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.