Review: Star Trek Adventures

 

Just last year, Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary, and this year is the 30th anniversary of Star Trek the Next Generation, likely close to the air date of Star Trek Discovery. It’s certainly a good time for a new Trek RPG. Such as Star Trek Adventues by Modiphius Entertainment.

Modiphius is a British game company known for Achtung! Cthulhu, Mutant Chronicles, and Conan. Previously, the company relied at least in part on Kickstarters, but is releasing Star Trek Adventures based on preorders rather than the Kickstarter platform. Star Trek Adventures was playtested over the course of the last 10 months in a public open beta, which included pregenerated characters and ships along with adventures.

What It Is

The hardcover core rulebook of Star Trek Adventures is a 364-page full colour book with drawn colour illustrations and no photographic art.

The book begins with an 11 page description of the Federation and local galaxy followed by 30 pages of “history”, split into early history, 23rd Century (aka TOS era) and recent history. There’s a wealth of other flavour content in the book, including information on stars, space phenomena, and planets. There’s also rules and advice for running the game, building and managing combat, and creating NPCs. This is all you need to play and run the game.

Included in the book are eight species (Andorian, Bajoran, Betazoid, Denobulan, Human, Tellarite, Trill, and Vulcan), each of which has two species Talents, which are the mechanical special abilities characters can use. There are also 8 generic talents in the book and 4-5 for each department (command, conn, security, engineering, science, and medical). There are also rules for starship combat and creating your own starship using a number of provided  “space frames” aka classes of starship. There are nine starship classes provided: Akira, Constellation, Constitution, Defiant, Excelsior, Galaxy, Intrepid, Miranda, and Nova. There are also pages of alien adversaries, creatures and space monsters, information of planets and galactic phenomena, and more.

The book ends with the eight-page adventure, The Rescue at Xerxes IV, which is the same adventure that went out with playtest packets.

This review is based on the PDF as the physical book is due to ship in August/ September 2017.

Assorted Background Info

Science Fiction is arguably as popular as fantasy in terms of books and novelists. And yet sci-fi lags far, far behind fantasy in terms of RPGs. Science fantasy does much better. I’ve argued that one of the issues is having to explain the tech in addition to the rules and the setting: the players need to know what is and is not possible. One way around this hurdle is a licensed setting, such as Star Trek. Despite this – and being one of the holy trinity of geek franchises (along with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars) – Star Trek has never had a lot of lasting success in terms of RPGs. There were a couple small attempts in the late 70s and early ’80s before FASA‘s popular line set the bar, and that ran from1982 until the licence was cancelled in 1989, leaving several planned books unreleased. Last Unicorn Games‘ RPGs followed this in 1998-99, with three lines that each focused on an era: The Next Generation, The Original Series, and Deep Space 9. LUG lost the licence with over a dozen books planned and being worked on. LUG lost the licence to Decipher, who launched a franchise wide game that ran from 2002 to 2005 until Decipher shut down it’s RPG line, cancelling several planned books. Ominous…

Modiphius is following the “shotgun” release schedule of past Trek publishers, with lots of products in the works. In addition to the Core Rulebook, there are four sets of miniatures, tokens representing Threat and Momentum, a GM screen, three sets of dice, and deck tiles. Already in the works is These Are the Voyages Vol. 1, a collection of eight “missions”. Planned for the fall and next year are the Command Division Supplement, Beta Quadrant Sourcebook, Operations Division Supplement, Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, Sciences Division Supplement, Gamma Quadrant Sourcebook, Delta Quadrant Sourcebook. And there is talk of era sourcebooks, with a The Original Series book planned and books for certain key races, such as one for the Klingons. Certain elements of the setting, such as time travel, and factions, such as Starfleet Intelligence, are going to be detailed in the above secondary sources.

Currently the core rulebooks is available with the “regular” cover and a “collector’s edition with spot UV (like the covers of all the 4th Edition D&D books) and ribbon bookmarks. There are also a wide variety of assorted bundles with both print and PDF options. The PDF is available now on DriveThruRPG

The Good

Right off the bat, the book looks great. The pages are a dark, dark navy blue (almost black) with white lettering, designed to resemble a LCARS display from The Next Generation era. Sidebars are delineated by TNG curved bars. Every page is unmistakably Star Trek. LUG’s Trek RGG did something similar, but in greyscale with white pages. Decipher also tried for the LCARS look, but the art there was distinctly early 2000s RPG and the layout a little busier. Here, the layout is a tad simpler, and art in is excellent. There’s some amazing pieces.

