After a year-long shakedown cruise that began last year at Gen Con 2016, Star Trek Adventures is preparing for its official launch this summer and fall, with the core book PDF now available online, games scheduled at Gen Con 2017, and pre-orders currently under way for physical products, including the imposing (and pricey) limited edition Borg Cube extravaganza. Star Trek Adventures follows in the footsteps of prior Star Trek roleplaying games from FASA (1980s), Last Unicorn (late 1990s), and Decipher (early 2000s). With more than a decade since we last enjoyed an ongoing Star Trek roleplaying game, there are high hopes for Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment.
Scope of the Game
This is normally the part of the review where I would talk about the concept of a roleplaying game, but for a Star Trek game, that concept is pretty well know, so I’ll skip right along to what part of Star Trek is covered by Star Trek Adventures. And that’s pretty much all of it that has been shown on the small screen – exploration, cosmic anomalies, space battles, away teams, technobabble, and diplomacy – from the Original Series to the Next Generation to Deep Space Nine to Voyager to Enterprise (sorry, rebooted Star Trek Cinematic Universe). The plethora of character miniatures being released by Modiphius might lead one to believe that the game is focused on tactical, squad-based combat, but it doesn’t shake out like that in the rulebook (the sample mission takes place mostly on the ground, but isn’t particularly focused on combat). There is a default time frame – right around the launch of Deep Space Nine (with Next Generation still running and Voyager not yet launched). But there are full rules for the earlier series as well, plus rules for determining how older and newer technology would compare (including rules to represent the upgrades a refitted old ship would receive if it was still in service decades later). The game does presume that the players are members of Starfleet, so you’ll have to wait for the Klingon and Romulan supplements to run that Klingons/Romulan espionage game you’ve been dreaming about (I’m kidding, of course – everyone will just use those supplements to work a single Klingon/Romulan into an otherwise Starfleet crew).
The Core Mechanic
Star Trek Adventures uses Modiphius’s 2d20 system (the details have been very heavily modified for this game so that anyone who has played another 2d20 game, such as Mutant Chronicles, should still read the rules carefully). Characters will have an applicable attribute and discipline (basically a skill) and when summed together these will range from about 7 to 17. The player rolls two twenty-sided dice, and each die that’s equal or less than that summed target number is a success.
Note that this makes changes in difficulty very significant. For example, with a target number of 12 and a difficulty of 1, there is an 84% chance of success. With a difficulty of 2, that becomes a 36% chance of success. With a difficulty of 3, the odds approach zero (technically not zero because of some nuance, but you get the point). Alongside that core roll, there are a variety of ways that a character can get extra dice – the low odds on higher difficulty tasks (or impossibility on very difficult tasks) mean that players will be constantly using these other mechanics on significant rolls.
Character Creation and Advancement
Characters have six attributes (Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason), which range from 7-12, and six Disciplines related to the tasks they may be called upon to perform for Starfleet (Command, Conn, Engineering, Medical, Science, Security), which range from 0-5. These six do not directly correspond to each other. So, for example, a captain might use Command with Daring (when ordering a surprise attack) or with Presence (when negotiating). A security officer might use Security with Fitness when in hand-to-hand combat, or with Reason when developing a battle plan.
In addition, characters can also gain Focuses and Talents. The Disciplines are broad, and Focuses are sort of specializations, although they don’t technically fall only within one Discipline. For example, a Focus in Astrophysics is mostly likely to come up when using the Science Discipline, but could potentially be used with Conn to represent piloting through a stellar phenomenon. An applicable Focus gives the possibility of double-success on a single d20 (dependent on how high the Discipline is). Talents are like merits or feats, giving more specific bonuses in particular situations, or allowing actions that would otherwise not be possible.
Finally, characters will gain Values and Traits during character creation (indeed, almost everything in the game can have Traits – people, ships, terrain, weather, situations, etc.). Both Values and Traits can be broadly descriptive, and take their meaning from context, rather than having a narrowly defined meaning. For example, if a character has the Vulcan trait, this does not come with a list of attribute bonuses and powers, but rather simply means that the character is treated differently in a situation where it would matter that they are Vulcan (e.g., they wouldn’t be bothered by super-mosquitoes only interested in red blood, and they would not be as affected by hot temperatures). Values, such as “Proud Klingon Warrior” or “Seeks New Life and New Civilizations” also apply in a contextual manner, allowing characters to spend Determination when acting in accordance with their Values, or requiring them to Challenge their Values when their actions don’t mesh.
