76 Patrons isn't my favorite Traveller product by a long shot, but it's definitely one of my favorite gaming products. Written by Loren K. Wiseman and first published in 1980, 76 Patrons is, in my opinion, the ultimate supplement for running and maintaining a sandbox-style science fiction campaign. I used the heck out of my copy back in the day and, were I ever to start up a Traveller campaign in the future, you can be sure I'd be looking to 76 Patrons for ideas and inspiration.
In Traveller, you see, there's the concept of a "patron," which is little more than the game's equivalent of the mysterious stranger who meets your characters in an inn and offers them money in exchange for exploring a conveniently-located dungeon. What differentiates the patron from the hackneyed mysterious stranger is that the characters seek out patrons, not the other way around. Indeed, the finding of patrons is one of the key activities of old school Traveller adventurers, which is why there are rules for doing so -- rules, I should add, that include the possibility of the patron's finding the PCs unsuitable to his needs and failing to hire them. It's the sort of the reverse of OD&D; instead of the characters looking for hirelings to assist them, they are the hirelings.
Because of this, a Traveller referee needs to be flexible and create many different potential patrons for the characters to meet and enter negotiations with, some of which might never be used in play. That can be a significant burden on any referee, even a very improvisational one, which is why a supplement like 76 Patrons came in handy. As its name suggests, the book provides 76 different job opportunities (16 of which are actually mercenary tickets requiring the PCs to command military units of varying sizes). These jobs briefly describe the potential patron offering them -- "a newly married couple ... [who] have reason to believe that their respective parents are not pleased with their union" or "a nervous looking gentleman" -- as well as the nature of his offer and the remuneration for succeeding. Each entry also notes any required skills or equipment.
But what really made 76 Patrons useful was that each patron includes up to six different variations on the patron's offer. The referee rolls a die to determine whether, for example, the newly married couple are correct in their suspicions and what action, if any, their parents are taking. This random element not only made it impossible for players who also owned the book to determine in advance the nature of the job, but enabled certain patron listings to be reused again with a little bit of tweaking, thus extending the utility of the supplement. Furthermore, each patron entry served as a model to referees in creating their own patrons on the fly -- a skill all good Traveller referees had to master if they were to keep the campaign from grinding to a halt.
76 Patrons has its flaws, most notably a certain repetitiveness in the nature of many of the jobs offered. Many boil down to some variation on "illegally break into some place to get something," but, then, that's true of a great many scenarios for most RPGs (and literature, come to think of it). I'm willing to overlook such defects, though, because supplements like this were a treasure house of ideas and inspiration. As an inexperienced Traveller referee, they gave me the raw materials I needed to construct adventures for the PCs, as they traveled from place to place without any warning in search of employment. I've lately thought that a similar supplement for fantasy sandbox campaigns might be useful, though, lacking the patron structure of Traveller, it's harder to imagine how this might be achieved. Even so, I continue to regard 76 Patrons quite highly and see it as the kind of useful, no-frills products that we don't see as much these days as we did in days gone by.