The white-on-black pages can be a little hard to read digitally, such as via a tablet. Thankfully, the PDF has both the regular dark background book but also a “printer friendly” version that’s white paged with black text (but retains the coloured bars and light sidebar text). The PDF has bookmarks, but the title page for each chapter has list of subchapters, which are hyperlinked. A neat little feature and pretty handy when navigating through the book. (Nitpick: a few links don’t go to the right place, but that’s easily fixed in an updated PDF.)

While focused on TNG eras, in theory the RPG allows for play at multiple points during the history of Starfleet. There are regular notes on how technology has changed over the years and the different types of story told during each era.

The book uses a neat little system. On the surface it seems pretty rules lite. You have a set of Attributes and Disciplines (read: Ability Scores and Skills) that you combine together to get a target number. Then you roll a couple d20s and compare to that number. So if you have a Presence of 10 and a Command of 3 you need to roll under a 13 on a d20 to get a success. The target number doesn’t vary, but instead the number of success varies. So there’s only very simple math involved, and if you do a favoured action, you have an idea of the target number.

It’s simple but it also encourages you to play to your strengths. If your best stat is Daring (being bold and impulsive) then acting in a way that lets you use that Attribute rather than Control or Presence is mechanically beneficial. This subtly encourages roleplaying.

Added onto this simple core is a variety of ways to modify the roll. Rolling a 1 counts as 2 successes, and you can pay to add extra d20s, gain extra d20s from talents, apply a Focus to treat a success as 2 successes, reroll dice, etc. Additionally, each extra success on a Task (read: ability check) grants a spendable currency known as Momentum that can be used to generate additional effects. If you succeed well on a Task you might be able to take another Minor Action or deal extra damage or manipulate the initiative order. Or you could save that for later, adding it to a pool of Momentum usable by the entire crew. This has the neat benefit that you’re encouraged to roll for Difficulty 0 Tasks when there’s no *reasonable* chance for failure, which builds that pool of Momentum (and sets the mood), but also adds the potential for a complication.  

Alternatively, if you need Momentum but barely succeeded, you can generate “Threat” instead, which is the GM’s version of Momentum. Threat is spent for similar bonuses or to add complications. I’m less fond of this; in theory it’s used to limit the GM’s ability to manipulate the story and cause problems or generate enemy reinforcements, but in practice you always have to trust that the GM will play fair. It artificially limits the GM’s ability to work with the narrative: if not enough Threat has been generated, it’s harder to add tension and pace the session. It’s also a second spendable currency, albeit very similar to an existing one. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to downplay Threat in play, letting it build for the early parts of a mission when people are learning the rules. As the GM, you want it to build up for a while. It’s almost an advanced mechanic.

The extra benefits of Momentum run the risk of option paralysis for some players, but there are enough simple options that they should be able to find one they like and stick with that. However, for people willing to learn the options, it provides a nice tactical depth to players who like that sort of thing. And the bankable pool is useful for players who don’t know what to do, but it’s of a finite size, so you’re encouraged to use banked Momentum regularly or risk losing extra from a good roll.

Ships are handled pretty elegantly. While Tasks and ship combat works almost identically to personal actions and combat, the ship is not controlled as a separate character. Instead, you roll ship checks using your own abilities, and then the ship assisting you on the Task, rolling an additional die and potentially generating an additional success. The game even encourages another player to roll for the ship, which might not only speed up play, but means more people at the table are involved and engaged with the one Task. So in the tense escape from the collapsing star when the engineer and helms officer are frantically saving the ship while the captain boosts their efforts, instead of the tactical officer sitting and watching they can be rolling the assists for the crew at the comm and engineering.

Often in licensed products like this, there’s the assumption you’re going to “play” established characters. Star Wars RPGs often include statistics for the protagonists, often varying by movie. While it could be fun to play the adventures of the Enterprise on year four of its five year mission, I think most players will want their own original characters. I always find devoting pages to sample characters sheets to be a waste of space. That said, established crewmembers would be a pretty fun web enhancement or cheap PDF-only product.

