Learning from Star Trek

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. It had always been my personal favorite Trek series as it was the one I grew up watching the most. But I never realized how some of the lessons from the show could be used in roleplaying until now.

Don't believe me? Read on as I try to explain my line of reasoning.

#1: Conflict, not Combat.

Contrary to the picture of O'Brian up there, a large number of Next Generation episodes had little or no combat. Now, compare to 4e, which actively encourages all problems to be resolved through combat encounters. A good GM will avoid this problem and craft a good plot for his players to enjoy regardless, but often a poor GM will just fall back on using combat to handle any given situation.

Going to meet the king to discuss building a new drainage ditch in your hometown? Assassins jump out and ambush you. Going to the hairdressers to get a new coif? Assassins will jump out and ambush you. A plague is ravaging the land? Don't worry, just kill a bunch of assassins, it'll go away.

I love a good combat more than the next person, but there's a limit to the amount of hacking and slashing you can do without getting bored.

Conflict is the basis for most of the fun in an rpg, and conflict does not necessarily mean combat. Conflict can range from anything to a kidnapping that must be resolved without creating a war between two nations or a caravan breakdown in the middle of a sandstorm; neither of those situations need combat to resolve them. The other night I ran a Pathfinder game that didn't even have a hint of combat, just the sense that if they failed to discover the cause of a rash of poisonings in town several vital NPCs would die.

Nothing says a non-combat quest needs to be fetch-and-carry. Give the players a chance to think what their characters would realistically do to resolve a problem.

And if that turns out to be "Stab things in the face until they stop", hey so be it.

#2: Do it Your Way.

"Sir, we just blew the borg up." "What, all of them?" "Pretty much." "Oh. Guess we go home then."

Characters in Next Generation rarely solve the problems that face them in the same manner. Worf would be just as likely to want to incapacitate a foe as Troi would negotiate with it. Unfortunately, some GMs are not the same.

Any good gamemaster will provide plenty of opportunity for players to creatively wrangle themselves out of a given situation. But I've played with enough poor ones who force players to solve arbitrary puzzles. Even when a clever solution is presented, the GM refuses to allow it any chance of success because it's not how they "envisioned" the players to solve it.

Heck, I've even taken to crafting up situations without any idea on how they could be resolved. I'll just twist things so that whatever manner my players want to solve the situation, be it a puzzle involving dozens of levers or a tense standoff, things will work out, maybe in their favor, maybe not. I don't always create a sure-fire solution. It doesn't cheapen the thrill if the players feel like they solved it with their own ingenuity, as opposed to guessing what their gamemaster wants them to do.

So let your players scheme to blow up the death moon satellite go through even if it ruins your planned ending. Reward the players for their cleverness and encourage that sort of gameplay, so long as it is in-character.

It just means you have to find other ways to make their lives more complicated.

#3: Retaining Continuity.

Hey guys, Wesley's back! You all remember Wesley, right? Yay! ...Or maybe not.

Star Trek as a whole is a big mish-mash of continuity. But most of Next Generation keeps itself in careful check, referencing past episodes and events with regularity. And it's something you should keep in mind if you're going to be running a long campaign.

Most GM's I know already do this, but it bears repeating: Take a million notes. Write down everything and use it.

Players who take their own notes and keep track of minor NPCs and the events of previous adventures will definitely appreciate when their attention is rewarded.

When that Gnomish shopkeeper with the funny voice and bizarre hair shows up again in a different city, players will know there's a story behind it and that it likely ties into their own reasons for being there. Yet when you call that shopkeeper Jacob during their first encounter and Janice the next, it ruins the mood and makes those attentive players give up because, hey, if the GM isn't going to care about the details why should they?

Conversely, don't overdo it. Never force your players to remember little bits of minutiae from past adventures. Reward those who do, but don't punish those who don't.

Okay, so none of these were really tied into Star Trek all that much. But damn it, it's what I've been watching so there needed to be a connection somewhere. Plus, I've found that though these three bits of advice are extremely basic for any experienced gamemaster there are still a few I'm going to direct to this article. Like myself, one year ago.

Hmm, but to do that I'll need a temporal vortex to go back in time...now which episode was that in again?


  1. While my own personal favorite Star Trek show is the original, I do like your insights about what TNG can teach us about role-playing.  Number 1 is particular good, but the problem is so many rpgs lavish all their mechanically attention on combat.

  2. Joe NelsonJuly 28, 2011

    That is part of the problem, though in my opinion combat does require the lion's share of the rules. I mean, rules to explain how to hack someone who doesn't want to be hacked makes more sense to me than detailed rules on how to bake a cake (both are obviously vital skills for any dungeon delving adventurer). It's when the rulebooks themselves actively try to discourage other styles of play that I get my feathers in a fluff.

    It was bad enough to lump a game into two segments, combat and 'other stuff', but to suggest that the 'other stuff' can't be just as exciting and enjoyable has always irked me. Reading the 4e rulebooks and seeing advice on how to go from a skill challenge to the next pre-planned combat scene just rubs me the wrong way.

    Just because 4e is a glorified combat engine doesn't mean you can't have great adventures without resorting to mass murder each and every session.

    Also, completely off-topic, but though my personal favorite series was TNG, I tend to do most of my Trek gaming (on those rare occasions when I can) in the original series timeline. Strange....

  3. CDGallant_KingJuly 31, 2011

    Good stuff.  This goes with John's post about LOST making you a better game master. Maybe we should make a whole series on TV shows that lead to better role-playing games.  I call the Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin.   No, seriously. I learned alot about story arc and continuity from that show.  It was epic.

    I agree with all your points though.  It's pretty great when you can play a whole session with tension, conflict and intrigue without shooting or stabbing somebody.  Sometimes, you really do just have to stab somebody, but it's nice to mix it up.  Though when it does come to action scenes, I would rather something cooler than the action scenes in TNG. 

  4. Joe NelsonAugust 01, 2011

    Yeah...no matter how much I love TNG, I can't defend its mediocre action sequences. Watching Worf get backhanded by a lone borg is kinda the antithesis of great action....

    Fortunately, there are better examples of sci-fi action to use, from Star Wars to Stargate, to...uh, Farscape? It had muppets, right? So it has to be awesome.

  5. I think you've revealed some very good insights for GMs & players that like deep story. Unfortunately there are many players out there that enjoy shallow story. And though I am in your camp, to each their own.

  6. Joe NelsonAugust 04, 2011

    I don't mind a shallow little dungeon crawl myself, I just wish that every single time I finally get to play 4e it didn't turn into a slash-em-up.

    I like a decent variety of gaming whenever possible. :-)

  7. Jimmy RaynorAugust 18, 2011

    I usually try to balance out. But I always end doing more puzzles than battles. And I am not very experienced. I prefer to be a player, a pawn in the hands of the DM. Beats me why. :P




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