Sources of Inspiration: The South Seas Island Adventures
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue.
A longtime side hobby of Traveller fans has been tracking down its literary inspirations. After all, its authors said it was intended to emulate the published science fiction tales that preceded its 1977 debut. Some have pointed to E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra saga, H. Beam Piper’s novel Space Viking, or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. However, there may have been another influence upon Traveller’s creators so ubiquitous that they may not have realized it was there.
Sea stories have fascinated listeners since Noah, and a cruise liner’s load of fine authors have written them—from Homer to James Michener. However, a particular sub-genre of sea story grew popular in multiple media during the 1920s and thrived alongside the nascent science fiction genre through the 1950s: the South Seas island adventure. In these yarns, tough and not-too-scrupulous fellows sailed to exotic far-flung locations on the other side of the world (usually in the South Pacific) in search of treasure and adventure, or maybe to get away from the authorities. They fought the cops, cannibals, monsters of the deep, and even one another to achieve their sometimes dubious ends. Starting to sound familiar?
These sorts of stories were everywhere—magazines, comics, novels, radio shows, movies, even early television. While critics of popular science fiction sometimes complained that the yarns were merely Westerns with aliens instead of Indians and rocket ships instead of horses, the tropes of island adventure stories slid seamlessly into the new genre—dangerous journeys to exotic locales, unfriendly locals, tough heroes in tough situations, fleeing to distant shores to avoid the consequences of bad behavior. After World War 2 the South Pacific adventure story gradually faded in popularity. The far-flung islands and coasts were less glamorous now that Allied soldiers had died upon them fighting the Japanese and remote colonial possessions had been reorganized into modern independent nations. Meanwhile, the stars above them still beckoned.
Given that South Seas island adventures share many points in common with a typical Traveller campaign, there is plenty of material to steal from. Any plot involving a diving suit can become a scenario featuring a vacuum suit. Here are a few suggestions:
Bold Venture (1951): A charter boat captain operating out of pre-revolution Cuba encounters con men, gangsters, and terrorists while trying to earn an honest (or not-so-honest) living. It hurts the show not at all that the captain is Humphrey Bogart accompanied by Lauren Bacall. There was a 1959 television version.
Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (1947): A shady sea captain races a criminal syndicate to find a distant treasure. His own ethical choices add to his troubles, while the syndicate has henchmen waiting for him at every port.
Jonny Quest (1964), animated: At the height of the Cold War, a globe-trotting scientist and his family run afoul of spies, smugglers, madmen and monsters while investigating strange phenomena. It is a late entry but the show encapsulates everything that made the South Seas adventure fun.
Sea Hunt (1958): An ex-Navy diver tackles dangerous recovery jobs (and associated mysteries) at a time when scuba gear was new and science fiction-y. He hires his skills out to various patrons, and it won’t hurt if this week’s client amply fills out a bikini.
King Kong and Son of Kong (1933): The captain of an independent freighter ferries an excitable movie director to an uncharted island (twice!) and gets much more excitement than he anticipated.
Trader Tom of the China Seas, 12-chapter serial (1954): A strong-jawed sea captain and trading post owner helps a government agent thwart gun runners fomenting an island revolution on behalf of an ambitious foreign empire.
Wake of the Red Witch (1948): Rival captains clash over a beautiful woman and a fortune in sunken gold. Based on a 1946 novel by Garland Roark.
Novels and Short Stories
Clive Cussler, Raise the Titanic (1976), novel: Robert Ballard who? Nine years before the infamous liner was actually found, U.S. and Russian salvage teams race to recover a rare mineral locked in the wreck’s hold. The novel was made into a 1980 film.
William Hope Hodgson: Appropriate favorite short stories include “The Derelict” (1912), “A Voice In the Night” (1907), “Demons of the Sea” (?), and “A Tropical Horror” (1905). These should be enough to cause adventurers to cash out their high and middle passage vouchers and content themselves with flipping burgers at the starport food court.
L. Ron Hubbard, The Headhunters (1936), novel: Gold and revenge motivate yet another tough captain to escort a scientist and his nubile daughter and to challenge hostile tribesmen who are expecting him. Whatever his qualities as a spiritual leader, Hubbard knew how to write a rip-roaring tale.
