Thoughts On Putting a Star Trek Campaign To Rest

So last week my fortnightly-on-Wednesdays group put our Star Trek Adventures campaign out to pasture. The adventures of the USS Audacity aren’t necessarily 100% over, but we’ve decided to declare the most recent episode the season finale and pick it up later if and when we feel like doing so. (One of the group has been cooking up a Ravenloft campaign we’ll be dipping into in the meantime.) Now that we’ve had just short of a year of play under our belts, here’s some thoughts on how it went.

Boldly Going Where No Troupe Play Has Gone Before

We decided to run the campaign troupe-style, like Ars Magica: we all had our own player characters, and anyone who wanted to run an “episode” (a full adventure which usually took some 2-4 sessions) could step up and do so. This is an approach which early editions of Ars Magica proposed; 5th edition still presents it as a viable option for play, but no longer assumes it as a default.

This actually ended up being a good fit. Because of the supporting character rules, you can quickly roll up an Ensign or other minor character to play when your bridge crew character isn’t present, and the bridge crew/supporting character dichotomy there ends up paralleling the magi-and-companions/grogs split in Ars Magica. It’s often the case in Star Trek that some characters will be more present in some episodes than others, so having the bridge crew PCs active vary a little from mission to mission was, if anything, appropriate to the genre.

Of course, the art of troupe play does require a willingness to have your PC step aside for the sessions you are running, because you want the session to be mostly about the current PCs, not a GM-controlled character. That said, we usually found it possible to do this using one of two techniques:

  • We could find a scenario-appropriate reason why the character in question was sidelined. The player who was playing the intrepid Captain Chad Hale ran a “mirror universe”-themed mission where we all had our personalities switched with those of our mirrorverse counterparts (except for the second-in-command), so whereas the Captain would usually be a lead-from-the-front, outgoing guy, he spent most of the mission locked up in his ready room in a fit of paranoia.
  • If the current GM’s PC had an area of expertise where they were clearly the best person for a job, they could step back and concentrate on that so the other PCs could shine in what they were good at. For example, when I was refereeing my PC, head engineer Chief Corvette, could largely be used to provide tech support and transporter control for the “away team”; likewise, one of the other players was our Klingon chief medic, Dr. Ka’tok, so when he was running a session he could just fade into the background and provide healing as needed.

A nice side effect of the troupe approach is that it allowed each of us to hit on our favourite Star Trek concepts and make sure they came up in the campaign at some point, if not when we were playing then when we were refereeing, as well as approaching them from different angles. It feels like it’s much easier to do this with a very well-known franchise like Trek, because it means you’re likely to have a reasonable number of people in a game group who have watched enough Trek in some form or another to feel like they have a handle on the universe and have ideas of stories they want to tell with it.

Some System Frustrations

As we played, we were occasionally annoyed by the sometimes lacklustre layout job and arrangement of information in the book. The rules are explained well enough as you read the chapters of the book from start to end, but it could be better-arranged and presented for the purposes of looking stuff up in the middle of play.

For instance, it initially seemed like both starship weapons and personal-scale weapons did a pathetic amount of damage; it turns out that in both cases there’s additional bonuses you need to add to the damage that weapons do as standard (what you add depends on whether it’s starship or interpersonal combat) – but whilst this fact is outlined in the main rules text, it isn’t mentioned on (or particularly near) the relevant weapons tables. It really feels like the tables needed a footnote to remind you what you needed to add to get the true damage totals – it honestly wouldn’t be that difficult to incorporate, and it’d make them much more useful in actual play.

That’s just one example of various small irritations that build up. I’m sure given sufficient time and playtesting, Modiphius could put out a revised version of the core book with substantially improved organisation. That would be cool, but what would be even cooler would be if major publishers in the RPG industry (and if you are doing a Trek RPG you’re hardly in the indie space any more) would make solid playtesting with an eye to optimising play materials for in-play use standard practice.

The Threat Trick

The Threat concept is an interesting way to ration arbitrary referee complications, though there’s a fairly blatant cheat there. The rules say “any change the Gamemaster wishes to make to circumstances once a scene has begun must come from either a Non-Player Character or from spending Threat” – but on the other hand, as a referee you have sufficient control over the framing of scenes that it’s usually possible to have almost anything happen and not need to spend Threat because an NPC did it. This is even more the case in a high-tech setting, where an NPC pressing a button way over the other side of a planetary orbit could conceivably cause shit to happen relevant to the current scene: then you don’t even need to say the NPCs are physically present in the scene to have them do things.

Now, I don’t think we abused this that much, but I think all of us had reasonable enough judgement on what level to pitch the danger (or perceived danger) facing the PCs, so perhaps we aren’t the sort of referees who need the Threat mechanic to begin with. It does, however, seem to be a weakness in Modiphius’s implementation of the idea. If the point is to provide a means for referees who are not confident about challenging the PCs to feel like they are giving out an appropriate level of challenge, or to present a constrained situation where the extent of the complications the referee can throw out is carefully managed, then the combination of the inherent looseness of “scene” as a definition and the fact that you can have almost anything happen if you just introduce the right NPCs undermines all of that.