The Bad

I’ve spotted few typos and some english anomalies as a British publisher using US English. So there’s a few references to “alien artefacts” in the book. Many of these were quickly spotted by the fans reading their preorder PDFs, but apparently the books had already gone to print. Sadly, has Modiphius delayed going to print by even half a week, there’d be far fewer errors in the book. (I imagine they *really* wanted to have physical books at GenCon.)

Most of these typos are small errors: missing letters or similar words. Stuff that will get missed on a casual reading as your brain will fill in the gaps. Not a big deal. There are some larger errors, such as terms that changed following the playtest that were not updated. A few ship profiles don’t have the correct point totals, a few Talents refer to actions that don’t exist, and the rules contradict themselves in a couple places. The largest error is the difficulty for using ship weapons changed at one point, and not all instances were corrected. The difficulty for attacking both energy weapons and torpedoes is unclear! Heck, there’s even a spelling mistake on the character sheets!

PDF includes the map presumably included on the end papers of the physical book. This is cool and useful. The Alpha Quadrant is at the front and the Beta is at the back. It seems to be the map from Star Trek: Star Charts, which is one of the more well designed maps of the Federation. However, it’s separated into four pages and split between front and back. And doesn’t seem to line-up well if you try and combine it. It also very visibly tacks-on the “Shackleton Expanse” – the location of the ongoing metaplot of the Living Campaign – as the map label is a totally different font.

Moving onto the system itself is the dice complaint. The game makes use of specialty d6s, called Command Dice. These have a result of 1, 2, -, -, effect, and effect. If the entire system relied solely on unique custom dice – like the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars system, then requiring you to buy new dice is less annoying. Slightly. But this feels fiddly and not entirely necessary, and the unusual odds and lack of a pattern make it awkward to use a regular d6.
Similarly, while Momentum is interesting on paper, there’s a lot of things it can be spent on. More than can be easily remembered. Similarly, you have generic actions you can take and additional actions unlocked by each Bridge station. You pretty much need a cheat sheet. Sadly, none are provided. And really, any game where you have to consult a table during play is problematic.

At first glance this game seems like a simple rules light game (or even a rules medium game) it’s surprisingly complex. Character creation is simple and characters don’t have a lot of moving parts, but in actual play there will potentially be a lot of choices, decision points, shifting elements. There’s not binary success, as succeeding can chain a whole bunch of different potential decisions. This is a game system that you will likely need to play two or three times to really get a handle on, making it better as a primary game and not a palate cleanser mini-campaign.

There are a number of ads included in PDF: 5 pages of ads with one curiously stuck between the playtester credits and index while the others follow the index. These are pretty graphically intensive adds and slow down my PDF reader when I hit them. I hope they’re not all in the physical book, for reasons I’ll get to in a later section.

The book has a sidebar that encourages miniatures, which conveniently are sold by Morphidius. However, the related series of crew minis only has figures of established crews: there are no generic heres, or even several of the races featured in the book. With the non-generic minis provided, you’d think Morphidius wants or expects you to use established characters. But as mentioned, no character sheets are provided for established characters. This is doubly odd as the game really doesn’t need minis, using a “zone” system. Positioning is a non-factor. And there’s no comparable line of ship minis, with those rights owned by WizKids.

(While I’m nitpicking the miniatures, I’m not a fan of the uniform choice for the Next Generation crew. Half seem to be in their classic TV uniforms, while the rest are curiously in the Deep Space 9/ casual uniforms. Why?)

The overview of the Federation that begins the book feels padded. It’s very much a tour of the key parts of the established series, devoting half a page to Bajor (and then mentioning Cardassian Union for much of the next page, beginning with “It is impossible to discuss Bajor without discussing the Cardassian Union”… except they just did. For half a page. And half of the Bajor section is on Kai Winn and the religious situation on Bajor just in case someone decides to play on Bajor during the 6-year window she’s Kai and somehow isn’t familiar with Deep Space 9. This tour of the galaxy also makes special mention of the Miradorn, Nyberrite Alliance, Tzenkethi Coalition, and the Talarians. The Miradorn were throw-away background aliens in one episode of DS9, the Talarians were the bumpy headed alien of the week in an episode of TNG while the Nyberrite Alliance and Tzenkethi Coalition are just mentioned in throwaway lines and never appear on the damn show. Not exactly pages well spent…

While it’s arguably useful for GMs to have information on the major players and empires in the galaxy – even the ones just mentioned but not seen – Star Trek is also blessed with not one but TWO very comprehensive fan wikis. Memory Alpha contains very detailed entries on all the canon facets of Trek, while Memory Beta drifts into all the non-canon elements, such as novels and video games. Turning to a book for details on a region is less necessary and will never be able to devote as much space to the subject as a wiki.

