#RPGThursday – Reflections on The Klingons (FASA, 1983)

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 herehere, 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.

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Personal Collection

The supplement is The Klingons (1st Edition, 1983) written by John M. Ford, Guy W. McLimore, Jr., Greg K Poehlein, and David F. Tepool. The Klingons supplement was published a year before Mr. Ford’s novel The Final Reflection (Star Trek Worlds Apart #1). The Final Reflection was the first “official” Star Trek novel to explain the Klingon Empire.

The early-mid 1980’s was an interesting time in the lore of Star Trek. The “canon” of the time consisted of The Original Series, The Animated Series, and the movies Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. So when it came time for FASA to produce their Klingon sourcebook, they had a real challenge. As the Introduction from The Klingons says:

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 Adventures and look forward to welcoming back an old adventuring friend.

Kai FASA. Kai Ford.

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#StarTrekAdventures RPG – What Do You See?

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.

My Beginning – FASA Star Trek

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Courtesy Grognardia

My first Star Trek RPG was Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game (FASA, 1983). The art in this product consists mostly of screenshots taken from The Original Series. In later products FASA commissioned artists for original artwork and by that time Paramount had released several Star Trek movies which heavily influenced the look. For instance, the first sourcebook, The Klingons,

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RPGGeek

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

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Courtesy RPGGeek

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.

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RPGGeek

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

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Courtesy readstartrekbooks

There is another influence on my “expectation” of a Star Trek RPG, coming from the Star Trek Vanguard series 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 Whirlwind which 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

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Modiphius Games

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 Enterprise across 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.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

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.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

The next image very different. It changes eras (to the Next 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.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

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 away from 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.

 

#RPGThursday – “These are the voyages….” Star Trek Adventures Starship Shakedown

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http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org
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.

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Mangledduk (Photobucket)
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?

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http://www.ncc-1701-a.net
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.

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http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org
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.

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Captain86 (DeviantArt)
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.


Star Trek Adventures – Alpha Shakedown Cruise Starship Operations v1.1, ™ and ©2016

Star Trek Adventures – Alpha Shakedown Cruise v1.36, ™ and © 2016

#StarTrekAdventures – Hailing Frequency (Re)Open

Last week I wrote about how I seemingly had dropped off the Star Trek Adventures RPG 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.

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Datapad courtesy Memory Alpha

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 Classic Battlestar 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 Adventures has 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.

#RPGThursday Further Thoughts on “Star Trek Adventures” RPG Alpha Rules

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Vanguard Station courtesy artstation.com
I have been playing around in the Alpha rules version of Star Trek Adventures (STA) from Modiphius Entertainment. Being the Alpha rules, the playtest focus at this point is obviously the Core Mechanics of the 2d20 System as adjusted for the setting. After my last blog post, the lead designer, Nathan Dowdell (@N01H3r3 on twitter), reached out and welcomed me to provide direct feedback. I appreciate the offer, and have submitted feedback through the Playtest Survey sent on Dec 14.

Although the playtest requires one to sign up, there is no non-disclosure agreement to date, and given the forums are publicly accessible I “guess” public comments on the game system are also acceptable. Even so, I am going to be a bit cagey with my comments to avoid going beyond a line that I am not so sure even exists.

This is not the first setting to use the 2d20 System. I have not played the other Modiphius 2d20 games, and I understand that Modiphius modifies the game engine for each setting. That said, I am of mixed emotions as to balance between simulationism and narrativism in the core engine and the ability to create adventures evocative of the Star Trek Universe. I am not quite as negative as JP Chapleau (and it almost sounds like his group doesn’t fully grok the rules) but…he has got many good points.

Setting Evocative?

One of the feedback questions concerned Attribute names. More directly, the question was if the Attribute names are evocative of the setting. I find the names evocative, but the application of each Attribute is a bit confusing. I think this is because each Attribute seemingly has a physical and mental aspect. Whereas in Classic 2d6 Sci-Fi (like Classic Traveller or the more recent Cepheus Engine) attributes such as Strength and Intelligence are distinctive and obviously different in application, in STA you get Resilience (“…physical and mental strength…resisting hardship…employing direct methods such as brute force”) and Reason (“…applies to the rational mind…applying theoretical knowledge…making observations and deductions”). Once players are more familiar with the system nomenclature this may may more sense but at the start it’s a bit confusing.

