This is primarily a roleplaying-focused campaign can be based on this article. All the violence of this adventure is concentrated at the very end of this campaign.
(Many Referees have PC adventure groups who are just here for the terrifying, heart-pounding endgame: these Referees should zoom past most of this article as a one-session set-up, and stretch out the Into the Fire section for as many sessions as needed for Maximum Excitement. Proper prepping will be needed: mapping out the last bit with floorplans for the starships, detailed fighting forces, rolling up squad leaders, deciding what passengers and cargo are not what they appear to be, etc.)
You have an interesting core mystery here, which is left for the PCs to discover and solve: Wealthy people, citizens of an increasingly mighty and influential world, looking for ways to leave their powerful homeworld. (Or, to biggie-size it, their expanding and ascending interstellar empire.)
The decision to go is often a mix of push and pull. The elite are discovering that they can buy a comfortable lifestyle at surprisingly affordable prices in places such as [less populous world with better environments], while no amount of money can purchase an escape in [high-pop, heavily-polluted industrial world] from the immense problems afflicting its urban society: pollution, food safety, a broken education system.
Another aspect of this massive population outflow hasn’t yet drawn much attention. Whatever their motives and wherever they go, those who depart will be shadowed by the organs of the [authoritarian] state they’ve left behind. A sprawling bureaucracy […] exists to ensure that distance from the motherland doesn’t dull their patriotism. Its goal is to safeguard loyalty to the [powerful world/expanding empire.]
So, you get successful folks from a powerful-yet-autocratic world/empire, who prefer to escape rather than stay where they made their money. And then you get the powerful world/empire, who actually spent the money, time, and energy to chase down these folk and make sure that they still remain loyal to the homeworld/empire.
In Traveller, I can imagine the Vilani worlds doing this, with their love of Universal Conformity. But they never seem to have had much of a talent with Hidden Hand/Secret Society stunts, preferring to go the Crushing Bureaucracy route to keep power in Trustworthy Hands.
Now, Mystery One is this: wealthy people leaving the world/empire where they made their money, because of widespread pollution (if just one world) and the lack of the rule-of-law (this reason works for both one world, or an empire).
Mystery Two is this: the young people are more supportive and willing to support the government than the older folks are. PC’s tend to make assumptions: it’s the Referee’s job to teach the PCs to focus on what’s in front of their nose, and not on stereotypes.
Mystery Three: the government – if it wants to protect itself – is actually correct to keep a close eye on the expatriates. It is the people who leave and learn new ideas, who are the greatest threat to the autocrats. AND, it is these people who are the greatest benefit to the autocrats: if they support the rulers, then they are a valuable source of money and technology, that can be leveraged to support the homeworld/home empire.
Mystery Four: this is an autocratic government, but not an incompetent one. People really are permitted to leave, with (much of) their money; and – to a certain extent – controlled dissidence really is permitted. “Authoritarian yes, Totalitarian no.”
Mystery Five: It is certainly possible for a reasonably intelligent autocracy – with a firm grip on education and the media – to build genuine popular support from the majority of their population. Even the people leaving the autocratic homeworld/empire still want their nation and people to succeed; and many are quite nationalistic/pro-empire… even as they keep their passports up-to-date.
Now, how would all this affect a crew of a regular liner, between the capital of the expanding empire and one of the preferred re-settlement worlds?
- The passengers are generally quite wealthy, and able to pay in full for the journey.
- It’s easy to assume that all the people who are leaving hate their government. This assumption would be wrong – and the younger the passenger, the more incorrect they would be.
- There is a strange mismatch between the money made, and the (lack of) power of the passengers. In most Imperial societies, it’s the men with the money who make the rules. (Even in Solomani cultures, this is true – once you pass the blood-purity test.) This is fundamentally NOT TRUE in the powerful world/empire in question: anyone with money almost certainly broke some law to get it, had to pay some bribe at one time or other, thus insuring that the money they made can always be taken away at any time by the autocrats in the name of [whatever].
[The righteous response is to insist on a limited set of clear laws that everyone can understand, and a clean bureaucracy with limited authority and lots of public oversight. The mysterious lack of such legal transparency may be a temporary thing as the mighty world/empire matures, or a permanent tool of extralegal intimidation & power. The PCs are in a good place to see how things work out – but they must be careful, or they may well be bitten during the process.]
