Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dungeons & Dragons for Vegans

Before I spread any disinformation, let me clarify the title: Obviously no decent, neutral good vegan would go around killing and/or eating treants and myconids and other intelligent creatures, just because they happen to be more plant matter than animal. You simply don't eat anything with a mind. But it did strike me as funny that I, as a vegan, would happen to get a little obsessed with the vegetable portions of the Monster Manual, and the title came from that.

40 years of treants. Click to embiggen.

But this is an interest that predates my vegetarianism and later veganism by a couple of years. I had had been roleplaying as a player for years, when in 2002 I bought the Planescape setting, my first roleplaying book purchase other than core rules. I set about writing up my very first attempt at a serious campaign of my own, based out of Sigil. The campaign didn't last more than 2 or 3 sessions, and most of my prose-heavy, illustrated notes were never put to much use, directly. What's relevant to this post is that I'd borrowed someone's Monstrous Manual to help me plan my campaign, and it was the first time I'd ever sat down to read the whole book. And what grabbed my attention the most were the plant and fungus creatures.

Why had we never played with these before, I wondered. Why did we always fight the same orcs and goblins, when there were these crazy, weird, interesting things instead? They're all so different from each other, and from anything else, with the clever, detailed ecologies and cultures that 2nd Edition monsters were written with (and which, sadly, later editions tended to neglect). Better still, many of the plant and fungus creatures worked logically together as a whole symbiotic ecosystem of different things that could kill (or at least challenge) the player characters. I thought these fit in especially well with the natural weirdness of Planescape, so it was a perfect idea for me to start exploring, though I've since found that interesting plant creatures can work well in just about any sort of genre or setting. I'll occasionally steal one of these for non-D&D roleplaying, especially science fiction games, when I need something weird and surprising.

Perhaps what I liked most about the more humanoid plant/fungus creatures was that they often weren't automatically Evil combat monsters (which are always just a little boring to me), but could be interacted with more civilly - BUT it would necessarily be weird, alien interaction. I felt, and still feel, that this is a great way to make challenging NPCs for players to talk to, especially in tense, urgent situations. (When Rhys-Davies portrayed Treebeard on screen not long after I'd written that first campaign, it went some way to illustrating to me how effectively that sort of alien plant-mind storytelling could be done, so clearly I was far from being the first person to think of it.)

I had been thinking about all of this again recently, and somehow I got curious about how 5th Edition had affected my old favourites. That got me wondering how they compared across all other editions. And that, inevitably, led me to spend a week researching a spreadsheet of every plant, fungus or algae creature that's been officially published by TSR and Wizards of the Coast. I threw in Pathfinder too, partly because it's an unusually popular D&D variant, and partly because Paizo have made it so easy to find all their monster stats and descriptions online, so it was minimal extra effort for me. It turns out that some of Pathfinder's original additions to this collection are pretty nifty.


My rule of thumb for deciding what to include on my list was whether the real world equivalent of a creature would mindlessly stay fixed in place (plant-like), or whether it would intelligently wiggle itself around (animal-like), or perhaps neither. In short, I was playing animal-vegetable-mineral with the Monster Manuals. Anything explicitly described as a form of plant, fungus or algae, I included (and I'll collectively call those 'vegemonsters' here, for simplicity). Excluding anything from the animal kingdom was easy. I also excluded constructs, mineral-based creatures, energy beings, and entities of pure magic (including elementals). Slimes and oozes made me stop and think. The clearest descriptions of these all compare them with real world bacterial colonies, which might look vaguely plant-like at a macroscopic level, but are made up of wiggling things on the microscopic level, so I excluded them. The other notable anomaly is the dryad, which has been in the game since the very start, but which only 4th Edition describes as being an actual plant; all other editions call them plant-adjacent fey spirit things.

Myconids, in glorious 5th Ed quality illustration
Comparing the editions has been interesting. The main reason my spreadsheet has the 'Shape' column is that I was concerned that different editions were renaming practically the same species multiple times, with only small stat changes. Lumping them together by approximate body shape helped me to narrow that problem down, and highlight, for example, all of the tree-man things that seem a lot like treants, but which aren't named as treants. Creative GMs can decide for themselves what to do with this sort of duplication, but I can see why some were a little unnecessary and were eventually abandoned by TSR/WotC.