When attempting a task, one must use a combination of Attribute+Skill. The rules state that this combination can be defined by either the GM or players (a rare nod to narrativism). This is a positive thing and I believe rules for “sharing the narrative” should be encouraged. That said, the flow of my games at this point suffers because players are unsure what each Attribute fully means.

Without character generation rules I can only see Focus and Talents as mechanical effects. I look forward to seeing how CharGen uses (hopefully) Focus and Talents to assist in further defining a character and not just enhancing a stat block.

I find Momentum in the core engine useful for creating mechanical effects. Momentum can create a cascade of successful outcomes. It is also VERY powerful; a single Momentum usage can reroll an entire task! I find Threat a useful counterbalance, although I note that – once again – the effects are usually more mechanical than narrative. I see how Values can introduce some narrative-flavor, although in the Alpha rules – with no character generation given – they act (once again) in a more mechanic vice narrative manner.

Extended Tasks are also mechanically clumsy. Having to track three factors (Progress/Magnitude/Resistance) seems a bit much and at this point the challenge seems purely mechanical.

I do not like the Difficulty 0 Task. Using the rules as written, one can attempt a Difficulty 0 Task for the simple reason of creating Momentum. I find this too gamey; a character could perform a simple – and possibly unrelated – task check just to gain advantage for themselves or the group. I can foresee an Engineer running a systems diagnostic check just to roll some dice with any successes automatically becoming Momentum. Unless somebody can show me how this is Really A Good Thing I hope Difficulty 0 Tasks go away.

I am also somewhat doubtful of the Challenge Dice [CD] mechanic (or is it Combat Dice…that’s what the playtest survey asked). In the Alpha rules, the main use of [CD] is determining damage. To determine damage, one adds the damage rating of the weapon AND the Security Skill of the character and arrives at the number of [CD] to be rolled. Although this captures the flavor of how a more skilled character can get more out of a weapon I fear this “narrative advantage” (i.e. a better trained character is far more effective) may be too powerful. Oh yeah, the [CD] is really Fate Dice where the “minus” is read as a “1,”, the blank sides don’t count, and the “plus” sign indicates success and Effect.

The Alpha rules are very lean and give little insight into how flexible – or not – the rules are going to be in making a Star Trek adventure setting of interest to me. Even the playtest adventure is railroading the GM and players to showcase the rules and ensure they get exercised. I really didn’t like the adventure premise – newly minted cadets on their way to a first assignment – because it evokes too many nightmares of Whinny Wesley Crusher. So when I first read the rules heading, So Crazy It Might Work, I had hope. Alas, the section is not any sort of rules, just advice to the GM to encourage the trope but mostly to beware about letting the PCs get carried away and derail the story. Extremely disappointing, especially when there are rules like Brainstorming in the Atomic Robo RPG that are a wonderful example of how those crazy technobabble solutions can be made to work within a game system (and the Fate SRD for Brainstorming is available online).

Indeed, the main problem I have with the rules is that they almost, but not quite, capture the Star Trek feeling for me. For example, the three classes of NPCs are Troopers, Elites, and Nemeses. Elites and Nemeses I can see, but Troopers? Almost, but not quite Star Trek to my ears.

Vanguard to Adventure

I purposely signed up to playtest in TOS era not because I love the adventures of Kirk and the Enterprise, but because I really enjoyed the Vanguard-series of Trek books. Frankly, part of my evaluation of the game will be if I can even come close to recreating a Vanguard-like adventure with smaller starships (like the Archer-class USS Sagittarius NCC-1894) or the civilian Rocinante (no, not the Rocinante from The Expanse). For that matter, I wonder if the game will even support non-Starfleet characters like Cervantes Quinn. I guess I have to wait until at least early next year; upon submitting my playtest survey there was a note that the first wave of ship adventures will be released then.

