Editor’s note: The initial Fifth Imperium column was published on the RPG.Net website in July 2009, and appeared in Freelance Traveller’s initial issue in November 2009. This column originally appeared on the RPG.Net website in October 2010, and in Freelance Traveller Issue 011 in November 2010.
In recent months I’ve investigated a unique way of creating adventures in Traveller: by choosing a specific genre and then adapting it for play within your Traveller universe. The previous articles in this series have covered mysterious stuff, spooky stuff, and fantastic stuff.
This month I’m going to take a look at a trio of two-fisted action genres, all centered more on physical activity than cerebral thoughts: adventure, war, and westerns. In the process I’ll talk about how these genres can produce great Traveller stories. In many ways I think that they are some of the best alternate genres for Traveller because they tend to be more about the activities than the settings (with the possible exception of westerns), meaning that they can fit into the Traveller setting fine.
The Adventure Genre (and Pulp)
Though the pulp genre could widely include all of the magazines published in the first half of the 20th century, when we speak of it as a genre, we’re generally talking about the adventure heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Tarzan and their modern-day descendants like Indiana Jones and even James Bond. Thus, the genre shades into espionage (covered in my first article) and super heroes (covered in my third).
The most important attribute for a pulp adventure is action itself: you want to put the PCs in physical danger and to require them to make daring escapes from relentless foes. However, if you really want to convey the feel of adventure pulps to your players, you probably need to use some of their common tropes.
The best one for Traveller is doubtless the “Lost World”, where a hitherto unknown civilization is discovered, probably amidst savages. They might be a lost colony from the Vilani Imperium that’s maintained their technology or something even older, such as contemporary of the Ancients (in age if not technology). It’d be easy to place such a World in the outskirts of the Imperium, such as in the Spinward Marches—or even in the backwaters of a more civilized system. Combine that with frenetic action and constantly escalating danger and you'll have a great start to an adventure-genre adventure.
Searches for lost artifacts of the ancient past are another closely related subgenre that would work well with Traveller. Though these could be TL 16 artifacts from the Darrians or the Vilani, it’d be more pulpish if they are ancient, mystical items from the even further past (though one must suspect that they eventually have some technological basis).
Traveller References. GDW didn’t tend to go in this direction in their adventures. Shadows is a fine example of an adventure about exploring an ancient culture, but it was more of a dungeon crawl than a pulp adventure. Some of the FASA adventures feel more pulp-y to me, particularly Uragyad'n of the Seven Pillars, but I think that's more a matter of setting than genre—which suggests that setting is very important to your presentation of genre adventures.
Other References. The pulp adventure genre has been treated well in recent years and so there’s plenty of places you could go to for material. I think that any of the Indiana Jones movies could be fine background for Traveller adventures, but they’d require some obfuscation due to their popularity. I’m also fond of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong books, though they trend more toward super-heroes at times. If you go back to the hey-day of pulps, you could use just about anything that suits your fancy, and that’d have the advantage of being material that your players probably aren’t familiar with.
The War Genre
The war genre of course centers around the activity of war: taking territory, spying on the enemy, and (unfortunately) destroying the morale of enemy civilians. It also focuses on a number of themes: brotherhood, loyalty, courage, patriotism, and (unfortunately) xenophobia.
The Traveller universe itself offers plenty of places to tell war stories. To start with, you have any number of balkanized governments. Even if a world isn’t government level 7, there might be competing populations. The battle between natives and corporations is a constant one in the universe of Traveller.
Moving up to the next level, you can have wars between planets. They might be fighting over some supposedly neutral resource or over some ancient wrong, whose specifics are long-forgotten. Beyond that you have wars between interstellar governments. In the Spinward Marches, the Darrians and the Sword Worlders are always at each others’ throats, but it’s the Fifth Frontier War (1107-1110) which will offer the best opportunity for wartime stories.
