Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Traveller Sandbox: My Thoughts on Patron Encounter Design...

Good Afternoon, All:

Today, I'd like to talk a little bit about my thoughts on Patron Encounter design for Traveller. I practice these myself in the materials that I publish, and I have had good feedback on my patron encounter write-ups, even when I used them in the Hammersong's Legacy fantasy campaign setting for Swords & Wizardry.

If you are not familiar with patron encounters, these are a common way of capturing the beginning of an open-ended adventure idea in older Traveller products. Each one describes a basic mission or goal, as presented by a patron (aka the guy that hires you). It then offers you a list of up to six different options about how it could play out. These options provide inspiration, re-usability and options. If you can't decide on a particular option, then you can roll a d6 and choose one. Per the Traveller System Reference Document, each patron encounter write-up should list:

  • The patron’s name and role.
  • The skills and resources required to complete the mission.
  • The suggested reward for the mission.
  • The mission as described to the characters.
  • What’s really going on. Several possible variants will be presented – either pick or roll for which is the real situation.

For example:

Jefri haut-Oschem, Planetologist
Required: Life Sciences, Survival; Spacecraft
Reward: Cr. 2,000/day plus expenses.

Players' Information
His Excellency haut-Oschem is a respected Planetologist, specialising in worlds that are nearly habitable. A planet might be a little too cold, or too dry, or be infested with a lethal native species. Haut-Oschem’s genius is in making tiny changes to a planet’s ecosystem or climate. All too often, a change can ripple out through the complex balances of a planetary environment and have unforeseen consequences.
Haut-Oschem requires a spacecraft and a crew trained in the sciences for a brief period of research – no more than a few weeks, possibly a month or two. While haut-Oschem has worked with the Scout Service in the past, this mission is entirely under the aegis of private research. The ship will be visiting worlds outside settled space.

Referee's Information
Any character with contacts in the Scout service can find out that haut-Oschem has quarreled with the Survey section, and that his once-stellar career has dark clouds hanging over it. Something has gone wrong…

1. Haut-Oschem has been replaced in the eyes of the Scout service by a younger researcher, Harad Leish. Old haut-Oschem wants to prove that his theories and methodologies are still valid. Leish and a laboratory ship from the Scout Service are currently surveying a jungle world inhabited by numerous hostile species. To prove his worth, haut-Oschem needs to find a way for humans to live safely on the world before the Scout service do.
2. As above, but haut-Oschem is bitter, and his real plan is to sabotage Leish’s survey team.
3. Haut-Oschem has discovered that he made a terrible mistake at the start of his career. He approved the settlement of a world before he fully understood the ecosystem. Every few centuries, a species of carnivorous locusts hatches in vast swarms and devours everything in their path. The characters need to find a way to stop the insects from hatching.
4. As above, but haut-Oschem wants to preserve his reputation above all else. The characters need to stop the insects without revealing what they’re doing to the settlers.
5. Haut-Oschem discovered something very valuable on his most recent survey, such as a massive deposit of precious metals or alien technology. He wants the characters to help him recover it.
6. As above, but haut-Oschem is in a race with the Scout service. He’s not the only one to have read between the lines in his latest survey.

Let's talk about each component in turn.

Patron's Name and Role
This is an excellent opportunity to capture some of the background flavor for your setting. The name and role should include something that empowers further investment in the setting.

Required Skills and Resources
This is pretty self-explanatory. Choose at least two different skills that you know will be used to resolve the matter, and list those here. Not all patron encounters should require a ship, but if so, list that here.

Suggested Reward
In general, I try to use a month's Standard of Living expenses (found on Traveller core rulebook, pg 87) or the monthly salary of a position (found on Traveller core rulebook, pg 137) as the basis for my suggested rewards. If the mission is of short-duration, I halve that base value. If the mission is dangerous, I double the base value. If the mission is extremely dangerous, I use five times the base value. That way, things don't get too far out of hand. If the players try to get more, the patron makes them cover expenses. Sometimes the patron offers alternate services or non-monetary rewards, depending on his position.

Players' Information
This is the basic layout of the mission. Essentially, in a five-act story arc, this would encompass the first arc, which I've called The Hook in my One Shot Adventure Creation series, when the offer is extended to the player-characters. If the party chooses to accept it, then the Referee dives into the Referee's Information for further adventure development. If not, then the Referee moves on and offers them their next opportunity or encounter. This section shouldn't be less than three sentences, and typically no more than seven sentences in length.

Referee's Information
This section lays out the basics for developing an adventure that fits the mission described above. This should include notes on supporting data, opposition, challenges, potential locations, etc. This section shouldn't be less than three sentences, and typically no more than seven sentences in length.

Notice that, in the example above, there are six distinct options. In past Traveller products, you might see an option taking up two or even three spaces in the d6 roll. I personally think that's a cop-out for a lack of creativity, and it induces bias should you attempt to select an option randomly. In my opinion, every patron encounter write-up should have six distinct options. Anything less, and such a write-up isn't meeting the needs of Referees as well as it possibly could.

Generally speaking, one of the options should be that the situation is exactly as it is described. The other five often involve complications or plot twists that change the story up from that which was described to the player-characters. Common alternatives include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • A third party has an interest in the events that opposes the party's goal.
  • A third party has an interest in the patron and attempts to subvert the player-characters into pursuing a new goal related to the original patron.
  • In the case of a rescue mission, the target doesn't want to leave and must be taken by force.
  • The entire situation as presented is a lie to set up the party to take the fall for another crime.
  • The patron is really the bad guy.
  • The target of the mission is more dangerous than it was originally portrayed.
  • There's one or more significant challenges that the party is initially unaware of, usually of a legal or physical variety.
  • This scenario may be a combination of two or more of the above.

Hopefully, the notes I've provided above should help you in writing your own Patron Encounters for your campaigns (or even for your own future publications, should you be so inclined.) Even if you don't use them, I hope that you've at least considered the points I've offered, in the hopes that it helps round out your own skills in this arena. In the next few posts, I'll provide some examples based in the Beta Quadrant, to show you different ways that you can work to present some of your setting material within the context of these small adventure scenarios.


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