The Tale of the Black Freighter
This article was the featured adventure in the January/February 2022 issue.
This is an adventure for a group of Mongoose Traveller player characters. The rest of this article is for Referees only. Players, stop reading here.
Referee Only: By Any Other Name
Long-time veterans of Traveller will know of the classic Traveller double adventure Annic Nova. This was inspired by that adventure; call this one a homage.
Standards and Assumptions
Official Traveller Universe Setting
Referees who set this adventure in the Official Traveller Universe of the Third Imperium may use Alien Module 1: Aslan, The Spinward Marches or Reft Sector sourcebooks. Any world not Amber or Red Zoned, bordering a rift, will do. The Abyss Rift, in Lanth subsector of the Spinward Marches, however, is the best location for this adventure.
The adventure takes place at a crossroads star system, where multiple space lanes cross – in Lanth Subsector, it is Tureded; a world on the Spinward Main, on the border of one of the outlying fronds of the Abyss Rift.
Tureded: Lanth 0804 C465540–9 Im Ag NI G
Other Traveller Universe Setting
This adventure is best set in a subsector bordering a rift, preferably one with a sinister reputation.
Times and Dates
If set in the Official Traveller Universe, this adventure takes place on or about 240-1102, using the standard Imperial calendar.
The following items are available to characters, apart from the inventory of equipment on their character sheets:
Magnesium Thermal Charges (TL 11) – these incendiary grenades generate a blinding light and intense burn over 1d6 combat rounds. Mass, as hand grenade; 6d6 fire damage, 3d6 within 3m burst radius. Cr. 60 each.
The characters have 24 of them.
Part 1: Prologue
The Referee may wish to build tension by threading the following encounters into other adventures prior to this one.
The Grey People
They dress identically in unmarked grey jumpsuits, their heads covered by featureless grey skullcaps, their eyes always obscured by dark goggles as if they were somehow sensitive to daylight. They appear sexless: nobody can tell if there are differences between males and females. Nobody knows even what food they eat.
The Grey People travel by day. They never speak to outsiders. They keep impeccable paperwork. Nobody has ever seen one of their ships: only their ship’s boats and launches. The Grey People haul freight exclusively, for which they have a reputation for reliability.
Referee: Once in a while, instead of the usual starship encounter, the characters’ ship encounters a Grey People shuttle or launch, either coming in or going out.
Their 50-ton launches deploy solar panels and solar sails and microaccelerate out into the void, always in some direction that takes them into the local system. Whatever their destination, they don’t mind taking their time getting there.
Referee: Instead of a regular street encounter on their way to meet a Patron late at night, the characters encounter three unarmed Grey People, uncharacteristically venturing at night, being chased by six drunken thugs armed with bludgeons.
The characters may wish to intervene: use some of the sample NPCs from p. 84, Traveller Core Rulebook if you wish.
The Grey People will not speak, but nod courteously and leave each of the characters an odd item of jewellery worth Cr. 600 apiece for their troubles.
The Devil Ship: Rumours
Replace a usual rolled rumour with any of these:
- Forman Spengerling, once the most infamous hellrakes in the sector before he retired two years ago, is regaling a crowd of hangers-on a few tables away from you. One particularly bawdy tale concerns his adventure on board the subsector Marquis’ luxury yacht when it mysteriously malfunctioned in a system two Jumps away, leaving him drifting in space with only the Marquis’ two lovely daughters for company.
- The Startown official drunk is ranting again. A devil ship that eats smaller vessels, and which claimed the life of his crew. If he hadn’t managed to get out in a launch on battery power, he’d have joined them in Hell. His survivors’ guilt is crippling.
- One of the ship’s passengers, a sensitive holistic business therapist, wakes up one night dreaming of a ship, “black as the stars, like an axe head in space.” Another passenger, a journalist, mishears the man, and spends the rest of the journey taunting the therapist about his “ox head ship.” A few months later, the journalist releases a science fiction book about a black ship with horns. The Devil Ship proves to be a best seller.
- Two merchants are angry over a lost sale. The cargo they’d bought on spec disappeared along with the ship carrying it. Everyone blames the Rift. It isn’t fair.
- The young official in the Customs inspection cruiser seems unusually jittery as she checks the ship’s cargo. She doesn’t say why. She even misses some obvious contraband that the crew forgot to hide.
