Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Agents

Cover of Mongoose Traveller Book 5: Agent - image pinched from the Mongoose website

Mongoose Traveller Book 5: Agent
By Bryan Steele with additional text by Gareth Hanrahan


After thoroughly enjoying Mongoose Traveller Book 4: Psion, I was really looking forward to Book 5: Agent. And now that I’ve nearly finished it … I feel a little disappointed. On the whole, Book 5: Agent is a good book, and there are a lot of useful ideas and metagame pieces throughout it, but some of the incidental writing really puts my teeth on edge. It would appear to be written by someone with little idea of what an Agent might possibly do, outside the obvious Law Enforcement and Spy fields.

Taking the Agent career from the Traveller Core Rules, with its three assignments of Law Enforcement, Intelligence and Corporate, as its starting point, Book 5 expands this to six career tracks – each with three specialisations. The career tracks are: Law Enforcement; Investigator; Spy; Analyst; Corporate; and Bounty Hunter.

And therein lies the first problem – terminology. To me, Investigator and Analyst are actually specialisations that should be slotted into one of several of the other four career tracks. The context in which the term Analyst, for example, is used within the generation system implies a Political Agent/Police role that is rather at odds with the geeky, pattern recognising, glasses wearing, egghead we expect to see, especially with the Handler specialisation of the Analyst career path being described as a political bodyguard.

A nice touch, as part of the character generation tables associated with the new Careers/Specialisations, is the characteristic Trust. Trust is a measure of how well regarded and in good standing the Agent is with his/her agency – this translates into how much good kit/support the Agent can pull down as required for a mission.

After a confused section on Agencies, which manages to be both vague and uninspiring, but which does give nice examples in how Trust might be used by Agents working at various levels and in various Agencies, we reach ‘The Law in Traveller’ chapter. Again, after a rough introduction, there are a number of nice little abstract mini-games which allow an Agent character to accumulate evidence in a case and run the case through trial to sentencing – perfect for play-by-email or downtime housekeeping when the rest of the group is gearing up to do something else.

The following Espionage section attempts to round out Espionage agents in a similar fashion and, again, while there are good ideas, the writer seems rather unclear about how he envisions Espionage Agents to operate in wider society – ranging from extreme cynicism through a confused ramble about whether Espionage Agents serve the state or the politicians, and then rephrasing the role of Espionage Agents under several different terms and headings. Again, the mini-game that accompanies this chapter salvages it from being thrown across the room in frustration.

And then we come to the Corporate Agent. The writer assumes that corporations will wage war upon each other like medieval city-states, complete with mercenary assaults and corporate assassinations, and so completely misses the standard Traveller/Science Fiction trope of the corporation strong-arming the weak government - colonial or otherwise. Again, there are nice ideas buried in this chapter that can be sifted out, but the writer’s version of corporate wars owes little to any science fiction I’ve ever read.

By the time I got to the Bounty Hunter section, I was mentally prepared for the dumb-ass intro. The writer makes the assumption that Bounty Hunters are some form of Government Agent, missing the point that Bounty Hunters are actually licensed contractors, or sub-contractors, doing the messy work that Government Agencies don’t have the manpower to do. Why would a government agency pay a bounty to an employee? A government agency pays a bounty to a licensed contractor because the contractor carries all the overheads for the mission. Again, there are nice mini-game elements for working out how long a Bounty Hunt mission might take, and getting the character to roll skill rolls to accumulate effect numbers to solve the case is neat, too. But I still prefer the Bounty Hunter character career from Spica’s Career Book 1.

The Agent Technology chapter had some nice new toys, as well as a neat system for rolling up Q-type technological gadgets for the Agent to trial in the field. The tech section is rounded out with deck plans for a couple of starships that agents might find useful.

So, Book 5: Agent is, in my opinion, a mixed bag. The metagame elements are nearly worth the price of admission in, and of, themselves, yet other parts of the book lack depth and thought and leave me with the sneaking suspicion that there was a deadline crunch and Mr Hanrahan had to step in to get the project to press. Of course, this is pure supposition on my part here, and I may be very wrong.

I would suggest getting the pdf as a matter of course so that one can take advantage of the very useful metagaming elements in one’s own campaign. Shelling out for the hardback book is a closer call. I would suggest having a look at the book first and seeing if it meets your needs before dropping cash on it.