Gamemaster’s Log, Stardate 57252.7. It has been several months since the launch of the New Orleans-class starship U.S.S. Verrazzano, NCC-07302, from the Foggy Peak system. Since that time, I have seen her crew serve with distinction in accordance with the finest traditions of Starfleet. I have also seen them called before a board of Admirals to review their actions and directive violations, and while impressive the fact that no fewer than three starbases have had to be commissioned to deal with the discoveries from their missions is beginning to put a notable dent in the power requirements for the local sector’s industrial replicators. As the Verrazzano is currently away, responding to a distress call from a Vulcan Expeditionary Group, I have decided that this is a fine opportunity to review their so-called ‘Star Trek Adventures’ in-depth, to better understand how they have and will continue to boldly go where no one, not even the rest of Starfleet, has gone before.
Characters and Core Mechanics
The most basic mechanic for Star Trek Adventures is this: you’re rolling 2d20, and you’re trying to get results on the individual die that are equal to or lower than a target number. The more results that are equal or lower, the more successes you get, and different actions will require a different number of successes. A task requiring 1 or 2 successes is quite possible, but obviously if you need any more than that you’ll need something special. Enter the crew of your Starfleet vessel. Characters have six Disciplines that represent their specialties in Starfleet (Command, Engineering, Science, etc.) and six Attributes (Fitness, Daring, Insight, etc.) which represent their personal abilities. When you’re facing a task, your target number is determined by a combination of a Discipline and an Attribute: Security+Control to fire a phaser, Conn+Daring to fly a runabout through exploding asteroids, Medicine+Reason to diagnose an alien virus.
Characters are built through a series of stages that gradually build these stats up: species, background (plus whether you accept or reject your upbringing), what branch of Starfleet you go into, and a series of career events like being forced to call out a superior, making scientific breakthroughs, or a conflict with a hostile culture. Along the way they’ll pick up Talents that enhance or grant extra abilities, and Focuses that can (if they can roll underneath their Discipline rank as well as the target number) grant a second success on a check. Characters also define Values, things that they care about and believe. All of the other stuff is about what your character can do; Values are about who your character is. All of this leads to characters that just . . . they just click very easily. Values provide a challenge, as while there is advice on how to create some, they are entirely unique to every character, not picked from a list. But overall creation is simple, and you immediately have a lot to work with mechanically and narratively.
Aboard the Verrazzano, that gets us the Vulcan Captain Salok, forced to take command, who focuses on Diplomacy with a firm belief that Diversity Is Strength. His first officer, the Gnalish Commander Korg, strives to Defend and Aid Those In Danger or Need and is a known friend to the Klingons. Lt. Commander Flint Northrock’s file is mostly redacted, but he is a particularly Bold helmsman: “My answer to any distress call is “’I’m Coming’”. Lt. Commander Be’zur is the ship’s Chief Engineer, a Liberated Caitian Borg with a knack for Improvised Technology, a talent for pushing things Past the Redline, and a conviction that There’s No Such Thing as The Unknown, Only the Temporarily Hidden. Lieutenant, later Lt. Commander, Ava is a sliver of an extra-dimensional being; naturally, he serves as the Science Officer with A Mind for Design and Insatiable Curiosity about the universe he finds himself in. The Bajoran Lieutenant (j.g.) Edon Reil might be a relatively young officer but he has Untapped Potential, and serves as a fine Chief of Security: “Beware invaders calling themselves ‘friend’”.
Here’s something to consider, especially if you’ve been playing games that are more hardscrabble: STA characters can be extremely competent in their particular area of expertise. It’s certainly possible to build something akin to a generalist, but given that characters are naturally going to gravitate towards certain roles (the Captain, the Chief Engineer, the Science Officer) it’s very easy for them to have a target of 17 or so for their primary focus (5 in Science and 12 in Reason for the Science Officer, for example). Speaking of Focuses, if chosen well there are plenty of opportunities for them to come into play, offering multiple successes on a die. As I’ll address shortly, there are multiple ways to roll 3 or even 4d20 just on your own, as well as a way to automatically get at least two successes. Other characters can assist you, and if you’re on your starship it usually contributes another d20 to the pile as well.
