Roleplaying in the final frontier: random thoughts on Star Trek and RPGs

I’ve been in a big-time Star Trek mood lately. I’ve discovered that an episode of Deep Space 9 is the perfect length to watch while feeding The Littlest Gamer at 4am in the morning, and thus have been progressing quickly through the series—I’m partway through season 4, and have recently upgraded my rating of the show from Not Bad to Pretty Awesome.

To complement my DS9 viewing, I’ve also been catching up on The Jefferies Tube podcast, which I neglected (along with all my other blog reading and podcast listening) during the Birth of The Littlest Gamer and the Flood of Family that followed. One of the recent podcast episodes focused on Star Trek RPGs, and I can’t resist adding some of my own thoughts.

I’ve owned each of the three Star Trek RPGs discussed in the podcast. (Well, almost: I owned FASA Trek and Decipher Trek, but the version of Prime Directive I owned was the first edition, not the (much better, going by the podcast’s description) GURPS version.) While I was not overly fond of Prime Directive, I like both the FASA and Decipher games—although I’ve played them a grand total of twice and once, respectively.

I like Star Trek. But despite enjoying the setting and finding the games themselves fairly interesting, I have never felt a strong desire to roleplay in the Star Trek universe. Judging by the fact that almost none of the numerous game publishers to acquire the Star Trek license has managed to keep the game alive for more than a few years, I suspect I’m not the only one who finds Trek a difficult gaming prospect. Why is this?

The podcast points out some of the big reasons that Trek is a tough setting to game in—it’s a setting where your character’s rank in Starfleet (or the equivalent alien organization) leads to the same difficulties that military-based games run into: somebody’s character is going to end up being the captain, and somebody else is going to have to play the ship’s counselor (or another sideline role). One of those is significantly more appealing to most gamers than the other. And the podcast notes that the massive amount of Star Trek canon material makes it hard for even the nerdiest gamemaster to run a game that can’t be sabotaged by a particularly knowledgeable Trekkie.

For me, the big problem is the very strict narrative structure that defines the Star Trek stories we love to watch on TV. In a typical Star Trek episode, the demands of the storyline define everything else about the show—the technology available to the characters, the outcomes of battles, who gets killed and who doesn’t, even the means by which the heroes eventually win in the end—it’s all tightly scripted to make sure the story works out in time (and usually with a nice moral lesson to boot). The high level of technology involved makes this especially important: in a Star Trek game, if Romulan Guard A gets lucky with a phaser shot in battle, a hero dies and the story comes to a screeching halt. In the TV show, by contrast, nobody dies unless it’s integral to the storyline. The heroes in a Star Trek TV episode often have their normal tools and skill rendered useless by narrative fiat (something that would infuriate most RPG players) to prepare the way for a clever technobabble solution at the very end, in just the nick of time. (And how to simulate that staple of Star Trek, the last-minute “I could try rerouting power through the polarized chronoton pulsator, which might give us just enough energy to return us to our own dimension!” solution?) That all makes for fun stories, but it’s hard to model in an RPG game, where players expect more freedom of activity and dislike any hint that the the gamemaster is manipulating everything to force them along a particular narrative channel.

I imagine this problem is not a complete game-killer, as plenty of people enjoy gaming in the Star Trek universe. But it bugs me enough that I’ve never tried to run a full Star Trek RPG campaign. I suspect that this might be the sort of situation that could be handled by certain indie roleplaying games that grant extra narrative power to the players and which are more like mutual storytelling sessions than traditional roleplaying games. But I’m an old-school dungeon-crawl gamer, and on top of that, I don’t think my wife would really want me heading off down yet another money-draining branch of this hobby.

So maybe Star Trek gaming just isn’t for me… although you can be sure that won’t stop me from plunking down my hard-earned cash for the next gorgeously-illustrated Star Trek roleplaying game that comes along. I love this hobby….

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5 thoughts on “Roleplaying in the final frontier: random thoughts on Star Trek and RPGs

  1. Adaen of Bridgewater

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with this post. Star Trek is just tough to roleplay….there’s just so much structure and formula. I think Star Wars is a much easier transfer (from media to game). Any thoughts?


  2. Jon

    Great post! I wonder if the problem you describe could be removed by careful selection of the types of adventures — i.e. don’t put the players in situations so overwhelming that they can only be solved by technobabble technology. For example, on ST:TNG the ship was ludicrously powerful, but most of the problems the characters faced were essentially diplomatic or strategic in nature. They usually couldn’t defeat Q or the Borg by “rerouting power through the polarized chronoton pulsator” or any other tactical option, so Picard and the gang had to think their way out of trouble. This might be a profitable approach to take in a ST campaign.

  3. Andy

    Adaen: agreed, I find Star Wars to be a more game-able setting for some reason. It just seems more open-ended somehow. I’ll have to think on that; might make for a good post down the road.

    Jon: I think you’re right, careful selection of adventure types could get around a lot of the problems I note. It sounds like the ST campaign you ran (a holosuite-based adventure, if I recall?) had the advantage of a tight focus and a limited area (a single ship) in which the adventure took place, which would be important elements of a successful ST adventure. But some of those tropes (the technobabble solution, the expendable redshirts, etc.) are so classic ST that contriving to limit or remove them from adventures would reduce the ST feel of the game.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m way overthinking this, and I should probably just pick up the ST RPG and just run a darn game already. Maybe I will—with DS9 fresh on my mind, it’s certainly tempting.

  4. Matt

    It is actually quite easy to make the Star Trek RPG work if you set your adventures during the same timeframe as the original TV series. The starships and weapons/equipment available are not overly powerful and the mission to explore strange new worlds means you can have any sort of adventure you feel like inventing, just create a new world to have it on.

    Regarding the trouble with rank, the best move is to have each player play a unique role, much like Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty did. Even though Kirk was captain, he needed the counsel of those three as they were experts in fields in which he was not and generally had final say in their own purviews. And McCoy was actually the most powerful as he could relieve the captain of duty at any time.

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