Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Retrospective: Star Trek the Roleplaying Game

Much as I loved Star Wars as a child, my heart belonged first to Star Trek. I remember watching reruns of the Original Series on Saturday afternoons at my grandparents' home in Baltimore. My aunt, who was unmarried at the time, had been a fan of the series and it was she who introduced me to it in syndication. (She also took me to see Star Wars on the movie's opening weekend, so she has a lot to answer for). Star Trek had a profound effect on me as a kid and it molded my imagination in ways impossible to reckon. Indeed, the series became the standard by which I judge most other televisual and cinematic science fiction.

Unsurprisingly, when FASA -- a company I knew primarily as a licensee for Traveller -- released an official Star Trek RPG in 1982, I had to have it. Back in those days, RPGs based on big name licenses were uncommon (but not unknown). Most companies went the route of producing pastiche products heavily "inspired" by books, movies, or TV shows but lacking the formal sanction of their IP holders. Consequently, this new RPG appeared to me to be something new and unusual. (I should note here that there was another Star Trek RPG, published in 1978 by Heritage Miniatures. As that was a year before I entered the hobby, I didn't know about its existence and, so far as I know, the game was not widely available or successful)

The RPG came in a large, deep box and consisted of three books: a rulebook, an adventure book, and deckplans for Constitution-class starships and the Klingon D-7 battlecruiser. The box also included cardboard counters of starships and individuals, as well as two Gamescience D20s, numbered 0-9 twice. I still own those D20s and they roll just as well now as they did then. The rulebook was 128 page in length -- rather lengthy compared to, say, Traveller -- but it was quite comprehensive, covering everything from character generation to alien races to technology to starship combat. The game used a simple percentile system for skills and other actions. Combat was, in my view, unnecessarily complex, using an action point system to determine how many and what type of actions a character could perform in each round of combat. Trek isn't a purely action-adventure series, so why the designers chose to saddle it with a persnickety, over-detailed system for resolving fights, I have no idea.

What really set the game apart, though, were two brilliant sub-systems: character generation and starship combat. Character generation was what today would be called a "lifepath" system, focusing on the character's education and career and using them to determine what skills he picks up before the start of play. The result was much like Traveller's own brilliant character generation system but without the possibility of death and with much more specificity. A newly generated Star Trek character began with a history; you knew where he'd served and what he'd done while he was there -- and all with a few simple dice rolls. Character generation wasn't as fast as Traveller's but it was still reasonably breezy and a fun mini-game in its own right.

Starship combat was equally remarkable. Rather than reducing space battles to a wargame-within-a-RPG, Star Trek made it an opportunity for roleplaying. Each player character assumed a role on the bridge and had responsibilities that contributed to the success or failure of their ship's battle against enemy vessels. The game included paper "display panels" that tracked things like power output (for the engineer), weapons fire (for the helmsman), sensors (for the science officer), and so on. It was great fun, if occasionally slow, and it did demand a fairly large group of players to work well, but, back in those days, having a gaming group of 6-10 people wasn't uncommon.

FASA published Star Trek primarily in the years before the airing of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Paramount didn't treat the property as the jewel in its media crown. Consequently, there was no exhaustive list of canon beyond the episodes of the Original Series and the (at the time) two movies -- the Animated Series was used only sparingly -- and even these were treated in a more fast and loose fashion than became common after the advent of TNG. This enabled FASA to expand the setting in all sorts of fascinating ways and, as the referee, I didn't feel boxed in by the weight of hundreds of hours of television and film, not to mention novels, comic books, and video games. Back then, Star Trek could still be plausibly called an "open" setting and I reveled in that.

FASA eventually lost the license to Star Trek, but my enthusiasm for Trek-based RPGs never waned. I was a big fan of many of Last Unicorn's products in the late 90s, particularly the near-perfect Original Series RPG, an autographed copy of which still sits proudly on my shelf. Since then, I've often considered starting up another Trek game but, if I did, I'd probably ignore anything not directly derived from the Original Series. I simply don't have the stomach for dealing with all the minutiae the various series and movies have generated in the decades since 1969. And you can bet that, if I did so, I'd be using FASA's RPG.

33 comments:

  1. FASA TREK. This is the first game I played after being introduced to AD&D. I ran games all through high school and college. Before my wife and I even started dating, she was part of my gaming group in college.

    I picked a complete, unopened boxed set (1st edition) at a used book store for $8 just last week!

    Although, I think X-Plorers is going to get all of my scifi creativity in the future.

    Long live Fasa Trek!

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  2. I remember running a Star Trek rpg for a few friends sometime around 1978 or 1979. Very minimal rules, that mostly dealt with beaming down to explore unknown planetscapes. I don't recall any random charts or elements for encounters, just a few mini-adventure suggestions (checking out a planet and discovering a couple of Klingons lurking around, a Gorn hiding out in some ruins, etc). I for sure remember it as small scale exploration adventures.

