Thursday, August 16, 2012

Spectre of The Gun

I can think of very few RPGs or RPG settings where a starting player character has, as his standard method of attack, a weapon that can instantaneously remove his opponent from the face of existence. I would further note that few games and/or settings see starting player characters facing off against relatively commonly encountered opponents with the same capacity.

Star Trek is one such RPG setting.

Each player character in a Star Trek RPG, unless otherwise instructed or prohibited not to, carries as their common sidearm a cell phone sized energy emitter that causes targets, once hit, to vanish. It is a 'go away' gun. Someone is hit, they 'go away' permanently.

This is, in no uncertain terms, really, really powerful. I know the various officially licensed and even some of the less than official Star Trek systems give detailed charts to determine the damage of a Phaser on different settings but really it all boils down to 4 'Conditions...

Stun Setting - You are hit, you are unconscious.
Heat Setting - Used to heat up rocks or weld or burn through doors.
Kill - You are hit, you are dead.
Disintegrate - You are hit, you glow briefly, you go away.

Now this isn't just the good guys we're talking about. This is the basic firearm of the setting. The Klingons, the Romulans, the Gorn, all of them have weapons that turn you into vapor in seconds.

This presents players and their characters with a very different combat dynamic than they are used to in most other games. It may take one or two sword swings to fell an Orc, a couple of rounds to take out a spy and a superhero will blast his opponent with heat vision and lay down a few 10 ton punches before the fellow is merely knocked out.

That is not what is going on here. This is one successful hit, one enemy gone. This is like real life combat where one bullet can kill a person.

So what is Adam getting at with this post? Simple. Armed combat in the Star Trek universe is quite unusual from what you may have encountered in other games. There are numerous ways to handle it but, in my opinion, only one overarching way that keeps the feel of Star Trek.

Perhaps the most common and easiest way to handle the power of a Phaser, Disruptor or similar weapon is to depower it. Assume, as often they seem to do in post-TOS Star Trek, that the default setting on the weapon is similar to a Blaster, simply a beam of light that hurts and nothing more. This is done without much fuss or muss by altering the amount of damage caused on the aforementioned charts most Star Trek RPGs love to give us. This will ensure longer firefights and a kind of action movie approach to Phaser combat.

Another way to handle it is to limit the charges on the weapon. The idea is that the Stun setting draws much less power from a Phaser or Disruptor's power cell but a Disintegrate setting draws quite a lot. There is some precedent for this in the show, although it's never clearly stated how many shots will drain a Phaser.

My last suggestion is both the most Star Trek-like and yet perhaps the hardest to convey to most gamers. This final idea is one of theme. Star Trek is essentially 'Wagon Train to the Stars' and the firing of a Phaser is like a Cowboy drawing his gun or even, a Samurai in a Kurosawa film drawing forth his katana. You do not draw your weapon unless you are prepared to fire it and you do not fire it unless you are prepared to kill somebody.

This respect for the weapon and what it can do often leads my players to set for Stun much more often than Kill or Disintegrate. Enemies need not die if you don't have to kill them in a Star Trek setting. Not every opponent need be vaporized. Disintegrated opponents don't reveal their plans or tell you how to deactivate the world-destroying alien satellite. No renegade starship captain or mad scientist was rehabilitated or stood trial for their crimes in the form of vapor.

At the same time, it always Starfleet officers to walk around with a bit of a swagger. Much like the old west, these are individuals who may not want to wipe you off the face of Gamma Arcturus V but they will if they have to. A Starfleet officer has to do what a Starfleet officer has to do...

More on combat in the Star Trek universe and what it means to gaming there coming up in...

The Arena.

Barking Alien


  1. Swagger is right. And let's not forget General Order 24 ("The Return of the Archons"). It always amused me that the Federation had that one. Always wanted to see Picard say that.:)

  2. Use of a Starfleet vessels armament will be addressed in another post. The main idea behind to post above was really to point out that fire fights in Star Trek are very different animals from those in most other RPGs with advanced weaponry.

    Exchanging hand held weapons fire in Traveller, Star Wars or Star Frontiers will not necessarily kill you, even if you are hit once or twice. Star Trek Phaser/Disruptor/Etc. combat means if you set the weapon for Kill or Disintegrate and you get hit, you are either dead or so dead you ain't there no more.

  3. Oh, true,. I myself have always preferred the games where, if one is hit, one is dead: Boot Hill, Aces and Eights, some GURPS genres.

  4. I am very much genre/setting-minded.

    One shot one kill makes perfect sense in a gritty Western game.

    One shot one kill makes no sense in a 4-color Superhero game.

    One shot one kill shows just how dangerous a Phaser can be.

    One shot one kill shows you don't understand Toon.

    One needs to look at the genre and setting in question and see what fits the internal logic of a game that is set there. Otherwise you end up with medieval warriors taking dozens of sword strikes without so much as bleeding and...oh...nevermind. ;)

  5. Well, one shot and you fall down works in Toon. :)

  6. OK, fall down yes. But your character isn't wiped out of existance (unless of course you attacked by white out or an eraser and actually wiped out of existance).

  7. Love this post . . .and it definitely explains the swagger.

    1. Thank you Tyrean (cool name by the way).

      Welcome! Please come back as often as you like.

