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Questions of Duty

I'm on posting duty for our first official, post-pilot episode of Star Trek Adventures, "Questions of Duty," as Anthony is battling complications (a bit like our characters were).

The video embedded below goes right to the episode, or rather, the first of the four sessions we took to play it. So you know, the episodes are recorded and edited by Anthony, and then they end up in various playlists. Those playlists are getting complicated, with lots of reflections and breaking out conversations during play into their own subsets. For reference, the links to each are: Anthony's (Runeslinger) and mine; K.C.'s is currently under revision, and that's why a bunch of the videos are temporarily marked private, so I'll add it later. I think they're all pretty similar, but pick whichever you like most to see the scope of this game and dialogues about it.

So far, each fictional episode has required four sessions of play, which is bad, good, or indifferent depending on your point of view. Mine leans toward neutrality, in the sense of "it takes as long as it takes," but it's also true that K.C. and I are reaching for mechanics now rather than riffling through them and wondering what they do, so maybe that will reduce the play-time to fiction-happenings as a side effect.

For the tie-in to the original series, Anthony was gutsy to choose "Elaan of Troyius," which I, at least, would have placed low on the list of episodes I feel like rewatching. It's not aversive for me, fortunately, so we were - it seems to me - in the position of saying, let's see what gold we may spin from this minor but possibly intriguing mess. Specifically, he put the focus on the geopolitical (not "geo," but you know what I mean) and investigative situation rather than the original episode's "her tears make you fall in love" angle.

That episode is also notable for dipping into the most-likely last available makeup jars at the closing-or-closed Desilu Studios, in the spirit of "might as well use this stuff up," so we have two races/species/whatever in full space opera glam mode, as opposed to the dirt-and-grit mode that characterizes a lot of our named foundational-episodes for our game. I mentioned in one of the screen conversations that as a kid, I'd only seen the episode in black and white, so the unutterable green-itude of the Troyians hadn't made an impression on me, and seeing it later was a bit shocking, and still seems strange even now, as opposed to, say, the Orion woman or Marta (other green people in other episodes).

That's relevant because, during the session, I mixed up the spoken names for the two peoples constantly, whether speaking or hearing. It was frustrating because I was clear in my mind whether it was the "green floofies" or "bronze beefcakes," but absolutely muddled in terms of play content - what is heard, incorporated, and returned. I didn't realize I was doing this so much until the last third (in episode or fictional time), when we had one ship firing on another ship, the Avicenna grabbing one of them in a tractor beam under the captain's orders, and thereafter, threatening one of them with annihilation under Korsakov's ... anyway, once you mix up what you said about which in a situation like that, it's really hard to dial back so that play doesn't hit the Murk.

Actual Play


Ron Edwards's picture

I’ll follow up regarding our reflections so far about the episode: Anthony’s, mine, and I’ll add K.C.’s when he posts it. We don’t watch these before recording our own, so what follows are my thoughts after watching Anthony’s, and I’d like anyone else to hop into the discussion with us.

Regarding violence and specifically harm to Korsakov, first, yes, I was quite happy to see any such thing in play and also to go where the system and our use of it takes us. The question remains open whether scary-looking violence looks scarier than it is, given the ways one may negate it ... but I am cautiously optimistic that the resource limitations put the harsher outcomes within reach during play more often than not.

Knowing that I’m speaking of a single experience, it may seem as though Korsakov “got out of jail free by spending a point,” but (i) we do have injury to deal with later, it doesn’t just go away; and significantly, (ii) it wasn’t for free. If I’m understanding the rules correctly, we bought Korsakov’s survival with ceding the Hellene system to the Klingons. They weren’t actually doing the dirty deeds which brought us there, but they were perfectly happy to scoop up the spoils when we were not able to use the resources which saved Korsakov’s life to get better outcomes in the shipboard conflicts and resulting conversations.

Observing T’lyek as played through the departure of his player, and thus conversion to NPC status, I think the result might be called “the Janeway effect,” or a mild version anyway. It’s only to be expected, considering it’s more or less for the same reasons: different writers being landed with something (a character) who was still in shaping-mode and subject to varying expectations for what a captain was supposed to be, in conceptual clash with the openness for what a captain could be.

As a feature of our episode, I really liked the incomplete information per character, especially given the super-tech communication available, i.e., these blinks and beeps don’t solve the basic human problem of varying information and interpretations across a complicated, difficult “plot” landscape.