- A pinnace, drifting, unsalvageable. Catastrophic internal explosion. No life signs. The craft belongs to the liner Vonnegut. No sign of her at all.
- A luxury small craft, abandoned, drifting, intact but dead. No power. Not attached to any starship, this is just a local pleasure craft supporting a crew of six, all missing.
- A faint radio signal from far out in the system gets picked up by the characters’ ship. It comes from a lone Belter mining the asteroid field. The report mentions an encounter with a ship – then the signal dies before it can identify the vessel.
- The type A free trader Lord Cadbury plunges towards its homeworld like a projectile. It looks as if it has been accelerating at full thrust for a full day. If the characters can catch it before it hits something or the Navy has to blow it away, they find its complement of 20, all dead. Not a mark on them. The logs are all erased. The Port Authority will reward them with free berthing if they save the ship and the port.
- A patrol cruiser, Adam–134, has been missing for two weeks. It turns up, lifeless, its systems fried, its entire crew dead. 8+ on 2d6, the characters make the discovery.
- A Naval advisory has been issued telling Travellers to use caution when venturing into the outer reaches of the system, after the 23rd Wing of the 13th Fleet reported a mysterious loss of comms and sensors while on manoeuvres out near the system’s main gas giant. Two ships were lost, and the destroyer Carpathia was somehow critically damaged. This happened just yesterday.
Each such report should occur in or near a system bordering the rift. The players should be left with a sense of some ominous gathering force.
The Storm Breaks
Here, the characters finally encounter the Black Freighter, the Devil Ship.
In the Official Traveller Universe setting, the encounter begins as they approach Tureded. The encounter begins with a wake-up call: the ship drops out of Jump early.
Out of Jump
The players’ ship lurches unexpectedly as they go about their preparations for the end of Jump and arrival in the system. Everything else about this Jump was routine, except the time of arrival – which occurs 1d6 hours ahead of the calculated figure.
Characters must all make a Dex 8+ check or fall, sustaining 1d6 damage.
When the ship emerges, it is tumbling: a Difficult(-2) Pilot skill roll is needed to bring the ship back under control.
Once the ship is under control and heading towards the mainworld, the characters can investigate what has happened.
|The helm is functioning normally
|Nothing wrong with Jump calculations. This
should not have happened.
Current position: half a light hour out from the main world.
|Internal comms okay. Strange readings from the mainworld: all system traffic is down. Receiving faint radio signals from one of the outlying colonies. No ship-to-ship or -shore chatter at all.
|Detecting ships in orbit around the mainworld,
all apparently drifting without power. No distress comms coming
from them. No kind of comms at all.
Disturbing signs on mainworld. On the night side, there are no lights on the surface.
|1% power plant and M drive output fall off. No
Turret weapons all dead. Jump drive dead. They’re physically intact – but no amount of rerouted power will make them work again.
One signal suddenly comes through loud and clear. There is no other comm chatter on any part of the spectrum: not even the usual spaceport beacon markers. It is a voice signal: a young girl, transmitting only.
(The Referee should read this out loud)
“…help us? Repeat. The black ship just appeared out of nowhere, and killed all the ships. From what we heard before everything blacked out, any armed ship that tried to open fire found their weapons had gone down first. Missiles launched, but they died before they could reach the black ship.
“Our defence boats lost power: every ship on the ground got as far as two kilometres before whatever killed the orbiting ships killed them too. They all just rained out of the sky.
“Power is down all over the planet. Comms are down, except for this battery-powered backup transmitter which we’ve managed to hook up to a solar panel. Civil society has fallen. Fires are burning in the cities, and nobody can get to them. Is there anybody out there who can help us? Repeat. The black ship…”
The signal suddenly falls off to silence.
As the only ship with active power systems in the system, the characters are faced with the task of scanning for, and stabilising, the other vessels in orbit. The Referee should roll 1D6 ship encounters at various ranges. All stricken vessels relied upon main power only. Drives are down; life support failing.
A handful of Customs vessels are starting up, all of them running on batteries, but they will be operational only in the next 4D6 hours. Until then, the characters have to mount rescue operations.
To rescue a stricken vessel, the ship must match its vector and orientation. That means matching its spin, pitch or yaw. This is a Difficult(-2) Pilot roll.
