RPGPundit Reviews: The Third Imperium Campaign I: Secrets of the Ancients
This is a review of the print version of The Third Imperium; Campaign
I: Secrets of the Ancients, a campaign-size adventure sourcebook for
Traveller. Its published by Mongoose, and I would assume is set up for
their set of Traveller rules, though it would likely be easy enough to
translate into any of the other systems for that game.
The book is a hardcover, that looks quite nice and would look to me
to be of solid construction. Its 200 pages long, with a full-colour
cover; interior illustrations are black and white, and relatively few
and far between. The bulk of interior illustrations are deckplans,
maps, floorplans and the like, practical stuff. But that’s very much in
keeping with the Traveller style.
Now, one detail I should mention about the cover. I didn’t see it
myself, but this was pointed out to me by a couple of my players. The
cover image is of a couple of aliens on a clifftop looking over a
Now, some of my players mentioned that it does have a more than passing resemblance to a certain illustration from Dark Sun:
Anyways, its clearly not just a rip-off or something, but it is close enough that this can’t just be coincidence, I think.
Now, as to the content itself: Secrets of the Ancients is a fairly
epic campaign played out in ten separate adventure parts. The plot of
the adventure, as you might guess, revolves around the enigmatic race
influential in the background setting of the traveller universe, known
as the Ancients. A super-advanced species that, by the present time of
the campaign setting, were thought to all be dead or gone. As the PCs
in this adventure will find out, that is not the case.
I do feel that I have to note personally that I find the very idea of
running a pre-published adventure for Traveller, much less an “epic
campaign” like this one, to be the complete antithesis of everything I
associate with the traveller game. Every single campaign I’ve ever run
for Traveller was a total sandbox, with rogue trading, planetary
exploration, and while there were “events” going on in the background of
the setting (that the player characters usually tried their best to
utterly avoid, rather than investigate), there was never any kind of
“adventure path” I would lay out to them. It seems to be rather alien to
me (pardon the pun, if it is a pun), to run Traveller like this.
On the other hand, this is not some kind of wacky idea on Mongoose’s
part that they just pulled out of their posteriors; Secrets of the
Ancients is in fact a (significantly expanded) remake of a Classic
Traveller adventure of the same name! So I have to be ready to accept
the fact that there may very well have been all kinds of people playing
Traveller who absolutely did want to have pre-made and directed
adventures of this sort, and though it seems totally contrary to
everything I know about running or playing Traveller, it may not be so
to others. The question would then be: if you want to have a premade
adventure series for your Traveller campaign (or want to try it,
anyways, if like me you usually don’t run things that way), is Secrets
of the Ancients any good?
As always when I review adventures, I want to walk a fine line
between not giving the material its due coverage, and spilling all the
beans and spoiling the potential of the adventure to surprise; that’s
particularly true in this case where the adventure depends on certain
big secrets and revelations that will be way more fun if any potential
players don’t know they’re coming. So I’m going to try to be vague
about specific “plot” details and instead cover the panoramic view of
what you get in this book.
Let’s start with the setup: the adventure presumes that the PCs
already know each other, and on top of this that they have access to a
ship of some kind. The first is no problem, the second already bumps,
however softly, into the whole notion of “Traveller as Sandbox”. If run
as part of an ongoing campaign, the usability of the adventure
as-written will depend on the party having a ship. If run as a new
campaign, you’ll have to fudge over the character creation process if it
turns out none of the PCs start with a ship, which in at least some
versions of Traveller is not uncommon. This sort of situation ends up
becoming a recurring problem in this book.
In another example, the campaign depends on at least one of the PCs
having a personal connection to a very important NPC for the plot; so
again this has to be shoehorned in there in an ongoing game. The NPC in
question is kindly old Uncle Vlen Backett, and the adventure starts out
with the party finding out that he’s died and said PC is his heir; when
going to resolve his affairs the PCs learn he apparently had a number
of important secrets and may in fact have been murdered; this kicks off
an investigation that leads to the PCs getting caught up with the
business of an important crime lord, getting into trouble with the law,
and discovering that Uncle Vlen had been intertwined with certain
archeological studies of Ancients sites. In turn, the PCs are supposed
to go investigate this connection to the Ancients, and they end up
getting caught up a fantastic discovery that also puts the into the
middle of a huge conflict relating to the Ancients.
