Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Retrospective: Murder on Arcturus Station

Many people attribute Traveller's lasting success to the fact that it was one of the first science fiction roleplaying games published and there may be some truth to that. However, I think it had more to do with the fact that it was supported by many excellent adventures, starting with its first. With very few exceptions, Traveller had a larger selection of excellent adventures than almost any other RPG of which I can think, a terrific example of which is 1983's Murder on Arcturus Station by J. Andrew Keith.

As its title suggests, Murder on Arcturus Station is a murder mystery set on Station Three within the asteroid belt orbiting the star Arcturus. The murder victim is Ringiil Urshukaan, president of Lamarck Minerals, whom the adventure assumes has recently hired the PCs in order to discover the location of a missing ore carrier. The adventure takes as granted that the PCs succeeded in this prior mission, learning that the theft of the ore carrier was part of a plot by disgruntled employees of Urshukaan. As it turns out, there are quite a lot of disgruntled employees at Lamarck Minerals, thus laying the groundwork for the main adventure.

What sets Murder on Arcturus Station apart from other adventures of its kind is that it's actually a toolbox. Beyond the information noted in the previous paragraph, little else is set in the adventure. Instead, each referee is expected to decide for himself who killed Urshukaan, why they did it, and how they accomplished the murder. Consequently, the adventure is a little longer than most those published for Traveller -- 52 pages -- but those extra pages are put to good use, providing the referee with everything he needs to create his own unique murder mystery. Thus, there's a map of the station itself, along with details on 57th century forensic science, background on the victim and all nine suspects. Each of those nine suspects is given background of their own, as well as a possible motive, means, and alibi. This makes it possible for the referee to reuse this adventure many times, each with a different murderer, motive, and means.

Most intriguing of all is the fact that Murder on Arcturus Station allows for a tenth possible murderer, namely one of the player characters. It's an unusual possibility that I never had the opportunity to use back in the day and I regret that now. Naturally, such a possibility depends on planning beforehand between the referee and the player, but that's easily accomplished. The only real issue I have with this possibility is that, if the PCs are all pregenerated ones, the revelation that one of them is in fact a killer won't have very much impact, or at least it'll have far less impact than if it were a long-established PC who's revealed to be the perpetrator. On the other hand, I'll admit that the use of an established PC isn't very likely in my experience, not unless his player has either decided to retire the character in style or the referee intends to make another Traveller adventure, Prison Planet, the new centerpiece of his campaign.

Murder on Arcturus Station is a lot of fun for the referee. It does a lot of the heavy lifting in the creation of a murder mystery adventure while still providing enough options that the referee feels as if he's co-creating the situation he's presenting to his players. In addition, adventures like this are, I think, a big part of why Traveller succeeded so well. I don't mean the toolbox aspect of it, though that is indeed attractive. Rather, I mean that Traveller was never just about dogfights and shoot 'em ups with bug-eyed aliens. There was a depth and variety to its adventures, some of which offered up surprisingly complex issues as fodder for roleplaying. It's something I continue to admire about Traveller and that has continued to influence me as I write my own science fiction adventures.


  1. Although nowhere near as familiar with Traveller as you are, I do have to say a likely candidate for "largest collection of excellent adventures".

    Here's a few that come to mind:

    1. Masks of Nyarlathotep (campaign)
    2. Beyond the Mountains of Madness (campaign)
    3. Escape from Innsmouth (campaign)
    4. Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37
    5. Our Ladies of Sorrow (campaign)
    6. "The Night War" from New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley
    7. "Madness of the Ancestors" from Secrets of Kenya
    8. "The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man" from Worlds of Cthulhu #6
    9. Final Flight
    10. The Realm of Shadows (campaign)
    11. Future: Perfect (campaign)
    12. Coming Full Circle (campaign)
    13. "Nightcap" and "The Dream Factory" from Mortal Coils
    14. All 3 scenarios from Delta Green
    15. 2 out of the 3 scenarios from Delta Green: Countdown
    16. 2 out of the 3 scenarios from Delta Green: Eyes Only
    17. The Last Equation
    18. "The Well of Sacrifice" from Mysteries of Mesoamerica

    That's 23 scenarios that I found to be truly excellent. There's many more that are good products that I found some serious flaw in, but these are the cream of the crop. I'm sure others would be able to point out many more I forgot, but what's important here is that Call of Cthulhu has concentrated on one thing over the decades: making adventures. Since there hasn't been a ton of unnecessary additional sourcebooks, new editions, or any else getting in the way, CoC has moved far beyond its peers when it comes to scenario design.

    I often wonder what would have happened if TSR stuck to this model. Who knows what sort of great adventures they would've produced if adventures had remained their bread and butter?

  2. You speak truly and I can't believe I didn't at least make reference to Call of Cthulhu when I made my bold statement. CoC is not just a RPG with excellent adventures; it's an RPG that has survived and prospered largely on adventures. That makes it a rarity in this hobby.

  3. Call of Cthulhu sprang to mind almost immediately for me too, but as I'm unfamiliar with Traveller, I didn't know if such a comparison would be fair.

  4. Call of Cthulhu is the exception that proves the rules that apply to virtually all other RPGs.

    Most RPGs will fail to find an audience.
    - CoC has been quietly building an audience for almost 30 years.

    RPGs cannot sell adventures.
    - CoC sells mostly adventures and few straight source books

    Successful RPGs have to be radically overhauled periodically to meet a changing market.
    -CoC Sandy Petersen got it right back in the 80s. CoC has been tweaked very little over the decades.

    CoC is the only RPG I know that's been in print that long and remains basically unchanged in terms of rules system and presentation. I suppose Tunnels & Trolls hasn't changed all that much either but it's never had the following that CoC has. And you can buy Classic Traveller again but Traveller has been done many detours in the last 20 years....

    None of this applies to the OSR, of course. If you have the wherewithal to imagine, write, and publish a game then I Salute you!

  5. "Rather, I mean that Traveller was never just about dogfights and shoot 'em ups with bug-eyed aliens. There was a depth and variety to its adventures, some of which offered up surprisingly complex issues as fodder for roleplaying. It's something I continue to admire about Traveller and that has continued to influence me as I write my own science fiction adventures."

    +1. Perfectly said, and this is why Traveller is my second favorite RPG ('though not by much ;) ).

  6. BTW, James, thank you for this. While I own MoAS, I never really gave it much heed. Because of this blog entry, I'm rereading it and rediscovering what great adventure-fodder this module is. Kudos!

  7. MoAS is my all time favorite RPG adventure. I've run variations on it at least 5 times, each in a different system.

  8. I guess i missed all of this, i started playing in the early 90's and by then, adventures never really had much visibility. OR at least they didn't in Phoenix where i grew up. We played a mix of D&D 2E and Rifts, and Rifts doesn't really have much in the way of published adventures, though they do provide lots of capsule style adventures called "Hook, Line and Sinker" that are about 3 paragraphs long and paint an adventure in broad strokes. Even now, as i start to dig into the OSR movement, i'm still not a huge fan of published adventures, outside of the locations and monsters i can plunder for my own campaigns. Still, i really do enjoy articles like this as it broadens my horizons and gives me incite into where the hobby itself came from and why somethings are the way they are.