d20 Big Five character traits

There’s a lot of pop personality typology, from astrology to Meyers-Briggs Type Indicators to the Enneagram of Personality. The most scientifically elaborated typlogy of personality is the Big Five personality traits, based on five continua: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Let’s use these to generate NPC personalities for TTRPGs!

Here’s a table with the extremes of each traits, framed in positive and negative terms. Roll a d20 and record the character’s trait. You can only have one trait from each row, however—for this purpose one couldn’t be both “unreliable” and “disciplined”. So if you roll again for another character trait, ignore results from a previously-selected row.

Table: d20 Big Five personality traits

Openness1. cautious2. close-minded3.reckless4. adventurous
Conscientiousness5. spontaneous6. unreliable7. stubborn8. disciplined
Extraversion9. sociable10. attention-seeking11. self-absorbed12. introspective
Agreeableness13. compassionate14. naive15. argumentative16. competitive
Neuroticism17. stable18. uninspiring19. anxious20. sensitive

betleH batlh je—Bat’leths & Honor

ghetwI’ Quj ‘oH {betleH batlh je}’e’. tlhIngan HolvaD Lasers & Feelings RPGvo’ vImughpu’! (feelings ‘oSbogh mu’ Hutlh tlhIngan Hol.) chaq wa’DIch tlhIngan Hol ghetwI’ Quj ‘oH, qar’a’? wen law’ vIpaQtaH, vIpaQtaH, vIpaQtaH, ‘ach DaH tagha’ vImuchnIs. yItIv!

{betleH batlh je}, or Bat’leths & Honor, is a roleplaying game. I have translated it into Klingon from the Lasers & Feelings RPG. (The Klingon language lacks a word for “feelings”.) Perhaps it is the first Klingon-language roleplaying game? For many months I’ve been chewing this over, but now finally I need to release it. Enjoy it!

Book Recommendations 2020

So, I read 64 books in 2020, and of all the new-to-me books, I’d especially recommend two:

“Exhalation: Stories,” by Ted Chiang, is an anthology of philosophical science fiction. The most fantastic tale is a time-travel story set in medieval Baghdad, but most of the stories reflect on how technology mediates a person’s understanding of themselves, reflecting on memory, identity, family, determinism and choice. Like “Black Mirror” but not horrible?

Thousand-Year-Old Vampire,” by Tim Hutchings, is a book-length writing exercise or game that prompts you to write the necrography of a centuries-old undead monster struggling to hold on to ancient memories despite time’s ceaseless erosion. My first vampire was a Byzantine soldier from 10th-century Bithynia who fought the Bulgars with Basil II, wandered medieval Persia, tagged along with the Ottomans for the Siege of Vienna, and was finally burned at the stake in 18th-century Innsbruck. My second vampire was the daughter of a Sabine woman who lived among the Etruscans and Carthaginians for five centuries before her destruction in Sicily during the First Punic War.

1PDC 2020: The Crying Cricket Tavern

Finally got a submission in for the One-Page Dungeon Contest. I’ve been taken with hand-drawing taverns in the style of Dyson. But… One-page taverns should be a genre unto themselves! Every fantasy gamer needs fresh, distinct tavern maps, and most taverns should be small enough to fit on a single page with a 5-foot grid: tiny watering holes should surely be more common than massive alehalls hundreds of feet long. So I made one. The map was drawn at 1-inch battlemat scale, but we did a bad job with the scan (no time to fix it on deadline!) Just print off the page and throw it on the table.

The Crying Cricket Tavern is an odd little goblin bar with a couple of secrets. It’s also a one-page tavern adventure and printable battlemat.

Naruto-style Shinobi for B/X

“Naruto” is an anime about ninjas who are actually powerful magic users; they spend more time casting epic, flashy spells than skulking around. My son is having a good time playing a fighter and halfing in our Labyrinth Lord/Old-School Essentials campaign, and has been begging to play a shinobi. So I wrote up this class for our game. My campaign setting doesn’t do fantasy counterpart cultures, so they’ll be reskinned a bit for actual play. Mechanically it’s similar to a 2E AD&D bard, or a dual-class thief/magic-user. Interestingly the spells are are surprisingly compatible already: there are six levels of jutsu that compare surprisingly well in power to existing spells like fire ball and mirror image. Lots of them are based on East Asian legends like fenshen or bunshin (translated here as teleprojection) as well on stuff that looks cool on screen. Of course the spells below are written just to play well in the game and give the general feel of ninja powers.

Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: INT
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: 14
Armour: None
Weapons: Any
Languages: Alignment, Common

Shinobi are adventurers who combine the stealth of a thief with the arcane spell-casting of a magic-user. Shinobi are able to cast a greater number of increasingly powerful spells as they advance in level.

Arcane Magic
See Rules of Magic for full details on arcane magic.

Spell casting: Shinobi carry spell books containing the mantras and hand seals for arcane spells. The level progression table (below) shows both the number of spells in the shinobi’s spell book and the number they may memorize, determined by the character’s experience level. A 2nd-level shinobi gains one spell in their spell book, selected by the referee (who may allow the player to choose). The list of spells available to shinobi is provided in Shinobi Spells.

