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Mongoose Traveller Supplement 13: Starport Encounters

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.

Supplement 13: Starport Encounters. Andy and Sarah Lilly.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com

This could reasonably have been called 303 Starport Encounters as it’s essentially a reprint of the three BITS books, 101 Starcrews, 101 Cargos, and 101 Travellers. Full marks to the authors, husband-and-wife team Andy and Sarah, for bringing back into publication such a massively useful volume; not so many marks to Mongoose Publishing for failing to mention its heritage either online before purchase, or even within the volume itself. The only clue to its origin is the copyright statement. Buyer beware!

Given that there’s little content change, it would be easy to simply point to previous reviews of these books and leave it at that. For reference, see my own Freelance Traveller reviews for 101 Cargos or 101 Travellers, or Ewan Quibell’s JTAS review of 101 Starcrews, or Robert Prior’s joint JTAS review of 101 Cargos and 101 Travellers (note that the JTAS reviews are behind a paywall). [The paywall is why they’re not linked. -ed.] However, there are some useful things to be said about this latest incarnation and this review will look at the PDF version of the book. [Note: The prices above are for the print edition, which appears to be hardbound. -ed.]

Starting with the cover, this fits into the Mongoose supplement series with an all-black cover and yellow lettering and stripe. It is Supplement 13 and the strapline is the rather unwieldy and not very true: ‘No one that encounters prosperity does not also encounter danger’. Of course, one of the things that is lost in translation are the three covers of the original BITS books. This isn’t hugely important or unexpected, but it’s a shame that one of this reviewer’s favourite Traveller illustrations is thereby lost! (A dodgy looking crew if ever there was one, in Blixt Highport looking as if they mean business. For those who don't know it—and it’s worth checking out—it is a cleverly costumed and photoshopped image of the authors’ game group.) There is no formal back cover in the PDF.

The text itself is divided into five sections: a one page introduction and a four page collection of Library Data sandwiching the three main chapters. First up is Starcrews, which is the largest section at 41 pages and covers 101 crews of a variety of starships. The original division of scouts/couriers (28 examples), traders (49), other ships (9) and naval ships (15) is maintained and this provides lots of examples of the kinds of vessels characters are most likely to meet. Each entry lists the crew with their name and position on the ship. (One of the oddest features of this new edition is that quite often the order the crew is presented in has been revised for no very apparent reason. By far the most changes involve engineers who’ve either been promoted or demoted.) Then we’re told how many passengers there are of each kind (high, middle, low), what cargo is likely to be on board, and a description of the exterior of the vessel. Referee notes then give details on the ship and its crew and a varying number of adventure seeds. Where other Traveller books might have focussed on the ship stats and roll-playing, this is clearly focussed on role-playing and adventure possibilities which is to be welcomed. Where there are variations on the ‘standard’ Traveller ships, these are mentioned in the Referees’ notes. The original BITS version used icons to mark crew, passengers, cargo, etc., and a lot of abbreviations to conserve space. This larger Mongoose version dispenses with the icons and uses text instead and expands the crew position titles and ship name shortenings found in the text. This does make it all easier to read although the gender icons have gone so many names are ambiguous enough that the Referee will have to decide on male or female. The other piece of information no longer present is an icon indicating the general skill level of the crew member (elite, veteran, experienced or novice), which was a useful distinction, although some descriptions of the crew give certain clues as to their abilities. Other details can also be fleshed out using the handy tables at the start of the section, such as age, appearance, mentality, personality, honesty, and interests. One thing not been carried over from the original publication is the rather useful ship type summary table (as well as the index).

The second major section of the book changes the original BITS spelling of ‘cargos’ to ‘cargoes’ throughout, but contains the contents of the 2nd edition BITS book aside from the short section of Milieu 0 background material and a couple of examples of creating an adventure from a cargo. This section is 21 pages long and divides the cargos into Natural (18 examples), Processed (29) and Manufactured Resources (26), Information (20), and Novelties (11). Each cargo, and the sharp-eyed will note there are 104, simply consists of a title and a note of whether it’s a major lot, minor lot or incidental cargo; whether there are any hazards associated with it; and then a paragraph or three describing the cargo and related issues or adventure possibilities. Like the Starcrews section, the descriptions focus on game play value rather than getting bogged down in unnecessary statistics. The cargo section is preceded by some rules and tables for generating adventure ideas connected with the cargos and a system for generating shipping codes for marking cargos and their containers. It would have been good to see a handful of examples of shipping codes, but the system is easy enough to use and well described. The section concludes with tables for generating cargos randomly. Whether generating a cargo on the fly with the tables, or using the pre-generated ones, the Referee will find it very easy to quickly answer PC (or character) questions about what’s available for shipping.