  8. You are so right to call this out - it is one of the fundamental differences in a Star Trek RPG. Players begin with a staggering amount of power compared to traditional D&D style games!

    Consider this if one is coming from a D&D campaign: Right from the start the game assumes flight, teleportation, disintegration, planar travel, rapid healing, immunity to disease, the ability to see the invisible and various auras, instantaneous planet-wide to universe-wide communications, instant access to godlike knowledge of the universe, the power to devastate entire planets, and time travel - among others - and they are available on a near-constant basis! Interestingly, there are many other beings out there with the same abilities who oppose you. Want to know what Epic level D&D looks like? It could look a lot like a Trek campaign - and you get to play it from session #1 onwards!

    Some of the early Fasa adventures featured a lot of personal combat - that "escape from the klingon brig" adventure in the basic set comes to mind - and even it was different. When you're gun is also effectively a "passwall" spell combat changes in some notable ways.

    I will also say that the stun/disrupt/disintegrate options did give combat that many more interesting choices. "Wide-angle stun" was a nigh-irresistible sleep spell allowing even a lone character to pull off some interesting things, and as mentioned above, disintegrate makes the phaser a tool as much as a weapon - "door? what door?". It's just not something you see in a ton of in any other game I can think of, even most superhero games.

  9. Key problem I've had running Star Trek games is players vaporizing opponents atthe drop of a hat. Not in the spirit of the show at all. I blame D&D for encouraging resolution of problems thru firepower.

    1. So do I. lol

      While we could blame D&D, I feel like it would be like blaming an apple for not tasting like a chocolate chip cookie.

      They are two completely different things and must each be approached in the way best befitting them and only them.

  10. As usual, Blacksteel sees the Phaser, sets it on overload and blows the whole concept wide open!

    By siting this one element of Star Trek gaming, the simple fact that your PCs begin with a starting weapon capable of vaporizing their enemies and that said enemies can do the same to them, what I am actually saying is that this is not your typical RPG setting and shouldn't be treated as such.

    Blacksteel sites the various of abilities of a Starfleet crew and its vessel in D&D terms and his depiction is completely accurate. In most other games, the starting PCs of Star Trek would appear to be Epic Level/High Level/Several Hundred Construction Point characters. Equipment and weaponry aside, most Star Trek RPG systems build a character who is highly skilled and experienced, having served tours of duty on previous vessels before being assigned to the campaign ship. Very different from the "I was born when you rolled the dice" characters most games generate.

    For these reasons, I think playing a Star Trek character and campaign is intially tough for many who come to the game from other genres.

    There is no real need for money so the aquisition of wealth is not a motivator. Your aren't going to go hungry unless stranded on an alien world deadly to your species. You are pretty badass and you are up against equally badass bad guys, many of whom may not be all that bad.

    We are talking about a completely different mind set needed to play this game and enjoy it. Personally I love it but in doing so I am often at a loss in traditional games.

  11. In a discussion on a while back, I described phasers this way: In most settings, weapons are tools you use to have a fight. A Star Trek phaser is a tool used for ending (or preventing) a fight.

    This makes Star Trek a terrible setting for kill-people-and-take-their-stuff play, unless maybe you're doing it at the level of ship conflicts. Good Star Trek play requires taking the setting seriously, and giving the PCs problems they can't easily solve by shooting someone. Diplomacy, mysteries, and puzzles.

  12. Trek is a completely different game from anything D&D-style - it's much more story-oriented and the phaser is just another story element. You wouldn't run a dungeon crawl in the Trek setting so the comparison is a little odd to begin with (although a scifi crawl as a single episode might be an interesting aside). Trek is much more suited to mysteries and diplomatic stories. I do like Blacksteel's summary...

    Avram has the right of it to - "Star Trek [is] a terrible setting for kill-people-and-take-their-stuff play" - if for no reason than that if you vaporise the alien, you've vaporised their kit!

    The "taking the setting seriously" element is the primary reason I don't run much Trek - I've found I can't trust the players to apply the right amount of immersion while avoiding straight-faced pomposity! I'm ok with in-setting humour, but they've got to act like characters from that universe. I've had games where the medical officer is trying to brew irresistable love potions or the crew are trying to replicate endless trade goods to become rich because they don't agree with or understand the economic basis of the setting - it tends to put you off!


  13. @Avram - Right on the money with everything you said. I always appreciate it when you stop by.


    Avram is an old friend and has played in Star Trek games I've run in the (what feels like) distant past. He is also a Vulcan High Master of the Kolinahr Discipline. I think. I may be wrong. I do know he is very smart and you would do well to listen to him.


    @Astronut - You are totally right in both the "Star Trek is very different from D&D" and the "taking the setting seriously" department, although a how much tongue you're comfortable putting into your cheek in regard to the latter point is up to the individual.

    If we except the first point as true and I certainly do, it may go a long way toward explaining my feelings toward D&D and similar games. I really like running and playing Star Trek because of the things that don't make it D&D. Traditional D&D holds very little interest for me as a result.

    Your mileage may vary.

    I will, toward the end of this month long focus on Star Trek, go into the subject of players who just don't get it in a bit more depth, as it is something I hear a lot and am experiencing myself for the first time.