Copyright 02/1983© Andy Slack

A scenario in Traveller is the focus of a game session. It is typically opened by some powerful non-player character hiring the player characters for a specific purpose and for a specific reward. The adventure then occurs as the players attempt to perform the task set them by the patron, and pick up whatever else they cap along the way. This poses several immediate questions.

First: Why has a powerful person chosen to hire these bloodthirsty clown-and-outs anyway? (Immediately followed by 'And why does he trust them?') The patron is often a person of considerable influence in government, commerce or the military; why hasn't he got minions on tap to do his dirty work? There are several reasons why someone who cap afford to pay the group enough to make their efforts worthwhile should hire them.

  1. He can't get hold of normal employees with the right skills. For example, if a patron needs something forging he may well pot have a resident forger in his company or office. The right skills could be illegal, or otherwise hard to come by, due to a high casualty rate - there aren't any of his usual staff who will take such a dangerous job, or because the world the band are on hasn't got anyone with the right skill; for example a Tech Level 3 ruler who needs an electronic engineer to repair his communications net and has no locals suitably trained. Perhaps there was an engineer present from the company which installed this equipment, who has now been scalped by rival rulers or recalled by head office because the bills weren't paid. This may be more sophisticated; an Imperial base commander would normally have some pilots attached to his organisation, but if accidentally they are in hospital, on a course in another system, drunk, in jail, or performing other vital duties while the free trader Cerberus is falling into the sun with disabled drives, he may well hire or commandeer the players to drive a rescue mission.

  2. The patrons normal employees can't be trusted. The commission is perhaps illegal, and if his usual staff were ordered to do it they would turn the patron in to the local cops. Again, if the patrons men are being watched he may try to recruit someone whom the watchers will pot suspect or connect with him. Locals are perhaps 'out to get' the patron, and he feels that the group will be safe by virtue of their foreign origins - they will be uninvolved in local politics or unsympathetic to it. The commission need pot be illegal; it could be just distasteful, like evicting crippled grannies at Christmas. It could be neither; a mega corporation surveying a new region for minerals, aware that its rival monitors its own prospecting teams.

  3. In this case, the players are to be a sacrificial decoy; another group is performing the actual mission in secret, and the players are there as a scapegoat and diversion. For example, a spy or assassin about to knock over a prominent politician could well hire the players, ostensibly to do the hit, and at the last minute betray them to the police so that his own attempt has fewer obstacles, the police being occupied with the players. A variant on this is the blackmailed patsy; in this case, the players are threatened with even more dire consequences if they don't undertake the suicide run. Another variant is the case where the patron secretly expects the players to be caught doing something illegal, and wants to be able to deny his involvement - difficult if he used his own minions.

Of course, there are many more possibilities, such as being hired by peasants to do a remake of Seven Samurai, finding rumours, lost documents and so on. Why should the patron trust the players? Again, there are several possibilities.

  1. Reputation. The players may be well-enough established that the patron has heard of their competence and fair play. This is only possible if the players don't move around too much; but perhaps the patron or a friend of his has used this band before and been satisfied, or perhaps their service records are exemplary. Note that this works both ways - a referee could modify the chances of a commission turning up depending on how the previous ones were handled. For example 'Big Luigi says you guys are good with safes, so I came looking for you', or alternatively, 'Thinks: This bunch are all thumbs - no way am I hiring them after that fiasco at the Altair State Bank.'

  2. Blackmail. The patron has something on the band, possibly details of previous capers, and threatens to make it public unless the group performs his commission; alternatively, the players cap be framed by police or other agencies and told that charges might be dropped if they could see their way to doing this little job. . . or some friend or relative of the players maybe held hostage.

  3. Lack of opportunity for betrayal. The patron has some more trustworthy operatives watching or working with the band and so expects to be able to detect and forestall any treachery.

  4. Lack of motive for betrayal. This occurs when the commission is so seemingly innocuous that the band have nothing to gain by betraying their patron. This is usually the set-up when the apparent commission is only incidental to the main flow of the adventure, as for example when the group is to uncover some sinister plot or treasure 'accidentally' during the course of their work. Alternatively, though this is pot recommended, the commission if handled honestly could be so lucrative as to temps pot even the greediest and nastiest character.

Naturally, if the scenario is set in motion pot by a patron hiring the band, but by 'accidentally' finding some item or data, or by an attack on them, the above motives are pot necessary.

The second question is, what is the task the band are to perform? Here the range of possibilities is so large as to be practically infinite, but in practice there are two broad types of mission; acquisition and defence. This is an over-simplification, but basically the band cap be hired to obtain some item, person or information, or to make sure that someone else doesn't. Exactly what the object or target is variable; rare objets d'art, high-ranking noblemen's children, information about a manufacturing process or a particular place, and so on.

In WD30's Starbase Bob McWilliams made an important point -- essentially when you see or read anything that inspires you, take a brief note of the plot and major characters. Details will need to be changed so that the plotline fits into your own campaign background, and so that the players don't recognise it and thus immediately leap to the right conclusion. Don't neglect actual history, either; even some other FRP games cap provide good ideas.

