Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Tale of Two Treks

I wanted to keep the momentum from last month going in hopes of posting more, but an overall frustration with my gaming lately has lead to my not really knowing what it is I want to say. 

That all changed with my inclusion in a recent online Star Trek Adventures campaign in which I am a player. 

I've been running Star Trek games as a GM for almost 40 years, starting with the FASA Star Trek game in 1982. In all these years I think I've been a player maybe a dozen times. I was really excited to play Star Trek for a change instead of running it, partially because I've felt a little  burned out of late with the Star Trek campaign I run bi-weekly, now in its fifth year.

Burned out isn't really the right phrase. I am not bored of it and I am not running out of ideas or anything like that. I am just getting tired of how much it feels like I have to work to get the game to run smoothly. The players in that campaign group approach the game, and perhaps gaming in general, a bit differently than I do. 

At the same time I have to wonder, as I often do, is it just me? I am losing my touch even with Star Trek? If not, why are the players in my campaign so frustrating to play Star Trek with sometimes?

This brings us to my experiences running one game, playing another, and a tale of two United Federation of Planets Starfleet vessels, boldy going where no one has gone before...

The campaign I run revolves around the USS Prosperity, a Ventura Class Light Cruiser in the mid-23rd Century / Original Series Era.  There are four PCs: the Captain, the First Officer/Science Officer, the Chief Engineer, and the Chief of Security. 

We've been playing the game bi-weekly for roughly 5 years, give or take breaks during the holidays or whathaveyou. We started off using the Last Unicorn Games ICON System rules and then took a one or two month hiatus after the first dozen episodes or so (Season 1). When we returned to it, we switched to Star Trek Adventures by Modiphius Entertainment. 

We have switched to playing online during our current global health crisis. 

The game I am playing in focuses on the USS Triton, a Luna Class Explorer beginning its mission a little after the end of the Dominion War in the 24th Century. A little less than a year ago, the USS Voyager returned from an extended period of being essentially marooned in the Delta Quandrant. Our own journey takes us through the Bajoran Wormhole to explore the Gamma Quadrant and support a Federation presence there. 

Each of the three players plays two characters, a Senior Officer (Bridge Crew) and a Junior Officer (Lower Decks). We mix and match for various scenes and missions which is very fun and feels very logical. It gives the players options and I like that. One player is the Captain and a Junior Medical Officer. One is the Helmsman/Conn Officer and a yet to be determined Junior (he hasn't decided). I am the Chief Engineer and a Junior Science Officer. 

We've only played a few sessions and it's been great fun. All of the sessions have been online. In addition to good scenarios, I am going to explain why it's so fun and why that fun sometimes re-enforces my frustration with my own game. 

There are a few things all my old Star Trek campaigns had in common. All of them featured players whose PCs - regardless of background, personalities, and personal styles - wanted to get involved in the story and get things done.

They made every effort, to the best of the players' abilities, to discover what the situation and its challenges were, solve or best them, and uphold the ideas of Star Trek.

They were all, in a very general way, morally good characters who shared a devotion to the Starfleet oath to 'Boldly Go Where No One Had Gone Before'. They wanted to seek out new life forms and new civilizations. They all wanted to preserve peace, protect the innocent, and uphold what the United Federation of Planets stood for. 

In conjunction with this in-game motivation was the meta, gaming motivation of all the players to have fun, make sure the other players were having fun, entertain the GM, and keep the game moving. 

This wasn't, and shouldn't need to be...dare I say it...rocket science. This is just the way it was and the way it always had been and I guess figured it would always be. 

These mindsets are clearly evident in the USS Triton game. 

In the very first session, the experienced, bold Captain and my timid, inexperienced Ensign were stuck in a turbolift when the main power went out on Deep Space 9. Without missing so much as a beat, the Captain climbed up to open the ceiling hatch. When it was stuck, he said, "Huh. It's jammed. Ensign, I could use your help up here." I got to role play wanting to help and impress the Captain while at the same time being intimidated by being in his presence and knowing physical force isn't my forte'. All while I immediately climbed up to help. 

I can just imagine that same scene in my other game.

