I recently ran a playtest of my new game, ‘The Prime Directive’, with help from Mo Holkar. Having rashly promised in an earlier post to ‘let you know how it goes’, I feel duty bound to do so – and fortunately, it went quite well.
Aim of the Game
The game description is as follows:
“Your presence is required for the Starfleet Court Martial of a Starship crew. Together, the witnesses will use holodeck reconstructions to reconstruct the events that led them here.
What happened on the planet? Who violated the prime directive? Was there a mutiny? Where are the missing scientists? Or did something else happen entirely?
This is an improvised game which uses collaborative storytelling techniques to tell a story of the conflicts experienced by a Star Trek crew on a mission. The tone is not intended to be too ‘dark’; think of a typical Star Trek episode. The theme is that of conflicting ideals and cultures, and the dilemmas that can arise from the clash of different yet valid points of view. “
That last paragraph is the crux of what I was aiming to do. I’ve seen Nordic style improvisation used with the aim of exploring certain themes or invoking a particular type of emotion. I wanted to see if I could use some of the same tools to do something else: construct a Star Trek episode. My intention was to write a game with a Nordic structure, but which ‘felt’ more like a traditional freeform.
The game starts with an introduction and safety briefing, and the players are divided up into Crew and Questioners. This is followed by a number of workshops. The first workshop is intended to get the Crew to elaborate on their character’s personality and motivations, while getting the players used to the format of the Questioners asking the Crew to elaborate on their answers.
For the second set of workshops, the players were split into two groups. The Crew spent their time developing the interrelationships between their characters, some of their history together, and how they saw each other. In the meantime, the Questioners would be developing the scenario that the Crew were going to deal with over the course of the holodeck flashbacks.
After the workshops came the game proper, in the form of Testimonies. This would use a court hearing as a framework, interspersed with scenes as the players acted out what had happened. I had roughly planned this to be a ‘prologue’ scene, introduced by the Questioners are presenting the basic scenario the Crew were faced with, followed by a number of ‘action’ scenes, led by the Crew as they decided what they were going to do; and finally a ‘consequences’ scene, when some or all of the Crew should be responsible for doing whatever they were being charged with.
Finally, the Crew could offer up a defence and a plea, and the Questioners decide on a verdict. The players would then go out of character and discuss the game and what might have happened next.
Workshops: Introduction & Motivations
The first problem I ran into was that I’m not very confident about leading game instructions. So many eyes on me, arrggh… anyway, I got through it, including an explanation of cut/brake and the lines/veils we were using, and then workshops began.
The Crew picked one character train from each of three lists (one positive, one negative, and one background), and then introduced their characters. Originally I had intended them to then choose their ‘job’, but to get the Questioners more involved we had them pick. The Crew were not entirely happy with the results; I think I should stick with the original design! Then we had the Motivations session, where the Questioners used my pre-written list of questions to ask the Crew about their background. My pre-written suggested traits and questions seemed to be a helpful way to get the players started, and the Questioners made up a few new ones once the discussion got going.
This bit of the workshops seemed to go pretty well, and we soon had a good feel for our intrepid Crew of the USS Vigilance: an honour bound but young Captain with a long line of Starfleet captains breathing metaphorically down her neck; a stubborn religious Bajoran medic; a sociable and hot headed engineer; an ambitious yet anxious commander with a hobby in AI development; and finally a xenobiologist who seemed to be some sort of experimental AI recreation of the Commander’s great great uncle, a relationship of much embarrassment to them both.
Workshops: Relationships & Scene Discussion
This was where we split the party. The Crewmembers were encouraged to describe past experiences together, and then had to line up in order of: Seniority; How they perceive their own competence; How others view the strength of their ideals; and popularity. My co-GM ran this bit, so I wasn’t there myself, but I’m told this sparked a lot of discussion and back story, and led to the Crew suggesting their own line-ups, including Age, Guilt-riddenness, popularity with Starfleet, and combat experience.
Meanwhile, the Questioners job was to come up with the scenario for the Crew to follow. This took longer than anticipated, and in retrospect could do with more guidance around what a scenario should look like. I had made a list of scenario ‘types’ (e.g. “needs of the many”, “divided society”, “stagnant paradise”, etc.), and a list of NPC types; but I don’t think this was as helpful as I had hoped! I did step in when the discussion seemed to be getting too ‘scripted’, since I wanted players to be able to take the lead on their responses.
