I try very hard to be positive on this blog. There's enough negativity in the hobby as it is without my contributing to it and, although I know I don't always succeed in this goal, I do earnestly attempt to focus on what I like and why rather than dwelling on what I dislike. Still, negativity can be sometimes by useful, particularly when it serves to illustrate a large point, as I hope this, one of my more negative retrospectives in some time, will do.
Secret of the Ancients is, as its cover suggests, the twelfth adventure published by GDW for its science fiction RPG, Traveller. Written by the game's creator, Marc W. Miller, it was published in 1984, seven years after the release of the game itself and toward the end of the line of products supporting its original edition (a major revision, the infelicitously named MegaTraveller, was released in 1986). Secret of the Ancients is not only, in my opinion, an awful adventure in its own right; it's also a microcosm of everything that was wrong about Traveller in its latter days and provides an example of how not to support a RPG line.
Like all the adventures published for classic Traveller, Adventure 12 is short by modern standards, being only 48 pages in length. Notes early in the text remind the referee "to administer the adventure rather than just to tell it" and that he "definitely should not explain why events take place." This is, of course, good advice for any referee, but it is difficult to implement when running Secret of the Ancients because the adventure's primary purpose and appeal is its revelation of one of the main enigmas of the Traveller game setting -- the origin and history of the Ancients, a long-vanished race of ultra-powerful alien beings responsible for amazing technological feats, including the seeding of humanity (or humaniti, in Traveller's argot) across many worlds throughout the known galaxy.
Like many Traveller adventures, Secret of the Ancients begins with an archeological mystery. A man by the name of Trow Backette inherits a strange metal statuette from his favorite uncle, who'd been a merchant in the Spinward Marches before retiring. Not long after acquiring the statuette, Backett is accosted by thugs looking for it, but, fortunately, he does not have it on his person at the time of the attack. Later, Imperial agents attempt to seize the statuette as well, claiming that its an unregistered Ancient artifact and thus properly the possession of the government. Like most people in the Traveller universe, Backett's first instinct is to hire a collection of ex-military types to serve as his bodyguards and investigators as he attempts to determine the nature of this statuette and why so many parties are interested in acquiring it for themselves. What follows is a treasure hunt across the Regina subsector of the Marches, culminating in the discovery of an operational Ancient starship that transports the PCs to a pocket universe where dwells the first -- and last -- of the Ancients.
In and of itself, there's nothing necessarily problematic about an adventure of this sort, although I'll admit that I find adventures whose climax includes revelations that would shake the very foundations of the settings if known not to my taste. Even so, the implementation of the adventure -- and its revelations -- are problematic. There are simply too many coincidences, moments of serendipity, and dei ex machina that it strains credibility, especially since neither the characters nor their patron are professional archeologists or experts on the Ancients. By dumb luck, they manage to acquire technology and knowledge, not to mention a face-to-face interview with a super-intelligent 300,000 year-old being, in the process uncovering the answers to numerous long-standing mysteries of the Traveller setting. What's more is that the adventure is written in such a way as to remove most, if not all, the incontrovertible evidence of this having happened, so the PCs are left with knowledge and insights into the true nature of the universe that almost no one else will ever believe to be, thereby ensuring that there are no long-term consequences of their discoveries.
Don't get me wrong: I sometimes enjoy those moments when the PCs discover something that no one else knows. Regular readers of my Dwimmermount session reports should know that very well by now. But there ought to be consequences to such discoveries; the setting cannot remain the same afterward simply by authorial fiat. If the PCs really do uncover the "secret of the Ancients," then it damned well better mean something. Instead we're left with self-destructing super-tech starships and pinched-off pocket universes that conveniently ensure that there are few, if any, ripples in the wider world of the Traveller setting.
Which brings me to my other big complaint about Secret of the Ancients: it's much too deeply immersed in the official Traveller setting of the Third Imperium to be of use to those who aren't using that setting. Indeed, even those of us who were using the setting couldn't find much use for this, because it's such an esoteric scenario. The Ancients were a useful element of the setting, because they provided the means to have uplifted dog-men and interfertile human beings on many worlds, not to mention godlike technology, shattered worlds, and other oddities that even 57th century science could not explain. In short, they were a terrific way to inject some mystery into the setting. Left unexplained, each referee could do with the Ancients as he wished -- or do nothing at all with them. Once explained, though, that mystery was gone and the referee's option became either to accept the explanation offered or ignore it, thereby deviating from the official setting and making it harder to use subsequent materials that depended on his having accepted the answers provided in Secret of the Ancients.
As it turned out, this last concern was a minor one, as Traveller was soon detonated by GDW itself, further canonizing what was once an example setting into the very essence of the game. It's interesting to note, though, that, according to Marc Miller's own admission, Secret of the Ancients sold significantly less well than most of its predecessors (7,370 copies -- nothing to sneeze at by today's standards, to be sure -- compared to 36,703 for the first adventure released just five years earlier). It's possible that the decline in sales has as much to do with the decline in the mass marketability of tabletop roleplaying at the time, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Traveller's decline in popularity also maps on to its increasingly self-referential and insular nature, with adventures like Secret of the Ancients being a prime example. I can't say with any degree of certainty that, had the game remained as open-ended and sandbox-y as it had been for the first several years of its existence, it might have weathered the mid-80s better in terms of sales, but it's a theory I hold nonetheless. Regardless, Secret of the Ancients is not one of Traveller's finest moments and it's one I look back on now as a herald of what was to come.