Treants were the first plant creatures in the game, originally named ents (until Tolkien sued) way back in the pre-D&D Chainmail rules (1971). Yellow mold joined treants in the earliest D&D core rules (1974). But it was the Greyhawk supplement (1975) that first pointed out creative ways to use all manner of plants as traps, though it offers basically no real rules or detailed explanations of these. The 1977 Basic D&D rules did very little with this idea, while the parallel 1977 Advanced D&D 1st Edition rules expanded on the early Greyhawk suggestions greatly. AD&D 1st Ed codified a number of plant and fungus creatures that could do what the earlier edition had hinted at, and more, especially in its Monster Manual 2.

AD&D 2nd Edition (1989) picked up everything from 1st edition, and then went nuts, pushing its total statted vegemonsters to over 100, many in the core Monstrous Manual (and its Monstrous Compendia predecessors), but also in the setting-specific expansions that followed over the course of the 1990s. I note that the Planescape setting (1994) that first nudged me into exploring this only added two new types of its own to the pile, though its razorvine is unusually distinctive and iconic to the setting. I'm not aware of any other setting that has its own defining species of plant like that, and it's not even an intelligent plant! The Dark Sun setting (1991) necessarily needed a variety of much more unusual desert plants, with more complicated justifications, to replace the default temperate species of traditional D&D settings. And the horror theme of the Ravenloft setting (1990) allowed for a few more dangerous and nasty vegemonsters.

3rd Edition (2000) trimmed back the vegemonsters a lot. Its first Monster Manual only had half a dozen different kinds, though the Monster Manual 2 caught up with quite a lot more. 3rd Ed is also notable as the first edition to officially drop the venerable yellow mold (which still hasn't returned in later editions), leaving the treant as the only one in my spreadsheet to be found in every single edition of D&D. The new Eberron setting (2004) added some nice new stuff to the game (no new vegemonsters, since they focused so much on constructs), but neglecting most other published settings in this and subsequent editions led to a much greater net loss of official content of all sorts.

4th Edition (2008) hated creative and interesting monsters in general, cutting back on all sorts of creatures, especially ones that didn't have obvious combat roles. Note that the 4th Ed Monster Manual had a lazy habit of giving a pair of alternate stat blocks for many monsters, with very little decent justification for why they would exist in different forms with different abilities. The bottom line is that the 4th Ed Monster Manual only really has around half as many different species as it pretends to, and this is reflected in my spreadsheet too. Though my spreadsheet counts each stat block separately, I only count 4 real distinct species of vegemonsters from that book, 5 if you count their peculiar (and possible mistaken) change to the dryad. This edition was clearly a regression, in several senses.

5th Edition (2014) is still relatively new, with only two main monster books out so far (including the very interesting Volo's Guide, which would make an excellent birthday present for me), but I'm pleased to see that there's been at least some recovery of previously abandoned vegemonsters, with especially detailed write-ups for the myconids and vegepygmies. I don't expect future expansions will include every single vegemonster from past editions, but I do hope they'll bring back some of the better ones, as well as introducing some creative original types. Even if they don't, I'm glad to see that they're at least getting comfortable with fluff and lore again.

Roleplaying isn't about rules and stats, those are just a handy framework. What first grabbed my attention about gas spores and shriekers and russet mold and obliviax, over 15 years ago, was not their number of hit dice nor their XP value. What made them interesting was the weirdness of plants with their own agency, and the deep and unusual descriptions that someone had written for each. And from that I, as a new GM, could begin to see how to use them in interesting, unexpected ways. Obviously I adapted them to suit my own needs, as a good GM should, because lore is not dogma. But I would always much rather start from a fully fleshed out and contextualised idea, than from a dry pile of stats and special abilities. Making up stats is the easy part; if I want to make up my own totally original creatures, the rules crunch is not what'll slow me down. But when I don't want to have to make up my own creatures from scratch (which is the point of having a Monster Manual), then I want them to be fully pre-cooked for me, not half-baked. 2nd Ed got this right, more often than not. 3rd and 4th didn't understand it. I hope that 5th and beyond will get it better and better.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The least worst thing about Trump

