Boldly Going Where Many Systems Have Gone Before…

Star Trek vs. Star Wars might not be the iconic Coke vs. Pepsi/Sega vs. Nintendo-style franchise rivalry it was once back in the day – the proliferation of franchises and continued diversification of fandom has largely seen to that – but given their prominence in science fiction over the past few decades, it’s interesting to note how they’ve been differently handled when it comes to the tabletop RPG licence.

In particular, when it comes to the Star Wars licence, Lucasfilm and Disney after them haven’t exactly been reluctant to parcel out third party rights to spin-off products – as the masses of Star Wars spinoff products testify – but they’ve always been at least somewhat careful as to who gets to play in their playground. West End Games were only able to land the licence for their much loved-version in 1987, a time when the series was generally considered to be almost ready for mothballing by the powers that be at Lucasfilm. That might sound absurd, but it’s worth remembering that by that point Return of the Jedi had been out for some 4 years, both the Ewok Adventure TV movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoons had come and gone, and the Star Wars well seemed to have run dry.

It’s now a matter of record that both the success of the RPG itself and the wealth of material it produced as an aid to referees was instrumental in kicking off the Expanded Universe, injecting a new dose of life into the franchise until George Lucas ensured it would live on in flamewars forever by making the prequels. West End Games kept the RPG going for 12 years, with the licence only pulled by Lucasfilm in 1999 after West End Games got into financial difficulties. From there, it didn’t take much time at all for Wizards of the Coast to pick up the licence and produce the D2o Star Wars line in various editions from 2000 to 2010, at which point they surrendered the licence voluntarily; a year later, Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence, and in 2012 they’d bring out their new Star Wars RPG line, which has remained current despite the shift to Disney (and indeed has engaged with the Disney line constructively, with a starter set coming out based on The Force Awakens).

 

There’s a fairly clear pattern here. Firstly, it’s notable that there’s been an official Star Wars RPG of some form almost continuously since 1987; the breaks in publication in 1999-2000 and 2010-2012 are about as brief as you’d expect them to be given the necessity to complete licensing negotiations and whatnot before greenlighting a new product line. Given that the tabletop RPG line probably hasn’t cracked the top 10 royalties-earning licences for Star Wars since the early West End Games days, my hunch is that this is because among the lead creative minds behind Star Wars there’s a certain gratitude to the West End line for keeping the lights on when they might otherwise have gone out entirely, combined with a realisation that if they don’t endorse an official Star Wars RPG, someone will just put out a knock-off anyway, so they may as well give someone the official nod and get some royalties out of it. In addition, the custodians of Star Wars probably value the chance to use the RPG materials as a pool for new setting ideas; the West End Games-era supplements are famous for being used in this respect, but apparently some of Wizards’ Saga Edition-era sourcebooks were used in this way too.

Another pattern is that the licence has consistently been held by major players in the tabletop games market; it’s hard to think of anyone bigger than Wizards of the Coast or Fantasy Flight, after all. West End Games are the outliers here, most likely due to the unusual circumstances under which they gained the licence. This is probably a sales volume issue: if you give the licence to one of the bigger publishers in the field with better established distribution, then they’ll probably sell more and the royalties you get might, if not represent massive profits, at least pay for the process of negotiating the licence and overseeing the output.

Compare this to the way Paramount has handled the rights to Star Trek RPGs over the years, during which there’ve been a spate of Trek RPGs sporadically appearing, many of them quite short-lived, and with a decidedly “one way” approach to canon – unlike Star Wars, where the RPGs were based on the original canon and the new canon elements were picked up from the RPG, in general Paramount has ignored the new concepts introduced by various RPG licensees, with the result that the older games often reflect an interpretation of Trek canon which, whilst current at their time of publication, was rendered irrelevant by later developments.

Let’s go:

  • First, in 1978, there was Star Trek: Adventure Gaming In the Final Frontier by Heritage Models, who would then drop the licence as part of the process of going out of business (an outcome that was largely due to them shelling out for too many big-name licences anyway and then being unable to hold up the licence requirements in terms of royalties and whatnot).
  • Next, in 1982, there was Star Trek: the Role Playing Game from FASA, who at the time were largely known for producing third-party supplements for Traveller. Whilst that background certainly put them in good stead for producing a Trek game in terms of being able to produce science fiction content, at the same time they were hardly the major players in the industry they’d eventually become off the backs of games like Battletech or Shadowrun. So far, this has been the Trek RPG which has lived the longest (and prospered the most), having been an active line from 1982 to 1989. This edition ended up coming with some interesting new setting ideas – particularly when it came to John M. Ford’s interpretation of the Klingons – which have more or less entirely gone by the wayside.
  • Unusually for an RPG licence, Paramount seemed open to foreign-language licencees coming up with entirely separate games, as evidenced by 1983’s Enterprise: Role Play Game In Star Trek put out by Tsukuda Hobby in Japan.
  • After FASA’s Trek RPG died, either nobody rushed to grab the licence from Paramount, or the success of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine drove the price of the licence up to such an extent that nobody could afford it; either way, Last Unicorn Games were only able to put out their Star Trek: the Next Generation game in 1998, four years after the series had been current, following it up with games based around the original series and Deep Space Nine in 1999 (when DS9 ended).
  • Last Unicorn had intended to do a Voyager game too, but they had the licence bought out from under them by Decipher, who were the licencees for the Trek CCG since 1994 – getting in on the action there just as the CCG craze hit the big time, so it’s no surprise that they were in a position to buy out the licence like that. Bringing out their own Trek RPG in 2002, Decipher bucked the trend of the early 2000s by not making it some form of D20 knockoff, instead using their in-house CODA system for it. After putting out a brace of books from 2002-2003 and a couple of PDF-only products in 2005, Decipher decided to wrap up their RPG division, and in 2007 formally announced that they were done producing Star Trek RPG material.
  • Then, at last, we come to the game I will (eventually) get around to reviewing in this article, Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures RPG which uses its 2D20 system and emerged in 2017.

