This article was the featured article in the August 2013 issue.
The IISS is organizing volunteers from across the sector to participate in a benchmarking survey of a navigationally-important pulsar. The PCs will be volunteers assigned to this mission.
Benchmarking is the process of obtaining data that is used as the basis (“benchmarks”) for the positioning and navigation throughout the Imperium. Usually, this process involves taking a number of detailed and precise astronomical observations, particularly of unique or navigationally-useful phenomena. Pulsars are one such phenomenon—they emit radio or X-ray pulses at an extremely regular rate, and can effectively be used as a “GPS-like” system throughout Charted Space. However, pulsars’ pulses slow down over time, and they occasionally have “glitches” where the pulse rate changes suddenly. So, to ensure that Imperial ships have accurate navigational databases, the IISS observes the signals of these pulsars, and distributes updates to the standard Imperial navigation databases. Since the pulsar signals travel at the speed of light, the observations have to be taken well outside the Imperium to ensure that the IISS has enough time to distribute the updates (a process which can take years). Typically, the IISS gathers decades or even centuries worth of data in a single expedition—this maximizes the return on their investment in the expedition, and reduces the number of updates to be disseminated to every starship in the Imperium.
This particular expedition will survey a pulsar known to the IISS crews as “target L713” after the last few digits of its database identifier (the target number does not have anything to do with the astronomical identifier of the pulsar or its location). This target was previously surveyed in 983; data from this survey were supplemented by an IISS observatory on the edge of charted space. That observatory will be the starting point for the expedition. The objective is to travel at least 30 parsecs, and ideally much further, in the direction of the pulsar.
The IISS has refitted ISC-6336, Luray Explorer (a former Lightning-class cruiser), for the mission. The refit introduced a number of changes, specifically:
- Deck 1: The auxiliary bridge has been optimized for use when collecting benchmarking data; the ship is controlled from here during each data-gathering session. Specific changes include changing position 6 to the primary survey data collection station, and replacing gunnery positions 9 and 10 with additional data-gathering and analysis workstations.
- Deck 71: The second hangar deck has been refit as a cargo deck, and holds supplies for the long-duration mission. This reduces the fighter complement to 30. Three 40-ton launches are carried in the hangar instead of gunboats.
- One fuel shuttle and its mounting have been replaced by fixtures for carrying four Type S scout/courier starships. This increases refueling time to about a week, six days at an absolute minimum. Crews for these Type S scouts occupy the unused flight crew quarters (vacated by the reduction in hangar deck capacity).
Typical benchmarking operations call for a starship to spend time receiving and processing pulsar signal data; roll 1d6 for the number of days required to collect the required quality of information. Apply the following DMs based on circumstance:
- DM +1 if one of the Type S scouts, rather than the Luray Explorer, is doing the data collection, to reflect the difference in sensor capabilities of the two ships.
- DM +1 if a TL-5+ world with population 6+ (e.g., a world that emits significant radio “noise”) is nearby and close to the line of sight to the pulsar (in one of the three hexes “forward” of the ship).
- DM +2 if the ship is orbiting a TL-5+, population 6+ world when making the observations.
- DM +1 if the ship is orbiting a “noisy” gas giant when making the observations (large gas giants are “noisy” on a 1D6 roll of 5+, small gas giants on a roll of 6+).
The ship may take an initial measurement anywhere within 5 parsecs of the IISS observatory. Analysis of the observation will indicate how far the ship may jump before taking the next observation. Roll 1D6 for the number of parsecs that the ship may jump toward the pulsar before taking the next observation. Note that the ship is not required to jump the full distance—the die roll indicates the maximum distance the survey team is comfortable with; they will always accept the opportunity to take more-frequent observations. If the ship jumps short of the maximum distance, apply the unused distance as a DM to the next distance roll. Regardless of the applied DM, the maximum distance the survey team will be comfortable with is 6 parsecs. [for example, at hex 2238, the distance roll results in a 6. The ship jumps 4 parsecs and takes an observation. The next distance roll will be at DM +2, and the possible results will be 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, or 6 parsecs].
