Viking Space Pirates: The Sky Raider Trilogy

Most of the really good Traveller modules were put out by GDW — the “little black books” as they’re called. There were a few exceptional ones from third-party publishers, such as Duneraiders (Gamelords), which I recently reviewed, and the Sky Raider trilogy (FASA), which I’m covering today. Some would go so far as to say that this trilogy amounts to the best Traveller adventure ever published, and I partly agree with that. It’s an epic that starts Indiana-Jones style and ends more Conan, depending on how you flesh out the fate of the sky raiders. Because of how I fill in those blanks, the third module is indeed my personal favorite. The first one is just okay; the second really good. So there’s that: each is better than the previous, and the last an ultimate knock-out.

Like Duneraiders, the Sky Raiders trilogy is set outside the usual frontier areas of the Imperium (the Spinward Marches, the Solomani Rim), this time in the Far Frontiers sector. (Click on the map below, where the usual settings are circled in blue, and the Far Frontiers in light green). It’s a tumultuous region sandwiched between the Zhodani Consulate and various pocket empires, and thus ripe for adventure. Click on the map further below on the right, where I’ve circled the three module settings: Legend of the Sky Raiders starts the travellers on the outback world of Mirayn, where they search for evidence and lost treasure of “viking” space pirates. Trail of the Sky Raiders has them continuing the quest from the capital world of Alzenei to the contested world of Qarant, where they learn the Sky Raiders’ true origin and fate. Fate of the Sky Raiders closes in on that horrific destiny, as the travellers jump from the far-away world of Saulente.

I’m not surprised this trail-blazing epic is a fan favorite. It’s the Traveller equivalent of D&D’s Giants-Drow series, a massive campaign that can last a long time, and contains equal amounts of problem solving and action, with a great villain in charge of efficient thugs. These adversaries are as greedy as the Sky Raiders of old, and they’ll cross whatever lines it takes to beat the travellers to the lost hoard. When the hoard is finally reached, everyone will wish they had stayed in bed.

Module 1. The Legend of the Sky Raiders

Plotwise the first adventure is straightforward. The travellers are hired by an archaeologist to investigate the legendary culture of the Sky Raiders: an ancient “viking” space-faring race that pirated and plundered numerous worlds before inexplicably vanishing from the galaxy. The archaeologist wants to learn what happened to them, and to find their hoard of treasure. Strong evidence has led her to the swampy outback on planet Mirayn. But she has competition. Someone else wants the treasure for baser motives, and he’s none too pleasant.

The adventure becomes a race between competitors very reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the module was published in 1981, soon after the film’s release). The archaeologist is the good competitor: Lorain Messandi, daughter of Professor Jothan Messandi. Jothan is famous but something of a crank, having published controversial theories in a book called Hoard of the Sky Raiders. He argued that the space pirates originated on the world of Mirayn, and the loot they took from other planets is hidden somewhere on Mirayn. (Neither is true, and that’s what the travellers need to discover.) Jothan is now working for the bad competitor in this drama: a sleazy CEO and smuggler named Eneri Kalamanaru, who has swallowed the professor’s theories and wants the legendary hoard for himself. Jothan regrets signing on with Kalamanaru but is unable to shake loose; he’s effectively a captive, forced to lead an excavation at one of the lost cities of Mirayn — and expected to produce treasure that isn’t there.

The module doesn’t provide a map for the lost city (Tlaynsilak), which I consider a serious shortfall for a pivotal encounter area. If the travellers play their cards right, they will break into the camp and rescue the professor, and then eventually make their way to a site 50 miles away called the Hill of the Silent Guardians. This vault-like cave is a Sky-Raider site, where the plunderers stored some of the loot taken from Mirayn (though not all of it; it’s not the legendary hoard from all the worlds they savaged). The opening to the hill is flanked by two large statues of humans (see right) and the inner chamber contains a bier with human skeletons on top, and there are scripts written in an old Vilani alphabet. All of which proves that the Sky Raiders were human, and that wherever they came from, it wasn’t Mirayn. The treasure consists of a variety of bracelets, rings, and other items made with rare metals and gems, worth a total of about a million credits. The travellers are obligated to turn all of this over to Lorain, but they will be paid a handsome 2.5 million credits to divide amongst themselves.

The goal in the first module is thus fairly modest. It’s intended “to serve as the springboard for further adventures centered around the hunt for the Sky Raiders”. By the end, if the travellers did well, they will have learned that Mirayn was never the home of the Sky Raiders (contra Jothan Messandi’s theory), though it was certainly a major planet that they plundered. Their home and the location of their treasure hoard remains unknown. The NPCs Lorain Messandi and Eneri Kalamanaru will continue as rivals in the following two adventures, and, as the module warns, “they should not be killed off”.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with Legend of the Sky Raiders. The railroad is pretty rigid. For example, when travelling in the Outback, the players are pursued by agents from the local government, who also want a share in the treasure. The module insists that “all attempts by the players to trap or discover these pursuers will fail”, so that these agents can surprise attack when the travellers find something of value. Likewise, when the players get to the lost city of Tlaynsilak, they will be ambushed by Kalamanaru’s thugs, and “there is no way for them to escape this ambush; though the first instinct of most players will be flight or resistance, they should be manipulated into surrender for the moment”. That kind of railroading is egregious. To make matters worse, within a few hours of their preordained capture, the pursuing government agents will attack Kalamanaru’s thugs, providing a convenient escape-and-rescue operation right after they locate Professor Jothan. Players are basically along for the ride in this adventure. They have little agency, and even the most skilled game masters will find it challenging in certain places to make the railroad seem invisible.

Module 2. The Trail of the Sky Raiders

The second adventure continues the Indiana Jones chase, but with deeper intrigue, better set pieces, and more free will. The mapwork in this module is also an improvement. It starts about five months later on the world of Nomael, with the travellers spotting an artifact in a public place that looks similar to something they saw inside the Hill of the Silent Guardians. They travel to the capital world of Alzenei to give Lorain Messandi the artifact, as she is still laboring to hunt the Sky Raiders down.

In the months between Legend and Trail, the events on Mirayn triggered a flood of interest. Now everyone and their mother wants to find the Sky Raiders’ home and hoard — scholars, historians, scientists, and treasure-hunters. Lorain has the full backing of a research center (her father has meanwhile died, his health ruined by labor in the Mirayn swamps, along with depression over his book being proven wrong), and once again she is up against criminal competition. Eneri Kalamanaru — the sleaze who harried the travellers on Mirayn — has put his resources to work and found a clue bringing him close to the Sky Raiders’ secret. He also has spies in Lorain’s research institute, in particular her closest assistant. On top of that, he commands the support of the militaristic government of Desaekhe (see map far above, on the right), a planet one parsec away from the world of Qarant, which is the objective of this adventure.

Once again there is some railroading. When the travellers arrive on Alzenei, the way they contact Lorain must be as the module decrees: “The players must be induced to show Lorain the artifact over the phonescreen, or transmit the telefax.” Lorain will then get excited and tell them she wants to get together with them and see the artifact. Then the travellers will be attacked by thugs in an alley, though the module insists that “the thugs should not be allowed to win the fight”, as the encounter is just to show that the artifact is wanted by many people, and that the familiar face of one of the thugs indicates that Kalamanaru’s men are again involved. Then, after the attack, Lorain fails to show up for their prearranged meeting: she’s been kidnapped.

But that’s actually the worst of it. After Loraine’s kidnapping the adventure takes off and the players have more agency — much more than in the first module. Basically they have to conduct an investigation in Alzenei City, which is a great locale to begin with, being the capital and showcase city of the League of Suns. There are endless dives and corners one can get into trouble. Whatever clues the travellers find will depend on how shrewd they are, and the clues fall into one of two categories, (1) those connected with Lorain’s kidnapping, (2) those connected with the archaeological puzzle. Naturally they’re intertwined.

The evidence for both points strongly to the world of Qarant (largely uninhabited). For one, all of Lorain’s files on Qarant (along with her files on Mirayn and the Sky Raiders) are missing from her office. Reports on the world of Qarant show that it had a civilization which used the Vilani tongue (the language inherited by the Imperium), something which shouldn’t be possible. Of all the known civilizations in the Far Frontiers, only one used the Vilani language (as the evidence on Mirayn showed): the Sky Raiders. Other hints suggest Qarant, and when the travellers go there, they find a delicate situation waiting for them. Archaeological survey teams are maintained by the League of Suns and the Descarothe Hegemony, and the cold war between these two governments has been festering for years. The League and Hegemony also maintain outposts above the planet (the League at an asteroid belt base, the Hegemony on the largest moon of Qarant’s gas giant), and these outposts are rumored to support fighting squadrons in case the cold war becomes hot, though each government publicly denies it. Game masters can exploit this tinderbox situation in any number of ways.

On Qarant the players find Kalamanaru in control of the Hegemony expedition, and Lorain held captive at his command post. The archaeologists have been digging for a legendary “temple along the banks of a river” (click on the map above), but the problem is that the river has changed course over the millennia, which is why the digs have been fruitless. Rescuing Lorain and piecing together clues as to where the temple is located (“the Dome” on the map) is the critical goal of the travellers. If they find it, they will be well rewarded: a journey through the temple ends at a vault containing a Sky-Raider spaceship… the computers of which yield many secrets.

They may have to fight their way out of the vault/temple (with Kalamanaru’s men closing in), but if they make it back to Alzenei alive, Lorain’s research center will pay them for the discovery of the Raider ship and its computer tapes — a finders fee of 500,000 credits to each traveller. And they will probably have pieced together the following knowledge, which will set the stage for the final dramatic adventure:

“The Sky Raiders are now established to be descended from the Loeskalth culture absorbed 5000 years ago by the expanding First Imperium. Fleeing the destruction of their interstellar empire, a group of Loeskalth warriors and political leaders built a large asteroid starship. This vessel entered the Spinward Marches, and continued to travel until they arrived in the Far Frontiers sector, where they determined the various cultures of the area would be easily dominated. The Sky Raiders (as they now became) were essentially a warlike culture enjoying strife and conflict. They scorned planet-bound peasants; they did not seek to take land or start an empire, but rather to pillage and plunder.

The computer tapes confirm that the Sky Raiders preferred to move their asteroid vessel into or bit around a new target and launch waves of sublight raiders to destroy the planetary population. They had a few jump-capable scouts as well. It was this overwhelming strength that was able to make the Sky Raiders the most feared people of the Far Frontiers for many decades; this was also the reason that a Sky Raiders homeworld was never located.

Among the computer records, the log of the ship that landed on Qarant was recovered. The translations of this log give a hint as to the ultimate fate of the Sky Raiders. While passing through the Qarant System, awaiting the return of scout craft searching for new worlds to plunder, a dispute between two political factions among the Sky Raiders broke out. The details are unclear, but it seems to have developed into a full-scale mutiny. At the height of the conflict, the engineering sections were irretrievably damaged. The ship, moving at very low speed, was doomed to follow a course out of the system until repairs could be effected. With the war continuing to rage on board, this was not possible.

The Qarant ship, commanded by one of the wiser heads on board, fled the doomed starship with a number of people on board. The ship landed, and the people on board became the forefathers of the Qarant culture.

From vectors and speeds given in the computer tapes, Alzenei scientists hope to reconstruct the course followed by the Sky Raider asteroid ship. They feel there is a chance, with luck, of locating the trail of the Sky Raiders yet again, and tracing them down at last. When they have obtained a satisfactory answer, Lorain Messandi hopes to lead an expedition to solve the fate of the Sky Raiders once and for all. This will be the subject of the last installment of the Sky Raiders series, Fate of the Sky Raiders.”

Trail of the Sky Raiders is a deeper, smarter, and more challenging module than Legend, with less foreordained results, and if I were to run the Sky Raiders campaign, I’d probably start with it and present the results of the first module simply as background information. As good as Trail is, however, it has nothing on the third module.

Module 3: Fate of the Sky Raiders

It concludes the trilogy but could stand on its own like D&D’s Vault of the Drow (D3). It’s an “explore the alien ship” scenario, but on a staggering scale that blew my mind when I first read it. It still blows my mind — and is my favorite Traveller module hands down.

The Sky Raiders’ asteroid ship is a huge realm that’s been drifting in space for over 5000 years. It measures 6 miles x 5 miles x 4 ½ miles, displaces about 50 billion tons, and contains a devolved society that’s been marooned in deep space for thousands of years. (For comparative purposes, the dark-elf realm in Vault of the Drow measures 6 ½ miles x 4 ½ miles x 1 mile. Pretty close.) The regressive cultures are either hostile or loosely allied to one another, but more the former — very much a “Red Nails” environment like those of the best D&D modules. We’re past Indiana Jones and into Conan now. I can’t imagine a more inspired scenario for a sci-fic game.

