Exploration for the Narrator
by S. John Ross, from the Untaken Treks

The theme of To Boldly Go - exploration - is one of the most fundamental in Star Trek, and by far the most rewarding to experience "first hand" in the game. But assembling an exploration episode (or entire series) presents special challenges to the Narrator. In previous chapters, we’ve explored the nuts-and-bolts side of the worlds, stars, and aliens the Crew may discover. Here, we’ll provide the dramatic tools necessary to assemble the rocks and water into planets that live. We’ll look at the following:

  • Breaking the Safety Net: Exploration stories put their heroes atop dizzying gulfs in high winds - sometimes literally. Your players should feel the vertigo of going where no one has gone! We explore some of the best ways to add a sense of isolation and danger to your stories without making the players feel cheated.
  • Basic Needs and the Revelation Web: Returning to solid ground, we chase down the tracks of that most elusive creature: the exciting story. The hunt includes a method of generating ideas by examining the "basic needs" of sentient species, and fresh look at our traditional "tripartite" story form, refitting it for the task of exploring the unknown.
  • Worlds as Characters: On the final frontier, there aren’t quite as many NPCs . . . Or are there? Even when there are no new civilizations to meet, the worlds that your Crew will discover are characters unto themselves.
  • Coming Home: Sometimes, discovering a new place is the end of the story. But sometimes, the explorers get to reap the special benefits - or deal with the unfortunate consequences - of what they’ve found.

Why Run an Exploration Episode?

Here’s a rundown of the essential strengths of the exploration theme; it makes a handy "renewal of purpose" tool, and a useful adventure-design checklist:

  • Exploration is Good Science-Fiction: Scientists, doctors, and scholars are given more changes to shine in an exploration episode than in any other kind - knowledge and the clever application of it is essential to survive the unknown. In addition, diplomacy, respect, and sympathy often take the center stage as functional dramatic elements. This is because new life ("new civilizations" or simply an alien ecology) is best encountered by those who exemplify all three, for practical as well as ethical reasons. Exploration stories, then, emphasize things that lie at the heart of science-fiction’s appeal to many, demonstrating the value of knowledge and the strength of reasoned, rather than hostile, relations.
  • Exploration Inspires Wonder: Villains and politics and trade-relations are all great fun, but there’s something extraordinary about the opportunity to set foot on alien soil, to taste the breezes of another world. Most of us daydream about gazing across a valley tinted by the light of another sun, where beneath the moving shadows of alien clouds, life that no man has a name for thrives, skittering and climbing . . . On Television or at the movies, we enjoy this kind of experience vicariously, with costumed characters and matte paintings and special effects. In a roleplaying game, though, we’re a step closer to experiencing it "firsthand" unfiltered by a movie budget or the restrictions of a well-paced hour of TV. We can wander. We can look and see what’s over that distant ridge. We can hike along that river, and chase down a distant animal’s call.
  • Exploration Engages the Players’ Own Abilities: because exploration stories share so much in common with mystery tales, meeting the challenges they present is always a matter of much more than skill tests and combat resolution. New worlds present enigmas that must be unraveled by the players as much as by the Crew they portray, which can produce a greater sense of accomplishment for all concerned, making the whole experience more immersive and dramatic.
  • Exploration is Exciting and Dangerous: And it can be deadly without a single "villain," which makes it a refreshing experience for many gamers. It can also have an epic, grand scope without necessarily threatening the entire Federation. Curiously, by emphasizing the drama and detail possible on a single, distant world, exploration stories can emphasize how truly small the Federation (and the Crew, and the Crew’s vessel) really are, without diminishing them in any way. Rather, the renewed perspective makes the "larger than life" nature of Star Trek blossom entirely, since the Crew feel what it’s like to be courageous trail-blazers all alone in the depths of space. The themes of isolation and self-reliance can feel more overtly heroic than plots set deep within "civilized" space, where the shifting tides of political relations and Starfleet regulations can render everything in more abstract tones. When exploring, the Crew can stretch their legs and face the danger on their own.

Breaking the Safety Net

When the explorers of ancient Vulcan or Andoria set out across desert & mountain, their expeditions were journeys marked by steadily-increasing danger and isolation. Potential for discovery increases proportionately to risk; what is precious to the explorer is dangerous, remote, far from the security of home.

Star Trek introduces a contradiction to this classic theme - and fundamental truth - of the explorer’s adventure. Under ideal circumstances, Starfleet officers needn’t concern themselves with how much weight a train of mules can carry (don’t forget food & water for the mules!), or how many layers of clothing they should bring, or whether or not they can rely on the simple maps provided for them by the old trackers who sometimes ventured this far across the mountains. In Starfleet, home travels with you: A starship provides warmth, security, food, clothing, detailed aerial-view maps and sensor scans, and communication. If a party beams down to the surface of a new planet, and hikes 29 kilometers, they aren’t 29 kilometers further from their cabins. They aren’t any further away at all, courtesy of the transporter beam.

We’ve dealt elsewhere with the universal difficulties introduced to a series by allowing too much reliance on technology. Most Narrators have no difficulty throwing in freakish upper-atmosphere ionization that prevents the transporter from working, or an unexpected malfunction that strands a shuttle, or a surprise distress call that pulls the starship into a nearby system on an emergency, leaving the Crew to fend for themselves until they can return. Such measures are appropriate, and even lots of fun when used judiciously, but when exploration becomes the primary focus of the series, they get old fast. The upper-atmosphere ionization seems somehow less freakish the fifth time around (moving it to the lower atmosphere to shake up the players’ expectations doesn’t work; we checked). Likewise, the shuttle malfunction becomes very much expected, and the poor NPCs in desperate need of rescue are probably very depressed when their call for help is answered with monotone boredom. "Yes, we’re on our way. Again."

