1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.
It is often forgotten that in its first swashbuckling few years, that much of the background that we know of today as the Third Imperium in GDW’s first roleplaying game, Traveller, was developed in conjunction with other parties. Whole sectors would be parcelled out to third parties to develop and publish content about. For example, Judges Guild developed the Ley Sector, FASA the Far Frontiers Sector, and Paranoia Press both The Beyond and the Vanguard Reaches Sectors. Much of this content would subsequently be declared non-canonical, but in the case of FASA, it was where the publisher got its start in gaming before developing roleplaying games based on licences, such as Star Trek: The Role Playing Game and The Doctor Who Role Playing Game, and its own properties, such as BattleTech, Shadowrun, and Earthdawn. However, Traveller is where the publisher got its start and many of FASA’s titles for Traveller are still highly regarded—especially those written by the prolific J. Andrew Keith and William H. Keith, Jr. Perhaps none more so than the ‘Sky Raiders’ trilogy—The Legend of the Sky Raiders, The Trail of the Sky Raiders, and Fate of the Sky Raiders.
Published in 1981, the back-cover blurb for The Legend of the Sky Raiders reads, “The Sky Raiders... They pillaged a dozen worlds sometime in the distant past, then vanished. Who were they? A beautiful archaeologist leads a band of adventurers into the swamps of the planet Mirayn, searching for their secrets ... and their lost treasure hoard. Join the search ... the expedition seeking the truth behind ... The Legend of the Sky Raiders.” Then inside the front cover, the dedication reads, “To Indiana Jones, who would feel right at home here.” Raiders of the Lost Ark, the obvious inspiration for The Legend of the Sky Raiders came out the same year and it clearly put the Keith brothers in ‘Pulp Adventure’ frame of mind, for the adventure—and this is very much an adventure rather than a scenario—combines archaeological mystery with scurvy artefact smugglers and hot, sweaty environments. Another inspiration might well have been Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Erich von Däniken which hypothesised that early human cultures were contacted by alien astronauts, for that is exactly what is hypothesised by archaeologists on the world of Mirayn in The Legend of the Sky Raiders.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders takes place on Mirayn, a non-aligned world in the Jungleblet subsector of the Far Frontiers Sector. This is a Tech Level 7 world, perpetually enshrouded in clouds, and ruled by a council of landowners who through its Antiquity Laws maintain a tight control on the planet’s two primary sources of income—tourism and archaeological finds. Extensive ruins left by an indigenous culture have attracted the interest of both tourists and scientists and with the right permits, parties of both have begun making trips into ‘The Outback’. Interest has grown recently with the publication of Hoard of the Sky Raiders by Jothan Messandi, Professor of History at the Institute for System Studies on nearby Alzenei. This suggested that the Sky Raiders, a semi-mythical band of raiders said to have pillaged planets across the Far Frontiers Sector may have originated on Mirayn and may have left a treasure hoard in the lost city of Tlaynsilak, when they disappeared some five millennia ago.
The set-up for The Legend of the Sky Raiders is simple enough. The Player Characters are down on their luck and find themselves stranded temporarily on Mirayn. With competition for work amongst freelancers tough, the Player Characters take the first job they can. This is to outfit and crew an archaeological expedition led by Lorain Messandi, the young daughter of Jothan Messandi who has followed in father’s footsteps and become an archaeologist, and wants to follow up on some of theories presented in her father’s book, Hoard of the Sky Raiders. The outfitting process is essentially a big shopping and hiring process, something that many roleplayers seem to enjoy, but is hampered by the Player Characters being on a budget—a budget out of which they also need to pay themselves, hire vehicles and drivers—the vehicles in this case being hovercraft, hire guides, and purchase supplies and equipment, and obtain the permits necessary to mount such an expedition; government interest in the expedition—such as bureaucrats checking their permits and soliciting bribes; and the potential interest of other smugglers and the criminal underworld. The Game Master has various NPCs, rumours, and encounters to put into the path of the Player Characters and so make their stay in the frontier town of Val Preszar, the primary jumping off point for expeditions into The Outback, interesting and challenging.
If the outfitting process and various encounters in the frontier form The Legend of the Sky Raiders’ first act, the second takes the expedition into The Outback following information provided by the expedition’s leader, perhaps backed up with clues discovered earlier in Val Preszar. Here the Player Characters have freedom to more or less wander looking for locations of note. There is chance here for the expedition to run into various forms of the local wildlife, but by the time the Player Characters have completed their explorations, they will have gained further clues which lead them into the third act and a strange encounter or three with another archaeological party, their capture—not once, but twice, and ultimately, revelations that hint as to who the Sky Raiders might have been.
