Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: The Politics of Contraband

The Politics of Contraband represents what I consider the 'third generation' of West End Games products. The first generation would be the saddle-stitched modules. The second would be the perfect bound modules and the third would be these perfect bound adventure compilations—and in this case, branded with 'The New Republic' logo on the top. In many ways, this really did represent a 'new era' in the gaming. Whereas everything before seemed to focus on the time period shown in the original trilogy, the Politics of Contraband was specifically set in the period AFTER—during the rise of the New Republic. Also, this is the point at which 'self-contained' modules seemed to fall by the wayside, replaced by books detailing many smaller adventures. I'll go through each adventure in turn:

There are five different adventures included in the Politics of Contraband—in fact, the book title is the title of the first of these adventures. Here, it is assumed the players are a tramp freighter crew, caught between a corrupt planetary governor and a devious (but well meaning) New Republic ambassador. Through a series of misadventures, it is possible that the players will actually help the planet throw off its dictator and join the New Republic.

While all of this seems interesting enough, the actual adventure is more than a little railroady. As written, it makes a lot of assumptions about what the players will and won't do. It also requires that the players take a lot of abuse by local government and criminal factions—something most player groups would not take lightly. In fact, I imagine that in many campaigns, the adventure would end rather abruptly, with the players just trying to steal their ship back (after it gets impounded) or just blast their way through all the subterfuge. With a little modification, however, the adventure is workable. I even was able to alter it for use with New Republic agents—by having them pose as a tramp freighter crew to help the Republic expose the governor's corruption. Overall, though, I have to say that the idea for this adventure was a lot better than the execution.

This is another of those 'caught in the middle' adventures—and another where the intented party is a tramp freighter crew. In this case, the PCs are blackmailed into attending an illegal, black-market auction on a luxury starliner. Up for bids is a fabulous new personal shielding technology. The party will have to deal with various treacherous parties to have their chance at the prize.

As with the above mini-adventure, The Art of Betrayal was written in a very linear fashion, and seems to take for granted what the characters will do in any specific situation. It also seems to be a bit of a Kobayashi Maru scenario, because as written, there is no chance of recovering the prize intact. In short, this is what I would term a 'bad' Story Adventure, where the players are mainly just along for the ride. That having been said, with a bit of tweaking and an open minded GM, this can be a great adventure. It was in my campaign. Just be willing to let the situation resolve itself rather than guide it down one particular path to failure. My own characters, through their ingenuity, actually came out of this adventure VERY well. If you're interested in the details, please check out this link (scroll down to the 'Art of the Deal').

This is one of the more amusing and interesting adventure ideas in this compilation. The PCs (once again a Tramp freighter crew) are in the middle of a job. They've dropped off passengers and have some time to kill before said passengers return (hence the adventure title 'Free Time'). Within this time, they get a short job offer and rapidly find themselves caught between the forces of the underworld, Empire and New Republic. The big twist in the adventure is that the 'cargo' the characters are carrying during their free time is actually an Imperial spy. Thus, it is quite possible that if the character's succeed at their job, they'll actually be helping the Empire. If they fail, or get suspicious and bail out, then they may actually help the New Republic by foiling the spy's escape attempt. In either case, the final twist to the adventure is that the PC's original employer (whom they were waiting to return) are actually the New Republic agents assigned to capture the Imperial spy.

Though the plot is twisted, and maybe a bit tricky to run, the adventure was written in a pretty wide-open style, with major consequences one way or the other depending upon the PC's actions. The fact that the author considered the different paths the story might take makes for a dynamic adventure that is in no way pre-determined. My only criticism is a personal one—there is a chance that the PCs might actually get into a shooting match with the 'good guys' (New Republic types) and if they actually kill any of them, it would cast a shadow over an otherwise lighthearted adventure. If you wish to avoid this, then you will have to make some adjustments to this encounter.

In this adventure, the PCs are duped (and/or greeded) into hauling a cargo that turns out to be of intense interest to the Empire. After facing a number of challenges in getting off the planet alive, the PCs arrive at their destination only to find that their employer set them up and has no intentions of paying up. Now it's time to either fight, flee or surrender.

Again, this adventure is written in a wide open style, giving hints and suggestions based upon what different PC groups might do in any given situation. And again, I would point to this as the RIGHT way to do a story adventure where the players are engaged and the actions of their characters have impact.

As a funny side note, this adventure contained what is perhaps my favorite bit of Imperial monologue ever. A group of Stormtroopers confront the party and give them the following ultimatum:

"You are under arrest! You and your companions will throw down your weapons and you will be terminated painlessly. Resist and you will suffer. Decide now!"

Well, at least they were honest about it, right? None of that "you vill be treated viss charity unt kindnezz" nonsense. It made me and my players giggle when I busted that line out on them.

The final adventure in this compilation has much in common with the others—another 'smuggler/tramp freighter' style adventure that puts the PCs in the middle of a conflict between the Empire, New Republic and the underworld. In this case, they're delivering a seemingly innocuous cargo for a known crimelord and everyone else seems to want it. Depending on who they deal with and how, the PCs could get rich (while sacrificing their morals), dead (for defying the Empire) or put in the good graces of the good guys (by helping out the Republic).

As with the two preceeding adventures, Easy Money has a lot of room built into it to account for character actions. It also has some interesting atmosphere, taking place in a swampy version of Mos Eisley, complete with giant crocodile monsters, Swamp-hopper landspeeders, native rebels, seedy cantinas, etc. etc.

By the time this compilatin came out, my own campaign had progressed into the New Republic Era. Unfortunately, my characters were not only very experienced, they were also closely aligned with the New Republic (working as agents for it). The primary focus of these adventures was the tramp freighter/smuggler crew, however. Thus, I had a difficult time fitting the adventures into my own campaign. Also, at the power-level my PCs were, the threats and bullying used in many of these adventures just didn't hold as much weight. If pushed around as much as some of these adventures show, my PCs would have pushed back—hard.

In all honesty, this book is really suited best for a Smuggler campaign—and indeed the early stages of that campaign, where the PCs are low-power enough to have to really consider who they can afford piss off and just what challenges they can reasonably hope to survive.

Despite the 'New Republic' setting, this compilation could very easily fit into a classic era campaign, prior to the birth of the New Republic. Only the very first adventure would be difficult to modify into this era.

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