Tabletop Tuesday — Supporting Characters, or “The O’Brien Effect”

Hey! It’s Tuesday, so it’s time to talk nerdily about games. Over the past few months, I’ve been running two Star Trek Adventures games, a Tabletop Role Playing Game put out by Modiphius, and I have to say I’ve been freaking loving it. Both my games are currently set in 2371—which is the first season of Voyager, the third of Deep Space Nine, and when the Enterprise-D crashed on Viridian III (don’t you dare blame Deanna, she did a fantastic damn job given what was happening, thank you very much). Why two games? Well, funny enough, when I sent out the call to ask people if they’d like to play, I got eleven affirmatives.

Yeah, eleven.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m a full-time writer, I work from home, I have no children—though I do have a delightfully needy husky—and my husband and I are basically homebodies even when there isn’t an ongoing pandemic. So, it occurred to me that given how it often takes gaming groups two or three weeks for people to find a single day they can all play together, I asked everyone who’d said “yes please!” to come up with a character, and decided if I ran two distinct groups, I could easily alternate between them, and likely that would still, at most, turn into one or two sessions a month given adults-gotta-be-adulting, and how busy people were, and that’s more-or-less how it has been playing out, so I’m in my happy place.

Oh look, another Trill!

The cover of Star Trek Adventures.
Boldy going…

When people started giving me their character concepts, something incredible happened: Trill. More than half the people wanted to play Trill characters. Luckily, beyond that, only two of those players both wanted to play Science officers, and when it all washed out, I had one group of nearly entirely Trill to work with (with the exception of a half-Betazoid, half-Vulcan ship’s counsellor), and one group that was more mixed, with humans, a Trill (the second Science Officer), a Betazoid, and a Vulcan. I decided to roll with the Trill thing and that group joined the crew of the USS Curzon, a Nebula class vessel just entering service, and the first Starfleet vessel to have a majority-Trill crew. This opens up so many storylines on the basis of them being a “first” ship, and the whole Trill culture thing is just an awesome playground, frankly.

The other group turned out to have the Borg in common: almost every single character had rolled up losing a ship or a close friend as part of their character background, so I floated those characters as being survivors (or adjacent) to Wolf 359, and that was accepted, and so that second group began as part of Commander Shelby’s “rebuild the fleet” task force, though they’ve since been stationed on an Intrepid class ship, the Bellerophon. (I’m going to be using a lot of Modiphius’s Shackleton Expanse campaign for this group.)

Character creation in Star Trek Adventures is done through something called a “Lifepath” process, where you choose your species, start with where your character as born, what their upbringing was like, and slowly work your way through them becoming an adult, joining Starfleet, and then filling in their career up to the point of their first gaming session. It’s a trove of role-playing nuggets, and it really leaves you with a well-rounded character. It also takes a bit of time, and while you can roll everything, most of the players in my groups chose as they went instead (which is also great). When you’re done, you’ve assigned points to six Attributes (Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason), six Disciplines (the departments in Starfleet: Command, Conn, Security, Engineering, Science, and Medical), picked six Focuses (areas of expertise for your character, which can be anything from Anthropology or Warp Core Mechanics to Emergency Medicine or Zoology, and aren’t taken from a fixed list—the sky’s the limit here, anything you can come up with), chosen four Talents (abilities that let you fiddle with the rules as written for your character, such as “Technical Expertise,” which gains you an extra dice whenever you’re using a ship’s computers or sensors), and four Values (which are a core element of STA, and are basically four statements that guide your character’s actions, beliefs, or outlook on the universe, and can, again, be pretty much anything, like the Vulcan aphorism “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few” or something a bit less philosophical, but still character-illuminating, like “Honest to a fault.”) Throw on some equipment, and your character is ready.

But sometimes? Sometimes your character isn’t needed. For example, the scene shifts to an away team checking on why an automated sensor relay station has gone offline. One of your players is the Chief Medical Officer. It’s not like the station needs her to wave a medical tricorder around, so she’s probably not joining the Away Team. What then?