As the orders are written, the objective of the benchmarking survey mission is to take all required observations for at least 30 parsecs from the observatory. Ideally, IISS high command would like the survey to progress considerably farther: treat 30 parsecs as completing the letter of the orders but a disappointment to high command; treat 45 parsecs as routine “mission accomplished”, and 60 parsecs or more as a major victory. Secondary to the benchmarking survey, and provided that such activities do not endanger the successful completion of the survey mission, the expedition is to gather data on worlds, cultures, and phenomena that they encounter, and make contact with potentially-friendly cultures, and act as representatives of the Imperium.
This is intended as a framework for an exploration and contact mission within the established Traveller universe; this is relatively hard to do given the well-explored nature of most of the map.
I deliberately haven’t specified the location of the observatory where the expedition starts—in a sense, it isn’t terribly relevant. Similarly, the exact location and identity of the pulsar isn’t important, either. The pulsar itself is hundreds or possibly even thousands of parsecs away—the goal is only to get 30 to 60 parsecs closer to it. This will provide detailed observations that will keep Imperial ships navigating accurately for the next century or two.
Regardless of the starting point or “actual” direction of travel, I recommend orienting the subsectors long-ways, so that one of the short ends is towards the pulsar, and the other is towards the observatory. Fully-map one subsector, and place the observatory at the bottom hex row. Data about this subsector is presumed known to the observatory staff and in the Luray Explorer’s library computer.
The referee should generate additional subsectors as needed, but some of their contents should be kept secret from the crew of the Luray Explorer. As a slight extension to CT rules:
- Positions of the stars are well-known, so the players always have access to a dot map, plus the number and types of each star in the system.
- Most TL-5+ cultures advertise their presence (via radio emissions), so star systems that have a world with a TL-5+ culture should also be marked. Analysis of the transmissions can give the expedition information about the species, language, and culture, so the note should also give an approximate TL (industrial, pre-stellar, early, average, or high stellar), an estimate of population (the population digit, +/- 1).
- The Luray Explorer can detect the presence or absence of gas giants at a range of 2 parsecs (the Type S scouts at 1 parsec per CT rules) during the course of a normal data-gathering run. Additional gas giants may be detected: roll 1D6+1; one additional gas giant (located in a system of the referee’s choosing, but within 5 parsecs of the Luray Explorer or 3 parsecs of a Type S) is revealed for each multiple of this time spent observing. [Example: Luray Explorer spends its entire refueling time observing, 7 days, even though the survey team had the data they needed after 3 days; the presence or absence of all gas giants within 2 parsecs is revealed. The referee further throws 1D6+1 = 3, and reveals the presence of 2 additional gas giants anywhere within 5 parsecs. Note that the referee does not reveal any data about the absence of gas giants outside of the 2-parsec radius.]
- The Luray Explorer (but not the Type S scouts) can detect the presence of planets at a range of 1 parsec; this observation produces the planet’s size, atmosphere, and hydrographic values.
The referee should impose specific events at likely points during the survey. These events can include:
- A pulsar “glitch”—observations have detected a sudden difference in pulsar emissions; a “glitch” has occurred somewhere between the previous observation point and this one. The survey needs to observe the glitch in detail—the referee should determine which hex contains the glitch, and allow the expedition to conduct a binary search for it. This will likely involve using the Luray Explorer as a base of operations, and using it to refuel the Type S scouts. Once the correct hex is found, it will take about 1D6×2 weeks to locate and observe the glitch within the hex.
- A pre-stellar or early-stellar culture that is hostile
- A potentially-friendly culture
- An interesting scientific phenomena that bears further investigation.
The players should probably have two sets of characters: one set representing the expedition’s command team, including the captain and key senior officers. In this role, the players should act as key decision-makers for the expedition. They should have an alternate set of characters that are the crew of one of the Type S scouts (the one that gets sent on all of the “interesting” missions).