The default character creation system for Star Trek Adventures is a Lifepath system (the old FASA Star Trek roleplaying game also used a system like this, although that one was very random and could produce rather unbalanced characters), taking the character from childhood through Starfleet Academy and through an initial job posting (although it is possible to identify what quantity of what kind of bonuses each character will get through the Lifepath and let the players just pick what they want). The seven steps in the Lifepath (all of which provide some sort of Discipline and Attribute increase) are:
- Species: this provides a species Trait and access to species-specific Talents (e.g., telepathy or redundant organs); the available species options are Andoran, Bajoran, Betazoid, Denobulan, Human, Tellarite, Trill, and Vulcan;
- Environment: this step establishes where the character was raised (e.g., on their homeworld, on a starship, on the frontier) and provides the first chance to pick a Value;
- Upbringing: this represents the particulars of the character’s situation early in life, and how they responded to it (e.g., their parents were in Starfleet and the character rejected that lifestyle, or their parents were artists and the character accepted that lifestyle); this decision also provides the character’s first Focus and a second Talent;
- Starfleet Academy: this step places the character on Command (Command or Conn major), Operations (Engineering or Security major), or Sciences (Science or Medical major) track, providing a second Value and multiple new Foci;
- Career Length: the character picks a third Value and decides how long they have been out of the Academy – fresh faces and long-time veterans can (and must) take a special Talent, and average folks have free choice; (this is the only step with no Discipline or Attribute increases);
- Career Events: the character selects two career events (e.g., Ship Destroyed or Transporter Accident), each of which provides a Focus and may give the option of taking a new Trait (Traits have both upside and downside, so this is not an inherently unbalanced option);
- Finishing Touches: this step simply gives the player the opportunity to round out discipline and attribute choices, plus one final Value.
For reference, this will produce a character with an average target number of about 13, but a specialized character can very easily have the maximum 17 in their specialty, with multiple applicable Foci – so if you want your Chief Engineer character to be very good at their job, they will be.
This ease of being very good at your job right from the start works with the character advancement system in Star Trek Adventures, or more particularly, the lack thereof. Characters mostly don’t advance. They get lots of chances to move sideways (dropping in one area to add another, or exchanging one Value for another), but it will be something like 10 missions (or more) before the first player gets the chance to flat-out improve their character (or the ship), and that’s just one player. This design decision basically goes with Star Trek convention over RPG convention. Many characters in Star Trek start their show at the top of their game. The crew of the Enterprise-D are serving on the bridge of the Federation flagship – they aren’t a bunch of nobodies. Some characters, such as Ezri Dax, are shown struggling, but even the less august characters populating Deep Space Nine are very competent. Characters on Star Trek usually don’t change much. The Chief Medical Officer doesn’t go from a Level 1 Doctor to a Level 20 Doctor over the course of the series. Every once in a while, someone gets promoted (Worf manages to get this one a couple of times). The Enterprise-D isn’t much different after Episode 100 than it was after Episode 10. There might be character growth or change, but these often don’t involve the sorts of skills you roll dice for in a game (e.g., Data learns to paint today) or are “lateral” moves (e.g., Seven of Nine gains some social skills, but loses a lot of mechanical firepower from being de-Borged).
Speaking of ships (OK, I did that about half of a long paragraph ago, but close enough), the party will probably have one. Sure, the GM might put them in a colony, but even the crew of Deep Space Nine got a ship pretty quickly. Ships have the same Disciplines as characters (except they’re called Departments), and instead of Attributes they have Systems (Communications, Computers, Engines, Sensors, Structure, Weapons). When characters are performing functions on a ship (what actions a character can take are dictated by what station they’re manning on the bridge), they typically roll their own stats, with an assisted roll made for the ship that can add successes. If the GM chooses, the party can create a ship like they create characters:
- Spaceframe: this determines the starting Systems of the ship, weapons loadout, and any Traits (e.g., Ablative Armor, Extensive Shuttle Bays, Modular Laboratories); there are tons of options and pretty much any random Starfleet ship you’d think might be there in a core book (but not the NX-01 Enterprise or Sovereign-class ships);
- Mission Profile: this determines the Department values of the ship (e.g., if the ship is on a war footing, it will have a higher Security but a lower Science);
- Refits: Depending on the year of the game and the year that the spaceframe first entered service, the ship may have undergone refits, improving its stats to represent new technology being installed.
In addition to the main characters, the ship may also be populated with secondary characters. These characters, who may have greater or lesser detail to start, can be played by any player whose main character is not involved in a particular scene. So when the chief engineer stays on the ship, the player can be a specific recurring security officer in the away team, rather than doing nothing or being Redshirt #764.
Of course, there’s more to Star Trek Adventures than just a straight 2d20 roll – how else are those characters doing to accomplish anything of note (aka, with more than 2 difficulty)? Three pools can be manipulated to generate extra dice for rolls. First there’s Momentum – it’s generated by the characters when they get more successes than needed. The character might opt to immediately spend that Momentum for more effect on that roll, but if they don’t, then the Momentum can be banked for later use by anyone in the group (this can mean that it’s helpful to roll even for Difficulty 0 tasks). Second, the GM also has a pool of Threat that fuels NPC effects, and the characters can add to the Threat pool to generate dice. Finally, a character can add an extra automatic success die by spending Determination, which is much more scarce and powerful. Since the use of Determination is tied to the character’s Values, this gives real bite to what might otherwise become chafe on a character sheet. The total number of dice available caps out at 5 (the two standard and three bonus), regardless of the source. Still, tracking and using Momentum and Threat and Determination is a bit fiddly, with a lot to keep track of that isn’t just on the character sheet. Characters can also assist each other, and having an assisting character can be a huge boon, as they can directly add successes (rather than simply giving some sort of small bonus on the main roll).
