Sunday, January 18, 2015

Myriad Universes: Star Trek: The Next Generation FASA Role-Playing Game

Here's another one of those things that crop up every now and again that, while I'm sort of obligated to cover them, I'm a bit out of my depth and don't really have any business talking about them.

I never played tabletop RPGs growing up. To this day, I have still never touched a tabletop RPG. Actually, I'm not even entirely certain *how* you play tabletop RPGs, though I have a basic, functional understanding of what they are and what they do, mostly through tracing the lineage of video game RPGs and because my work and interests mean I tend to rub elbows with Nerd Culture with some amount of frequency. But the fact remains that this is still something wholly and entirely outside of the wheelhouse of my personal experience. I'll freely admit I don't “get” these and never have.

From what I can gather, the primary draw of these types of things is that they're a form of generative storytelling set in a shared and recognisable universe, and that I *definitely* understand. I think I've always been some kind of natural-born performer, and when I was a kid one of the things my friends and I liked to do was pretend that we were our favourite characters and act out our own imaginary stories in the backyard. We would play it as almost a sort of writer's jam session, coming up with a basic prompt and then just sort of freewheeling it from there: Somebody would randomly shout out some big plot twist, and we would all have to immediately deliver a reaction based on what we understood of our character and how we thought he or she would react-Thinking back on it, it was basically a crude version of improv theatre, considering we were basically actors ad-libbing the entire play. I would guess more or less every kid did some version of this when they were young, though I don't know how many of them privileged the freeform improvisation aspects of the game to the extent we did.

But it's this very experience that makes it difficult for me to completely *get* tabletop RPGs. To me, they just look too complicated: You've got a weighty tome (sometimes several) with all kinds of tables, charts and statistics that's supposed mathematically define every single little bit of worldbuilding, which strikes me as running contrary to the generative anarchism of the experience. My regular issues about reducing culture, personality and human behaviour down to numbers aside, it's forcing what to me seems like an unnecessary structural middleman onto the instinctual compulsion of writing stories. Although, I suppose I *can* see how basing your actions and plot twists around die rolls or playing cards or whatever might be preferable to hinging everything on the whims of your friends, who might suddenly decide to sink the ship or call in a massive Borg invasion fleet or something.

Another thing I never really understood about these games is that, from my admittedly paltry and limited experience with them, they seem to emphasize the world-building minutiae more than the characters: The books I've skimmed all talk about building characters from the ground up around pre-existing narrative roles, skillsets and character classes, and while that makes sense for something like Dungeons and Dragons I can't see it working at all with a property like Star Trek. If I'm playing a Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, I'm gonna want to play as Tasha Yar or Geordi La Forge or Commander Riker or somebody, not come up with some faceless Starfleet ensign character who's just transferred onto a generic starship out patrolling the Beta Quadrant somewhere. While a certain type of fan probably *wishes* that it was, Star Trek isn't like D&D, which really is at its heart just a constructed world with some guidelines about how it works and who lives there. Star Trek has iconic and beloved characters that people relate to, look up to and project on to, and you can't suddenly pretend they don't exist.

If I were to speculate, I'd guess the reason for the popularity of tabletop RPGs based around existing franchises is because they seem particularly Nerd Culture friendly. They're a form of transformative writing that doesn't have the cooties-related stigma of proper, actual fanfiction and provides a structure for imaginative play that, while I never felt was particularly needed, a different kind of person might: I'm extremely outgoing, extroverted and gregarious and always have been (not to mention I'm also someone who loves being outdoors and in nature), and I'm sure some people probably feel more comfortable acting out their stories inside around a table with their closest confidants instead of running around screaming in the backyard. It even provides a lot of opportunities for people to fret about canon and continuity and things like that (my friends and I, meanwhile, blew up entire planets and starfleets with somewhat alarming regularity).

Star Trek in particular seems well-suited to this approach given the long-standing fantasy Trekkers have of actually transporting themselves wholecloth into its world that dates back to at least the 1970s fanfiction scene. Indeed, it was was so ubiquitous even then that Paula Stone could parody it in an age when the Original Series and Animated Series were the only filmed Star Trek that existed. Unlike Trekkers, I personally tend to prefer living vicariously through my pop culture idols and role models: There's probably something that reveals about my lifelong fascination with performance and artifice that's linked to specific aspects of my personality and perspective, but that isn't strictly relevant to the topic at hand today. The flip side to that is though that I want to provide a rejoinder to those of a Nerdier predilection than I that, contrary to a commonly accepted maxim, non-Nerds *do* enjoy generative storytelling and playing with pop culture constructed worlds, we just do it slightly differently and far more casually.

