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Mercenary: A Quick First Look

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue.

Mercenary Kickstarter Set. Martin J. Dougherty.
Mongoose Publishing https://mongoosepublishing.com
Mixed format, including PDF
Retail price TBD, multiple volumes

You may be aware that Mongoose’s Mercenary kickstarter has delivered. And it’s delivered in spades. If you’ve not been keeping up, there’s a lot there. Martin J. Dougherty is listed as the author throughout so we can see what he’s spent lockdown doing. I should say at the outset that this kind of thing isn’t usually my cup of tea. If you asked me to list all Traveller titles in order of ‘interest’ then this would be at the bottom. Not least because it’s ground already well covered by Traveller – not least by Mongoose itself with two previous volumes. Just as those two books were quite different, however, this is different again. And of course, there’s a lot more of it. A lot. This will only be an overview of the contents and some initial reactions to it rather than a formal in-depth review as I’ve not got the strategic combat knowledge or the equipment knowledge to really pick apart those systems. I’ll have to leave that for those more knowledgeable and I know they’re not hard to find in the Traveller community.

In its entirety the kickstarter consists of two boxes, three hardback books and three softcover adventures. It takes up some 5.5” (14cm+) on the shelves with 912 pages all told (152 of which are adventure) plus the ‘extras’ such as pads and cards.

The first boxed set is called Mercenary and contains the core of the offering. You get three rulebooks and an adventure along with a wipe-clean Force Roster Card. There are also three additional adventures which are not formally part of the box but fit very nicely within (see rows 1 and 2 in photo).

Then there are three hardcover books of some heft: Field Catalogue, Specialist Forces, and Mercenaries of Charted Space (see row 3 on the photograph).

Finally, there is an ‘extras’ box called Mercenary Boxset (which isn’t a great name confusing as it with the main box and which surely should be ‘boxed set’?1 1—Although I think the internet has long since been mishearing/using the term boxset so it’s probably not worth fighting about any more. Literally.but see row 4 in the photo). This is similar to the Deepnight Revelation Commemorative Pack and contains a pen, 6 pencils, 20 Mercenary dice in their own box, a pad of 50 double-sided Mercenary Force Roster sheets, 24 vehicle recognition cards and a Premium Weapons Guide.

The two boxes are the good quality Mongoose have been using for such things as Deepnight Revelation, Element Class Cruisers, Starter Set and The Great Rift. Both have red ribbons to aid the extraction of the contents. In the Mercenary box the books are a tight fit for length and breadth but don’t quite fill the depth so there’s room for an adventure or three more should they be published. This also means the hardcover volumes don’t fit within. A bit of me would have preferred it if all went in one box with the three additional hardback volumes as softcovers to fit, but a larger part of me would have liked all the rule books at least to have been hardcovers, so you can’t win! The upside of the route Mongoose have taken is that additional rule books or source material would be easy to add – either as softcover or hard. The back of the Mercenary box gives some clue as to the contents; the back of the Mercenary Boxset box just has Traveller branding and more of the natty camouflage pattern seen on the front (where there’s also a helmeted skull in a chevron emblem). With all that camouflage, how will I ever find it on the shelf?

The core rulebooks are:

It’s already fair to say I’m not quite sure which volume to pick up depending on what I want to do. For example, to create a small mercenary platoon you’ll end up using both Book 1 and Book 2. For Tickets you’ll be in Book 2 and Book 3. This will improve with familiarity but feeds my slight preference to have all these three in one large hardcover.

The first book, Mercenaries in the Far Future, is 120 pages, sets the stage and looks at the effects of technology. This is great to see although it does point up the fact that all that’s to come is squarely aimed at mid-tech units (say 8 to 12ish). It would be tricky to use this to run a campaign at World War II tech levels or less for example. There are the odd lower tech items but if you were interested in TL4 hordes, say, then this isn’t the right material. I would venture to say the same would be true if you were dreaming of cutting-edge tech level forces, say TL16, blasting each other into a slag although there are some juicy bits of high-tech equipment. Perhaps such options will be addressed in future publications. In the meantime, there are some Traveller source books aimed at the TL6 of World War II in Mongoose’s 1st Edition American/British/French/German/Italian/Japanese/Soviet Vehicles of the Second World War.

