This great essay is reposted with permission from Jo Vasquez from 23rdarchive.com.
Authors Note; if you’re not a super geeky nerd person this Blog will be -2 to your intellect roll.
In 1999 I ran the best Star Trek game in the history of mankind. Everything has been a pale shadow since, at least when it comes to playing Star Trek. Oh, there have been fantastic games with Dragons and Vampires, things that went to the edge of space and deep into time. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror, but never have I had a good trek game since.
I would like to note that there have been great games, amazing players, and moments that, even though they weren’t real, will live with us as if they were. I have had the privilege of great minds, and great groups, and have witnessed heroism, creativity, and cleverness in full force, just not in Star Trek.
A few years ago, Modiphius put out a new Star Trek RPG. I have never understood the desire of every company that creates a Trek game to want to stray so far away from the basic RPG styles, but like Decipher and Last Unicorn, and FASA before them, they went with a wonky mechanical system. Custom dice and non-intuitive rules seem to be the go-to for Star Trek RPGs. Can’t we just use the d20 or even the popular d10 from WOD? Anyway, the point is I had a new Star Trek system and some players that I could run it on. I was ready to regain the glory of the late 90s Trek culture. (Not the podcast, the actual culture).
I tried to run a game, however, the players were not playing Trek they were playing Star Wars. They were morally grey, not the best of us, and often action-oriented. It was jump into the abyss unprepared and be ready to blow whatever was down there into bits. Before Discovery came about; I was running Discovery. (This is a criticism in pure form on the first few seasons of Star Wars Discovery. Yes, I said Star Wars).
My go to favorite scenario to run in Star Treks’ vast universe is the early Federation formation. I loved that Enterprise wasn’t tactically ready to actually be out in the void and yet its directive to make friends and learn was fantastic. With the star wars feel that my players had I thought it was a good fit. I created some character sheets and some quick notes for the team, told them about phasers and warp drive and we were off. The series failed and likewise so did my first few games.
The players were unable to seed the Galaxy with the goodwill of the early Federation. On multiple occasions and with multiple groups the game failed to evolve from space marines into Star Trek. I couldn’t blame the dice or game mechanics as I had used a home-brewed WOD MOD for the first one, and the Modiphius for the second one.
I gave up on running another game and retreated to the safety of Star Wars and other games where it’s reasonable to make characters that don’t aspire to spread goodwill and science. Group after group turned down the final frontier and I couldn’t understand why. Then, I showed a young friend of mine a few episodes of the original series. I gave warnings and let them know it was a product of its time, and that they probably wouldn’t like it, but I was wrong.
They loved it, specifically, they loved the story. I realized that it wasn’t the system, the rule books, the times, not even the Disco action-adventure blow ’em up kids that was the problem; it was me. I was selling it as Star Trek, I was selling it as a brand.
As a brand represents a universe of movies and properties that stretches across generations and as a dry nerd alternative to Star Wars. It implies stuffy feeling mathematics and highbrow nerdism. The 2009 movies weren’t stuffy but so far haven’t made anyone I know “wish” to be in Starfleet. They aspired to renew but failed tin inspire.
In its immensity, it can’t really be seen for what it is. I can’t tell you that “Star Trek” is cool, it’s something you have to experience. Like a confident flat earther, the close-up surface begs the sense to fail to comprehend the true majesty of the whole.
So, I stopped asking if they wanted to play star trek and asked if they wanted to explore the unknown. I said I wanted to run a mission to the LMC (The large Magellanic Cloud) and it would be the first of its kind, the first humans to actually leave the Galaxy. I then said I want to use the old star trek style but that they didn’t need to know anything about it. They could all be humans and no one would have to look like a discount cosplayer. It was going to be a space adventure pure and simple.
I re-watched several episodes of The Original Series in preparation for my game. I didn’t want to run a Star Trek game with phasers and photons, but I wanted to run a game that featured all the things I fell in love with, in The Original Series.