All of which is to say this RPG based on Star Trek: The Next Generation is never something I would have seen or played with. Although from what I can tell, it's not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but rather a kind of expansion for a larger Star Trek RPG by FASA that dates back to 1983. There were a number of these books, all based on various alien species, gameplay scenarios, and the different movies. They also apparently played pretty fast and loose with Star Trek's Almighty Canon, bringing in stuff from the spin-off novels, reference books and even fanfiction and wildly extrapolating things like cultural norms and starship design from the actually pretty minimal material provided in the filmed stories. Notably, the Klingons and the Romulans are entirely different from the way Trekkers today would have conceived them: The Klingons have a strong cultural fixation on attaining and maintaining power, are defined by imperialistic expansion and feel they have a sort of divine right mandate to conquer and subjugate the galaxy, while the Romulans are guided by a desire to attain enlightenment and “reach the stars” through aesthetics and emotion.

This sort of imaginative, speculative approach to Star Trek's world also means the FASA RPG is probably the last manifestation of a phenomenon that's been a part of the franchise since the wilderness years: A case can be very strongly made that during the 1970s, when the only filmed material you could watch was the Animated Series and syndicated reruns of the Original Series, Star Trek really did belong to its fans pretty much exclusively. The only “world-building” per se was whatever particularly inspired writers could extrapolate from the scant material there was, and things like tie-in novels, fan-produced reference books and fanfiction really were Star Trek's “canon”, because they were all officially licensed by Paramount (because Paramount licensed basically any Star Trek product random people would pitch them back then since the series was so niche at that point anyway) and nobody was expressly contradicting them. But by the 1980s that had changed, as Star Trek opened the decade becoming big business at the box office and than, unexpectedly, becoming a runaway smash hit on television.

These two books based on Star Trek: The Next Generation, an “Officer's Manual” and a “First Year Sourcebook” covering the first season of the show (puzzlingly released in September on the heels of Star Trek: The Next Generation's *third* season) are among the last Star Trek works produced by FASA, and there's a very good reason for that. With Star Trek's unprecedented renaissance, Paramount suddenly tightened their belt in regard to merchandise licensing, and stuff like this was an early and swift casualty. It's not hard to see why: The fact it flagrantly contradicted so much of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was beginning to establish might not have been such a big deal had that not been precisely the kind of thing that sets Star Trek fans off...and had Star Trek fans not been the primary demographic Paramount was now targeting, however misguided and ultimately ruinous that would eventually prove to be.

And furthermore, among the many, admittedly interesting, discrepancies between FASA's Star Trek and the Star Trek Paramount was trying to sell people was a shockingly staunch fixation on militaristic themes that simply does not sit at *all* well with a modern reader: FASA goes into elabourate detail about things like the “Starfleet Marines” and published any number of expansions all centred around grandiose starship combat and military campaigns. Paramount, understandably, felt this was entirely antithetical to utopian message of Star Trek, especially given just months before this book came out Captain Picard was emphasizing how “Starfleet is not a military organisation”, and promptly revoked FASA's license. I mean regardless of how true that statement actually is, you can see why Paramount did what it did because the underlying message is clear-Star Trek should not be focusing on the military and imperialistic aspirations.

And yet...There another side to this that reveals some far more unpleasant undertones to the concept of Star Trek as a media phenomenon. FASA's version of Star Trek may not jive with what the series' virtues now supposedly were but, just like the earlier Star Fleet Battles, it's not a reading of the franchise that's at all unfounded. All of that ugly militarism is right there in the Original Series and the movies, and even though Star Trek is now valued for other things, that doesn't mean, and will never mean, that this isn't part of its roots. Also, while Paramount may passionately evoke Star Trek's utopianism and how much hope it brings to so many people in their justification for actions like this, but the truth of the matter is that this is just a nice way of saying stuff like FASA is no longer “on message”. This is, after all, the era where we all begin to care about things like “brand integrity” and “brand uniformity” and say things like “on message”. They may have allegedly noble reasons for it and it may not be quite as bad as, say, the erasure of fanfiction, but the act itself is still one that perpetuates and reinforces corporate monopoly of mythology and the tyranny of intellectual property. For that, Paramount deserves just as much condemnation as FASA, if not more.

