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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.

Ship’s Locker

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.

Space Encounters

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.

Street Encounter

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:

First Encounters

Roll 1D6:

  1. A pinnace, drifting, unsalvageable. Catastrophic internal explosion. No life signs. The craft belongs to the liner Vonnegut. No sign of her at all.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Status Reports

Once the ship is under control and heading towards the mainworld, the characters can investigate what has happened.

Status Reports
Department Skill Time Report
Pilot Pilot 10-60 minutes The helm is functioning normally
Navigator Navigator 10-60 minutes Nothing wrong with Jump calculations. This should not have happened.
Current position: half a light hour out from the main world.
Comms Comms 10-60 seconds 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.
Sensors Sensors 1-6 minutes 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.
Engineering Engineer 10-60 minutes 1% power plant and M drive output fall off. No explanation.
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.

Dead Ships

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.

Rescue Mission

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.

Help Arrives

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.

Rough Approach

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
Range Distance (km) Weapons/Jump/Screens Comms Nav/Sensors M-Drive Power Life Support
Distant 50,000 or greater down -2 - - - -
Very Long 25,000 to 50,000 down -4 -2 - - -
Long 10,000 to 25,000 down -6 -4 -2 - -
Medium 1250 to 10,000 down down -6 -4 -2 -
Short 10 to 1250 down down down -6 -4 -2
Close 1 to 10 down down down down -6 -4
Adjacent less than 1 down down down down down -6

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.

Minimising Damage

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

First Sighting

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.

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.


Key Locations

The critical sections are:

Deactivating the Catastrophe Field

The catastrophe field must be deactivated in four stages.

  1. 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)).
  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)).
  3. 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)).
  4. 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.

Non-Key Locations

These locations include:


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)
Roll Encounter
1 Single Grey Person survivor (1d6): 1-2 male, 3-4 female, 5-6 child
2 Grey Person family – two Grey People and one child
3 One Creature
4 Three Creatures
5 Mother Creature alone* (roll once only, treat as 3 if rerolled)
6 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.

Shipboard Battle

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.

Climax: Getaway

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.


Grey People

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.

Creature (Carnivore/Pouncer
Size 8 Str 10 Dex 11 End 14 Inst 12 Pack 7
Mother Creature (Carnivore/Pouncer)
Size 10 Str 23 Dex 10 End 26 Inst 12 Pack 15
Weapons: Claws, Teeth +1
Quirks: Uses Life Detection (Medium Range) to track prey,
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.

Ship Options
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)
System       Tons Disp. Cost (MCr)
Hull Wedge Configuration Hull 800 Structure 800 20,000 2,400
  Forward Hull 266 Structure 266    
  Main Hull 268 Structure 268    
  Engineering Hull 266 Structure 266    
Armour Crystalliron (10%) Rating 8   2,000 240
  Stealth       200
  Self Sealing       2,000
  Heat Shielding       2,000
  Radiation Shielding       5,000
Jump Drive Stealth Rating 4   400 400
Power Plant   Rating 6   300 1,500
  4×Solar Panels     160 16
  Batteries 2,000 hours   600 500
Manoeuvre Drive Thrust 0.25     50 50
  Solar Sails     1,000 200
  M-Drive 6 weeks end.   600  
  J-Drive 1×Jump 4   8,000  
Weapons None        
Screens Catastrophe Field 50 t/section   150 3,000
Computer Core/5 Rating 60     30
Command Modules       300 300
  Holographic Controls       75
Sensors Enhanced Signal Processing        
    Distributed Arrays   6 24
Flight Deck       260 52
Schools (treat as laboratories)     20 5
Library       4 4
Sickbay       20 5
Alcoves       60 60
Staterooms 18×Command        
  12×Catastrophe Field        
  40×Alcove Support        
      170 crew total    
      470 total 1,880 940
Cargo Space       4,000  
Total         19,000