Thursday, 24 September 2015

WIP House Rules: Star Trek Next, update 1

For the last year or so, I've made very little progress on my promise of a Star Trek adaptation of the D&D 5th Edition rules, mostly because other things got in my way, but at least this gave me plenty of time to think it over. And especially in the last couple months, I've been increasingly of the opinion that it was all a bad idea in the first place. Still, I offer my work thus far for public scrutiny and discussion. Perhaps my concerns can be resolved.

Rise to Glory, by Jetfreak-7
The little document I've scribbled up so far covers everything I set out to sort out when I last posted about this, and it's probably just barely playable as is. I got a little lazy with the gear, but Star Trek isn't very equipment heavy, usually. I also haven't included much about starships, as I'd been working on that inside of a big spreadsheet of ship stats I've been messing around with across multiple rules systems for years now. I did at least prepare sample Federation and Klingon ships, to give a rough idea of how they'd look under the current rules. It's all just far enough to be play-tested without much wasted effort.
I probably put more time, over several years, into those two ships and the mini-campaign they're intended for, than into the main rules document so far.

But I kept stumbling across the same big problem, over and over, and initially I took it to be just variations on the relatively minor problem I found with Star Trek's energy weapons. I thought there were just some combat balance problems, until some people got me thinking that actually perhaps the real problem is trying to put a full combat system into the game at all. Fighting is not unheard of in Star Trek, but it's almost never the main focus, and when it is, they seldom bother with realism and balance. This is why it's so hard to get players to behave like Starfleet officers (in my experience): The rules systems always reward them for thinking hard about how to fight, in ways that the series generally wouldn't bother with. At the same time, the formal rules as written don't do much to encourage science, exploration or diplomacy, which are obviously the main activities of any typical Star Trek episode.

It could be argued that the GM, via the scenario, should set things up to keep combat minimal, and that players should naturally want to play in a trekkish way if that's the game they choose to play. But it's also pretty well established that players and GMs will tend to fill out the space the rules encourage most. This is partly laziness, partly trusting the designers, partly getting tricked by relative rules emphasis. The existing Trek rules (FASA, Last Unicorn, CODA, d20) all have multiple chapters on how to resolve personal and starship combat, but scant advice on how to craft or resolve a scientific mystery or a complex and interesting hurdle to social justice. If you're trusting their rule books to guide your scenario or character creation, it takes quite a lot of focus to keep youself from including all that fighting stuff.

I started trying to fix this in my Star Trek Next rules by cutting back on combat, by resolving fight scenes as a whole instead of playing them out round by round. Even Call of Cthulhu, renowned for being a game where guns are futile against unimaginable horrors and which is already equipped with only a very rudimentary set of combat rules, still plays out its fight scenes round by round, imitating the war game roots of roleplaying. So dropping that totally is an unusual step for me, but obviously right, now that I've seen it. Star Trek fights on screen are never about who has tactical advantage or what the equipment can actually do (otherwise, the Borg should never lose); they're just a means of moving the plot along, boiling down to "X is in trouble" or "Y will be difficult to talk to" or "Z aims for ABC ideals". They're seldom fights to the death, and they are seldom resolved purely by combat. They're just a setup for something else.

(There are exceptions: The Dominion War featured lots of pure combat scenes, for obvious reasons. But even then, DS9 still used the warship Defiant in many, many non-combat roles too. The Earth-Xindi War too was resolved with a little bit of shooting and a whole lot of talking, negotiating, investigating, understanding, etc. The movies tend to be more action-driven and feature more traditional fight scenes, but these are either lame and pointless (e.g. Nemesis or the 2009 movie) or are actually very well written underneath as metaphors and symbols for deeper issues. Wrath of Khan, traditionally, is held up as the perfect example, and yet I've heard recent viewers complain that it's so slow. Well, it's slow because it's not just blowin' shit up for no reason, it's playing out an extended dialogue between Kirk (representing the Starfleet ideals) and Khan (representing the opposite ideals), with torpedoes as punctuation. That battle isn't just about who wins and who loses, but about who they are and why we should care about them. The same is true of the dialogue-heavy lightsaber duels in the original Star Wars trilogy vs. the frantic-yet-dull epilepsy-inducers in the prequel trilogy. "Luke, I am your father" was not preceded by 20 minutes of flashing rainbow disco.)

So reducing fight scenes down to, "Players, what do you hope to achieve at the end of this? GM, what do the NPCs hope to achieve at the end of this? Let's quickly see who gets their way and what it costs", is my way of making the roleplaying rules reflect (most of) the TV series better.

But cutting that back leaves a bit of a void, and I'm not yet sure how best to fill that with more Trekkie sorts of activities. I've seen investigation done well in Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green and Warhammer, but I don't think I've personally mastered setting up a good mystery. So I need to study that a lot more before I can decide how best to implement rules that will encourage and support it well.

One trick I have picked up is a style of roleplaying scenario that's essentially one giant puzzle, which is good for more technical engineering or diplomacy stories. The GM only needs to set up a situation where there is a single, major technical hurdle to overcome, and then sit back and give the players free reign to prod at it and discuss it and try things. The GM should understand the pieces of the puzzle very well, in order to answer questions about it appropriately, and should have a good sense of what is and isn't possible with it, but should avoid being too prescriptive about their expected One Solution. Rather, it's a chance to let players get creative and personally involved in a challenge. Their solutions can be very surprising in the end. I've seen this work very well in a lot of games, but it seems to fit Star Trek especially well. So I'll certainly try to make my rules accommodate that sort of thing. But I'm not sure yet what other elements to add in.

I'm also unsure now if D&D really is a sensible foundation to build my rules on, considering how combat-focused it is. The core mechanics are nice, though, and I may still want to use them, but its looking increasingly like I'm going to have a very mutated system in the end.

Please feel free to try out my rules thus far and comment on any useful changes you can think of, or bits you think should definitely stay.