Shinobi are unable to use shields or wear any kind of armour.They can use any weapon.

Scroll Use
A shinobi of 10th level or higher can cast arcane spells from scrolls. There is a 10% chance of error: the spell does not function as expected and creates an unusual or deleterious effect.

Shinobi Skills: Shinobi can use the following skills with the chance of success below. These skills are otherwise identical to the skills of a thief, and follow the same rules of Rolling Skill Checks and Player Knowledge.

After Reaching 11th Level
A shinobi can attract 2d6 apprentices of 1st level. These shinobi will serve the character with some reliability; however, should any be arrested or killed, the PC will not be able to attract apprentices to replace them. A successful shinobi might use these followers to start a shinobi clan.

Climb SurfacesTrap RemovalHear NoiseHide in ShadowsMove SilentlyOpen Lock
Table: Shinobi Skills Chance of Success
101d419 [0]1314131615
22,5002d419 [0]13141316151
35,0003d419 [0]13141316152
410,0004d419 [0]131413161521
520,0005d419 [0]131413161522
640,0006d417 [+2]1112111412221
780,0007d417 [+2]1112111412222
8150,0008d417 [+2]11121114123221
9300,0009d417 [+2]11121114123322
10450,0009d4+1*17 [+2]111211141233221
11600,0009d4+2*14 [+5]89811833322
12750,0009d4+3*14 [+5]898118433321
13900,0009d4+4*14 [+5]898118443332
141,050,0009d4+5*14 [+5]898118444332
Table: Shinobi Level Progression

Shinobi Spells
Level 1

  1. Bodyswitching
  2. Disguise
  3. Illusory Teleprojection
  4. Jump
  5. Shadow Cloak
  6. Unbinding

Level 2

  1. Blinkspeed
  2. Butterfly Kick
  3. Cause Fear
  4. Fog Cloud
  5. Grasshopper Kick
  6. Hold Person
  7. Mirror Image
  8. Paper Weapons

Level 3

  1. Animal Summoning
  2. Animate Puppet
  3. Aqueous Teleprojection
  4. Burrow
  5. Finger Inscriptions
  6. Fire Ball
  7. Flame Orbs
  8. Hallucinatory Chamber
  9. Whirlwind Kick

Animal Summoning
3rd Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: 1 round per level
The caster conjures an animal to an exact location within range to fight nearby foes or perform other tasks. The caster must have created a contract with a specific individual of this type of animal, and must smear some of their blood on the hand that signed the contract when casting the spell. The conjured animal can have up to 1 Hit Die per two level of the caster.

Animate Puppet
傀儡の術­ (kugutsu no jutsu)
3rd Level Magic-User and Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration
Range: 30′
The caster animates and mentally controls an inanimate object, which can attack or perform other tasks at the caster’s direction. The object cannot bend or flex except as a normal object of its type, so most are constructed with articulated joints and limbs, but something as simple as a cart can be animated. The animated object has one Hit Die per two levels of the caster, an armor class of 4 or 8 depending on material, and generally deals 1d6 points of damage on a successful attack.

Aqueous Teleprojection
水分身 (mizu bunshin)
3rd Level Magic-User and Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration
Range: 30′
The caster conjures water and mist and sacrifices 1 hit point to project a portion of their life force to create an semi-real double. The double appears to have all of the caster’s equipment and abilities, but can only faintly impact the physical world, such as by casting spells, attacking, or leaving footprints. Any impact of the double upon the physical world, such as damage-dealing attacks or spells, is only a quarter the strength of such an effect made by the caster. The double has hit points equal to one-quarter of the caster’s total. The double must remain within 30′ of the caster, but otherwise can act as the caster mentally directs. This spell cannot be cast in an area that entirely lacks water or mist.

瞬身の術 (shunshin no jutsu)
2nd Level Magic User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Instant
Range: The caster
Upon casting this spell, the caster can make one full round of movement in the blink of an eye. The caster can move up to their maximum movement speed instantaneously, but must use their normal modes of movement (walking, running, swimming, climbing, flying). Because this movement is too fast to react effectively, the caster cannot attack or be attacked while moving this way.

変わり身 (kawarimi)
1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Range: 30′
Duration: Instantaneous
The caster magically switches places with an inanimate object of roughly the same size or mass within range, such as a mannequin or log. The spell can be cast with an instant gesture, quickly enough to save the caster or another creature if they are attacked. The caster must announce this spell before the attacker makes their attack roll. The attack is automatically successful, but only strikes the inanimate object.

3rd Level Magic User and Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute per caster level
Range: The caster
The caster can dig through earth like a mole, pushing through soil as easily as fine sand, and can hold their breath while burrowing. The caster can travel at a speed of 10′ (30′) while burrowing, but can’t pass through rock or artificial construction.

Butterfly Kick
2nd Level Shinobi Spell
Duration: 1 round
Range: The caster
Performs a spinning kick against an adjacent opponent. If the attack roll hits, the kick deals 3d6 points of damage and the target must make a saving throw versus paralyze. If the saving throw fails, the target falls prone to the ground.

