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

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Undiscovered Country - Gaming The Final Frontier

Periodically the online pen & paper RPG community comes alive with discussion of running Star Trek games and campaigns. Usually this is spurred on by some event in the popular entertainment media such as the upcoming Star Trek film and/or the announcment of a MMORPG.

Frequently, this is followed by numerous posts on how difficult it is to run a Star Trek game. The reasons, all legitimate in their cogitation, range from differences in favorite series and play styles, adherence to or avoidance of canon and not being able to find the right system or enough support.

While I am by no means an official authority on the subject, I have been running Star Trek RPG campaigns and pick up games for the better part of 25+ years. I was a playtester for the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG by Last Unicorn Games and one of the supporting writers on LUG's Original Series supplement Among The Clans: The Andorian Sourcebook , getting to work with the minor deity of cool game concepts, S. John Ross. I have run more Star Trek games then any other RPG in my 30+ years in the hobby and it remains my favorite subject for a campaign.

Over the next week, I'm going to make several posts that I hope will serve as useful advice to anyone out there interested in running a Star Trek game. I will begin with an overview discussing how to set up for a Star Trek campaign and getting in the right mindset, followed by a few do's and don't's, character creation, adventure design and finally rewards and how to keep it going.

Please join me as I hope to not only help out some fellow Star Trek gaming fans but also show those who haven't tried it yet that it can be a ton of fun.

Live Long and Prosper,

Barking Alien

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Nimoy!

Today we celebrate the 78th Birthday of
Leonard Nimoy!

Best Wishes and Happy Returns!

Barking Alien

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Shatner!

William Shatner is 78 years young today.
Happy Birthday Mr. Shatner and many, many more.

Barking Alien

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Art of Star Trek RPGs - Vol. I

Years of playing Star Trek RPGs means years of campaign artwork. As with many other gamers, I played most of my campaigns throughout high school and college. I happen to have attended the High School of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts for college. The end result is that most of my friends over the last 25 years are awesome artists. For this first art dump, I've included mostly my own work with one piece drawn by my buddy Aris and inked and colored by me. I hope you like them...

This last one is a drawing of my first character in his civilian garb.
loves me some Andorians.

Barking Alien

Monday, March 16, 2009

...Its Dangerous Mission

For several months after we started our campaign, the guys would come over to my place or Joe's every Sunday and we'd take the Alliance into one perilous adventure after another. Most of the time I would GM but once in a while Joe would step in and take a few sessions.

The campaign was set in what would have been year five of the original series Enterprise's famous five year mission. Our game was much more military oriented then the Star Trek series, a reflection of the time and the style of gaming popular among 13 year olds. Where as Kirk, Spock and the rest of the 1701 crew were primarily interested in going where no man had gone before, we were a black ops unit carrying out a black ops project to make sure an alien enemy stayed far away from where men travelled fairly regularly.

The Romulan dynamic added a little extra spice. Here we had a sworn enemy of the Federation pushed to the point where they needed to ask for our assistance in stopping a much worse enemy. I focused many of my adventures on missions against the Borogrove, experimental weapons or ship systems that went awry and interactions with various political allies and enemies. Joe actually focused more on the Romulans themselves and our relationship with them. This was fantastic for me, as I would play my character when Joe GMed and I added a dislike of the Romulans into my background.

Alas, the campaign was not long lasting. After a while school, family and other things you have no control over at the age of 13 caused us to put the game on hold. Periodically we got back together to play a session or two but it wasn't until about a year or so later that I would start playing Trek again regularly. The release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a new edition of the FASA game and additional sourcebooks and supplements inspired me to start up a new campaign. This next one lasted just over a year and featured about six players.

By 1985, Star Trek had become my main game of choice. It ranged from full length campaigns to pick up games we would throw together on the spot. You know, break out some dice, roll up some characters, crew a ship and you're good to go.

My friends and I played many, many other games over the next few years (especially West End Games D6 Star Wars and Hero Games' Champions) but Star Trek remained a favorite. The rest, as they say, is history but I defer the history lessons on Star Trek gaming to someone much more adept at it then I.

Next up - What makes a good Star Trek game and how to pull it off.

Live Long and Prosper,

Barking Alien

These are the voyages of the battleship Alliance...

