This article originally appeared in Shannon's column at rpg.net as Fifth Imperium #6 on December 7, 2009 and Fifth Imperium #7 on January 11, 2010, and was reprinted in issue #003 of Freelance Traveller.
If you've ever found yourself caught flat-footed and unprepared for a Traveller adventure, this article miniseries is for--full of mini-plots that you can expand out into longer adventures.
In this column, I'll be presenting 6 adventure situations that could easily kick off on any planet, each with 6 plot twists to keep things interesting, for a total of 36 more plotlets.
1. "Did anyone check the Law Level before we left?"
Suddenly, the local police come after the PCs with a vengeance, impounding ships and other equipment and trying to arrest the PCs themselves.
- Old sins have resurfaced. The PCs are being arrested for something they did in some past adventure. Not only does this allow you revisit an old scenario (that was presumably better prepped than the current one), but it also allows you to figure out why the current planet might have ties with the old one.
- It's a mistake. By accident, the PCs have chanced upon some criminal enterprise in a way that makes it look like they're involved. They'll need to discover this fact, then blow the criminal enterprise wide open to prove their own non-involvement.
- It's a ploy. Similar to the above, but the police actually know the PCs aren't really involved in the criminal enterprise. They're simply trying to force the PCs to help out in their investigation of the crime. The PCs must have a reputation, ties to the crime, ties to the criminal, or ties to the victim for this to really work out.
- It's a frame. Perhaps this trope is a little bit too tired, but still it makes for a good story. You get to figure out who is framing the characters, why they are, how they did it, and how the PCs can disprove the frame. This is another opportunity to bring old plots into the campaign, based on who you decide the framer is.
- It's a shakedown. This is how the planetside police make their living. Do the PCs roll over or do they try and change a way of life?
- It's the truth. Remember when some planet tried to execute Wesley for falling onto some flowers? Build your adventure around that. The players genuinely have committed a crime, but it's a ridiculous local crime. Can the PCs manage the local legal system, can they get Imperial help to override it, or can they make a daring escape?
2. "This is a test of the emergency broadcasting system."
When some type of disaster hits the local community--be it a starport, a country, or a world--the players are asked (perhaps begged, perhaps threatened, perhaps hired) to step in and solve it. Rather than rolling up this plotlet, you may want to choose an option from the listing that best suits the planet that the PCs are on.
- It's civil unrest or the peasants are revolting. The PCs are called in to put down an uprising either: (1) so that the local forces aren't seen as oppressors; or (2) because there are insufficient local enforcers. More than a simple beatdown, this plot can lead to delicate political issues, depending on why there's civil unrest and what's being done to stop it.
- It's a coup. Someone has successfully overthrown the legitimate government. PCs might be asked to try and take the government back--or else just get the previous government off planet (see, also, the next plotlet). If a second coup is required, it might be less difficult than you'd expect because the new government is still young and vulnerable.
- It's an attack. Rather than covert subversion, the community could be coming under overt attack, perhaps from another country on a balkanized world, perhaps from pirates or other outsiders, perhaps from Zhodani as an intro to the Fifth Frontier War, or perhaps from Aslan seeking land. The PCs will need to ward off this attack. Or, perhaps it's too late for that and they'll need to lead a resistance. Alternatively, it might just be a question or surviving until Imperium troops arrive.
- It's a natural disaster. It might be storm, cyclone, hurricane, volcano, tsunami, earthquake, or something more unique, as you prefer. PCs will have to help people survive the first wave of disaster, and then they may need to do something to halt the rest of it in its track. Perhaps they can stop the disaste due to the magic of high TL technology--or perhaps it's because there's an unnatural antagonist setting the natural disaster in motion.
- It's a technological disaster. Of course you have possibilities of computers gone wild, like the Virus of the New Era. A more contained technological disaster might involve just the robots rebelling. Alternatively, technology might stop working altogether. The PCs will have to resolve the immediate problem, find its cause, and possibly stop it from spreading beyond the planet.
- It's a scam. Though a request is made for the PCs help (probably using one of the previous criteria), there's another reason that local officials want to get them off their ship and into the local community. Perhaps they'll be ambushed by an old enemy or perhaps the community really does need to make use of the PCs' skills--but in a way that they probably wouldn't agree to out of the goodness of their hearts.
3. "Will work for passage."
Though these adventures all begin planetside, in a game called Traveller you can expect that many of them will move up into space. Such is probably the case when a traveller approaches the passengers seeking immediate passage. This traveller might offer piles of money or a sob story; it could be a stranger or a player's contact or ally.