Some actions are going to be impossible, and you’ll need to create an advantage to make them something you can actually achieve. I’ve read the number of successes called out as being impossible as five, though, and that’s . . . not really the case. Seeing six, seven, and even eight successes hit the table isn’t common, but it’s not all that rare either. So, a minor but important point, while needing 4 successes is probably still a good high-water mark, I would keep the reason for a task being impossible as purely narrative.
So, in short, this is not a game with an awful lot of failure, further reinforced by the fact that you can Succeed At A Cost, with ‘failing forward’ actually being built into the mechanics outright. STA is more about characters figuring out what needs to be done and how they want to do it than whether or not they’re going to succeed, followed by the consequences of their actions (even if they succeed) as further enabled by the aforementioned costs and Complications. On the one hand, GMs shouldn’t be too concerned if things seem ‘too easy’ for their players at first blush. On the other, well, a few things: don’t be afraid to ask for three or four successes on really difficult and important stuff, you can get a little extra challenge by throwing things slightly out of a character’s area of expertise at them, and when failures do come up they need to matter. When Northrock (who includes among his Values ‘The Best Way to Defeat An Enemy Is To Make A Friend”’) failed to resist the impassioned plea of an oppressed species convincing him that patience and diplomacy would not work, that he would have to violate the Prime Directive, that needed to have an impact. It actually kicked off a small not-mutiny, actually, along with a few other consequences that I’ll get to use as examples later.
There are three types of metacurrencies in Star Trek Adventures: Momentum, Threat, and Determination.
Momentum is a player resource, gained via extra successes – 3 successes on a Difficulty 2 check, you get 1 Momentum. Momentum has a lot of uses. When used immediately it can be used to boost attacks by doing more damage, ignoring Resistance, or activating weapon traits. It can be used to create Advantages that can make future tasks easier or impossible tasks possible. In my experience it is most commonly used immediately to Gain More Information, a key use that often sees characters diving past their basic observations to really discover what’s going on or what they’re dealing with. If not spent immediately, however, points of Momentum go into a pool; they can be used in several ways once there, but by far their most common use is buying more dice to roll for a check. A 3rd d20 costs one Momentum, a 4th one costs two.
Threat is primarily a GM resource, and in several ways it mirrors Momentum. It can be used for adversaries rolling extra dice, it can make attacks lethal (by default they are not), it can make tasks more difficult or increase the chance of a Complication (something Bad that usually only happens if a character rolls a 20 on a die). With enough Threat in their pool GMs can even end scenes entirely and take narrative control, which strongly reminds me of the Doom Pool from Cortex games.
GMs begin every mission with twice as many points of threat as there are players, which is good, because in my experience you’re not likely going to get too many more. There are a couple ways to add more Threat, but the only one that doesn’t require a specific circumstance is that player characters can also use Threat by choosing to give it to the GM instead of spending Momentum at the same rates. That’s great, because it gives the GM more to play with and gives the players options if they run out of Momentum. Honestly, though, it doesn’t seem to happen very often. A large part of this is certainly biased in this specific campaign by the luck of the dice and the characters themselves. The Verrazzano crew have often been able to generate more than enough Momentum for their needs, rarely running completely out. Also, the entire line of Bold Talents, which let you re-roll dice if you have used Threat to enhance the roll, are designed to be a big motivator for Threat use – but only Northrock and Reil have any of them, and they both have only the Conn variety. So, you might find yourself with players giving you oodles of Threat . . . just be prepared to use what you get at the start of a mission carefully, if you don’t.
The final metacurrency is Determination, and it’s the big one. Every character starts a mission with at least one, and it is deeply tied to the character’s Values: if they are acting in accordance with a Value, a character can spend a point of Determination to add a die to their roll that is automatically set to a result of 1, meaning an automatic two successes towards the roll. Note that this still counts as adding a die a la Momentum/Threat, in that if you want a 4th die you’ll need two points of those other resources, but still! Alternate uses of Determination still require you to be acting in accordance with a Value, but include: re-rolling all your dice, immediately taking another action on the same turn, and automatically creating an advantage.