Who Needs XP Anyway?

We didn’t advance our characters at all. There is an experience system, but in practice it is glacial, and it only very, very rarely lets you get objectively better – much of the time all it lets you do is move points around on your sheet, and I feel like if a player thinks their character isn’t shining because they overinvested in one skill and underinvested in another it’s civilised to just let them shift the dang points.

At the same time, we didn’t miss having an experience system all that much. Star Trek characters tend not to have that “start out sucking, get competent over time” character arc, or even “start out competent, gradually become unstoppable”; they change through shifts in their personal outlook as they tackle their demons or endure traumas for the most part, you don’t need an XP system for that.

The one bit of the system we did use is the way you can use your experience of a past adventure as a quasi-Determination point, because to my mind that really is suitable to Star Trek: having the action of an episode being briefly referred to in a later episode, just when you thought the writers had forgot about it, is peak Trek.

Indeterminate Desire For Determination

We didn’t use Determination much. Momentum we used a lot, and usually found that did the job, and beyond the 1 point of Determination you start each adventure with, we didn’t earn that much more because we didn’t find there were situations where our Values made significant problems for us. It’s not that we weren’t roleplaying them – it’s just that we seemed to be playing the sort of Trek characters for whom their Values are a source of strength and an asset to tackling what’s in front of them. (On a similar basis, we didn’t challenge our Values much.)

Easy To Put Down

Going with an episodic troupe structure meant that we were able to get a pleasing amount of play in and then move on when we felt ready; because we were going with short, self-contained episodes, we weren’t weaving massively long plot arcs which it would take a while to tie off if we decided it was time to move on, and it meant that when we wrapped up each episode we just had to check in with each other to a) make sure we were all happy to keep going if possible and b) if anyone had a concept for a scenario they wanted to run.

As it happens, I think we ran out of scenario ideas before we started to get especially tired of the game, but I think that’s good: if those of us who’d been refereeing adventures were feeling short on ideas, it feels like that’s a sign that we’re about to get tired of the game even if we aren’t yet, and it feels like we ended it after a satisfying amount of play. At the same time, precisely because of the episodic, round-robin nature, it’ll be entirely possible for us to pick it up for a bit in future if we have a mind to.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts On Putting a Star Trek Campaign To Rest

  1. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #153

  2. Great point about running out of ideas and feeling that things were coming to a close. It’s much better to get that point where you’re short of scenarios, and decide to close things out before you become sick and tired of the game. I’ve played in games before that just went out with a whimper, because any enthusiasm had long since dried up, and people were only turning up to play not through any enthusiasm for the game, but because they couldn’t remember what they used to do on that particular night prior to it being TTRPG night…

    1. It’s why I think the idea of a years-long campaign whose story goes on and on and on is something which the hobby would benefit from stepping away from a little.

      I don’t mean we should toss out the concept completely, mind: people have been running that sort of game since the hobby’s inception and when it works, it works, I have played in games like that myself. But I think there can be a tendency in some circles to think of it as an ideal or as an intended default, which isn’t necessarily helpful.

      Think of how many games, including a bunch of D&D editions, have this XP progression where, practically speaking, unless your campaign is running for years you will only actually cover a fraction of it: imagine if game designers shifted to designing games which made less assumptions about how long a campaign was going to be, and so provided systems for advancing or changing your character which could be scaled appropriately to the intended length of game (or work out alright in a game where you don’t have a side idea for how long you want to go, you just intend to play until you’re ready for a change).

  3. I ran a few sessions of the Dune 2d20. I found the primary use of threat was to let NPCs to pose a challenge in conflicts. Without buying extra dice or creating traits it was basically impossible for them to crack the players’ defenses, and many of the sample NPCs also had special powers that explicitly key off GM threat spends. Similar to Star Trek, the GM narrative control side of threat was vestigial and rarely came up, except for the one solidly defined use case of “introduce agents of a rival house”.

    I also never saw a player use the value challenging minigame to gain or spend Determination points. Most of the time they were able to get what they wanted with momentum, and the times they ended up stymied they also forgot determination even existed. I suspect having a second track of less-used metacurrency on top of momentum (the one that drives most of the system) is just a losing proposition, unlikely to see much use regardless of how it’s implemented.

    1. Yeah, I think my major use of Threat was to allow a recurring villain actually be a recurring villain rather than getting dropped and captured as soon as they showed up.

      You are probably correct about the fact that Determination, as a secondary metacurrency, is always going to be forgotten next to Momentum. I think another issue with it is that you largely get Determination by saying “Actually, my character is wrong, I am going to change their worldview”, which in practice is vanishingly rare.

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