My accolades come with a caveat though, because the module suffers from what I call “Dwellers of the Forbidden City” syndrome. It’s underdeveloped and leaves most of the asteroid ship for the game master to develop — a wasted opportunity to present a Traveller equivalent of something like D&D’s Lost City or Vault of the Drow. But in this case it doesn’t bother me (like Dwellers of the Forbidden City does), because the module is so inspiring that it sets my mind on fire as I read it. Halfway through the module I was already imagining the devolved cultures of the Sky Raiders. Doing the leg-work myself comes easy when I’m this triggered.

The module does supply a mechanism for “Creating Cultures” (click to enlarge):

But even better is the gold I struck in stumbling across this gamer, whose own frustration with the module led him to develop the ship’s cultures in considerable detail:

“The Sky Raider mothership is now populated by four major humanoid cultures defending small enclaves amidst the large volume of the asteroid. These cultures are best described as: (1) Stone Age cannibals; (2) Iron Age Vikings; (3) Spanish Inquisition-style religious nuts; and (4) high tech psionic fascists. All bar the latter have forgotten their ancient origins as a piratical interstellar society.”

These four, respectively, are as follows.

(1) The Phepul (“the People”) are cannibalistic ghouls. They number about 20,000 and have devolved regressively to a tech level of 0. They have clubs and crude blade weapons and live in darkened and foul corridors.

(2) The Mahlytri (“the Military”) resemble the Loeskalian Sky Raider culture as it might have been on a pre-industrial world. They descend from warrior families, number about 12,000 and have devolved to a tech level of 1-2. They control agricultural field sections on the asteroid and are at constant war with the ghouls, and sometimes trade with the reformers. Their culture has been a hereditary kingdom for hundreds of years. They are pantheistic and sacrifice wealth and captives to their gods (which are understood to be gods and goddesses of war, heat, cold, vacuum/death, magic/tech, etc.)

(3) The Ahngens (“the Engineers”) are a survivalist culture of reformers, descended from engineer families, who have turned to religion as their salvation. They number about 8,000, devolved to tech level 2-3. They are a monotheistic theocracy worshiping Ahngeneah, the god who created the asteroid realm for them. They’re typically armed with well-crafted swords, like rapiers or katanas, and often crossbows for missile weapons. They have a shaky treaty with the Loeskalian vikings and are regularly at war with the ghouls. Tech priests control the study of science, which is thoroughly infused with religion. Witch hunts of unbelievers are quite common.

(4) The Ghurvam (“the Government”) are the small inbred remnants of the original Sky Raider government, still well versed in high tech and psionics. Because of the latter, they are known as the “pale sorcerers”. They number about 1,000 and have a tech level of 9-13. Children of the Ghurvan who are born without psionic powers are sold as slaves to any of the other three cultures. The Ghurvam use weapons like laser carbines, guass rifles, and sonic disruptive weapons. The elite even have plasma weapons and battlesuits. The Ghurvam Council has rather nasty plans to exterminate the other three cultures with toxic gases and biological warfare, and also venting large areas of the asteroid into vacuum.

Here’s how he maps the cultures on the asteroid ship:

Now, all of this is as good as anything I’d come up with (and probably better), and when I read it in conjunction with all the stuff I was imagining, I knew that Fate of the Sky Raiders was my ultimate Traveller module. But take that for what it’s worth. My high regard for it comes as much from material exported from outside it (whether my imagination or the site above).

What the module does provide is an excellent plot. The travellers, having finally found the asteroid ship, must escape it or die. They were hired as security and support staff for the expedition when it set out (a few weeks after the conclusion of Trail of the Sky Raiders) on a survey cruiser called The Inquisitor. The cruiser carried a crew of 19, plus the travellers (6-8 characters) and Lorain’s team of scientists (6 NPCs). Four months later The Inquisitor arrived at the Saulente system, where Lorain’s team had plotted the drifting course of the asteroid ship (based on the computer data acquired by the travellers in the second module). They jumped from Saulente to deep space (see map to the right) and located the asteroid ship in a matter of days. The travellers and Lorain’s team of six then put on their vacc suits and left The Inquisitor on board the ship’s cutter, to try and get on board the asteroid ship. Then came foul play: as soon as the cutter disengaged from The Inquisitor, the cruiser jumped, abandoning Lorain’s team and the travellers. Since the cutter has no jump drive, they are royally fucked: destined to die alone in deep space.

The culprit of this treachery is — of course — Eneri Kalamanaru. He had paid The Inquisitor‘s crew in advance, with the arrangement that the crew would return to him at Saulente with the exact location of the asteroid ship so that Kalamanaru could loot the thing himself. He will arrive with his team at the asteroid ship in three weeks (the travellers and Lorain’s team will definitely still be there by then, if they’re not already dead), at which point the adventure might well take on a subplot of revenge. After Legend and Trail, Kalamanaru is entirely fed up with Lorain and the travellers (and vice-versa no doubt), and will be hell-bent on murdering them all if they are still alive by the time he arrives. The travellers are probably barely staying alive as they navigate the nasty communities, so the adventure should be a hot potato to say the least.

The only way for the travellers to escape deep space is by locating any of the Sky Raiders’ small spacecraft that’s jump-capable (assuming they can figure out how to operate the docking bay doors of the craft and other systems related to the launch, and if they can fire up the power plant for the craft). Or they could be ballsy and try taking over Kalamanaru’s starship — a suicidal option unless they plan really good for it. Either way, between their nemesis and the assortment of Sky Raider descendants (none of whom show promise for good will), the travellers have one hell of an adventure here.

Verdict

The Sky Raider trilogy’s reputation is well deserved, but I think most people like the first two modules especially, whereas I love the third. If Indiana Jones is your thing, you’ll eat the first two up (especially the first), and if you like lost decadent civilizations, then the third is a true gift.

Legend of the Sky Raiders: 3 stars
Trail of the Sky Raiders: 4 stars
Fate of the Sky Raiders: 5 stars

Desert Mission: Duneraiders

Duneraiders (1984), by William H. Keith, feels like that greatest sci-fic novel while being very much its own thing. One of the few Traveller modules published by Gamelords, it’s actually one of the best ever designed for the game. It’s thoroughly presented, doesn’t stint on maps, and has all the tables a game master will need. On top of that, there’s a mechanism for shuffling the plot so that the enemy agent can be a different person (one of six) every time the module is used. If I had to single out a Traveller module as a template for “how adventures should be designed”, I might very well choose Duneraiders.

And believe me, I was surprised. I went in thinking it would be a lazy railroad of the Dune narrative, but it’s not. Not everything went to railroad-hell in 1984. There are homages to Herbert to be sure. The desert world of Tashrakaar sounds phonetically like Arrakis, and Caledon is hardly subtle. The Duneraiders are modeled on the Fremen, and the plot involving rival off-world mining companies calls to mind the Atreides-Harkonnen conflict. There’s an enemy agent like Dr. Yueh. But there are no spice or sandworm equivalents, and the travellers aren’t involved with a rebellion that will overturn the socio-political order (much less the galaxy). They’re goal is modest though dangerous: they sign on as mercenaries for a small company (Jericorp Mining) that is being bullied and sabotaged by a rival (Dakaar Minerals). As “corporate security troubleshooters”, the travellers are hired to ride shotgun on a Jericorp orecrawler — the only crawler the company has anymore, thanks to Dakaar, who either destroyed or stole the others. On the crawler their mission is to defend against any attackers, and also to provide security against any Dakaar agents that may have infiltrated the crawler’s crew. Both threats — open attack and infiltration — are very real and will have the players sweating to save everyone’s skin.

On the Orecrawler: The Eight Men

The first part of the adventure is set on the orecrawler — basically a starship setting on the desert ground. (The diagram to the right shows the top three levels; there are two larger ones, the cargo deck and extraction plant, below them.) It’s 1200 tons (scout ships or far traders typically used by travellers are only 100 tons and 200 tons, respectively), carries two air/rafts for recon purposes, and can be run by a crew of 4: pilot, engineer, radio communications/air-raft pilot, gunner (for one of the two laser turrets). The crawler typically mines manganese, nickel, copper, and iron from the desert, though there are the very rare strikes of wealthy metals (gold, silver, platinum, iridium, and uranium). The laser turrets are used for mining more often than combat: to slice up boulders and cliffs that show exposed veins of ore.

Ideally the orecrawler operates with 12 people — three groups of 4 working 8-hour shifts — but given the dire straits the company is in, only 8 personnel are available to run it. The travellers may fill in shifts if any of them have gunnery skills (for a laser turret at area 5), communications skills (for the radio at area 3), mechanic or engineering skills (for the power plant and drive and mining equipment at area 17), or ATV skills (for piloting the vehicle at area 3). If any of them have air/raft skills, they can be deployed to fly one of the air/rafts (at area 8) on recon missions, searching for ore fields or sandstorms. But their participation as crew isn’t essential. The 8-man Jericorp team is willing to split into two groups of 4 working 6-on-6-off shifts, and let the travellers focus on their security duties if that’s what they prefer.

The section on vehicle encounters and crawler combat is excellent, supplying all the necessary tables: how to handle movement, possible collisions, and laser fire. How likely the gunner will hit an enemy crawler depends on the part aimed for (body, treads, the bridge, turret, or air/raft), and how critical the hit is depends likewise, often inversely. Modules are often vague about vehicle combat, but Duneraiders covers all bases.

It’s the eight crew members who steal the show. They’re a colorful group of NPCs and the ones the travellers must protect and work with — and keep watchful eyes on for any signs of treachery. Their employer has warned them in advance that one (or possibly even two) may be a Dakaar spy. They are as follows:

First Watch:

1. Hal Southerland, Pilot (The Captain)
2. Vincent Perez, Engineer
3. Elu Gulushiggisun, Radio Com & Air/Raft Recon
4. Ranold Halfesson, Gunner

Second Watch:

5. Murray Gerbert, Pilot & Medic (The Executive Officer)
6. Harimandir Sin, Engineer
7. Thoris Dennechek, Radio Com & Air/Raft Recon
8. Karl Jung, Jack-of-all-Trades (Gunner)

The name of Karl Jung is amusing; I wonder if the module designer was taking a swipe at Jungian psychoanalysis by playing this guy for laughs. Jung is silly and a bit of a klutz, and like many jack-of-all-trades master of nothing and has been reprimanded by the captain for procedural carelessness. The other men know their business. Captain Southerland is a lovable ex-marine commanding the full respect of his crew. His XO Murray Gerbert is an ex-merchant and also respected, especially as the crew’s medic. Vincent Perez, ex-marine, has a drinking problem; he was required to resign from the Imperial marines because he panicked during a raid, resulting in the slaughter of his platoon. Elu Gulushiggisun, an ex-army trooper, is a quiet hard worker. Ranold Halfesson, ex-merchant, is a bit of racist (a Solomani supremacist), and has been reprimanded for getting into fist fights. Harimandir Sin, ex-marine, is a descendant of the Dharak warrior race (reminiscent of Islamic jihadists from our world), has a strong code of honor, and is a very competent and hard worker. He plans on killing Vincent Perez (at the end of the adventure), since Perez’s incompetence resulted in the death of Sin’s brother, who had been serving under Perez’s command. Thoris Dennechek, ex-marine, was a trooper in the Carillian Assembly (click on the map above for the green area), a police state and autocratic hegemony; he emigrated from the region to Tashrakaar in order to escape the militant life of the Assembly, and boasts proudly of his rejection of it.

One of these men is indeed a Dakaar agent, and the module leaves it up to the GM, supplying reasons why almost any of them could be the spy. Southerland and Gerbert (the captain and XO) are excluded, so it has to be one of the other six. If Perez is the traitor, it’s because Dakaar learned of the truth behind his discharge from the marines: Perez should have faced a court martial, but because his father is an important duke, the affair was swept under the rug. If he’s the spy, then Dakaar is using this information to blackmail him, increasing Perez’s drinking problem. If it’s Gulushiggisun, it’s because he sold out for money. If it’s Halfesson, it’s because he sold out for money. If it’s Sin, it’s because he formerly worked with Dakaar Minerals on another planet, until the company learned that he was the brother of Ghan Sin, the Imperial marine who was killed under Perez’s command; Dakaar sent him here, offering him revenge on Perez in return for acting as Dakaar’s agent. If Dennechek is the traitor, then it’s because Dakaar Minerals has close ties to the Carillian Assembly; Dennecek supposedly renounced his citizenship of the Assembly, but he’s really working undercover for its dictators. In this case, what’s going on is more than dog-eats-dog corporate bullying; the espionage is ultimately governmental. The Carillian dictators are aware that there is something of incredibly great value within the Jericorp lease — something that Jericorp doesn’t know yet: the Chargas Canyon has a monster load of iridium and platinum (billions of credits worth), which the crew of a Jericorp crawler had discovered before being ambushed and killed by Dakaar mercenaries. The dictators want that payload more than anything (and they are incensed that the mercenaries killed the Jericorp crew before learning where precisely in the Chargas Canyon the treasure is). Finally, if Jung is the traitor, then his daft behavior is an act to make people think he’s foolish when he’s really sharp.

