The Pirates of Drinax

The Pirates of Drinax is up on the Bundle of Holding, and digging through my emails it’s about ten years since the project really kicked off, so let’s take a quick jump down memory lane.

The initial concept for the campaign wasn’t mine – Matthew Sprange of Mongoose loves the old Sid Meier pirates game, and wanted an adventure similar to that in space. That idea was kicked around long before Mongoose ever got the Traveller license. That concept got tangled up with the planet of Drinax, which was one of my favourite bits of the Aslan sourcebook. Drinax is part Flash Gordon, part last-days-of-Byzantium, part Foundation-and-Empire – the last outpost of a dying star empire. So, the idea of a pirate sandbox campaign where you could go where you wanted and do as you pleased got mixed in with the concept of this somewhat impractically grand scheme to restore the fortunes of a vanished kingdom. The Drinax plot line gives the player characters a reason to cultivate relationships with the planets they visit.

Drinax also gives the campaign King Oleb. He is, absolutely, Brian Blessed from Flash Gordon, and I suspect he’s a major reason the campaign resonates with players. He’s the first major NPC encountered, he’s immense fun for the GM to play, and he sets the larger-than-life space fantasy tone. Patrons characters can be tricky in games – if they’re too active and competent, the players quite reasonably ask why the patron isn’t more involved, especially in life-or-death situations. If they’re too passive, the players chafe at serving the apparently unworthy. King OIeb’s loud enough to appear active, but the conceit of the campaign – your crimes of piracy will retroactively become licensed privateering, assuming you help restore the kingdom of Drinax and legalise yourselves – means that there’s a good reason Oleb and the court of Drinax have to take a hands-off excuse. The presence of Oleb and the other NPCs gives the campaign a balancing keel – you can always return to Drinax and have a chat with Oleb about your next move.

The core element of the campaign is the map; it effectively functions as a secondary game-master. In other games, play is mediated through the game-master. The players ask “how long would it take us to get to that castle?” or “what do we see along the way?” and the GM replies. Everything’s predicated on the GM giving permission. Even in the most permissive game (leaving aside shared-narration story game stuff), there’s still a degree of probing for the boundaries of the GM’s intended adventure.

The Traveller hex-map lets the characters plan their routes and make meaningful choices; the available of Universal World Profiles and Library Data lets them do their own research, and the nature of jump travel in Traveller (hit go and you drop out of the universe for a week) means that there can’t be interruptions or random obstacles en route. If the players decide they’re going to jump from Exe to Cordan, then they can do that with a high degree of confidence that it’ll happen. It allows more long-term planning and more self-directed action from the players. Drinax tries to add to that – there are rules for improving spaceports, recruiting crew and so on that are all based around random tables or set values. A lot of the campaign runs automatically. Theoretically, you can play the campaign without going on any of the missions. (I was watching a documentary about the history of Elite, which obviously shares a lot of DNA, and it was fascinating to see similar design considerations being discussed there).

The design goals for the nine missions were:

  • Introduce the various major factions (The Imperium, the Aslan, the mega corps, the various nobles on Drinax itself)
  • Give the players a reason to visit lots of systems
  • Give them more interesting piratical stuff to do than just “shoot ship until it drops cargo, repeat”

The tenth mission would then pull everything together into a grand finale. This was prior to the release of Mass Effect 3, but the core idea was the same – the results of earlier missions and actions in the campaign would be translated into a semi-abstract numeric value, and then that value would determine the circumstances and likely outcome of the final adventure.

Now, under normal circumstances, I’d have written the nine missions, then looped back, edited and developed them for consistency, written the tenth in the light of the nine developed missions, and then done another development pass over the whole campaign. However, by the time I actually came to write the campaign, I’d left Mongoose and each adventure was treated as a separate freelance project – and released separately.

That meant that when I was writing the fourth adventure, the first was already available for download and people were already playing the campaign. It was the roleplaying equivalent of serialised fiction – I couldn’t go back and change things, but had to work with whatever got printed. The campaign still holds together very well, as the structure is really solid. (Dracula Dossier has a similarly strong core, but most campaigns don’t have that same degree of narrative drive towards a clear endgame from the start.) Some of the adventures are weaker than others – I wish I could redo The Demon’s Eye and The Game of Sun and Shadow. Others, like The Treasure of Sindal, came out beautifully, and the campaign as a whole has proved remarkably resilient. Sandbox campaigns are fun – and underused, these days.