There’s then a chapter on involving Travellers in mercenary campaigns which is thoughtful and should help even those dubious about such an enterprise. Then we’re into actually running a campaign, whether episodic or full-on war. We get details on raising and running a mercenary force, equipping them, supplying them with intelligence and a table of campaign events. The next chapter looks at constructing seven types of Ticket: Commando, Striker, Warfighting, Cadre, Security, Support, and Specialist with rules, for example, for success and Ticket outcomes. Chapter Six looks at force capability assessment. Book 2 will look at how to build that from the ground up for your own units; this offers a quicker method for opposing forces. Both should probably be read in conjunction to get a full understanding of what’s going on and how it interrelates. We then move onto Unit Characteristics and here we see the return of CEIs from the Element Class Cruisers boxed set. This time it’s ‘company efficiency index’ rather than ‘crew’ as it was in the Naval setting, but it works the same way. DEIs are ‘detachment’ instead of ‘department’. Here we get sections on weakening or strengthening a unit, morale, leadership and reputation. We then get a chapter on resolving missions/operations with mishaps and opportunities before a chapter on resolving combat and then tactics. I’m not qualified to comment on how these work and whether they work but they certainly look like the kind of thing I’d expect and don’t look overwhelming. Indeed, what’s clever – and explicitly stated – is that you can use one or two numbers to resolve a large-scale combat in one dice roll, or you could resolve things in detail using the standard combat rules. But somewhere in between is a level of detail that suits what’s needed for Tickets and forces of varying sizes and this gives the tools for the Referee to choose the level of detail or abstraction according to what’s appropriate or desirable in any given situation. Finally, there’s a chapter on environmental considerations and also, just like the naval book, a section on Fatigue which once again states the calumny that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a mental illness. Given that medical science has moved on and not to mention that I’ve taken the trouble to both point out the lie in these pages previously as well as an email to Mongoose, it simply seems cruel to repeat it here. Especially as it’s so unnecessary and such a small part of the whole.

The second book, Running a Mercenary Force, is the most slender of the three at 48 pages, but gives you the options for building and running your own mercenaries from scratch. From forming a unit through recruitment and training as well as equipping it to building in traits and finding employment, there is everything here to get a mercenary force going and the details generated will inform the Force Roster sheets mentioned elsewhere. I found these rules a little vaguer and less table-oriented than I might have expected but things have moved on from classic Traveller design styles. For once through, it seemed to be explained clearly enough and I really need to spend a bit more time to become familiar with it. The final chapter on running a mercenary unit has some example Tickets and an intriguing section on court martials (courts martial?) which I’d like to explore further as they are of course a staple of certain types of story and one that I certainly love watching on film or reading in books.

The third book, In the Field, is 104 pages and introduces a variety of Tickets to both use and serve as exemplars of how Referees might design their own without resorting to simple ‘here’s the bad guys, go defeat them’. Once again there is some introductory material and cleverly, so it doesn’t have to repeat a lot of background information, there are four conflict situations which can be referred to. Of course, it doesn’t have to be used if your mercenaries just want to get on with the job in hand. There are then chapters for Tickets of varying sizes from Team/Section or Platoon, through Company to Battalion, then a specialist Ticket chapter, some ‘Ticket Adventures’, and the book is wrapped up with two chapters on Brokers & Dealers and Allies & Opposition. The pattern for each Ticket follows the same outline each time and taking one at random, a Company sized Ticket called “Aiming High”, you get the type of Ticket, size and payment, there are Referee’s details for the set up and details of the opposition, there are success criteria and notes on running the Ticket. There may also be additional background information. Having never run anything like this I can’t really comment but the variety and interest remains high throughout the book and it looks as if you have the information you need to pick these up and run them. The one thing that may be lacking are any maps at any scale. On the one hand this either allows Referees to focus on the role-playing aspects which may be the aim, or it lets them create what suits their particular needs. On the other hand, there will be some work to do if they’re required. The Ticket Adventures are more like standard Traveller adventures although with combat considerably beefed up and expected rather than merely a possibility. “Researching What, Exactly?” and “Observe and Report” are the titles of the two that are provided and they’re a little longer than the previous Tickets but have similar details. Some NPCs are provided including my favourite, a ‘Slightly Alive Intruder’. The brokers, dealers and licencing agencies are a paragraph or three of organizations mercenaries are likely to be dealing with to get jobs or equipment and the final chapter presents, briefly, six other mercenary units for the players to encounter. Each gets a page of description and the by now familiar stats; a couple get logos as well.