You can get more points of Determination if you challenge a Value, meaning your character is having a big think about whether or not they actually believe that any more. You can also be offered Determination by the GM to compel you to act in line with a Value when it would make things more difficult for you, which reads an awful lot like Fate points. Determination isn’t just a big deal because of the mechanical impact, although that can’t be undervalued either. But since Determination, whether spending it or gaining it, plugs into your Values it is often a very important factor in your characters ‘leveling up’.
‘Milestones’ are the method of advancement in STA, and there are only three ways to get them: suffering (and surviving, obviously) a lethal injury, challenging a Value (thus getting a point of Determination), and using a Value either positively or negatively (meaning you either spent or received a point of Determination while acting upon it). You get a ‘Normal’ Milestone for just doing one of the above during a mission. The GM can award a ‘Spotlight’ milestone if a character or characters would earn a Normal Milestone and also made a particularly big impact in a mission, and the players decide who among them receive it. Eventually, you acquire enough Spotlight Milestones that your next one is an ‘Arc’ Milestone instead (or, if the GM feels it appropriate given the character’s actual narrative arc, they can award one out of hand). Here’s the thing, though: the Arc Milestone is the only one that actually adds anything to a character.
With a Normal Milestone, first of all, if a Value was challenged it gets rewritten or replaced to reflect how the character’s perspective was changed. After being forced to realize that “The Best Way to Defeat An Enemy Is To Make A Friend” would not always be the case, and subsequently getting in a fair bit of trouble for acting as such, Northrock reaffirmed his commitment to the crew and to following Salok’s lead instead of going off on his own: “When The Way Is Unclear, I Follow My Captain.” Aside from that very cool and dramatic and character-growth-driven aspect, though, Normal Milestones are very light: you can move a point from one Discipline to another, or replace one Focus with another. Spotlight Milestones let you pick one of the options from the short list of the Normal Milestone’s, as well as one of several others: moving points between Attributes, replacing a Talent, moving points between the ship’s Departments or Systems (Discipline and Attribute counterparts, really), or replacing the ship’s Talents. Arc Milestones grant the benefits of a Normal and a Spotlight Milestone, but are the advancement that finally lets you increase a Discipline or Attribute, gain an additional Talent, Focus, or Value, increase one of the ship’s Departments/Systems, or add another Talent to the ship.
As mentioned above, STA player characters are probably starting off as very competent just based on stats, never mind what their Talents can bring to the table, so they don’t really need to be growing mechanically all that much. What’s really important to this system is how their Values, what they care about and who they really are, are highlighted, are challenged, are grown and changed. Changing up Attributes, Disciplines, Talents, and Focuses also reflects this choice of priority – a Captain who starts to take more of an interest in what’s going on down in the warp core while leaving the navigation of the ship up to their hot-shot helmsman might shift a point from Conn to Engineering.
So far, they seem to be working just fine. Captain Salok and Lt. Commanders Northrock and Ava are both on the cusp of their first Arc Milestone as of this writing, and given how competent the characters are nobody seems to be minding that they haven’t been ‘gaining’ anything, and there have been comments that they like the idea of switching things around to better match the character – it’s true that you’ll certainly never have a dead-end Talent or Focus for very long.
I’ll admit that awarding the Spotlights has felt . . . a little anemic on the GM’s side of things. The book recommends giving out a single one every two or three sessions, but these are players and characters who have really taken the ‘Go Boldly’ thing to heart. Salok ‘crushed’ a mutiny with little more than an iron will and by convincing the mutineers that a starship takes many to succeed but only one to fail. Northrock took command of an absolute disaster involving a wormhole, a shapeshifter, friendly fire, and a dying ship and somehow got everyone out alive. Ava solved an astrogation and physics problem that had confounded Starfleet for decades, and then went on to help establish a stable wormhole to another universe. Be’zur’s technological monstrosities have caused me to throw out more notes and plans than any two other characters combined. Korg and Reil have both been responsible for saving the lives of their crewmates from certain death or worse, whether it was a rampaging tentacular plant unleashed from the Verrazzano’s labs, Orion raiders trying to steal an artifact powered by time, or a desperate and murderous Starfleet doctor gone rogue.
