Travelling Through the Star Trek Universe, Part III. Viewing Notes on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. @StarTrek @Hulu #StarTrek #movie

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This is an important movie to me. As always, I’m going to be vague about why. There was a time when, for better or worse (worse, really, but necessary), I asserted my “independence.” This movie was part of that in a strange way. I will say that this is the first movie I saw in the theaters because I got on a bus, rode up to the (now closed) Aspen Hill movie theater, and bought a ticket with my own money. Twice. So, this movie is really important to me for reasons that don’t apply to any of you. Nevertheless, based on everything I’ve heard, I couldn’t believe how good its numbers are. Though I’m not sure how “scientific” Rotten Tomatoes is, I’m certain our personal experiences are even less so, so I shouldn’t be too surprised. Here are my viewing notes.

This movie starts with such high hopes, having us relive the most heartbreaking loss in Star Trek history.

That cadet that wanted a ceremony was a dingbat.

Christopher Lloyd was awesome as Kruge, and as with the Reliant, it was cool to see a new type of Klingon ship.

Are the Klingons still using 8-track tapes?

Why would anyone deal with the Klingons knowing they kill anyone working with them? Oh, wait I know why. Because the script says so.

The existence of Spacedock was also a no-brainer, but it was still cool to see it. The Excelsior was even better. As I said in yesterday’s Wrath of Khan post (and just above), it was neat to see other ship designs that we know must exist. The Excelsior represented the future as far as we knew; same-but-different. Who cares if Scotty liked it? The FASA Star Trek RPG really scratched that itch, but there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen.

Scotty learning of his new assignment wasn’t the last time Starfleet told personnel their new assignments in casual conversation.

Hey, I know that Klingon!

Was Maltz once a prosecutor for the Klingon Empire?

And here’s another one: The USS Grissom. Another same-but-different design.

David’s hatred for Kirk was intense in the novelization, but in the movie, his brief interaction was polite. None of his thoughts on the matter were explored because there wasn’t any time to do so. The same can be said for David’s romantic relationship with Saavik, which wasn’t even hinted at in this movie. I remember a scene where they were criticized for taking the risky move of holding hands while being transported. Even more, Saavik’s Romulan side came out in the book. She was ferocious when provoked.

Hey, I know that Klingon!

As I mentioned yesterday, the novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan didn’t have the “remember” scene in it.

Admiral Morrow was a dope. How can he not understand “Vulcan mysticism”? He must have witnessed neck pinches and, more importantly, mind melds. Plus, his mustache sucks, though it could be worse.

The highlight of Allan Miller’s career.

“How many fingers do I have up.”
“It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost.”
“Up your shaft.”

🙂

I remember an interview with Nichelle Nichols. She was initially disappointed in the size of her role. She thought it was too small but eventually was happy with it considering how important it was. The novelization went into her role much more deeply.

I hoped we’d see James B. Sikking again. The reason we didn’t is because Sulu took over as captain of the Excelsior. In fact, in the novel, he was already assigned to do so. As they were stealing the Enterprise, Sulu reflected on how he was throwing away that opportunity. This also explains why This brings up an anecdote. George Takei lobbied heavily for Sulu to become captain of his own ship. I remember Howard Stern making fun of him for it, saying, “You realize that Sulu becoming captain of another ship means you’re out of a job, right?” Takei stood firm. I guess it worked out. By the time he got the Excelsior, it was this crew’s final movie.

So, they find a young Spock. That raises an issue for me. When Spock’s consciousness goes back into his body, what happens to the personality of the new Spock. However briefly he existed, he’s a separate person. Is the new Spock wiped out, or are the two personalities merged? What are the ethical ramifications either way?

That Klingon dog was ridiculous.

“Range, 5,000 killicams.” Why? Why are they speaking entirely in English but use a Klingon unit of measurement? They’re speaking Klingon, of course, and we’re hearing what we would assuming there was a universal translator present. Wouldn’t the universal translator also translate the range into units we’d understand?