If all that wasn’t enough to get you playing, the Mercenary box also includes Mercenary Adventure 0: Trial by Fire. It’s 32 pages long and is essentially a third and even longer example of the Ticket Adventures described above. The players will need to raise a merc unit and have the opportunity to get involved in the conflict on New Moscow in Tobia subsector of the Trojan Reaches. There is an introduction, background on New Moscow including a colour world map, further information on the conflict and the actual Ticket and then there’s support for a Referee getting into the Mercenary material for the first time. Two more chapters cover further developments before a chapter on courtroom drama which allows play using the rules mentioned above. Finally, a couple of further chapters wrap things up and look at the aftermath. At first read it seems an excellent introduction to the entire kickstarter to get a campaign going.

The three separately published, but in a very similar style, adventures are also classic Martin J. Dougherty excellence. They’re great to read and they certainly look fun to play. And I say that with my struggles regarding combat being rather slow which only goes to show how much room for role playing I think they include. They are all 40 pages long. They are, of course, built around mercenary Tickets but where I’ve found Tickets in the past to be fairly dry and dull stuff – certainly as a mere reader – these are anything but and they are brought to life with the settings they’re placed in and the detail that’s provided. I won’t go through these at length, perhaps at a later date, but suffice to say the design and look is similar to other current Mongoose publications of a similar size. For reference their titles are: Mercenary Adventure 1: Verloren Hoop, Mercenary Adventure 2: Bug Hunt, and Mercenary Adventure 3: Must Travel, Need Guns. The first involves the PCs trying to get to help offworld mercenaries get to their repatriation haven, the ‘Forlorn Hope’ of the title. The second adventure needs no explanation – it’s all there in the title! (Though to be fair there’s an excellent lot of detail here to keep up the role playing as well as the roll playing.) The third adventure is a little more political before it gets ‘hot’ and is perhaps rather near the knuckle given current world events but nonetheless exciting and involving for that.

The three standalone books are the attractive hardcovers that Mongoose have been putting out. However, it should be noted that the kickstarter has taken enough time that these, and all the above, have been produced under the original 2nd Edition styling before the Update. Presumably the 2nd Edition Update look arrived too late in the day to be applied to these, but that’s fine and if I’m honest I’m not yet a huge fan of the title typeface and orange that the Update edition uses so it’s no loss as far as I’m concerned. It does mean that you get vehicles and starships on black pages which are harder to read and isometric deck plans for the ships as noted below.

Field Catalogue – this is all about weapons. First some 25 pages of additional rules (such as loads for individuals to carry, extra weapon traits and special conditions of which artillery, weapon overheating and quickdraw are just a few). Then there is 38 pages of design system to go into gunsmith level detail. On a scale of ‘easy’ to, well, Traveller5 it’s probably somewhere in the middle and I managed to follow most of it as I tried to work an example. As far as I’m concerned, I have all the weapons I’ll ever need in the various catalogues and supplements of Traveller – indeed, with the players I have the Core Rulebook suffices. This won’t be true of all Referees however and I can well imagine there may be those who buy the book for this alone. It even occurred to the uninterested me that I might be able to have a go at the blowdart weapon I came up with for the eroctopi in “Spindrift”. So, I’m sure there are many whose enthusiasm lies in this direction for whom this will be a lot of fun. While an alien underwater blowdart was definitely rather at the boundaries of what the system could design given it’s really aimed at more ‘normal’ types of weapon, I was surprised how well it coped with what I was asking and how it allowed me to produce a design table that was reasonable (at least as far as I could tell). Occasionally knowledge is assumed such as the Demolitions of Objects table, repeated from Traveller Companion (p.49) but here with no explanation of what Protection means.

