Star Trek Roleplaying Game Player's Guide and Narrator's Guide
Star Trek Roleplaying Game Player's Guide and Narrator's Guide Playtest Review by Eric Brennan on 04/09/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Decipher has managed to produce the best Trek game yet. Recommended, with reservations.
Product: Star Trek Roleplaying Game Player's Guide and Narrator's Guide
Line: Star Trek
Cost: $29.95 Each
Page count: 256 Pages Each
Year published: 2002
ISBN: Player's Guide:1-58236-900-3, Narrator's Guide: 1-58236-901-1
SKU: Player's Guide: 900, Narrator's Guide: 901
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Eric Brennan on 04/09/02
Genre tags: Science Fiction Space
The Player’s and Narrator’s Guides (abbreviated to PG and NG) for the Star Trek Roleplaying Game are beautiful, 256-page hardcovers. The game utilizes Decipher’s “CODA” system, also used in the Lord of the Rings RPG, and each book retails for $29.95. The game is not playable with only one of the books. The complete CODA rules, rules for experience awards, species creation, plot design, starship creation and combat are all in the Narrator’s Guide. The PG has the rules for character generation and skill use, character advancement, as well as the history of the Star Trek universe and the nature of the Federation. An appendix in the PG includes a stripped down version of the CODA system that’s fairly complete.
The game sets out to allow players and GMs to build nearly any character that would fit into the Star Trek universe, and give them a solid rules-set to work with. It succeeds. Overall, I found it to be the best Star Trek game yet, with a breadth and depth that really satisfied my doubts that the game could handle anything from any series. The PG did suffer from some fairly annoying and noticeable editing flaws, however, while the CODA system had some odd quirks when it came to emulating the Star Trek universe. Despite these flaws, I felt like I got my money’s worth and would buy the game again, if given the chance.
I’m going to cover the flaws first, since I don’t want to end the review on an apparent down-note. Note that at least as far as the organizational flaws go, the Narrator’s Guide doesn’t seem to suffer from them.
The most noticeable problem in the PG is the rampant editing flaws. Skills are sometimes referred to by different names; skills that have been consolidated into one group are listed as being separate skills. Traits, which are similar to merits and flaws in other systems, are missing after being referenced, or are relabeled under new names. These errors are in addition to a rather confusing chapter organization, which results in a non-intuitive read that makes character generation more difficult than it actually should be, given the simple system. Finally, some rules are just odd — as an example, a PC doesn’t need any language skill to understand his own language, but he does to write a letter in it or perform a complex task involving it; however, the Target Numbers listed clearly have nothing to do with native speakers.
PCs above a certain rank have to be built using Advancements (similar to levels, but much more freeform.) The book even goes so far as to give you a “quick” Advancement table for officer PCs. However, in practice that table is confusing, due to the fact that the Command and Rank Traits go up to different maximums. It’s not even that this is a “show-stopper” for the game, but it is frustrating, and the frustration tends to pile up.
The above editing weirdness isn’t a matter of misspellings or grammar; it seems to be the kind of thing that will occur when a third-party doesn’t proofread or playtest the rules. I found the whole thing manageable after making a few characters, but it’s persuaded most of my players to avoid purchasing the book until a second printing or revision comes out.
The other big problem the game has, and this one is even more fundamental, is that it’s impossible to create a starting character that is similar in ability to any main character on the shows, even in their first seasons. The majority of “main” characters have 30 Advancements, and none of the captains have less than 40. I can accept the fact that these are the leading lights of the Federation, but the end result is that PCs want to do things that people on the show can do, and while PCs will often succeed, the vagaries of the CODA system lead to failure at odd moments. The reason why is that the CODA system uses a skill system similar to D&D 3rd Edition, but there is no equivalent to d20’s “Taking 10” or “Taking 20,” so PCs can fail at routine as well as complex tests. There is a rule for turning such failed tests into extended tests, but that means that the extended test is basically predicated on a failure. It didn’t leave my playtest players feeling particularly competent when a dice roll left them failing simple tasks that they should have been able to perform, and why should they have to spend Courage points on a routine recalibration?
My only other complaint revolves around the speed with which a ship will drop another ship’s shields. It doesn’t happen quickly, no matter the disparity in ship power.
