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Sunday, 6 September 2020

Star Trek X's Second Nine

Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 is an anthology of eight ready-to-play adventures for use with Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game. Like the core rules and the These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 anthology before it, this nonet provides adventures set during the periods of Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: The Original Series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, all of which the Game Master can easily adapt to the period she is setting her campaign in. Notes are included exactly for this purpose at the beginning of each scenario, so that with a little bit of effort upon her part, the Game Master can run all of these scenarios without the need to switch time periods.

In terms of setting, these scenarios all take place on different planets across the Federation—and beyond, typically beyond explored space. Not just on planets, but also odd structures, such as orbital rings and super dense discs, and whilst they will often involve meeting new races and alien species, none of them are built around encounters with the Klingons, Romulans, and the like. Instead, there are a lot of mysteries to be investigated and diplomatic difficulties to be solved, mostly with skill and creative thinking rather than brawn and phasers. However, this does not mean that combat does not feature—either on the ground or aboard a starship.

The great thing about Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 is that all nine scenarios are Star Trek adventures and they feel like it. They feel like they would work as episodes for the era of the television series they are set within and each would be quite difficult to adapt to other Science Fiction settings. They are also all relatively short—each offering just a session or two’s worth of play—and would be easy to slot into an ongoing campaign or run as one-shots. However, the nine are not perfect. First there is only the one scenario for Star Trek: Enterprise compared to the four each for Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, forcing the Game Master to work to adapt these eight to the earlier period if she wants to run more of the scenarios in Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 for a Star Trek: Enterprise-set campaign. Second, whilst the graphics of the nine scenarios are differentiated between the three time periods—so LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) is only used for the four Star Trek: The Next Generation-era scenarios—the use of graphics is generally disappointing throughout. In all too many cases, locations go unmapped and ships and alien races unillustrated. This particularly shows in the maps, the only locations given maps being combat encounters—rather than the whole of the locations and bases where the adventures take place. Now whilst there are reasonable descriptions, the lack of the maps and illustrations leaves the Game Master with more work to do in describing them.

Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 opens with Fred Love’s ‘A Cure Worse Than the Disease’, its single scenario for Star Trek: Enterprise. The crew receive a distress signal from the previously isolationist planetary government of Fosstarian II requesting help with a virulent plague. Not only is Fosstarian II suffering from a pandemic, but someone has built a planetary ring around the world specifically designed to bath it in radiation! This presents an interesting medical mystery, but there is much more going on, involving a conspiracy and a deep, dark secret, which still leaves plenty of things for the other characters to do. The conspiracy is not too convoluted though, as the scenario like the others in the collection, is not all that long. Overall this is a solid start to the anthology.

‘Plato’s Cave’ by Marco Rafalá is the first of four scenarios which take place during the Star Trek: The Original Series period. The crew is sent to resupply a remote Federation archaeological outpost on the ice-age world of Tanghal IV, only to discover the lead archaeologist dead and the rest of the team missing. Searching the facility leads to a doomsday seed vault and missile silo converted into a survival bunker prior to radical climate change millennia before. The facility is full of strange technology and indications that the away team is not alone. With its mix of ancient aliens and ancient technology, this is the first of a number of eerie, almost creepy scenarios in Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2, dealing with survival, making contact, and morality.

Ancient technology also plays a role in ‘Drawing Deeply from the Well, No Good Deed’ by Aaron M. Pollyea. The crew is ordered to an alien megastructure nicknamed ‘The Big Dipper’ which has suffered a number of incidents, possibly attacks, since it recently became operational. ‘The Big Dipper’ is a skyhook which uses massive ramjet-driven scoops to mine the atmosphere of Purgatory, the gas giant below for common heavy metals and dilithium. This has a nice sense of scale, something which Star Trek: The Original Series was not always able to effectively depict onscreen, both in terms of the megastructure and the planet below. The adventure itself is good, and begins a theme of first contact and misunderstandings which runs throughout the anthology.

Joe Rixman’s ‘No Good Deed’ has an interesting call back to Star Trek: Enterprise as the crew track a call for help to a space station above a volcanic world devoid of life. The crew members discover the corpses of two species aboard the station—one avian, one arthropod, and upon further investigation, a pattern of war between them on the planet below. This led to a virus being engineered and released by the arthropods, which resulted in the rapid extermination of the avian species. Ultimately, they also find that the last survivors might have established a capsule of frozen embryos from both species. This is another good medical mystery, combined with a historical mystery and sets a dilemma or two for the crew as what they do with the embryos.

