Here’s another one of those things that crop up every now and again that, while I’m sort of obligated to cover them, I’m a bit out of my depth and don’t really have any business talking about them.
I never played tabletop RPGs growing up. To this day, I have still never touched a tabletop RPG. Actually, I’m not even entirely certain *how* you play tabletop RPGs, though I have a basic, functional understanding of what they are and what they do, mostly through tracing the lineage of video game RPGs and because my work and interests mean I tend to rub elbows with Nerd Culture with some amount of frequency. But the fact remains that this is still something wholly and entirely outside of the wheelhouse of my personal experience. I’ll freely admit I don’t “get” these and never have.
From what I can gather, the primary draw of these types of things is that they’re a form of generative storytelling set in a shared and recognisable universe, and that I *definitely* understand. I think I’ve always been some kind of natural-born performer, and when I was a kid one of the things my friends and I liked to do was pretend that we were our favourite characters and act out our own imaginary stories in the backyard. We would play it as almost a sort of writer’s jam session, coming up with a basic prompt and then just sort of freewheeling it from there: Somebody would randomly shout out some big plot twist, and we would all have to immediately deliver a reaction based on what we understood of our character and how we thought he or she would react-Thinking back on it, it was basically a crude version of improv theatre, considering we were basically actors ad-libbing the entire play. I would guess more or less every kid did some version of this when they were young, though I don’t know how many of them privileged the freeform improvisation aspects of the game to the extent we did.
But it’s this very experience that makes it difficult for me to completely *get* tabletop RPGs. To me, they just look too complicated: You’ve got a weighty tome (sometimes several) with all kinds of tables, charts and statistics that’s supposed mathematically define every single little bit of worldbuilding, which strikes me as running contrary to the generative anarchism of the experience. My regular issues about reducing culture, personality and human behaviour down to numbers aside, it’s forcing what to me seems like an unnecessary structural middleman onto the instinctual compulsion of writing stories. Although, I suppose I *can* see how basing your actions and plot twists around die rolls or playing cards or whatever might be preferable to hinging everything on the whims of your friends, who might suddenly decide to sink the ship or call in a massive Borg invasion fleet or something.
Another thing I never really understood about these games is that, from my admittedly paltry and limited experience with them, they seem to emphasize the world-building minutiae more than the characters: The books I’ve skimmed all talk about building characters from the ground up around pre-existing narrative roles, skillsets and character classes, and while that makes sense for something like Dungeons and Dragons I can’t see it working at all with a property like Star Trek. If I’m playing a Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, I’m gonna want to play as Tasha Yar or Geordi La Forge or Commander Riker or somebody, not come up with some faceless Starfleet ensign character who’s just transferred onto a generic starship out patrolling the Beta Quadrant somewhere. While a certain type of fan probably *wishes* that it was, Star Trek isn’t like D&D, which really is at its heart just a constructed world with some guidelines about how it works and who lives there. Star Trek has iconic and beloved characters that people relate to, look up to and project on to, and you can’t suddenly pretend they don’t exist.
If I were to speculate, I’d guess the reason for the popularity of tabletop RPGs based around existing franchises is because they seem particularly Nerd Culture friendly. They’re a form of transformative writing that doesn’t have the cooties-related stigma of proper, actual fanfiction and provides a structure for imaginative play that, while I never felt was particularly needed, a different kind of person might: I’m extremely outgoing, extroverted and gregarious and always have been (not to mention I’m also someone who loves being outdoors and in nature), and I’m sure some people probably feel more comfortable acting out their stories inside around a table with their closest confidants instead of running around screaming in the backyard. It even provides a lot of opportunities for people to fret about canon and continuity and things like that (my friends and I, meanwhile, blew up entire planets and starfleets with somewhat alarming regularity).
Star Trek in particular seems well-suited to this approach given the long-standing fantasy Trekkers have of actually transporting themselves wholecloth into its world that dates back to at least the 1970s fanfiction scene. Indeed, it was was so ubiquitous even then that Paula Stone could parody it in an age when the Original Series and Animated Series were the only filmed Star Trek that existed. Unlike Trekkers, I personally tend to prefer living vicariously through my pop culture idols and role models: There’s probably something that reveals about my lifelong fascination with performance and artifice that’s linked to specific aspects of my personality and perspective, but that isn’t strictly relevant to the topic at hand today. The flip side to that is though that I want to provide a rejoinder to those of a Nerdier predilection than I that, contrary to a commonly accepted maxim, non-Nerds *do* enjoy generative storytelling and playing with pop culture constructed worlds, we just do it slightly differently and far more casually.
