Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Denial of Destiny - The Star Trek RPG Adventure

I don't see any reviews or discussion of this adventure anywhere online via my googlematic and that's a shame. I played through it way back when it was new and it has had an influence on my thinking on adventures, particularly Trek adventures, ever since. Well, my experience playing it has had a huge influence, because I never owned it - until now! How does it hold up 30 years later? Let's talk ...

My memories of playing through this adventure were that it began with a distress call that a planet was threatened with destruction by a natural event and that the mission was to evacuate as much of the population as possible - simple, right? The complication is that once you get there there the people don't want to leave! It's a big religious thing and the one thing all of the different sects can agree on is that it's important to stay put for the big event. This is not a technologically advanced species so they wouldn't be leaving on their own anyway, but when we offered them the chance we mostly got a polite 'thanks but no thanks"! I remember a weird mixed feeling of being denied the opportunity to save the day, respecting their racial beliefs, and still making our best effort to fully explain the danger. I thought it was brilliant at the time and felt completely true to Trek. There were no Klingons or Romulans, no godlike aliens, no super-computers, and combat was not the high point of the adventure. The only combat that even occurred was that as we kept on trying to talk to the inhabitants about the danger we eventually ticked off one of the more radical sects and they sent some assassins after us so we did get one action scene in.

We managed to convince one group to come with us. The planet got pasted and our passengers became the only surviving members of their race. The hastily-assembled fleet we had thought to be way too small ended up being more than capable of holding them all which was a weird feeling, especially after they became the only survivors. We transported them to a starbase and petitioned to be part of the mission to find them a new homeworld but we never did much follow up on this one. We tended to have a very episodic game back then and with no obvious recurring villain springing out of this run there wasn't as easy a way to drop it back in. I can see plenty of ways to do it now, but things were different then.

So, 30 years, 4 TV series, 11 movies, and many games later I have acquired my own copy. That back cover text is probably too small to read so here it is:

He's stealing my soul!

While strolling down the street the party comes upon a beggar who appears to have only one leg. You may wish to put some Kopas (local currency) into his bowl at which the beggar will smile genially.
The medical officer decides to carefully scan this individual since he has not seen any other Alerian who does not seem totally fit.

As the tricorder is turned on it begins making its normal whining sound. The beggar hears the peculiar noise, sees the device and begins shouting in mortal terror. "Ayak! Ish Bendanaada ju erada megeni kra kra Johopo!" Which translated will turn out to mean "Help! This off-world swine is trying to steal my soul!"

The local merchants, who have become quite attached to this fellow as he knows just about the filthiest stories ever heard on Kembali, will come running to his aid and will insist that the party leave him alone. They won't become violent since after all, he is only a beggar and no one fights over a beggar.

The tricorder reading taken by the medical officer indicates something peculiar about the beggar's missing leg.

Remember, this adventure starts with "we need to evacuate a planet" - does it seem like they're missing the big picture a little bit there? These adventures used to come sealed in an envelope-like package so there was no way to flip through it - the above text is all you get. Does that sound particularly interesting? For an Edge of the Empire adventure this might be a reasonable hook but for a Trek adventure? Where the planet is going to be destroyed in a few days?

Part 1
The first part of the adventure is still good. A message comes in that the planet Aleriad is going to be wiped out by a collision with a debris cloud moving through the system. The PC ship is to head up a task force now being assembled with the goal of saving some of the population. There's a line in the message about only being budgeted enough resources to save 1% of the population - that is not a phrasing I would use, even in Star Trek as it sounds like some kind of corporate/government meeting note, not the introduction of a heroic rescue mission. There are also notes that

  • There's nowhere else in the system to settle them
  • There have been reports of Orion activity in the area
  • Ambassador Robert Fox (from "Taste of Armageddon") is going along to help
I don't remember Fox being a big part of our adventure so I'm not sure if he was dropped completely or renamed and de-emphasized, or if my memory is incomplete. He's supposed to be an annoying ally type NPC in this mission. I don't think we missed him much.