Rudyard Kipling, “The Devil and the Deep Sea” (1895), short story: Can the amoral crew of a cargo ship escape imprisonment by a foreign power?
Louis L’Amour, West From Singapore, Off the Mangrove Coast, Night Over the Solomons, short story collections: Not every story in these books is set in the South Pacific but they all are gripping. L’Amour began writing adventure stories but switched to his famous frontier sagas and Westerns after WWII.
Scenarios Based on the Above
For Referees Only! Spoilers!
The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen
While the individual episodes are exciting, it is the radio show’s overall structure that makes it a useful campaign template for Traveller players and Referees. Ship owner/captain Philip Kearney is hired by a wealthy Chinese businessman to retrieve priceless historical artifacts. Only the patron knows where the trove is hidden, and the treasure is also sought by the Constantino criminal syndicate. Kearney must sail from exotic location to exotic location, contact the patron’s local representative, and identify himself by a predetermined method to receive instructions and directions to the next clue. He faces all the usual dockside dangers, but Constantino’s goons are also waiting at each stop to intercept him or his contact and steal the clue.
Meanwhile, Kearney is still trying to buy and sell goods, repair and resupply the ship, hire crewmen to replace the ones Constantino has killed or bribed, and assist damsels and allies in distress. The problem is that he often doesn’t know who he can trust until after the gangsters have murdered them. In addition to violence, the bad guys try to slow the captain down with femmes fatales, bureaucratic red tape, and trumped up criminal charges.
A “Scarlet Queen” Traveller game might resemble a “Planet of the Week” type campaign. The Referee can run almost any type of individual adventure as long as the player-characters are making their contacts and collecting directions to their next destination. They might have deadlines to meet in order to reach friends or avoid enemies, so they shouldn’t linger overlong in one location. Their potential allies can be respectable or of ill repute, Imperial or alien, but they will all be wary of strangers until appropriate proofs are given. The bad guys have tried to impersonate the patron’s agents more than once. The Referee should also adjust the opposition to compensate for the fact that the adventurers have both the syndicate and the local antagonists after them. Will the villains work together, or will they get in each others’ way? Could this session’s clue fall into third-party hands, with both the PCs and the syndicate trying to retrieve it?
Exploring abandoned spacecraft has been a Traveller pastime since the adventures Annic Nova and The Darthanon Queen. What makes William Hope Hodgson’s take special is that in his yarn the ship doesn’t contain a monster, the ship itself is the monster.
Forced to make emergency repairs after a storm, a ship’s captain and ship’s physician decide to examine an antique hulk floating nearby while the work is being completed. From the beginning they notice unusual phenomena around the vessel. The adjacent water is stained and syrupy. A miasmic haze rises from its deck. When they and some sailors climb aboard they find that the entire surface is covered with a thick spongy substance (mold?) that seals off the companionway and cargo hatches and is crawling with giant sea lice.
The captain tries to kick his way through the companionway door but instead of revealing an opening the hole his boot made spurts fluid and heals itself. Too late the physician puts the pieces together and realizes the ship is a living organism and that they have just awakened it. Unable to reach their friends waiting in a boat on the other side of the hull, the men race for the nearest gunwale while a sailor (a non-player character, we hope!) is sucked through the deck’s suddenly liquifying and acidic surface. Their grappling hook tears through the rail as the soles of their boots start to dissolve but the seamen fall into an intact boat (not theirs) trapped in the muck surrounding the derelict. As their friends frantically try to row around the hull to reach them through the thickening ooze, the physician notices the boat’s bottom is filled with cleanly picked human bones and that a spongy pseudopod is slowly stretching down from the deck above them. Their fellow crewmen reach the endangered mariners just in time, and with great effort they row free from the foul mucus around the derelict and make it aboard their own ship as a second storm separates the two vessels.