Then there’s the oddity which is 1993’s Prime Directive RPG, hailing from Amarillo Design Bureau, successors to Task Force Games. Task Force Games were notable for having created the Star Fleet Battles tabletop wargame under a licence of really quite unusually generous terms; unlike all the other Star Trek RPG licences, this licence was not acquired directly from Paramount, but from the publisher of the old Star Fleet Technical Manual, who’d been given direct permission by Gene Roddenberry to undertake that project. The licence as inherited by Amarillo only allows them to use material from the Technical Manual, the original series, and the animated series, so in effect the Star Fleet Battles universe is a divergent version of the Star Trek universe which forks off from then-accepted canon as of 1979 and ignores everything which came after.

As such, Prime Directive is best seen as a quasi-official Trek RPG, in that on the one hand you can use it for action inspired by the original series or the animated series quite happily, but at the same time it also includes a bunch of lore specific to the Star Fleet Battles universe, and if you want to use it for anything Next Generation onwards you are more or less entirely on your own. Amarillo Design Bureau have, over the years, been fairly promiscuous about giving out sublicences to others to make adaptations of Prime Directive – again, an astonishing thing to happen which I am sure they wouldn’t have been permitted to do with a licence negotiated with Paramount – with the result that there’s GURPSD20, and D20 Modern editions of the game out there. (Mongoose were also going to do a Traveller adaptation, but someone somewhere in the chain between Amarillo and Mongoose shat the bed and, despite the game being announced in 2012, it still hasn’t come out.)

And beyond Prime Directive, there’s the hazy cluster of less-than-official Star Trek-inspired RPGs. Scott Bizar of Fantasy Games Unlimited fame must have been really keen to get the Trek licence and really annoyed that he didn’t have it, because he seems to have had a knack for putting out a Trek-mimicing RPG each year that an official Trek RPG came out; in 1978 he released Leonard K. Kanterman’s Starships & Spacemen, a blatant Trek-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off game running off a D&D-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off system and since republished by Goblinoid Games; Bizar was shameless enough to throw the tagline “Carry Out Missions In the Final Frontier” on the cover. Then, in 1982, he put out a boxed boardgame with some RPG elements, co-designed by Kanterman and Douglas Bonforte (and later also reissued by Goblinoid Games), Star Explorer, whose very cover art not only unsubtly signals that it’s a Star Trek ripoff but is also quite obviously riffing on FASA’s original box art for their RPG of the same year!

Then you have the tangled genealogy around Heritage Models’ original 1978 Star Trek game; the system was adapted from Space Patrol, a game put out by Gamescience in 1977, which whilst admittedly including a whole bunch of Trek references had thrown in references to a wider range of SF properties as well; after the Heritage game came to nothing, Gamescience put out a new edition called Star Patrol, excising references to Trek and other franchises entirely in favour of trying to establish an original universe for the game to unfold in, whilst original Space Patrol designer Michael Scott (who also took lead design on Heritage Models’ Star Trek) set up his own self-publishing front, Terra Games Company, and put out Starfleet Voyages in 1982, a hopelessly amateurish-looking effort next to FASA’s nice shiny new Star Trek boxed set.

(Between this and Star Fleet Battles debuting in 1979 – after Michael Scott had co-designed a Star Fleet Battle Manual for Gamescience in 1977 – it feels a lot like Michael Scott spent much of 1977 to 1982 trying to establish himself as the big guy in Star Trek-related tabletop game designs – despite the fact that both his 1977 wargame and RPG had been developed without any licence at all. Embarrassing, really.)

The above describes a chaotic situation which suggests to me that Paramount have, for most of the past four years, not really put a high value on the Star Trek tabletop RPG licence, or felt particularly keen to attempt to enforce their rights in the tabletop gaming sphere. At the very least, I’d have thought that products like Starfleet Voyages or Star Explorer were sailing so close to the wind as to be worth a cease-and-desist, but to my knowledge no legal effort was ever flexed against them.

Moreover, the decision as to who to give the licence to at any particular point in time seems to have been largely arbitrary. Heritage Models did the RPG to support their line of Star Trek miniatures, and landed the miniatures licence because they were trying to get minis licences for every hot geek franchise under the Sun; a spot of due diligence might have revealed that they weren’t necessarily up to the task. FASA took the game and made it a minor hit and a useful springboard to take them to greater heights in the industry, but you have to wonder what they’d have been able to do with the licence if they’d held at their early-to-mid 1990s peak – especially since that coincided with the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine glory years. Last Unicorn Games were mid-sized players at best, and the fact that the licencing terms allowed for Decipher to buy them out suggests that Paramount weren’t expecting it to be a very long-term relationship. Of all the pre-Modiphius licensees, I’d say only Decipher jumps out as being natural choices at the time that they picked up the licence – they’d spent the better part of a decade producing other Star Trek-related games, there would therefore have been a certain logic in consolidating the tabletop game licences with them.