As a historical curiosity, I’ve attached the original outline.


The Pirates of Drinax – A Traveller Campaign

The Trojan Reach is a cross between the Afghanistan of the Traveller universe, and the Caribbean of Traveller – it’s where empires run aground and mortally wound themselves, and where fortunes can be made on trade and commerce. The First Imperium never conquered the Reach; the Second Imperium left isolated colonies across its expanse, and even the Third Imperium claims no more than a sixth of the stars here. 

During the long night, another petty empire arose here – the Empire of Sindal. The Sindalians were barbarian raiders who crowned themselves kings and conquered several dozen worlds before their subjects rose up against them. Today, Sindal is a ruined world of a few hundred dirt farmers whose ancestors once ruled all the night sky, and the Sindalian empire is remembered in confused tales of a golden age and of wars amid the stars. As Sindal collapsed, outlying regional capitals became the seat of even lesser kings, and the longest-lasting of these was Drinax.

Drinax’s kings claimed half the worlds in their subsector for generations. The Drinaxians were wiser than their cousins; they learned to hide the iron fist of orbital bombardment behind a velvet glove of trade and protection. Drinax itself became a garden world, fat and plump, an oasis of culture and technology in a dangerous and barbaric sector. The floating palace of Drinax – a huge citadel of beauty and art, suspended on a grav platform of prodigious size – was a wonder of the galaxy.

Then, another empire came to the Trojan Reach. The Aslan were numerous, hungry, aggressive and confident, and the Empire of Drinax was fat, lazy and wholly unaware of the sheer numbers and might of the Hierate. The Aslan trade routes with the Imperium ran through the Kingdom of Drinax, and the kings became greedy. They demanded tolls, taxes, bribes… and the Aslan were incensed. In a single bloody war lasting less than a year, the Aslan shattered the last surviving remnant of the old Empire of Sindal. Drinax’s subject worlds were either conquered by the Aslan or revolted. Drinax itself was blasted to ash, leaving the floating palace as the only remaining property of the King of Drinax.

One palace… and a few ships. 

That was a generation ago.

Today, the trade ships from the Imperium and the Hierate pass by broken, beggared worlds. The worlds once claimed by Drinax realise they have exchanged one master for another, and that the Aslan have even less regard for them than the kings did. The Imperium and the Hierate pretend to be friends while they jockey for position. The sector stands on a knife edge. The right pressure could push half the Trojan Reach into the claws of the Aslan, or force an already overstretched Empire to extend its forces deeper into the sector, or permit Drinax to rise again.

Now is the time for corsairs and privateers, for rogues and empire-builders. The King of Drinax offers a small band of trusted, resourceful bastards the chance to make their fortune. He gives them a ship and a letter of marque. They are to go adventuring in the Trojan Reach, to prey on shipping and to build up support in the worlds once held by the Kingdom of Drinax, and to play the two great powers off against each other. If they succeed, they will become princes in the renewed kingdom.

If they fail, the stars will be their grave.

The Basic Idea: 

  • Player characters are given a ship and an easy way of disposing of stolen goods.
  • Their orders are to go off pirating. They can prey on any shipping they want.
  • The trick, though, is that a portion of their money is to go on bribes and upgrades for the planets once held by Drinax, so they will rejoin the kingdom.
  • They also need to curry favour/balance their attacks on the Imperium and the Hierate, so that when Drinax claims those worlds again, neither the Imperium nor the Hierate is in a position to swat the little kingdom down. The players have a choice between either (a) trying to stay on both empire’s good sides (really hard) or (b) supporting one side or the other (easier, but runs the risk of one Empire expecting that Drinax will become a protectorate of that faction) or (c) ignoring the King of Drinax and going full pirate.
  • We’ll measure the character’s standing with the various factions using a social standing/reputation mechanic. 

The Piracy Minigame: This will be included in the introductory booklet. More focussed rules than the ones in Scoundrel, as we know what sort of ships will be travelling along the trade route and what cargo they’re carrying. Rules for quickly resolving dull encounters and making more interesting ones. Simplify looting and book-keeping; round everything to the nearest MCR (although that may cause problems when it comes to crew salaries, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it). 

