Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Retrospective: The Traveller Adventure

When I think about the great RPGs of the past, one of the things that immediately comes to my mind are the great adventures released for use with them. If you think carefully about the top rung of old school roleplaying games, in terms of popularity and influence, you'll see that they almost all have an adventure (or several) that stands out as a kind of exemplar of that game and how its designers expected it to be played. D&D has many such iconic adventures, but I think most of us would agree that The Keep on the Borderlands (or perhaps The Village of Hommlet) exemplifies low-level play, while the Giants-Drow modules exemplify high-level play. Likewise, Call of Cthulhu has Masks of Nyarlathotep and RuneQuest has Griffin Mountain.

While GDW's Traveller was blessed with many great adventures over the course of its existence, for me 1983's simply-titled The Traveller Adventure will always stand taller than any of the others. Written by Marc Miller, with assistance from many other GDW staffers and freelancers, The Traveller Adventure isn't a single adventure so much as the skeleton of an entire campaign, with lots of ligaments and musculature provided for the referee as he fleshes it out for use at his own table. Consequently, it's an open-ended, providing a sandbox-like environment in the form of the Aramis subsector of the Spinward Marches. Because of the nature of interstellar travel in Traveller, there are limits to where and how quickly the characters can travel and this provides Miller and his co-writers with the perfect means to drop rumors and hints and that might encourage the PCs to head in certain directions without resorting to more heavy-handed approaches. It's a good compromise between aimless wandering and railroading in my view and one I've often emulated in my own campaigns.

The Traveller Adventure does make a few assumptions at its start. In addition to its location within a backwater subsector, the adventure expects the PCs to be the crew of a subsidized merchant vessel assigned to a particular cluster of worlds all easily reachable by a jump-1 drive. For those unfamiliar with Traveller's conventions, jump-1 drives can travel a single parsec over a week-long journey through jumpspace. At the start of The Traveller Adventure, the PCs are "trapped" within a cluster of worlds all reachable by jump-1 but worlds located farther away (2 parsecs or more) require a ship with a better jump drive. Initially, there's no pressing need to acquire a better drive, but, as the adventure unfolds, that situation changes and the PCs must somehow acquire the funds needed to get a better drive, thereby providing them with a reason to take advantage of certain opportunities that come their way.

The central conflict of The Traveller Adventure concerns the efforts of a high-level megacorporate officer to get rich by illegal means. The PCs inadvertently become thorns in his side when they make the acquaintance of a Vargr (a wolf-like alien species) who himself has run afoul of agents of the same megacorporation. Should the characters help the Vargr -- if they don't, the campaign ends before it begins -- they'll slowly become enmeshed in a conspiracy that spans many worlds of the subsector and involves them in both megacorporate and political maneuverings they never suspected. Along the way, they'll visit many unique planets, interact with dozens of NPCs, and generally explore a small corner of the Third Imperium in great detail.

The Traveller Adventure is not flawless. Often the main thread of the adventure requires that the PCs go in a certain direction to continue and, while Miller and company are to be commended for not forcing particular actions through railroad-y situations, there is a danger that, in the hands of an inexperienced referee, the whole structure could collapse in on itself. On the other hand, The Traveller Adventure is a very fun adventure that rather nicely illustrates what Traveller is all about. The antagonist of the adventure is no black-hatted villain, but rather a venal executive chasing absurd profit and damn the consequences. Certainly innocents will die if his plan succeeds, but that's mere collateral damage rather than his actual goal. Likewise, failure by the PCs doesn't mean the end of the Imperium or anything so grandiose. In short, it's an adventure about people acting like, well, people, even if they live in the 57th century. I like that a lot, which is probably why The Traveller Adventure will always be the quintessential Traveller adventure for me.


  1. Also, the cover illustration is awesome.

  2. A great example of how to build a grand campaign of linked episodes that don't necessarily have to be run sequentially. You can throw in side adventures, weeks of regular merchant work, and drop clues that eventually lead to the next step. Makes the game more enjoyable as the events unfold slowly.

    The only big problem is the campaign start. It assumes that a starship crew with stable jobs would happily help a new acquaintance commit several felonies by breaking into a museum and stealing an artifact. The second time I ran the campaign I rewrote the opener to have the Vargr be an old friend of one of the players, and the museum heist having already happened. That made the first adventure a Maltese Falcon-like race to retrieve the item before the bad guys find it.

