AS MUCH AS I LOVE SCIENCE FICTION, I find few series of books worthy of my time. As a rule I hate book series in the Star Wars universe (except the Thrawn Trilogy) or Star Trek (except the Vanguard series). I love my Hammer’s Slammers books, although they really are more a collection of stories in the same shared universe.
Although the series follows one protagonist, each book in the series a different style of story. From first-contact to intergalactic war to intergalactic conspiracies, it all can be found in the series. For me, the Terran Republic has just enough, but not too much, handwavium to keep me from rolling my eyes. I might also be influenced by the fact series author Charles Gannon also wrote for the Traveller RPG.
The latest installment to reach me is Lost Signals of the Terran Republic. This was not a normally published book but a Kickstarter project from November 2017. Originally to deliver in May 2018 delays meant it would not be until May 2019 that the product actually arrived.
It was worth the wait.
Lost Signals is Charles Gannon’s way of letting others play in his universe:
However, no world is defined by a mere handful of experts and heroes. Rather, just as our own world is full of different people and perspectives, Lost Signals expands the universe of the Terran Republic by bringing together new voices and new stories in a unique format that intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction.
Which makes “A Fragment of Empire” in Lost Signals all that more interesting. Marc Miller wrote the piece, and it’s (spoiler alert) pure Traveller. Or is it? The Terran Republic doesn’t fit into Traveller canon…or does it?
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.
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.
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 Dicewhere 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.