And that seems to reveal the inherent drawbacks of tabletop RPGs as much as anything: To me, they seem to be a corporate-approved way of writing stories in shared constructed worlds. Just as narrator's toolkits and sourcebooks impose a canon structure upon the act of writing that prevents the truly transformative power of real fanfiction, tabletop RPGs are themselves the product of a capitalism-controlled, and therefore ultimately reactionary, form of storytelling. This is generative storytelling assimilated by the Borg. This is a generative storytelling that poses no threat to hegemony because it not only has its stamp of approval, it actually relies on it to exist. And a storytelling so compromised lacks its soul.


  1. "One of the things my friends and I liked to do was pretend that we were our favourite characters and act out our own imaginary stories in the backyard. We would play it as almost a sort of writer's jam session, coming up with a basic prompt and then just sort of freewheeling it from there: Somebody would randomly shout out some big plot twist, and we would all have to immediately deliver a reaction based on what we understood of our character and how we thought he or she would react"

    Well, that's roleplaying right there!

    The rules and dice aren't essential; freeform games are quite common, especially for Star Trek. That's basically cooperative storytelling, with a storyteller keeping it structured. Looking at the 15 games recently active on the site I roleplay at, there are 4 using licensed Trek RPGs, 3 using fanmade Trek RPGs, 2 using repurposed Star Wars RPGs, and the remainder are freeform or use freely available or fan-made generic rules. Freeform Trek games have been more common previously. The FASA, Last Unicorn Games, and Decipher Star Trek RPGs are perhaps the least commonly played. I've played and ran a couple of Trek games that are freeform or use free or fan-made rulesets. I strongly considered running one using a Doctor Who rpg. So, from my experience, I'd say roleplaying in franchises like Trek is not corporate-controlled. Players and gamemasters tend to use the systems they think best reflect the setting and stories, and best suit the game they want to play and story they want to tell. The franchise-owners and RPG companies just try to cash in on what fans and players do anyway. It's just fan fiction by another medium.

    (More frustrating is how so many Trek games, even freeforms, are based around conflicts with rival powers, intrigue, trouble on the frontier, and military culture. Exploration too often comes second. But that's a problem with fans and Trek in general.)

    D&D grew out of wargaming in the 70s, as large armies were reduced to small units and teams. Magic and fantasy elements came in later, reportedly because someone gave their guy a Star Trek phaser. It led to other RPGs. So dice, rules, and conflict stayed an inherent part, but more modern systems have concentrated on reducing or eliminating all three for very character- and story-focused games. FASA is a pretty old, rules-heavy system. I think the appeal to using dice and rules is probably to make it a game, to circumvent any self-consciousness one might feel acting out an elf or a Klingon. It also brings competitiveness (for better and worse) and elements of chance and risks, and it separates the gamemaster from events in the game to reduce the personal element ("I didn't kill your character, the dice did.") Me, I love telling stories, either through the games I run for others or by being a character driving a character-driven story. RPGs are the most character-driven of all fiction.

    1. "If I'm playing a Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, I'm gonna want to play as Tasha Yar or Geordi La Forge or Commander Riker or somebody, not come up with some faceless Starfleet ensign character who's just transferred onto a generic starship out patrolling the Beta Quadrant somewhere."

      While a lazy sort of player will make a pretty bland character, that's entirely not the case. Just about every player wants to make distinct and memorable characters, and good ones have strengths, flaws, feelings, and motivations of their own. They have such lives of their own: my character came out as gay a few years ago, which surprised me at first, but I soon came to accept it. It's an opportunity to create characters you'd never see in the show for irritating production reasons: weird aliens, a new Macha Hernandez, gay Starfleet officers. And a lot of players use their characters to express their own feelings or explore their own issues. I've met two trans-people through online RPGs, where they can truly be who they are.