    The one in the 80's a friend of mine ran a few times (back then I actually played stuff instead of only GM'ing). I created Captain Arthur of the starship Excaliber. He and the crew immediatly got railroaded into entering the Nuetral Zone, and more or less got blown near to shit by several Birds of Prey. The GM seemed to be more interested in me having to go visit wounded personel in the medical bay (in the midst of battle encounter) to boost their moral rather than stay on the bridge and work on some tactics. A McGuffin came and saved us. Nothing we did mattered. Turned me off of being a player for the rest of my life (that, and some other crappy game experiences).

    I do remember the 80's game being decent rules, I just wished somebody else had ran it! Thanks for letting me vent...*cough*choke*

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  3. I have extremely fond memories of the FASA line of Star Trek products -- and of TOS.

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  4. That was probably my favorite non-D&D game, back in the day. Being a huge Trek fan myself, it was a natural fit. The adventures were somewhat derivative (one was a sequel to "Patterns of Force", for example), but the game itself was a breeze to play.

    They took the starship combat rules and turned them into a spinoff game unto themselves; the Starship Combat Simulator, which was a *sweet* wargame with some really awesome figures produced for it.

    I've also got a copy of the Heritage Trek RPG, but it looks more like an attempt to slap the "Star Trek" name on something-- anything-- and get it onto store shelves as a way of selling miniatures.

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  5. Missed out on playing that one, unfortunately, though I'm sure I was vaguely aware it existed. I really like the original Star Trek (and to a lesser extent the later incarnations), so I'm sure I would have dumped hundreds of hours into it. I doubt I'd've ever found anyone to play with. I've been fairly lucky finding AD&D players over the years, but not much else.

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  6. Of all the RPGs I had the best damn game I ran was with Star Trek

    The best damn game I ever ran blog post.

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  7. I just reviewed the Heritage Models game here. Enjoy!

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  9. Got my 2nd edition boxed set on my shelf about 10 feet from me, if that.

    Surprisingly, we did almost no Star Trek roleplaying, but we did play the heck out of the starship combat simulator.

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  10. I used to love Fasa Trek. If I could manage to play the role of commanding officer I used to break out a tape recorder and make my captain's log during play sessions. I'd love to find one of those tapes some day, it's doubtful if they've survived for over 25 years however.

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  11. I still remember the first time I played a game of Star Trek. It was at the local wargames club and we rearranged all the furniture to emulate the bridge. Including putting a lounge chair on a set of kitchen tables for our very laconic captain (it was probably a good thing he was laconic or the assemblage might have collapsed). I was navigator. The science officer had found a pen and some sheets of poster paper and would quickly draw pictures of what was on the screen (or, in one case the poster deckplans came in very useful), and we (the helmsmen and I) would hold them up in front of the captain. We could even execute the "Computer: Magnify" command by moving the sheet closer to the captain.

    It may have looked rather ridiculous to people walking past (in fact some of the more staid older wargamers might have commented thusly), but it was actually immense fun and introduced us (and me especially) to the power that physicality adds to the "tabletop" [in this case literally] gaming experience. Something I was later to use to great effect when running Paranoia adventures, and which, twenty years later, became heavily established in the freeform movement.

    So thankyou, Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration!

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  12. James, you know the LUG version was a direct attempt at capturing those very elements you mention: 1) creating a history while generating a character and; 2) starship combat.

    I insisted on this because of my love for FASATrek. I can't imagine it being done any other way.

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  13. Playing FASA Trek in college with a group of friends who were all big Trek fans. We even had a computer set up where one of the player's would play sounds files of ST sound effects at approriate times!

    It was one of my fondest gaming memories. A good combo of game and players on the same page.

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  14. This is one I actually still own and treasure. If you can, take a look at FASA's ST:TNG sourcebook, which does some neat things with the "lifepath" and allows for more cross-discipline PC's.

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  15. I probably did my best gamemastering with FASA Trek. And even though our group didn't really have the patience for the starship combat system, those rules are still IMO the best Star Trek space combat rules ever. (Not my favorite,but the best.)

    And while I agree that the "lifepath" system was good, it was just too many rolls and took too long. It's funny that I never thought about house-ruling around that then. Maybe I just know more now, or maybe I'm just too tired. Anyway, I recently conjured some house rules to remedy that. Even so, though, I probably would choose something less structured to play Trek if I were to play or ref again.

    VerWord: "gonstra" (n) -- a tree-dwelling herbivore of planet Al-debra IV

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  16. We had a copy of this and the LUG TNG game in my Middle School library. Those were my first RPGs. I played a Vulcan named T'Lab as my first ever character in the latter.

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  17. I picked up the box set, minus the GameScience dice, but with the Ship Construction Manual and the ST:III Sourcebook, at a flea market for about $5 a few years back. I'm enjoying reading through it, and remembering fondly the few sessions I played with my group back in the late 1980's. You are correct that the lifepath system was a fun minigame in its own right - by the time I got done rolling up my ensign I had a pretty good idea of who he was.

