#RPGThursday Retrospective – Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game 1st Edition (FASA, 1983)

At the risk of making many enemies, I admit that I am not really a Star Trek fan. No, it’s not that I am a rabid Star Wars fan (especially in light of what Disney/JJ Abrams is doing to the franchise these days) but in my early wargaming days my view of Star Trek was shaped by a little wargame called Star Fleet Battles (SFB)

SFB takes place in what has eventually come to be known as the Star Fleet Universe. As noted on Wikipedia:

The Star Fleet Universe (SFU) is the variant of the Star Trek fictional universe detailed in the series of Star Fleet Battles games (board-, card-, and role-playing) from Amarillo Design Bureau Inc. and used as reference for the Starfleet Command series of computer games. Its source material stems from the original and animated series of Star Trek as well as from other “fan” sources, such as The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. In addition, it also includes a substantial number of new races and technologies, such as the Hydran Kingdom, the Inter-Stellar Concordium and the Andromedans.

Star Fleet Battles was based on the Star Trek universe as of 1979 and includes elements of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Animated Series. Federation elements were heavily based on concepts from The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. Unlike the mainstream Star Trek universe, Star Fleet Battles seems to consider some, but not all of The Animated Series, as being a canon material source, thus leading to the inclusion of aliens such as the Kzinti, which had originally been created for a non-Trek story series.

Since the first publication of the game, Star Fleet Battles and the Star Trek universe have diverged considerably as the authors of the game and those of the films and television series have basically ignored each other. The resulting divergent world of Star Fleet Battles is known as the “Star Fleet Universe”. – Star Fleet Universe Wikipedia

The SFU did not get a RPG until the publication of Prime Directive in 1993. But in 1982, FASA published Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The game release was at an interesting time in the history of Star Trek, coming a few years after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the same year as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although FASA has a license from Paramount, it appears that the studio pretty much left FASA on their own. As a result, the game designers were able to pick-and-choose what “canon” they wanted:

It was left to us to determine what was the “essential” STAR TREK material, leaving it to gamemasters and players to add whichever specialized material they preferred on their own. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 126

In terms of game mechanics, ST:RPG was published by FASA only a year after their award-winning Behind Enemy Lines RPG. ST:RPG is another interesting game where the differences between an RPG and wargame get murky.

ST:RPG is composed of three major game systems; Character Generation (Chargen), Combat, and Starship Combat. The Core Mechanic rolls Percentile Die (2d10 read 10’s-1’s) compared to Attribute or Skill – roll under for success.

Character Generation and Advancement is very RPG-like. Chargen uses a career path system after generating Attributes (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Luck, and Psionic Potential). Luck (LUC) is the most interesting because this attribute first introduced me to a more narrative way of playing RPG’s:

LUC saving rolls are used in this game when the gamester believes situations may be affected by pure chance and coincidence. The object of this game is not to kill off player characters, and setting up a total adversary relationship between players and the gamester limits the enjoyment of the game. Therefore, the gamemaster should use a LUC saving roll attempt at times to give a player a chance to bail himself out of a tricky situation. A saving roll of this type should always be given to a player character ( or a non-player character who is an established STAR TREK character) who is in imminent danger of death or other tragedy. Temper the use of saving rolls with common sense, but do use them when necessary. Sure, it hampers realism, but STAR TREK should reflect television realism, not reality. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 12

ST:RPG includes rules for skill advancement. This was a whole new world to me; Classic Traveller is famous for NOT having a skill advancement system! Even so, the skill advancement system in ST:RPG is very simplistic:

Once play has begun, skill may increase with use. After each adventure scenario, or each major mission of a continuing campaign, the gamemaster should have each player who saw action make a saving roll against his character’s INT [Intelligence] score. If the roll is successful, the player may roll 1D10 and add the resulting number of hits to his skill level in any one skill he possesses that was used during the course of the adventure.

Gamemasters are encouraged to give a few bonus points (maximum of 3) in a skill to a player who pushes his skill to the limit in the course of an adventure (that is, makes a difficult saving roll), thus learning something in the process. Extra points should also be awarded to anyone who has the opportunity to closely observe someone of a higher skill level engaged in a skill-related activity of a more routine nature. To get this bonus, however, the person who is teaching (not the one receiving the extra skill points) must make a saving roll on his or her own INSTRUCTION skill. If the saving roll is failed, no skill is gained by watching. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 38

As simple as skill advancement was, it was still a more narrative-flavor of RPG that was very new to me at that time.

As much as Chargen with LUC and skill advancement was moving towards a more narrative RPG experience, Combat was a firm step back into the realm of wargames. Indeed, in the Tactical Combat Notes section of the Designers Notes they unabashedly proclaim:

When trying to decide how to design this section, we remembered one old adage – when something works well, use it! And this is exactly what we did. We had been playing GRAV BALL (by FASA). We enjoyed the movement and action system. It worked well, giving the feel of simultaneous movement while retaining a simple system. Most si-move systems require paper plotting of moves in advance. While realistic results can be obtained, the system is slow and cumbersome….