Finally, regarding snappy scenes and character engagement, I find (so far) as a player that doing this runs into a barrier: the necessity of gathering information all the time and driving it as deep into the system as you can go, each time.

Now, that may be a function of simply learning the techniques for it and learning, or interpreting, that “you gotta do this” in order to play effectively and have any hope of enough perspective, Advantage (i.e. assigning others Complications), and Momentum to get on top of an oncoming problem. Our problems have been multi-angled enough for me to veer toward “get lots of info, and if you roll well, more of it,” in light of the tutorial that Anthony provided as well.

So maybe the new player-skill is to stop trawling and analyzing ... but if that means we change the scene and decay some Momentum without using it, or actually scuttle some role-playing interactions and opinion-sharing among characters, then I know it'll be a struggle to seek an enjoyable balance.

We have just played the first session of the next episode, and I think we had a good discussion on some of these topics which will appear as a Table Talk video with the AP, but I want to take advantage of sleeping dogs to add a little here as well. Thanks for putting the post up, Ron, and yes - the make-up is extraordinarily green!

There is a truism that no preparation survives contact with the players, and with my preferences about preparation, that is the sort of truism that does not mesh with my experiences. One interesting thing about STA is the many ways that Threat can be spent to not just respond to, complicate, or change preparation and/or the situation, but it also puts constraints on what sort of alteration can be made based entirely on how the players are playing (ie how much Threat are they generating and causing the NPCs to generate?)

An observation that has been more personally relevant to me is that what the GM might perceive as an obvious truth, a clear path, an easy assumption, a simple challenge, a low-difficulty roll, etc may turn out at the table to not be so. An imagined objective reality contributed to play by the GM is limited by the GM's capacity to describe and present it to the players, and the things we mistakenly perceive as a given (eg: all players will want to kill orcs as a first resort, everyone will want to resist the lure of the Dark Side, everyone will recognize that the butler is suspicious, no one will suspect the idealistic inventor, etc) may never have been true for those players, or could be caused to be untrue by the act of presentation itself. In other words, the GM might think that they have prepared a spark to ignite play, but are actually presenting wet tinder, a campfire, a bonfire, or an inferno and not realize it until play surprises them in terms of how it is perceived by the other players. That interesting thing about STA (among many) that I like is that it turns this fairly common situation into an avenue for play by the GM, rather than a reason to resort to other tactics such as illusion of choice, laying of track, or whatever. With a new group, there is a period of learning about each other where this effect goes from very common to less common and so I was really glad to have a chance to chat about that tonight with Ron and KC by asking them, "Just how opaque was Questions of Duty?"  "What was it like to be a player in it?" 

As for Korsakov's injury being the road to greater Klingon positioning in the Hellena system, that is right on the money. While Avoid Injury will not always have such grand spin-off effects, it does mean that resources that are spent to make it happen cannot be spent on other endeavors. Complications of injury left unresolved may also interfere with further endeavors giving the player a choice about what to use their time, effort, and limited resources on. 

LorenzoC's picture

There is one lingering question I have from having watched reflections and read these comments (I'm a bit behind with the actual plays, however, so maybe you actually see it in action there): how does Threat actually work?

The way you describe it seems like it's immensely important and covers a lot of areas that in many other games are simply dismissed as "GM authority". And that being the case, how is that "authority" limited in this game, so that Threat may have significance?

Threat is a resource for the GM to use in two ways. The first is that it functions exactly like Momentum for the NPCs (increase number of dice, create advantage/problem, etc). The second is that it is used to change the established facts of preparation or the current situation (add reinforcements, introduce new complications or context, etc).

So, Threat gets used to attack PCs with Lethal force, to suddenly have an ally be a traitor, to add more Romulan ships to a space battle, to make a repair or other Task harder, etc.  or it is spent to bring in new scene elements on the conceptual level that change the view of what is happening (the giant space manta draining power from the warp engine is not evil it is a lost infant seeking its peace-loving parents, or despite your great charm and skill the Ambassador suddenly breaks off negotiations, or you successfully beam down to Ceti Alpha 6 but learn on arrival it is really Ceti Alpha 5...).

The uses of Threat have set costs. The sources of Threat are clearly defined as is the amount that will be generated by a source. 

This all helps define options for the GM which help reinforce the feel of Star Trek TV (if you are versed in it) and creates tension as the PC and NPC actions build Threat thereby opening up more and more substantial options for change within a scene.

The GM has their initial preparation which is created without cost (a cloakef Romulan ship is attacking Outposts in this sector).