Continuing my 'Trek' down memory lane; it was a couple of days later on a warm and breezey Sunday in 1982 that my friends and I assembled to play our very first game of Star Trek. I had spent all my free time reading and re-reading the book that came inside the FASA Star Trek RPG boxed set. I read through any and all the Star Trek books I owned and gathered together any appropriate props (toy phasers, communicators, tricorders, a Star Trek t-shirt I owned) and made lots of notes and drawings in one of those composition notebooks. I brought the game, the notebook, my props and ten-sided dice over to my friend Joe's house.

Joe's apartment was huge and his bedroom, originally shared with his older brother, was no different. I spread my stuff out before me and Joe added a bunch of his Star Trek items to the mix. It was myself, Joe and a mutual friend who lived in Joe's building named Flavio.

I started by telling them I had a great game worked out and just needed to know what they wanted to make as far characters. They were both ready for me. Flavio wanted to be the captain and had what is still one of the coolest freakin' PC names I've ever heard. Flavio had a bit of an accent, a dark tan and thick black hair; imagine a very young Ricardo Montalban speaking...

Flavio: "You know...Caesar Augustus."

Me: "From Roman history. Yeah. I remember from school."*

Flavio: "You known...Caesar Romero?"

Me: (Blink twice) "The Joker?"*

Flavio: "My name is Captain Augustus Romero."

Augustus Romero. Holy Crap. It was like Khan as Kirk. He was smooth, confident, great with the ladies regardless of species and quick to retaliate if he felt you had wronged the honor of his ship or his crew. This was already shaping up to be the coolest game ever.

Now as for Joe, I knew him well and I knew his favorite character was McCoy. When he told me he was going to play the ship's doctor I was not surprised. Then he said...

Joe: "My character is Dr. Sollock."

Me: "A...Vulcan?"

Joe: "Half Vulcan, half Human like Spock. I was raised on Earth though so I'm not very up on my Vulcan heritage. I can't mind meld."**

Me: "Wow. So do you show emotion?"

Joe: "Yes, though I try to rein it in. I have a bad habit of smiling and laughing at jokes."

I finished out the ensemble by rolling up an Andorian Helmsman and the ship's first officer, Lt. Commander Sh'Hasta Zihl. Zihl was a bit of a hot head (Andorian pun intended) and often threw a challenging point of view at the Captain to make each situation even more interesting.

The three of us were assigned to a top secret Starfleet mission to aid a radical group of Romulan military and intelligence personnel in defeating an alien threat called the Borogrove. The Romulans would probably be executed for revealing this enemy and their war with it to the Federation but without Starfleet's help, they would likely lose the conflict.

Our ship was also top secret. It was one of several prototype Dreadnoughts. Dubbed the USS Alliance, NCC-2182X, this vessel was of the Allegiance Class. Inspired by, though not identical to, the Dreadnought from Franz Joseph's Starfleet Technical Manual, it was a powerful, three naccelle starship designed to fight unaided for long periods of time. Unfortunately, the ship was so powerful it made those we went to help uneasy, especially the Romulans...


*This post and the events therein definitely date me. I was in school at a time when reruns of the 60's Batman was on TV and school actually taught ancient world history to thirteen year olds..

**When was the last time a player in one of your campaigns said, "I'll be less powerful than is standard for my race/species because it adds character to my PC"? I have been very lucky over the years. Maybe even a little spoiled.

Barking Alien

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I'm a Winner!

...Or so my Mother and Robert Saint John over at the Groknard blog tell me.

I am the lucky winner of the Enterprise Japanese TRPG (Tabletop or Tabletalk Role Playing Game as the Japanese say) translation. I am very pleased as you can imagine. A big Star Trek, gaming and Star Trek gaming fan, I am also a collector and otaku for Japanese rpg books.

It pays to be a fan.

If you haven't checked out Robert's blog, do yourself a favor and beam over. I might do a mini-review myself in the near future.

Barking Alien

Dungeons & Dragons for Star Trek!

A number of recent RPG blogger posts have reminded me of why I made my own blog in the first place. I wanted to discuss Science Fiction Role Playing Games, specifically Traveller and my all time favorite, Star Trek.

Star Trek, The Role Playing Game by FASA was the very first role playing game I purchased all by myself with my own money. Well, technically that's not true. The first was Villains and Vigilantes by Fantasy Games Unlimited but I split the cost of the Second Edition boxed set with a friend. Star Trek I bought all on my own. 