The “timeline” of the book is a mess. The book includes 30 pages of history told in many small 1/2 page in-character sidebars detailing semi-important events in Star Trek history, ala primary sources. In theory this sounds like a fun way to introduce the setting, but in practice it’s thirty pages of easter eggs and subtle references to the world. Fans of Star Trek won’t need this to refresh their memories and people new to the world won’t learn anything from this – if you can even get them to read 30 pages of winking references. This normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but they could have done a more useful history in a third of the pages. freeing up space for other topics.

Focusing on a single very specific era made sense in the 2000s, when the show was ongoing and the best era was “the modern one”, it seems less appropriate now when Star Trek: Enterprise has been off the air for over a decade. It dates the RPG and its target audience. While this book *says* it’s designed for all eras of play (such as the races, which state what eras they’re available for use), it is really a Next Generation roleplaying game (much like the LUG version) albeit one that gives you some freedom to you to hack the system for Original Series play. The book *really* wants to take place in the niche era in the middle of DS9, the end of TNG, and start of Voyager. Right at the peak of the Dominion war. This is a decent era, having a lot of conflicts going on, but the era following Nemesis would also be good, being open for the GM to tell their own stories and shake-up the status quo. Or set in the gap between the TOS movies and TNG. Really, everyone favours their own prefered era, and this book feels like the author played favourites. For example, while the book makes regular mention of the “Birth of the Federation” era around Star Trek: Enterprise there’s no art of that era, the Xindi and Suliban aren’t detailed as adversaries, and the NX class ship (the Enterprise or Columbia) aren’t even included in list of ships!

Similar to the above, the Sovereign class ship (aka the Enterprise E) is noticeably absent. I wonder if this is because of the a potential rights split between the films and TV shows, the former being owned by Paramount while the latter is owned by CBS. This might be why there’s no images of the crimson TOS movie uniforms or the black/grey TNG movie uniforms. (Someone similarly, the licence doesn’t including the forthcoming Trek show, Discovery.)

Regardless, the absence of two of the bigger ships in the franchise segues into the next section…

The Ugly

The big complaint I have with the book are the limited options for both players and GMs.

The number of options just seem small. There are only 8 species and a little over 50 talents to choose from, of which each character will begin with 4, potentially gaining another talent or two during play. Two Vulcan science officers will seem very similar. For example, while there’s a couple different pictures of Efrosians in the book, the race receives no stats. Similarly there are no Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, Orions, Bolians, Caitians, Deltans, Saurians, Talaxians, or Tholians. To say nothing of Klingons, Androids, or human Augments. A few of those are somewhat detailed in the GM section so you can muddle something together.

I acknowledge that no one book can contain everything, and that a franchise as large as Star Trek will inevitably require expansion material, but I dislike it coming at the expense of the core product. But it does make the pages wasted on advertisements or awkward history lessons more painful. A tighter timeline that was half the size could have doubled the included races and allowed for three more ships.

However, I’m uncertain if freed pages would have increased the content. In the 376-pages of the PDF, only around 25 pages are devoted to player crunch. It’s a surprisingly small amount. I imagine the intent is to leave room open for expansion in other books. Want to play a Klingon? Get the Klingon Defence Force book. Want more than four choices for your science officer? Get the Science Division book. Want Tholian adversaries and more Cardassian NPCs and ships? Get the Alpha Quadrant book. Want to play an espionage game as Section 31 agents, get… okay, I’m not sure about that one. Operations Division?

