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.