Thursday, 27 December 2018

Progression of NCC registry numbers in Canon vs. Starfleet Museum

If you want to show you're a truly pedantic Trekkie, there's no better way than obsessing over starship registry numbers. Because even a fairly short study of just the NCC range of registries, used by the main Starfleet vessels, reveals two things:
1. There is a logic to the numbering, with later ships tending to have higher registry numbers, as if they were sequential, or something similar.
2. There is complete madness to the numbering, with all sorts of exceptions, anomalies, and persistent typos that mess the whole scheme up beyond useful recognition. I am far from the first to point this out.

Reconciling thing 1 with thing 2 is frustrating, at best. So I've decided to make it more fun for myself by also trying to reconcile the canon NCCs with those used by Starfleet Museum's non-canon designs, as promised in my last post. This actually turns out to be the simpler, quicker thing to resolve, as this graph will illustrate:

(click to embiggen)
Graph of earliest known appearances of Starfleet registry numbers (2160 to 2300)

It initially seemed pretty obvious to me that Okazaki had simply drawn a straight line from an origin in 2161, to the established launch of the Constitution class in 2245, and then used that line as a rough guide for picking when each of his new classes should launch. What he couldn't have known then, nor even known during the run of Star Trek: Enterprise that messed up most of Starfleet Museum's chronology, was the 2009 appearance of the USS Kelvin, with it's obscure dedication plaque. This hints (though I'll admit, doesn't definitely prove) that NCCs were still only in the 500s in the 2220s, and that there was likely a big, sudden growth in Starfleet during the 2230s and 2240s, jumping up the registry by over a thousand new starships in a couple of decades. This gives the S-curves of my rough estimated blue and green lines on that graph.

I did notice, at the last minute, that Okazaki's numbers might also fit an S-curve too, though subtler and starting much earlier. That curve would also seem to fit the right side of the graph better than the straight line too.

We know the early UFP Starfleet didn't start from zero ships, because pre-Federation ships belonging to the Andorians, Earthicans, Tellarites, and Vulcans were folded into the initial formation of Starfleet. We don't know for sure how many of them there were, but we can estimate. On the lowest guess, if we just count the ships seen during ENT, and take it that these represent the exact same size of the fleets at the end of 2160, then it's about 10 ships per fleet, adding to about 30 to 50 to start Starfleet with. On the higher end, we have the evidence of the USS Franklin NX-326, known to be a pre-Federation Earth starship, folded into Starfleet in 2161. And that would seem to imply over 300 starships at the foundation of Starfleet.

That higher estimate would seem to suggest that maybe early Starfleet might have had way too many ships for its initial needs, presumably with many repurposed warships left over from the Earth-Romulus War, and so they wouldn't have felt in a rush to build up their shipyards further for a long while. With hardly any colonies, and all fairly close together, the early Federation wouldn't have needed to push most of its Starfleet too hard, most of the time. We know at least the Daedalus class explorers kept going for a good 35 years, so Starfleet could have put off increasing starship production until around 2200. And that's why the S-curve makes sense. It just seems to have curved up later in history than Starfleet Museum guessed. After 2245, Starfleet Museum's NCCs seem mostly fine again, as the curve settles down.

Related to this, I'd also be willing to take a guess at when the Walker and Crossfield classes might have launched, based on my S-curve, and on the warp limit graphs from my last post. If we assume USS Shenzhou, USS Glenn, and USS Discovery all have low NCCs for their classes (and there's no evidence to say they must), then USS Crossfield (approx. NCC-1000ish) would fit well around the mid-2230s, perhaps as early as the late 2220s, making the class a decade or more older than the Constitution class. The warp limits from the previous post would even support a much earlier launch of the Crossfield class, sometime around 2220, but today's graphs and the launch of the Kelvin suggest that would be too early. (This also hints to me that perhaps there should be a stepped or S-curved line for the warp limits graph too.) I would be comfortable saying the Crossfield class (and thus also USS Discovery, most likely) could have launched between 2230 and 2235.

If the USS Walker (approx. NCC-1200ish) can't be placed on the timeline by its low top warp speed (as discussed last time), then registry number is our only big (if vague) clue for it. We've seen it on screen as far back as 2239, and you can see that's already close to my S-curve. If 1200 comes after 1000, chronologically, then I would guess the Walker class probably launched around 2235, with the USS Shenzhou launching within a few years of that. This would imply that Starfleet grows by 700 ships in the decade from 2225 to 2235, and then grows by a slower 500 new ships in the decade from 2235 to 2245. That makes sense, for an S-curving trend on its way down.

(As a digression, I was wondering if those growth rates are realistic or not. Apparently, modern day Earth's production of new ocean-going vessels is in the thousands to tens of thousands of new vessels per year. And starships are perhaps bigger and more complex to build, but spread it over more than just one planet's factories, and suddenly a thousand in a decade actually seems pretty slow, though this isn't counting civilian starship construction. As more planets join the UFP, the rate can increase even more, perhaps helping to explain the S-curve further.)

But now I have to mess everything up by reminding you of thing 2: NCCs often make no sense. There are plenty of registry numbers that appear to be illogical and badly out of chronological order, and that's because they are. Writers make shit up, artists make shit up, and even people outside of the official production of any series or movie sometimes have enough influence to get involved, and they make shit up too. But the good news is, after studying this for a while, it's not as bad as I thought. I re-drew my graph for each class, separately, one at a time. And that's slow and boring and I won't waste your time with all of it here. The bottom line is, the outliers are relatively rare for most classes, and can mostly be ignored. And for most of the 24th century outliers, there's often already conflicting information about their registry numbers from other sources. I've stuck with the strictest onscreen Alpha canon to make these graphs, but I'm very happy to retcon silly mistakes away.

The only huge exception is the Constitution class. It's full of anomalous registry numbers:
(click to embiggen)
Green: Known launch dates of Constitution class vessels.
Red: Known service periods of Constitution class vessels (ignoring time travel).
You'll note that easily a third of the Connies have registry numbers lower than NCC-1700, which is widely agreed to be the USS Constitution, even though that's never strictly confirmed on screen. This is probably the single biggest, hardest to ignore piece of evidence that NCC numbers are not strictly and simply chronological, in order of launch/commissioning.

There are two broad conclusions to choose between here: Either NCC is not useful for estimating chronology (and we throw all the work above out the window), or it is useful for that (and we just have to rationalise the Constitution class being full of weird anomalies). I favour the latter. Consider the bigger graph of all known registry numbers with their first appearances:
(click to embiggen)
Graph of earliest known appearances of Starfleet registry numbers (2160 to 2380)

Just adding another 80 years, the known years of the 24th century, seriously changes the graph, with another big S-curve apparent, jumping the Starfleet registry up by seventy thousand ships in about 50 years (averaging around only 1400 new ships per year, which, as discussed above, is actually still pretty low by modern Earth shipbuilding standards). It's a big jump, but an entirely believable one. And the blue diamonds (first appearance of any sort) seem to scatter all over the place, but the red squares and green triangles still paint a nice, clear pattern: When new ships and new classes are launched, their very first appearance, then NCC number is a good predictor of what chronological order they came in. For that reason, I'm inclined to excuse away the contradicting blue diamond anomalies.

So how do we deal with the Constitution class? We could just ignore it. Maybe (in universe) Starfleet went crazy for a couple decades. Maybe (real world) it's a just real-world production-side mess that spoils an otherwise neat, logical pattern. Maybe (in universe) they're re-uses of older ship's registries, in the same way that the Enterprises shared NCC-1701, with -A, -B, -C, -D, and bloody -E tacked on; maybe these are Constitutions named and numbered after earlier vessels, but they're just not showing us the -A or -B on the end, for whatever reason (and after the Federation-Klingon War, there would certainly be plenty of lost vessels to commemorate). Maybe (real world) TOS production values were shit, and everyone just assumed all "starships" were Connies, but retroactively a lot of those should be re-interpreted as vessels of other, older classes.

Or maybe any combination of the above. I'm not sure, and there's no good reason to pick one over the other. But I do tend to favour just ignoring the Constitution anomalies. Pretty graphs are better.

