Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Retrospective: The Klingons

I was quite young when I first encountered Star Trek – perhaps five or six years old. I did so thanks to a paternal aunt who watched it during its original 1966–1969 run, when she was still a teenager. Episodes of the show were a staple of Saturday afternoon syndication during the 1970s and, through them, my aunt introduced me to Gene Roddenberry's masterpiece. I was instantly hooked and, for a long time afterward, I'd proudly call myself a fan. 

Consequently, the release of FASA's Star Trek RPG in 1983 was a momentous event, combining as it did my childhood love of the Final Frontier with the hobby of roleplaying to which I'd been later introduced. I can still remember the time spent playing the roleplaying game with my friends and could even now, if pressed, recount in detail the adventures of the USS Excalibur (II) and its crew. Suffice it to say that much fun was had, thanks in no small part to the excellent adventures and source material FASA produced for the RPG over the course of the time the company held the license.

Among these, one of my favorites is the 1983 boxed set entitled simply The Klingons. As you might expect from its title, The Klingons was an expansion of the basic game, enabling players to generate Klingon player characters for use in a Klingon-based campaign. To do this successfully, the expansion had to provide more than just new rules and tables; it also had to provide plenty of details about the Klingon Empire and its society and culture. You must remember that, at the time, there was very little to go on, just a handful of episodes and a single movie in which the Klingons played a role. This meant that it fell to writers John M. Ford, Guy McLimore, Greg Poehlein, and David Tepool to fill in a lot of blanks in the space of the 64-page sourcebook included in the boxed set.

Fortunately, they were more than up to the job and the end result was a remarkable piece of work, one that made the Klingons more than just mustache-twirling villains. Instead, we learn about the Klingon belief in "the naked stars" that keep watch over great deeds performed beneath them, as well komerex zha, "the perpetual game" that governs one's place within the Empire and its hierarchy, and much more. As presented in The Klingons, the Empire operates according to its own internal logic, one based, to a large extent, on the philosophy of "grow or die," hence the Klingon emphasis on – or need for – conquest. Internally, there is a constant jockeying for power between individuals and power groups, with order imposed through a combination of propaganda, fear, and brute force. It's a brutal, cutthroat society but it makes sense by its own lights, which is important for the players to believe in it enough to play an adventure or campaign within it.

The Klingons also includes a couple of sample adventures, each of which demonstrates the kinds of adventures one might undertake as a member of the Klingon Imperial Navy. In a way, they're like a funhouse mirror version of Starfleet. There is new to subjugate and new civilizations to war upon, as well becoming involved in the great game of power and influence within the imperial hierarchy. It's probably not to everyone's taste, but, for many, it's a welcome change of pace from the high-minded ideals of the Federation and the do-gooders of Starfleet. 

My friends and I didn't spend much time playing as Klingons, but, when we did, we had fun. More than that, though, it gave us all a better understanding of who these aliens were and how their Empire operated, which was a terrific boon when they served as antagonists in Starfleet adventures. John M. Ford would later write a Star Trek novel, The Final Reflection, which built on the ideas presented in this boxed set. It's probably one of the best Star Trek novels ever written – a low bar, I know – and I've often felt, without much evidence, to be sure, that it has subtly influenced subsequent portrayals of the Klingons in the Star Trek franchise. Regardless of the truth of that, the fact remains that The Klingons is a masterclass in in how to expand upon existing source material to produce something genuinely imaginative for use in a roleplaying game. Nearly three decades later, it has few rivals.


  1. It really is a great supplement.

  2. I supposedly saw the first episode (Man Trap, I believe) when it initially aired, but since I was three months old at the time I'll have to take that on faith. Some of my earliest memories do involve episodes of Trek, though, and I certainly watched reruns for my entire childhood. TOS is deeply ingrained in my memory, and TAS only slightly less so. Used to be a joke with my housemates in the 90s that I was having an off day if I couldn't identify an episode in the first twenty seconds.

    Nostalgia aside, this was an amazing boxed set even if I preferred the days before "bumpy" Klingons came along. Never really played the RPG with PC Klingons but having more insight into how they thought and why they fought was great for telling stories around them.

    You ever play the Struggle For the Throne microgame? We spent hundreds of hours on that one in college, the cutthroat nature of it really appealed to my merciless dorm-mates. Think Starfire was the only board game we played more of back then. I can even remember cancelling a few RPG sessions in favor of wrecking starships made of strings of alphanumeric characters or backstabbing my way to the Klingon Imperial throne.

  3. FASA's game was a hoot. I only played it briefly in the mid-80s, but I enjoyed every moment and recall it vividly. Star Trek just wasn't very popular among my group so the game didn't stick with us, which is a shame.

    I reckon Roddenberry was channeling the Soviets with his original Klingons, but I always viewed them as Star Trek's orcs -- an aggressive, militaristic race of no-good-niks lurking about causing trouble and actively opposing the Federation (civilization) at every turn. Worf would be a half-orc, obviously, working with the hated humans and always struggling to contain his savage instincts.

