Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Atlas Tugged

I mentioned that my Star Trek roleplaying group is on a break, and since things will be pretty damn different when we pick up again, I thought it was a good time to re-assess what ship they have. The small vessel with minimal crew works really well for roleplaying purposes, because it pushes the player characters deeply into the action with minimal effort, but it's not the only option. TNG did really well to stay focused on the main cast, despite the Enterprise's crew of approx. 1,000. Babylon 5 pulled off the same narrow focus even with a total population of 250,000 on the station, and potential billions more once its focus shifts to long-term plots on specific planets. There are tricks for giving the main cast all the attention while also giving them lots of minions, peers and general cohabitants, which can be used for roleplaying plots too. I really like the small-ship format (see Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, Futurama), but big ships can be fun too. From a roleplaying point of view, Rogue Trader demonstrates that nicely, with thousands of dedicated "peasant" crew to shovel babies into the ship's fusion furnaces and things like that, and surprisingly few NPC crew anywhere near as competent as the player characters.

I prepared my players a list of appropriate starship classes for which I already had the CODA-system rules, including the option of retaining the same ship they've been using all along, and asked them to vote amongst themselves for the one we'd be using next season. There's no consensus that anyone's reported back to me yet, but we've still got another month or so to prepare.

So that's all pretty neat, but hardly a story worth reporting to the entire intarwebs. What I really wanted to write about was a campaign idea I got from my list that won't fit my current plans at all well, but which could still be fun and interesting; feel free to steal this idea if you like it. You'll note my list includes the Atlas-class tug, because I have stats for it and it isn't a completely impossible and inappropriate option to include. But I'm under no illusions that the group will find that an especially appealing choice. It fluffs up the list a little, but by the standard stats, it's unarmed, it's fragile, it's not at all geared to science and exploration, it only carries a crew of 3 and it can just barely hit warp 8. Most of its systems are devoted to the specialist task of tugging other, more important starships around.
Tug and "more important" starship, to scale

Why would anyone want to run a game with one of those? You're not going to get a serious shooty pew-pew starship combat game with one, even with heavy modification. (Well, maybe with some creative modification; I was surprised every single episode at how much combat oomph my players were getting out of their little science ship, not too much larger than this Atlas-class tug.) But, you don't need to throw tugs into heavy combat (in any setting, not just Trek) to do interesting things with them.

Think about what a tug is and what it does:
  • There'll be a lot of routine "harbour" work, escorting in visiting alien ships, carrying diplomats, explorers and merchants. A great opportunity to introduce plot hooks to draw the players into those sorts of activities, even if only unofficially and tangentially.
  • There'll be some salvage and retrieval of wrecks, which creates opportunities for the players to board them to "make appropriate salvage preparations", whatever that might entail, and even supposedly friendly vessels become mysterious places when abandoned. After all, why were they really abandoned? Who's been there since? Is anyone still around? Perhaps there's some pressing safety concern too, the space equivalent of an oil spill, to add urgency to things.
  • There may be competition over legitimate salvage rights, or conflict from wreckers and pirates, trying to illegally snatch ships away from the players. I can easily picture the Ferengi filling both of those roles, simultaneously.
  • There could even be an occasional search and rescue mission, when dedicated rescue boats aren't available or lack the raw power of a tug. Saving lives can be just as dangerous and exciting as ending them, which is kind of sad, but makes for compelling stories.
  • If necessary, an innocuous tug might get away with some interestingly nocuous activities of its own, perhaps as part of a smuggling ring. The Soviets used fishing trawlers for espionage and it's not a huge stretch to see a tug in the same role, given an enemy who won't shoot first and not even bother to ask questions later.

And that's just off the top of my head. Clearly, there's a lot more potential for drama with a tug than there might first appear to be, given an appropriate context. And as I say, it doesn't have to be Star Trek. The New England coast in the 1930s almost literally screams out for a Call of Cthulhu tug story; just think of the non-boat things they might be called on to pull into port. A Firefly game, or perhaps Eclipse Phase, could work even better for a tug game than Trek, with their realistic portrayals of isolation in space, with scavenger fringes and limited resources; there were even a couple of Firefly episodes that touched directly on these ideas already. The rivers of the Empire might pose narrower navigational challenges, but I've learned that they're just as interesting for players to explore, and the River Reik would lead plenty of different tuggable vessels past the players' home village or town. And I believe tug-like vessels aren't completely unknown in Spelljammer either.

The only major concern I have is that the players would have to accept that they couldn't keep any ships they salvage. I can picture some of my own players eagerly drooling over the giant dreadnought they'd just dragged home, like a jack russel that's gotten hold of a huge branch. If players don't want to play the tug campaign, if they want some sort of pirate game or something else instead, then that should be openly discussed and adjusted to, but if they do want to play the tug game, then they need to get comfortable with their tug, and with having to give up anything bigger that comes their way. The GM can smooth this along with a clear idea of who in the setting has the authority and power to remove excess ships, and what (if any) reward they'll give in return.

If I were going to run this for Star Trek (just since that's what gave me the idea in the first place), I can see two very similar things I'd do with it. I'd either go with the original Kirk era, with most of space considered a wild frontier, even within the Federation's borders, leaving a tug relatively isolated and independent, or I'd skip ahead a century to just after the Dominion War, when space is better explored, so there's probably more trade going around, but things are still much more chaotic than they were in the peaceful TNG era, before the war stirred things up. One of the only things I liked about Star Trek IX: Insurrection, was the first scene onboard the Enterprise, where they show how stretched Starfleet has become, with so many ships lost to combat and so many new post-war duties to add to neglected pre-war duties. From a tug crew's point of view, that means waiting for Picard to save the day for you is just as fruitless as waiting for Kirk would have been in the TOS era; they've each got their own excess of adventures to deal with, and you're usually going to be a very low priority for them.

Stick your tug at some remote outpost that's halfway along the route between two more interesting and populated regions, and wait til the traffic starts flowing through, with shiploads of fun and adventure in tow.

[EDIT: I'm a slight idiot, having forgotten the USS Dauntless (1861), from my list of Dauntlesses, which wasn't much of a Dauntless, but which was a tug. It's worth mentioning that it was apparently also used for general river patrols, which seems like a good excuse for getting the players' ship out into space without having to give them a particular mission. Certain stories work better that way, with the action only introduced later on, when home is too far to be much help.]