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USS Sagittarius (NCC-1894) courtesy masazaki.deviant.art
Star Trek Adventures is ™ & © 2016 CBS Studios Inc. STAR TREK and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

#RPGThursday #StarTrek Adventures Alpha Playtest Initial Thoughts

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Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

I am participating in Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures (STA) living playtest campaign. Over the Thanksgiving Weekend they released the first playtest package, Alpha v1.2. According to their email:

Attention Crew! You have a short journey ahead of you to Narendra Station where you’ll be assigned to one of several ships…
This email includes a link to download the very first Alpha test of the Star Trek Adventures Living Playtest. For this adventure player characters are newly deployed cadets heading toward Narendra Station on a shuttle for assignment to their various vessels. During the trip, they receive a distress call from a science outpost on a planet that’s been struck by a highly irradiated ion storm. The shuttle crash-landed on the surface and the crew was attacked by primitive hostile humanoid creatures wielding clubs and rocks.
This first adventure is set in the 24th century (TNG era) and is for all crews regardless of which ship they picked. You are assigned cadets as characters for this very first mission but in subsequent missions you will be playing aboard your chosen ship with a wide choice of bridge crew. This first mission is to introduce you to basics of the rules however the results will affect the on-going Living Campaign plot. Additional rules will be introduced with each new playtest pack.
The Rescue at Xerxes 4 (by Shawn Merwin) is the first adventure in the Star Trek Adventures Living Campaign playtest series. This adventure is meant to be played by a Gamemaster (GM) and 3-7 player characters, using the pre-generated characters provided.
We will be asking for feedback in December so get testing as soon as you can!

The download package includes Alpha Rules v1.2, 12 playtest pregens, Playtest Summary sheets, the above referenced adventure, and a short background document.

I was a bit disappointed with the Alpha package because I specifically signed up for a Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)-era playtest campaign. After reading the Modiphius Forums I understand the intent to use a single Alpha playtest package to introduce the basic rules before getting into era-specific adventures, but it still was disappointing to not start off like I expected.

Exploring the (Warp) Core

STA uses Modiphius’ 2d20 system. This is a core mechanic I am not previously familiar with so I am really entering the playtest as a newbie to the system. To put my Bottom Line Up Front, I feel the 2d20 mechanic generates limited narrative opportunities at the cost of somewhat cumbersome mechanical implementation.

Starting off, the Alpha Playtest document is hard to read. I know this is the Alpha version and not supposed to be fancy, but the layout/format is not friendly to a flow of reading that helps to understand the game. To get a better understanding I got the free Modiphius Robert E. Howards CONAN Roleplaying Game Quickstart from DriveThruRPG which I found explained the 2d20 system better. The Conan Quickstart and STA Alpha are not identical, but the game concepts are similar enough to assist in understanding the system.

Mechanically, in the 2d20 System, each Task is given a difficulty rating from 0 to 5. The player adds the character’s Attribute and Skill to get a Target Number. When rolling 2d20, each roll under the TN is a success. The number of successes needed is the difficulty. Skills can also have a Focus, and rolling either a 1 or the Focus or less equals two successes. Damage is expressed in terms of Challenge Dice [CD] which is a d6 read with 1 and 2 equalling that number of successes, 3 and 4 meaning nothing, and 5 and 6 meaning a single success and an Effect.

Narratively, the players have Momentum (extra successes beyond the difficulty level) and Determination to spend. The GM has Threat. To mechanically or narratively effect a Task or the outcome the PCs use Momentum, Determination, Teamwork, or pay Threat. The GM has NPC Momentum, Teamwork, and Threat. Values can also be used by the players or challenged by the GM to influence the action.

Send in the Redshirts

All this sounds straight-forward; that is, until I actually tried playing it out. To resolve a task the player may be rolling up to 5d20 (2d20 baseline plus up to 3 additional when Improving the Odds) to determine success with options to narratively/mechanically intervene both before an after the Task Roll. Then, a pool of Challenge Dice are rolled (often to determine damage).