I like any of these choices — they’re all compelling — though I’d probably use either Gulushiggisun (just because he seems the most innocent) or Dennechek (for the high stakes involved). I wish more gaming modules presented open-ended suspect lists like this. It’s something the Keith brothers did supremely well, both in Duneraiders and Murder on Arcturus Station (which I’ll review later). Not only does this give the game master loads of leeway, he or she can run repeat adventures for other players without having to worry about secrets being spilled. The spy can be a different crew member each time without damaging the plot.

The module even suggests that two of the six men could be spies working together, which would make things doubly challenging. It also suggests — and I really like this one — that if one spy is used, it could be one of the travellers. This player would then be secretly working against the other players. Such a scenario would take coordination between the player and game master well in advance of the game, but it could be fun as hell.

Whoever he is, the spy’s job is to capture or cripple the orecrawler. He might do this by planting explosives in the engineering deck, contaminating the water supply, and/or sabotaging the air/rafts. Or he might wait for a desert confrontation with a Dakaar orecrawler, and in the middle of battle break into the control center, kill Captain Southerland and take over the crawler. Or at some prearranged time open the crawler’s locks to admit a force of Dakaar men wearing desert nomad dress. And speaking of the nomads…

The Desert Trek: The Duneraiders

The second half of the adventure kicks even more ass. It begins with the travellers and crew members (who are still alive) abandoning the wrecked or captured orecrawler and fleeing into the desert. Even if the travellers catch the spy before he can sabotage the crawler, eventually it will be attacked by more than one enemy crawler, which will spell the crawler’s fate right there (especially if it’s taken damage already in a previous battle). The players might defeat the Dakaar forces, but only if they’re very lucky.

Left without transport (even the crawlers’ air/rafts are wrecked if not stolen), short on water supply, and fully aware that more Dakaar crawlers are in the area closing in, the travellers and crew members have to survive in a punishing environment of 115 degrees (during the day) and 45 degrees (during the night), and to avoid “devilblows” — a combination of sand and dust storms with winds of 95 mph hurricane force, that will shred human flesh down to the bone in minutes (2D damage points every ten). (Note: toward the equator of this world, the temps reach to 195 degrees, obviously uninhabitable.)

The module says that at least one traveller have a desert survival skill. Two of the eight crew members have the skill — Captain Southerland and the engineer Harimandir Sin — but the captain may well have been killed by this point. The module assumes the likelihood that the travellers will have to assume leadership at this stage, and indeed they will need to be especially proactive when they encounter the inhabitants of the desert: the Duneraiders.

The Duneraiders are clearly modeled on Frank Herbert’s Fremen, and are described as follows:

“The Duneraiders are desert nomads, feared by coastal Tashrakaarans with good reason. Many are bandits who prey on outlying settlements and the caravans which connect the coastal Tashrakaaran enclaves. Others are fierce religious fanatics who view as evil the ways of soft, water-fat coast dwellers. A few are relatively peaceful, but all will fight to protect the vast and ever-shifting tracts of land, which each tribe sees as its own. The nomads identify strongly with the land, and perceive the desert as somehow spiritually a part of the tribe itself, and therefore to be defended from trespassers.”

There are three tribes of raiders: (1) the Dalag-ah Suk, moderates who could be either dangerous or hospitable, depending on how the travellers act; (2) the Gabadahk ar Krell, fanatics who despise “water-fat” coast dwellers — and who will be enraged if the travellers are carrying more than a canteen’s worth of water; and (3) the Tallen Zen, the most benevolent faction who pride themselves on hospitality toward stranger in the desert and usually willing to help those in distress. Each tribe is detailed, and the message to game masters is clear: players will be most unhappy to afoul the Gabadahk ar Krell, and relieved (if they mind their manners) to encounter the Tallen Zen.

But nothing is guaranteed. The actions and mannerisms of the travellers matter, and how players conduct themselves will determine how nomads react to them. There is a table for “nomad reactions” (click on the left image) that is used for all three tribes. Before rolling on this table, however, the game master first examines one of three “reaction modifier” tables — depending on the tribe one is dealing with — to see what bonuses or penalties apply on the nomad reaction table.

For example, there are many ways to incur minus penalties in dealing with the Gabadahk ar Krel: displaying rudeness (-3), carrying large supplies of water (-3), opening fire on natives without attacking first (-2), found stealing water that belongs to the tribe (-4), making a gift of water (+1). On the other hand, there are many ways to get bonuses in dealing with the Tallen Zen: being polite (+3), telling the tribesmen that they are enemies of Dakaar Minerals (+2), suggesting an alliance and a joint attack in driving the Dakaar miners out of the Chargas Canyon (+3).

That last would make an ideal conclusion, as suggested by the module: a mounted attack against the Dakaar Minerals people working in Chargas Canyon — and perhaps, also, the discovery of the iridium and platinum motherlode. The module warns that “an attack against three orecrawlers by a handful of adventurers and a band of Tech 6 warriors [nomads] is somewhat less than sane”, though with enough careful planning and the element of surprise, they might be able to pull it off. If they can succeed in capturing one crawler, and sneak up on the others by feigning radio difficulties, that might be enough to take the other two on.

But there are loads of outcomes possible. This is Traveller after all. Maybe the players decide to go full native and get the Gabadahk ar Krel on their side, to lead a radical rebellion against all mining companies on the planet. Alternatively, they might decide to sell out to Dakaar Minerals. All sorts of possibilities.

Reaver’s Deep

Another thing I should mention is the setting of this adventure. The Reaver’s Deep sector (click on map to the right) is mostly independent, and surrounded by opposing forces — the Imperium, the Solomani Confederation, the Aslan Hierate, the Duncinae Confederation, and the Carillian Assembly. Most Traveller modules are set in either the Spinward Marches or Solomani Rim (frontier sectors of the Imperium, circled in blue), but Reaver’s Deep (in yellow) is out of Imperial reach and an interesting part of the galaxy. As much as I like the frontier sectors, I like this one better.

Verdict

Gamelords managed to pull off quite a coup. Not only did they produce a module that buries every one made by Game Designers Workshop (the “little black books”), they produced what I would consider the best Traveller module of all time… well, except for a certain one in particular, to be reviewed later…

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Cannibals in Space: Death Station

If The Argon Gambit is tied to a rigid Third-Imperium setting, its counterpart, Death Station, is about as location-neutral as you can ask for — so modular it can be used in just about any backwater world in any subsector of the galaxy. High above that world a laboratory ship has gone silent, and the players are hired to investigate. It’s assumed to be a routine communications breakdown, but on the ship they discover humanity itself has broken down. The surviving crew members are not well, to say the least. Mad with rage, cannibalizing their dead comrades, and will keep killing each other until only one remains. As the travellers proceed, evidence emerges of illegal medical experiments and corporate espionage. This is Traveller meets 28 Days Later, though here it’s seven days later and the surviving crew aren’t zombies. They retain every bit of their mindfulness and intelligence: fully human but super-enhanced; homicidal and starving. Shrewd and hard to catch. The lab ship is a death zone and perfect dungeon crawl to throw at players who crave genuine horrors and scares.

The idea of a derelict ship containing a deadly virus is cliche (and probably was even in 1981), but the module executes the trope with enough nerve-wracking tension that it doesn’t matter. Sometimes cliches work. The premise involves a corporation (Lysani Laboratories) using a lab ship to research improved combat drugs. The Lysani scientists discovered species of animals having the psychochemicals required for such drugs. However, the ship’s astrogator is a double-crossing spy who has been copying reports of the research and sending them to a rival company (Butler Chemicals). When Butler instructed the astrogator to delay progress on the research, the astrogator (not the brightest guy: intelligence 5) decided to “delay progress” by rigging a bomb in the auxiliary laboratory; when it exploded, it vaporized the combat drugs and synergized them into a compound that produced nasty unlooked for results. The vapors whisked through the ship’s ventilation system and affected every crew member (including the astrogator), killing eight of them on the spot and transforming the other twelve.

The drug effects

Once transformed, the surviving crew began attacking each other. For seven days they’ve hunted and killed each another, and now four remain, one of whom happens to be the astrogator. They’ve established individual lairs in various parts of the ship, unable to stand the presence of anyone else who has been inflected. The corpses of their former comrades hang dead on hooks in the frozen food locker, with limbs missing — ongoing chow, and by now their primary source of food (along with caged animal specimens), as the ship’s food stores have long been plundered.

The drug effects never wear off, and so the survivors are trapped in cycles of (a) enhanced physique, (b) fatigue, and (c) normalcy. The enhanced phase produces heightened physical characteristics — strength, dexterity, endurance — and extreme homicidal aggression. It lasts for an hour, after which the subject is fatigued and ravenously hungry for about six hours. Then follow five hours of normal behavior, until the enhanced stage kicks in again, starting the cycle all over.

The victims also have an extreme aversion to light; pupils are dilated for night vision and make normal light levels painful. Loud noises (especially sudden ones) are no less triggering. They might be receptive to talk in their fatigued and normal phases, but it takes very little to trigger their aggressive instincts and the enhanced phase. Any perceived threat, whether real or imagined, can trigger the enhanced phase and initiate a new cycle of enhanced/fatigued/normal from that point. Any survivor who encounters another survivor will be automatically triggered this way, as will the other.

The Ship

I like the design of the Calendula (see below), and it’s keyed with the detail a game master will need. The ship is derelict but still functioning for the most part, and the travellers will be able to shed their vacc suits for easy movement. Many areas in the ship are still lit (save for lights which have been smashed here and there for distressing the survivors), the gravity plates are still working, and computer terminals are functioning. With enough successful computer-skills checks, the players can piece together clues as to what happened on board — encrypted messages sent and received by Butler Chemicals (Lysani’s competitor), life support records indicating the explosion which left unknown chemicals in the air, etc.

Security cameras have been smashed (by the enraged survivors), but travellers with computer skills can access the security feed and video records. This will allow the players to see the explosion of the auxiliary lab, and minutes later the crew emerging from their staterooms to savagely attack each other.

The most damning evidence is found in the astrogator’s stateroom. On his computer can be found messages between the astrogator and a Butler Chemicals agent over the last five months. These correspondences detail the leaked information and sabotage plot. The astrogator’s last message (dated 20 minutes before the explosion) says he rigged a bomb in the auxiliary laboratory.

And so forth. As the travellers gather evidence on what happened, they will be stalked and/or attacked by survivors, perhaps more than one at the same time, and the game master can use scare tactics to good effect — scuffling noises nearby, blurry movements seen out the corner of the eye, etc. The module supplies a mechanism to determine the phase each survivor is in when the travellers first enter the ship, and emphasizes that these crewmembers won’t necessarily remain static in their lairs. In the enhanced state, a survivor will certainly be wandering the ship in search of food (or eating a thawed limb from one of the dead crew). In the normal state and even fatigued state, if a survivor hears the travellers, he or she will leave the lair, whether to flee or stalk them.

The adventure ends when the travellers capture and restrain the surviving crew members (assuming they don’t all die), return them to the Lysani agent and get paid. If they killed any of the survivors, that shouldn’t be a problem if it was self-defense (which is very probable). There are also blackmail opportunities, if they can supply evidence (lab reports and video recordings) of Lysani Laboratory’s illegal research testing.

Verdict

Death Station has a reputation for making players jump in their seats. Under an effective game master, I can well believe it.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

 

Racial Purity and Blackmail: The Argon Gambit

In addition to the adventure modules for Traveller, GDW published a series of double-adventures, each containing two short ones. Six of these double bills were released between 1980-82 (the best years for gaming), for twelve short adventures total, and I’m going to review The Argon Gambit/Death Station (1981). Everyone loves the latter but passes over the former; frankly I like The Argon Gambit every bit as much as Death Station — perhaps even a bit more. Of course, I’m a sucker for mysteries and shadowy intrigue.

Both adventures take place in the Solomani Rim — far, far away from the Spinward Marches setting of Research Station Gamma, Twilight’s Peak, and Expedition to Zhodane. Five hundred light years away (see map below), to be precise, where there are no Zhodani threats, and no worries from Vargr quarters. But it’s just as much a frontier sector (the map demarcates the Imperium boundary in red), and a hotbed of nonconformity where a lot can happen. What the Rim lacks in species diversity it makes up for in cultural clashes — in particular the ongoing culture wars between Vilani and Solomani. Human life originated on Terra (planet Earth), and this sector is Earth’s home. Many Solomani humans regard themselves as superior to other humans, especially the Vilani who rule the Imperium. The Argon Gambit — the module’s first adventure — exploits these tensions in a well-crafted political mystery.

