Designing Missions for Star Trek

There’s a lot of information out there for GMs but I’m writing up suggestions for GMs wanting to try Star Trek games. This is a beloved and unique series, after all, so you want to make sure you hit the right tone. This advice applies to any game really, though, so feel free to use it for whatever you’re playing!

Types of Missions

There are lot of different types of stories in Star Trek and you can certainly develop whatever story you like. If you’re stuck, though, here are a few themes that come up regularly and could definitely make a good plot for your group.

Diplomacy

Something that separates Star Trek from a lot of other science fiction series is its emphasis on peace and cooperation. Enemies always become complicated with legitimate reasons and personal lives. Wars are always forces that spiral out of control rather than the programmed nature of the enemy. That’s not to say that combat isn’t a big part of the setting and some of the other mission types in this list provide some great combat experiences. For that matter, a diplomacy gone wrong could turn into combat as well!

Examples of Diplomacy Stories: Journey to Babel (TOS 2×15), Journey’s End (TNG 7×20), Crossfire (DS9 4×13), Distant Origin (3×23), Cease Fire (ENT 2×15).

Diplomacy Mission Plot Hooks:

  1. The crew is assigned as mediators between two warring aspects of an alien society. They must deal with generations-long feuds while curbing violent extremists willing to kill for their ideals.
  2. At an annual summit, the crew is assigned to represent Starfleet in a routine exchange of information. When they receive the other side’s, however, it seems like their data is falsified.
  3. A Federation ambassador is traveling to a hostile government to negotiate for peace. The crew must protect them during the mission, even when the ambassador is cavalier in their views on security.
  4. During first contact with an alien species, the crew inadvertently does something insulting. Now they have to resolve the situation before things turn ugly.

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Mystery

When part of the conflict is figuring out what’s really going on, you’ve got a mystery story. The answer to the conflict might be simple but it takes the entire mission to figure out just what’s happening. If this is a detective-style investigation, be sure to put in clues that all of the player characters can find: it’s just as frustrating to watch the science officer pursue all the threads of the story while the combat characters sit on the sidelines as it is for the combat characters to blast their way through enemies while the science characters watch.

Examples of Mystery Stories: Miri (TOS 1×8), Conspiracy (TNG 1×25), Parallels (TNG 7×11), Babel (DS9 1×5), Displaced (VOY 3×24), Strange New World (ENT 1×4).

Mystery Mission Plot Hooks:

  1. Tools and other loose objects begin disappearing around the ship, never when anyone is looking but they definitely aren’t being misplaced.
  2. The crew shows up to resupply a Federation colony only to find the colony empty of life. The only clue is a large metal column in the middle of the colony that resists all scans.
  3. Upon returning from an alien planet, the away team reappears on two different transporter pads. What caused the malfunction and are the clone characters really who they say they are?
  4. The ship drops out of warp to survey a red giant star but immediately notice that it is 24 hours before they left their last location. Are they stuck in a time loop or is there some anomaly near the star?

The Unknown

In many ways, this is the opposite of the mystery story type described above: the characters know from the beginning exactly what the are up against but figuring out what it’s doing can take the whole episode. Star Trek is filled with spatial anomalies and alien artifacts that wreak havoc once they’re encountered. Missions of this type wind up being black box situations where the players are given something to poke and prod until the answer presents itself. It’s also a reminder that there are things out there that defy explanation even in the far future of Star Trek.

Examples of Stories About the Unknown: Where No Man Has Gone Before (TOS 1×3), Identity Crisis (TNG 4×18), Whispers (DS9 2×14), Cathexis (VOY 1×13), Doctor’s Orders (ENT 3×16).

Unknown Mission Plot Hooks:

  1. On a routine survey of a planetary system, the ship is fired on by an unknown vessel. After the first volley, the powerful ship demands the crew return “their sovereign property”… whatever that is.
  2. Responding to a distress signal, the crew witnesses a Borg cube being ripped apart by a ship-sized silver sphere. Afterwards it goes dormant, but what is this thing and could it attack Earth next?
  3. In a first contact situation, the crew partakes of their host’s traditional beverage. Soon afterwards, they begin to transform to look like the new species and have thoughts that are not their own.
  4. Something on an alien planet starts rapidly aging all members of an away team. Whether it’s a virus, an alien device, or a temporal anomaly remains unknown as the crew scours the planet from orbit.

