This is an amazing time to be a Star Trek fan. With six (!) different Trek shows on TV and numerous games there’s plenty of media to consume. If you’re on Continuing Mission, though, you no doubt already know that it’s also a great time to be a roleplayer who loves Star Trek. There’s also the intersection of these two things, however, Star Trek Adventures actual play podcasts!
Today we’re here with one of the most engaging shows in this category. Star Trek: Tempest is a campaign set in the Lost Era of the early 24th century, “between Captains Kirk and Picard” to quote the show’s intro. This is the era of red jacket uniforms, of an intact Enterprise-C, and of a dapper Ensign Tuvok. As the show is getting ready to launch Season 2, it’s the perfect time to join in!
The cast of Star Trek: Tempest were generous enough to answer some questions for me about the show, about what’s coming down the line, and about their experience with Star Trek Adventures. Brian (the GM), Ryan (Captain Maddox and the show’s sound designer), and Tara (the chief medical and science officer Doctor Aurora Teal) got together to pool their collective thoughts and experiences.
MJ: Before we get into the story of the Tempest, what’s the story of the podcast? How did you all get together?
Tara: We all went to college together, and I met Ryan and Brian on the same night in 2004. We all became fast friends, doing theatre, improv, and playing poker and Risk a lot. I married Ryan in 2010, with all of these guys standing in our wedding as Best Men. Brian is the godfather of our eldest son, Travis was our roommate when he first moved up to Chicago and Brian’s roommate before that. And we’ve spent as many New Year’s Eves and DragonCons together as we can. We all live in different states cities, states, and timezones across the country, but we still manage to see each other, and we’ve stayed close. We’re lucky to have friends like this, and playing this game together has made us all even closer in these crazy times.
Ryan: Our recording sessions during Season One took place across four states and three time zones and averaged over 4 hours, and even that amount of time sometimes proved restrictive. So while recorded in realtime, a lot of the episodes are cut down and edited to streamline the narrative. That’s particularly true in the early episodes when we were really stumbling our way through the game play learning curve.
MJ: Tell us a little bit about your roleplaying experience? Are you an RPG cadet or an RPG admiral?
Brian: We are all definitely cadets. More like Academy plebes on orientation day or high school students touring the campus. I have a little DnD player experience, but really just a handful of sessions and zero experience as a GM. And everybody else has even less, right down to zero and this is their first RPG experience of any kind.
Ryan: From an RPG standpoint, I’m definitely a cadet. It’s been fun getting my feet wet and learning not just the game itself but how to get comfortable with role playing in general. The entire group has experience in performing, and we’re all nerds who enjoy playing games, so it’s a wonder it took us this long to get to role playing. Fun Fact: In college Brian directed the majority of us in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, hence the name of our trusty starship.
Tara: I’m a cadet in this arena, for sure, though I grew up in theatre, and several of the guys did theatre in college. Almost all of us were members of an improv comedy troupe in Daytona Beach, FL called Random Acts of Insanity. I feel like we’re drawing on those times of performing together (and many, many years of friendship) to bring these characters to life with a natural chemistry.
MJ: Setting the story in 2339, as you say in the Episode 0, lets you look at the Lost Era that we don’t know a lot about. What are some advantages or disadvantages of that era?
Tara: I’d say some of the advantages of that for me, personally, would be that I don’t have to know what’s canon in order to avoid saying or doing something “wrong” according to established lore, though I try to stay within the realms of what I know are established things within the series…es.
Brian: Certainly it creates a boundary of what’s possible, which some might consider a disadvantage, but I feel the opposite. There’s so much room inside, which limits the possibilities without making them limiting. There are a few things to use as starting points and then plenty of blank space to fill in between. For example, we know that about 50 years ago the Federation and Klingons first signed a long term peace treaty but also know that a few years from now, one act of sacrifice will mean the difference between 20 years of peace or war. Surely there’s an interesting story to be told between the two.
Another aspect is because of its spot in time, there are a few established Trek characters running around but it’s not in the thick of established Trek with the on screen heroes at the center of every major event. Riker, Worf, Sisko, Janeway, and most of the other TNG era characters are either children or not born yet. And the ones that are around are very different people than when we meet them 25-30 years later, which makes it interesting to see them in a different context. For example, Dax is still Curzon and Picard is still a relatively new captain of an old, small ship and has been in the center chair for less time than our own captain.
Ryan: For me, there are several advantages. My favorite starship design is Constitution Class Refit, but my second favorite is the Ambassador-Class. Now we’re flying around in one. That’s awesome. Also, the time period allows us to pick and choose aspects from the late Original Series and early Next Generation timelines to color our story, both narratively and from a sound design perspective. It’s the Best of Both Worlds (nerd pun intended)!
MJ: Star Trek Adventures divides up into Enterprise-era, the original series, and the Next Generation. Is it hard figuring out what’s available in the time period you’ve chosen?
