Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Retrospective: 76 Patrons

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.

12 comments:

  1. While reading this, it struck me, too that something like this would be useful for a fantasy campaign, particularly a low-level or beginning game. I'm not sure I see the problem with a lack of a "patron structure." A lot of fantasy games, including WFRP, used the idea of, for example, a "jobs tree," a place in the village square where people seeking help would put up fliers -- "My property has been stolen! Will pay well for it's recovery! See Hans at the Three Maidens for details."

    In fact, I think this would be a nice follow up to Petty Gods.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love the idea of 76 Patrons. I find it less useful in practice, though, which I think can be chalked up to the lack—somewhat—of variety that you touched on. I get a little more use out of BITS’ 101 Patrons. I would definitely be interested in seeing more products in this vein.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I also think that this would not be hard to graft into a fantasy campaign. At the very least, it could be a source of ideas for a game master as you indicate, but a page of rules on how parties find patrons, and what it means to work for someone else and not for yourself, and bang good to go.

    Each entry could be a page of data for the patron type, including a d6 roll for exact specifications for the quest/job/task, and stat block for relivent NPCS.

    Working title "77 patrons" or "Petty Patrons"? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Traveller originally was so open-ended and generic that 76 Patrons offered almost the first insight into what GDW (or Loren Wiseman, anyway) thought characters would actually be doing in the game. It startled me that so many of the patrons were obvious crooks hiring the PCs to commit major felonies or murder.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Apparently Mongoose has dropped a new iteration of this book called "760 Patrons". I can't personally say anything for its quality (though user reviews seem pretty enthusiastic) but I have to respect their enthusiasm to outright multiply the number by ten.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dragons Warriors did a recent fantasy version of this for their Legend gameworld entitled Friends or Foes.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "What differentiates the patron from the hackneyed mysterious stranger is that the characters seek out patrons, not the other way around."

    Not being a Trav guy, I never knew this. It seems like a really great idea, structurally. Once again, you read an old RPG book so I didn't have to, and it helps.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Anthony: historically people would often nail up such job notices and other announcements on the local church doors.

    In an open sandbox world, where multiple players/parties are adventuring in the same world, it's a very useful thing to have noticeboards in the marketplaces with such jobs/quests posted. If nothing else it makes it a convenient method to get low-level characters involved in the campaign. [Or to leave messages for other players/groups.] At the larger cities one could pay a scribe to write you a notice and a herald to read it to you, if you had difficulty in that regard.

    @Jason Withrow: 760 patrons is a reasonable update, although it has a lot less colour (in that it is a "generic" SF set of contacts, mentors, and patrons, rather than being specific to the Imperium). One nice touch is they've divided the patrons into antagonists and protagonists.

    @Allen Varney: So true. It often seemed that the idea behind Traveller was a group of hard-scrabble retirees with inadequate pensions struggling to keep it all together and hungry enough to jump at any offer that comes it's way. Which is why I could never use 76 Patrons in any of my "Traveller" games, and so it ended up being the least used of the supplements.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Is it sad that I read the line about the "nervous man" and know exactly which patron it refers to (he's looking to inconvenience a business rival)?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Trail of Cthulhu's sandbox campaign "The Armitage Files" takes a similiar, though slightly different slant. It provides a bunch of NPCs that provides each with a "Sinister", "innocuous" and "Stalwart" variation, as well as Alternate Descriptions, Defining Quirks and a short stat block. It then goes on to describe a series of locations each with "Neutral" and "Sinister" descriptions.

    As such it's a great tool that provides substantial support to the GM that's winging it in some prolonged improvisation.

    Coupled with amazing production values of t"The Armitage Files" themselves, it's one of the GREAT Role Playing products of recent time.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Pere Ubu: “Is it sad that I read the line about the ‘nervous man’ and know exactly which patron it refers to (he’s looking to inconvenience a business rival)?

    Whether it is sad or not, I recognized it as well. ^_^

    ReplyDelete
  12. Aren't there a few Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories that involve, essentially, a patron?

    Another way to use the patrons, esp. in fantasy: The patron scenarios could be rumors the PCs catch wind of. Instead of hiring the PCs the patron would hire some other people. The PCs would then hear that some patron has hired some toughs to steal something. The PCs could then use that information to either intercept the hired toughs, race to beat them to the target, or sell the information to other interested parties, etc.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.