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Alien Lifeform

Usually when alien species are part of the story it’s because they are the antagonists instigating the conflict or the victims it is happening to. Missions dealing with “alien lifeforms” here, however, means aliens that are not sentient or simply not aware of what they are doing. They are an environmental danger but one that will pursue and destroy the crew if they aren’t careful. The classic example of tribbles shows that there can be malicious intent somewhere in the equation, but it is the interesting and unique quality of the alien that creates the problem. You might present the lifeform as helpless, raising moral questions of whether it’s right to just kill it, or make it clear that it can’t be destroyed and so the crew must figure out what it’s like to find out how to stop it.

Examples of Stories About Alien Lifeforms: The Trouble with Tribbles (TOS 2×15), Galaxy’s Child (TNG 4×16), The Storyteller (DS9 1×14), Alice (VOY 6×5), Galaxy’s Child (4×16), Twilight (ENT 3×8).

Alien Lifeform Mission Plot Hooks:

  1. Cargo taken on at the last planet contained some sort of fungus that is spreading and degrading ship systems. The internal sensors were the first to go offline so the crew needs another way to find it all.
  2. An alien traveler staying onboard tries exotic “human food” and eats something that drives him into an insane rage. The crew needs figure out what he ate to cure him.
  3. As the small group of player characters returns from a conference in a runabout they suddenly lose all power. The crew needs to stop the aliens devouring the ship systems with limited resources.
  4. Visiting a remote research station, an ion storm disrupts transporters and communications just as a pack of dangerous alien predators surrounds the facility.

Overwhelming Situation

Some situations are just so impossible that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of it. The crew needs to investigate possible solutions but in the meantime just continuing on can be challenge enough. A major subtype of this would be stories set in the Mirror Universe, something that nearly every Star Trek television series did after a while (what was Star Trek: Voyager’s problem?), with the characters being drawn into the alternate reality and struggling to get back.

Examples of Emergency Situation Stories: The Return of the Archons (TOS 1×21), Rascals (TNG 6×07), Playing God (DS9 2×17), Demon (VOY 4×24), Catwalk (ENT 2×12).

Overwhelming Situation Mission Plot Hooks:

  1. After an encounter with an alien artifact slowly starts turning the captain’s body insubstantial, the crew needs to track down a reclusive archeologist to find out how to reverse it.
  2. After a player character is killed in a freak accident, the crew finds itself in a time loop where they try over and over again to stop the accident while simultaneously trying to break free.
  3. The crew is visited by Q who puts them all into a reality that resembles the Ninth World of Numenera where they have to explore the Violet Vale, or convince Q to release them.
  4. The impending collapse of an unstable wormhole threatens to destroy a Federation colony. The crew needs to evacuate the population even as they search desperately for a way to avert the disaster.

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Story Arc

The long-term stories in a Star Trek series are called story arcs and they can be an excellent addition to your game as well. These are not the same as campaign-length stories in other roleplaying games, they tend to drop in and out of the action. Some game sessions might involve the story arc and others might be interludes between. Even when the story arc is being advanced it might not be related directly to the last time it appeared, or it might involve a constant enemy with many different threats.

In a game where Cardassian spies are a story arc, the party might uncover an Obsidian Order saboteur on their ship and then several sessions later a different spy from Central Command assassinates a diplomat at a summit. A series where Borg advancement is a major story arc might have the Borg in every mission but with all sorts of different objectives and stories.

Examples of Story Arcs: The Borg threat (TNG Seasons 2 and 3), the Dominion War (DS9 Seasons 3 to 7), confrontations with the Kazon (VOY Seasons 1 and 2), the Xindi War (ENT Season 3).

Multiple Mission Types

Missions are hardly ever one type alone, although they are often predominantly one sort. A diplomacy mission where an ambassador is killed probably has some mystery aspects to it and might deal with a wider story arc. If you want to, however, you can purposely give two different mission types the spotlight in your story. For instance, you might have your player’s ship and a Romulan warbird become stranded in a remote system as some strange energy signature drains their ship’s power. Now they have to negotiate their cease fire in tense conditions (Diplomacy) while they figure out how to get their vessels free (The Unknown).