Cause Fear
2nd Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: 2 turns
Range: The caster or a creature touched
Identical to the 1st-level cleric spell of the same name. Will cause a target within 120’ to flee for the duration unless it saves versus spells.

変装 (hensō)
1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Range: Self
Duration: 1 hour
The caster creates a supernatural disguise for themself, using face paint and a cloak (or other suitable costume). The caster can add a minor detail, look like a specific and known individual of the same species, or even look like a member of a different humanoid species of the same general size. This disguise will pass a glance or cursory inspection, but a creature inspecting the disguise closely may succeed on a save vs. spells to recognize the it as an illusion. If the disguise is of a differnt humanoid species or a specific individual known to the creature, they get a +4 bonus on the saving throw. The caster does not gain the abilities or mannerisms of the chosen appearance, nor does it disguise the feel or sound of their equipment.

Finger Inscriptions
指刻封印­ (shikoku fūin)
3rd-Level Magic-User and Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration
Range: 5′
The caster concentrates energy into their finger to permanently inscribe images or written messages onto a surface.

Flame Orbs
炎弾­ (endan)
3rd Level Magic User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Instant
Range: 240′
Orbs of flame streak out from the caster’s fingers.
Orbs: There is 1 orb per level of the caster. They can shoot to different targets or the same target, as the caster selects.
Saving Throw: Save versus spells to dodge each orb.
Damage: The orbs deal 1d6 points of fire damage each.

Fog Cloud
2nd Level Magic User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: 6 turns
Range: 30’
A dense fog streams from the caster’s fingertips, obscuring vision.
Area: The fog fills a 30’ diameter area.
Movement: The fog moves at 60’ per turn (20’ per round), driven by the wind (or away from the caster, in still conditions).
Sinking: Because the fog is heavier than air, it sinks to the lowest level of the land, even pouring down den or sink-hole openings.
Concealment: Creatures within the fog cannot see more than 5′, and creatures outside the fog cannot see through it.
Wind: Strong winds of natural or magical origin can dissipate the fog before its duration has expired.

Grasshopper Kick
2nd Level Shinobi Spell
Duration: 1 round
Range: 10′ or 30′
The caster leaps into the air, strikes at a target within 30 feet with a kick, and lands next to the target. If the attack hits, the target takes 3d6 points of damage. As part of this kick, the caster may leap straight up 10′, straight down 30′, backwards 10′, or forwards 30′.

Hallucinatory Chamber
3rd Level Magic User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Until touched
Range: 30′
Hallucinatory chamber either conjures illusory features (e.g. furniture, furnishings, materials) or hides an existing terrain feature within a single natural or constructed chamber.
Area: The illusion must fit completely within the spell’s range.
Touching: If the illusion is touched by an intelligent being, the spell is negated.

Illusory Teleprojection
幻分身 (genbunshin)
1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration
Range: 30′
The caster sacrifices 1 hit point of damage to project a portion of their life force to create an illusory double. The figment appears to have all of the caster’s equipment and abilities, but cannot impact the physical world, such as by casting spells, attacking, kicking up dust, or leaving footprints. The figment must remain within 30′ of the caster, but otherwise can act as the caster mentally directs. Any effect that would cause the illusory double to take damage causes the spell to end. A creature that interacts directly with the illusory double may succeed on a save vs. spells to recognize it as an illusion.

1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: 1 turn
Range: The caster
The caster may leap straight up 10′, straight down 30′, backwards 10′, or forwards 30′. The caster may make one such leap at any point while the spell is active, and an additional time per 3 levels of the caster (two at level 4, three at level 7, &c.).

Paper Weapons
紙手裏剣­ (kami shuriken)
2nd Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: 6 turns
Range: 10′
The caster folds ordinary paper into deadly weapons, either daggers or shuriken. These paper weapons can be used in the same way and to the same effect as an ordinary metal dagger or shuriken. Using this spell, the caster can create a 1d6 weapons, +1 per caster level, from a single piece of paper.

Shadow Cloak
隠れ蓑 (kaguremino)
1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Concentration
Range: 0
The caster enchants a cloak or straw raincoat to provide supernatural camouflage. While concealed beneath this cloak, the caster is invisible, vanishing from sight, as long as they remain still. Items dropped or put down by an invisible creature become visible; items picked up disappear if tucked into the clothing worn by the creature. Of course, the subject is not magically silenced, and certain other conditions can render the recipient detectable. This effect ends if the caster moves position, attacks, casts a spell, or holds a light source.

縄抜け (nawanuke)
1st Level Magic-User & Shinobi Spell
Duration: Instantaneous
Range: 0
The unbinding spell causes one mass of rope restraining the caster to become unknotted and untangled, allowing the caster to easily free themself. The ropes do not re-knot or become tangled again on their own until after the caster is free of them. This spell affects natural ropes, cloth, vines, and spider webs, but not chains, manacles, tentacles, or magical bindings.

Whirlwind Kick
大旋風­ (daisenpū)
3rd Level Shinobi Spell
Duration: 1 round
Range: The caster
The caster spins and delivers a series of four whirling kicks to an adjacent foe or foes. The caster must succeed at an attack roll for each kick, which deal 2d6 points of damage. Creatures damaged by a kick must succeed at a saving throw versus paralyze or fall to the ground prone.