When I walked into the Compleat Strategist in New York City, NY (my FLGS) for the first time at the age of 13, I was in awe. I had already played Dungeons & Dragons (Basic and Advanced), Gamma World, Traveller, and a few others. I was aware of perhaps a few more games through my friends. When I entered this die-slingers paradise, this mecca of gaming, I could barely absorb and register all the games, minis, dice, and related gaming paraphernalia before me.

As I walked forward in a daze, trying desperately to look at everything at once, I stopped dead in my tracks after only twenty feet or so. Walking back a few steps I turned slowly to my left and saw a box with the faces of James T. Kirk and Mister Spock painted on it. I gingerly took it off the shelf and looked it over, reading the back of the box very carefully. A Star Trek Role Playing Game. This thing in my hands was a role playing game for Star Trek.

I walked up to the counter and the guy at the register asked, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" I smiled, took a deep breath, and said in a voice both honest and satisfied, "Yes".

After buying the game I went home and called my best friend Joe on the phone right away...

Me: "Joe, its Adam. I found the Compleat Strategist today."
(We were 13 and lived in Brooklyn, a dozen or so subway stops out of the big city. We didn't know our way around Manhattan.).

Joe: "No! Really? What's it like?"

Me: "Incredible. They had everything Joe. EVERYTHING! I bought a game."

Joe: "A new game? What? What did you get?"

Me: "I bought...Star Trek, The Role Playing Game."

Joe: (Stunned silence lasting a good half a minute). "Wha...?"

Me: "Dungeons & Dragons for STAR TREK! You can make your own crewmember, fly your own starship, go to different planets, fight Klingons..."

Joe: "I'll be right over." (Joe lived about 6-8 blocks from me).

Me: "Wait! No. I need time to read the rules. I just bought it. Find one other player to game with us and I'll run it this weekend."

Joe: "Done. I'll call you later."

And the adventure...begins...

Barking Alien


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Watched The Watchmen

Actually, I watched the Watchmen motion picture this past Sunday. Its taken me a few days to organize what I want to say about it. This post is not exactly a review, though I will end it with my opinion of the film. Its more about what Watchmen means to me personally and why.

I grew up in the late 70's and early 80's acutely aware of the atmosphere the Watchmen graphic novel and film describes. Criminals such as the Son of Sam stalked the streets of New York. The cold war had left a nearly tangible chill in the air and the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real or at least felt like it was. Between the ages of 10-15 I knew the difference between the real world and the world of my imagination but saw each as reflecting the other.

The bad guys, mentioned constantly on the TV and radio news reports by smart, older gentlemen who reminded me of my grandfather, would update us on what the villains had done and what they might do next. My father was a police officer and it was his duty to make sure these criminals were found and put in prison. He was my hero. Looking back its no wonder my favorite comic book superhero is Green Lantern. He is essentially a cop, one of many wearing a uniform and armed with a dangerous weapon in defense of those who can not defend themselves.

So evil was real, heroes were real and terrible, world shattering situations were possible. I was a comic book and science fiction fan from a very young age but by 10 I knew we didn't need Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. We had far worse right outside our windows.

By the time I was creating my own characters, drawing my own homemade comics and writing stories about the adventures of heroes and villains of my own imagining, the realities of politics, social upheaval and fear had crept into them. Long before I would read or even know about Alan Moore's magnum opus, I had generated a series of stories about an Earth whose superhumans only made the planet worse. I reasoned that if our world has problems a world with super people would have super problems. An old girlfriend of mine read my stories and described the main characters as 'dysfunctional superheroes'.

When the Watchmen series came out, it spoke to me in a way nothing had before. It will always be an inspiration to me as well as a confirmation of sorts. I am no Alan Moore to be sure but I am encouraged to think I had some similar elements to my stories as he had to his. There is also a sense among those who've read it and lived through the period it describes that we are part of a shared experience. I thank Alan Moore and the incomparable David Gibbons for the work graphic literature they created.

The film maintains the same feeling as the graphic novel in its depiction of the world of the Watchmen as one where feelings of helplessness grip an American on the verge of armageddon. The movie does a wonderful job of depicting the strengths and vulnerabilities of the characters and how being superheroes gets them no closer to helping the man on the street, nor does it assist in saving the planet. While there is no way it could have the impact to the medium that the comic book had to sequential art due to the very natural of the visuals, the film faithfully recreates the look and the atmosphere of the graphic novel to excellent effect. Over all I enjoyed the movie very much, though mostly for the fact that it seems a homage to how awesome the graphic novel is.

