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Twilight Sector: Beyond the Open Door

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of the magazine

Twilight Sector: Beyond the Open Door. Michael J. Cross and John Lees.
Terra/Sol Games http://terrasolgames.com
130pp, softcover

Author’s Note: None of my reviews of adventures will contain Spoilers or at least intentionally reveal spoilers.

Allow me, first and foremost, to thank the publisher (Michael J. Cross of Terra-Sol Games LLC) for gifting a copy of this hardcopy volume for the purposes of this review, for I do have a love for actual books even if they are Published On Demand (POD). I had purchased the PDF but never got around to reading it until I did the review for Twilight Sector: Beyond the Open Door. Thank you very much.

This is the first comprehensive campaign set in the Twilight Sector from Terra Sol Games and as such is one of the first campaigns for the Mongoose Traveller Rules, although Mongoose has released Campaign sized “adventures” (Beltstrike and Prison Planet) and one “campaign” (Tripwire) that is more of an extended adventure. So, it is with that backdrop that Twilight Sector: Beyond the Open Door gets released on the unsuspecting market.

For those unfamiliar with Twilight Sector, it is a strictly Alternative Traveller Universe, details of which can be gleaned from my earlier reviews and that of others. (Editor’s note: The primary source for Twilight Sector material is the Twilight Sector Campaign Sourcebook, most recently reviewed in December 2011.) Essentially, it postulates an alternate Earth in which action takes place in a sufficiently advanced future where all things Traveller are possible. The adventure is set on the world of Terra/Sol – Earth’s twin twin (no that is not a typo). It involves the disappearance of a seasoned reporter and girlfriend. The party is pre-generated for the players but hooks are provided to get a new party or existing parties into the action. The Referee is only left with the problem of getting them to Terra/Sol but given that much of this milieu seems to be centred in this Sector (Twilight), it ought not to be too difficult.

The disappearance involves a lot of investigation work by the players with ample clues that lead each scene to follow the next with a nice balance of violence and problem solving with the emphasis upon the latter. Call of Cthulhu RPG fans will see a very familiar pattern emerge. Technology is there and readily available but does not overwhelm the scene – for even the technologies of the 30th century are no match to solid instincts and good old legwork. The tone of the adventure moves from a rather grey occurrence (solving a disappearance) into something quite dark and sinister. Action (Shoot & Burn) oriented players might find the pace rather slow but those who want a more cerebral adventure will certainly get their fill without it becoming overly intellectual. But there will be scenes that will certainly satisfy those gun-bunnies’ desires “to blow things up real good…” It also manages to give a sense of the heroic without launching players into Superstar status and hence NPCs and even providing for a possibility that they not live to fight another day. It was this last point that surprised me in a pleasant way. Traveller has always had its share of gritty realism but of late it seemed to lose its tone by becoming more vanilla. And, the emphasis upon the Space Opera downplaying the Hard SF (by making akin to just a coating on soft ice cream) is not the way I have played Traveller nor any of my peers. So, TSG has gone a long way in restoring a belief that Traveller can and perhaps ought to be much Harder SF. So those lured in by the Space Opera by-line ought not to be tricked into believing it is something soft. This is pretty hard stuff or as I said earlier – the stuff of technothrillers. This is not to say, that one cannot have Space Operatic elements they just have to be relegated more into the background.

As an adventure centred on one world, I found it quite limiting especially for a milieu that touts it is Space Opera10; I found the fact that it is on only one balkanized world and not even taken excursions to other parts of the system more akin to 2300AD than standard Traveller. Dispersing action across multiple star systems would be more Traveller than what was on offer. Although, the Traveller RPG has had adventures only set on one world, campaigns have traditionally been multi-world. And, there is the problem with the adventure/campaign dichotomy, what is: Twilight Sector: Beyond the Open Door? It is more of an adventure to reveal some of the secrets of Terra/Sol but gives a feeling of an open campaign. Therefore, I am sure when it reaches final publication in hardcopy, it will be expanded and elaborated upon carrying some of the action to the Stars.

