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.
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.
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