Tag Archives: RPG

Theatre of the Mind

Irony. I has it.

This whole COVID-19 pandemic really sucks. I am extremely fortunate. I know this. My pandemic experience is not typical; here in the US or around the world. Throughout this crazy time I’ve been getting paid. I have a personality that does not suffer much from isolation. I have hobbies and interests that keep me occupied. I am lucky.

One of those hobbies is gaming, specifically roleplaying games. Back to the irony: I have played RPGs with friends more often during the pandemic than I did pre-COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, I couldn’t get my friends to commit to a game night if I gave them three months advance notice. Now it seems when everyone is stuck at home, they have more free time; or at least more discretion in how they use it. We’ve been using Roll20 and other free apps to run roleplaying games over the web, and it’s worked well, for the most part. It’s even allowed me to reconnect with one of my oldest and best friends who lives all the way across the country and play games with him, which is a very good thing.

The upside: since March, when everything started to shut down (at least where I am, in a state with a governor who isn’t a spineless suck-ass who puts loyalty to a fucking political party above a public health emergency…sorry, don’t get me started), I’ve run Star Trek Adventures and Slasher Flick, and I’ve been a player in a steady D&D 5th edition campaign. Like clockwork, I have played a game every week with 4-5 friends with no problems. We made a schedule and stuck to it. You know: like adults do, when apparently they don’t have the freedom of not being in lockdown to hold them back.

I hear you. Shut up, Piper. You’re getting what you want: you’re playing games, right? Why are you still complaining about it?

Because I miss gaming more than ever. Real gaming. I miss being around a table with my friends. I miss rolling dice. I miss passing the potato chips and ordering pizza. I miss the digressions and the jokes, and the bullshitting and catching up that takes time away from the game. I miss the pantomimed actions and the facial expressions, neither of which really come through well over a webcam. I miss a game free of technical difficulties. I miss having the need for a GM screen.

I miss my friends. Don’t tell them I said that. I’ll deny it. None of them read this blog anyway. But it’s true. I miss those fucking assholes with all my heart.

Because I am old, we have traditionally played games that are more “theatre of the mind” than actual map-and-miniatures games. Again, ironic; considering I’ve collected miniatures since I started playing rpgs, and since I (at least) am certainly a full-blown miniature wargamer as well. However; when running or playing in a roleplaying game I prefer to imagine the action and the setting, only resorting to hastily scrawled maps or pictures should they be needed to convey vital information or remove confusion.

Why do I prefer this? Because theatre of the mind forces things into a first person perspective. Things are happening to and being imagined by you, the player, not observed from a godlike, top-down strategic map that shows exactly how many 5-foot squares are between you and that bandit over there and what his initiative score is.

Let’s talk about that bandit. The bandit scowls at you, gripping his hand axe, his knuckles white. The once-fine weapon has been used as a tool, its blade notched and worn. He is lanky, malnourished, and unwashed; and does not have the look of one who enjoys his work. His leather armor is surprisingly-well cared for save for a shiny patch on his left forearm, where it is obvious he has often stropped his knife. Perhaps he, like so many in this war-ravaged land, was once a guardsman or soldier; now reduced to the life of a road agent, robbing and stealing to survive. The bandit stares through the eyes of a man with nothing to lose, for he has lost everything already.

I’d be willing to bet you have a pretty good idea of what that bandit looks like in your mind now. Guess what? I bet it’s not exactly the same as what MY bandit looks like. Sure, I provided all the necessary details (perhaps too many) to form a picture, but the picture was YOUR formation. What colors is he wearing? What color are his eyes? His hair? His skin? How long is his hair, if he has any? Does he have any scars? I never described any of those things.