There are plenty of bad things to say about Trump, and he keeps working* hard to produce more. He may not end up being the worst US president of all time (Jackson set a very low bar, for one easy example), but he's easily got to be the least qualified, least suitable they've ever had. I want to be clear that I'm no Trump supporter, and that this post is not at all a defence of the man. There's just so much to hold against him; I won't bore you by listing it all here, when so many other sources have been doing that for years already. But there's one thing that (mainly American) commenters regularly bring up, when they want to illustrate how awful he is, which I have a little trouble with: Bone spurs.

It's a matter of public record that Trump evaded the US military's draft during the Vietnam War, first through educational deferments, and then through a medical deferment for bone spurs in his foot. That diagnosis doesn't seem like a very compelling excuse, and it's easy to use that to say that he's a coward. And he almost certainly is. I don't think that's bad. This isn't the neolithic, we don't need a big strong manly man to be village chief and protect us from fearsome monsters we don't understand. Today we understand there are no unknown monsters left in the wilderness, it's just us against ourselves now, and the remaining violent manly men are the monsters among us. In 2017, leaders who fear violence are the most sensible, sane, useful choice, provided they extend their caution over all of us, and not just selfishly over themselves. We want more of that sort in office, and pushing in the exact opposite direction seems like overkill.

So our instinct to mock and reject cowardice of violence is outdated, and can even be harmfully counterproductive.
Many people far better than Trump have proudly been cowards.

The issue is complicated, I'm aware, because Trump's draft dodge represents additional things, beyond simple, sensible aversion to violence. The fact that he got away with it, when thousands of others without his wealth couldn't, highlights the unfair class and race exploitation of the draft. Plenty of far more deeply convicted pacifists were forced into war (or jail) because they couldn't afford the legal and medical experts needed to fend off the system they lived in. And since then, Trump has shown that he's not at all opposed to other people having to live with violence and death, so long as it's far away from him. He may be a coward, but that doesn't make him a man of peace. He's clearly something of a hypocrite in this area.

What's maybe a little weirder is that the US right wing is nominally the pro-war side of US politics (though there are plenty of pro-war Democrats, to muddy that divide), and it ought to be incongruous that Republicans would select a draft dodger as their chief. Perhaps that's why critics keep throwing this criticism at him, hoping it'll turn his supporters against him? If so, it clearly hasn't worked, and instead it will almost certainly make life a little harder for genuinely anti-violence US politicians for years to come.

It's a weird situation. His draft dodge attempt may not be praiseworthy, as it was for most others. But it still doesn't seem entirely as awful as it's been portrayed over the last couple years. Would we really be happier if history had gone differently, and a young Trump had been handed a gun and told to shoot people? (Army duty certainly didn't make Hitler into a better person...)

I'm inclined to say this particular criticism works out somewhere close to neutral, in the end. I think it was a perfectly acceptable, rational personal choice at the time, but he's not used his privilege since then to pass that sane option on to others. I wouldn't say avoiding the draft necessarily makes him good, but I also can't easily say that it makes him awful. It's the 965 other far more valid criticisms of him that make him awful (including his subsequent hypocrisy), and this one specific bone spur criticism is kind of unnecessary. It's one of many things I will be glad to be rid of when he finally goes.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Teacher's Bits: RoboRally for teaching transformations

I've been thinking for a year or so that RoboRally ought to be an excellent tool for teaching the mathematics of transformations. I've already drawn a connection in class between the motion of computer animation (in games and movies) and the geometric transformations we've been learning, and many of my grade 9s get that link quite clear in their minds. But for other students, computer animation is a form of change they're not too used to, or haven't looked at closely enough.