The last thing I'd point out is how the 24th century S-curve flattens out towards the end of the century. The pattern this seems to suggest is that roughly every mid-century (real-world: at the time that each new series is set), Starfleet goes on a big shipbuilding spree, bumping its numbers up by roughly one order of magnitude. If that happens again in the mid-25th century, and the new Picard series is expected to be set in about 2400, then that next big surge shouldn't have been completed yet, and might not really have even begun yet. So, given these assumptions, I'd consider it a mistake if ships in the new Picard series have registries greater than -100000. The -80000 to -90000 range will probably be sufficiently realistic. Of course, it'd be fascinating if there are good reasons to justify higher numbers than that. Perhaps a concerted effort to rebuild and get exploring again, following the Dominion War. Perhaps introducing advanced new technology (via Voyager and other sources) makes the old fleet suddenly very outdated and in need of a large number of replacements (which new construction techniques can spit out way faster than before).

I guess we'll have to wait a couple of years and see.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Progression of Warp Drive limits in Canon vs. Starfleet Museum

Starfleet Museum is a wonderful creation, and I make great use of it as a source of ideas and images for roleplaying games. Masao Okazaki and company have put a lot of effort into it for years, and I'm glad they did. But they were among the first to acknowledge that Star Trek: Enterprise immediately rendered most of their work moot, as the two contradicted each other heavily. For today, I'd like to restrict myself to looking only at how they differed in terms of maximum warp speeds achieved at various times, by different classes of vessel. I think this will be of future use to me for roleplaying purposes, and I wish I'd done this a year ago, when I was setting up my current campaign. But by luck, I think I've accidentally got things right anyway. I think it may also be useful for making a bit more sense of Star Trek: Discovery's very interesting but sparsely detailed (in the first season) new starship classes.

But mainly, I wanted to kill time making graphs, and these warp speed graphs proved to be much more enlightening and entertaining to me than the ones I've been using to try to make sense of Starfleet's registry number system. I guess that'll be a future post.

(click to embiggen)
Graph of maximum speeds of starship classes vs. earliest known year for that starship class (2060 to 2260)
(warp speeds in old TOS scale)
It seems to me that Starfleet Museum made one silly mistake when making up the warp speeds for their starships, and it should have been an avoidable mistake (though hindsight helps a lot in this case). In the graph above, it's very clear that Okazaki used an exponential progression in warp maxima, and I'm pretty sure it must have been set between warp 1 in 2063 (the Pheonix) and warp 9ish in 2245 (Constitution class). The orange dots fit that curve very neatly, even with the sudden denser packing in the late 2150s (the Earth-Romulus War).

And the known canon Earth starships before 2145 seem to start off following a pretty similar line. But from 2145, the dark blue line veers up sharply, through the early NX prototypes, the Freedom class, the actual NX class itself, and Beta canon's Columbia/NX-refit class (just to show that a warp 6 example fits the same pattern) These all make a surprisingly straight line right up to the warp 7 Daedalus class of 2161, the first UFP starship. It's so neat that I have to assume it was mostly intentional, with the ENT writers having at least some sort of plan about this in mind, and which the writers of the 13th movie could easily slot their own addition into.

But why is it so different from the Starfleet Museum gentle exponential curve, and why does it make sense? Well, look at the pale blue line, the Vulcan ships. ENT made it clear that the Vulcans were well ahead of the Humans, and had been for centuries. But they didn't invent that; TOS's writers established this technological headstart decades earlier. Okazaki couldn't have guessed that ENT's writers would pick warp 5 and warp 7 as the exact figures for Earth and Vulcan maxima in 2151, but he probably shouldn't have assumed Human engineers would be at the cutting edge of starship design once the Federation was formed. Andorian, Tellarite and Vulcan engineers all had to have had roughly a quarter of the whole pool of Federation astronautics skill, and it's long been established that Vulcans started off with greater than just a quarter share.

We also know that Vulcan progression was described by humans in ENT as "slow", since they'd been developing warp drive since some vague time in the 19th century (probably) and compared with Human progress in the 2140s, that Vulcan development rate must have looked painfully slow. But considering the Human rate before the 2140s didn't look much faster, and the sudden Human jump was definitely helped by Vulcan and other species' assistance, it's probably fair to say that Archer and co. were being unrealistic and damn ungrateful. Earth, left solely to its own devices, probably wouldn't have reached warp 7 any faster than Vulcan did.

Of course, Vulcans do seem to have stagnated a little, with no recorded improvement in their top warp speed in the couple of decades preceding the events of ENT. I'm sure it's fair to say that all parties, including the Vulcans, gained a lot from the combined efforts of the post-2161 UFP engineering pool, sharing knowledge and different specialisations in the way that a monoculture inherently can't. Technological acceleration due to the founding of the Federation seems to have been inevitable. If that's not all intentionally in keeping with Star Trek's inclusive, mutually supportive ideals, then it's a great coincidence to uncover. Once everyone starts working together for the common good, things get great fast.

So, Starfleet Museum forgot to account for Andorian, Tellarite, and especially Vulcan contributions to Earth's starship designs, and that's why the gentle orange curve makes less sense than the sharp blue jags that ENT gave us. But what next, what about the time from TOS to VOY?

(click to embiggen)
Graph of maximum speeds of starship classes vs. earliest known year for that starship class (2060 to 2380)
The same graph, extended 120 years further, shows the massive warp speed increases from TNG onwards. The orange curve for Starfleet Museum is roughly headed that way, though it's apparent that MS Excel and Okazaki disagree on the just how steep the curve should be at the right end.

Canon information about starship performance between TOS and TNG gets sparse, as the TOS movies were generally pretty vague about technical details. There's a whole lost century to fill in there. The same is true between 2160 and 2240, by the way, if you exclude all the orange dots. These are the two big empty periods in Star Trek history generally, and not just for starship stats.

It looks like warp 9 on the new TNG scale (a little more than double warp 9 on the old TOS scale, which would be nearly warp 11.5, not warp 18) should have been achieved around the mid-2300s, but I don't think there's any clear evidence for exactly when this would have happened. To give at least a rough sense of how things might have changed over time, I connected the dark red line between only known canon classes with exact first launch dates, and which are known to have been the fastest of their time. That doesn't give a lot of data points to connect, but at least it looks roughly like a neat curve of some sort.

Are the last two Starfleet Museum classes (the Furious and Spectre classes) feasibly positioned on this graph? Yeah, sure. I don't have clear data to argue with them, as I do with the earlier ENT stuff. It looks to me like Okazaki has in that case simply drawn a straight line between the Constitution and Galaxy classes, and I can't reasonably call that a mistake. My dark red curve is just as much a guess.

One other possibility, which makes reasonable sense, but still doesn't have much supporting data, is that we do know that warp power requirements jump up fiercely at each higher warp factor (and that's why the warp factor numbers are set at those specific integers), and this could be reflected in warp drive development timelines too. Perhaps it's easy to get from a warp 7 design to a warp 7.1 design and a 7.2 design and a 7.3 design, and then 7.5 is trickier, and 7.8 is a pain, and 8 is a huge extra effort, but then the first 8.1 design is (comparatively) piss easy again, etc. With recurring challenges like that, I'd expect to see a stepped graph, mirroring the steps of the warp power graph. This could explain the slow progress of pre-Federation Vulcan warp development. It would also imply that the neat straight line of Human warp drives between factors 2 and 7 was definitely artificially boosted.

I'll also note the only two DISCO designs with known (although not mentioned on screen yet) warp maxima. The little green triangle below and left of the Constitution class square represents the earliest known date for the warp 6 Walker class (specifically, the USS Shenzhou), and the green triangle just to the right of that is the warp 8 Crossfield class (specifically, the USS Glenn and USS Discovery).

It's been pretty common in all Trek series for the main hero ship to be the fastest in the fleet (at least at first), with most other ships running a fair bit slower. So it doesn't seem unreasonable that the Walker class is below where the fastest Vulcan ships were a century earlier; it's just not designed for missions that require maximum possible warp speed, even when it was brand new. And so it can't easily fit in just about anywhere on my graph. I have thoughts about its registry number and what that implies about when it was built, but that's another post.