The conversation between Kirk and his son, David, was the most cordial David was regarding Kirk in the novel. Then David dies, and Saavik says, “Admiral, David is dead.” After that, she goes nuts and attacks the Klingons. This is what I was referring to when I said she was ferocious.

I was hoping Kirk would say, “No tricks once on board.” That would have been a good call out to the Original Series episode, Day of the Dove. That reminds me: Kang is currently running around somewhere in the Klingon Empire.

Beaming down to a dying planet was a risky plan.

Klingons are like the Drow in D&D. Their society and psyche could never work in the real world, but we overlook that because they’re cool. That is, if Klingon captains are so eager to die, you won’t have many qualified captains running around. Deep Space Nine pulled back on that a little bit, but perhaps not enough. They are cool though.

You know, Kirk left the remaining Klingons on the planet knowing they’d die.

The refusion scene had me thinking about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Boy did that drag even though it really wasn’t that long. They wanted to give you the feeling that it took hours, but the verisimilitude was broken because no one left to pee. The same could be said about Spock wandering around in a confused state (except the peeing part). Overall, though, a good ending.

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Travelling Through the Star Trek Universe, Part II. Viewing Notes on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. @StarTrek @Hulu #StarTrek #TWoK #movie

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Continuing my revisit of all the Star Trek movies brings me to the gold standard of sci-fi movies, liked by virtually everyone that saw it. This entry is a little shorter than the last, not so much because the movie is shorter, but because I kept getting distracted. I wanted to watch the movie itself.

In an early version of the script, the opening scene took place in the middle of the movie, so it wasn’t a surprise. I’m glad it didn’t stay there.

Everyone I’ve ever heard say the name of the Kobayashi Maru pronounces it ma-RU. I do so myself. It’s actually pronounced MA-ru. Aren’t we all stupid?

If one photon torpedo can take out your helmsman, your ship’s design sucks. Depending on whom you ask, ordinary cars of today make the driver’s seat the safest place in a car.

Saavik seems irritated. So illogical. Of course, in the novelization it’s revealed that she’s half Romulan.

Shatner is such a wonderfully shitty actor.

The Reliant was wonderful. Not only was it a cool design in general, but it was also the first starship design we saw that wasn’t a Constitution or Enterprise class. Sometimes all it takes is a single piece of data to inspire your imagination to run wild and fill in the gaps they don’t have time to provide. The FASA Star Trek RPG helped me in that regard.

The Reliant’s scanners suck. Weather notwithstanding, how did they think that a bunch of humanoids and cargo carriers were just a single “particle of pre-animate matter”? Their computers must also have sucked. How did they not know that there was a colony of genetic supermen living on the planet next door? When Terrell and Chekov saw the cargo carriers, they should have figured it out. *sigh* The things we tolerate for drama. And yes, I know Chekov never met Khan, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t know the story. He served on the Enterprise for years after that incident, which was a matter of Starfleet record. That part was not a continuity error.

Now that’s what I call an earwig.

When I was a kid watching this in 1983 (when it hit TV), I was confused by Spock referring to Saavik as “Mr. Saavik.” I thought, “Wait, is that a dude?” I should have figured it out. My favorite episode of any Star Trek series is Balance of Terror, and in it an officer refers to a female subordinate as “mister.” The subordinate happens to be his fiancee. The FASA Star Trek RPG taught me the generic use of that term. Never underestimate the educational value of RPGs.

Piloting a ship out of space dock? I never thought the buildup was worth the payoff. I’m sure I could do it. All Saavik did was say, “Hey, you guys, do your jobs,” and everyone else did all the work. Managers think way too much of themselves.

Khan’s followers know how to talk to him: Appeal to his inflated ego.

I never forgot an interview that Ricardo Montalban did on the character. A specific part always stayed with me: Basing his approach to the character on this overwhelming rage that built up over 15 years or so.

Go to 3:12 to hear what I’m referencing.

