There’s a difference between working with a premise and writing a pastiche. A pastiche relies on the audience having a working knowledge of the original work. Galaxy Quest is a pastiche. John Scalzi’s brilliant and hilarious novel Redshirts is pastiche. Both work best if you’re familiar with the original Star Trek, its tropes, its foibles, and its fandom. Fan fiction, and fan-made movies and continuations of The Original Series, are loving homages, and often brilliant works, but they are, in the end, pastiche.
Premise is working with the same core concepts, the same tropes, and heading in a different direction. The premise of a bunch of people on a space ship heading off the explore the unknown can be used to describe Star Trek. It also describes Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica, and a host of other things. They have many things in common, but they have many significant differences. All Star Trek is science fiction, but not all science fiction is Star Trek, if you will.
It might be easier to explain premise vs. pastiche by heading into another genre, and dealing with another set of characters. Let’s look at mysteries and Sherlock Holmes. With the arguable exception of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes is the original detective in fiction. All mystery fiction owes a debt of gratitude to Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but not all mysteries are Sherlock Holmes stories. The TV series Sherlock and Elementary, as well as every TV series, movie, and bit of fiction not written by Doyle, are pastiche; the situations are different and original, but the characters are largely the same. By contrast, TV shows like House and Monk are premise; if you know Holmes you’ll chuckle at things like, for example, the pun inherent in Dr. Gregory House’s name, his addiction problems, and his home being at #221B. If you don’t get the references, it still works as its own thing.
Starship Tyche is intended to walk a line somewhere between premise and pastiche. It isn’t simply an unlicensed Star Trek roleplaying game with the serial numbers filed off for legal reasons. I certainly acknowledge that people will see it that way, and will even play it that way. It’s admittedly how the game started out, when I wanted to run something using the Fate Accelerated rules, and my group wanted to play a Star Trek RPG. Yet the more I worked on that campaign, the more I wanted to break canon, fix bits of broken continuity, expand certain elements, expunge others, and generally do my own thing. It began as pastiche; it came out the other end more a matter of premise.
The setting of this game has its own continuity. It is not bound by the canon of a television series, or confined by the boundaries of other peoples’ works. It is inspired by basic ideas as expressed by other works, but has the freedom to bold go in different directions with those ideas. This is, after all, what happens in all roleplaying games set in an established setting. You can either take the universe you’re given and acknowledge that it does belong to someone else, and run a game that’s pastiche and fan fiction, or you can take what you like, reject what you don’t, reforge the premise, and make it your own.
By absolute coincidence, I’ve been simultaneously reading some of Robin Laws’ DramaSystem work, and Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! (don’t judge me on that last one). Both talk about logline, the one-line description of a game or a film that allows the reader to immediate get what the things is about. I used to refer to the need to have “elevator speeches” for games, the short description that you can give to someone during a brief elevator ride between floors. Loglines are similar, but a lot shorter, and potentially a lot more powerful.
You might be asking why a game needs a logline. You already know what a roleplaying game is, and you already know what the setting is. The new edition of D&D is coming out, you don’t need to read a logline on that to understand what it is. If someone say they’re running a D&D campaign, how much else do you need to know? Well, I can think of three reasons.
The setting is not the campaign.
There are a lot of things that you can do inside a broad campaign world. Golarian, Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, and other popular settings are huge places. A campaign might take place above ground or below, deal primarily with certain types of monsters (undead, dragons, humanoids, etc.), center around specific political intrigues or villains. A logline will narrow that down. This can help both the gamemaster plan adventures and encounters, and help players create appropriate and effective characters.
Game designers need creative and marketing focus.
Much in the way gamemasters and players need to know what the game is about, so do game designers and the people they’d like to buy their games. As a designer, having a strong logline before you start will help you to know what you’re writing and not suffer from concept drift. You’ll also know how to tell other people about your game and, by extension, know who your potential audience is.
Players deserve clarity.
No matter whether you’re a designer writing a new game, setting, or adventure, or you’re a gamemaster trying to attract players, it’s not fair to put the responsibility for understanding what your game is about onto the players or potential customers. That’s not their job. If you want to be successful in what you’re doing with a game, you need to meet them more than half way. If they have to work too hard for it, they’ll move on to something that actually makes the effort to grab them.
Creating a Great Logline
A logline that should be a single sentence that describes what the campaign is all about. It should convey a mental picture of what’s going to happen, what sort of player characters are possible, and offer up a compelling hook or twist that makes it different from other games and campaigns. Some examples:
- The City of Edpin has been besieged by orcs, and only the thieves’ guild can save the day.
