Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Secrets of the Ancients

In 1984 I left school and started university. I had discovered roleplaying three years earlier, seduced by an advert for Traveller in (if I remember right) Starburst magazine.

I was a science fiction fan, which is why I was drawn to Traveller. And what I really liked about SF were the aliens, particularly enigmatic long-dead aliens who would leave behind grand structures and other mysterious traces of their advanced civilisations for us to stumble across.

My favourite books were Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Arther C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, and Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang. My favourite thing in Alien is the space-jockey. I loved the sense of wonder and mystery. I still do: as I write this I am re-reading Peter F Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star - more enigmatic aliens with their grand structures.

So I loved Traveller’s Ancients. I thought Twilight’s Peak was amazing, although I don’t think I ever ran it. I loved the hints about the Ancients that appeared here and there through the background material. I wanted to know more.

Looking back, Traveller, for me, was about the Ancients.

I don’t remember much about how we played Traveller. I remember running Annic Nova (ooh, a mysterious alien ship), and I remember playing through Shadows (ooh, mysterious alien pyramids). But I don’t remember playing through many of the other adventures. I bought quite a few, but I don’t remember running them.

Although I loved Traveller, by 1984 I was moving away from it - I had discovered Call of Cthulhu.

Looking back on it, and with this in mind, I wonder now if Call of Cthulhu satisfied the sense of awe and wonder that Traveller wasn’t giving me. I’ve never found Call of Cthulhu particularly scary, and to me the Cthulhu mythos is often more SF than horror, full of ancient cities and enigmatic, technologically advanced aliens.

Which brings me to Secret of the Ancients. First published in 1984, it was a crushing disappointment to me for at least four reasons.

First, Secret of the Ancients was a bit of a let-down. That was perhaps inevitable, as it had been hyped for years. But even so, I wasn’t very inspired by Grandfather and his pocket universe.

Second, it felt if Marc Miller was shutting down the Ancients. It felt very final: the last Ancient  was tucked away in his pocket universe and that was that. No other Ancients anywhere. Period. So as a committed fan of the Ancients, I was never going to sign up to anything that ruled them out from the rest of the game.

Third, the adventure was such a railroad (although I probably didn’t call it that then). There are no interesting player decisions whatsoever.

Fourth, Secret of the Ancients reads more like a set of adventure notes rather than a published adventure. I know that the Traveller adventures were sparse, but Secret of the Ancients is ridiculous, particularly when compared to things like 1982’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or even 1983’s The Traveller Adventure.

Secret of the Ancients wasn’t quite the last Traveller book I bought, but it signalled the end of my days as a Traveller fanboy. I watched from the sidelines as MegaTraveller arrived and the Imperium was turned upside down. Not, from what I could see, for the better. (Although, to be honest, I didn’t look very hard.)

Time passed. I ran and played a lot of Call of Cthulhu. I ran Traveller 2300AD for a bit, I played in one of Dom Mooney’s Traveller games in the mid nineties, still one of my favourite tabletop experiences. I got some articles and scenarios published here and there. I published Tales of Terror. I got into freeform larps and even started Freeform Games, a business selling freeform larp-style murder mysteries to non-gamers.

At one point I thought writing a three-part Traveller freeform/scenario. If it was as good as the idea I had in my head, it would have been epic. It would start with a freeform, during which decisions would be made. Those decisions would then affect the next stage, a traditional tabletop roleplaying session (several games played simultaneously by the freeform players). This would then be followed by another freeform, dealing with the consequences of that tabletop scenario. My working title: Return of the Ancients… But it wasn’t to be; I never found the time.

Which brings me to Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients

While I’ve been looking elsewhere Traveller has carried on fine without me: GURPS, Mongoose, 5E… It’s fairly bewildering.

And while I’ve not been looking, Gareth Hanrahan has taken Marc Miller’s 1984 rough notes and turned them into an epic ten-part campaign brimming with wonder and awe and gives the Ancients the send off they deserve. It’s a reboot to be reckoned with.

Superficially, Secrets of the Ancients follows the same path as the original. A relative dies and leaves an inheritance to one of the player characters (I almost typed “investigator” there…) which leads to an Ancient ship deep in a gas giant and from there to Grandfather’s pocket universe.

But there the comparisons end.

Hanrahan’s adventure has more of pretty much everything:

  • More pages: The original was a 6x9 48 page booklet, the reboot 202 pages of A4.
  • More detail: Hanrahan’s version includes many non-player characters, ship plans, locations, and masses of adventuring detail. The reboot takes place over ten chapters, each taking two to four sessions to complete (according to the introduction at least).
  • More Ancients: As well as Grandfather, Hanrahan introduces Seven, one of Grandfather’s children hellbent on destroying him.
  • More secrets: Note the extra ‘s’.
  • More epicness: Seven (who isn’t your standard Droyne), augmented human agents of the Ancients, family archives, an epic trip through the pocket universe...
  • More Traveller: Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients even has time for nostalgia as at one point the adventurers end up in the Gaesh, the Kinunir class prison from 1979’s Adventure 1: The Kinunir. The Darrian star trigger (or one like it) even makes an appearance.

Hanrahan’s brilliant conceit can be broadly summed up in two words: Grandfather lied. The Ancients’ war isn’t over, but it’s now fought covertly, in the shadows. It’s a cold war, fought with augmented puppets.

In Secrets of the Ancients, the player characters become caught up in that war, as the cold war turns hot as Seven and Grandfather fight it out to the death. Only one will survive…

So there’s loads for me to like about the new Secrets of the Ancients. It pressed a lot of my buttons.

There are also a couple of things that could be improved. I found the adventure flow a bit clunky at times. It wasn’t always clear on a first read why the player characters would go to a particular location or visit a certain person. A few signposts would help, and the Ancient ship would have benefited from a diagram.

But these are quibbles. Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients is one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve read. In my opinion it’s up there with Masks of Nyarlathotep...

But then I am biased: after all, Traveller, for me, is about the Ancients.

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