The Crossfield class is more complicated in a few messy ways, but warp 8 is basically about right for a fastest ship preceding the Constitution. The very low registry number (lower even than the Shenzhou's registry) of the two known Crossfields has thrown a lot of people off, and it does complicate trying to work out how all these things fit together. I'm sure the show will provide more evidence about this eventually, but for now, my personal headcanon is this:

The initial preview trailers for DISCO showed an earlier version of the Crossfield class, with a solid saucer section, much shorter nacelles, and a few other differences. We know, in the real world, that the redesign to the Discovery that's actually seen in the series is a simple artistic style change, plus a way to show some moving parts for the magic mushroom drive that are distinct from the traditional warp drive components. But, in universe, I reckon for now that the earlier design represents what the actual Crossfield class was originally built as (probably in the 2230s, perhaps before the Walker class was launched). Only the two experimental magic mushroom drive ships (Glenn and Discovery) were refitted to the 2256 design, with elongated nacelles and a rebuilt, divided-up, rotating saucer section, cut from the natural hull divisions of the original design. The reason USS Discovery is described as "new" in 2256 is because of the major rebuild.

So I would guess that the USS Crossfield probably didn't originally launch with a maximum warp of 8, it was probably closer to warp 7.5ish, and it may never have been upgraded to match the Glenn refit that gave Discovery its top warp 8.

Of course, a lot of this is also dependent on finding a logical system underneath the mess of NCC numbers, which I said I'd leave til another day. But just looking at the warp factor, I think we can take it as pretty damn certain that USS Discovery probably isn't totally brand new as late as 2256.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Rough calculations: Should Virgin have stuck with SpaceShipOne?

I found the design of SpaceShipOne wonderfully clever, far more so than its name. And when it successfully won the X-Prize, and Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company were formed and announced they'd expand it into a bigger vehicle (SpaceShipTwo) for commercial use, I took it for granted that the bigger SpaceShipTwo would be a worthwhile investment for them. And it may still be eventually, despite over a decade of delays, including the terrible, fatal crash of its first vehicle, VSS Enterprise.

But I got thinking. What if they'd not rushed to develop a whole new vehicle? What if they'd just frozen the design of SpaceShipOne at the end of 2004, and built a handful of them to launch paying customers?

I'm sure someone at Scaled Composites, Virgin, or the Spaceship Company has already considered this in much more detail than I'm able to, and hindsight is pretty 20/20ish, but I'm curious. So, here are some rough, rough, back-of-envelope estimates, not correcting for inflation. I'm aiming to keep as many variables the same, just to compare apples and apples, though that may not be perfectly realistic. If anyone knows better, then say.

Scenario 1: Switching to development of SpaceShipTwo (what's actually happened)

Development costs: $400 million (an out of date figure from 7 years ago; they're likely over half a billion by now; this seems to include 3 vehicles, including the lost one)
Number of paid-up passengers: 575 (as of 5 years ago)
Cost per ticket: $200 000 (original, to compare with Scenario 2) or $250 000 (as of 5 years ago)

So, income from all paid-up tickets: $115 000 000 or $143 750 000

At best, this seems to leave a shortfall of over $256 million from the first paid-up passengers. At the older ticket price, it would take around 2 000 passengers for SpaceShipTwo to cover the published $400 million development cost, or 1 600 passengers at the newer ticket price.

How long would this take?

Passengers per flight: 6 (as designed)
Flight rate: 1 per month (a wild guess, just for a simple number)
Operations starting: 2020 (roughly what Virgin have suggested)

So, minimum number of flights needed to break even: 334 or 267
Time to make those flights: 27 years, 10 months, or 22 years, 3 months
First year of fully profitable operations: 2048 or 2042

That seems crazy, even at the higher ticket price, and so I'm sure I must have something wrong. The alternative is that the people building this thing are crazy.

Scenario 2: Sticking with SpaceShipOne (a what-if)

Development costs: $25 million, for the single test vehicle. Let's assume they still retired that to a museum, and built three new ones, each for exactly the same amount (so, $75 million for the new ones). In reality, there'd be much less development cost after the first, but probably other costs related to crew training, infrastructure development, and ongoing maintenance. Something unexpected might have come up, but by definition, I can't know about that.

Point is, add the sunk cost of the original, plus the three new ones, and call it $100 million total.

Number of paid-up passengers: 575 (assumes the same as scenario 1)
Cost per ticket: $200 000 (assumes the same as Scenario 1's original)

So, income from all paid-up tickets: $115 000 000 (still)

That seems to give a $15 million profit, and suggests SpaceShipOne would start turning a profit after its 500th passenger.

How long would this take?

Passengers per flight: 2 (as designed)
Flight rate: 1 per month (same wild guess, just for a simple number)
Operations starting: 2008 (most commercial airliners take about a year between first test flight and first commercial flight; applying the Scott factor, I've increased that to 4 years for commercial SpaceShipOne operations.)

So, minimum number of flights needed to break even: 250
Time to make those flights: 20 years, 10 months
First year of fully profitable operations: 2029ish

I'm also not sure if that's right. Do most things take 20 years to become profitable? Perhaps flying once a week would be financially preferable, dropping that time to only 5 years or so. Building more vehicles (of either design) would help with that, but also raises costs. Pushing a smaller number of vehicles to launch more often would be cheaper, but raises the risks of disastrous maintenance failures.

The expanded seating of SpaceShipTwo speeds up its catch-up to SpaceShipOne's lost potential a bit, but I think no matter how I slice it, they've already used up that advantage. If SpaceShipOne had been rushed into service faster that my guess of 4 years after 2004, and if it had managed to fly at a faster rate than once a month, it might already have paid itself off. Meanwhile, in the real world, SpaceShipTwo hasn't even yet earned that "space" part of its name, and is definitely still years from making any money.

So, I'm not at all certain, but I do get the impression that it might have been smarter to start mass-producing the design they already knew worked well enough.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

What Is It Good For? GMing a Star Trek war campaign

I've been trying to remember every single roleplaying game I've been involved in that featured actual, literal war. It hasn't come up that often.
  • There's been Star Wars. That's maybe a bit obvious. Although even then, we've still played a fair bit in Old Republic-era campaigns, focused on (comparatively) peaceful adventuring between war periods.
  • Technically, all Warhammer Fantasy and 40K campaigns must occur during ongoing warfare, because that's how those settings are designed. But I can only name one Fantasy scenario we've yet played where people being at war (off stage, in their character backgrounds) was even mentioned. In 40K, it's debatable what legally, technically counts as actual warfare vs. what counts as private spats between rogue traders. But we did have one session focused on an entire planetwide war against orks.
  • Stargate also technically mainly occurs during the relatively vague and mostly low-intensity human/Goa'uld war, but I think we mostly ignored that in favour of exploration missions.
  • I wrote and ran a Fallout prequel adventure, set right at the start of World War III, though the focus of that was on what follows within the rural USA. The opposing side in the war are never seen at all.
  • There was a brief anti-Zhentarim uprising we helped in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and we've started the war-driven Silver Key adventure a couple times without finishing it. Technically the Blood War is all-pervasive in Planescape, but we only ever had one subplot directly tied to it.
  • And of course, I was the first and probably only GM ever to actually try to run Johnny Nexus's satirical WWI trench warfare scenario, The Big Push.
That's 9 or so minor examples in my 21 years of roleplaying. My point is that while war has occasionally been mentioned in my roleplaying experience, it's seldom been the main focus, the central plot-driver. It's usually peripheral, a background context thing. It seldom dominates whole campaigns.

So it's perhaps surprising that the most clearly war-oriented campaigns I've ever run have been set in Star Trek.
A small selection from the close to a billion (with a B) killed in the Dominion War. (Click to embiggen.)

The first time was sort of accidental, or at least not what I'd intially planned. It was the second season that followed my early science ship campaign's first, purely sciencey season. For reasons I can't fully remember, I decided to turn it into a Federation/Cardassian War campaign. Perhaps I thought that context would add drama. Perhaps I was low on sciencey ideas. Perhaps I just realised that we were technically playing during that war and felt compelled to insert any canon reference I could link my campaign to at all. But a dinky little science ship doesn't belong in a war zone, and Star Trek in general doesn't belong there. There just wasn't much my players could believably be expected to achieve. And I'm pretty sure that whole game subsequently fell apart because it wasn't what the players wanted, or had learned to enjoy in season 1.