In play the rise of the Threat pool might suggest when to pay for the Romulans to attack with intent to destroy (as opposed to fight with intent to elude which would not remove Threat from the pool). It could introduce sensor failure or moralw problems on the PC vessel, it could put an emotional spin on the risks of combat (a loved one is on board or 2 crew members are getting married) and it can put that emotion under duress (the loved one is injured or trapped in a damaged area).

Ideally, the GM tries to build Threat at a pace that matches the Situation they have prepared and seeks to spend it all in play, though they do not need to  Using or not using all of the Threat has no game effect other than having or not having it to change a scene.


Ron Edwards's picture

An observation that has been more personally relevant to me is that what the GM might perceive as an obvious truth, a clear path, an easy assumption, a simple challenge, a low-difficulty roll, etc may turn out at the table to not be so. ... the GM might think that they have prepared a spark to ignite play, but are actually presenting wet tinder, a campfire, a bonfire, or an inferno and not realize it until play surprises them in terms of how it is perceived by the other players. That interesting thing about STA (among many) that I like is that it turns this fairly common situation into an avenue for play by the GM, ... I was really glad to have a chance to chat about that tonight with Ron and KC by asking them, "Just how opaque was Questions of Duty?"  "What was it like to be a player in it?" 

There’s some risk of time-travel in my reply, because the above quote refers to a conversation accompanying the first session of Episode 2, to be posted soon. Since I did not answer this question directly in that conversation, and since it is about Episode 1 and has been raised here, I think it’s OK to paddle ahead.

Briefly, the whole backstory and adversarial information was in fact opaque to me in terms of “what’s going on.” I did not spot anything about the acting parties and what they may be up to, and every fact/revelation for me came about via Anthony saying it (as a rolled outcome, typically). Even the suspiciously beefy Troyians merely led me to quip “I guess they’ve been working out,” rather than thinking outwards into what that could possibly mean or be. I deduced literally nothing.

I guess you could say “I was playing my guy.” As I saw it, Korsakov thought, “Maybe Klingons are up to something, and if they are, we’ll be ready; maybe they’re not, and these people are up to some stupidity of their own; or hell, maybe there’s no problem and that ship just got lost. We’ll see.” I looked at it his way.

However, that is not an ideological or style statement. This isn’t because I’m some paragon of allegedly-immersive anti-meta play or anything of the sort. I have nothing against cross-referencing combinations of first-series episodes, in a way that results in me going “Ohhh!” But I didn’t even start thinking that way in this case. No deductive “let’s see, the Hellena system + dilithium crystals + Orions, so ...” process kicked in. From a perspective that may have hoped or expected me to do that or be in that head-space, why not?

I’m pretty sure why not. I’m relating to the original series as a creative medium rather than an array of setting/plot points. I think of First Response less as a setting-faithful sequel to the original show, more as a definite spin-off. I guess I have almost no “squee” in me about confirming or developing plot points from the original series, so I didn’t make an active effort to find squee-worthy content. For example, when this episode went straight to the Hellena system, I can tell you my player-side reaction: “Do we have to?” Which I silently accepted as “Well, Anthony wants to, and it is his God-given right to do it, so let’s get into this in good faith” ... without putting up my setting-attentive antennae toward “Elaan of Troyius” or any other episode.

Is that bad? Going by the general textual vibe, kind of, yeah. The text very definitely treats the Star Trek Universe as a glorious 300 years of backstory and a brilliant sprawl of people to be and places to go, and the “change” (improvement/alteration) system is even conducted as if the Next Generation Federation were real and we as players are hoping we’re worthy of it. In that context, a solid squee factor and active, attentive deductions about invocations of prior episodes would be welcome components of play. But this context is unfortunately way off my personal mark.

So how to fix it? I don’t see a need. I don’t think anything needs to be changed or fixed. If I don’t get into the deductive mode (or not much), and if Anthony comes in doing this (a little, a lot, whatever), then I see no inevitable problem of mismatching. We’ll get an episode about Yang and Korsakov, no matter what. Maybe, for any given future episode, I’ll ramp that responsive deduction up a little, maybe Anthony will ramp that specific sort of prep-expectation down a little, or – important – for either of us, maybe not. I’m OK with the experience and result, however it goes.

Ron Edwards's picture

All the above is related to another topic we’ve been kicking around in conversations for a while: the contrast between prepared content, i.e., “this is what’s up, you’re sailing into it,” vs. content that gets created due to rolled results, i.e., Complications and (lots of) Threat. Because the system creates a truckload of the latter.