So, the traditional anti-tech solutions aren’t strong enough to break the safety net, but the safety net still needs breaking if you really want your Crew to feel like explorers. Furthermore, rendering the Crew’s toys impotent every week spoils the fun of having toys to begin with! So, new Narration and story techniques must be devised. Here are a handful; use them as-is, and as springboards to inspire new ones:

Net-cutting 101: Be it Ever So Humble

Aboard a Galaxy-class vessel or other major ship of the line, people can live with all the comforts of their homeworld, with holodeck simulations of any that are missing. If you’re beginning your exploration series from the start (or if you’re running a one-shot episode for a demo or a quick-fix night with the gang) consider assigning the Crew to a much humbler vessel. Depending on which year your series begins in, this can make a lot of sense. During the years of the Borg invasion, or the Dominion War (or the years immediately following them), Starfleet’s emphasis turned toward sharply toward the defense of the Federation. By necessity, exploration is given short shrift during times of crisis, and the vessels assigned to seek out new life and new civilizations tend to be smaller and older. Also, Starfleet might expect, based on long-range surveys and other data, that the sectors the Crew have been assigned will contain nothing spectacular or dangerous - perhaps just some mineral-rich worlds, or an interesting nebula. Of course, Starfleet will be wrong - but their choice of assigned vessels will reflect their underestimation of the adventure awaiting the Crew.

This approach has one very strong advantage to recommend it: It lowers the bar on technological expectations right out of the starting gate. The characters are still Starfleet, and have many of the associated advantages (the sensors will be as modern as the ship can carry, for example), but they don’t live on the lap of luxury that is an entirely modern vessel. Holodecks are probably out of the question; armament will be limited; shuttles will be few. Give the ship a few glitches and quirks and you can establish an atmosphere of being aboard a ship far from home, rather than being on a ship that’s every bit as nice as home. With that atmosphere in place, the players won’t feel cheated when their security blankets are yanked from them, since they were thin and ratty blankets to begin with.

Net-Cutting 102: Pull the Rug Out!

"Adventures," said American explorer Herbert Spencer Dickey, "are a sign of inefficiency." "Good explorers don’t have them." Adventure, in one sense, is what happens when a simple journey becomes a complicated and unpleasant one. What Dickey meant is that good explorers do everything they can to avoid adventure. They plan. They manage their resources.

But as any experienced explorer can tell you, adventures still happen. In Dickey’s day, explorers wandered the Earth, and the Earth, for all it’s amazing variety, has several constants that can be relied on. That stuff flowing in the rivers might not be potable, but it is water. That snake might be dangerous, but it won’t be able to follow me across this gorge. The edges of the leaves are curling up? That means it’ll probably be raining, soon.

So, Dickey and his colleagues had thousands of years of Earth’s own experiences with itself to fall back on. Compared to the explorers of the United Federation of Planets, they were boy scouts wandering marked trails in a national park, because the depths of the unknown galaxy have a way of producing dangerous exceptions to every rule. Your players get to discover them - the hard way. Rather than attacking the comforting presence of their tricorder and phaser, attack the comforting presence of their fundamental assumptions.

This kind of "attack" can take many forms. Animals that seem familiar can have dangerous differences. Actions that are normally safe, or even routine, can have disastrous consequences. Turning this on its ear, things that seem deadly or impossible might be the only paths to safety, introducing a cousin of another classic Star Trek theme: overcoming prejudice! In this case, though, the prejudices are about places and things, rather than people - an appropriate twist for a genre where places are characters.

Net-cutting 103: Gradual Erosion

Whether you’re busy breaking their equipment or undermining their faith in the laws of physics, it can be much more dramatic if you build the effect gradually, dealing a series of blows to the comfort of the expedition as they approach the serious challenges near the story’s climax.

Imagine again the ancient expeditions of planet-bound explorers. At the beginning, things are cheery. There are photographers and banquets, newsreels and interviews. The sponsoring university is full of praise and hearty handshakes, the mules or camels or zabathu are fresh and well-watered and obedient. The supplies are neatly packed, the maps are crisp. There is nothing but optimism.

On the first leg of the journey, the problems are minor enough that the explorers can laugh them off. The party is beyond home, but still at the edges of civilization. The local villages are foreign and primitive, but the natives are friendly; they recognize the explorers and seldom shoot at them. One of the mounts got sick and some of the men had an allergy to the preserved fruit rations, but it’s still a jolly adventure, with songs around the fire and the beginnings of serious talk of scholarly awards and lucrative publishing deals.

"It has been seven weeks," the journal begins, "since we have seen a familiar face. The mountain air is humid and difficult to breathe, and we had to abandon the rest of the pack animals last night. We’d lost four to disease, and six to broken legs. Half of the men are sick, too, and the two native guides have abandoned us, taking the lamps and Carlisle’s pocket watch. We’d have plenty of extra food, now, if only we had a way to carry it over that ridge. Spirits low."

A month later, when the explorers finally find the coastline, or the hidden valley with the ancient city, or the new species of bird, they’re half-mad and exhausted. They’re so sick of dried food that they smack their lips in anticipation at the sight of a few rubbery native tubers seasoned with a powder that Carlisle is convinced was originally brought along for cleaning the rifles. But then, the real adventure is ready to begin, and the explorers must face it exhausted, with resources limited, like heroes.