So, in short, I’m probably awarding Spotlights a little more frequently than the book would like me to, every other session at least, and I’m often throwing two out at once. Since Normal and Spotlight Milestone benefits can be banked for later, the system certainly doesn’t seem to be breaking as a result. If it were a longer, slower-burn campaign I might stick closer to the book’s recommendations but to be honest I think that, as with determining if a task is impossible, you’re best served by ignoring hard numbers and focusing on the narrative.
If there is any one mechanic that has been a runaway hit during the campaign, this has been the one. Supporting characters are the ‘extras’ on set, the people in the background of the show that only get speaking roles every few episodes, if ever. Star Trek Adventures lets you bring those characters into the spotlight by spending points of Crew Support – every ship gets an amount that is determined by how big the ship is, and then player characters can each take a talent to get more, which two Verrazzano crew members did. Broadly speaking there are two reasons to play a Supporting character. First, because they cover a skillset that the main player characters lack. This was the case of Lt. Gunther von Doomstone, the Chief Medical Officer, and Lt. Khumail Jaosh, the transport chief. The second is when it doesn’t make sense for a player character to be present, such as on away missions, but the player still wants to be a part of the scene. This was the case for Lt. Joran Mal, a Joined Trill diplomat, when Captain Salok had to remain behind on the ship. Sometimes it’s both. Cadet Groorin, part of the second wave of Ferengi following in Nog’s footsteps, appeared when the players decided Joran needed an assistant to deal with an upcoming legal tribunal, but really got played when Lt. Commander Northrock was stuck at the helm and there was a Ferengi away team to negotiate with.
I suppose there’s also a third reason, which is because you have a cool character idea you wanted to include. Lt. Jurling, Klingon Ship’s Counselor (“It is a good day for conflict resolution!”), was added to the crew to cover that role, yes, but mostly because I wanted him to be there. Consider it my payment for running the game.
Supporting characters start off comparatively light – their highest Attribute will be a 10, their best Discipline a 4, with three Focuses but no Talents or Values. Supporting characters don’t gain milestones themselves, although a player character can choose to use the benefit of one of their own milestones to switch things around for a supporting character. Instead, Supporting characters improve by the number of missions they appear in through the use of Crew Support – every time they show up they gain something, and while they still have lower caps (they can only ever improve a Discipline once, for example), they can still end up fleshed out quite a bit. Funnily enough, Supporting characters are thus going to ‘advance’ at a much faster rate than player characters will, which can help scratch the itch a little for those players who enjoy getting mechanical rewards.
Supporting characters are . . . kind of strange, in terms of gameplay and narrative. First of all, for groups with a lot of players they’ll end up taking up most of the NPC slots left on the ship – that hasn’t stopped me from making more NPCs, but it has felt a little odd to jump into a Supporting Character now and then as the GM.
They’re also supposed to be supporting characters but in many cases they’ve been in the spotlight just as much, if not more than, the ‘main’ characters, and some of them are quite beloved. Like any character, you end up wanting to make them interesting, and together we have. Doctor von Doomstone is from a planet that would have featured in a TOS Planet of Hats episode, a Frankenstein setting, and he’s trying to avoid going down the mad science path of his ancestors. Jurling has a reputation for unconventional ‘team building exercises’, a love of Klingon opera that’s shared with Commander Korg, and a genuine care for his patients. Joran quickly gained a reputation for being in over his head and soldiering on anyway, surrounded by literal piles of PADDS and joining the Captain in his coffee habit while reviewing First Contact protocols.