Mission Objectives

Once you know what the tone of the challenge will be for your players, think about what conditions they need to meet to successfully overcome that challenge. In some cases they might be aware of this, such as missions that are given to the characters by Starfleet Command, but in others they might need to discover the objectives as part of the mission. The following list of ideas is adapted from the Star Trek Roleplaying Game’s Narrator’s Guide.

Mission Objective Examples Mission Objectives Examples
Defense Convoy Escort

Planetary Defense

Sector Patrol

Base Security

Intelligence Gathering Criminal Investigation

Infiltration

Revolution

Spying

Diplomacy First Contact

Government Envoy

Law Enforcement

Political Arbitration

Military Invasion

Reconnaissance

Threat Alert

Tactical Operations

Emergency Response Aid and Relief

Evacuation

Quarantine

Rescue

Scientific Study Archaeology

Anthropology

Charting and Survey

Prototype Testing

Exploration Deep Space Exploration

Planetary Exploration

Spirituality Inquisition

Missionary Work

Pilgrimage

Quest

Illicit Activities Assassination

Black Market Trading

Piracy or Theft

Smuggling

Trade Free Trading

Exploring New Markets

Industrial Espionage

Supply and Logistics

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Acts

As described in the Narrator’s Guide of the Star Trek Roleplaying Game, most Star Trek episodes follow a three-act structure. Go through episode descriptions on Memory Alpha or some other fan site and you’ll find every episode of every series broken down this way. You can use this three-act model in building your missions as well, both to give you guidance and to evoke the tone of the show.

Act One: Introduction

You lay out the start of the central conflict in the mission and why the crew is interested in them. You can hook them into the plot by giving them a mystery to poke at right away (“You arrive at the planet to find a Romulan warbird already in orbit”) or you can start in the middle of things with a captain’s log describing how they’ve already started (“The Enterprise has taken on two diplomats from Betazed who are due on Deep Space Nine for a conference”).

Either way, you should introduce both the setup and the first major twist to the story in order to get the action going. For example, if your crew started out this Act responding to a distress signal in a remote system then you should immediately spring the rest of the plot on them when they show up: the signal is a trap and now their warp drive is shutting down, or the ship turns out to be a long-lost Federation vessel!

Like the first act in an episode of Star Trek, this should be pretty quick to get to the heart of things and then move on to the next act. You can skip the commercial break in your game.

Act Two: Confrontation

After the initial hook to the story and then the twist to make it interesting, the characters get a chance to set about confronting it. If you initially pitted them against a renegade Starfleet captain, this is where they find out about his demands, dissenters among his crew, and the threat he poses to the greater Federation. If you had the crew negotiating between feuding groups and the negotiations took an unexpected turn, this is where they figure out how to keep the situation from escalating and who their allies might be.

You don’t have to make a plot that’s going to spiral and spiral until it’s a complex labyrinth, but remember that introducing a problem with a clear solution that solves it neatly in a few quick actions is just as problematic as introducing a conflict with no clear direction. Your job is to offer paths for your players to take but to make them work enough that the experience is entertaining.

Act Three: Resolution

This is the part of the story where everything comes together into one final climax. If the situation has been straightforward (a Jem’Hadar position that needs to be attacked or a murderer to catch) then this is when the players’ plans are launched and it’s a race to the finish. If they’ve been seeking out options, finding dead ends, and regrouping then this is the time when the fog clears and the end is in sight. Either way, you should take your cue from your series feel as to how the ending should come across: triumphant, exhausted, painful, etc.

If you are moving on to a new plot with the next mission, wrap everything up neatly. You can always come back and unwrap it to use later but you want your players to feel like matters are settled or they will keep pushing and the story will grind to a halt as things become unclear. On the other hand, you might use this mission to propel things into the next. In that case, some of the conflict is overcome but there’s one or two elements that they should obviously start in on next time. You can also use a mixture of these if you have main plots that are finishing (“the Cardassian commander is in prison!”) and subplots that are continuing (“the Bajoran Kai is still missing!”).

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