So the first part is pretty much as I remember - get to the system with a rescue fleet, meet the Alerians, educate them on the situation, and get as many of them off the planet as possible. The Alerians are divided into hundreds if not thousands of religious sects and do not want to leave. In fact none of them want to leave, and pushing the issue gets angry mobs surrounding you and potential assassins attacking while you sleep. The only group that might be interested in leaving is led by an undercover Orion operative who doesn't want to die and quietly pushes his people to volunteer. The rest of the population views the coming devastation as a religious event and figures they will finally get to show all of the other sects who is actually right. So they are not only unwilling to leave, they are looking forward to it!

As written, there's not a lot for the players to do here. They can get to know the Alerian people, learn about their culture, and then watch their planet die! There is the one faction who can be convinced which seems disappointing to me as even that one has the hidden offworlder influencing things from the inside. There is also a mystery sub-plot involving Orion tech smuggling but honestly the whole planet is about to die so who cares if the Orions have been sneaking illegal tech onto the planet? Why does it matter now?

The destruction of the planet is thoroughly described. The inhabitants really thought some of them were going to survive as they were the chosen of their god and the non-chosen would be the ones to die. The sect that takes the players' offer accepts it with the understanding that they will return to the surface after the danger has passed. Instead the planet gets pounded by space rocks, the oceans and landmasses move around. and much of the atmosphere is lost so what's left is baking in much stronger solar radiation and is no longer Class M. 

It is suggested that if you're going multi-session with this adventure that this is a good place to pause. It is.

Part 2
Part 2 of the adventure is what to do with the refugees. There is concern that if they find out the destruction is total they might riot and most of the ships in the force do not have adequate security to control them. There is room for debate on whether to tell them up front or make a run for the starbase and let them get the full update their once they are off of the ships. There are also dietary, atmospheric, and gravitational concerns with keeping the Alerians healthy so there is a lot for the players to consider. It's a little bit of a Battlestar Galactica feeling as the officers in charge try to keep a shocked and unsettled civilian population happy and healthy until they can get where they're going. This kind of scenario does seem like a cool thing for a Trek adventure and I like a lot of it.

Then it gets really stupid.

The refugees, manipulated by the secret Orion, take over the ship. These aliens have a tech level similar to 1900 AD on Earth. They have steam power, basic radio, and single-shot projectile weapons. Yet they somehow manage to out-think the crew and learn how to run the ship -in 2 days-  and use the anti-intruder knockout gas to take control. The author seems to know it's ridiculous and spends some time justifying it to the GM:

... but I freely admit I have a hard time buying it and I would have a hard time buying it as a player too. "Suspension of disbelief" is a poor reason include something in an adventure and it could be used to justify literally anything. It's not even that these people would try to do it - it's that it's tough to believe they could do it! The Orion supposedly doesn't remember a lot of details of his former life but as this happens is supposed to start remembering how ship systems work. His limited knowledge is supposed to be a big help to the takeover. Seems like we're wanting to have it both ways here and even if it's not the biggest hole in this adventure it still seems weak.

The stated goal is to take the ship then go off and find a planet they can settle on. Of course, this only covers the refugees on the main PC ship. There's really not much discussion of how the rest of the fleet reacts other than it can only sustain Warp 2 and the rebel refugees go to Warp 4 to get away. Do the on-ship refugees realize this? Do they care? how about those left behind? I didn't see any of this addressed in the text.

The big finale of the adventure, is the struggle to retake control of the ship. This is complicated when a distress call comes in from a ship full of cadets under attack by a pair of Orion ships. The players need to retake the ship and also rescue the cadet ship in a less than 100% state as the untrained Alerians have managed to crack some of the dilithium crystals and generally screw up various ship systems. The advice here is that if the PC ship starts to really lose then have a Loknar class frigate show up to help. A previously unmentioned Loknar ... that might have been useful in transporting more refugees ... that surely would have picked up the distress call as well and could have picked up a call from the players ship too theoretically. Sigh.