RoboRally's step by step motion gives a good look at similar transformations, and at a slower, more deliberate pace. Players need to think through each move, one at a time. The direction a piece is facing is also relevant (which makes rotations important), which isn't so in many other boardgames. In chess, for example, non-pawn pieces seldom care what direction their previous move came from, they can just go off in whatever new direction they like, instantly changing facing. And pawns, at the other extreme, are too directionally limited, with no chance to rotate at all. But the robots in RoboRally must be intentionally rotated, if they want to change direction. There's also the hope that exploring transformations will help to solidify students' grasp of Cartesian planes in general.

And better still, RoboRally is fun. The time pressure, the competition, the risk of blowing up or crashing off the edge, the lasers (pew pew pew), all make the simple act of moving a lump of plastic from A to B more exciting and compelling.

To make it most useful for my grade 9 maths class, I modified the rules and made it a team exercise. I stripped out any optional extra rules, to keep it as simple as possible, and I also replaced all of the cards and tokens with pen & paper, to reduce the chances of my game components getting damaged or lost. But the biggest rule change was replacing the random draw of order cards, with a free choice of translations and rotations, so long as they are accurately written in the correct format, as used in normal exercises.

This retains the two major sources of conflict in the game: Unpredictable, unexpected clashes between different robots' preset plans, and accidental errors in one's own planning.

The first draft version of the rules summary and worksheet. (Click to embiggen)
I found time today for one test game, and while some of the kids were initially uncertain about a lot of it, one or two practice rounds cleared that up, to the point that they were almost all really into it by the end. The winning team were some of the kids who started the game complaining the loudest that they didn't get it. In the final round, they were laser-focused and knew exactly what they were doing. Some of the others, who were very confident early on, learned a series of lessons about how easy it is to accidentally write down the wrong sign when there's time pressure, and they rolled confidently off the edge of the map into the oblivion beyond.

I've seen plenty written about the gamification of learning, and I think a lot of it isn't really suited to older students (who are nominally my main focus), so I haven't explored that much. But as I seem to have a long future of teaching juniors ahead of me, I'm starting to think that I'll have to give gamification some more thought.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Response: Space for Women at the Gaming Table

Droke-Dickinson's short post at Women at Warp, titled Space for Women at the Gaming Table got my interest up a little, enough that I left a comment on it. And while someone there may eventually reply to that, I wanted to pick at my own questions a bit.

1. How does RPG Trek differ from TV Trek?

Droke-Dickinson's post doesn't really focus specifically on either Star Trek or roleplaying games. Rather, it's a post pointing out how many possible entries to the hobby there are today, and how those entry options compare. And I can't fault this, as an introductory post.

But I'd want to go beyond that, to focus on what new players can expect from these games. If you're at Women at Warp, you're presumably already a serious Trekkie, so you'll want a game that gives you an appropriately Trekkie experience? If so, proceed with a teensy grain of caution.

I'd say there are two major differences to be aware of: Imagination and rules.

The rules thing is probably easier to anticipate and explain, though I will waffle about it for a greater number of paragraphs. Games have rules and structure, in order to function. TV shows and movies do too, but they don't work the same way or have the same goals. The structure of a show exists to tell a good story, for the narrative (we know the whole cast won't die within 5 minutes of the start, no matter how realistic that might appear to be), but also to fit within production and budget limits (few series can afford to actually film in weightlessness, for example).

Roleplaying games can have rules and structure for all sorts of reasons, but the three most widely discussed are probably narrative, simulation, and gaming. Narrative is not unlike the story-telling of a novel or series or comic or opera; it's about reigning in the chaos to form random events into a coherent plot. Simulation is about making the gaming universe realistic, or at least internally consistent and adequately predictable (so that the narrative and gaming goals become feasible). And gaming is about giving the events of the story some achievable, discernible target for the players to succeed or fail at reaching; this is normally presented as part of the challenge to be overcome in the narrative aspect.

