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.