This originally appeared as the featured article in the October 2015 issue.
The Imperium spans 11,000 worlds and a timeline of more than 1,100 years. Within those boundaries are countless technology levels, legends, rumors, and oddity. The majority of it is well understood, having been subjected to the rigors of scientific investigation or exposed to the light of truth and facts. Other things aren’t as well understood, but are on the frontiers of inquiry and bleeding-edge research; the Imperial Research Stations typify much of this. Still other phenomena aren’t the subject of scientific inquiry, but are constantly subjected to discussion and unscientific analysis by the citizenry.
But out in Charted Space are things stranger still. Things known only from whispers in starport bars. Things lurking in the shadows, making the unwary their prey. Things that elude the best minds and the finest science. Things even 57th Century citizens can only deem supernatural.
When such strangeness manifests, it sometimes does so in a manner that requires that it be dealt with in some fashion. Thus, there must be a group of people able to do so; trained to investigate, identify, and if necessary eliminate such supernatural threats. Such a group has been operating in the Imperium since the dawn of the empire. They call themselves the Nightstalkers (“We Dare the Darkness”).
The Nightstalkers – officially designated Imperial Interstellar Scout Service Subsection X – are a special clandestine branch of the Scouts, charged with investigating events and objects that many would consider within the realm of the paranormal. The office’s existence is only apparent as a line item in the Scout Service budget (assuming one knows what to look for) and is known only to the highest levels of the Scouts, the Sector Dukes, the Archdukes, and perhaps the Emperor.
Although their primary mission is the investigation of paranormal and other events otherwise unquantifiable, they also investigate instances of fringe or rogue science (including the scheming of the stereotypical “mad scientists”); quietly remove any Ancient artifacts found by citizens; and secure and contain any items and events that they judge to present a threat. To perform their duties, they have access to the best technology Imperial science can offer and have security classifications that allow them access to almost any information they need.
There have been similar investigative bodies on many worlds. Terra itself boasted several, including one sponsored by a powerful religious organization and one reporting to a law enforcement agency on the North American continent. Indeed, the Terrans had a fascination with the preternatural out of proportion to its historical level of scientific inquiry.
Comparable organizations also existed on Vland, Sylea, Zhdant (especially given the presence of Ancient devices and psionics), pre-Maghiz Darrian, and other human-seeded worlds throughout known space. The Terran efforts are the best known; thus, the Nightstalkers can arguably trace their distant origins to Terra.
The current incarnation was founded on Sylea around the time of the commissioning of the Sylean Federation Scout Service, the forerunner of the IISS. The legend surrounding Subsection X’s creation holds that during the expansion of the Sylean Federation, a subject race unearthed something that was unidentifiable as technology-based and which they sought to use against the Syleans. The investigation of this unknown object fell to a minor office considered largely useless at the time. Over time, the SFSS realized that other incidents its agents were encountering also failed to map to the rational, and the office’s scope broadened to encompass these as well.
After operating for 20 years in obscurity, the nascent Subsection X found itself in a quandary when an attempt was made by the Sylean Federation Navy to take it over. The navy had been watching Subsection X’s efforts for some time, and thought some of their discoveries would make effective new weapons systems. The Subsection resisted, but they found the very secrecy that protected Subsection X was used against it; they couldn’t appeal for outside aid, because officially they didn’t exist. And the SFSS was stymied by threats from higher up to have their funding slashed if they didn’t comply. A deal was finally struck—the details remain a mystery—and the Navy agreed to leave the agency alone. It was also about this time that the Subsection’s members adopted their unofficial name—Nightstalkers—and its equally unofficial motto “We Dare the Darkness,” taken from an Old Sylean book.
At the outset, funding for the fledgling organization was a problem. Creative bookkeeping helped, as did charging fees for ridding an area of threats (capturing and removing ectotheric creatures—ghosts—proved especially lucrative) and selling a few of the less-dangerous items to the government. The establishment of several trusts ensured a steady initial flow of credits, and discreet approaches to several influential and sympathetic nobles within the early Imperial court helped in the passage of several laws which indirectly kept the organization adequately funded.
The history of the Nightstalkers has not always been positive, however. They have made several powerful enemies, including a cult that holds a malign extradimensional figure in high regard. The Nightstalkers’ battles against the cult and their patron—which occasionally rage today—have become legend among Subsector X agents.
