2300AD: French Arm Adventures
This article originally appeared on rpg.net in May 2015 and was reprinted in the November/December 2016 issue.
Editor’s note: While preparing this review for the website, we found a second cover for this volume. The review was originally presented, both on rpg.net and the PDF Freelance Traveller, with only the rightmost cover shown.
French Arm Adventures. Colin Dunn.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
177pp., hardbound or PDF
It was with some trepidation that I approached this book, but, I am happy to say all the fears and real concerns that I had with The Grendelssaga disappeared. The quality of the printing was superb with excellently rendered illustrations and images and the text flowed effortlessly and showed a great deal of attention to detail with regard to the re-editing and revamping of the original GDW 2300 adventure modules of Beanstalk, Kafer Dawn and Energy Curve.
I have always had a particular sweet spot for 2300AD believing it to be more Traveller than what often passed as Traveller and that is because I started playing Traveller very early on circa 1982-1983 and one has to remember that was the era dominated by post-apocalyptic landscapes that Mad Max would introduce us to and very hard and gritty Science Fiction that the 1970s, Outland, was making commentary upon, and, of course, Star Wars (when there was only one). Furthermore, Traveller appealed to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, whereas, a generation that was growing up in Apollo’s shadow and the astonishing discoveries of the Voyager, Viking, and Venera robotic probes knew that the universe was not a kind and forgiving place that resembled Southern California, but one filled with very alien landscapes and one where we would certainly need a spacesuit. And, it is exactly in that area that Traveller failed, and continues to fail to a certain degree; it lacked the grit and the dark realism from where it emerged. For many adventures in Traveller gloss over that alien worlds will create alien environments beyond the immediate culture shock – Traveller is about asking questions. Classic Traveller glossed over those questions, much as Star Wars glossed over the history of the Sandpeople by putting aliens in rubber suits. Ok, not, entirely true…but Traveller has always been more Space Opera than Hard SF. And, I have always favored Hard SF. So, these adventures, like many Traveller adventures, do pose a question in science, then proceed to use fiction to unravel it. As always, the bare minimum of the adventures will be covered, and most certainly there will be no spoilers.
Previous offerings from Mongoose took the skeleton, sometimes little more than the name of the adventure, as a springboard to greater role playing opportunities than what was in the original module, or simply Mongoosifed the old module. I am happy to report that the best of the original modules have been preserved for posterity but with new additions that make it possible to link these adventures to the larger canvas that is unfolding in the Mongoose 2300AD milieu. And, while many may moan about Traveller adventures not being fully cinematic, it is only a valid partial criticism, just as most people believe that Hard SF cannot be filmed – yet the canons of film are filled with quasi Hard SF films that need not be as riveting as Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But therein lies the difficulty of these adventures; they require buy-in by the players for an older and slower version of play. Whereby, incremental changes will ripple and change the universe as a whole, but, players have to be cautioned that they are laying down structures. And, that is the most important thing about these adventures, they modify the milieu in a most logical and consistent way. So these adventures or some variation of these adventures are essential for players if they wish to play in the sandbox which the milieu calls the French Arm (essentially, a hyperspace corridor of stars spanning out from Sol).
Now the synopses of the adventures:
The beanstalk hung above the horizon of this stark, airless asteroid like a shining silver thread against the backdrop of the star-sprinkled blackness of space. As I watched, a cargo capsule (almost invisibly small at this distance) slipped from beneath the edge of the main station and began to crawl down the beanstalk in its long descent to Beta’s surface. Eventually, like the beanstalk itself, the capsule disappeared against the bright haze of the planet’s atmosphere.
The beauty of the view brought a gentle smile to my face. This, I reflected, is one of the bonuses of my job. I am a troubleshooter.
In 2181 a French exploratory squadron discovered a garden world in the Beta Canum Venaticorum system. Within about 25 years, three ESA nations (France, Britain, and Bavaria) had established colonies there. Over the next eight decades all three colonies cooperated in an attempt to adapt the planet to human uses. The Bavarians began extensive mining of their continent’s mineral resources. The British created an extensive transportation network between the colonies. France built their colony a beanstalk.
Then came Earth’s War of German Reunification. The colonies on Beta Canum began to experience rising tides of nationalism as they jockeyed for power by the judicious use of the world’s resources.
But the most valued commodity on Beta Canum is the safe, regular access to orbit granted by the beanstalk. The French have found themselves holding the reins of power on Beta Canum. Tension continues to grow as they seek to consolidate their position and the British and Germans seek to undermine it.
The French control the beanstalk. But a Bavarian built it-and he thinks he’s found a problem.
Opportunities are ripe for troubleshooters looking for work.
“Beanstalk” deals with enigmatic aliens (in a very cursory way) and the power politics where national rivalries still drive adventure in the future. The credibility of this claim is premised upon the world undergoing a cataclysm this century which re-fortified the nation-state. What is important to take away is that the world of 2300AD, of national rivalries is not the end point, for as troubleshooters, players to a certain extent go beyond it. Furthermore, even as foundations and transnational corporations are rapidly becoming the megacorporations that ply the stars, not yet owning whole planets, but whose livelihoods depend upon said corporations.
