Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A Cadet Will Not Lie, Cheat Or Steal: Starfleet Academy Series 1 Conclusion

My only experience prior to this point of playing in Starfleet Academy.
 Last time I blogged in 2016 it was about Starfleet Academy – the Star Trek RPG I was running a sort of “spin-off” to my main Trek game.  The players were all taking the roll of teenage/twenty-something students who were trying to survive military university and graduate as a Starfleet officer.  They were mostly first year students (with a couple of “veterans”) and represented not the crème de la crème but the “just passing” sort of student.

This game has now concluded and the TL;DR is that the game seemed to go down well and the group agreed they would play it again in the future.  Everyone had their spotlight episode with some better than others – Ailsa and Dave had particularly good episodes I would say.  I think Molly would withdraw K’Ratak (possibly back to the main Star Trek game) and roll up a fresh new player – but everyone else I think would hang onto their character and continue their story, with some strong ideas for future episodes floating about.

Of course I’m not the kind of guy to leave it at a short description like that.  So details follow...

Red Squad are sort of our recurring enemies, albeit less malicious and more just annoying

We’ve already explained the rough gist of our cast.  We have Astraea, the Orion dancer come to impress her boyfriend; Leo, the enlisted man promoted up the ranks; Vlad, the endlessly-repeating-first-year guy; Gabriel, the third year med student who is doing his course to please his dad; Ranjen, the wide-eyed Bajoran who has never been off his world before; and K’Ratak, the Klingon medic who crossed over from our main game to offer some continuity.

The main issue we had to cross with Starfleet Academy was that of tone.  Most of the other games we’ve ran have more overtly resembled nerd-genre fiction of some stripe – they were overtly dungeon crawls, superhero escapades, military science fiction etc.  In the case of something that has multiple styles I was able to give pointers as to where I wanted tone – for our main Star Trek game I told them I wanted to mostly be Next Generation-like in ethic, with only occasional flashes of DS9 grey, and the superhero game saw a clear GO WATCH BATMAN BEYOND hint to the players at the start even if we occasionally went more Batman: The Brave And The Bold in lighter sessions.

I wonder if any of them would prosper in Starfleet?  Depends if Screech can still make that robot.

Starfleet Academy, however, had less in common with nerd fiction than it does with teen drama.  The comparison we kept using was Saved By The Bell and of course Ailsa’s character intentionally aped Elle Brooks from Legally Blonde rather than a Star Trek character.  Star Trek has done some different styles and genres in its time with the same show alternating between Odo’s murder mysteries, Sisko’s ethical conundrums and Quark’s comedy hijinks – but it has never done anything quite like Dawson’s Creek IN SPAAAAACE so we were flying blind a bit as to getting the feel straight.

This scene is from the same show that once had the main charactrer commit war crimes and receive no punishment.  Only the lady on the left, who isn't in Starfleet, questioned this.  The enemy of the episode did the same thing and he got sent to jail.  TV can be a weird place.

The episodes tended to be somewhat “bitty” compared to the main Star Trek game.  There the Enterprise could arrive at a new planet every week, with the Captain’s Log explaining a starting premise from which the episode’s conflict would originate and the new guest stars could debut.  What happened last week didn’t have to be a big deal – we could just say “We are orbiting the Gorn homeworld now” and leave the fallout from our trip to Bynar off-screen.  While we did have story arcs each episode still tended to be have a somewhat “stand-alone” element.

Your home away from home.

This game however was usually set on Starfleet Academy Presido Campus in San Fransisco, and the same guest stars tended to pop up again and again so how they had been handled before matters.  The game ended up being quite slice-of-life with an episode main plot alternating around scenes of classroom and social activity for the group, demonstrating more character scenes completely divorced of the A-Plot than we got in the main game.

I was worried the group didn’t enjoy this and they did say they’d prefer to have more focus, but they also said they quite liked that the game felt clearly different to the Enterprise-F game. Some of them particularly enjoyed the chance to flesh out some world-building questions that a planet-bound game set on a major world could address – this is one of the things liked the most about the JJ Abrams Trek films, that they showed life beyond the military world.  Those films got to show Scotty drinking in a planetside bar filled with aliens with suggested Earth was a cosmopolitan world and rather than filling it’s future London with “space buildings” it had a converted Victorian hospital which looked like someone had added on modern-day fittings within but kept the shell.

