Okay, Now Roll to Engage...
Star Trek Adventures
I have played in my fair share of role playing games in the past. I'm an avid gamer (I did write my own RPG system, Dodeca System), and have spent a fair bit of time trying out a lot of different systems just to find ones I can enjoy. As such, while I'm no expert on all game systems, I feel I have a certain level of gaming proficiency.
Over the years I've tested out a few games, many of which I stuck with for a while as the groups I was with ran one adventure or another. I grew up playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (commonly just known as "2nd Edition" now), and then followed that up with "3rd Edition" when that came out. I moved from there on to Cyberpunk and then Vampire: The Masquerade (and its various White Wolf-designed ilk). There were any number of smaller systems in there as well -- Inquisition, Ghostbusters, Teenagers from Outer Space -- and, of course, Star Trek which I picked up during the Last Unicorn Games run.
My friends and I really enjoyed the Last Unicorn Trek game. I remember playing two different Next Generation era games before that system ended (after two brief a run). I didn't pick up the follow up game from Decipher, Inc., which was CODA-based for its rules, but much more recently my current gaming group tried our hand at the recently released Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment. Having run in a campaign in there, I feel comfortable enough with the system to render a review about the game.
For those that have played in an RPG before, Adventures should feel pretty similar to what you'd expect. The sheet is broken up into two major sections, with the Attributes and Disciplines (Skills, essentially) taking up the top part of the sheet, and these are the basic abilities and commands your character can perform. However, you aren't free to just place points as you like on your sheet; instead you have to go through a background build out of your character, establishing their history which then establishes points you can spend and some limits as to how you can spend them, so someone can't say "I'm playing Kirk so I get 10 points in Subterfuge and 5 points in Seduce". It's more nuanced than that (sorry, Kirk).
To build your background, a player would roll on a chart (because nothing says RPGS like charts and rolling) for each phase of their life, such as "childhood", "cadet training", and "first deployment" (and, yes, since we're playing Federation officers in this game, everyone goes through Starfleet Academy). Depending on how you roll (with your trusty D20), you'll get different basic notes about what happened to you in your life, like "raised on a farming planet" or "grew up on a space station", and each time you roll you gets a few notes about some of the attributes and disciplines you might have picked up during this period, a guide of sorts for your Attributes and Disciplines.
I like the background designer in theory as it could help a player to figure out some details about their character's history they wouldn't have known otherwise. In practice, though, the way Adventures sets it up fall short of optimal. The backgrounds aren't detailed enough to really give players a lot of notes, like if they grew up on a farming planet, were the conditions truly desolate or was the planet nice? Were you captured at a young age, forced to work on a slave ship, and then had to fight your way off? For those that are creative those kinds of details can be put in, but they aren't necessary to the game and, regardless of what happened, there's no ill effects (or truly great effects for a nice background) give due to how you were raised. It's a note on a sheet, that's it.
Really, after assigning my points, I ended up just ignoring the backgrounds I was given because they had little bearing on the character I planned to play. And that's the real issue I had -- a player that comes in with a specific character in mind doesn't need the background generator, but a player who doesn't know the kind of character they could play can't just roll and get inspired. It doesn't really suit either player type, instead hitting this middle ground that doesn't really do much of anything.
Thankfully, as I noted, you can just ignore stuff and move into the meat of the game. As officers on a Federation ship, each player will have their duties to perform, from Science to Engineering, Command, to Ops. Essentially, if you could see a character doing something on a Trek ship, you can do it here. And time a task is needed, the characters will then roll on their sheet (because this is an RPG so of course there's rolling), allowing them to perform the skills and duties assigned to their work station. So say, for instance, the Klingons shot your ship and the engines have been knocked out; if you're the engineer, it's your job to fix them. To do so you'd look at your sheet and find the proper Attribute (which will range from 1 to 12 points) -- in this example that would be Engineering -- and Discipline (ranging from 1 to 5 points) -- Repair, in this case -- and then combine the two. Whatever that number is, the player then has to roll under it.
This is a mechanic I really liked as it allows for a fair bit of customization to how players handle tasks. Maybe you are in a situation where two different Attributes could be used; in this instance, which one you take will influence how your character handles their task and, but that same logic, will color how you play-act that duty. I also like the fact that you roll under your target as, so often, players roll above -- this just stands out as a change that makes sense for the way your character is designed. As a bonus, the more you roll under, the better you succeed.
