Christopher L. Bennett, a writer on Star Trek Adventures - Strange New Worlds, discusses his experience creating character-driven stories in roleplaying games.
Once, back in 1996, I flew to Hollywood to pitch story ideas to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I met with executive producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe and clumsily pitched a number of ideas driven mainly by plot and science fiction concepts, and he kept asking the same question: Where’s the character story? How does this affect our leads on a personal level? I didn’t make a sale to the show, but the lesson in putting character first has been invaluable to my writing ever since.
What drew me to Star Trek Adventures was its strong focus on character development and role-playing. Previous Star Trek games tended to focus more on combat, which didn’t feel like authentic Star Trek to me. I liked the idea of writing for a game that captured the character-driven storytelling of the shows and books.
But RPG writing is a different beast. How do you tell character stories when you have no idea who the Player Characters will be? I wasn’t willing to settle for just focusing on plot and action; that felt like a waste of the game’s potential, and it didn’t interest me as much as solving this storytelling challenge.
One element that grabbed me right away in the Core Rulebook was the Career Events step in the Lifepath Creation process. Here was a character development dynamic built into the game’s rules, so surely I could use it to my advantage. This led to my first STA campaign, Call Back Yesterday, in which the characters encounter a phenomenon that forces them to relive their memories, allowing Career Events to be roleplayed in the present. A gamer friend of mine felt that players would appreciate the chance to actually use the backstories they built.
Another option for character-driven roleplaying is to pose a moral dilemma that the players need to debate. In my second campaign, The Gravity of the Crime, the players must decide how far to bend the Prime Directive to investigate a murder on a pre-warp planet. I included an NPC to challenge the players—a canny detective who would see through insincerity and need to be swayed by sincere appeals based on personal values and experiences. The NPC is a catalyst allowing each player to express and challenge their own character’s distinct personality and beliefs.
I’ve come to realize it’s not that hard to devise character-driven stories adaptable to any character. You just need a consistent catalyst that will bring out the inner self of each character in a different way. Star Trek has done this in various ways—a disease in TOS: “The Naked Time,” a shipwide crisis in TNG: “Disaster,” forced proximity in ENT: “The Catwalk,” and so on. Well-drawn characters will naturally create their own drama, conflict, and humor in those situations. As a writer for STA, which has such rich character-creation dynamics built-in, I just have to set a stage and shine a spotlight, and the players do the rest.
Author: Christopher L. Bennett
Pick up Star Trek Adventures Strange New Worlds here.