A jump scene (bloody arms) immediately after a fake jump scene (door opening to Kirk’s face)? Not scary.

“But he was late. He had to get back to Reliant in time to blow you to bits.”

Was that supposed to be a joke? It wasn’t funny. It didn’t even appear to be an attempt at funny. What an odd line.

The worm thing continued to scream even after it was liquified by Kirk’s phaser. Duh.

As I said, Shatner is such a wonderfully shitty actor.

I was annoyed about a scene in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. In Kirk’s talk about his cheat on the Kobayashi Maru (yeah, I just said that in my head as ma-RU), he mentions that he received a commendation for original thinking. The fact that the universe was rebooted doesn’t explain why Star Fleet would swing 180° and place him on suspension.

“Explain it to them.”

Yeah, okay, since you’re threatening to kill us, we’ll stop going into the nebula. We’ll stay out here so that you can kill us more easily. Not much of a threat, huh?

Kirk also knows how to talk to Khan: Appeal to his inflated ego.

The way Kirk beat Khan was perfect. Exploit the fact that he’s from the 21st century, and thus doesn’t think three-dimensionally. (We’re all assuming there are no aircraft pilots among Khan’s bridge crew.)

After seeing Star Trek III and reading the novelization, I went back to the novelization of this movie. It confirmed my recollection: The “remember” wasn’t in the book. How could a book not have something important that the movie did?

As a kid, I was disappointed that Khan didn’t see Kirk get away. Then I grew up and shed such prideful notions.

Spock’s death was heartbreaking, especially for a kid watching it.

On a final note, I think it’s appropriate to provide this visual.

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE: THE LAST DAYS OF MADELINE KAHN
It’s “Wrath of Khan,” not “Wrath of Kahn.”

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Margaret Weis Drops #MarvelRPG #RPG #gaming cc:@GamingMeerkat

I’ll miss you, old friend … until I play you again a week from Saturday.

Despite my many hours playing Dungeons & Dragons since 2005 (after a 24-year absence from the game), I’m really not much of an RPG gamer. I love FASA Star Trek RPG, but what do you expect? I loved Enterprise! I’ve played Gamma World 4e, Legend of the Five Rings (3rd edition) three times, Dragon Age RPG (Green Ronin Publishing) a few times (mostly as Game Master), and Star Wars Saga Edition once (again, as Game Master). I enjoyed all of those games but played Call of Cthulhu d100 twice and hated it. If I’ve played any other RPGs with dice, I don’t remember it off the top of my head, so apparently they didn’t make much of an impact.  (I’ve also played the diceless RPG, Fiasco, which was great.)

I’d like to broaden my horizons as far as RPGs are concerned, so when my friend, Rishi, offered me the chance to join his new Marvel RPG game, I jumped at the chance. I’ve heard good things about it, so I was intrigued even though I never read comic books. (Come to think of it, I’m not a good geek in general. I don’t play video games, and I find Dr. Who to be retardis.) I wanted to play the mechanics everyone was talking about, so I agreed to play for a couple of sessions before gracefully bowing out.

I don’t think I’ll be bowing out. Our first session was a lot of fun for me. My approach to RPGs has always been to focus on a character concept, where the character has some interesting, overriding character trait, usually but not always a flaw. I then play that trait to the extreme. With my group, that wasn’t only tolerated but welcomed with open arms. As comic book fans, the other players liked the fact that I played my character’s traits so faithfully, even to the detriment of the team, because these are the characters the players love.

Clearly, I’m the baddest ass of the bunch!

Incidentally, I played a guy by the name of Hank Pym, a.k.a., Yellow Jacket. I’d never heard of him but am sure that means something to a lot of you. It also meant something to my cousin, Tom, who still collects comics. When Rishi gave me a list of characters from which to choose, I passed the ones in favor of the Super Human Registration Act to Tom, who told me to pick Yellow Jacket. It’s worked out so far. An insecure, nerdy guy who 1) supports government registration of people, and 2) gains experience points by blaming his own major failing on a loved one? Yeah, I can do this.

