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Book 1: Mercenary (Second Edition)

Book 1: Mercenary. Matthew Sprange.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
132pp., PDF

This review originally appeared on rpg.net in March 2015, and was reprinted in the January/February 2018 issue.

This product is a second edition of the Mercenary sourcebook for the first edition of Mongoose Traveller.

As Mercenary 1st Edition appeared in the early days of Mongoose Traveller, with much written possibly before the playtest was complete – there was a profound disconnect between what the 1st edition was and what emerged from the playtest. For a great many rules and tweaks appeared in the playtest sought to make Traveller a thoroughly modern role-playing game. However, 1st edition Mercenary did not really keep pace with the spirit and intent of the playtest. Now, to Mongoose’s great credit – they have released a second edition which, corrects some of those drawbacks and highlights some of the weaknesses of Traveller as a whole.

Traveller was conceived by a bunch of Wargaming enthusiasts – like many early Old School Games – whereas as many a game died or returned to a melee-based game (yes, I am looking at you, D&D) – Traveller was different because they recognized that there was a social science and a historical dimension to play. Nowhere was this more evident than in one of the first supplements which outlined a vast interstellar empire – and the supplement’s name was Mercenary. That first supplement was a sort of add-on that allowed players a highly detailed simulation from chargen to more futuristic weapons than lasers powered by backpacks (fusion weapons powered by backpacks). Of course, Star Wars changed the weapons and it also changed somewhat the mercenary. Traveller was grounded in part in the Roman Empire sensibility – a small standing Imperial Army and prolific use of mercenary units to fight in small wars or brush wars under very strict rules. However, as Traveller evolved, it did begin to resemble Star Wars somewhat more, with many conventions and norms influencing play. Thus, the mercenary became either akin to heroic rebels or was merely an option for a campaign or simply background colour.

Mongoose had to assemble all this together and combine with a modern sensibility in the era of Independent Military Contractors (mercenaries by any other name) and their extensive use in bush wars in Central America, Africa and parts of Asia. A difficult task, but one that Spica Publishing had done extraordinarily well. So, it was a wonder that Mongoose did not approach Daniel W. Hammersley and the good folks at Spica to provide some filler from real experiences of a career soldier who served with distinction in Iraq.

The Good

As I said, the 1st edition contained many rule modifications that were deleted in the playtest and that left the rules inconsistent with play. There are also a good range of options and life paths that are more capturing the age-old Traveller vibe rather than just generic space opera. There are useful rules for the building of fortifications and new rules that govern the military contract or ‘ticket’. The rules are solid and well-written with nice art, along with a nice set of mass combat rules along with more equipment and vehicles for Mercs to use in the field of battle.

The Bad

Well, where do I begin?… as I said in the introduction, Traveller was started by a bunch of war game enthusiasts who designed wonderful battle simulations of different battles past and possible future. This was something that was that Traveller steadily moved away from to focus more on role playing. These rules sort of hearken back to days of miniatures and mass combat scenes and that war gaming heritage, more than role playing. I do appreciate there is an audience for people who still play war games with minis, but the bulk of Traveller’s audience are role players; as a result this book is more in line with Mongoose’s overall business plan to diversify more into miniature gaming. Also, as a generic book – nowhere do we see Marines, let alone, Imperial Marines profiled. While, as I said, there is an improvement in the quality of the art, the printing process in which it was rendered needs improvement as everything is done in grey scale, which (unfortunately) fades in parts in the printing process, giving an overall bad “photocopied look”. And, what is missing in many Mongoose Traveller books with the exception of the Third Imperium setting or Campaign books is real colour. And, not color in terms of artwork, but a compelling narrative. There are countless books that are emerging that are just charts and more charts. Excellent for the gearhead solo player, but their practicality in a role playing session diminishes more and more.

The Ugly

Quite frankly, the layout. This book is laid out as a collection of notes, not a cohesive look at mercenaries and their use in the myriad of Traveller settings. So, one gets the impression that the author was asked to write just a collection of unlinked essays dominated by the aforementioned charts.

Traveller is often said to be a license to print money, as Traveller players are an extremely loyal and dedicated group who buy and collect practically everything. While Mercenary Second Edition is a substantial improvement over the first iteration of this book, it still lacks the glue that binds Traveller together: the social science and narrativist background. We are no longer in 1978; we should be striving to make Traveller relevant to a new group of players and building a solid set of rules accompanied with a nicely illustrated product fleshed out with lots of description is the way to move forward. As it stands now, Traveller is touted to be a space adventure akin to the Age of Sail; right now, it is in the doldrums and has been for some time. So, this book is certainly worth getting but it is no way worthy of a great review because it did little to improve my game other than a few extra pieces of equipment and tightening up of rules contained within the main Traveller rulebook.