May 2009

Well with the new Star Trek movie now out (I saw it and liked it) I, like all RPG and Star Trek geeks, have been thinking about Star Trek RPGs.

I used to be a pretty hardcore Trekkie back in high school and have bursts of reignited interest. After a long break from gaming, it was playing Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG that got me actively gaming again, and aside from a few months-long hiatuses, I’ve been gaming pretty regularly since. I was pretty involved with the internet community that grew up around the Last Unicorn Games Trek RPGs as well as the later Decipher incarnation, actually being a playtester for the Decipher game. I liked them both a lot, though I had a lot more success with the Last Unicorn incarnation. Though the last time I played a Star Trek game was over five years ago. I’ve got a bunch of old Trek RPG books in boxes in my basement.

A player in my gaming group has been joking with me that Star Trek is a horrible match for our group. To be honest, he’s probably right and I’m not actually planning a new campaign. But I’m an engineer by trade – I like thinking about how I would do things.

So what is it that makes a Star Trek game difficult? A bunch of things in my experience. The one the player I mentioned is the whole rank structure. This isn’t unique to Star Trek: any military or pseudo-military game will have issues with this. You are basically in a setting where every character has a place in the chain of command. Gamers are notorious for playing nonconformists. And that makes sense – gaming is an escape. Most of us are in a position where we are subordinate to others in our real-life job or as full-time students. Who wants to do that in a game? That said, the various Star Trek tv shows and movies deal with this by not really reflecting a “real-life” military. The number of shuttles stolen and disobeyed orders is testimony to that, as is the rapid advancement of certain characters. (Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk seemed to become a captain in his early twenties.)

The problem that I tend to run into is the technology of Star Trek. Consider the following technologies:

  • Sensors which allow the monitoring of away teams from a distance
  • Transporters which allow the insertion and extraction of teams
  • Incredibly powerful weapons in the palms of the characters’ hands
  • Access to a crew numbering in the hundreds

In a television show or script, it is easy to make the characters behave a certain way. A weapon which can beam projectiles through walls need never appear. RPG characters rarely forget gadgets.

Does this mean any Star Trek game is doomed to failure? Of course not. (Though given the track record of Last Unicorn and Decipher, it may mean that any commercial production is…)  Here are some of the things I’ve either used or considered using. Some are contradictory.

  • Embrace the cliches. Of course the most senior officers beam down for every mission. The transporter doesn’t work because of yet another ion storm.
  • Make certain to set the game on a setting that works for the type of game. Planetary surveys on a minimally armed scout ship. Set back in the timeline to when transporters are less reliable or unavailable.
  • Leave Starfleet entirely or partially. Klingons, merchants, etc. are all available. I myself have had great success with a mixed crew of smugglers and Starfleet officers lost in space and time.
  • Make the characters “low-level”. This makes the large starship a bit like the home town of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The characters can portray some sort of elite “away team”.
  • Make your own Star Trek universe, much like the recent Abrams reboot or Marvel’s Ultimate series. Take the elements you want. Transporter a problem? What transporter? This requires acceptance from your group – there are some players who will go bonkers at the thought of this.

So I figured I’d update this a bit more frequently, though less than my main blog. But man what a week. Announcement at work about a pay cut. Ton of work over the weekend. And spending way too much time googling the Swine Flu of Doom for all the good it does me.

Right now I’m leaning a touch in the 4e direction. And I’ve been flipping through my Eberron books from the 3.5 version of the game. Probably my most succesful D&D game in recent memory was set on Eberron.

So for those unfamiliar, what is Eberron? Several years ago Wizards of the Coast instituted a “setting search” allowing readers to submit various campaign world proposals, with greater detail in each round of this competition. Eberron was the winning of this competition. Eberron could be described as a setting with a ton of magic, but not at a super-high level of power. Not quite so prevalent to be “magi-tech” but trending in that direction. It also has a huge pulp vibe to it. Its largest city, Sharn, is referred to as the “city of towers” owing to its skyscrapers. Kind of like a fantasy version of Coruscant – especially the parts reminicient of 1930s New York. It takes place in the aftermath of “The Last War”, a war which dragged on for nearly a century with no real winner but lots of losers. It has its own “lost continent”, known as Xen’drik, once the homeland of powerful giants (perhaps designed to resemble the titans of myth). The giants slaves, the elves and the drow, rebelled against them thousands of years ago. When all was said and done the giant empire was shattered, senting the giants into barbarism. The elves fled the continent although the drow remain, though unlike drow in most campaign settings they live above ground, being savages roaming the wilds of Xen’drik. And there’s dinosaurs. I’m getting a big King Kong vibe.

So in our last campaign I kept meaning to move the action to Xen’drik. But the action never seemed to take us there. So I think it behooves us to start the action there – if not on the continent, then making ready for such a journey. Kind of like in King Kong with the plot starting in New York City but moving quickly to the ship and island of Kong. Sharn is considered the “gateway” to Xen’drik so that gives us an excellent opportunity to kick things off in civilization. The main university in Sharn sponsors treasure hunting expeditions to Xen’drik so this gives a reason for the characters to all be together initially. Some can be mercenaries or adventurers while others can be academics.

The action on Xen’drik needs some sort of a home base. Fortunately the setting already includes one, the city of Stormreach. Essentially a free city, it evolved from a pirate stronghold. And it is also an excellent place for adventure, having been inhabited by giants, elves, drow, and, most recently, the incestoid thri-keen. This last group is especially handy as they dug constantly. I’m visualizing something like the old Greyhawk Castle Dungeon that Gary Gygax frequently referred to – a deep dungeon underneath the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, being under a day’s journey from the City of Greyhawk.

One neat thing about the pulps was a lot of the characters had military experience. While 4e makes it clear that even first level adventurers are exceptional, I’m thinking of starting the group up a little higher – probably second level. The caveat being the players need to fill in what their character was doing during the Last War. Nothing super-detailed – indeed I kind of prefer characters have a skeleton of a background so it can evolve over play. But this also provides perfect opportunity for flashbacks to play out incidents from the characters’ pasts.