Review: The Michael Brown Corpus
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue.
Traveller adventures come in all shapes and sizes, from the actually-a-campaign The Traveller Adventure down to the tiny adventure seeds that grace the end of a variety of chapters or articles in various places.
Michael Brown has been laying claim to ownership of a niche that he’s singlehandedly created: the “one page, no frills” adventure. Perhaps too short to review individually, it would be a shame to miss them out entirely, so this review is going to look at them all as a body of work and pick three out at random to look at in more detail. I’ll get my trusty d1001 out as there are now some 95 titles to choose from – although I’m sure that figure will be out of date by the time this is published. Also, some are actually “short, no frills” adventures of two or three pages, and three are longer still (The Dangard Experiment, Planet of Storms and The Sands of Zerzura).
Before I go any further, I should note that they’re all written for Cepheus Engine so some might regard them as not Traveller at all. Fair enough. But there’s no doubting that any of them could be slotted into the Third Imperium without any trouble at all and they certainly have the feel of, say, old Amber Zones. In addition, over 20% of them actually originated as Traveller adventures in these very pages (see Freelance Traveller, nos. 12, 14, 20, 25, 29/30, 32, 45, 48, 51, 53, 56, 59, 62/63, 66, 70, 73, 76 & 85) although sometimes they’ve changed titles. By my reckoning there are also quite a lot of adventures previously appearing in Freelance Traveller that are yet to be converted to Cepheus Engine and the one page or short format.
So what do you get for your pennies? Firstly, they really are just pennies: 57 of them in sterling or 75¢ a piece (longer ones are more). They really are, for the most part, just one page although you’ll get a second page of OGL licence text as well. They’re all written by the one author and as PDFs on DriveThru they have a ‘cover’ image in the traditional Traveller black with the title in one colour or another and a colour bar above. The actual PDF doesn’t include this. Also on the cover is the text ‘A Science-Fiction 2D6 Adventure: For Science-Fiction games using a 2D6 mechanic, including the Original Classic Science-Fiction Tabletop Game’). All have been published in 2016, 2017 or 2018. So pretty much an average of one a week.
Typically, the one page will follow the same format of Overview, Background, Players’ Information and Referee’s Information; often they’ll have a sentence about skill notation, NPC cannon fodder descriptions, or currency usage. Many are purely text – although they’re very nicely laid out in two columns (very, very occasionally three) with boxes, bullet points and tables – occasionally you’ll get a diagram or even a map which is always a bonus. This is simple but clear and effective as well as allowing full advantage of the page to be taken. Mr Brown is to be commended on not following the fashion of coloured backgrounds or massive artistic borders which seem to be de rigeur in some places and often made text difficult to read or waste a lot of space. Virtually all of the adventures are in portrait orientation, but two or three are in landscape format for no discernible reason.
As for the adventures themselves, they’re typically suitable for a group of players either with a ship or stranded on a world for the duration and might be regarded as ‘standard’ patron driven affairs, often on backwater worlds and often saving someone or something. Indeed, is there a generator that uses tables to create: Patron asks the PCs to <find/save/rescue> <sibling, spouse, offspring> from <themselves/religious cult/criminal gang> or something? There are a few like that; see The Alchemist’s Blessing, The Bedlam Extraction, Benediction, The Deliverance of Reine, Ex Scientia, Marque and Reprisal, The Overlord Syndrome, Sword of Zeme and This Other Eden for examples. Fortunately, the treatment each time is sufficiently different to keep them interesting. Several more are of the ‘retrieve this item or data’ variety; examples include The Altar of Avarice, Aqua Pura, The Celsius Agenda, Caecis Manibus2, The Coriolis Peril, Filch, and so on. There are a number of traditional ‘transport this cargo or these passengers’, e.g., Angle of Incidence, Portent, That Ye Be Not Judged and The Wing Wherewith We Fly. Not all are merchant type scenarios, however; some – perhaps not enough – are more exploration and could be more suitable for scouts: Harvest Index, Meridian and Nine-Tenths of the Law are just three examples.