Combat evolved from our working knowledge of almost every game published on tactical combat. From the action list and character system we had it was a simple matter (although lo-o-o-o-ng!) to develop this aspect. Again, we just”worked through” what really happens in a combat situation. We drew on our own and other’s experience (you should see the looks we got from neighbors) and worked out situations live. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 128

As a result, the Combat system is (once again) a very wargame-like, skirmish-combat system using facing and Action Points on a gridded map for range and movement. When rereading the rulebook, I found it interesting that the Combat Examples (which is really just one example) starts on page 55 and ends on page 59! Admittedly, there are a few moments in the “wargame” example where role-playing is invoked, but it certainly is a rare exception and NOT the rule! Like this moment:

Wagner moves as shown, coming through the door (which opens automatically), stepping over the fallen Klarn, and moving towards the door. The gamemaster stops Wagner and requires a normal saving roll on DEX [Dexterity] be made to step over the fallen Klingon without tripping (since Wagner is moving fast under stress). Wagner’s DEX is 76 and he rolls a 31 – no problem! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 57

The third game system is Starship Combat. Here is where the designers attempted to balance the need to role-play with a tactical wargame:

Where STAR TREK is different is in the approach to combat. A simple boardgame could have been used, but STAR TREK as developed here is intended as a role-playing experience. Unlike other tactical space combat systems, STAR TREK offers the opportunity to “role play” during ship combat as well as during ground or ship based adventures.

In the system presented here a number of players will interact, cooperating in an attempt to defeat an enemy ship (or a number of ships). The atmosphere of a game session then becomes much like that on a bridge of a starship, with each player having a responsibility to control one part of the ship’s functions.

To keep track of ship functions in play, each player uses a control sheet or panel. These players will communicate vital information back and forth during combat, using their panels to record the turn-by-turn changes in power levels, ship’s weaponry status, crew casualties, and more. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 102

To assist in world building, rules for creatures/animals and world characteristics were also included. These systems are very Classic Traveller RPG-like in their mechanical approach and don’t stand out in any way to me.

What I Thought of It Then: As a Star Fleet Battles/Star Fleet Universe fan, the different canon of ST:RPG confused me. I remember always trying to “fit” ST:RPG into the SFU. I also remember our gaming group really trying to play the starship combat game (again, a need to make it more SFB-like). As an RPG, the game didn’t really attract our attention. We instead focused on the starship combat module. We played the wargame and not the RPG.

What I Think of it Now – Looking at FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game today, I realize I missed a great opportunity in 1983 to play an RPG that was starting down the path towards a more narrative game. All the clues I needed were in the rules – I just had to read them and embrace the concepts. A good example of play is often helpful, and in ST:RPG there is a short example of play that unfortunately is buried just before the Designers Notes. It doesn’t even have its own header. When I read it now, I “see” the RPG game within ST:RPG. That said, the example also makes me cringe a bit at the “state of the RPG art” in 1983. References to pocket calculators and a very lopsided sharing of narrative were the norm:

GAMEMASTER: Your ship is two days out from Calvery IV, proceeding at Warp 3, on a routine call to deliver a Federation diplomatic pouch and other official greetings. Unexpectedly, your communications officer picks up a faint subspace signal from the direction of that system, calling for Federation assistance. The message is too faint to make out much else, and it is unlikely in this part of space that any other Federation vessel will intercept the signal.

CAPTAIN: Can the communications officer pick up anything else?

GAMEMASTER (to communications officer): Make a standard saving roll on Communications Procedures.

COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER (rolling): I made it! What do I hear?

GAMEMASTER: There’s lots of interference, but by switching antennas you get a bit more. The voice is male and human-sounding. You catch a reference to “the insect plague” and another to “Government House” being “besieged by the horde.” Abruptly, in mid-sentence, the message stops and you pick up no further transmission.

CAPTAIN: That sounds urgent! And we’re three days away at Warp 3! How far at Warp 6?

GAMEMASTER: Warp 3 is 27 times lightspeed and Warp 6 is 216 times lightspeed. That’s 8 times as fast.

CAPTAIN (consulting pocket calculator): That’s…nine hours or so. (To navigator and helmsman) All right Mr. Devareux, Mr. Wickes…increase our speed to Warp 6 on the same course. (Turning to communications officer) Mr. L’rann, send a message to Star Fleet Command detailing the situation and tell them we’re on our way.

GAMEMASTER: Just so you’ll know, it will take six days at this distance for a message to reach the nearest starbase.

CAPTAIN: So we’ll be on our own. Very well, The science officer will consult the library computer for information on the planet. Department heads will meet in the briefing room in thirty minutes for discussion.

SCIENCE OFFICER: Captain, a computer file search on insect life on Calvert IV might be appropriate…

CAPTAIN: So ordered, Commander Levine. (Dropping out of character) Everybody check with the gamemaster on your own departments. I’m going to grab a snack! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 125

From an RPG-perspective, I give Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Simple Core Mechanic but mostly combat-focused)
  • Simulationist = 4 (“Wargame” combat systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (LUC to overturn events)
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