- The law is after the traveller. See plotlet #1 for some of the reasons they might be on the run.
- Criminals are after the traveller. See plotlet #4 for some additional fodder for this plot. Criminals will likely threaten or bribe characters to get the traveller back. If that fails, they will shift into action, be it sneaking onto a ship, assaulting it, or calling in some pirates when the players head toward a jump point.
- It's just politics. The traveller is on the wrong side of a recent political change, be it a coup (see plotlet #2) or just a democratic change in leadership. However, the new politicians would prefer to keep the traveller on hand, perhaps for good reasons (he's fleeing with state secrets) or perhaps for bad ones (he needs to be killed). Face the PCs with moral dilemmas, governmental threats, police action, or bribes, as you see fit.
- It's an emergency! The traveller has been told of a dire problem on a nearby world. You could use any other plot from this article or the next part as the reason why, particularly those in plotlet #2. Not only should you underline the time pressure as the PCs face delays or various sorts, but you should also do your best to drag the PCs into the problem on the other side, once they've gotten to know (and hopefully like) the traveller.
- It's a race. While engaging in a race across the sector, the traveller has been instructed to "travel by spacecraft" to his next destination. However, unlike the astonishing racing reality shows of our modern day, this race is full of other contenders willing to engage in really dirty tactics. Thus, the PCs suddenly find themselves at the nexus of a lot of problems, as they get set up for the police (see plotlet #1), sold out to criminals (see plotlet #4), ambushed by pirates, or otherwise tempted to veer away from the course the traveller has requested.
- The traveller is paranoid. There's no one after him, but he thinks there is. Can he convince the PCs of the crazy conspiracy that he's sure he's fleeing?
4. "Just when I thought I was out ..."
In one way or another, the travellers run afoul of a crime syndicate of some type on the local planet.
- A frame job. This is the flipside of plot seed #1-4, but focused on criminals. For some reason they've framed the PCs for a local crime. The authorities may not be after the travellers; they may not even know of the crime. But the PCs certainly learn of things quickly, and they're going to have to dive into the local crime scene to found out what's going on before it's too late.
- Crime is the law! Criminals have taken over the local starport and are now running it as, in part, a massive extortion scam. Ship systems suspiciously go wrong and the local 'port offers to fix them for a greatly marked-up fee.
- Benevolent criminals. Though technically criminals, the crime cartel has a Robin Hood complex. It is rebelling against oppression in order to aid the underclass (perhaps going to the stereotypical rob-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor extreme, but that's certainly not required). They see kindred souls in the PCs, and try to get their help on a particular mission.
- A deal too good to be true. (Usually is.) The PCs are offered a great deal: trade goods for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, they're stolen. When the players find the goods stolen from them in turn, they may head off with vengeance on their mind--but they may reconsider when they find out that the "thieves" were just reclaiming what was theirs, and the real criminals were the sellers.
- A deal you can't refuse. A "concerned citizen" approaches the PCs and asks them to take out a crime lord. He even offers up lots of information on the criminal operations, explains how the PCs can get government sanction for the assault on the criminals, and proposes a reward. It wouldn't take much digging for the PCs to realize that the "citizen" is a competing crime lord himself. But taking out a criminal operation would still be a good thing, wouldn't it?
- Deal me in. What's a stop in a city without some gambling? Unfortunately, the decks are stacked in the favor of the house. Do the PCs make some trouble when they realize cheating is going on, or do they accept their losses?
5. "I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveller, dammit!"
The local planet has a particular site of interest which the PCs opt to visit. The following plotlets each suggest an interesting tourist attraction and a possible complication; you might want to use one or both.
- A masterpiece of government. The planet has some notable governmental site (like the US capital buildings, the Roman senate, or a place where notable laws were enacted or signed). Complication: Rebels opposed to the government take over the site or threaten to destroy it--while the PCs are there, of course.
- A psionic miracle. Some particular combination of weather, time, and landscape creates a psionic phenomenon on the planet. Perhaps people can hear the thoughts of others, their own inner beliefs, or even voices from across the universe. (Thanks to E.C. Tubb and The Winds of Gath.) Complication: A secret psionic institute is associated with the phenomenon and accidentally reveals itself.
- A great shopping mall. Travellers love to shop, so offer them a mall, bazaar, or trade center which has unique items not found elsewhere in the universe. Complication: The sellers require more than just money, such as help with some task or participation in some study.
