can ignore him (he wants to sell the map and notebook for 300 credits) or buy it, which will prove valuable for their own expedition.
Any number of rumors and encounters during the preparation phase can be played out. Some of these encounters are officials checking permits. Others reference Eneri and his henchmen. The adventure provides a variety of others adding local color or providing snippets of information.
The adventure provides statistics and short write ups for a number of key NPCs. One of these seems particularly fun to play: Drew Kensing, a young nobleman:
A young second son from a prominent Alzenei knight’s family, Kensing is a former classmate of Lorain’s. He is hopelessly in love with her, an affection she does not return. Kensing is neither talented, bright, nor physically coordinated, and has an embarrassing tendency of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. The referee should roll when Kensing is to use any skill; on an 8+ the skill is applied as a negative modifier to the success roll, rather than as a positive one. Kensing is along primarily because his father was largely responsible for the funds that enable the expedition to proceed at all. His loss will cause a great deal of trouble for all involved. The referee should generally treat Kensing as a source of dangerous mistakes, ill-timed bravado, and other problems.
The adventure provides a map of the area the expedition takes place in and goes into some detail about navigating the environment based what type of vehicles (or not) the PCs have managed to equip the team with. Along the way, they can encounter dangerous wildlife or the indigenous intelligent species — some of whom are friendly and some of whom will outright attempt to kill the party. They may even discover that they are being discreetly followed by someone.
The direction and pace the players travel in determines how quickly they arrive at the expedition’s goal. How they deal with the indigenous species, whether they possess the map from Lindon, and what other information they have could make the difference between arriving at the location or perishing in the jungle as they run out of food or become food for a local predatory animal.
They should, eventually, come across the lost city, Tlaynsilak. To their dismay, they’ll find that someone is already there an engaged in a dig. The adventure then calls for the players to be ambushed and captured, and it attempts to remove any sense of an escape opportunity by designating 50 people conducted the capture. Capturing players is always a tricky affair. Despite the fact that in real life, the players would likely surrender against overwhelming odds, players in RPGs tend to avoid capture at all costs. And if the referee inserts something like a knockout gas or trap that the players never have a chance to resist or find, the player agency is stripped away from them.
Nonetheless, this adventure as written relies on their capture for they will discover that Jothan is alive (if not well). He is a prisoner of Eneri, who is forcing him to conduct the dig at Tlaynsilak. And now the adventure presumes an escape attempt. One way it facilitates this is to have a large number of government forces arrive (they were trailing the players’ expedition the entire time). Amidst the chaos, the players can flee. During their escape, they come upon the true archaeological ruin. The adventure has the players crash — it makes this inevitable. They then flee through the jungles and are expected to be captured again but this time by the indigenous population. In particular, they capture Lorrain, which is an attempt to force the players’ hands to rescue her and discover the Hill of the Silent Guardians.
On the east side of the hill, at its foot, a wide clearing surrounds a raised stone cairn. Behind this, set back against the hillside itself, two tall statues flank an ornately carved slab of stone set in a shallow recess in the side of the hill. The statues are plainly of humans; the stone slab will ultimately prove to be a sealed door.
Once the players have dealt with Lorrain’s capture, they can explore the hill and what lays behind the door. A simple mechanism (though the players must figure it out) unlocks the chamber. Inside, they will find the remains of two human skeletons. The truth of the Sky Raiders is that they were human. But what were they doing on Mirayn, far from what is known to have been human occupied space at that time.
That will be picked up in The Trail of the Sky Raiders.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders has a number of what would today be considered flaws in adventure writing. Players are often railroaded into situations — the ambush and then later capture of Lorrain being two prime examples. But those are can be overcome with some rewriting and planning of the encounters. At its core, The Legends of the Sky Raiders has what made Traveller so very much fun in those early days of RPGs: exploring, figuring out how to manage resources, surviving, and uncovering mysteries.
These are still some of the most enjoyable aspects of Traveller to this day — of any RPG really. Most of the adventure is about encounters that could occur depending on player actions and how to navigate Mirayn’s jungles — including potential dangers of unfiltered, unpurified water, dehydration, exhaustion, and so on.
Meanwhile, the goal is to uncover a mystery. What happened to Jothan Messandi and his last expedition? Who are the Sky Raiders? In these aspects, The Legend of the Sky Raiders holds up very well and has a place at the gaming table for adventuring Travellers to this day.
Patrick Kanouse encountered Traveller and Star Frontiers in the early 1980s, which he then subjected his brother to many games of. Outside of RPGs, he is a fiction writer, avid tabletop roleplaying game master, and new convert to war gaming. His last post for Black Gate was Diceless Adventuring: Bounty Hunter. You can follow him and his brother at Two Brothers Gaming as they play any number of RPGs. Twitter: @twobrothersgam8. Facebook: Two Brothers Gaming.
Curiously, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark last evening, I saw an excellent suggestion for how to “railroad” a capture of the PCs. The scene where Indy has the drop on the Nazis who stole the Ark, his nemesis Belloq says, “Go ahead, shot the bazooka, blow us up … as well as the Ark”. At which point, Indy surrenders. So, perhaps the capture of Lorain occurs earlier and she is the “cannot destroy” target when the PCs raid the lost city and get captured themselves. Getting them to the Hill of the Silent Guardians later I think could be tied up with that crash of the getaway vehicle in place of Lorain’s rescue (and I would have her “What’s this?!” reaction be the pointer to get them to investigate the tomb).
In any case, any gaming materials written by either or both Keith brothers is well worth checking out.
Eugene, hello and thanks for reading! I definitely think there are ways to get the capture–and Traveller players may be more inclined to go with getting captured than other games. I’ve tended to need overwhelming force (which is what Legends attempts…but it is a vital part of the adventure).
Yes, I completely agree that whatever the Keith brothers wrote is well worth checking out.
It would be nice is Mongoose or someone would republish this and perhaps tidy it up a little.