To adapt the premise to outer space some adjustments have to be made. The purpose of the scenario is not to leave the PCs stranded or to kill them off but to have them experience a weird, scary thing far from home and help. There are no tropical storms in the void but there might be solar flares or jump wave distortions or some other technobabble that would prevent them from simply fleeing. Or maybe they are a patrol or a salvage team assigned to investigate an unfamiliar ship unaccountably in orbit around a newly installed research station or recently discovered planet.
The heroes shouldn’t simply crawl over the outer hull of the derelict in vacuum suits. It isn’t the same risk and doesn’t produce the same mood. They’ll have to go inside to experience the moist, ill-smelling atmosphere, to hear the distant rhythmic pounding that could be sealed engines or might be a heartbeat, to feel if not see the “walls” and “bulkheads” flexing or stretching or pumping unknown fluids. For all its alien wrongness, the derelict still looks like a starship—and not necessarily a huge one (200-600 tons). It has bioluminescent cells where a starship’s lights would be, sphincters where iris valves and hatches would be, bodily openings that substitute for airlocks, internal cavities that could be crew quarters or cargo holds. Its autonomic functions will allow the adventurers to explore just far enough away from their entry point to be inconvenient should they wake the creature. But it is deeply asleep and will tend to stay so unless they attempt to tear through its internal membranes and organs to reach where they think the bridge or engineering is.
Hodgson’s derelict was a sort of amoeba, dependent on wind and wave for its movement. How does the space version feed and move? Is it jump capable? [note: this might work better as a scenario in a 2300AD-type setting, with the Kafer living ships —ed.]
The Devil and the Deep Sea
Decades before television was invented, Kipling answered the question, “What if con man Harry Mudd ran the Enterprise instead of noble James Kirk?” The tramp freighter Aglaia changes her name, deck profile, paint job and operating region regularly but never her loyal, tight-lipped crew. Her owner/captain will take on any lucrative job no matter how questionable—smuggling, ferrying spies, running guns, hauling stolen goods or contraband. Then one day a colonial patrol boat disables the Aglaia’s souped-up engines with a lucky shot, and it is caught stuffed to the gills with poached pearls.
As punishment, a petty local official seizes the ship and conscripts the crew to fight in a backwater brush war, but not before the wily ship’s engineer hides his essential tools and spare parts in the engine room then has his assistants make “repairs” that exaggerate the extent of the damage. Because the Aglaia is registered as British, the foreign power that captured her is pressured into releasing the crew. The petty official recalls the survivors (most of the gang; they’re tough) from combat, imprisons them on their own disabled ship, and grudgingly enables them to beg and bargain for food and supplies. Colonial troops stand ready to shoot would-be escapees but never come aboard because the Aglaia has already been stripped of everything the colonial governor considered valuable.
Given this relative privacy, the chief engineer has the crew clear away the mess in the engine room, unpacks his tools and parts, and thoroughly inspects the damage (which is severe enough to threaten the hull). Over the course of weeks, the crew makes major jury-rigged repairs, rebuilding the engine with available materials, including metal torn from other parts of the vessel.
Of course the Aglaia’s captain is as clever and sneaky as his engineer and has worked out the colonial patrol schedules. On a night when all gunboats are farthest away from their captor’s headquarters, the ship fires up its shrieking engines and limps out of port with no opposition. Native pirates try to capture what they think will be easy prey but have their own boats seized by the desperate ex-convicts. Instead of fleeing for a safe harbor, however, the captain directs the ship to an island along the colonial patrol route. He and the crew watch from hiding as the patrol boat that captured them tears out its bottom against the Aglaia’s scuttled remains. Then they escape in the captured native boats.
Traveller application: Set along a lawless colonial frontier, Devil and the Deep Sea begs to be transferred to a similar location near the Third Imperium. The scruffy, heavily modified Aglaia is the Millennium Falcon before there was Star Wars, and her amoral crew resembles many a group of player-characters. The unnamed petty official and the equally unnamed government he represents could be any polity the Referee chooses. On the other hand, player agency might become an issue since the scenario as written involves capture and detainment by the adventurers’ opponents. An alternative take could be a series of cat-and-mouse encounters between the PCs and the colonial patrol crew sent to stop them, sort of a Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men situation. Their continued success at pulling off jobs and eluding capture would ultimately gain the local official’s attention and ire, leading to a showdown. In the meantime, the protagonists’ activities could gain them allies as well as additional foes.
