Monday, 29 February 2016

Press Your Space-Face Close To Mine: Returning To Star Trek Roleplaying

God bless Star Trek Online, without which I wouldn't have easy to access to pics such as the above.

It's been ages since I last ran my Star Trek RPG - in fact, a quick search on the Star Trek tag on my blog reveals the last session was mid 2014.  So, we're all gonna need a catch-up before we can get started talking about what's happening this time around in the exciting world of post-TNG, 25th century Star Trek adventuring!

So, what was it that happened last time we played?  Well, as you would expect from a game designed to mimic broadcast television I did not let my players go too long without being put the emotional ringer.  I made a Gorn scientist who defected from his homeworld return there; I revealed some junior members of the Enterprise's crew were using illegal drugs to cope with the stress of the final frontier; a Klingon medic had to cope with getting a prosthetic body part; and a inter-crew relationship with Ailsa's Vulcan/Betazoid officer that had gone swimmingly for a season and a half was put through some tensions.

The season finale, however, upped the game a bit...

"We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. We will absorb your technological distinctiveness into our own. Resistance is futile... but enjoyable.". having Borg nanoprobes turn up, get on board the ship and try to infect the entire crew.  Cue a Star Trek version of the zombie movie, complete with that previously mentioned romantic couple ending up with one partner having to shoot another, Borgified member.

Except a boyfriend, not a mum.
In the aftermath, the Enterprise's crew of 1700 was down 75 members due to people assimilated or killed in the occasion.  We also saw two members of senior staff depart; Raj's Gorn scientist went off to take a civilian posting while Molly's Klingon medic went off to take a course at the academy and become a full Starfleet officer.  With that we lost what might be the weirdest topic of interspecies slash fiction since I accidentally read a really awful Scooby Doo post on Usenet.

Well, that or the Gorn's debut episode "Arena" which is on the face of things pretty gay.
...Just kiss already!
Now we've covered what's gone before - what is the set-up for this fifth season of our game where even on our worst day we're still better than Star Trek: Enterprise?

She spent three sessions in drydock - this was not a minor repair job!

Well, first things first the Enterprise-F needs repairing from the whole Borg infestation thing.  I wanted to tap into the same kind of spirit as TNG's season four second episode Family: following on immediately from the huge events of The Best of Both Worlds, the show did not just go back to normal but had an episode in which the ship was repaired and the crew took stock of events.  This was an odd thing for an otherwise episodic show and so I wanted to do that justice by spending the first few episodes with the crew not exploring strange new worlds but receiving a refit.

That doesn't mean they haven't had adventures, of course.  Episode 1 was something of an arc-setting episode in the fashion of Babylon 5's Midnight on the Firing Line with the components for the season's arc set up.  As with last year we talked a fair bit in advance what we wanted to do and what the "back of the DVD summaries" were for most of our episodes so the players understood what groundwork they had to set up here.  This time round there's more of a season arc than the more episodic style from before.

Below you'll find a summary of our season plan.  Each player got one spotlight episode, four supporting roles and four episodes in which they are minor players.  We tried out the third edition of Primetime Adventures which has some minor changes but the core engine is pretty much identical to my previous summary of it.  Playing cards, group all has narrating roles and the core mechanicis very light.

Season 5 breakdown.  Note that Aaron is running two sessions; also note that the episodes are given 60s song titles because our ship Captain is a Vulcan obsessed with that period of Earth history.
Our big season arc is some sort of Romulan Civil War which the Federation become dragged into.  Following on from the events of JJ Abram's 2009 movie, the Romulan homeworld has been destroyed
and the Romulan Star Empire has been Balkanized into several smaller entities, all of whome claim to be the real Romulans.  (The others, presumably, being splitters.)

We have touched on the basics in the last few series -the Imperial Romulan State or "Eastern Romulan Empire" being the largest, a Federation-backed Romulan Protectorate being another and a third faction actually being a Klingon client state in reality.  This time round I want to finally give the Romulans the attention they tend not to get in Trek TV/films and try to flesh them out a bit.  With my copy of The Way of D'era in hand, we're going to try and make Star Trek's Other Recurring Alien central to what's going o n.

Great minds think alike - Star Trek Online, the Star Trek novels and our game all have variations of a "Romulan civil war" theme

My goal isn't exactly to do a Deep Space Nine all-guns-blazing story, though.  There'd be no point - Primetime Adventures isn't cut out for an action game, I'd be better using something else like FASA Star Trek or Starships & Spacemen for that.  Instead, I want to use Star Trek to do what science fiction has always done - talk about today's problems through the metaphor of tomorrow's problems.