The third and largest part of the book – some 109 pages – consists of the weapons catalogue. All sorts! Personal, heavy, specialized. All with the details from the weapon design rules and well-illustrated throughout. Many of the weapons, often with a variant or two, are given a page as the design table is included so that Referees can tweak any individual design to meet their own individual specifications. Don’t like how heavy a stock is? Lighten it. Want bigger ammunition reloads? Go for it. Need a particular Trait? Easy to add. If there isn’t a design table, entries usually get at least half a page including illustrations. There is a lot of very shiny artwork throughout which definitely helped this ignoramus though I suspect purists might have smaller or larger quibbles. The illustrations were enough for this uneducated user to at least have a feel of what the weapon in question looked like or did, even if some of the technicalities went over my head. Obviously, the gear is aimed at mercenary use but I’m sure PCs will have no end of fun using items for other purposes as well. Even I was thinking about how I might use one as an interesting bit of cargo for merchants or a gimmick that a Patron needs, or in some other specialised situation the PCs might encounter. Of course, it soon became a game to see just how much in the way of damage dice something might inflict. (And after my TTA notes regarding one of my players wanting to construct Ashkashkur’s meson gun on the ground to help defeat him, I was amused to see mention of a battlefield meson accelerator (p.157). There probably should have been an index sorted by this particular stat! In fact, there’s no index at all so you’re reliant on memory or using a PDF version to search. As well as ‘guns’ there are also specialist weapons (flame throwers and cryojets as well as grenades, mines, missiles and other explosives. That should keep players going for a fair bit. I should note there are not only weapons here but other gear from uniforms, camouflage tarpaulins and defensive options to thermal regulation units, electronic gadgets and armouries/barracks/medical units which can fit in a merchant cargo hold. Not everything is hi-tech. For fans of Sherlock Holmes, they’ll find the jezail rifle that wounded Dr Watson so infamously either in the shoulder or the leg. Here spelt ‘jazail’. Some knowledge of weaponry is assumed as not everything is explained. Taking the MDD Infantry Support Weapon System (p.142) completely at random, there’s a detailed explanation of why it’s called ‘Ma Deuce’ and so on but very little description of what the actual usage is. Other bits of jargon creep in without explanation but in general the text is very readable and in my opinion often lends itself to role playing rather than just ‘tell me the numbers’.

The final 30 pages of the book present nine vehicles at various tech levels and four starships for mercenary use and are all presented in the Mongoose 2nd Edition style which means we’re back with white on black text and isometric deck plans. Thankfully, the Update edition has moved away from this styling so perhaps 2D versions of these ships will be offered online; we can hope. For reference there is a 1000-ton Borwen-class Transport, 600-ton Deyst-class Assault Ship, 400-ton Shadow-class Gunship and 200-ton Gravitas-class Diplomatic Skiff. The last page of the book is a blank Advanced Weapon Design Worksheet for those using the design system.

My suspicion is that this will easily be the most thumbed book of the lot by players (and Referees) and it’s only a shame that it doesn’t, even at the risk of some repetition, exhaustively collect all the gear present across all the volumes (and cards). Referees are going to want lists or spreadsheets to collect everything together.

