Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:
My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:
Triplanetary (2018) – Kickstarter delivery expected in July 2018 (a month ahead of schedule); vector movement around the Solar System
Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battlesand its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.
The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.
Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.
All things considered, I can see that I have become pickier over the years when it comes to space battle games. I first started out with Star Fleet Battles. Beyond the fact it is closely related to the Star Trek IP, the real “theme” in SFB is taken from the ever-famous quote from the series, “Scotty, I need more power!” In SFB everything is about Energy Allocation. This theme carries over to the new generation game, Federation Commander.
From a game mechanics standpoint, Talon corrects many issues I have with older games. It does not implement vector movement (though I happen to love vector-movement games) and instead goes for a more cinematic approach. It still has power considerations, but the use of the Power Curve makes it much easier to manage and avoids “accountants in space.” But as much as I love the game, I just cannot get into the setting. Ships move no more than a speed of 6 each turn, and combat is at ranges of 4 hexes or less. I just don’t get that grandiose feeling of giant starship battles in space. In part this may also be driven by the limited counter mix out of the box. The scenarios themselves also seem wrong, with major battles defending the Earth having only six units per side – a factor driven by the few counters included. When putting it all together I get a sense of cognitive dissonance; a game that works so well mechanically just seems wrong thematically.
GMT Games is offering Talon 1000on their P500 program. The draw for me is that it will include over 130 new ships. Given a greater fleet size, or at least a wider variety of ships, maybe the game will be more “thematically correct.” The danger, I fear, is that adding too many more ships will take the great mechanics of the game and overload it. This forces me to turn to the scenarios, and with 1000 new scenarios I would hope to find some interesting ones in there.
Talon, my Game of the Week, once again shows me how much I have changed as a gamer. I find it hard to enjoy a mechanically complex game like Star Fleet Battles, but need a good theme to keep my interest. Talon shows promise, but it has yet to meet its full potential.
If you look back on my blog, you will see that up until this year I had a heavy focus on roleplaying games, especially science-fiction RPGs. This year I have turned hard into boardgames with a mix of tabletop family games and wargames landing on the table. RPGs have definitely fallen off to the side.
I recently took a look at DriveThruRPGs Black Friday to Cyber Monday Sale and made a few purchases, but at the same time I asked myself why I lost my RPG mojo. Last year I really tried to like Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Playtest and offered (few, very few) comments. In the end, instead of liking Star Trek Adventures, I was turned off to RPGs and only now am (sorta) giving them a chance again.
This is the Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube Collector’s Edition Box Set. To me, this is not an RPG.
I cannot fully explain why I have such a visceral reaction to this offering. I understand that I don’t need the extra maps, and dice, and miniatures, and tokens, and other baubles to play an RPG. I know that all you need to play is a simple set of rules and imagination. I know because that is what I did with Classic Traveller for many years.
I think when I saw Star Trek Adventures I saw the continuation of a trend towards bigger RPG rulebooks and more IP-related gaming. To a point I had bought into that market with Serenityand Battlestar Galactica and Traveller 5 and Mindjammer and Atomic Robo and Fireflyand Star Wars Roleplaying Gamefinding cherished places on my shelf.
I rejected them…and walked away from the RPG hobby for a bit.
I am slowly finding my way back, thanks to small publishers like Gypsy Knights Games and Zozer Games and Stellagama Publishing. For a while that’s where I think I am going to stay for RPGs, on the smaller side of the spectrum with publishers who offer material that stimulate my creativity in a more rules-lite, non-restrictive campaign setting.
I have found my RPG mojo…it never left and it is actually little changed from the late 1970’s. It just doesn’t need a large box and multiple rulebooks and maps and tokens and minis and hardcover expansions. It needs nothing more than the PWYW Cepheus Engine and a setting like The Clement Sector. What I need is like what Zozer Games is offering; the very simple 1970s 2d6 Retro Rules. With these simple tools I can make grand adventures; I don’t need a huge Kickstarter box or endless hardcovers or miniatures or tokens to do have fun.
Star Trek Adventures, the latest RPG version of Star Trek, is currently (as of this posting) up for pre-order from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Beta playtest, and made comments here, here, here, and here. Truth be told, I never really warmed to the system, and after somehow being dropped then re-added to the playtest when I dropped again I didn’t make an issue of it and finish the playtest campaign.