And, there are plenty of them. The PCs could be mercenaries coming in to help one or the sides or just to train them. You’ll probably have more meaningful stories, though, if one or more of the PCs is actually a member of a world or state that’s at war. Will they run arms for their home country? Fight? Does it put two members of a PC group at odds?
If you don’t want the depressing day-to-day of wartime, then you can use it to send off PCs on auxiliary missions: to retrieve some info or some object that’s crucial to the war effort, to save some general, or to negotiate a peace with some third-party who must stay neutral, lest the good guys (whoever they actually are in wartime) be overcome. While playing with any of these plot threads, just be sure to include wartime action: gunfights with agents from the other side; the need to save populations caught in the middle; and the patriotic desire to keep those flags flying!
Traveller References. The classic Traveller corpus is full of great wartime adventures set in the Fifth Frontier War. Background material and an Amber Zone can be found in JTAS #9, which announced the war. GDW’s Expedition to Zhodane and Broadsword are adventures set in the middle of the War. FASA offered their Fifth Frontier War adventure in Ordeal by Eshaar, while QuickLink Interactive published an unfinished series of Golden Age EPIC Adventures in the same time period. Finally, the Keith brothers’ Flight of the Stag adventures offered yet another perspective of the war.
Though not exactly a war, the bug hunts found in Traveller Double Adventure 5: The Chamax Plague / Horde also fit into the war genre.
Other References. This is another situation where the genre is large enough that you can probably pick up any book or show that interests you. Personally I enjoyed the TV show Band of Brothers for a realistic look at war. If you want a more literary view, Garth Ennis wrote two interesting volumes of War Stories for DC Comics.
The Western Genre
Of the three action genres presented here, the western is the one most tied to a specific setting. But, it doesn’t have to be the United States of the 1800s. Rather, the setting for a Western can be any frontier where men are lawless, life is cheap, and justice is rare. More than one creator has drawn the connection between those themes and the setting of science-fiction. Gene Roddenberry called Star Trek a “wagon trail to the stars” and explicitly marketed it as a western, while Firefly even took up the trappings of the western.
The easiest way to play upon the western genre in Traveller is simply to play up the idea of the frontier: that the PCs are out there on their own and that bandits and other outlaws might be just around the corner. Of course, you shouldn’t forget the precepts of the western as an action genre. Mainly, that means gunfights and duels paired with gambling and other less high-brow activities.
Within the Imperium, you really need to go to the outskirts to find the proper material for a western—as the Imperium itself is just too civilized. In the Spinward Marches, District 268 and Five Sisters are the best places for this sort of adventure, though you could also introduce western elements on any low-tech planet or on any planet off the traditional Xboat lines.
When you put together a Western adventure, you could place the PCs in the roles of protagonists or antagonists. They could be the outlaws robbing the poor folk of the area or the poor folk of the area who are beset upon by outlaws. Alternatively, a “Seven Samurai” adventure is always a favorite, where the PCs are called in to protect a village from bandits. Prospecting for valuable minerals is another western favorite that can tie in well with the Traveller world of belters and other miners. You just need to introduce some outlaw elements there too, perhaps presenting a mineral find that’s beyond the reach of the law.
Traveller References. Not a lot of Traveller material has explicitly referenced the western, so you might be trailblazing new ground.
Other References. Joss Whedon’s Firefly is the most perfect combination of western and science-fiction that you can imagine. Without the explicit trappings, you could probably grab many episodes for your Traveller usage.
That’s it for my look at how to use the more action-oriented genres in Traveller. Though there are many more genres that I could cover here, I’m just going to touch upon one more, next month: science-fiction. There are numerous sub-genres of science-fiction which could each provide you with interesting and unique Traveller adventures.
If you want more genre thoughts, let me point you to a new RPGnet column, Tropes. It’s offering an excellent, in-depth look of a different genre each month. October’s Tropes focus in on pulp adventure, nicely tying to this article; take a look for much more information than I could possibly provide on the topic.