The last scenario set in the Star Trek: The Original Series-era is Christopher L.
Bennett’s ‘The Whole of Law’. It takes place on an exotic object, a large, flat disk of hyperdense matter with its own gravitational field on each side. Called Thelema, it is occupied and run as a resort world, the Light Face for relatively wholesome activities, the Dark Face for more extreme entertainment which puts visitors’ lives at risk. Visitors make the choice as to which side they want to visit voluntarily. Both the scenario’s title and the exotic object’s name are obvious nods to the writings and philosophies of occultist Aleister Crowley—as is actually pointed out in the scenario. The scenario is also connected to the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode, ‘Shore Leave’,  and is also the most difficult of the nine scenarios to run in Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2. The issue is that the Player Characters are intentionally divided and then kept apart for most of its events, which will require careful timing upon the part of the Game Master throughout. The separation also feels forced and is difficult not to telegraph.

The first scenario set in the Star Trek: The Next Generation-era is Andrew Peregrine’s ‘Footfall’. This is also a difficult scenario, but for different reasons. It is also a fascinating scenario for its themes. It explores the role of religion in the Star Trek: The Next Generation-era and how many of members of the Federation approach civilisation, particularly as it pertains to the Player Characters. The crew is directed to a world known as Footfall, a reputed religious sanctuary for numerous faiths, but not actually particular to any one faith. Recently, the world, governed by a Federation outpost, has been beset by the violent activities of a militant group. As the religious members of the crew undergo increased spirituality, they must contact the militants and attempt to calm them down. Attacks by ‘demons’ only exacerbate the situation until the Player Characters are effectively pointed to one location, a mountain top holy to everyone on the planet. Here, in a nod to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, they get to confront the ‘Creator’ or ‘God’, though in a more benign fashion than in the film. The difficulty is really what the Player Characters do with what they learn from this confrontation, since it undermines the faith of everyone visiting the planet. The author offers several solutions, including lying—and whilst that might cause the least upset, is it really ethical? This is perhaps the most difficult dilemma in the anthology, not just in how the Player Characters deal with it, but whether a player group wants to deal with it too.

The source of an extremely powerful subspace message which almost disables its ship, leads the crew to a strange planet with a crystalline ocean in ‘A Cry from the Void’ by Ian Lemke and Spring Netto. Surprisingly, the Player Characters are welcomed with open arms by a renegade Ferengi female who is running her own mining operation on the planet. She wants their help in locating several missing miners. The question is, are the two incidents connected? The scenario adds a nice little twist to the backstory of its duplicity and a strange new environment, but this otherwise a straightforward affair.

Things get really strange and dark in Sam Webb’s ‘Darkness’, the penultimate scenario in the anthology. The crew comes to the aid of a Vulcan Expeditionary Group studying Trax Episilon 1, a Class-H which has suddenly transformed into a black, light absorbing world. There is a decent opportunity for some moments of horror in the darkness of this scenario which again, apart from the weird environment, is another straightforward affair.

The last scenario in Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 is ‘The Angstrom Operation’ by Jason Bulmahn and it is a bit of a romp. The crew is ordered to answer a distress call from a small research facility on a tidally locked world in the Dran’Ankos system near the Cardassian Demilitarized Zone. They find that the system’s star is losing its mass and the base damaged and in disarray after its staff have seemingly gone mad and attacked each other. The away team will need to restore the base, determine what its staff was doing and the cause of the madness, all the while fending off crazed crewman, a strange parasitical lifeform, and ultimately, a belligerent Cardassian patrol, if it is to save the day. A busy scenario, a nice nod to the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode, ‘Operation Annihilation’, with a pleasing sense of growing peril, and should be good fun to play.

Physically, bar the issues with the inconsistent use of illustrations and the maps, Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 is nicely laid out and looks. The artwork is good, but just not always helpful. The book does need another edit in places. All nine scenarios are neatly organised into three acts, with notes on how to adapt each to the other two eras, and a discussion of possible outcomes and potential follow-ups.

Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 does contain a number of common themes and elements. Notably, a high number of the scenarios involve encounters with planetary-wide or sized intelligences which are mistaken for something else, their attempts at communication being potentially damaging, which will be a problem if these scenarios are played too close to each other, since the players (and their characters) are likely to have learned from earlier encounters. There also seems a concerted effort across several of the latter eight scenarios—the one scenario for the Star Trek: Enterprise era does not count—to prevent the Player Characters from using their ship’s Transporters. Of course, on screen the use of the Transporters was an easy way of avoiding having to use shuttlecraft, but in Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2, the crew will find itself using one or more again and again. Which to an extent, does not feel very much like Star Trek.

In general, what issues there are with Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 are minor. In fact, the biggest issue is that there is only one scenario for Star Trek: Enterprise compared to the four each for Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation and that seems so unbalanced. The nine though, lend themselves to a very episodic style of play and are better worked into a campaign over the long term. Overall, Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 is a solid anthology of Star Trek adventures for Star Trek Adventures, each one nicely suited to its era of play.

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