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Outpost Mars

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in July 2012, and is reprinted here and in the April 2013 issue with the author’s permission.

Outpost Mars. Paul Elliott.
Zozer Games. http://zozer.weebly.com.
59pp., softcover/PDF.
US$6.99 PDF/US$5.49 Softcover

First and foremost, allow me to thank the publisher Paul Elliott of Zozer Games for gifting me a copy of a PDF for the purposes of this review.

Finally, a Traveller Hard SF supplement that is in a Near Earth/Traveller Now/Modern Traveller milieu and does an excellent job in making the Red Planet a great place for adventure. The TL is 9 with no great breakthrough in either gravitics or jump drive – it is just what I have always wanted to see for Traveller and thought of writing myself, with no Transhumanism to muck up the waters.

However, Paul Elliot has beaten me to the punch and done an excellent job in highlighting humanity’s probable next destination after the full-scale exploitation of the Moon has commenced. The premise of Outpost Mars is that players are scientists working for the United Nations Space Coordination Office (why the author did not choose a real agency like United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, I am not sure although, I could have equally accepted a nod to Traveller’s UNSCA), exploring and exploiting the Red Planet for the good of all. Nonetheless, underneath the surface, players are more than international civil servants—they each have strong drives and motivations that sometimes run counter to each other or to the United Nations’ neutral status. Those drives and motivations are in part national (though that is not fully explored because the geopolitical landscape is constantly changing) but more to do with which future is best for Mars. These different drives and motivations play out in the missions that they are set out to accomplish before players naturally come into identifying with the character and thus the party to an extent goes rogue from the UN’s agenda or are completely in sync with it and must hunt down the rogue elements. This creates a perfect vibe that mixes Outland with Star Cops with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy. And, as Mars seems to be very topical, there is plenty of source material that can be adapted into Outpost Mars. There is a fair bit of science contained within this supplement but the Referee is encouraged to use it as a toolbox, picking and choosing the right instrument for the job at hand rather than getting bogged down in the science.

As it is set in the near future, there is no immediate danger of technological breakthroughs that would alter the game; rather, technology is projected along a natural curve. As an example, respirators were developed in the 1940s, but although design and capacities have changed, the basic technology remains the same. Thus, it is possible to reuse many of the things we know in 2012 in 2040 (the present for Outpost Mars), fitting in with the ‘meme’ of Traveller being about ‘shotguns in space’ (more accurately, less lethal weapons, as they can do rather nasty damage to anyone in a Vacc Suit or spaceship hull), rather than lightsabers and portable disintegrators. Missing from the equipment list, however, is a detailed discussion on how the technology would work. For instance, let us take the sealed monorails that could zip across the planet like railroads of old. Where would they get the air supply that would make them incredibly bulky and not very efficient. Or what would be the effects of sandstorms on dirigibles? So, this is harder SF than standard Traveller, because of its recognisable technology, but not truly Hard SF, as it still relies upon some handwavium. However, the weakest section is perhaps the one that offers the most potential as the great enigma to set the campaign around – xenoarchaeology. Simply reproducing the comments on RPG.net about possible life and explanations for the Face of Cydonia made the production look amateurish as opposed to the rest of the production, which was really first rate. It would have been better to highlight some of the conspiracy theories surrounding it than some of the explanations, or perhaps some of the RPG.Net comments could better have been attributed to same-named NPCs, instead of merely listing those individuals in the credits. So, I hope this can get edited out of the printed version and a distillation of the ideas to be shared.

Those quirks aside, this is an excellent Hard SF resource for the Red Planet – sections which might have otherwise seemed dry and uninteresting suddenly come alive on a wide variety of topics ranging from atmospheric analysis to topographical analysis to climate. Even an astronomy buff, like me, could learn lots of new things.

Furthermore, the gamey bits like character generation are handled very well, with just a few base careers and then the potential to add on more. Outpost Mars also takes advantage of a nice mechanic that was once established in a JTAS article long ago and which I have used frequently: players do not muster out. There is only one career but three branches to choose from. It is hoped that future supplements might address the modification of existing Traveller careers to the milieu and add the dimension of nationality which might be used as an extra skills table or just flavor. Outpost Mars also provides a nice mechanic called motivation which comes into play in determining player goals, allying one’s self with a particular group, and forming relationships with others in the group.

Next is the referee’s section for running Outpost Mars: essentially, what characters do, a guide to how to create missions, and the complications that might arise. Some samples adventure seeds are here, though one can find others throughout the whole book. Following that is the somewhat adversarial relationship that the UNSCO has with potential rivalries—mostly national militaries—which are trying to put their nation first and extend classical Imperialism to the next higher level beyond the Earth itself. However, the relationships need not be adversarial but can be mutually beneficial.

A list of other media sources, such as books and movies, round out the product, suggesting some print and celluloid products—stories, plots, or backgrounds—that can be integrated into Outpost Mars. I would have liked to see more but I recognize that everyone has their own future.

The art, while phenomenal, is unfortunately taken from one source: NASA public domain art thus giving a perhaps overly US-centric point of view another thing that can be hopefully corrected once this nears completion as a print product. There must be many international artists who have their work in the public domain that would love to get additional exposure that one can use. However, my biggest beef and my greatest criticism – is that the reader is left wanting more. So, the question is whether Paul Elliott will continue to take us on a Grand Tour of the Solar System, beyond Mars, to the Belt, to Titan, to Venus, and to the other bodies of the Solar System? In this product, rather than quenching a thirst, he ignites a hunger for more. This excellent work has to continue, to expand on the drips and drabs we are already given, whether it be scant and tantalizing details of the settlements or even how we got there. What changed from the Great Recession into investing into the Space Program?

I guess I am hungering for Traveller set in a technothriller present. I would gladly collaborate on such a project. I eagerly await the dead tree copy and hope that it is not too late to incorporate some of these positive criticisms. However, as one can see in spite of these criticism, that I find it a brilliant piece of work and hope the author can make good use of the suggestions. So keep up the excellent work and I cannot wait to see more expansions for this branch of the Traveller tree.

Editor’s Note: Outpost Mars is compatible with the subsequently-released Zozer product Orbital, a 200+ page sourcebook for the same era, “kafka”’s review of which was reprinted in our March 2013 issue.