Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Playing games

Star Trek has had a lot of luck in the world of role playing games. Most of it bad. There's a faintly promising sign, though... the new Decipher message boards, which have just gone online recently, still include a Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game forum. It's not very busy, and there's no actual news about any actual new releases, but it may be worth keeping an eye on. (If you're really interested, you also need to check regularly.)

I've never played a role playing game in my life. Even so, I have most of the FASA RPG Trek books from the 1980s and everything Last Unicorn Games and Decipher have published more recently. I even have some of the Star Fleet Battles publications, RPG-oriented and otherwise, though I've never played battle simulation games either.

And yet I wish Star Trek had a steady and reliable source of RPG material. Why? Because the supplements, guides, and adventures often show us the otherwise rarely explored aspects of life in the Star Trek universe.

FASA in particular moved far beyond canon. Of course, back then, canon was the original series and a few movies. FASA was, for a few years, free to develop its vision of the Star Trek universe, with supplements on civilian traders, Starfleet Intelligence, the Orions (explored in much greater detail than they ever were on TV), and more. Their Klingon supplements included contributions from John M. Ford, author of the classic exploration of Klingon culture, The Final Reflection. Their Federation supplement built on the example set by the Star Fleet Technical Manual and created a mass of detail about the history, development, and member worlds of the Federation. The adventure supplements centered their stories on civilian spacers, spies, Orions, and, of course, Starfleet Personnel. Although the books aren't quite readable in the way a series of novels is, they nonetheless add up to a consistent and intriguingly different take on the Trek universe.

The Star Fleet Battles universe is even more different. Allowed to use material from TOS only, the creators have introduced a number of new alien empires and laid out a future history that diverges dramatically from canon. It's an alternate universe Star Trek, more militaristic by far, and one that I wish could somehow result in a novel or two. There's short stories set in the SFB universe, in the pages of the Captain's Logs publications, but they generally exist to make a point about gameplay. Some longer, more character-based fiction could be quite intriguing. Not that it's likely to happen.

Last Unicorn and Decipher have stayed much closer to canon. Their books are much glossier and better illustrated. As a result, there's less of that sense of exploration there. With exceptions, of course, like Last Unicorn's book on Andorian culture. Some of the many books left unpublished when Last Unicorn lost its licence might also have covered more new territory, but we'll never really know.

Still, coming at a time when Pocket has all but stopped doing reference books, even the more canon-oriented RPG supplements fill a niche. Decipher's Aliens, Starships, and Creatures books include some RPG-specific information but have a lot of material that could well interest non-gamers who like Trek reference books and technical manuals.

So it's frustrating that Decipher is sitting on a number of unpublished RPG supplements. They announced Worlds, Through A Glass Darkly: The Mirror Universe, The Klingon Empire: Blood and Honor, Peacekeepers: The Guide to Soldiers and Diplomats, The Next Generation Sourcebook, The Guide to Rogues and Merchants, The Deep Space Nine Sourcebook, as forthcoming, and at least some of them (and one called Seekers) were in various stages of production when the Los Angeles office was shut down and most of the RPG developers laid off. Some were reportedly ready to go to press. If none of these appear in the next year or so, it may be time to update the ol' Star Trek: The Lost Books page. There's already a lot of unpublished Last Unicorn Games stuff listed there...

(Now playing: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, "Perfect Skin," Rattlesnakes.)


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