Big Adventures: There are then ten adventures in the campaign. Five are piracy-themed heists, most of which are set on worlds within the old Kingdom of Drinax. Four others are connected to the big players in the subsector – the Imperium, the Aslan Clans, and the GeDoCo corporation. The tenth and final adventure happens when the Kingdom of Drinax rises up. If the characters have the right balance of allies, they can save the reborn kingdom, marry the Princess of Drinax (well, one of them can) and become princes and rulers in a new star empire that once again sits on one of the richest trade routes in known space. If they haven’t got it right, DOOOM.

Heist Adventures:

  • The Buried Treasure of Sindal
    • Indiana-Jones style adventure, tracing the lost treasure of the empire
    • Tomb raiding, clue-finding, racing against time
  • Priestly techno-intrigue on Techworld
    • Opportunity to acquire new ship & high-tech gear
    • Body horror/cyberpunk weirdness
  • Palace politics, duelling and romance
    • Princess is kidnapped, PCs have to rescue her
    • Drama on Drinax
  • Attacking a treasure ship
    • PCs are brought in on a scheme to capture a superfreighter carrying rich treasures to the Hierate
    • Elaborate heist
  • Wiping out rival pirates who are raiding Drinaxian worlds
    • Ship vs ship combat
    • Intrigue – opportunity to weaken enemy by recruiting some of their ships

Big Player adventures:

  • Imperial navy pirate hunters – plot brings PCs to Pax Rulin
    • Dealing with the threat of the Imperial Navy
    • Sneaking in disguise
    • Opportunity to alter reputation with Imperium
    • Breaking into GeDeCo
      • Huge potential treasure bonus
      • General Development Company is the Illuminati of the Trojan Reach 
    • Aslan 1 – aggressive ihatei fleet
      • thwarting an Aslan invasion through either force of arms or intrigue
    • Aslan 2 – intrigue and politics in the heart of Aslan space
      • Exiled Aslan prince offers the characters a chance to help him reclaim his honour, offers them help in return. 
      • Opportunity to alter reputation with Hierate family

Finale

Aslan invasion

  • If the characters have enough ships and allies, the Aslan turn to easier targets
  • Otherwise, Drinax is doomed

Intro Document Outline (40 pages/24,000 words)

Campaign Notes/Intro            1 page

  • Pretty much the above information

Drinax                                     3 pages

  • History/culture of Drinax
  • Using it as a base of operations

Drinax NPCs                           2 pages

  • King of Drinax
  • Princess
  • Captain of the Guards
  • Aslan exiled prince
  • Rival noble/heir apparent

PC creation                             2 pages

  • Options are either native of Drinax, or visitor from offworld
  • Instead of ship shares, you get upgrades to the current ship 

The ship                                  6 pages

  • The last surviving ship of the Drinaxian navy – a 200 ton, jump-2 commerce raider
  • Very much a steampunk/age of sail/faded glory vibe; all gold-leaf and velvet

Piracy rules                             10 pages

  • Distillation of rules from Scoundrel
  • Encounter tables for different types of worlds
  • How to capture a ship
  • Prizes – cargo vs equipment vs capturing the whole ship

Rival Pirates                           6 pages

  • Enemy pirates & their crews operating in the area

Campaign Rules                     10 pages

  • Selling off prizes
  • Getting new ships/upgrading
  • Crew shares/recruiting crew
  • Upgrading planets
  • Reputation with the Imperium/Hierate/other worlds

Campaign overview                2 pages

  • The nine adventures + finale
  • Running the game

Adventures (20 pages/12000 words)

Adventure itself                      15 pages

Worlds of the Trojan Reach    3 pages

Side Quests/Encounters          2 pages 

2 thoughts on “The Pirates of Drinax

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this epic campaign, I would be really interested in hearing about the changes you would make to the Demons Eye & Game of Sun & Shadow scenarios Gareth. Cheers, Mike

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    • Demon’s Eye is just an awkward adventure. Thematically, it’s way more weird-science-fantasy than the rest of the campaign, it involves a lot of handwaving to make the chase sequence work, and if the players follow the chase all the way, it brings them far away from the main action of the campaign. The only real connection it has to the rest of the campaign is TechWorld – if I were to go back, I’d replace it with another adventure. it works ok as a standalone, though.

      Game of Sun and Shadow tries to do too much. The idea of “the Imperium sends out a squadron of pirate hunters” works, and “you’re playing temporary characters on the other side, so you get to see your regular characters as the rest of the galaxy sees them” works – but putting them both into one adventure was too big a stretch, and neither idea gets the space it needs.

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