#RPGThursday Retrospective – Prime Directive 1st Edition (Task Force Games, 1993)

In terms of my RPG history, I now refer to the the time between Traveller:2000 and Prime Directive (1st Ed) as my “RPG Interregnum.” Although there were seven years between he publishing dates of the two products, the reality is that I didn’t buy PD1 earlier than the 1994-5 timeframe (and possibly even later) after an interval of at least eight years. PD1, along with Traveller 4 (T4) and The Babylon Project were to be my only 1990’s RPG purchases.

Prime Directive (1st Edition) was the first official RPG for the Star Fleet Universe (SFU). The SFU is not “true Star Trek” and instead focused around Task Force Games’ flagship Star Fleet Battles. This meant the SFU was much more militaristic than the “official” Star Trek setting. PD1 reflected this difference, but at the same time tried to bridge it with, IMHO, only limited success.

PD1 starts off with a short story. For those familiar with the SFB support zine, Captain’s Log, the style is familiar. The story itself is a hostage rescue mission and, honestly, is a bit cheesy in dialogue.

The rules start off with an introduction to the SFU, important background material and probably very confusing to mainstream Trekkies that came in looking for Kirk and the Enterprise.

Character generation is an 11-step process that starts out with selection of race and recording initial characteristics. Each character is then assigned to a Service Division and gains associated “basic” skills. To this point, I was comfortable because chargen was very Classic Traveller (CT)-like. The next steps reflect the military aspects of the setting, with Seniority and Professional/Heroic Reputation being determined. I found it interesting that the designers worried about the impact of Seniority and ranks, to the point they added a sidebar note:


Prime Directive is a Role-Playing Game set in a military situation, and as such, the concepts of rank and chain of command are important to establish the “feel” of the Star Fleet setting. However, something to remember is that YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME TO HAVE FUN! After a hard week of class or at the office, the last thing that someone wants during a game session is to be ordered around by his “Superior Officer”. The point of rank and chain of command is to structure the relationships and responsibilities of characters, not to give one player the right to control every  situation, responding to every argument with the stock phrase, “Hey, who has the highest Seniority Rating, anyway?” No player character will every bring another player character up on charges of insubordination. (Of course, mouthing off to superior Non-Player Characters, like the Briefing Officer or the Ship’s Captain, is another matter entirely.) – p. 25

At this point, the PCs are very “stock” and not very different from one another save for some Service Division skills. The players can now breathe life into their characters by purchasing skills. Once complete, the final step is to derive characteristics. To assist in understanding, a comprehensive example is provided.

The next section is the core mechanic discussion. A basic Skill Task in PD1 requires the player to roll a number of d6 equal to the average of their Skill + Characteristic. A natural roll of 6 is rerolled with the reroll -1 ADDED to the original 6. (I think this was the first time I ran into the concept of “exploding” die rolls.) Each die roll is compared to a series of “Tricodes” for the skill attempted, which in turn give a Success Level (SL). To assist in understanding, the following (not so short) example is given:

For example: Peltier is tracking renegades across a wilderness hillside. His tricode for Tracking is, after all mods, a 3/5/9. Peltier rolls 5 dice and gets the following numbers: 1, 2, 3, 6, 11. [My note – that last roll is only possible with an exploding die] His roll of 1 and 2 do not meet the tricode for Minimal Success, and if they had been the best he rolled, then he would of Botched the task, probably with disastrous results. His roll of 3, however, DOES meet the tricode for Minimal Success, so he escapes the horrors of Botching. If this had been the best Peltier had rolled, then he would know that the renegades HAD been by that spot, but he would have no idea how long ago it had been nor any idea of the direction in which they had continued. But, his roll of 6 meets the tricode for Moderate Success, so he finds out even more. If these had been his best rolls, then Peltier would know that the renegades passed this way within the last hour and they were headed up the slope. However, Peltier is an expert tracker, and so it comes as no surprise that even in these difficult circumstances he manages to completely succeed in this task. His roll of 11 is well over the tricode of 9 that he needs for Complete success. With this level, he also learns that only TWO of the renegades passed by here, and that one of them is slightly wounded. Knowing this, he can follow the pair up the hill or back to track to (hopefully) find the spot where the group broke up and start to trail the others. – p. 39

The next section, Actions and Initiative, goes hand-in-hand with the core mechanic. PD1 asks players to determine a Level of Action, which is a test that results in a SL determining WHAT the player can do. Once the LoA has been determined, player determine Initiative, or the WHEN of the action. Finally, players and the GM must figure out the “Time in Combat” (TIC) or “Time out of Combat” (TOC) which tells them HOW LONG the action took.

At this point, PD1 tries to be more dramatic. With a COMPLETE success for the Level of Action test, the players can make a Complex Action.  As defined by the rules, a complex action allows for more dramatic choices:

A Complex Action is just that, a complex series of actions that can be considered as several linked simple actions. A Complex Action is anything that can reasonably be summed up in a simple phrase like: “I run up to the Klingon and kick the disruptor out of his hand.” or “I activate the (already armed and sequenced) self-destruct module and run to the transporter pad.” or “I grab a new power pack from the satchel and slap it into my phaser as I turn to face the buckling door.” The pro forma limit is ‘I do something’ and then ‘I do something else’ (usually while someone else stands by, astonished that you could get away with all that before they could react). These two actions do NOT necessarily have to be directly related, as do those in Simple action, although they could be if you wished.