Brian: No, not really. Quite the opposite in fact – I loved combing through the existing lore. But that’s because I’m a crazy person when it comes to Star Trek trivia. So I already had a good idea of the broad strokes (which is what drew me to it in the first place). After that, one of the first things I did was go through Memories Alpha and Beta and make a note of everything that had already been established, which provided a ton of inspiration. Then I went through and figured out exactly where all the canon characters were and what their status was, so I knew where they would be and how we might run into them.
The one caveat is any Trek that’s currently in production, eg Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, etc. It’s just too impractical for me to establish some story element, record it three months later, release that another six months later, and in that time a new episode of Trek has come along and changed something. Picard’s Zhat Vash being a perfect example. Since I can’t anticipate canon that isn’t canon yet, the best I can do is draw a bright line around it and keep the distinction clear.
Ryan: We have a lot of Star Trek knowledge on the board and we’re a team of really creative personalities so I do not foresee this ever being an issue. There’s enough Star Trek to mine out there to keep us happy for sure.
MJ: I think it’s a really cool idea that you might be changing the trajectory of the Star Trek timeline. Still, you’ve grounded it in the canon so far with an Ambassador-class sister vessel to the Enterprise-C. What does that aspect offer to the story?
Ryan: Soooo much! There are only two people I have faith in to develop a Star Trek story that will both hold true to canon and, if necessary, respectfully steer the narrative away from canon in a manner that will still look, sound, and feel like Star Trek. Brian is the other one.
Brian: I knew that the player-driven nature of the narrative could not be locked into existing continuity, which indeed was part of the appeal. The way I think of it is, “If at the beginning of the episode Yesterday’s Enterprise, a random crewman looked up the Tempest in the ship’s computer, there would be a historical file there. But exactly what it says might be very different from after the Enterprise-C appears. Our campaign will produce a similar effect, except with our story, those particulars will unfold in realtime and based on real decisions the players make.
MJ: It’s pretty great that you start with the mechanics of the game system at the beginning of the series. What are your favorite parts of the Star Trek Adventures system? What (if anything) are you planning to house rule?
Ryan: I think the tools presented to help develop the backstories of the characters was really helpful. They were an excellent jumping off point, especially for someone new to role playing. As far as a house rule… there will likely be a lot. I appreciate the enormous detail in the Adventures rule book but being new to RPGs it was a bit difficult to manage at first. As a result, just to keep our games moving forward, we developed quite a few short cuts. One that will likely stay is the removal of the scene-change momentum cost. We got through our entire first season and only mentioned it once. Consequently, we cut that mention from the released edit of that episode for simplicity’s sake.
Tara: This being my first RPG, it was way easier for me to settle into Star Trek stories and characters than it would’ve been for any other world (save for maybe Harry Potter). Though I started out a total novice, I felt at home, too. I love the idea of playing through a situation and then using a focus or talent that is personal to you because you’ve created that character in order to help your team. That being said, Brian and I discussed early on how listeners would hear us stumbling through how to play at first, and asking questions, and learning, and that might be more endearing to listeners new to both RPGs and Podcasts than if we had just jumped straight into being good at it.
Brian: Easily my favorite aspect of the Star Trek Adventures system is how the character creation process intertwines stats and backstory – where your stats are determined by story choices you make for your character. That is just an inspired approach. Within gameplay itself, the momentum system is probably the most important element that sets Star Trek Adventures apart from systems like D&D. Part of it is the premise of a crew with a common mission, but that communal pool really manifests that feeling in the game.
On the house rule side, I will admit that we still get turned around on ship combat. You can hear a little bit of it in episode 4 and that’s after editing out a lot of flailing with the rules. But we’ve gotten a bit better and I haven’t thought up any house rules for it yet. But one house rule I have implemented is a simplified experience system, which we introduce halfway into season 1. But it relies pretty heavily on subjective judgment, so I don’t know if it would work for other campaigns or parties. We have a very limited amount of time to play and record and it doesn’t leave much room for ‘leveling up’ sessions (STA’s version of them anyway), so this system will hopefully keep the spirit alive while paring down the time requirement.
MJ: Yeah, character advancement has been a constant topic since the game’s release. The new version in the Klingon Empire Core Rulebook shows the creators are also thinking about it. What’s your approach?
Brian: Each player character gets an experience point for each mission they’re present for and another point if they do something I think is especially awesome or exemplary of Starfleet’s ideals (e.g. in mission 4, the captain takes a daring personal risk to make first contact). They can use those to adjust their stats, but more interestingly I think, they can spend them to develop elements from earlier missions. One thing Trek rightly gets flak for is its tendency to introduce some shattering discovery or innovation…and then it never comes up again. I hope to subvert that trope with this house system, so players can say, “I want to spend points to say I kept researching that artifact we found on planet X.” Or, “I developed a relationship with this NPC in Starfleet Intelligence and want to use them as a back channel.” Or, “I want to call in favors to hook up this NPC with X resource to help us out with Y problem.” Etc.