Since you roll for both and Attribute and a Discipline, automatically you get two rolls (2d20). If you have any specializations you've managed to take along the way that might apply, these can add another die to the pool. Now, when you roll, your job is to get under the total -- each die that does so is 1 success. If the die happens to roll not only under the total but also under the Discipline alone, that's 2 successes. As you can see, if each die can succeed twice, your successes can stack up pretty quick. Sometimes you'll need this -- while basic tasks only require one success, more complex tasks may need more successes to be properly achieved. So roll well and roll often, essentially.
As a bonus, if you get a lot of successes and don't need them, the game allows you to bank as certain number of these successes as "momentum" that can be used later on other rolls. This is a nice reward for good rolling and can help to smooth out a run of bad rolls. Of course, if you're like me and chronically roll low with your d20s anyway, you might just build up a lot of momentum and become "quite the miracle worker."
Taken just from the view of the game system itself, I think Star Trek Adventures really works. It's pretty easy to comprehend, it functions well, and if you're willing to fudge in a few house rules here or there (like using some fan-made items to boost a rather paltry selection of races that come in the main book) you can get some good mileage out of the core books. That's not to say everything is great, though, as I ran into some issues with running the game that any gaming group should be aware of.
The problem, as I found it, isn't with the game but with the universe itself. In any standard fantasy game, the party will venture around, finding towns, castles, caves, villas, and cottages along the way to explore, loot, and whatever. You're a roving band, kind of a law unto yourself, and you can let the adventure take you as you will. This same kind of dynamic applies to any number of sci-fi games as well, so it's not just fantasy, really -- if you're playing in Firefly, sure, you have a ship, but most of your adventures are planet-side. You'll transport cargo, get into bar brawls, do deals, and then have to shoot your way out. Your time in space, generally, isn't as important as your time on a planet looking for work.
Trek, though, is a very different beast. Here you're law-abiding citizens flying the straight and narrow of Federation law. Traveling around on your ship, you essentially have your own wandering town, a place to live in, work in, and protect. Adventures, then, are all about the ships -- if you watch any episodes (which I have, a lot) even planet-side encounters spend a fair amount of time focusing on the crew on the ship, dealing with their side of a problem. With that big a setting, that many moving parts, you end up with a very rigid, segmented game. When a problem comes up with the engines, the engineer, not the science officer, will take over on the plot; when it comes to negotiating with hostile aliens, the command crew comes to the forefront, with the other sections fading back. Often, one or two players will be in the lead while the rest sit and twiddle their thumbs.
Worse, if you aren't deep into the Trek minutia, you might be lost as to what you're supposed to do (especially if your group is playing one of the many pre-made modules with very specific instructions as to how some of the problems can be solved). Sure, the engines are down, but unless you understand changing the phase variance of the matter/anti-matter conduits to account for chroniton particles from a nearby nebula (something my engineer literally had to do at one point) you may not be able to solve a problem on the ship. Some parts of Trek are pretty technical and to really be able to solve some of the problems you have to know the tech, and the lore, as good as someone that would actually be living in that universe.
This wasn't an issue just with the few modules my group played in -- very often it just felt like the problems weren't well suited to the needs of the whole group, and even when an adventure could use all aspects of a command crew, your party all had to understand their jobs. The science officer we had was sometimes at a loss because the science bits were really detailed (and dealing with science that doesn't exist in the real world), and then before she could get a run up on the problem, the Commander had dashed off and started firing at the problem, changing the dynamics of the adventure. It's an RPG and we don't want to sit around waiting for a science problem to be resolved. We want to charge ahead, kill stuff, and enjoy our time.
Honestly, I think just having to stay within the bounds of Federation law is another limiting factor on the enjoyment of the system. If you don't follow Federation laws you get ejected from Starfleet and out of the game, and there just aren't enough rules out there to play as the Maquis (or one of the other sets of ships that might allow for the outlaw life). But then, if you're one of those crews, I'd have to assume you better be good at multi-tasking since you won't have a large ship full of officers to rely on, and if you can't handle engineering, science, and command, you'd be pretty screwed anyway. As someone that's deep in Trek, I could think my way around the problems as well as find ways to be a trouble-maker while still toeing the line and not getting sent to the brig. Other players, though, had problems with one side of that dynamic, or both, and just couldn't even get comfortable in the games we played together.
Don't get me wrong, Modiphius has a great little system here. If you mod it enough, or find just the right adventure to play where the solutions are too obtuse, maybe you can get a good game out of it. For most of our party members, though, being in Trek just proved to be too much work. Too much thinking and not enough fun.
For the record, the next time my gaming group plays in a sci-fi setting, we're running Star Wars. By agreement, laser swords are easier to understand.