Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Genesis Wave

Gaming the Final Frontier Part I - General Order Two - Full On Pre-Production

As I prepare the Series Bible for my new Star Trek RPG campaign, currently entitled Star Trek: OUTBOUND - Operation Gamma Flight, I have been doing tons and tons of research, making illustrations and maps, watching and reading a lot of Star Trek, asking my players for their ideas and opinions and generally thinking about how to best convey the process to you on my blog. It occurs to me that although I've done this kind of thing a hundred times, I've never had to explain it before. Here goes nothing...

Series Focus/Theme

The first thing I do is come up with a general 'Series Concept' for the campaign. While I will likely run all manner of adventures from action to humor to horror to espionage, the series should have an overriding theme. This theme is something you should always keep in the back of your mind when running the game and designing adventure episodes. If you stray too far or fail to embrace the focus of the campaign somewhat regularly, so will your players and you may not feel like you're really playing a Trek game after a while.

The theme could be a Federation Starship Exploring the Frontier, Military Patrol Ship on a Hostile Border, Espionage at a Forgotten Waystation/Outpost, etc. or any of a thousand other concepts.

For this campaign I've chosen to go classic with a twist, Starfleet Vessel Exploring a Particularly Hostile Frontier Region. The general idea is that we are exploring the side of the Gamma Quadrant that touches the Alpha Quadrant. This is made possible for the first time because the hostile powers normally preventing the study of this area are either no longer enemies, in no position to oppose (though that doesn't mean they're happy about it) or eager to get the Federation's help and form an alliance because they know of a threat in the area we don't know about. The campaign will mainly be about getting the chance to go where no one has gone before and the natives of the region who would rather we didn't. I picture a Starfleet crew with the attitude voiced by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, "Back Off Man. I'm a Scientist".

Series Setting

The next question to answer is when does this take place? As stated in a previous blog post, the best Star Trek shows, games, etc. are a mix of styles and adventures so the setting is more about the types of ships, phasers, uniforms and such. For me, it's less about how the people act since I feel humanity is best represented by our continued attempts to improve, so regardless of the near-utopia portrayed in TNG, players always play with a modern mindset.

After discussing this with my players (an absolute must in my opinion) I've decided to set the series around 20 years after Star Trek: Nemesis or 10 years or so before the setting to be used in the MMORPG Star Trek Online. The look and feel of the technology and setting is very Next Generation mixed with Deep Space 9, although the adventure plots will feature a heavy dose of TOS action-adventure. I wanted the feeling of forward progression (the reason I went further into the future of the Star Trek continuity) but also knew I wanted the players to feel like it isn't easy trying to establish a utopia (as evidenced in Deep Space 9 and Star Trek Online). Basically, if you want a better tomorrow you have to fight for it.

So the setting is basically 20 Years After Star Trek: Nemesis. Circa 2399.

The Ship

One of the unique and wonderful elements of starfaring science fiction gaming is the idea that the players have an actual home that travels with them. The choice of a ship or space station is not to be taken lightly. In essense, this is going to be the PCs' home, headquarters, biggest weapon and largest responsibility for a good portion of your series. Too small and weak and you limit the challenges or types of stories your party/crew can face. Too powerful and your going to have to up the competition and you may find you have to destroy the universe every week to challenge the team.

Often, I like to start the game with the crew on a slightly less then awesome ship so after a few dozen episodes I can have the ship upgraded or move them to a better class. This is an especially effective reward after they've survived a battle that damaged their vessel pretty badly as it also makes sense in the milieu and established continuity.

As I teased on a fellow blogger's D&D/Fantasy website, I lthink its funny when DMs make a big deal about the Mega Dungeons they've made. Each of my Star Trek groups have their own 20+ level Mega Dungeon that flies around with them every adventure and periodically visits other Mega Dungeons in the form of enemy ships, alien derelicts, abandoned space stations, planetside complexes, etc. To create a Mega Dungeon is cool but to live in one and take it with you is awesome!

For our ship I've designed my own class. Resembling the Akira Class from Star Trek: First Contact and inspired by the amazing design of the USS Mawson by John Eaves, I have created the Oz Class Deep Space Explorer, USS Arcadia.

