These are the voyages of the U.S.S. McAllister. His continuing mission to explore strange new games, to seek out new designers and new publishers, to boldly write down what he thinks about tabletop game related matters and hope that you like reading them.
That’s enough of that, probably.
Star Trek: Adventures was a big release in 2017 from Modiphius and I, like a lot of people, was really excited for a new RPG in one of my favourite TV universes. I had spoken to their head honcho Chris Birch at Expo and what he pitched sounded really interesting, so I eagerly picked up the PDF on release and started running it round October. A hiatus to continue a Shadowrun campaign meant we only started playing it againrecently, and I think I am ready to deliver a verdict having come back to it with fresh eyes.
Warp Speed Mr. Writer
The first thing that struck me about Star Trek Adventures was that the whole thing feels very rushed. Some chapters feature perfectly good writing but others are badly laid out, and feel ill thought through. When looking up various rules things were frequently not where I expected them. This inconsistency throughout the book extends to the art direction which goes from pictures of beautiful starships like this:
To pictures of people like Captain Doofus:
I’m not usually one to criticise art in a game, I think how it plays is more important than the looks, but this is so bad that I couldn’t skip over it. Now obviously this is a purely subjective opinion, as is this entire review, but the inconsistency in the quality and style really struck me. I just don’t get how the latter one got through an art director to the final product and the better pieces really make the weaker ones stand out.
The book follows a fairly trad construction: it has a load of setting information, then gets into character creation, how you play, and then into how you run the game. However, it is weirdly inconsistent in how it gives you that information. For instance Chapter 2.2, which details the ‘Early History of the Federation’, is just loads of little snippets of communication logs, reports etc. Whilst I get that these are meant to evoke something of the setting I would have really preferred something a little more straight forward with some of these thrown into flavour the text. The chapter previous to this is about recent events and is much more of the style I would have preferred and once more giving an inconsistent tone and structure to the book.
The layout of the book in general feels as if there was no one with an overview role: there are so many boxouts for various snippets of information that they feel almost intrusive, art that is almost full page but not quite with a snippet of text at the bottom and various other bits of layout that just feel jarring. This is a terrible first impression for a product to give, especially one from such an established publishing house as Modiphius.
The Core of the Matter
Your characters are all assumed to be members of a Starship crew and we found this to be fairly flexible, enabling you to be anyone from the Ship’s Captain to an Engineer. As you would expect their are a good few races to choose from as your starting point, from which you flesh out your career in Starfleet and your eventual assignment to a ship. I was surprised at the lack of a Klingon choice since the game is set round the time of TNG and DS9 , with Worf being one of the most recognisable characters. All these steps give you a reasonably well fleshed out character with a bunch of stats showing what they are good at (Departments), how they do it (Attributes), if they have any specialisations (Focus) as well as enough background information to jump into action.
The core of the game is Modiphius’ 2d20 system that runs across many of their games: Conan, the upcoming Infinity RPG, and Mutant Chronicles. It’s a fairly straightforward pool based system which isn’t bad in and of itself and actually allows you to be flexible in your approach to situations which is always a nice touch.
The problems started to come for us when we wanted the characters to interact with the ship. The ship acts like a separate character assisting by rolling as well and adding the successes. This means if you are doing lots of stuff on the bridge, you are constantly having to calculate and roll for two seperate characters. It’s clunky and takes way too much processing time, leaving ship play feeling sluggish, exasperating, and once again rushed. When you get into ship combat it gets even more complicated as every ‘position’ on the bridge can do multiple things, which force me to make a bunch of cheat sheets. It feels untested.
The other string to the bow of the system is that of Threat and Momentum. Particularly successful actions give the players Momentum, which can be spent on later tasks for advantages. The GM gets a pool of threat that he can spend in similar ways to cause problems for the players. I am personally not a great fan of currency systems like this that regulate the interaction between the players and the GM. Especially not in this case, where the GM can arbitrarily add threat whenever he feels like it, potentially unbalancing the situation quite badly. What is the point of a threat system if it just comes down to an arbitrary call by the GM? Momentum can be used for so many things that I had to make a cheat sheet up to remind everyone what it could do. This is a far cry from the similar Fate chip system in FATE that has a very simple application of their currency that everyone can hold in their heads.
Coming back to a positive: One of the things the system encourages is that you don’t play your main character all the time. What this means is if the Away Team go down to the planet but the First Officer stays on board, they can take on the role of the security guard or similar. This is a great idea and we have really been enjoying this aspect of play, as it strongly reflects the tone of the series: Picard is not on every away mission. However, and typically for this system, creating these secondary characters on the fly is way too complex, involving sketching out all their stats in far too much detail. They should have one Attribute, one Discipline, maybe a Focus. That’s it. They can be fleshed out later if they prove to be important, but I don’t understand why you would want people to stop for 5-10 mins during play to flesh out Petty Officer Johnson.