At no time did anyone hold the licence for long enough to build any sensible amount of momentum with the exception of FASA, which makes the circumstances around FASA losing the licence particularly worth looking at. As far as I can tell, FASA lost the licence largely because they struggled to come into line with Paramount and Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek: the Next Generation. Whilst arguably the series drifted somewhat from Roddenberry’s vision after his death – potentially to its benefit in some areas since it created a space for fresh ideas to come in and rejuvenate things – one of the things which was always notable about The Next Generation, and in my experience remains at the heart of many fans’ appreciation of it, is the way that it emphasised non-violent solutions to challenges.

This is a dimension which wasn’t wholly absent from the original series, of course; the cliche of Kirk causing a dictatorial computer or a malfunctioning alien probe to self-destruct or shut down by talking it into a logical loop which its programming couldn’t cope with is a cliche for a reason. But you know what’s also a cliche of the original series? Kirk bopping the Gorn captain on the jaw! Bah-bah baaah, baaah, baaah, baaah, baaaah-bah bah bah bah! All good, stirring stuff for a television audience whose previous experience with science fiction in a TV or movie context would have largely consisted of Flash Gordon serials or 1950s alien invasion movies and the like (with perhaps a few major exceptions to the rule of violence like The Day the Earth Stood Still), but Roddenberry made the call that late-1980s audiences were ready for a science fiction show which, if not fully embracing pacifism, at the very least reserved violence for when it was clearly, truly necessary, as opposed to simply when it was the easy and obvious way out of a situation.

FASA were used to writing material for the original series era, and consequently tended to be a bit combat-happy in their Star Trek material; on top of that, they were planning supplements in which Starfleet would be deploying ground combat forces in massed numbers and a boardgame based around the Federation undertaking a preemptive strike against the Klingons and Romulans and all sorts of other material which, suffice to say, wasn’t really in keeping with the peaceful values the franchise was now emphasising.

In addition, what with new canonical Trek material actively being produced at a far greater rate than it had been during most of FASA’s custodianship of the licence, that meant that the canon was developing substantially faster as a result – rather than having to assimilate 90 or so minutes’ worth of material every 2 or 3 years as the movies came out, FASA were faced with a situation where entire TV seasons’ worth of material was hitting the screens every year.

Their response there seems to have been to panic and freeze. In their last two years with the licence, they only put out one product per year – The Next Generation Officer’s Manual in 1988 and The Next Generation First Year Sourcebook in 1989. (I don’t envy whichever designer was tasked with statting up Q…) In both cases, the products rapidly became contradicted by developments in the TV series, in part because FASA just extrapolated a bunch of stuff which then got contradicted.

Since Paramount were generally wanting to exert a bit more control over licencees at this point in time, now that The Next Generation was clearly a hit, it’s not surprising that they ended up unhappy about the above situations. The Wikipedia page on the FASA Star Trek game details the situation from, as of the moment I’m writing this (10pm GMT, 26th August 2019, an appallingly hot Bank Holiday Monday evening), a perspective which seems to me to be pro-FASA, or at the very least keen to emphasise the existence of a faction of fans who really, really like John M. Ford’s take on Klingons and other such FASA innovations which got brushed aside. It describes them as retcons, but I’m not sure that it counts as a retcon if it was never canonically established in the first place – it’s more that there was a situation going on where FASA were coming up with their own ideas largely unsupervised, and Paramount weren’t really paying that much attention and so never realised that idea had been pitched and so didn’t even realise they were contradicting it in their own material. Again, like I said, it’s a one-way street as far as canon goes; Paramount gets to declare what’s Star Trek canon, and unlike Lucasfilm/Disney with Star Wars Paramount never gives any consideration to canonising ideas originating in spin-off media.

This is exactly the sort of material that Paramount weren’t exactly happy about.

Really, reading between the lines, it sounds to me like there’s blame on both sides with the situation there. Sure, Paramount cancelling the licence at the drop of a hat might have been a shock to FASA, but with only two products coming out in 1988 and 1989 it’s not like they were putting all their eggs in the Trek basket to begin with. Similarly, Paramount’s people may or may not have had misconceptions about what the RPG entailed – allegedly they thought that players would play the TV characters rather than coming up with their own characters – but I don’t think that understanding would have changed their consternation about FASA’s fast and loose approach to canon or their attitude to violence.

After all, if PC ships rampage around committing warcrime after warcrime against the Klingons and Romulans with Starfleet sanction, that undermines the emphasis on nonviolence of the Next Generation era just as much as if it’s Picard doing it whilst Riker eats popcorn and cheers whenever a space station full of orphans gets shoved into a star.

(In addition, it’s worth noting that in the basic version of the Heritage Models RPG, you did play the original bridge crew, with bespoke character generation being more of a thing in the advanced game – so this wasn’t necessarily a matter of Paramount being flat-out clueless so much as getting the different games muddled up – though the fact that they did so is further evidence that they hadn’t been paying especially close attention to what FASA had been putting out.)

