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Star Trek Adventures - First Response - Episode 2: Court of Opinion

The Game

Star Trek Adventures is a game produced in-house by Modiphius using a specific adaptation of their 2d20 roleplaying system. Other uses of the system adapted for other intellectual properties include but are not limited to Conan, John Carter of Mars, Mutant Chronicles, and the forthcoming Dune. While each iteration of the game bears clearly recognizable elements of the core system, efforts have been made to add, drop, or alter aspects of the system beyond simply renaming them in order to better serve a play experience capable of evoking the IP.

Star Trek Adventures suggests play organized around a principle of staging the ‘adventures’ as Episodes of a Star Trek series, and provides levels of character competence, technological development, and combat lethality strongly in line with the various series rather than with more typical approaches to character, tech, and combat found in roleplaying games.

The Campaign

We have recently completed the third complete Episode and our third month of regular Wednesday play. This Episode is entitled Court of Opinion and each session of the Episode (4 in total) is available for viewing from the links found at the end of this post. Also included in that list of links is the playlist of associated videos which comment on or contribute to our play of the campaign.

The campaign loosely presents an homage to 70s television. This is a fine line to walk. It is a stated goal to be inspired by the TV of that time without the characters acting as though they are aware of being the cast of a show and without the players referencing such things during play. Mostly this inspiration is reflected in the details of description, and the self-imposed limits on the type of science fiction technology included in the setting. In addition, meta-elements such as the way the videos are edited to include period commercials, and how table talk relates the contents of play to the context of the 70s. One possibly confusing aspect of this is that the campaign contains a Pilot Episode, an Episode 1, and now an Episode 2. The names of the campaign and the episodes may also be somewhat confusing – especially on YouTube given the length limitation on titles.

The campaign is called First Response. The group contributed to creating a few titles for the campaign and selecting one from the list. This title corresponds to what the series would have been called had it actually aired on real TV on September 9, 1970 as mentioned in the Pilot.

Each episode has also carried a title, each of which has been inspired by the situation leading into play, or by the early stages of play. The title of the pilot is The Nature of Threat. Episode 1 is called Questions of Duty. Episode 2 is called Court of Opinion. Episode 2, as a result of play has transformed itself into one that is to be continued in a subsequent episode (see below) which will perhaps also bear the title Court of Opinion, part 2. As mentioned in an earlier Reflections video in the playlist, these titles evoke a connection to suggested themes for that episode and are intended to help ground players in a context suggested by the opening situation to help guide players into the episode as an alternate form of description, to help guide the GM in the improvisational play which follows the introduction of the opening situation, and to help increase the sense of experiencing an episode of Star Trek.

The Main Characters before play

Security Chief Korsakov, is a Lieutenant in Starfleet and an experienced member of the Avicenna’s crew from back when it was still the USS Dauntless. Korsakov as created has had a storied career which has caused him to grow from a purely military outlook to one which has him expanding his knowledge through question and study to address the situations he has encountered in the past. Korsakov is one of the few survivors of an encounter that left part of the command crew, including the original captain of the Dauntless/Avicenna – Sten Anders – dead or insane. In his possession is an alien device which may be the root cause of that encounter.

A question this character raised for me before the pilot is, what truly motivates the Chief of Security, is it altruism, self-interest, or some interplay of both?

Flight Controller Yang, bold as brass with highly-honed piloting skills for large and small craft, this newly-assigned Ensign is a fresh face aboard the Avicenna. Yang comes from a family well-placed in politics and Starfleet but has kept these ties to himself. As a new and untried officer aboard a small ship with the potential for such dangerous assignments, Yang seems to fear only one thing – the transporter.

A question this character raised for me in the beginning (and to a certain extent still does), is to wonder to what degree Starfleet is a calling and a home to this talented young ensign, and to what degree it is just a stepping stone to other pursuits?

Acting Captain T’lyak is a Commander in Starfleet and newly appointed CO of the USS Avicenna, a former destroyer in the process of an overdue refit for duty as a ship in a newly-formed crisis response flotilla. T’lyak is a Vulcan quite taken with human philosophical thought, particularly stoicism, who through a series of unfortunate events had to take command from the captain, Commander Sten Anders, to save the crew. As a result of that action and the investigation into the actions of Anders, the Vulcan has been reassigned from his post as the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Avicenna to being the provisional CO responsible for overseeing its refit.

A question this character raised for me is, if he were a human, would the promotion have been provisional?

Sadly, this character has been recast as an NPC.