We'd still be stuck in the turbolift ten minutes of real time later as the Players and PCs over complicate the scene with statements like, "I communicate with the command center of the space station and have them beam us out. Oh right no power. Using my phaser, wait are we between floors? On second thought I..." and, "OK we all stay put. Sooner or later they'll get the power on. There is no reason that a station full of NPCs need our help to do anything right now."

Beam me into space please. 

During Triton's most recent session, we were able to determine that a colony of mysteriously missing farmers and brewers may have been yanked into a different dimension, though the reason and cause was then unknown. A humanoid woman belonging to an unknown alien species suddenly appeared at the colony and quickly began to fall ill. 

After some quick scans and observation of clues, my Science Ensign discovered 'Trans-Phasic Energy' and came up with the theory that the missing colonists were transported to her dimension and she to ours. Our dimension may not be conducive to her well being. Not just the environment but the very nature of our reality could eventually kill her. The same might be true for her plane of existence and our missing colonists. The decision was quickly made by the Captain that her life needed saving and if that also helped us figure out how to save the farmers, excellent! No guarantees but fingers crossed.

Now stop and think about this for a moment. Here was an unknown alien, rapidly developing a fever and getting weaker. We don't know her, her people, or anything about her really. We are on a Federation colony whose Administrator is with us, harping on us to find the missing colonists. Our Captain says he will, that is the goal, but this woman is potentially dying right here, right now and we need to do something. 

I come up with a crazy, especially Star Trek idea. Using the colony's Communications Array and our Starship's Navigational Deflector, we flooded the region with Gravitons and Subspace static, then tweak it to go out-of-phase. We used a 'Trans-Phasic Graviton Wave' to purposely warp space/time and put the colony out of phase with our normal quantum reality (based on earlier readings I had made).

We were told by the GM this was totally possible but very dangerous. It could throw us into the other dimension, physically twist us like a wrung out towel, or even crush everyone. We counter-reasoned that we could protect ourselves by going inside a Cargo Shuttle we found on the surface. Unfortunately, one person would need to be in the Communications Center to flip the switch. 

Our Captain immediately said he would do it. No ifs, ands, or buts. He put on a crappy, beat-up old space suit we found in the Shuttle so as to have a small amount of protection. Fine and dandy. Off we went to our prospective positions. 

I will dispense with what happened next as this is not so much a recount of the session as it is a comparison to a situation in the latest episode of the game I am running. There, an alien craft of unknown origin launched a probe onto the surface of a planet with a native, pre-industrial society. The alien craft, in orbit of the planet, was clearly more advanced and also clearly of a different species. The ship's systems had failed for unknown reasons and all of the crew died. The PCs noted that some systems were still working on weak, emergency power. A screen indicated that the 'probe', if that's what it is, was moving at walking speed on the surface. One of the natives must have found it and was now bringing it somewhere. 

The PCs beamed down and saw that the person and the device were approaching them a little faster now, as the alien native was using a sled on the snowy, icy slope where the PCs found themselves. The Captain here stated that she had no reason, according to her own thinking, to intervene.

Partially it's a prime directive issue and I got that. At the same time, an unknown alien device of a considerably advanced nature is in the hands of a technologically less advanced people. In addition, the ship that launched said device failed, killing everyone on board. Those circumstances however were not enough to get this Captain to become involved in the situation directly. I had to have the native notice the PC group and attack, which got them to start talking and uncover the rest of the story. 

Maybe I should have had radiation from the device slowly killing the Native. The story wasn't about that though. Maybe she should have been attacked by others of her species who wanted the cursed thing destroyed. Sure, I guess I could have added that. There are definitely things I could have done to push the PCs to interact with the native alien. That's on me. But...I have to wonder...

Didn't the Players, who are playing Starfleet Officers in the TOS Era (lean on that with me if you would) want to interact with the native? Didn't they want to know what the device was? Did they intend to beam down to a planet where they knew a native had possession of an advanced probe and...what exactly?...wait until she fell asleep and take it? Wait for her to drop it off a cliff? I mean, I can't figure out how they wanted to get to the adventure part of the adventure.

Group Prosperity is generally very cautious, careful, and sees no reason to act unless they are directly threatened, there is no choice, or it is safe and reasonable to do so. The crew of the TOS Prosperity is often very TNG in its approach to things. 

