Hot Take: Star Trek Discovery is an RPG

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been over for a while, but I’m only just getting caught up. This series has caused more consternation than any Star Trek series has, and I’m including the intense wailing about Star Trek: Enterprise back in the day. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m asking you to put aside any negative feelings you have about Discovery to appreciate one interesting aspect: it’s pretty much an RPG campaign.

This article first appeared on my blog Mephit James’ Blog.

Games Based on Existing Series

When playing Star Trek Adventures, your gaming group might run into a problem. Any RPG based on an existing TV series or movie has to figure out what to do with the established material. This includes A Song of Ice and Fire RPGFirefly and SerenityMarvel Heroic Roleplaying, the upcoming Expanse RPG and plenty of others. Creators of these games have the problem of wanting to make something true to the source material but which also is open for newcomers to dive into without needing to get through a huge body of work before they can start. This means the default setting for such games is usually somewhere in the middle of the series’ events or even at the beginning. You can begin playing in the world of the RPG with your friends who are diehard fans even if you haven’t seen or read any of the parent material.

The trouble, though, is that some of the future is already known. Sure you can say that none of the events of A Game of Thrones or subsequent books have happened, but if your characters are in Westeros as King Robert is heading north the players certainly know some stuff is about to go down. Likewise, if your crew is traveling the Rim looking for work then the players always know the events of the Serenity film are on the horizon waiting to screw everything up. You can always advance the timeline for your group and say that it happens after all the major stuff that fans are familiar with but what if you want to participate in those big events or meet people who get killed or even try to stop some of the bad stuff from happening?

Star Trek - Michael Burnham
Image © CBS

It’s a balancing act and there’s no universal answer, but Star Trek: Discovery is an excellent model of how you might do it. Discovery takes place during the 23rd just a year or so before the original Star Trek series, which means there are four different TV shows and ten movies that come afterwards. So how can anything your characters do make a difference? Do you just tackle the minor stuff while the “important people” deal with the main events of the setting? Well, in Discovery they are going after hugely important events that happen outside of the Enterprise‘s involvement but are still connected.

What I Can Say Without Spoilers

Basically, the plot of Discovery‘s first season is this: the war between the Klingons and the Federation. This is a conflict that was hinted at in the original series as the crew of the Enterprise came up against Klingons and there needed to be a reason for the diplomatic chill. While it’s well-established that Klingons and Starfleet have fought but the details are vague. That means there are battles and enemies that are left untold that this crew can participate in.

It’s also known that the war was eventually a Federation victory, or potentially a draw, as the Klingons didn’t destroy Earth. That doesn’t mean things didn’t get really terrible and that there were planets and regions that were completely devastated by the war. After all, if a major Federation colony was destroyed by the Klingons it wouldn’t be brought up by the Enterprise crew, right? You can have large-scale destruction without worrying about disrupting canon and you can even have breakthroughs and craziness deemed too outrageous to use after wartime.

That said, you only have to worry about that as much as your group wants.

Right, so that’s what I can say without spoilers. Only read on if you’ve watched through Discovery or you don’t care.

Star Trek Discovery Bridge
Image © CBS

Don’t Be a Slave to Canon

So, one of the biggest complaints people have about Star Trek: Discovery is that it messes up canon. While I think, in the end, it explains itself alright it’s true that this series plays fast and loose with some of what came before in Star Trek. The Klingon Ship of the Dead has a cloaking device more than a decade before any Klingon ship has one. The Discovery jumps to the Mirror Universe years before the U.S.S. Enterprise crew switches places with their Terran counterparts. There are Tribbles and Trills and other things that are only seen in later series that pop up in the background of Discovery. And, of course, there’s the spore drive.

All of these have explanations, however. Details like the Trill and Tribbles aren’t so important since one Trill doesn’t mean a standing relationship. The cloaking device isn’t what’s used later, it’s a limited tech from the mysterious ship that T’Kuvma recovered. Once Discovery does it’s multiple-jump trick the cloaks won’t work anymore so there’s no reason to use them. The same can be said of the spore drive, which has some serious problems with it and isn’t suited for widespread use, and the trip to the Mirror Universe is covered up for security reasons. Is this a watertight excuse? No, but it works.

Your campaign could do the same thing with a transwarp drive, a holodeck, or something else that exists before it “should” in canon. It doesn’t really make sense that no one in the original series or later shows would never talk about the crazy-powerful spore drive that allowed the Federation to win the war against the Klingons, but that’s not really what’s necessarily happening. That’s assuming we see everything, though, when there are lots of comments between the scenes. Maybe in a week where there was no Cardassian attack Ben Sisko and Kira have a long conversation about the Discovery‘s spore drive, the Temporal Cold War, and the amazing science unearthed by your crew.

Star Trek Discovery - Mudd
Image © CBS

Change the Context of What Happens

This is what happens at the very end of the season. Imagine a storyline where Discovery gets the data that Starfleet needs to see through the Klingons’ cloaks. The Federation would have a weapon that could bring the Klingon Empire to its knees, right? But that’s not what happened to it’s just a long, drawn-out war with no suspense since the audience knows that Earth isn’t harmed and the encroaching Klingons are just a strawman threat.

But that’s not what the show did. They had the Discovery disappear for nine months during which time Starfleet lost ships, colonies, and territory. Then the Discovery shows back up to put a halt to the enemy advance but they need to come up with an imeediate solution to avoid total defeat. We know that they do but just not what it is. Your campaign might be the same, changing a known event into something that can be unknown.

Say you wanted a campaign where your crew deals with a Dominion invasion into the heart of the Alpha Quadrant. You know that they don’t actually blow anything important up and that they ultimately don’t take over the quadrant. Doesn’t matter. Maybe they steal something important or the crew has to make a hard decision to stop them. Or, in the opposite direction, maybe the crew participates in a diplomatic summit with the Romulans to open their borders. We know it won’t work, but maybe how it doesn’t work is an interesting story.


Star Trek: Discovery is something we have seen in a Star Trek series before. It’s a story that happens alongside another story we’ve already seen but that’s made later. In other words, it has the same constraints as a Star Trek Adventures campaign. If you’ve been considering running an STA campaign but can’t think how to fit it in, watch a little Discovery to watch one possibility.

Star Trek Discovery and Enterprise
Image © CBS

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