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This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue.

Cirque. Gregory P. Lee.
Greylock Publishing Lines https://www.facebook.com/CirqueT5Supplement http://www.greylockpublishing.com
186pp, paperbound or PDF

Cirque started as a Kickstarter project and has produced the second published adventure material for Traveller5 after a much anticipated wait. It’s really a campaign in the grand style of The Traveller Adventure or the Grand Tour of Travellers’ Digest, with 22 linked adventures set in the ‘classic era’. (The cover proclaims “21” but two chapters at the end are labelled ‘Episode 21’). The classic era is defined as beginning in 1105 and Cirque starts at the end of 1110, a few months (confusingly, the text says years) after the Fifth Frontier War. The war is important as it gives the rationale behind the ‘tour’ of a portion of the Spinward Marches that forms the backbone of these adventures. A travelling circus is aiming to play its part in healing war-weary worlds in the sector and veterans scarred by devastating battles. The circus of course allows a motley cast of characters, and for once the word motley seems particularly apposite, to venture into a variety of worlds and situations and find adventure along the way. It concentrates on role playing activity rather than die rolling activities—although there’s plenty of those as well—and there’s good variety throughout which means that even run as a full campaign, interest should be maintained to the end. This is what John Ford’s marvelous “Roadshow” might have looked like (for circus performers rather than rock stars) had it been expanded from the Amber Zone in The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, no.23.

The first 59 pages of the book present the background for the adventure: setting; deck plans, description, Traveller5 stats, cargo and ship routines for the Cirque; stats and descriptions of other ships; player characters, non-player characters, and animals of the circus; and a description of ‘The Stanford Torus’, a standard spinning space station which we’re told is common in Imperial space. The remainder of the book (125 pages) is taken up with 22 episodes averaging five or six pages each and an epilogue ‘Somewhere Beyond Regina’ of just a page.

The Cirque itself is a repurposed military vessel, the so-called Ringmaster class, which had large docking rings for various modules it could carry through Jump. It is a multi-purpose 1140-ton Jump-3 tender (Jump-6 with no modules) and has three auxiliary modules called Big Top 1, Big Top 2 and Big Top 3. The first is a converted ortillery/missile platform now used as the primary performance space, the second is a converted troop carrier now used as a rehearsal space and recording stage, and the final module is devoted to fuel tankage and sensors. It’s a cramped space for the troupe and its animals but provides a flexible platform for their needs and is an interesting starship for gaming.

Unfortunately, the deck plans of the various ships and stations are far too small to be usable and appear here more as illustrative art than anything else, although some plans (for example, a flare bunker) have zoomed in versions. Many are not labelled, and so close reading of the text which usually contains the descriptions is necessary—and even then, not everything is always clear. Occasionally, references are made to colours in the maps or plans which can’t really be seen in the greyscale print version. Separate electronic files in colour of these otherwise good looking plans somewhat rectify these problems, but it’s unfortunate they weren’t given more space and labelling within the printed volume.

In a similar vein, the text throughout is fairly small, but not unreadably so, and Traveller5 tables, for ship forms for example, are presented in a Courier font which is unusual but distinctive and clear. Maps are infrequent and not a lot better than the plans. There are a couple of world maps which are small but have little detail so that’s not a problem, however there aren’t any keys to them which again makes them illustrative rather than useful although there is description in the text. The maps are for Dymwn (or variously Dyrnwyn or Dymwyn – Spinward Marches 1522) and Derchon (Spinward Marches 2024). The map of the Cirque’s route is in greyscale in the textblock and in colour on the back cover, but again is rather small with the whole of the Spinward Marches taking a third of a page or so and Imperial space marked in a bright red. Together, it’s rather hard to use and readers may wish to have an alternative map of the region to hand. On the upside the art, which is greyscale throughout, is generally well executed and it’s a particular delight to see many old friends from the beastiary pages of JTAS revisited with new illustrations. The Crested Jabberwock, Afeahyalhtow and Seed Spitter are just three of the creatures given this treatment and it’s surprising just how ‘real’ these feel after some thirty years in a reader’s head! These of course are just some of the creatures that will be performing along with the circus troupe as well as requiring care and attention and just possibly being involved in some of the adventures themselves.

