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Interview with Ross Isaacs

by James Maliszewski

June 8, 1999

Interview with Ross Isaacs
by James Maliszewski
The publication of the Star Trek: The Next Generation roleplaying game last August was a major event in the industry. There had been no Star Trek RPG for over a decade and fans were chomping at the bit to see the latest version by Last Unicorn Games. I had the chance to talk with the game's developer, Ross Isaacs, about the game's past, present, and future.
How did Last Unicorn Games acquire the license from Paramount to produce roleplaying games based on the various Star Trek series? Who approached whom?
We asked them, along with about a dozen other companies. People had been after Paramount for the rights to Star Trek since FASA's game stopped production. While, for us, roleplaying is well-known, most people have never heard of it. Or if they did, they think of AD&D, which dropped out of the mass media consciousness in the late 80s. On top of that, for a company the size of Paramount Pictures, roleplaying is small potatoes –– it represents a small amount of revenue. A Captain Picard mug or 7-of-9 t-shirt makes way more money. We did a lot of convincing.
As most people know by now, there will be a total of four separate Star Trek RPGs produced by Last Unicorn. How do they differ from one another? Will they differ from one another sufficiently to warrant the release of four separate hardcover rulebooks? Why was this approach taken rather producing a single core rule book with "series supplements?"
Of course they'd differ enough from one another to warrant four separate game lines, otherwise we wouldn't do it. There's this mentality out there that game companies are only out there to bilk customers out of money, probably a result of the TCG boom and several years of "splat" books. Why would we put out four games that were essentially the same?

Each game will concentrate on its own, special milieu. The original Star Trek is very different from TNG. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is very different from TNG. Each deserves its own book. We're doing this primarily for the fans. As we all know, the biggest rift in Trek fandom is TOS vs. TNG. By producing "series supplements," we'd be forcing the partisan TOS fans to buy TNG for the rules; wouldn't it be silly to lose that fan because he has an allergic reaction to anything involving TNG? You can't simply put out a generic book of rules with no setting, because then you're not getting the Star Trek fan into the hobby; there's no there there. The game has to be tied to the setting. Once you make that calculation, you have to think about Deep Space 9 in a similar vein.

Everyone focuses on how the games will be similar, without thinking about how the actual premise makes them different. Take Deep Space 9; sure, it'll have a character creation chapter using the Icon System. But it must include rules for Trill, Cardassians, Ferengi, Vedeks, Prylars, Rebels, and all the rest. That chapter becomes different because of the material it covers. We did two chapters on translating the feel of Star Trek into a game –– some of the best chapters on GM Star Trek you'll ever see, but DS9 has a different gestalt. So those two chapters will cover running a DS9 game that feels like DS9. TNG focuses on Starfleet; DS9 focuses on the Frontier; TOS focuses on the rough-and-tumble 22nd century.

You're also assuming that a "series supplement" would be somehow cheaper and more convenient. Doing a hard cover book allows us to pack in the information and include higher production values. Once you do a big supplement with all the tweaks to handle DS9, you may as well make it hardcover. Then, you may as well include the rules to make it stand alone. If you're playing a TOS game, you only have to schlep the TOS rulebook. If your campaign focuses on playing Bajorans and Cardassians, you only need the DS9 rules.

Sorry for rambling on for so long, but I feel passionate about this subject.

Star Trek is an immensely successful and popular franchise. Did you feel "the weight of history" upon you? That is, was there any pressure to make sure that you "did right" by Star Trek?
Definitely. If we didn't, we could have just slapped the TNG name on a copy of Traveller or GURPS Space. If we didn't do right by Star Trek, the fans would justifiably be upset. I am awe-struck by the task we were engaged in; there is 30 years of history behind Star Trek; it's viewed all over the world; some 40% of the American population classifies itself as a "Star Trek fan." You have to approach this property with respect and affection. I love Star Trek, Ken Hite loves Star Trek, Steve Long loves Star Trek, etc. and I think that shows. Any pressure we felt was self-imposed. I think that's why we do a good job with it.
In creating the game, did Paramount or anyone directly connected with the series provide you with any assistance or direction? If so, what?
Paramount gave us tons of assistance. They answered a lot of questions and helped us tweak the material to get that proper Star Trek feel. Chip Carter, and now Paul Ruditis, made themselves completely available to help us in any way they could. They really went above and beyond. The direction Paramount Pictures provided was in information and tone. The actual game play they left to us. They gave us a look at a lot of material. There's this big room called the materials room, that's just crammed with 30 years worth of Star Trek stuff. And everyone working on Star Trek licensing is an expert on the subject.

The folks who work on the series have two television shows and movie to work on. Asking them to take time out of their busy schedules to help with a roleplaying game would have been silly. When a question arose, someone over in production would provide an answer. But Rick Berman or Mike Okuda didn't directly assist the project.

I was a fan of FASA's incarnation of the Star Trek RPG. I noticed that Guy McLimore and Greg Poehlein are thanked in the credits. Did you refer to the old game or take any inspiration from it? If so, how?
I played FASA's incarnation years ago, about the same time TNG started airing. I ran a campaign for some two years. We never directly referred to the old game, because that was a different time and a different aesthetic. I've spoken with Guy (he's terrific), and he admits that the gaming market is different now. We thanked them both for many different reasons: they provided advice, looked over the rules, and gave us a great game the first time around. I've never met Guy, but I consider him a friend after all our e-mail exchanges.