      RPGs are just such a perfect fit for Star Trek: The Next Generation too. We see the characters spend all their free time on the holodeck, acting through pre-prepared stories. Of course they're roleplaying! (I made my own Trek character a D&D enthusiast. She plays on the holodeck.)

      I'll talk more about the FASA RPG itself later.

  2. You make a very interesting point about the diverging depictions of Klingon and Romulan culture in the games than in the television series. In another internet conversation I was having this weekend, we were discussing how most alien species in sci-fi are depicted as planetary monocultures. There's Klingon culture and Cardassian culture, but there's no one human culture.

    So here's an idea. Let the different depictions of the alien cultures in the role playing games, fan fiction, and other alternative narratives and interpretations of the signifiers of Star Trek's world be alternative cultural currents and movements in its alien civilizations.

    Consider the Romulan focus on enlightenment through space exploration. This mystical idea could be the centrepiece of a millennia-old religious tradition on Romulus, perhaps having begun among a society of astronomers and philosophers in a high-altitude region of the planet where they could meditate on the emptiness of space. Sort of like how the West thinks of ancient Greek civilization, but in an ecosystem more like the Himalayas or the Andes, so with elements of Tibetan or Inca culture as well. There's no reason such a culture would be incompatible with Romulus' contemporary politics of a militarized bureaucratic dictatorship that's been established and relatively stable for a few centuries, which we see in the TNG TV show.

    Klingon culture does tend to more of a planetary monoculture because of the global power of the founding myths of Kahless the Unforgettable. But different takes on how to live out the ubiquitous role model of Kahless would inform Klingon moral and political traditions differently through history. The more Machiavellian Klingons of TOS would have identified conquest and military dominance with honour, and took any means to justify honourable ends. So they sent spies to act as secret subversives, as in The Trouble with Tribbles, and manipulated the people of strategic planets to be their proxy governors by feeding favoured factions advanced weaponry, as in A Private Little War.

    The Klingon culture of TNG, with which Worf identifies and Dax's older Klingon friends who appear in both TOS and DS9 have converted, was probably a social movement bubbling in Klingon civilization under the noses of their Machiavellian rulers. Personal honour was a kind of religious fundamentalism that actually preserved peace (eventually), or at least was capable of doing so.

    Star Trek V's Klaa was probably an early example of such an honour fundamentalist that threw realpolitik aside to chase after Kirk like some kind of trophy. General Chang in Star Trek VI was another of these, for whom war was the most honourable path, even at the cost of the Klingon people's existence. The Klingon terrorists from Heart of Glory were the last outliers of this honour fundamentalism, who worshiped war at all costs as the most honourable life.

    Yesterday's Enterprise showed how the genuine peace between the Klingons and Federation came about through the actions of the Enterprise C. By the time of this incident, honour fundamentalism had become the major current in Klingon culture, though it had developed from its earlier, more violent form to become a more nuanced and complex set of political, social, personal, and economic norms. Honour had become a mode of governance, an entire lifestyle with ethics of respect. The lasting peace, not just the necessary negotiations of Star Trek VI, was founded on the Enterprise C's act of sacrifice, which these ethics consider the highest gesture.

    The myth of the Sword of Kahless that we learn in the DS9 episode about it describes the messianic direction that some Klingon cultural movements could take, or perhaps have done in the past. Another possibility to explore the cultural pluralism of alien civilizations in Star Trek.

    1. This is actually pretty much my idea for resolving Star Trek's monoculture/race essentialist issues as well. I think Bajor in particular would be a great showcase for this and a tremendous missed opportunity for anyone writing in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine setting: Why not use your proximity to a single planet to explore all the different sociocultural variations you could find there, extrapolated from how such things work in the real world?

      After reading about how FASA conceptualized the Romulans, I now really want to see someone show how that's an outgrowth of the scant bits of Romulan society we saw in TOS and to put that in contrast with the bureaucratic, imperialistic state power of Romulus and the rationalist, positivist Federation.

      And of course, we have to take into account Enterprise's "Judgment"-type Klingons and John Meredyth Lucas' unused "Kitumba" ideas as well.