Top 10 RPG adventures/systems I want to play right now

Come convention season, it’s time to look for games that I would more rarely get an opportunity to play. So I’ve organized all the games I want to play but never actually have into two top-10 lists. Might be fun to revisit this in a few years.

Top 10 adventures I want to play right now

  1. Dungeon #70: Kingdom of the Ghouls—(tenfootpole.org) This is something I have wanted to play since I read it in Dungeon in the ’90s. It is the best example I’ve read of “Underdark as the mythic underworld,” full of weird and creepy encounters that are fresh in my mind after reading them 20+ years ago.
  2. S1: Tomb of Horrors—The original deathtrap funhouse tournament module.
  3. Lair of the Lamb is, like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, an introductory adventure, but organized around teaching the idea that the solution is something you create, not something that’s on your character sheet, rather than the basics of dungeon crawling. Creepy, weird body horror, playable in any system but I guess it’s written for the GLOG.
  4. The Caverns of Thracia (OD&D)—The original version of this is pretty crazy, I think it predates the era when adventures are designed for character level ranges. Read but never played.
  5. DCC #68: People of the Pit—Awesome level-1 adventure for DCC RPG. I’ve run the first few encounters but not much more than that.
  6. Rrypo: Get a Head is ZARDOZ-based adventure compatible with The Ultraviolet Grasslands (a psychedelic heavy metal mashup of Dying Earth and Oregon Trail).
  7. Operation Unfathomable A weird and trippy OSR-style Underdark adventure.
  8. Fever Dreaming Marlinko—Exploring a weird Slavic acid fantasy city. Gonzo. Read but never played.
  9. Broodmother Skyfortress: Weirdo giants descend from a floating city to wreck your precious campaign setting. Not read yet.
  10. The Stygian Library: Exploring a procedurely-generated dark weird-fantasy infernal planer library. I love Emmy Allen’s game commentary, but haven’t actually played any of her games. This seems a little more immediately gameable to me than The Gardens of Ynn. Not read yet.

Runners-up: S2: White Plume Mountain, Dungeon #37: Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb, Statues, B4: The Lost City, Yoon-Suin, Through Ultan’s Door, Dragon #83: The Dancing Hut [of Baba Yaga], S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Kidnap the Archpriest, The Gardens of Ynn, Fever Swamp, DCC #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea, Chthonic Codex, DCC Lankhmar: The Greatest Thieves in Lankhmar, DCC #13 Crypt of the Devil Lich, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Stonehell Dungeon, DCC #81: The One Who Watches From Below, DCC #77: The Croaking Fane, DCC #88: The 998th Conclave of Wizards, Do Not Let Us Die in the Dark Night of this Cold Winter, Barrowmaze, Carcosa

Top 10 RPG systems I want to play right now

  1. Old School Essentials (SRD) is the perfect game system for an OSR player that wants to hew to the very familiar play style of old-school D&D with plenty of room for table creativity. It is the rules of Basic D&D, but simplified and reorganized for maximum DM utility and teaching to new players. I am transitioning away from Labyrinth Lord (mostly I need for the COVID-19 pandemic to ease in order to buy physical books) and was also interested in Bloody Basic and others, but after running B/X retroclones for a couple of years, OSE is far superior. It’s not an ersatz of the B/X D&D rules, it actually is the rules, organized and presented in a useful and comprehensible way.
  2. The Petal Hack Big fan of Tékumel worldbuilding, a wild and deeply imagined mix of Mesoamerican and South Asian mythology with science fantasy and sword & sorcery, but the rules sets are a little old-fashioned. The Petal Hack is extremely lightweight, and looks like the perfect way to explore this amazing setting.
  3. Scum & Villany is a Blades-in-the-Dark-based game about pulling off space heists, inspired by Firefly and the Millenium Falcon. The cool thing about this is that the party works together to develop the ship as a character, with its own character sheet.
  4. Troika! Numinous Edition is a wild science fantasy RPG that riffs off the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks more than D&D. Everything looks beautiful and kind of crazy, but it looks like a somewhat different way of engaging imagination, creativity, and narrative than most OSR or storygames.
  5. Trail of Cthulhu is a Lovecraftian horror and investigation game that uses the GUMSHOE framework, which is intended to make mystery and investigation-themed RPGs run more smoothly. I’m a little skeptical that this will actually be satisfying, but I’ve never actually played it out and am interested in trying it with a Cthulhu theme.
  6. The Quiet Year/The Deep Forest is by Avery Alder (the author of Monsterhearts); this is more of a one-session game, where you play out a year in life of an isolated community. It’s more of a novelty, but looks interesting to play at least once.
  7. Maze Rats is a two-page RPG system with a couple extra pages of random tables for character development; it seems ideal for a one-shot session. There’s a really cool mechanic where spellcasters randomly generate their spell titles and must collaborate with the GM to figure out what their spells do, which makes magic both otherworldly, unpredictable, and oriented to creative problem-solving. Things like Five Torches Deep and the Black Hack fill a similar role, but Maze Rats is particularly small and has that cool random spell system. You don’t have classes, what would be class abilities are handled by what equipment you pick up.
  8. Lasers & Feelings is an adorable Star Trek-themed mini-RPG good for a one-shot. I’ve translated it into Klingon (still a WIP), but never actually played, I need to fix that.
  9. FATE is something I’ve only ever played in a jokey, comedic game, but I’ve been assured by random people on the Internet that it’s good for serious Star Trek-themed games, and I’d like to give it another try.
  10. The GLOG isn’t a game system, it’s a manifesto of DIY RPG design that is a hot mess just crawling with ideas.

