Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Turning the Bat'leth: or how I came to terms with Star Fleet Battles

Star Trek as a sci-fi property has -- despite numerous ups and downs --endured for decades, and may yet endure. The quality or need for a reboot and re-imagining of the universe aside, the new movie at least keeps the franchise in the public consciousness, and allows elements that I prefer to endure.

Like Star Wars, as a tabletop gaming subject Star Trek has been alternatively well served and poorly supported. Today, if you want a true Star Trek game -- whether it is in the new JJ Verse or in the Classic ("Prime") Universe, you are unfortunately going to have to convert another game to suit your needs.

Unless of course you consider the Alternate Universe of Star Fleet Battles.

SFB has been around for a very long time; since possibly the mid-'70s as a "pocket" game. Expansions built upon the core rules, and SFB has a reputation of being a massively unwieldy game requiring dozens of supplements to play (whether or not that is actually true). Despite this, within the gaming hobby as a whole, SFB can be best described as one of those "venerable" games that most dedicated gaming hobbyists have heard, if not played once or twice.

The Star Fleet Universe is perpetually stuck in the "classic" series look (though the owners of the property have exended the timeline far into the future), and has the benefit of being the only currently licensed tabletop gaming property from Paramount. To do this the SFU setting has to omit certain protected names and images, but it's nonetheless a comfortable situation that allows gamers to play in this setting.

My disconnect comes from the history of the gaming product in general.

Once upon a time, while SFB was being published by Task Force Games, another younger company had it's own license, FASA. Publishers of the also venerable games of Battletech and Shadowrun, FASA had it's own extensive and well supported line, which included its own Starship Combat game. The big advantage, however, was that FASA had the license to play in the "movie" era of Trek, and borrowed from the imagery of what for many people is the best loved era of the franchise. I was heavily influenced by FASA's games, and the diverse artwork presented in their ship recognition manuals.

Come the late '80s and Paramount (possibly influenced by Gene Roddenberry himself) yanked the license. FASATrek had become much more militarized than what the current owners of the property were comfortable with. This was neccessary (the SFU also had gone in this direction, but their special licensing agreement somehow protected them) in order to create a sense of conflict to justify why there would be a ship combat game, and to help create dramatic settings for the RPG. Additionally, Paramount didn't like what direction FASA was going with its Next Generation products.

As I had always preferred the movie look (which of course brought us fan-favorites like the Refit Enterprise, as well as the Reliant), I never really considered SFB as a viable game, and even after FASA lost the license, I looked at ways I could continue to use the FASA products.

As I grew older, I came to realize that a lot of the FASA ships were downright weird, and didn't fit very well with the rest of the universe. The Klingon ships worked very well, adhering to the imagery presented in the movies very well, and without much to base on, the Romulans were also very unique and interesting. The Federation ships, however, never really fit well (with the exception of a few stand-outs, like the Larson class, Loknar class, and Anton class ships) and often "violated" the unspoken rules of starship design within the setting.

As I explored other options for Trek gaming, I re-examined the SFB universe, and came to realize that while the ships were still "stuck" in the classic series look, the designs were more logical and fitting in the setting. Sure the Klingon and Romulan designs were far more conservative than their FASA counterparts, but they also fit to a certain aesthetic that matched the universe well.

The big tipping point for me was the release of Klingon Armada and Romulan Armada. Conversions of the Starmada game rules, they fit the universe well enough, allow use of larger fleet actions (one of my gripes with both SFB and the FASA game) but most importantly has a construction system so I could design and incorporate the better ships from the FASA line.

Although I have yet to play a game (apparently in my gaming group Star Trek is not a hot item to game), I hope to remedy that soon. It's calling out to me...


NukeHavoc said...

I think this would make a good Nuke(m)Con event.

Besides, you've got your hands full with the Battletech campaign right now (updates are waiting for you in the Google Wave...)

Anonymous said...

God, I loved FASA Trek and the movie Star Trek era (especially those maroon swashbuckling-ish uniforms). Combined together, it was love at first sight. I GMd a FASA campaign once a week from 1984 to 89 and they were the best years of my life.

I hated SFB and still do. Then again, I hated Star Trek:NG at the time and only "got over it" around 2001.