Sixties Star Trek talked about the Cold War, mutually assured destruction, racism and other sixties issues.  Next Gen has things to say which are squarely more 80s/90s in tone - euthanasia and old age, how people are affected by warhow one's enemies can turn out to be more complex than just cartoon villains.  A 2010s Star Trek series has to address problems that speak of our era, one that exists alongside thoughts like the War on Terror, the Arab Spring, Scottish Independence, Climate Change, Wikileaks, LGBT Rights and what have you.

So the Romulan Civil War isn't an occasion for explosions so much as it is for Starfleet to have to deal with the long term effects of that sort of war.  The militant D'eran State and their terrorist actions; the surge of refugees leaving the war zone; the worries that Romulan terrorists, passing as Vulcans, could be amongst us; Starfleet officers who signed up to be explorers suddenly asking why they seem to be stuck on Romulan planets trying to act as peacekeepers and dodging disruptor fire 24/7.

Gents from the British Army in Iraq - any modern Star Trek would need to talk about this somehow...  And preferably better than Star Trek: Into Darkness which you shouldn't think too hard about.
As part of that thread, we have one of the sister ships of the Enterprise that was under construction be adapted from an explorer into a through-deck cruiser - that's another way of saying fighter/shuttle carrier, essentially.  At least one of the characters was very unhappy at this, questioning why Starfleet was building something that was only really useful for military applications .

This is very much intentional.  There's been some background chat before about the idea that Starfleet Admirals and Federation politicians are divided into "hawk" and "dove" factions - essentially whether it should look like The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine but we haven't really put it front and center before.  Now we've got a big bulking starship that represents that conflict and while we are worried about all those poor Romulans getting shot at, we're also worrying about ourselves - are we sacrificing our principles or are we being realistic?  Will our neighbours understand why we're building this big combat ship or will they feel threatened?

To top all that off - if Earth or Andoria is more OK with this than Vulcan or Betazed is, does that produce a problem for the United Federation of Planets cohesiveness?  I've talked for years about doing a "Vulcan Independence" plot arc and this might be the wedge that lets the Vulcan Isolationist Movement argue that a bunch of warlike younger races are dragging them down.

"What does the Federation need with a carrier?" is a question I've had to answer for more than one player.
In the midst of all this we have to introduce two new characters - one for Raj to replace his retiring scientist, the other for Dave who fancied a change from the Trill first officer.

For Raj, he decided to take on the currently vacant role of Chief Engineer and came up with a computer programmer and starship designer.  To mix things up a bit  he is a Mars-born man - there's been a couple of comments about Martians viewing themselves as quite distinct from Earthers, in the same way Scottish people are definitely not English.  There's a touch of the idea that Earth might have all the art and history but Mars is the industrial heart of the solar system - Earth runs it, Mars builds it.

His gimmick is to be really into artificial intelligence and in particular when a smart computer goes from being "computer" to "sentient".  Playing off Aaron's Mr Einstein, our computer avatar, we have a fun plot in which the computer doesn't think the computer is "alive" but Raj's character does. Episode three saw the computer declare he had to be reformatted and rebooted to remove errors which Raj claimed were in fact a burgeoning personality.  Classic Trek and something the guys seem to be enjoying.

Oh, and in a throwaway line in episode three, Raj established his character was gay.  Which, if this was a real TV show, would make him the first ever out character on Star Trek.

No, really, fifty years and functionally no gay characters.
Dave, meanwhile, has decided to hand in the phaser rifle for the briefcase.  He's playing a member of the diplomatic corp and his purpose on the ship is to help with the whole "negotiating with the Romulans and preventing a civil war" situation.  Explicitly not a soldier or even a Starfleet graduate, he's a civil servant who is here to act with government authority and help the crew in the rather difficult situation of interstellar politics.

Dave is playing with the idea that he's a member of a huge Kennedy-esque family - filled with senators, ambassadors, professors and the like.  Dave's character feels he's kind of "the other one" in the family and this is his first big job to try and rectify things.  Can he escape from his family's shadow?  Can he befriend the crew or will they clash with him because of their different backgrounds?

Hopefully Dave's character will prove to be a lot saner than, um, basically every Ambassador that has ever appeared in Star Trek before.  They're like Admirals - they basically only turn up to be assholes, traitors or criminals!