In the tactical environment of online roleplaying, none of that matters, because as soon as you encountered the bandit the DM plopped down a virtual token with a generic picture of a guy who likely looks nothing like what anyone pictured from the description; but now becomes what the bandit looks like for everyone. Congratulations. Your menacing bandit has been reduced to a crappy piece of clip art. (And yes, I know you can make your own tokens and you’re not reduced to clip art; but once again, a token is a token; not a bandit, or a Deep One, or a dragon.) Your thrilling, imaginative combat has now degenerated into a strategic, turn-based board game. Which would be fine for me, if I was playing a board game.

My gripes are in no way reflective of the quality of the games I have participated in. We’re all working with what tools we have. I miss being around an actual table, although I would much rather play over Discord than not play at all. I’m playing in a few hours, as a matter of fact.

I just can’t wait until we’re all back together again.

Star Trek Adventures: The Big Sleep Part 1

On Tuesday, my friends and I met via Discord/Jamboard/Roll for Your Party to continue our Star Trek Adventures game, and I must say it was pretty successful and fun all around. There were far fewer technical issues than I was expecting; and it seems we can all function pretty well gaming online. The next session is Monday, which should bring us to the end of the first mission of the U.S.S. Adventure, her “Shakedown Cruise”.

Having uncovered and shut down a Maquis resistance cell operating on an unnamed moon along the Cardassian/Federation Neutral Zone, the Adventure continued on its primary mission: delivering supplies to a remote Federation science outpost on New Coriolanus. The Adventure arrives at New Coriolanus to find a mostly empty star system orbiting a sun very much in the latter part of its life. None of the four planetary bodies can support humanoid life; even the closest planet is far too cold. Neither do they have much in the way of exploitable resources. It was a dead system of little interest to anyone, until Dr. Detog Gron, a Tellarite microbiologist, thought to use it as a staging ground for his experiments on microbes that thrive in extreme environments. Dr. Gron and his team of seven Starfleet science personnel have made remarkable achievements in the fields of microbiology and virology because of his research on New Coriolanus; as a result, other Federation scientists have sought to use the planet for their own projects. A civilian Andorian engineering team petitioned Starfleet for permission to use the facility to conduct their own experiments and was granted access.

Once in orbit around New Coriolanus, the crew hails the outpost. It’s immediately apparent that there are some domestic issues between the two research teams, as Dr. Gron and his Andorian counterpart, Dr. Therak Shrav, can barely stop arguing long enough to respond to the hail. An away team consisting of First Officer Commander Logan, Science Officer Commander Fulexian, and Chief Specialist J’zhara, an Andorian Engineering Officer, beams down to the outpost to gather more information.

The “domestic problem” on New Coriolanus is very simple. First, the scientists are all Starfleet personnel, while the five Andorian engineers are not. Second, there isn’t enough room in the facility for both teams to conduct their experiments without alternating lab time and resources, and it goes without saying that each team feels their work is more important than the other team’s.  Add the fact that Dr. Gron wasn’t informed that the Andorians were even coming to New Coriolanus until their ship arrived in orbit, and it’s easy to see that nerves are frayed all around.

From the start, the two men harangue the away team with questions and demands. Dr. Gron insists that as a Starfleet officer he should be deferred to; while Dr. Shrav says since he isn’t Starfleet, he doesn’t have to listen to Gron at all. Gron complains that no one in Command ever asks the Science Division about command decisions, like forcing him to share lab space with civilian engineers; Shrav implies that now that a Starfleet ship has arrived, Gron is sure to get his way on everything. Both accuse each other of being unreasonable, stubborn, intractable and annoying.

Beneath all the vitriol, the two men want the exact same thing: a separate facility for the Andorians to run their experiments. The problem is that they resent and dislike each other so much that they can’t see that cooperation is the only way to get what they want.

First, the two sides must be convinced that they share the same common goal. Simply pointing this out doesn’t work, because they aren’t listening. In game terms, each of the men has a Trait that must be removed before any negotiation can truly begin.