The third major section is Fellow Travellers, which takes 33 pages and divides into Middle Passengers (62 entries) and High Passengers (39). Each of those is further divided into individuals (41 mid/ 25 high), 2-4 individuals (12/7), and groups (9/7). Each entry gives a name or names, job, UPP, race, gender and age, equipment and cash, skills, a short introduction, a background, and ‘play options’. Very occasionally these latter don’t amount to very much, as the Xia and Helven Art-Nodul entries demonstrate. The skills, of course, have been revised from Marc Miller’s Traveller to Mongoose Traveller, which means that their levels have been reduced accordingly and they’ve been modified where appropriate (e.g. Perception to Recon), but on occasion some seem to get lost in translation or perhaps just aren't considered appropriate (for example Grfuzg Gdenz losing any battledress ability). There aren’t many, but when tasks are provided, these have also been changed to Mongoose rules.

Finally, Library Data collects various references from the book which give a little more background for some of the entries. If trade features in your campaign, these entries allow a little more description to flesh out certain people, corporations, animals and the like, regardless of setting or milieu. It also allows a shorthand mention of certain entities that are referred to more than once in various entries. What’s more, one advantage of the three BITS books being brought together is that there is more synergy in some of the crossovers from certain entries and this gives a nice connection which threads through the otherwise separate sections. Examples include Hot & Spicy, Hypnagene and the Dancing Insects of Thrarg. Hypnagene, as it happens, has also had its entry expanded from the older books.

All of the 306 entries make the book easy to pick up and use either in-game when the Referee needs something quickly to respond to a player question, or in preparing games when inspiration might be lacking. The introduction suggests that this kind of work can make a Referee appear “world class” to players asking the unexpected question mid-game and it certainly provides a vital help in this area. It’s difficult to read the book for any length of time without wanting to try out an idea at the next gaming session or to come up with ways in which the brief material here might be developed.

Throughout the book there are 16 illustrations, recycled from previous Mongoose books such as 760 Patrons Second Edition, Book 7: Merchant Prince, 2300AD, and others. They’re relevant to the text they appear beside, break up the text block and are well chosen.

Unfortunately the opportunity has not always been taken to correct the very occasional error in the original BITS books such as the repeated text in Thom Yood’s entry, Lors Rurny’s typo in his skills, two of the crews all having the same names (which seems unlikely even in an infinite universe) or the two identical ship descriptions (which does seem relatively possible). Even more unfortunately, some errors have been introduced such as Beauty’s Beast gaining ten extra passengers or the ‘Plagiwasp’ entry in the Library Data section being out of alphabetical order—after the fashion of the library data in Little Black Book 9. Some entries manage both at once as in the Sun Lancer where ‘Scout Corp’ gets corrected to ‘Scout Service’ but an errant apostrophe has been introduced to ‘ops’. Perhaps worse are the couple of crew members who appear to have gone AWOL in the intervening years or have been sacked: the owner/purser of the Tux and a steward on the Danotzbe. Hopefully all of this can be corrected before the printed version.

Throughout there have been some stylistic changes from the original books. ‘PC’ has been revised to ‘player’ throughout despite not being the same thing at all. On the upside, a lot of ‘quotes’ have been removed which does improve readability but sometimes changes the meaning or loses some of the innuendo that was being implied. Exclamation marks have been considerably reduced which is perhaps no bad thing and unnecessary underlining has gone away. In the odd entry there has been a textual change, almost always a deletion. One thing that has been lost more significantly are the page number cross-references to other entries within the book and a couple of cross-references to other BITS books, which is perhaps understandable.

Those who own the original books will find nothing new here and should only buy this if they want the material in one handy volume, or perhaps want to encourage the authors to produce more in a similar vein. They may also want to keep the older books for subtle detail regarding starcrew genders and skill levels. Although this new book is generally aimed at referees, some players might find it helpful if they’re running an ‘Automatic campaign’ for themselves as outlined in Supplement 9: Campaign Guide when this could easily generate ideas to pursue and adventures to be had. For Referees who’ve not seen the originals they will find this an invaluable source of ideas and inspiration. Whether used on-the-fly as a game progresses or whether you’re planning ahead and just need a quick, pre-generated idea to save time or when inspiration fails to strike, there’s much here to use, to delight, and even to amuse. If nothing else, it can be used as a source of Traveller-style names of humans, Vilani, Aslan and Vargr. While I won’t be getting rid of my “little white books” anytime soon, I’ll be keeping Supplement 13 close when writing or running an adventure and can only hope that this marks the start of Mongoose collecting other examples of the out-of-print BITS books.