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Sci-fi: You get Setting, not Cast

My wife and I are enjoying a free trial of the Star Trek Online game this week. So far, the game is fun: you get the feel of the universe, the uniforms you know and love, plus all of the technology, aliens, ship combat and a good mix of away missions. So far, it feels like a new Star Trek TV series, with your character as the star.

So I looked at my Sci-fi RPG books

Playing the online game made me think about the Star Trek RPG. I own the most recent edition, by Decipher, and it has well written books and a solid looking system. The Narrator’s Guide has excellent advice about plotting a session to match the same dramatic structure as a TV show. Despite that, it is much harder to find people who want to play in its universe than in the Star Wars universe. (At least that’s true in my area.)

Babylon 5 was a show I really enjoyed– I thought for the universe. But after I purchased the RPG, I realized that what I wanted to see was more interaction between the characters of the show– not running around the universe with Babylon 5 out there somewhere. Even keeping the roles constant by making the PCs the ambassadors in a parallel universe didn’t seem likely to strike the right sparks.

Last year, we played Serenity [1], based on the Firefly series. We enjoyed the game system and setting, but it didn’t wind up feeling much like the TV show. The setting felt right (lots of western themes, visited planets and cities mentioned on the show), but our crew never came together. The tensions from our backgrounds and flaws wound up overwhelming us– instead of engaging Mal/Jayne type tensions, our captain soon faced mutiny.

Crew and Characters versus Universe

It seems like Star Trek should work out great– we know that several shows with different characters wander the same universe, entirely disconnected from each other. The appeal should be playing in Star Trek, not playing Picard, Kirk, or Janeway and crew. The computer game does a good job of giving you a ship and crew to manage– there aren’t the interactions between you and your crew that you’d see in a show, but you are free to imagine personality traits while you equip and train them.

Conversely, Babylon 5 seems like a game where I want to play the stars of the show– snarling at G’Kar as Lando, struggling with Delenn as Lennier, and so on. I suspect that’s because while the universe advances and changes dramatically, the focus remains concentrated on the station and interactions there. So when you look at the rest of the universe, it is a universe transformed… but the rest of the universe isn’t where I want to play. If I do get to play, it probably won’t be as an ambassador, but as something entirely new, like a ranger or a trader profiting from the reduced restrictions in the wake of the shadow war.

On the other hand, look at Star Wars. The focus of the movies was narrow, but enough places were painted brightly that we want to revisit them. A wealth of additional material was created in comics, video games, and books– the setting is wide and the roles are iconic. It’s not hard to imagine being a Jedi less whiny than young Luke, or of participating in rebel missions elsewhere in the galaxy– or seizing the opportunities in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction and making your mark on the galaxy. (Also: the interactions between the core characters are neat, but it’s what they do that’s the focus. It isn’t hard to imagine running an alternate universe Rebellion with your PCs as the prime movers… your path could be very different, as could the group’s tensions, and it would still feel like Star Wars if it had blasters, light sabers, and storm troopers.)

Firefly is interesting as well; the series was short and open enough that running additional stories with Mal and crew is easy to imagine. Serenity is just one ship in the black– playing another trader should work well. It should… but the interactions of Serenity’s crew are really well designed. Playing in the universe with a new crew is fun, but it is hard to match the tension and interaction of the series crew. Without that interaction the setting is solid, but it can be a bit difficult to figure out what you do. Getting jobs to turn a profit in a tough universe can be a little too simple without the spark of PCs at cross purposes.

No matter which setting you play, you’re looking at the crew of a ship (or station)– a familiar base, constant interactions between the crew, and new challenges most sessions (either the ship visiting somewhere new, or a new disturbance visiting your station). The constant, your crew, is something that is expected to come together. It could use some structure to ensure that crew interactions– the constant of the series, even if it is background to the week’s plot– are rich.

Interaction by Design

In many campaigns, I require that the players provide links between the PCs. While this is a decent first step, and has worked very well at providing a group that hangs together organically, it doesn’t guarantee an engaging party.

The Chatty DM took it one step further with his Party Creation Session Template [2]; during the character creation session each PC selects two positive relationships with other PCs and one tension with a PC.

Chris Chinn delves deeper with some musing [3] and further thought [4] about what is required to make protagonists interact interestingly. Note that his required elements 3 and 4 are exactly Chatty’s positive and tense relationships between characters.

Christian [5] tackles creating intense character interaction from a different point of view: by looking at the tensions and taboos between the characters. This looks like a really good method for baking in interesting interactions to explore throughout the series during character generation.

Or am I all wet?

It could be that my hangups are mine alone. We know that Matthew doesn’t like playing the Star Wars universe [6] (for different reasons, but still). Have you had success playing in the Babylon 5 universe? Do you have good ways of making sure that player character interactions snap, without driving a wedge between the PCs?

