Thursday, September 8, 2011

Star Traveller

I've been watching quite a bit of Star Trek recently, as is my custom,  and I've given some thought to how I would run a game in the style of Star Trek.  This is unlikely to happen in the near future, since my main group seems more interested in D&D and Star Wars, and my Traveller side game is more properly a Firefly-type set up.  It is difficult to stop my wandering mind.

The thing I most like about Star Trek is what Starfleet does: exploration.  The universe of Star Trek is pretty damn cool, but I think the greatest strength of bot TOS and the early episodes of TNG is their episodic nature.  Each (good) episode has a cool sci fi premise based around the idea of exploring new worlds or making contact with alien species. 

I often find it weird that Star Trek gaming thends to skew to the more military aspects of Starfleet.  I'm speaking (or rather writing) here more about Star Trek video games as I have little experience with the various TTRPGs made for Star Trek.  I think though that the Star Fleet Universe material bears this idea out.  You don't really do Star Trek things in Star Trek games.  Instead you have big space battles.  Now, I like big space battles, and I've been drooling over Federation Commander for a few months, but in a roleplaying game I want to think my way out of the Tholian web.

There are some problems with the standard Star Trek setup, however.  The most notable one, I think, is the fact that whoever is playing the captain can pretty much tell the other players what to do.  One could circumvent this by having the captain be an NPC, but then the players don't get to make the kinds of decisions that make this sort of game interesting.  Who cares if some NPC makes up some bullshit about corbomite, he's an NPC.  If he needs to have the bridge crew (i.e. the PCs) come up with all his clever plans, then what kind of captain is he?

How does one overcome this?  Well theres nothing really about "exploration" that requires the PCs to be in the Flagship of the Federation.  The chief example here would be the Scouts from Traveller, or at least my understanding of them from Mongoose's core rulebook.  When starting up my online Traveller campaign I described them as a "rent-a-center Starfleet," and I think that metaphor holds true.

So what about a campaign where players play scouts on some remote border of the Imperium?  One could make a Traveller sandbox in the same manner one normally would, modifying it a bit to make the demographics skew away from the dominate races of the Imperium.  Instead it's a barely explored region filled with pre-space flight peoples and a few space-capable races that are as yet unknown by the Imperium.  

The players are the crew of a single scout vessel (c. 4-6 people) who have to respond to the same sorts of problems the Enterprise normally would (rock creatures attacking space miners, space radiation that enhances psychic abilities, gangster planets, etc.) but now instead of a massive crew of experts, they have to figure out how to deal with these things using their extremely limited resources.

The other advantage gained by switching it to a Traveller setting is the fact that humanity's baser elements still exist.  One thing that always bothered me about Star Trek is how much it relies on capital p Progress.  As a student of history, I find these ideas arrogant at best, though the shows typically handle it in a way that is as inoffensive as possible.  Still, now you have a space setting where greed and ambition are still major motivating factors for the various empires, peoples, captains, and even random enlisted men.  If you can't make exploring such a setting into the stuff of great gaming, then there is no helping you.

I should note that I started this post before finding out that today is the 45th anniversary of TOS.  Go out and celebrate by watching your favorite episode!


  1. I actuanlly don't think one player being the captain is necessarily a problem, though I'm sure it depends on the group. Now, the only time I've played Star Trek it's been with people who were fans and knew the sort of roles they were taking on, but it was just never an issue. I think TOS especially shows a lot of conflict between Captain and senior staff, so it's not like people don't get a say.

  2. I love the premise and one strangely underserved in sci-fi games.

    In fact I can think of only really solid example in Traveller, the adventure Levithan, which features the players as officers on a large merchant explorer vessel, in what is basically a sandbox subsector-crawl.

    What's different about the usual Traveller fare is that the systems are completely unknown (nothing more than asterisks on the map).

    Far and away the most fun we had from a published adventure in that setting.

  3. Btw on the captain question, I agree with Trey with the caveat that one not over-focuses on the chain of command or particular speciality.

    Having played in the Drune's Humanspace spaceship PbP as the ship's navigator I found myself kind of struggling with what I should be doing when all these decisions were being made outside of my limited function and pay grade. Best perhaps to blur that thing a bit.

  4. Happy 45th. From Hell's heart, I shall watch thee, "Space Seed"!

  5. Having played in the Drune's Humanspace spaceship PbP as the ship's navigator I found myself kind of struggling with what I should be doing when all these decisions were being made outside of my limited function and pay grade.

    That was more or less the problem when I tried running a Star Trek based thing. It wasn't so much that the Captain was bossy as much as the players felt it wasn't their place to question his orders.

    I'm very much aware that Spock and Bones constantly gave Kirk advice, but I think their minds went to a more "realistic" place. We also had one player who kinda got into a tiff over who should be captain, but that's another story.

  6. From Hell's heart, I shall watch thee, "Space Seed"!

    Mine was always "Balance of Terror," though I'll also be giving "For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky" a watch.

  7. Best perhaps to blur that thing a bit.

    Sorry, there isn't an edit button.

    I think having a smaller crew (made up entirely of the players) would force those crew members to be a bit more well-rounded. The ship's navigator wouldn't just do that, because somebody's gotta fix the hyperdrive or check for alien biological signs.

  8. Well I just published a beta version of a trek inspired game called FAR trek on my blog for free down load. You should check it out as i think it captures the Trek essence pretty well.

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  10. I don't remember the tiff about who should be captain. Hopefully I wasn't the offending jerk. I don't believe I was though, as my memories of that session largely revolve around me thinking "fuck, how do I get the others involved more?"

    I'm a big fan of the idea of having the captain be an NPC, while one player is #1. This, and ensuring that all PCs are away-team ready senior officers. Medic and Science officer are pretty much givens there, of course, but there's room to break somewhat from the TOS mold there.

    It's a theory of mine that part of Bones' resentment of Spock lies in that he is a Medical Officer to Spock's SCIENCE officer. Like, ALL of the science. "Why yes doctor, I COULD fix that man, though I am currently occupied with ALL of the other science. I am sure I can handle this to, of course, if you deem it necessary."

    So, all kidding aside, medicine being what it is in Trek, I think you could get away w/ just a science officer for in-field medical care, or perhaps a medically trained security officer.