  3. I had to break this into multiple posts because it was too long. ^^;; I have to disagree with you on this topic on a grand scale. Role Playing Games cannot be understood without experiencing them, any more than you could do your blog if you had never watched TV or a movie. You have every right to like or not like whatever you want, but you can’t pass informed judgment on something you have never done or experienced. RPGs are far less ‘corporate controlled’ storytelling than Star Trek: Next Generation or any other iteration of the Star Trek TV show. The purpose of all TV shows is to make money for those producing them and any other purpose ends up coming second, because if the show doesn’t make money, the show dies. And TV companies are pretty much ruled by those concerned with making money. Any other objective has to be secondary.
    The RPG business rarely makes big money; only a few brands have ever made big money and 95% of RPG ‘companies’ are a handful of buddies who make games in their spare time because they love games, not out of a quest for profit. This often means high churn, but it also means we’re currently in the middle of an explosion of creative games which are made for the love of gaming and its potentiality for creativity.

  4. Part 2:
    The RPG experience is a performative experience which can never be understood simply by reading rulebooks and relying on vague intuition of what other people do with them. Even a published scenario will become a different story with every group which runs it and most groups, the DM/GM/whatever creates scenarios him or herself, which makes for even more adaptability. The rules provide the common framework in the same way that a shared system of musical notations and a shared body of ‘standards’ provide the structure that holds jazz performances together. Some groups like a lot of rules, other groups want a lot less, but in every group, their job is simply to ensure everyone is on the same page enough for everyone’s individual gaming performance to cohere into something larger and consistent.
    These groups can be as revolutionary or not revolutionary as they want to be; some settings are certainly more open to criticizing modern society than others, but that’s not inherent in RPGs as a whole; your effort to condemn the entire set of RPGs as inherently reactionary is grounded in vastly inadequate experience to pass such a judgement. Games like Vampire, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, and others are, in fact, grounded in criticism of hierarchy, capitalism, etc. (And other games are not or address totally different questions, of course). RPGs provide huge opportunity to move beyond entertainment being dominated by white male characters; they encourage you to experience new perspectives and live different kinds of lives. There are pretty much no RPGs which say you can’t be gay, lesbian, bi, trans, genderqueer, or whatever. (And indeed, you can try being things which don’t even exist in the real world.) Gamers can use games in reactionary ways, but there’s nothing inherent in the idea of RPGs which dictates this, and in fact, a lot which pushes in other directions.


  5. RPGs were absolutely critical to me in my life in terms of broadening my horizon. RPGs lead to me playing with people from other countries, other sexual orientations, women (I’m male, so that does count as different for me), other sets of ideas about the world, because our shared love of such things drew us together. Playing women, black people, Japanese people, a variety of not-straight characters and others gave me a better appreciation of other perspectives beyond what I got growing up as pretty much the epitome of privilege. (I specifically became a feminist because of my gaming experiences, which taught me a lot about the problems women face in ways my non-gaming experience never has.)
    In conclusion, I would argue that you, by your own confession, lack the background and experience to actually pass the judgments you want to make here and that the result is a highly flawed argument which is grounded in your biases instead of any actual experience of what you’re talking about. You could have, at the very least, talked to some actual gamers to see what they like about RPGs instead of just guessing blindly without any sort of actual communication. If you had, you could have produced something based on an informed judgment, instead of skimming a couple of RPG books and then laying down your sermon on how RPGs are evil and wrong and bad.

  6. In my defense, I never claimed to be "passing judgement" on tabletop RPGs. I explicitly said a number of times that I didn't understand them and was trying to convey that via exploring what little experience I had with the genre through the lens of my own perspective.

    The point of this post is not to "pass judgement" one way or the other, it's purely to articulate my own, entirely situated and non-objective, perspective with the subject matter at hand. Which, here's a little secret, is all this blog really is.

  7. Thanks as ever Josh for sharing your experience and perspective.

    In my teens and up to my mid twenties I was involved with a small group of friends playing RPG games. We used for years a pretty generic fantasy RPG, with minimal dice use and maximum focus on characters and improvisation of story and dialogue. One of us would be the Storyteller/gamesmaster and draft up a skeleton of a plot and use this as a framework for the game to hang on, and we would often actually spend a good single day creating and fleshing out our characters.

    Basically we loved the creative, imaginative exploration and the games went with that, as the plot would be improvised in response to our divergences.