Runners-up: Tunnels & Trolls, OD&D, Five Torches Deep, Blood & Bronze, Black Hack 2E, Ars Magica, Into the Odd, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Dolorous Stroke

Every way to do Opposed Ability Checks

Modern game design tends to have very uniform and tightly-integrated resolution mechanics. But one of the things I’ve come to love about the rulings-not-rules OSR as well as the baroque mechanics of 1970s/80s (A)D&D is the way that trying to make sense of lots of overlapping and inconsistent rules really empowers the table to make the game their own. It forces GMs to really be the game designer, not just a referee—tabletop RPGs are best when GMs/players aren’t just passively consuming published material, but are making up their own stuff. To that end, these days I’m trying to collect as many resolution mechanic options as possible.

Ability checks—checking whether an action succeeds by rolling under a relevant ability score on a d20—is a resolution mechanic of long pedigree, and I use it all the time in my Labyrinth Lord game. Sometimes you need to do an opposed roll, though, and I’ve never seen anyone try to spell out all the ways to do that. Here’s a stab at it!

Opposed Ability Checks
In some cases, an ability check doesn’t represent a simple success or failure, but a contest between two or more people. This could represent an arm-wrestling competition, a singing or shoving contest, or a skillful card game. Opposed ability checks can be handled in several ways; the GM should determine which method is most appropriate to the situation.
Simple Comparison: The contestants compare the relevant ability scores and the highest one succeeds. No die roll is made. Any modifiers are applied to the ability score (for the purpose of this contest) before comparison. This is useful for contests which require a swift resolution or which innate ability is more important than chance.
Modified Ability Check: One contestant rolls a d20, and they receive a bonus or penalty on their ability check equal to 10 minus the opponent’s relevant ability score. In this case, rolling lower is better. For example, a wizard (Strength 8) is arm-wrestling a fighter (Strength 13) and gets a +2 bonus on arm-wrestling checks due to a spell he has devised. The number he must roll under to succeed is 8 + (10 – 13) + 2 = 7. This is most useful when a player character is vying against a single non-player character.
Highest Roll Wins: Each contestant rolls a d20 and adds their relevant ability score modifier and any other bonus. The contestant with the highest result wins. This is useful for contests of chance where a character’s innate abilities are a minor factor.
Highest Success Wins: Each contestant makes an ability check, and any who fail are eliminated. The remaining contestants apply any other circumstance bonuses or penalties to their roll, and compare results. The contestant with the highest modified roll wins. This is useful for contests that are a balance between chance and innate ability.
Highest Margin of Success Wins: Each contestant rolls d20, subtracts the result from their relevant ability score, and adds any other bonuses or penalties to the sum. The character with the highest modified score wins. For example, a thief with a Dexterity of 14 and a circumstance bonus of +2 rolls an 8. The thief’s margin of success is 14 – 8 + 2 = 9. In this case, rolling lower is better.

A Survey of RPG Systems for a Star Trek-Themed Game

Trying to wrap my head around how many Star Trek RPGs exist. There are fan supplements for Savage Worlds, science fiction RPGs like the Cypher System (which was boring the only time I played it), and then there’s the Traveller RPG, which (with multiple editions, publishers, and retroclones) I really don’t know where to start with. Here’s a list of officially licensed Star Trek RPGs and some comments on miscellaneous science fiction RPGs that may work for the theme:

Licensed Star Trek RPGs

  • Heritage Models’ Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier (1978)
  • Terra Games Company’s Starfleet Voyages (1982)
  • FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (1982)
  • Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau’s Prime Directive
  • Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (1998)
  • Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Roleplaying Game (1999)
  • Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: The Original Series Roleplaying Game (1999)
  • Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau’s GURPS: Prime Directive (2002)
  • Decipher, Inc.’s Star Trek Roleplaying Game (2002)
  • Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau’s Prime Directive d20 (2005)
  • Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau’s Prime Directive d20 Modern (2008)

Star Trek Roleplaying Game (Decipher)
Decipher published licensed Star Trek RPGs from 2002 to 2005, featuring material from The Original Series through Voyager. I’ve only seen the Creatures book, and the stat blocks are clearly quite differentfrom a lot of D&D-style RPGs, but it also has a lot of good writing about running an episodic and cinematic game. It has some good reference books, but it’s extremely out of print and not available in PDF. This shows the pitfalls of running a licensed-property game that it not an open game: it is almost impossible to find accessible reference materials for this game online. These days I run games from electronic system reference documents, PDFs, and community material as well as the hardback reference books, but this is simply not available for this system. Even the print reference books are limited to what’s available on the used market, and getting copies for each player would not be cheap.