Racial Purity and the Solomani Movement

But first the background. Planet Earth’s descendants aren’t terribly admirable in the Traveller universe. Many of them are racists, believing in the purity of Terran stock and that Solomani humans are best fit for ruling the Imperium. They’ve based their view significantly on the historical argument: that over 3000 years ago the Terrans, although vastly outnumbered, succeeded in bringing down the First Empire (ruled by Vilani humans) and established the Second Empire (also known as the Terran Imperium or the Rule of Man). This Second Imperium, however, only lasted about 400 years (unlike the first which lasted four times as long), and so the movement has had to rationalize the Rule of Man’s ultimate failure, according to which the Terrans grew soft and didn’t promote their supremacy enough.

For the past 1100 years now the Vilani have ruled the Third Imperium, and a little over 200 years ago the Solomani Confederation became the third largest human interstellar state, exceeded only by the Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate. The Solomani Movement has a distinct ideology rooted in Terran supremacy — racist of course, though in varying degrees according to faction, and it doesn’t control everyone in its borders; indeed there are plenty of Solomani who reject it. This background sets the stage for The Argon Gambit‘s political intrigue — a blackmail scheme that ends up ensnaring the travellers against their will. They are hired by a man named Jason Grant to retrieve documents being used to blackmail a public figure (Grant’s boss) for his impure lineage. The travellers learn that there’s more to this scheme than meets the eye.

The Blackmail: Cui Bono?

The backbiting intrigue takes place on the planet of Janosz. See the map below showing the sector of the Solomani Rim divided into 16 subsectors; I’ve circled in light-green the Janosz system (in the Harlequin subsector) and also, for perspective’s sake, the Terra system of planet Earth (in the Sol subsector). So Janosz is about 70 light-years away from Terra, and as much an Imperial dominion (as indicated by the shade of red). But while Janosz is Imperial controlled, it’s a democracy committed to free expression, and so the Solomani Party functions legally on this planet. (The party would have to engage in treason or open rebellion in order to be suppressed.) There’s currently a power struggle in the Solomani party in the capital city of Argon, between the three members of its steering committee: Arlan Samuelson, Laura Chin, and Cedric Zimmerman. Samuelson is the hard-liner (believing adamantly in the superiority of Solomani humans) and controls 6 of the 13 seats on the committee. He’s the one being blackmailed, as his maternal grandmother was Vilani, not Solomani, making him an outrageous hypocrite. Chin is the moderate controlling 5 of the 13 seats, and Zimmerman the independent controlling the 2 swing-vote seats. Zimmerman currently sides with Samuelson, and so Laura Chin’s moderate faction is in danger of being squeezed out of the party leadership.

The blackmail scheme unfolds as follows: Originally Laura Chin hired an unsavory rogue named Ganidiirsi Kashkanun to retrieve Arlan Samuelson’s genealogical documents, so that she could blackmail the son of a bitch and drive him from the steering committee. But once Kashkanun stole the documents, he (as a Vilani, and disgusted by Samuelson’s hypocrisy) decided to take matters into his own hands and blackmail Samuelson himself, for even more money than Chin was paying him. This is when Jason Grant entered the picture. Grant is Samuelson’s administrative assistant, and he’s the one who hires the travellers to save his boss’s reputation — to steal the documents back from Kashkanun, and have replacement genealogies forged that would prove Samuelson is pure Solomani. But even Grant is playing his own game — the deepest and most insidious one. He’s actually an agent for Imperial Intelligence, planted on Janosz ten years ago in order to infiltrate the Solomani Party. These damning documents provide him with an unprecedented opportunity to seize control of the entire party, and effectively put it in the hands of the Imperium.

Grant’s gambit depends on the fact that he secretly controls Cedric Zimmerman, the independent who controls the two swing-vote seats. Zimmerman is an old man who has prolonged his life through expensive anagathics; he can’t afford these drugs, and for years Grant has used Imperial funds to supply Zimmerman with his longevity needs. This has made Zimmerman completely loyal to him. Up until now, Grant has used his leverage over Zimmerman to make him support Samuelson (and thus make Grant indispensable to Samuelson, his “boss”), but now he can shoot for the moon. Ostensibly he hires the travellers to save his boss’s reputation (by breaking into Kashkanun’s villa and stealing the documents back), but what he really does is shaft the travellers by leaking the date and time of their break-in to both (a) Laura Chin and (b) the police. Chin and her hirelings will thus be waiting outside the villa to relieve the travellers of the documents (which she had been after all along so that she could blackmail Samuelson and take over the steering committee). This will probably lead to a gunfight or some altercation just as the police arrive and arrest everyone in sight, thereby shafting Laura Chin as much as the travellers. The outcome of this clash will give Grant exactly what he needs:

“The contents of the documents would certainly become public, ruining Samuelson, and the criminal notoriety Chin would receive would probably ruin her as well. Thus, the way would be open for Zimmerman to step into the party leadership. Grant, controlling his anagathics, would then be the power behind Zimmerman, and able to closely control his policies. The Imperium would, in effect, control its most serious political rival in the nation.”

The party has about a week to plan the logistics of breaking into Kashkanun’s villa — collecting information about Kashkanun in the city, and reconning the villa to overcome electronic security obstacles and other problems. During this time they might be ambushed by thugs (working for Laura Chin, if she finds out about their planned break-in through her contacts planted throughout the city), or — if they are shrewd enough to learn that she had originally hired Kashkanun before he betrayed her — they might conceivably try to make a deal with Chin. But the bulk of their sleuthing efforts should be paid off by rumors.

Rumors: Unraveling the Mystery

Rumors often play a role in Traveller, but in The Argon Gambit they are critical. The module warns that “it will be difficult enough for the players to solve the mystery even with all the rumors at their disposal; denying them access to large numbers of them will make their task almost impossible.” It goes so far as to break down the rumors into eight categories so they can used in the most plausible situations — street rumors, scout rumors, marine rumors, merchant rumors, navy rumors, noble rumors, TAS (Travellers’ Aid Society) rumors, and general rumors. So for example, a character with streetwise skills has a good chance of picking up a street rumor; a character visiting a TAS facility might pick up a TAS rumor; a character who is a retired scout can pick up a scout rumor at a local scout base; etc.

What continues to strike me as I read Traveller modules is the frustrating, backwards presentation of the adventure plots. The game master often doesn’t learn what’s really going on until the Referee’s Notes at the end. Most RPG modules spell out the plot synopsis at the start, so that a dungeon master or keeper can make sense of what he or she is about to read. Classic Traveller modules seem designed to force the game master to get a taste of what the players will have to work through. The Argon Gambit actually admits to this:

“Before reading this chapter [the Referee’s Notes], be sure to read through the rumors chapter. The experience of reading the information that will be presented to the players, and then attempting to understand it, will prove useful in presenting it to the players during the adventure.”

I confess that I often read Traveller modules back to front, so I can understand what I need to understand. But I tried it their way this time and admit it was fun working through the mystery.

No maps

My only major criticism of The Argon Gambit is that there are no maps. At all. A module without maps is kung pao chicken without rice. Kashkanun’s villa, at the very least, should have been supplied, as well as a city map of Argon. Once again, the module is upfront about its liabilities, advising that “the referee should be prepared to provide maps as needed”. Thanks.

Verdict

I’m not sure why this adventure doesn’t get much love, though as I said, I’m a sucker for mysteries. There are no good guys and bad guys here, just politicians looking out for their interests and asses. Even the philosophically moderate Laura Chin stands a good chance of being the travellers’ enemy. The Argon Gambit is by no means a masterpiece like Murder on Arcturus Station (to be reviewed later), but it is very good; with the right players you can have loads of fun with it.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Rescue Operation: Expedition to Zhodane

Coming off Twilight’s Peak I wanted to know more about the Zhodani. Their society, their values, and what drives them. I got what I asked for in this module, and I’m still not sure whether I love or hate this psionic race. Probably both, which is a testament to how compelling GDW made them.

The adventure itself is a mixed bag. Expedition to Zhodane (1981) is designed by the same author of Twilight’s Peak (Marc Miller) but with half the mojo and some heavy-handed railroading. The title is somewhat misleading. It doesn’t involve a literal expedition to Zhodane (the Zhodani homeworld), but to the fringe of the Zhodani Consulate in the Cronor subsector. Click on the map below to the left, where I use yellow circles to indicate the heart of the Zhodane Empire (big) and the outskirts of that empire that pushes into the Spinward Marches (small). Like many A-series modules, this module is set in the Spinward Marches, which is the Imperium’s farthest frontier sector and why it’s an exciting place to set adventures.

The travellers start on the world of Utoland, which lies in the Jewell subsector, on the borderland between the Zhodani Consulate and the Imperium. It’s ruled by a colonial administration from Arden, just a few parsecs away in the Vilis subsector. (Click on the map further down, on the right, to see all these subsectors of the Spinward Marches.) Arden rules Utoland as one of its colonies and is stripping the world’s resources for use in its developing economy. The adventure hook depends on the travellers becoming pawns in this economic rape, as they are captured and used as mining slaves for a corporation, forced to work in an asteroid belt. After weeks or months of mean labor, they encounter an asteroid ship as they’re working the belt. The ship has a 12-year old girl in cold sleep (suspended animation), and it’s barely operating on emergency batteries, with no fuel, no maneuver ability, and an inoperative computer. They wake the girl and learn that she’s the daughter of a professor who has been abducted by the Zhodani. For the past 15 years he’s been studying among them, researching the sociological effects of psionic powers on government and society. Because the subject is taboo in the Imperium, he had left his post and moved to the Chronor subsector — establishing friendships with the Zhodani and assuming positions at their universities — and all had gone well for years, until for some reason the Zhodani suddenly detained him.

The professor’s daughter will explain all of this when the travellers wake her from cold sleep — that she was onboard the family asteroid ship while her father was conducting research on the world of Zeycude (top left corner on the map below). As she prepared to monitor reports from him by radio, he suddenly came on the air and told his daughter to flee immediately — to take the asteroid ship and jump. She prepared to do as she was told, but as a Zhodani ship hailed her and told her to prepare for boarding, she pushed the jump button too soon; the ship misjumped and ended 14 parsecs away in Utoland (bottom of the Jewell subsector). She was in the middle of an asteroid belt, paralyzed by malfunction, and so put herself into cold sleep. She begs the travellers to go to Zeycude and rescue her father. The asteroid ship should indeed seem a golden opportunity to escape their corporate servitude… if they can get the ship working, and before their employers discover what they’ve found.

To railroad or not?

There’s a lot going for Expedition to Zhodane, but the most off-putting thing about it is its unabashed railroad approach:

“This adventure is a choreographed scenario. That is to say, it is intended to take a band of adventurers from a beginning situation through a number of episodes which will generally proceed toward a specific goal. The adventurers have a limited amount of free will, and can decide (within limits) how they wish to react to individual situations but overall, the steady progress of the adventure is toward a specific goal.

As a result, the referee is responsible for presenting the materials in such a way as to subtly channel the characters toward their goal. Side adventures can be generated by the referee to deal with occasional detours from the main plot, but the context of this adventure should be returned to as the characters continue their activities.”

Indeed, the “Course of the Adventure” is outlined in seven stages (the first two of which I described above): (1) the travellers’ discovery of the professor’s ship, (2) his daughter’s plea that they rescue him, (3) the travellers’ revenge on the mining company that wronged them, (4) their star journey from Utoland to Zeycude, (5) their hunt for the professor on Zeycude (where he no longer is), (6) their hunt for him on Chronor (where he has been relocated), and (7) their return to the Imperium at the completion of their quest.

Actually, the railroad isn’t quite as bad as it seems. A large portion of the adventure consists of stage (4), their journey in the asteroid ship that spans almost 50 light years. The route the travellers choose is up to them, and their navigational choices will determine the difficulty they have in refueling and the kinds of dangers they encounter. The other bulk of the adventure consists of stages (5) and (6), searching for the professor in the two star systems, during which many things can happen depending on how they conduct their search.

Where the railroad is heaviest is in the early stages. To arrive at their state of corporate slavery, the module assumes the travellers will seek work by browsing want adds in the Utoland Gazette. Of the 26 job offers, only two will provide the avenue to reach stage (2). The module does allow that “each ad that is answered has the potential for some adventure situation”, and that each job “can and should be the reason for some sort of adventure, however inconsequential” — and admittedly the level of detail supplied for each of the want-ads is pretty cool — but that’s really just an exercise in wasting time to serve the illusion of player agency. The module scenario depends on the travellers eventually taking one of the two jobs for Serene Franchise Mining Corporation (whether as miners or ship’s-boat pilots) which will lead to them finding the paralyzed asteroid ship, and then to take revenge on their employers. If players are hell-bent on thinking outside the box, they will find stages (1)-(3) too constraining; the GM will probably want to devise a different means of getting them hired to rescue the professor.

Thought police in Zhodani society

Where the module gets an A+ is in its pages on the Zhodani — their society, government, history, and the remarkable success they have in keeping crime under control. Zhodani society is divided into three hereditary groups: (1) nobles, who perform all high governmental functions and are the only inhabitants of the Consulate to be enfranchised; (2) intendants, who tend to be business executives, military officers below the ranks of admiral or general, and fill most nonelective governmental positions; and (3) proles (or proletarians) who are the bulk of society — members of the military below officer grade, most merchants and scouts, supervisory and junior management personnel, technicians, craftsmen, and laborers.

