Space, the final frontier, these are the voyages of the starship, Orpheus. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where none have gone before.
Hello, everyone! You’ll probably find it unsurprising that I’m a fan of Star Trek as well as D&D. I could probably talk your ear off about a bunch of hot takes (Enterprise was a better Star Trek series than Deep Space 9, the Enterprise holodeck was already broken when The Next Generation began, and Discovery’s about to have a great second season). All that said, I’ve been hoping to run a campaign based on Star Trek for a while, so it only makes sense that I’d do a quick campaign log and talk about the experience running a cobbled-together adaptation of the 5e rules.
Right away, conventional wisdom says that I shouldn’t bother reinventing the wheel and just use an existing system, like Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures. I put a lot of thought into the system I planned to run for the campaign and decided to make a 5e-derivative system for three big reasons.
My players are familiar with 5e. One of the most important considerations when choosing a system is how much time you’re going to spend explaining a new one to your players. As much as RPG systems’ designers would like to believe that it’s an equal effort between storyteller and player to learn the rules, it’s probably more of a 70-30 split. Not only would I have to learn the new system thoroughly enough to GM it, but I’d have to learn it in a way which would allow me to teach it to my players without interrupting game flow.
Star Trek Adventures didn’t have any “killer app” features. When reading Star Trek Adventures’ Quickstart Guide, I didn’t feel that any of its mechanics reflected what I wanted out of the game enough to warrant the reeducation process. Granted, it did have some advantages over my ultimate system choice such as codified entries for various races, but when my players were already interested in races which would have to be homebrewed, I decided it made more sense to homebrew options for a system I knew inside and out.
I’m already writing a 5e blog. This campaign can also be seen as a bit of an experiment to see how far I can bend 5e. The system is barebones compared to 3.5 and 4e, both of which have
suffered supported science fiction adaptations in one way or another (Starfinder, Ultramodern4, Gamma World), which actually works to its advantage. The basic attributes rules and easily expanded-upon skill list allow me to add content without serious rules consideration, and by understanding the characters’ abilities and power levels in this codified system, I can use existing Monster Manual entries or 5e status conditions with only a touch of re-fluffed descriptions.
I’m hoping to write a more detailed explanation of the system or to adjust it to the same format as 5e character creation content to comply with the OGL, but for the time being, the process for character creation went as follows:
- Pick Role – I offered players a complement of bridge officer roles to use – Command(Captain and 1st Officer), Science, Security, Medical, Pilot, and Engineering. Like character classes, each had a skill specialty, a special feature, and a list of skill proficiencies to choose. New skills included disciplines like astrophysics, anthropology, and xenobiology. (One of the lessons I’ve quickly learned was that intelligence is going to be a huge factor in this system’s design, and I may make some adjustments to either reduce its necessity or impose a baseline in character creation)
- Assign Attributes – Players used the Standard Array method of selecting attributes, calculating skill modifiers in the same way as a standard 5e game.
- Pick Race – Players selected from an array of races based on the inhabitants of the Federation, each with the standard adjustments to at least two attributes and a racial ability. (As a note, I came up with an alternative human racial feature that I love, and may use it in my fantasy campaigns as well)
- Subordinate Crew – Remember how in a standard Star Trek show, there isn’t really much power creep. Deanna Troi doesn’t gradually develop more powerful empathic abilities(in fact, judging by how often she fails to get a read on people, you could probably argue that they diminish), Seven of Nine doesn’t ever get new Borg powers, Riker doesn’t seduce bigger, more powerful foes, and Worf.. well, he never gets more hit points. Instead of imposing an arbitrary level up system into a format which doesn’t reflect the concept, I instead opted to create a new character feature. Since the players are playing as commanding officers, they gain three subordinates. These subordinates have a name, a skill proficiency from the role’s list, and not much else. If a bridge officer dies, a subordinate can replace them, or a subordinate can be used as a redshirt, sacrificing themselves to save a main character. Subordinates have only one hit point and use their commanding officer’s attributes if they ever need to make a skill check. This also allows the players to “split the party,” sending an away team of some bridge crew and leaving others on board the starship Orpheus without illogically leaving the ship without any senior staff.