- The PCs will be well-advised: if they try to fight the autocracy on its home soil, they will lose. The locals do not take kindly to outsiders trying to spark internal divisions or strife. (And the local culture is really good at covert information gathering.) Long prison terms or unfortunate accidents are definitely in the cards.
- If the PCs keep their nose clean, and just focus on providing good, reliable service, they have the chance to make a good number of profitable runs. Eventually, there will be competitors… but initially, they will be hobbled by their own corruption. (Paying bribes to the ship inspectors works out fine, until the moment they decide to Not Notice a problem that leads directly to the ship exploding with all hands. “Bribery has consequences.”)
- This is a great time for the PCs to get complacent… but 20% or so of the competitors will actually get serious. They will carefully watch how the foreigners (like the PCs) do it, and carefully imitate them. Unlike the foreigner PCs, the top-tier competitors will get support from their increasingly powerful autocratic homeworld/empire.
Now, if the setting limits the autocracy to one high-pop system, then the PCs will start to feel the squeeze… but it isn’t too hard to just cut their losses, and move on to another world.
If the autocracy is an interstellar empire, then the losses of abandoning the customers will be higher, and more difficult to replace. The temptation to join with a 50/50 partnership with a connected local will be greater, or just sell out for a pretty penny to a local with a remarkable amount of official support. It will be up to the autocrats if they want to completely drive out the PCs, tolerate their continued presence, or make them useful in some way…
Heating Things Up
All of the above assumes that the PCs are just plain Outsiders, without any nationalistic skin in the game.
If the PCs are citizens of a nation/world/empire that is an actual competitor to the local autocracy, then the political undertones and hidden rip-currents start to kick into play.
- The better the relations between the autocracy and the PCs government, the better life is for the PCs. And the contrary is true: whenever the local autocracy has a beef with the PCs home government, the PCs will feel some of the heat too – even if they had kept their head down and their nose clean.
- The home government may well ask the PCs to give a patriotic hand, in operations against the autocracy. The autocracy is really, really good at sniffing such things out, and the PCs will be quite fortunate to get out alive.
- If things start to get more and more heated between the PCs home and the autocracy (where the PCs make all that delicious money), then the PCs may well be forced to walk on a tightrope. While the wind starts to blow, harder and harder… even as the paychecks for making things work out gets more and more eye-popping in size.
Into the Fire
Again, assuming the PCs (and their ship) bears the citizenship of a government the autocracy sees as a competitor/threat:
Scenario One: The PCs carry the wrong sort of passenger. If caught in autocratic-ruled territory, they have to give him up. If they make it to home territory, they don’t. But if there is a grey area, you start playing the numbers, and carefully watching the starport techies as they inspect the ship electronics and weaponry for ‘proper compliance with regulations’. And if they are caught on a world that is friendly to the autocracy…
Scenario Two: The PCs – who simply refuse to give up all that yummy, yummy money – are the very last link between their home empire and the autocratic empire, as interstellar warfare becomes more and more likely. For a while, this turns the PC’s starship into a spy-infested Vienna or Berlin or Casablanca, where all sorts of dissidents, agents, diplomats, gun-runners, guerrilla leaders, and military types gather, make deals… and resolve their differences.
Finale: Eventually, someone, somewhere, decides to make the PC and their ship a useful pretext to start crossing lines and launching missiles. If it’s the PCs home government, they and their ship will probably survive, but they will have to adjust to losing all that money. If it’s the autocracy, survival is rather unlikely: even if the PCs survive, they are likely to be prisoners of war for a long time (or become part of an exciting break-out via the special forces of their home government.)
If both governments decide to fight it out at the same time to see who get’s the PCs, their ship, passengers, and cargo… well, I always wanted to see what the PCs would do if two (or more!) competing armed parties boarded the same ship at the same time. (Or some of the passengers turn out to be a third (fourth?) ‘boarding party’…)
In the meantime, the battle rages all around them: who will be the victor? And do the PCs really want to stick around and find out? If they run, where can they hide?
And what happens if their home government wins? If there’s a bloody tie? If the autocracy wins? Or a greater power – like the Third Imperium, say, or another Third Force who decides to seize the moment – brings down the hammer on everyone?