If all you have is a phaser…..
Let’s talk about the book’s obsession with combat. If you were coming to this game knowing nothing about the Star Trek universe then you might think that what Starfleet officers do a lot of is fighting: their ongoing mission to shoot anything that moves and ask questions later. There are 3 pages dedicated to talking about social encounters, 12 pages dedicated to fighting on the ground, and another 15 pages on starship battles.
As to the how the game wants you to handle scientific discovery and research, well it’s a joke. The best session I ran was my last one and for about 30 mins the players just speculated about what was going on; making up the science behind the mystery. I admit I had given up on the system by this time. However, if I had implemented the research system as it stands I would have had to decide what the solution was before they even started talking, then not tell them if they were on the wrong path until they had enough rolls. What even is that? “Oh sorry the last 30 mins of roleplay have been almost entirely pointless. Anyway what’s your next guess?”
The majority of Star Trek episodes are resolved through talking, scientific nonsense and talking. Sure there is the Dominion War and there are scenes of combat in all the series but always there is something else going on in the storyline. Combat exists to hit an exciting story beat, not as an end in and of itself. This book feels like it wants you to be in combat all the time and gives no advice how to tackle more sci-fi focused episodes like ‘Offspring’ or ‘Measure of a Man’ (yes I like TNG), or even if you should. Maybe Modiphius weren’t allowed to reference the TV show, but that seems unlikely given the flavour in the 2.2 section I mentioned earlier. What I really wanted from the GM section was ‘here is an episode that would work really well as a session’ and ‘here is one that would not’ and why those things are the case. It is a section that feels like it has just been copied and pasted from another book, and may as well not have existed.
It’s all up to the Captain
The book lays a lot on the shoulders of the GM, something that more modern systems have come away from: emphasising the role of the players at the table in bringing the fun and contributing to the fiction. If you are a new GM I would avoid this game like the plague. The advice, what there is of it, is to think up some scenes then put them together into a mission. I mean you might do this, but in general I think most people will think of an idea for a mission, maybe based off a star trek episode like I’ve been doing. You would then maybe think up some set pieces to feature in it, building a coherent narrative round the core idea. This section again emphasises combat over social encounters and scientific discovery: giving much more advice on how to set up the former over the latter two.
This advice is fundamentally at odds with pretty much every ‘How to run this game’ chapter I have ever read, and my own instincts as a reasonably well seasoned GM. You could argue that an experienced GM will skip a lot of this part of the book, but that’s no excuse for the section to be this poor and it is absolutely no help if you are a first timer.
As to resources from Modiphius themselves, they are noticeable by their absence. Character sheets yes, but no cheat sheets and no list of bridge stations (there is so much that you do at each station I had to make up my own). You can get access to their living campaign stuff which I have not had a chance to look at, but that seems to be it for free support.
I will admit that we have been having a great time playing in the Star Trek Universe and this game did give us the kick to do that.
That is it for positives I’m afraid. Let’s cut to the heart of the matter: It’s a bad game that has been rushed out the door and I do not understand the high praise it has been getting.
The system is incredibly clunky, doesn’t guide you in creating sessions that feel like an actual Star Trek episode, and is bafflingly obsessed with combat. There are no broad strokes in the system - no abstractions to make things feel more like Star Trek. The system feels very simulationist in nature, which is not what you want in a universe where science is mostly established on the fly by people speaking technobabble.
A good game system can be picked up when you need and should melt away when you don’t. 2d20, at least in this implementation, constantly makes its presence known: from extended tasks to the ridiculous way they want you to handle research.
Star Trek Adventures makes me angry. Not merely disappointed, but angry. It feels like a massively wasted opportunity that has been designed for existing roleplayers and is in no way set up to encourage new people into the hobby. “Discovery” was on TV when this released so it could have brought with it a whole host of new players, much like the excellent new edition of Dungeons and Dragons has. Modiphius are releasing a starter set soon, which might go some way to addressing this failing, but the promo shot they have shown has a character in a combat stance with a gun, once more emphasising the focus on violence.
The game seems to have been doing massively well but a lot of the accessories released are minis and floor plans, and I don’t get why you would want that sort of play: worth noting most of the minis are holding weapons of one form or another. This is not D&D in space nor should it be. Star Trek has always been about hope, the possible future of mankind, our ingenuity and kindness, our weaknesses but also our strengths. Star Trek: Adventures is about combat, byzantine rules systems, and more combat. Frankly, it feels like a cynical cash in on a beloved licence.
Star Trek: Adventures was bought in PDF form with Iain's own money. This review was originally published in 2018.