As well as deciding on what was basically going on down on the planet, the Questioners had to work out NPCs, what the first introduction scene would be, and finally, what the Crew were being accused of, which they would lead with when the Testimonies began. In addition I asked them to give out one Event card to each Crewmember; this was something that should happen to them at some point during the holodeck scenes. Again, I had made a suggested list, and the players wrote a few variations of their own. I think the Event cards worked out pretty well, and did lead to a couple of the Crew doing some things that pushed the plot forward; the Questioners twigged pretty quickly that this was a good way to tie the players into certain plot triggers in their scenario.
Main Game: Testimonies
Armed with characters and a plot, the players began the game proper! The prologue began a bit hesitant, as the Questioners introduced the charges and the first scene; I may need to provide a bit more guidance as to how the court martial should begin. Then the first holographic scene got started, and it began to roll along nicely.
The Questioners had decided to charge the Crew with starting a civil war on a pre-warp planet. They unveiled a mission of first contact with a post-warp civilisation, and the Crew beamed down onto a bustling market place. It didn’t take long for the Crew to conclude that despite their scans, these people knew nothing of space. Things really started to go wrong when an animal reacted badly to the hologram, and a number of priests began to gather around, asking the AI Crewmember if it was one of the Gods of the ‘Church of Dead Sentience’.
My intention was that Questioners could ask the Crew to explain their thoughts during a scene, and that Crew could ‘pause’ a scene to step into the witness box to relate something from their past to provide context. Neither of these mechanics were really made use of, however I don’t think this is necessarily a problem; the scenes had a strong pace and the Crew were reluctant to interrupt, instead defending and explaining themselves in between the recreations.
The Crew investigated things further, since the Captain (prompted by her Event card) decided she was bound by Starfleet rules to offer aid to a civilisation that they believed was once warp capable. The point where things really started to go wrong was when the Engineer blithely fixed some pieces of tech brought to him by some local, a ‘trap’ that the Questioners had laid especially for him. This led to the freeing of the AI that had been imprisoned in the temple, and it promptly set about trying to take control of the planet. That was when the holographic doctor fell victim to a command sent by the AI, and the spaceship opened fire….
Needless to say, it all went horribly wrong, and the Crew were obliged to take action to fix the situation, blowing their cover and interfering most definitely with the civilisation on the planet. Encouragingly, I didn’t need to formally call for any of the ‘action’ or ‘consequences’ phases, as these arose naturally out of the way the game was going.
Ultimately, the Captain was found guilty (largely as a scapegoat), the medic was found Not Guilty, and the rest of the Crew were found Jusitified (a very lenient Jury).
As to the game itself, I think much more guidance is needed for the scenario building, with more structure and possibly leading by the GM if the players get stuck. It was also suggested that the Questioners would benefit from having more coherent personalities; for example, while they are finishing them scenario construction, the Crew could assign them a few background hooks and biases that could work for or against certain Crewmembers. This might add an interesting slant to how they chose to programme the reconstructed testimonies!
I also need to make a few things clearer in the introduction; I think next time I’ll practice and note down a speech rather than panic and stumble through it. It wasn’t clear that the Crew could also speak or ask each other questions in the ‘court’ space while inside a scene. I should also include more explicitly that the Crew should be willing to ‘lose’ by aiming to work in the stupid thing they did that led to the accusation, and clarify about working towards fulfilling the Event cards (silly me, did I not even read my last post).
I seem to have created a game with two different experiences: one group of players feel like they’re writing and GMing a game, and the other group feels like they are playing a more standard LARP, where they develop their own characters and react to events. The Crew are probably more suitable for less experienced players. As it happened this group of players developed an episode that felt more like a light-hearted original ‘Trek story; however the framework and some of the tools they didn’t make much use of should also enable a more serious story if the players wanted to go that way.
Total playing time was 2 and a half hours, for nine players; it should run with 9 – 14 players. I’m planning on adding some more meat to the Questioners and Scenario guidance before running it at Consequences in November. I am also adapting it for Nine Worlds in August: the challenge of Nine Worlds is that I will only half one and a half hours, I can’t send out information beforehand, and the players may well be newcomers. For Nine Worlds I want to tighten up some of the workshops and allow the GMs to take the parts of the Defence / Prosecution to guide the Testimonies. I’m also planning on speeding things up considerably by presenting the Questioners with a list of pre-set scenarios, giving a quick explanation for: Set Up; Opening Scene; Notable NPCs; When To Use This Scenario…; Suggested Event Cards; and Possible Variations. The players can then choose one, and then modify it to suit the Crew.
Finally, most writers of any kind crave feedback. If anyone is curious and wold like to try out Prime Directive themselves, please drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy.