Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cola Wars

I saw another Star Trek ad recently (I will not provide the name or link, out of respect for my peer) and naturally the ship in question had not only Marines on board, but a fighter wing as well.  This has become increasingly common for Star Trek games over the years, adding both Marines and fighter craft to ships even when including either makes no sense whatsoever.  It is obviously an attempt to garner more players rather than an attempt to produce the sort of game the GM wants to play...unless the game the GM wants to play is a war game rather than a traditional Star Trek game.

The last sentence induced me into writing a long, long rant about how over rated Deep Space Nine is, but that is not the focus of this article.  The focus is how in an attempt draw in players GMs have resorted to gimmicks.  They have decided that they have to have Marines on their ships, even though there are no Marines in Star Trek (Someone argued with me that GMs cannot be bound by canon.  While this is true to an extent there is a difference between creating a new race for an adventure and an entirely new military branch that has never been seen before and implying that it had always been there!).  They have to have fighter wings on their vessels, even though very few ships would actually employ fighters.  Because unless you are going to have a ship carrying twenty or more fighter craft, unless the vessel is a dedicated carrier (which would then be surrounded by support craft to defend it) then carrying fighters make no damn sense.  But it goes even beyond that, with GMs adding diplomatic officers, intelligence officers, foreign affairs officers (Just what, exactly, is the difference between diplomacy and foreign affairs?), etc.  In their (sometimes pathetic) desperation to get people to play their games GMs attempt to make their Star Trek game be all things to all people and all too often it just does not work.  The fact is, The Next Generation did just fine telling stories without all these extra departments.  And yes, DS9 added the role of Strategic Operations officer when Worf was added.  Do you know why Worf was added to DS9?  Because the show was desperate to maintain ratings.  Do you see a parallel here?

A person at one of the fleets argued that what if they wanted to run an adventure where a diplomat was needed?  Then you add a diplomat NPC to the mix.  The Original Series did it all the time in episodes like The Galileo Seven, A Taste of Armageddon, Journey to Babel and Is There in Truth no Beauty?.  What, exactly, is the diplomat's player supposed to do during adventures where no diplomacy is going on? 

And how do most 'Trek games start?  The crew are assigned to a new ship, they are interviewed by the  captain, some of the players do joint posts with one another while others quietly disappear because they discovered the captain could not write or they realized some of their fellow players were power gaming munchkins.

Wow.  Scintillating.

I will give Jeri Taylor, Michael Pillar and Rick Berman credit when they wrote the first episode of Voyager: Caretaker.  In it the crew getting together was part of the adventure.  Chakotay and Torres were Maquis rebels, Tuvok was under cover, Tom Paris was persuaded to come along and with the death of the ship's doctor was dead so the Emergency Medical Hologram had to take his place for the duration. It was exciting television.  Of course, the producers pissed all that potential away over the course of two seasons, but the point is they did something Different.

All of this led me to thinking that maybe, juuuuust maybe, Star Trek games have run their course.  There has not been any new Star Trek on television since Voyager went off the air in 2001.  Enterprise does not count.  Enterprise never counts.  Yes, we had a movie in 2009 and we have a new one coming out in 2013 but I do not think the former generated, nor will the latter produce much if any interest in players getting involved in a game taking place JJ Abram's universe.  Also the format of most Star Trek games can prove to be problematic for GMs.  Think about it; for a Star Trek game to work effectively a GM needs: a First Officer, an Operations Officer, a Chief Engineer, A Security/Tactical Officer, and a Chief Medical Officer, along with possibly a Flight Control Officer and Science Officer.  It used to be a GM could find replacements easily if/when other players dropped out unexpectedly but these days I do not think there is as great an interest in PBEMs like there was at the height of Star Trek's popularity so finding enough players to populate your game is much harder.

So, what is the answer?  What sorts of sci-fi games can GMs run that might garner more interest.

I'm glad you asked.  Perhaps it is time to taste the other cola:

To my surprise Star Wars, The Clone Wars is now in it's fifth season and going strong (I caught a couple episodes this season and I concede that the writing does not suck.).  George Lucas released the original trilogy on blu-ray a little while ago.  Star Wars is very much in the public consciousnesses these days.