The O’Brien Effect

Miles Edward O'Brien
Let’s not talk about his rank pips…

Here’s where one of my favourite things about Star Trek Adventures comes into play: Supporting Characters. Let’s go back to that example: you’re not bringing a Medical Officer onto a malfunctioning automated station, but an extra engineer would be a great idea, no? After all, your starship is full of crew who are trained and know how to do their jobs, and we saw them all the time in the various Star Trek shows, and sometimes they even got names!

You can introduce up to a certain number of Supporting Characters each adventure, drawing on “the rest of the crew,” and any player without their character present in a given scene becomes that Supporting Character for the duration. Now, I mentioned how lengthy and involved the character creation process is for a player’s character, but this is the great thing about the Supporting Character option: you instead do a quick-and-simple bare-bones creation on the fly. You begin with assigning a fixed spread of numbers for Attributes—then adjust three of them for whatever the species of the character might be— then you do the same thing for Disciplines with another six fixed numbers, and then you pick just three Focuses. Name the character, and they’re now functional enough for the scene and play continues.

So, in this example, we’re adding Crewman Bell to the Away Team for the player who usually plays the Chief Medical Officer to control for the duration of the scene on the broken relay station. Since we’re looking to diagnose and repair the issues on the station, the player gives Crewman Bell solid Reason, Control, and Insight scores, letting the other Attributes fall more-or-less wherever they land (she puts the lowest score in Presence, and decides that Crewman Bell doesn’t tend to speak up much, and tends to be comfortable around people she already knows, so she’ll tend to speak to the Chief Engineer, not the First Officer). Her Disciplines are easy enough: highest goes to Engineering, then Science, and the lowest two are Medicine and Command, leaving Crewman Bell more-or-less a well rounded officer in the operations division. Finally, for the three Focuses, given the Away Mission, the player gives Crewman Bell these three: Diagnostics (which will help her track down what the heck happened over here), Computers (because the station’s computers are offline), and—feeling whimsical, and because not everything has to be about Bell’s job—Violin, because it turns out Crewman Bell has been playing the Violin since she was a kid, and she’s very musically talented.

Boom. Those quick choices and numbers are set, and Crewman Bell is beaming over to the Relay Station and is a useful, helpful character. Her numbers aren’t as good as a regular player character’s, but when it comes to engineering, she’ll be more-or-less as good as a player character, especially if her Focuses come into play. Crewman Bell doesn’t have any Talents or Values, so she’s not as complex a character to play, but the important thing is the player who is the Chief Medical Officer doesn’t have to just sit there twiddling her thumbs while the action moves to other characters.

And even better? Crewman Bell is now on the list of supporting crew for future adventures.

Oh, hey, it’s you again!

The Subspace Relay Station was repaired, and the players left it long behind, and they’re now on a new mission in a new episode, weeks later. This time, there’s been a terrible accident on a colony, and there are lots of wounded to deal with. The Chief Medical Officer has beamed down to the Colony hospital, but the hospital’s computer systems—which regulate everything from the biobeds to the medical replicators—are offline. While the Chief Medical Officer is working triage alongside the colony medical staff, the engineering team beams down to try and fix the hospital computers. This time, the player who normally plays the first officer has no real reason to beam down. He’s not an engineer. He’s not a doctor. This isn’t a particularly dangerous situation, either, and the Chief Medical Officer has the rank and ability to handle organizing people, so he decides he’ll join the Away Team as a support crew… and remembers Crewman Bell. She was good at computers and diagnostics, she’d be a great help to the Chief Engineer.