For the Star Trek Narrator, the game becomes a rousing bout of Find the Metaphor. Maybe the native guides who abandon the expedition are still native guides - or maybe they’re ancient computers, a fragmentary clue leading to an ancient alien world. The ship’s own computer was able to read their memory banks after a bit of effort, and everything was going fine until the alien computers crashed - sucking up massive system resources in the process, and damaging the basic profile database used by the ship’s sensors! "Running off with a pocket watch," indeed!

Basic Needs: An Idea-Generation Technique

Threats to basic needs - needs like safety, health, and freedom - are fundamental motivators in many kinds of adventure story. It’s an axiom held by many writers of fiction that the heart of a drama is found by examining who is hurt worst by the story - and being "hurt," broadly defined, means having one or more basic needs violated or denied. Since isolation from comfort is so integral to exploration stories (see p.XX), this means a Star Trek: The Next Generation Narrator can keep himself well-stocked in fresh adventure ideas simply by looking at basic human (and alien!) needs, and examining how the needs of the Crew (and of innocent civilians that they may be protecting) are threatened by the new world you’ve created. Whenever you need a new adventure idea, come here, pick a need, decide on the source of the threat to it, and see what bubbles to the surface . . .

From the ancient Greeks to Maslow and Max-Neef, scholars and scientists have spent a lot of effort trying to narrow down exactly what our basic needs are. Borrowing from all of them, and expanding the definitions to include alien "people" as well as humans, we’ve assembled a list of five major categories that answers to our own specific need for good Star Trek: The Next Generation stories!

The Source of the Threat

By examining the five categories of "basic needs," we can define a lot of threats. Another important variable is where the threat comes from. A few common ones:

  • Funky Energies: Whether it’s something funny in the magnetosphere, or the emissions of an unpleasant ancient device, this is a useful catch-all. The threat can often be remedied, partially or entirely, by proper shielding, but sometimes the initial "attacks" are deadly and invisible.
  • Native Life: Sometimes this means hostile (or even well-meaning but still-dangerous) sentient locals, but plants, animals, and life that doesn’t fit convenient categories can all be threatening. And sometimes it’s entirely accidental!
  • Weather and Other Local Phenomena: Storms, volcanic activity, vast, murky swamps, and other perfectly ordinary (or entirely extraordinary) cycles and features of nature can be the source of a threat. Or turn this on its ear by making these things the "victim" being threatened!
  • Environmental Contaminants: These can be found in air, water, or any other fluid medium the Crew might find themselves in. Sometimes Starfleet filtration technology can deal with it, sometimes it can’t even be detected.
  • Outside Influences: Sometimes, the threat from (or to) a new world is from beyond it - aliens exploiting a planet’s resources, enslaving its people, or even demanding worship as Gods! Or the outside influence can be less "villainous" and more natural - a sun going nova, an interstellar phenomenon passing to closely, and so on.
  • The Crew (Outside Influences II): Sometimes, simply setting foot on new soil can cause subtle chain reactions that can be horribly destructive. A staple idea of time-travel fiction (where simply buying the last newspaper on sale to find out what year it is deprives a famous dead writer of his copy, so he’s never inspired to write an essay that prevented a war, and so on . . .) this theme can also be used to generate trouble strictly in the present tense. Sometimes, the "innocent civilians" that the Crew must protect are the world’s natives, and the threat is the Crew itself.

Sustenance & Environment

A catch-all for fundamental physiological needs. People need food, water (or some analogue of it), and a favorable temperature, gravity and atmosphere to stay alive. Arguably the most basic of all needs, since a lack of these renders all others moot. Airless and lifeless worlds challenge the need for sustenance & environment very directly, as do worlds with poisonous atmospheres, inedible food, and impotable water.

Despite this need’s simplicity, there’s plenty of room for more esoteric threats along these lines. Picking "native life" arbitrarily from the threat-source list (see sidebar), and deciding that "food" is the specific need threatened, we could determine that a local animal gets into the Crew’s ship and begins devouring the raw matter used to replicate food supplies. Alternately, the presence of the Crew is the threat - something about psychic emanations from humans is killing a small animal that’s vital to the planet’s own food chain! Even when we divide all the categories and sources into their component cells, there are still thousands of possibilities for each.

Rest & Shelter

"Shelter" (including clothing!) becomes more essential as a species grows to depend on controlled environments. A primitive nomad will find the lack of a tent or cave to sleep in a minor, perhaps irritating, inconvenience, and may have feet so toughened by barefoot travel that he’d find the very idea of shoes to be silly and needlessly restricting. 20th Century Americans and Europeans, on the other hand, are very used to a roof, shoes, and even climate control, so it stands to reason that the ordinary citizens of the 24th Century Federation would find a lack of shelter even more traumatic than we would. Starfleet Officers are trained to survive and won’t have much trouble, but this need should always be kept in mind when "civilian" NPC colonists and scientists are present. Furthermore, the need for times of rest can be challenged on all sides, trained officers and flatfooted civilian alike, by any number of environmental challenges.

Health & Security

By far the most commonly-threatened family of needs in adventure games, the potential here is obvious! The Narrator can have a lot of fun exploring the many ways in which health & security can be threatened, from subtle alien diseases to unexpectedly combustible atmospheres.