Star Trek Adventures (Modiphius)
Modiphius published a licensed Star Trek RPG from 2017 to the present, using the 2d20 system that is used for Conan, John Carter, and other RPGs. My understanding is that this kind of system lets players “buy” successes; this is supposed to be “heroic” in the case of Conan and John Carter due to their superhuman abilities, or (I suppose in the case of Star Trek) due to the power of far future technology. Generally I have found games with mechanics like this to have a low level of danger and be kind of boring, although I haven’t played this system. With a PDF available on DriveThruRPG.com, it’s more openly available than the out-of-print games, but it still has a fairly high buy-in price at $40+ for full-color, full-art hardcover book, or $25 for the Starter Set. There’s also a free Quickstart Guide. Modiphius has to be commended, however, for publishing a series of high-quality, 30mm miniatures for nearly all of the major factions. There are unlicensed miniatures out there, but they can be expensive and hard to find, whereas these are relatively cheap and available on Amazon.com. Modiphius’s miniatures are very attractive, but 30mm is out of scale with the 25mm and 28mm miniatures more commonly used in gaming. Maybe that’s OK, because so many 28mm figures are not true to scale either.

Fate Core
Some people run Star Trek-themed games in this. To me it seems tonally at odds with Star Trek. It might be great for a Galaxy Quest RPG, however, or a The Orville RPG. The Atomic Robo RPG is designed to support action science RPing, and is said to have rules for brainstorming your way out of problems. Diaspora is a Fate-based RPG for hard science fiction that won an Ennie for best rules in 2010 (review at RPG.net). Mostly I see Fate used in more gonzo and comedic settings than more serious ones.

Uncharted Worlds
This is a game of space exploration using the Powered by the Apocalypse engine. I haven’t read this game in particular, but I am not a huge fan of PbtA relative to OSR games—I think there is too little real danger or mystery. Mazirian’s Garden has made some great points comparing and contrasting the PbtA and OSR in developing emergent story and open worlds, and I generally prefer the OSR approach.

White Star RPG
White Star is an OSR science fiction RPG written by James M. Spahn and based on the Swords & Wizardry retroclone. It has lot of material to support the major scifi IPs, but with the trademarked elements aggressively filed off. For example, instead of Jedi and Sith, there are Star Knights and Void Knights. White Star takes a lot of its cues from Star Wars-style space opera, as can be seen in its classes (Aristocrat, Mercenary, Pilot, Star Knight), races (Alien Brute, Alien Mystic, and Robot), and starship classes. However, it does have rules to support elements of Star Trek (such as cloaked starships and species resembling Borg and Klingons), Doctor Who (with as a species resembling daleks), or Firefly (with a species resembling the Reavers). The rules themselves will be straightforward to anyone who plays D&D or OSR RPGs: characters are defined by classes that specify attacks, hit points, and abilities, but there is no skill system per se. The lack of a skill system makes a certain amount of sense for a swashbuckling space opera game. The text discusses character classes, equipment, personal combat, starship combat, psionics, and alien creatures. There is also a section of campaign ideas, a sample sector to explore, and a sample adventure. Starship combat here is not very elaborate, with AC and hit points as in melee

Lasers & Feelings
This is a lovely one-page RPG inspired by nerd-folk band The Doubleclicks. It has extremely simple mechanics—each character has only one statistic for event resolution—but enough depth to support one or a few sessions of play, which is perfect for a one-shot scenario or a new group. After a few sessions, the group will probably want a more complex system, but it would be a lot of fun to play this occasionally.

Prime Directive d20 Modern
This is the most recent RPG published in the licensed Star Fleet Universe, which is a licensed Star Trek setting somewhat different from canonical Star Trek. Back in 1979, the company acquired perpetual rights to publish games based on Star Trek: The Original Series and The Animated Series (but not later material), and since the game world has been under continual development for forty years it has diverged from Star Trek canon in that time. Prime Directive PD20 Modern is the ruleset based on d20 Modern, and so is related to 3E D&D; it should very familiar to 3E D&D, but omits most of the tactical grid movement elements. The text details more than 24 species, several character classes (Marine, Orion Pirate, Pilot, Rogue, Security Specialist, Engineering Specialist, Science Specialist, Bridge Operations Specialist, Galactic Intelligence Agent, Medical Specialist, Ambassador, Merchant, and prestige classes), skills, feats, technology and equipment, the Star Fleet Universe setting, and a sample adventure. There is a discussion of integrating the Star Fleet Battles game for starship combat, and using an abstract system for more trivial starship engagements is briefly discussed.

Mothership RPG
Mothership is an OSR space horror game that in 2019 won a Gold Ennie for Best Game and a Silver Ennie for Best Adventure. The system is not immediately analogous to D&D games, but it is an OSR game, and character creation should be fairly streamlined. There are mechanics for accounting for the stress that characters are under in tense situations, which fits with its horror theme.

Although this game takes more of its cues from “Alien”, it might be a really interesting game to run with a Star Trek theme—perhaps in the Star Trek: Discovery era.

