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#8: Genre-ic Plot Seeds, Part One: The Mysterious Genres

This column originally appeared in Shannon's column on the RPG.Net website in March 2010 as Fifth Imperium #8, and was printed in Issue #004 of Freelance Traveller.

One of the nice things about running a science-fiction game is that you have an ability to really warp what sort of game you’re running from week to week. I think that’s in large part because of the width of science-fiction genre. It can include just about anything, from knights running around with glowing swords (Star Wars) to robotic detectives solving crime (The Caves of Steel) to rampant silliness (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

This, I think, suggests a great way to come up with a plot seed for a Traveller adventure when you’re otherwise feeling blocked: just choose a favorite genre that you haven’t touched upon for a while, and go from there.

In this article, I'm going to touch upon a trio of mystery-related genres for use in Traveller adventures, offering some thoughts and potential seeds for each of them.

The Mystery Genre

Mysteries can work in just about any setting, but I think they’re particular appropriate in Traveller because of the high importance of law to the setting. The UWP of every planet defines precisely how law is administered there! Beyond that, it makes much more sense for a very civilized interstellar society to have the resources to pursue crime than for the same to occur in a less civilized fantasy world.

There are plenty of ways to introduce a mystery into your game. Have a PC be wrongly accused of a crime or do the same to one of their friends. Have them land on a planet where visitors are randomly required to serve in the detective force for a short time—in the name of impartiality. Similarly, impartiality might be why a government goes out of its way to hire outsiders. A murder-mystery is the most obvious plot, but you could alternatively have something stolen in some mysterious way.

Traveller References. Traveller authors have been aware of the possibility of mystery-oriented SF adventures since the Classic Traveller days. The earliest example is probably Traveller Adventure 11: Murder on Arcturus Station, generally considered a classic of the genre. I’m aware of one other Traveller murder-mystery, “Death Among the Stars”, a MegaTraveller adventure which ran in Challenge #48. I also wrote an AP of a mystery I ran in Traveller last year: “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”.

Other References. If you’re intimidated by the idea of crafting a mystery, I highly suggest reading a mystery book that actually offers a “fair” mystery with lots of clues, then adapting that for your own play—which is exactly what I did in my “Sleeping Dogs” adventure, which was based on an obscure (and out-of-print) Jack Vance mystery. I expect you could pick up at least 70% of mystery books and discover a good basis for an adventure.

Beyond that, I already mentioned the R. Daneel Olivaw Robot Novels by Isaac Asimov as an existing example of mystery/SF genre mixing. If you know of more examples, I’d love to hear them.

The Noir Genre

There are many mystery stories that have noir sensibilities to them. They include flawed men, bad women, dark settings, morally ambiguous acts, and very few happy endings. There’s actually a lot of disagreement as to what constitutes noir, and I’m one of those who thinks of it as more of a “mood” than a “genre”, which is one of the reasons I’m not going to give it more depth here.

I’ll simply suggest it as a different way that you can present mysteries. It might be particularly appropriate in Traveller for planets that are both high-tech and overpopulated, especially if they’ve got some sort of fascist dictator controlling everything. In these situations, the goal might be to survive the adventure as much as to solve the mystery.

Beyond that, I’ll say that noir probably will take more work to get right than most of the genres I’ll be discussing in this series.

Other References. There are many noir films that you could consider, however I think there are two works of fiction that might give you a particular idea as to how to mix Traveller, mystery, and noir. The first is a film that you’ve probably already seen, Bladerunner. The second is a book that you might not have, David Brin’s Kiln People (which is about 7/8ths of a brilliant book, before it descends into semi-coherent Transhuman meanderings in the last 50 pages or so).

The Espionage Genre

An espionage game could be run exactly like a mystery if the goal is to recover a stolen item or track down a person on the run. However, unless you’re going with a very conservative (and more realistic) John LeCarre sort of espionage story, your spy adventure should be a lot flashier than a typical mystery. Consider how to include (grav?)car chases and foot races through somewhat dangerous terrains. Also, think about introducing some of the well-loved elements of espionage, such as cover identities, disguises, dead drops, wiretaps, and cryptograms. You can find some neat lists of Espionage techniques and Espionage terminology online. They should get you thinking immediately.

Within the context of Traveller, the numerous interstellar governments offer the most opportunity for espionage. In the Spinward Marches, Zhodani spies will surely be peeking into Imperial interests, particularly at military bases, while the Imperium could spy upon the several Zhodani planets in the sector, on Zhodani immigrants, or even on “legitimate” Zhodani business interests.

However, just because espionage with the Zhodani is the most obvious path doesn't mean it’s the ideal one for an espionage adventure. You could just as easily have spying missions related to the Vargr, the Aslan, the Darrians, the Sword Worlders, or the Federation of Arden. And, spying on outside entities is only half the job of a spy. The Imperium will need to investigate internal threats as well, including separatists, religious zealots, anarchists, AI-rightists, genegineering protesters, Solomani, other human supremacists, and fifth columns for other governments—local or interstellar.

Traveller References. For Traveller espionage, the obvious place to go is Traveller Book 5: Agent. It’s got a 15-page section specifically on espionage, which includes both espionage-mission generation charts and background for spies in the Third Imperium.

There was also an interesting setting article called “IRIS” that you can find back in Challenge #33. It lays out the basis for an Imperial-level espionage agency. For some reason, however, it’s generally been derided by fans—perhaps because it was a little retconny, suggesting that IRIS was behind certain events in the Imperium’s history. It was also officially declared a “variant”, rather than Original Traveller Universe canon.

Finally, I'll point you to another of my APs, “Intrigue Aboard: Adventures on the Empress Porifiria”—though I'll admit that my spy adventure ended up more mystery than espionage, mainly because of the lack of the splashy action scenes that make up most James Bond films.

Other References. If you want to get some great and authentic feeling espionage ideas, I recommend a British TV show called The Sandbaggers and an American comic book called Queen & Country. Though he's technically a diplomat, the Retief books by Keith Laumer (and more recently, William H. Keith, Jr.) offer a great look at espionage-flavored science-fiction. Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry is another fine example. I'm sure there are many others.


I’ve just touched the surface when listing some of the references that might be useful for running mysterious genre adventures. If you know of more Traveller adventures or science-fiction books, TV shows, or movies which might provide insight into mysteries, noir, or espionage, I invite you to contribute them in the RPG.net forums.

In the meantime I'll be returning to this topic next month, when I talk about some “shadowed” genres that you can mix with your science-fiction gaming.