Friends & Family

Like shelter, the need for companionship may vary a lot from species to species. But, considering how very important it is to humans, an entirely antisocial being would be truly alien, and would more likely be a single-story plot device than an ongoing PC or NPC presence. Certainly, most of the Federation’s citizens, regardless of species, need friendship, love, respect and community in some form and to some degree. Narrators must be crafty to threaten this one in a game, since the very nature of RPGs is social: It’s hard to make your players feel the loneliness and isolation of their characters while they’re busy scarfing pretzels with a tableful of friends. But, steering into more complicated waters, there are many ways to threaten the fabric of an expedition’s sense of trust and community. The moral questions raised by new discoveries can turn allies suddenly against one another, and breakdowns in communication caused by nature or alien influence (even well-meaning or accidental alien influence!) can be a terrifying blow to the basic need for contact and communication. This is the kind of challenge that’s strong enough to carry an entire episode, since working hard to maintain community is one of the noblest ideals of Star Trek.

Leisure & Pleasure

Once a sentient being is secure in his basic physiological and psychological requirements, his need becomes more personal, but no less powerfully felt: the need to enjoy existence. Rather than consuming food strictly as fuel, the luxury of preference allows food to become a source of fun. Procreation develops the potential for erotic pleasure. Learning and sharing what you've learned becomes a pastime, instead of just another method of survival, and communication opens up the potential for creative expression. Those who must spend all their available energy fulfilling the more basic needs may regard this latter category dismissively as "luxury" rather than a need, but in reality, the truth of our genuine need for these things is the basis of civilization and culture, an therefore of advancement beyond subsistence and onto the galactic stage. And because this need is more personally-defined than the others, stories about how it can be threatened are more dramatic and potentially mature than stories about threatening the Crew’s wound levels!

By categorizing & examining needs in this way, we create a palette of colors with which to paint our adventures, and a tool for examining characters’ behavior. Not only can we generate story ideas by asking "how can we threaten these needs?" and "Which of these needs haven’t I tried threatening yet?" we can do so by coming up with new ways to satisfy them, too. After all, the best Star Trek exploration stories are stories of new and unusual threats undertaken to achieve new and unusual reward.

Sense of Place

A game has a "sense of place" if the locations in it feel real, if the players can easily get the sense that beyond every door, down every avenue, is something new to experience. A game with a sense of place contains a convincing illusion of a complete galaxy, not just a series of disposable sets and stock backdrops.

The skills necessary to achieve this illusion are useful to the Narrator of any Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, but in an exploration series, where setting is the focus of nearly every tale, they become the foundation of the Narrator’s art. Here are a few simple rules to live by:

  • Simplify Descriptions: Less is very definitely more, where descriptions are concerned. Don’t describe the alien ichor as "slick and viscous, with a deep azure hue and a dark, glossy appearance" when "like dark blue motor oil" will do. Your players already have a vast mental library of textures, temperatures, colors, sensations, and experiences. Tap into what they can already imagine vividly, and your descriptions will become leaner and more inspiring (you’ll also have more time to add relevant details, if needed, without bogging down play).
  • The Body Responds: . . . to low branches (by ducking), to bright sun (by wincing and shielding the eyes), to deadly cold (by shivering and keeping arms close). Give life to your locales by having your NPCs - and even your own Narration - include these kinds of simple "pantomimes." Besides, it’s fun, and your players will often follow suit!
  • Unexpected Sensations: Not only should you remember to hit all the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) regularly, try playing havoc with your player’s expectations to engage their imaginations! Everybody expects the Big Dead Animal to smell bad, but what if that smell is surprisingly appetizing to the Betazoids in the landing party? What if it’s accompanied by an unexpected itching sensation? Even if these "clues" are harmless red herrings, they’ll get the medical tricorders beeping and keep players on their toes, all the while awakening the senses in their imaginations.
  • Interactive Nature: Games are more exciting when the players’ actions and choices have in-game consequences of some kind. On the "plot" scale, this means that their important story-related actions will determine the episode’s outcome. On the descriptive level, though, it means that the Narrator should pounce on every action the Crew takes an opportunity to make the game more exciting! If, for example, a player tries to open an ancient portal by firing his hand-phaser at it, a dull Narrator might simply reply "Nope. It doesn’t open. What do you try now?" A more inventive Narrator will try something more like "The surface of the door seems to absorb the energy of your shot - the tiny inscriptions covering the surface race briefly with fluid shots of white light! - But the door remains closed, and cold to the touch." By rewarding any action - even "failed" action - with a detail or "special effect," you not only keep the game lively (players are more likely to want to keep doing stuff if actions have results), you’ll make your locations feel more real. If a player picks up a rock to throw, have a tiny animal scurry for cover from under it. If a player jumps across a stream, let him know how soft and slippery the mud is beneath his feet, and so on. Don’t drown the players in detailed narrative - but definitely reward action with interaction.

The Revelation Web: An Alternate Plot Structure

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation roleplaying game, we introduced the basic tripartite plot; the flexible and functional "Three Act" story structure (p.XX of the TNG rulebook), defined by the "reactive" Act One, the "active" Act Two (complete with mid-point plot twist) and culminating in the Act Three resolution: climax and epilogue.

This structure is best suited to stories where immediate conflict builds and develops. It helps insure that the tension doesn’t lag, and keeps things moving fast . . . in a straight line!

