Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Retrospective: Star Trek II Starship Combat Simulator

I've spoken glowingly of the starship combat rules in FASA's Star Trek the Roleplaying Game before and there's a reason for that: they remain perhaps the best starship combat rules ever included in any RPG. They're simple enough that even the wargames-challenged such as myself can grasp them, but they also possess enough depth to hold the attention of players adept at strategy and tactics. On top of it all, the rules are an excellent evocation of their source material and integrate well with the Star Trek RPG. Rather than being effectively a separate game used to adjudicate starship combat, these rules work hand in hand with those of the RPG, thereby enabling starship combat to be as much of a roleplaying experience as arguing morality with rock creatures or teaching alien women the meaning of love.

Even so, the starship combat rules could be used independently of the RPG and it was likely this fact, coupled with the possibility of selling metal miniatures to use with it, that led to the publication of the Star Trek II Starship Combat Simulator in 1983. The Starship Combat Simulator (herafter SCS) was designed by Forest Brown, David F. Tepool, and William John Wheeler and, though completely compatible with FASA's Star Trek RPG, effectively became the centerpiece of a separate, though related, game line. This game line featured not only this boxed set but also miniatures, starship construction and recognition manuals, and small sub-games designed to be played quickly by two players. I have no idea how successful the line was for FASA, but it became a favorite in my gaming groups, something Starfleet Battles never achieved.

At the heart of the SCS's appeal was the way that allowed multiple players to run a single starship, each one taking the role of a different member of its crew. Each player had a paper tactical display where they allocated energy to important starship systems and made dice rolls to determine if they could coax a little extra performance out of them. It was a brilliant way to involve everyone and stay true to what we see in Star Trek. Equally brilliant, though, was the way that the system scaled upwards, so that, if the players wanted to simulate a battle between more than two ships, they could do so without bogging things down. In such cases, the specific details of individual systems were abstracted a bit, making larger scale engagements not only possible but relatively painless to run. It was a lot of fun to play, which is a boast no starship combat system except for Knight Hawks can make in my book and even that excellent system pales in comparison to the SCS.

My only real complaint about the Starship Combat Simulator was that it fed the impression that a lot of Star Trek fans somehow viewed the series (and movies) as being military science fiction rather than optimistic action-adventure with occasional forays into military SF. It's a small thing, to be sure, but I can't tell you how often I've met self-professed Star Trek fans whose primary interest is in space battles and technology, two areas that, while certainly present, are far from the core of Star Trek. Granted, when I was a younger man, I loved those things, too, so perhaps it's simply a phase one goes through. Still, when I look back on my youthful experiences roleplaying Star Trek, there were a heck of a lot more space battles played out with the SCS than we ever saw in any of the episodes or films available at that point. I don't blame FASA for my own misapprehensions, but there is a part of me that wonders whether the existence of a separate starship combat-based game line didn't lend credence to my foolishness rather than discourage it.

21 comments:

  1. I played many games of that back in the 80's. And it was my intro to war gaming. The RPG was one of the first non-D&D games I played regularly. But of the SCS I have two complaints. Some of the star ship artwork was terrible (particularly for the Federation). And the design rules were heavily in favor of the Federation. Other than that I love this game. And I keep hearing rumors that the system will be released with a new background (non-trek).

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  2. I absolutely loved the SCS, but primarily played it as a stand-alone game. It had enormous advantages over Starfleet Battles (which I also played extensively as a kid); primarily the fact that it was several orders of magnitude simpler. The miniatures were amazing; I had an extensive collection back in the day.

    As for the militarism, bear in mind the timing of when this came out; right around the time of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Both of those films had a relatively high level of space combat, which is, I think, reflected in the SCS.

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  3. By far my favorite over SFB, and I played SCS as recently as last year. I have all the miniatures, most still waiting to be painted.

    It's certainly true that there has long been a segment of Trek fandom that is most fascinated with the starships and conflict. As a kid, I used to page through my Trek Technical Manual over and over again, which set me in that direction. But it's interesting to note that ST IV: The Voyage Home was the most financially successful and popular of the TOS films, and there was no starship combat in it at all (though Joseph is absolutely right about the game and the films at the time).

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  4. IMHO, Knight Hawks is easily the best spaceship combat system ever because it is so easy and clean to run and play. I never really cared for the FASA stuff because it seemed to be designed by and for rules lawyers/Dilbert characters.

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  5. Lately I've come to question the whole "energy allocation" element of the game (not just SCS but also SFB and SFBM) as inconsistent with the setting. I suppose it was a necessary step, to get more decision-making into the game. But the ship movement rules in SCS are the best, bar none, and the "player control panels" could be great fun with the right group and sufficient play space. (I never had that group or that space.)

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  6. I adore this game. A real classic.

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  7. Not being a big Trekkie, I've never played with the Star Trek Combat Simulator (although now I'm intruiged), but I guess I'm not surprised that FASA was able to pull it off successfully.

    I always found the slightly later "Battletech" and "Renegade Legion" games FASA published pretty quick and easy to use (and could add whatever complexity you desired).

    Curious how similar the rules for 'SCS' are when compared with 'Battletech/Renegade Legion' or if they are completely different in development and structure?

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  8. Having multiple players able to operate the starship was a boon and necessary when players might otherwise find themselves trapped to the whims of the captain in star trek and it was fun indeed.

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  9. I played this and enjoyed it, but ultimately dropped it.