Actual Play

My play in Court of Opinion represented a course correction in implementation to reflect my observations of the campaign so far. The course correction mainly revolved around how often I spent points of Threat. Threat is a tool for shaping how, when, and to what extent the GM can alter established scenes in play. The change was made to better interact with the players and how they approach scenes and scene elements. Less of a dramatic shift was the continued decrease in the amount of material that I was using to inform the opening situation. Factors that influenced the decision to scale back on elements of preparation, and then scale back further were the actual amount of time available for play, the amount the players interacted with the setting material, and the format of short, weekly, online sessions.

This process coincided with my taking an opportunity to check in with the players about three points relevant to satisfaction in the campaign. This is a regular procedure for me, and though the questions I ask and when I might ask them might change, the process remains the same. In this case, I asked about the possibility of inviting a new person to join the group and return the number of members to 4 in a yes or no format. Likewise, I enquired about a preference, in an A or B format, between the two most easily differentiated approaches to play currently visible in the Actual Play videos. In addition, I asked if the players were interested in continuing the campaign. I find that it is often a good idea to revisit some of the questions that I ask to a group about their satisfaction with or experience of play. That said, different questions usually present themselves as well. I do not feel satisfied with play that is allowed to rely on the simple habit of getting together and the momentum of continuing to do what has been done without some form of assessment and discussion – particularly when the group is learning a new game.

Another part of this process included a self-evaluation of my performance as the GM and I shared a small part of that as an example in a video where I looked at some of the errors I have made with the rules.

The two players voted not to add a new player, indicated interest in playing at least one more episode, and explained their preference for an approach to play.

The Content of Play

The Court of Opinion episode revolved around the USS Avicenna (the ship on which our crew serves) being directed to Starbase 11 for much-needed R&R. The main characters and some of the more familiar supporting characters, however, did not get much of either R.

Young Ensign Yang found himself given an opportunity to earn positive attention from superior officers in Starfleet Command, by running a training seminar in his specialty. The dice and decisions led to this opportunity transforming into a very troubling problem. Although Threat was levied to introduce the possibility of dramatic complication, its use did not ultimately matter. The dice took the most forceful hand in that regard, informing me, as the GM, to complicate things in the specific context of the scene. My instincts led me to interpret this complication as the complaints of motivated, connected, and ambitious cadets from the seminar. These complaints could be the sort of thing that prevent the sort of early and noticed promotions that lead to command opportunities. For a motivated, connected, and ambitious young officer like Yang, I hoped that would be a challenge worth responding to.

The older and more experienced Lieutenant Korsakov found himself called to serve as a witness at a competency hearing for the former Captain of the Avicenna, Sten Anders. That officer had been relieved of duty as a result of mind-altering effects of an encounter on an alien world and having been resurrected from death by an alien artifact recovered from that world and subsequently kept secret by Korsakov. This process involved a physical and mental assessment of the Lieutenant and allowed us to explore the new trait of this character as he had lost a leg in a combat engagement in the previous episode. The hearing was complicated by Korsakov being called as a witness by the defendant, the former captain. Korsakov was quite adamant that Anders should not regain command of the Avicenna. I had hoped that this situation could lead to some debate, and was not disappointed in either the roleplay that resulted and the interjections of the dice. Korsakov's decisions to reveal the nature of the artifact during the hearing and to raise questions not only of competence but of the very identity of Anders, led directly to the dramatic and explosive conclusion of the episode. It also led to the sense that the episode should continue.

Why end this episode with a “To Be Continued”? Simply put, the events which arose during the episode had been acted upon, reacted to, and/or interacted with in one or more ways which suggested some degree of resolution, even if only in the short term. The events which are tied more to the campaign itself, pre-exist the episode, and may carry on beyond it were also acted upon, reacted to, and/or interacted with, but in a manner that did more than just those three things, but less than something like a resolution. They had evolved more than they had been resolved. The recognition of this, the decision to honor it, and the act of announcing it take place in a relatively short moment of time near the end of the episode – a far shorter moment of time than it takes to read this and eons shorter than it took to write it.

At the time of writing, the Actual Play of all four parts of the Episode are available on YouTube. Ron has released a Reflections video which I will not watch until I have finished editing mine from its constituent parts and have released it. KC has also been pressed for time and may need longer to catch up. He recently released his reflections on the previous episode, Questions of Duty. All of these videos are or will be in the playlist. If interested, please check the list for updates when you have time.