That's not to say there weren't dramatic moments of creative shock. I thought I had my players beaten for certain, when their maguffin objective was on a planet the Cardassians were guarding with an entire heavily armed moon. It was the Andorian chief engineer who suggested grabbing the largest possible asteroid with a tractor beam, accelerating it over the longest possible distance, in a straight line to intercept the moon. I couldn't justify anything less than cracking the moon to pieces, sending its inhabitant-crew rushing to evacuate. A plain warship crew likely couldn't have planned that, let alone executed it. But their Tellarite science officer was an orbital mechanics specialist, he was guaranteed to hit. And the chief engineer could make it a reality.

But that was an exception. Most of the rest of the campaign was dull, repetitive fetch quests and minor skirmishes. There was far less room for real excitement and discovery than there had been with the science missions. And the hard grip of canon meant there was little room for diplomacy with the Cardassians, which ought to be another Trek staple. But perhaps the problem there was that I was still an inexperienced GM. Maybe I had run out of ideas in general for the time being.

Skip ahead 7 or 8 years, when I've played in and run all sorts of different things, including the Maquis campaign I wrote about before. The inflexible grip of canon now wanted to push us into an even worse war campaign, the Dominion War. A lot more had already been written about this, with unofficial supplements to the Last Unicorn rules, and quite a lot of official content in the Decipher rules, relevant to the Dominion, if not explicitly their war with the Federation.

But hells, it's all dull, especially for any characters who are not built, rules-wise or story-wise, for combat.

It's plenty dull for the GM too. I should specify that I'm not much of a GM for hack and slash dungeon crawls either. I started with D&D and played in more than a few hack and slash games. But they tend to bore me. I get that others might enjoy it more, but it's not for me. So already that's one major aspect of war campaigns I object to. But it's not the only part, even if you like tactical combat games.

A more fundamental reason to dislike war campaigns is what separates roleplaying games from miniatures games and board games: Playing a role, not merely pushing pawns about, watching them hit each other. D&D may have been born out of simple wargaming in the '70s, but the reason the hobby has evolved into its own thing since then is that roleplayers do simply want more. More complexity, more variety, more options, more depth. A pure combat campaign reverses that. If the game only offers violence, with no motive other than violence for its own sake, and no hope of tricking or debating or convincing opponents out of their opposition, then the game just is less in every way.

It's not just a disadvantage to players either. It's a big strain on the GM, trying to think up creative new ways to say "go there, kill those people," week after week. My initial thinkng had been that a special operations setup might provide inherently more interesting missions, but in fact they still mostly just amount to "go, kill". Even "fetch/steal/rescue" or "investigate/spy" inevitably just reduces down to "kill", when there's no option of a peaceful solution to the obstacles the players face. The reason for going there becomes trivial when most of every session has to be resolving unavoidable combat. War is pretty stupid.

There's also the philosophical concern, central to Star Trek, that violence is a rubbish way to solve problems, at best something to leave til a last resort. Typically, when people fight in Star Trek, it's to set up a lesson about why fighting is bad. If you're in a whole war, and next session you're definitely going to be fighting again, it's hard to make that moral lesson seem honest and meaningful. Just repeatedly learning, over and over, that war is hell, without being able to stop it, turns what's supposed to be a fun, friendly game into something far too similar to a collection of First World War survivors' poetry. I don't think most GMs or players are technically able to do justice to something that serious. And quite a few won't be emotionally mature enough either, which increases the odds that the game will just miss the point and ask players to celebrate war, rather than condemning it. If that's what you want, you should probably watch waaaaay more Star Trek.
And take extra careful note of what this short but crucial scene from "What You Leave Behind" signifies about the entire preceding Dominion War story arc, and war in general.

"But DS9 did it!", I hear you say. "They did a great job of it!", I hear you add. "Maybe you're just a shit GM!", I hear you once more. Well, fuck you, you're shit too. But yeah, I probably was shit at it, especially in my earlier campaigns. "Earlier" is the key word in there; I've made all the big mistakes that can be made in my over 17 years of playing and running specifically Star Trek roleplaying games. Feel free to learn from my extensive collection of fuckups. And the relevant one here is failing to notice that DS9 didn't actually make its Dominion War arc about combat. They had really good writers, who understood what a terribly boring series that would make, far better than I did as a younger GM. Most of their War arc was actually spent looking at the people involved: The political actors pushing the war; The cultural implications for the Starfleet officers asked to do something antithetical to what they originally signed up for; The cultural contrasts with the Klingon, Dominion and other militaries that the Starfleet people have to uncomfortably interact with; the interaction between Starfleet people and the relatively powerless civilians around them; And of course the normal random personal affairs that happen in anyone's life, thrown into contrast against the abnormality of the war. They wrote about virtually everything except for the fighting, most of the time.

(Notice also, for comparison, that the more right-wing and blatantly militarist Stargate franchise avoided leaning on war stories most of the time too. Even though the plot of SG-1's pilot episode was, "Goa'uld declare war on Earth, US military decides to fight this war without letting anyone else know or try smarter ways to resolve it", the majority of subsequent episodes were actually completely unrelated to that war, and were instead just general science fiction stories.)

(I might even point to Blackadder Goes Forth as a competent example of how to tell a war story with hardly any actual fighting in it.)

My main point there is that these are not light, easy stories to tell. It's easy to tell them badly, in ways that aren't sensitive to the reality of people getting killed. And it's easy for them to get repetitive and dull, in ways that exploration and science stories won't.

So I'm not saying it's impossible to run a decent Star Trek roleplaying war campaign. I'm just saying you're almost certainly not qualified to, so don't get cocky and rush into it. But if you really must, here is a list of alternatives to "go there, kill them" stories, which might help you steer away from the most dull, repetitive stuff:
  • Aid delivery and relief services for wartorn planets, including interacting with local victims about their losses.
  • Similarly, figuring out how to cope with refugees, both as large-scale logistics, and as individual-scale personal interaction.
  • Strategic planning, behind the lines, including only getting to receive (delayed, incomplete, or unreliable) remote reports of what's happened, without participating directly.
  • Getting to know the crew of a starship on a personal level (possibly in much greater depth than a TV production in the '90s could normally accommodate, using only one-off extras and guest stars), only to have to cope with their subsequent loss.
  • Being responsible, for an extended period, for the well-being of prisoners of war. (My great-grandfather ran a POW prison in Scotland, so I have a few uncommon insights into what this might entail.)
  • Conducting the specifics of negotiating, and then putting into practice, a peace treaty, including treaty requirements that might be uncomfortable for the player characters.
  • Post-war resettlement, reconstruction, and emotional readjustment.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

GMing a Maquis roleplaying campaign

A few years ago, I ran a Star Trek roleplaying campaign centered on a Maquis ship taking part in the anti-Cardassian uprising of the early 2370s. The game had its ups and downs, and I think there are lessons to learn from it, if you're also planning to run a Maquis game, or a Starfleet/Cardassian campaign with a major Maquis presence, but also some general lessons.

I must warn in advance, this is mostly a long ramble about my personal GMing experiences and observations. I don't pretend that what I'm suggesting is the absolute only and best way to run such a campaign.

Lesson 1: Are you really sure you want to run a Maquis campaign? They're not really very Star Trek, in most respects; it's not at all a given that they're the good guys, even if the Cardassians were mean to them first. Voyager glosses over this, most of the time, so that we don't find half their main cast too unlikeable, but DS9 felt more free to paint the Maquis as morally dubious. So what exactly do you have in mind for your Maquis? Do your players have the same in mind, or something much different? And does the stuff seen in the series about the Maquis really match what you were looking to do? How will you meld all of these different perspectives into something coherent and enjoyable? It helps to give yourself a clear focus of the tone, genre, and style of play you want to focus on. One of my big mistakes was letting my campaign wobble around fairly out of control for most of its dozen episodes.

I had a pretty vague sense of what I wanted, to begin with. I had come up with a pretty desperate impending invasion scenario, inspired by Star Wars: Dark Times, a real no win scenario. But I'm not generally interested in Star Wars, and somehow I got it in my head that the Maquis of Star Trek are analogous to the Rebel Alliance of Star Wars (bonus lesson: they're really not very similar). So I switched settings. And then I never ran that scenario.

An opportunity arose to start a new campaign for a brand new group, and that happened to be the campaign I had on my mind at the time. But it needed a setup and it needed some exploration of the characters and the space they were supposed to care about, and an expansion into a wider campaign landscape (spacescape?), and I may have gone a little nuts on showing my players everything remotely related to the canon Maquis. We had a lot of episodes far away from their home planet. This meant there were a lot of specifics we didn't get to cover, which I'll detail below. But one specific thing we lost was a good place to insert my original no-win adventure idea.