Really, the problems seem to be as follows:

  • FASA grew used to a situation where Paramount didn’t really care that much about what they published, and didn’t adapt to a new situation where FASA became more fussy.
  • Paramount either didn’t have a proper approvals process set up with FASA, or their approvals process was highly sloppy, allowing products like the Next Generation Officer’s Manual or First Year Sourcebook to come out stuffed with extrapolations which were going to be proven wrong because they didn’t pay attention to where FASA were making stuff up or otherwise not following canon.
  • In particular, Paramount didn’t give a clear enough message to FASA that they wanted Star Trek material to adopt a more consistent tone and coherent philosophy. After a decade when the movies had bounced from badass showdowns with Khan to Enterprise-crew-in-modern-day farces with plots that can be summarised as “Acting out a second-tier Yes song” to seeking God at the heart of the Galaxy, FASA could be forgiven for thinking that since Paramount clearly didn’t care about this sort of consistency or coherency in the canonical movie materials, they probably didn’t care about it in tie-in materials.
  • Paramount’s insistence on internal consistency was, like I keep saying, a one-way street: FASA had to change to match what Paramount were doing, Paramount would feel under no obligation to keep the FASA Klingon material canonical, despite the fact that they’d allowed FASA to publish it (and had themselves published a John M. Ford novel based on it) for years on end before they ended up contradicting it.
  • Paramount and FASA either didn’t have a proper dialogue on the level of violence in the game, or FASA were foolish enough to try and stand their ground on the subject, forgetting that when you’re licensing an IP off someone the licensor tends to have the leverage in any conflict of creative vision between you and them so long as there’s a clause in the contract which allows them to revoke permission at their own discretion, as was clearly the case here. As soon as Paramount said “We want more emphasis on nonviolent solutions”, FASA should have seen that as a game design challenge and hopped to – perhaps even designing an entire new Next Generation RPG if it turned out that the approach of the new series demanded a new core rules set to properly cater to it, rather than getting bogged down into irrelevant quibbles about whether you play Picard or your own bespoke captain in the RPG.

Bottom line: it really feels like the situation with Paramount and FASA called for a proper, rigorous approvals process to be applied to the RPG material, perhaps both in terms of greenlighting projects in the first place and in terms of reviewing the final text of the products in question, both so that FASA didn’t waste their time and resources cooking up materials they’d never use and so Paramount wouldn’t be confronted with material which their coming Next Generation episodes were about to contradict or which otherwise hit entirely the wrong tone for the franchise. Reading between the lines, it seems like either Paramount didn’t value the RPG licence enough to set up that process at their end, or FASA didn’t want to submit themselves to such a process at their own end; maybe I’m wrong and they both made a good faith attempt to make an approvals process work, but if so the issues with the Next Generation products make it quite evident that it didn’t.

This might offer a clue as to why there was no official Trek RPG for most of the 1990s Trek revival (remember, Prime Directive was a quasi-official game that Paramount are apparently in no position to make go away). With Paramount feeling obliged to abruptly terminate the licence, the people in place there might have felt disinclined to deal with the RPG industry at all, and Last Unicorn only got to do their Next Generation RPG after the show was done and dusted (and therefore its canon set), and were only allowed to touch the original series and Deep Space Nine (and, potentially, Voyager) once they demonstrated an ability to play ball with respect to Next Generation) – unlike other licencees, their licence didn’t allow them to do a single core book for all eras.

The 9-year gap during which there was no officially licensed RPG for Star Trek between the FASA edition and the Last Unicorn edition, and the decade in between Decipher giving up the licence and Modiphius bringing forth Star Trek Adventures, combined with the shonky choices about who to give the licence to over the years (Modiphius I would say are actually a good call, given the size of the company and their proven track record with properties like Conan the Barbarian which have historically had wonky RPG histories) and the apparent issues with oversight and approvals during the FASA era all add up to a bit of a mess when it comes to the business handling of the Trek RPGs. One can only imagine what would have happened had Lucille Ball remained corporate overlord of Star Trek instead of selling Desilu to Paramount; given her savvy business sense – as evidenced by the way she established Desilu, turned it into the biggest independent TV company in the US within five years, and then sold it off to Paramount in the first place – it’d have probably been much tidier.

On the one hand, it doesn’t strike me as odd that a major television company’s licensing department wouldn’t necessarily understand the RPG field deeply enough to, say, get a good sense of who’s a major player and who’s a random small-to-mid-size publisher who might not have the stability and size needed to really make the best use of the licence, or to understand the necessity of an approvals process in this sort of setup.

On the other hand, in some respects it actually does strike me as odd that the people working on Star Trek licensing stuff at Paramount don’t seem to have developed that sort of close understanding of and rapport with the RPG community. After all, working in a job related to Trek is going to tend to attract and retain workers who, if not actually part of the broader geek community, at the very least are willing to engage with it and learn about it for the sake of making a buck. Developing an understanding of the markets that proposed licensees are trying to break into, as well as the type of product your wannabe licencees intend to make, is surely a necessary act of due diligence prior to agreeing to grant a licence, so that you’ve satisfied yourself that they’re intending to make the sort of product you want to be associated with and so that you’ve convinced yourself that their proposed business plan is at least plausible for the sort of market they are working in.