Once the vessels have closed to Adjacent, the Engineer has to jump start the other ship; this requires a Zero-G roll to shepherd the cables across, and an Easy(+4) Engineer (power plant) roll to activate. The other ships can jury rig an emergency battery from salvaged Jump drive components to get enough storage to run the manoeuvring thrusters and stabilise themselves. Fuel is unaffected, and the stricken ships can supply the characters with fuel enough to keep the power plant going if needed.
This rescue operation takes one full day. At the end of the day, several official vessels will have arrived to take charge, operating on battery power and solar panels, and a number of vessels will have arrived from outside the system, whereupon they begin to render assistance as well. Whatever else the characters will have done, in this system they are regarded as heroes, at least for now.
Two issues remain. One, the strange black ship. According to one of the captains, the Master of the far trader Calliope, the ship arrived, went into freefall towards the planet and used the slingshot effect to whip it around towards an orbit much closer to the sun. He can supply the characters with an estimated final vector.
And the second issue is the ship’s drive and power plant. After 24 hours, the unexplained falloff of power output has increased to 11 percent.
Whatever killed the ships and laid waste to the mainworld is still in the system.
Approaching The Black Freighter
Tracking Down The Ship
The vector given is accurate. It leads closer to the local star than the characters may feel comfortable with, but the course can be plotted and followed.
They have a solid lead on the Black Freighter.
Whatever affected everything moving in or on the main world is still in full force and affects the ship on approach.
Table 1 shows the DM penalty applied to operations involving the relevant ship component as the ship approaches the freighter. A “-” means that the system has not yet been affected; “down” means that the system has shut down and cannot be reinitialised.
|Table 1: System Status at Various Ranges
|50,000 or greater
|25,000 to 50,000
|10,000 to 25,000
|1250 to 10,000
|10 to 1250
|1 to 10
|less than 1
From the outset, communications with the black ship is going to be difficult: communications equipment is among the first of the components to suffer malfunctions and go down. Even if the equipment is hardened, it is affected just the same, as if a force field around the ship, a psionic catastrophe field, actively neutralises high tech devices.
The characters may wonder how they can mitigate the effect of this catastrophe field.
Batteries: The ship can go in unpowered, running on just batteries to power the thrusters. An Engineer (Jump drive) roll can convert the unused Jump capacitors into an emergency backup battery good for 4D6+Effect hours. This suggests that the field targets sources of active power generation, rather than stored energy or chemical energy.
Solar Sails/Solar Panels: Likewise useful against the field. Some characters may remember that Grey People small craft had solar panels for energy and solar sails for propulsion.
Preemptive Shutdown: Any items which were inactive before the field came on can be activated briefly, before the field effect claims it. This suggests that the effect does not take hold all at once, but builds up over a short time: a lag which can be exploited.
Furthermore, items affected by the field seem to take time to come back online again, whereas items which were inactive before the field came on simply activate as normal.
The approach is very rough; the strengthening catastrophe field, which begins to kick in at 1/6 of a light second from the black ship, makes handling difficult, requiring Engineer and Pilot rolls with each change of range band. At Close and Adjacent ranges, the catastrophe field begins to affect even life support.
The Black Freighter
The characters catch up with the Black Freighter as it is transiting the local star, its side profile clearly visible.
From the sharp axe-blade shaped prow to the sweeping curve and point of its stern, the Black Freighter looks like some menacing old – style sailing ship with three banks of solar panels partially opened along its dorsal side.
The Black Freighter looks enormous – about 20,000 displacement tons. No turret or other weapons appear visible.
Only one port is open – in the stern ventral section of the ship. It opens into the ship’s cavernous flight deck.
No lights are on inside. The ship is as dark as it is silent.
By this time, this close to the freighter, the life support systems are likely to start failing. If this happens, with battery power the characters have 2D6 hours left from primary life support failure before they start dying.
The only course of action they have is to board the hulk, seek out the catastrophe field and somehow switch it off before everyone dies.
This adventure concludes in Part 2: Belly of The Beast.
Part 2: Belly Of The Beast
In Part 1, the characters are introduced to the legend of a mysterious black ship. They arrive at a world where the Black Ship’s mere presence has caused technological devices to fail throughout the system. The characters pursue, and with their own ship’s systems failing, board the vessel.