Specialist Forces covers in 152 pages all the ‘extra’ units mercenaries might have or encounter. Combat specialists (anti-armour, close assault, commandos and skirmishers), reconnaissance/stealth specialists (recon and snipers), engineering and heavy weapons, protected forces, non-combat specialists, security and intelligence, and of course, starmercs. If you want to get away from the frontline of battle and explore specialised units, it’s all here for you. There are additional rules where relevant but these are fairly minimal. Slightly confusingly, specialist weapons for these forces are included in this volume. It makes sense to keep them with their users but it means the Field Catalogue isn’t ‘complete’ and I can well imagine Referees using this material extensively will end up creating a master list from Central Supply Catalogue and the sources here. It’s in this volume for example that you find the battlefield meson gun mentioned above. (TL13 and 6DD. Perhaps the March Harrier could install one as an extra ‘ground defence’ turret.)

There are also some additional rules for special operations and boarding actions so don’t miss that if they’re likely to be of particular interest. Again, the boarding equipment isn’t in the Field Catalogue. The rear of the book consists of 27 pages of vehicles and modules which can transport mercenaries in self-contained units inside the cargo holds of merchant vessels or larger mercenary craft. There’s a 1500-ton Mercenary Frigate, 1000-ton Operational Support Vessel, 300-ton Mercenary Escort, 20-ton Breacher Shuttle, and the good old 800-ton Broadsword Mercenary Cruiser makes an obvious reappearance. It’s already in Core Rulebook and High Guard and here appears in a third (perhaps corrected, perhaps further refined) version.

Mercenaries of Charted Space is the thinnest of the hardbacks at 104 pages and the most tied to Charted Space. Here we visit the Major Races and examples of merc units for each of them. After a short introduction the tour takes in the Third Imperium, the Zhodani Consulate, the Vargr Extents, the Two Thousand Worlds, the Hive Federation, the Solomani Confederation, the Aslan Hierate and a handful of non-aligned regions. For each polity there are dealers and agencies from which you can obtain equipment, mercenary units and licences for the latter to operate. Then there are various units of various sizes (platoons, companies, brigades etc). Each unit is detailed with the stats that are created in Book 2 which gives quick and easy reference and comparison. There are unit diagrams, wars and conflicts that they are involved in, and subsector maps giving a context for the operations. For reference you get Verran subsector (I of Ilelish), Ninik (B of Antares), parts of Etszdili and Tliaqlvie (G and K of Ziafrplians), parts of Anfharsgzo and Pretoria (N of Tuglikki and B of Deneb), Riftin (M of Gateway), Last Frontier (I of Langere) and Heasairlui (B of Ustral Quadrant). These bring much more life to all the ‘special military operations’ than the rather plain and dry old Tickets of yore. It would be easy to use this material not for it’s intended purpose but to set adventures for non-mercenaries such as merchants and others in high risk areas. What’s also great about these various units and conflicts is that they’ve been tailored to the individualities of the alien races involved. Should you not be using Charted Space then I would think you could still use the material with some of the serial numbers filed off.

As with the other hardbacks, the end of the book contains the black pages of ship design but only one in this case with the 1500-ton Mercenary Frigate appearing again (it’s also in Specialist Forces as mentioned above).

The Mercenary Boxset is the final part of the ‘package’. As described above, it’s the ‘commemorative’ pack of Deepnight Revelation but this time for mercenaries. The box is a grey/green camouflage pattern with a helmeted jawless skull on a chevron. It contains, in a plastic insert, a gold highlighted dark green biro with clip which curiously doesn’t use the logo from the front but has a gold target style roundel next to the word MERCENARY also in gold. The six bright green pencils with rubbers, sorry, erasers, simply have MERCENARY picked out in white. Underneath the pencils are 24 loose vehicle recognition cards roughly 6” 4”. Half of these are from the Field Catalogue (and one from Central Supply Catalogue); the other half are unique to this set. They have an image of the vehicle with its title (and a Traveller logo and yet another skull logo) on one side and a table of stats on the reverse. This logo is a skull on a winged shield. Beside the pencils and cards is a smart box of twenty 1.5cm dice. The dice are in yet another colour green, nearer olive drab than anything else in the box. The ‘6’ has been replaced with the same logo as seen on the vehicle cards which is also used on the front of dice box. On top of all this is a pad of 50 double sided Mercenary Force Roster sheets and a Premium Weapons Guide. These last two items are also available as PDFs as are all the other books mentioned previously. The roster sheets let you describe a unit in detail with name, specialization, size etc as you’d expect and has room for up to five subunits. They are paper versions of the wipe clean card found in the main Mercenary box. The Premium Weapons Guide is an attractive and glossy stapled booklet of 24 pages containing really shiny additional weapons, kit and one unit, Elite Security Services, who presumably make use of all the kit. Note that these weapons are not in any of the other Mercenary books so Referees wanting the material will have to purchase the Mercenary Boxset unless it’s ultimately made available in its own right. There are five weapons, a grav command platform, grav assault platform, a mobile defensive network (fence), client interaction package, temporary field HQ and laser weapon system. If you didn’t get your fill of gear to spend your hard-earned mercenary Credits on in the Field Catalogue and other books, this acts as the icing on the cake.

