Sunday, September 7, 2008

GwenCon RPGs - Star Trek

I played in two 4-hour one-shots last night. The first was a Star Trek RPG scenario run by Jason Anderson (-sen?).

He was using the Last Unicorn Games edition, with some elaborately upscaled starship combat rules. This game was heavily into the Simulationist style of play.

He had print outs of what we saw on our tactical stations and view-screens, and had printed out sensor read-outs for every scan type we could do in every scene. The goal to that was to eliminate the annoyance of "bridge crew parrot-ism." That's the phenomenon where a player asks the GM what the sensors say, the GM answers them, and then the PC has to repeat what the GM said to the rest of the group. Something similar occurs in all RPGs with "the party" organization, but the nature of Trek really draws attention to it. One or two "what he said" comments are all most games need, but for a Trek bridge crew, it'll happen 10 times per scene.

The hand-out heavy work-around functioned quite well for a linear one-shot game. We'd say what we're scanning for, and he'd toss us the appropriate clipping, from which the Science Officer (or whoever) would draw a conclusion and pass on the info in-character. Between that and the sound-effects on the GM's laptop, he did a stellar job of creating the feel of being on the bridge of a Federation Vessel. Kudos to Jason, "A" for effort, etc.

However, I imagine that system would have broken down heavily if the PCs had somewhat more nebulous goals and/or the freedom to fly the ship outside of mission parameters. I'm glad to have had the experience of seeing it in motion, but overall I doubt it was worth all the additional effort on the GM's part. It also made us feel somewhat "railroaded". Having clearly defined goals isn't a bad thing on 4-hour one-shot, but I've known some players that would have rebelled over the principle of the thing. Luckily, they weren't at our table.

I've toyed with a similar approach to GMing before, and learned a lot from this example - but mostly I learned that the extra work isn't worth it.

The game had an overall much higher level of detail than was needed. We had a one-page "transfer of duty" assignment papers hand-out, plus a full page character background sheet, plus a 2-page crew roster, plus a 1-to-6-page handout that explained our role (and options) in starship combat, plus a very busy character sheet with lots of skill entries, specializations, ad/disad-vantages... While that wouldn't be too much for a long-term game, it was an awful lot to have to process before the action could start (especially with a 4-hour time slot).

Starship combat involved maneuvering, power allocation, shield modulation and so much number-crunching that the GM had built a separate excel spreadsheet for each ship, which did all the math you'd never want to do mid-battle. While I was very impressed with the amount of work (and attention for detail) that had obviously gone into the scenario and systems, I couldn't help but wonder if it was necessary.

In a one-shot, simply getting the feel of a Star Trek episode is probably more important than "realistic" devotion to the specs of an Excelsior-class vessel. There was so much detail we couldn't parse it all, and not enough time to really appreciate what we were given. My advice for one-off games: simplify and reduce. Less really is more.

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