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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Traveller Tuesday: the Turbo-Encabulator

The Turbo-Encabulator is a highly experimental device created by Dr. Danbir Amuummaga of the Lunion Polytechnical Institute as a way to increase the range of conventional jump drives.

It does this by intentionally triggering a misjump.

Did I mention it was highly experimental?

The science behind the Turbo-Encabulator is solid, albeit untested:  Dr. Danbir (UPP: 596DF8)  is a respected theoretical physicist who claims he has found a way to aim a misjump such that the ship will safely exit at the the intended destination, and he can prove it using using high-order math.

There are, however, some drawbacks to this plan:
  • "Increasing range via deliberate misjump" ranks right up there in the category of Words Which Do Not Belong Together alongside "The first step in making this ship faster than light is to make it explode."
  • In theory, the math is sound. However, in theory, an elephant is a sphere. 
  • Dr. Danbir has working on this project for 15 years. However, being a theoretical physicist instead of an engineer, he has no practical experience in this sort of thing. This is rather like driving in a car designed by a sculptor. 
  • Because of this, the T-E has been the product of a decade and a half of grad students trying to get project credit for their degrees. This means that the entire crew (with the exception of Danbir) has changed out at least three times. 
  • Documentation of all the systems is... messy at best. The actual systems are somewhere between "jury rigged" and "a Rube Goldberg device". 
  • The T-E device is 30 displacement tons in size, and needs physical (not virtual) access to the power plant, jump drive, and astrogation systems. 
  • In other words, attaching this to a ship is a bad idea, and all sensible spacers should reject it without reservation. 

Why does everyone I try to hire say, "You're doing what now?" -- D. Amuunnaga, PhD.

The Scout Service knows about Dr. Danbir and has been covertly funding this project for years -- this is how he has managed to retain lab space without having anything to show for it. Scouts have occasionally cycled through his course under the guise of students, reporting their findings back to their superiors. The IISS Special Ops file on Danbir says, in essence, "This guy is crazy but he might be on to something. Under no circumstance should you let him use his devices on your ship, but we will continue to give him funding on the off chance that he will stumble onto something brilliant."

Naturally, this means that any PC group with a ship capable of carrying 30 dtons of cargo is likely to be contacted by Dr. Danbir promising them wealth, fame and glory if they will agree to let him attach his device to their ship for its maiden jump. As proof that he believes in his design, he will travel alongside it.

Closer inspection of the message will show that the good doctor has mass-mailed every starship at the downport between 200 and 1,000 tons in hull displacement.  If they reply to his email, they will be (surprise!) the only ones to have done so. It's almost as if all the other captains think his idea is insane...

Danbir is enthusiastic and glad-handing when meeting with the crew. He speaks of his invention with utter confidence, and is full of reassurances that "all precautions will be taken" and "it's perfectly safe -- if it wasn't, would I be willing to risk my life by coming along?"   While he is willing to pay for middle passage, he will wrangle for working passage by offering to constantly monitor the device. This will be done, he says, to reassure the crew of the ship that everything will go according to plan.

If the PCs agree to this foolish plan (and any decent GM should give multiple indications that this is not a wise course of action), then the doctor will have several trucks full of equipment and grad students show up early the next day and begin installation. (See above regarding the rat's nest of machinery and the confusion regarding hooking everything up.) Throughout it all, Danbir watches and gives direction like a cross between a foreman and a proud papa.

Suspicious players may wish to scan the machine or get an idea of how it works. Overt scans will be discouraged by the doctor, although it will be easy to get covert readings during the confusion of assembly. Alternately, one of the TAs may be bribed with food, coffee cigarettes or promises of sexual favors to get him to talk about the device. The first piece of information divulged should be something like "You guys are braver than I am... no way in hell would I take a ride with this beast."  He will then ramble about specifics of a certain system while admitting ignorance of all other parts -- Danbir likes to keep information highly compartmentalized and only he knows the big picture.