And that may have been acceptable, or not, but the point is that I had a very vague campaign plan from the start. We didn't focus on what the player characters thought they were protecting, nor on why the Cardassians wanted it, nor much on how the Maquis organisation worked. It turned into a lot of rushing from episode to episode, seldom linked, running errands for strangers at random. It lacked a unifying theme, because I as GM didn't have one in mind. And so it never built up into much of anything.

Episodic Star Trek works - it's the original form of the show - but I don't think it works as well for the Maquis. They deserve something more serialised and deeply thought through, because their existence is so brief, specialised, and narrowly focused. I know I don't like planning out a whole campaign ahead of time, when it feels like it might all be thrown out anyway, but this is one story worth digging deep into the preparation for.

Lesson 2, don't be afraid to be rough on them. The Maquis was perhaps a hopeless cause, and it was definitely under-equipped. Although TNG, DS9 and VOY tended to focus on Starfleet officers who are swayed to join the Maquis, bear in mind that the majority of Maquis will be non-Starfleet civilians, probably poorly trained for what they're trying to do. There is no rule that says they ought to be competent.

The challenge for players ought to be figuring out how to get by despite the overwhelming odds, not to simply mitigate them. Any time they find a solution to one of their major obstacles, think about how the big-brained, well-resourced people of Starfleet or the Cardassian Central Command might act to counter that solution. The players should be helped to feel they've accomplished something when they survive at all, even if they fail at everything else. And if they die trying, that shouldn't be a surprise nor a major failure.

I gave my players a stolen Oberth class science ship for their Maquis vessel. I mainly did that because it let me (sentimentally) bring back the same old Oberth my previous group had used and then retired in our earlier, very conventional Starfleet exploration campaign, a decade earlier. But while an Oberth is puny and insignificant by the standards of most 24th century Starfleet starships, it turned out to be a massive battleship by the standards of the even tinier Maquis raiding vessels. Even a small, specialised science ship like that made my players a bit overpowered for their context. This skewed how tough they felt and how they approached their missions. It meant they weren't motivated to be cautious and subtle.

And then they wanted to upgrade it more, which I admit I hadn't expected or planned for. Starfleet crews tend to accept whatever ship they've got, and keep it more or less the same. But a Maquis crew somehow felt much more attached to their vessel and were strongly motivated to wring out every last bit of potential from it. I think that's great roleplaying, realistic for their context. But if I'd thought of that ahead of time, I would have intentionally started them out with something far weaker, so that their upgrades would still only raise them to a fairly weak level. As it was, and using the possibly dubious Decipher rules, their upgrades eventually made their little Oberth a reasonable match for much larger Cardassian warships. The players liked that, but it undermined the purpose of playing a grim Maquis game. And it required some convoluted setup for me to de-undermine it later.

Similarly, I should have put a lot more effort into NPC planning, to make that the focus for how players could get things done. They should have been relying on sketchy contacts and delicate negotiations, not simply blasting their way through every obstacle by force. I introduced some concepts from espionage-oriented games like Delta Green and Spycraft, but I probably should have leaned on those ideas a lot more heavily.

For example, we introduced the idea that the Maquis operates in a cell structure, with each cell fronted by only one individual, who only knows the identities of other cell representatives, so that the majority of all cell members remain anonymous within the Maquis, and cannot betray each other as easily. It's fairly typical resistance movement stuff. But in our game, each cell appeared only as the crew of a different Maquis vessel, so that there was nothing covert or anonymous about them, as far as the players were concerned. We never got to see a station- or planet-based cell in action, or one that was mobile but only hitching rides on someone else's ships. There was also never any situation where anyone was captured, and the integrity of the movement depended on the correct use of the cell structure. In other words, we wasted the cell concept. Things like that are worth building more properly into the story of the campaign. Use them, don't just mention them.

Once you've got the social conflict of your campaign set up better, then you can also afford to be more brutal on the players in this way too. And I don't simply mean make all the NPCs assholes. They can be decent, upstanding UFP citizens, but that's precisely why they'd be less likely to help out a violent, criminal uprising who are technically across the border in a foreign state now. Or they can be dodgy criminals and smugglers, but why would they risk their lives and businesses by drawing the wrath of both Starfleet and the Cardassians on themselves? And if the players try to engage any Cardassians non-violently, then you need to know how to make that feasible but realistic for them too. Definitely plan out your major NPCs in good and varied detail.

Lesson 3, related to lesson 2, is to be aware that the Maquis will end. If you're sticking strictly to canon, they end in disaster when the Dominion just rolls right over them in a few days, where the Cardassians and Starfleet had struggled to reign them in for years. Most Maquis will be killed, and survivors will be imprisoned for probably the remainder of the Dominion War. In short, they fail. Even if your player characters manage to handle themselves exceptionally well, and they can get more done than expected, there's still little to no hope that they can survive the Dominion. So that puts a pretty nasty deadline on the campaign.

(My Maquis campaign was transformed into a Dominion War campaign at that point, which I regret wasting time on. But I'll come back to that in another post. For now, my main advice is to simply end your campaign, no later than the Dominion takeover, and start something totally fresh to replace it.)

If you want to break from canon, that's your call as GM. But it'll take a fair bit of planning to figure out how to play that out. Will you give them a chance to resist the Dominion, even when the whole of Starfleet can't? Or write the entire Dominion War out of your timeline somehow? That's a pretty huge change, and while you might relish exploring that, it will take much work.

But personally, I appreciate that the whole campaign should reasonably lead to failure and death. It's all a tragedy, and it's not typical Star Trek*, but arguably that's the nature of the Maquis. They represent a failure of reasoned diplomacy. The terms of the Federation/Cardassian peace treaty were not good or sensible, they were rushed through unreasonably; their attempt at making peace at any and all costs wasn't a real, lasting peace, and the diplomats ought to have known better. And the response of the affected (former) Federation worlds and their inhabitants wasn't too sensible either; armed resistance was a stupid idea, bound to fail, and they should have known better too. It was all a case of trying to have two wrongs make anything other than just two wrongs. But none of that makes the characters' motives unbelievable or uninteresting, so it still makes for good storytelling.

(*Actually, arguably, on a grander scale it is typical Star Trek, to illustrate that those whose main, best idea is to resort to violence will be doomed in the end. But what I meant above is that it isn't typical Trek to keep focusing on these doomed characters and their doomy doom.)

Lesson 5 is to pick a scale of action. If the player characters are supposed to care about a single shared colony planet that they all came from together, then try to limit your focus to just that planet and its nearest neighbours. It's a tiny focus by Star Trek standards, but makes good sense for a Maquis game. If I were to run such a game again, I would definitely run one whole cheery, fun episode based on that focal colony, as a flashback to the time before the Cardassians take over, early in the campaign, to give players a taste of what the good old days were like and what their characters are trying to reclaim.

Alternatively, if you're planning to let your players have a hand in leading the entire Maquis movement, across the entire DMZ and the Badlands, then it's likely worthwhile introducing a formal strategic sub-game element, a way for the players to know objectively (if unreliably) what sort of a difference they (and their NPC colleagues) are making to the success or failure of their goals. I have no such strategy rules handy, but I'm sure there are boardgames they can be borrowed from, and the new Command supplement for Star Trek Adventures includes a "Fleet Engagements" chapter that might make a useful part of that too. At the very least, the GM could arbitrarily update a campaign map or type up field reports that spell out the broader consequences of player actions.

Either way, it's important to give the players a sense of the consequences of their actions.

And finally, lesson 6, find some non-French historical references to model things on. While the Star Trek Maquis are named for the historical French group, they aren't really all that similar, except maybe in intent. And perhaps coincidentally, perhaps intentionally, DS9 then latched onto Les Misérables as its literary go-to reference for the Maquis to model themselves on, and kind of milked that dry. And there's nothing wrong with throwing in yet more French associations, but it might start to come across as cheesey if it's always only that.

Besides, there are so many other historical rolemodels for your characters to pick from, some successful, some failed, any of which might be considered appropriate inspiration: The Viet Cong, the Yellow Turbans, uMkhonto we Sizwe, the Chetniks, the Free Papua Movement, or the Shining Path, to name just a handful from Earth's history alone. Whatever you and your players think of such organisations, it's worth bearing in mind that the typical Maquis member likely would see some common ground with them, maybe even venerate them, and understanding why is useful for unpacking your characters' motivations, fears, and limitations.