A Complex Action lets you grab the Ambassador’s daughter and swing from the chandelier, sweeping just beyond the reach of the Orion Pirates below, to the safety of the balcony beyond or make two attacks on an opponent before he can react at all! All in all, Complex Actions let you get away with murder, completely baffling those poor slobs who are slogging along at Minimal or Simple LoAs. – p. 42

Actions and Initiative ends with another important sidebar:

IMPORTANT NOTE TO BOTH THE GM AND PLAYERS: The spirit of the Action and Initiative rules in Prime Directive are not meant to be a meticulously detailed series of minutely considered “war game moves”. Rather, the designers hope that the players (and the GMs) will paint their actions with a wider, more colorful brush. Instead of thinking: “Hmm, could an Olympic athlete REALLY do all that in four seconds,” you should think “Have my favorite SF/Adventure movies ever had someone doing this?” – p. 45

Skill are very combat-focused, as expected in this very militaristic setting.  I find it interesting that Leadership skills include what is these days are commonly called “social combat” and that Discipline-related skills is where the psionic skills are collected. Overall, there are 11 Skill areas with 85 skills!

The combat section is complicated; so complicated that it actually has two examples and an alternative combat system over 27 pages. Part of the combat section bloat is that it also includes weapons (commonly found in other RPGs in an equipment or ironmongry section). At its heart, combat is broken down into four steps: Time, Position, Attack, and Defend. The first combat example, 5.2, is presented in a highly narrative manner with little reference to actual die rolls. The second example, 5.27, is presented as an Advanced Combat Example which replays the first example but with all the die rolls included. Finally, and most interesting to me, is rule 5.28 SIMPLIFIED COMBAT SYSTEM:

The combat system in Prime Directive is often both intense and complex. There are a great many things which the players can do, and the rules must account for all of these. Veteran players of RPGs will easily adapt to the system, while new players may find it hard to deal with all at once.

To make the entire game more accessible to new players, we have included a simplified system for combat. The entire rulebook is written for the more intense Veterans Combat System (a term you will not find anywhere in the rules except on this page). The ‘Simplified Combat System’ or SCS is contained entirely on this one page of the rules, and the designers have chosen not to clutter the game with hundreds of references (one in virtually every rule) defining how that rule would work if the Simplified Combat System was in force. It will be obvious, in each case, what to do. – p 93

Buried within the SCS is one of the few narrative play elements found in this entire rules set. Simplification #6: HEROIC DAMAGE SURVIVAL, allows the players to spend one point of Heroic Reputation to reduce the damage in a Lethal attack to one point less than it takes to kill them outright. So intense is combat that Healing gets it own section.

Advancement and Awards is another interesting section, where players are evaluated and reviewed. Buried within this section is one other narrative element which allows character to use a Heroic Reputation feat to convert an ordinary result into an Extraordinary Success. I also like the section on Wheedling for points.

The rules finish off with an Equipment sections more racial backgrounds and NPCs, and two adventures. There is also a SFB scenario that (amazingly) can be linked to an RPG session:

(SD1.47) LINK TO PRIME DIRECTIVE: Do not use the SFB boarding party system. Simply transport the Prime Team (SD1.49) to the derelict using transporters and conduct actions inside the derelict as per the Prime Directive game system. Each “action” in Prime Directive consumes two impulse(s) in Star Fleet Battles. This scenario cannot be played without Prime Directive. – p. 172

For the even more masochistic, a variant rule was given:

(SD1.62) Have the Prime Team play their battle in a separate room, with the Game Master advising each group when it can proceed to the next action/impulse (keeping the two groups at the same time-point, with the Prime Team moving first in each case). Because of the jamming, there is no communication between the two groups except notification that the “beacon” has been activated. – p. 172

What I Thought of It Then – Given I was a huge SFB player, I really wanted to play Prime Directive in the SFU. However, I remember finding character generation to be a real chore, and the limited scope of play (the military setting with characters in Star Fleet) seemed to reduce adventure options. Most importantly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the whole task resolution system of nD6 versus a Tricode. Finally, I totally missed the Simplified Combat System and instead tried to make sense out of the Veteran Combat System, even as I struggled with the core mechanic or how Levels of Action, Initiative, and Time interacted.

What I Think of It Now – These days I pay a lot more attention to the core mechanic and actually study them. Today I see, and understand, the PD1 task resolution system. I can see how the designers tried to make die rolls determine a Success Level. I now understand how Level of Action is the WHAT can be done, Initiative is WHEN the action happens, and Time is HOW LONG the action takes. With this understanding, I can better grasp the Veterans Combat System. At the same time, I now see (and prefer) the alternative Simplified Combat System.

That said, the Tricode approach is a hot mess. Each skill has a unique tricode demanding it be noted or easily referenced. This in turn demands a detailed character sheet clearly noting Characteristics and Skills and nD6 to roll and Tricodes. The GM needs easy access to the many Tricodes and numerous modifiers and…well, I think you get the point.

These days I also prefer to have more narrative elements in my RPG, and in that way PD1 is weak. While Level of Action determines WHAT can be done the player influence is subject to the whims of  die rolls (i.e. less player agency). Indeed, there are only a few areas where player agency is given any attention, and those usually revolve around a very limited use of the Heroic Reputation points. Heroic Reputation could of been PD1‘s game currency, but the designers don’t take the concept to the natural limits of that thought.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Prime Directive (1st Edition) Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 4 (Crunchy, especially for combat)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Wants to be dramatic, but rules don’t often support)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few rules support narrative play)

Prime Directive (1st Edition), Copyright (c) 1993, Task Force Games.


One thought on “#RPGThursday Retrospective – Prime Directive 1st Edition (Task Force Games, 1993)

  1. Pingback: #StarTrekAdventures RPG – What Do You See? – Bravo Zulu

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