Mechanics

And that (finally) brings me to my first point. The mechanics of the game have their flaws, but overall it’s an fun system, especially for someone like me.

The Bad: The dice rolling is unnecessarily convoluted, requiring you to figure out which types of dice to roll (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12) and in what number every single time you roll. Once I’m used to it, it’ll probably become second nature, but it creates a barrier for entry. If I were the rule rather than the exception, the group probably would have moved on and never played it again. Instead, I was the odd man out. I was the only one that didn’t have experience with the game and wasn’t a comic book reader. Keeping this game going will be easy despite the unnecessary complexity, but I don’t think that will be the case for all groups.

The Good: Rewarding me for domestic violence? Brilliant! I know that sounds bad, but stay with me. No one’s perfect, not even superheroes. We all have flaws, and a role-playing game that doesn’t hide from that fact, even among the heroes, is exactly what I need to make me happy. (Also, I don’t actually have to beat my wife in the game. It’s not necessarily that specific.) Needless to say, this doesn’t always go over well in other systems. In 4e D&D, I have a stereotypical, senile old man, Luigi, who’s great for comic relief, but when I play him in character during combat or role-play, he usually makes bad decisions. It’s never once actually hurt the group when all was said and done  — he was responsible for winning a “social skill challenge” in one adventure despite his eccentricity — but while it’s occurring, it’s tough to convince the other players of that. Some people get very annoyed by his erratic behavior. With Marvel RPG, no one is complaining, and I doubt this is a characteristic of my group itself. The mechanics of the game actually encourage me and them to act the fool at times. And it works.

The Good but with a Caveat: The initiative system is fantastic, but it wouldn’t work in a game like D&D where building a character to go first has so many advantages. Other game systems would have to be tweaked dramatically to allow for the Marvel RPG initiative system. Still, it’s something every game publisher should at least consider.

It’s All About IP

My second point is, as always, that the world lives and dies based on intellectual property law, and this is the more important of the two points. IP law governs everything, and there’s a lesson to be learned here. RPG publishing is a low-profit exercise. It’s tough to do well in it, and whether most publishers will admit it or not, it’s ability to succeed as well as it has depends a great deal on the continued success of Wizards of the Coast. WotC produces Dungeons and Dragons (among others), and does so with the mighty weight of Hasbro behind it. They’re able to do things no other RPG publishers can do, and the entire industry benefits as a result. However, even WotC could hold on to the Star Wars license for only so long. With such a low profit-margin in the first place, having to give up a non-negligible chunk of that in the licensing fee reduces the profit margin even more. Also, unless you’re willing to give up and even bigger chunk of the profits, you have to settle with a non-exclusive license (if it’s even offered), meaning you won’t even be the only game of your kind available. It’s a no-win situation over the long haul.

With that in mind, be disappointed but not angry. I’ve never met or spoke with Margaret Weis, so I have no inside information here, but I’d put good money on the bet that she had a very good reason for letting the license go. This isn’t the fault of Ms. Weis, or of Marvel. It’s just the nature of the industry. The game was selling well, but the numbers just don’t add up in the long run. Everyone needs the core rulebook, but sales of add-ons will always be at least a little less, and often will be much less.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of material out there with even more to come, and many gamers will put together supplemental materials in the form of PDFs freely downloadable from their private sites. This game won’t die anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.

The End

Despite my optimism in the two sentences immediately preceding this one, it feels like there’s been a death in the family (not that bad, though; on the level of a step-cousin). 🙂 I just wanted to offer a eulogy of sorts, if for no other reason than to make myself feel good about it. It’s a good game, we’ll all continue to play it, but like all good things, eventually it must come to an end, and no one is to blame for that. Gaming will go on.

As always, happy gaming!