Furthermore, the adventure is very gritty and dark not seen in Traveller since the Hard Times era—a move that I quite frankly applaud but I do realize that a cyberpunkish noir adventure is what most people associate with Traveller. It is very reminiscent of some Canadian SciFi TV Shows that I once watched –TekWar and Total Recall 2070. I am not sure if the designers are purposefully aping those programs or the inspiration came from the same sources – the wider culture. Whatever, the case is, this a thoroughly modernized technothriller that takes Traveller to places that it should have gone a long time ago (as it is not aping that “Other” thing that came out in 1977).

Notwithstanding, as the new kid on the block, Terra/Sol Games LLC (TSG) is establishing its identity as being “Traveller on the Edge”. And it is edgy and very sinister as the players unravel more of the mystery; they find that they are sucked into a vortex of conspiracies and stratagems that will naturally allow the players (or at least the referees) to understand some of the metagaming principles underlying the Twilight Sector. The adventure is coherent and forms a nice fit for the Mongoose rules, but wide latitude is given to referee to assign difficulties either ramping up or scaling down skill checks. In some ways, it seemed like the rules were added as an afterthought which is so very Classic Traveller – a type of: “Fly By The Seat of Your Pants” adventure. Less experienced referees might find it challenging to integrate sandbox and structure but TSG provides ample advice how to proceed with nice summations before each transition.

The adventure is well written both in terms of plot and descriptions. I personally love the style, as it is written very much like a haughty conversation between the Game Designer and the Referee. Although I realize that it is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is ahead of the curve for Traveller games which never made into the Storyteller/Narrativist revolution that White Wolf ushered in. The NPCs, while not statted in all cases, were certainly fleshed out and given very distinct personalities and this was accomplished through sample dialogues or talking points. This is a brave new world for Traveller – the integration of audio or simulated dialogue into the game. Up to now, this has been the province of the referee but before you call foul or railroading, it is actually a heuristic that works very well – much better than TSR’s purple prose text boxes that some Game Masters take it upon themselves to read verbatim. So, the adventure, as it is centred upon a mystery is somewhat railroading but it is more accurate to say that the adventure is tightly scripted but at the same time providing multiple alternatives – giving the right balance for Agency and Structure. It does in fact read very much like a movie in one’s mind. But, all those are accruements that can be added or subtracted just to help the referee along.

The art, like many things that TSG does, is for the most part fantastic, save when it comes to these cartoonish flops that dominate the NPC art. This a constant puzzle for me. When they design a truly spectacular cover and have nice similar art inside why litter the NPC art with something that looks downright amateur. It serves the function but becomes a major source of disappointment that seems to be characteristic of the Twilight Sector line. Therefore, keep up the excellent work and don’t compromise with amateurish stuff. As the writing is at a high calibre, the art should only showcase the highest quality too. In addition, the player-characters do not have character portraits; this is very old school. On one hand, it is good for the imagination, but I have found that players gravitate toward images that they find cool or at least give cues to their personality. So, establishing a visual identity for characters becomes ever more important. Also, I was rather surprised at the things that somehow did not warrant art that would have been nice to see an artistic representation.

In conclusion, this is a very solid piece of work, well worth the investment in the PDF (but if they do come out with widely available hardcopy – Buy It), if you like technothrillers. It is firmly grounded in the Twilight Sector ATU but could be ported into OTU or standard Traveller by changing the location of Terra/Sol to another balkanized world or even better series of planets allowing for a more traditional Traveller Campaign. It very much follows a wheel within wheels approach that seems to dominate Traveller adventures rather than the traditional Push, Pull and Gimmick model of Classic/Mega/TNE Traveller adventures. So, it is a thoroughly modern Traveller adventure – reminding one again that Mongoose Traveller is not your Granddaddy’s Traveller but breaking out into something new and exciting. There is lots for OTU to appropriate from this fine product as the frontiers even on one world can be exciting and proving that Traveller is not solely about the gizmos and gadgets but about the little people who make a difference. And humans will not change substantially between now and the 30th century even if we are embodied in Artificial Intelligences…