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  18. While I started with D&D in 1977 at the age of 8, FASA Star Trek is what I think of when I think old school gaming. It is this game more than any other that is responsible for the fact that I am still gaming today.

    I've told the story of my first encounter with the game on my own blog so I won't repeat it here but I still remember the first adventure I ran like it was yesterday.

    Thanks for bringing attention to the old gal and may many more generations use dice, paper and pencils to boldly go where no one has gone before.

    Peace and Long Life.

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  19. Trek isn't a purely action-adventure series, so why the designers chose to saddle it with a persnickety, over-detailed system for resolving fights, I have no idea.

    They used that same Action Point system for everything. Seriously, it was in their Doctor Who game, too.

    But we did have fun with the game as a whole!

    Verification word: Sleasco -- Harry Mudd's corporate umbrella corporation.

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  20. Re: FASA Trek ship combat

    I never played it, but I sure knew all about it. Every male gamer I knew was crazy about it, in the late eighties. (And a lot of female ones, too.) It must have been the most common wargame around, for a long while.

    In high school, I worked as an aide in the library. I swear to you, there was not a morning when the FASA gamers were not in there photocopying ship status sheets. People would play before school, at lunch, after school, and even during class. Ah, the Klingonity!

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  21. I've got the revised all in one box, but haven't gotten to do much more than skim through it and read the example of character generation.

    Sadly there IS or at least was recently a group playing the game but on weekends when I am unavailable.

    It really seems like an interesting game, and I am not really a big Trek fan.

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  22. This was actually the first RPG I ever bought, though I didn't get it at the time. I was 8 I think, and while I tried to read the thing, I just didn't get it.

    I wish I knew what happened to that set...

    To this day I've still yet to ever play a game of Star Trek.

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  23. I still have the box set for the starship combat. Never got to play it though. I've been through the box about a million times wishing I had.

    :(

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  24. One interesting thing about this game is that it's overshadowed by one of its supplements -- the Klingons supplement, which was written by John M. Ford, author of the classic Trek novel "The Final Reflection." Many old-school Trek fans still consider Ford's portrayal of Klingon culture to be the "real" one (as opposed to what was developed for TNG and later series.) Ford was a novelist and gamer who didn't discriminate between the two genres -- to the benefit of gamers of the time, though to the detriment of collectors of his work today, since his RPG supplements are rather harder to find than his novels...

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  25. Along with the 007 James Bond RPG, Call of Cthulhu, and a home brew based on some E. E. "Doc" Smith novels (which used a variant of the FASA Trek rules), the original Star Trek RPG was one of our staples. We played aboard a variety of vessels, including playing the crew of a Klingon ship (with each of us learning two or three phrases of Klingon) and as part of a Klingon delegation going up against a Federation delegation over the future of a planet. We must have played through nearly all of the modules with A Doomsday Like Any Other being a memorable favourite.

    I always thought though, that FASA Trek was never up to handling TNG. It a game being designed from the ground up -- LUG Trek -- to handle that properly.

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  26. Never played this and I'm not even much of a Trek fan. But I'll praise the stark cover, I found it compelling both then and now: Kirk, Spock, Ship, Space. Now that's being tightly on-message (i.e. "focus on core competency").

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  27. I actually came to be a Star Trek fan through FASA Trek, which was the first RPG I ever played back in 1985. Star Trek IV was on the horizon, but FASA Trek defined Star Trek for me.

    Any wonder I hate most Trek after Voyage Home? ;)

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  28. This game might be responsible for one of my earliest grognard moments. ^_^ I was intrigued, but after looking at it, I decided it was too complex and got a few things “wrong”.

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  29. Had it, played it, love it, still have it. But haven't played in years. We had a Galaxy Quest back in the day, as our GM felt it necessary for our helmsman to make a pilot role to get us out of spacedock. My spanking-new starship with the scratch all along the side...

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  30. Thanks for reminding me of this classic. I pulled out my copy and discovered a 1st edition rules, the starship combat game, and ship sourcebooks. At the time TRAVELLER (aka Classic Traveller) was our RPG staple and Star Fleet Battles was our ship combat game. At the time, FASA Trek just didn't make the grade.
    Looking at it today with fresh eyes I too like the CharGen sequence. And the Command and Control version of the starship combat game is a wonderful model for ROLEPLAYING starship combat.
    So now I am experimenting with using FASA Trek for the mechanics and Prime Directive for the setting. Looking to mix Kligon Armada (the Star Fleet Universe version of the Starmada engine) for starship combat.

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  31. We have a large group of people RPing Trek in Second Life. It's a great group of people and a lot of fun. We have Starfleet academy (you are a cadet when you start, until you graduate), space stations and ships (we have a great team of modelers, animators, and texturers to create nice trek ships for us to RP in). The group is called UFS, check us out I think you will like it!

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  32. I grew up playing FASATREK and later moved onto LUGTREK, I even bought DECIPHER TREK but hated the system. Anyway we are still playing trek rpgs. Check us out

    http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/star-trek-late-night/wikis/main-page

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