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FASA Star Trek RPG at TerpCon, Saturday, November 17, 2012 #gaming

Yesterday I sent in my registration to TerpCon for my FASA Star Trek RPG adventure, “Intruders.” If you’re planning to be in the Washington, DC area on  November 17, consider attending. It’s a free gaming convention held at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland at College Park. They’ll be a good array of RPG events there, but if you have any interest in an old-style, original series adventure, my event will certainly be of interest to you. The gaming schedule isn’t up yet, but you can already create a registration account and check out (or contribute to) the buzz over on their Facebook page.

I ran my other original adventure, Anything but Routine, at a past event, and Intruders involves the same ship and crew. Even if you can’t make TerpCon, you can find several other works published on my FASA Star Trek RPG Resources page and run your own adventures near where you live.

As always, happy gaming.

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FASA Trek Digital v1.0 Is Available

I’ve uploaded the first version of FASA Trek Digital, my Access 2007 database for the FASA Star Trek RPG. You can find it on my FASA Star Trek RPG Resources page (along with an explanation as to what exactly it is) by clicking here. I’ve never distributed an Access database, so if you’re having any problems opening it, let me know.

It’s an *.accde file (executable), so you might require the MS Access runtime application in order to run it. I haven’t packaged that with the program. I can do that if someone’s having trouble downloading the file, though you can also just download it yourself from the Access help database at http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=4438. It’s a quick download and installation, and once installed, it should work. (You should not need the Access Runtime Application if you already have Access 2007 installed on your PC.)

I’m happy with the functionality it provides, but remember that “you get what you pay for.” It could be a lot better, but unless I receive some support through (100% optional) PayPal donations, further development isn’t strictly guaranteed. Nevertheless, I’m planning to complete the player character generation component and am willing to entertain specific requests from all of you.

If you have any problems or uncover any bugs/defects, please contact me.

Happy gaming!

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New Page: FASA StarTrek RPG Resources

FASA Star Trek RPG Character Sheet (click to enlarge)

I’ve created a new page for distribution of my FASA Star Trek RPG resources. If you’re interested in running or playing the game, this would be a good place to start. It will soon have a digital tool available to generate characters, starships, solar systems, and planets, as well as print character sheets and starship panels. It already has my own designs for the Command and Control Panels and Master Control Panels, a quick reference sheet summarizing the rules, and Anything but Routine, an introductory adventure I wrote.  A direct link to the page now appears in the menu at the top of this page, so you can always find it without searching if you come back to my blog at a later date.

Happy gaming!

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FASA Star Trek RPG: Yet Another Adventure

A friend had a birthday party yesterday, and although it was a board-game friendly event, I prepared a short, self-authored adventure for a game of FASA Star Trek RPG just in case anyone was interested in playing. The issue never even came up. Instead, I played 7 Wonders (came in a close 2nd my first time playing the game) and Circvs Maximus (my character was killed in a chariot race), but I digress . . . .

A Doomsday Like Any Other

By now any reader of this blog or my Loremaster blog should know that I’ve been revisiting the FASA Star Trek RPG recently, having run it once at TerpCon in College Park, MD. The adventure I ran, Anything but Routine, took place in the Outback area of the FASA Star Trek universe, which is where Federation space borders both Gorn and Romulan space. The Romulans were always my favorite Star Trek villain, and the Gorn were oddly underused. I remember once opining online that one of the later series or movies should revisit the Gorn as velociraptor-like enemies, perhaps representing a subspecies of Gorn. Again, I digress . . . .

For this adventure, I kept the same crew of the Chandley class Frigate, the USS Fife (lifted from the FASA adventure, A Doomsday Like Any Other). It was intended to be only two hours long in light of the fact that it was written for a board-game audience, but it can be fit rather nicely into the story I started with Anything but Routine, either before or after that adventure. In other words, I might have the start of an entire FASA Star Trek RPG campaign.

Now, if I can just find a table of players for it . . . .

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Remembering FASA’s StarTrek RPG

This is a re-blog of my post on Loremaster.org, “Remembering FASA’s StarTrek RPG.” For my thoughts on adopting the composite skill system for your Dungeons & Dragons game, see my last article, Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System.