I wonder at what point you might just give up the charade and make them main characters in their own right with storylines of their own, capable of gaining milestones for themselves and surpassing the limitations of a supporting character. Perhaps a player could have multiple full characters (while many are shared, I’ve noticed some support characters functionally ‘belonging’ to a single player), or perhaps the ‘upgraded’ characters could remain in a pool for troupe play, which would keep the pool of Crew Support fully functional.
Supporting characters as a concept have also highlighted for me the need to have time spent back on the ship and in the ready room, for the simple reason that the Captain just doesn’t leave the ship very often. In terms of ‘screen time’, Aaron has spent more time portraying Lieutenants Joran and Jurling than he has Captain Salok, and yet the Captain has still managed to net himself some Spotlight Milestones, primarily on the bridge and in the aforementioned ready room.
Material to Work With
Star Trek Adventures is extremely well-supported. Since release there has been a unique book for all of the galaxy’s quadrants, another one each for Command, Operations, and Science, two full mission anthologies, character profiles for a bunch of the shows so you can play as/interact with them, and a whole bunch of standalone missions. This is on top of the free Quickstart, the free characters sheets, and the free character builder (which incorporates player character creation, supporting character creation, and starship creation material from pretty much everything I’ve already mentioned, it’s a fantastic resource). There’s also a Klingon core book which I haven’t even touched yet. You’re not exactly going to run out of reading material very quickly, is what I’m saying.
I want to particularly focus on the pre-made missions, however, for the simple reason that – with a single exception – my campaign has consisted entirely of them. This is a symptom of the fact that the U.S.S. Verrazzano was sort of rushed into service, as it were – I put Star Trek Adventures up as an option to run for a short campaign because I owned it and thought it might be interesting, but I didn’t picture it as a front runner and I didn’t expect it to catch quite as well as it has. It’s still going to be short, as campaigns in this group are reckoned lately, but still: suddenly I was running a game and had exactly zero material prepped or even ideas solidifying. So, I turned to the mission files.
So far I’ve run Nest In The Dark, Stolen Liberty, The Prize, and A World With A Bluer Sun. I’ve got two more queued up at the moment, but I won’t say which because there are players lurking about. Through these missions the crew of the Verrazzano have struggled through time dilation, radiation bursts, disruptor fire, crushing gravity, and interdimensional phenomena. They’ve been forced to face intelligences vastly superior to their own, weigh the oppression of an entire species against the Prime Directive, race against archeological poachers, and navigate the factions of a Starfleet crew turned on itself. So there’s the first thing I’ll say about the pre-made missions Modiphius has put out: oh my goodness there is a lot of variety. Not every mission will fit every crew, but many will, and aside from a certain predilection towards First Contact scenarios (come on, it’s Trek, duh) the Verrazzano has never really faced the same problem twice.
One additional good thing is that many of these missions could be used as a launching point for further adventures. Every one ends with a ‘Continuing Voyages’ section that highlights how a crew could follow up on the events of the mission or how said events could otherwise impact the campaign. I haven’t been able to take advantage of many of these yet, but there have been a few new crewmembers of a sort added to the ship’s roster as a result. More dramatically the events of Stolen Liberty saw Salok, Korg, Northrock, and Be’zur having a chat with some Admirals about the Prime Directive and their viability as a command team while Ava took command of the ship to chart a cataclysmic nebula (and blow some Jem’Hadar holdouts out of space, although they didn’t know that going in), the only non-pre-made mission so far.
A nebulous thing is that the missions are always written with a specific era (ENT, TOS, or TNG) in mind. They also always have advice for running the mission in a different era, which usually involves switching out who the bad guy is – if the Borg are the threat for a TNG mission then it’s probably the Klingons for a TOS crew or the Andorians for the ENT crowd. I’ve been able to put that advice to good use for several of the missions, but . . . there are also a few that don’t quite fit right, for me. A TOS mission that’s a little too Those Old Scientists, a little over the top with giant rock monsters for a TNG feel, or the TNG tech is just too necessary to solve the problems facing an ENT crew. In the anthologies, that’s not so big a deal since there’s something for everyone, but you might want to read up on a one-off mission carefully before purchase to see if it’ll work for you.