The Episodes, forming the bulk of the book, range from 3 to 11 pages, vary widely and are all rooted in the locations where they happen. Each begins with some colour text from an NPC who knows the area, and goes on to detail the world and any relevant physical or social features. One underrated use of this book is possible even if the adventure material is ignored: it makes a great sourcebook for the worlds in the Spinward Marches which are visited. There is a lot of detail and a lot of adventure possibility which could easily be used elsewhere or to inspire other scenarios. After this section comes the action and this is followed by brief bullet point checklists outlining the adventure and providing more details. These last are divided into ‘Acts’ which is both appropriate to the show business setting and the EPIC adventure breakdown of Traveller5 (page 640). Most Episodes have four acts, but may range from three to six; one isn’t divided into acts at all but into several streams of action which may be taking place in parallel. The checklists and the text of the adventure need to be used in conjunction with each other as neither contains ‘complete’ information. There are prison breaks, outdoors travel, lost kids to rescue, train hijackings to deal with, political shenanigans, star-crossed lovers to reconcile, and ultimately the aim is to perform for Norris at the end of the year Holiday. Psionics play a part in some of the goings on with the Zhodani generally cast as baddies but even here there are layers and while the Cirque isn’t a front for anything clandestine, the campaign is given depth by there being PC and NPC biographies which, well, complicate matters. There are moments when one wonders why the PCs would dare to disembark as something untoward is bound to happen at each stop. But the “show must go on” is a constant refrain and drives much of the action. In fairness, it feels like a weekly TV series with 22 episodes where of course something is going to happen or there would be no show. It works well and given how ‘samey’ it could feel, there is a terrific variety here and referees who don’t like the look of any particular scenario can always leave it as a dull stopover where nothing much happens and move on to the next episode.

One touch of detail I found particularly interesting was the handover from the “advance sophont party” in each port who had been making preparations before the arrival of the Cirque. Having spent two years living on a ship which used exactly this system of what we called ‘line-up crew’ to prepare for our visits and arrange performances and so on, I loved these small vignettes.

In line with acting as a sourcebook as well as a series of adventures there are a good lot of PCs and NPCs as well. All are given names and Traveller5 stats so these pages can act as examples of character generation which are sorely missing from the Core Rules. The many animals that are part of the circus are described and given Traveller5 Beastmaker details. These are well done – the illustrations particularly – and the creatures add to the carnival atmosphere of the circus as well as providing possible assistance in some of the adventures. Animal encounter tables are provided for worlds where relevant. Finally, in addition to the Traveller5-built Cirque, there are stats for the three ‘Big Top’ modules, an Enhanced Scout/Courier, a 400-ton raider, a 500-ton yacht, a 600-ton cruiser, and a 400-ton lab ship to neatly round out the encounters of the adventures.

Two other treats for readers appear in the form of the various Old Station establishments listed in Episode 1. These are named for Kickstarter backers and perhaps this reviewer should have declared an interest in being included in these four pages as the owner of a cheese cupboard! It’s a fun way of recognizing contributors to the project and also provides an extensively detailed set of shops, eateries, offices and other emporia which could be used to add colour and flavour to other starports, stations and cities that referees need to present to players. Secondly, for old-time travellers, Aramais P. Lee makes a cranky return introducing the setting of each Episode in his fondly irascible way. Those who know Lee’s Guide to Interstellar Adventure from 1983 will remember his introduction there and his journals converted into adventure notes1. He hasn’t mellowed in the intervening years and it’s great to see him again. His comments add a different viewpoint although readers, referees and players are all advised to take him with a large dose of salt. Throughout there are literary links with the likes of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet or The Tempest, and Melville’s Moby Dick, film references (The Wizard of Oz) or music references (Peter and the Wolf) to mention just a few. These cultural connections add to the show business feel of the entire campaign, work well and suit the material.

Cirque is an adventure to cherish and I’d like to think it’s a classic in the making. It makes a great read and should make for some great playing experiences. With slightly more attention paid to the presentation of the otherwise excellent plans and maps I’d rate this as truly brilliant. Even so it’s an excellent sourcebook and source of adventures for the classic era Spinward Marches. Although it uses Traveller5 rules it could easily be used with other rule sets and this should grant it a wide audience. The author has done a stunning job of presenting a huge wealth of material in an interesting, informative and humorous way. It’s a delight that I’m proud to have played a tiny part in supporting. Now I just want to run away and join the Cirque!

[1] This was a 48-page digest-sized book from Gamelords written by Gregory P. Lee (the author of Cirque) and ten different worlds with adventure possibilities. Each was generic enough to be used in several locations in the Spinward Marches or the Solomani Rim. A final chapter offered adventure seeds on x-boat routes. Aramais P. Lee (with Gregory as his nephew editing the diaries) was posited as the source of the adventures and quotes from his journals were used as well. The book is available as a PDF on the classic Traveller CD-ROM The Apocrypha I: FASA and Gamelords.