Exploration stories often share more in common with mysteries than with linear action-style stories, however, especially in an RPG. In order to feel like they’re really exploring, players need to feel free to move in many directions, following leads and gathering clues, unconstrained by a linear series of events. In order for an episode to feel like an adventure, however, the constant-tension-build that the three-act structure is so good at maintaining must still be present, or the "story" might devolve into a travelogue, as the Crew pokes around from star to star or valley to valley.

Some degree of compromise is possible by separating the key plot elements from the setting being explored, mapping them out as a timed sequence that must be dealt with as the Crew explores. This works, but the exploration will feel secondary to the story, for the simple reason that it is.

A useful approach, then, is to avoid compromise entirely and rebuilt the tripartite story in the image of a mystery adventure - one where the puzzles and enigmas are those of alien worlds and untamed nature, rather than bloody murder weapons and creaky old manors.

Acts One and Three remain essentially unchanged, but shrink dramatically in proportion to the overall story. Act One is still mostly reactive: the Crew responds as the story’s premise and initial driving goals are introduced, along with new NPCs (or the return of favorite old ones). A good action scene to get the blood pumping and the phasers warm is still often a good idea!

Act Three remains, basically, a static structure, the arena for the final conflict, where the Crew test their skills and ideals against the challenges of the day. In the aftermath, loose ends are tied (or left dangling as teasers for the sequel), and the outcome of many choices are explored, as always.

How the Crew gets from Act One to Act Three, however, takes on an entirely different character. In the traditional Act Two, the characters act directly toward the adventure’s goal, dealing with the challenges (and plot twists) that pop up in response to their efforts. If it goes well, it barrels right into Act Three, and the fireworks can begin.

In a mystery, however, the path from I to III is a convoluted maze of clues and questions, and a specific mid-point plot twist is almost redundant. When dealing with the unknown, there tends to be as much "twist" as there is "plot," anyway!

To keep the pace brisk in this kind of story requires planning. Imagine Act II as a kind of web, a series of strands crossing one another in odd patterns. Each strand is a clue or other "logical" path the crew can follow to navigate the story. At some points where the strands touch, a scene or location exists. A very, very simple Act II might look like this

[DIAGRAM]

The Crew, in Act I, are assigned to explore a dense cluster of red stars in the Delta Risus system. After a few days of surveying, they’ve deduced that the cluster is unnaturally dense . . . The stars, for the past several millennia, have been steadily converging. Computers estimate that, in another 17 years, the stars are due to contact one another, possibly in dangerous collisions! They also rescue an Orion trader, far from home, adrift in a short-range shuttlecraft and claiming not to remember the past several months. Curious . . .

While there is no sign of the Orion’s original vessel, the wreckage of a small Andorian ship is nearby, sending out a feeble distress code. All hands aboard her are dead, and the ship was clearly shot to pieces by weapons commonly carried by Orion pirates. On board, the Crew finds sensor data on world’s orbiting two of the converging suns, and the coordinates of . . . nothing (at least nothing on the charts in the navigation databases!) . . . Just a point in deep space, defined as a position relative to the converging stars!

Provided with enough reason to jump headlong into Act II, the Crew are free to explore. The available "points" along our simple web break down as follows:

Point I: The Coppery Ruins of Axan Beta

This is one of the two worlds the Andorians surveyed. It’s a world of ancient metal cities, alien and uninhabited for centuries. Scans indicate many mineable resources, and a once-thriving industrial culture destroyed, apparently, by disease. Exploring the ruins reveals a dangerous animal attacker, an abandoned Andorian camp with more clues leading to the Convergence World (Point III), and some artifacts from Gatarr (Point II).

Point II: Gatarr: C855 Gamma

This is the second world that the Andorian computers have sensor data on. It’s a swampy, M-Type planet with at least seven billion inhabitants, at a level of development comparable to Earth circa 1850 (early Tech Level Four). Blissfully unaware of the rest of the galaxy’s troubles, the Gatarrians are strictly Prime Directive material. The Narrator can develop their culture in as much detail as he thinks the Crew might enjoy, but any exploration of Gatarr will need to be on the sly, unless the Captain decides that the artifacts on Axan Beta (Point I) prove that Gatarr has already been contacted and "corrupted" by the Andorians. And on that subject, there’s a camp here, too, but definitely Orion, abandoned on a remote mountainside. There are signs of a struggle, a dead Orion, and a crystal disk of advanced alien design, buried nearby. The disk is etched with microscopic writing. See Points III and V.

Point III: The Mystery Coordinates (Convergence Planet)

The "nowhere" coordinate reveals a sunless world - a freely-drifting planet that has long since escaped whatever sun it may have once orbited. It slides quietly through the void, frozen and dark and essentially invisible unless you’re very close or know exactly what to look for. Deep within it is a massive alien engine that will come to life when the converging suns join it in a pre-planned multi-body orbital clockwork that will put this planet right in the middle of the interlocking orbits of the "renegade" stars. Right now, it’s nowhere important, but anyone who projects the world’s path will discover where it will be then. Seventeen years from now, the massive collection of suns will become a super-powerful starship, of a kind, capable of nearly-transwarp speeds (crossing a galactic gulf in a matter of months would be feasible), and producing massive amounts of nearly-inexhaustible power. That any other worlds (like innocent Gatarr!) orbiting the "component" stars will be stripped away and destroyed was apparently regarded by the world’s masters as a trivial detail. Ruins deep in the ice indicate that this is but one of many such vessels being "built." And locked in a cylinder of light, the Crew find a crystal disk, much like the one at Point II. If they can retrieve it and combine it with the other one, they will reveal the coordinates of an ancient facility built on Gatarr’s smallest moon . . . (point V).

