Roleplaying

Star Trek Adventures Is Clunky and Uninspired

Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor not a wizard!

Star Trek is a difficult setting to roleplay in. The canon is labyrinthine and confusing, with material drawn from hundreds of episodes, many of which contradict each other. The aesthetics vary widely depending on the time period and the series, making it hard to imagine they exist in the same universe. Powerful technology can easily break your story. Perhaps worse, the Federation is meant to be a utopia. How do you generate compelling conflict in a utopian setting?

It would take a really good system to handle all of these problems. Unfortunately, Star Trek Adventures is not that system. While it has some bright spots, the system will not deliver a good Star Trek experience without a lot of extra work on the GM’s part. What’s that, you’d like more detail? Then make it so.*

Character Creation Is Fun and Flexible

One of those bright spots I mentioned is the character creation. Instead of simply handing players a bunch of points, the system takes them through each stage of their character’s life, from childhood through Starfleet Academy and into their first assignment. Players decide what kind of life their characters have led and receive points accordingly. If a character grew up on a dangerous colony world, they might get points in Daring. If their parents were diplomats, they might get points in Presence. The list goes on.

Perhaps more important than points, characters earn a new value at each stage of their lives. A value could be something like “Everyone should have access to advanced technology.” These values are important roleplaying guides, and they tie into the system’s meta currency. Because characters get a value at each stage of their lives, it’s easy to set up opposing values for maximum drama. For example, at the academy, a character could pick up the value “Negotiation can solve any problem.” But when their first posting is on the front lines of the Dominion War, they’ll learn a new value: “Sometimes violence is the only answer.”

Character creation is highly structured, which might be frustrating for advanced players, so the system offers an alternative. Instead of going through each step, the players can simply take the equivalent amount of points to be spent at will. While this has the potential to create unbalanced characters, it’s a useful option for players who like extra customization.

The only critique I have for the character creation is that there aren’t any well developed options for playing characters of mixed species. All the game offers is a side bar that’s purely cosmetic. Considering how many half-vulcans and half-klingons the Star Trek shows have, this is an annoying absence. Even so, character creation is undoubtedly enjoyable. I made six characters in a row for the review oneshot, and I never got bored.

Correction: Originally, this section claimed there were no rules for being raised on alien planet, which is wrong. It also missed the sidebar for mixed species.

Supporting Characters Are a Great Idea

One of the the major problems with Star Trek as a roleplaying setting is who the PCs should be. The obvious choice is for them to be senior officers, but that has a huge drawback: not every story will feature all the senior officers. This is even more pronounced in stories based on away missions. Even though the TV shows often ignored this problem by sending the entire command staff out in a shuttle, doing that in an RPG will seem absurd.

To solve this issue, Star Trek Adventures offers rules for each player to have multiple characters. A player’s primary character is assumed to be a department head or some similar role, but they can also have supporting characters of lower rank. These supporting characters aren’t as capable as the primary, but they can get the job done. This way, the captain can play their supporting security officer when it’s time for an away mission, or the ship’s counselor can try out an engineer when the story has no call for social skills.

This system fits naturally into the secondary cast that most Star Trek shows develop.* Many episodes focus on a guest star who shakes up the status quo, and in most systems, that guest star would have to be an NPC. But in this system, the GM can give the role to one of their players. Supporting characters also allow for important deaths that don’t ruin a player’s experience, because they still have their main character to fall back on.

Despite my praise, there are some limits to supporting characters. Used too often, they can leave players disconnected from their main character.  To address this, I recommend only using supporting characters in longer campaigns, when there are plenty of sessions for each player to get invested in their primary PC. The other problem with players having more than one character is what to do when those characters need to talk to each other. It’s awkward for the GM to play someone’s character, and even more awkward for a player to talk to themselves. My best advice is make sure there’s an NPC present who can cover for the secondary PC.

The Meta Currency Is Empowering but Abusable

The primary meta currency in Star Trek Adventures is Momentum. Players earn Momentum by scoring more successes on a roll than they need. All Momentum goes into a communal pot, where it can be spent by any PC. This provides an immediate benefit to rolling higher than necessary, something that a lot of games don’t have. If players roll twice what they needed, they like to get a reward for their efforts, and this game provides them with one.

The first problem with this meta currency is that it’s easy to set up a perpetual Momentum machine. By using some common special abilities, players can easily get two points of Momentum from a roll for every one they spend. As you might imagine, this makes it nearly impossible for PCs to fail rolls. The rules also create an incentive for players to find easy rolls they can make to earn Momentum, even if those rolls aren’t necessary.

