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#13: Genre-ic Plot Seeds, Part Three: The Wacky Ones

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 September 2010, and in Freelance Traveller Issue 010 in October 2010.

Earlier this year, I suggested that you can design Traveller adventures by choosing another genre and introducing it into your game as the base of a single story. My first two articles in this series covered mystery and horror, plus a few other related genres.

This month I’m going to be expanding on the idea by talking about two of the more far-flung genres that you can mash up with your Traveller game. You won’t find these genres in as much use in published Traveller sources, but they do still have plenty to offer your own Traveller games.

The Fantasy Genre

The line between science-fiction and fantasy can be pretty thin, as shown by series like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos, and of course George Lucas’ Star Wars. All three of these settings demonstrate how science-fiction ideas can be used as the explanations for fantasy elements (like dragons, spells, and magic swords).

Generally I think you can create a fantasy adventure via two different means. On the one hand, you can draw upon Medieval history and create a Medieval-type setting, full of serfs, knights, and lords. On the other hand, you can draw upon Medieval legend and create a magical setting with fantastic beasts and powerful magics. Much fantasy includes both elements, but that’s certainly not a necessity.

It’s easy enough to fit Medieval history into the Traveller universe. Just choose a planet that's evolved only as far as a late-era TL 1. It could easily be full of feudalism and people saying “thee” and “thou”. An interesting plot seed for this sort of setting is a real clash of cultures. The players could be asked to make first contact with the world (after it lost contact with the rest of the Imperium during the Long Night) or they might have snuck onto a red zone planet which was interdicted to protect a developing culture. Trying to introduce the locals to high tech is probably just as interesting as trying to hide it from them.

In order to create a setting with high-fantasy elements, you need to come up with science-fiction explanations for them. Monsters of various sorts could have been created biologically, either as a draw for tourists, for a military purpose, or for some more obscure reason. “When biotech/fantasy animals go wild!” could be the basis for a light one-off adventure where the players have to shoot up unicorns and pegasi on a resort planet.

Magic is most easily explained by psionics, though you might need to flesh out the Traveller system some to get more magical-looking effects. This could then be the basis of a fun “against the psi lords” campaign, where the players are trapped on a planet (or even in a pocket empire) where dictators with magic/psionic powers oppress the little people. Alternatively you could go with Clarke’s Third Law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Thus, conjurings, evocations, and other spells can all be the result of a magical doodad—perhaps one that its wielder doesn't even understand.

Traveller References. There have been a few primitive cultures in Traveller adventures, including Nomads of the World Ocean (though they use plenty of high-tech equipment) and the classic Uragyad’n of the Seven Pillars, but those were both about nomads rather than Medieval states. I’m sure there must be some Middle Age style adventures amidst all the Traveller pubs, but none strike me immediately.

As for more fantastic things, the original Secret of the Ancients offers up a basis for super/magical technology, while Mongoose’s Traveller Book 4: Psion includes some psionic powers that start to edge over to sorcery in my mind.

Other References. Pern and Vlad Taltos are both excellent places to start in the fantasy-as-science-fiction genre, though it’s relatively subtle in both cases. They both tend to feature the psionics-as-magic meme. If you want to instead go with high-tech-as-magic, Babylon 5 offers a great example with its technomages (though they’re perhaps a bit too on-the-nose).

If you want to read about science-fiction cultures interacting with less developed planets, H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking is a classic, while Hammer’s Slammers is a more modern take on the same. “The Tank Lords”, a novella found in The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 focuses on the topic.

The Super-Hero Genre

In many ways, I find the super-hero genre to be fantasy for the modern day. It’s similarly about larger than life figures and a magical world just underlying reality, but it’s set in the 20th or 21st century, not the 10th or 11th.

The underlying focus in any super-hero game of course must be people with extraordinary powers. (We’ll leave the non-powered super-heroes alone for the second, as they’re tied more tightly to the pulp genre, which will be touched upon in a future article.) If you want to go beyond that, then you need to make the whole setting larger than life, with threats that can endanger the whole planet—or the whole universe. Super-technology, cackling super-villains, and a clear line between good and evil can help fill out the genre, depending on which direction you want to go in.

There are a few easy answers as to why you'd have superhumans in the Traveller universe.

The first is (again) psionics ... pointing out once more how close the fantasy and super-hero genres can be. Again, you’ll probably want to expand the game system to suggest some of the more heroic or malevolent super powers that might be about.

A second answer is genegineering: someone is creating superhumans through biotechnology. Genegineering is currently not that popular in the Imperium, but there have been past examples of it, most notably including the creation of the Jonkeereen, a race genegineered to survive on desert planets. The Solomani also have some skeletons in their closest concerning attempts to create a race of super-humans.

Great Traveller adventures concerning super-humans could easily come from these two bits of canon.

Attempts to expand the evolution of the Jonkeereen could result in a race of powerful beings that’s already alienated by the Imperium. Perhaps they’ll be used for ill purposes, or perhaps they’ll turn against their creators all on their own, forcing player characters to step in, then find that neither side is really “right”.

Some of the Solomani super-human experiments definitely escaped Terra, using either generational ships or early jump drives. Stumbling upon a colony of them could result in a Star Trek II-like misadventure.

Other adventures could center around all the more interesting questions that arise when superhumans began to interact with regular people. Do they try and take over the government as the clearly superior species? Does the rest of humanity hate and fear them? Do they make a great exodus to the stars, hoping to find a place of their own? A planet doing its own genegineering could lead to any of these adventure seeds.

And what happens when the players run into super-human Vargr or Aslan? Not only might they have to deal with these individual problems, but they might also need to trace them back to their place of origin ... and destroy it.

These adventure hooks generally put the PCs on the edges of a super-human adventure, because they aren’t super-humans themselves. But what happens if they are? What if they wake up one morning and found that they’ve been kidnapped, experimented upon, and now have powers beyond those of mortal men ... ?

Finally, super-hero adventures can blend right into transhuman adventures, a topic that I'll cover in a few months when I talk about science-fiction subgenres.

Traveller References. There aren’t any Traveller adventures that I’d call super-hero, though again I’ll point you toward Traveller Book 4: Psion for some powers trending in that direction.

The idea of the Solomani creating a super-race has shown up from time to time in the literature. The subsequent Gene War gets a page of coverage in DGP’s Solomani & Aslan (p. 28). The big surprise is that when the genegineered super-humans were created, the Solomani ended up destroying them out of fear and ignorance. The super-humans didn’t actually try to rule the galaxy or anything! Of course in the modern day survivors might or might not be innocent, as you prefer.

Other References. There have been a couple of RPGs that take a serious look at realistic super-heroes. Brave New World is set in an alternate, fascist reality. Aberrant is another modern look. For super-heroes in a near-future SF setting, there’s Underground.

There’s similarly plenty of great comics that provide realistic modern looks at heroes, including Kingdom Come, JMS’ Rising Stars, and The Authority. Any comic book is going to be a great source, but these provide some of the more interesting interactions between heroes and society.

Meanwhile, The 4400 covered some of the same topics on television. What I found most interesting was the last season or so. After these 4400 super-humans have been oppressed for a while, they start looking for ways to make more super-humans, no matter what the cost.

Finally, Star Trek has done a great job of investigating the overlap between super-heroes and science-fiction that’s found in genegineering. This is all covered in “Space Seed” for The Original Series, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and a three-part Enterprise arc containing “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12”, and “The Augments”. Though I haven’t read them, there are apparently also three novels on the topic, beginning with The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh.


That’s it for this month’s look at genres you can use to create Traveller adventures. Next month I’m going to move on to the Action Genres.