The Corporate Repo Campaign
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue.
This campaign idea was originally envisioned using the GURPS rules, but will work with any version of Traveller. The adventurers are a corporate sponsored starship repossession team. They might work for a megacorp, but more likely are a freelance team who are hired by different companies as-needed. These adventurers do not go after the little people who have skipped out on loans. Rather, they work for the owners of starships that have been seized by companies, governments, and criminals, via corruption, bribery, or other criminal acts.
In a galaxy with different governments on different planets, and different governments ruling different parts of space, and some space unruled by any government, this can happen more easily than you might expect. To give a flavor for how, consider the following situations:
- A criminal organization, dictator, or rebel group has seized the starship.
- The rightful owner has lost the starship due to some local law, custom, political situation, or governmental corruption that is unlikely to be recognized in other parts of the galaxy.
- Some bureaucratic nonsense (maybe fueled by prejudice, stupidity, greed, etc.) has made it impossible to move the ship out of the star system.
In all of these cases, if the corporate owner can simply move the ship to a new star system, it will become theirs again. In these situations, the starship’s rightful owners can hire the adventurers to recover their property.
This campaign can be run in almost any Traveller Universe. There are two key points about the setting: First, there needs to be a lot of different governments strewn around the setting, and even better if there are some completely lawless areas too. Some of these governments should be suitably corrupt so that their laws are not enforced elsewhere. Second, there has to be enough freedoms so that people can steal a ship, at least for a little while. This campaign cannot occur in a total police state. Classic Traveller Universes where communications travel slowly (i.e., the same speed as starships) are particularly well suited for this kind of campaign.
At a minimum, the characters will (taken together) need the skills to operate spaceships, and enough skills to liberate those spaceships from their captivity. The best teams will have a wide “palette” of skills so that they have many different spaceship liberation techniques available.
When thinking about characters for a corporate repo campaign, it is important to consider the vast breadth of possible repo scenarios. On one extreme, the characters could all be mercenaries, and each adventure a ticket to combat. On the other extreme, the players could be a bunch of lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and publicists, who work “behind the scenes” to liberate ships. But there is a wide area of adventure between these two extremes, and that is where most of my campaigns have operated. Since many of the bad guys in these scenarios are either criminal or corrupt (or both) there are a lot of opportunities to use social/criminal skills against them, and you want a range of characters, so that all these are available to the adventurers.
Consider the classic issue of “getting past the guards”. All of the following might work: use a gun, distract them, bribe them, con them, trick them with media, use fake documents or authorizations, or pretend to be someone you’re not. Plus, the characters may have contacts or specific knowledge that helps out. This same palette of options is available for research and preparation tasks which occur prior to the main move of grabbing the ship.
In most versions of Traveller you will need several engineers in order to move a large ship. In this case, give all the characters a low level engineering skill, so that they can help out when the time comes. Alternatively, the ship owner could provide some “engineering red shirts” to crew the ship, but otherwise cannot help the team. Or, the ship’s crew might be on the ship, and willing to help out, when the time comes. Of course, this might itself take a character with specific leadership or command skills.
Finally, you will need to have one or more characters who act as contacts between the group and their employers.
The characters need not have a ship for this campaign. Indeed it might be easier not to have a second ship “in port” when your goal is to abscond with one that’s already there. If the characters do have a ship, it is likely to be a tug, repair ship, or both.
The Structure of Adventures
In the simplest form of corporate repo adventure, the clients will already know where the ship is, who is holding it, why it is being held, etc. The adventure (often just one session) is all focused on liberating the ship and making a clean getaway. Even in these simple cases, the referee can create a longer or shorter scenario by having more or fewer hurdles for the characters to overcome, or by having more or fewer problems come up during the run.
But the adventure does not need to be handed to the characters “on a silver platter”. Maybe the corporation does not know something important about their ship. They might know where it is, but not why it was impounded. Or maybe it has just disappeared, and they don't know anything about it. In these situations, the characters will need to spend time investigating the situation or researching the disappearance. This can easily lead to a multi-session adventure prior to the actual liberation of the vessel.
Similarly, there will often be preparation tasks or research, which must be done prior to making the attempt and these will take time (often whole sessions) as well. This preparation can be combined to fashion more complex adventures as well. In the most extreme case, the referee could have each repo be a mini-campaign of its own, starting with some detective adventures to find the ship, and then some research/surveillance adventures to learn enough to plan the extraction, and then some spy/operative adventures to setup up the eventual caper adventure, which liberates the ship.
One of the advantages of corporate repo adventures is that the result of complete failure will often be imprisonment, rather than death. The referee can end the adventure with the characters sitting in a filthy jail (maybe acquiring exotic diseases), and start the next one in the shuttlecraft, with the characters being chewed out by their corporate lawyer/fixer about how much time this cost, how much time was lost, etc. Obviously, you don’t want to do this too often, but as a referee, it gives you a “do over” instead of a “total party kill”.
Adventure Seed: The Local Maxima
The starship Local Maxima was owned by a very wealthy guy who lives in the next subsystem over. Unfortunately, he died a few months ago. That caused some confusion in the small trading company that he owned (who expects to die?) and they missed a few mortgage payments on the ship. A competitor got wind of these events, and hired the ship to carry cargo to a large, highly populated, but poor system, known for cheap starship maintenance and heavy/polluting industries of all kinds. It’s always been corrupt, but things have been getting worse lately.
