Editor’s Note: The initial Fifth Imperium column was published on the RPG.Net website in July 2009, and appeared in Freelance Traveller’s initial issue in November 2009. This column originally appeared on the RPG.Net website in January 2011, and in the February 2011 issue of the downloadable PDF magazine.
A few months ago I finished running a year and a half long campaign of Mongoose Traveller. I’ll again point you to my complete AP of all twenty weeks of play at http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=451150. Along the way I learned a few lessons applicable to similar campaigns. In my last article, I talked about some of the things I learned about Traveller publications, while this month I’m going to talk about more personal lessons learned about GMing Traveller.
A Few More Lessons Learned: About GMing Traveller
6. A little bit at a time works well. I’ve been living and breathing Traveller on-and-off for the last twenty years. I skimmed through the little black books in my youth, voraciously read about the Rebellion in the 1980s, and enjoyed the awesome books put out by DGP in the years thereafter. So, I can pretty readily identify the difference between a Hiver and a K’kree and can otherwise thoroughly detail the universe of the Third Imperium.
That’s a pretty good background to have as the GM of a setting, but I knew from the start that if I tried to impart everything to the players at once, I’d lose them. So, I introduced just a little bit of the massive Traveller background at a time.
In the first week of play the players met some Vargr and I revisited that race now and again throughout the campaign to further explain and detail their culture. A pair of Aslan appeared, one week after another, halfway through the campaign’s run in weeks #12 and #13. The Zhodani and the K’kree were mentioned in the background from time to time, but never actually took center stage. For most of the game, I kept the adventures pretty straight-forward, but toward the end of the campaign, I started talking about the politics of the Marches as well as the politics of the Third Imperium overall.
I think my strategy of slowly releasing information worked well: the players got to gradually learn about the rich background of Traveller at an appropriate speed.
If I pick up the game with Season Two in a few years’ time, I’m sure I can build on that background.
7. Travelling can create real campaign challenges. Being that the name of the game is Traveller, I felt somewhat obliged to keep the PCs moving … and as I learned over time that makes for a challenging campaign model. Most notably, it was somewhat difficult to raise the game up above the level of episodic plots (think: Star Trek: The Original Series). Settings usually just didn’t repeat, while I always had to question whether it was believable to meet NPCs again. Even running plot arcs required thinking in original ways.
For the first part of my campaign I used the chasing-someone-across-space plot arc, which is a fine enough one, but it gets repetitive and you really can’t use that trick very often. My second two plot arcs were simpler ones, of the things-that-happen-while-heading-to-a-destination type. (I suspect it’s the most common travelling plot arc in Traveller.) I would have liked deeper plot arcs, but at least these held the game together, as I’ll talk about shortly.
If you want some more ideas about how to create plot arcs within the constraints of a travelling game, I’ll point you to the excellent Dumarest of Terra books by E.C. Tubb. Not only are the books full of great plot hooks for Traveller, but they also offer two good continuing campaign arcs: searching-for-some-lost-thing (in the Tubb novels, Earth, but the same plot is used more than once in Traveller literature, usually with people hunting from planet to planet for some lost technology or else a lost ship) and being-chased-by-someone (in the Tubb novels, Dumarest is always hunted by the evil Cybers), which you’ll note is the flipside of my first campaign arc.
Whether you use any of these ideas or not, I mainly want to note that figuring out travelling story arcs can require a different sort of thinking.
8. Sometimes visiting can be more interesting than travelling. My favorite adventures of the campaign were the initial three weeks spent on Nexine (which was partially based on the Nomads of the World-Ocean adventure) and the one-week return to it at the very end of the campaign. That’s because thoroughly developing a setting can create a much deeper adventure than just travelling through it.
Mind you, this needs to be done as spice—not as the main course—if you want to stay true to a “travelling” game, but it’s nonetheless something that I highly suggest as a part of such a game.
My campaign was really loosely shaped and so I was only able to create a returning setting like this by creating a nexus of plot hooks there. I think that developing them all out of the core characteristic of the planet (water world) held them together well, making it obvious why all these adventures happened at the same place.
I also had a second repeat setting in my campaign: Mora, which is a hub of trade in the Marches. That sort of repeat setting would probably work well in any Traveller game.
If I do return and run Season Two of this campaign, I’m going to think harder about building a couple of return settings into my original campaign design (probably by picking the planet that the players are actually stationed out of and a couple of nearby planets that should draw repeat visits due to their trade connectivity, their tech level, or other elements).
9. Plot arcs can really help to give form to a campaign. I already mentioned that I ran three major plot arcs in my campaign. More specifically, they were: hunting down the person who’d caused the crash of a star ship; getting to Mora to receive commendations; and delivering a person of importance to Vanejen.
Besides providing structure to the campaign, these plot arcs also ensured that every 6 weeks or so players could succeed at a goal they’d been working on. Two of the three arcs led to multi-week finales (where most of my sessions over the course of the campaign were one-offs) which just improved the sense of accomplishment. I love big, meandering plots, but I think these mini-arcs worked better within the strictures of an RPG, especially for a game that was sometimes run irregularly.
10. Letting characters in on the creativity can work wonders. I used to jealously guard the creativity of my games, but thanks in part to some of the podcasts of 2d6 Feet in a Random Direction I decided to try and get the players more involved this time with telling me what they wanted to see in the campaign.
I did a lot of different stuff, some more successful than others. The best was my “next time on Traveller” segment, where I’d ask players to give me a scene, idea, or something else that they’d like to see in an upcoming game. On average I used about half of what I got, usually as some small element in a story. However, I also ended up running at least one episode entirely based on “next time” ideas and some pretty cool subplots appeared because of them, too. Even better, players would sometimes talk after the game about which plot elements had been based on previous “next times”. As I sometimes changed things around, and there were always at least two weeks from one session to another, people rarely realized immediately what I was doing.
Player empowerment, player buy-in, ideas that I wouldn’t have thought, and general grist for the creative mill were all excellent results of letting players into the creative process.
Overall, I’m very pleased with how my Traveller campaign went, and I’m hoping to repeat the experience a few years down the road when I don’t have quite as much other stuff in my life.
For now, I’ve got one more article coming up based on my campaign: a list of short plot hooks which will summarize the plots I ran and give you ideas for how to use similar hooks in your own campaign.
That’ll be next month.