A quick look at the products page for STA indicates that Modiphius is focusing on the Next Generation-era of Trek. I find this unfortunate; in the living playtest I choose the The Original Series-era because it is my personal favorite.
Why The Original Series? Well, first off, my Star Trek gateway was actually via the Star Fleet Battles wargame. My first Star Trek RPG was, coincidentally, Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game from FASA. Both of these games have a very different (non-canonical) take on the Star Trek universe. Of the two, I prefer to RPG in the FASA setting. That setting is embodied to me in one key supplement and one book.
In the process of presenting interesting stories featuring Klingons, the series gave us only a few tantalizing looks at the culture and history behind the individual characters. In The Savage Curtain we meet Kahless the Unforgettable, the ancient Klingon who created his race’s traditions of treachery and tyranny, but we learn virtually nothing else of Klingon history. Klingon technology is revealed in bits and pieces in the series, but Klingon social customs remain a mystery.
To further confuse matters, STAR TREK: The Motion Picture introduces us to an entirely different breed of Klingon – less human in appearance and demeanor with even greater savagery in battle. It is a brief glimpse to be sure, before three D-7M battlecruisers are obliterated by V’Ger, but it opens a whole new chapter in the Klingon saga.
So what was FASA’s solution to this problem? Call in an old friend; in this case John M. Ford, former roommate and then-author:
When we discovered we were working on parallel projects, we couldn’t resist collaboration of sorts. Thus, the research on the Klingon Empire for his upcoming novel The Final Reflection (from Pocket Books) became the basis for the background material for this expansion set….The research-sharing went both ways on the project, with background data on the STAR TREK universe in The Final Reflection sometimes based on data presented in STAR TREK: The Roleplaying Game. In this way, the STAR TREK universe inhabited by game players and the novel’s characters remain consistent, and support each other in richness of detail. Thus, what you hold in your hands is not just a game supplement, but is also background on the Klingon Empire. With its detail and background supported by both the game framework and a major piece of professional STAR TREK fiction, it can lay claim to being an “official” look at the universe.
Within The Klingons and The Final Reflection there is a lot to unpack. From “the perpetual game” of society that all play to the “naked stars,” (“If there are gods they do not help, and justice belongs to the strong: but know that all things done before the naked stars are remembered”). One must understand kuve – servitor (not slave) – as well as tharavul (labotomized Vulcans made into living computers). This Klingon society is deep with meaning – and adventuring opportunity.
As the Star Trek universe developed, and especially in the Next Generation-series, the depiction of the Klingons changed (although Memory Alpha states Ronald D. Moore, eventually a producer for ST:TNG, claims The Final Reflection did influence him). What I see is that instead of the Ford Klingons like Captain Kreen we get Worf – Space Samauri. When I look at the two settings…I only really see one choice.
It would be easy to get into a canon war at this point, but I look back on – and game by – the advice given in the Designers Notes to Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game:
…in the long run it will be the fans who decide what is and what is not STAR TREK for their campaigns. Feel free to change even basic assumptions if it suits you. Don’t be offended if we state something as “fact” that does not fit with your personal image. Simply run your campaign to suit what STAR TREK means to you. It’s your campaign, and we are by no means the final arbiters on such matters.
So with that thought, I say “no thank you” to Star Trek Adventuresand look forward to welcoming back an old adventuring friend.
In the most recent Star Trek Adventures RPG living playtest email from Chris Birch at Modiphius he wrote, “Hope you like this new image!” I usually don’t have any real opinion of art in RPG products. Honestly, I rarely even think about it. But this time I did and I definitely have a reaction to it. But before I tell you what I think about this picture a little of my Star Trek RPG history may help you understand where I am coming from.
had a “new” Klingon on the cover. The art content fell broadly falls into two categories; people and ships. The people art was generally staid with little dynamic action; what I term “poser” art. Then, like now, I find the artwork very neutral – indeed almost too neutral – and not exciting or deeply inspirational.
Call to Action – Prime Directive
As I was a fan of the board game (and miniatures) of Star Fleet Battles, when Task Force Games brought out their RPG for that universe I scooped it up – with mild disappointment. But looking back on the artwork of Prime Directive, I see a few things that I like. For instance, the cover has action. Here I see what is likely a Federation Prime Team, with jackets on and phasers ready, in a temple-like structure being attacked (?) by an alien wielding a long spear with a bladed end. Take note that the team is facing the threat. Later versions on Prime Directive, especially the more recent d20 and d20 Modern variants, went to a style of art that I am not a fan of, but still harken back to core themes of the Trek universe. Like this cover from D20 Modern.