Life for colonists on Aurore was difficult at best. Native plant and animal life was deadly to humans and soil had to be brought in by the ton to grow imported crops. Tidal bores were scoured by half-mile tall waves twice a day. Earthquakes and volcanic activity were constant hazards. Then, the Kaefers came…
The inhabitants of Aurore always took a special pride in their home—it was the most spectacularly beautiful and at the same time least hospitable of the garden planets in the French Arm. For years it was also the end of the line in a colonial arm that terminated at planetless Arcturus, a dull ruby in Aurore’s night sky. The Kaefers were first encountered at Arcturus, and then their invasion fleet and invading armies struck Aurore. The battle was close, but the major population centers held out. Now, the remaining Kaefers need to be hunted down and rooted out.
“Kaefer Dawn” covers the campaign to mop up the Auroran ‘hotback’ from the viewpoint of several adventurers who come to join the fight against mankind’s most bitter foe. Despite over a year of warfare, little is known of the Kaefers, and so “Kaefer Dawn” is a voyage of discovery as well. Are the Kaefers necessarily our implacable enemies, or can better understanding bring peace to both species?
“Kaefer Dawn” gradually introduces the players to Kaefers over the course of four new separate adventures (all included in this booklet) which form a mini-campaign. From the time the players ground ship on Aurore as raw recruits to the time they participate in the final drive against the last major groupings of Kaefers in the hotback, they will gradually learn more and more about their violent but complex enemy.
So, as the brief synopsis shows, there is an element of scientific investigation that may lead to a greater understanding before the inevitable “nuke ’em from orbit” comment. So, while completely not a bug hunt (wily readers may understand the ironic humour), it deals more with the question of a completely alien world whereby humans and “aliens” are both invaders. The ecology of Aurore is lovingly detailed. While not as alien and forbidden as some – there is enough on this moon of a superjovian to keep players entertained.
The carefree activity around Beta Canum often belies the horrible reality of the Kafer war in the bright visible stars overhead. Only the most experienced and fearless crews dare travel through that area of space, through the hotly contested systems of the border. Several centuries of human civilization can attest to the simple fact that a frontier is always a dangerous place to conduct business.
The LaFarge made its final call at a human port at Hochbaden over two years ago, heading into the middle of the Kaefer conflict on Trilon company business. When they did not return no one was too surprised. They’d probably fallen victim to the war and that was that.
But now a routine survey vessel has picked up survivors from the crew of the LaFarge and they tell an incredible story of treks across the ice fields of a glaciated world, stories of strange alien races on the verge of civilization. The crew of the LaFarge are coming back to human space after a multi-year odyssey on an uncharted world, a world where evolution of life has been perpetually bound to it and the ebbs and flows of an uncolonized world.
As the crew of the survey ship LaFarge, you live out the thrill of discovering a truly alien world. Survival will be difficult and will probably depend on the cooperation of a native alien race of beings. Can you communicate with them and can you live among them for what might be years before a human rescue? As one can read this is potentially one of the most exciting of all adventures dealing with First Contact. However, before one gets their Star Trek uniforms out, First Contact, just as it was for Europeans shipwrecked in different parts of the world becomes a process of cultural negotiation. “Easy enough” when both parties are human, but the wonderful world of 2300AD and Traveller in general – they are not. Going in with human historical biases (especially, American history) will cause huge problems. Added to that there is a dynamic of national rivalries that was touched upon in “Beanstalk”. Truly wonderful and beautiful aliens are described here.
And, thus we come to an end of French Arm Adventures… no, we have not: there is new equipment and new ships for players to take advantage of. The art of these pieces is something of what has become the Mongoose norm for equipment – for better or for worse. Which looks like panels being assembled together as opposed to blueprint drawings or the quasi-realism of the Keith brothers. Aesthetically, it does look awkward but it is in no way as bad as some other pieces of art that Mongoose has commissioned for Traveller… That said, it is bad compared to the other pieces of art in the book. For instance, you get high resolution pseudo-satellite images and excellent space fantasy NPCs. I know being an art director is thankless task and increasingly artists have bills to pay with minimal or scant resources that can be devoted to art. However, art is what really creates that magnificent Sense of Wonder, for as I began this review by invoking the glorious images of the manned and unmanned space programs, as well as the gritty realism of 1970s Science Fiction films. RPGs are more than simply than a collection of tables and charts but a sweeping narrative and art plays a very important role in communicating that message. GDW understood that very well; Mongoose seems to be struggling while smaller and more agile companies are filling in that niche. Or perhaps it points to a deeper problem that the imagery of Hard SF has fallen by the wayside… On the other hand, there seems to be tens of artists on artistic/graphic design clearing houses, like DeviantArt or CGSociety desperately wishing to market their talents.
French Arm Adventures is an excellent complement to the best of the 2300AD milieu, in which I think the best is yet to come. Mongoose is doing it right by updating the Traveller classics to a more posthuman and post-cyberpunk sensibility without getting too mired in the previous motif—recreating an “Age of Sail”. 2300AD is a large enough “universe” for many, if not all Hard SF stories to be told. Nor do Hard SF have to be equated with 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Referees are stumped, I can wholeheartedly recommend The Hard SF Renaissance by David G. Hartwell (Editor), Kathryn Cramer (Editor), or, from the BBC, Star Cops, The Outcasts, or first couple of seasons of Blake’s 7. Colin Dunn has a very useful suggested reading list in the main rulebook that undoubtedly needs to be updated. And the beauty of Hard SF, it is the world of tomorrow – mirroring the world of today. Thanks, Colin, for restoring my Sense of Wonder for Traveller.