During one of these conflicts, a high-ranking leader of Subsection X came under the thrall of the being, and it took the opportunity to do great damage to the institution. Once the threat was ended, the Nightstalkers’ remaining leadership expended great amounts of effort and money toward finding something to protect the organization in case something similar occurred. That item was found on a backwater world near the Great Rift. Its existence is known only to the highest echelons of Subsection X, and it’s whispered that it’s something capable of bringing down the entire Imperium if misused.
Soon after, the Nightstalkers made a friend in the person of a rimward Archduchess. Fueled by both her belief in the supernatural and her deep pockets, Subsection X underwent a period of upgrade and expansion that saw it become a true Imperium-wide investigative body. The relationship stayed close until the Archduchess’s death; her successor did not share her views and officially cut ties with the organization, although he couldn’t do away with the large endowment she left.
The Nightstalkers today still pursue their work into the paranormal, although they have a dedicated foe in a powerful supernatural nemesis and its dedicated followers. An additional problem is their funding; while adequate, it is nowhere near the levels they enjoyed almost a millennia ago.
The Nightstalkers’ mission is to investigate unexplained phenomena (including, but not limited to: fringe science, paraphysical (psionic) events, and paranormal and supernatural occurrences); determine whether they are benign; and neutralize, contain, or destroy them if not. To perform their mission, the Nightstalkers employ cutting-edge Imperial technology and have access to the finest minds in the empire, both esoteric and mundane. They also enjoy near carte blanche to deal with the supernatural as they see fit, especially if it’s determined that it’s dangerous.
The Nightstalkers maintain secrecy at all cost in order to do their work without undue influence.
The Nightstalkers operate anywhere the IISS operates. Some are based at Scout bases; others roam space in Type S Scout/Couriers. Members fulfill their Scout duties unless the uncanny is encountered; then, the nearest Nightstalkers are activated and given effective jurisdiction over the investigation.
While Subsection X has no jurisdiction in extra-Imperial space, the leaders tend to “look the other way” if a group needs to violate a border to investigate weirdness. Regardless, no Nightstalkers have ever “officially” ventured into any major extra-Imperial polities.
The Nightstalkers’ ranks are small and not refilled unless there’s a true need. The Subsection then goes through Scout Service records looking for likely candidates based on psychological fitness, security clearance, tolerance, and (recorded or inferred) prior contact with the unknown. The prospect is then discreetly monitored for a time to discover any physical or character flaws that might hinder their handling of the preternatural. (S)he might even be included (through records manipulation) on a Nightstalker operation. Once the nominee has passed what amounts to a secret vetting process, a delegation will approach with a recruitment offer.
During character generation, referees wishing to run a game featuring the supernatural can simply assume the PCs have already gone through this vetting process. Otherwise, each time the character cycles through the tables, the referee should make a secret unmodified Enlistment throw. Success means the Nightstalkers have determined the PC would make a good candidate for their ranks and makes an offer. The offer can be refused, in which case it’s not made again and the nominee is mind-wiped to safeguard the Nightstalkers’ anonymity.
A PC accepted into the Nightstalkers gains an automatic Paranormal-1 skill. Because members of Subsection X deal regularly with things and events that fly in the face of rationality and shake the mind to the breaking point, new members are put through a test to determine their Stress Tolerance (STT), the mental strength the character can call upon to preserve their sanity. Determining STT is simple in game terms: average the PC’s END, INT and EDU (rounding up). This should be listed along with skills and psionic disciplines (example: Stress-7). Each time the PC encounters something extraordinarily strange or frightening, a throw of STT or lower on 2D is required to avoid losing a point of INT. This normally only occurs once per adventure, upon initial exposure to the phenomenon, although the referee determines what constitutes “extraordinarily strange or frightening.” The referee should also determine at what point a PC’s INT loss begins to spill over into madness; 1/3 of normal is suggested.
To generate the Nightstalker’s career, few changes need be made. If using Book 1: Characters and Combat, use the following as either a replacement or supplement for the Advanced Education skills table:
|Advanced Education (Nightstalker, EDU 8+)
If the character is being generated using Book 6: Scouts, use the following procedure: after acceptance of the Nightstalkers’ offer, and determination of STT, each assignment result of Special Mission is actually a Subsection X mission. Use the following tables to determine the outcome:
|Special Mission (Nightstalker)
The PC should also make a STT throw.