It is a point of mild interest that all of his students are human. While he tries to keep his prejudices quiet, Danbir is a racist in the old Vilani manner (think of stereotypical Colonial Britain and their "Bringing civilisation to the wogs, eh wot?" attitude) and because of this he looks down on all non-humans.

The T-E contains at its core several "black boxes" of many tons in displacement. These boxes are heavily shielded against scanning and all connections (power, data input/output, etc) use a sophisticated "airlock" of sorts. In other words, the interior is never ever exposed to the outside by any means. If investigated by someone with Engineering skills, a Difficult skill roll will reveal one of these devices as a kludge between a food dispenser and an autodoc.

Upon being hooked up and powered on, Dr. Danbir will immediately begin performing diagnostics and prepping all systems for jump. While he can be approached for details as to what he is doing, it will all come out as gibberish to any characters without a high skill level (5 or 6) in  Science: Mathematics and Science: Physics. Anyone who can understand him should become very uneasy as they realize the doctor is proposing a jump drive version of dynamic instability (which is where an aircraft, by nature of its engineering, wants to fly apart at high speed, but is kept in one piece through complex computerization that essentially encourages the aircraft to fall apart in one direction -- the direction that the nose is pointing. This results in a very nimble and responsive craft, but one fault in the system could spell mid-air disintegration.)

Danbir will have his device plot a jump to a system normally out of reach of the player's ship, e.g. a J-3 or J-4 for a jump-2 rated drive. He will not plot anything higher than a J-6 of his own accord, although he will be open to persuasion by someone who professes confidence in his design.

Any ship registering a flight plan with a T-E enhanced jump  will receive a solemn "Fare well and good luck, you poor doomed bastards" from ground control. All traffic, from the surface to the 100 diameter jump point, will be routed as far away from the PC's ship as is physically possible.

A Leap of Faith
Before they jump, make sure to ask your players if they really want to do this, because this is their last chance to back out. If they do not, then consult the following steps:
  1. Make a show of rolling for the astrogation behind your GM screen, but ignore the result. 
  2. Have the doctor make the engineering roll for the jump. He rolls 2d6+6, but as this is a Formidable task, the penalty cancels his bonus, making it a flat 2d6. He cannot take extra time on this task.
  3. Roll 2d6 to see if the jump is accurate, if you want to give the players a chance at getting through this unscathed. If it succeeds, they safely arrive at their destination after the requisite time in jumpspace.
  4. Alternately, you can realize that this is a deliberate misjump and there's no such thing as one which is both safe AND accurate. Assuming you don't want to kill all the PCs, you can assume that the doctor has chosen safety over accuracy. 
  5. Consult the starting hex and roll 1d12. Starting from the top, like a clock, straight up is 12 and straight down is 6.  All flat sides of the hex are even numbers; all odd numbers are the corners. This is their actual departure vector. If it differs from the course which was plotted (likely), then the effect total of Danbir's roll (if successful) may be used to adjust the course. Example: the ship's original course heading was at 9:00, but you rolled a 5. However, Danbir rolled a 9. This is an effect total of one, meaning that the adjusted heading is now 6:00. 
  6. Determine actual distance of the jump via the 1d6 times 1d6 method. Again, the doctor's effect may be used to modify this distance by reducing the total of each die up or down per effect total, in order to arrive at a a planetary system rather than deep space. 
  7. Roll 1d12 again to see how many days are spent in jump. Their ship DOES carry the requisite 2 weeks of reserve fuel for the power plant, doesn't it? If not, it's going to be a bumpy exit as the ship is booted from jump space with all the grace of a hard drive crash. 
  8. If you're feeling cruel, you can roll for damage on the System Degradation chart, with preference given to Power Plant, Jump Drive, and Bridge systems. 
If you like, you can play up the tension and paranoia involved in an experimental system triggering a deliberate misjump with the following ideas:
  • Entry into jumpspace should be difficult and uncomfortable. Endurance rolls to resist jump sickness, or damage from the increased energy state of a higher jump level than their ship is rated, are possibilities.
  • If you subscribe to the notion of jump space being psionic in nature, all sorts of weirdness is possible, including but not limited to:  madness; random psionic effects performed by/on the crew; poltergeist phenomena. 
    • If one of the PCs is psionic, this is a perfect opportunity to mess with his mind, sanity, and power levels. 
    • Put the two together and you have a Traveller version of Event Horizon. Pleasant dreams...
  • The doctor has grossly underestimated the amount of tinkering he needs to do to keep the dynamically unstable jump field from collapsing prematurely or uncovering parts of the ship. This is a full-time job that requires nearly constant supervision. PCs may try to help out, but this is again a Formidable roll. If they try and fail, let Danbir lunge in at the last moment with a "DEAR GOD NO!" and a last-minute correction. (If they try again, and fail again, cruelty is encouraged.) Have them realize that the best course of action is to keep the doctor hyped up on stims for the duration of the voyage. 
  • Are there other passengers or NPC crew aboard?  Now might be a good time for a hijacking or a mutiny. 
  • Are they carrying livestock, or cargo which is reactive, perishable, or otherwise susceptible to the effects of crossing into a dimension which is hostile to life? If you want to run a version of Alien in Traveller, now would be a good time. 