I took elements from my favorite episodes. I grabbed as much subtle humor as I could from “The trouble with Tribbles”, the value of the human mind and spirit, from the “The ultimate computer,” the diversity and concept of “Alien” that the Horta gave us from “The devil in the dark” and the wonder of the Animated Series episode “Beyond the farthest Star.”
My players traveled from our Galaxy via a temporary wormhole, called the stargate (a wormhole given a name not a copyright infringement), to the LMC. They had 15 days to set up a colony and return. The stargate wouldn’t open again for 75 years. It was a one-shot, one hope, to set up a scientific colony that wouldn’t return home in most of their lifetimes. The players were the Starfleet crew setting the colony up, but they could have opted to be a colonist too.
As with all things complications rose. A new untested software call the M-5 operating system was influenced by an alien consciousness and took over a ship. A Romulan warbird, who had been trapped here for 20 years from a previous stargate was lurking about, and most importantly they were in a conflict with a new species, one they couldn’t understand as it was a fungal network, not a single bodied being.
After four weeks of games, the party figured out how to communicate with the fungus, got the better of the Romulans, and saved a young 16-year-old centurion named Aric Tarsis-Gorm, who had been born here in the LMC. They also managed to get the entire colony back to their home galaxy when it turned out they wouldn’t be able to stay in the LMC. It was a massive success and the majority of the players didn’t even know what star trek was before they played
The players now had characters and a fleshed-out world with NPC’s, friends, and colleagues. They had sons and daughters back home and they knew what the Federation was and how it differed from the Romulan Star Empire. They understood warp drive and wormholes. I didn’t teach them a thing, just like the old series didn’t teach me about any of it. I told a good story and to fully understand it they asked questions read the books and dove in deep.
The next campaign was only two games long and it was called the Wrath of Gorm. Gorm was the Romulan warbird commander they thought they had defeated in the LMC. 25 years had passed (in-game time) and the players were now instructors on a teaching ship in Star Fleet Academy. I pretty much ran the Wrath of Khan and they met it like champions, beat for beat.
I don’t know that I have had more fun in running a star trek game, specifically that moment where the science officer say’s “Their coil emissions are normal, They are locking phasers!”
The panic and confusion that the players had when I said those words, was exactly what I imagined it would have been on the bridge of the Enterprise. It was a moment that will stay with me.
I let the players run their characters, the ones they had in the LMC, but this time they also ran their next-generation (not the show but the lineage). They played the daughters and sons of the PC group. In the end, one of the NPCs (Gorm’s son, the child soldier they had rescued from the Romulan ship in the LMC) gave his life to save the ship and the crew, and it moved everyone. It was the same feeling as I had when Spock died. A little different, but the players were devastated. They had helped him break away from his abusive father, become a prominent scientist, and even have kids of his own.
I love the starships, I love the technology, I love the science fiction of Star Trek, but those are just superficial things. What made it endearing was the stories, the hope, the mysteries about the universe and how it relates to ourselves in real life. It is truly about the human adventure, not the sci-fi.
My game isn’t focused on the details of what the Enterprise can do, or how many attacks you can get. It’s not about phasers or photons, it’s about discovery. (Yes, the word, not the show). It’s about how we relate to each other, how we communicate, and how looking at an alien flower can tell us just as much about the observer as it can the observed.
Now, we are on to the Next Generation, (The era not the lineage). They are playing legacy characters, and none of them are human. They all know what a warp drive is, how dangerous Romulans can be and why it’s probably not a good idea to think bad thoughts around the Betazoids. (joking: only a bad Betazoid would read a mind without permission).
They have already done the adventure at Farpoint station, their kids had gotten picked up for shoplifting in the space mall, and even though there’s no ‘racism’ in Starfleet the Cardassian bartender, and Orion Starfleet officer are finding it difficult to raise their families with unsaid prejudices.
I look forward to updating you on my game and my art projects in the future. Thanks for reading!