Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thinking You're On The Same Page (But Not)

Noisms' comments about games he's wanted to run, and Jeff Rients' Shatnerday collided in my brain to remind me about my own love affair with Star Trek. I also reminded me of the last time I had tried doing something with Star Trek as a role-playing campaign.

This was about six or seven years ago. I had run some D&D 3.0 and found it overly-engineered and my players were something of a mixed bag. So I decided I needed something different - something that would bring the group together. And then I decided that Star Trek would be a good way to do this. I had always wanted to run a Star Trek campaign. It would be fun – everybody knows the background, the language, and it would provide a sturdy frame for a kind of dramatic role-playing that could be really engaging for the players and for me as the referee. Or so I thought.

What – or more precisely, who I forgot about were Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. Berman and Braga were largely responsible for the evolution of the Star Trek franchise, and having been brought up on the original series (TOS), I hadn’t really paid much attention to what they were doing with Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. To be sure, Gene Roddenberry had made changes right from the beginning of Next Generation, but Berman and Braga had carried that much further after Roddenberry’s death. By the time Deep Space Nine came along, I had lost interest in watching the various shows in the franchise.

Frankly, I really didn’t like some of the changes they had made in the Star Trek universe – the Ferengi were painfully close to negative stereotypes of Jews (right down to the exaggerated facial features), the Klingons were changed from an implacable but honorable foe to a band of “Vikings in space”, the Romulans took the place of the Klingons, and I never found the Cardassians to be all that interesting. But if those things were the only major problem, I wouldn’t have had much difficulty. Telling my players that Voyager was in a different timeline so they ought not to expect to encounter the Dominion, the Jem’Hadar or the Kazon (or anything from "fluidic space") would likely have been met with cheerful relief on their part.

What I hadn’t expected was that we would have radically different ideas of what, exactly, the “Star Trek universe” was. To me, the Star Trek universe was the wild frontier of TOS, in all its four color simplicity. James T. Kirk was a Jack Aubrey in space, with Spock and McCoy as his Stephen Maturin stand-ins. Star Bases were not unlike Gibraltar or Ascension Island – occasional oases in a vast ocean of stars. And even if there was a Starfleet Command, they wouldn’t be questioning every single command decision made by the Captain of the USS Brilliant (a Surya-class frigate, not an Enterprise-class heavy cruiser).

My players, however, had different ideas.

My first clue we might be operating asynchronously came when one of my players said to me rather emphatically, “yeah, I don’t like the later shows, either. I prefer the classics – you know, like Next Generation. I knew that was a danger sign, but I figured that since I was busily retooling various minor details of the universe, such a perspective could be easily bridged back to my own. But the second clue came about when I mentioned wanting to set the campaign in the period after Star Trek: Wrath of Khan and just before The Search for Spock. I had intended to play with the Star Trek movie “continuity”[1] just a little – I liked David Marcus as a character, and thought that his immediate elimination in Search for Spock was more expedient than warranted. And I definitely wanted to preserve the Klingons as antagonists, so I wanted to bypass Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country altogether. (The Undiscovered Country, with its dubious premise of a moon explosion somehow crippling an interstellar empire, was profoundly unsatisfactory structurally and dramatically.) One or two of my players became visibly uncomfortable with an “alternate universe” cast to the campaign. “So what happens afterwards?” one of them asked. “You’ll have a chance to figure that out” was my answer, which was accepted with deep hesitation.

But when it came to considering the start of the campaign, there were more problems. Which rules set to use? I had thought about GURPS, as a system I knew and liked – but the Star Fleet Universe offerings were geared more towards Star Fleet Battles and a decidedly militaristic cant to any campaign. I looked at, and invested in, the Last Unicorn RPG – lavishly produced, but lamentably out of print, and focused more on Next Generation than TOS. I had then settled on the Decipher line, as it was fairly balanced and not (quite) out of print. The straw that broke the camel’s back and sent the campaign back into the editing room was the discussion I had with my players.

They simply did not like the original Star Trek series. What I saw nostalgically as a brightly colored background just aching for the interesting fine detail work of an unfolding campaign story arc written by the players themselves, they saw the TOS setting as cartoon-ish and corny. While they thought Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were fascinating and full of background detail, I found them to be largely complicated without being really interesting (particularly DS9), and suffering from attempts to over-use the “double-talk generator” as a substitute for maintaining dramatic continuity.

Past that, my players (or at least, the group of people I was gaming with back then) were dubious about a different rules set than the D20 system they knew from D&D 3.0. And the idea of a home-brew rules set struck them as tinkering with the very fabric of the universe (okay, in a sense that's true - but they weren't happy with the idea).