Everybody Remember Where We Parked
The characters land the ship in the flight deck. Two Grey People launches are present on the deck, both empty and deserted. A quick check of all their systems (Engineer, 10-60 minutes, Routine(+2)) reveals that both ships are spaceworthy
The flight deck is initially depressurised and in zero-G. When the ship lands, an automated system kicks in, shutting the main doors and pressurising the deck. In ten minutes, the flight deck is pressurised to a Thin atmosphere.
A quick check reveals that no hand sensors, comms or hand computers work, and no weapons more sophisticated than TL 6, with the exception of the magnesium incendiary grenades, torches and glow sticks. Time to break out compressors and melee weapons.
Long, Dark Corridors
Neither the characters’ ship nor the Black Freighter have internal lighting. The PCs have to light their way with chemical glowsticks and wind up torches.
They have three simple objectives at this point.
- The catastrophe field: Find out what is causing it, and find out how to shut it down.
- Explore: This is the first glimpse of the interior of a Grey People ship. All data is of value.
- Render aid: There may be Grey People survivors. If so, they need to be taken in for questioning about all the deaths the ship has caused.
Did You Hear Something?
If the characters left crew behind in their ship, their mission is simple. Make sure that the ship can be reactivated at the first sign that the catastrophe field is down. That means a lot of work in a darkened Engineering room working on the engines.
When hauling some spare parts into Engineering on a trolley, one of the characters hears a faint scratching sound. It sounds like something on the hull. After a time, there is the sound of an access port being forced open.
They are not alone.
The critical sections are:
- Bridge (Deck 0, Forward)
Located near the forward ventral section, at the bottom of the ship.
A circular chamber fifteen metres in diameter, this chamber opens onto a corridor in the rear whose entrance is in the ceiling. Two wide ramps either side slope up leading to Deck 1. The center seat is on a raised dais four metres across. Eight consoles form a horseshoe forward of the center seat. Each console has a single control: a black hemisphere.
Touching an active black hemisphere causes writing to appear on it. The characters can access the controls of any of the major stations of the ship from any console. Helm, Navigation, Sensors, Engineering, Auxiliary Vessels, an unidentified console that remains dark, Propulsion and, lastly, Screen – the control that works the catastrophe field.
Currently on minimum life support, with no gravity and no power to the consoles. A roll of Social Science (linguistics) to read the few signs with writing on them allows a character to learn that power will have to be diverted from Engineering.
- Engineering (Decks 15-17, Engineering)
This section occupies the rear dorsal section, near the “tail” section in the stern. Here, power from the solar panels arrives and is fed into the ship's systems; but someone has tied in power from the panels to feeding the catastrophe field, leaving little else for the rest of the ship.
Furthermore, the solar panels are only at 10% of capacity; a Social Science (linguistics) roll allows a character to learn how to unfurl them fully, a process taking 1 spaceship combat turn per 10% until the panels reach 100%.
Increasing the yield of the solar panels beyond 40% triggers an automated safety feature, diverting surplus power from the catastrophe field to life support for the ship.
Engineering has a Stealth Jump drive, possibly rated Jump-4 by its size, and a rudimentary manoeuvre drive capable of 0.25 thrust at most. The fusion power plant appears massive in comparison to its requirements – perhaps the catastrophe field needs all this power to operate, a possible weakness in the field which can be exploited.
When solar panel output reaches 60%, a warning klaxon sounds. This is only a feature to warn the engineers that the panels are now pulling in more power than the ship needs, and enough surplus to engage the manoeuvre drive to a maximum of 0.125 thrust.
- Screens (Deck 8, Main)
A cylindrical chamber exactly amidships, the screens room is aligned with the Freighter's long axis. Screen equipment lines the corridors, and long lines extend from the “top” (forward) wall to the “bottom” (stern) wall. This section is always kept in microgravity, requiring Zero-G to move about.
The characters enter the chamber at the “top” end. The controls of the catastrophe field are at the “bottom” end. In the darkness, shapes are moving between the screen generators: six Creatures have made this place their home.
Deactivating the Catastrophe Field
The catastrophe field must be deactivated in four stages.
- Surplus power from the solar panels, not needed for the catastrophe field, is diverted from Engineering to the Bridge, activating the panels (Engineering, Difficult(-2)).