We know the TV series can get more than a little sloppy with realism/simulation, and in-universe technology and physics is bent and retconned whenever the writers need it to be something else; that's actually a long-accepted tradition in all human story-telling. A roleplaying GM could do the same, for the sake of the narrative, but this then bumps up against the simulation aspect of the game, making the game universe less consistent, and this may in turn affect the possible options for the gaming aspect. For example, it might be dramatically exciting, this episode, when the chief engineer manages to transport the detonator out of that one torpedo roaring towards a vulnerable target, tense seconds before impact. But what does this imply for next time? Can't all torpedoes just be neutralised this way? Can't the crew program their computer to do this automatically in future, with superhuman speed and minimal shield adjustments?

But that's actually not an awful problem to have. It can be dealt with, and it implies that the GM is setting interesting challenges, and the players are getting creative at solving them in smart, unexpected ways.

Worse, I find, is when a game leans too heavily towards the gaming or simulation aspects, and forgets that it's supposed to be Star Trek. There have been a number of different official Star Trek roleplaying game rules published over the decades, plus plenty of unofficial ones, and the official ones tend to focus mostly on the things that can be most easily quantified. And gamers have spent decades quantifying violence. So, in most iterations, the rule books have several whole chapters devoted to combat (weapon stats, ship stats, ground combat rules, space combat rules, etc.), and maybe a couple pages on how to use science and diplomacy. The rules may allow for a compelling Picard speech, but they don't exactly encourage that. It's like they've never seen Star Trek.

The rules may also simply not be very good, as with any sort of game. I have yet to try the new Star Trek Adventures rules that came out this year, but I can say that all of the previous versions I've tried were mediocre, at best. The old (1980s) FASA rules were alright, though seem dated now. The Last Unicorn rules (late '90s) were dumb, but very easy to gloss over and ignore. And the Decipher rules (early '00s) were a crappy, cumbersome rip-off of the d20 system used for D&D 3rd edition, which makes little sense, as it was legal and encouraged to simply adapt the d20 rules to whatever game you liked. This was done very successfully for roleplaying games based on more violence-oriented scifi, such as Stargate, Star Wars and Babylon 5.

In particular, I've found two specific things that make Star Trek roleplaying rules tricky. First, hand phasers. When any moderately equipped civilian (and certainly 9 out of 10 hostile opponents) has the ability to casually reduce a whole blue whale to a glowing cloud of loose ions, then the traditional roleplaying game designers' obsession with the minutiae of a wide selection of different weapons and armour becomes pointless. Second, many games like to reward good play with increasing levels and increasing skills. But this is a poor representation of what's seen on screen. After 7 seasons, Picard gained the ability to play the flute, and to tolerate children, not unerring technical skills and immunity against disruptors. Improvements in professional skills are slow and realistic on screen, while some games want to make them sudden, major and obvious. That works fine for D&D, but in Star Trek I have not found that to be a fun or useful change, and it has even ruined the story-telling, once it gets out of hand and the players notice their characters are becoming godlike.

Luckily, all of this can be contained and resolved by the other big difference, imagination.

Imagining is the heart of roleplaying, and that can be both good and bad (mostly good, I think). Series and movies are easier, in that their writers have done all the hard work of preparing the story, and the cast and crew have brought it to life. But in a roleplaying game, that's all on the players. A good game will help the imagination to flow easily and naturally, and once you get used to it, it's far from difficult. But still always remember that it'll take some thought on your part, every time.

And in return for that minor effort, roleplaying offers something that TV series and movies can't: Choice, freedom, options, the ability to vary the story and its outcome. Roleplayers aren't a passive audience, they are participants in and directors of their own story. That alone is the main appeal, for most players.

And beyond that, relying solely on imagination opens up an infinite selection of story options. With no budget limits, no casting limits, no special effects limits, and no physical limits (other than needing to get to work in the morning), you can include or exclude whatever you like. Star Trek has been very creative and expansive, it has shaped the public perception of scifi enormously. And yet there is still plenty a TV show can never do. But within a roleplaying game, go nuts! Literally anything to the limits of your imagination.