    I keep waiting for someone to address the "problematic" nature of Klingons and subsequently ruin Star Trek for everyone. Maybe they already have...I haven't watched a Star Trek property since JJ Abrams' inexplicable reboot.

    1. I don't think that will ever be an issue with the Klingons. over the years even pre-reboot, Klingons were too popular with fans as boozy brawling space Vikings, with the Klingon Empire being more of an unpredictable Frenemy to Starfleet.

      That is due to Trek being primarily todl through long-form TV series where multiple characters can appear as Klingons of varying moral character (By Deep Space 9, Worf was essentially a half-orc paladin, with Gowron being more of a True Neutral or Neutral Evil fighter/king to extend the metaphor).

      Orcs just could not be given that level o depth and complexity just by the very nature of RPGs. Heck, other than the Half-Orc racial option that otherwise had no context in 1st ed. AD&D, or being one of many monster rae options you could play in 2nd. ed. Book of Humanoids, there was no real ay orcs could get that level of depth the same way even dedicated RPG book like the Klingons could give them. Orcs were primarily just mooks for players to cut through, hence where I get ho some people would see them as problematic.

    2. FWIW, Abrams' "reboot" died the death quite a while ago, and is now solidly established as an alt-timeline that most people would like to forget altogether. I can't say I'm in love with most of the later developments from the franchise, but if I was going to recommend anything it would be Below Decks. It's a cartoon and a comedy, yes, but it manages to be funny often enough to enjoy, it actually has characters that develop a bit over time, and it's obviously been made by people who understand Trek and what it means to its fans old and young. Which is more than I can say for Abrams, or the people who've been working on Discovery and Picard.

      If you can find it without a paywall in the way, well worth a look, anyway. If not, well, the older series are as good (and in spots, bad) as ever.

    3. I think you mean Lower Decks, but yes it's a surprisingly funny series. Partly due to the creators' fondness for the old Filmation animated series. The first two episodes are so-so but they pick up a lot from there.

    4. I love the old animated series...I'll check it out. Thanks!

    5. D'oh, of course it's Lower Decks. Have to stop listening to the news while I'm typing, I don't multi-task as well as I used to.

      The first episode was a bit weak, but it got better pretty quick.

      Anyone fond of TAS will probably appreciate Doctor T'Ana. Nice to see a Caitian on the regular cast of a Trek show again after all these years, and she gets a lot of good lines.

    6. Essentially, someone has addressed the problematic aspects of Klingons: Gene Roddenberry, and practically every other creative involved with Trek in the past 45ish years. They've come a long way from being a kind of "Yellow Peril"/Soviet Union stand-in, with every iteration of Trek since the original series adding nuance and depth to the species and culture. (If you're worried about Klingons being "ruined" by people concerned about offensive tropes, that vessel left spacedock in 1979 when Klingons lost their comic book Mongol Horde In Space look and gained foreheads and the first vestiges of their own language.)

      Moving the Klingons beyond stereotypes was basically an extended subplot/metaplot over 14 seasons of Next Generation and Deep Space 9 (although sometimes things that were problematic about TOS Klingons were replaced by different problematic tropes; an extended franchise is ever a work in progress). I haven't seen any of the new shows on whatever Paramount/CBS are calling their streaming service these days, not because I have any issues with their shows but because I already pay for more streaming services than I can watch and I'm too lazy to play the free-signup/binge/cancel-before-I'm-billed game; my understanding, though, is that Klingons have continued to be tweaked over the past decade as well (with some of the aspects from the '80s and '90s that haven't aged well getting dropped or massaged).

  4. I just re-read the Final Reflection in November.
    Great little post

  5. Excellent book and game supplement. The later writers never did offer a better look at the Klingon way. I'm a fan of both and if Worf had been a John Ford Imperial Klingon it would have been far more interesting than the viking/samurai they tried to wedge him into.

  6. I'm still a little disappointed that Star Trek didn't follow Ford's version of the Klingons - they seemed more consistent with the original series - smarter & scarier than the Next Gen version. Ford also wrote a comedic Star Trek novel "How much for just the planet?" which is worth a read for Star Trek fans. Not to mention all his other books. He died far too soon.

  7. Owned and used it in y St games. I especially liked how they explained the TOS Klingons as human/Klingon hybrids and there were Klingon/Romulan hybrids as well.

  8. As a long time Star Trek fan, and a reasonably high ranking member of a Klingon fan club, I can tell you that the sub-fandom within Star Trek fandom that is Klingon fandom owes it's existence to this supplement, and the novel "The Final Reflection". Only over the last couple of years have Klingon fans started downplaying the significance of the FASA version of Klingons. Star Trek writers have made subtle nods to the FASA version over the years, even as they've diverged. Seasons one and two of Discovery had a few nods in it's direction.