Some of that actually falls to layout – there are some TOS missions that are done up in a completely different style from the core book and the other missions, and maybe it’s silly but that just makes it harder for me to think about transplanting those specific missions over for the Verrazzano. That leads into another thing: sometimes there are some editing flubs. Missions are sometimes written out with a very specific series of events in mind, or don’t quite explain why certain events happen the way they do, and neither is the kind of thing that can survive contact with players. This is old advice, but if you’re running one of these pre-made adventures, you’re going to want to have read the whole thing, and you’ll want to be ready to throw the rails out the torpedo tubes.
One final thing about the actual material: thank the stars for whoever created the index in the core rulebook. It’s comprehensive and well-organized, making it easy to find whatever you need . . . and without it the book may have just been unreadable. It is crowded in there, there is practically no negative space of any kind, every spare inch has been packed with art or console designs or words and words and more words. There is a lot here, and reading it straight cover to cover would take forever. Remember that this campaign went from an option in a poll to an active game very, very quickly, we’ve all been learning the system as we go (partially why I think writing about it has some value, to be honest), and without the index allowing us to flip to where we need to I know I at least would’ve been completely lost.
Everything Else, And Final Thoughts
So what are all those words about? We’ve covered the basic mechanics, advancement, supporting characters, none of which are particularly thorny, what else is there? Well, of course there’s a fair bit of space spent on listing individual talents and such, ships the crew can serve on, planets they could visit, GMing advice . . . but there are also a lot of other actual mechanics that are way more situational. There’s an entire reputation system, tied to rank, privilege, and responsibility. There are mechanics for extended tasks that might be the focus of an entire mission, and slightly different ones for when a crew is applying the scientific method (which is how Ava solved the nebula charting problem). Then there’s the ship, with its many different stations, it’s Power resource that needs to be managed, the various systems and the myriad, unique, and advancing things that happen to each and every single one of them if they happen to be the one hit when the shields get breached.
The core mechanics? Pretty straightforward! All these other bits? A fair degree more fiddly, and they might not show up every session. Every other mechanic adds more complexity, triggers more page-flipping (there’s the index saving the day, again). By no means does it jam up the works like, say, Shadowrun’s many many subsystems. But we got the knack of the basics very very quickly; going into our eighth session, there’s still a fair bit of rust on the others. Given more time that would probably go away, but only if we spend the time to focus on those systems, and in some cases I don’t see it happening.
In checking in with the players about how they felt about the system, Aaron managed to sum it up the best way, which I’ll use here. The group has dealt with games where the system got in the way for us, like Exalted Second Edition. When we tapped into the Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset, we found that the system actively helped us. Star Trek Adventures is in the middle.
It handed us the basic toolset and then has mostly stayed out of our way, piping up from the back of the crowd when it’s needed. It demands very little in terms of mechanical understanding on a task to task basis, but wants you to pay more attention when certain situations crop up. What it really wants is for you to have good, strong Values that your characters can believe in and challenge and change; everything else (you might note that the Gnalish species isn’t RPG-official, and Ava’s existence as an extra-dimensional avatar is original to us as well) can be tweaked, but that one is non-negotiable. That being the case, it’s really the players who are going to bring what’s truly necessary for Star Trek Adventures to function the way it wants to.
Star Trek is, primarily, a television series. It can do novels and comics, it can do big movies and long-running arcs, but it’s always eventually returned to a weekly format, and the heaping majority of that is episodic in nature. Look, I’ve tried the episodic thing in a bunch of different games, every time it gets a bare handful of ‘episodes’ in before one plot or another gets too complex and grabs the controls and takes off. Star Trek Adventures, like Star Trek at large, certainly could manage a blockbuster event, or a Dominion or Burn-style long arc, but it sings as an episodic game, and I think that’s because the game trusts its players to bring what they know and love of Trek to the table and fly “second star to the right — and straight on ’til morning.”
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