Most of all, you would expect that they’d develop an understanding of the existing audience of their franchise, given that these are going to be the people who are going to be attracted to licenced products in the first place. And one of the notable things about the Star Trek audience is that they’re a creative lot who, by all rights, ought to be fertile ground for roleplaying games. Fanfiction is not the same thing as running a tabletop RPG, but it’s not a hobby which is entirely divorced from it either; much of the creativity involved in writing fanfic overlaps with the same sort of creativity involved in designing an adventure, especially an adventure in a pre-existing setting, and Star Trek is literally the fandom where fanfic really first took root, with a thriving Trek fan fiction scene keeping the flame alight in the 1970s when there was apparently little hope for new material ever coming out. Combine that with the long and honourable tradition of Trek cosplay and the proto-LARPing associated with it, and you would think that this is fertile ground. (Hell, there’s even a play-by-post forum-based roleplaying platform that’s had the official nod since 2002.)

You would think that a licensing department which had to keep their finger on the pulse of such a fanbase would have a better appreciation of the possibilities of an official Trek tabletop RPG. Then again, you’d think a fanbase so keen on the idea of stepping into the Utopian future of Trek as a recreational activity would have made a major hit out of one of the Star Trek RPGs up to this point. So far as I can tell, they haven’t.

That’s the other side of the compare-and-contrast between Star Wars and Star Trek when it comes to their RPG adaptations: as well as the relationship between IP owner and game publisher to consider, there’s the critical and commercial reception of the games in question to consider, and that might feed into the importance ascribed to the RPG licence.

Like I said, the handling of the Star Wars licence over the years reflects the fact that the West End RPG did substantially better than anyone was expecting and played a key role in reviving the franchise. Not only has no Star Trek tabletop game ever played quite such a significant role in the franchise’s development as the West End Games Star Wars RPG did for Star Wars, but in addition no Star Trek RPG has, to my knowledge, ever attained the level of commercial success that the West End Games edition was – and I wouldn’t put money on any of the pre-Modiphius editions hitting the level of, say, the various D20 editions of Star Wars or Fantasy Flight Games’ product line.

You can’t blame this one on Prime Directive; it has its advocates, but I’m not aware that there’s many of them, and Star Fleet Battles in general seems to be on the wane these days. The fact that Traveller: Prime Directive never came out doesn’t speak well for the health of the line, and so far as I can tell the release schedule for the other Prime Directive lines has largely dialled back to a slow trickle and has never exactly been a tidal wave. Moreover, given the sheer number of fans of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine there are (and even Voyager and, more rarely, Enterprise have their advocates), the fact that Prime Directive can never, ever touch anything made after the animated series under the terms of their licence severely hamstrings them when it comes to their capacity to serve the Trek audience.

You can, perhaps, blame this in part on the fact that most of the systems in question never had time to gain traction. The only pre-Modiphius Trek RPG which really had time to develop was FASA’s game, and that isn’t even the first game you think of when you consider FASA’s RPG portfolio, let alone being a front runner among the various SF RPGs of the 1980s. Why that was the case is a significant question; the system certainly doesn’t seem to have been as inspirational as the West End Games D6 system was, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a lingering subculture of continued play around FASA Star Trek, whilst there’s still plenty of D6 or D20/Saga holdouts with respect to Star Wars.

It’s also possible that Traveller, being the big beast of SF RPGs in the early 1980s, was close enough to Star Trek for most tabletop gamers’ tastes – whereas it was never a great fit for the science fantasy of Star WarsTraveller plants itself firmly at the harder side of space opera, and I’d say the more hard-SF end of Star Trek and the softer end of Traveller overlap enough that Traveller ends up a serviceable alternative, particularly for the action of the original series.

Again, another issue may have been the fact that the publishers who got the licence tended to be too small to be able to make the most of it. In this sense, it might be lucky for Modiphius that they have acquired the licence at a time when people have been more willing to buy RPG materials on PDF than ever before – whereas back in the day giving a Trek RPG a large print run in preparation for lots of devoted Trekkies (or Trekkers, or whatever the term is these days) buying the game would have been a serious expense and a major risk on the part of a game company, Modiphius live in a time when they can make print versions of the materials available to more or less all customers simply through print-on-demand. It also helps that Modiphius are undeniably one of the rising stars of the RPG publication field at the moment.

So much for Modiphius’ standing to be able to make the most of the licence: how is the game they’ve delivered? Well, it works on yet another implementation of their in-house 2D20 system, but I’d say it’s both a good fit for Star Trek by itself and is interestingly tweaked here to encourage Trek-like action. It’s a die pool system where you by default roll 2D20, with an aim to hit a target number based on adding together a stat and a skill. (The skills, nicely, reflect the names of the different departments on a Starfleet ship.)

The stat is usually the larger of the two numbers; the skill number, if you happen to roll equal to or under it, gives you a bonus success so long as the action in question is in line with one of your Focuses (personal specialisations). For very difficult tasks you’ll want to get more dice to roll; you can buy them with the Momentum pool (which I’ll get into later), but whilst in other 2D20 games this is at a flat cost of 1 point per extra die, here the cost goes up for each extra die; this means it’s often much easier to get extra dice through the assistance of other PCs, a nice way to encourage the sort of teamwork-based problem solving which the TV show loves.