The adventures may well involve combat, but not all do. Most are legitimate in legal terms, but not all are. Although they’re stripped of any Traveller setting and are thus quite generic, they still manage to have a flavour of their own in the names of worlds and PCs so they’re not quite as bland as they might be. It’s easy enough to read ‘Exploration Service’ as the IISS or ‘interstellar government’ as the Third Imperium or ‘Precursors’ as Ancients, but if I had one complaint it would be that there’s a slight lack of atmosphere or sense of place. But that’s the nature of the CE rule set and conditions the author is working with and does have the advantage that it makes them easier to transpose to your own adventure setting whether official, home-brewed or another published universe. Some certainly feel very contemporary and although they have an SF background, may well have been at least inspired by real world newspaper stories – Data in Flight comes to mind particularly. Others are quite moving in their plangent set up, e.g., Elegy and Flight of Orphans. One or two remind me of certain films I might have seen or combinations of them; Nightfall is an example here; or possibly even another Traveller adventure, for example The Pandora Sanction which is reminiscent of the JTAS classic Roadshow.
Not all follow the patron format, however, there are variations. The Azimuth Parallel has the PCs’ ship nearly collide with a much larger derelict, Passage has them finding a ship with murdered crew, Breakout! and Night of the Fuufi both have them receive a distress call3, Memoir has them at the scene of an accident, Silver Serpent see the PCs thwarting a mugging on a monorail, and one is specifically designed to bring a new set of characters together: Demon’s Realm.
Two ‘adventures’ are very different and are really settings rather than adventures. Omega99 is a homage to Space: 1999 and is impressive in actually managing to present an entire setting in one page – although to be honest this is one that could easily, if licensing allowed, be an entire sourcebook and one I’d buy in an instant. Omega99 presents the background for Moonbase Omega, offers some typical character possibilities and in just a few sentences outlines the astrography and technology of the setting. Probably more of inspiration rather than hugely useful, but fun nonetheless. The other adventure that’s not your standard fare is M*E*R*C*Y. This is clearly inspired by the film and TV series M*A*S*H*, but here we’re aboard the Multifunctional Exigency-Role Cruiser Yeoman and the author on this occasion doubles his space and devotes two pages to presenting the background, a TL12 hospital ship (stats but no deck plans), a d66 mission generation table and some typical NPCs. Simple though these brief settings are, I’d like to see more of them – quick overviews of how other favourite genres or settings might be thought of in Traveller, sorry, 2D6 SF role playing, terms.
Another thing I’d like to see more of are the non-adventure materials Mr Brown offers. To date there is very little of this but it’s good and could definitely be expanded. Minor Loot (or, “What’s in This Guy’s Pockets?”) is pretty self-explanatory and offers rules for determining what an NPC might be carrying. Locale: Personal Enhancement Center is a ‘location’ that can be dropped into an adventure anywhere – in this case a futuristic beauty parlour which runs to two pages rather than one. Finally, and most recently, Lifeform Reading: Xorn which presents a creature in detail and offers rules for having them as PCs. This has the distinction of being the only Michael Brown offering with an illustration. If I’m reading the initials right, it’s by Brown himself and is a good effort. More of all three of these kinds of things please!
While I’m here, I should perhaps also note that Mr Brown has also been publishing some definitely not-Traveller work which might be of interest to those who are prepared to do a bit of conversion. There are ‘Seamless Scenarios’ for a modern setting. Under Western Skies is a mini-rule set for which he’s also published several one page adventures and as you might guess deal with the wild west of the United States. If you’ve been inspired by Firefly or Star Trek’s “Spectre of the Gun” episode, these might be very usable in SF games, otherwise they could be used for inspiration with some adaptation to more standard types of adventure. See my review of Afterday elsewhere in this issue for other genre settings that have been put out by the author.
