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.


2 thoughts on “A Survey of RPG Systems for a Star Trek-Themed Game”

  1. Great write up, with a lot of really good info and perspectives. There’s a few systems here I wasn’t really aware of, and they’re not on my radar. Thank you for that!

    One minor quibble… if you think FATE is only for “gonzo and comedic” settings and “tonally at odds with Trek,” then you really haven’t seen FATE in the right venues. The focus on story and character over more crunchy mechanics is exactly what Trek RPing needs in order to really feel like a real Trek story, and FATE works every bit as well in a serious setting. I’ve run an extremely dark and serious Dresden Files game, and DFRPG is FATE-based, and I’ve seen it done for Trek, Babylon 5, Star Wars, and even BSG. I understand at first blush the system can get brushed off, but if you haven’t had a chance to see it in a more serious context, I hope you give it another look!

    Again, thank you for the excellent article! :)


    1. I am not an expert on any of these games, and you are definitely right that I have only seen FATE used in comedic settings. I will definitely have to give it another try in a more serious setting.


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