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Beyond Our Ken: Describing Research Bases in Traveller

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue.

Research Bases have been a staple of Traveller from the earliest days with adventures such as Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma in which the characters have the opportunity to help an alien rescue comrades captured in a such base, to Double Adventure 3: Death Station where the PCs uncover the results of research gone wrong in a Lab Ship. Dra’k’ne Station by Bill Paley was a similar dungeon crawl in space. More recently they can be seen in titles such as Subzero and The Azimuth Parallel by Michael Brown (which both include plans), Supernova and Antioch Station by Joseph Mohr, Hivers II by Peter Rudin-Burgess or Hard Shell and Context Sensitive by Tobias Die▀ler. Such bases provide lots of opportunities for adventure whether the PCs are ordinary merchants resupplying a base that’s fairly isolated, a specialist team investigating a base which has gone silent, or the researchers themselves on the edge of new knowledge, terrific wonders or Things Not Meant to be Known.

Referees may prefer to simply sketch out such a base or institute in a few lines, but if several bases are required or more detail is needed, the following may help. The tables are not necessarily exhaustive or even necessarily to be used as random selectors – although they’ve been made D6 friendly if Referees need a boost – but they should provide inspiration on some possibilities and perhaps generate ideas for adventure. The template below provides space for some basic details that will help describe a base and give a sense of place, people and purpose.

Research Station Name:  
Research Area:  
Tech Level:  

Name: This might be precisely descriptive, atmospherically evocative or deceptively plain – the latter hiding the base’s purpose deliberately, trying to blend in, or simply academic/corporate speak for ‘bland and inoffensive’.

Location: This could be a sector name/hex number or a location in a system or coordinates/description of a place on a world.

Isolation: A general description of the base’s proximity to population centres and/or resupply.

D6 Example description of isolation
1 Within a large population centre (e.g., a university campus in a city)
2 Near a large population centre (e.g., university campus, research park, etc., in a suburban area)
3 Within or near a small population centre (e.g., a university campus in a ‘college town’)
4 Weak isolation (e.g., originally far from population centres, but is becoming a centre for the locals)
5 Strong isolation (e.g., in a wilderness area, with approach by unaffiliated persons discouraged)
6 Extreme isolation (Easy travel options unavailable, e.g., several days travel from nearest conurbation, outer system, ‘private’ asteroid, etc.)

Note resupply frequency and method of resupply if any, and/or personnel turnover. PCs may of course be part of any resupply in delivering equipment, supplies or personnel to a base. Alternatively, if they are running a base themselves, they may need to plan for such provisioning.

For more on resupply, see “Feeding the Crew” by Frank Miskevich.

Contract: Who ultimately runs the place or pays the bills? This could be an interstellar polity such as the Imperium, a university or corporation or other organization, a noble family, a private individual (including nobles operating outside of their dynasty concerns) or the researchers themselves.

D6 Example description of contract owner
1 Interstellar polity
2 World government, university, or corporation
3 Noble family
4 Self-financed (i.e., by base personnel directly)
5 Private individual (e.g., wealthy industrialist, philanthropist, etc.)
6 Other (see Description)

This line could include a note on financing. Assiduous Referees might come up with actual numbers which might be important if the PCs are the researchers but for most purposes could be as simple as Lavish (for e.g., an Imperial Research Station), Standard (for most other listed contract owners) or Shoestring (for ‘other’ contract owners, possibly for self-financed research) which will feed into descriptions of the site or its equipment, or adventure options such as conflicts over priorities or problems with failing technology. Those designing or procuring equipment using Traveller5’s QREBS or Cepheus Engine’s MODES might want to apply bonuses for ‘lavish’ or penalties for ‘shoestring’.

For personnel wages if required, consider these based on the salaries of the Core Rulebook, p.154.

Sample Salaries for Research Base Personnel
Role Monthly Salary
Established Researcher Cr6,000 or more
Early Career Researcher Cr5,000
Medic Cr3,000
High-Level Administrator Cr3,000
Technician Cr2,000-Cr4,000 depending on skills
Low-Level Administrator Cr2,000
Steward Cr2,000
Security Cr1,000

Consider adding Cr1,000 per level of Reputation – create Reputation as another 2D6 characteristic or use SOC for this purpose. (Alternatively, see Traveller5 Fame in the Core Book 1: Characters and Combat, p.91).