Here I see another Prime Team with each character acting in an iconic fashion; the blue-shirted scientist is pointing out something, the red-shirted security guy is getting ready to die, and the gold-shirted commander is leading. Not a lot of action, but each character captures (inspires) a role to play.
The Vanguard of My Imagination
There is another influence on my “expectation” of a Star Trek RPG, coming from the Star Trek Vanguardseries of books. This series appeals to me because it is an Original Series-era setting but with a more confrontational and mysterious adventure. In terms of their book covers, they all consist of ship art and are full of action. I especially like Reap the Whirlwindwhich shows off the small USS Sagittarius daringly passing in front of a much larger (and dangerous?) Klingon ship. Now that is adventure inspiration!
A Call to New Star Trek Adventures
Which brings me back to the new Star Trek Adventures. Much like FASA Trek before, the art shown to date consists of ships and people. In this case the ships are trying to evoke a nostalgic reaction as they portray the iconic Enterpriseacross the TV series’ and movies. But it is the people art that catches my attention. To me, the people art shows how the writers and publishers of this game see their own game. Through those images they show me, the player (and customer), how they think the game should inspire me to play.
The first people image I saw was a crew on the bridge of what appears to be a Original Series ship. I like that it is Original Series and that it is full of action. But to me it is the wrong action. I see a Federation ship that has been boarded by Klingons with at least two injured (dead?) already. The Captain is desperately fighting another ship even as the Klingons board his ship and threaten his bridge. This doesn’t look like it will end well. Indeed, this image reminds me what I see as an overused trope in too many Star Trek movies; Abandon Ship! How many times has the Enterprise now been destroyed? I personally am tired of the trope and it infuriates me because I see it as lazy writing for it has been used too many times to do nothing more than generate emotions (nostalgic longing for the ship) move the adventure off the to a different location.
The next image very different. It changes eras (to theNext Generation) which I am only “meh” to (except if we are talking about the alternate Federation found in Yesterday’s Enterprise). There is a lot of action going on here; from an exploding planet above to collapsing towers in the background to explosions. I also see a blue-shirted scientist studying a mystical hologram while two gold-shirted security guards are near a mysteriously glowing obelisk. A red-shirted officer is pointing, probably commanding the group since she is the only one wearing the red-shirt of command. On the far left we see a second blue-shirt scientist racing towards the group. That is a lot of action, and I see this as the moment the plan has gone sideways and the PCs are faced with a choice. It is the classic “Oh, Crap!” moment.
This picture, the one that that started all my ramblings, appears to take place shortly after the previous “Oh, Crap!” moment. The scientist previously seen racing towards the group is now racing away. He is being followed by a somewhat acrobatic gold-shirt security man. Our intrepid red-shirt leader is also on the run with the blue-shirt scientist previously studying the hologram(?) now also sprinting away. In the right top, two more characters not seen in the previous image are visible; a red-shirt being rescued by a gold-shirt. There are also at four characters in the left background; two (?) gold, a blue and a red-shirt.
There’s at least ten people in this scene. I’m going to assume the blue-shirt hippie dude, the acrobatic blue-skin gold-shirt, red-shirt leader and blue-shirt hologram scientist are player characters. A fifth PC may be the other gold-shirt security in the previous picture. That means this scene has a PC party of five with five supporting NPCs. To use the words of the man in the White House, “That’s yuge!” I have to wonder if Star Trek Adventures is playable only by large groups. Is there something in the game mechanics that makes this necessary or desirable or is it optional?
In a bit that I find very important all the characters seem to be running awayfrom the threat. This runs (no joke intended) counter to what I see as a core tenet of the Star Trek universe; characters always face the threat. I am not saying that a strategic withdrawal is never in order but to show me a scene where everyone is running away – it makes me think of Doctor Who where the characters are always running. If I want to play game with running, I’ll play Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (11th Doctor) which I already own.
I can already hear some critics saying, “It’s your game. Play it like YOU want to play!” I heartily agree, and will do so, as long as the mechanics of the game allow me to!
“How do you like this image?”
Sorry, Chris. I don’t.
I don’t like it because although it looks Star Trek (the uniforms and alien species) it doesn’t look like the heroic Star Trek I expect – and want – to play.
