After-Action Report: Signal 99
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue.
This is a report of running Stellagama’s adventure: Signal 99. It is designed to be a referee to referee communication. It contains spoilers! If you might play in this adventure, please stop reading now.
I run a campaign called “The Rusty Buckett”, at a friend’s mini-con. Once a year he invites friends to his house for a weekend of gaming. This has been going on for 11 years, and for most of those years I’ve run this highly episodic Traveller game. The players have been largely the same for all that time, so it is a comfortable group which works well together. We use GURPS rules, and I generally buy a couple of commercially written adventures, or download a few from Freelance Traveller, and then choose the best one to run.
The characters are a bunch of friends on an old, broken down starship, out to experience the Universe, assuming they can make enough money to cover ongoing repairs. They are not crooks, although they will crack a few laws in a good cause or to save the innocent.
Preparing The Adventure
I chose Stellagama’s Signal 99 because the basic genera seemed unique. There are lots of rescue scenarios out there, but this one was more complex, more morally ambiguous, and destined to eventual failure. Also, it was clearly well written and well constructed as an adventure. Finally, it involved aliens and some other actual science fiction themes.
You will need to give the adventurers a reason to visit Pavarti. The adventure does not help with this, but it is not hard. My characters wanted to see some actual Ciceks and had brought a cargo of spices which grew in human space, but which Ciceks valued, to try to pay their way.
The campaign is set in a Traveller Universe, but a non-standard timeline (the Imperium is smaller and less important). Recently, I’ve been trying to add aliens from other fandoms (Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, etc.). Since Signal 99 is set in the These Stars Are Ours (TSAO) Universe, I had to graft the adventure into my Universe. This was no problem. I simply set the adventure in a far corner of the Universe, where the Imperium was a far away thing. I think of this region of space as the Tsao Subsector. The Republic, the Empire, and so on were the local interstellar governments. The TSAO history was the local history. The highly episodic nature of the campaign meant that I didn’t need to worry about the long trip to this area of space, or back again afterwards.
Before running the adventure, I recommend printing out the two deck plan pages, twice. The first time on a normal sized page, and marking all the rescue balls and live aliens on it, so you see where they are at a glance. The second time, on the largest sized pages you can, for the players to use.
Also, I would create a “run page” by cut-&-pasting all the special rules for actions on the Abductor (no matter where they are in the printed adventure), and also a 30-checkbox row, so that you can check off each minute as it occurs. The adventure has a lot of rules about the ship (opening doors, getting injured by shrapnel, etc.) and having them all on one page with a count down timer checklist was very helpful.
The rules said that for each player above four, the referee should shorten the rescue time by five minutes. I did not do this. It would have resulted in the adventurers only having 15 minutes for the rescue, and that did not seem like an adventure to me; it seemed like an appetizer. So I ignored that part, but that was not a good solution either, because the adventurers were too successful. If I had it to do over, instead of subtracting 5 minutes per extra character, I would have either added d6 humans to be saved, or added one extra (delaying) encounter with an alien (or both), per extra character.
Note: when I say “minutes” below, I’m talking about time in the game. The whole rescue took less than 30 minutes. The game took about 5½ hours. In the post-game survey, every player thought the length was good: not too long or too short.
As you read what happened, remember that the characters were not from the Tsao Sector (in my Universe), so they did not have the baggage of history. They were a little suspicious of the Reticulans, but had not just fought a war with them. They knew the Zhuzzh were not trustworthy, but had not encountered them before, in person.
When the adventure started (with the Signal 99), the slightly sleazy political liaison started to lay a foundation of “too dangerous to rescue”, but the other characters, made sure the Rusty Buckett dived into the rescue.
For the first few minutes I was afraid the pilot would stay in his bridge chair, to be ready to get out of there at the first sign of trouble. That would have been very in-character for many pilots. I was afraid that character would do nothing else, and the player would be bored. However, when the humans were found, the character decided he would help, although he would not leave his own ship, and he was active in the rescue.
Also for the first few minutes, the characters (and the players) thought this was going to be a normal (i.e., successful) rescue, and they’d get to salvage the ship, too! Their ace repair engineer, in his custom vacc suit, arrogantly went directly to the Abductor’s engineering room to stop the explosion, or (if that failed) eject the engine. When all those rolls failed (and the players saw how good some of them had been), suddenly the rescue took on a new meaning. The characters (and the players) realized that this was not going to have a simple, happy ending. Success was not preordained. At that moment, as a referee, I felt the tone change.
The encounter with the Zhuzzh went perfectly, from the Zhuzzh’s point of view. They were surprised by a human, but convinced her that they were there to help, and their ship was closer than the Rusty Buckett, so the human helped them push cold storage units to their ship. They immediately left. My reading of the adventure was that was exactly what they would have done. However, if I had it to do over again, I would have had the Zhuzzh at least try to get the character to help them get even more cold storage units to their ship. Bigger psychological impact when the character realized later she had helped a kidnapping into slavery/experimentation, etc.
The adventurers got lucky with the Cicek. My characters are not a bunch of ex-military jar heads. However, in a previous adventure, one of them did find a military grade plasma weapon. He rarely gets to use it however, since it is illegal in just about every populated planet. However, since he was in space, he carried it for the rescue, and (of course) he was the one who ran into the Cicek. What luck! There was no attempt at subduing the Cicek.
I misread the health of the Phnunk, so a character was able to get him back to the Rusty Buckett, but then I realized he was supposed to be dead, so he died on the med-bay table. The doctor character was glum.
A different adventurer found “Janice”. It took most of the rescue, but he was able to save her. She lost most of her fingers and toes to frost bite but was able to defect to the Technate. No one ever encountered “Katrina”, and she died in the explosion.
After about eight minutes, the characters had set up a “rescue conveyor belt.” One was unplugging cold storage units, another was pitching them through a hole and out of the ship. Two more were using an air/raft to collect them and bring them back to the Rusty Buckett, and another was stowing them in the cargo bay.
When the ship shuttered, and they realized they only had a few minutes, they grabbed a cold storage unit, and left.
Worth far more than the $4 it cost. I had fun running this adventure, and my players had fun playing in it. In my post-game survey, 5 out of 5 players marked “Yes, a lot” as their answer to the question “Overall, did you enjoy the game?”. The adventure was easy to prep and easy to integrate into an ongoing campaign. The players liked the alien interactions in the adventure. I hope the author creates a sequel. Maybe “on the track of the Zhuzzh” or something.