Dr. Gron has the Trait: Command Division doesn’t respect scientists. He’s fed up with not being shown common courtesy, as the sudden and unexpected arrival of the Andorians wasn’t the first time his input wasn’t requested about a project he led. Although he feels relatively confident the away team will side with him, he’s wary, because two of the three members of the team are Andorians.

Dr. Shrav has the Trait: Starfleet sides with Starfleet. Like Gron, he doesn’t trust the crew to mediate fairly since they all wear the same uniform. The crew is bound to give Dr. Gron anything he wants at the Andorians’ expense. The fact that Captain Boardman implied as much in the initial conversation has put him in a more foul temper than usual, which is saying something.

(I had the two players who were not controlling characters on the away team play the roles of Dr. Gron and Dr. Shrav, to keep everyone involved. It worked out well!)

Commander Logan and her team are successful in reassuring both sides that they can come to an equitable arrangement (no mean feat). The first step to giving the Andorians their own space and allowing everyone to spread out a little is to dig a foundation for their facility; sadly, the ground is frozen for a kilometer below the surface. Nothing on New Coriolanus could even attempt excavation.

They decide to use the Adventure’s phasers instead. One precision blast later (and after much Momentum is spent), they are successful! The next step was to deploy some portable force field generators to enclose the foundation, allowing the engineers to work in the harsh environment, since New Coriolanus is too cold even for Andorians. A quick trip outside in EVA suits, and the generators are deployed and calibrated successfully.

Finally, Lieutenant Beta delivers the supplies needed: two industrial replicators, several heating units, and a Danube-class runabout customized with precision sensors and extra cargo space. Once the engineers have this, they no longer need the crew’s help to construct the facility (they are engineers, after all). Dr. Gron and Dr. Shrav seem to already be on better terms, so the crew is free to leave. They prepare to beam up to the Adventure.

And not a moment too soon, for the Adventure has detected an unidentified object entering the system at high speed, bound for New Coriolanus!

Star Trek Adventures: New Assignments

After much deliberation, I decided that Roll20 wasn’t really for me. It seems to be great for Dungeons and Dragons, especially if you want to play published adventures. But since I’m neither playing D&D or interested in published adventures, and it’s not free, I decided to look elsewhere. One of my friends, who lives on the “other” coast, has had luck using three programs/apps: Discord (for chat, voice and/or video); Jamboard (for visuals, such as maps, drawings and pictures); and Roll for Your Party, for dice rolling and tokens.

This Tuesday, we will attempt to continue our Star Trek Adventures campaign using these virtual aides. Last night, we did a test run to see how things should work; and while none of us are experts, we can probably figure it out. (We could all chat and see each other, the dice-roller works fine, and my friend immediately drew a hairy, ejaculating dick in Jamboard; so all is well. He’s older than me, and a scientist, by the way.) It’s certainly better than not playing at all, since actual face-to-face-play is out of the question at the moment.

The good news is that I’ve managed to corral two more of my friends into playing. Both are experienced role-players who will be assets to the campaign; ironically, both would probably not be playing at all were it not for present circumstances being what they are.

Owen is playing Shazak Fulexian, “Skip” to his friends (of which he has few), an Andorian science officer. Skip is a Starfleet veteran by circumstance, not by choice. He never attended Starfleet Academy, but was responsible for one of the most significant xenogenetic breakthroughs in Federation science history. As such, Starfleet recruited him from the private sector, promising him access to the best laboratories and research libraries available within the Federation. He accepted. Twenty or so years later, he’s still in Starfleet, but all he cares about is the science. He’s not exactly a people person.

Zach is playing Suvak, a Vulcan Out of Time. Forty years ago, Suvak was the Chief Engineer on the U.S.S. Savitar, an Excelsior-class ship carrying a prototype warp drive enhancement. They were attacked by Klingons and were forced to eject their warp core before the entire bridge compliment was killed. The resulting blast shifted the Savitar out of phase with our dimension. Suvak assumed command from main engineering and quickly realized that everyone would die unless he acted quickly. Using the transporters, he kept the remaining crew in “flux” until the Savitar reappeared in our dimension. Once returned, Suvak discovered his revived crew-mates all suffered from incurable transporter psychosis; and that his engineering knowledge was 40 years behind current practice. Nevertheless, he was (eventually) able to find a berth aboard the U.S.S. Adventure, bound once more for the unknown.