Here’s what I think: that if you prep an array of problems and put some depth into each one, new Complications and Threats created during play are likely to turn the whole thing messy or awry. You don’t have anywhere here left to go with the stuff you have, basically, so you have to go up and out. As a side point, regarding Threat, you also have to decide whether it means tougher stuff to fight (bigger ships and guns, more monster powers, etc) or more layers of stuff to figure out or locate.

In my experience so far, information is extremely important on the player-side, so for every identifiable bit of content, players must trawl for its details and backstory like blazes. Not just some, but a lot, and then when you discover something, you need to know some more. So the constant addition of content means more of this too, which really eats into the time/opportunity for interaction, characterization, and emergent conflicts or accords.

That’s led me to consider less-now + more-in-play prep for this game (hypothetically as I’m not the GM), so that one might start with a monster killing people on a mining planet, and only establish its lethality and unusual mobility as created during play as Threat, and establish its intelligence, the Vault of Tomorrow, and its mommy-hood during play via Complications. For this game, all such information is provided by the GM, so the notion is not too radical: it merely attenuates ordinary GM prep into the play-experience, it’s not some communal improv thing. The GM may even harbor some pre-set notions for these components, although acknowledging that players might, for example, strongly favor Threat over Complications this time (or vice versa) so some of the notions won’t get into play.

The text never mentions this topic and, as I see it, tends to work against its own system by espousing GM-forward control of events and information, but I think the actual procedures strongly favor this method of “make a nice solid start, then be ready to get Complicated and Threatening with new content.”

As a thought-experiment, in our conversations I’ve toyed with the idea of starting absurdly minimal, e.g., “Spock is sick,” and given a bunch of rolls we eventually find ourselves loaded with Complications and Threat, resulting in a player-on-player death-duel embedded in a frenzied biological mating urge + cheating spouse’s scheming plot + pitiful planet nearby that needs help + potential breakdown of Earth-Vulcan relations. That might be pushing it in terms of the game’s mechanics, and I don’t think I’d start that small, but I maintain that such a sequence of play is understandable and manageable using this game’s rules, whereas a “complete” prep for a finely-tuned mystery-and-SF-and-villain adventure isn’t.

So ... taking this to our Episode 1, and after asking Anthony for feedback, I know his prep wasn’t super-detailed: pretty much “a ship is missing,” albeit weighted or nuanced by using the canonical diplomatically-difficult location. I think this reinforces my point that content mushrooms fast in play for this game. From there to Orions as the hidden active adversary, the Orions’ first layer of disguise pretending to be Klingons in terms of codes and ship design, the Orions’ second layer of disguise as Troyians, the political kerfuffle on one of the planets, the breakdown of negotiations onboard the Avicenna and the ensuing firefight ... it’s huge. The play-generated Complications and Threat tended to instigate more investigative attention as well, e.g., hunting for the missing ship.

“Bad or good” isn’t the issue; rather, it’s all about learning what this game requires and does. It seems to me that anyone taking the GM role for it needs to be ready for a very full plate, and I’m still processing what this means regarding the chances for characters to interact, including expressing or comparing Values.

Where I find myself with STA in this campaign, much like I did with the previous campaign, is feeling my way toward uses of Threat that have the following characteristics:

  • Rooted in the Situation and - if appropriate - a response to Player generation of Threat
  • Scaled to both the Scene and Situation
  • Not as an addition to the Situation but as an adjustment or as a refinement of nuance

Part of this - and the hardest part from my perspective - is the Situation. The factors that make it challenging to establish functionally and fruitfully for STA play as I see it are playing using the logic of episodic television, and finding a balance of flexibility in Approach and depth of Setting. 

Another part is being able to then apply these thoughts to the group one is playing with and being willing and able to make adjustments for what will and won't be useful, or what will and won't register or appeal (ie: not setting the Situation to revolve around Scientific Invention for a crew who wants to make First Contact with thought-provoking aliens). 

One more part is being able to apply Threat to the ongoing play to enhance what is developing rather than guide it. 

Sean_RDP's picture

When I ran STA, Threat played two particular roles in the game. First, it acted as a visible, psychological piece of tension. I stacked the threat on the table where everyone could see it (and the same with momentum). And when Threat was added I would dramatically drop another chip onto the ever growing pile. Keep in mind we were playing this in person.

The second way was to build tension. I didn't use it as much in response to character's generating it. I use tension in games to refocus the players if the game is beginning to drift. I am not sure that my approach to Threat or Momentum was as refined as it should have been. 

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