There's a reason TV Tropes has a whole page on Ass in Ambassador
Matthew and Ailsa are also playing of course, continuing their existing characters of security officer Jaheem Soto and communications officer Kestra T'Lara.   How a security officer might plug into the whole Romulan Civil War thing shouldn't be hard to imagine, but what about our Uhura/Troi crossbreed?

Well, Kestra ended last season by having to shoot her boyfriend and kill him when he had been assimilated by the Borg and was attacking the captain.  This is not something I wanted to just ignore and move on with - Star Trek has a tendency to have Kirk's latest girl die and for him to just carry on fine the next week.  I had to get Ailsa on board for this idea because it's quite grim, but at the same time I didn't want Kestra to treat disintegrating her own boyfriend like she was Austin Powers and I wanted to give her the chance to deal with a very modern problem - mental health.

Kestra resumes the series with a promotion for heroism but also with some sort of  adjustment disorder.  (I've been saying PTSD for shorthand, but Ailsa did some reading and felt that the circumstances suit a slightly different diagnosis).  She's already a bit emotionally complex a character - half Betazoid and half Vulcan with a lot of angst over how to reconcile these two different parts.  Since she was being much more Betazoid and outgoing before her problem, we may be heading towards Kestra trying to resolve her problem by locking down her emotions and going Vulcan.  After all, if she has no emotions, she can't be an emotional wreck, right?

This does require some slightly heavy movie watching as part of our research.  Still, the end result should be enough for Kestra's acctress to angle for an Emmy this season - we joke that Kestra's actress in this theoretical show is stuck in a a Seven of Nine or Troi-esque situation of being mainly cast for eye candy and she's probably desperate to prove her acting chops.  She'll get to bounce off Jaheem, who is a veteran of the Dominion War and was held in a POW camp for some time so presumably has had to battle with his own demons.

"Because I - I killed some - people; I made some terrible - mistakes!"

Through all this I'm also going to be playing in two episodes and handing over directing duties to someone else.  Unlike last time it's the same person, Aaron, who will be directing both these episodes - a daft "holodeck gone wrong" romp but also a more serious spotlight for Enterprise commanding officer Captain Satlek.  This seemed to work out OK last time, with Satlek able to show different sides of himself as a PC.  (In particular, last season introduced his wife which allowed us the comedy of showing what a poorly functioning Vulcan marriage looks like)

Tying back to that dove vs hawk motif, Satlek is at heart a scientist and not in his element when told to try and be a military officer.  He's already had to fill out seventy five death notices for his crew - how many more will he have to fill out?  How will he react if he has to juggle saving Romulans with the political requirements of the Federation?

Don't get me wrong - He's not going to go all Benjamin "Should Be Tried For War Crimes" Sisko - but the mental image I have in my head is one in which Satlek might have to let individual Romulan ships fight and die because if he intervenes personally he drags the whole Federation into a civil war, one which can only be a long and bloody affair.  There is a reason his episode is named Where Have All The Flowers Gone? - I try to find vaguely thematic 60s songs to be the title to each episode, but this one in particular really captures the mood I want.

"When will they ever learn?"

So far Trek has been one of our most successful campaigns, with only one session in the back catalogue ever being what I would call a "failure - out of 39 sessions ran so far that's not a bad track record.  It's had some really strong showings, like Kestra's first spotlight or last season's Borg invasion horror show, and I'm hopeful this season will give us some more classic nerd joy.

Now, the real question is - if the Romulan civil war is obviously the arc, why am I being all coy about what the final episode is about?  I mean, what sort of secret could I be wanting to keep from the crew of the Enterprise?...

The last episode is named after an easy listening song.  It must be a happy episode, then!  Right?


  1. You know, reading this post has made me depressed about this season all over again now...

    Oh well, Arvind is going to try to keep out of the politics, happy with his technical manuals and dilithium crystals and will continue to make oblivious remarks and hopefully provide the comic relief that sounds like it'll be so desperately needed (especially now that K'Ratak has left) :).

    PS: Bro'ch'n/K'Ratak slash? Ew! The internet is a filthy, filthy place, sometimes.

    1. You say "depressed", I say "challenged!" After all, in one of his more lucid non-Geneva-convention-violating moments, Sisko did note...

      Do you know what the trouble is? The trouble is Earth-on Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. It's easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the demilitarized zone all the problems haven't been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints, just people-angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not.

      If you want to defend the principles of the Federation and prove Gene Roddenberry right, you're going to have to do it when it's hard. Prove yourself worthy of the uniform and you'll feel much better wearing it.

      Anyway, think about how many horrible things they did to O'Brien in DS9 and he still managed to be the comedy relief sometimes. :-D