The latest version of the Star Trek Adventures RPG Living Playtest from Modiphius includes Alpha Shakedown Cruise – Starship Operations v1.1. This is the first glimpse into the rules for starships in STA. Given the very prominent role starships have in the Star Trek universe these rules will likely be a major part of any adventure.
Going through the rules, several parts jump right out at me:
STA uses the “Ships as Characters” approach; i.e. ships are described much like characters
In keeping with canon sources, Power is a vital starship commodity that is limited but can also be used in support of actions
Crew support gives the PCs a version of an “on-call” NPC that can be used to Assist, as an Advantage, or as an Alternate PC; this is a great GM tool
Starship Combat has several very loose definitons (like ranges); does this empower a more narrative approach?
Crew Roles are an attempt to ensure that all the PCs have a role to play (i.e “share the narrative”) in starship combat
Power can be used in combat to create Momentum but at the risk of a Complication
The Attack Task may require three (3) die rolls
Inflicting Damage may require up to three (3) die rolls.
Without starship construction design rules it is hard to see how scaling will work. The lack of the rules also make some of the ship designs appear suspect. For instance, my beloved Constitution-class cruiser (for the 23rd Century missions) has a Power of 7 and Independent Phaser Power which means the phasers can’t use ship’s power for firing (and cannot be boosted with extra Power either). A 24th Century Galaxy-class starship has a Power rating of 6 although the phasers can use power, cause more damage, and have several additional attributes that the Constitution-class phasers don’t have. At first glance this seems counterintuitive; surely the Galaxy-class has far more power than an old Connie, right?
The number of rolls in combat also concerns me. When making an attack, the ship can Assist (just like a character) which is a separate die roll. Then the PC makes the Attack die roll and if successful then the System Hit table is consulted. That’s already 2-3 die rolls. THEN, to inflict damage, Challenge Dice [CD] are rolled with a possibility that another [CD] roll from Soak is needed and, if necessary, yet another [CD] roll if there was a Crew Breech hit.
The ship Assist condition is concerning, and actually reveals a deeper potential conflict from the “ship as a character” approach. The Assist Rule on p. 14 of the v1.36 states:
In combat or other situations with pressure, assisting a Task is considered to take up a character’s turn.
So, does the ship get a Turn like a character or not? This gets to a deeper question; is the ship really just a character or a tool? Reading the v1.1 Shakedown Cruise rules, it seems that the designer has firmly concluded that ships are characters and not tools. The problem is that the ruleset needs to reflect this clearly with how and when the ship acts as a character and when (or if?) it is simply used as a tool.
Playtest Example – Lexington vs. Klingon D7
To try out the rules, I ran a small scenario. The Federation starship Lexington (the 23rd Century Constitution-class from The Original Series) is investigating a colony that suddenly stopped sending messages.
As Lexington drops out of warp, Captain Moore Directs, “Science Officer, make a sensor sweep.” This lets Captain Moore Assist on the task using his Command skill. Captain Moore’s roll is a Success. Mr. Shelor, the Science Officer, attempts the Sensor Sweep. First we have to roll the Starship Assist, which ends up as a Complication (interference?) which increases the Difficulty of the Sensor Sweep to 2. Mr. Shelor (finally) makes his task roll, rolling 2d20 and getting a Success and another Complication. Given the Assist from the Captain, the Sensor Sweep (barely) detects a Klingon D7 at Long Range (2 Zones), but the GM notes the Complication makes it a poor quality sensor lock which will add +1 Difficulty to any other sensor or combat operation for the rest of this turn.
The Klingon D7 gets their first of three actions this turn. The GM spends one Threat in place of Power and Warps the ship two zones, or into Close Range (0 Zones).
At a glance from the Captain, Lt. Niemec, the Communications Officer, Opens Hailing Frequencies. Maybe the Klingons just want to talk! Once again the ship can Assist, and rolls a 1 on 1d20 adding two Successes. Lt Niemec’s task roll of 2d20 gives her two more Successes which translates into Success with three Momentum. The channel to the Klingons is open. Lt Niemec decides to immediately spend one Momentum to Obtain Information. Stating the channel is open but the Klingons are apparently unaware, the question asked is, “Are the Klingons going to shoot?” The GM truthfully answers, “Yes.” With two Momentum left, Lt. Niemec could Keep the Initiative and pass the action to the Navigator for a Tactical event (i.e. firing) but knowing the Federation would never fire first, instead adds the two remaining Momentum to the Momentum Pool. The GM rewards Lt. Niemec with a point of Determination as she has upheld the values of the Federation in the face of a sure threat.