- A historical site. The planet includes a place of particular importance to the history of the Imperium. This could be the site of a notable battle, the crash location of a space ship, or the last resting place of a hero or Emperor. Complication: The public record of the history of the location is false--perhaps as a means to influence public opinion or perhaps because no one knows the true story. Except the players find it out.
- A theme park. OK, maybe roller coasters and cotton candy don't make for the best Traveller adventure, but how about a theme park which highlighted the wonders of the local subsector? It'd give you a chance to make some of your background notes concrete and give PCs an opportunity to really decide, on their own, where they go next. Complication: Some of the worlds aren't very pleased with how they're portrayed. A group of protesters from one of those worlds shows up, and without careful attention, their protesting could turn riotous.
- A bar. Bars are the heart of so many Amber Zones and patron encounters, that it would be irresponsible to not include one as a local site of interest. So how do you make it truly interesting? Combine it with one of the previous five plotlets: a government that runs out of a bar; a drink that temporarily augments psionic powers; a bar where you shop while you drink; a tavern where great things once happened; or the great theme park of all bars, covering hundreds of square miles. Complication: Need you ask? Brawls, murders, skulking spies, patrons needing help, and everything else that goes on in bars across Charted Space.
6. "A Vargr, an Aslan, and a Hiver walk into a bar ..."
This last scenario category is more generic than the others. The PCs have an encounter with a notable member of an alien race that could live in the Spinward Marches, who acts mostly as a patron. Each plotlet tries to show off a significant characterization of the species. They could also easily lead off planet and to bigger things.
- Aslan. A female Aslan approaches the party. She'll probably surprise them by breaking their stereotypes of the aliens, as she's an erudite and intelligent accountant (all perfectly acceptable female traits, but the PCs probably think of male Aslan when they stereotype). She needs the PCs to deal with a little problem of hers: a middle manager at the megacorp she works for has embezzled a large amount of money. She generally treats the PCs like male Aslan: dumb and violent. She expects them to do a bit more than just reproach the criminal.
- Darrians. A Darrian scientist is working on genetic studies involving the many different races of the Imperium. It's hoped that her results will link up with some ancient TL16 notes to really rev up the whole, largely quiet, specialty of biotech. Unfortunately some Sword Worlder agents are working against her. They don't even want to steal her research, they just want to make sure that the Darrians don't get it. PCs are hired to engage in spy vs. spy high-jinks, protecting the scientist's labs, hunting down saboteurs, and maybe even assaulting Sword Worlder spy strongholds.
- Jonkeereen. These genetically-modified humans, created to live on desert worlds, are some of the great wanderers and loners of Charted Space behind the claw. So, what might lead them to hire PCs? How about rumors of a desert world lying just outside Imperium space with untold mineral riches. It could become a Jonkeereen homeworld, and bring together an unwanted people scattered across the Domain of Deneb. Of course, there might be problems on the planet, it could be under consideration by other parties, and intergalactic politics might get in the way. (If you want to keep things on-world for this plotlet, just have the PCs deal with local politics for the Jonkeereen.)
- Vargr. A high charisma Vargr approaches the PCs. Its obvious that he expects them to look up to him, though in a casual, unassuming way. He's also offering money, so the PCs shouldn't have that much opportunity to get offended. He asks the PCs to help out some members of his pack who've gotten into trouble, and will place all of his pack's resources at their disposal. What's the trouble? Well, take it from any other plotlet in this series.
- Vilani. An insufferable nobleman from the Vland sector is looking to hire PCs to do some "scut work" so that he won't have to dirty his own hands. Be sure to play up that arrogance and that dislike of all things non-Vilani. The work involves recovering some old technological designs from an ancient Vilani outpost on the planet, destroyed during the Long Night. The base might be guarded by ancient relics and in any case it should introduce players to the interesting ancient history of the Imperium(s).
- Zhodani. A human approaches the PCs and asks them to kidnap someone for him. He'll describe the person, who hangs out in local bars, without giving a lot of specifics about who he is or what he does. In actuality, the victim is a Navy fighter pilot, currently on leave, out getting drunk at local bars. The patron, meanwhile, is a Zhodani; if he gets his hands on the pilot, he'll stare at him intently for a few moments, then thank the players for a job well done and pay them. When and if the PCs figure out what's really going on here (which is the theft of military secrets, since the pilot knows about some top-secret fleet movements near Zhodani space) is up to them and the GM.
That's it for these 36 planetside plotlets. If you count, you'll see I still owe you 4 more plotlets to make 76, which will require a special Fifth Imperium sometime in the future.
In the meantime, I'll be taking a look at some other topics in 30 days. See you then ...