For more on funding, see Book 10: Cosmopolite, pp.42-43.

Research Area: This is the general field the station’s research is focused in, not the specific subject of the research (which may be kept secret for any number of reasons). That is, a station doing research into viruses or bacterial diseases would specify the Research Area as ‘Science: Life’ or ‘Medical/Health’ if using descriptions from the table following.

Possible General Areas of Research
1D or 2D 1D Research Area 2D Research Area
1 ‘Blue Sky’  
2 Science: Life Psionics/Paranormal
3 Science: Physical Business/Management/Education
4 Science: Social Psychohistory
5 Science: Space Jumpspace
6 Military Medicine/Health
7   Engineering/Technology
8   Military
9   Science: Life (non-sophont)
10   Science: Sophont Biology
11   Science: Environmental
12   ‘Blue Sky’

‘Blue Sky’ might be multidisciplinary research areas or outrageously farfetched ideas that will have little payoff in short time frames. Obviously, scientific research can be spun off into military applications in many cases, but the idea here is to generate a primary goal or area.

Reroll any obviously incompatible options such as ‘Science: Environmental’ on a base in an asteroid belt – or revise to something appropriately close such as life support systems. The tables are offered as inspiration rather than intended to be exhaustive.

Research areas may be further broken down. For example, in a strongly militaristic universe, polity or region there might be research into weaponry, heavy weaponry, armour, explosives, vehicles or other applications.

Tech Level: This is not the same as a planetary tech level as the base may not be able to sustain the tech, but is what the base is generally equipped at. The description might include notes on whether this is the technology level of the most advanced piece of equipment available or a general tech level for the base but with one or two items at higher levels.

Personnel: This will consist of two numbers – the number of researchers and the number of support staff if any. The latter will almost certainly include technicians, admin and housekeeping (cleaning, cooking, laundry) and might include security, drivers/pilots, engineers, etc. Of course, it may be that funds are scarce or security tight such that the researchers carry out such chores. The researchers themselves won’t necessarily be a homogenous group and could be mature and experienced, early career researchers (eager to get on and make their name or struggling with imposter syndrome – or both), those still doing their Ph.D., interns, etc. They could be very collegiate about working in a team or perhaps they would rather just work alone (even in a team!). They may be bona fide researchers with qualifications and a supervising institution, they might be more or less skilled amateurs, or perhaps they’re somewhere in between having been sacked from a formal institution and/or discredited academically. It’s not impossible they’re complete frauds in it for whatever funding they can extract.

There may also be ‘hangers on’ in terms of family, friends, fans(?!) or local community trying to get some advantage by being close (for relationship reasons, selling goods/services, expecting handouts).

If desired, the Referee could add a third stat for the number of robots in support of the base.

While the actual numbers of personnel will be influenced by the facilities and the funding, the below table can offer some possible (approximate) ratios of researchers to support staff.

1D Ratio Description
1 1:0 No support staff: the researchers do their own cooking, cleaning, admin, etc.
2 2:1 There are twice as many researchers as support staff
3 1:1 There are equal numbers of researchers and support staff
4 1:2 There are twice as many support staff as researchers
5 1:3 There are three times as many support staff as researchers
6 1:* The support staff is much larger than the research staff. Each researcher may have their own team of assistants and technicians.
DM –1 if TL14+
DM +1 if based on a university campus
DM +1 if world TL 4-
DM –1 if ‘strong’ or ‘extreme’ isolation (see description of isolation earlier in this article)

1: see the section ‘Support Staff’ in this IFPRI document for examples in one field of researcher/support ratios.Some research areas will need higher levels of support staff (e.g., agricultural research where labourers may be employed) and a typical ratio might be 1:3 or even higher1.

Security: For various reasons, access to selected areas of a research base—and/or to the base itself—may need to be limited and/or controlled in an auditable way.

1D Security
1 Extremely tight – even key researchers must verify their ID (perhaps a biolab for example) at all locations
2 Very Tight – only authorized personnel in specific authorized areas
3 Tight – authorized personnel only in some specific areas
4 Typical – locks, a guard or two, some ID checks in some areas
5 Loose – basic locks on outer access portals
6 No security – perhaps because of isolation

Security might refer to locks (electronic or physical), ID checks (biometric, passes), weaponry, security guards, etc., and could be a mixture of such methods.