The Diamond of Jeru by Louis L’Amour
Kardec, a down-on-his-luck diamond hunter stranded on Borneo, gets a potentially lucrative job escorting an American tourist couple upriver to seek gems. However, the wife is pretty, the husband is jealous, and just as the guide has their equipment packed and ready to go the husband, Mr. Lacklan, curtly informs him that the couple has found another escort. He can keep the gear and supplies as payment for the lost job. Since the only other reputable river guide is recovering from injuries, Kardec is concerned. Lacklan’s story of meeting a tribesman with a huge diamond he refuses to sell sounds suspiciously like the ruse that the old bandit chieftain Jeru used to lure expeditions to their doom. But Jeru is thought dead and it was a boy who offered to show the Lacklans where the diamond was found.
Because the route to his last find is similar to the one the Americans must take, Kardec and his teenage native assistant Raj decide to go prospecting while quietly shadowing the couple to ensure their safety. The Lacklans’ youthful guide is accompanied by a rough-looking bunch of porters and, sure enough, they seize the couple on the very morning Kardec had planned to go his own way. Kardec and Raj trail the kidnappers inland to a decrepit longhouse where Jeru, ancient but very much alive and spry, reigns over his band of brigands, the outcasts of every tribe in the region. The boy that misled the captives is his grandson.
Seeing that it is a matter of minutes before Jeru adds the couple’s heads to his extensive collection, Kardec sets fire to the longhouse and starts picking off bandits as they rush outside. Raj escapes with the Lacklans but the husband is injured and can barely walk. The four must flee into the mountains since Jeru and his goons block the way to the river. Fatigue forces them to take refuge in the mouth of a cavern system crammed with thousands of bats. When the headhunters close in, Kardec challenges Jeru to a battle of magic as well as physical might, using smoke from a concealed fire to drive a hurricane of bats at the terrified bandits. Jeru nearly guts him during their combat but Kardec manages to defeat the older man. Rather than killing the chieftain, he orders Jeru to live out his days quietly in a village that doesn’t know him.
Later, back at the coast, Mrs. Lacklan regrets her inability to sufficiently reward Kardec for her rescue. Smiling grimly, Kardec holds up a leather necklace from which dangles Jeru’s infamous giant diamond.
A botched attempt to impress a patron turns into a rescue mission. The Diamond of Jeru would work best as a straightforward planetary wilderness adventure. It is actually several scenarios in one.
There is the prospecting angle. There really are valuable minerals to be found in a rugged, remote environment. But getting there and back is difficult and dangerous even without opposition. In the story Kardec had found diamonds but had lost them and almost his life in a boat accident. A cruel Referee could plague adventurers with bad weather, wildlife encounters, rock slides, equipment failures or shifting river channels.
Next there is the attempt to rescue greenhorns who have run into trouble. The Lacklans aren’t idiots but they are unfamiliar with the people and hazards of the river. Jeru and his bandits are tough foes despite their comparatively primitive gear because they know the territory and outnumber the player-characters. And they have successfully pulled off this scam several times before. The brigands have battled the equivalent of elite troops (which is how they acquired the best of their aging weaponry) and won’t be easily intimidated by a handful of scruffy outdoorsmen.
In L’Amour’s tale the protagonists are very much on their own because the overextended coastal government, while sympathetic, can’t afford to send city-bred policemen into the bush to aid them. The authorities need not be supportive, however. Perhaps they suspect the PCs or the supposed tenderfoot captives of criminal activities such as smuggling or fomenting unrest among the natives. Perhaps Jeru is an agent of a foreign power bent on revolution and the Lacklans are his latest contacts. It won’t help the adventurers if they really have been engaged in questionable activities. On the other hand, they may have innocently stepped into the middle of an espionage operation or the onset of a bitter colonial war. Will officials send soldiers to arrest them, or offer them a scouting assignment they dare not refuse? What if instead of a rotting longhouse they find a military base or starport under construction?