Some things about the ST:TNG RPG are similar to FASA's game, in spirit. When I first got this job, I called up all my friends in this business and told them about my good fortune. Every one of them immediately blurted out something like "I loved creating characters for FASA's game!" That was something we wanted to preserve, the sense that you created a history for your character while creating the character.

I've really been taken in by the fact that the flavor and ethos of the series suffuse the core ST:TNG rulebook. I take it that this was intentional. Were their any guiding principles of design that you employed when creating the game so as to achieve this end?
First, that's exactly where Paramount provided the most assistance. The flavor and ethos suffuse Star Trek as a property. You can't have Star Trek without the ethos. Let's face it, Starfleet is noble, upstanding, and peaceful; you couldn't have a Star Trek game describing it as a grim, arthritic empire ripe for rebellion. That's not Star Trek. Someone once wrote that Star Trek was so popular because it was a positive vision of the future. The fans want that, otherwise they'd be watching any one of a dozen science fiction shows. I submit to you that you cannot have Star Trek without the fundamental ethos. That would be illogical. I submit... that anyone who ignored... the feel of Star Trek would be illogical. All it takes... is one man... with a vision! (Sorry, Kirk impressions never come out well in writing, but I had to try.)

On a game design level, we had to present what we saw on the screen. That was the guiding principle. We saw Troi using the Conn, or Worf taking over at Ops; Captain Picard seemed to know a little of everything. That's because the scriptwriters have ultimate control over their characters. We tried to boil Star Trek down to its underlying principles and then design the game with those in mind. That's where Chip and Paul come in; they gave us a very good idea of what Star Trek is from Paramount's perspective. You can look at the shows and discern what makes it tick, but it's much different when you find out how the show's creators view it.

I've always felt that one of the reasons West End's Star Wars RPG flourished for so long was that it went beyond the movies and expanded the setting in a variety of ways. Do you see the Star Trek RPG doing the same thing in the future? That is, will we get "original" material that's an expansion on what we've seen in the series and movies?
You already have. There is a lot of material in that core rulebook that Paramount let us create. Take the Orions as an example. We've only seen Orion slave girls and heard about the dreaded Orion Syndicate. We created all that material in the Aliens chapter for them, going by what was said about them over the years, and keeping them within the ethos of the property. We tell you what the Axanar Rebellion was about. We hint about first contact with the Klingons. And you'll see a lot more of that in the coming years.

Star Trek, as an RPG, must create new material to remain viable. The great thing is that Paramount understands this, and actually looks forward to seeing what we come up with. Even though our disclaimer states that what LUG does is not "canon," Paramount goes over everything carefully, not to hamper us, but to help us present our ideas in a Star Trek way.

In the coming months, you'll learn about the Federation's Merchant Marines, Starfleet's organization, Starfleet Intelligence, Vulcan's dark past, where Mount Seleya is located, Risan history, Tellarite cities, and all about Romulan culture and space. Next year, we're going to tackle the Tholians, the Klingons and Cardassians. Will you see "original" material? Heck ya!

I've long appreciated Star Trek's efforts to create "modern morality plays." That's one of the reasons I still like the series so much. Do you have a favorite element or theme that runs throughout the series?
That personal action can alter the course of time and space. The message Star Trek conveys is that one person can matter, can make a difference. Whether it's the mirror Spock bringing down the evil empire, Picard saving the Federation from the Borg, Sisko as the Emissary, or Harry Kim altering the timestream, Star Trek tells us that we can get up out of our chairs and change things for the better. I've always been a macro-politics kind of guy; which says big historical developments come out of the actions of countries. The U.S. makes an overture to China. The Soviets support Cuba. The big events in the world occur because of mass social action. But Star Trek highlights the micro-politics. The U.S. makes an overture to China because Nixon decides to. The First World War was started by a man tossing a bomb in Serbia. Happily, Star Trek puts a positive spin on this-personal action means nothing in Star Trek if it's not for the cause of peace, truth and justice.
Finally, is being a professional game designer an enjoyable job? Do you have fun doing it?
I sit up at night, sometimes until 3 a.m., which you'd think would be very unenjoyable. But then you stop yourself and think, "I'm writing a game." For me, I get to take that one step further. I'm writing Star Trek.

Like anything, game design has its ups and downs. You have to do a lot of administrative work. Writers don't turn in material on time. You have to stay up all night proofing a layout because it has to be at the printer the next day. You skip meals because you're so intent on your work. On the flip side, you get to figure out what the Gorn have been up to since the original Star Trek. Or you debate word choice. You get gratifying fan mail from gamers. I wouldn't recommend everyone run out and become a game designer (which sounds funny to me when I think about it. How did I get to this place?). For years, I worked as a freelancer, first writing for a pittance late at night after my day job. Then I worked for a few more years as a full-time freelancer, which is a special kind of hell. I would never recommend it to anyone. But here I am. Somehow I "made" it.

Ultimately, what makes this a fun job is that I don't have to wear a suit and tie, I don't have to answer to a pointy-haired boss, and I get to be creative. I have a ton of fun doing it.

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