Tuesday night, they will join the rest of the crew, continuing on the inaugural “Shakedown Cruise” of the U.S.S. Adventure. Wish us luck. We are exploring strange new apps together.

Star Trek Adventures: Shakedown Cruise Part 2

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here, with COVID-19 scaring everyone shitless. Although our governor has resisted implementing a statewide shelter in place order (for now), there are plenty of closed businesses and people working from home; including me. You think I’d be happy about being required to stay home and play video games, paint miniatures and work on gaming projects; but as a guy who owns a business, I can tell you that this whole situation sucks out loud. Yesterday I got together with two friends at my office, which isn’t getting used much lately, to play what will probably be our last session for a while, at least in person.

So, continuing where we left off…

Commander Logan didn’t let on that she knew Hoddek was concealing anything, after discovering that Hoddek’s “temporary mining license” was a forgery. She and the away team returned to the Adventure to discuss strategy. On their way out, everyone noticed that for a mine, there was a distinct lack of mining equipment around.

Gathered in the Captain’s ready room, the crew informed Captain Boardman of the situation on the moon. Although no one knew what the “miners” were doing down there, there was no doubt that it wasn’t mining. Hoddek told a convincing tale and said all the right things, but he didn’t count on Logan spotting the forged license. The Captain ordered the away team to return to the moon with some science and engineering personnel, to give the unregistered operation a “safety inspection.” Because the ionic interference on the moon, communication between the Adventure and the mining outpost was impossible. This actually worked to the crew’s advantage as Hoddek would have less time to prepare for the crew’s return once they showed up at his door. Nonetheless, Lieutenant Commander Pak pointed out that a return trip would certainly signal to Hoddek that Starfleet suspected some shenanigans were afoot, and cautioned the team to be ready.

Once again, Lieutenant Beta skillfully piloted the away team down to the moon’s surface without incident. This time the team included Lieutenant Ditko from the Science Division, and Lieutenant J’Zahra from Engineering (two supporting characters). Hoddek opened the airlock at the team’s request, and once again met them at the elevator. He looked puzzled, but seemed resigned to the inspection. He informed the away team that unfortunately, they could not enter the mine itself, as it was currently undergoing radiation decontamination. Radiation was a natural product of vionium mining, and the mine needed to shut down periodically for a couple of weeks at a time until rad levels returned to normal.

While Logan was talking to Hoddek, Lt. Ditko went inside Hoddek’s office and hacked into his computer. He noticed a few things. First, the computer was surprisingly difficult to access, with many layers of security that would certainly be uncommon for a mining operation. Second, the computer was devoid of any programs or files that would indicate mining was occurring: no manifests, supply requests, geological reports or anything similar. It seemed the only thing the computer was doing, other than running the facility’s power and life support, was running a generator projecting a high level of ionic interference on the surface. Lt. Ditko shut that off, and discovered he could immediately communicate with the Adventure if need be.

Meanwhile, Lt. J’zhara and Commander Logan scanned the huge blast door to determine if there was any radiation beyond it, as Hoddek claimed. Their tricorders couldn’t penetrate the door, so their readings were inconclusive. For the first time, Hoddek seemed to be angry. He claimed he had cooperated fully, that any omission of registration was an error of the Harelian Mining Authority, and that Starfleet had no right to treat him and his men like criminals.

That’s when Commander Logan informed him that his mining license was fake, that they knew this facility sent the coded transmission and deliberately projected ionic interference to block communications and transporters, and that she knew he wasn’t running a mine of any kind.