- The Bridge console that controls the catastrophe field signals the Screens room to deactivate the screens. The ship’s computer will not activate or deactivate the catastrophe field without authorisation from the Bridge, which requires a character to sit in the centre seat and press a control on the arm rest (Gunnery (Average(+0)).
- The unlocked console in the Screens room allows a character to deactivate the catastrophe field. This triggers an alarm in Engineering (Engineer (screens) (Difficult(-2)).
- On hearing the audible alarm, the power plant must be shut down at the same time as the catastrophe field, or the power surge throughout the ship will cause the ship to explode (Engineer (power) (Difficult(-2)). Roll Int 8+ to realise that this fourth step must be done the moment the alarm sounds.
Working out the whole sequence, including the power shutdown failsafe, requires an Int 10+ roll.
These locations include:
- Corridors (all decks, all sections)
Corridors are 4.5-meter diameter conduits running the length and breadth of the ship, connecting every section of the ship's eighteen decks in a permanent state of zero G, even if the ship is under acceleration. Corridors are clearly laid out in a logical pattern, six side branches branching off from the corridors at 20 metre intervals.
In the event of a hull breach, panels slide shut over the mouths and entrances of these corridors, containing the evacuation and confining it to selected sections.
- Computer (Deck 2, Forward)
The computer room, a square chamber situated on the deck directly above the Bridge, accessible via a roof hatch, appears rudimentary compared with the sophisticated consoles and equipment elsewhere. The computer seems designed for activation only if something else that controls the ship has been deactivated.
- Flight Deck (Deck 14, Main)
This is where the PCs’ ship is berthed. Fuel storage tanks are available, with enough refined fuel to fill the ship’s tanks to capacity.
Two auxiliary vessels are berthed either side of the ship; these are identifiable as the exact same ships the characters have seen before, confirming that Grey People run this ship.
- Mystery Alcove Rooms (Forward, Deck 8)
In the corridor leading to the Screens room, just forward of amidships, instead of opening to six side branches, the corridor opens to six chambers. Each contains twenty strange alcoves, ten lining the sides – 120 in all. These alcoves have nothing in them except strange wires, straps and a lot of blood and bits of gore and bone floating in zero G.
- Living Quarters (Forward, odd-numbered decks)
Staterooms for the crew occupy forward sections of odd-numbered decks. The extreme forward sections, built into the “axe blade,” have large common areas with panoramic views of the void ahead.
Currently the ship is turned away from the local star, or anyone entering these rooms would be instantly and permanently blinded.
These common areas include food preparation sections. Analysis of the food paste prepared indicates that Grey People consumed mostly vegetable matter rich in tryptophan from an unknown homeworld; the paste does not have any trace of the essential amino acids humans need, suggesting that Grey People can synthesize their own.
Other forward sections are dedicated to sickbays, a library and even some schools. Grey People have families aboard, with children.
- Cargo Bay (Decks 8 – 12, Main)
This cavernous chamber contains the Grey People’s freight cargoes. And something else. See “Encounters” below.
When the characters enter a new section, even one they have visited before, roll 2D6 to see if they encounter something.
Bridge, Engineering: 11+
Mystery Alcove Rooms, Flight Deck, Computer: 10+
Living Quarters, each deck: 8+
Screens, Cargo Bay: certainty: definite encounter
|Encounter Table (roll 1D6)
|Single Grey Person survivor (1d6): 1-2 male, 3-4 female, 5-6 child
|Grey Person family – two Grey People and one child
|Mother Creature alone* (roll once only, treat as 3 if rerolled)
|Mother Creature and three Creatures* (roll once only, treat as 4 if rerolled)
* The Mother Creature should be encountered only once. If either a 5 or a 6 has been previously rolled, treat the other as also having been rolled.
Cargo Bay Encounter: The characters encounter the ship’s crew in the cargo bay, hanging between smashed-open cargo boxes. Hundreds of them, wrapped in cocoons of an epoxylike resin, caught in a resin web from floor to ceiling.
This resin is susceptible to magnesium incendiary grenades, should the Referee wish to hint to the players what to do.
Characters who stay behind in the ship don’t get to sit back. Those Creatures which have boarded the ship have to be located and dealt with, giving the characters who stay behind as much of a fight as those who boarded the ship. If everybody left their ship to explore, the creatures will be waiting for them on their return, lurking in the cargo bay.
