Low-Prep Adventure Design
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue.
This is a technique to run a Traveller adventure with little, if any, referee prep. The basic process is to use a set of questions or dialog prompts at the start of a game session. The prompts are used via in-character discussion to set the scene for the adventure. The prompts can be adjusted to influence the type of adventure that eventually takes place. You can envision the characters having these discussions while in final approach to a planetary starport, while assembled in a safe house, while visiting the ubiquitous starport bar, or any other appropriate location. The process works well for characters who are already known to each other but can also work for newly assembled characters sharing information.
Every adventure starts on a particular planet. It may not stay there, but the adventure ends when the situation suggested by the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of the adventure is resolved. The next adventure begins on the next planet, with a new set of questions leading to a new situation. A referee might select the Lead-In based on the Universal World Profile of a particular planet, describe the planet based on the Lead-In, or generate a planet and select the Lead-In based on a discussion with the players.
To use one of these adventure lead-ins, the instructions to the players would sound something like this: “In order to establish our opening situation, we’ll use the questions listed here (or on index cards, etc.) as prompts for a discussion between characters. Each player should select one question for their character. The character then has a conversation with another character that answers the question.” Of note, this process is not a player to player discussion or group conversation. Instead, the goal is to see what answers emerge from the characters’ perspective. From those answers, the referee can create scenes to address the information that has emerged.
The Big Grab
- What big prize does this world hold for someone with enough moxie to grab it?
- Who’s the off-world big shot who’s come looking for the prize, and why do you hate them?
- Who is the sketchy local with an inside line on the prize, and how is he or she connected to you or one of your friends?
- Why do the citizens of this planet think the prize is perfectly safe?
- What rumor about the prize did you hear from someone in this planet’s government or the starport authority?
- What ill-conceived policy has the homeworld government just put into effect on this colony that is causing you a gigantic headache?
- Who is leading the opposition to this policy, and why do you admire them?
- Who will benefit from this policy, and what resources do they have at their command to bulldoze the opposition?
- What unforeseen difficulty has got you stuck here until well after the conflict is resolved?
- Who is about to be thrown into a buzzsaw because of the conflict, and why does your heart bleed for them?
- Why has no prisoner ever escaped this planet?
- What is the prison’s weak spot? How do we take advantage of the vulnerability?
- What deception is necessary for our plan to succeed?
- At what point is our plan most vulnerable?
- How will the guards react if we are discovered?
- What alien trade good is available here for a limited time? Why now?
- What do the aliens want in return? From where can we get it?
- What rumors have we heard about the aliens’ ability to protect themselves and that which they are offering?
- How is the alien item useful and dangerous to those who possess it?
- Which powerful merchant seeks to gain the alien item at any cost?
- Someone you know or know of has been murdered. Who was it?
- Who is the powerful enemy you share with the victim?
- Why are you likely to be the next victim?
- Why don’t you have an alibi for the time of the murder?
- Who now owns the debt you owe the murder victim?
- What rumors have we heard of this derelict vessel?
- Why would a derelict vessel remain unfound on this part of the planet?
- Who else searches for this vessel and what will they do to us if they find us here?
- What danger remains hidden in the derelict?
- What technology is critical to our survival on the derelict?
Alternatives and Development
Many other adventure lead-ins could be created, and many other questions are possible within even these sample lead-ins. Changing one or two questions can dramatically change the set-up for the adventure. For example, in “Prison Planet” change the first question to “Why have you not yet escaped from this planet?” and the adventure changes from a liberation mission to one of survival, evasion and escape. In “Salvage” a change from why the vessel has not yet been found on the planet to one asking why the derelict has not been found in a certain region of space similarly changes the adventure.
On a related note, the answers developed by the players (through their characters) are essential to shaping the adventure. Imagine an “Alien Bazaar” adventure where the aliens want human memories rather than credits or other material items. Obtaining the alien item, therefore, requires having the “best” memories, which, we’ll say, are life or death experiences. A large part of the adventure will center on achieving those memories. Furthermore, recognizing that the aliens deal in memory, we would build on that idea in the other lead-in questions by creating rumors of the aliens’ psychic powers and psionic benefits and risks for the item itself.
As a final note, in lead-in questions with multiple elements, letting a different character provide the answer to each element can add interesting and unique twists compared to when the same character answers both.
It is also the case that the referee can encourage players to use the information developed in the initial scene to identify actions they want their characters to take. Referees can then frame scenes in response to those actions.
The combination of answers seems incoherent.
My advice is to embrace the incoherence. It may not make sense at the time but as play develops things may fall into place. Listen for player explanations of how things do connect and incorporate those explanations in the fiction. Everything does not need to be explained at the start of play—or even by the end of play! The purpose of this technique is to “get to play”—to avoid long monologues from the Referee explaining what is going on.
Next steps are unclear.
Start somewhere! Pick one fact or piece of information that emerged from the initial character discussion and frame a scene based on that fact. Involve the player characters. For example, in “Colonial Shenanigans”, if the answer to why the characters are stuck on the planet is due to a naval blockade then the characters are approached by a blockade runner needing a distraction at the time a shipment arrives. The player characters could provide that distraction, wittingly or not. Alternatively, pick something that the character discussion identified as important to the player characters (an ally, an object, a location) and threaten it. Let the players then decide what they want to do about it. As an example, again in “Colonial Shenanigans”, if the characters learn that the opposition leader they admire faces arrest and mindwipe, do the characters care enough to act?
One player has all the answers.
Watch for this! Intercede as the referee to make sure one player doesn’t dominate the discussions. The process should see each character using a single prompt to frame a discussion with another character about that prompt. While we certainly want players to be enthusiastic about the process, we also want to ensure everyone gets their turn in the spotlight.
An Adventure Lead-In process is not unique for use in Traveller. However, the process combined with (certainly Classic) Traveller’s planet generation rules, and other random generation tables enables the referee and players to put together a memorable adventure. The Referee doesn’t have to create adventure material that may or may not get used, or to shoe-horn the characters into material that does exist.
Editor’s note: I can say from direct personal experience in several games that Mel has run at TravellerCON/USA that this technique works, and works well.