Phew! I described this as a short introduction rather than an in-depth review, and it is! There’s just so much crunchy goodness that it will take a while to digest. To use it with all the possible adventures and Tickets would take years of play. It’s on a similar scale to Deepnight Revelation and Pirates of Drinax although to be fair this would be much easier to take and use in pieces rather than as one vast campaign. Certainly, if you have a group interested in this type of Traveller role playing, there is absolutely no shortage of material and no shortage of inspiration to use it as a base to do your own thing. There’s also a lot here for Referees pursuing more typical Traveller activities to cannibalize and either offer players or throw at players. I haven’t really mentioned the art work which is of high standard throughout whether it’s evocative covers and illustrations of action, or whether it’s weapons and other kit being illustrated, it’s hard not to be inspired to immediately start thinking about how you can use it for your own purposes. The astrographic, world and regional maps are well executed although there are places here and there which could have done with a tad more.

There are those that given current events in Europe may feel such a release from a publisher at this time is a little insensitive but I don’t think Mongoose can be faulted for the final delivery of a long-in-development and much-anticipated Kickstarter happening to coincide with one madman’s insanity. And in fact, I found it really helpful as the nightly news was showing me pictures and explaining details of equipment and tactics that I felt I wanted more understanding of. The Field Catalogue was then put to uses that I don’t imagine were in the designer’s mind as I tried to put various bits of kit into ‘context’ and understand its relative power and utility. I did feel a tad guilty that the same tragic news could, between the tears, set off trains of thoughts about gaming possibilities. I’ll certainly have a strong response to anyone who suggests that any ‘little guys defeating big bad against the odds’ I might include in my adventures is a bit unbelievable.

I said at the start that mercenaries and mercenary Tickets aren’t really my thing. But a video that the author put out as part of the kickstarter explaining some of the content that was planned and some of the thinking behind it convinced me that there’d be enough here to make it of interest even to the non-combat oriented. I wasn’t wrong. I’m already hatching plans for how I might use the material – even if it’s perhaps not quite as designed – and to my surprise, I’ve even been having a go at creating a force and designing a weapon. Who’d have thought?

Mercenary, by which I mean the entire kit and caboodle not just the first box, is a no-brainer for anyone interested in this type of Traveller play, even if you own the three similarly titled books that have gone before, oh, and GURPS’ Ground Forces and Starmercs and so on. Even if you’re using other rule sets there’s probably enough here of standalone nature or easily convertible to tempt Referees looking to run more combat heavy games. Even if you’re not interested in the combat side of things, there’s perhaps enough of interest for role playing, in a military setting of course, that may make it worth buying. It wouldn’t be hard to take the adventures for example and use them as a detailed backdrop to more traditional scenarios. It would also be easy to take various ships, vehicles and bits of kit to use as encounters or cargos and so forth for players to deal with. In short, Mongoose and Mr Dougherty are to be commended on another inspirational and epic addition to the Traveller gaming universe. Now we’ve had this kind of treatment for Navy, Scouts and Army, I’m looking forward to their take on Nobles!