Point IV: The Orion Decides to Talk

He won’t be willing to initially (insisting that it’s all a blank, and muttering in obscure Orion languages), but after being confronted with findings from points I, II or III, he might relent and give up the amnesia story. He will claim the "star engine" as an ancient family legacy, a legend that became a discovery, passed down to he and his brothers as an inheritance. The Andorians, he claims, were thieves and opportunists seeking to cash in on his family’s secret. Both groups were obviously fighting, and destroyed one another. This scene can provide "feedback" pointers to any points of points I, II and III that the Crew missed, and can launch things directly into the third Act.

Point V: The Crystal Disks

If the crew have explored the camps on Axan Beta and the machinery on the convergence world, they might have two crystal disks that, overlaid and fed into the computer, might reveal the location of another ancient construct - a secret base on the smallest moon of Gatarr, a place where the star-engine’s builders worked and studied and planned the mighty project, perhaps. The Orions, as it turned out, already knew about it - and there are several surviving there, complete with an armed vessel, hiding behind sensor-defying shielding and biding their time. If the Crew (literally) put the pieces together and find them, they can interrogate them for more info, enlist their aid, and so on as appropriate, making this scene a kind of "bonus" point on the web. If the Crew don’t do any of this, then the Orions could become a dangerous wildcard as the Crew barrels into the third Act unaware of them.

. . . And so much for Act II. The Crew can then take action that leads to the climax - the struggle to save an innocent world from being a byproduct in a massive construction project thousands of years old. Such a delicate clockwork of gravitation is bound to be undoable with cleverly-applied resources, but who knows what defenses may be in place? And tampering with such mighty forces, even to undo the tampering of others, might have further consequences - yet another powerful recurring theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This example is on the sketchy-and-simple side, but it demonstrates the flexibility of the "web" approach to structuring the middle of the story. Rather than a linear series of conflicts and revelations, the Crew are faced with a menu of choices that, in play, will feel much broader and more complicated than it really is.

Either in play (on the fly) or in pre-game preparation, this story could easily be expanded. The crystal disks, in particular, are a highly simplified MacGuffin - two halves of a treasure map, repurposed for the 24th Century. In a more developed version of the story, the disks could be replaced with non-physical clues, bits of information that seem meaningless individually, but provide a valuable new path when combined and logically examined.

With this approach, the players enjoy the pacing benefits of a structured plots and the freedom of an entirely free-form run, both in sufficient measure that the "boundaries," such as they are, won’t even show. The "paths" on the web don’t really exist - they’re an arbitrary organizing tool for the Narrator. In actual play, the Crew can (and probably will) spend some time checking out the other converging stars, exploring Gatarr and Axan Beta in greater detail, and have more than one important dialogue with the surly Orion. But by preparing this "web" at the outset, the Narrator can maintain the action of the game by always having something meaningful and interesting waiting around the corner. Narrators with a gift for improvisation could develop the doomed planets on the fly; those with a penchant for detail could expand them into the "meat" for a full-blown series arc, driven by the conflicting motives of the Crew, the Orions, an Andorians that may seek out their now-missing brethren, and the innocent inhabitants of Gatarr. No matter how it’s done, the improvised details will make sense, since the Narrator has drawn a simple "map" so he won’t get lost in his own narrative - and the players won’t, either.

Worlds as Characters

Every planet (or city, or star, or nebula, or Enigmatic Phenomenon) worth visiting has character, a unique feel that is more than just the sum of the literal details that it’s comprised of. Capturing this "spirit" is a worthy goal for the Narrator; it will lend relity to the gaming experience, and even help guide the story in the face of unexpected events!

Worlds are characters. And, like any other important member of your supporting cast (planets as PCs can wait for another day!), they will be called upon to respond to your Crew in ways that you can’t possibly predict right now. The wealth of detail needed to answer even some very basic questions even a tiny planet is beyond the available hobby time of any but the most obsessive (and probably unemployed) gamer, so good Narrators save their sanity be mastering the art of apparent detail, creating a persona for a place, a "scalable" guide to what it’s like to be there. This allows them to face the inevitable raised questions with confidence. By defining a locale’s "behavior" in human terms, a narrative template can be created to answer these questions on the fly with a consistency that will impress players and require on minimal effort on the part of the harried Narrator.

A well-defined NPC has motive, resources & limitations, and a personality. Any of these three can be applied via metaphor, if you wish, to places, as well:

Motive

Places ("planets" by default, but the principles here apply at any scale) don’t really want things, but they can certainly seem to, sometimes. Difficult mountains can seem hostile, haughty and mocking, wanting very much to lure in climbers, to tempt them to painful deaths on jagged rock. A familiar old family home is warm, comforting and safe - and it wants company. Just when you feel like you can pull yourself away and return to your everyday life, it presents you with another piece of your childhood, a bit of nostalgia to tempt you to stay a while longer. It wants you protected. It wants you to be home. An exotic port city is like a grand old Madame, worldly and sharp-witted, in aging lace and perfume. It wants to survive, and it knows how to give a sailor a good shore leave - but she has expensive tastes . . .

Ascribing human motives to places is as old as the species; we project our feelings and expectations into metaphor to clarify our own attitudes, to communicate them to others, even to deal with fears or other strong feelings. It’s why ships - including starships! - are called "she." When a place becomes as important as a person, we begin to treat it like one. [The bus that the author often writes on clearly wants to collect hats, since it’s taken two already in the past few months!] As a Narrator, you can turn this age-old habit to your advantage by creating the motives that will be observed, instead of waiting for visitors to do it retroactively.