    At some point we explored the Star Trek game above, using the system pretty much as is and I found it unplayable, feeling lost in a morass of rules. I don't really know if I would even have enjoyed a looser version of gameplay as I instinctively resist *any* idea of rank!

    This RPG experience led directly to me getting into improvisational drama - I was also the kind of kid who loved playing outdoors in the way you did Josh - and in my later years I have set myself up professionally as a storyteller, specialising in story-making with others in the outdoors.

    I have gotten back into gaming but in a totally different way - via Live Action Roleplaying, or LARP. Now, as with table-top RPG there are versions of LARP that are heavily still based on D&D type quests with fighting and that are heavily laden with rules (which is of no interest to me). But what interested me is what is known as Nordic LARP, where the experience is more immersive as players, explore scenarios/ worlds freely within characters (with reasonable boundaries created) - and the stories explored are limited only by one's imagination and include contemporary as well as fantasy settings.

    1. I'll let you in on a little secret: You were the primary reason I slotted this essay in here in the first place, as I knew how big a history you had with RPGs and I figured this was the TNG game you were talking about :-)

      I really wanted to hear your take on it and how RPGs set you on a path towards professional oral storytelling, so thanks so much for sharing. I also, however, wanted to emphasize how militaristic and warlike, and yes, how consumed by a "morass of rules" FASA seemed to be even by Star Trek standards and maybe open up a dialog about how Star Trek could potentially be saved from such things.

      When you touch on improvisational drama...That's what sort of intrigues me the most here. Why can't, for example, transformative fanfiction that reimagines and reconceptualizes something like Star Trek be done as improvisational drama? Fanwork can take all kinds of forms, so why not that?

    2. Wow Josh, thanks a lot! I've never had a blog post inspired by me, you've just made my day!

      I agree also that the FASA RPG felt very militaristic, and that just added so many more layers of discomfort for me trying to be a player. I've always been someone who has an issue with "rules" and thus the nature of improvised play really appeals to me. Over the years I have become more and more fascinated by the exploration of narrative, but not just through the spoken or written word, but in ways that includes the body, the heart, movement and the outdoors.

      I have glossed over the the journey really from RPG through to improvisational drama, and inspired by our interactions here it may be something I feel like blogging or writing about (when I get time!) But I agree completely that it it would be really possible and easy to create new narratives using improvisation for Start Trek. Get some friends who are up for it, strip it away from the heavy baggage of canon and simply set the parameters, scenario and characters and away you go.

      Thanks for a great essay Josh.

    3. I just have one more thought to add at the moment and that's in response to your wonderful description of the games you improvised with friends in the backyard - and it's simply that you remind me that the simplest, most important and powerful facet to roleplaying and any game is play.

      Play is so vital to our imagination and exploration of ourselves and the world, that it can get forgotten. For me anything that gets in the way of the spontaneity of a game, kills a game.

  8. I love to see so many smart folks talking about table-top RPGs. :) They're one of the great loves of my life ... as a nerdy kid growing up in an abusive household, they were a life-line and an escape -- they also helped me to socialize and I made many great friends through them. To me, RPGs felt more interactive, more open, and more alive than video games ... and the endless rule books and source book appealed to my intellectual and collector sides. I could "study" a game, I could learn more about fictional universes I loved, and then I could add to them, and collaboratively create my own takes with my buddies.

    I never played this particular game .. but I used to play the FASFA Doctor Who game. My friends and I did play our own take on Star Trek via the GURPS rule system. We also passionately played games based on Star Wars, Tolkein's Middle-Earth, Cyberpunk, David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr, DC and Marvel superheroes, and WWF wrestling. Some of my best childhood memories are staying up into the wee hours of the morning playing our hearts out.

    This love definitely carried over into my adult life, fostering a love for writing, performance, and collaboration. The WWF RPG was a direct influence on me spending 8 years working as an independent pro wrestler, and my brother and I are currently developing our own pro wrestling card game. As a parent and a teacher, I still collect these games (I just picked up the GURPS Prime Directive book the other day) and have plans to implement them into some creative literacy curricula. In my experience, these games are fun and transformative experiences.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for sharing your take on RPG games and giving us all a chance to share ours, Josh.