Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Star Trek Adventures

It hasn't come up much, here, but I am a huge fan of Star Trek.  When I was younger, I was very much the stereotypical Trekkie. I was rarely found without at least one Star Trek novel in my backpack, I could ID a dozen or so classes of starship (both Federation and hostile), and I could rattle off numbers and statistics and trivia like nobody's business.  I was obsessed.

So it's appropriate that the first RPG book I ever owned was for FASA's old Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The book was the Star Trek: The Next Generation Officer's Manual, and I owned it long before I owned a copy of the game. I didn't even know it was a game book (and neither did my parents, or I would never have acquired it ...).

One of my first gaming experiences was with FASA's game. I won't say it was a good game, but it wasn't bad. We were handed pregens by the GM, and we went from there into a more-or-less typical D&D-style hack-and-slash adventure with phasers instead of crossbows and Klingons instead of orcs and so on.  It was oddly dissatisfying even at the time, because this isn't what Star Trek was about.

A few years later, I acquired a copy of the game, and I even ran a few brief campaigns. I tended to base the campaign premises off of some of the novels (which still, I think, was not a bad idea - depending on the novel). One of my favorite games was set on the USS Excalibur (before the M-5 insident as seen in "The Ultimate Computer"), and I based it on the novel The Abode of Life (which I need to re-read to see if it's held up as well as I remember).

I loved character generation in the game. The guided lifepath was a great way to handle it, and it allowed for a great deal of diversity in characters (and skill levels). I read somewhere that Gene Roddenberry also really liked the lifepath process, and made it a condition of the license for future Star Trek roleplaying games.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Last Unicorn released Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game. Mechanically, it was very different from the old FASA game. Its production values were very different. Instead of three little blue books, it was one glossy hardcover book that was quite a bit thicker than the three blue books combined. And it still had a lifepath for character generation. They also published a Deep Space Nine game, and a classic 'Trek version.

I never actually got to play LUG's version of the game. The friend who was going to run a campaign dropped off the face of the earth before the campaign started. And then the license expired and someone else picked up the ball and ran with it.

Decipher, who I knew from the TNG collectible card game, had snagged the license after LUG was bought by WotC and lost it. Decipher's Trek was similar to LUG's in presentation, but it was two hardcovers (at first), one for players and one for the GM. It still had a lifepath, but the system was almost d20, only with multiple d6s instead of a single d20. I bought it. I read it. I ... wasn't interested in playing it. It just ... didn't feel right.

Last year, Modiphius announced that they had acquired the license. They did a huge open playtest (that I did not participate in), and early reviews were ... pretty good.  So I did a bit of research, and I discovered that they'd be using their house system - the 2d20 system.

I grabbed Mutant Chronicles (another universe that I have a deep fondness for), and started to learn the system. And I was ... nervous. The 2d20 system has a lot of moving pieces, with multiple player currencies in play.  I didn't understand how this system was getting such rave reviews for Star Trek.

I backed Conan on Kickstarter, and it's that same system. And Conan was ... okay. Not amazing, not game-breaking. Still a bit clunky with all those currencies to keep track of. My fear for Star Trek grew. But I resolved to pre-order anyhow.

When the pre-order went lived, we bought in that first day. GM Screen + limited-edition core book.  A short time later, we had the PDF (because Modiphius is really good at getting the PDF out there). And I read the PDF. Devoured the PDF.

It's still recognizably the 2d20 system, but it's both streamlined and altered. Where Mutant Chronicles has a sizable skill list, Star Trek Adventures has six skills, and they related to the various departments found on a starship - Command, Conn, Medical, Science, Security, and Engineering. Want your character's stats to be more detailed than that? Use a Focus to narrow it down.

This change streamlines the system quite a bit, and, at the same time, results in the sort of hypercompetent characters you tend to see in Star Trek.

Star Trek Adventures also added character values. They're almost like Aspects in Fate - they define your character, and you can pull a couple of mechanical tricks with them, too. This increases the feel of Star Trek. It means that the game is about your characters' beliefs and goals and - yes - values, just like the TV series and movies have been.

The more I drilled into the PDF, the more excited I got. Your ship is treated like another character, with its own separate character generation process. You're not limited to the eight PC species included in the core book, and they give a few guidelines for creating your own species. It's simple enough to homebrew ship classes that you find elsewhere.

There are still a few currencies for players to keep track of - they can spend Momentum or add Threat to the GM's pool or spend Determination on a roll, and some of these things go to party pools and some go to the GM's pool and some are just ... spent. It's not a completely intuitive system (like I'd prefer), but it's solid and seems functional without a huge number of "Gotcha" bits.

My good friend Wade went to GenCon this year, and he texted me on Thursday morning. Modiphius' first sale of the day was a copy of the core book. For me. "But Eric," I can hear you saying, "Didn't you already buy the limited edition book?"  Yes. I did. But I am a player who likes having multiple copies of the core rules at the table. That way, the GM has one to reference, and so do the players. If there's a rules question in the game, there are two sets looking for it. With PDFs, I can hand both physical copies to my players and search the PDF, resulting in three sets of eyes looking to answer questions.

The only real bad thing about Star Trek Adventures is that it's sucked me back into Star Trek fandom. And not a little bit, either. I am all the way back in. I went out to the garage and I dug out Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise, and my Star Trek Technical Manual and my Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual and half a dozen other "in universe" books with varying levels of canon compliance. I filled my Kindle with novels and novellas. And I started playing Star Trek Online (which - for the record - could do with a decent help guide for the PS4 version).

And I've decided to run a campaign again. But, looking at advancement in Star Trek Adventures, I think it'll work really well for a new-to-me structure of game. What I'm doing right now is assembling a player pool. A large one. More players than any GM ever wants around their table.  When I have an episode idea, I'll figure out when I have time to run it, and I'll send a message to my players. That message will read something like this:
Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot, Pilot, Who's Got The Pilot?"
The Tethys' new helmsman has disappeared in transit to the ship. It's up to an away team in a runabout to follow his path and figure out what happened to him. 
This episode is for four to six players, and will be played on Date at Time.
 Then I wait.  The first six players who let me know they're available at that date and time will be the featured characters for that episode. If I don't get at least four players for that time, I go back to my calendar, figure out a different date and time, and try again.

Most of the advancement in this game is small. "Lower one number to raise another." That means that if Player A makes it to 15 sessions and Player B only makes it to two or three sessions, there won't be an overwhelming experience advantage for Player A. And it feels "in universe" accurate to have different characters featured periodically.

It also means that grown-up players with busy lives who can't make a regularly-scheduled game very often should have no problem still fitting around my table occasionally.

So thanks, Modiphius. I look forward to exploring the galaxy with you.

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