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Monday 10 February 2020

The Psionic Puppet

The Zhodani Candidate is the second scenario from the designer of the superlative freeform, Eve of Rebellion. Set in the Third Imperium of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller and published by March Harrier Publishing via Mongoose PublishingThe Zhodani Candidate won the Zhodani Base Awards 2019 for Best Adventure. It is a one-shot scenario suitable for conventions or campaign breaks, designed to be played by five players, plus the Referee. In terms of mechanics, The Zhodani Candidate is written for the current rules for Traveller, but is so rules light, it can be run by almost every previous version of Traveller, or indeed, be adapted to almost any system of the gaming group’s choice. Indeed, the primary game content in The Zhodani Candidate in terms mechanics are the stats and skills of the five characters involved, although stats are also provided for the Cepheus Engine.

Inspired by the television series Homeland and the Cold War brainwashing thriller The Manchurian Candidate, plus the Trust and Betrayal mechanics of Contested Ground Studio’s Cold City roleplaying game, The Zhodani Candidate is a scenario about intrigue, deception, and conflicting agendas. It takes place in the year 1098 on the planet of Mora in the Spinward Marches. Lady Isolde Ling Muudashir, the heir to the Duchy of Mora, is planning to marry ex-Imperial Marine Sergeant Darius Cantu, a love match rather than the traditional marriage of securing dynasties and economic alliances. Cantu is a war hero who fought in the Fourth Frontier War against the invading forces of the Zhodani Consulate and after being captured, spent a decade in the Zhodani re-education camps before being returned to the Third Imperium as part of a prisoner exchange. Cantu would simply have remained an ex-war hero, content to do charity work for veterans of the Fourth Frontier War, were it not the fact that he met Lady Isolde and they fell in love.

Consequently, various Imperial agencies with an interest in the security and stability of the rich and technologically advanced Duchy of Mora given its role as the gateway to the Spinward Marches, have concerns about the intending nuptials. They are worried that Sergeant may have been brainwashed by the Zhodani during his decade-long captivity and may be a secret sleeper agent. As husband-consort to the Duchess of Mora, he would have access to a great deal of classified information and would represent a major security risk. Informing the current Duchess, Delphine Adorania Muudashir, of their suspicions, the agencies have come to a compromise with her. They will form an Inter-Agency Taskforce to perform a security vetting of Sergeant Darius Cantu and determine if he can be cleared to marry Lady Isolde, or whether he is the Zhodani Candidate—a sleeper agent programmed to betray the Imperium. They will then approve the wedding guest list, should the wedding go ahead.

The Inter-Agency Taskforce consists of five members. They include Undersecretary Eon Jaxon, Undersecretary to the Ministry of State, Spinward Bureau, who formed and heads the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce; Senior Ducal Bodyguard Sir Jans Hillier, the head of Her Grace’s Security Service; Perrin Davos Senior Security Vetting Agent, Ministry of Justice, a specialist in security vetting; Lieutenant Samanthe Rosen, Imperial Naval Intelligence, a junior member of Naval Intelligence recommended by the Admiralty as an investigator and interrogator; and Senior Scout Evelyn Tremayne, a representative of the Intelligence Branch of the Interstellar Imperial Scout Service with information to present to the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce. All five player characters are presented in some detail and come with full stats, skills, background, and equipment, as well as a Departmental Agenda, a Personal Agenda, and more. What this means is that there is quite a lot of information for the players to absorb in terms of their characters—and then there is the addition of Traveller’s Library Data pertinent to the scenario.

The scenario itself is divided into two parts. The first is the investigation of Sergeant Darius Cantu, the second is the vetting of the wedding guests and the wedding itself. Now although there is a central objective in the scenario, that of ensuring that Lady Isolde Ling Muudashir is married to a safe husband, achieving it is only half of the scenario’s playthrough. The other half is the interplay of the player characters and their sometimes conflicting objectives. Here, as with the earlier Eve of Rebellion, is where the author’s experience with playing and creating freeforms come to the fore. That said, the objectives in Eve of Rebellion are tightly supported by the links between the player characters, but in The Zhodani Candidate, these are not present, at least not initially. At the start of the scenario, the player characters do not know each other, so the players will need to work harder to involve their characters in the scenario. Now the investigation serves to pull them into the scenario, but after that, the players will need to work hard to work bring their objectives into play without exposing them.

The actual adventure in The Zhodani Candidate runs to less than a third of its length, but includes staging advice, the scenario’s events, and possible outcomes. Besides this, it comes with the five player characters, Library Data, timeline of events, and reference sheets for the Game Master. In comparison, The Zhodani Candidate is mechanically more complex than Eve of Rebellion, and the Game Master may want to have access to both Traveller, First Edition and Traveller, Second Edition from Mongoose Publishing to the fullest out of it. The complexity comes in the fact that unlike in Eve of Rebellion, the player characters in The Zhodani Candidate are going to be doing a lot more than just talking and deceiving. Stats and guidelines are given should the Game Master want to run the scenario using the Cepheus Engine.

One new mechanic which The Zhodani Candidate does add is for handling trust between the player characters. Adapted from Cold City, it measures the degrees of trust between the scenario’s cast, which can grant a bonus between two trusting characters. Conversely woe betide anyone who breaks their trust with another character, or rather expect trust to be lost and broken as the player characters’ differing objectives clash and conflict with each other.

Physically, The Zhodani Candidate is a 1.44 Mb, thirty-six page, colour PDF (though only the cover and some maps use any colour). It is well written, the characters are solidly designed, and the advice is excellent throughout. If there is anything missing, it is that the scenario could have done with a few more handouts, perhaps to give out as part of the briefing handouts and so establish a sense of verisimilitude right from the start. No doubt a Game Master could create these herself as part of her preparations to run the scenario—and even better if she did them as folders of briefing material, one for each player and his character, ready to be opened at the inaugural meeting of the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce.

What The Zhodani Candidate lacks in comparison to Eve of Rebellion is a sense of grandeur and elegance. Now this is due to differences in their subject matters, Eve of Rebellion with high politics and family matters, The Zhodani Candidate with subterfuge, espionage, and deception. So there is more machination to The Zhodani Candidate, more grit and more paranoia. Eventually though, The Zhodani Candidate will probably confirm everyone’s perceptions of the nasty, underhand, and perfidious Zhodani and their sneaky use of Psionics, and drive everyone on the taskforce into a showdown from which none are going to walk away unscathed.

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