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Tuesday 26 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Secrets of the Ancients

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 strange landscape:

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?
Well, 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!

You 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.

And 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)


  1. This is more of an "opinion Piece" than a "review" of the subject matter. Too much injection of your own personal bias & "authors" own GM style which for a review piece is completely irrelivant. A Review of a product is unbiased assessment of the quality of the object being reviewed.

    While this does go into great detail its injected bias discolors all the text around it.

    my own injection..
    There is not a single playstyle that is the "correct" way to play a game. I get it you like to use your own material and find using can'd missions a crutch. But it disreguards the idea some people play the world and history of a campaign setting and find it appealing to get caught up in the "canon". Some game systems such as shadowrun or pathfinder skipping the published adventure set you would be missing a great deal of the world and the events that are happening in the world around them.

    Please dont consider this a flame but a critical review of your "review"

  2. All reviews are biased. My biases are up front and in the open, at least (which, combined with my consistent history of reviewing all products correctly submitted and my notable online presence is probably the reason why I've been given literally hundreds of review products over the years).

    An "objective" review is not one where someone magically avoids all personal biases, but one where you try to look at what might work about the product for different kinds of people.

  3. I think this is a valid and accurate review of Secrets which I have run from beginning to end. There is a great deal of marvellous stuff but it is quite linear and either needs a disciplined or flexible GM. No. You need to be both. But all the elements are wonderful even if you chopped it all up and used it as utterly different adventures.

    1. You're keen on chopping up adventures, aren't you?! I seem to recall regarding it at the highest praise that you said you'd do that Three Blind Mice when you read it! Did you ever try running that? Also: might have to pick your brains on running SotA if my lot ever get to the end of TTA and are interested in more. All the best!