A Different Federation
This campaign takes place in the same timeline as the recent Star Trek movies, starting with 2009’s Star Trek. After the destruction of Vulcan, the Federation had a brief flare of militarization, manufacturing its first dreadnought-class warships and expanding aggressively into its neighbors’ territories over ten years. Outgunning even the powerful Klingon Empire, Starfleet subsumed several cultures under the Federation’s banner before its colonialist fervor dissipated. Resentful members of this expanded Federation eventually petitioned for the decommissioning of the fearsome military fleet, and Starfleet has seemingly rediscovered its purpose of peaceful exploration. However, forceful conquests aren’t soon forgotten, and at times only the threat of the neighboring Romulan Star Empire keeps more belligerent members of the Federation like the Klingons and Tellarites loyal to Starfleet and its newly-restated ideals. The Federation’s expansionist decade precedes it when First Contact missions are made, and often the first order of business is finding the right olive branch to offer.
30 years after the iconic Enterprise five-year mission, the starship Orpheus was sent on its maiden voyage when a Starfleet fugitive known only as the Phantom assassinated its first captain. Off to an already-uneasy start, the crew of the Orpheus must contend with the idea of frontier justice in the unexplored Beta Quadrant while dealing with new races, spatial phenomena, and the ever-present threat of the Romulan Empire.
Since we’re still early on in this campaign(as of writing, we’ve only had a single session), we haven’t had much time to explore characters’ backstories, instead focusing on their present dynamics. These crew members’ bios will certainly be updated by the next time I write a campaign log, but we’ll certainly see more character exploration as time goes on.
- Captain Mulds – Kelpian Captain. The former first officer to Orpheus’ Captain Indira, Mulds’ position was made permanent by Starfleet admiralty in recognition of his composure in the chaos following Indira’s assassination. Despite the nervousness ingrained in Kelpian behavior, Mulds enjoys remaining a very hands-on captain.
- Commander Douglass – Xindi-Insectoid 1st Officer. One of the first Xindi-Insectoids to enroll in Starfleet Academy due to their short lifespan compared to humanoids, Commander Douglass is a no-nonsense commander with a firm grasp on galactic treaties and politics, and will gladly use words as weapons over phasers whenever possible.
- Lt. Commander Ares Th`golnin – Andorian Pilot. A former independent cargo freighter, Ares has a fondness for long-haul travel and the opportunity to travel well beyond the edge of the maps.
- Lieutenant Trag – Gorn Security Chief. A blunt, outspoken slab of meat, Trag was a fearsome contender in a fight long before mastering dozens of hand-to-hand fighting styles. He occasionally makes cracks about being the dumbest member of the bridge crew, but when his toughness can’t get him through a situation, his grounded humor almost certainly can.
- Lt. Commander Stephen Ruffman – Human Chief Engineer. A snarky engineer with a passion for the nerdier things in life, Ruffman spends a lot of his time on the holodeck enjoying adaptations of his favorite stories as a child. His engineering know-how has allowed him to build gadgets on the fly using available scraps, and he doesn’t go anywhere without his lucky wrench.
Episode 1: The World Without a Sky
One of Orpheus’ first away missions was to explore Indrus, a freestanding planetoid with no star to orbit. Instead, the entire atmosphere was composed of auroras which emitted a breathable atmosphere along with a wide range of unknown elements. Because of these auroras, telescopes were unable to find that the world was in fact inhabited by a civilization in its early digital age. (Visually, the Indran landscape looked like The Fifth Element and Tron were fighting under a blacklight.) Orpheus beamed down an away team to explore the surface covertly(Prime Directive holding as normal for a Star Trek adventure), only to quickly find out that the bizarre atmosphere made the transporter a one-way trip, further complicated by the appearance of a Romulan warbird claiming that Indrus was the property of the Romulan Star Empire. After some tense exchanges between Douglass, Ares, and the Romulan captain K’varrick, the warbird went back under cloak after issuing an ultimatum for the Federation starship to leave. By this time, the away team discovered that the Romulans already influenced the surface – parts of a scrapped warbird had been arranged to harvest a bizarre metal called “aramite” from the atmosphere, which would deal irreversible damage to the planet for decades to come. To escape Indrus and remove the dangerous Romulan technology, the away team snuck into the ore harvesting facility and overloaded it, cutting a hole in the aurora which allowed the Orpheus to beam them aboard before the salvaged Romulan tech detonated. The crew was able to dispatch the Romulans, leaving a hole in the auroras through which the Indrans could see the stars for the first time. Orpheus then contacted the Federation to help protect the Indrans from outside influence until they were ready to join the galactic community and took to the skies once more.
After all this, it feels like Orpheus is shaping up to be an exciting campaign, and I hope that this campaign log can become the start of an interesting discussion in my design process and the limits of 5e as an RPG system outside the realm of fantasy. Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to write out some of the rules I’ve been working on regarding ship-to-ship combat.