Tuesday, 14 April 2009

There's Klingons off the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow...

I've been on a big Star Trek trip recently after many years of shunning it. I was a huge Next Generation fan first time around (I was the perfect age for it, being about 10 or 11) but could never get into DS9, actively disliked Voyager (has there ever been a less charismatic set of actors gathered together in one place? except for the doctor), and by the time Enterprise came along, just wasn't interested anymore.

Then for some reason late last year I got a hankering to watch some Trek and picked up Seasons 3 and 4 of NextGen on DVD. Now I'm hooked again. There has never been such an imperfectly perfect TV series, and I doubt there ever will be again.

Naturally this has me thinking about the age-old problem which has haunted gamerdom for generations. I believe Marcel Proust put it best:

"In his younger days a man dreams of possessing a Star Trek role playing game which he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a Star Trek role playing game may be enough to make him fall in love with it."

Or; why are we satisfied with substandard Trek role playing games, dammit?

It is my firm belief that the ultimate tool for Star Trek role playing is Risus. This is because, let's face it, Trek is fundamentally about things which can't be covered by rules - i.e. morality, logic puzzles, exploration and weird aliens with funny heads. That's the essence of the show in my opinion. Working out how much damage a phaser does, exactly how much a Klingon can lift, or how quickly a ship flying at Warp 4 can get to Tau Ceti Alpha Gamma 6 from Beta Delta Centauri Alpha entirely misses the point. What you need is a rules-lite system that doesn't get in the way of the derring-do, the exploration, and the debates over the Prime Directive and whether androids are sentient - which is the heart of the series. (That doesn't mean the game has to be turned into a comedy, mark you - Risus works surprisingly well as a 'serious' rules-lite system too.)

The thing about Risus is that it can be easily used to emulate 'social combat' - way better than any Forge game ever could. And as a heavy element of Star Trek is social combat, it seems a perfect fit. Think of Picard (Interstellar Diplomat 3) debating with Gowron (Raging Klingon 4) over whether or not to go to war. Or Riker (Spacefaring Casanova 4) trying to seduce that sexy genderless alien (Genderless Alien 3) who just came aboard. See?

Barking Alien has some good posts about this too, in which he talks about how to run a Star Trek campaign (or 'series'). Take a look.


  1. really, all you need is this:


  2. Trek is fundamentally about things which can't be covered by rules - i.e. morality, logic puzzles, exploration and weird aliens with funny heads.I always saw ST:tNG as being fundamentally about identity (the nature and continuity thereof, what you will and won't do, how society reflects and reinforces it, etc).
    Everything else might change around them, but the core characters always remain their archetypal selves.

    Deep Dish Nine was better when it was Babylon Five, and Voyager was just "Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman" in SPAAAAACE. :p

    FASA-Trek and LUGTrek both sucked (IMO); you may be onto something with Risus though. Patrick Stewart as stick figure just *works*

  3. I'm sort of a closet Trekkie, though I admit the only one I was ever really a fan of was Deep Space Nine. Essentially every psychopath in Star Fleet was sent there, and even the station's executive officer was an ex-terroist.

    Actually I don't think the Star Trek RPG (the original one, not the more recent product, which is totally different) wasn't that bad a game. Based on the original series, they eventually brought out a Next Generations expansion module. Also added a Starship Combat game, and expansions for both the Klingons and Romulans.

    Actually, I liked Traveller 2300, or 2300 AD as it was later renamed due to confusion with the Traveller line. It just wasn't something I had a lot of time for with campaigns of Traveller, Space Opera, Champions and Chivalry and Sorcery going on. Was real busy in those days. Actually considered it a candidate as a PBM game a few years back.

  4. I appreciate the plug and the discussion, as any talk of Star Trek gaming is good talk (I have that 'there's no such thing as bad PR' mentallity).

    While I agree with you that Risus hits the mark pretty darn well. I am a big Risus fan and generally a rules-lite guy. At the same time I really like FASA and LUG's versions and here's why...

    While Star Trek is most assuredly about moral dilemmas, exploration of the Human psyche and the like, what seperates it from other series is how much its fans care about the trappings. Star Trek fandom didn't survive so long just because of good stories. It also has elements we of geekdom can latch onto, remember and repeat to show how knowledgable we are about our favorite subject. I see this as a good thing.

    Compare Firefly with Star Trek for a moment. In some ways, Firefly's characters and stories were great and its exploration of the Human condition far more Human and flawed then Trek. But the universe of Firefly? I can barely remember anything about it. The bad guys were the Alliance...right? I don't even know if the Browncoated fellas had another name.