Description: A text description of the base and its primary purpose. It might expand on any of the above to give fuller details. It may have a player section and a referee section. It could include comments on how and when resupply happens if at all, personnel turnover if any, and base morale. The latter could be generated with a 2D6 roll and use the usual modifiers (eg. DM -1 for 3-5, DM +1 for 9-11, etc.) against attempts to resolve problems – whether it’s their primary research questions, a failing powerplant, or an attack by local wildlife. On the base role, use DM -1 for finance being shoestring and DM +1 for finance being lavish.

In short, Research Bases can be as much of a ‘character’ in a Traveller adventure as a ship or other entity and Referees are encouraged to make them more than simply scenes for a bug hunt or places to pick up the next rumour before moving on. For internal descriptions of bases, see “Off the Wall”.

With their often tight-knit communities living in close quarters for extended periods of time, research bases will be a hotbed of rumour and interpersonal relationships. All the above really acts as background to the work, recreation and everyday life that will be going on and will probably form the most relatable aspect of any adventure and provide the most opportunities for role playing. Referees should develop characters to inhabit any base (see personnel above). The D66 table on page 35 offers suggestions for both potential topics of conversation and events to add to or become the main adventure.

These are kept as generic as possible to be as widely useful as possible. The base may be on an inhabitable world, a rockball or on a station in space or planetoid belt. Referees should adjust depending on exact circumstances and should consider how best to deliver such rumours: base personnel, locals, news broadcasts; as part of a much longer story or just the bare facts; true or false (or partially true); and whether it’s key to the ongoing plot, relevant to the ongoing plot, tangential or simply ‘atmosphere’.

Examples of Research Bases

Research Station Name: Institute of Spinward Cosmology
Location: Western Continent, Regina/Spinward Marches
Isolation: Strongly isolated
Contract: Regina University
Research Area: Space Science—Cosmology
Tech Level: 12
Personnel: 30/10 (6/1 in orbital facility)
Security: None
Description: The ISC is a prestigious part of Regina University and maintains an off-campus base-cum-telescope array at one of Regina’s trojan points. The Institute proper is housed in one of RU’s new buildings and the ground floor includes a cafeteria and lecture hall. Considerable computing power is housed in the basement. The orbital facility is small, cramped and staffed mainly by interns and early career researchers due to its isolation.
Research Station Name: Research Station Gamma
Location: Vanejan/Spinward Marches
Isolation Extreme isolation
Contract: Imperial Research Station
Research Area: Primary: Life Sciences—Psionics
Secondary: Physical Sciences—Communications
Test Site: Space Sciences—Robotics
Tech Level: Unknown
Personnel: Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma gives no figures, but some deductions can be made from the text and plans. There are 15 single staterooms and one double stateroom, there is a meeting room with 16 seats. The various offices don’t imply many more staff than this and some support staff are implied which presumably would be within the 16 total. Four admin, two technicians, one security officer and nine scientists would seem reasonable.9/7 (+24 robots)
Security: Extremely tight
Description: description quoted from Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma“Situated among the scattered ice-clogged islands of the southern sea is Imperial Research Station Gamma, one of seven in the Spinward Marches.

“The station is readily recognizable from a distance as a slender column topped by a circular cap; spiralling down the shaft is a succession of globular attachments. Depending on the season, the station may be ice-locked, surrounded by separate ice floes, or in open sea. The nearest land is a small island on the horizon to the north.

“At night, the station is topped by a strong white light visible for at least fifteen kilometres, serving primarily to warn off shipping.”

Further reading

Behind the Claw by Martin J. Dougherty lists research bases in Deneb sector and mentions those in the Spinward Marches (pp.24-25 & 164-166). “Research Stations of the Imperium” by John C. Meyers (Imperium Staple, no.6, 1986) lists seven bases in the Spinward Marches and four in the Solomani Rim.

Book 4: Deep Space Exploration Handbook (part of The Great Rift) includes a Base Module and a Research Assist software package.

Starship Geomorphs by Robert Pearce includes several research elements. Explorers by Paul Elliott includes descriptions and deck plans for various base options as does Modular Base ‘Commodus’ by Christian Nienhaus. Attractive colour plans for a research facility can be found in “Neptune Station: Undersea Research Facility, University, and Community” created by Michael Tumey (also available with better quality as a separate product).