Resources & Limitations

Not resources like dilithium mines or stretches of arable land (although those can drive stories, certainly!), but resources in the character sense: the tools at the character’s disposal to pursue its motives and make its personality known. If the Narrator has decided that an alien world "want the Crew dead" (certainly one of the simplest "motives" to apply) the next step is to determine what "skills" and "equipment" the hostile environment has to get the job done. Trees that hypnotize with the soft rustling of their boughs? Venomous (but cute) fuzzy animals? "Edible" plants with a hidden taint of poison or disease? Explore the planet’s character further to choose appropriate "weapons" for the battle to come: does the planet want them dead quickly and efficiently? Or is the world more . . . sadistic? creative? scientific? As long as we’re building "killer planets," we may as well give them a little style . . .

Along with a character’s resources, we define its limits. A snubbed former lover wants to humiliate Our Hero, and has the blackmail photos to get the job done . . . But she won’t do anything to risk her own spotless reputation. Her own pride and sense of self-preservation limit her as a foe, which is necessary for both drama and realism. Places, likewise, should have limits set on their ability to pursue "motives" to keep things interesting, whether or not those motives are described in benevolent, nasty, or entirely neutral terms. A planet that "wants" to entice and amuse archaeologists and historians (even planets can be vain, perhaps!) can’t quite bring itself to reveal the identity of its long-dead inhabitants - a secret that it won’t even tease about, because it also wants to maintain an air of mystery regardless of what’s revealed. Thus limited, it will try even harder to entice with hints of lost art and technology . . . But if any research tries to read too deeply into who made it, he’ll have to "win the planet’s trust" a bit more to have a hope of success. Perhaps what the world really wants is a new colony.

Personality

This is where the fun really is. A planet’s personality informs the motive and methods used to achieve it, but can also add "character for character’s sake," providing an added depth of recognizable uniqueness to a setting. When the Crew beams down, they’ll know the place. And other worlds will "feel" different from this one.

Like people, places can be friendly or hostile, open or secretive, playful or serious. Make a game of the creative process: name a personality trait that should have no possible metaphor "geographically," then take steps to create an exception to your own rule. Can an island be coquettish? Can a mountain be whiny? Can an ancient alien ruin be selfish and callous?

Try playing on many different scales within the same setting, if you need the extra detail (for a world that will be re-explored throughout a series, for example). A world can be one personality, or a whole community of them (just like our own planet!) - with each town, region, or continent given its own motives, methods, and quirks of behavior. The Crew may even find themselves laying worlds "against one another," or playing "matchmaker," all while blissfully unaware of the metaphor they’re helping bring to life.

Personality Traits For Planets

A brief sampling of traits restricted to flesh-and-blood characters, and how they can be reflected in rocks-and-water "people" instead:

Touchy-Feely: Grabbing vines, clouds of windborne leaves or pollen, and even quicksand can give a place a very "hands on," tactile feeling. On dangerous worlds, Starfleet officers can learn Good Touch from Bad Touch the hard way!

Shy: Flowers (or caves, or ancient vaults) that only open at specified times (or under special conditions), animals that scatter noisily at the first hint of intrusion, and constant darkness can make a place feel hesitant to share with strangers.

Modest: Initial scans show only trace minerals - hardly enough for mining. But beneath those mountains are a new metal that the sensors didn’t know how to look for, just waiting to be discovered. Of course, some worlds may be "braggarts," instead, boasting of apparent value far beyond what’s really available. A fine world to offer up as a diplomatic concession, perhaps!

Nurturing: Food is always plentiful - tasty fruit or nuts seem to drip from every tree. The thick-leaved plants can be broken open for a healing natural salve, and the caves are filled with a blue lichen that glows to light the way when the crew’s own lamp is crushed. For a darker spin on this, the planet can be a little smothering, insecure and complaining when its "charges" want to do something on their own.

Insane: From upside-down fish to apparently-impossible weather patterns, an "insane" world is just as likely to be "crazy like a fox." Finding the rationale beyind the apparent madness may be the only way the Crew can escape a deadly trap!

Helpless: A common trait among worlds "ravaged" by the shortsighted ecological waste of those who inhabit it. The world’s ecology is failing, and the planet’s life unravelling at the seams. The Crew can’t help but notice the frail, doe-like animal painfully trapped in colonists’ barbed wire, or the ancient tree, nearly dead from the toxins in the soil. "Help!" cries the planet - can the Crew save it?

Coming Home: The Consequences of Discovery

Sometimes, the most exciting part of an explorer's career is what happens in the aftermath of an important discovery. Even when the journey is completed painlessly, with new and wondrous things safely found, scouted, holographed and catalogued, real conflict can be generated as a consequence of success. The important variable in this kind of story is the objective of the antagonists.

