Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game
Love it or hate it, there can be no question that Star Trek is one of the most successful science fiction franchises in the history of television. Probably only Star Wars comes close to being as broadly influential over as long a period of time as Star Trek That being the case, it's little wonder that news of Last Unicorn's new Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (ST:TNG RPG) was greeted with such fanfare by gamers. Not only has it been about a decade since there last was an officially licensed Star Trek RPG, but the apparent demise (or at least catatonia) of West End Games has left a gaping void in the world of science fiction gaming.
I've long been a fan of Star Trek, although I must confess that I've always preferred the two-fisted frontier mentality of the Original Series to the intellectualized sentimentalism of The Next Generation. Nevertheless, I was as excited as anyone about the news of Star Trek's return to the roleplaying world. Of course, I often wondered (and indeed still do) how and why Last Unicorn acquired the license to the Final Frontier. After all,their best known game to date was Aria, hardly the sort of thing to inspire confidence in their abilities to handle Roddenberry's vision of the future. Still, what was West End when it acquired the Star Wars license? If ST:TNG RPG sells as well as it should, I imagine that the analogy between West End and Last Unicorn may well prove to be an apt one.
Enough introduction. Let's turn to the game book in question.
The cover illustration is quite attractive, showing the entire TNG crew (minus poor Wesley the price one pays for evolving into a transcendental being, I suppose) and, of course, the Enterprise (or at least a version of it) set against an attractive black starfield.
The book's interior is equally beautiful. The pages are glossy and full-color. Most pages are illustrated with photographs and stills from the series. I appreciate the fact that many of the stills in the book illustrate elements described in the text, such as Data playing Poker near the "Gaming" skill description or Worf recounting tales of valor around a hearthfire in the "Storytelling" advice section. It's a small point, but it shows that Last Unicorn is considering small points, which earns them high points in my rather biased book.
The pages all contain a border modeled on the LCARS computer screens seen in the TV series. Although this was an obvious and probably inevitable design choice for the book, I would have preferred something else. It's not that the LCARS look makes the book illegible or difficult to skim; it does not. In fact, the book is rather easy on the eyes overall. However, I belong to a small and secretive cult who believes that the LCARS format is so overdone now in TNG publications that it'd be nice to see something different for a change. Still, I can hardly blame Last Unicorn for adopting it.
Strangely, there is some original art included in the rule book as well. Even had it been of the highest quality (which it is not), it would have been hard for it not to look rather stale compared to the nice photographs lifted from the series. Given that, I really can't see much good reason for Last Unicorn to have included such art. Monetary considerations may have been a factor, since I am sure that the license for Star Trek must cost a bundle. Even so, I think the original art is one of the design elements that brings down the generally attractive layout of the book.
After that, we get a short history of the future, one that firmly plants Star Trek within a universe parallel to our own. Either that or CNN failed to report the rise to power and overthrow of Khan and his genetically-enhanced buddies. To be fair, there's really nothing that can be done about this matter. Star Trek's universe is certainly not our own. Last Unicorn is simply keeping with the canon of the series that states, among other things, that the Eugenics Wars took place in the early 1990's. Of course, they (and Paramount) could have taken refuge in Khan's line in Star Trek II, "Two hundred years ago, I was a prince." and set the Eugenics Wars at the end of the 21st century, thereby adding greater poignancy to Humanity's subsequent rebirth and foundation of the Federation. Hey, but what are you going to do? Listen to someone like me who's obviously got far too much time on his hands?
Character Creation employs a template system. Basically, players choose a racial template (Human, Andorian, Betazoid, Bolian, Centauran, Tellarite, or Vulcan in the basic rules) for their character. The template gives a character his basic attribute levels, starting skills, and (in some cases) advantages and disadvantages. A career-oriented overlay (Command, Engineering, Medical, Science, etc.) adds to the template by giving a character more skills, this time those relevant to his chosen position within Starfleet. Character may then add additional tours of duty to increase their experience in Starfleet (and, consequently, skill levels). It's nice clean system that is easy to understand and nicely divides up a character's life in a way that encourages the development of a back story for him or her.
As many know by now, ST:TNG RPG does not include rules for playing characters above the rank of Lieutenant Commander. While such rules can be extrapolated from NPC descriptions and the like, they are never explicitly stated. I find this to be a serious misstep on the part of Last Unicorn, one of the few they made this otherwise excellent game. The avowed reason for this is to encourage characters to work toward the greater rewards of command that only experience can bring. I admit that not everyone is cut out for the captaincy, but having an NPC captain is not a good way to go either. Furthermore, there is a subtle implication that without promotions in the offing, characters will have nothing to strive for. What is this sort of sentiment doing in a game based on ST:TNG of all places? What would Captain Picard say if he was told that there was nothing left for him to do but seek the rank of admiral? Knowing as I do that there will be a "Captain's Handbook" sometime in the future, I smell a marketing ploy here and I'm not too keen on it.