- The crew of the Starship Tyche explores the galaxy, making new discoveries and solving ages-old mysteries.
- Earth is under attack by giant monsters, and only the Kaiju Patrol can stop them — using science!
- A clan of evil vampires rules the city, but a cult of even more evil vampires threaten to destroy all they’ve built.
Try it out. Practice writing loglines for that campaign you’re planning to run, or that game you’re planning to write. Show them to people. Post them online and ask for feedback. Tweak them, refine them, and make them better. Once you’ve got a strong foundation, everything you create afterward will be a lot better.
This is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head ever since I first played the James Bond 007 roleplaying game back in the 1980s. It wasn’t the direct task resolution system, but the way it handled character attributes like appearance. I thought that it could be the whole system, somehow, from how good the character is at any given thing, how difficult a specific task is, to the quality result of the action the character performed. What I like most about it, though, is that the core idea scales to practically anything.
Using these Design Dials, as I’m calling them for now, you begin with the concept of average, baseline normal, the standard, whatever you define that to be. It doesn’t have to be a single number; it can be a range. If you’re using a scale from 1 to 10, 5-6 might be average, or 4-7, the midpoint, however wide you’d like it to be. On a scale o 1 to 20, 10-11 would be the midpoint, and you can expand that out to 8-13, 6-15, however broad you want your average range to be. This always gets defined first, because everything else is based off of it.
Next, you define the extremes. These are finite. You can’t give more than 100% or less than nothing. This is the single top number and the single bottom number. On a scale of 10 to 10, this is 1 and 10. On a scale of 1 to 20, this is 1 and 20.
Above and below average, then, at the numbers in between. If on a scale of 1 to 10 you set average as 4-7, then above average is 8-9 (10 is best) and 2-3 is below average (1 is worst).
This is actually a bell curve. The upper part of the curve is the average range. One standard deviation is above or below the curve. The best and worst are where the long tails kick in and basically flatline.
I have no idea how I’m going to use this yet. My far-too-complicated initial idea is to use d10s. Roll a number of dice equal to your ability rating – a minimum of 1 if you’re the worst, a maximum of 10 if you’re the best. You need to roll at or above the target number, say 5 for average. The total number of 5+ rolls added up is the quality result, so 5-6 successes is average, 1 is worst, 10 is best, etc. And yes, I see the similarities to the World of Darkness mechanics.
What I’d really like to do is work out a way to do this that’s more akin to the Fate ladder. I want the simplest rolls and results possible numerically; players and gamemasters can interpret what an average, above average, below average, and so on, success is.
Attached to this post is the first draft of the Starship Tyche sample characters. There are some changes that I already want to make for the final game — refining some aspects, tightening up stunts — but this is pretty close to what the final version in the book will look like. This is the crew of the ship prior to the start of the game, when new player characters will come aboard for a new tour. The sample characters can be used as player characters, supporting characters, or examples of what sorts of characters are possible and appropriate for the setting.
I’m open to all sorts of feedback, but I’m really looking for opinions on the diversity of the crew. Am I took heavy-handed, or not heavy-handed enough? Too subtle, too obvious? Am I getting the characterization for various groups of which I am not a member right, or right enough, or an I way off base? Feel free to leave comments here, or send me a private comment via email.
It’s become a tradition in the Fleet that, since ships are traditionally referred to using female pronouns, they should all bear the names of notable women. Most of these are scientists, but many are philosophers, civil rights leaders, and politicians who furthered the causes of peace and justice. The dedication plaque on each starship offers a brief biography of the woman it is named for; the reception area reserved for officer meetings and entertaining visiting dignitaries will have photographs, statues, and works of art depicting the ship’s namesake, as well as library tapes offering additional biographical information.
In conversation, ships are referred to by their namesake’s last name. The Starship Bertha Swirles Jeffreys is just called the Jeffreys, for example. This holds even when the final name in written order is a personal name, as is the case in Asian cultures.
There are two exceptions. The first is when a name includes where they are from, such as Trota of Solerno or Catherine of Alexandria. In this case the person’s name, not the place name is used; it’s the Trota and the Catherine, not the Solerno or the Alexandria. The other exception is when the woman has a noble title, such as Victoria, Lady Welby; the ship is the Victoria, not the Welby or the Lady Welby, because the person’s name, not their title, is used.
Attached to this post is a PDF with a list of only a few women from history who might be honored by having a Fleet ship named for them. All of these names, all of these women, are real. Space prohibits giving even a brief biography of each of them. If you use any of these names for a starship in the game, you should take a little time to research who the real person was and discover the contributions she made to the world.