Star Wars also has the benefit of being able to be played in different eras, much like Star Trek can.  And also like Star Trek some eras are more popular than others.  There are not many games taking place during the first six 'Trek movies and The Original Series, for example, mainly because many of those fans are, well, getting older and dying.  In Star Wars' case I can imagine a great many people might be interested in playing during the Clone Wars because of Episodes I-III and the animated series, but I still think there is a large fan base for episodes IV-VI.

A very large, firm fan base, always willing to take on stiff competition.  A fan base that stands erect wh-

Okay, I'm going to stop there.

But wait!  You might say.  Star Trek is all about exploration and science as well as war, and Star Wars is just a fantasy war epic in space.  And to those who might say that, I respectfully disagree.  Look at later Star Trek franchis and you see a growing distance between the more science fiction aspects of The Original Series (The Original Series predicted floppy disks, cell phones, Blue Tooth, advanced medical diagnostic equipment) and an approach towards magical technologies seen in The Next Generation and beyond (holodecks, replicators that can make anything, all problems solved with technobabble, which may as well be people reciting magic spells).  Star Wars has The Force, Star Trek has Q so each one has their own mystic plot devices as well.

And both franchises have had their respective brain farts:

Oh look, I've gone and hurt their feelings.

I have read some of the Star Wars comics, the ones published back in the day and penned by the likes of Ann Nocenti.  Star Wars was as much about diplomacy and espionage as it was straight up war.  And with a little tweaking a GM can easily make stories about exploration and science work.

Now, if I decided to run a Star Wars game I would have it take place during the post Episode VI era, because if you run a game during Episodes I-III, (Which includes the Clone Wars television series.) there is a sense of inevitability to it. You know the Republic will fall, don't you?  I would much rather run a game during a time period where there is a blank canvas.  And yes, I know there are some novels that are considered canon by Lord Lucas but I do not think it is fair to potential players to have read these books in order for you to enjoy your game.  Oh sure, you could describe what happened in those books, or direct them to web sites like Wookiepedia but how much fun is that?  It's like trying to describe a television episode to someone; there is no joy in second hand knowledge.  Worse, it's like assigning homework.

So if I ran the game I would say the Emperor is dead, no one outside of the Rebellion inner circle is aware of how he died and the Empire is in chaos. The New Republic is on it's way towards being born but there is still quite a few Empire vessels out there, controlled by ambitious and ruthless Admirals.  And while momentum is on the side of the New Republic it still means they have a long way to go before they win.  They are going to have to make deals with the less reprehensible commanding officers of those ships to take them out of play or to turn them to their side.  They are going to have to convince hundreds of systems to return to the Republic.  This is all stuff covered in some of the novels and it is in this sort of world I would rather run a game, where I as a GM have some creative freedom.

There is one issue to address up front, the wampa in the room, as it were.  Jedi Knights.  I tried running a game with an all Jedi group and in retrospect I think it was a mistake.  Trained Jedi Knights are lethal murder machines.  Danger Sense, enhanced reflexes, super leaping, super speed, telekinesis, mind control.  All that combined with a unique weapon that can deflect blaster fire and dismember people with ease and a GM would really need to work hard to come up with legitimate threats that go beyond sending waves of droids or storm troopers.  Boba and Jango Fetts are rare and while it would be neat to see a squad of those bad asses-

it is not something you can do often.  The same goes for the Sith.  You could allow a single player to run a Jedi knight but that seems so very unfair and unbalancing to the game. So no Jedi Knights.

Say for the sake of argument you take my advice and run the game post Ep. VI.  There are a great many opportunities for world building here.  Yes, the Emperor is dead, that does not mean his admirals and Grand Moffs are just going to roll over.  Likely they are going to build their own empires or flee in the wake of war crime tribunals.  In all of this chaos then it is up to the PCs to either fight the good fight…Or make a buck.  Thus we have the two types of campaigns to run.

The first type of game is inspired by the Firefly television series…

...which was in large part inspired by the first Star Wars movie:

The crew of an independent light freighter operating one step ahead of the law has an undeniably romantic appeal.  Your characters could be working class stiffs trying to make a living and winding up running into trouble from both sides of the conflict.  Do they risk the easy cash of smuggling goods across battle lines or are they having enough trouble with the local Hutt crime boss?