Extra successes beyond the target difficulty generate Momentum, which can be spent for extra effect on the roll that generated them or can go into a pool which all the players can draw on for little bonuses; the referee has a similar pool called Threat which is a nice pacing mechanic, a device which helps let you judge how much opposition you should be throwing at the players based on how badly they’ve messed up (or how well they’ve managed to keep the situation chill) so far. If this sounds tremendously like the metacurrency pools in Wrath & Glory, you aren’t alone – I noticed that too, though 2D20 has been out in the wild longer I guess either Wrath & Glory was borrowing from 2D20 or both systems were borrowing from some common inspiration.

One system which is evidently borrowed from here is FATE – sorry, I mean FUDGE Adventures In Tabletop Entertainment – sorry, I mean Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures In Tabletop Entertainment – through the concept of Traits, which is basically Aspects, though happily the 2D20 system is much less fiddly than FATE in its handling of them – Traits are essentially turned into a way of jotting down axiomatic facts that are true of a particular location or scene or whatever, and to remind yourself to give them some system weight when adjudicating stuff, which is pretty much what referees do whenever they jot down notes on a location or scene or whatever except it systematises that a bit as training wheels for referees who want them.

Speaking of support, you certainly get your money’s worth in the core rulebook, which despite having a generous helping of setting fluff and flavour fiction snippets also feels like it’s properly stuffed with useful game material. Character generation uses a fun lifepath system for your major PCs, with a quick-and-dirty process for producing supporting characters, which is a nice way to encourage Ars Magica-style troupe play. Not only is this approach generally quite appropriate for the community-on-a-ship which most Starfleet crews gel into, it’s also great for Trek-style character ensembles – it means that the PC party can be accompanied by a group of disposable redshirts without burdening the referee with playing them, instead allowing the players to play them up to their shockingly inevitable deaths, it means that the character whose furtive trips to the holodeck end up causing a crisis that endangers the entire ship can be played by one of the players, it generally means that all the players can be involved in all the scenes even if their main character is incapacitated or otherwise wouldn’t be there. And then beyond the player-facing stuff there’s a wealth of support for the referee, discussing the finer points of plotting Star Trek adventures and offering stats for adversary NPCs and ships. (The Borg cube is suitably absurd.)

The book focuses on providing support for a very specific point in the Trek timeline – in fact, you can narrow it down fairly precisely, since it’s mentioned that the current Earth year is 2371, Commander Sisko has successfully alerted the Federation to the threat posed by the Dominion – with the result that the Defiant has been sent to Deep Space Nine so that Sisko and crew can use it as an aid in the station’s defence and there’s rumblings that Sisko should really get a promotion to Captain some time soon – whilst Captain Janeway of the Voyager is preparing for a mission investigating the Maquis. With that information and a check of Wikipedia you can pin down the assumed campaign starting date to be somewhere between Stardate 48213.1 and 48315.6 – or, to put it in a less dorktastic way, you’re talking about a point in time after the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation but before Star Trek: Generations, shortly before the start of Voyager and somewhere in the first quarter or so of the third season of Deep Space Nine.

This is a nicely chosen point in time, not just because there’s a bunch of interesting stuff going on in the setting – like the opening shots of the Dominion War – but also because I think it’s a period in time which many fans would remember fondly. The Next Generation unquestionably went out on a high, Deep Space Nine was really coming into its golden age, and Voyager… erm… well, nobody had any reason to be especially disappointed about Voyager yet, let’s go with that. It was a fine time to be a Trek viewer, and it can’t do your campaign any harm to kick off from such a moment of optimism.

For those who want to run the game in other eras – that of the original series or Enterprise (the J.J. Abrams continuity isn’t officially supported, though I guess you can rely on the original series technology for a lot of it), useful sidebars are scattered throughout the book to explain how you should tweak the options and technology available accordingly.

On the whole, I quite like Star Trek Adventures and I hope that the game does well, but I do think it’s worth raising a caveat. In writing the new game, Modiphius went out of their way to solicit work from designers who’d made significant contributions to past editions, and among those credited in the core book as having done writing for the project is Gareth-Michael Skarka. Skarka is persona non grata to many in the RPG community – partly for his Far West Kickstarter which remains hideously, unaccountably late, despite being Really Honestly Very Almost Finished soon at multiple points over the past few years, partly for taking preorders for a Buckaroo Banzai RPG (including taking people’s money for it) which hasn’t manifested, and partly for an acerbic personal style on RPG forums and the like.

The thing is, initially the core rulebook credits didn’t mention Skarka. As reported at Tenkar’s Tavern, they initially credited someone called “Michael Brophy”, who doesn’t seem to have any other RPG credits or work to his name. As Tenkar’s screenshots show, at some point the PDF of the game on DriveThruRPG was updated, and when the update happened the credits were refreshed; Brophy’s name vanished and Skarka’s name slotted right into the same spot on the list of credits.

That could, of course, come down a simple matter of it being natural to delete Brophy’s name and then type in Skarka’s if you’re doing an update to reflect the fact that Skarka did contribute to the core book but Brophy didn’t; that said, without any substantiation that Brophy is a real person independent of Skarka it certainly looks like Skarka initially was writing under a pseudonym until a decision was made to come clean about his involvement.