    My gaming group back in the '80s liked that it did link very well with the RPG, but we had much better luck finding players for ship-fights than for role-playing Trek. We made a conscious decision to drop SCS and keep Star Fleet Battles, as there was much more that could be done with that system.

    I don't think I can explain why the ship-fights were more popular than the RP elements. Blaming the presence of the separate game seems to be putting the cart before the horse, IMO. Perhaps for teenagers, combat at warp speed is more comprehensible than teaching alien women the meaning of love? It is certainly easier to generate battle scenarios than exploration missions.

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  10. As far as why Starfleet battles are/were more popular than straight up roleplaying versions, well, like Joseph said, this came out right around "Wrath of Khan" and the combat-heavier "Star Wars" trilogy, so I'd imagine it played a big role both in what kids wanted to play and what companies thought they should offer.

    And considering the reaction to the 1st Star Trek movie, awfully boring in comparison to the 1st Star Wars movie, probably cemented that viewpoint.

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  11. James -

    Have you looked at Ashen Stars, the new SF GUMSHOE game from Robin Laws? It aims to emulate TV series like Star Trek and Firefly - whose episode plots are often investigative, hence the fit with GUMSHOE's 'getting info is boring, puzzling over it is fun' approach - and it's got an interesting roleplay-heavy starship combat system. Your description of this one makes me think they'd be interesting to compare.

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  12. Have you looked at Ashen Stars, the new SF GUMSHOE game from Robin Laws?

    A friend gave me a copy for my birthday, but I haven't looked at it extensively yet, so I can't offer much of an opinion on it.

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  13. I still have this in the basement. In the day I was big into SFB and the SCS just seemed a natural RPG version of that. Whether you like Trek or not from a RPG design viewpoint few games have fostered cooperation like this game does. We can argue forever if the game is true to Trek; more important to me was is it true fun. For that it gets a resounding YES!

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  14. Another game that does this is BattleStations from Gorilla Games. Instead of having to allocate energy, the characters just have to man certain stations, and because there is a deckplan, they can leave one station and run to another, or even launch themselves in a boarding torpedo at the enemy ship.

    The setting itself is very Federation-like, although not quite the utopia it wants to be. Overall, the game is a bit wacky in places, but is a pretty good board game/RPG hybrid.

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  16. Aaaah, the golden memories playing this game. Long Live FASA Trek!

    It's too bad that the co-creator of this game, David Tepool, died in 2009:

    http://forum.trek-rpg.net/showthread.php?t=15254&highlight=tepool

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  17. I can remember maybe five or six times in five or six years of regular play that we had ship on ship combat that followed the system outlined in SCS.
    They were awesome.
    Most of our games were pretty formulaic:
    -Hear about a problem.
    -Assemble away team of most or all PCs
    -Investigate problem
    -Kill everyone or thing causing the problem with phasers
    -Carouse
    I'm actually going to be playing in a FASA Trek game for the first time since the early 90s pretty soon. Looking forward to having my hopes of an "adult game" shattered and following the same rough outline I just typed.

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  18. I'll never forgive FASA for removing the starship combat rules (aside from some very sketchy guidelines that don't factor in the actual ship capabilities or even damage results Oo ) from the German core rulebook -.-

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  19. SCS was a similar in some ways to Battletech - it had directional damage tables. The Renegade Legion family of games had a different and pretty unique damage system which it passed down to Crimson Skies.

    While we played SCS a bit it paled compared to SFB. There were very few tactical options in SCS - no tractors, transporters, seeking weapons, shuttles or fighters. You just parked at the best range for your weapons and rolled dice until one side gave up.

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  20. The kids at my school who played Star Trek games were mostly Air Force brats or children of civilian contractors. Sticking to Roddenberry's Navy-ish Star Fleet rules instead of "Air Force in space" was already plenty alien.

    But Roddenberry's later emendations aside, it's always been pretty clear that large chunks of Federation history did consist of shooty-shooty. It's a lot less scary to regard Starfleet as actual military, than as government bureaucrats who play military and get to shoot your butt. (Deploying, say, tax auditors with torps would probably constitute some kind of war crime.)

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  21. I remember one game of the RPG where we took the idea of crew manning each console to heart and rearranged the furniture to create a Connie-class bridge (much to the amusement of the other patrons of the wargames club). It was still a tabletop game - we just weren't all sitting at the same tabletop.

    [Front viewscreen was sheets of poster paper with hastily scrawled stuff on it (and maps) held up by the navigator and helmsman (me). Gamemaster collapsed in laughter when the (very laconic) captain commanded the ship's computer to magnify and we rushed back so the map was inches away from his face.]

    ***

    Friends used these rules rather extensively as a set of tabletop wargaming rules and have an extensive collection of the models that came out (and quite a few that they scratch built for themselves).

    Much closer to canon than the SFB rules (which suffered from "creative" interpretation of early source material and the tendency of the authors to reduce anything they are involved with to the Pacific War (WW2).

    ***

    Old school Starfleet was a military organisation. It's just they changed the idea of what it meant to be military. Too much by TNG.

    I ran an interesting fantasy campaign based on the FASA Star Trek universe with Starfleet being the Church which was common throughout the human (northern) civilization. Worked very well. It had it's own navy (and army and intelligence services), and had much the same relationship with the heavily balkanized northern nations as the Federation does over its member planets.

    [I think people eventually caught on to what I was doing because the Ranni captain they kept interacting with had a cloak of invisibility...]

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