If you have the formula for making crews with interesting interactions week after week, please share the secret with us in comments.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Sci-fi: You get Setting, not Cast"

#1 Comment By BryanB On February 11, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

I’ve often wondered what turns people off in our area about playing Star Trek games. I’ve had some great ideas for the setting but have never been able to sell enough players on the idea to make it go. Star Wars is an easy sell, while Star Trek seems to taunt me with unfulfilled promise. I can’t explain it. Perhaps I need to have a much better pitch prepared for it.

Babylon Five was a show I enjoyed. I think that roleplaying in this setting would be fun but problematic. Like Firefly, B5 has memorable characters that have an engaging chemistry that is hard to match, much less surpass. You end up with the right setting tropes, but not the same feel as the shows.

Considering the good metaplot of B5, it would be very much like Lord of the Rings is in fantasy for me. How can I possibly equal or surpass the original storyline? Do I even want to try?

One reason I place my Star Wars game in the KOTOR era is because I have a blank canvass and I don’t feel constrained by Star Wars canon. The players don’t have to worry about being overshadowed by Luke, Han, and Leia because their PCs are the icons of their time. Doing this with B5 and Firefly might be possible, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Star Trek is a different animal. It is very episode driven with new worlds being visited in nearly every show. There is enough focus on exploration and alien encounters to keep the PC’s well isolated from contemporary heroes like Kirk, Picard, and Sisko. Not that it can’t be fun to run into a Federation hero at one of the starbases, “Hey look guys, it’s the Enterprise.”

Just thought I’d share my thoughts. 😀

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 11, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

Speaking only for myself, I don’t like playing in or running games in established universes. I’m trying to define ‘why’, but coming up blank.

I do like similar or customized universes, but for some reason “it’s Star Wars” always gets in the way of “it’s our campaign”.

Anyone else, or am I the only one self-centered enough to think that whatever I’m doing is cooler than Star Wars?

#3 Comment By d7 On February 11, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

It’s possible that saying to a player “We’re playing Star Trek!” is much like telling them “We’re playing an all-paladin game!” Star Trek officers are all upstanding and good. The differences between them (and hence the tensions) are at a more subtle plane of interaction than most players tend to think about.

Then again, maybe that’s just me. My initial reaction to imagining being offered a spot in a Star Trek RPG is, “I have no idea what kind of character would be interesting to play,” so I could just be projecting.

#4 Comment By unwinder On February 11, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

The thing is, Star Wars in an action-adventure franchise, while Star Trek is just science fiction.

If you play a Star Wars game that stays true to the feel of the films, you’ll have lightsaber duels, dogfights, and daring escapes.

If you play a Star Trek game that stays true to the feel of the shows, even when there’s a combat situation, it’s typically either over in thirty seconds, or at a stalemate until the protagonists can figure out the mystery of the week.

I wouldn’t mind playing a Star Trek campaign at all. In fact, I would vastly prefer it over a Star Wars one. But it takes a pretty special kind of gamer to look at Leonard Nimoy or Patrick Stewart and think, “I want to be that guy!”

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 12, 2010 @ 12:05 am

As a huge fan of sci-fi movies/TV and RPGs, I’m still wrapping my head around this article — you make some excellent, excellent points. I have to say that I’d never thought about setting vs. characters vs. other factors in quite this way.

I’ll be over here, scratching my head and evaluating things. Thanks for the food for thought!

#6 Comment By peter On February 12, 2010 @ 2:06 am


I have tried running star wars games and I am also gonna try out serenity some day. but the problem I mostly have with those games is that the pc’s are not the center of the universe. somewhere out there cooler more interessting people are hanging around doing things that matter way more. (luke, han and leia) (mal,jayne,simon, kaylee, etc…)

#7 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On February 12, 2010 @ 10:16 am

[8] – In the ‘Serenity’ film, the main crew does temporarily become the most important people in the galaxy. However, if you expand your inspiration resources to the ‘Firefly’ TV series, you’ll see that the main characters are largely insignificant compared to the ‘Verse around them. All the things they did could’ve been done by just about any other freelance freighter with a hodge-podge crew.

However, I can attest to the fact that a Serenity game hinges greatly on character. The setting is awesome, but it’s so similar to our modern era in so many ways, that it doesn’t make a game interesting all by itself.

#8 Comment By BryanB On February 12, 2010 @ 11:06 am

[7] – Let us know when your game narratives take in more than two BILLION dollars in gross ticket sales and then we’ll talk about what’s cooler. 😀

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On February 12, 2010 @ 11:59 am

[9] – Yup; without the crew, Firefly’s universe is a little flat, and B5 has little left for me.

[7] – I often prefer homebrew worlds, but most of the SF game engines are tied to a setting. (The few that aren’t, that I’ve read, were… not good systems.)

[10] and [11] – Those are very good POVs; the “all good” and held to that standard is tricky. The de-emphasis of combat as the solution is also contrary to normal RPG expectations. Interestingly, increasing reliance on combat was a huge part of the Star Trek Online universe setup… so evidently they saw the same issue and altered their timeline to a war footing to justify the change.

[12] – I think that’s part of Firefly’s difficulty. It’s like the problem with an A-Team RPG… how is that different than any other modern day setting once you change out the leads?