Or what if they are secretly New Republic agents posing as shady characters, operating among the criminal underworld on secret missions.  Your characters might have to stay one step ahead of the law in order to maintain their cover while at the same time dealing with the scum of the universe with little back up.  Hey, no one said being a secret agent was easy!

There are lots of different models of light freighter to choose from: the Corellian YG-4210 light freighter, for example. Or the YT-2400.  Or the Ghtroc 720 freighter.  Or the YT-2000.  There are lots of choices and there are places where you can find deck plans for some of these ships.

Perhaps a military game is more your bent?  If so I think the way to go would be to either run the PCs as a sort of special unit tasked on ground missions, or the crew of a small corvette, or as a fighter squadron.  Or
And then there is a third option: mercenaries.  War produces chaos, and there are often different theaters involving different sorts of problems for both sides.  And in some cases some backwaters that cannot be adequately defended can fall prey to opportunistic predators.  If the New Republic cannot spare the resources to defend them then perhaps it is up to a ragtag band to do the job?  Deserters, adventurers, alpha males who don’t respond to authority very well.  These could be the sort to step up to defend the far reaches where pirates, freebooters and the odd Imperial boot comes a-steppin’.

And then there are the bounty hunters.

Dog looks both silly and awesome...awesomely silly, if you will.  I can see how some of his gear is necessary but it feels as if he is attending some sort of cosplay event.  Still, the point I am trying to make here is that Dog is not a bad guy.  He is a bounty hunter who goes after people who legitimately need to be hunted down.  And playing a bounty hunter in an environment where the New Republic is ascending might be fun.  Think of all the Imperial scumbags your character might want to track down?

Here is an example of a game I tried to run until it imploded…and yes, I freely admit I was in part to blame for the circumstances.  In one case I let someone play a furry from another dimension.  Yes, I was stupid.  Let’s move on.  The concept of the game was the players were Republic agents posing as mercenaries.  The PCs were pilots who flew a variety of small craft.  I was inspired by the anime Area 88, which is about a group of mercenary pilots who fight a war in a fictional desert country.  Each pilot flew a different sort of fighter craft and it was a pretty awesomely animated series.  I am sorry I did not try harder to make the game work as I think the fact that players were able to choose their own fighter craft rather than being forced to pilot X-Wings made them enjoy it a bit more.

Here is another example of a game I did not run but it is inspired by the idea of characters forced together through a shared crisis. In one Dungeons & Dragons game I ran a caravan was assaulted and the PCs had to flee.  The first story arc involved pure survival, total strangers bound together by necessity.  I mentioned in another article about a DM I knew named Ned who did something similar (his idea inspired mine) where a town was attacked and the PCs were literally bound together by a chain.  You could do something similar in a Star Wars game.

Imagine this; the planet Nurest is a backwater, a lightly populated planet and one the Republic has little interest in.  A few Republic ships are there based at a small settlement for repair, some tired crew take solace in the minor recreations while they await reassignment.  It is a safe place.  Until a surprise attack by Imperial forces compel the inhabitants of this settlement to band together to survive!  Bounty hunters, Imperial deserters, freighter captains and Republic personnel all must find a way to escape and survive!  There you go.  The PCs have a wide variety of character types to choose from and they have a shared goal.  From that the GM can find a way to keep the gang together after the initial crisis is past.

Or here is another idea.  Science fiction and fantasy writing demigod David Drake wrote a Hammers Slammers novel called Rolling Hot:
The premise was a group of battle fatigued vets and raw recruits based at a staging area far from the front are called upon to stage a desperate run to the planet's capital to prevent the war from being lost.  So you've got this bunch of misfits who don't know one another, led by this battle fatigued captain who is starting to lose it.  It is an awesome read.  Now imagine you using it for a campaign.  A group of veterans and rookies, or a group of Republic pilots and some misfits, are called upon to break a planetary siege, perhaps to deliver a much needed vaccine or counter some form of ecological warfare.  No one else is available, it is up to this motley bunch.  And in the end perhaps this motley bunch realizes that hey, maybe they work pretty damn well together.

You see?  Something a little different from the same old boring 'Trek formula.

So next time you think about running a Star Trek game, think about that other franchise and consider that perhaps it might be the tastier choice.

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