Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Prime Directive RPG

The other day Robert Saint John had a good post about ADB's Prime Directive RPG on his blog. I can't find anything to disagree with in what he said, but I thought I'd share my own approach/avoidance feelings toward the Star Fleet Universe. Despite enjoying starship combat games I was never into Star Fleet Battles, although I knew some people who played it regularly. It has such a reputation for complexity and slow play that I steered clear of it, although I have played a game or two since. Well, sort of. What I played was the free introductory Cadet's version. It's meant to ease you into the full rules, but if you stick to the basics it actually makes for a great rules lite game on it's own. And you can even find extra SSDs on the web.

Robert's right that it would be hypocritical to condemn SFB just because it's a wargame. As a kid when I drew pictures of spaceships they were usually blasting each other with ray guns. I've had fun playing FASA's STSTCS and even statted up some Star Trek ships for Starmada to use the Starline 2400 miniatures. (There's now an upcoming official SFB supplement for Starmada.) And of course Mekton Z has a large wargaming component to it, and it's one of my favorite games. So it's not fair to dismiss Prime Directive out of hand. And while I've never actually played Prime Directive, I have looked over the rules and I think they have an odd, and to me at least, off-putting tone. Nevertheless, there are some good points.

One is the aliens. Star Trek takes some heat for having aliens that are nothing more than SAG members with a few latex bumps glued to their faces. Sure, it's largely the result of budget constraints, but it is pretty weak. And in Prime Directive most of the aliens are still humanoid, but kind of interesting. There's the Rigellians, who are like space-Maoris, and the Alpha-Centaurans, who are like space-Amazons. But they also introduce some decidedly non-human aliens, like the Hydrans and Seltorians. They do get a little furry, with three different types of cat-people, but it's no worse than most other space opera games.

Another aspect of the game I like is the Prime Teams. These are specially trained landing parties made up of the PCs. Each member would ideally be trained in a different specialty, giving the group a good balance. Not only is this a great way to get the players into action, but it avoids what I think was the nonsensical way the TV shows had the senior officers constantly running off and leaving junior officers in charge of the ship, usually in the middle of a crisis. Unfortunately the Prime Teams in the game seem to focus on marines, making them more like outer space SWAT teams.

And that militarism does permeate the whole thing, as you might expect from a wargame. Whereas people like me tend to criticize Star Trek for having some goofy science, others criticize it for it's lack of military realism. Apparently the authors of Prime Directive are the latter type, because the they put a lot of emphasis on military rank and seniority. Not out of place, but it totally overshadows any sense of scientific exploration. There are no rules for exploring strange new worlds or seeking out new life and new civilizations.

And whereas the Cold War politics of The Sixties informed the Original Series they dominate the Star Fleet Universe. In this game the Federation is the U.S.A., and the Klingons are the U.S.S.R. They got so carried away with this that when they Star Wars-ized the game by adding space fighters the Federation fighters were named for U.S. jets and the Klingon for Soviet jets. That's just too much for me.

To be fair, Star Fleet is portrayed as paragons of virtue who never fire first and never start wars. And there are nice touches like the Federation Creed which would compliment any Star Trek game. But ultimately Prime Directive is very much a mixed bag. You probably won't want to dump it all out, but you might want to reach in and pull out a few things you like.


Barking Alien said...

I've never been a wargamer or one who was overly attracted to miniatures, except as neat little works of art that give a visual representation of something. In that aspect, I love collecting Micro Machines, Star Trek action figures and Gundam model kits. I'm a kitbasher and a painter and I think minis are awesome for that.

At heart though (heck, 'at mind' too) I am a RPG fan. For me, I was never even interested in Star Fleet Battles because it wasn't compatible with FASA's RPG. As time went on I took a look at it, played it once and ended up with he same opinion, "This is too complex, not 'Trek' enough and not a RPG." As such, not interesting.

Prime Directive always felt like too little to late. I owned and played a Star Trek game before each PD edition came out and felt that it didn't bring anything better to the table then what I was using already. The rules were always more complicated, the artwork weaker and less inspiring and the information inconsistent with the evolving universe. This is not to say its a poor product, not at all, but its like asking if I want my favorite soda (Pepsi) or imitation, generic cola. *Sip* "Well, its not terrible but no thanks. I have a 12-pack of the real stuff in the fridge."

Barking Alien

Robert Saint John said...

Great posts, guys. Hey, Jerry, what other starship combat games are you playing? I've been itching to pull out some of my Trek micro-machines and Yamato/Star Blazers candy models and adapt them to fast, customizable system. I've considered Starmada, I bought Warcosm last year (but never played), and I've been considering A Sky Full of Ships or Starfight. I have Federation Commander, but I think it's still too many hours in a game for me these days.

Jerry Cornelius said...

@Barking Alien: The thing is it's the only Trek RPG in print. And some of the background material does make a little more sense than the official canon, like the Klingons who don't kill their commanding officer to get a promotion. But on the whole you're right, it can't compare with the licensed Trek RPGs -- or even most homebrews.

@Robert: Starmada tops my list of favorites. It plays fast and it has a great design system that isn't overly complicated. I like Slag too, which is a diceless game that plays fast. It isn't as versatile as as Starmada, though. And the guys over at Wargames Unlimited have posted a Beta of their No Frontiers game. I haven't tried it out yet, but they usually do good stuff. Plus it's free. And I've heard good things about ASFOS, especially for huge fleet clashes, but never played it because I already have Mekton Fleet Battles.

Jerry Cornelius said...

I just remembered another good free pew pew game is Launch Fighters! It's pretty basic with no fancy weapons or anything, but it's rules-lite and fun. And did I mention it's free?

And while I'm at it, there's a computer version of FASA STSTCS over at SlightlySilly.net.

Maybe I should just do a post about space combat games sometime.

Robert Saint John said...

I not only have Launch Fighters!, but I sent the guy a PayPal donation because I was so impressed with what he had done for free!

I guess I really just need to sit down and work with what I've got. I might hold off on Starmada until Klingon Starmada is released.

Oh, yes, the PC version of STCS. The icon for 2.05b sits on my desktop, taunting me and calling me, day after day, telling me that I don't have to set up the card table with the real thing...

Robert Saint John said...

Speaking of Klingon Armada, did you see this (mj12 forums)?

Boy, do I feel sorry for the designer. If people think that Trekkers are canon freaks, wait 'til he unintentionally violates some tenet of SFU canon. Tough crowd, tough crowd.