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 , 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 ; 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  and further thought  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  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  (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.