Court of Opinion Videos

Part A

Part B

Part C

Part D

The length of play has increased a small amount during this epsisode so that several of the sessions have a two-hour run-time, not including table talk. While a 30-minute increase in length does not sound all that significant, I can report that I felt less rushed and that that matters. 

Star Trek Adventures Playlist

Questions

For those who watch the sessions, I am curious about how you have come to think of the characters, both main and supporting. I would like to know what you think about what the players have had them do in play and their reasons for doing so. I wonder about what the episodes might seem like to you if they were imagined to be actual episodes of an actual show. 

For those familiar with the rules, I wonder about what things seem difficult to you and what things seem easy. I would like to hear about the things you feel need to be changed in order for you to run the game and why you think such a change might be necessary. Likewise, I wonder about what parts of the game you feel absolutely must remain as they are. For those learning the rules on their own, please note that many of the rules appear in the videos as annotations as they occur. Not all uses of the rules are obvious or discussed and may not be obvious to those who are not aware of them. These types of situations in particular are generally spelled out in annotations. 

Of course, observations, inquiries, and interactions not related to these questions are very welcome. 

 

 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

K.C. has included a fabulous reflection! It's in the playlists (his, mine, Anthony's), but here's the direct link.

I am a fan of his main character, Ensign Yang, and especially the fact, as K.C. says, that at no time has he conformed to the apparent presumptions of nearly everyone around him that he's a family-privileged little snot who's bound for a cushy brief captain's assignment and then comfortable managerial authority for a lifetime. I think the rough-and-ready Avicenna, whose crew measures its ideals by the lives they save no matter how many pretty phrases they have to violate, suits him fine.

The issue of rank and reputation is coming more and more into discussion, which K.C. talks about in detail. Right now, we're using the rules from one of the game supplements rather than the core, and I consider its effectiveness or fun to be still in question, at least for me. Let me see if I can lay out the features that play into it, at the least so that I can be corrected:

Characters' Values are their own subsystem. They can be expressed, complicated, or challenged, all involving specific rules and the subroutine of Determination, as well as the methods for changing them. It's not going too far to say that play is about the Values in action, under pressure, whether to be shown at their fullest or encountering their limits. We've generally embraced and applied these rules, playing them rather hot if I'm not mistaken.

Characters' rank and reputations are another subsystem with their own rules, conducted after each fictional mission. Briefly, you have to roll to see "how you did." On your side is the dice pool built from things like succeeding in the mission, meeting the requirements of Directives, distinguishing yourself as an officer of Starfleet, and a few other things; whereas agsinst you, so to speak, is the dice pool built from things like failing the mission, using lethal force when you didn't have to, taking risks when you didn't have to, and other similar things.

Success means you gain reputation and potentially commendations, which are themselves usable mechanics for later play. I don't exactly get how literal promotion in rank is involved but it is, in some way. Failure means you get reprimands, also mechanically significant, nd possibly reduced reputation is which ia a big deal for a lot of rolls. Demotion in rank is definitely involved.

There are some nice things about this setup. The thing I like best is that it allows for ambiguity - you can rate a few "yes's" in the first list and a few "no's" in the second about similar variables, e.g., conceivably, and perhaps very understandably, if you both "succeed and fail" at a mission, you can get a die in both pools. The game can get pretty grey both morally and setting-wise, depending on how Threat is used, and this particular rule acknowledges it.

Related and maybe too obvious to dwell on is that the system is a roll in the first place. It's not like taking the difference between the yes's and the no's and applying it as reward if the former outweigh the latter, or anything else so simple-minded. You can rack up one big pool against a little one, in either direction, and the roll might either diss your virtue or skate past your transgressions. In this, it's nice and existential, a lot like Humanity checks and gain rolls in Sorcerer.

So what's not to like? I'm not really taking a side on that topic yet. In theory the ambiguities and pressures seem suited for "out there in space," dangerous, moral decision-making. In practice, speaking intuitively and without analysis yet, it grinds. Tentatively, I think that its fictional identity as rank in and of itself is hard for me to care about. I talked about this in one of the reflections, that seeking commendations and climbing for promotions is very far from my interests, and that from the original series, at least (and especially since that's a big part of play for me), there was little if any indicator that higher rank in Starfleet was some kind of good thing.

