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.