The heart of ST:TNG RPG is a game system that Last Unicorn has inexplicably called the "Icon System." Leaving aside etymological points, the Icon System is based on a simple and straightforward mechanic. Each skill in the game is governed by one of four character attributes (Fitness, Coordination, Intellect, or Presence, with a fifth, Psi, possessed only by psionic characters). Players roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the level of the governing attribute of the skill being tested. The highest die of those rolled is then added to the level of the skill, thereby generating a result number. This number is compared with the target number to determine whether or not the test is successful.
There are, of course, further wrinkles to the Icon System. The most important is the drama die. The drama die is an additional die rolled with the dice used in a skill test. Should it come up a 6, the player may add the highest two dice rolled in determining his result. Should it come up a 1, not only does the test fail, but something catastrophic occurs, as determined by the Narrator.
Additionally, each of a character's four attributes has two "edges" that represent particular facets of that attribute. For example, Intellect's edges are "Logic" and "Perception." Each edge is rated as a bonus or penalty, such as +1 or -1. These numbers represent the number of dice that may be added or subtracted from those used in a test roll. The Narrator determines when these edges come into play. Thus, Logic might help in solving a puzzle, while Perception would do so in eyeing an unusual outcropping of rocks.
Everything in ST:TNG RPG uses this basic mechanic, including personal and starship combat. Such uniformity and consistency is a good thing that makes playing the game quite easy. While I am sure that there are those who will balk at such a simple (I would say elegant) simple, I think that's a highly appropriate one for Star Trek. To my mind, Star Trek has never been a setting in which complexity or hyper-realism were much valued for their own sake. Cinematic and dramatic sensibilities have more importance and the Icon System takes them into account nicely. It's the kind of system that doesn't "get in the way" of telling a good story. If you don't like such systems, ST:TNG will certainly not appeal to you.
The remainder of the book is packed with information about the Star Trek universe and how to use it in scenarios. In general, such advice is good, if aimed at the less experienced. Of course, ST:TNG RPG is aimed at beginning gamers. This must be borne in mind. At the same time, I suspect that there is a great deal to appeal to experienced gamers as well. In my own playtests, I found that the simplicity of the Icon System allowed my players to concentrate on the story and not on rules. Again, if this sort of approach is your cup of tea, you'll find that ST:TNG RPG is right up your alley.
I should note, however, that the introductory scenario in the book, "Shakedown Cruise," is not a very good one. I didn't find that it illustrated elements of the Icon System particularly well. In addition, the plotline, as is often the case with introductory scenarios, was rather tired and predictable. I'd have much rather preferred something a bit more substantial that got more into the flavor of the ST:TNG television series. Something like a First Contact or alien archaeological enigma or diplomatic mission would have been more to my liking. In general, I think introductory adventures should illustrate and play up the unique elements of a rules system, so as to introduce them to new players. "Shakedown Cruise" did not do that in my opinion and I am quite displeased with it. I suspect that the poor illustrations gracing the sections of the book containing the adventure did not make it any easier to overlook its obvious flaws.
One of the many fascinating things about ST:TNG RPG is that the game is heavily influenced by the origin of its subject matter. That is to say that the cinematic (more specifically, television) paradigm of Star Trek is in evidence throughout. Adventure scenarios are called "episodes" and campaigns "series." I like this. I've always structured my Star Trek games in this way, right down to two-part "season ending" cliff-hangers. The nice thing about this sort of explicit reference to the TV show is that it gives Last Unicorn a useful way to offer advice and give suggestions. The rulebook is replete with references to TV series as a way to illustrate good gaming techniques. I found this to be a strength of the book and a great way to introduce newbies to scenario design. Furthermore, it's really nice to see that Last Unicorn takes it source material seriously in that they freely refer to it and use it for examples. There can be no mistake about it: this is a Star Trek game and the core rules make good use of that fact.
If ST:TNG RPG has a failing it's that it's too firmly rooted in Star Trek: The Next Generation series. Many elements of the Star Trek universe, including things occurring in the Next Generation movies, are not included at all. Given that Last Unicorn plans to produce three other Star Trek RPGs (Deep Space 9, The Original Series, and Voyager) between now and February 2000, this is understandable, if annoying. Expect lots of sourcebooks and expansions in the years to come. In the meantime, intrepid Trek-fans will probably create homebrew versions of those elements that the ST:TNG RPG core rules did not include.
The cost of the book is certainly high, especially for gamers like myself who live outside the US and must contend with the vagaries of international money markets. Nevertheless, ST:TNG RPG is one of the most attractive game books I've seen in a long time. Not only that, it is is a large book filled to the gills with useful information. >From my own experience running a new campaign, I can tell you that the core rules contain more than enough information to keep gamers happy for many weeks or even months. When you consider that most other hardback game books cost at least $30, ST:TNG RPG hardly seems like it's been exorbitantly priced.
Last Unicorn has done a bang-up job. Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game is a fine addition to the world of SF RPGs and well worth the long wait for its arrival. As I stated earlier in this review, this is the game that could easily propel Last Unicorn into the front ranks of gaming companies, much as Star Wars did for West End. As a long-time Star Trek fan and roleplayer, I very much welcome this prospect and wish both the game and Last Unicorn continued success in the years to come.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)