Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Prime Directive

Gaming the Final Frontier Part I - General Order One - Know Star Trek

Before undertaking the project of running a Star Trek RPG campaign, there are a few things to consider first. Some of what I am about to say may seem obvious but it is always good to keep the important things fresh in your mind. In issue #150 of Dragon Magazine (October, 1989) there is an article by John J. Terra about running a Star Trek campaign using the FASA rules system. I read that article every time I am about to run a Star Trek campaign, which means I've probably read it about 50 times already, minimum. Not only does the article contain some excellent information and creative ideas but it reminds me to focus on what is important when playing this particular RPG.

OK, so the first thing to do when preparing to run a Star Trek game is get to know Star Trek. Now, this may be one of those 'duh' moments but hear me out. Don't just watch the show you like, your favorite film or re-read that one awesome Star Trek novel with that alien you really want to use in the game. Watch lots of different episodes from all the different series (yes, even Voyager*). Read a couple of novels set in different eras. Get the Star Trek Encyclopedia and start reading it like a book and not like you're looking up something specific.

One of the biggest complaints I hear is, "I like The Original Series but my players all grew up on The Next Generation" or "I want to run a classic Star Trek game so I'm focusing on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn".

Star Trek is not one thing. It is not The Original Series or the Dominion War or the Vanguard novels or the films. It's a pop culture phenomenon over 40+ years old and still growing. It's produced 5 live-action TV series, 1 animated TV series, soon to be 11 movies, countless novels, comic books, video and computer games, action figures, a seemingly infinite number of fansites and now cologne. Cologne! To effectively run a Star Trek campaign you need to understand this, appreciate it and have a general knowledge of all facets of this modern mythological masterpiece.

Now I'm not asking you to know anything and everything in the Star Trek universe with pin-point accuracy. What I'm saying is that if you become an expert on one element, you're not going to be able to adapt when your players have no interest in that element. When two or three of the players really want to play species from Enterprise are you going to say, "Sorry, where playing in The Next Generation". The players will quickly point out that Enterprise is chronologically before TNG in the time line and just because Denobulans didn't appear on the TNG TV series doesn't mean they are not in Starfleet so many years later.

Another reason for this approach is that Star Trek is not all things to all people. I'll never forget suggesting to one group that we ran Star Trek and that I'd like to go for that classic feel. At that point one potential players said, "Awesome! I love the Next Generation!" Instead of beaming this individual into a bulkhead, I decided to say, "Great! Is that where you'd all like to set the game?" The vote eventually went to playing around the time of Star Trek: First Contact, with the Dominion War not far away. I ran the game with a distinctly TOS feel however, mixed with some TNG and DS9 moments. The players loved it because it was a good game and no matter how you sliced it, it was definitely Star Trek.

Star Trek campaigns should showcase elements of the best Star Trek has to offer, regardless of incarnation. Star Trek adventures and campaigns should be about action, intrigue, honor, romance, heroism, scientific speculation and an exploration of what makes us Human. This is true of any Star Trek game and any Star Trek series or product.

*You may, on occasion, notice I have a general dislike for Voyager. However, it is still Star Trek. You don't have to love, you can even think it stinks but you have to except it as part of the family.

Barking Alien


  1. The way i see it, what makes Trekkies such archetypes of fanboys or geeks is actually the fact that they stand apart from other sci-fi fans, from their consistency and dedication.
    This is because Star Trek is truely a cultural movement. Not just from pop culture (although there is nothing wrong with pop culture), but actual culture and knowledge of a full scope of areas, such as astronomy, technology, sociology, up to xenobiology.

    On a personal note, i would like to say that i actually like Voyager. I always thought it was a different, very homeric, openly inspired from the Odyssey.

    - RenauD -

  2. I had no idea about that Dragon article, and I have that issue! somewhere.

    So right out the gate, I think you hit upon the toughest element of Trek roleplaying: the potential for disconnect between GM and players (or players themselves) on "which" Trek they want to play. I would almost feel obligated these days to interview potential players prior to specific adventure design.

    I do think it's true that any adventure could be flexible enough to play well in any era and with a combination of styles. OTOH, I'm not convinced that some players are flexible enough to play in any game, regardless of the era. I wouldn't be so concerned about a conflict between myself as GM and a player (I'd run pretty much anything, from "Gambit" to "Shore Leave"), but rather the different expectations within a single group of players.

    I'm not sure other games have this problem so much. D&D and CoC, for instance, you pretty much know what you're going to get. Even in just 3 years of TOS, there's so much variety in just those stories. With the exception of Doctor Who, I can't think of any other series with so much variety (and DW as an RPG has similar problems).

    And there's another problem. Gaming often revolves around combat. Trek is not about combat, and there's simply not much tactical combat in any of the shows at all. Yet so much effort is put into it in most rules.

    I'm getting ahead of you, I'm guessing. Great start to the series. I hope you'll get more specific about crafting that "game with a distinctly TOS feel, mixed with some TNG and DS9 moments", because that's a great approach, but one with which I have no experience.

  3. "Even in just 3 years of TOS, there's so much variety in just those stories."

    Ah but you see that is my point exactly! Any GM or player who says "I only like X series" must've missed the humor in DS9, the espionage in TOS, the alternate Earth cultures in TNG just to name a few examples. All the different 'Treks' have an overall style and premise but all contain elements of each other.

    Its about your mind set. Make the decision to run a Star Trek superior to which Star Trek you're running and you'll find a way to make it work.

    Barking Alien

  4. Hey Adam, here's one of my many bookmarks of people debating the subject. Just intresting food for thought!