    1. I've always had the same problem with the Traveller Adventure opening! You wouldn't happen to still have those notes lying around would you?

  3. I've never (sadly!) read this adventure, as I got into Traveller somewhat late, around the time of MegaTraveller/TNE changeover, and I haven't gotten any republication, either. (It seems to be available on the Classic Traveller CD-ROM.)

    It seems to be a fun campaign from what I've read about it. One of my Traveller campaigns was about young nobles on a Grand Tour and it tried to have similar structure to the Traveller adventure.

  4. @Mikko You're experience is exactly the opposite of mine. I got into Traveller too early to have played it. I played Traveller for five years, but had stopped by the time this was published.

    It sounds good, and I own a copy. A similar approach could be used for any game, if done well -- detail a large enough area to satisfy the players for a long time, but small enough to fit in a supplement, with locations, NPCs, social structures, and adventures and adventure seeds and rumors. Hmmmm. Now I want to read this and try to emulate it.

  5. I never got to play it but I acquired a copy a few years ago. It does look like a solid sandbox/plotted hybrid campaign.

    You like the cover FuriousDave? It matches the contemporary Traveller Book cover. Both covers get high marks in the SF Game Cover Cliches Test:

    Hero with Gun - 2 Point
    Heroine with gun - 1 Point + Bonus 1 Point if "Hot"
    Spaceship - 1 Point
    Alien Vista - 1 Point
    Planet or Planets in sky - 1 Point
    Robot or Alien - 1 Point. Bonus points for both.

    Traveller Adventure gets a 7.
    Universe gets a 9!

  6. Stop making me want to play Traveller. ;)

  7. I played as a character in this adventure and the Referee was somewhat inexperienced. The ultimate result was that one my fellow players antagonized the vargr, then shot him and pawned the looted brooch. The Ref was pissed.

    I knew we were screwed when I saw him reach for ADVENTURE 8: PRISON PLANET.

  8. I ran this for my Traveller campaign back when it was released. We loved it, but I dimly recollect that we never managed to "finish" it. One thing I do recall was the howood. Whether it was a typo or I misread something, the party was supposed to make a profit on it, and I couldn't figure out how to give them anything but a net loss, as written. Ah well, it still gets my vote for best Traveller adventure!

  9. I remember GM'ing this adventure back in the 80's. Some modifications were made because my players had already adventured in the Regina Sector and had acquired a Jump-1 Far Trader (I believe it was from one of the JTAS adventures as a reward for gun-running. I made the Vargr a deadhead member of the crew. The struggle with bureaucracy was priceless - we were huge Monty Python fans. I ran the rest of the adventure pretty much as written.

    Other adventures that we played and can I remember include the "Chamax Plague/Horde" double adventure, the "Night of Conquest", Nomads of the World Ocean and of course Prison Planet.

  10. Every so often I see a product with the same cover advertised on eBay as "The Traveller Adventure - Volume 2." Is there actually such a beast?

  11. The only big problem is the campaign start. It assumes that a starship crew with stable jobs would happily help a new acquaintance commit several felonies by breaking into a museum and stealing an artifact.

    That's true, although -- and maybe this speaks poorly of the groups I've played Traveller with over the years -- I've never had much trouble goading the players into such action.

  12. I knew we were screwed when I saw him reach for ADVENTURE 8: PRISON PLANET.

    Your referee was awesome :)

  13. Every so often I see a product with the same cover advertised on eBay as "The Traveller Adventure - Volume 2." Is there actually such a beast?

    Not to my knowledge.

  14. @James

    "Every so often I see a product with the same cover advertised on eBay as "The Traveller Adventure - Volume 2." Is there actually such a beast?

    Not to my knowledge."

    To the contrary, note the writing at the top right, see:

  15. It is the same one. Note the writing on the top right of the picture, the bibliography and the guide.

  16. To the contrary, note the writing at the top right

    Now I understand. The Traveller Adventure is volume 2 of a series of 8.5" x 11" Traveller books that began with The Traveller Book. A third volume, The Traveller Alien, was published in very limited qualities -- in Europe primarily, I believe. So the "Vol. 2" refers to the overall series, not to the specific adventure in question.