I played D&D Sunday night [10/23/2011], and something came up that I thought I’d share with everyone. I was fondly remembering FASA’s Star Trek game from my high school years. I left [Dungeons & Dragons] in 1981 (not returning until 2005), but for a brief time in high school (1982 or 1983), I bought up materials from the FASA Star Trek game and played it a couple of times. I really miss that game and would like to do a 1-shot or 2-shot game. In 2007, I played the Demand of Honor adventure, which involved the Gorn, but online play was very “unsocial” and lacked the feel of true RPGing.

Can I Cook or What?

I’ve been very lucky to have founded a group that’s open to trying other systems. We’re currently in the midst of a Savage Worlds: Weird Wars campaign because we tried out that system one night (in the Deadlands setting). We’ve also played some Dragon Age RPG but have done nothing more than create some characters and run through a single sample encounter. Tonight, Hal Mangold of Green Ronin Publishing gave me two sourcebooks for DC Adventuresthe Hero’s Handbook and Heroes and Villains Vol. I, and although I’ve never been a comic book fan, I played a demo at GenCon run by its creator, Steve Kenson, and so it remains a candidate for our next experiment.

Still, FASA’s Star Trek would be my first choice for doing something different. As the one who’d be pushing the system, I probably wouldn’t get to be a player, but I love GMing as much as I do playing, so I can live with that.

What’s the Big Deal?

Of all the systems I’ve played (admittedly, not many), none immersed me as much into the setting as the bridge combat system. The hand-to-hand combat system was good, but when dealing with inter-ship battles, I felt like I was on the bridge of a starship. It was so good that they sold the system as a separate product. It could stand on its own.

Visualize the bridge of an Original Series starship. You have the science officer at one workstation, the helmsman at another, the communications officer at yet another, and so on for navigation, engineering, weapons control (for the Original Series movies), and of course the captain’s chair. Other than the captain, this is what the gaming table looks like. Everyone has their spot around a common center. The only difference is that, in a game, everyone always looks towards the center rather than occasionally.

Each of these work stations would necessarily have a different control panel on it. The science officer had a goofy sensor viewing thingy, the helm had it’s own in the Original Series, navigation had a star chart, weapons control had targeting systems and what amounted to “triggers” for the weapons, and so on. For the game, each of the players had their own control panel on paper tailor-made for their handling their responsibilities and tracking the resources for which they were responsible, roughly simulating a bridge workstation. The captain would make decisions on how to proceed, then ask the relevant character to carry out the order. This would usually necessitate a skill roll on the d100 system, and not surprisingly the character was built to contribute in ways appropriate for his position on a star ship.

In other words, there was a chain of command, but it was still a cooperative game, just like 4e [Dungeons & Dragons]. Although it’s certainly possible to play a 4e game without a leader, it helps if you have a healer. The same was true of Star Trek. Yeah, the captain’s in charge but can’t do it all. The time for the captain’s hands to get dirty was when it was time to make contact with others, and captains certainly were built to be good at that.

The game also addressed technology thoroughly, from starship weaponry, to sidearms, to medical and science equipment. All of the major races were addressed, including the Caitian from the animated series. In fact, at DDXP last year, I got to play one. My Gamma World GM created pre-gens for his game, and one of them was a Catian lieutenant from the Star Trek universe who had been stranded here by the Big Mistake. (At the time, he was playing in a FASA Star Trek home game.)

The game even had an ingenious explanation for why Original Series Klingons looked so different from the movie Klingons: The ones from the Original Series were “human fusion” Klingons, genetically combined with humans to make a Klingon better suited to deal with humans. The game took this to the next logical step, introducing Romulan-fusion Klingons as well. The Imperial Klingons (from the movies) existed, but they weren’t the first choice for dealing with humans, so you never saw them on the TV screen. Taking this level of detail even one step further, the game provided a ton of words from the Romulan language. This attention to detail is exactly the sort of thing a fan of the Original Series, like me, would love.