Angle of Incidence(also reworked for Cepheus Engine) by Michael Brown has notes on Imperial Research Sigma refitted from a decommissioned 1000-ton Purcell-class Xboat Tender (with the PCs delivering supplies again). Port of Call: Vanessa by the same author includes a TL 11 research base called The Spindle.

“Imperial Research Station Beta” by Randy B. Windle (Challenge, no.42, 1990) has the characters investigating instantaneous interstellar communication and in “Kiraag Research Station” by Jonathan Crocker (Challenge, 51, 1991) the PCs are delivering medical supplies to a base. For a rather grim adventure try “Zhodanian Brain” by Michael Brines (Traveller Chronicle, no.2, 1993) in which psionic research has gone amok. “Incident on Pluto” by Robert Gray (Stardate no. 3(3)) is a horror scenario for 2300AD and includes plans for Research Station Jung. “The Mermani Descent!” by Bill White (with plans) has the PCs looking for SuSAG equipment (Traveller Chronicle, no.5, 1995).

“Race for the ‘Specter’” by Doug Houseman (Different Worlds, no.20, 1982) pits the Imperium and Zhodani fighting over a research base (with plans). “A Jolly (Roger) Good Time” by Rick Morey has researchers investigating nearby pirates and the PCs being called in to help. In “The Poseidon Adventure” by Steve Hatherley the PCs uncover a base where the scientists are all dead. A base for chemical and biological research can be found in “The Crucible Campaign: Travelling In the Commonwealth: Vox Populi” by Peter Gray. “The Plague Robbery” by Jeffrey Schwartz has a scientist making a drug from lichen.

Ashfall by Timothy Collinson is an adventure based on six scientists conducting planetological research and includes plans for their base as well as their publications list.

See also Book 10: Cosmopolite for variant Scholar, Academician and Field Researcher careers (with D66 event tables) as well as Functionary careers for administrators, security and maintenance personnel.

Research itself, of course, can be carried out using the Research rules in Book 10: Cosmopolite which also includes some specialist toolkits and equipment (or see the MegaTraveller rules on Research in Referee’s Companion, pp.46-48).

Supplement 14: Space Stations by Barnes Thomas isn’t specifically for research bases, but could obviously be used for them.

There is additional Traveller material covering other types of organization:

Real World Information

Research Stations in Antarctica
Australian Antarctic Research Stations
British Antarctic Survey
https://www.bas.ac.uk/polar-operations/sites-and-facilities/station/ with a handy leaflet: https://www.bas.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/public_information_leaflet_research_stations_2014.pdf
US Antarctic Program
and this is very brief but ‘atmospheric’ page on a Czech station and opportunities for non-researchers to stay which could provide adventure possibilities:
D66 Rumours or Events for a Research Base
D66 Topic of Rumor or Event
Temporary Environmental Disruption
11 sand/ice/rain/meteor storm moving in
12 sand/ice/rain/meteor storm moving in unprecedented severity
13 animal migration about to occur
14 animal attack about to occur
15 predicted upcoming astro, meteo, geological event
16 unexpected (but rumour-monger has ‘information’) earthquake/landslip/asteroid approach/volcano
Existential Environmental Danger
21 local star going nova
22 sea/temperature/asteroid density/radiation levels rising
23 plague in local area or wider
24 biohazard threat to base and/or surrounds
25 funding source coming to visit/investigate/recommend closure
26 research funding about to be doubled/halved/removed
Existential Sophont-related Danger
31 faction attack – physical faction(s) may be (D6):
1-2 interstellar polities
3-4 planetary governments/organizations
5-6 local threats
32 faction attack – informational
33 faction attack – reputational
34 pollution/terraforming now affecting base operations or base habitability
35 resupply delays OR research equipment delivery problem
36 repair, construction or major maintenance team delayed or causing difficulties
Internal Disruption
41 comms problems: internal/external
42 significant equipment/habitat failure
43 animal (pet or external) loose in the base and crafty about hiding
44 animal (pet or external) loose in the base and dangerous to apprehend
45 primary research area of the base has hit a blockage or dead end or will soon run rampant
46 “unknown” (Ancient/psionic/psychological/horror) threat within the base
Personnel-related Disruptions
51 someone is sick/dying
52 someone is out to hurt/kill another
53 someone is stealing things
54 someone is sabotaging equipment/habitat
55 a romance/affair has just started/ended
56 personnel/visitors to base are coming/missing/just departed leaving x in their wake
61-66 Roll on the Life Events table from the Core Rulebook