It saves a great deal of time and effort if you only note down the bare bones of your plot, in the style of Supplement 6's commissions. A scenario only needs great detail if you want someone else to be able to run it, for example if you intend to publish it. If you are primarily interested in having an enjoyable game for a few hours with some friends, you won't need all that detail much of it will already be in your background notes (these are often mental) for the campaign or subsector of space you are currently running. And the longer you have been running a particular universe, the briefer your notes will become, as you and your players will remember some of it from previous games, such as the political situation fuelling the current crisis they have become involved in, or the local alien life's habits.

This improvisational style, only generating the details as necessary using logic or dice rolls, is difficult at first, but improves with practice, and especially if you remember or note down these details as they appear in response to the player's questions, it gradually becomes easier. There is a stage after a few dozen hours play where the whole set-up becomes self-sustaining, and previous happenings more or less dictate what the details must be.

After you have been running your universe for a few scenarios, you will find ideas for later ones starting to appear. You'll put yourself momentarily in the shoes of major non-player characters, and ask yourself: 'Shouldn't he really want to do something about such-and-such?' Hire the party, for instance? Or attack them in revenge for their theft of his prize or gone accumulator? Here is where the true home grown commissions come from - the interaction of your background and your non-player patrons. The more detailed these become, the more scenarios they will produce. The characters' own activities help, too; they may decide to aim for some common goal, such as stealing a starship or finding a psionics institute; and your scenario will practically write itself from then on.

An article called Instant Adventures in Volume V, No 10 of The Dragon, by Michael Kelly is a very useful piece, listing a couple of dozen basic plots for scenarios, and in each case giving notes on what preparation the referee has to make for the scenario and how long this will take.

The next question is that of reward. What should the player characters get if they are successful? Reward covers many things; most frequently it will be cash, but it could also be in terms of useful knowledge (location of the psionics institute, perhaps), favours from those in high places, improvement of skills or psionic talents (though this must not be overdone, and such improvement is best purchased by training between adventures), the dropping of charges against the group, or something simple like not having their arms and legs removed without anaesthetic.

Reward depends on how much your players already have, how long they have to wait between jobs, and how important success is to the patron. The patrons own wealth is also a major consideration. There is more opportunity for unbalancing the game through giving players too much as a reward for success than in any other way. As a rough guide, it helps to think of a Credit (the Traveller monetary unit) as being worth about 50p; this is also useful when asked by a player for the price of something not listed in the rules.

The average traveller will live comfortably for a couple of months on a thousand or so Credits, and this should be your minimum reward for each adventurer so long as they only have themselves and their personal equipment to support. The maximum reward should be a couple of tens of thousands of Credits; enough to live well for a while and travel on to the next world, and buy some useful equipment. This is the level to start players at if you can; it minimises work in designing planets and the affairs of worlds.

Some players start with starships, or eventually obtain them. The minimum reward for anyone who has enough money (or big enough debts) that the above rewards are no longer tempting should be tens of thousands, the maximum hundreds of thousands. By now the player has several minions to support and a vehicle or two; he is nearing the end of the rise to power started when he was satisfied with Cr1,000 for a job.

There is a natural progression towards greater wealth and power among player characters. The wealthier they become, the more equipment and minions they will acquire; thus the more easily they can succeed in simple commissions. Fortunately, these simple commissions then no longer pay enough to satisfy; so larger-scale plots are required, which because of their greater scope are rarer, more difficult, and with greater rewards attached. After perhaps several years of play, some groups will have accumulated enough wealth to design a ship for themselves; this is generally a break-point - from that moment on the group must search out its own tasks, invent its own commissions as it were, since they have become patrons in their own right.

An alternative to this pattern of 'one-off' scenarios is the service adventure, which can take several forms but essentially, the players are hired as trouble shooters on a long-term basis by some patron or other. This has advantages, in that the players have an overall goal. Here, they need simply obey orders until the time comes when their character is developed enough to have its own aim in life. These orders, by the way, like all orders from patrons and commissions, should be broad outlines, with actual tactical objectives and methods left to the group's discretion. Otherwise, if the patron offers guidance and gives orders at every step, there is no need for any players, and they certainly have no sense of influencing events, which is important to the feel of the game.

A second advantage is that powerful equipment necessary for a particular scenario can be more easily loaned to the characters, then repossessed after the trip so as not to make them too powerful for the next mission.

The disadvantage is that players may feel stifled by being part of an organisation; they may want to do something different, turn the task down and so on. They can always leave the service; but in fact, since the referee rarely has more than one or two scenarios which are ready to run, the players' choice isn't really that much more limited.

This approach gives the referee more control over the players, who may be organised into a chain of command with one player having actual authority over the others, usually by virtue of rank or social standing. Also, it eases the referee's tasks in preparing adventures for the group by reducing his options; and paradoxically, it is sometimes easier to create a scenario if your initial possibilities are limited. It is useful to find out what sort of services the players would like to be in if this is the way you're going; they might not have mustered out of the military yet. Other potential employers worthy of note are mega corporations requiring security guards or explorers to search for new markets and products in an unmapped sector, mercenary companies, intelligence moguls, pirates or bandits of any kind, and bounty hunters.

Next article: Campaigns.