July 26, 2023 review traveller scifi

Prison Planet Review

Prison Planet is an adventure for Classic Traveller, first published in 1982 and credited to Erik Wilson, Dave Emigh, John Harshman, Chris Purcell and Rose Geier.

Something very striking about the early Traveller adventures is the total lack of uniformity. Many are nearly totally unrecognisable to the modern concept of an adventure whilst others prefigure some of the forms that became dominant later on - such as Adventure 09: Nomads of the World Ocean, released 1983 and being heavily plotted with many highly characterised NPCs. Adventure 08: Prison Planet is definitely the former.

The premise is extremely simple - the player characters, for whatever reason, have been sent to space-prison to mine radioactive ore. The simplicity of this is great - it can be introduced mid-campaign as a consequence for player actions, or a killer way to open a campaign. The rest of the book is dedicated to delivering the premise of a prison complex, detailing almost everything you need to run the prison and any attempts to escape it. There’s a map of the facility, most of which is underground due to the air being tainted - requiring a filter mask to move around outside. You’re also provided with a comprehensive breakdown of the prisoners and guards present - quickly revealing a significant disparity in numbers. One thing the module consistently does well is set up these clues and routes to escape without excitedly pointing at them - leaving it up to you (the referee) as much as the players to discover these wrinkles. Another of these is present on the map - a huge tank of spaceship fuel is kept right next to the laser-turret which guards the facility. There’s a number of these tantalising nuggets spread around - doubtless me and my players missed several. This stance towards the players and readers is extremely refreshing: throughout, the simple facts of the situation are presented without elaboration or knowing winks and nudges - with one glaring exception, discussed below.

Much of the actual play of the module is driven by a pair of tables, which specify Events and Encounters which occur to each work-group of PCs on a weekly basis. To add to the feel of a long-term incarceration, the speed of play zooms out’ to a weekly procedure wherein a couple of major occurrences happen, either globally or to that specific group. In play, this set up a push-and-pull between the proactive, player-led action and the reactive play of the Events and Encounters. Most of these require a little work to introduce organically, but once done a few times you quickly get to feel for it. I pre-rolled these before each session so I knew what was coming week-to-week. This speed up play and gave me more time to blend the events and encounters into the game.

One of the entries on the Event table - Incident - is one of the few missteps in the module. Rather than being a conventional, generic Event, the Incidents are a track of specified vignettes which happen sequentially - adding a degree of planned narrative. Th earlier entries are very heavy-handed tutorialising which felt extremely unnecessary, hammering home basic ideas like hiding contraband or bribing guards. The bulk are fine, and introduce some interesting aspects which could’ve been handled using the Events and Rumours before culminating in an escape-attempt-on-a-plate. This is disappointing considering the wonderful lack of interest in seeing PCs escape presented elsewhere in the module. In play I scrapped this listing of Incidents and instead used it as a faction turn’ for the gang in the PCs cellblock demanding things from them.

The NPCs are a highlight of the work being done for you by this module: 60 prisoners and 18 guards. All of these individuals have been assigned work areas and cellblocks, although indexing them as such would’ve been very useful. There’s a few prisoners with little going on, although almost all have at least one interesting wrinkle or alliance which makes them compelling in play without being difficult to use. Many of them having access to some rumours adds an easy way to track their knowledge, although using numbers to refer to each rumour means a look-up is required. Having a PDF open multiple times makes this easier; if I was running this in-person, I would definitely have printed out a copy of the Rumour pages. The Rumours once again have an interesting stance: specifically called out as being contradictory and occasionally false, there is no guide to which are true or false. This reasserts the module as disinterested in success or failure - only a statement of fact.

Once the players escape the prison facility itself, they have to tangle with the terrible conditions on the planet: unbreathable air, killing heat, and the occasional carnivorous animal stalking them in the wilderness. The Referee is given a hexmap of the planet (each hex being 540 kilometres) and a set of encounter tables for each type of terrain. Given each hex takes between 5 and 20 days to traverse, this seems like it would be a desperate experience for any escapees. I’m speaking hypothetically here as my players stole an ATV from the prison after setting the nuclear reactor on-site to explode, destroying the entire facility. In an ATV, it’s a mere 3 day drive to the only known settlement on-planet, Circle City. Whilst this originally would have required some exploration, the encounter dice favoured them: they met a band of geologists and claimed their navigational computer was broken.

Circle City itself feels a bit under-developed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if this was due to a lack of space: 64 pages is commonly accepted as an upper bound for staple-bound books, which Prison Planet runs right up against. These is enough here to riff off of, although I would’ve liked there to be more - especially with some of the possible escape routes involving a trip to the hospital in the city for those too injured (or appearing too injured) for the meagre infirmary of the prison itself. You could definitely use the existing Traveller encounter procedures in Book 3 to run this section. That said, extrapolation from minimal detail is part of the joy of running Traveller - entire worlds invented from a quick string of numbers.

Running this module is an absolute blast, and reading it is deeply interesting: offering a vision of adventure-modules as a collection of physical spaces and tool for running them rather than the modern conception of space-alone (dungeons etc.) or the heavily plotted adventure-path style Trad adventures. There’s definitely improvements that could be made - marking the cameras on the map, details of where the power for the prison comes from - although these mostly are to save the referee work when the players ask. As is often the case with these Traveller adventures, you can use this a few different ways too: the fully-mapped out nature of the prison means you have everything you need to break someone else out of the facility too. This seems to be a guiding principle in these adventures which I’ve not seen elsewhere outside of Mothership.

BONUS: Play Report/Summary

Immediately after arriving, one of the PCs talked back to the warden and got beaten by the guards and assigned to the Danger Zone - the most dangerous part of the mine. They met their cellblock-mates (including the de-facto leader, head of a gang) and started a fight with the biggest, meanest looking prisoner in there. After the guards broke it up, one of the PCs immediately snitched without thinking.

After making such a good impression, they began settling in to prison life. Some of them got assigned to the machine-shop (wherein one PC got degloved and spent the rest of their stay in the infirmary, thanks to a random Event) whilst most toiled in the Danger Zone - where there was the least oversight. One PC, who deliberately wrote provocative letters about wealth-management and cooked books was dragged upstairs by the vice-warden to assist in a coup against the inept incumbent warden. Another worked in the infirmary, and assisted the prison doctor in cutting drugs to sell to the prison population.

The gang leader of their cellblock was spurred to demand a sign from the group that they were on his side” - the murder of a guard. This took a few sessions to set-up, and involved borrowing money in prison for a bribe, but they eventually killed their man and hid his gun and equipment. Due to some unfortunate rolls, this gun was found by another prisoner they’d met previously, who insisted upon a dragon dwelling within the mine and hungering for souls.

They discovered a few possible escape routes. The first, a cave which led to the surface (they deduced due to the presence of cave-bats) but also contained a giant horrible lizard which tried to eat them. The other was a collapsed elevator shaft which could have been carefully excavated slowly to dig a way out of the mines. The PC in the machine-shop built a way to disrupt the radio-comms after repairing a few broken guard radios, hiding this jammer in their person effects. All of this planning was thrown out of the window when the prison who stole their stashed SMG opened fire on the guards during a random search. The PCs led the population to kill the guards on their floor, stealing their guns and equipment. Then they jammed the comms and piled into the elevator, dressed as guards. From here they took over the prison, set the reactor to explode and escaped in an ATV, leaving nothing but a glowing crater. They did all this in 10 weeks in-game.

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