Since many of my current players are new to playing Star Trek, and one of them isn't even much of a Star Trek fan, I decided I wanted a ship that fit both the style of the story and had a bit more punch right out of the gate. As a result, the Oz Class is an exploration ship that can kick butt and take names. While it is visually of the same lineage as all my favorite Star Trek ships (the Miranda, the Akira, the Nebula) its capabilities more closely resemble those of the Luna Class, USS Titan. Its bigger and a bit more bad ass then the Titan but the idea is the same.

Crew, mission details and more coming up next...

Barking Alien

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Genesis Device

Gaming the Final Frontier Part I - General Order Two - Continuing Pre-Production

Alright now, first things first.

The key to any good RPG campaign in my opinion is preparation and organization. This is especially true of Star Trek since you're going to need to keep track of all the cool aliens, starships, devices, planets, stories and other interesting elements you come up with.

For this purpose, I usually create a Series Bible. Just like an actual Star Trek TV show, this book contains the important elements of my series, its background story, major personalities, interstellar powers and other important information such as I mentioned above. Generally speaking this book is a three-ring loose leaf binder with a 'make your own cover' clear sleave and alphabetical dividers. Everything I create for the game goes into this book alphabetically with a front section containing those things I need every session (the stats of the PC vessel, major NPCs onboard, spare pre-generated PCs in case someone new pops in, etc.). I design a cover, usually depicting the PC vessel and crew though often just decorated with images I find on the internet that pertain to the setting.

As mentioned and shown in earlier posts, I and many of my players over the years are artists, both professionally and/or as a hobby. Creating nice covers is always a blast and really shows a commitment to the group that I'm trying to go above and beyond in making the game an exciting experience.

As a side note, after every campaign I've run, the Series Bible for that campaign goes into an even larger loose leaf binder so that I always have my old material ready for inclusion in my next campaign. I do this for the vast majority of the campaigns I run regardless of system or genre, resulting in some continuities that go back 20 years or so. This the cover for my Star Trek 'Mega Bible':

All my Star Trek campaigns since about 1985 or so have used the premise of an exploration endeavour called Project: Outbound and so Star Trek: OUTBOUND has become the name of my 'self-shared' universe when playing Star Trek. All the Star Trek: OUTBOUND campaigns materials from Star Trek: OUTBOUND - The Original Series, Star Trek: OUTBOUND - Phase II, Star Trek: OUTBOUND - The Next Generation, etc. are now contained in one binder with this cover.

My next campaign, Star Trek: OUTBOUND - Operation: Gamma Flight, under construction even as we speak, will benefit from this tome and will someday join its comrades within. Its like the Sto'Vo'Kor of gaming.

I want to announce at this point if need be that my posting of the above image and/or images is in no way intended to infringe upon the trademarks or copyrights of the Star Trek brand, CBS/Paramount/Viacom, Last Unicorn Games, FASA or the websites that were the sources of the some of the images in the above collage. Many of the starships, bridge designs and other images were taken from, my good friend Chris Reyes (aka Atolm) and other non-canon sources. The sole purpose of the above 'cover' is my own personal fun and the fun of several different medium sized groups of my friends over many years.

We like your stuff. Don't disintergrate us.

Barking Alien

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Broadcasting on All Channels

So now I'm on Twitter (username BarkingAlien) and may soon be doing a podcast about Star Trek RPG gaming. As my friend Yuri used to say, "Its the future now, we can do that".

Barking Alien

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Putting My Latinum Where My Mouth Is

I apologize for the infrequent posting and updates to my blog but things have been really busy in the Barking Alien's real life and I've been working on some side projects to boot.

One great side project is that I'm going to be running a new Star Trek RPG Campaign Series starting next month with a group of players I've never played Star Trek with before. As a matter of fact, I've only been Gamemastering for them regularly since January of this year.

I run a 10-12 player campaign of Mutants & Masterminds on the second Saturday of every month at the Compleat Strategist in New York City. Unfortunately 12 players is my limit in that environment but you're welcome to come down and talk, watch, and mingle with the madness.

What does this mean for my Star Trek posts about Gaming the Final Frontier? Well, now I'll be making a new campaign right along side my posts about how to do it. Should be very interesting, challenging (one of the players actually doesn't like Star Trek, any Star Trek, but is willing to try since he liked my M&M game so much - Wee! Yay for me!), and tons of fun.

Stay Tuned!

Barking Alien

Strange New World

Gaming the Final Frontier Part I - General Order Two - Begin Pre-Production

So, based on my advice from the post 'Prime Directive' you've decided to accept Star Trek as your own personal gaming saviour; warts, wrinkles and all. Even Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Just keep in mind, as I responded to the esteemed Robert St. John of Groknard:

"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."