[13] – I don’t know… even impromptu around the gaming table dialogue (and no Natalie Portman) still resulted in better on screen romances in our games. Besides, can’t you imagine Jaris’s taunt on screen, “Do you need Katrina to help you with that?”

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 12, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

[8] – After thinking about it, I’m writing my own article as a counterpoint. Look for it sometime next week…

[13] – When I can come up with an NPC as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks, and a ‘superpowers explanation’ as infuriating as midichlorians (and a possible virgin birth), I’ll be satisfied. 😉

#11 Comment By BryanB On February 12, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

[14] – Yes, our character’s in-game romances and competitive barbs were much more fun than listening to Portman and Christensen grind out the cheesiest lines ever to appear on the big screen. Not that it took that much effort to pull that off. Still, settings that are cooler than Star Wars? That just isn’t in this geek’s vocabulary. 😀

#12 Comment By BryanB On February 12, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

[15] – Point taken. And please don’t. 😀

#13 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On February 12, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

@BryanB- Cooler than Star Wars? The Firefly setting does that for me, but perhaps that’s because I really, really want to see more of what happens with Mal and crew. Star Wars is tons of fun to play in without ever referencing any of the rebellion. One of my friends noted, however, that it acts a bit like Shadowrun when you do. I’m not sure I agree with him, but I can see where the comparison comes from.

To digress a bit into anime, or rather, its derivative, the old Robotech RPG seems to suffer from a similar problem. The universe is exciting, and full of character tension and combat. However, playing in the first two generations feels limiting in just the same way as B5: the central characters, and timeline, are so focused that it becomes hard to pull away from them.

The third generation, the Invid Invasion, is easier to operate in because the central group featured in the show isn’t the only group of survivors on the Earth. And they don’t do anything positively epic until the final battle of the series, and that’s when all the resistance fighters show up at Reflex point to put an end to the Invid anyway.

A Stargate RPG has the potential to work out the same. There are many SG teams performing different missions out there. You only see the most important one on screen (SG-1), but it does touch on the fact that there are many others doing important works so that the central team can do all the world saving. And that’s not to say that another team could have saved the world once or twice; the first series was about the flagship team after all!

There is a timeline to the Invid Invasion, but only so far as there is a beginning and an end. Stargate SG-1 focused on the primary team, but there were many teams out there, and the show did reference that their exploits contributed to the overall story. So much can happen in between to so many different people that countless stories can be told about them in their respective series. This, I think, is a requirement to translate a movie/TV show into an RPG. That there can be other people running around doing important things, even if they are not the MOST important. Providing a niche for the players to exploit will allow them to feel important, and feel they are contributing to the story as a whole and are not just second stringers watching from the sidelines.

#14 Comment By Katana_Geldar On February 13, 2010 @ 4:49 am

I have taken several looks at this in my blog, as I run Star Wars Saga and want to run it within canon as it saves me a lot of work. I can use particular big events, like the Second Battle of Coruscant or the Destruction of Coruscant as “story cues” and not have to explain a lot to the players (hopefully).

Yet if you want to keep within the established universe without running into anything huge, like creating five Death Stars, you need to take the game to a time and place where the players can be the heroes of their own stories. And every player has that right!

You need to find the right time (like the KOTOR era for instance) or else homebrew a few planets for your heroes to save. It is, after all, a big galaxy.

Just hope you don’t get Ubergeek at the table, whom I have chosen to call the Canon Lawyer.

#15 Comment By Gamerprinter On February 15, 2010 @ 11:30 am

Yeah, you’ve nailed it on the head. The movie/tv/book setting is different than the cast and setting. Its the reason I don’t play BSG or Serenity – I don’t want to be Apollo or Shepherd. As a player I feel railroaded if forced to take the aspects of a character from the movie/tv/book. Trying to play a different character then deviates from the storyline.

I admit to borrowing ideas from different films and other sources for adventure ideas, but I never use a setting verbatim – and never purchase a setting based on such.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 15, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

[8] [16] Article published.

It’s probably not going to be my most popular piece, but it’s how I feel.

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On February 16, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

[17] – I like your point: there needs to be a real and positive role for the PCs, no matter what the NPCs are doing. It’s annoying when a GM saves the day with their pet NPC– how much more annoying when a writer does everything cool before the game ever begins.

[18] – I’m a huge fan of borrowing the ideas– often a borrowed character is deeper than one you create in its entirety on the fly. And if you blend it with one or two other characters it can be deep and tough to track…

[19] – I like your view in the article– given a good system and plenty of buy-in, I agree that homebrew is far more tailored to the PCs and generally better.

#18 Pingback By February 2010 Blog Roundup: Choice Bits « My Girlfriend is a DM On February 28, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

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#19 Pingback By February 2010 Blog Roundup: Choice Bits : My Girlfriend is a DM On September 5, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

[…] Martin writes about RPing in sci-fi universes like Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5 and makes the astute observation that while characters are the source of their appeal, what we usually get is a se…: Serenity is just one ship in the black– playing another trader should work well. It should… […]