The Maddest of Mad Science
How does the Turbo-Encabulator work?  Dr. Danbir is reticent to discuss this, but with enough sleep deprivation (or high on enough stimulants) he will reveal that hidden inside the "black boxes" are vat-grown primate brains which were genetically engineered for psionic potential*. Using a combination of Clairvoyance and Teleportation, they are somehow guiding the ship through jump space and keeping the field in one piece, with Danbir performing only minor adjustments to enhance their performance. After revealing this, he will giddily describe the improvements on performance he can achieve if he could somehow get hold of psionic human brains -- preferably taken from those filthy Zhodani. His descriptions of sentient minds being pressed into eternal slavery as an engine really ought to horrify most players. A lifetime of being a screaming brain in a hot box qualifies as "hellish" for all non-sociopaths. 

* How he got his hands on psionically engineered primate brains is a very good question but is not within the scope of this adventure. The GM can assume that the Special Ops branch of the Scout Service acquired them for him; alternately, perhaps he in in contact with an illegal Psionic Institute. 


  1. "A lifetime of being a screaming brain in a hot box qualifies
    as "hellish" for all non-sociopaths."


  2. For richer or power or while screaming across the star lanes in a monkey brain powered, hyperspace turbo-ecabulated rocket ship... it goes on like this...

  3. Ha! Cute idea. I would definitely make the thing not workable in the long term. It's not really a good thing to keep in the hands of the players, and it would deform the campaign in destructive ways. Obviously, the fact that the system largely consists of psionic minds in screaming hell would make it eventually illegal in the Imperium (and the Zhodani would find it to be an absolute abomination - they would likely send agents to eliminate the designer and everyone he might have discussed the thing with if they were to find out about it; as usual, this brings up the possibility that it is part of a crazy manipulation by the Hivers, but then so does everything, and we can't let ourselves get too paranoid about those starfish, right?), but players are notoriously less squeamish when it comes to things that give their characters more power.

  4. No worries! We PC's handed the Turbo Encabulator over to the proper authorities after it's first test run.

    And as a bonus the Prof got to go along too!

    Problem solved.

  5. I dunno, I think that by the time I finished inflicting weirdness on the PCs they were more than happy to pack it up and make it Someone Else's Problem.

    At a profit, of course.

  6. And of course there is no way whatever that the Zhodani will ever find out about the PCs' involvement. Ever. :D

  7. Well, it's not like the Tozjabr would already give their eyeteeth to get their hands on us...

    And it's a good thing we won't be going anywhere near Zhodani space!

  8. Jack is referring to the fact that the nobleman who owns their ship (and lives aboard it) has been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador to Zhodani space, their captain/chief engineer is a retired Navy commodore who knowledge of power plants made him a lead designer on the Imperium's J-7 project, and the steward is a former Navy spook (since reactivated) who has a null-skull and, in all probability, orders to kill said commodore should the Consulate get a hold of him.

    No, there's no way this could possibly go wrong!


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