If the result indicates the individual has earned a skill, throw on the table below.
|DM +1 if EDU 9+
DM +1 if 3+ terms
In any case, the character gains an automatic initial service skill of Paranormal-1.
- The individual is skilled in recognizing and investigating events that are thought to be the work of individuals or organizations secretly working beyond the knowledge of Imperial society and authority. Conspiracies typically go beyond mere political machinations or classified information. PCs with this skill can tell when an event is mere happenstance or has unseen hands guiding it.
- Continuum Science:
- The individual is skilled in investigating phenomena and devices that alter the very fabric of reality, including reality-warping Ancient devices, such as instant matter transporters, so-called time machines, and interdimensional portals.
- Fringe Science:
- The individual is skilled in research that departs from or violates mainstream science, including the study of Ancient scientific advances. Canon examples include many of the lines of inquiry undertaken at Imperial Research Stations.
- SOMAT (Supernatural and Occult MATerials.):
- Individuals with this skill are trained in the handling and disposal of supernatural or occult hazards Examples include containment of ectotheric creatures (ghosts or phantoms), removal of unknown and/or harmful substances, and transport of cryptids (extremely rare and/or preternatural animals.)
- The individual is skilled in recognizing and formulating plans to deal with phenomena so far outside the range of scientific plausibility it can only be termed supernatural; such as ghosts, shapeshifters, magic, and other events that defy scientific examination or explanation.
- The individual is skilled in the study of psionics, psionic activity, and electronic devices that utilize or extend psionic abilities, such as the thought-controlled devices aboard Zhodani vessels and many Ancient devices. The PC can also distinguish the paraphysical from the paranormal.
The Nightstalkers use a bewildering array of equipment, from primitive (holy symbols and salt, for example) to the most advanced available. It comes from an equally bewildering array of places, from the most primitive backwater worlds to avant-garde R&D labs. Sometimes previously confiscated items are drawn from the armory and used against a current threat.
Of course, the best equipment is useless without knowledge and information. The Nightstalkers maintain databases of all known preternatural events and creatures; this database is updated with each visit to a Scout base by encrypted transmission and is accessible only by active Nightstalkers with the proper security clearances.
Since Subsection X is part of the IISS, Type S Scout/Couriers are the starships most often used. Specially-outfitted Animal-class Safari Ships also serve, especially when the quarry are cryptids. Scout/Couriers assigned to the Nightstalkers have been specially equipped with tanks designed to hold ectotheric or occult menaces.
Subsection X operates from the deepest shadows of the Imperium. Almost everyone, even rank-and-file Scouts, are unaware of its existence. Knowledge of Subsection X is kept confined to the highest echelons of the IISS and nobility of Social Standing F+, including the Sector Dukes and the Archdukes. Not all Emperors have been told of the organization; it’s not clear whether Emperor Strephon has been.
Unauthorized people who stumble across a Nightstalker operation are dealt with in different ways depending on many factors. In most instances, they are simply mindwiped, and all knowledge of what they’ve experienced is removed. Sometimes merely discrediting a subject—making them seem like a prankster or a crackpot—is enough. Rarely, someone who is unusually persistent, credible, or vocal has to be made to disappear (don’t ask…)
Referees wishing to use this material must be prepared for a wholly different kind of Traveller campaign, one with two levels. On the surface, things are as they’ve always been, complete with starships, patrons, and pursuit of profit. But underneath is another world, one of darkness, monsters, and weird happenings. This world laughs at natural laws, mocks rationality, and sinks its teeth into banality. It is not for “hard science” devotees.
The Nightstalker campaign includes the fantastic, whether created by the referee, or borrowed from other sources. Anything is fair game in adventures featuring Subsection X. Want the team to encounter a haunted house? Stop an interdimensional incursion? Bring down a rogue sorcerer? All of those plots are possible, and more.
As seen in such popular fare as The X-Files, conspiracy can be a large part of events. The referee may want to create one or more behind-the-scenes powers who are manipulating events for their own ends. For example, perhaps the Vilani Shadow Emperor is back, and implementing a secret plan to restore the Ziru Sirka, or the group has stumbled onto Archduke Dulinor’s plans to assassinate Emperor Strephon. All that’s needed is a powerful person or group with means and a nefarious plot.