It's possible that we're going to embrace this part of the rules as a highly redefined setting feature, as adversity. I doubt that's the design intention (bearing in mind that the overall design went through committee stages; I'm not talking about the original designer or any specific person), which frankly idealizes the Federation in a very Next Generation way and literally expects the player to embrace the game text's shiny Starfleet as "the best and the brightest" in a way I can only describe as revisionist-JFK Americanism. We've already shifted away from that to some extent by using the Klingon supplement's rules instead, and the way K.C. and I are playing seems to embrace that shift to the extent I'm talking about - even to regard rank and reputation almost as hostile social context, a corporate management even, to be conformed to only when we decide to, and occasionally skirted and strategically defied.

KC's reflection on Court of Opinion is my favorite so far. 

To answer some of the cool questions Ron raises above, Reputation in STA is a roll-based mechanism which informs the developing relations among the crew and between the crew and Starfleet in general based on how their actions make them seem as a crew member and a member of Starfleet. As Ron notes, the roll may indicate that a series of transgressions according to the book are considered positively in light of context - or not. The reverse is also true. KC's recent roll, for example, gave him four dice to roll with a 50/50 chance per die of earning a point of Commendation and a 5% chance per die of earning a Reprimand or Additional Commendation point and he earned.... nothing. We get to interpret the roll in context of the character and incorporate it into how that character is perceived and treated by others - including those who only know the character through reports. Obviously, Yang's stellar performance was what the crew expects of him. He is a skilled pilot and brave officer in their eyes.

Reputation, therefore, affects chances for earning or being stripped of medals, gaining promotions, facing demotions, and so on. Each effect of Reputation has a cost in Commendations or Reprimands that the player can use to help shape how their character's performance is affecting their professional relationships and their overall career. 

This is a part of the game that I appreciate for its simplicity but possibility of causing significant effects. 

As written, the Reputation score is hard to increase and gets harder as it improves, and it is initially hard to decrease, but gets easier to lose. It is independent of Rank as a character trait unless involved in it by the players. It will, however, inform decisions about a character's Role in the crew. 

Promotion and demotion are similarly priced in terms of points of Commendation/Reprimand to purchase but work the same way. Selection of these options is a signal to the GM about what sort of reward or punishment interests the player among the variety of situations that might arise in a complicated organization like Starfleet. As usual in this game, the GM has influence in the decision as well. For example, a particularly dramatic turn toward the negative might see a character earn enough points for Court-Martial, but the circumstances of the roll may indicate that that is not the most appropriate direction to take things - at least in the immediate future. 

As Ron notes, the idea of promotion is presented in TOS with much more tarnish and risk than it would be in TNG - though we do have examples in the later series about characters not wishing to accept promotion opportunities. We can color our use of Commendation/Reputation points with the palette of our choice in play. 

An interesting note is that Reprimands can be banked if unspent, but Commendations are expected to be spent immediately per the rules as written in the Klingon core book (but not the Starfleet addendum carring those rules into STA). Given the ambiguity and the differing contexts between the Klingons and Starfleet, I have determined that both types of point can be banked. 

In Court of Opinion Part 1C we see KC using one of his banked Commendations as the underlying reason Yang is able to sway the Chief of Operations to his side of a problem that he needed to resolve quickly and quietly (Buy the favor of an NPC). The interpretation is that Chief Timmons has a lot of respect for young and competent officers like Yang and has seen too many suffer setbacks because they do not also learn the political side of Starfleet. He wants to point out a way to survive in the game without selling your soul. 

Looking at the tight-knit and mission-oriented crew of the Avicenna, we can surmise that had the backstory of the campaign been played, the players were spending their commendations on medals, commending other crew with aspirations to serve in higher roles on larger ships, and in connecting with the ship's senior staff. Few, if any, are seen as being all that interested in earning the promotions they know will take them away from the ship and the work that they love. If a player seeks to play an ambitious character, they can point their points at promotion and improving Reputation. If not, they have other routes to follow~

So, we can see that Reputation affects aspects of a Starfleet officer's life, and that Rank can be a part of that for the character if the player chooses. Promotion may be offered and demotion may be threatened if it makes sense, but this is not the focus. 

Reputation itself is about what it says in its name. Who does the crew see the character as? Are they someone to be trusted or not? As Reputation changes, we see that perception and associated relationships change. 

I find this to be a refinement of the intention behind the rules printed in the STA core book, which approached the underlying meaning for the reputation roll in a similar fashion, but presented far too easy a method of earning favor and with no real reward but promotion. 

With this new version of the Reputation rules, players can build the sort of career in Starfleet that interests them and suits their character, while the organization can still be represented as it was in the original series or TNG eras by interpreting the rules and expectations of Starfleet in their different contexts. 

Of course, some groups might leave this mechanism out of their play entirely or simply decide what the outcomes of performance are. 

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