Now, since Crewman Bell already exists from last time, this time, the players don’t need to create her from scratch. Instead, they get to add one new thing to the character every time she shows up again as a Supporting Crew. This can be another Focus (eventually giving Crewman Bell six, like a normal player character), her first Talent (eventually four of those can be assigned, just like a player character), her first Value (again, eventually Bell can have four of those, too), or even nudge one of her Attributes or Disciplines up by 1 (which can only be done once each, raising a single Attribute once, or a single Discipline once). Given Crewman Bell is someone who the player wants to be useful at figuring out what’s gone wrong with the computers, the player chooses to give Crewman Bell her first Talent: “Studious.” This Talent allows her to get more information out of the me whenever she asks questions. Bell beams down, gets to work on the computers, and soon discovers that the accident was no such thing—someone set things up to fail!

The next time someone takes the reins for Crewman Bell, she’ll already have the Studious Talent, and they’ll pick something else to grow the character. And you end up with what I can’t help but think of as “the O’Brien effect.” Miles O’Brien went from “nameless guy at the helm” to “Chief Miles O’Brien, Transporter Chief, veteran, father, and enjoyer of model ships in bottles,” to “Chief Miles O’Brien, head of Operations, Deep Space Nine” over the course of his appearances.

Heck, Crewman Bell might even get a first name at some point. Just imagine!

No! Don’t hurt Ensign Tran!

The other thing I love about this is how it plays against the “Redshirt” feeling. When players bring in a Supporting Crew, they start to invest in that Supporting Crew. Every revisit of that character means they’ve become a little bit more useful mechanically, yes—gaining Focuses, Talents, and Values especially—but that also makes them valuable in a different way. Starting over with a new Support Crew will take multiple adventures, so there’s a built in desire not to want any of these Supporting Crew to take a TOS redshirt exit out any time soon.

On the USS Curzon, no one ended up wanting to be the pilot, so Ensign Joal Tran was created: he’s an unjoined Trill fresh out of the academy, and so far he’s been played as a young man with endless enthusiasm for most things, and since he’s in a major position on the Bridge, he’s already been “brought back” a few times, to the point where I can already see he’s a player favourite. I can role-play him as a background character when no dice need rolling, and the players can nab him for Away Missions of scenes on the Bridge. Most often so far, Ensign Tran has been in the hands of the player of the Ship’s Counselor, whenever there’s no reason for him to be on the Bridge, and Ensign Tran already feels synonymous with “antics.” The rather grumpy Chief Engineer created an Assistant Engineer who is great at talking to people. When the crew found themselves trapped in a temporal event they couldn’t explain, they brought out a Science officer with a mind for temporal mechanics. There are seven hundred and fifty people on board the Curzon, and thanks to the Supporting Character mechanic, it feels like it.

It’s great. It adds so much to the game, and this “here’s someone to play when you’re not around” mechanic is not something I’ve seen in other games before, but really love.

How about you? Have you played any Star Trek Adventures? Have you played any other games that have a mechanic for giving players something to do while their character isn’t involved? Let me know.

3 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday — Supporting Characters, or “The O’Brien Effect”

  1. This sounds really fun. I’ve not played Star Trek Adventures but I did try the Modiphius Conan at Gen Con this year and I believe that they use a similar engine.

    The way they handle the supporting characters sounds really clever. Do they delve into ship to ship combat at all?

    This is really interesting, as I have a handful of friends who I haven’t been able to lure into TTRPGs yet but are big Trek fans.


    • I really like how the game handles combat—the sides take turns until everyone has gone, and in ship to ship combat that means, for example, your conn officer might use evasive action (making the ship harder to hit until their next turn), the enemies might take a shot, then your tactical officer might shoot back, etc… but there are ways to give someone an extra turn, or to hold onto the action so your side goes twice in a row, etc.

      It’s definitely got the Trek flavour of “retreat if you’re in trouble” too—you’re not in a battle to win or die trying. Humanoid combat is deadlier, given phasers, but there are ways to avoid injuries and the like. We havent done a lot of combat, as only one of my groups chose to have tactical and medical officers, so that’s the only group where I craft combat scenarios, but what I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Deck of Worlds, or “What to do when your idea well dries up before a session.” | 'Nathan Burgoine

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