I use the term “come clean” because there’s a bunch of folks out there in the gaming scene who refuse to buy Skarka’s work, precisely because of the issues with Far West, or with Buckaroo Banzai, or because they simply personally dislike the man. The apparent use of a pseudonym here – I’ll note that in the intervening months Michael Brophy has done nothing to substantiate his existence as a person independent of Skarka – comes across as an attempt to allow him to produce work for the game on the side without dealing with the hassle of his Far West backers or irate Buckaroo Banzai fans muddying the water.

You can have your own opinion as to whether it’s appropriate to buy the book or not under those circumstances. In the end, I decided that I would get the book for the following reasons:

  1. I wasn’t a Far West backer and didn’t preorder the Buckaroo Banzai RPG, so Skarka hasn’t taken any money from me for anything I’m still waiting on.
  2. I think it’s fair enough that Skarka take on freelance work so as to pay for his food and board – and I would prefer it if he did that than if he ate into the money he’s ringfenced for printing and shipping the Far West rewards. If he hasn’t ringfenced any money for that purpose and therefore can’t afford to complete the project, that’s only more reason to want him to earn a bit out outside money so he can fill the gap.
  3. To me, the dodgy thing here isn’t that Skarka worked on the book on the first place – it’s that his involvement seems to have been concealed via the pseudonym identified by Tenkar. That was a bad move on Modiphius part, given that they must have realises that there’d be customers who didn’t want to support the game if they’d known Skarka was involved and they had been asked about Skarka directly, but now that it’s corrected I’m not sure what more Modiphius can reasonably do here.
  4. Given how the RPG industry generally works, odds are that Skarka doesn’t get royalties on the book – he did some freelance work for it, it was likely on a pay-on-publication basis (or pay-on-acceptance basis if Modiphius are being nicer than the industry average to their freelancers), that block of money is all he’s getting. Odds are he isn’t getting any more or less money regardless of whether I buy the book or not; and in the unlikely event he is getting royalties, those are split between so many names (the credits page on this book is big) so it’s likely a de minimis amount anyway.

That said, I wholly support the right of people who have given their money to Skarka and have been left hanging for years on end to refuse to support any endeavour he is associated with. Whilst you can think worse of Modiphius for apparently going along with the coverup at first, I’d think much worse of them if I couldn’t vividly imagine the circumstances around the Brophy scam – Skarka filling the Modiphius decision-makers, fellow industry insiders, with all sorts of woe and poison about the cruelty of his backers and so on and so forth, crying his tears about the campaign to hound him out of work, persuading them that allowing him to work on the project under a pseudonym would be the morally righteous thing to do… arguably, the Michael Brophy thing only really becomes an ethical problem once someone directly asks Modiphius “tell me straight, did Skarka work on this product or not?”. Crediting a movie to “Alan Smithee” isn’t a problem; pretending that Adam Smithee is a real person rather than admitting to who the real director is when someone asks a direct question is a much dodgier prospect.

Whilst some of the performative shunning of Skarka’s work by people who have absolutely no skin in the game seems to me to be excessive and unhelpful, at the same time enough people do have skin in the game that they should be able to choose not to buy products he’s been involved with if they wish. And ultimately, there’s surely plenty of freelancers out there who don’t have the same baggage but do merit having their voices amplified, especially freelancers from backgrounds underrepresented in the industry.

One of the most consistent things about Star Trek is the way it’s at least tried to be progressive over the years – yes, some episodes have ended up aging very poorly as our cultural understanding of some of the subjects involved has evolved, but it is rare to find an episode which didn’t have its heart in the right place when judged by the standards of the time (and the number of episodes which still kind of hold up in these respects are actually quite impressive). Even when it came to the casting Gene Roddenberry was ahead on the curve when it came to diversity, giving significant bridge crew roles to Nichelle Nichols and George Takei at a time when significant segments of the television population nurtured an outright hostility towards black women, or continued to nurse World War II-era prejudices about the Japanese (prejudices which had landed Takei in an internment camp in the 1940s).

Perhaps the best way for Modiphius to ensure their game reflects the Star Trek legacy is to go easier from now on on the old-time designers, and find more roles for freelancers from underrepresented backgrounds in the tabletop RPG arena.

8 thoughts on “Boldly Going Where Many Systems Have Gone Before…

  1. “…the Michael Brophy thing only really becomes an ethical problem once someone directly asks Modiphius ‘tell me straight, did Skarka work on this product or not?’.”

    That’s the thing. Someone (Eric Franklin) *did* ask Modiphius about Skarka’s potential involvement, before the game came out, and their reply was that yes, he was working on one book, and that he would be clearly credited so folks who were boycotting him could avoid it.

    And then it turned out that he’d worked on multiple books and that Modiphius had credited him using the Michael Brophy pseudonym, which means they went out of their way to avoid keeping their promise.

    See https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1999641/i-will-no-longer-buy-anything-modiphius/ for more details.

    Obviously everyone makes their own decision about whether to support Modiphius or not. I do have to say that this episode has put me off them and made me very glad that Fria Ligan is now publishing its English-language games on its own instead of through Modiphius.

    1. As I understand it, they later said that he’d produced stuff for one supplement, but they then decided to commission him for some core rulebook flavour text because they were impressed with his work there. So that statement might have been true at the time it was made and then became false due to later developments.

      Still doesn’t excuse the Michael Brophy thing, and I do slightly think worse of Modiphius as a result. On the other hand, they could have just kept up the charade and nobody would have been in any position to disprove them otherwise – the fact that they seem to have voluntarily come clean carries some weight with me.