The ability to imagine the rough edges of a game away, to smooth out awkwardness from unrealistic or boring rules, also depends on imagination. We can suspend disbelief, if we can imagine how things are supposed to be. We can even figure out which rules to completely disregard, if we can pre-imagine them getting in the way, and re-imagine how things can instead work more smoothly. Of course, this distracts from the more fun sort of imagination, and it becomes hard work if you have to spend the whole game mentally adjusting what the dice keep insisting you should be seeing. It's something games designers should rely on sparingly.
My approximate, subjective graph of Trekkiness vs. Fun of various existing Star Trek games. The same can be used as a guide for figuring out what you want from your roleplaying games. What ranges along each axis do you want to aim for?

2. How does this affect player inclusion?
Bad rules will keep anyone away, unfortunately. Nobody likes grappling with obscure, messy, confusing rule systems as part of their fun recreation.

And for new players, that's an even more important consideration, because a tedious, annoying or cumbersome first impression won't get a lot of new people to come back for more. This is especially true for new players with no other gaming background, and thus no established sense of what a tabletop game can/should entail. Tabletop and mobile gaming may be becoming more popular, but I've got a hunch there's a socio-economic pattern behind that. If any industry expert has the international stats, I'd be interested to see them, but I can say that the pattern is still pretty damn obvious here in South Africa: Roleplayers are, for the most part, still white people with money. It's not an absolute divide, but it's definitely not a negligible one either.

Roleplaying games ought to be the easiest sort of game for just about anyone to get into. The physical infrastructure can be reduced down to any sort of random number generator (though dice aren't that hard to come by, or even make), and some paper and pencil. It can even be reduced to no physical tools at all, with sufficient imagination and a decent memory; at this point, it is reduced to the games of pretend that children everywhere play. But the formal rules and written records are supposed to elevate it to something more enduring and grown-up. And that shouldn't be so damn hard to spread far and wide, across cultural, age, and gender divides. But shitty, hard-to-follow rulebooks don't help.

The balance between narrative, simulation, and game, and how imagination moderates and enhances these three, is a pretty complicated set of considerations to discuss. It's easy to say that greater imagination is very useful, but it's not so easy to turn that into the instruction "have a better imagination"; it doesn't work that way. But I can at least point out ways it can go wrong.

To me, the biggest trap is sticking too rigidly to what's seen on the show, or what's written in the rule books. It's certainly good and useful to be able to borrow, adapt or outright plagiarise canon content, to turn it into something of your own. But you don't have to stick to what others have created, at the expense of your own creativity. If you were making a new official canon production, I'd urge more caution here, but within the far more casual confines of you and a few friends, you only need to justify your changes to each other, not an audience of millions of strangers.

There are all sorts of ways worrying too much about sticking to canon can hem in your creativity, but I think the major self-imposed limit is the urge to stick to times and places the series have already shown. I've done this myself with roleplaying games, and we see the same pattern with nearly all of the many fan-made movies and series. Even the canon series and movies have started falling into this trap, rewinding back to known periods, rather than jumping ahead into the uncharted future. I do understand it; it's comforting to stick with what's already known. Mapping out the vast unknown can feel intimidating. But having tried both, I can say that I find it a lot more fun and satisfying, in the end, to make the extra effort to map out somewhere/somewhen fresh.

Similarly, don't stick to the rules too rigidly. As I said, the earlier versions of Star Trek roleplaying games tended to heavily over-emphasize violence, and I once made the mistake of following the rules' authors too deeply down that rabbit hole. It wasn't a conscious choice, I just kept turning to the rule book for new ideas, and my players kept turning to the rules to guide their own options too. This resulted in a game that was eventually no longer recognisable as Star Trek at all, but rather some war game more similar to the boring Rebels-vs.-Empire battle bits of Star Wars.

That's not to say that war has no place in Star Trek; the series are full of examples of it. But note that their war stories are seldom about the actual fighting, so much as they are about the people, causes, consequences, and attempts to find peaceful alternatives. My mistake was that I would have enjoyed telling those sorts of stories, but I let the limitations of the formal rules funnel me towards the scenes of violence only, and I didn't use my imagination enough to look beyond that. Similar traps wait in all roleplaying games, if you're not aware of the possibility of the rules limiting how you see the game.