And if you're running a straight Starfleet campaign, but want to insert the Maquis into it as a source of conflict, then that's probably the main advice I'd give for making them interesting opponents for your players: They may be immoral, they may have a bad plan, they may be doomed, but they really must have some complex motivations driving them, or they're just generic space baddies, and that's a huge waste of their story potential.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

A partial comparison of Star Trek roleplaying systems

I got into Star Trek roleplaying unexpectedly in 2000, when a school friend called to say that, at a recent convention, he'd foolishly agreed to join some weird older fanboy stranger's campaign, and would I and our other friend Jamie like to take his place instead. Jamie and I went, Jamie quit pretty soon after, but I kept going back for more, for over a year. It was exactly what I wanted at the time. I was a new roleplayer, having started with AD&D in 1997, and I had grown pretty sick of the only two choices I knew at the time: AD&D dungeon crawls, or Vampire teen angst. I loved Star Trek, and I was glad for the chance to immerse myself in it, solving technical problems, rather than killing things or having compulsory emotions. I played our ship's chief engineer, so it fell on me, more often than not, to come up with practical solutions to the puzzles the GM liked to set us. In hindsight, there was probably more to it than that, but that's what I was focused on at the time.

A couple years later, I got a rulebook of my own, and decided to try running Star Trek roleplaying games myself. I didn't realise at the time that this would lead to much more varied experiences and plots, or that I'd always be the GM and never the player in any Star Trek game for over 15 years. For whatever reason, nobody else around here ever wants to run it.

Now we've started playing the latest incarnation of the game, Star Trek Adventures, and this has had me comparing all the different systems I've used over the years. I thought it might be useful to someone, somehow, to read my comparisons, so here they are, below. The two main aspects of each system I'd like to focus on are their crunch and fluff: How well their rules worked for my needs, and how well they managed to capture the feel of the series for me. My approach is subjective, but luckily, my subjective opinions are objectively the correct ones.

The rules systems are presented here in the order in which I first used them, rather than publication order, to show how my opinions were altered over time.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (Last Unicorn Games, first released 1998, first played 2000)
The "Icon" system. The core mechanism is to roll a variable number of d6's, and hope their total sums to greater than a target number the GM sets. It's simple and it works, but it doesn't do much more than that. When I first tried it, the first thing it reminded me of was the old West End Games Star Wars roleplaying game, which I had first used about a year or two earlier, but actually they're fairly different. The rules are well explained and logically laid out; a simple three-colour coding of the pages of each chapter worked surprisingly well. There are two other incarnations of these rules - the Star Trek Roleplaying Game (for TOS), and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Roleplaying Game - but they function identically, and even though the TOS book rearranged the order of the chapters from the TNG book, they kept the same chapter colour-coding, so I still knew exactly where to look for whatever I needed.

Character creation used a lifepath system, which I tend to enjoy, though this one didn't feel that flexible or creative after I'd created a dozen or so characters with it (as GM, helping players get started), and it demanded a lot of fleshing out that it didn't help the player with very well. The experience system wasn't too smooth. I get the impression that the point-buy costs for character improvements were chosen on the basis of making a clean and simple looking table, rather than trusting strict mathematical guidance. Characters jumped from hopeless to superhuman (supersentient?) a little too easily. I remember longer-running player characters eventually becoming a little bit godlike, at least within their specific fields. In hindsight, this probably wasn't nearly as bad as the problems we later had with the Decipher rules producing actual, literal gods. But it was my first inkling that a Star Trek-like game doesn't really need or want traditional D&D-style levelling.

The starship rules were initially very flimsy and barely worth using, though I still knew them backwards, once upon a time. Large parts of them (like the tractor beam rules) never made complete sense. I guess they were pretty good for simulating onscreen TOS and early TNG levels of battle detail, and just barely alright for supporting more interesting science and engineering missions. Eventually, after Last Unicorn packed it in, some of their writers put out a whole series of big, fat PDF-only books, including Spacedock, which focused on a ridiculously over-complicated rebuild of the starship rules. This had waaaaaaay too much detail for a roleplaying group to use. We tried playing one session using the Spacedock rules, and we got almost nothing done, with so many new rolls to make. It was the worst kind of endless dice-rolling battle grind. But they hadn't merely made it into a set of wargamers' combat rules either; Spacedock includes insane levels of detail on things wargamers would never touch, like precise details of the life support system (clearly not an essential system...), the recreation facilities, the science labs, and engineering checks for installing incompatible alien devices on the ship.

Spacedock as a whole was unplayable... BUT! It wasn't bad as a behind-the-scenes GM's reference guide, to get a rough sense of what a given ship of a given size and type could feasibly contain or achieve, and what kind of dice rolls could simulate all that. For example, my current campaign, using the new Modiphius rules, has already borrowed from Spacedock to determine the departmental structure of the ship's crew. Nobody's (successfully) attempted to replace Spacedock for any of the newer rules systems, and it might just be a crazy idea to try it. But there's definitely a core of usefulness to it, considering how much time the player characters will spend with their main starship.

The core Last Unicorn books each inhabited their chosen series really well. The writing was generally clear and concise for rules, but also clearly emphasised the themes and tones of the series. Small vignettes at the start of each chapter showed how characters other than those seen on TV could fit into the same sort of roles (to help new roleplayers get away from copying the series too closely). Slightly mediocre art wasn't amazing (it occured around the same era that White Wolf was doing very elaborate stuff, and D&D had progressed beyond the simple doodles of the '80s to things like DiTerlizzi's Planescape art), but did make a good effort to complement the writing, showing Trek-like characters and places, while still drawing the reader's imagination away from the limited confines of mimicking the TV show directly.

The supplement books went further adrift, and I didn't enjoy them as much. They didn't add much to the rules, but they also went with a weird mashing of their own made up non-canon fluff, and bits of non-canon borrowed from other sources (like FASA). A lot of it was uninteresting, unhelpful lore that I imagine most GMs (certainly I) glossed over and replaced with something closer to either strict TV canon, or custom homebrew fanfic.

The main disappointment I had with these rules, though it took me a long time to notice it had been tricking me for years, was the relative emphasis the rules place on different kinds of activities. Combat rules mass over more than one whole chapter, while science and diplomacy are barely given rules at all, and are relegated to the darkest hidden corners of a chapter. This gives an uncomfortable disconnect between what the fluff is telling you Trek should feel like, and what the rules are spelling out that you ought to be focused on. As a result, for the first major campaign I ran with the Last Unicorn rules, I started out running a pure science and exploration campaign, but once I got more familiar with the rulebook, it suddenly transformed into a war campaign. My players enjoyed it less, I enjoyed it less, and the rules were less useful for that job anyway.

Star Trek Roleplaying Game (Decipher, first released 2002, first played 2002)
The "CODA" system. Basically, a cheap knock-off of the then-new d20 system, made to look a bit like the previous Icon system it replaced. I gather Decipher was a company staffed by quite a few former Last Unicorn employees, so they got away with a handful of blatant cut&paste duplications. But it's still surprising just how different they made a lot of things; maybe they thought it was a mistake to emulate a model that had just failed?

Anyway, the core mechanic is to roll an exploding 2d6, adding a skill+attribute modifier, and hope their total sums to greater than a target number the GM sets. This hemmed in the larger dice piles of Last Unicorn's rules. Instead of a lifepath method for character creation, you just pick a species (race) and profession (class), and select the traits (feats) to make you more developed. It took the structure of D&D 3rd Ed fairly blatantly. This was odd, considering Wizards had then instituted their Open Game Licence policy, so Decipher could have just used the actual d20 system; realising this, I and others later tried houseruling exactly that kind of game, which I'll describe later.

Either way, the CODA rules were functional, but a bit meh. They failed particularly badly at very low and very high experience levels, where characters were useless and ridiculously overpowered, respectively. Gail, one of my players, recently reminded me that I once asked her to roll 60-something to fly a runabout at full impulse (i.e. hypersonic) between the buildings of a narrow city street. Target of 60-something. On 2d6. And she made it. (And then another character made a similarly insane Engineering check to transport someone aboard during the split second they passed by that point.) The end of that campaign just got silly, as I found it increasingly close to impossible to challenge the players in any way. I tried reigning in the experience gains, a lot, but the damage was already stuck by then. This cemented the idea in my mind that Star Trek don't need no stinkin' XP rules.