The above problems aside, Decipher’s Star Trek is the closest I’ve come to my ideal Star Trek game. The CODA system was easy to learn for my players, since the core mechanic could be summed up as “D&D 3rd Edition” with 2d6 instead of a d20. The six statistics all PCs have give you a number between 2 and 12, from which you derive a modifier and add to a skill rank. That total is then added to the result of a 2d6 roll and compared to a Target Number or opponent’s result. The character basics seem the same as well, with some kind of saving throw system and a Defense rating as “armor class.” I know there’s debate on the matter of how similar d20 and CODA are, but the fact is by telling my players about the similarities, there was exactly a one-minute learning time. I call that impressive.
The skill system, despite the odd quirks mentioned above related to competency, is general enough that PCs feel like they have a broad grasp of their ability. Doctor McCoy used his medical skill to fix the Horta, for crying out loud, and he could do it in this game as well (if he had sufficient skill ranks.) Rather than the overspecialization that bothered my players and I in the Last Unicorn Games’ ICON system, specializations in this game merely give the PC a flat bonus to the roll, and the skill itself remains very general and potent.
While I’ve heard CODA compared to D&D 3rd and d20 (and did so myself above; it is a useful comparison,) it makes several significant changes, such as the possibility of a dodge roll, and the addition of both Edges and Flaws and a unique Advancement system. CODA, make no mistake, is a game where one selects a species and a profession, and then “levels” up. However, the way Advancements work in this system, by allowing the player to “buy” new facets of his character according to his own desires, means that PCs with the same number of Advancements will look quite different.
As to the Narrator’s Guide, the starship, star-system, species and creature creation systems allow you to run this game forever without consulting another book. Most of the races seen in the various series can be built simply by using the information in the NG. In addition, there are extensive notes on how to create a series, have a strong premise, and make it feel “Trek.” While the advice doesn’t go as deeply as I’d like into what makes Trek feel Trek, it gets the surface down, and the GM will hopefully be able to manage the rest himself. The organization in the Narrator’s Guide is also top-notch, and it seems to me that most of the problems I had with the PG were fixed for the NG.
Finally, the character generation system feels more “Trek” than any game I’ve seen, no matter what your definition. If you desire the standard Starfleet game with everybody playing a member of the ship’s crew, then the game differentiates between Starship Officers enough that it’s viable. At the same time, if you want to play a game centering around Ferengi traders, 23rd century Klingon warriors, or Vulcan martial artists, the game makes it possible. The character generation system revolves around deciding on two background choices for your PC from his childhood and early career, and it adds yet another layer to the game to aid in characterizing a PC.
I like this game, and will try the next couple of products that come down the pike for it. I found it to simulate the Star Trek “feel” quite nicely, despite the odd problems I had with skills and the starting abilities of PCs. Those problems can be remedied by making each PC Advance a few times before play begins, and introducing something similar to “Taking 10/20.”
On the “emulation” scale of 1-10, with the Buffy RPG as a 9 and Star Wars Revised by Wizards of the Coast a 5, I give Star Trek a 7.5. It goes deeper than the surface to emulate the source, but isn’t quite a perfect fit with starting characters.
I will say that the game didn’t really take off after the playtest, in part because no one was really interested in buying the Player’s Guide because of the editing, and in part because some of them believe that a second printing or revised edition will come around in a year or so with the problems fixed.
Breaking down the scores:
The CODA system is solid and playable, but the problems with the effectiveness of starting PCs (with no warning about it in the rules) meant that during play our crew occasionally looked like the cast of “McHale’s Navy” rather than Starfleet’s finest, despite a few Advancements among the officers. With that said, character generation allowed players to get very excited about their PCs, and the Narrator’s Guide makes the game wholly playable on its own. All told, the game is recommended, with the reservation that those of you who are incredibly frustrated by occasional errors in a book should avoid it.
As much as I love the layout, the beautiful imagery, the non-Okudagram look of the books and the tasteful borders, I’ve got to take points off for the awful organization decisions and the black character sheet in the Player’s Guide. It’s a shame, because it really is a beautiful, easy to read book. The Narrator’s Guide was the exact opposite, being well-organized and just as beautiful. It, too, however, suffered from forms with too much toner-sucking black background.