Review – Star Trek Roleplaying Game (The Original Series; Last Unicorn)

The length required for the title of this review is indicative of the full and varied history of Star Trek roleplaying games. In addition to the current Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius, there was the original from FASA, a trilogy of games from Last Unicorn, and an entry from Decipher (which bought the license out from under Last Unicorn, which itself was absorbed by Wizards of the Coast). Although I had a lot of involvement with Decipher games, and have a lot of affection for their products, it was the Last Unicorn iteration of the Star Trek roleplaying game that I have the greatest fondness for. And not just because it was the Deep Space Nine version of the Last Unicorn game that I was able to use to get my dad (a big Star Trek fan) to play an RPG with me.

I’ve had the Last Unicorn Deep Space Nine and Next Generation core books since they were published, but I hadn’t picked up the Original Series core book at the time (1999) (there were about twice as many TNG books as DS9 and TOS books put together). But with a recent wave of Trek nostalgia, I picked up a copy recently. Somewhat reminiscent of the Fantasy Flight version of the Star Wars roleplaying game, the first thing one might ask is what’s different about this core book than the other two, and whether it’s worth having more than one? Well, 20 years on, it isn’t really a salient question, but there’s really quit a bit different between the Original Series core book and the other two. The basic mechanics stay the same, but the presentation and the universe are really tailored to the Original Series specifically. There is a conscious decision to not try and merge the world into one consistent whole. For example, Klingons starting in the Next Generation look much different than they did in the Original Series, and the official canon ended up with a rather convoluted explanation involving failed efforts at genetic engineering. There isn’t any of that to be found here. The Klingons are just the Original Series Klingons. The world works as it worked in the Original Series.

Part of this is a delightfully written presentation that makes no apologies for the Original Series while also acknowledging that it was a bit ridiculous at times. This is especially present in the setting background chapters, but the most memorable example for me is in the combat discussion, where a brawler lacing their fingers together to form one large “fist” and then smashing the opponent with it is a formalized maneuver, noting that the brawler somehow manages to avoid injuring their own fingers while performing it.

The core mechanic for the Last Unicorn Star Trek Roleplaying Game (which used the ICON system) is to roll a number of six-sided dice equal to a character’s attribute, choose the highest, add the applicable skill value, and try to meet a target difficulty. A seven is described as moderately difficult, while a ten is challenging. A typical starting character will probably have at least a two in the attribute, and a four in the skill specialization, of whatever their primary task is. This would make for a one-in-nine chance of failure attempting a task of moderate difficulty. Note that there are significant diminishing returns from additional dice unless a ‘6’ is rolled on the “drama die,” which means that the next-highest die result is also added to the test total. The maximum attribute for most species is a 5, and the maximum skill at character creation is typically a 4 (5).

Character creation begins with choosing a species (referred to as a template) and a profession (referred to as an overlay). There are seven species choices (Andorian, Axanari, Centauran, Human, Tellarite, Tiburonian, and Vulcan) and eight professions (Command, Communications, Helm/Navigation, Engineer, Medical, Science Officer, Scientist, and Security) (that isn’t a typo, there is a distinction made between a science-focused character who serves on the bridge and goes on away teams, and character who more commonly works as a pure scientist). These selections will give a character their basic attributes (Fitness, Coordination, Intellect, Presence, and Psi; the latter is typically a zero) and skill array.

The character then receives development points to spend on the usual suspects – attributes, skills, edges (positive or negative), advantages, and disadvantages. Edges are subcategories of attributes. Each attribute has two (for example, Logic and Perception are the Edges for Intellect). The Edges are expressed a +/-, so an Intellect of 2 with Logic +1 is essentially Logic 3/Perception 2. Skills also have specializations (and the first time a character gets a skill, they get a specialization for free). A character with Propulsion Engineering (Warp Drive) 3 (4) has a 3 in Propulsion Engineering, but a 4 when working on the warp drive. This is a rare game where the underlying attributes cost less to increase than the skills (presumably due to diminishing returns from rolling more dice and picking the highest). There is no extra cost for increasing higher skills v. increasing lower ones, so the game does not push characters into being generalists.

Development points during character creation are spent in Life History segments (a popular methodology in Star Trek roleplaying games). In each segment, the character can take a package or spend the allocated points approved skills, advantages, or disadvantages (or any attribute or edge). By default the segments are early life, Starfleet Academy life, Starfleet cadet cruise, and a first tour of duty. If the game involves more or less experienced Starfleet officers, then the tour of duty can be eliminated, or more tours of duty can be added. Characters are Ensigns unless they took the Promotion advantage during character creation.

In combat, the mechanics encourage characters to take multiple actions, unless the difficulty is already high (for example, two shots at +1 difficulty is generally better odds than one shot at normal difficulty). As one might expect for Trek, damage levels vary greatly from a punch to a phaser set on kill. Non-lethal damage is fairly easy to fix, if a fully equipped medbay is available.

All told, there are about 60 pages on character creation and about 40 on mechanics (including personal and starship combat). What other content is there to be found? The Star Trek Roleplaying Game has about 30 pages on the history and current state of the Federation and Starfleet. Ships get about 25 pages (almost all of it stat blocks with images) and other technology/gear takes up 20. About 55 pages cover star systems, aliens, creatures, and civilizations, with a mix of descriptions of things that already exist in Star Trek and discussions on how to use those options, or create your own.

One aspect of the Original Series core book for the Last Unicorn Star Trek Roleplaying Game is the graphics. Everything is stills from the series, which is fine. But it’s tiny, tiny stills – typically one column wide and less than two inches high. I’m not sure if that was a design choice, or they really couldn’t get better quality digital images out of Paramount, but it’s aged badly.

Part of the presentation in this iteration of the Star Trek roleplaying game that still feels fresh today is about the role of things outside the characters. Technology is what it is to comport with the Original Series shows, but (consistent with what is seen on the shows) it is also expressly aimed at being something that lets the characters be in a position to do cool things, but not something that does it for them (and, of course, out-of-control technology will probably be an antagonist in its own right from time to time). Creating a planet or a species doesn’t start with an effort at ‘realism’ or a detailed chart – it starts with the question of what role the narrator intends for their new creation. An example given in the book, and taken from the show, is how many governments in the Original Series are run by monarchs, authoritarians, or imperial presidencies, but there are few examples of something like a legislature-driven government. This is, the book explains, because it’s much more interesting to set up a single person (or small group of people) for the main characters to interact with and influence, and then have a big effect. That kind of advice – tying the reasons why the show was what it was into why that can make for a good roleplaying game that feels like Trek – is great. One can read a lot of pages of GM advice without getting much out of it, but this core book still has something to say (Numenera was another, more recent, core book that had such material that was actually useful).

All told, I still really like Last Unicorn’s presentation of the Star Trek Roleplaying Game. And reading the Original Series version emphasized that, while there’s obviously some significant mechanical commonalities, they really did make the different core books different to fit the different feel of the series. A worthy nostalgia trip if you’re a Trek fan and an RPG fan.

 

 

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