The characters must return to their vessel once they have deactivated the catastrophe field. The ship’s systems come back on in reverse order, one system per combat round, starting with life support, then power, drive, navigation, sensors and finally communications.
Weapons such as hand lasers come back on in the same round as the sensors.
Referees may wish to engage the characters in a running battle along the corridors leading to the Flight Deck, hotly pursued by the Mother Creature and every surviving Creature on the ship.
Providing they make it back to their ship and kick off any remaining Creatures (venting the cargo bay once they’re out inspace works), they may have as little as ten combat rounds to accelerate to Long range before the Freighter self-destructs (whether or not power surged from the power plant).
The adventure ends here, but the Referee can continue from here. The mainworld is now starting to come back online, now that the Black Freighter is gone, which means plenty of opportunities for trade, Patrons and further adventures.
If they also rescued Grey People survivors, that gives them the eternal gratitude of other Grey People, which they may encounter in the future.
A mysterious humanoid race, Grey People seem to live aboard their huge freighters, apparently plying the space in the Rift freely. Whether more of these Freighters exist or not, and whether their homeworld even exists in our dimension, is up to the Referee.
Grey People are so-called because they all wear the same grey unisex clothing. Little visible sign distinguishes males from females, but all their children are sexless, maturing into a gender seemingly randomly on reaching puberty.
Their bodies require tryptophan to survive, and they appear to be able to synthesize the eight essential amino acids human beings cannot – which means that they do not need to eat meat, though clearly some do.
One in ten of their species, which never choose a gender on reaching puberty but instead become psions, are willingly incorporated physically into the fabric of their ships in special alcove chambers.
Characteristics: Psionic (can use Awareness/Suspended Animation at will), Notable Intelligence (+2), Metabolic Requirements, Slow Metabolism
Creatures are predators native to a low-gravity world. Transporting
them off-world is prohibited.
They resemble eyeless Gila monsters with patagia (flight membranes) between their fore and hind limbs to grant them gliding ability. The fronts of their heads have what look like two huge glowing ovals: these are not eyes, but light generating organs designed to dazzle their prey.
Creatures hunt by psionic Telepathy/Life Detection, have natural Zero-G-1, and have two special natural weapons: their “eyes” (Dex 8+ or lose initiative that round) and a psionic fear projection (End 8+ to avoid paralysis for 1d6 combat rounds).
Psions can make themselves invisible and immune to Creature detection or paralysis with their shield abilities. Mechanical psionic shields, if not affected by the catastrophe field, also protect their wearer. Creatures cannot form shields: and Assault does them double physical damage directly to Endurance.
|Mother Creature (Carnivore/Pouncer)
|Weapons: Claws, Teeth +1
|Quirks: Uses Life Detection (Medium Range) to
flash patches (Short Range), psionic fear weapon (Short Range),
prehensile limbs, flight, Zero-G-1, no shield.
The Black Freighter
The Black Freighter is a Grey Persons vessel of a type never before encountered. It is a massive ship (20 ktons); its slow speed, apparent lack of weapons and large cargo bay may make it tempting to raiders, but for one thing: the “catastrophe field”. When this is in operation, no ship can fire upon her or even approach her without suffering consequences. As a result, the Black Freighter mounts no weapons (and doesn’t need them)
The Black Freighter is an advanced TL 16 design.
- Catastrophe Field (TL 16):
- This device operates on a principle similar to psionic telekinesis, disrupting the functioning of technological systems at range. Systems suffer progressive DM penalties to operate at proximity, ultimately failing. Deactivated systems cannot be reactivated at any range up to 10 million kilometres.
- Can only be installed on a ship at least 20 ktons, and requires a power plant rated 6. Even so, the power drain leaves the ship unable to manoeuvre or provide life support.
- Mass 50 tons per ship section, cost MCr.1000.
- Psion Alcoves (TL 14):
- Enables a Grey Person to be wired directly into the ship’s controls and sensors. The gestalt mind effectively becomes the ship. The surgery required for this procedure is permanent. Mind Ships require 2 alcoves per 1000 tons per section.
- Mass .5 tons, cost MCr.1 per alcove.
(The specifications sheet is on the next page)
|Black Freighter (TL16, Advanced, Custom)
|6 weeks end.
|Enhanced Signal Processing
|(treat as laboratories)
|170 crew total