Go see it. Go read the graphic novel. Do both. Get multiples angles on the same scenes. Its well worth it.

Barking Alien

Friday, March 6, 2009

Quis Ridiculus Ipsos Ridicule Chartas?

Don't say I didn't warn you just because I warned you in Latin.

Barking Alien

Thursday, March 5, 2009

It will be dark and grim and feature the Blue Beetle...

In late autumn of 1985 (if memory serves) I was sitting with my friends in a classroom at my high school (the High School of Art and Design in New York City) awaiting a guest speaker for our Comic Book Club meeting. Each club needed a teacher to sit in on the meetings and we were lucky enough to have one with connections in the comic book industry.

I don't recall the guest's name but I remember he was a writer and sometimes editor with a number of years in the business. His speech that day was about the process by which a concept goes from pitch to final product. It was very interesting, at least for me and I learned a lot about how business and creative ideas can often clash and just as often find a way to work. By way of example, he told us about a new project DC was working on. He couldn't say too much but seemed very excited. He thought it was going to be the 'Next Big Thing'TM. It was called Watchmen.

Our guest described the series as a gritty and dark look at what the world would be like if superheroes really existed. How the world might be better or much, much worse for them being in it. When asked what superheroes would be featured he said, "They're using the Charlton Comics heroes. Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom...those guys."

This excited me in the extreme. I was a huge fan of those characters, having received a bunch of Charlton Comics from my uncle. Also, we (my friends and I) all knew DC had acquired the Charlton characters since they had appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Fast forward to 1986 and the release of the first issue of the Watchmen limited series. I was initially disappointed to find original characters in it and not the ones I was expecting. These were not my Charlton heroes but dopplegangers made to look like them.

Then I read it and as I continued to follow the series I found it gripping, moving, very depressing and way cool. It quickly became and still is one of the greatest achievements of the sequential art form and definitely a personal favorite. I am also really happy they didn't use the Charlton characters. As I don't want to spoil the film or the graphic novel for anyone who still hasn't read it (there must be somebody) I'll just say that it would have made it impossible to use the characters in any other project. Blue Beetle and his friend should be fighting side by side with Batman and Superman. The Watchmen characters belong to the Watchmen world.

A final thought...

I read a Watchmen Wiki that said writer Alan Moore didn't base the female character of Silk Spectre on any existing Charlton character as he did the others. Instead, it says her design was inspired by DC characters like Black Canary and Phantom Lady. Perhaps so, but if they had kept with the idea of using the Charlton heroes, does that mean they wouldn't have used Nightshade?

Barking Alien

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

To All My Fallen Heroes

The one year anniversary of the passing of Gary Gygax has me remembering not just the man himself but the fact that all three of my big creative influences have left us.

With the passing of Mr. Gygax, who I'd 'spoken' to online once or twice, we lost the iconic embodiment of all things old school in gaming. It was he who started this pastime for many of us, he who had fun before he had vision and he who would argue not for his next dollar but for his views.

Gene Roddenberry left us a 'Wagon Train to the Stars' that also gave us inspiration and hope for a future we could be amazed by and proud of. At a time when I personally feared the world would melt itself down into a sizziling radioactive lump, I would think, "Wait, that can't happen. We'll unite eventually. We have to."

Lastly, Jim Henson...I know it may seem odd to put Mr. Henson here but in addition to his creative genius he managed to prove you could make a living being silly, inventive and by doing things your own way. Henson has always been a major hero of mine and I think his passing effected me most personally because of where and when it happened. I was a college student in New York City at the time and cut class to attend the funeral. Its something that to this day I'm glad I did.

So, my heroes have left but they are by no means gone. Henson's legacy ingites the imagination of my young nephew through Sesame Street. Roddenberry's vision gets an injection of action and adventure on the big screen in a few months. As for Gary Gygax, he's remembered every time I draw a character, read a game blog, write a story or run a game. Come to think of it, that's pretty much every day...

To the Dungeon Master, the Great Bird and the Frog...Thanks. Rest in Peace.

Barking Alien