How much any individual expenditure costs depends on the particulars and my judgment (in negotiation with the player). If they came across some technology and want to reverse engineer it: How strange/advanced/powerful is it? Do they still have access to it or only one brief encounter to go off of? Did they develop a good or bad relationship with that NPC during the mission? Etc. My hope is that it spurs the players to connect story threads in otherwise unrelated missions and to connect threads in ways even I can’t anticipate yet.
MJ: You’re running “Entropy’s Demise” in the first couple episodes, the adventure from the starter set. I know you have plans to expand into your own adventures after your group establishes itself but what is your opinion of the starter set adventure? Good introduction?
Brian: As a first time GM, starting with pre-published missions was an invaluable training wheel tool. It gave me a scaffolding to fall back to the first time the players threw me a crazy curveball. Coming to this with a heavy Trek background but a very light RPG one, I had an idea of what kind of Star Trek stories I wanted to tell, but not necessarily how to translate those stories into good RPG scenarios. It gave both me and the players a place to start, which we very much needed.
Ryan: The book episodes are definitely a fantastic introduction into episode construction. From a player perspective, it certainly helped to have battle-tested scenarios to work through. That way we could work through the growing pains of learning how to play without simultaneously working through the inevitable challenges of home-brewed episodes. That being said, I think Brian has done a really solid job so far with his stories. We give him hell for sure, but truthfully we did that with Adventures scenarios as well.
MJ: What is something surprising you’ve learned about yourself in this process?
Tara: That I LOVE to solve mysteries! We found that, of the crew, I was the one who would usually ask the, “but wait, what about…” things that would help us unravel the puzzle. It was a good feeling to find my place in our group as a pseudo-detective.
MJ: A big appeal of Star Trek is the real and compelling characters amid the galaxy-spanning plots. Who’s your favorite Star Trek character and why?
Brian: I have a deep and abiding attachment to Spock. Nimoy took what even then was a pretty tired sci-fi trope, brought real depth to it, and then built an entire culture around it (not to diminish the contributions of others, but it all starts with Nimoy). Even though it still has its own issues (look up my friend Julia Galef’s “Straw Vulcan” talk), it was the depth of Spock and Vulcans in general that first suggested a larger character to the Trek universe and ultimately, what transcended Star Trek beyond other 60’s sci-fi shows and into a cultural touchstone for over half a century.
Also sometimes I walk like Spock with my hands clasped behind my back. Tara got a blurry photo of it once.
Ryan: My favorite character is unequivocally Data. Going back to childhood I’ve always had a fascination with androids/robots/cyborgs. At the time it was the basic characteristics of super strength, speed, and intelligence that appealed to me. As I grew up and matured, the incredibly nuanced performance brought to life by Brent Spiner, coupled with the brilliantly written episodes that tackled the hard questions about human rights and dignity only solidified Data’s place as my favorite. But honorable mention definitely goes to Leonard McCoy. The thing I appreciate about Bones is that you always knew where he stood, whether you wanted to know or not. Also, DeForest Kelley had that character pinned down from minute-one. Of all the characters in Star Trek, from introduction to their final appearance, his performance was by far the steadiest. He wasn’t just Kirk’s rock, he was Star Trek‘s.
Tara: Oh my. This is like choosing a favorite child. I love so many characters for so many reasons. I love Picard. I love Data. I love Beverly Crusher. I love Worf. I love Bones. I love Scotty. I love Troi. I love Dax. If I had to choose one character whose episodes I’m always the happiest to watch over and over, it’s probably Data.
MJ: Tell us what you have in store for the Tempest! What plans does the GM have for the ship? What projects are the players looking forward to starting? [Note, this will be going up at the beginning of August to tie in with the podcast’s release schedule.]
Brian: As of this writing, we’ve finished recording season 1 and are currently editing/releasing. And I’m currently writing out the scenarios for season 2. Without giving anything away, pretty early on I had ideas for a campaign arc that would diverge from canon. But in order for that to not feel like a cheat, I knew the divergence points had to depend on genuine player decisions. And those points had to be non-obvious in the moment, so the decisions really stemmed from character, not plot. So I built those points into season 1 and if the players made certain decisions, that campaign would take shape. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t. So you can imagine I was pretty nervous in the run up to those moments! If the players didn’t pull those triggers then it’s back to the drawing board. Thankfully, they did and those seeds are now planted, so I’ve now got the broad outlines and in season 2 those seeds will start to sprout, which is really exciting.
Ryan: As sound designer, I am thrilled to be playing around in the Star Trek Universe. I’ve spent the last decade doing design work for the award winning podcasts, Our Fair City and Unwell, both produced by Hartlife, NFP. They have been incredibly rewarding experiences, and being a part of that community allowed me to flourish not only as a sound designer, but as a human being. That being said, this is Star Trek. And these are my best friends and my life-partner. There is simply no way any other project can hold a candle to that. I love it.
Tara: My character, Aurora Teal, has been playing it pretty mild from the start, but as I’ve gotten to know her and make decisions with her, that is starting to shift a bit more toward boldness. I’m looking forward to future missions and problem solving!
MJ: Well thanks to all of you. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Tempest in Season 2!
Check out Star Trek: Tempest at starshiptempest.com