So in our game we got to show a mass network of transporters used intercontinental travel that resembled an airport or train station – people queued up, went through security then took connecting journeys via hubs to get to where they want to go.  We also had the old town Edinburgh appear and look basically unchanged, being a UNESCO heritage site and all – so the tenements may have replicators inside them but still used stairs rather than turbolifts.  We had sections of their training would include acknowledging the existence of holodecks, replicators etc – while we used some traditional university and boot camp tropes we could also discuss what your drill sergeant could do when they can put you through a march in a holodeck in whatever terrain they choose.

It hasn't changed much over the years, I doubt it will even in the 25th century,

 If series one had a more serious problem it’s that plots tended to be somewhat samey.  Each character, ultimately, was given a challenge which made them either wonder if they should quit Starfleet Academy or threaten to eject them.  Both Vlad and Leo pondered if the Academy was for children and not older guys like them; Ranjen’s studies suffered when he hit the booze and it looked like he might fail exams; Astraea got fed up of being judged by her appearance and racial stereotypes and almost quit. 

The other two were slightly different - K’Ratak fell apart in a stressful situation and Gabriel had to have the revelation that he didn’t want to be a Doctor but a Historian – but it still manifested on broadly similar fashions.  Each episode amounted to “Should I be here, doing this?” and required the character to Go On A Journey™ to reach the answer, which was usually “You are an awesome person who has something to contribute to Starfleet (but it might not be what you expected.)”

Can't have a Journey™ without a good cry.

While none of these episodes were truly bad they did risk becoming a bit samey – and tellingly I’ve struggled to recall many details of Vlad’s episode, perhaps because it overlaps too heavily in concept with Leo's.  For a second season I’d want to take some episodes in more overtly different directions.  In general terms, more experienced students could be sent off planet more and perhaps have to do hikes on Deimos, shuttle flights near Saturn and attend a sports event at the Andor campus.  On a more player-specific level, I see the chance for a British sitcom farce episode in which Gabriel’s father visits and everyone has to pretend he’s still studying medicine because he hasn’t got around to telling him the truth yet.

This is actually the logo of a hippy anti-logging organisation.  Looks terrifying out of context, though, doesn't it?

The campus setting maybe lets us do the Star Trek style “analogies of real world problems”, such as a visit by a Humans-First Extremist bringing up a question of the limits of freedom of speech on campus or the breakout of a Romulan civil war seeing cadets argue over whether or not the Federation should get involved in the affair.  If that’s too dark, though, we can go with the Saved By The Bell motif again and their use of spring break/beach-set episodes to give us a basis for a bit of fun in the sun.  Maybe Astraea offers us the chance to go home and visit her Daddy’s mansion.  The barely defined Orion culture could see expansion and the premise could lead into many different places, from holiday romance to Nancy Drew mystery.

The lads mags loved Tiffany but I always had a soft spot for Elizabeth Berkley

One thing we mooted was gater integration between the two games next time.  The Enterprise-F game has started it’s Romulan Civil War arc which will be leading into a Vulcan Isolationist Movement one – we can use the two games to show different angles of these problems, the view at the frontier vs the view in the Federation core and the view from veteran Starfleet officers vs the view from green Starfleet cadets.  These two groups might respond very differently to the same issues.

The crossover could be more overt, though.  A cadet cruise on-board the Enterprise is maybe a push for the average first year cadet, but a visit from an Enterprise crew member to guest lecture is more believable – and the cadets stationed on another ship discovering their opponent in a wargame is the goddamn flagship has a certain charm, getting the two crews to engage in some friendly competion with each other!

If you've paid for those cast members you might as well use 'em.

 If I wanted to go really extreme, the Academy and Enterprise games could run as part of the same block.  One episode alternating might be a bit much for people – jumping between characters and arcs might get confusing – but running three to five episodes of one season, then the same of another before repeating the cycle could give us the chance to have links develop between the shows and show the cast of one react if the status quo of the other adapts.

Right, that’s Trek summed up for now.  Next up on the RPG blog post stakes will have to be a summary of the recent one-offs I’ve ran – a Halloween session of Dread, a Christmas game of Doctor Who and a Christmas game of Fiasco.  I’ll also need to talk about the character gen we’ve done for the campaigns we are planning on starting 2017 with…

Many millions of years ago, on a distant planet, life existed. But not life as we know it today

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