Proles cannot move upwards in society unless they have psionic powers. Typically the psionics are detected in them as children, and they are inducted into the intendant class at an early age. lntendants who use their psionic skills impressively can likewise become nobles. Nobility can thus be ascribed (from birth), but also acquired (through psionic talents), and because of the latter, there is a constant infusion of new blood into Zhodani nobility. That’s a plus.

As for what Zhodani thought-reading looks like in practice, it’s worth citing the module at some length:

“Extensive psionic ability among the ruling classes permits the Zhodani government to weed out subversives early in life, and reeducate them as useful members of society. With rare exception, Zhodani are extremely patriotic. Zhodani citizens possess a high degree of personal honesty. Indeed, the Zhodani feel uncomfortable in most places outside the Consulate, where ‘liars and thieves are allowed to wander around loose.’

Privacy of thoughts is highly respected among the Zhodani upper classes, although proles have no such right. Nobles have almost complete right of personal privacy, and intendants nearly as much. Rights of foreign nationals vary with whatever treaty is in effect between the Consulate and the foreign power. The treaty with the Imperium is unclear in its protections. Most visitors have no protections for mental privacy, but diplomatic personnel and some selected commercial representatives are provided visas which allow psionic shields to be worn.

Within the Zhodani Consulate, crime takes on a different guise than it has in other human societies. Willful crime by proles is easily detected and dealt with, and as a result, occurs only infrequently. Any burglar broadcasts his intentions before the fact, and can be detected after the fact as well. Enforcement agents find it relatively easy to apprehend criminals, and they are reeducated to more honest values. Because of the enforcers’ psionic talents, it is possible to detect intentions of a criminal nature, and even intent is considered criminal. Those crimes which do occur are more often crimes of passion, or derangement. For example, two merchants may honestly disagree on some point of commerce, and it is possible that in their frustration, they may come to blows. This is a crime of passion, not premeditated, and easily resolved by an arbitrator. Or an individual may feel for some reason oppressed by the tasks or responsibilities expected of him, and crack under the strain. Suddenly and unpredictably, he becomes violent and must be restrained by the enforcers.

One aspect of Zhodani government is the Tavrchedle’, translated as the Morality Guardians or the Thought Police. This organization is staffed by intendants and nobles, and is charged with maintaining correct thought within the population. They are constantly on the alert for aberrant thought. When detected, they home in on its source, apprehend the individual, and take him to a reeducation center. There, psionics is used to monitor the progress of reeducation and the individual remains in custody until corrected.

To an Imperial it would be easy to look upon the Thought Police as a sort of secret police oppressing the masses. To the Zhodani, this is not the case. They are instead a respected community service. Even its clients feel relieved after being located and assisted back to normalcy.

Because of the basic openness and honesty of the Zhodani, the arrangements for security are minimal. Locks on doors are simple if present at all. Walls and structures are built for protection against the elements rather than against criminal penetration. Even re-education centers (there are no prisons to speak of) have only loose security arrangements.

Typically, Zhodani society does not expect violence or dishonesty, and most of its enforcement apparatus is devoted to annual check-ups of individual attitudes. Each prole has a caseworker who maintains a file and performs an annual check-up for correct attitudes, as well as feeling for any problems or situations in need of assistance.

Enforcers within the community enforce traffic regulations, arbitrate disputes, and watch for disturbances. These enforcers are similar to police, but can detect problem situations in the course of their patrols. Players can expect that they will be detected in any illegal or anti-social activity within 20 minutes of it taking place.

Players should expect that the only defenses against being detected in illegal activity are innocence, the personality overlay machine, and psionic shields. Psionic shields are strictly controlled devices inside Zhodane, and an unauthorized wearer of one would be immediately arrested.”

As I said at the start of this review, I can’t decide whether this makes the Zhodani an enlightened race or a repellent one. The idea of a Tavrchedle is, in my view, the worst assault on individual freedom. And yet the “thought police” of Zhodani society are respected as communal servants rather than the Gestapo. After all, they really do know what you’re thinking and thus are able to kill crime in its crib. On the other hand, too much honesty can make a society unravel; there’s a certain amount of lying and deception that holds society together. (If we were all entirely honest with each other, we’d be at each others throats.) And the idea that even intent to do harm is considered criminal is problematic, as is “rooting out subversives”. What kind of subversives? A society that enshrines too much conformity is its own tyranny.

From a game master’s perspective this is simply wonderful. A morally ambiguous thought-police will challenge the travellers, both philosophically and pragmatically. If they can count on the police descending on them within 20 minutes of thinking up schemes, then rescuing the professor has veered into Mission Impossible territory. The ship’s boat on the asteroid ship has a psionic shield, so that will be of help in some space scenarios, but once they debark, they’ll need the professor’s personality overlay machine (kept in his stateroom), a critical device which

“lays on a new personality with a combination of drug-induced changes and hypnosis reinforced by sleep tapes. The process involves approximately twelve hours of hypnosis followed by twelve hours of fatigue-induced sleep. Upon awakening, the subject believes himself to be the new personality. It is possible to establish post-hypnotic suggestions that trigger the new personality at any time up to 72 hours after awakening.

The overlaid personality is essentially the old one with certain specific changes for consistency and continuity. For example, an Imperial military veteran will still be a military veteran, but of an appropriate Zhodani service. Correct memories of units served with, dates of service, and other details will be available to the new personality.

It is also possible to program in activity suggestions for the personality. For example, the professor programs his overlaid personality to observe and remember all psionic activity which is apparent; upon return to the ship, he then records notes on all observations.”

The professor has an inventory of personalities than he draws on while living in the Zhodani Consulate: “aspiring intendant” (which allows an excuse to meet the various officials at all levels of government), “aspirant’s companion” (to allow others like his daughter to move through Zhodani society with him), “tourist” (so that he can move freely on the world of Zeycude as he does his research), “meddling busybody” (to provoke reactions from experimental subjects), etc. The travellers should learn how to use this device in a hurry, if they know what’s good for them.

Double overlay, double agent

Now for the twist: The professor’s “real” personality — underneath whatever overlay-personality he is using — is itself an overlay, and has been so for the past 15 years. He is in fact an Imperial spy, and the goal of his research on Zeycude isn’t to produce rogue scholarship, but to produce reports for the Imperial Scout Service Covert Survey Bureau. He’s unaware of this, however, fully believing in his “rogue scholar” identity. His occasional returns to Imperial space allow him to be debriefed to reveal the information he has gathered. Once he returns to Zhodani territory, he is again under the deep personality overlay (the rogue anti-Imperial academic), a mental disguise that never drops when he’s outside the Imperium (and rarely even when he’s within it), and that he himself believes entirely. He’s a double agent without knowing it, ultimately a tool of the Imperium.

The power of the personality overlay machine is that it’s capable of overlaying more personalities on top of those already imposed. This will make it all the more hard for the professor to believe that his “real” personality is as much a sham as the ones he consciously draws on. If the travellers learn the truth of this and confront him with it, there should be some fun role-playing in the works.

Verdict

I give this module a thumbs up for the background information on Zhodani society, and for detailing new devices like personality overlay machines and psionic shield helmets. I give it a thumbs sideways for the actual adventure, which is half-bad (the railroady captivity and escape of the travellers), half good (their subsequent search for the professor), though even the good part could have used more fleshing out. If you want a chance to throw mind-reading adversaries at your players, then you’ll find Expedition to Zhodane quite useful.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

The Epic that is Twilight’s Peak

If you polled grognards for their favorite Traveller adventure, I suspect that Twilight’s Peak would be a popular choice. It seems as widely loved as D&D’s Ravenloft, and I won’t deny it’s excellence though I don’t think it’s quite perfect. It requires ambitious players with top-notch investigative skills to kick things into high gear, and even then it will take many gaming sessions to reach that point. It’s a module best used, I believe, in conjunction with other modules — side ventures — to liven things up. But what it does well, it does very well, though ends on something of a deus-ex-machina.

The plot is as follows. The travellers search across star systems for a lost military expedition that carried a fortune in drugs, looking to become rich. Depending on how shrewd they are, they might end up visiting over a dozen systems, gathering clues bit by bit, chasing down red herrings, until they finally find the right world. On this world they get more than they bargained for — an old relief shelter in a mountain valley that’s now a haunted tower, and which conceals something even more shocking below it: an Ancients base, in which the legendary aliens have started to reawaken. On top of that, there is another alien base at this planet’s starport, where undercover Zhodani agents plot to overthrow the Imperium. This all comes together with the two alien races clashing, and the travellers caught between them, in danger of being killed by either one unless they can persuade the Ancients to work with them in common cause.

The strength of Twilight’s Peak is that it can encompass other modules, as I suggested, and serve as the framework for many campaigns as the characters jump from system to system seeking information. In this sense it’s a quintessential Traveller module (like Leviathan), providing the basis for session after session of what characters in this game do: travel across the stars.

If I were running it today, I’d probably use Research Station Gamma to kick things off. After all, the lost military expedition began in the Vanejen system where the A2 module is set. There the navy fitted the merchant ship (the Gyro Cadiz) with drugs and medical equipment and sent it on its way, escorted by three military scout/couriers. Their destination was the Regina system, 17 parsecs away; they were lost somewhere along that 55-light year distance. It would be natural for the travellers to hear their first rumor of the expedition as they carouse a bar on Vanejen, where the chirper hires them to rescue his family who are being held captive in the research station. After playing the A2 module (which as I noted in my review makes a perfect first adventure anyway), they can jump to the next system.

The Epic of Twilight’s Peak

On Vanejen (or wherever the GM starts the players), the travellers hear a rumor about the lost expedition, which has apparently been described in a narrative poem called the “Epic of Twilight’s Peak”. The poem can’t be found in any computer or online data. Only print copies can be found in a library at a class A starport, and the nearest star system to Vanejen with a class A starport is Rhylanor. (The module doesn’t specify which class-A starports, but I’d put a copy of the poem in any which lie along or close to the route taken by the Gyro Cadiz, from Vanejen to Regina (on which see below). Those class-A starports are: Rhylanor, Porozlo, Jae Tellona, Risek, Fulacin, and Regina.)

When the travellers find the poem, it’s hard reading, because the part about the lost expedition and Twilight’s Peak is just a fragment of the entire history of the Gyro Cadiz task force. An officer of one of the scout ships escorting the Gyro Cadiz — who fancied himself a poet, but was an awful hack — wrote every bit of minutiae about the task force and its journey in the year 984. (The module is set in the year 1106, 122 years after the disappearance.) The poem runs about 100,000 words in 9000 lines of amateurish verse that most readers will give up on after a few pages. The module even suggests that “all attempts to read and study the poem should be met with failure”, but I’d allow a skills check for a scholar traveller or any character with an Art/Writing skill of at least 1. If the travellers can’t make sense of the poem, then they should indeed do as the module suggests, and either hire a scholar (for Cr 10,000) or feed the poem into a computer program that summarizes it for easy reading (any traveller with a Computer-2 or better could do that).

The relevant part of the officer’s poem describes what happened to the Gyro Cadiz task force, which was sent from Vanejen to the besieged system of Regina in 984 (during the time of the Third Frontier War). While pausing between jumps to refuel, the Gyro Cadiz and its three scout ships – Blatant Lie, Carlisle, and Black Gold – were damaged by an ion storm and forced to land on an unnamed planet. Once there, treachery ensued. It turned out that the crew of the Black Gold were Zhodani agents working against the Imperium, and attacked the other three crippled ships. The traitors were slain in the counterattack but all four starships were left disabled following the battle. After several months, the survivors found an abandoned octagon-shaped tower in a mountain valley where strange (seemingly “magical”) occurrences saved their lives from hostile creatures (wolves, etc.). They called the structure “Twilight’s Peak”. In the following spring, the remaining survivors patched together parts from all the ships and repaired the scout Blatant Lie enough so that it could jump. However, it misjumped — right into the middle of a Zhodani-Imperial battle. It was blasted in the fight and its drives were disabled, leaving the crew of the Blatant Lie to eventually die in vacuum. The derelict scout was discovered about a hundred years later (22 years ago), during a fringe skirmish of the False War (1082-1084) in the Treece system — the crew obviously long dead, the scout’s power cells drained, and its memory banks contaminated and unreadable. The only clue to the task force’s fate was contained in the officer’s personal handwritten diary, the poem he called “The Epic of Twilight’s Peak”.