All of which is to say this RPG based on Star Trek: The Next Generation is never something I would have seen or played with. Although from what I can tell, it’s not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but rather a kind of expansion for a larger Star Trek RPG by FASA that dates back to 1983. There were a number of these books, all based on various alien species, gameplay scenarios, and the different movies. They also apparently played pretty fast and loose with Star Trek’s Almighty Canon, bringing in stuff from the spin-off novels, reference books and even fanfiction and wildly extrapolating things like cultural norms and starship design from the actually pretty minimal material provided in the filmed stories. Notably, the Klingons and the Romulans are entirely different from the way Trekkers today would have conceived them: The Klingons have a strong cultural fixation on attaining and maintaining power, are defined by imperialistic expansion and feel they have a sort of divine right mandate to conquer and subjugate the galaxy, while the Romulans are guided by a desire to attain enlightenment and “reach the stars” through aesthetics and emotion.
This sort of imaginative, speculative approach to Star Trek’s world also means the FASA RPG is probably the last manifestation of a phenomenon that’s been a part of the franchise since the wilderness years: A case can be very strongly made that during the 1970s, when the only filmed material you could watch was the Animated Series and syndicated reruns of the Original Series, Star Trek really did belong to its fans pretty much exclusively. The only “world-building” per se was whatever particularly inspired writers could extrapolate from the scant material there was, and things like tie-in novels, fan-produced reference books and fanfiction really were Star Trek’s “canon”, because they were all officially licensed by Paramount (because Paramount licensed basically any Star Trek product random people would pitch them back then since the series was so niche at that point anyway) and nobody was expressly contradicting them. But by the 1980s that had changed, as Star Trek opened the decade becoming big business at the box office and than, unexpectedly, becoming a runaway smash hit on television.
These two books based on Star Trek: The Next Generation, an “Officer’s Manual” and a “First Year Sourcebook” covering the first season of the show (puzzlingly released in September 1989…hot on the heels of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s *third* season) are among the last Star Trek works produced by FASA, and there’s a very good reason for that. With Star Trek’s unprecedented renaissance, Paramount suddenly tightened their belt in regard to merchandise licensing, and stuff like this was an early and swift casualty. It’s not hard to see why: The fact it flagrantly contradicted so much of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was beginning to establish might not have been such a big deal had that not been precisely the kind of thing that sets Star Trek fans off…and had Star Trek fans not been the primary demographic Paramount was now targeting, however misguided and ultimately ruinous that would eventually prove to be.
And furthermore, among the many, admittedly interesting, discrepancies between FASA’s Star Trek and the Star Trek Paramount was trying to sell people was a shockingly staunch fixation on militaristic themes that simply does not sit at *all* well with a modern reader: FASA goes into elabourate detail about things like the “Starfleet Marines” and published any number of expansions all centred around grandiose starship combat and military campaigns. Paramount, understandably, felt this was entirely antithetical to utopian message of Star Trek, especially given just months before this book came out Captain Picard was emphasizing how “Starfleet is not a military organisation”, and promptly revoked FASA’s license. I mean regardless of how true that statement actually is, you can see why Paramount did what it did because the underlying message is clear-Star Trek should not be focusing on the military and imperialistic aspirations.
And yet…There another side to this that reveals some far more unpleasant undertones to the concept of Star Trek as a media phenomenon. FASA’s version of Star Trek may not jive with what the series’ virtues now supposedly were but, just like the earlier Star Fleet Battles, it’s not a reading of the franchise that’s at all unfounded. All of that ugly militarism is right there in the Original Series and the movies, and even though Star Trek is now valued for other things, that doesn’t mean, and will never mean, that this isn’t part of its roots. Also, while Paramount may passionately evoke Star Trek’s utopianism and how much hope it brings to so many people in their justification for actions like this, but the truth of the matter is that this is just a nice way of saying stuff like FASA is no longer “on message”. This is, after all, the era where we all begin to care about things like “brand integrity” and “brand uniformity” and say things like “on message”. They may have allegedly noble reasons for it and it may not be quite as bad as, say, the erasure of fanfiction, but the act itself is still one that perpetuates and reinforces corporate monopoly of mythology and the tyranny of intellectual property. For that, Paramount deserves just as much condemnation as FASA, if not more.
And that seems to reveal the inherent drawbacks of tabletop RPGs as much as anything: To me, they seem to be a corporate-approved way of writing stories in shared constructed worlds. Just as narrator’s toolkits and sourcebooks impose a canon structure upon the act of writing that prevents the truly transformative power of real fanfiction, tabletop RPGs are themselves the product of a capitalism-controlled, and therefore ultimately reactionary, form of storytelling. This is generative storytelling assimilated by the Borg. This is a generative storytelling that poses no threat to hegemony because it not only has its stamp of approval, it actually relies on it to exist. And a storytelling so compromised lacks its soul.