Now its time to go into pre-production on your series. First, some terms:

  • I refer to one game session as one Episode.
  • Adventures played over several sessions are Two-Parters, Three-Parters or Multi-Parters.
  • The first Episode is always the Pilot Episode.
  • More then one Pilot Episode is ok but try to keep it to two.
    Name/Title and number every Episode.
  • After twelve Episodes, I run a Two-Parter called a Season Finale and a Season Opening.
  • A campaign is called a Series.

Why do I do this?

First it helps the players get into the feeling that this isn't just another SciFi RPG, its Star Trek. It puts them in the mind of being characters on a Star Trek series. You've instantly set the mood and atmosphere without even having to do anything major.

Titling and numbering the Episodes adds to this but also appears to have some side benefits. I've found this practice invokes the same kind of interest and excitement the old school D&D modules used to. It is cooler to defeat a Lich or to have beaten S1 - "The Tomb of Horrors"? Instead of just finishing a battle with a Planet Killer, the players can say they survived "A Doomsday Like Any Other", Star Trek: Your Series Name, Episode #25.

I usually refer to the first episode as the Pilot Episode because its both the introduction to the series/campaign and a great time to work out any confusions the players or GM may have about the setting or the characters and to see if some ideas work better then others. For example, in one Pilot I ran the Science Officer seemed flustered by the mystery in the plot but was great with assisting his fellow Officers and learning about the medicinal benefits of the local plant life. Our First Officer felt he didn't have enough to do just being First Officer. The player of the Science Officer PC was, in real life, a research scientist for a pharmacutial company. After some discussion we made some changes and in the second Pilot, the former Science Officer played the Doctor instead and the First Officer became Science Officer as well. Both players were much happier and the campaign went well.

Are the right people in the right jobs for what they want to do? Is the ship too powerful or not powerful enough? What if the Romulans were intended to be the series enemy but after talking to the group the majority like the Cardassians better? The Pilot is the place to find these things out and make adjustments if need be.

One of my key components to successful RPG campaigns, regardless of subject, is preparation and organization. The ideas above definitely help to provide a means of better organizing your Star Trek game while simultaniously providing an added element to the players that lets them know, "This is not a Medieval Fantasy game. This is STAR TREK!"

Next up, choices and decisions to get the Series started...

Barking Alien

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Moment of Silence

While incorrect in my first post it seems that the fates were in need of a better GM.

Sad as we are to see him go, his legacy lives on in ways I'm sure he never imagined. From the table top to the laptop and all around the world; we cry, we laugh and we play games with our friends thanks to him.

David Arneson (1947-2009)

Barking Alien

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Rant Alert, Rant Alert - All hands to Battlestations!

Perhaps you are aware (and perhaps not) of the current shift in Wizards of the Coast's/Hasbro's policy regarding the sales and distribution of Dungeons & Dragons PDFs through companies such as DriveThruRPG, Paizo and RPGNow.

If you haven't heard about it there are dozens of blogs and forums talking about it all across the 'net. I'm not interested in furthering that particular discussion here but I do want to make a suggestion to all those Dungeons & Dragons fans who are suddenly unable to get the source material, adventures and other items they're looking for.

Play something else.

Believe it or not, there is not one or two but hundreds of other excellent role playing games out there, many on PDF for a fraction of what you paid for Dungeons & Dragons. Experiment a little; download a Science Fiction game, a Superhero game or maybe Horror is your thing. If its Fantasy that sparks your imagination I highly recommend getting back to your roots with the Old School movement and check out all the very cool, well supported new games of yesteryear!

Better yet, if at all possible, support your local brick and mortar game shop.

I apologize for the somewhat patronizing tone to my message but really, I feel that we can either be miffed about this sort of thing or we can show WotC and Hasbro that their business model of treating their customer so poorly isn't working. We can also just keep buying into it and they'll keep doing what they're doing. Doesn't bother me as I don't purchase what they sell.

And now back to Star Trek...

Barking Alien

Challenge of the Light Bridge

Thanks to the internet, incorrect information can travel faster than ever before!.

I apologize for reporting that
David L. Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, had passed away. He is indeed in the hospital and very ill but apparently made of sterner stuff then we realized.

Keep fighting the good fight Mr. Arneson, we RPGamers are behind you all the way!

Barking Alien