The route of the Gyro Cadiz

That’s what the travellers learn on Rhylanor, or maybe another system with a class-A starport, depending on where the GM starts the players. But Rhylanor is a good place to find the poem, because it’s only at Rhylanor that another important clue can be picked up: the expedition’s full itinerary. The starport authority has a flight plan filed by the Gyro Cadiz task force that’s not in the records anywhere else. The travellers can learn that the expedition was slated for a flight plan going from Vanejen – Cipatwe – Heroni – Deep Space – Deep Space – Rhylanor – Porozlo – Deep Space – Fulacin – Deep Space – Kinorb – Deep Space – Echiste – KKirka – Rech – Djinni – Deep Space – Regina. (The merchant ship had only jump-1 capability, meaning it could travel only 1 parsec (hex) per jump before refueling.)

The map to the right (click to enlarge) shows the general area of these star systems. (The module has a different looking map.) It’s on record that the expedition made it as far as Rhylanor, but somewhere between that system and Regina it was lost, and the travellers must find where. The poem in the Blatant Lie, of course, was found in the Treece system, but that was from a misjump, and Treece wasn’t part of the original itinerary. Shrewd travellers will make deductions. The poem says that the Blatant Lie “jumped and stuttered through the system and finally made a single hop, and came out in the wrong place”, which sounds like it managed to make at least two jumps, possibly more, from wherever the expedition had been stranded. That would narrow the likely playing field to the following contenders: Fulacin, Kinorb, Echiste, KKirka, Rech, and Djinni.

Searching the Spinward Main

The correct answer is Fulacin, though it’s 4 jumps (parsecs) away from Treece, unlike the other five systems which are only 2 jumps away, so the travellers may well end up searching Fulacin last! This is the opportunity to liven up the search with other adventures and modules. In particular, some of the short adventures in the double-module series are well suited for this, and one that I would surely use is Shadows.

The Shadows adventure is set in the system of Yorbund, far away from the area of concern in Twilight’s Peak (nine parsecs distant from Regina, toward the center and top of the map I cropped above), but I’d use it on any of the four worlds searched by the travellers in the Lanth subsector — Echiste, KKirka, Rech, and Djinn — and then give that planet the same insidious corrosive atmosphere that Yorbund has, which is central to the plot of that adventure. Shadows is not only a perfect short, it’s a nasty piece of terror; a dungeon-crawl in a pyramid that the travellers must escape, with plenty of Alien vibes.

Another module I’d exploit is Annic Nova, from the same double feature as Shadows, though instead of using a derelict Annic Nova as a dungeon crawl, I’d have it controlled by pirates who are gunning for the travellers. The odds would be in the pirates favor, but not by a lot. Twilight’s Peak presupposes that the travellers are flying the 200-ton far trader Empress Nichole, having 6 staterooms, cargo capacity of 60 tons, a jump drive of 2 (though currently crippled and functioning at jump-1 only), an air-raft, and a triple turret (with a missile rack, a beam laser, and a sandcaster). The Annic Nova is a 600-ton free trader, having 8 staterooms, cargo capacity of 150 tons, two independent jump drives of 2 and 3 each (that can’t be used for combined effect), two pinnaces, and two single turrets (one laser cannon on each). That might well be a ship the travellers are interested in acquiring to supplant the Empress Nichole, which is old and seen better days.

Still another possibility is The Kinunir, though not for space combat purposes (a battle cruiser would obliterate the travellers in a heartbeat), maybe a derelict ship awaiting plunder (and who knows what survivors linger on board?).

The module suggests that the players find a copy of The Octagon Book late in the adventure, after they have visited and searched most of the worlds on their checklist. They can find it at a local bookstore, especially a used one. The book details the history of the Octagon Society, a group that built relief shelters throughout the Regina, Lanth, and Rhylanor subsectors centuries ago, from the mid-300s to the late 400s. Many of the worlds in these three subsectors received octagonal shaped buildings which served as sanctuaries for marooned or distressed travellers, and were supplied with radios, survival equipment, and food.

At this point, of course, the travellers will realize that this is precisely what they are looking for, assuming they remember the line from Twilight’s-Peak poem speaking of the “tall octagon built of fine-hewn stones, high on a crag in a valley”. Evidently the expedition took refuge in one of the old Octagon Society’s relief shelters, though that doesn’t explain the weird occurrences that took place there. And this revelation hardly narrows the playing field much, since these octagon buildings were built on dozens of worlds.

The module has a catalog of “World Rumors” — tidbits of information the travellers can pick up at any of the 36 star systems they might search in the Regina, Lanth, and Rhylanor subsectors (and even two systems in the Aramis subsector that closely border those three: Dhian and Paya). A lot of these rumors are useless, some more useful, and others (like the itinerary learned on Rhylanor) essential. The rumor on Porozlo may actually give away too much, where inquiries about Twilight’s Peak yields the name of a local naval historian who has researched the Gyro Cadiz expedition and concluded two things: (1) that the mutineers described in the epic poem were Zhodani agents, and (2) that the task force crashed on Fulacin (its next stop after Porozlo). Point (2) gives up the secret a bit soon (as the travellers will likely search Porozlo early in the game, right after Rhylanor, especially since it’s a class-A starport); if the GM deems that too early to hand the players Fulacin on a silver platter, then point (2) can be ignored.

The World of Fulacin, Twilight’s Peak, and… the Alien Base

If and when the travellers explore Fulacin, it won’t be easy finding Twilight’s Peak. They’ll need an ATV to search far and wide for the octagon tower, over plains, wetlands, mountains, forests, deserts, and ice covers. To begin this grueling search they would be wise to ask for an orbital survey from the starport, or from MagnetoDynamics (the corporation that runs the planet). Such a survey will show enough indications of metal that will be promising leads and reduce their near impossible task of searching the entire planet.

The tower and events that unfold there pay off the players’ patience. There are five levels to it, with equipment bearing the names Gyro Cadiz and Blatant Lie. One room contains what the travellers have been after from the start: twenty crates of radiation treatment drugs, combat drugs, and truth drugs — worth a bloody fortune. The tower has a haunted-house vibe and the module recommends that it “should be treated like one, and milked for cheap thrills and scare tactics”. It descends far below the earth to many chambers, and ends at a freaky vault door that leads to an Ancient alien base. This bit is curious, for the alien base has nothing to do with the Octagonal Society; it predated the tower by hundreds of thousands of years. Seriously: the module doesn’t explain why the Society built one of its relief shelters over a fucking alien base and I can’t fathom why they would have done such a thing. I’d want to come up with a logical reason (if I could think of one) before running the module.

In any case, the vault door is creepy. It doesn’t open to normal efforts or any amount of force. It responds to psycholgical auras associated with fear. If those standing before it are frightened, then the door will open. There’s a giant spider near the vault door that will attack the characters, which may provide enough fear to make the door open… and if not, then what is chasing them from above will surely petrify them as required.

The plot thickens: Zhodani and Droyne

What happens at Twilight’s Peak is epic if problematic. The module describes how the Zhodani agents on Fulacin come after the travellers at the tower, since they don’t want anyone uncovering proof of Zhodani involvement in the crash of the Gyro Cadiz. So they arrive at the tower — after the characters have explored the five levels and are savoring their drug find — forcing the characters down into the catacombs (since the travellers are trapped inside and have nowhere else to go), driving them right to the vault door of the alien base. The revelation of the Ancient base thus comes as a poleaxing shock to both the Zhodani and the travellers. The module explains it thus:

“The starport has enough clues to indicate (at least in hindsight) that it is a secret Zhodani base, established some years ago after the last war. At that time, the Zhodani realized that they needed an advanced base to support the reduction of Rhylanor — their attempt to use Porozlo will not work again. They bought into MagnetoDynamics through some dummy companies, and have placed their own personnel in key positions. They have also placed Zhodani troops at the starport as security guards; it would be easy enough to conceal their identities by calling them mercenaries.

Some time after the travellers leave to search for Twilight’s Peak, the local officials will have second thoughts and send troops after them, to silence them permanently.

When everyone is down on the lower levels of the tower, a platoon of 40 Zhodani troops should appear, arriving in gravity vehicles. They consist of 35 men with gauss rifles and cloth armor, 4 men in battledress with PGMP-13s, and one officer with a laser carbine. The officer is psionically trained to medium strength in telepathy and clairvoyance. The arrival of these troops should drive the adventurers down deeper into the catacombs, the troops right on their heels in a running gun battle.”

With the travellers vastly outnumbered, they continue to be forced ahead into the alien base, where they have the opportunity to awaken 36 Droyne — close cousins of the chirpers seen in Research Station Gamma — from suspended animation. That could be good or bad for the travellers, though probably the former since the Droyne are psionic and can read intent (if not precise thoughts). They will likely choose to ally with the travellers by helping them attack the Zhodani who are now beating on the doors — and not just the ones invading the tower, but all the Zhodani at the starport and up in orbit over the planet. The alien base was designed primarily for planetary defense, and the Droyne will be able to read harmful intent in the Zhodani, who are on the planet as hostile invaders. Barring foolish or aggressive behavior from the travellers, the Droyne may react as the module suggests:

“The alien base’s weaponry is enough to destroy any Zhodani ships (the three ships visible in orbit), the Zhodani installations at the starport (including three more frigates, not visible from the ground but revealed through the power of [the Droyne viewing globe in room Z]), and even the troops outside. If things work out successfully, the travellers will have destroyed a major Zhodani base intended to support the seige of Rhylanor in the upcoming Fifth Frontier War.”

I wouldn’t want to mess with a Droyne. Their psionic badassery puts Eleven to shame. Each of the 36 warriors is armed with a disintegrator pistol that relies on a telepathic targeting mechanism. To fire the pistol the Droyne simply looks at the target and imagines it gone. The Droyne must see his target while firing, but the weapon will never miss; there’s simply no defense. Ditto for the weaponry of the alien base. The Droyne must see the targets while firing (whether directly or through a monitor screen), and those weapons must have a clear shot, but those weapons will automatically pound the daylights out of ships and installations in defending the planet. (Needless to say, travellers can’t use Droyne weapons. They would need to acquire a Telepath-1 skill to make them fire.)

Of course, the Droyne are the Ancients; true descendants of the race that disappeared 300,000 years ago. The module ends on a seven-page section dedicated to the creation of Droyne characters, their characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence (for intellect), sense (for education), and caste (for social standing)), their castes (workers, warriors, drones, technicians, sports, leaders), their acquired skills, how they fly and under what conditions, their ability to appear invisible (like the chirpers), and the culture dictated by their caste system.

With regards to that caste system, I should note the payoff to those who have already played the adventures Research Station Gamma and/or Shadows (as I have recommended doing as stages in this module): the coins (coyns) acquired in those adventures are the same as those found in the alien base in room X. The coyns are used by the Droyne in ceremonies to randomly assign a caste (social standing) to every individual.

Now, this appendix on the Droyne would be a fabulous treat, except that it turns out to be practically useless information. Once the Droyne have defended the base, obliterated the Zhodani, and processed the time in which they’ve reawakened, they will realize there are no members of the leader caste available to give them orders. Without any purpose they initiate a self-destruct sequence (with a few hours delay to allow the travellers to collect the drugs they came for), which destroys them, their base, and Twilight’s Peak. Evidently their prime motive — “to protect the base from damage”, says the module — doesn’t extend to the damage they might do to it. This ending is disappointing, and a bit too neat and pat.

Verdict

For all its epic grandiosity, Twilight’s Peak isn’t perfect. Its grand reveal turns out to be a deus-ex-machina that liberates a planet in the blink of an eye… and then destroys itself. There’s no reason why the tower of Twilight’s Peak should have ever been built on a Droyne/Ancient base… except to provide a convenient salvation when the Zhodani descend on it to eliminate travellers. This is the sort of thing that would usually downgrade a module for me by quite a bit, but somehow in Twilight’s Peak it ends up working. Judging from those who play it, at least, the endgame is an adrenaline rush that makes the underlying problems forgivable. I’d give anything to run this module as an extended campaign, but I doubt I’ll find the time or enough players who are willing to jump on board.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Highly Classified: Research Station Gamma

Research Station Gamma (1980), by Marc Miller, was the second published Traveller adventure but effectively the first, since The Kinunir was a starship design with only sketchy suggestions for adventures. I’d strongly consider using Research Station Gamma on players new to Traveller, as it’s a dungeon crawl — a classic way to break in newbies — has an intriguing premise, isn’t difficult to run, and is challenging but not terribly hard on the players.

The “dungeon” is an imperial research station where experiments are done on captive alien specimens. It’s set in the ocean of a backwater planet, and from a distance looks like a slender column topped by a circular cap, with twelve containment globes spiraling down the shaft (see diagram far below on the right). The circular cap consists of two laboratory decks, and the globes are prisons for the aliens; there’s a power plant deep at the ocean bottom. The station is often ice-locked (surrounded by ice floes in the planet’s southern ocean), which can make it challenging to reach by sea travel.

