The Alexandrian

Star Trek - Captain Kirk

One of the problems with running military games in an RPG is the chain of command: Realistically speaking, even on remote missions with a small team (i.e., ideal RPG fodder) there should still be one guy who’s actually in charge of the op. This can either be an NPC (which can lead to railroading or, for the GM not interested in railroading, a really tricky balancing act between having the NPC commander do their job vs. letting the players take the initiative). Or it can be one of the PCs (which can remove the dilemma created by requiring the GM to issue literal orders to the PCs, but can also result in incredibly fragile gameplay that’s highly dependent on the player running the captain).

On my bucket list is running a Star Trek-like open table campaign where every player designs a captain and their bridge crew. When a player requests a session, that player would be running the captain and anyone else who shows up for the session would pick up the roles of their crew troupe-style (meaning that those roles would, over time, be played by a variety of people). This doesn’t so much solve the problem as work around it by giving everyone their turn in the captain’s chair.

Here’s another thought: Everyone at the table takes on the role of a bridge crew member. But then you also have an Everyone is John-style cap system which gives everybody at the table control over one “slice” of the captain’s personality / skill set and the ability to bid for immediate control over the situation. Unlike Everyone is John — where the character being portrayed is literally suffering from multiple personality order — the goal of the table here is still to portray a coherent character; it’s just that the disproportionate agency possessed by the commanding officer is now jointly shared by the entire table. (Which makes it much more closely resemble the rough-and-tumble democracy of a typical RPG group where everybody usually gets a say in what the next course of action will be, but occasionally somebody will just charge off and force people to follow in their wake.)

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8 Responses to “Thought of the Day – The Captain’s Chair in RPGs”

  1. Rob Carignan says:

    I once ran a Star Trek merchant campaign. I thought I had a really good premise – every “episode” the ships skipper would die is some tragic way which would disable the ship (electrocuted in engineering and blow out the dilithium crystals. That sort of thing). The NPC first mate would be in nominal charge and the player crew would have to overcome the challenge and finish the milk run.

    First session the Klingon player bullied his way into the center seat and the other players were OK with that.

    Not my best GM moment.

  2. TeaAddict says:

    I ran a short series of Star Trek adventures that proved mostly successful. I as the GM ran the Captain of the ship, but the rest of the bridge crew was filled out by the PCs. I used a dice pool system, where each player had so many dice based on their rank. When in situations operating the bridge, they could spend these points to in essence feed ideas to the captain. When spent, they would roll the dice, to see how much it convinced the captain, and they could spend multiple points. Each player could try to suggest ideas, and roll against each other to see which the captain would take. Naturally higher ranked players had more points to stack in their favor, but players also could spend to help other players. This carried over even when on away missions, where they would use these points when attempting to get help or resources from the ship its self to help out. This system actually worked out better then I expected, because when players ran out they would then need to convince and persuaded those of higher rank to adopt their plans, and it created an interesting respect for the chain of command. There were means the players could recover their pool, but also penalties that could remove from it as well. The finally mechanic also regarding the dice pool, was that when the players ran out is when it singles that the situation has grown so dire that the NPC captain has to get involved personally.

  3. Daveb says:

    Kevin Crawford (stars without number) released a book on army/mercenary operations (Starvation Cheap). It faces a similar problem with HQ giving orders to frontline soldiers. How do PC’s fit in?
    He offers a framework where the players do a scene as various staff officers deciding on the general thrust of the mission and support, and then the lens switches to the mooks/away team. It seems like an interesting solution to the problem as well.
    Your idea of an open table with various ship crews sounds really cool.

  4. troy says:

    An interesting idea. That’s a lot of characters to roll up though if you go with the idea of each player having a captain and at least four bridge crew. It might work best with a system where characters can be rolled up quickly and easily (e.g. The Cypher System).

    What would the default goal be from week to week? Cataloging flora and fauna on unexplored worlds? Searching for rich deposits of unobtainium ore and handwavium crystals? Traveller-esque trade runs?

  5. d47 says:

    Great idea! I have thought the Star Trek model could be great for an open table because the roster of inactive PCs can always be assumed to be “on the ship” somewhere doing their regular jobs.

    Perhaps you could have an NPC captain who does not give many direct or specific orders.

    When a crises arises, the captain calls together a team (the PCs of the players at the session) and asks for their advice. When they come up with a plan, she says “Make it so!” without necessarily stating who is in charge of the mission. She then goes off to deal with some other pressing matter. Supposedly great leaders listen to and trust those under them to solve problems.

    The players may choose to have their characters pull rank on each other, but it does not have to be baked in to the structure.

    Another possibility is a captain who is incompetent. Maybe she gives bad orders that the players must work around as they deal with a mission their own way. Maybe she is a recluse (or even an addict) who holes up in her quarters unless required to make a public appearance. Maybe you have a boisterous buffoon who somehow rose to the top who not only gives bad orders but cannot be trusted to stand by what she said if things go wrong.

    Personally, I think I would prefer the competent but hands-off model for a captain, but a bad captain could certainly add to the drama!

  6. troy says:

    “When a crises arises, the captain calls together a team (the PCs of the players at the session) and asks for their advice. When they come up with a plan, she says “Make it so!” without necessarily stating who is in charge of the mission.”

    I like this idea a lot. The ready-room meeting scenes in ST:TNG were classic.

    Say the ship encounters a scenario hook that could be handled any number of ways, e.g. an ambiguous human distress signal from a planet in space orc territory, where humans are (by treaty) not supposed to be. The GM Cap’n brings the players to the ready room and solicits ideas as to how to handle it and conveniently goes with the majority (within reason). Assuming the mission will involve an away team at some point and not just orbital bombardment (“only way to be sure…”), the Cap’n will stay with the ship and allow the PCs wide latitude to handle issues on the surface as they see fit once they beam down. It feels Star Trek-ish, maintains a chain of command or at least the illusion of such, but doesn’t really railroad.

    One other kind of “feel” that a Star Trek-esque universe should strive for that of civilized restraint. By that I mean, even if you could easily kill the belligerent aliens, it’s usually best not to in a Star Trek milieu. The goal is not to kill all the space orcs in the space dungeon and take their space treasure, but to convince the space orcs to sign a trade agreement with the space halflings. (To make things interesting, perhaps a space vampire is trying to sabotage the negotiations). The challenge would be to– without railroading– put players in the mindset that killing the space orc ambassador would be a bad idea despite the ambassador being deliberately rude to the PCs.

  7. Kelvin Green says:

    When I ran Rogue Trader, we decided to make the Trader himself an NPC, with the players taking on the role of his retinue. As it’s Warhammer 40,000, I played the Trader as a flakey madman, so while he was technically in charge — his name was on the Imperial charter and he owned the ship — he was more interested in getting drunk and challenging other Traders to duels than running the ship, leaving a gap for his “advisers” to fill.

  8. Xercies says:

    @d47 and troy

    Have you lot played Mouse Guard? Basically at the start you get a mission from a higher up and you are part of a group with rank, it also has areas where you can try and persuade the other players to go with your own idea. I made a star trek hack of mouse guard

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