Returning to the adventures, one oddity in the collection is Girkekaashur – a devious adventure involving transport of the first edition copy of the titular book. (Clearly a Shakespeare volume from the description of the author.) So much, so normal. What’s odd is that there’s also a German edition of the one page with a translation by Andrea Schmidt. There’s no explanation of why this one and this one alone has had such treatment but if you want to improve your language skills, it’s worth looking out for and is a scenario I might well inflict on my players.
In any case, most of the adventures are pretty straightforward and are what they appear to be; there are some that deceive the PCs as to their nature, but then that’s been the essence of many Traveller adventures from the start, so no fault there. Aliens don’t figure a lot – perhaps obviously given the adventures’ generic nature – but there is at least one, Immersion, involving uplifted dolphins. I’ve been moderately surprised not to see more with canine or leonine sophonts, say.
A quick look at three in more detail and completely at random:
The Instruments of Darkness – a holovid star, Eve Kay, hires the PCs to evict a countercultural group squatting on her land. The first column of the page takes two thirds of its length to give an overview of the adventure, the standardish text about the rule set, and two paragraphs of player information gives a tiny bit more detail (mentioning her narcissism, geneered dog, why she’s asking the PCs for help and what she’ll pay them). About half the page gives the referee’s information (how the squatters will react and some details on the campsite and house) with the remaining quarter page going on to outline a complication which may give the PCs some pause for thought on their next move. There are no diagrams or tables, but none are required so that’s to be expected.
Miasma – the PCs are taking off from a starport when the port master asks for emergency help following a chemical explosion and fire which is releasing a poisonous cloud of toxins. Can they help evacuate local inhabitants in its path? Again, two thirds of a column gives the rule details, overview and players’ information. This time the page is decorated by just a plain text box with details (description, skills, equipment) of some NPCs involved in the adventure. The rest of the page gives detail on the cloud’s speed and time till it hits a village and a complication which may make things difficult followed by a further complication.
The Xero Option – for this adventure one of the PCs or an NPC important to them is dying of a rare but curable disease but the main ingredient of the cure is a banned substance. On this occasion the page is decorated with a great floor plan and three boxes (two NPCs and a key to the plan). The player information is a little more extensive for once but that and the plan means the referee’s info is less than a column and for the most part details a major complication the PCs will face. It will probably involve combat.
As you may be able to glean from the above descriptions, the adventures rather cleverly – particularly given their brevity – combine action and die-rolling with role playing and negotiation. The three examples given were truly chosen at random and are representative of the many others I’ve not been able to cover or even mention here.
If you’re the kind of referee that needs a lot of fully worked out details and options then Michael Brown’s work may not appeal – perhaps at least look at his three longer options mentioned above – but if you would rather make up your own details and wrinkles in any case then they may be just the ticket. Also, if you’re simply looking for inspiration for a one-off or a short stopover in a longer campaign then there is a wealth of ideas in the ton of adventures the author has published. It would be fun to see a little more variety in terms of the PC groups these would be suitable for (e.g., exploration, or nobles, or military, etc.), but of course Mr Brown would be on diminishing returns in terms of audience the further he moves away from mainstream tropes so it’s understandable why he’s stuck to the tried and tested. What I think these are particularly good at is in offering barebones that referees can build on and take in whatever direction they or their players like. While I’ve considered the author’s body of a work as a whole – and it’s fascinating to do so – it should be noted that these are ideally suited to using in isolation if you just need something to entertain for an evening with short notice and limited budget. If you are on that tight a budget don’t forget you can glean lots of great Michael Brown material from the pages of Freelance Traveller itself – and if you are using Traveller rule sets you won’t even have to think about (very minor) conversion for the most part!
So try one and see what you make of it. If you like what you find, watch out for the bundles that sell ten of the short adventures at a time. I plan on keeping them to hand for the moments the players go ‘off piste’ and I’ve got nothing prepared. I’d warmly recommend them.