Where I can't fault the rules is their organisation and layout. Mimmicking the D&D3e rules led them to also copy the D&D3e layout, and that was an expertly-developed foundation to start from. Decipher did go a little nuts on expansion books, and some were more worthwhile than others. But the two core books (their PHB and DMG analogues, further reflecting their D&D emulation) were a good starting structure that later rules expansions could plug into with relatively little hassle.

Decipher was not very Trekkie, in feel, which is odd, considering how many Last Unicorn staff had migrated across to it. It wasn't jarringly un-Trekkie, it didn't miss horribly, it just didn't work hard to represent the feel of Star Trek, so it ended up with a more neutral feel. In part, this was because of a greater emphasis in the writing on rules and crunch, rather than on tone, feel, themes, fluff, etc. But where they did put fluff into it, they didn't feel like they were trying very hard. Original art was replaced with screen captures from the series and movies, which in many cases actually managed to be less clear or evocative than the mediocre quality art of the Last Unicorn books. It didn't inspire you to go out and adventure, so much as it seemed to point at itself and say, "Hey! Hey! Remember this [insert your subculture] reference!? This was a thing, right?" That's not so bad if you're a more experienced Star Trek GM or player, and you already know how to ignore the rulebook and have your own fun. But I don't think it's the smartest way to hook new players' imaginations. It also just didn't look very nice aesthetically.

The terrible experience creep of this rules system also infected the subjective feel of it. We see Star Trek characters on screen acting competently and expertly in their fields, but they do have a capacity to fuck up, and that is a source of both drama and realism. Characters in this game who lose that capacity also lose part of their personality, their response to failure and tragedy, because nothing ever goes wrong for them. It gets kind of dull.

The Decipher books are even worse than the Last Unicorn books when it comes to relative emphasis on violence vs. anything else, with combat rules incorporated into nearly every chapter. Being overly trusting of the rules-as-written lured me very badly into a lot of time-wasting war stories that proved to be as boring as any campaign I have ever written or run. There's a similar pattern to how my Last Unicorn campaign went: Things started out as a political campaign (a Maquis campaign, just for something unusual), but as I got more and more accustomed to the combat rules, it turned more and more into a combat campaign, very quickly. It's not that I didn't want to write exploration and diplomacy adventures, but that I got into the habit of writing what the rules easily allowed me to write. And if you're not consciously aware of that trap, it's hard to keep yourself out of it.

Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game (FASA, first released 1982, first played 2004)
An early roleplaying game, and thus relatively simple by later standards, FASA's game was expanded greatly over the years. But it was also designed from the start to fit together with their ship battle game, which sways both its rules and fluff towards a more combat-driven feel, which is the same thing I've just noted in both the Last Unicorn and Decipher games.

I wouldn't say I know these rules well enough to comment on them a lot, but they've added something to my opinions, at least. I believe I only ever ran about 3 or 4 sessions using these rules, and they were fine. It uses a d100 roll based on a set of attributes and skills, which reminds me very much of the BASIC system (as used by Call of Cthulhu, which came out a year before FASA's Star Trek), though officially they're unrelated. And that's a fine system for all sorts of uses; they're lightweight, fun rules that get the job done. Every few years, it occurs to me that I could just homebrew a BASIC-based Star Trek adaptation, but I've never quite gotten around to it.

Note that FASA had its rough predecessor to Last Unicorn's later Spacedock expansion, in the form of the Ship Construction Manual, a much simpler book that really only deals with making custom combat stats for their ship battle subgame. But I will give them credit for at least pointing out that starships must have some sort of laundry aboard, even if they failed to provide extensive tables of laundry variants to pick between.

Space marines are dumb. And FASA bears a lot of responsibility for insinuating that dumb concept into the public perception of Star Trek, especially in gaming circles, where the shows never have. Similarly, FASA is responsible for promulgating a lot of the most clearly militaristic interpretations of how Starfleet and its vessels might operate. In the '80s, when hardly anything had ever been on screen, they sort of had the excuse that they needed to make shit up to fill the vast blanks in canon that existed before TNG came along. But of course, this still implies some very active rejection of the anti-war idealism that Roddenberry had already filled TOS with.

That said, it should be noted that the core roleplaying rulebooks FASA started with didn't go that way, and it was mainly later supplements and expansions (and other FASA games) that sought to militarise things. Either way, the damage is now done, and decades of roleplayers sharing FASA ships and fluff around (for use with whichever setting) has contaminated lots of useful sites with things that only ever existed in FASA, and which TNG and later series explicitly rejected.

I think it's relevant that FASA's internally developed version of the Star Trek universe had drifted so far during the '80s, that it wound up badly incompatible with what was eventually shown to be the nature of the Federation and Starfleet on TNG. You can't really blame them for making things up on their own, but I can't see what appeal it would have for anyone who had the glory of '90s Trek to enjoy.

My own d20 homebrew rules (played 2011)
While I never quite got around to making anything like decent BASIC rules for Star Trek, I did somehow make a few different iterations of homebrew rules using the d20 system as a foundation, borrowing bits over the years from SG-1, Spycraft, Star Wars, and Prime Directive. When D&D5e came out, I even started converting my earlier attemps into what became Star Trek Next. I am aware that there a few other homebrew d20 Trek systems floating around out there.

I won't waste your time spelling out all the rules adjustments I made, back and forth, and I believe we only ever actually ran 2 test adventures using any version of these rules. Mostly, it was fun for me to experiment with concepts, trying to learn how to make the experience I knew well from the screen fit with what the dice could represent. I also went through a (possibly unhealthy) phase of obsessing over starships and starship stats, and it was something that could definitely be gamified in a few different ways. I probably used the Spacedock rules more to explore these other systems, than I used it for Last Unicorn's own system.

Overall, I don't think any of this was a big success. D&D just isn't a good foundation for the kinds of stories Star Trek tells.

Since I was making it up myself, the feel was pretty much what I made it, which is I suppose what we should ideally always have in roleplaying games. Perhaps there's some lesson here about feeling a sense of ownership over the rules, in order to make them work for the game, instead of letting the game work to suit the rules, or something.

My own Star Trek Conception homebrew rules (played 2016)
My last attempt at a homebrew system adaptation borrows from Fiasco. I'm a big Fiasco fan, it's a surprisingly genius rules system, and so it feels a little surprising to say that I've still only ever played it once. Once I gave up on a reasonable d20 adaptation, I got it into my head that the story-driven rules of Fiasco would be an ideal basis for a much better, much Trekkier system. And I'm not awfully disappointed with what I put out, though I definitely have to admit that what I wrote leaves a huge amount vague and unspecified and up to the GM. I guess it's more like the skeleton of a system, than a full rules system.

As with my earlier homebrew stuff, this felt exactly like my own style of game, because that's very much all it was. It would have to be run by someone else to see if I infused it with any partlicular feeling to its fluff. I think I left it a bit barebones for that.

Star Trek Adventures (Modiphius, first released 2017, first played 2018, apparently no wikipedia page yet)
The core mechanism of the 2d20 system is simple and smart. You roll at least 2d20, aiming to roll below a number representing your skill at the task, and for each die that makes this, you score one success. The GM sets a target number of successes, and sufficient successes means you do the thing. That's not that tricky, and it conceals some pretty convoluted roll probabilities, allowing the GM to fine tune the challenge over a very wide range. It's excellent protection against the PCs becoming godlike, and it also encourages PC cooperation to make high target numbers surmountable.

There are a number of lesser rules to expand that, and mostly they're fine. But the core rulebook buries all of these in endless rambling prose, never concise and to the point. Reading one rule, it will end in an apparently simple statement. What you're expected to know is that this statement contains one or more crucial rules key words, adding further depth to the rule. Then you're expected to get lucky finding the place or places in the book that defines that key word. There, you'll face many paragraphs, perhaps many pages, of waffle about their proprietary key word, and you'll need to dig out the little bit of it that is relevant to the rule you were originally reading about.