How you set up the Perpetual Momentum Machine

Each character starts with six focuses. A focus is something that the character specializes in, too narrow to be covered by a full skill. Common focuses are things like “repair” and “phaser rifle.”

When a character’s focus applies to a roll, their successes count double. That means if they buy an extra die with Momentum and it comes up a success, they get two successes, which likely means they get the momentum back, and even earn a second one.

Correction: Players only get two momentum from focuses if their d20 rolls equal to or under the character’s discipline. This makes the Perpetual Momentum Machine less likely, though it still incentivizes players to find easy rolls for generating momentum.

To make things weirder, this game features two additional meta currencies. The first is called Threat, and it’s basically Momentum for the GM. Instead of spending Momentum, players can give the GM Threat to get bonus dice. So even if the PCs haven’t built up a large pool of Momentum, they can get as many dice as they like. In theory, the GM can then use Threat to make the villains more dangerous, but this falls a little flat since the GM can already make rolls as difficult as they like. Adding Threat on top of the appropriate difficulty sets up an adversarial relationship that isn’t good for the health of a campaign.

But wait, there’s more! The third meta currency is called Determination. It gives a bigger bonus than Momentum, and it’s harder to get. It’s also limited to each character rather than being in a communal pot. While Momentum and Threat are useful for anything, Determination is only spent on actions that line up with a character’s values. This helps differentiate it from the other two meta currencies, but it’s still a little confusing to remember all the different ways players can get bonus dice. It’s also unlikely the PCs will ever need Determination, considering how easy it is to generate Momentum.

The Core Dice Mechanic Is Fine

One thing I can say about Star Trek Adventures is that it has a unique core dice system. When a task is in question, players roll 2d20. Each d20 that comes up equal to or lower than the character’s relevant skill+stat is a success. So if a character has a Command of 3 and a Presence of 10, each die that rolls 13 or less is a success. Different tasks require different numbers of successes, and players can spend Momentum or invoke special abilities to add more d20s.

That’s nothing like any other RPG I’ve ever played, and it takes some getting used to. At first, it’s a little annoying to add together skill and stat for every roll, but most players get used to it quickly. However, it’s still weird that without spending Momentum or invoking a special ability, characters can’t ever succeed at a task that requires three or more successes. This is true no matter how good the character is at their chosen task, because they only have 2d20.* Momentum and special abilities are always in ready supply, but it’s not an easy dynamic to learn.

Once players learn the dice mechanic’s quirks, it functions adequately but isn’t anything special. The game tries to spice things up by adding a system of environmental traits that influence rolls, but the traits are easily forgotten in the heat of the moment. The book also talks a lot about what to do when a roll is failed, which is good, but doesn’t provide robust rules. The goal seems to be something similar to Mouse Guard, where PCs who fail their rolls can still get what they want but at the cost of suffering a penalty. The problem is that while Mouse Guard’s penalties were baked into the system, Star Trek Adventures’ don’t have much impact.

Even though the 2d20 system doesn’t do anything spectacular and has a bit of a learning curve, my group still enjoyed having something else to do with all our d20s. Outside of the D&D family, there aren’t many systems that employ them.

The Rules Are Confusing and Overwritten

The first and most obvious problem with Star Trek Adventures is the low quality of its writing. The rules in this game aren’t that complicated, but it can take multiple reads to understand them. Often, they’re just stated in nonsensical ways. Consider this quote from the rules on spending Determination:

A point of Determination may be spent to grant the character a single bonus d20. This bonus d20 differs from most in that it is considered to have already rolled a 1, and thus generates two successes automatically. The normal limit of additional d20s bought for a Task still applies.

Instead of just adding two successes, Star Trek Adventures wants you to purchase a phantom d20, then have it roll a 1, thus granting you two successes. The rules are written this way so as not to fall afoul of the system’s maximum dice limit, a limit that isn’t spelled out anywhere and must be pieced together from reading several different sections. It feels like navigating an IRS form.

The system also has a serious problem with unnecessary rules. I mentioned before how the GM is expected to assign forgettable environmental traits in every scene, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The crowning glory of redundancy is that the system has two sets of rules for tasks that require multiple rolls. The first is called an Extended Task, and the second is called a Challenge. These rules are virtually identical, with only the most minor of differences. When I got to the Challenge chapter on my first read through, I thought I’d skipped back to the Extended Task chapter by mistake.