Other Elements
One of the sort of hidden factors in this is that the Alerians are psionic and a good part of their communication is tied up in the mental part of their exchanges and not the verbal. This allows them to plot to take over the ship without having to discuss it verbally  and yes the Orion secret agent is psionically active as well which is why he was chosen for the mission long ago. The problem here is that it's fairly typical to have at least one psionically active player character in a Trek game, particularly the FASA Trek RPG, and this seems like it might be a problem. Here's the author's advice on that:

OK, seems like we have it handled well here, right? Wait, there's more:

What?! I'm supposed to sideline a PC because their abilities are inconvenient to the plot of this adventure? You call that advice? These are from the designer's notes on playtesting the adventure which tells me that's probably how they handled it! It's like people complaining about having Paladins in D&D adventures that depend on a secret evil plot that could be revealed with a simple "detect evil". Hey, if your plot is that weak in a world where "detect evil" exists then it's probably not going to work there. Same idea here - if one halfway competent psionic PC blows up the whole second half of your adventure in a setting where psionic PC's are not uncommon then you need to rethink your adventure. It was bad advice in 1983 and it's bad advice today.

If things play out as projected your players will sail in, largely fail to convince the doomed populace to evacuate, watch as the planet gets destroyed, head back to a starbase with the few refugees they did manage to rescue, lose control of their ship to them, struggle to get it back, then attempt to fight off some Orions in a damaged state possibly needing help from another smaller ship to succeed.

Wow, that looks like your crew is incredibly incompetent. It should get your captain fired and possibly court-martialed. The rest of the crew should be broken up, reassigned, and some of them should be demoted and possibly court-martialed as well. There's no super-powerful alien life form at work here like with Kirk and the Enterprise. There's not even a comparably-trained and equipped force like the Klingons at work here - it's a bunch of primitives! Could a group of Amish refugees take over a modern aircraft carrier? Even if one of them was an amnesiac former Soviet sailor?  Allowing that to happen would (and should) end careers and destroy reputations.

Looking back ...
Clearly my GM back then took the parts of the adventure he liked, made something of them, and dropped the awful parts. He was a smart guy. Unfortunately this means my memories of this adventure are way better than what it is in print. I picked this up expecting to be able to showcase it as an example for someone who doesn't know what a Trek RPG adventure might be (besides shooting Klingons) and I just can't do that. It starts with a great concept and then the whole thing falls apart.

Star Trek RPGs deserve better and we can do better. I love the basic concept - confronted by an unalterable natural disaster what does your crew do?

So in the next post I'm going to start writing up my concept of what this adventure could be. More to come.


WQRobb said...

The adventure seems pretty linear. I could imagine my group getting frustrated with being unable to save the planet, unable to prevent the ship from being taken over, etc.

Blacksteel said...

Yeah there's only one small group that can be saved and even it is somewhat rigged and then your players get punished for doing it by losing their ship! We're going to discuss that tomorrow.

Adam Dickstein said...

I've run this adventure a number of times, and in each instance I've had to modify the basic premise, and suggested execution, severely.

One of the weirdest bits is the Prime Directive doesn't seem to have been noted at all in this endeavor. If the aliens are pre-spaceflight, why are we even trying to say them at all? According to the Prime Directives tenants that's a major violation. They're supposed to die, and we're not supposed to interfere, right? Right? I mean, this adventure should technically consist of watching tv for a few hours until the naturally occurring cataclysm strikes. That's when your ship warps away, waits until the smoke clears, and warps back in.

Now, I'm not advocating this approach, I'm just saying that the adventure as written shouldn't be an adventure at all.

How do you make it one? Some ideas...

Just before the Alerians are snuffed out of existance, they are saved by a power from on high. A god-entity spares the planet. Now the Starfleet PCs have something they can interact with. They need to assess the god-entity, what it wants, why it saved the planet, and what it's further intentions are.

The Alerians are Warp capable, but still choose not to leave. Now we have the ability to interfere. Perhaps there is something on the planet the Orions really want, and don't want it destroyed by the coming apocalypse. Push the whole 'one sect (led by a disguised Orion) wants off, and is willing to go to war with other religious sects to achieve this'.

Shrink the population. If the planet has only a few thousand, or even hundred thousand people, and their are only a dozen sects or less, it's possible for the PCs to get them to work together to perhaps leave, perhaps find underground safety zones, or something similar.

The idea is, don't create a Star Trek adventure where all you can do is helplessly watch millions of aliens die. That sucks. It's no fun, and doesn't feel at all heroic, especially in the TOS era where the story was originally set.

My two credits.