Scum & VillainyRPG
This is a version of the Blades in the Dark RPG about space smugglers and scoundrels. Whereas Blades in the Dark is about a gang of thieves pulling off heists, Scum & Villainy is about a starship crew pulling off capers. The inspiration here is clearly more Firefly and Star Wars than very much of Star Trek, but it does have some interesting ideas for a space opera RPG. For example, the ship is a “character” that the players collaborate to design at the beginning of the game.

Ashen Stars RPG
This is a version of the GUMSHOE investigation-based RPG set in an original science fiction universe and focused on the adventures of a band of freelance troubleshooters. The implied setting is very cyberpunk-in-space, but the investigation focus might be interesting.

Stars Without Number RPG
This is a relatively simulationist game that seems like a simplified, space-ified version of the d20 Modern RPG—the rules seem a lot busier and more granular than is my taste these days, although it was the norm a decade ago. Characters are made with classes, skills, backgrounds, and foci (like feats). Alien characters are handled with an “origin focus”, which is an interesting way to do this. The skill system is fairly extensive, but there are relatively few roleplaying skills (a plus for me, since the players and not the characters should be doing the roleplaying IMO). This game’s extensive equipment lists tie it fairly closely to its default setting, a world circa 3200 CE, “…almost six hundred years after the catastrophe that ended the Golden Age of Man…”, in which “…the sprawling, glorious domain of human space has been reduced to a scattering of squabbling powers and long-lost worlds” (121). One area where this book really shines, however, is in its rules for creating an populating a sector of space ripe for adventure. This consists of more than 40 pages of simple tables and explanatory text for generating interesting, varied worlds to explore. This is a great resource for a sandbox space exploration campaign that would suit Star Trek; the sandbox world generation rules are fairly portable, and could be used with another RPG system. There is also a good amount of solid GM advice on adventure creation and factions, which is elaborated into a mini-game. The last half of this book is an amazing GM resource, even if the player-level game itself seems fussy.

Far Trek RPG
This is an expansion of Where No Man Has Gone Before, an 8-page spin of Microlite d20, themed around Star Trek: The Original Series and The Animated Series. It is a free, noncommercial (unlicensed) fan work available only in PDF. Thus is it technically a distant descendant of 3E D&D via the OGL. Thematically it’s based around The Original Series, which has a more “action captain” and ’50s pulp SF aesthetic. This is wonderful: action-oriented ’50s pulp SF probably fits a role-playing game (and an RPG-playing community accustomed to D&D) more than later iterations of Trek.

As a Microlite d20 game, Far Trek has simple, clean mechanics generally familiar to D&D players, but this book a lot of great ideas for a Star Trek-specific theme. Whereas most d20-based games roll a d20 and get higher than a target number to succeed at a task, Far Trek has players roll 3d6; this results in a very tight range of target numbers with few modifiers to stack. In Far Trek, characters do not have hit points or deal damage with successful attacks. Instead, when hit with an attack, a character must make the equivalent of a saving throw or be knocked out. The target number for this saving throw escalates with more dangerous weaponry as well as the length of the fight—a punch will rarely knock a person out on the first round, but several rounds in it’s likely to. Characters who are knocked out will rarely actually die, given transporter technology and the advanced medical care available in the future. This is extremely simple, clean, and thematic, while maintaining a high danger level.

The GM resources in this book for generation a space-sector sandbox for adventures is second only to Stars Without Number (above); again, this material is not system-specific.. There are pages of useful tables and charts for generating star systems and episodes, and some good advice for organizing adventures into episodes and seasons. There’s also a small bestiary with most of the classics (Denebian slime devil, tribbles, mugato, sehlat, Kzin). However, the system for handling starship combat seems a little half-baked. Some of this ruleset’s ideas are a little corny, like naming the classes by their shirt color (Yellow, Blue, Red) rather than specialty (Command, Medical, Engineering, Security), and some ideas are half-developed and require elaboration by the GM, but overall this is an excellent Star Trek-themed RPG.

This RPG is almost perfect for Star Trek. Would I change anything? You could make character creation even simpler, more customizable, and more varied by removing official classes and races entirely and just creating a category of “species talents”. A player would need to name and describe their character’s species, of course, and role-play some cultural background. Not all members of a species would come out the same, mechanically, but that should be fine: planets are not uniform, and maybe a character comes from the tropical paradise of their snowy tundra world, or vice-versa. This would address any racist connotations of RPG “races”. Moreover, removing the IP-dependence of the system encourages players to contribute to the game’s worldbuilding (since the species definitions are player-generated), and a player could make an authentically “Klingon” character without needing to buy a licensed Klingon supplement. You could do the same with classes also; remove the shirt-color designation and make each class a simple Role (Command, Medical, Engineering, Tactical) with some suggested skills rather than class-based skill restrictions. Character customization would be more about picking talents than class-specific options, allowing characters differentiation to grow organically. This would be simpler, with most of the virtues of a lightweight OSR game, but with much more character customization.