When the rules aren’t repetitive or written like they’re trying to evade a d20 tax, they’re often surrounded by paragraph after paragraph of flavor text. This makes the actual rules hard to find. The most egregious example by far is the chapter on social conflict. Star Trek is all about social conflict, but it quickly becomes apparent that this chapter is a lie. Despite pages upon pages of text, there are almost no rules for social conflicts. Instead, the entire chapter is vague advice on what kinds of social tactics a character might employ. It’s nearly useless, but you have to read several pages to figure that out. This is too bad, because Star Trek could really use a social-conflict system.

Rules this badly written are difficult to learn, hard to teach, and even harder to look up. The game can easily grind to a halt because the GM can’t remember a rule, and looking it up is a major chore.

Combat Is Boring

Unlike social conflict, Star Trek Adventures has actual rules for physical combat. The good news is they’re mostly free of the overwritten flavor text and repetitive mechanics of other sections. There’s still a few questionable rules, like how you have to spend an action each turn to keep your phaser set to a higher power level, but otherwise the combat is pretty straightforward.

The problem is that it’s D&D style stand-and-deliver combat. That is, the combatants line up and take turns attacking each other until one side is out of hitpoints.* Characters in this system may use phasers instead of swords, but the results are the same. The book tries to address this with flavor instead of rules. It has several paragraphs about how important it is for each side to have an objective and why combatants should retreat when injured. But none of that is actually supported in the mechanics.

Stand-and-deliver combat is boring. There are few choices to be made and almost no point to creative thinking unless the GM goes the extra mile. This is especially true in a game like Star Trek Adventures. At least in D&D, players can get their fun by building characters from a vast array of options. In this system, character options are limited, so there’s little satisfaction to be had in crafting a combat machine.

Combat is also slow. Barring a lucky roll, it usually takes two or three shots to disable an enemy, assuming every shot is a hit. That’s a long time spent away from fun space adventures. I have some sympathy for the designers here, because combat has always been a difficult subject for Star Trek RPGs. Back in the days when Last Unicorn held the license, combat was an inferno of instant death as phasers did enough damage to vaporize a mountain.* But my sympathy has limits. If the designers couldn’t come up with a combat system that works for Trek, they should have forgone it entirely and had the GM resolve fights with a single roll or an Extended Task. As things stand, many character abilities are geared toward combat, and simply skipping over it is difficult.

Ship Rules Are Ancillary

Star Trek has always been about a ship* as well as the living characters, so it’s no surprise this game has ship rules. Sadly, they’re not very good. The system tries to keep things simple by having ships act like large characters, even having their own sheets complete with stats like Engines and skills identical to a PC. This approach has the advantage of saving development time, and Star Trek Adventures isn’t the first system to employ it.

The problem with treating the ship as a scaled-up PC is that it blurs the line between them. Except in combat, the rules aren’t clear when a PC should make a roll and when the ship itself should roll. If the PCs are making rolls, then the ship’s abilities aren’t needed. If the ship is making rolls, it takes the focus off the PCs, and a good GM doesn’t ever want the focus taken off the PCs.

Most of the time, the ship is little more than a setting for the characters to walk around and have scenes in. It has no mechanical influence on the game. Ship combat is a little better. At least here it’s clear what function the ship provides, and there’s a fun minigame to be had managing how the ship’s power is allotted.

The main problem with ship combat is how much reading it requires. PCs have a multitude of options based on their bridge assignments, but few of those options are obvious or intuitive. Unless you have a group where everyone loves to read the rules, expect to spend a long time going through each option, and then going back because you’ve forgotten one. A cheat sheet like those provided by Burning Wheel would be helpful here, but as far as I can tell, Star Trek Adventures doesn’t have one.

Even with their flaws, the ship rules in Star Trek Adventures aren’t terrible; they just feel unnecessary. Unless your group is really into space battles, it’s not clear what you’ll do with most of them.

Skills and Stats Are Vague

Star Trek Adventures eschews traditional stats and skills. You will not find such mundane entries like strength or stealth. Instead, the designers have created an entirely new set of Attributes* and Disciplines* designed specifically for Star Trek. Behold!

You can see a few problems right off the bat. First of all, it’s not clear what some of these even are. What’s Control? And what’s Daring? It turns out Control is basically dexterity, whereas Daring doesn’t have an easy comparison. It’s used whenever a character is acting aggressively or, well, daring.

Unintuitive stat names are annoying, but it’s not a huge deal. Worse is that even once you’ve read the rules, it’s often not clear which combination you should use. My first instinct was that melee attacks would use Fitness, and ranged attacks would use Daring. Silly me, melee attacks use Daring, and ranged attacks use Control.

