Traveller: Behind the Claw Review

Exploration has been baked into humanity from our earliest history. It has inspired epic journeys, discoveries and legends that have shaped us. So, of course it would seem natural that our wanderlust and thirst for the unknown would lead us deep into the reaches of space. However, with that discovery has always come an immediate complication: who owns what’s newly discovered. It wouldn’t be humanity without quarreling over it, and with an entire sector of recently settled space, you better believe that there is room to move that petty bickering to a (literally) astronomical scale, and with Mongoose’s newest splatbook, Traveller: Behind the Claw, there is material for a resourceful GM to build for years.

I understand that Traveller has a, well, reputation among gamers. I have met those who shudder at its mention, and I have seen one player give up during character creation. Even I, who raved about the Pirates of Drinax and GM’d for a while (and would love to get back to that game at some point) can admit that the mechanics can be clunky. In spite of that, I think even its harshest critics would have to admit that the worldbuilding is incredible, if a bit spread out. This comes by necessity, because it’s a space opera. Emphasis on “space”. The astronomic vastness that Traveller emcompasses is hard to put into words, and I catch myself using words like “world” and “geography”, which just don’t apply. They’re too small by orders of magnitude and yet, players could make a very exciting game out of life on one of two very interesting planets, or around one subsector.  Behind the Claw offers literally dozens of subsectors to play in, bringing back areas that were passed over when Mongoose took the game from first edition to second edition.

To be more specific, Behind the Claw is a setting book for Traveller Second Edition, going back to the locations that were of greater focus in 1E: The Deneb Sector and the Spinward Marches. The areas are considered, at best, colonial settlements by humanity’s Third Imperium. They sit outside of the reach of everyday life to the citizens of the core, mostly as stories of a wild frontier, or as a colony. Deneb was once a united territory, and actually caused the assassination of a sitting Emperor, leading to a series of civil wars…and the former ruler of the Deneb faction learned that lesson so well that when she became Empress, she did not make the same mistake. Deneb is instead “controlled” by a series of sub-sector Dukes, all of whom have authority over their own territory but is surrounded by rivals jockeying for status and authority of their own. The Spinward Marches are a wilder frontier, filled with other native alien species living their lives, with a constant swing of fortunes as the Imperium butts up against its rivals, the Zhodani Consulate and the Sword Worlds Confederation, while Megacorporations all eagerly attempt to place their foothold.

If the Pirates of Drinax is the space equivalent of the Golden Age of Piracy, then Behind the Claw is the era of Colonial Imperialism. While there is always more to explore and conquer, some serious roots have begun to be put down in these areas, and it seems as if no one is content where the lines are drawn. It’s this overriding tension that sets the overall conflict for both, but to the book’s credit, this manifests differently in each sector, but in ways that are not mutually exclusive for a group to explore both, depending on the type of game they want to play.

In Deneb, the issue is less over unoccupied territory, and more about too much ego and conflicting authority in one space. The choice to have no central ruler is by design, to prevent the region from once again becoming a force that rivals the Imperial Homeworld while still acting as a bulkhead if any other star empires decide to come rolling through. As such, it has been divided up into seven duchies, all of which have a significant degree of autonomy in their region. They are expected to deal with problems occurring in their own area of space and applicable duties as long as they don’t overstep their authority or break Imperial High Law. They can negotiate treaties, make or cancel major trade deals, grant passage to foreign

merchant ships or even warships, but they always need to be mindful that they have the power to do so only with the permission of the Empire. That can be taken away, which means that work against rivals needs to take the form of subtle undermining, manipulation, working through proxies, and generally playing the long game. Because of the inertia of the governing in place, players should be prepared for the idea that they are not going to have a vast amount of sway in how things go overall, and the book explicitly reinforces this idea. There is simply too much built up to undo it all in a single master stroke. Changes they make are subtle, and likely are not going to lead into a new world order, standing in stark contrast to the plotline of the Pirates of Drinax campaign. If anything, it seems like the option for people who love the scheming of Cyperpunk but want to move to a space opera setting with more room to move around. 

In contrast, it feels as if the Spinward Marches are set up more for an exploration and trade game. Planets and systems within the Imperium are closer to city states, and there are other independent political entities as well, not all of whom are friendly. This is the backwater of the Empire, and its new citizens are perhaps a bit strange, with a large expansion of playable non-human species (Including sentient Dolphins)..Areas are less developed, which comes with it the chance of greater freedom and opportunity  at the cost of less safety, which is often right where PCs want to be! There is less of a plot driver here, no overt pivot point where things could move to. It is a wider open sandbox, and again, the game reminds GMs that there is absolutely no reason why they can’t make up extra planets to explore, or local rivalries. In contrast to the other sectors I have seen, the Spinward Marches appears to be designed for players and their GMs to make what they want of it. While none of the book has a “campaign” written out for it, sessions set in this region really ought to be driven by what the players bring to the table…which can absolutely work, but I would heavily advise that you get player investment fast. There are a couple of plot threads for a GM to grab if they are mired down and looking for a direction, but the sheer vastness may cause problems if there isn’t a clear direction for the story to go.

All in all, Behind the Claw is more flavors of the Traveller that you love (or deeply dislike). I can’t imagine that anyone who has made up their mind on the game is going to have it changed, but for people who might have been interested, but wanted perhaps a different flavor of game, or a GM who wanted to run but didn’t feel up for worldbuilding on the scale that the game demands, it’s a nice pickup.

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