      Plus, in the end, GMS taking on and successfully completing freelance work is actually useful ammo for the Far West crowd: it’s proof that he isn’t *incapable* of working, so there’s no compelling reason why be can’t finish Far West.

      (Actually, as I understand it the chapter which has persistently caused the logjam in Far West is the system chapter that ties everything together and makes it an actual game as opposed to a pile of setting fluff with a character gen system attached – this despite the fact that GMS is using D6 as a chassis, and before that was using D20, so the non-setting-specific system aspects are already covered for him. My hunch, given his CV, is that he’s actually just plain not good at writing system, and is completely stuck on how to do the setting-specific system stuff he wants but is too proud to admit that he doesn’t have the chops to do it. His track record seems to consistently focus on cranking out decent supporting material for other people’s systems…)

  2. Though I am a dyed-in-the-wool Trek fan, I’ve never been involved with the RPG side of the franchise, so I have to thank you for this article. I must confess that, despite the role fans played in keeping the franchise alive, Trek has never been that keen on adopting ideas from outside the house. Chalk it up to either Roddenberry’s “thou shalt have no other gods before me” attitude, Paramount/Viacom/CBS wanting to protect their intellectual property, or some combination of the two.

    Some minor points:

    * Modiphius’ decision to set their game in 2371 may also have to do with the fact that 2371 is pretty much the last year the state of galactic affairs existed as it did in TNG. If the game was set later in the 2370s it would either be right in the middle of the Dominion War or have to deal with the effects and attempts to recover from that war. If it was set around 2380 it would have to deal with all the advanced Borg/future technology that came home with Voyager as well as the aftereffects of Nemesis, both of which would start to fundamentally change how the Trek universe works. If you push any farther into the 2380s you hit the destruction of Romulus in 2387 as established in Trek ’09, which no one save Star Trek Online (and possibly the Picard series) has tried to deal with.

    * Paramount and Amarillo did come together for one collaboration: the three Starfleet Command games Interplay published between 1999 and 2001 (1, 2, and Orion Pirates). In terms of gameplay they’re essentially streamlined versions of the naval combat system of Amarillo’s Starfleet Battles (which is honestly more enjoyable than the pen-and-paper version). As for the setting, they’re an odd mashup of SFB and mainline Trek canon: they use Amarillo’s alternate SFB setting, but they’re set in the movie era and everyone flies Interplay-original designs. Sadly their relationship came to an end in 2002 with Starfleet Command III; that one was published by Activision, set in the TNG era, and made a bunch of changes to SFC’s systems. Amarillo thought Paramount was trying to muscle them out, relations broke down, and they haven’t worked together since. Cryptic, the guys running STO, reached out to Amarillo around 2015 to ask about putting some of the ships in the Starfleet Technical Manual in the game as part of their own plans for the 50th anniversary, but Amarillo wasn’t interested.

    * Finally, I do want to mention that there has been some cross-pollination between Star Trek Adventures and Star Trek Online in the past few years. When Shield of Tomorrow, the STA campaign Geek & Sundry was putting on, came to an end, the devs at Cryptic put the ship from that campaign into STO as a quick cameo and a useful ingame item. Rather more substantially, when Modiphius were coming up with lore for the Tzenkethi (an antagonist race that was only mentioned once on DS9), Cryptic generously let them use the designs and background material they’d developed for the Tzenkethi in STO. To be honest I’ve never seen this sort of interaction in ancillary Trek material before, and I wonder if whoever actually owns Trek today has decided to loosen their hands. (Paramount also asked Cryptic for some notes on the game’s setting while they’ve been developing the Picard series, but right now no one knows what that means.)

    1. Very interesting. It’s been long enough since the days of the previous licence that odds are there’s new hands in the licensing department and perhaps a new attitude there.

      1. (or maybe the rise of the MCU finally convinced Paramount that there’s value in using licensed products as testbeds for ideas)

      2. You may be on to something with that last point. Right now CBS seems to be cooking up a number of different Trek shows that seem to be aiming at various demographics. Right now there’s only “Discovery,” which seems to be aimed at prestige TV viewers who aren’t necessarily Trek fans, but in the near future there’ll also be the Picard series (which seems to be pivoted more towards older fans), and an animated sitcom-esque show called “Lower Decks”. Further out there’s supposed to be another animated series aimed at kids/tweens, as well as a “Discovery” spinoff featuring mirror Georgiou and Section 31, which someone thinks is a good idea.

        I don’t know how to feel about all this, truth be told. I mean, it’s great that Star Trek isn’t dead and all, but do we really need another Marvel-style cinematic universe spread across all forms of media? (I suppose if it would help if I actually liked “Discovery”, but I feel that show have been fatally wounded by its production troubles.)

      3. I watched the first episode or two of Discovery – the self-contained little story arc there – and never felt the need to watch more. Which is really odd because I don’t dislike it at all, I’m just… content with what I had and don’t feel a compelling need for more.

      4. The news that was coming out prior to the premiere of “Discovery” put me off, and the second-hand accounts I’ve seen and read haven’t done much to instill me with confidence. I will say that if the most beloved character in your new Trek series is Christopher Pike and you’re *not* making a Pike-era show on the original Enterprise…something may have gone wrong in the kitchen.

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