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 April 2010, and in Freelance Traveller Issue 005 in May 2010.
One way to come up with original adventures for your Traveller game is to set stories in other genres. In the first article in this series, I covered some of the more mysterious genres: mystery, noir, and espionage. This week I’m going to step from the unknown to the spooky, weird, shadowy, and truly scary, by looking at how the horror and conspiracy genres can used in Traveller.
The Horror Genre
In many ways, the horror genre is just as wide as the science-fiction genre, because it involves those things that are scary, regardless of the specific setting. Of course, that means that horrific science-fiction is no more far-fetched then horrific fantasy (Ravenloft) or horrific espionage (The X-Files, Fringe).
I know that other writers (such as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft) have written far more about the particular elements of horror than I possibly could here. It should involve powerful and possibly unseen forces. They should be hard to stop and/or hard to understand. Most of all, they should play upon the terrors of the human species. That most traditionally has centered on death, but Lovecraft correctly pointed out that insanity could be a fear as well. Generally, helplessness, lack of control, and even just lack of information are some of the things that might let you scare your players.
Unfortunately, the enemy of all things horrific is information, and any far-future game filled with interwebs, Xboat routes, satellite systems, and commdots is going to be full of information. Fortunately, Traveller gives you a very easy way to get around that: the slowness of interstellar communication. When you’re investigating an alien planet or a derelict starship, you’re truly on your own.
Most horror is monster-based. Alien species, whether they be sentient races or dumb animals, are most likely to fill the role of monsters in a Traveller game. If they’re shape-shifters, carnivores, or creatures able to recover from seemingly mortal wounds, they’ll be even more likely to scare—and they’re all possibilities in a science-fiction game.
Psionics also offer a real opportunity for terror in a Traveller game, as you can drop players into dreamscapes composed of exactly what they fear most.
Finally, the trope of a deserted area can always be used to scare. The idea of a derelict starship has already been mentioned. Scientific outposts, research stations, and colonies all also offer the opportunity for strangely empty locales. After all, if there’s supposed to be someone there, and there isn’t, something must have happened to them.
Traveller References. The GDW Double Adventure that includes Death Station offers a good first look at the deserted-place horror motif. Beyond that, Challenge magazine often offered horror-themed adventures in its October issues. “Fated Voyage” in Challenge #46 is a neat ghost story, while “To Sleep, Perchance to Scream” in Challenge #54 is a less enthralling killer-monster adventure as is “Deadly Artifact” in Challenge #65.
Other References. There are plenty of scary SF/horror movies out there, including classics like Alien and The Thing. Most are, like those, of the alien-monster variety. The most famous writer of SF/horror is doubtless H.P. Lovecraft; though his Great Old Ones and Elder Gods are generally classified as straight horror, many of them are actually pretty good SF, especially for the time period.
The Conspiracy Genre
Is conspiracy really a genre? Certainly, I could argue that it’s largely the foundation of other genres—the backstory of why your mystery, espionage, horror, or even science-fiction events are happening. However, I think that Umberto Eco proved that conspiracy could stand on its own in Foucault’s Pendulum.
So, what makes up a conspiracy story? I think it requires secrets within secrets, peeling back like the layers of an onion. In Traveller you’d need to envision something that really undercut our normal understanding of the Traveller universe. Perhaps a conspiracy ensured that both the Rule of Man and the Third Imperium stayed under the control of its Vilani founders, despite the appearance of Solomani control. In the Spinward Marches, perhaps some force has controlled which areas of the sector have been colonized and which haven’t. Within a subsector, perhaps a single power (be it a megacorp, an immortal individual, or an alien race) controls what appear to be several individual worlds. To really make a story fit into the conspiracy genre, include typical elements like secret societies, shadowy cabals, hidden planets, undiscovered alien races, suppressed technology, and ancient secrets to your game.
Something to keep in mind is that conspiracy can be tough. In a mystery you have to lay out an adventure-long set of clues that lead players to a satisfying conclusion, while in a conspiracy you might have to do so over the course of an entire campaign! Part of the joy of the conspiracy genre, after all, comes from slowly unveiling what was hidden.
Traveller References. There are probably fewer examples of conspiracy-genre Traveller games than any of the other genres I've talked about in this series thus far.
The Secret of the Ancients could have formed the basis of a conspiracy, if anyone had actually known about it. Perhaps building it more deeply into your own Traveller universe—creating a universe where people know and hide the secret and serve certain higher powers—might produce a campaign arc that’s ultimately more satisfying than the original adventure was. (I also hear tell that Mongoose is work on a new “Secret of the Ancients” campaign, which might provide fodder for a totally different conspiracy.)
The Argon Gambit, also published in Traveller Double Adventure 3 is another classic-era conspiracy. Burglary and blackmail lead to political intrigue. It’s a nice bit of conspiracy with a basis in the Solomani side of Traveller space.
I tried to introduce a bit of conspiracy into my own campaign with the adventure sequence that ended with “New Humaniti”, but haven't done much with the conspiracy elements since then.
Other References. The aforementioned Foucault’s Pendulum is pretty much the touchstone for the genre. If you want to look at other RPGs, Nephilim showed how to create conspiracy in a modern day or historical game (and also had awesome lists of references). In the SF genre, conspiracy stories are a bit more scarce, but would surely involve ancient, purposefully hidden secrets. Anyone have any suggestions for reading?
In these last two articles, I’ve covered the top five genres that you might want to blend with science fiction—and offered numerous ideas for plot seeds to go with them. I've still got a few more articles planned in this series, on some more unlikely genres and on the components of the science-fiction genre itself, but before I get to those, I plan to take a break, and cover a different topic, first. I’ll see you in a month.