These rolls interact with the scene not only through simple successes and failures, but also through things like Advantages and Complications. Similar to Traits, these are textual phrases that reflect the ups and downs of the situation. When a character rolls a natural 20, this might generate extra problems for the character or crew (e.g., more enemies arrive or there is an equipment malfunction). Advantages can be generated through Momentum, and may be necessary to proceed with a situation – for example, an Advantage of Rotating Frequencies might permit characters to hit Borg drones with phasers in combat. Similarly, Complications can be removed with Momentum. On the flipside, most of what the players can do with Momentum, the GM can do with Threat.
Of course, some Tasks are more involved – characters may oppose each other, there may be time constraints combined with repeated tasks, and there are the (kind of over-complicated) Extended Task rules.
The system also uses Challenge Dice, which are specialized six-sided dice (they can be modeled with normal d6, with faces of 1-2-blank-blank-effect-effect). Their most common use is combat damage, but they are also used for some tasks when a pool of work needs to be built up over several rounds.
The systems in Star Trek Adventures cover a wide array of situations. Of course, both personal and starship combat are included, but social conflict is as well (deception, searching for evidence, negotiation). Significantly for Star Trek, the rules also cover things like making scientific discoveries and overcoming technological challenges. These rules encourage players to be creative in thinking what sort of solutions the problems they face might have, while also not requiring them to simply guess whatever solution the GM has in mind. This is, in part, because the GM simply doesn’t have a “correct” solution in advance – the characters come up with three ideas or so, and one of those will be “the right way” (although the players won’t know up front which of their ideas is ‘right’). Only then do the characters roll dice to try to solve the problem. This does a great job of both respecting the character sheet and keeping the players involved, rather than just chucking dice.
The amount of page count a game spends on different topics can sometimes signal what’s important about a game. With that in mind, Star Trek Adventures uses its 360 pages as such: setting introduction (~60 pages); basic rules (~20 pages); character creation (~50 pages); exploration and the cosmos (~20 pages); conflicts (~20 pages), technology and gear (~20 pages); ships including ship creation and alien ships (~70 pages); GM advice (~40 pages); aliens and adversaries (~35 pages); and introductory mission (~10 pages). The introductory mission serves as more of an explicitly learn-to-play experience than the standard RPG core book fare, with the mission specifically laid out to successively introduce more complex mechanical concepts.
The graphic design and layout of Star Trek Adventures is super-Trek-feeling, with everything in that classic Next Generation PADD format (the PDF also comes with a “printer friendly” version if you want dark text on a light background instead). Big thumbs up there. The specific graphics were also solid, with lots of schematics and such to bring the flavor. And the drawn art of ships and ship battles was excellent. On the other hand, to me the illustrations of characters were more in the “OK, not great” category – they have an intentional vagueness too them, rather than the sharp detail I would prefer in the art in this sort of RPG. The editing left a bit to be desired, as there were a few too many instances of inconsistent terminology usage and grammar errors – these have already resulted in a couple of updates to the PDF version of the core book (but I suspect it is too late for the print books). There is a detailed and useful index … except not all of the page numbers are dead on. The table of contents would be more useful with a little more detail. Note that my review copy is a PDF, so I cannot comment on the physical construction of the core book.
A double-edged touch is the in-character sidebars, which are fairly extensive and carry a decent amount of the setting-introduction weight. However, some of them might be a bit dense for those who are not steeped in Star Trek lore. For example, there is a Romulan after-action report of the battle of Narendra III, which mentions the capture of a Star Fleet officer, the interrogation of whom revealed that Star Fleet was decades ahead of the Romulans in tactical theory. This is really clever if you know that this is a reference to Tasha Yar (tactical officer for the Enterprise-D) going back in time to that battle, and eventually being captured. If you aren’t familiar with that bit of lore already, I’m not sure that the in-character sidebar makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure what the overlap is between “folks who are not well-versed in Star Trek lore” and “folks who will buy Star Trek Adventures,” but I’m pretty sure there were some Enterprise references that were going over my head. There is, of course, still the main body of the text to explain the basics, but these sidebars are more clever for the fan who knows the lore than serving a function helping someone become familiar with the lore.
All told, Star Trek Adventures does a really good job of feeling like Star Trek (which is kind of important, yes?). Transporting an existing mechanical system into a new setting doesn’t always work that well, but Modiphius didn’t just drop the 2d20 system wholesale into Star Trek, but instead implemented significant changes it to make it mesh with the setting. In particular, I am impressed by the system created for handling engineering or scientific challenges. It’s just a small section of the rules, but tasks like analyzing some energy phenomenon and then modifying equipment to compensate for it are a really, really common thing in Star Trek, and it’s something that has proved a challenge for past Star Trek roleplaying games. But part of feeling like Trek means that it deviates from some RPG conventions. I can see some groups having issues with the lack that sense of reward of character progression.