Starships and Spacemen 2E
This RPG updates a 1970s-era Star Trek-themed RPG and board game to create compatibility, with Labyrinth Lord, which is my favorite retro-clone of Basic D&D. It creates a fairly simulationist race/class game with recognizable-but-renamed Star Trek species (“Taurians” instead of “Vulcans”) but presents a timeline and set of interstellar relationships substantially different from Star Trek canon. There are some rules for enerating your own species, including a delightful d100 chart of alien foreheads. S&S adds a very light roll-under skills system, with just five skills (Combat, Contact, Technical, and Science), as well as some psionics rules. There are some rules for space travel and starship combat that revolve around tracking energy units, and integration with the Star Explorer board game. There is also a system for generating hex-based sandbox galactic sectors for exploration, but these are much less interesting than in Stars Without Number. Overall this seems to be a very servicable ruleset, and it’s probably what I would run if I weren’t so taken by the combat system of Far Trek, the simplicity of Lasers & Feelings, or the sandbox generation of Stars Without Number.

Beasts of the Brackettverse: Venusian Nahali

Leigh Brackett‘s third published story concerns the disreputable space-rats, murderous villains, Terran Guard washouts, and scum scraped from across the Solar System who together make up the Stellar Legion. This force is guarding a circle of protective forts on the soggy ground that surrounds the swamplands of southern Venus, to protect the fertile uplands and plateaus from monstrous raiders, who wait only for the rainy season to begin.

Welcome to Venus:

Men…sweated in the sullen heat of the Venusian swamp-lands before the rains. …the eternal mists writhed in a thin curtain over the swamp, stretching for miles beyond the soggy earthworks…

The swamp folded them in. It is never truly dark on Venus, owing to the thick, diffusing atmosphere. There was enough light to show branching, muddy trails, great still pools choked with weeds, the spreading liha-trees with their huge pollen pods, everything dripping with the slow rain. …Fort and village were lost in sodden twilight.” (“The Stellar Legion”, Planet Stories, Winter 1940, 98)

The swamps are dangerous, not least the for the malarial fever that will inevitably fell any person traveling without helmet and coveralls. A traveler might make it through to ship out on a tramp freighter out of Lhiva, were it not for a greater danger: the Nahali.


Venusian Nahali
No. Enc.: 2d4 (6d6)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60′ (20′)
Swim: 120′ (40′)
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: 1 (touch)
Damage: 2d6 electricity or stun
Save: F2
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XIX
XP: 47

Nahali are six-foot, scaly, anthropoid swamp-dwellers with red eyes, triangular mouths, and noseless faces. Nahali can communicate across long distances with a low, monotonous piping call, which they use also to pray to their rain gods, and can learn to speak with humans despite their otherwise low intelligence. Nahali are amphibious and must consume water through their skin to respire; this may be thick mist or rain. During the rainy season, they can leave the swamp in great numbers to raid upland areas remorselessly, but will suffocate out of contact with water, fog, or rain. Nahali will also quickly suffocate in clouds of soot or smoke, A Nahali’s most dangerous trait is the electrical charge generated throughout their body with which they can choose to stun or kill creatures that they touch. If the Nahali is merely attempting to stun a creature with its touch, that creature must make a saving through versus paralyzation or lose consciousness for 1d4 hours. If the Nahali is attempting to kill, the creature touched takes 2d6 electrical damage. Creatures that attack a Nahali with bare hands or metal weapons also suffer 2d6 electrical damage. However, Nahali bioelectricity makes them vulnerable to electricity that overloads their “bio-circuits”, and they take double damage from electrical attacks.

Locals who regularly fight these creatures have developed special weapons, such as the electro-pistol. An electro-pistol is a handheld weapon that fires an electrical bolt, which deals 2d6 electrical damage on a successful hit unless the target succeeds on a saving throw versus paralyzation. Creatures who are generally dry get a +10 bonus to this saving throw, but creatures who are soaking wet (such as Nahali) do not. Electrified moats and electro-cannons are also employed against Nahali raiders.

Nahali first appeared in Leigh Brackett’s short story “The Stellar Legion” (1940). The statistics above are adapted by this author for use with the Labyrinth Lord RPG.

Labyrinth Lord Bestiary: Yale

The yale is an antelope-like creature from medieval bestiaries that can swivel its horns around to confound attackers, I wrote it up, however, as a fantasy-campaign headcanon equivalent to the Klingon Sargh—any definitive similarities await a zoological expedition to Kronos, of course.

Image source

No. Enc.: 0
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120′ (40′)
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 3+3
Attacks: 1 (horn)
Damage: 1d8
Save: F3
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: None
XP: 100
This fierce heraldic beast has the body of a horse, the jaws of a boar, the horns and hooves of an oryx, and the tail of an elephant. Although they can survive on grazing, they are omnivorous and prefer to eat fruit, fungi, tubers, and carrion when available. A yale can swivel its horns in different directions, and can change between an offensive stance or defensive stance every round. Depending on the orientation of its horns, it gains either a +1 bonus to attack rolls or a +1 bonus to AC. Some savage tribes (especially orcs or neghai) train these wild creatures as warbeasts to bear riders or draw chariots, but they are rarely used as simple beasts of burden.