    In Trek, everyone knows the good guys are the Federation, the Enterprise is a Constitution Class starship, Klingons were our enemies and now they're not, Phasers can stun, etc. These details are as much a part of Star Trek as discussions of prejudice, the futility of war or arguements about the Prime Directive.

    Also, details often appeal to the average gaming. I love rules lite systems but I've found that Star Trek needs just a bit more crunch for the reasons detailed above. Players like knowing these things. Spacemaster is certainly the wrong system for Trek, but LUG does a pretty good job of balancing cinema with crunchy bits. The morality and story driven elements aren't supplied by the system you play, its supllied by the GM and players.

    Barking Alien

  5. I'm with Barking Alien on this issue.
    That, and, nostalgia for the FASA rules.

  6. When I first read this, my mind substituted "Risa" for "Risus." As in the notorious pleasure-planet, home of "morality, logic puzzles, exploration and weird aliens with funny heads." It wasn't until I went back to click through the link that I discovered my error.

  7. I think maybe all sci-fi, or at least space opera, rpgs are hampered by their very sci-fi-ish focus on the details of how much a vulcan can lift. It makes them interesting nerdy reads but completely boring to play.

  8. FASA Star Trek The Next Generation was my first RPG. They had it at my middle school's student library. I know nothing about Risus, but Noisms always has good judgment about games.

    V-word: Nonaudod
    Definition: An Audod is a desert tribe that travels by riding piggyback on the shoulders of one another

  9. somtimes it's important to know exactly how much a Klingon can lift. i have personal knowledge of a rules-lite game session that dissolved in acrimony because the players thought they should be able to move a rock that the GM ruled they couldn't. imo if the GM could have pointed to the character sheets and said, "The rock masses x kilos. How much can you lift? Sorry, that's not enough.", it would have prevented a big ruckus.

    it's all a matter of taste and you should play what's fun, but rules-lite games have their own drawbacks.

  10. If knowing how much a given species can lift or how much a damage a weapon does hampers your ability to play an RPG, I would think it especially difficult for you to play any RPG ever made with a few rare exceptions. That information is needed in SciFi just as its needed in fantasy for the Dwarf Warrior or the fireball of a Wizard. Besides, the game isn't about that in SciFi. Its about the story, the characters, philosophical and moral dilemmas, etc. If anything, Kill-the-Monster-And-Take-His-Stuff fantasy is far more concerned with the facts and figures from a game mechanics point of view.

    Barking Alien

  11. Zak S: "Lieutenant Baldwin, you're needed in the food court."

    "Kid, that doesn't LOOK like a normal planetoid..."

    "Dammit Gary! That drone is gaining on us!"

    Chris: Interesting point re: identity. I never thought about it that way. Though like all great art, ST:tNG works on two levels - firstly the morality play-cum scientifiction which is ostensibly what it is 'about'; secondly the exploration of character and humanity which has Data at its apex.

    Underminer: 2300 AD definitely works for Star Trek in the more conventional sense. I haven't played it, but I expect Thousand Suns does too.

    Barking Alien: The morality and story driven elements aren't supplied by the system you play, its supllied by the GM and players. That's true, though I think system can get in the way of those elements if it's too intrusive (like Spacemaster). That's why I like the idea of rules-lite Trek. But each to their own.

    Timeshadows: Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

    Neobolts: Where that cheeky Riker sent Picard that time with his wooden sex-god idol thing. Ah, memories.

    Faustusnotes: I think it misses the point that, at least in my opinion, science fiction is about how people act when placed in (to us) extraordinary situations. The science is interesting, but seconday to that.

    Rach: Well, given that most people start off with D&D, I suppose that makes you somewhat unique. ;)

    Jerry: I think we've all played in that sort of game session. I particularly remember one session of D&D almost sliding into a physical fight over how far a group of abishai should be able to see and whether they could spot the PCs. But I don't actually think rules cruch prevents that kind of argument - because there will always be something the rules don't cover.

    Also, these days I'm more of the philosophy that in the long run it's better to just accept what the GM rules, and get on with the game.

  12. Sadly I think most people have long since lost sight of that aspect of sci-fi, and think it's about big ships and guns.

  13. I'm about to do a Trek game very soon and have been obsessing over the system. After doing something that approached free form with a friend, I've been looking at all kinds of rules-lite systems. I've been considering Wushu, which looks really great.

    I'm also considering taking Savage Worlds and simplifying it even further.

    Have you actually played a Trek game in Risus? Has it worked?

  14. Your premise is faulty as FASA made a great game; as a result your conclusions are also faulty.