Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Traveller Further Thoughts – Part 1

First, an admission: I haven’t read a lot of space opera.

Frankly, the largest chunks of my sci-fi space readings have been Larry Niven’s Known Space books (stopping just shy of The Ringworld Throne, as in I own the book but haven’t read it yet – for 15 years), Harry Harrison’s tales of the Stainless Steel Rat (stopping after A Stainless Steel Rat is Born), some of the Retief books from my dad’s collection (books he said I’d appreciate more once I was out of school, so I’m way past due for going back and re-reading them), a smattering of Heinlein, and the first four John Carter of Mars books (which I should never have read after reading Terry Pratchett – flight granted by capturing the “8th color of light”?  Really?  Did Rincewind design your airship?).  TV-wise, I’m a fan of Babylon-5, Firefly, the original Star Trek series, and Enterprise (once they stopped with all the “fan service” in season one and actually got to telling a story – Trip is my favorite character).

So, that said, I consulted with a friend of mine (now referred to as E) who is heavily into space opera and whose perfect bound Lensmen books, printed on acid-free paper, I regularly eye when I’m over there.  We hashed out a number of things, giving form to my nebulous ideas about what I wanted.  This post and the parts that follow are a compilation of my notes from that conversation.

The Virus
Interstellar civilization crashed as a result of two belligerent factions going to war, ending with each releasing an A.I.-driven computer virus on the other.  The virii we coded to either a) take over computer-controlled equipment and make it malfunction or b) wipe databanks clean, with priority being given to engineering and military data.  This crippled production as most of it was performed by automated fabricators and made existing facilities and ships dangerous to deadly (not to mention the chaos caused when automated traffic control systems start crashing vehicles on densely populated worlds – or stop providing guidance to systems that no longer allowed human control).  While each side had the antidote to their own virus, neither side had adequate defenses against the other side’s virus, leading to massive data wipes and computer-controlled machinery that became dangerous.  Civilization broke down quick in a number of different ways.

The McGuffin
The players start with “the McGuffin” a device that, when attached to a computer core, will purge/cure both virus types and then install a rudimentary operating system, rendering the system usable, if barely.  How does it work?  Not necessary for the players to know – it just does.  The trick is, these things require very high end components, components that the Start World cannot manufacture – they only had enough components on hand to build a handful of them and the PCs managed to get one of those.

The Virus and the McGuffin allow several things to happen in the game.  First, I have a rationale for the loss of knowledge, but not all knowledge.  All the online material would get wiped.  Hardcopies would exist and data in storage devices would contain some material, but most of that would be in the form of early drafts or be subsystems to large items.  The McGuffin also provides a mechanism explaining why salvaged ships or facilities do not grant the cutting edge programs – all data systems have to be thoroughly erased before a basic system can be reloaded or the virus will re-spread.  Plus, later on I can tinker with things to add in new plots, like a variant of the virus that the McGuffin does not defeat, a variant that is sentient and mostly non-hostile, or even a variant that the McGuffin “awakens” instead of purges.  Why did that happen?  Instant mystery.

Starting Point
The player characters are assumed to have put all their funds and technical know-how into getting a McGuffin, getting all the permits necessary to claim one of the derelicts in the starting world system, and then the materials necessary to get the ship to a basic level of space-worthiness.  This leaves them starting with a ship and one share in whatever profits the ship makes.  Sound like a basic adventuring party?

E laid out the two basic themes of space opera: space combat or “away teams”.  I wanted the campaign to be about the characters doing things, not ships in combat, so “away teams” became the underlying model for the campaign.  To avoid marooning player characters on the ship when all the action was planet-side (and vice versa), it became clear that certain job functions needed to be NPC-only.  The following roles, therefore, will be NPCs:
  • Ship’s Captain/Pilot
  • Ship’s Navigator
  • Ship’s Engineer
  • Ship’s Doctor
  • Start World Representative/Trademaster

Each of these roles will get a share of profits as without them, the ship doesn’t move and things don’t happen.  The first four are fairly self-explanatory, but the fifth didn’t crop up until later in the conversation, so he needs some explanation.  Part of what the PCs will be doing is finding and negotiating for the rights to either raw materials or regular shipments of finished product back to the Start World.  This is pretty heady stuff for a planetary government to allow just anyone to do, so they require a government representative to be available to approve all trade negotiations.  He also maintains a database of what is needed back home and what is considered an acceptable price for goods and materials, so the players can consult him to find out what they can sell back home for a profit and how big a profit.

So who are the players playing?  First, they are the Company Men, meaning they represent the corporation/chartered company that has the permits from the government.  They can tell the captain where to fly the ship and what is going to happen when they get there, but they cannot interfere with how the captain runs the ship.  This is modeled on real world experience and provides a workable dynamic to keep the PCs active without shunting someone off into a role with a lot of dead time when the ship is not in flight.  This is a different dynamic that that seen in Firefly or aboard the Millennium Falcon where the captain is also the owner, but look how often Wash complained about being left behind with the ship in Firefly.  There was an entire episode covering this.

As to the roles the PCs will fill, these include:
  • Weapons "officer" (Jayne Cobb from Firefly)
  • Communications/investigation (Daniel Jackson from Stargate)
  • Scrounge/rogue/thief
  • Negotiator/Smooth talker (“Face” from the A-Team)
  • Computer tech/electronics warfare (the official hacker-in-chief and in charge of the McGuffin)
  • Medic (in charge of getting wounded PCs patched up enough to get back to the ship)

Now the medic role can be combined with other roles or remain independent.  It would probably be wise for ALL of the PCs to have some first aid skills, but that’s up to the players.  This list is not exhaustive and some of the roles can be split up or new ones added, but these basic roles should probably be covered.

This leaves a “faceless” crew of about 20 or so, from whence new PCs can be promoted, and one other special role, Ship’s Purser.  The Purser will be an NPC in charge of the storage and maintenance of all gear not currently in use, particularly weapons.  For an elliptical reason I have chosen to name the Purser “Arachne”.

Well that covers about one page worth of notes.  In the next part I’ll go into more detail on the Purser’s role and more material about the set up and the possible ships the PCs can start with.  After that I’ll discuss the types of scenarios I see the players engaging in and what plots I expect to tie to them.

EDIT: Corrected the author attribution for the Stainless Steel Rat series.
EDIT: Corrected reference to Trademaster from "fourth" role to "fifth".


  1. Dude! Harry Harrison wrote the Stainless Steel Rat series.

    Spider Robinson wrote Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series.

    Get your geekness together!

  2. D'oh!

    Noted and fixed. I've read both series, but neither recently. My fault entirely.

  3. "The first four are fairly self-explanatory, but the fourth didn’t crop up until later in the conversation, so he needs some explanation."

    I believe you mean the fifth.

  4. @C'nor: You are correct, sir! Noted and corrected.

  5. That sounds more like a quartermaster rather than purser.

  6. I really like how the write up came out.
    Grats my friend

    BTW the lensmen books are my 3rd copy of the series, and my only functional copy. They made an anime about it as well, but totally rewrote the story. Unfortunately it was poorly done although the characters were better 'looking'.

    The others copies are older than I am. They have fallen or are falling apart even in the bags. When they reprinted them I had my pre-order in early.