Depending on the travellers’s choice of vehicle, they can enter the station from the submarine dock on the ocean bed (if they have a submersible), from the third or fourth globes from the top (if they have a non-submersible ship – but that way is very difficult), or from the laboratory decks (if they have an air/raft). A thorough search of the decks will reveal the nature of the experiments — the potential for long-range communication using psionic powers (i.e. telepathy). Some of the aliens jailed in the globes (five of the twelve) have psionic abilities, including (in globe #5) the family members of an alien who escaped, and has hired the travellers to rescue them.

A D&D module for Traveller

Of the 13 modules in this adventure series, Research Station Gamma has the strongest D&D vibe. As I said it’s a dungeon crawl, in a “castle of horrors” (the research station), containing strange creatures with “spell abilities” (psionic aliens), and an “evil wizard” behind it all (the mad scientist). For this reason the module could be the best or worst to use on new players. Best, perhaps, because it makes the transition from D&D to Traveller an easy one; the players are accustomed to this sort of thing. Worst if players are craving something new and altogether different from D&D. Gauge accordingly.

I’m also put in mind of the D&D classic Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, since this module has robots, and provides details and stats for each type of robot (animal care, janitorial, and security) found in the station. Surprisingly, Traveller wasn’t big on robots (even after it came out with a supplement for them in ’86) and tended to give them short shrift; a curiosity for a sci-fic game.

The janitorial and security robots are much as they sound. The animal care robots are designed particularly for local cruelties:

“Animal care robots are programmed to feed and tend the various organisms at the research station, regardless of the environmental conditions which prevail. In addition, they aid the security robots in tracking and recovering any experimental subjects which might escape, and they perform most of any routine experiments which might be called for.

The robot’s programming permits it to estimate the size and metabolism of the target for its tranquilizer darts; dosage is adjusted automatically. Its auditory sensors are equivalent to human ears, but its visual sensors enable it to see in total darkness, provided a source of infrared or ultraviolet light is available. If this robot detects unauthorized persons, it will report the fact to computer central and attempt to tranquilize as many as possible.

The animal care arms for the robot are designed to grab and hold without harm to the specimen. They are quite efficient at the task; internal tactile feedback circuits in the grippers make the grip unbreakable unless the robot itself is turned off or destroyed. The animal care robot can lift a load equal to its own weight, and is capable of carrying it without harm along the elevator guide rail.”

As for the security robots, they’re armed with pulse lasers equivalent to laser carbines, can detect the heartbeat of human beings 30 feet away, and have the same grappling techniques of the animal care models. There’s loads of mileage to be had with the robots all around.

Psionic fun

But the biggest fun comes with the aliens having special abilities. In the Imperium-controlled regions of the Traveller universe, psionics are generally taboo, frowned upon if not abhorred. Research Station Gamma is an Imperial project and thus its research is way off the board and highly secret. It’s run by a lone scientist, who apparently fired the other researchers and now relies exclusively on the robots for assistance in studying the alien specimens.

Those specimens are the module’s highlight. They are found in the twelve containment globes (except globe #8 which is a submarine dock), each of which has been programmed to mimic the gravity and environment of the alien’s native world. Not all of them contain aliens with psionic ability. The first (highest) globe does; the creature has the ability to convey a feeling of safety or well-being to its prey, and as a result appears cute and cuddly until it attacks by surprise. The fifth (the highest which is fully below sea level) contain two chirpers (see image to the right), the siblings of the alien that escaped from the station and whom the travellers have come to rescue; chirpers have the ability to cloud peoples’ minds in a 400-yard radius to make themselves seem invisible (though video cams and robots will see the chirpers just fine). The seventh globe contains bear-like animals with teleport ability. The tenth contains red sand that’s blowing around; there is life, but microscopic in size, that’s using telekinetic powers to move the sand. And the eleventh contains five bipeds who manifest telepathic ability — the prime focus of the research station.

Research on these specimens has been somewhat successful. In particular, work on the bipeds in globe #11 has yielded promising results for telepathy at interplanetary (but not interstellar) distances. The station computer has been programmed to make periodic reports on the project’s status for the Imperium, but the scientist has been falsifying the data to make his progress appear slow, so that he will continue receiving funding without interference. Computer skills will be essential to travellers who want to locate the complete and true data on the specimens. The data, incidentally, would be of extreme value to the Zhodani Empire (where psionics are commonplace and completely legal), whose intelligence operatives would pay millions of credits if the travellers wanted to commit treason and travel over 20 parsecs to surrender these Imperium secrets. (Because the Zhodani already use psionics, they could probably finish the telepathic research on their own and be way ahead of the Imperium.)

The Mad Scientist

Aside from his name and stats —

Professor Gnetus Jerrold Vicervis, 353EEB, age 102
Skills: Computer-5, Electronics-3, Body Pistol-2, Air/Raft-2, Admin-3, Jack-o-T-3

— the module tells us next to nothing about this director who fired the other researchers and relies on robot assistance to conduct the psionic project. He has extended his life through anagathics (and what traveller wouldn’t like to get his hands on a supply of those?), but beyond these details there is nothing to hint at the professor’s motives.

Of course, this open-ended aspect of the “villain” is to me is the best part, since I would probably reshape any details the module chose to supply. I might even make this guy a traitor who intends to become a millionaire by selling his research to the Zhodani Empire. If the robots apprehend any of the travellers, I’d have him conduct nasty experiments on at least one of them. And I’d surely somehow work into the plot his supply of life-extending drugs.

Verdict

There’s no question I’d love this module from either a GM or player perspective. It’s straightforward but not boring, offering fun role-playing opportunities with a lunatic, robots, and aliens. Speaking of the last, there’s more to the chirper aliens than meets the eye. They’re an isolated branch of the legendary race known as the Ancients — and the subject of the next published adventure, Twilight’s Peak, which I will be reviewing next.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Starship Design: The Kinunir

It was the first Traveller adventure but it’s less an adventure and more a showcase. Compared to other modules in this series it’s not particularly impressive, which isn’t to say it’s bad. It offers a good look at ship design and how every nook and cranny is filled in a battle cruiser. Traveller newbies might find this helpful and inspiring for their own designs.

The Kinunir is a discontinued model: a 1200-ton battle cruiser with a full crew of 46 plus 34 marines. The module provides layouts for all five decks and keys every single room and area on aboard, as well as stats and skills for the 80 crew/marines. It lists the construction information, tail number, shipping yard where it was built, and present locale for all 21 Kinunir ships before the model was discontinued. Three of the ships were lost (their fates and their crews’ unknown), one was scrapped, one was converted into an orbital prison, and the other 16 are still in the Navy’s service.

As for adventure scenarios, four are provided, independent and self-standing. The plots are sketchy and leave most details to the GM. In the first, the travellers are hired to obtain construction secrets of the Kinunir vessels. The characters have many options here, ranging from bribery, hacking into a computer, or investigating the hull of the Kinunir ship that was scrapped and now lies abandoned in a shipyard. The second and third adventures involve the Kinunir that was gutted and converted into an orbital prison hulk. (In the second, the travellers are imprisoned for transgressing forbidden planetary territory, and their mission is to escape; in the third, they are hired to break into the prison and rescue a senator who has been sentenced for political reasons.) The fourth adventure involves one of the three Kinunirs that was lost many years ago, and lies derelict in an asteroid belt (its crew long dead from vacuum), in an interdicted star system.

I’d use the fourth scenario if any. Boarding a derelict ship in a forbidden asteroid belt would make a solid intro adventure for new Traveller players. The second and third adventures are a bit non-sequiturish; the Kinunir isn’t even a starship anymore and the prison-escape plots aren’t terribly inspiring. (If you want a smashing prison-break scenario, use Prison Planet, which supplies all the necessary mechanics you could dream of.)

Really none of the four plots is essential. The module is a showcase for the Kinunir itself, so that the GM has a battle cruiser on hand whenever it’s needed for whatever reason. In that sense The Kinunir is as simple as modules get, and as modular as modules get — to be slid into literally whatever situation calls for it. The ship is well detailed, from the A Deck (containing the ship’s surface vehicles, an observation deck, and a secondary control bridge), the B Deck (the bridge, quarters for the ship’s officers, admin offices, computer room, library, officer’s mess, and captain’s room), the C Deck (the ship’s drives, marine barracks, sick bay, secondary computer, recreation area, and armory), the D Deck (port and starboard missile turrets, chapel, records office, storage), and E Deck (the bilges, cargo storage, missile magazines, and receiving area). It provides stats and skills for all 46 crew members and 34 marines.

The Kinunir is by no means an essential acquisition and by today’s Traveller standards may seem quaint. The 2e High Guard (2016) rules feature all sorts of military ships (strike cruisers, frontier cruisers, heavy cruisers, strike carriers, fleet carriers, dreadnoughts, etc.) that trivialize the Kinunir. But in the year 1979 I’m sure that GMs found it useful to have a battle cruiser mapped out on this level of detail. Who knows, if I take up playing Traveller again, I might actually get some use out of the Kinunir.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Dreams of Escape: Prison Planet

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by a prison scenario, but Prison Planet is just about the perfect module for this sort of thing. It’s an old-fashioned sandbox that assumes a basic plot of escape, but nothing is predetermined least of all success. Escaping the prison requires months of careful planning and lots of luck. During this time events happen according to random die rolls, and characters do their best to survive prison gangs and deadly working conditions. How things proceed depends largely on them: the reputation they build among their fellow inmates, and their decisions made in highly constrained situations. The point is that the characters have agency (for prison convicts anyway) and there’s no railroading. The module supplies the mechanics to ensure a variety of possible adventure paths. Indeed, Prison Planet could be used more than once for the same players who get arrested and convicted multiple times. Not that I’d recommend that.

One stretch in this prison will be enough to convince even the most reckless players to watch their asses in the future, and to break the law only when risks are acceptable. Players won’t like this module, for obvious reasons, or at least not at first. Captivity scenarios seem so unfair in RPGs, as they leave characters without their possessions and money, and most importantly their freedom. But good players live for hard challenges, and they should end up liking Prison Planet as much as they hate it… though probably only once.

By sheer serendipity, James Maliszewski recently did a retrospective on the D&D module In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981). It was published a year before Prison Planet and based on a similar premise: the characters are thrown into captivity, totally bereft of equipment, armor, weapons, and spells, and forced to rely on their stark-nude selves to escape the slave-lord dungeons. Module author Lawrence Schick comments on the “unfairness” as follows:

“Many players think of their characters in terms of their powers and possessions, rather than as people. Such players will probably be totally at a loss for the first few minutes of play. It is likely that they will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an ‘unfair’ situation. They will demand or beg concessions. Do not give them any help, even if they make you feel sorry for them. Inform the players that they must rely on what they have, not what they used to have, and that this includes their brains and their five senses. Good players will actually welcome the challenge of this scenario. All players will ultimately enjoy the module much more if they out on their own resources, rather than with what hints and clues the DM gives them.”

That’s sound enough advice for Prison Planet. I’ve never played or GM’d the thing so I can’t speak from experience, but I’d bet that a group of mature and skilled players, once they got past their initial fury, would rise to the challenge of escaping a horrible prison. It’s the sort of thing I’d enjoy.

Planetary hell

The prison wastes no time throwing its worst at new inmates. The characters’ first week promises a hellish stretch ahead, that their two- or five- or ten-year sentences will feel like a lifetime. The GM rolls 1D for each character, who will be (1) beaten up by prisoners, (2) beaten up by guards, (3) beaten up by prisoners and then sent to work in the danger zone for supposedly starting the fight, (4) sent to work in the danger zone for missing his work quota, (5) injured in a mining accident and spend the next 1-6 weeks in the infirmary, or (6) very damn lucky to survive without incident.

After that, there is an events table that is rolled by the GM every week for every group of prisoners in a cell block (there are four cell blocks) and for every group of prisoners in the same work area (there are three work areas). All sorts of things can happen:

 

Each of these possible events is described in detail. For example, here is the “gamble with prisoners” event:

“The prisoners may attend a game with other prisoners. Each prisoner may make up to 3D bets, from Cr20-Cr200 each. If a prisoner is unable to cover his debts, he will end up in the infirmary for 1D weeks and lose 1 from his prison reputation. If a player character is suspected of cheating, a fight with a randomly selected prisoner may ensue. Non-player prisoners may not be able to cover debts to a player character (throw 9+ for this to occur), and will offer to cover the debt with services, owned items, or future considerations, unless another throw of 9+ is made, in which case the prisoner will refuse to pay. The player character and any friends may provoke a fight in this situation with no outside interference (unless the prisoner has a reputation of 20 or more, in which case he may receive assistance from friends).”

This is the way modules should be designed. No railroading scripts and plenty of tables to shake things up. There is also a table of the prison regulations and punishments for breaking them (i.e. leaving one’s assigned area results in 4-8 weeks in the danger zone work area; wounding a guard results in a year in the danger zone plus one year added to the character’s prison sentence, etc). There is another table that lists all equipment kept throughout the prison facilities (various tools, supplies, weapons, and drugs), with difficulty levels assigned to stealing them.

