Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Way To Eden

This post will discuss a subject that, though I will try my best to address adequately, I make no pretenses to my ability to truly do it justice. Please note, this is a long one.

You see, if there is one thing I've learned after running Star Trek campaigns for almost 30 years now, it's that you can not ignore and must always treat with care the single most important NPC in your game...


The Ship

Once more I want to preface this post by noting that I am talking about a Star Trek campaign emulating the gist of the various TV series and movies set on a Federation Starfleet vessel assigned to explore outer space and battle hostile powers. If you want to set your campaign on a Space Station, the ideas in this post should be easy to translate over to that. If you want to play a campaign set in the Star Trek universe where the party is a bunch of nomads on Nimbus III living a Mad Max type existence and trying to survive roving bands of mutants...well...good luck to you. This post, heck this entire month, will probably be a little use to you. Might I suggest purchasing Mutant Future? OK. Cool.


In the game of Dungeons & Dragons, the PCs are usually a travelling group of adventurers who rarely stay in a single town or city for very long. Often, only enough time to stock up on supplies, weapons and armor, check out a few rumors and learn the location of the next ungodly hole in the Earth where someone thought to bury a lot of junk, a few pieces of true treasure and where the denizens of monsterdom seem to be able to find affordable housing. D&D characters seem to have no real home, no base of operations and often no support network behind them. This is not always the case of course (nothing is always the case with everything and everyone - there, there oversensitive D&D fan) but it does seem to be more common in that genre then in say, Superheroes.

In a Superhero game, the PCs are usually members of a team and that team often has a headquarters. Some campaigns actually deal with the PC Supers secret identity and therefore there are heroes that have a home or apartment, while others seem to live at the groups 'Watchtower'. A support network is often in place, whether consisting of other heroes or a government owned anti-supervillain organization (such as Marvel's SHIELD or UNTIL from Champions) or both.

Science Fiction in general has a very different approach to the issue of where do the PCs hang out when not adventuring and how to they get support for specific missions they may not be able to easily handle on their own. It is an old spacefaring Sci-Fi staple that the heroes live onboard their starship.

This is especially true in Star Trek. The PCs all live in a gigantic, starfaring megadungeon that they call home and which travels with them to their various adventures. In addition, this massive RV, which transports them on a cross-cosmos sight-seeing tour of the galaxy, comes complete with food, equipment, honest to goodness bathrooms and shower facilities and a bunch of extra bodies to help move things.

In many of the Star Trek games I've run, the ship is not just a bus with Phasers and
Transporters but a part of the team. It's home and it's family to the PCs after a while. Now it doesn't always start out that way but I've seen it happen time and time again. The Players do not want to see their ship destroyed, not just because the PCs onboard would go up in flames right along with it but because it is the place they're characters live.

This effect is greatly enhanced by personalization. Now, what does that mean in the context of a Star Trek game? How much can you personalize a Starfleet vessel before Starfleet Command sends you to mine Borrite for the rest of your life?

Let's start with small scale personalization. It happens by accident often enough, especially in Star Trek, though some players like to make a point of doing it. Little things like souvenirs from missions, gifts received from that attractive diplomat from Cygnus who visited the ship last session, family heirlooms or good luck charms, all brought aboard and on display in the PC's quarters.

It moves up to medium scale by having the players name the shuttlecraft and specify some details about the vessel's internal layout (in one TMP era game my players insisted the ship had an Astrometrics lab similar to the one seen on the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: Generations, albiet smaller and not quite as holographic.).

It moves up to the majors by improving or altering the ship's weapons and defenses or adding an extra tractor beam projector or maybe customizing the science labs on Deck 6. I have a house rule that allows the players to pool experience points to buy such enhancements. For those who say such a concept isn't quite in fitting with canon, I direct your attention to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Galaxy's Child" which confirms field modifications made to the Galaxy Class Enterprise-D by Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge.

The process is not unlike that of the PCs in a Dungeons & Dragons game getting to build their own castle and customizing it as they begin high level play. They get quite attached to their keep, even more so if they had and continue to have a direct hand in its design.

My good friend, fellow Star Trek fan and Star Trek gaming nut Nelson would design the bridge layout for every game we ran, often making dozens of sketches or alterations to a single sketch to get it just so.

What I mention above are elements that contribute to more then just a greater need and desire to protect the ship and it's crew. By allowing the ship to develop as the characters develop, the vessel takes on a grander role then simple conveyance. It is a character itself but it is also a community.

Many ships, based on the style of their commanding officer and bridge crew, form a personality all their own. Certainly some starships in the fleet have a notoriety for having crews that are rough and tumble or by-the-book and no-nonsense or easy going and relaxed. The type of ship may reflect itself on the crew's personality and vice versa. A Scientific Survey Vessel exploring the Crab Nebula will have a crew and customized capacities very different from those of a Military Frigate patroling the Klingon-Federation border.

In conclusion (at least for now) do not ignore the potential drama, humor and personality of the PCs' constant companion...their starship.

Treat her right and she'll always bring you home,

Barking Alien


  1. what about the crew?!

  2. Good post. You're completely right about the importance the ship would have in a Star Trek game--though I'd say not limited to that. Based on what we see in Star Wars, the Millenium Falcon should sort of be a character in a Han Solo-ish game. Ditto Serenity in a Firefly game.

  3. @Shlominus - I will get to some details on crew later in the month, although much of the previous posts for August have been about the Player Character crew.

    This post is specifically geared toward pointing out a sometimes overlooked element of Star Trek (or, as Trey notes, any Science Ficition game).

    @Trey - I completely agree. As I noted in the post, it is a general Sci-Fi/Spacefaring truism that the main characters live in their ship. This is true for Star Wars and Firefly but also Farscape, LEXX, Lost In Space, etc.

    Are the ships characters in all of these? I would say yes, though personally the Serenity always seemed to have less character to me than say the Millenium Falcon or the Enterprise.

    I will also say that the Falcon and the Enterprise-D share a quirky character that seems to have them malfunction or break down a lot right alongside them being awesome.

  4. I didn't want to let this one go by and I agree that the ship can be a character in some form. Compared to D&D it's somewhat akin to a castle or temple base but it's also akin to a mount - you have to feed it, take care of it, possibly buy gear for it, and heal it when it is damaged. It can be similar to the horse in a western, like Silver or Comet. It's a companion that doesn't necessarily speak and may not be totally under the party's control but is a character nonetheless.

    Additionally it's a scoreboard - if you have a tricked-out ship in a game like Traveller then you're probably doing well.

    Having some adventures that physically involve the ship can make it seem more like home. Unexpected breakdowns and the quirky fixes made as a result also help increase the party's "ownership stake".

    Finally, one of the benefits of all this attention is the increased drama when the ship is threatened. Now it's not just the characters but it's also their companion/scorecard/home that's at risk.

    1. Nail on the head with all of this Blacksteel! Exactly what I was going for. Thanks for the input.