The classic Traveller game I started on Roll20 during the height of the pandemic morphed by degrees into something different, a kind of counter-Traveller, a funhouse-mirror Traveller that takes as its point of departure the same basic premise–you’ve spent your life so far in service to some galactic guild or other, gotten yourself to the other side of those years of obligation, and now have to find something to do with your life–and the same basic character creation process and output–enlistment, promotion, and survival rolls before eventually “mustering out,” leading to characters with stats, skills, and some possessions far from home. But the procedures of play diverge from Traveller quite dramatically. The way I explain it to myself is that Traveller is canonical while this game is oracular–in the former, when you don’t know an answer, you look it up in the library data; in the latter, you consult the dice. We do it a lot in play: Player: “Could just piloting away from the hyperspace harpies without collapsing our space/time bubble avoid them?” GM: “Gosh. I don’t know if that’s even possible. What a good question! [click button to roll] ‘Yes, indeed!’ Roll Space Pilot.” Like a Magic 8-Ball. Sometimes I’ll decide–or someone will suggest–that we “need a table,” and then we make one. People throw out possibilities, I add them to the list, and when we get five or six, I tell someone to roll a d6. That’s how you get hyperspace harpies in the first place. Complication with the navigation roll? What could it be? We need a table! It’s… 1 a giant space dragon; 2 little space dragons; 3 hyperspace harpies; 4 space pirates; 5 our ship breaks down; 6 their ship breaks down.
This approach is the metastasized version of that old gag from Traveller patron encounters where the initial situation would be provided and then the referee would be told to roll a d6, with some results saying, “Circumstances are as they have been represented,” and others telling you, “Yeah, there’s a twist,” or even “The patron is worried about nothing. This job is basically free money.”
Since we only play two-hour sessions, I adopted a technique that my brother and I had been playing around with as a means of low-prep adventure design, essentially asking a series of pointed questions to which players respond as a way of developing an initial situation. I’ve seen John Wick talk about a “dirty dungeon” technique that’s related, but essentially it’s just what some people call “the Mountain Witch trick” (asking questions that put characters in the middle of things) turned into procedure.
One PC is the lead player for the session, and gets to choose the adventure seed from the stack of titles on the tabletop; typically, they’ll ask about two or three seeds based on the titles and then choose the one with the pitch that interests them the most. “What’s Meet Me in the Pit? What’s Scavengers in Space?” I read the pitch:
Meet Me In the Pit: “You have become embroiled in a high-stakes gladiatorial tournament on this planet.”
Scavengers In Space: “You enter a region where scavenging bands of interstellar nomads are known to ply the space lanes preying upon vulnerable ships for valuable cargo and parts.”
The trick is of course to write good questions. One adventure seed that worked out pretty well was Guess What You’ve Won, which had two PCs starting the adventure on a (randomly chosen) world called Terre:
|Data Point 1||a busy space port|
|Data Point 2||a wealthy merchant|
|Data Point 3||officious bureaucrats|
|Alien Vistas||A space elevator where each car is a luxurious manse…|
|Strange Customs||…whose proprietor strives to outdo the others in terms of luxury and opulence.|
The questions I asked the players were:
- 1. TO THE LEAD PLAYER Why do you feel deserving of, entitled to, or in need of this prize?
- 2. What unusual obligation falls upon the claimant, and how does that obligation reflect the culture, traditions, or history of this planet?
- 3. What unique property makes the prize of particular interest to you?
- 4. Who else seeks to claim the prize, and what steps have they taken to discourage their rivals?
- 5. Who is responsible for certifying the eligibility of claimants, and where do their sympathies lie?
Their responses produced a situation where cultural snobbery and legalistic wrangling eventually drove one PC to forgery and covert murder to gain title to the space elevator manse holding the mcguffin, the “Ixiosuasive Seal,” which was an ancient transdimensional artifact I’d introduced way back when we were still playing Traveller; the lead player thought it made sense to bring it back in this context, since he had ironically just brought an old character who’d dealt with the Seal out of retirement.
So maybe I just got lucky with that game. I’ve found I really have to be on the ball as I listen to the PCs to make the subsequent situation pop in an engaging way, but really so do the players as they give their answers. I am still trying to figure out the most useful rules of thumb for writing adventure seed questions. Here’s what I ‘ve got so far:
- Enlist the lead PC through their ambition
- Get other PCs to commit to supporting or challenging the lead PC
- Get them to establish the biggest problem they’re facing
- Get them to close off easy solutions
- Allow them to introduce angles or opportunities for themselves
I feel like this is a pretty rich vein to tap, so I’m going to be paying attention to what sorts of question sets produce the best outcomes, and what exactly happens at the moment when the questions are all answered and it’s time to throw things back at the PCs so they can start taking action.