On top of all this, the module provides special incidents, events that are designed to “illuminate to the players some aspect of prison existence”, and are “an indirect way for the players to get an idea of the rules of the game so they may begin playing it effectively”. But a secondary purpose of the incidents is to make things colorful: “If prison life ever enters a dull period, or if players are persistently unable to understand what they could or should be doing, the GM should introduce an appropriate incident without waiting for a die roll.”

Incidents include (1) a harrowing gang encounter, (2) a prisoner stealing something from another prisoner, (3) a prisoner denied his parole and hanging himself, (4) guards in a foul mood over-abusing prisoners and nearly precipitating a mass revolt, (5) a prisoner dying in the mines from unsafe work conditions, (6) a cave in that traps a group of prisoners (including a player character) in the danger zone, (7) the entire prison population stricken with food poisoning, (8) a player character finding 2D doses of narcotics that were ditched in a corner by another prisoner trying to avoid a search.

Stats are provided for 60 prisoners (which isn’t all of them by any means): their ages, reputation ratings, skills, which area they work in, and which particular rumors they know and can share. Ditto for all 18 guards, and the degree to which each is susceptible to bribery. Also stats for the 9 staff members: the warden, assistant warden, mining engineer, shuttle pilot, doctor, clerk, rehabilitation counselor, chaplain, and psychologist.

Reputation and Escape

Critical to a character’s survival (and odds of escaping) is the reputation score he manages to acquire. A high reputation means he’s respected by fellow prisoners and the guards, while a low score means being scorned by both, though the prison staff (aside from guards) will consider the prisoner a “good boy”. Reputation is much like honor in shame based cultures: it’s acquired or lost through interactions in the prison community. Here’s the table that shows how a character’s earns/loses reputation:

 

The escape committee will be of paramount interest to the characters. It’s run by prisoners who coordinate escape attempts — highly secretive, of course, but imperative to get in on if the characters want out of this hell hole before the end of their sentence.

The layout

The prison layout is simple, with five levels.

(1) The surface level contains the warden’s residence, armory, guard quarters, staff quarters, guard recreation areas, privileged prisoner quarters (i.e. those with low reputation scores; players definitely don’t want to be privileged in this way, or be the warden’s pet), the infirmary, vehicle storage, laundry detail, kitchens, quarantine areas, ore crushing areas, prisoner recreation yard, etc.

(2) The administrative level is the area where most of the prison staff work, in the kitchens, records area (run by the clerk), machine shop, cafe and movie room (for prisoner entertainment), and computer room (which runs the surveillance program and bookkeeping functions).

(3) The cell block level has four blocks, where all the prisoners live.

(4) The upper mining level is where most prisoners work, breaking up the ore mined on the lower level (the danger zone). They are forced to use picks and shovels in primitive fashion.

(5) The lower mining level (danger zone) is where prisoners are sent for real or imagined violations of regulations. Ore is mined on this level, and many areas are radioactive.

How to escape

As I said there is no script for what “must happen” in this module. No railroad, no helpful nudging the players toward their goal. They have to figure out for themselves (with the help of the committee) how they’re going to pull off the impossible. Looking over the module, it seems the most plausible way to escape would be to rely on a combination of bribery attempts (the guards) and stealing various pieces of equipment and weapons. But it takes a high reputation score to reward such audacity. Prayers won’t hurt either.

Verdict

Prison Planet is my kind of module. It’s a punishing piece of sadism that will teach players some serious humility, and to never again take their characters’ freedom for granted. It won’t be completed in a single gaming session; if played right, it will take a long time and multiple sessions for the travellers to escape, if they can… and that’s just the prison. They still have to get off the planet after that. (Hah!)

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Dune on a Waterworld: Nomads of the World-Ocean

To kick off the new year I’ll be reviewing some classic Traveller modules. I won’t call these reviews “retrospectives”, as I don’t have personal history with them; I rarely played Traveller in the ’80s and never acquired any of the modules. I had the basic rule books and designed my own adventures. Recently I’ve been revisiting the game — inspired largely by James Maliszewski — and obtained some of the modules from DriveThru RPG (where the pdfs are sold for $5 each). They make me wish I had been a serious player back in the day. Very inspired scenarios, and just the kind of gritty sci-fic I like.

My first feature is the ninth published adventure, Nomads of the World-Ocean (1983), by J. Andrew Keith and William H. Keith. I’m choosing this one to start with because it had my attention on every page. It’s basically Dune on a water planet, with huge sea creatures (daghadasi) standing in for sandworms, cancer-killing drugs for spice, sea-nomads for Fremen, daghadasi hunts for wormriding, and ship cities for sietches. The daghadasi are being killed off, harvested by an off-world corporation for the unique life-extending drug contained in the creatures’ biochemistry. This has aroused the ire of the native sea-nomads, as well as an environmental group — the Pan-Galactic Friends of Life — who protect worlds that have endangered species and threatened ecologies. So the PGFL hires the travellers to go to the ocean planet (Bellerophon) and survey the daghadasi herds. In addition, the corporation’s parent company — worried about a PR nightmare, and working in liaison with the environmental group — ask the travellers to pose as a purchasing team for a firm that might be interested in the drug, so that they might gain access to the corporation’s executives, tour its facilities, and hopefully learn how it conducts its unethical business. The travellers’ second mission is thus to obtain solid evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the corporation — whether physical documents, computer files, or video recordings that will allow the parent company to take action.

The travellers won’t get far with regards to their second mission. Almost as soon as they arrive on Bellerophon and reach the corporation’s factory ship, they are made. The executives clam up while feigning hospitality, offering minimal tours of the facility. That leaves the first part of the mission (for the environmental group), and the travellers board an air/raft to search the ocean for daghadasi herds to survey. About 200 miles from the corporation’s factory ship they spot a herd, but this encounter proves catastrophic, as a swarm of winged beasts (who nest on the backs of the daghadasi) assault the air/raft, shatter the windscreens, and plunge the travellers into the ocean. If they’re lucky, they will be rescued by a group of sea-nomads who bring them to their ship-city, where the travellers are treated as inferiors, unless they are willing to prove themselves and begin a long process of acculturation into the nomad way of life. Shades of Paul and Jessica at Sietch Tabr… and more on the sea-nomads in a bit.

The Water World – The Daghadasi

The background provided for the world of Bellerophon is superb. The Keith brothers don’t stint on details, especially the ecological and cultural, which are critical to the module’s success. To take the first: Bellerophon’s ecosystem is as precious as that of Arrakis. It’s a water world completely ocean-covered except for a few islands, and yet supports a population of over two billion human people — most of whom live in stationary pylon cities (see right pic) that rise from the ocean shallows and tower over a mile high.

The sea nomads, on the other hand — the “Fremen” equivalents — don’t live in the pylon cities, but rather on large ship cities which follow daghadasi herds. The name “daghadasi” means “mountain-island”, which is what these beasts resemble, with flora and fauna living all over them:

“Named from an ancient Turkish word-combination meaning ‘mountain-island’, the daghadasi is a gigantic beast that really does resemble a free-floating island, complete with its own local flora and fauna. The largest specimens, the so-called Great Daghadasi or daghadadedes, frequently exceed two kilometers in length; some unverified reports have claimed sightings of behemoths 10 kilometers long. Most daghadasi are members of loosely knit herds.”

In their pre-reproductive stage, the daghadasi grow to the length of a football field. In their post-reproductive stage, they grow over a mile long, as stated above, sometimes even up to six. It’s the pre-reproductive stage that interests the corporation (named Seaharvester), for an adolescent daghadasi produces a unique drug that destroys cancer cells and dangerous viruses. This was accidentally discovered and Seaharvester rushed in to capitalize on the jackpot. But a daghadasi carcass — as huge as even an adolescent one is — yields only a tiny amount of the healing drug, and so the corporation had to mass harvest the creatures.

Thus the crisis. The extinction of the daghadasi would initiate an ecological catastrophe. The daghadasi herds feed on small shrimp-like creatures (called skreekers), which in turn feed on the vast surface plant formation (free-floating marine plantlife called greenmats) in the oceans, which is the only photosynthetic life on Bellerophon. Slaughtering the daghadasi will cause an explosion in the skreeker population and so an effectual end to the greenmats — a complete annihilation of the ecological balance. The triggered greenhouse effect will render the world completely uninhabitable in a manner of decades.

Here’s what a daghadasi looks like.

The sea-nomads revere these creatures, not quite in the religious way the Fremen honor shai-hulud perhaps, but with the same survivalist thrust. Each nomad community hunts a daghadasi and makes a kill (usually an adolescent) about once every six weeks.

“The kill will supply the community with nearly everything it needs. The meat is good to eat (and is supplemented by skreekers and vegetable products harvested from the greenmats). Tough daghadasi hides can be used as building material or worked into many forms of implements and tools. Fatty tissues can be rendered to supply oils for lubricants and plastics, while fibrous body tissues provide the basis for textiles, clothing, and paper products. Finally, the daghadasi even yields fairly large quantities of metals from the creature’s massive skeleton. The sea water of Bellerophon is rich in dissolved metals and minerals, and these are absorbed by the floating greenmats, concentrated by the plant-eating skreekers, and further concentrated by the grazing daghadasi. Thus the nomads make use of as much of the huge creatures as possible and quite rightfully consider themselves an integral part of Bellerophon’s ecology, unlike offworlders who ignore the pyramid of Bellerophonian life.

The travellers will begin to put together these ecological implications during their stay with the nomads. This stay should be for a long time — long enough to assimilate significantly into Aramakilar (nomad) culture.

The Nomads

That culture is fleshed out in abundant detail. The nomads are known as the Aramakilar (“Seekers”), and their prime purpose is to exist in harmony with Bellerophon’s ecology and make their living by hunting the daghadasi — taking only what they need to survive and no more. The concept of muvazene (“balance”) is so critical that it takes on a quasi-religious significance in Aramakilar society.

The societies are fairly militaristic in organization (again, shades of the Fremen) and the ship-cities hold anywhere between 1000-5000 people. The government is oligarchic, consisting of the Oramiral (titular leader of a given ship-city), his elected heir (the Koramiral), and a council, the Hukurmet Baslica (“Principal Government”) made up of a number of councilors. This council makes all major decisions and receives input from others in the community. Each ship city is directed by an senior captain and various other officers, all answerable to the Hukurmet Baslica on matters of policy.

Below the level of the council are the city officers who have a voice in community decisions: (1) the Assubaylar, who may speak for or against a motion before the council (but not introduce motions or vote), (2) the Ustsubaylar, who may introduce motions (though not to vote on them), and (3) the Tugamiralar, full council members with the ability to vote on all proposals. The travellers will need to attain an officer rank in order to be taken seriously by the nomads and earn their respect. The way to become an officer — the only way — is to participate in a daghadasi hunt.

The hunts are conducted in two-person watercraft called hunterfoils (30 of them), each of which carries a pilot (who also fires the small missiles used in the hunt) and a gunner (who fires the laser turret against the winged beasts and sharks that usually accompany a daghadasi). The hunterfoils move on the surface of the water up to 95 mph, or underwater up to 20 mph. A hunt will be declared 1-6 weeks after the arrival of the travellers, and this will be their chance. A traveller who participates in a hunt and survives is granted Assubaylar status; a traveller who makes an actual kill is granted Ustsubaylar status. (Tugamiralar status might come later, if the traveller impresses the council enough in the way they conduct themselves as lower officers.)

Complicating the picture are the factions within nomad society. There are four of them:

Islar Faction: Conservatives who prefer to take no action, keeping the nomads to themselves and adhering to the principals of duty and destiny.

Mudafaalar Faction: Militants who want to fight the Seaharvester corporation but not so radical as to regard all offworld strangers as bad.

Zenginlar Faction: Disgruntled minority who feel the Aramakilar life is no longer viable and want to appease Seaharvester by working for them.

Muharebelar Faction: Radical militants who reject all ways of life other than that of the nomads. They seek to overthrow all who do not share their views, including Seaharvester, the pylon city dwellers, and every single offworlder.

The module supplies tables on how the factions will vote on decisions or be predisposed to certain ideas. This allows the players some good opportunity to influence nomad politics.

Where everything leads depends largely on what the players decide to do (and fateful die rolls), but if they tell the nomads about their mission and how nefarious Seaharvester is, the odds are that things will build to an all-out confrontation between the nomads and the corporation. The nomads may vote to launch an assault on Seaharvester’s factory ship. If this happens, the players will get a taste of battle on the scale of Dune‘s final scene, when the Fremen rebel against the Harkonnen overlords.

Verdict

In sum, Nomads of the World-Ocean offers a taste of everything a module like this should offer — high-level corporate intrigue, colonial exploitation, cultural clashes, and environmental crusading. I can appreciate why it’s widely cherished. The adventure has some railroading but it’s largely invisible if handled right. It’s inevitable that the travellers will at some point come to live on a ship city with the nomads, but there are many paths to that point besides the one provided in the module.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.