So far, Group Triton is eager to take action. They want to help their fellow officers, injured aliens, and anyone else in need of assistance whether those individuals realize it or not. The crew of the post-TNG Triton is very TOS in its approach to things. 

In the future I think I need to be more direct with the Prosperity group. I need to attack their ship, have alien artifacts present a clear and present danger to them and their allies. If a danger was threatening a new alien species that was only at the tech level of Ancient Rome, they'd just let them die. No reason to get involved as that would violate the Prime Directive (which I can understand to some degree) but also because it would require universal compassion, which I don't feel is a major motivator for them (which I can't really understand). 

Another element, and one that really, truly saddens me, is that the players in the Prosperity game don't back each others ideas and plays the way I am used to players doing. I get the impression they are used to a more competitive or adversarial approach to gaming. It's that old school mentality D&D creates and which I positively abhor.

One guy came up with a leap of logic that seemed wild at first, but actually fit what the PCs had learned. Honestly I was pretty pleased and impressed. Another player immediately says that the first player's PC wouldn't have thought of that. It was meta, something a Science Fiction fan might think of and not a character in a Sci-Fi universe (I guess).

I can't lie, this crushed me. For the rest of the session I was going through the motions. Someone actually thought outside the box for once, actually came up with a cool assumption that fit the information I provided and one of his fellows was like, 'It doesn't make sense that your PC would be so creative.' It broke my heart.

Meanwhile, the Triton sessions see my Scientist PC come up with crazy ideas that he is nervous to suggest because he's a timid guy, but I found a way to suggest them anyway - TIMIDLY! Then the bold and supportive Captain is, get this, BOLD and SUPPORTIVE! Where am I? Star Trek RPG Heaven? Might as well be.

My Engineer hears my Scientist's crazy notion and I get to say a funny line that shows off the Engineer's very different personality. "That's a pretty wild and dangerous idea you've got there kid. I say let's do it! (Motions to his Engineering team) Who here wants to bend reality? *Cheers go up in Engineering* Well alright then." The Captain approves and we move the story forward.

Again: We Move The Story Forward By Suggesting Actions, Supporting Each Others Actions, Doing Them Right Away, and then Seeing What Happens. 

It's madness! It's also the way I've been gaming for roughly 42 years. 

All I want to do is run and play to the best of my ability. I put my heart into it because gaming is something I love doing.

I know that not every session is going to be perfect, but I can promise that I am going to try to make each and every one as good as I can make it. My old groups, my ALIEN FRONTIER group, and now this USS Triton group, all share that outlook and goal. 

Unfortunately, I don't always feel that from all the members of my other groups. It's about them individually, and not the team or the campaign. That makes my job that much harder and it's definitely wearing me down. 

As one friend suggested, I need to incentivize active choices. I need to give more reasons to react quickly and reward those who react and take action. I thought I always have and that I am simply not getting the same response from one particular group.

Hopefully I will figure out a way to make the situation better for Prosperity going forward. 

Ahead Warp Factor 5. Engage.

Barking Alien


  1. Your group may be a victim of former experiences. Have you heard about the "kick the door" style of play? Well, that name is a lie. In your typical D&D-ish game, this happens when you kick the door*:
    - You activate a trap and the kicker suffers damage.
    - Then, you only have a 50% chance (at best) of actually opening the door.
    - The monsters behind the door get alerted. In the worst case, they get to act before any of the PCs does anything else.
    - The kicker is now blocking the door. If the monsters moved towards him, now no one can enter the room, nor can the kicker move out of the way without suffering an opportunity attack.

    So players can become very cautious and indirect in their dealings with the scenario. Something as simple as "come and help me open this hatch" may sound as a recipe for disaster. They need to relearn that direct action can yield good results.

    *Rules wise. Decent GMs accomodate this situation to something less frustrating. And yes, I am exaggerating. Kinda.

  2. You must be doing something right if the Prosperity game has run for five years - that's VERY impressive. That's my biggest takeaway from this.

    As has been mentioned, you possibly need to tailor the challenges towards capitalising on their style of play.

    Have you tried sounding them out, individually or as a group, to find out what kind of adventures they are interested in playing? Then engineer scenarios/situations that combine your aspirations with their desires.