Hoddek sighed resignedly and told Commander Logan that if she keeps looking into this, it’s on her head. He claimed he and his team are part of a top secret project for the Federation Science Council, which is why it’s unregistered. He can’t tell her what they’re doing on the planet, but he can show her and she can decide what to do. He took out an old-style communicator and signaled someone behind the blast door to open the lock.

With the door open, Hoddek led the away team down a corridor towards what looked like a lab. The path took them through stacked crates of supplies and machinery. All the while, Hoddek apologized about the necessity of the deception. But Lieutenant Commander Pak spotted the ambush a split second before it happened, anyway.

Several of the miners, brandishing old-style phasers, began to fire on the away team from the cover of the boxes. Hoddek took off towards the lab while his men traded shots with the away team. Pak blasted a miner off his feet, but was soon felled by a phaser shot herself. Stunned, she was out of the fight.

One of the miners blasted a crate of some kind of particulate, and the dust further hampered visibility. Outnumbered, outgunned, and with her tactical officer down, Commander Logan signaled the Adventure for an emergency beam out. A medical team met them in the transporter room, taking charge of the unconscious Lt. Cmdr. Pak.

Meanwhile, a small ship had entered the system, flying in the general direction of the moon, but not coming too close. They answered a hail immediately, and identified themselves as couriers just passing through the system. They seemed intimidated by the Adventure and its obvious superior armament. Now that the ionic interference was gone, Lt. Beta was monitoring the moon closely, which is how he noticed the fourteen life signs in the mine were suddenly reduced to nine. The ship was beaming the miners aboard!

By the time he could alert Captain Boardman, the ship had managed to beam out six more miners, leaving two on the moon. The ship immediately took off at warp, making a run for the Cardassian neutral zone. The Adventure pursued them and caught them just shy of the neutral zone, but before they could lock on a tractor beam the ship fled again. The Adventure gave chase and caught it just inside the neutral zone.

The turbolift doors opened, and a grim-faced Lt. Cmdr. Pak stepped onto the bridge. She quickly took her position at the tactical station and fired the Adventure’s phaser arrays, targeting the engines of the small courier craft. The ship was quickly and efficiently disabled, but not before Lt. Beta reported a new threat: three Cardassian Hideki-class corvettes entering the neutral zone, on course to intercept the Adventure!

The Cardassians hailed the Adventure. On the view screen, an imposing Cardassian stared down his nose at Captain Boardman. He identified himself as Legate Jabrel, and demanded to know why the Adventure had crossed into the neutral zone. He also said that they have identified the courier ship as a Maquis vessel wanted for crimes against the Cardassian Union, and demanded the terrorists be handed over to them for prosecution, conviction and eventual execution.

Captain Boardman had no intention of complying with this order, and pointed out that the Cardassians had also violated the neutral zone. He beamed the Maquis aboard the Adventure, where they were promptly taken into custody by Lt. Cmdr. Pak and a team of security officers. The Adventure was well-suited for combat, but three-to-one odds are still three-to-one odds. Boardman ordered the Adventure to set course for Federation space at maximum warp, knowing the Cardassians would not cross over the border in pursuit and risk open conflict.

The ship returned to the moon to round up the last two Maquis members, only to find that any evidence of their activity was destroyed by Hoddek prior to his departure from the moon. Now, however, he was sitting in a holding cell, so Starfleet could question him at their leisure, once the Adventure got back to Outpost 51.

First, though, the ship had supplies to deliver to the science outpost on New Coriolanus, which is where it was originally bound before getting sidetracked by the strange transmission broadcast by the Maquis. But that would have to wait until next time…

Star Trek Adventures: My First Campaign

Since I purchased Star Trek Adventures a couple of years back, I’ve wanted very much to run it as a campaign. I have been fortunate enough to run two “one-shots” for some old friends; the first, The Vanished, featured the crew of the Original Series; while the second used the Next Generation characters. Both were a lot of fun and gave me and my friends a good opportunity to learn the rules.