The broadest rule, I suppose, is that you can do whatever you like, except when you forget that you can.

Once you've accepted that, I believe you can make a game that any players, of any backgrounds and preferences, will find enjoyable and welcoming. You don't need to make your players fit uncomfortably into a game that alienates them, when you can instead make the game fit around them and their entertainment needs. Just keep this in mind, and remember that including real people is more important than strict deference to fictional characters and their fictional world. Exactly what that'll entail will depend on the individuals you're playing with, so I can't give a universal prescription. But I'm sure you can work it out yourself.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Unpacking the Starship Biko

In late 1992, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Fistful of Datas" first aired. It was a fun, silly, low-stakes family episode (if you ignore that the plot revolves around a series of murders...). It did not deeply alter the Star Trek franchise, nor did it carry any especially deep message. It was fine.

But it was the first episode by then-new writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and it was probably he who wrote in dialogue references and a short appearance by a small starship named the USS Biko. The ship was named after Steve Biko, who was killed 40 years ago today. And that is significant, if nothing else, as the most direct reference in all of Star Trek to South African apartheid. Just one little ship's name.
USS Biko approaches USS Enterprise, in orbit of Velociraptor VII

The Star Trek franchise has a long-established reputation for being against racism and oppression. So it may be a little surprising that they never tackled as ripe a target as the apartheid system directly. But not completely surprising. On the one hand, the US had its own civil rights progress to make, and American audiences might have needed a lot of catching up on the specifics of the South African situation. (Although, counter-argument to that: Is it really easier to flesh out sufficient details of an entire interstellar alien culture from scratch, in the same amount of time?)

On the other hand, there's the (more convincing, I think) point that Star Trek has always made moral arguments about the real world through analogy. Getting along with lumpy-headed aliens isn't really about aliens, it's a way of saying we should get along with each other here on Earth, regardless of superficial differences. That gives writers more room for creativity, but it also lets the audience be less defensive and more open to new ways of looking at the world. You might feel you already know the politics of Realcountrystan, and it would be difficult to shift your opinions on that in direct debate. But when you're unwinding at home, ready to enjoy the tale of the three-nosed inhabitants of Analogy World 3B, you might be surprised to learn how the other side sees the same politics, without even realising you've been led into considering this.

So it's fair to say that Star Trek addressed apartheid and similarly oppressive systems in indirect ways (for better or worse). The Biko was only allowed to slip through the cracks because it was such a minor, indirect reference.

Why that name? I can't say for sure; almost nothing is known about this ship or the thinking behind it. The rest of this paragraph is speculation only. It's possible that another writer or member of the production staff suggested the name, but for now, the most likely source of it is Wolfe himself. He was a UCLA student in the 1980s, the decade after Steve Biko's murder, so I guess it's conceivable that he was exposed to some student-level anti-apartheid activism there. Perhaps the simpler explanation is that Cry Freedom (1987) had come out a few years before this episode was made; it's quite likely that Wolfe saw that and learned about Biko then. Maybe it was a bit of both, or neither.

Regardless of who chose the name or how they came to hear of Biko, it's fairly clear that Star Trek and Steve Biko fit well together, with common messages of equality, peaceful coexistence, and mutual support and development. Both embraced admittedly vague alternative forms of socialism, and rejected Soviet-style communism. Biko is also especially well known for his particular emphasis on self-improvement through education, which suits me very well, and also fits well with the Starfleet ideal of constantly learning and striving to improve and expand. It's worth reading his writing in more detail, to go beyond this very vague introductory comparison I've drawn here. But I think it's really no stretch at all to see why he might stick in the mind of a Star Trek writer.

I think it's appropriate (though most likely a matter of dumb luck, due to available stock footage) that the Biko is an Oberth-class science ship, making a routine supply run. A science ship fits better with Steve Biko's pro-education stance, and is immediately far more appropriate than anything overtly dumb and violent like a warship.