Now, again, I have some issues with this situation. I know that in
the type of Traveller games I run, my PCs would not be “getting caught
up” deeper and deeper into the whole situation, they’d be trying to get
the hell out of the situation with all engines blazing! And the way the
book keeps resolving this is what in my opinion seems rather
heavy-handed. The adventure is not particularly open-ended in terms of
what can happen when or what the PCs can do. There are several cases
throughout the campaign where the PCs absolutely “MUST” be in a certain
place or do a certain thing or end up going somewhere, or the whole
campaign falls apart. The book’s efforts to accomodate this tends to be
by presenting “options” like “The final part of the adventure takes
place on a secret orbital base; they could have stowed away on the cargo
launch, tracked the movements of the cargo launch, or have been
incapacitated by knockout gas and brought there for interrogation”; or
“this adventure assumes the characters are in a scoutship and are
fleeing the imperial authorities; if this is not the case the referee
will have to modify the adventure”. In one part, the only option to
continue the adventure when the PCs are being chased by the authorities
is for the PCs to willingly fly their starship into the gravity well of a
gas giant; any other option taken by the party will basically stop the
whole plotline of the campaign. The one good note in all this is that
the last few parts of the book seem to be slightly more open-ended, just
a bit; maybe that’s because they’re the ones that go beyond the
constraints of the original Classic Traveller adventure.
There are plenty of other situations like this throughout the book,
where either no consideration or very flimsy considerations are made as
to free will on the PCs’ part, and the adventure descends into a blatant
railroad. A clever GM can probably modify this situation (in fact a
lot of times the text just says “if the players haven’t done X, then
adapt the adventure accordingly”, offering no actual advice as to how to
really do that), and I think ultimately the best way to run this
campaign without actually railroading would have to be to either very
heavily modify it, or be ready to accept that it could end at any time
if the PCs don’t do those precise things the adventure authors expect
the party to do in given situations.
So this, so far, is what you could say are the bad points of the product. What about the good points?
for starters, the adventure itself is tremendously interesting. It
moves somewhat beyond the standard gritty-hard sci-fi of your average
Traveller adventures, into something more epic, while at the same time
without totally abandoning the feel of the setting. The type of
adventure is more in the style of some of the best of Doctor Who rather
than say, Star Wars or Star Trek. Its pretty cerebral sci-fi, in other
words. And if you know how much I like Doctor Who, you’d know how
flattering my comparison is in this case.
Aside from that, if you look beyond the adventure as a whole and into
its component parts, what you get are a ton of scenarios, that run the
gamut from the standard bread and butter of Traveller games, to truly
crazy and out there stuff. You have your investigative game scenarios,
your firefights, spacefights, trouble with the law, trouble with the
crime world, chases on land and in space, galactic archeology, robots,
cyborgs, aliens, cultists, techno-zombies, and the freaking Ancients!
hang out on worlds, in scuzzy neighbourhoods, on space stations, in
alien jungles, in the aforementioned gas giant, in ancient ultra-tech
starships, in a royal palace, and even in a miniature universe.
all of this is very well supported with random tables for all kinds of
things from rumours to “random brownouts” on a malfunctioning starship,
floor plans, lists of NPCs (many of whom have well-defined and
interesting personalities and motivations), descriptions of locales,
deck plans and stats of ships, random encounter tables, subsector
outlines and maps, rules on ancient gadgets and ultratech (that don’t
always work), and “library data” on worlds, groups and people.
You even get to (sort of) time travel through thousands of years of
galactic history which you actually PLAY OUT with slightly-freeform
mechanics at one point. This campaign is nothing if not ambitious.
So there is certainly a lot of great stuff in Secrets of the Ancients.
What you get, in the end, is thus a mixed bag: the plot is great, the
set-pieces are great, the overall execution is, in my opinion, somewhat
flawed. Its rigid, railroady, too dependent on the PC party acting a
certain way and presenting little or no alternative courses of events,
meaning that if you want to play out the whole thing without major
changes you either have to get incredibly lucky, or force events (and
sometimes, force the directions of the PCs themselves).
This campaign is, in other words, a “serious fixer-upper” with quite a
few redeeming qualities. Whether or not its worth the effort of fixing
it up would depend on how much you want your Traveller game to feature a
very different, very large-scope kind of epic saga that is definitely
not operating on the same scale as the “trading merchandise in the local
subsector for a quick profit” kind of campaign.
Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Canadian + Rattray’s Accountants’ Mixture
(originally posted July 12th 2012; on the old blog)