  • Antagonist Objective: Cover Up or Destroy the Discovery - Sometimes, a new planet or interstellar phenomenon contains something so revolutionary that it would cause massive societal change. A handful of the many possible examples includes a cure for a previously-incurable disease, living space for a species with very special requirements, or ancient technology that could upset a balance of power. The antagonist will be somebody threatened by the potential change. The chemists who prosper producing the only known (incomplete) treatment for the disease, for example, might want to protect their interests. Perhaps the leaders of the refugee species would lose power if their people found a new home. The Antagonists needn’t be motivated by selfishness or greed; either. A well-meaning interstellar government (even the Federation itself!) might feel that the galaxy isn’t yet ready for that new technology . . .
  • Antagonist Objective: Monopolize or Unfairly Exploit the Discovery - Of course, not everybody wants to shut an amazing discovery away where nobody can see it. Some are very eager to see it properly used - provided they are the ones who get to do the using. Just as some parties tend to be threatened by new discoveries, some others will smack their lips in eager desire for it, and move to make it their own. The explorers are often regarded as an untidy loose end, which means the Crew are more likely to face direct threats if this is the antagonist’s goal. If the Narrator is in the mood to run something a little darker than usual, this is an excellent goal for an "inside" villain - a member of the Crew’s own expedition who decides that she alone should benefit from what the Crew has found. If the Crew are working for a scientific foundation or other non-Starfleet sponsor, their own benefactors may turn out to be their foes, if the uses they have in mind for the discovery conflict with what the Crew feels is morally just, safe, or reasonable.
  • Antagonist Objective: Discredit or Debunk the Discovery - There are few discoveries more dangerous than those that shed light on a sacred or protected area of darkness. Bringing home information that calls ancient beliefs into question, or answers a riddle that nobody believed could be answered, can be just as threatening to some as more concrete discoveries like habitable worlds and alien technology. The difference is that simply destroying the discovery is seldom good enough; once the news is out, it’s out for good. What follows, then, is a dramatically different spin on the "Cover Up or Destroy" story, where the antagonists do everything in their power to discredit the Crew, to counter their discovery by making it look like the product of poor research, shoddy logic, or even making it out to be a hoax. This is a fight that can get very dirty, be fought on many fronts, and endanger the professional reputations and careers of the Crew. If they have skeletons in their closet (or innocent events that can be made to look like skeletons with a little effort), they may find that the fame they’ve earned as explorers can have a very dark side, indeed. Definitely a story for adult gamers, this one has plenty of potential for character-driven drama and tense personal conflict.

Of course, this kind of thing shouldn’t happen every time the Crew returns from a successful expedition. Part of the joy of exploring in Star Trek is coming home for the metaphorical ticker-tape parade to enjoy the wash of praise and have something biological named after you (or something geographic, or astronomical, or even a ship). "Aftermath" stories like those described above work best when used as episodic stories where the discovery itself is little more than Act One, or as the penultimate chapter of a series arc focusing on a single, epic expedition.

New Neighbors, New Neighborhoods

Exploration episodes give the Crew an enjoyable opportunity to expand the Star Trek universe - new worlds and new civilizations, once discovered, become a part of the setting, making available new antagonistic "heavies" to fight, new allies for cultural exchange, new members of the Federation or (if uninhabited) the site of important new colonies.

Even if the series is entirely exploration-oriented, the Narrator will find that players enjoy keeping tabs on their discoveries, and will welcome new items and other reports like soldiers waiting for boxes of baked goods from home! Pleasantly, this provides a healthy handful of benefits for the game. It adds depth and continuity even if the series is otherwise episodic; it gives an exploring vessel a tangible tie to the events of the Federation (all the while emphasizing their isolation from it, which is good); and it lays in seed for a potential bumper crop of later subplots, sequels, entire series, and even new members of the Crew! If a game spans enough time with the same play-group, a player could discover a new planet in one series and play a man born on a colony there in a later one. This is especially satisfying if the colony was named after the original character! And today’s new alien neighbors can be tomorrow’s Academy cadets . . .

Of course, in a series that combines exploration with other kinds of tales (like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself) the Crew can take a more active role in the new-neighbor(hood) subplots, or they can develop into a major series arc, spawning every possible kind of Star Trek episode.

ASSORTED SIDEBARS

Starfleet’s Motives

While many explorers do what they do for the love of discovery (or because they’re more comfortable finding new civilizations than twiddling their thumbs back in their old one), most expeditions are sponsored by somebody back home (typically Starfleet, or a scientific institute of some kind). That "somebody" often has a specific goal in mind beyond simple discovery. Even Starfleet doesn’t explore just to explore, but rather to find new friends and allies for enriched cultural exchanges, to find inhabitable worlds for colonies, resource-rich worlds for industry, and to expand the Federation’s body of knowledge to improve everything from trade routes to medical science. Most expeditions aren’t "general-purpose." Rather, Starfleet chooses the ship, the crew, and the equipment on board to suit the expedition’s goal.

The Narrator should keep this in mind when designing an episode or series about exploration. What about this particular sector, system, or world made it seem appealing? Did long-range scans indicate a likely M-Class world? Did a spectrographic analysis suggest the presence of dilithium? Was the site the source of an ancient, undeciphered signal? The galaxy is gigantic (literally "astronomical!") and Starfleet cannot, in a century or a dozen centuries, hope to explore all the stars that can be reached with current warp drive technology, so it must choose. The reasons for those choices form the basis for many decisions the Narrator must make about his story, and can directly impact both the Crew and their vessel.

The Navigator’s Tale?

Some great discoveries aren’t destinations at all. Rather than being planets, stars, nebula, or other "locations," they’re pathways that can open up new possibilities for interstellar navigation. This can be anything from a stretch of space where warp travel is somehow enhanced, where navigation itself is safer or simpler, or space-time "shortcuts" like ancient artificial gateway systems or stable wormholes. Some of these require development and further exploration, and all of them can stir controversy and cause conflict as the face of the interstellar "map" threatens to change in their wake.


Contents of this page are Copyright ©2000 by S. John Ross

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