The rules aren't the problem, they work well. The layout and writing style are the problem. I like to think that if rule A can't possibly be understood without rule B, then rules A and B should at the very least be on adjacent pages, under a shared heading, and definitely in the same damn chapter. The rules organisers at Modiphius and I disagree on this. They've also divided the book into a player front half and GM back half, though without a particularly clear boundary between the two, and I certainly wouldn't mind if some rules had to be split up to accommodate that player/GM division. But they mostly haven't sliced things up that way: The GM section is pretty full of unnecessary duplications of rules exactly cut&paste from the player section.

Once you've penetrated that, it's a good system. I find it easily supports my improvisations, and I like how much it rewards character roleplaying, rather than munchkin rollplaying. With no experience points to worry about, players can focus on who the character is, not what their stats are. I initially mistook their Milestone system for an experience point analogue, but it really isn't. It's more a mechanism for letting characters develop their personalities, and it ties together with just about everything else in the rules. It provides exactly the character/story-driven kind of game I was hoping a Fiasco adaptation could achieve, but by a mechanically very different route.

In short, Star Trek Adventures seems to address a lot of my past concerns about other Trek roleplaying games. I will definitely buy their second edition, if they hire someone to organise its contents more sensibly.

I am also very pleased with the tone Modiphius is striking so far. Their prose is rich and deep, compared with the relatively bland Decipher text, and it reflects the tone of '90s Trek (especially TNG) really well. And unlike FASA and Last Unicorn, they so far seem to be fairly cautious of trampling over canon, with their own little sandbox piece of the Galaxy set aside for messing around with their own ideas, away from the main canon.

Modiphius's rules are also the first I've seen to incorporate a serious, detailed science mechanism, based on the actual scientific method, and even if it isn't perfect, I deeply appreciate the attempt. At the same time, they don't go too deeply into combat rules, and even set them as equal to what they call their social conflict rules (for non-violent but not necessarily friendly character interaction). This balance is a huge step ahead of the previous official games. Their expansion books so far have pretty much upheld all of this.

The Modiphius books also earn points for some amazing art. Like the Last Unicorn book art, they give us glimpses at Starfleet officers and ships that we don't recognise from the series, doing all sorts of exciting things in exotic places that a '90s TV production (and most movies) could never incorporate. This really helps to fire the imagination for roleplaying purposes. And the quality of art is well above what Last Unicorn used.

What remains to be seen is how well they can grow Star Trek Adventures to incorporate ENT, DISCO, and perhaps even the Abramsverse. I'm not overly fond of most of ENT, but there's definitely some interesting stuff in it that better writers could explore in more interesting ways. I love DISCO, based on its first season, and it seems like its characters would snap perfectly into the Values rules mechanism. But Modiphius have so far avoided touching this still-in-progress production.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Clarifying Values, Directives and Milestones in Star Trek Adventures

We've been playing the new Star Trek Adventures roleplaying game, and it's off to a good start. The rules are becoming intuitive quickly enough. But we bumped into one particular barrier last session, with the rules about Milestones, which led me to research those rules more, and I found that a lot of people online have reported similar confusion about this. So, I thought it might be a useful public service to comment on what I've found so far.

Very broadly, this rules system makes some very different assumptions than traditional D&D-style roleplaying games (including some past iterations of Star Trek roleplaying rules). Everything in the rulebook ultimately links back to the characters' Values, the characters' deepest-held beliefs and opinions; this means that rules effects and storytelling are inextricably linked. I happen to think this is pretty brilliant, and perfect for a more intellectual and questioning setting like Star Trek (and I'd like to steal this for a Planescape campaign house rule too). Sadly, these rules aren't always laid out and explained as clearly as I'd like.

My first mistake was to compare milestones with experience points. That's a poor comparison. I saw that milestones lead to character stat changes, and jumped to the wrong conclusion about them.

Instead, think of milestones as game mechanisms for when a main (player) character's fundamental beliefs are altered. It's actually closer to a sanity point mechanism (such as those used in Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer, Unknown Armies, etc.), than to an experience point system. But unlike sanity checks, changing a character's Values in Star Trek isn't necessarily traumatic or involuntary. They're just learning from their qualitative personal life experiences, whatever those are, rather than piling up abstract, arbitrary, quantitative experience points.

And what changes about the character must also be related to what actually happened to them, not just bought off a general purpose menu. Because sometimes a change in attitude/perspective/priorities leads to changes in practical behaviour, the milestones allow for re-prioritising Attributes & Disciplines (and other character details) instead of taking on a whole new Value, either because you simply choose to start putting more effort into one area of work over another, or because an actual physiological change (like a major injury) forces the shift.

But it's usually going to be a sideways change, a mental mutation, and not a linear advancement up to a higher level. You also aren't always going to see these changes happening every single session, because real people and believable fictional characters don't flip their personalities that quickly. It's assumed in this system that Starfleet officers are already at the top of their game, the main characters are "born" high level, and so there's no real need for constant advancement all the time. You're not level 1 Bilbo leaving the Shire for the first time, you're Lieutenant Commander Gandalf, and it takes something pretty major and uncommon (like not letting the Balrog pass) to significantly alter you. And when you are altered, it's most likely an inner psychological/behavioural change.

Not all mental changes are the same. Some are fairly minor, resulting from lesser experiences. Some are transformative, resulting from huge epiphanies, discoveries or shocks. Below is my explanation of the sorts of things considered major enough to trigger a milestone:

Normal milestones
Gain one of these for any one of:
  • Challenging a Value/Directive: Outright rejecting one of the character's beliefs or orders, in practice, because it gets too awkward to stick to it in the face of an encounter where the character could solve a problem by doing the opposite of what their Value/Directive suggests they should do.
  • The positive & negative Value/Directive thing: [EDIT: It's just been pointed out to me that the player section of the book, pg.139, uses the word "or" for this rule, while the GM section, pg.293, uses "and". I have edited my explanation here to "either/or", pending official clarification from on high.] The part of the rule we weren't sure of last session. It requires one of two things to happen in an episode:
    EITHER The player must inform the GM (and the GM must be able to concur) that one of that player's character's Values/Directives is relevant to a test, so they get to spend a Determination point on it (the positive use),
    OR the GM must inform that player (and the player must be able to concur) that one of
    that player's character's Values/Directives will cause them to face a Complication in a scene (the negative use). If the player tries to dodge that negative Complication by abandoning their character's Value/Directive, then that triggers the Challenging a Value/Directive option instead.
  • Serious traumatic injury, of the sort that makes people reconsider their lives.
Spotlight milestones
Players gain these when they qualify for a normal milestone AND it's decided that their main character carried the episode far more than anyone else did. The rule book says players ought to vote on who this is. What I'm thinking of trying instead is to start writing occasional episodes (maybe even solo adventures, for those players who feel like a non-group session) that are custom built to focus on one main character at a time. The player can still cock it up by failing to participate well in their own episode, but I think this is fairer than arbitrary voting. (Though I think it's also fair to remain open to post hoc decisions that a character turned out to be the focus of an episode, even if this wasn't the GM's original plan.)

Arc milestones
Players gain these from collecting a series of spotlight milestones. They're meant to be a big deal, so it's a slow crawl to reach one.

One last thing to clarify: Directives. I've sort of informally been throwing these into my games, but not emphasizing them very much, and not really getting my players to treat them as rules mechanisms. Now that I've revised this section of the rules in more detail, I begin to see why it's better from a rules perspective to be more explicit about Directives.

Directives are short-term, shared Values that come from your mission orders. (I think the rule might have been clearer if they were named Mission Values or Context Values instead.) A Directive could apply to just one character, but usually they apply to the whole crew together, for some given period of time. And the rules purpose for this is that it allows the GM to run adventures that don't always have to be tuned exactly to their players' own personal Values, without cheating them of the potential benefits of getting to spend Determination points (or, for that matter, earning milestones). Players may as well simply add the currently active Directives to their characters' lists of Values, and treat them as the same thing, for rules purposes. The only difference is that Directives are changed from outside, from up the chain of command. If a character ever refuses to follow an order, that's basically Challenging a Directive.

GMs can encourage and reward players for paying attention to the mission at hand, like responsible Starfleet officers, by using the Directives for the mission as opportunities to get into character, and to gain rules benefits when attempting tasks. But, because of the Challenging a Directive option, it doesn't have to be boring railroading, and characters can stick to their own beliefs at the expense of the mission (or vice versa). It all helps to keep the story interesting, and the characters growing.