When these differences in perspective surfaced, I realized I needed to rethink the entire basis for wanting to run a Star Trek campaign. I'm still thinking about that. I love my Star Trek, but oh, you kid.

[1] I am almost embarrassed to use that term in relation to Star Trek – a show infamous for the cavalier attitude shown to continuity by the production teams of the various series. Even so, while there might not be a precisely-definable continuity and “history” there is certainly a commonly-held (and defined) sense of what that might be. I knew I would have to wrestle with that in whatever game I ran.


  1. I really empathize. To me, Star Trek IS the original series of 79 episodes. I bought them all (a few at a time) years ago on DVD, and my wife and I never tire of them. I'm not any sort of Trekkie. I have no ST paraphernalia whatsoever. I just like the old shows.

    All the "Star Trek" TV shows that came later leave me cold. I'm ambivalent about the Star Trek movies with the original characters. I think each would have been better as a one-hour made-for-TV-movie, complete with all the bright colors of the TV show.

    Anyway, a campaign of 1960s Star Trek would be right up my alley.

    Lastly, this article for me sums up some of what doesn't feel right in Picard-era Trek:

  2. This isn't a metaphor for anything else now, is it?

  3. I like the comparison of Kirk/Spock to Aubrey/Maturin.

    It seems sad that you could not find a common canon since Star Trek comes down to: "okay you're on a ship, out on your own, and some stuff happens" where history and canon mean less. I mean, you're gonna have phasers, there's gonna be aliens and god-beings..

    Is there enough in common for it to work? Your players don't have to know that you're envisioning it like TOS.

  4. Geoffrey: my thinking about Trek has evolved some from when I last thought about it (i.e. when I last tried running), but that's for another post.

    K. Bailey: Is there enough in common for it to work? Your players don't have to know that you're envisioning it like TOS.

    Unfortunately, I don't think so. There's a very real difference between how things work in Star Trek depending on what era you are playing in. People brought up on Net Gen/DS9/Voyager have a different sense of things than TOS fans. I suppose you could run a kind of TOS game like Voyager, but that might have its own issues. (And I'm kind of ambivalent to that specific campaign idea, anyway).

    James M.: not seeing the metaphor, so please enlighten me. :)

  5. Oh, I simply thought you were using the differing views of Trek as a metaphor for the differing views of D&D.

  6. Well, that does fit, now, doesn't it? Hmmm! Never thought of it that way, but you're right.

  7. I sympathize.

    I have a lot of friends who are younger than me, and they refer to Next Generation as Star Trek. It's not; only Star Trek is Star Trek; the rest of them are Star Trek: [something].

    (Naturally, they see me as an old fart who doesn't know from good.)

  8. I suspect I'll regret pointing this out, but the Ferengi are space-Arabs. The Bajorans are the traditional Trek Jew-analogue.

    I agree with the rest, though. Similar situations have frustrated me in the past, too.

  9. Star Trek has been, is, and always will be my favorite venue for gaming. By now I must've run over 2 dozen Star Trek campaigns since I first discovered the FASA RPG in 1982 at the age of 13.

    I think the danger or obstacle I have seen when proposing a Trek campaign is when the GM or the players are thinking of one show as Star Trek. Star Trek is different things to different people to be sure but its best run and played went looked at as one all encompassing thing.

    For an effective campaign with a diverse group of creative players you need riveting space battles (DS9), sexy alien women to seduce (TOS), diplomacy with alien cultures (TNG) and philosophical quandries (all) to make the setting come alive.

    The possible exceptions to this view are Voyager and ST:V. They can be ignored and really, no one should care that much. ;)


  10. Will Douglas: pretty much how I see it, as well.

    Kelvingreen: I see your point, though I should note that the depiction of the Ferengi pre-dates the Bajorans, which is where I got my impression of them. As for a comparison between them about which fits which racial/ethnic stereotype better, I would probably go along with your analysis, given that these aren't really direct "copies" so to speak.

  11. I would welcome a new Trek RPG based purely on the universe of the new film. Not for the obvious reason of having a new one for the sake of it, or because the movie is going to be Teh Kewl. It's because the movie is going to take the franchise back to the TOS era, and leave the nitty gritty details of canon behind.

    I've found that many players and GMs feel as constrained by canon as the television writers were, and it really closes up a Trek game as a result. I would never allow a session to be driven off course by someone who wanted to argue the finer details of what was established "In Season 4, Episode 7"; but I suspect that person wouldn't really enjoy a game where I didn't take it so seriously.

    Perhaps the concept of a Trek RPG needs to be rebooted in the same way as the TV/movie series are about to be. Trek should be fertile ground for roleplaying, and a Trek RPG should be commercially viable. At the moment, though, neither seem to be the case.