At least in those examples. the rules actually say what combination of stats and skills to use. Often that’s not the case. What combination should be used when commanding a ship in battle? That sounds like it would be Command, but Security is usually used for combat, and I’m even less sure which Attribute to use.

The biggest hole is social skills. I cannot for the life of me figure out what Discipline is best for that. Command works when addressing lower-ranked officers, but what about a superior officer? What about someone outside the command structure entirely, like an alien ambassador? Command feels wrong there, but there’s nothing else that even comes close.

This uncertainty about which abilities to use creates two problems. One, it means players don’t know how to build their characters to do what they want to do. A player might build a master martial artist with high Fitness, only to find out that attribute is useless for kung fu. Worse, it gives players an incentive to argue for whichever abilities they’re best at. If a PC has high Command and Presence, they’ll want to use it as often as possible, and the rules don’t provide enough guidance on when to say no.

The Problems of Star Trek Are Not Addressed

This system does a lot wrong, but more damning is what it leaves out. Namely, there’s little in Star Trek Adventures to address problems like abusable technology and the difficulty of creating compelling conflict in a utopian setting. The system makes a few attempts at narrative rules, but they’re completely vestigial. What you’re left with is a run-of-the-mill simulationist system in a setting that it can’t handle.

Star Trek Adventures works, but it will require a GM who is both very into Star Trek and ready to wrestle the system into submission. The dense and confusing nature of the rules will make this harder. If you want a Star Trek campaign, the more rewarding path would be to go with a heavily abstracted narrative system like Primetime Adventures or Fate. That way it’ll be easier to gloss over the problems with technology and go straight for your story.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. GeniusLemur

    I’d have also mentioned how the basic attributes and disciplines are so obviously centered around being a Starfleet officer. Which of those disciplines apply to, say, an undercover agent for the Federation? A pergium miner on Janus VI? A groundskeeper at Starfleet Academy? It doesn’t look to me like this character system can really function outside the narrow limits of “You are a Starfleet officer or alien equivalent.”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s also true. I didn’t think to mention it because I’m generally okay with games that have a very narrow focus but yeah if you pick this game up wanting to play someone like Quark you’re gonna be in trouble.

  2. TwistedWhim

    I have a question for you Mr. Ashkenazi, do you have the same feelings about Fate Core?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I don’t think so. I’m not a big fan of Fate, but it’s a very different system with different strengths and weaknesses.

  3. MrBlue

    I enjoyed reading your article, but there’s several inaccuracies here. Like, all rolls double successes on 1, and Focus only increases that range based on the associated Discipline (basically enhancing “critical threat range” in d20 terms, so the “perpetual momentum machine” is far from a given, even for gullible GMs). Supporting characters are not dedicated to a player – they are a shared resource that can be “activated” on a limited basis per adventure. One of the first rules I read in the book specified a 3-die purchase limit on any task. Ships can provide assistance roles on many types of tasks beyond combat, supporting the Star Trek “ship is a character” mentality. Etc.

    All of which probably supports your thoughts that the organization of these rules could be better, but playing it once does eliminate most of that.

    I will say, I agree about the adventure writing advice. Nothing (in any game I’ve seen so far) compares to the amazing advice given GMs in the Decipher ST Narrator’s guide and I still use it.

  4. Darkraven

    To add to MrBlue’s comments, you also missed that during character creation there is a option to grow up on an alien’s planet, Option 6 under Enviroment and there is also a side note on page 102 for a mixed heritage

  5. Fasafan

    I really want to like this game, and still do at the moment, but I’m one of those dedicated Star Trek fans like you mentioned.

    Watching YouTube videos on how to play, and searching for opinion pieces like this on the game are probably not good signs of an easily understandable system… and that is what I’m doing.

    I like the 2d20 method and I like the Lifepath creation system, but I wonder how future supplements will handle Romulan, Klingon, Trader, etc. characters – if we are lucky enough to see them.

    In my opinion, I would have been fine with Modiphius making two books instead of one, and/or eliminating the flavor text. Good grief. They must have had a page count goal in mind. That stuff, as you say, is EVERYWHERE. They could have quadrupled the number of player character races available if they would have removed a tenth of the exposition- and I’m not kidding.

    Additionally, additional proofreaders would have helped tremendously. In this age of desktop publishing, these errors are everywhere in media. However, that does not excuse them. The book is rife with misspellings and comma splices. It is also just too wordy.

    They need a GM QuickStart like they have for PCs (free pdf download).

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