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The Third Imperium: Alien Module 4: Zhodani

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller Magazine

The Third Imperium: Alien Module 4: Zhodani. Don McKinney.
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
72pp, hardcover

Mongoose has come under a lot of fire by friends and foes of the Original Traveller Universe – by attempting to straddle both sides of the road. However, for the most part, I think they are doing an admirable job considering how temperamental Traveller grognards can about the OTU. Yes, their products sometimes do not connect together – but considering there is no Traveller Bible, only the Word of Marc to guide a disparate number of freelancers through the desert, I cut them much more slack than perhaps a truly fanatical grognard would – but I have long believed in different heresies – including the OTU – needed a fresh approach and be infused with new ideas. And, why not? The Imperium alone has 11,000 worlds under its jurisdiction and most of the other major polities also number their worlds in the thousands – surely that is a large enough sandbox for anyone to innovate and create the new. Then you get Classic Traveller enthusiasts who fight over practically anything. I will not have any truck or trade with them believing instead in the old Traveller logo – “Come Play in My Universe” and my OTU is wide enough to encompass any heresies. Take this module written by a seasoned Traveller player – Don McKinney.

I first became aware of Don when the Internet was just becoming popular and Don’s site along with Imperium Games was regular destinations. IG because they had the rights and Don’s because of the vast treasure trove of information lodged in a nice directory form. As time went I got to know Don as a moderator over at the Citizens of the Imperium forums, in which, he has been a calm and steady voice of reason and sometimes having to lay down the orthodoxy. Therefore, not the type of person that you would expect to challenge canon… And, indeed that is how Zhodani begins – very much in conformity with the CT Alien Module, although pretty soon, it begins to veer off in surprising and unexpected directions. So the reader gets the best of both worlds. So, if you are a fanatic in either camp of the OTU divide – undoubtedly you will not like this book, or me.

The book begins, like all Mongoose Traveller Alien Modules, with the elaborate chargen that Mongoose proposes. Nice and thought-through rules are applied. Then comes in a history. And, for those who do not know – the Zhodani were the main baddies in the earliest incarnation of Traveller. Portrayed as tall, bearded turban wearing mind rippers (masters of psionics) – looking like a cross between Ming the Merciless and the images of Iranians from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 flooding in on American television during that turbulent era. The appearance of a race looking like a devil and America’s enemies; combined with the short form being Zhos rhyming with Sov(iet)s firmly planted the idea that the Zhodani were Evil Empire of the North/Coreward counterpoised with the kind and gentle Imperium – which the major of adventures in the 1970s would act as a foil. By all the indications, were that the Zhodani were on the course of being the men in the black hat. Now, Ladies and Gents, Traveller is never clear cut, even though it is a Space Opera; things are not Black or White but multiple shades of Grey and things are not always what they seem, my young padawan. And, Traveller even elaborated this as the theory of: “wheels within wheels”. So, suddenly in the CT Alien module, once you learn the history of the Zhodani – you learn that they are not the bad guys after all – just humans with a fundamentally different way of life. Mongoose Traveller continues this tradition. More importantly, it is written by someone who gave very careful thought in crafting the Zhodani that it almost reads like extended Campaign Notes making them believable and enjoyable. It also gives new insights and ideas for the Zhodani that help explain some of their history in a more credible way. Plus, there is an injection of healthy realism (well, at least for a RPG). I found the revised history more compelling than the original CT Alien Module. A nice feature that also is present in some Mongoose Alien Modules is the different archetypes that can stand-in for portraying the different alien races. So it makes easier for a Referee to decide how to incorporate the Zhodani as NPCs.

Rounding things out is there is a significant portion devoted to Zhodani starships – as beautifully illustrated as those in the main rulebook with their attendant deck plans. Because, I have always liked the way Zhodani ships look – I loved this section. It brought back old and new ships and updated them for Mongoose’s shipbuilding rules. While on the topic of art, this book ranges from the Very Good to the Excellent. However, I must qualify the Very Good, in that there is nothing wrong with this art, it harkens back to earlier time of Traveller drawing in which many things resemble sketches not fully realized pieces of art. And, then we have beautifully rendered pencils that one can see in the preview and also in the ships. So, when these pieces are side-by-side – why didn’t Mongoose make everything Excellent? As they did for the most part in Darrians, therefore, one is left with a bit of disappointment but because the quality of the pieces remains Very Good and entirely consistent with past editions of Traveller – I am not complaining but curious.

Are there things that are wrong or bad about the product without nitpicking on things like the editors choice of laying out the different chapters? Not a lot. I did find that I would have liked to see more of the Zhodani Core Expeditions that were wonderfully profiled in the fanzine Security Leak (www.securityleak.com) or much of what was interesting in the GT Alien Module was not incorporated in. That said, Don clearly drew upon his extensive resources of different isolated sources and created a truly wonderful unified document. I saw many references and tracings to very obscure references – clarifying and improving upon the original by bringing it together. Wanting to have more, I think is better feeling than going away with everything wrapped up. For it allows the Referee to have a chance to answer some of those mysteries and/or the game company to produce a new supplement to address those point interests. For as I said, it read like someone’s Campaign Notes.

What was especially notable about this volume – was the Sector profile. All too often when an Alien Sector is portrayed in Traveller as not really jiving with had been written in the history. I am happy to report that the Sector profiled () is completely in line with the history – providing a fascinating insight how a different way of life can have a myriad of polities – resembling different facets of a precious stone. Although, this product is firmly entrenched the OTU, one could conceivably use it as a generic sourcebook stealing ideas for one’s home grown TU but is no means a sandbox – or it is the sandbox that is the OTU. Notwithstanding, if you are an OTU enthusiast, then you will certainly find that you will get your money’s worth; however, it does begin slow and is very reminiscent of the CT Alien Module then as it picks up pace, it gathers new concepts and ideas fuelling even greater creativity. Till that you are left with the feeling – what if Starfleet was dominated by Vulcans instead of humans – this is what Zhodani Space must be like. However, if you want to play them as bearded villains in turbans there might be some surprises for players as they go further into Zhodani Space.