Structurally, The Legend of the Sky Raiders feels like not one, but two sandboxes—one in Val Preszar, the other in The Outback. The first sandbox is very well supported with lists of equipment and supplies to purchase and hire, NPCs to hire, and rumours and antagonists to throw into the path of the Player Characters. The Game Master will need to judge where and when the Player Characters will run into them, but they serve to foreshadow much that will occur later. The second sandbox is more open and for the most part player-driven as they decide where to go in The Outback, leavened with random encounters. It is difficult to describe the final revelation as being particularly astounding, it is at least interesting and it does serve to drive the plot onto the scenario’s epilogue and then into Trail of the Sky Raiders.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders is very well supported, both from a Game Master and a player point of view. There is the ubiquitous Library Data, which covers the world of Mirayn, its history, the Sky Raiders themselves, the Hoard of the Sky Raiders, and more. This is supported by further details about Hoard of the Sky Raiders, essentially a handout. There is also an extensive equipment list, including various types of hovercraft and a portable, backpack computer which weighs twenty-five kilograms! A set of eight pregenerated Player Characters are provided should the players not necessarily want to create their own. For the Game Master, there is a wide cast of NPCs—potentially too many for her to handle effectively, and rumours and encounters to use.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders is richly appointed, certainly in comparison to the austerity of GDW’s ‘Little Black Books’ for Traveller. There is extensive artwork throughout, all of it by William H. Keith, Jr., and all of it good. Similarly, his full colour, pull-out map is also good, depicting the town of Val Preszar, the region of The Outback around the town, and the smaller area where the finale of the adventure takes place. Disappointingly, the lost city of Tlaynsilak is not given a map. Barring some minor issues, The Legend of the Sky Raiders is also well written.
When The Legend of the Sky Raiders was published in 1981, it was a terrific adventure and it still is. It presents a Pulp-style—though not a cinematic-style—romp from a frontier town into the wilderness of The Outback, dealing with shenanigans and mystery, whilst also giving the Game Master plenty of NPCs to roleplay and some fun encounters to present. Now whilst its contents could have been better organised, the real issue with The Legend of the Sky Raiders is the poor handling of some the NPCs. There are a lot of them, and some are simply there to annoy the Player Characters and get killed as part of the plot, whilst the Game Master is advised to keep a number of them alive for Trail of the Sky Raiders, also part of the part. This may mean that the Game Master will have to force events if she is to keep them alive, which in terms of storytelling is clumsy.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders was well received at the time of its publication. In reviewing The Legend of the Sky Raiders in Different Worlds Issue 21 (June 1982), Tony Watson said of the scenario, “Suffice it to say that the adventure is interesting, with plenty of twists and turns, and the travelers should find it very challenging. The elements opposing the party are formidable, and the secret of the Sky Raiders, as much as is revealed in this adventure (FASA is apparently planning a sequel), is fascinating. Perhaps the only criticism this reviewer can level at the book is the fact that to retain the integrity of the scenario, the referee may have to be a little heavy-handed in his guidance of the course of the action. Still, it is an excellent adventure, well worth the time and effort.”
William A. Barton said in The Space Gamer Number 50 (April 1982) that, “The details in LEGEND OF THE SKY RAIDERS are extraordinary – nearly everything a referee could conceivably need is provided.” before concluding that, “LEGEND OF THE SKY RAIDERS is definitely worth adding to your Traveller collection and, when run, should prove one of the more exciting adventures your players have yet experienced.”
Bob McWilliams reviewed not just The Legend of the Sky Raiders in White Dwarf No 31 (June/July 1982), but also Ordeal by Eshaar, Action Aboard, and Uragyad’n of the Seven, which together comprised the first four releases from FASA. He described all four as, “Well produced and with plenty going on, the designers have provided referees with as much help as can be fitted in booklets of this size, gone into details at points in the adventure where it’s necessary and not filled out with ‘chrome’. These comments apply particularly to the last two booklets [Uragyad’n of the Seven and The Legend of the Sky Raiders] – being so involved with Traveller on a day-to-day basis, it takes something above the average to get you interested, and these two certainly did that.” He awarded all four scenarios two scores each, based on their suitability for use by novice and expert referees. For The Legend of the Sky Raiders, this was eight out of ten for each.
At the time of publication, all that was needed to run The Legend of the Sky Raiders is the core Traveller rules, plus Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, although Book 4: Mercenary, Book 5: High Guard, Supplement 1: 1001 Characters, and Supplement 2: Animal Encounters could all be used in conjunction with the scenario. Information on the Far Frontiers Sector was not necessary to play, but was not readily available then, and certainly is not today. There is certainly no doubt that The Legend of the Sky Raiders could be run using Mongoose Publishing’s version of Traveller, and it would be certainly helped by the inclusion of the expanded career options such as Scholar and Colonist, and expanded skills as the Archaeology speciality for the Science skill. Tracking down information on the Far Frontiers Sector would be problematic. In fact, it might be easier to simply shift the ‘legend of the Sky Raiders’ and the Sky Raiders trilogy to another Sector of space entirely, but then again, The Legend of the Sky Raiders would probably be easier to adapt to another Science Fiction setting or roleplaying game.
Forty years since its publication and there are other issues with The Legend of the Sky Raiders. One is the colonial/post-colonial aspects of the scenario, it being suggested that the description of Val Preszar be based on the coastal towns of the nineteenth century Africa, such as Casablanca or Stanleyville. Further, the indigenous species of Mirayn, a bipedal, hexapodid Tech Level 1—but previous Tech Level 3—race are called ‘Gogs’ by offworlders. Unintended at the time, in 2020, there can be no doubt that the term has the potential to offend, but it would be easy to change.
The Legend of the Sky Raiders always had the reputation as being a good adventure, and forty years on, it still is. It has a sweaty, jungle hot Pulp Sci-Fi feel to it, but without being over the top and with wearing its influences in the hatband of its fedora. The Legend of the Sky Raiders is an entertaining and nicely detailed classic.