While I’m whining about the product line, let’s discuss prices. Now, the core rulebook has been singled out for its high price point in other reviews, being $60 USD. Which is painful, but not unreasonable for a large full colour hardcover from a small publisher. So no complaints there from me. Books are expensive and you pay for quality. However, asking $20 more for the collector’s edition feels like a cash grab. I’m happy to pay for a fancy leatherette collector’s edition from time time time, but asking more for an online exclusive cover is less appealing. Adding insult to injury is that the regular cover just isn’t very good. It’s probably one of the least interesting pieces of art they could have used, with several pieces inside being much more evocative. The cover is just dark & uncolourful, and doesn’t really convey a story.

Books aside, so much else in the Modiphius store is expensive. The minis are expensive, the plastic tokens are expensive, the dice are super expensive, etc. They’re asking $40 for a GM’s screen and a similar price for deck tiles (which would be expensive if they were as thick and sturdy as a Dungeon Tiles or Pathfinder’s pawns). There’s also the $500 borg collector’s cube: the all-in boxed set for people who want everything. It’s priced that high because that’s it’s suggested retail price – the price physical stores will sell it for – but it feels like something that should be a web exclusive purchased from the Modiphius store, which would have allowed them to significantly reduce the price point. It’s an expensive product to expect stores to stock: I can’t imagine many game stores fronting the cash to have one of the Cubes on the shelf on the *chance* it will sell. Roleplaying games are not a cheap hobby, and they attract fans willing to spend a lot of money, but even then $500 feels extravagant. Okay, I’ve spent more than that on D&D 5th Edition… but over a period of three years. (And most of that was books, not $50 of dice.)

I’m really not a fan of how advancement is handled. Now, Trek characters shouldn’t be expected to increase in efficiency by 5% every couple sessions like D&D PCs. And I like how it allows a more frequent lateral progression where you can shift your Attributes & Disciplines about, allowing you to focus on different skills or adapt to changes in your character’s position on the ship, perhaps accommodating how you’re playing the character, respond to the group dynamic, or simply have the character grow and change roles. However, real advancement requires first having two spotlight milestones, which are handed out every 2-3 sessions, followed by an arc milestone. This is designed to mimic character development in a TV show where each episode focused on a single character’s growth. This makes sense on paper, but ignores the idea of A and B-plots on TV shows that might advance two character’s, but also forgets that players don’t like losing out. Following the guidelines, one character can complete an arc and advance every 5-7 sessions, so at best an entire table of four players will all advance after 20 sessions, with one gaining their bonus fifteen sessions after the first character. That feels longer than many campaigns.

The Awesome

The Disciplines of both PCs and ships are: Command, Conn, Security, Engineering, Science, and Medicine. Which are the big departments in TNG. They’re nice and broad, and easily cover what you’d expect characters to be good at. It certainly doesn’t cover everything, such as Picard’s interest in archeology, but those miscellaneous skills are Focuses, which you can petty much make up as needed. Want your science officer to be really good at identifying alien fungi, then you take the astromycology Focus.

The abilities of species are handled by Talents, but each character also has species Trait, which are similar to Aspects in FATE. Traits allow characters to make a check when they wouldn’t normally be able to or reduce the difficulty of a Task. It’s elegant: rather than giving a list of potential racial abilities, you’re just allowed to roll for otherwise impossible feats. Trying to pull apart sealed doors? Nope. But, wait, the character is a Vulcan and thus super strong, so roll away. Characters get to do what you expect them to, without having to mechanically balance Humans against Vulcans.

While mentioning FATE and modern story RPGS, characters also have Values, which share Aspects’ ability to be triggered by the GM and serve as a roleplaying hook. These can be tricky to think of at times, but Trek provides lots of examples. And they can be as evocative as Kirk’s “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios”.

There’s a lot of currencies being generated and spent in the system: Momentum and Thread and the heretofore unmentioned Determination. Determination is the big roleplaying reward, akin to Fate Points in that the GM can bribe players with it to compel them to do problematic things based on their Values. It’s nice and big, but mostly detached from the other features and also in the hands of the GM, making it a good advanced mechanic. Something you can skip until players get a handle on play,

Because Star Trek assumes large ships full of expendable Redshirts, the rules allow you to make a secondary cast. These aren’t just NPCs but “support characters”, and the rules inform you how to quickly generate said expendable crew member as well as how many you can include in a single scene. The rules even encourage you to reintroduce support characters by improving their abilities for each additional mission they reappear. The rules reward you for involving a regular supporting cast!

