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.

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