Finally, because everything was handled via the skill system, it wasn’t a burden to have a long list of skills for each character. This allowed each player to customize their character. Kirk liked to ride horses, Picard had a strong background in archaeology, and Riker played the trombone. Your character had plenty of skill points to spend. If you were an optimizer, you could certainly max out your engineering, but you didn’t have to do so. In fact, the game was basically built assuming some characters would be optimizers and others actors (i.e., role-players). Any character could be played by any player type, but because there was always a need for both role-playing and roll-playing, both player types could find a home somewhere on the bridge. Making sure everyone at the table is happy is a goal I’ve set for myself with organized play, but FASA Star Trek makes it easier.

Oh, and FASA Star Trek called them opportunity actions long before D&D had them. 🙂

What If This Isn’t for Me?

Obviously, feeling immersed in the setting isn’t important if the setting doesn’t matter to you. I’ll ask my group if they’re interested, but I won’t beg them to do it. “Play what you like,” implies, “Don’t play what you don’t like.” This might prevent me from every playing the game again, as I might have to find a table of players willing to do so and the time to play outside my group, but there’s always hope.

So Much to Do, So Little Time

Of course, there just isn’t enough time to do all the things I want to do. I’m currently having trouble focusing on a few projects for the Gamers’ Syndicate, and I’m essentially in a job hunt. Once successful in my job hunt, my time might become even more precious. We can’t have everything we want, and I can accept that, but there’s so much out there to do, I don’t see how I could ever get bored.

Either way, consider (re)visiting this game if you enjoyed watching Star Trek. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

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Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System

My love of the FASA Star Trek RPG gave me an idea on how to handle certain situations that I’ve seen before and believe to be handled less-than-ideally by DMs. I ran a quick Google check to see if anyone had already written about this topic, and apparently they haven’t. This surprises me, so perhaps I just couldn’t find it, but I propose using composite skill bonuses to handle an individual task that simultaneously requires multiple skills.

An Example from FASA Star Trek RPG

FASA Star Trek RPG is a d100, skill-based system so that each character would have a skill rating from 0-99 in each of the skills. To determine the success of an action, a player would roll a d100 against the relevant PC skill rating. Roll less than the skill rating, and it’s a success. For complicated tasks requiring multiple simultaneous skills, however, your target wasn’t a single skill rating, but rather an average of all of the relevant skills.

You’ve just boarded your enemy’s starship. It’s a Klingon scout ship with a crew of 8, so it’s no surprise that the entire enemy crew is dead. Unfortunately, the crew activated the self-destruct sequence and severely damaged the only computer that could be used to deactivate the sequence. Time’s running out. There’s no time to fix the computer, then consult a Klingon-to-English dictionary. What do you do?

You roll against your skill in Computer Technology (i.e., repair of computers), Computer Operations (i.e., use of computer interfaces), and Language: Klingon (i.e., your ability to translate what’s on the screen). So, if your skills are Computer Technology 60, Computer Operation 70, and Language: Klingon 20, your target number is (60 + 70 + 20)/3 = 50. If you never learned a word of Klingon (skill rating 0), you’d be at a severe disadvantage, but your general knowledge of computers could still make for a reasonable chance of success (60 + 70 + 0)/3 = 43. Therefore, not knowing Klingon doesn’t automatically make you useless if you beam over to the ship. You’re still contributing on your own merits.

An Example from 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine some examples of how this would work in the d20 system. Let’s use 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons as an example.

There’s a group of ogres sitting around a campfire playing the Orc dice game, Rotting Toes. They’re unfamiliar with the game and downright stupid, but they’re also tough combatants that technically are standing watch. If disturbed, they might sound an alarm.

Hat tip to Erik Nowak for creating Rotting Toes.

