First and foremost, allow me to thank the publisher Paul Ellot of Zozer Games for gifting me a copy of a PDF for the purposes of this review.
Finally, a Traveller Hard SF supplement that in a Near Earth/Traveller Now/Modern Traveller milieu and does an excellent job in making the Red Planet a great place for adventure. The TL is 9 with no great breakthrough in either gravitics or jump drive – it is just what I have always wanted to see for Traveller and thought of writing something myself. Further, with no Transhumanism to muck up the waters.
However, Paul Elliot has beaten me to the punch and done an excellent job in highlighting humanity’s probable next destination in the Solar System after the full scale exploitation of the Moon has commenced. The premise of the game/sourcebook is that players are scientists working for the United Nations Space Coordination Office (why the author did not choose a real agency like United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, I am not sure although, I could have equally accepted a nod to the Grand Old Game’s UNSCA) exploring and exploiting the Red Planet for the good of us al. Nonetheless, underneath the surface, players are more than international civil servants they each have strong drives and motivations that run sometimes counter to each other and the United Nations’ neutral status. Those drives and motivations are in part national (although, that is not fully explored because the geopolitical landscape is constantly changing) but more to do with which future is best for Mars. These different drives and motivations play out in the missions that they are set out to accomplish before players naturally come into identifying with the character and thus the party to an extent goes rogue from the UN’s agenda or are completely in sync with it and must hunt down the rogue elements. This creates a perfect vibe that mixes Outland with Star Cops with Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. And, as Mars seems to be very topical – there is plenty of source material that can be adapted into it. There is a fair bit of science contained within this supplement but the Referee is encouraged to use it as a toolbox (pick and choose) the right instrument for the job at hand rather than get bogged down in the science.
As it is set in the near future, there is no immediate danger of technological breakthroughs that would alter the game rather technology is projected along a natural curve. The analogy the author uses that he uses respirator developed in the 1940s, although, design and capacities have changed the basic technology remains the same. Thus, it is possible to reuse many of the things we know in 2012 in 2040 (the present for Outpost Mars). But, Traveller has always been about shotguns in space (or more accurately, less lethal weapons, as they can do rather nasty damage to anyone in a Vacc Suit or spaceship hull) than lightsabers and portable disintegrators. Missing however from the equipment list a detailed discussion on how the technology would work. For instance, let us take the sealed monorails that could zip across the planet like railroads of old. Where would they get the air supply that would make them incredibly bulky and not very efficient. Or what would be the effects of sandstorms on dirigibles? So, this is not crystal Hard SF but harder than standard Traveller because of its recognisable technology but still relies upon some handwavium. However, the weakest section is perhaps the one that offers the most potential as the great enigma to set the campaign around – those of xenoarchaeology. Simply reproducing the comments on RPG.net (no disrespect made to those people but at least give them the role of NPCs rather than real people and just list that in the credits) about possible life and explanations for the Face of Cydonia made the production look amateurish as opposed to the rest of the production was really first rate. It would have been better to highlight some of the conspiracy theories surrounding it than some of the explanations. So, I hope this can get edited out of the printed version and a distillation of the ideas to be shared.
Those quirks aside this is an excellent Hard SF resource for the Red Planet – sections in which might have otherwise seemed dry and uninteresting suddenly comes alive on a wide variety of topics ranging from atmospheric analysis to topographical analysis to climate. Even for an astronomy buff, like myself, I learned lots of new things.
Furthermore, the gamey bits like chargen are handled very well, with just a few base careers and then the potential to add on more. And, the nice thing mechanic that was once established in a JTAS article long ago and one that I have used frequently – player’s do not muster out. There is only one career but three branches to choose from. It is hoped that future supplement or the deadtree version might address the modification of existing Traveller careers to the milieu and add the dimension of nationality which might be used as an extra skills table or just flavor. Moving along it provides a nice mechanic called motivation in which player goals, allying one’s self with a particular group which forms the core alignment of the character and their relationships with others in the group.
Next up is the Referee’s section of Running Mars, essentially, what characters do, a guide to how to create missions, and the complications that might arise. Some samples adventure seeds are here as they are also littered throughout the whole book.
Following that is the somewhat adversary relationship that the UNSCO has with potential rivalries – national militaries….which are trying to put their nation first and extend classical Imperialism to the next higher level beyond the Earth itself. However, the relationship like all relationships need not be adversarial but mutual beneficial.
Books and movies round out the conclusion – what print and celluloid products can be integrated into Outpost Mars. I would have liked to see more but I recognize that everyone has their own future.
The art while is phenomenal is unfortunately taken from one source – NASA public domain art thus giving an overly US-centric point of view another thing that can be hopefully corrected once this nears completion as a print product. There must be tons of international artists who have their work in the public domain that would love to get additional exposure that one can use.
However, my biggest beef and my greatest criticism – is that the reader is left wanting more. So, here is question will Paul Eliott will continue us on a journey of the Grand Tour of the Solar System taking us beyond Mars to the Belt to Titan and to Venus and the other bodies of the Solar System…as he has quenched a temporary thirst but one hungers for more. For this excellent work has to continue, it exists only in drips and drabs, whether it be scant and tantalizing details of the settlements or even how we got there. What changed from the Great Recession into investing into the Space Program?
I guess, I am hungering for what I want to see is Traveller set in a technothriller present. I would gladly collaborate on such a project. I eagerly await the dead tree copy and hope that it is not too late to incorporate some of these positive criticisms. However, as one can see in spite of these criticism, that I find it a brilliant piece of work and hope the author can make good use of the suggestions. So keep up the excellent work and I cannot wait to see more expansions for this branch of the Traveller tree.