When the ship arrives, the competitor has arranged for it to be seized and then quickly auctioned off, to pay its back mortgage. The competitor will pay the required bribes to make sure he (and maybe one crony) are the only bidders, and will end up owning the starship for less than 1% of its real value (bribes and purchase price included). The original owners will get nothing, and the mortgage bank will get almost nothing (the auction purchase price, which is fraudulent, minus whatever the local corruption can cut out). One of these companies will hire the adventurers.
The referee can have the characters arrive either right before or right after the auction. If just before the auction, the thuggish, poorly trained ship guards will be government soldiers (or maybe private port security, but there is little difference). If they arrive just after the auction, the thuggish, poorly trained ship guards will be private security hired by the competitor (or maybe the competitor’s local affiliate, a criminal gang).
The referee can throw in a popular uprising which might cause changes in the law, the operations of the port, or ownership of the ship. In any case it will raise havoc with normal activities like travelling around town, eating dinner at a restaurant, buying even normal goods, etc. If you go with this option, think about exactly when the riots start. Before the ship arrives? After it arrives but before seizure or auction? Maybe just before or after the characters arrive? Each timing choice changes the adventure.
For a slightly longer adventure, the adventurers will need to scout out the ship, and its location, to plan out the extraction. The referee can create situations which they can learn things which will help them later. For example: The guards are selling the ship’s fuel for cooking, 20 liters at a time, which might provide cover to get on board. Radio communications are garbled or unreliable in some parts of the star port at certain times, because of the poorly maintained heavy equipment in use. The port control tower isn’t really crewed during shift three. Those guys punch in and go to sleep in a back room, except for one guy who plays video games and responds on the radio. Or maybe they just have a piece of software listening to and replying on the radio “Roger that!” “Wait 10 minutes before proceeding.” “That’s a little over my pay grade, can you ask that question during the day shift?” And so on. The referee could have a lot of fun with this.
Or you can just skip to the extraction part of the adventure. There will be guards on or near the ship. The ship may be disabled or restrained in one or more ways. The characters will need to pilot the ship “dark and slow” out of the port. Mistakes may cause tense moments with port operations, trigger the port’s defensive systems, or attract the attention of the local police. Certain mistakes might trigger a civilian riot or a union action, not to mention criminal retaliation if the competitor is “mobbed up” locally.
For added complexity, put the crew in a different place, so they need to be moved to the ship (and maybe freed from captivity as well).
The Last Minute Curveball
If you are going to run this kind of campaign, then you can use the following tables when the adventurers are having too easy a time. If it looks like the adventure will end prematurely, choose (or roll randomly) on the following chart:
- One more tie-down! Most of the ships that the repo team are going after are going to be disabled in some way (computer locked, physically tied down, parts removed, etc.) Part of the adventure will often be finding out which restraints have been used, and preparing methods to defeat them. However, the referee can always decide that one more method was used than the characters know about. Maybe the characters knew that the jump regulators had been removed, but did not know some punk had physically welded the landing bay doors shut.
- Around the corner walks… If you want some randomness, just have a random person, alien, robot, or animal walk around the corner. If running a repo campaign, you may want to create a table of these (or just have one or two) ready to go at all times. If so, in addition to the basic description, make sure you know what their first reaction will be, when confronted by the characters, and a list of the equipment they have handy.
- It’s gone! The classic “oh, shit” moment, the character arrive where the ship is supposed to be, and it’s not there! Most of the time, the characters will just want to get out of there and try again another day, but the referee could always leave a bread crumb pointing them to another way of getting the ship.
- You do realize, today is a local festival. So when the day comes, and the characters are actually moving on the ship, they might unexpectedly find out that it is no ordinary day. Sure, they read all about this planet in their “Lonely Planets” guide book, but it did not go down to the detail that today is the festival of the port’s patron saint. Or maybe it was the day of Bay-To-Breakers, or the local equivalent of World Cup Finals/Super Bowl. These things might make the repo easier, or maybe harder, but certainly not as expected, and much less predictable.
- But we’re just guilty bystanders! In these campaigns, the characters are going to be dealing with crooks and corrupt officials all the time, both right around the ship, and while researching the repo and gathering the needed tools. They could easily end up as extras in someone else’s adventure gone wrong. Obviously, any of their illegal contacts could get arrested for something that has nothing to do with the repo. Or the gang leader’s mistress, who the characters are blackmailing for access codes, could get executed (or overdose), just when the characters need her. Maybe on the evening before the characters are set to bribe the official, the local media runs an exposť on bribery.
- Another creditor could send their own repo team for the starship. This could lead to all kinds of complexity, depending on when and how the two groups meet. They are unlikely to know each other “from before”, but they could, and if they did, they could be friendly competitors, or not so friendly competitors. Conceivably, they might even work together to split the fee and lower the risk. On the other hand, if the PCs know about the other team, but not the reverse, then the existence of the other team may force the PCs to move more quickly or in a different way than they initially planned.
- Many repossessions will involve a tug. If that’s the case, then anything that happens to the tug, happens to the repo plan. Tugs can have physical breakdowns, problems with the crew, problems in transit, etc.
Whether you are planning one corporate repo adventure, or a whole corporate repo campaign, these adventures can be a lot of fun. They are easy to set up, can be adjusted for difficulty, length, and adventuring genre. Best of all they can serve to introduce the characters to the sci-fi elements of your universe: strange planets, aliens, cultures, governments, etc.