The party decides that the best way to handle this encounter is to avoid it. Needless to say, the 3rd-level Rogue rolls a Stealth check (+12), succeeds with flying colors, and passes right on by. Unfortunately, the Paladin is in full plate mail armor. Stealth isn’t much of an option.

The accepted solution is a group Stealth check. Everyone rolls their dice, and as long as half of the group makes the check, the party as a whole succeeds. I’m not a fan of this. I know this is a game of magic and monsters, but at times, this solution defies logic. If, for example, due to the surrounding environment, each character must move one at a time across a long distance, the Rogue isn’t going to be able to help the Paladin stay silent. Any way you slice it, the Paladin is on his own, yet the group Stealth check inappropriately allows the Rogue to help.

More importantly, however, is that this is also a game of creativity and imagination, and the group Stealth check stifles that. Even if the Paladin could enlist the help of his friends, that doesn’t me he should. If I were playing the Paladin, I’d want my actions to count. I don’t want someone else to dictate my success in a situation where a little thinking outside the box will keep my fate in my own hands. There are enough opportunities for teamwork elsewhere in the game. Here, I want to be on my own.

Instead, let’s say the Paladin decides to throw a stick to create a distraction. Is this an Athletics check? Is it a Bluff check? How about both? It’s a single action, so if both skills are in play, both should affect the outcome.

The 3rd-level Goliath Avenging Paladin’s relevant skills are Athletics +5, Bluff +3, and Stealth -1. He should have no problem dealing with Ogre psychology (Bluff), but he also has to toss the stick accurately to place it exactly where he wants it to go (Athletics). So, it looks like his bonus to the skill roll for the composite skill bonus is (5+3)/2 = +4. That’s certainly better than a -1. However, this is a Goliath we’re talking about. He’s got a +2 to Wisdom, and his Widsom score is a respectable 14 because it’s his tertiary stat. Moreover, his background includes a strange parentage; he was raised by wolves (Background: Parentage-Raised by Wolves), giving him a +2 background bonus to Nature checks. As a result, his Nature score is a whopping +8.

The Paladin knows that lemurs are the ogres favorite food, and he also knows that this area has plenty of lemurs in it. Instead of throwing the stick simply to get the ogres to look the other way, he chooses to throw it into a lemon tree where Comyrean lemurs are known to play. This way, the ogres not only will look the other way, but also will keep looking, possibly sending one off to grab some lemurs. In order to reflect this mechanically, the Paladin now gets to add his Nature bonus into the mix. His composite skill bonus is now (5+3+8)/3 = +5, which is appropriate for a single action using each of his three relevant skills.

If the DM rewards the creativity with the typical +2, the Paladin has a bonus to his roll of +7, and he deserves it based on his own ingenuity and character build. In fact, the rest of the party might thank him if one of the ogres leaves to investigate — such a ruling is more appropriate for a Bluff check than a Stealth check — as that means one less ogre remains to spot the remaining PCs during their checks.

The +7 is a far cry from the +12 to Stealth that the 3rd-level Halfling Rogue might have, but it’s still pretty good, and it’s his.

It’s Not All About the PCs

This isn’t just a means to inspire creativity. As my FASA Star Trek RPG example demonstrates, sometimes the DM should require the use of a skill (in that case, Language: Klingon) because it’s logical. I’m sure the character with a skill rating of 0 in Language: Klingon wouldn’t want to have to include it, but it makes sense to require it. In the D&D example, perhaps all of the PCs should be required to include their Nature bonus to their checks due to some natural hazard present in the area. There’s a logic to the composite skill bonus that I find hard to ignore. (Yes, I know; magic and monsters….) In any case, a composite skill is appropriate only where a single d20 roll must simultaneously include knowledge or ability covered by multiple skills, such as where there isn’t enough time to take multiple actions.

What Do You Think?

As DM, you could certainly decide that there were no such lemurs present that night, but why would you? This is a system that allows each character to be judged on his or her own merits, and it encourages creative thinking. I can’t imagine any drawbacks, but if you have any, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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