The Klingon D7 acts as expected and Fires Weapon. The D7 fires their Disruptor Cannon. Given the range (Close) the Difficulty is 2 (actually it is Difficulty 1 but since this is the second action by the D7 this turn the Difficulty is at +1). The Klingon Weapons Officer gets lucky and scores two Successes getting a Hit. Rolling on the System Hit table, the damaged system is the Lexington’s engines. Disruptor Cannons roll 7 Challenge Dice [CD] for Damage and thanks to their Vicious quality each Effect is an extra point of damage. The [CD] roll is 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6 (wow!) for 5 Damage and 5 Effect or a total of 10 Damage! The Lexington’s Soak value of 3 reduces this to 7 Damage. This reduces the Shields from 10 to three and causes a Breech against the Lexington’s communications systems, adding +1 Difficulty to all future tasks involving that system.
Having been fired upon, Lt. Cmndr. Varg at Navigation makes a Tactical action and fires the Lexington’s Phaser Array. This is usually a Difficulty 1 task but remember the bad sensor sweep makes this Difficulty 2. Once again the ship can Assist and gets a Success. Lt. Cmndr. Varg decides to use one Momentum from the Momentum Pool and rolls 3d20, getting Success with Momentum (two Momentum counting the extra Success from the ship). Since the Lexington’s Phaser Array is Versatile, two extra Momentum are added from the Success for a total of four Momentum. The System Hit is Structure. As Lt. Cmndr. Varg prepares to roll the 6 [CD] for damage, he declares that he will use one Momentum point to make the hit a Penetrating hit which will ignore two Soak. The [CD] are 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6 for 4 Damage with two Effect. This is a horrible roll, so Varg spends another Momentum to reroll the two 3’s and the 4. The new [CD] roll is 1, 2, 5, 5, 6, 6 for 7 Damage with four Effect. A single Soak reduces this to six Damage against the shields (from 9 to 3) and a Breech against the D7 Structure. The Breech reduces shields to 0, life support is failing and the ship is crippled.
The D7 crew immediately tries to repair the Structure. This would usually be a Difficulty 1 task because of the single Breech, but given this is the third action this turn it is attempted at +2 Difficulty. The GM spends a Threat to add an extra d20, but the task attempt fails. The GM immediately spends his last two Threat for another action and announces the D7 self destructs.
As the Lexington spends the next few hours rebuilding the damaged communications system, questions remain. Why were the Klingons here? What were they doing? What was so important they would die for?
As you can hopefully see, there is much “roll-playing” and not so much “role-playing” in the above example. It continues to appear that the rules of STA favor mechanics over narrative play.
Last week I wrote about how I seemingly had dropped off the Star Trek AdventuresRPG Living Playtest email (err….”Datapad”) distribution. A few days later, I was hailed by Chris Birch of Modiphius and sent the latest playtest documents. I really appreciate the gesture as after my snarky comments I could totally understand not ever hearing from the playtest again.
This weekend I went ahead and reviewed the v1.36 rules. I must admit they are better than the earlier version. Some of my earlier concerns have been dealt with, others remain, and a few new ones were introduced:
Without the character generation rules it is difficult for me to see the difference of Values and Traits
I am concerned that there could be too many rolls involved, like when Assisting the assisting PC makes a full Task roll followed by the action PC making another full Task roll
Advantages, Complications, Determination, Momentum and Threat all seem to be coming together and mechanically (and narratively) balancing each other
The rules seem schizophrenic on whether it is the GM or players who make certain calls; please pick one direction and go with it!
The Alpha Rules for starships were also included in this release. Ships are played like characters with many of the same rules. I first experienced this approach to starships in RPGs with the Cortex ClassicBattlestar Galactica RPG(though I now know it was done earlier than that). The rules seem to work, though without ship design rules its hard to envision how ships will scale against each other. I have hope that I can do my Vanguard setting; the Original Series Constitution-class cruiser is “Size 3” whereas the Next Generation Galaxy-class is “Size 4.”
This version of Star Trek Adventureshas improved enough over the first one to renew my interest. In this next week I will dig into the rules a bit deeper and try to get a playtest session going.