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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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)
Rules:
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.

Feel:
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.

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