Since then, I came across RFord’s (blackjack071 on TMP) blog, Over The Hill Gaming, in which he details several aspects of the Star Trek Adventures game (for STA noobs like me), as well as several YouTube videos, both from Modiphius (these are ok), and the Complex Games Apologist (these are better). To top it off, I listened to a few podcasts that showcase actual play, most notably The Terrible Warriors (thumbs up on this one, even though they sometimes get the rules wrong, they don’t let it stop them from having a great time). I purchased every supplement currently available for Star Trek Adventures, and I subscribed to the Living Campaign. In short, I’m ready to go.

With that in mind, I got my friends together and we discussed what era of play we would be most comfortable with. We decided on the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine era over the Original Series, as TNG was “our” Star Trek growing up. I decided to set my campaign in the year 2369, which, in Star Trek continuity, puts us somewhere around TNG Season 6 and DS9 Season 1. In other words, the Enterprise D hasn’t been destroyed yet, Commander (not yet Captain) Sisko still has hair, and Voyager hasn’t even been built.

Notable recent events include the disastrous Battle of Wolf 359 (2367), in which the Borg, with the help of an assimilated Jean-Luc Picard, annihilated the Federation fleet in that system, destroying 39 ships and killing lots and lots of people before being destroyed by the Enterprise D; and the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor, subsequent formation of the Bajoran provisional government and discovery of the Bajoran wormhole (2369). It’s an exciting time.

I decided the action would take place in the Alpha Quadrant, close (but not too close) to Deep Space Nine and the goings-on there. Home base will be Outpost 51, a Federation facility in the Kratos (yep, named after you-know-who) System along the Cardassian neutral zone. Outpost 51 shares orbit of Kratos 4 with a small asteroid which has been converted to a docking station. Between the main outpost and the asteroid, there’s a lot going on at any given time.

I managed to get three of my friends together to make characters, with the hopes of having another couple of friends join the crew at some point. The Lifepath creation system Modiphius uses is quite involved; by the time you’re done making your character you know a lot about their upbringing, training, personal values and beliefs and the events that have shaped their life thus far. It’s a lot of fun, but it takes a session all by itself. Meet the characters:

My friend Matt is playing Commander Sarah Logan (First Officer, Human). Matt played Spock in The Vanished and Commander Riker in the TNG one-shot I ran, so he’s experienced in the first officer role. He dislikes playing pregenerated characters, even established ones like Spock and Riker, so he was happy to finally get to make his own. Logan is a rising star in the Command Division and has been recently assigned to act as First Officer aboard a new starship, the U.S.S. Adventure.

Chris is playing Commander Daris Pak (Security Officer, Bolian). Bolians are generally well-liked and friendly, so his security officer is from the “you catch more flies with honey…” school. If honey doesn’t work, though, she’s a bald, blue-skinned Gina Carano, and you will respect her authoritah. She’s the new Chief of Security aboard the Adventure.

Finally, Thom is playing Ensign Kl’rt Beta (Helmsman, Trill). As the sixth host to the Beta symbiont, Kl’rt has five previous lifetimes of memories to draw upon. His own personal experience is as one of the most talented Conn Officers Starfleet has recently produced. He’s a veteran of Wolf 359, which claimed the lives of many a skilled helmsman. As such he is currently awaiting reassignment to a starship at Outpost 51. (Hint: it’s going to be the U.S.S. Adventure.)

And the final character in the campaign is the ship herself, the U.S.S. Adventure, an Akira-class dreadnought (see above) newly-commissioned in 2368, now awaiting command assignment at Outpost 51. The Akira design was a direct response to the costly battle with the Borg at Wolf 359. As such, she is equipped with extensive shuttle bays, phaser arrays and a state-of-the-art, rapid-fire photon torpedo launcher. (Just in case.)

Our first “official” session with all players (and the ship) is this Sunday, and I’m brimming with glee. I might even record it for eventual podcast…but I’ll have to look into that a bit more.