A noted advantage for the secondary cast is that players can take over one of said expendable crewmembers during scenes where their character would not be present. The classic TNG example would be beaming down to a dangerous planet, where the Captain should not go. Instead of the Captain sitting out the session, they can play the support character Engineer or Security officer.

I love how the game handles initiative. Players choose who goes first and then each player picks who goes next. I’ve seen a slightly similar approach in Marvel Heroic, and like the adding strategic feel. This varies that system by mandating swapping sides, which adds a slight limits but prevents the players ganging up and quickly ending battles or reducing the number of combatants.

While the art of the book features a lot more combat than is typical of Star Trek episodes, the book thankfully includes sections on other forms of gameplay. There’s a section on R&D and sciencing, with the steps of the latter invoking the scientific method. There’s also a section on social combat, breaking down the options for diplomacy and intimidation but also using facts.

Morphidius released the PDFs early for people who preordered the books (hence this review). I know lots of publishers who hold back PDFs until physical books ship. I like getting the product earlier rather than the publisher just sitting on the book.

EDIT:

A Twitter comment on the review asked abut accuracy of the fluff and I realised I never really commented on the lore in the book. Lower case. There’s no Lore in the book. But there is a lot of Star Trek lore. Which didn’t really click because it was omnipresent. There really wasn’t anything that took me out of Trek or made me say “hang on, that’s not right!” Ironically, because they did their research, because they really nailed the flavour, it all slipped under my radar. Nothing ever took me out or made me stop and question. Even when I noticed something not *technically* canon it made sense. Like Movie/TNG Klingons in TOS art but wearing TOS Klingon uniforms. Sure. Why not.

And while I complain about the presentation of the history, it all looked correct. Heck, there were some deep cuts so obscure I had to double check the reference. Morphidius DID their homework.  

Final Thoughts

I love me some Star Trek, and after Beyond and with Discovery coming in the fall my interest has been renewed. I can’t help but think it’d be cool to do a short Trek mini-campaign between D&D campaigns, or even between “seasons” of an ongoing campaign. With that thought in mind I was excited by the idea Star Trek Adventures.

I’m not sure how well this system works for me in that regard. There’s a lot to remember in the system, such as knowing the action options for both your character and their bridge station, or the choices for spending Momentum, all of which need to be quickly processed and have the potential for option paralysis.

The system seems better suited to dedicated play, but at that point the purposely limited options become a factor (and uneven character progression). Buying more books is always an option, but given how the last three Trek RPGs have ended with unfinished products – the last two being unable to completing the products planned at launch – banking on still theoretical future books feels like a gamble.

At the end of the day there’s the Big Question: How does it work as Star Trek roleplaying game?

Well, it sure as heck looks like a Trek game. And you can be part of the crew of a starship. And the rules equally accommodate fighting Klingon warbirds as they do researching stellar phenomena, rescuing colonists, or beaming down to make first contact. But neither does the franchise seem to trump the game system. The game doesn’t contort itself to exactly replicate events that happen on the screen. And the system itself is interesting, even removed from the Trek branding. There’s a strategic game element during and after Tasks, but you’re regularly encouraged to roleplay. It’s certainly not a clunky unplayable game buoyed by a popular licence. 

I like a lot about the system, but really want to see it in play, to watch how it actually handles in action. There’s a lot of small details and factors that I worry could bog down play but might work just fine at the table. The Dragon Age/ Fantasy Age system shows that a set list of stunts can give people fun choices at play, while not slowing down things too much. Realistically, just making a few cheat sheets for players might help dramatically. After all, GMs have screens for that very same reason. As for the content gaps, the system is simple enough that making your own content will likely be pretty easy, and I imagine the Trek fan community will quickly step up and make some of the missing content.
But… if I do run a Trek game, I’ll probably end up buying some cheap dollar store dice and taking some paint to them for the Challenge Dice. Or putting some stickers on Fudge dice.

EDIT 2:

Geek & Sundry has my back with this, doing a livestream of a Trek RPG game: Shield of Tomorrow

http://geekandsundry.com/meet-the-crew-of-our-new-star-trek-rpg-show/

 

Shameless Plug

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