One of the Playtest Pregens – an obvious combat build – has a Control Attribute of 10 and a Security Skill of 4 with a Ranged Attack Focus of 4. Shooting a Type 2 Phaser, the basic attack  for this character has a Target Number of 14, meaning each d20 that rolls 14 or under (70% chance) scores a success, and any one rolling 4 or under (20% chance) scores  two successes. Remember too that a natural 20 (5% chance) is a Complication (and even that can grow up to a 25% chance given the right conditions). Assuming success against the basic Difficulty 2, this character now rolls 7x Challenge Dice (Basic Weapon Factor of 3 plus Security Skill 4) to determine damage. Any attack scoring five or more in a single attack (or when the Stress Track is depleted ) can cause an Injury. Characters look to have from 8 to 14 Stress. Note also that any successes beyond the basic needed (in the case of here beyond the 2 Difficulty) generates Momentum, and each character has between 3-4 Determination at the start of a session.

My gut reaction is that there are too many “fiddly bits” going on here. When reading the d20 one has to look for three factors; success (TN or less), Complication (natural 20), and extra success (natural 1 or Focus or less). The Challenge Dice also require careful reading too (1 = 1x success, 2= 2x success, 3 and 4 are nothing, 5 and 6 = 1x success plus Effect). I feel that assembling the dice pool will slow the game down.

GM: It’s getting dark, but as you look across the clearing, you see a team of Jem Hadar troopers leading the prisoners away. A reminder; the Momentum Pool is now 2.

PC: Might lose them the dark; gotta act now. [Head nods from other players] I shoot the squad leader.

GM: You both are in the same Zone, so you can make the shot, but given the poor lighting I think it will add to the Difficulty. Make it a Difficulty 3 shot. What is your TN [Control Attribute + Security Skill] and do you have a relevant Focus?

PC (Consulting Character Sheet): Uh…I have Control 8 plus Security 2 for a TN of 10 and I have no Focus I can use. That’s not too good. [Pause for thinking] I need to improve my odds, so I am going to pay one Determination [player puts a d20 on the table with the 1 face-up] which gives me two successes, and I will roll my other 2d20.

GM (Interrupting) Is your attack Stun or Kill? How many Charges are you using?

PC: Uh….They’re Jem Hadar but my Value “Mr. Nice Guy” means I use Stun. Do I get anything for that?

GM: You get one point of Momentum.

PC: OK…I think I am going to only use two charges for the Vicious setting because I really want to take this guy down quickly. [Rolling – 18 and 7]. Whew! The 18 is nothing but the 7 gives me a third success! I don’t get any more Momentum and I don’t think I will use my one earned now to improve the quality or scope of the success.

GM: OK…how many Challenge Dice do you roll?

PC (Again consulting Character Sheet) I’m carrying a Type 2 Phaser so that’s 3[CD] plus my Security of 2 for a total of 5[CD]. [Rolling – 1, 2, 3, 6, 6]. Uh…that’s 5 damage plus two Effect. The Vicious effect means I add 2 damage for a total of 7. That should be enough for an Injury…Stun means a knockout, right?

GM: Given that you surprised the Jem Hadar squad they don’t evade your attack nor will the Squad Leader resist the injury. They also aren’t wearing armor so there is no Soak. The 7 damage is enough to injure the squad leader…stunned he falls over unconscious. There still is that other guard though…and he turns your direction and raises his rifle….

PC: Well, I’ve taken my Major Action for this round. I am going to add my earned Momentum to the pool making it three, but [looking at fellow players] I think we need to spend 2 Momentum here to keep the initiative and take down the other guard, right guys?

Need more narrative, Scotty!

Having played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPGs with their unique dice mechanic and Destiny Points, or even Savage Worlds or Cortex Plus with Bennies and Plot Points, this reading of multiple dice and managing a game economy should not be a problem. But it bothers me. I think the difference is that those other systems use a single dice throw to determine success and impact. The Modiphius 2d20 system uses at least two throws for each attack. A small difference to be sure. There are also three game economies to be managed (Momentum – both individual and group, Determination by individual, and Threat). I am also not convinced that Momentum or Determination and Threat are powerful enough narratively; indeed they really come across as more mechanical in effect than narrative in nature.

Another part that bothers me is terminology. In parts the system has a very Star Trek vibe to it (like Skills named after departments) but in other places the language seems forced (like the “Vicious” setting for a phaser – never thought of a phaser as vicious). The ned result is that  I’m just not getting that Star Trek adventure feeling yet.

Maybe after the running through the first adventure I will have a different perspective.

#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:

A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE TO PLAYERS

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.