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Campaign 1: Secret of the Ancients

This review was originally published on RPG.Net in December 2011 and reprinted in the January/February 2019 issue.

Campaign 1: Secrets of the Ancients. Gareth Hanrahan.
Mongoose publishing https://www.mongoosepublishing.com
256pp., PDF (formerly also hardcover; present avail unknown)

Once again Mongoose has taken what was free in S&P and monetized it. In this case, it is an epic campaign loosely based upon GDW’s module, The Secret of the Ancients. The first question is, is it worth it, when one can make their own from the free PDFs out there…? In a word – it depends. If you are just looking to run something, certainly, you can just assemble the PDFs into one and save yourself the money, as unfortunately, Mongoose’s tight publication schedule did not permit any extra frills to be thrown in (there was talk of a prequel in the form of Twilight’s Peak being thrown in or sample characters) nor is there any new art. The lack of frills is one of the more disappointing parts of the product. However, if that is the disappointing part, it makes up for it in spades by the quality of the Adventure.

This adventure is firmly rooted in the Original Traveller Universe (so those using variants should have a passing familiarity with the OTU to adapt it to their needs) and what an adventure it is. Largely, based in the Regina subsector of the Spinward Marches, the adventure takes them up and down in a way that is both scripted (i.e., railroaded—but in a good way—that is of getting stuff done) and also free-form sandbox play. Gareth shows his Call of Cthulhu heritage by starting it with a death in the family bringing the players together. He shows great respect for the original Traveller material but also incorporates new tropes into the mix. The death and burial of the character’s beloved uncle sets in action a train of events that players are not likely to predict nor expect (although, with the Internet, spoilers are probably commonplace), yet the adventure gives adequate room for the Referee to create their own path and let the players be the writers of a destiny for the OTU (possibly…). Needless to say, those who survive will certainly come out of the adventure with a great deal of satisfaction unlike the original adventure which ends somewhat anticlimactically.

The writing is understandable and succinct, as Gareth does a good job in integrating a variety of different locales and moods and some very memorable NPCs throughout the adventure. There is little in the way of handouts or other player aids consistent with Traveller adventures in the past which in my humble opinion is a drawback. I like to provide my players with visual and audio cues. However, his descriptions do help but Referees will have to find a way of integrating them, as there is precious little in the way of purple prose. Gareth is also clearly sticking his tongue and/or making a nod, to current popular cultural memes in gaming and outside, as I don’t know the man chances, it is Irish sensibility poking fun at what is out there. There are typos, including some glaring ones (‘Emporor’, I am looking at you) that should have been caught and is really embarrassing but that has been a drawback in many products. The little art there is in the adventure is top notch, just always wishing for more. I would have liked to see portraits of the major reccurring NPCs, for instance.

If anyone has played the Classic Traveller version of the adventure, they are likely to find a few nods there but players actively following that path will likely get themselves killed. And, that is all the spoilers that I am prepared to reveal.

One of the nicest things about this adventure is how it encompasses the OTU in a respectful way, yet, moves beyond it. It pays homage to a vast canvass that long time Traveller players such as myself can appreciate without being overwhelming and hence alienate newbies. Overall, I think, Mongoose has done an excellent job in bringing new players and Referees into the canvass of Traveller history. For Traveller is not a game of Table & Charts (contrary to what some supplements look like) nor should the social science/history be about playing the game connect the footnotes (and arguing who has the larger collection) just nods and passing references. Kudos to Gareth for doing it so well.

What is also nice about this product is how the big reveal will impact upon play but not enjoyment. I think many people where wondering in the original Secret – and now, ok, so what? Here it is a secret of a different sort.

Most of all this campaign is very playable easily stretched and expanded over the course of a year or six months depending how frequent one’s gaming group meets. Mine, twice a month for four-hour marathons – so I would say a year’s worth of enjoyment is here. Warning, however, this adventure is very Old School, in the sense there is very little in the way of maps or even sketches...most things are left to the Referee to formulate beforehand or on the fly. Which is another slight drawback, some things really ought to have been illustrated with a map, as I could not quite get it through the description alone. I say, slight because, I tend to allow things to materialize more around the speed of plot and rely upon generic maps to get me through most adventures, just as way of providing an orientation so that play neither drags nor resolution of goals happens immediately. However, less seasoned Referees might find this a problem.

Coming up with a rating for this one is a difficult one. On one hand, the narrative is very cleverly crafted and provides an excellent adventure. However, there are very few things, like maps, player’s aids, NPC portraits, etc. that make it a standard adventure. I do wish they did spend a little more time in pre-production also to get some extra things together for the adventure and also go through it with a finer tooth comb for editing. However, if new players/referees are still wondering what this game of Traveller (and by extension Mongoose’s take on the OTU) is all about – they can find no better introduction than Secrets of the Ancients.