The difficulty with using the Prime Directive in a game is it’s hard to nurture a compelling reason to violate it. For my game, I have said it is just like the laws that protect minors. They exist for a reason and to violate them is against everything we believe in. I have used the age of consent as an allegory to reinforce just how unacceptable it is to violate it. Handing alcohol, drugs or putting minors in adult situations is harmful just like giving a civilization that hasn’t self-discovered warp technology access to the stars.
I did this very much on purpose over the course of the campaign to set up the game where they would be compelled to challenge it. In the end, an individual and a civilization aren’t equitable, and though we might do irreparable harm to one, there might be a grey area when considering the exact moment that a civilization is ready to join the larger whole.
Welcome to the worst moment in my player characters’ life…
This game was called “The Paradox of being a parent.” A quick intro to my game. I have my players as early explorers in the Shackelton Expanse on board a Galaxy-class starship that they named “Argo”. We are trying to go with a TNG season one and season two feel, bad uniforms and all. I have included a Galleria, a space mall, from a discarded TNG concept. There is a solid 80’s feel to everything. A few of the players have families with children.
There is a 13-year-old Cardassian war orphan and an Orion refugee that’s a year younger. The kids are supporting characters played by the PCs and myself on an occasion. Each game is a solid Trek-style adventure with a “B” plot about the kids. One last thing about the story structure; I have a Klingon exchange officer who is the moral center of the ship, but he rarely interacts with the Starfleet characters, mostly giving words of advice to the kids.
I started out this story a little bit differently than normal ones. I created some info cards for the players to read prior to the game. They gave stats and backgrounds for the mission. Once they had a chance to read them, I started the game with the captain’s log:
Captains Log; SD 71725.996- We have picked up a distress signal while en route to rendezvous with the USS Yamato, our sister ship out here in the expanse. The call is coming from Hebe III a pre-contact information age civilization that Starfleet is anticipating will become warp-capable in the next few years. As per protocols a Federation Observation post is usually set up to monitor their progress and make first contact if needed. My old friend from Vulcan, D’keion is the administrator of the outpost. I served with him in the diplomatic corps nearly a decade ago and I hope the danger is minimal.
Cameron Regan, Captain USS ARGO NCC-70395
I will summarize the info cards here but you can read them if you like. (these are not professional game tools don’t judge my spelling!) ; LINK TO INFO CARDS
The cards let the players introduce the info as if they were officers on the bridge and had looked this up themselves. The cards focused on departments and LCARS information outputs. They weaved a tapestry of an information age society that was on the edge of warp drive. They would test a promising FTL probe in a few days that could bring them into a first contact situation.
The culture was divided, wasting limited resources, and dealing with the challenges of disinformation vs truth. They were an obvious allegory for our own current affairs.
Their solar system had some strange navigational hazards in the outer planets, a binary black hole in the Oort cloud but nothing that would directly affect the observation post. The one challenge in this situation was that the sensors of this civilization were a little better than others of their level. Subspace communications and transporters would be easily detected if they weren’t careful. The ship would need to have shields up at all times to avoid being detected. (Modified shields would absorb their sensor pings.) The PC’s shuttle down to the nearby lunar base that had the outpost affectionately referred to as the duck blind. T
he Hebbians haven’t colonized their moon, and it was a safe place to operate from. Now, there is a whole side adventure here dealing with the Tillikal, and other Shackelton Expanse stories, but they aren’t relevant to the main issue here, the Prime Directive. The players learned that the observation team was forced to use Tillikal tech to evacuate the system because in a few days an Asteroid would impact on Hebe III, destroying all life and shifting the orbits of all the inner worlds. The Hebbians FTL probe would launch only a day before and it wasn’t certain that it would even work. The three previous attempts failed, explosively. The observation team was able to determine that a single decimal point in their energy equations was the most likely culprit. The Hebbians would test their FTL probe and they would die forgotten if not for the Argo.
Now, my crew was tasked to watch the tragic death, and they were, surprisingly, unified about not interfering. ( I was hoping someone would have dissented but I did akin it to contributing to delinquency. I might have pushed a bit too far and I was worried that there wouldn’t be a debate at all.) The “B” plot was about the kids. In the first half, they had stolen some daggers from a Klingon weapons shop in the mall and been caught. The PC parents were very upset with their kids but shined it away with, kids will do kid things. K’tremeny, our Klingon Security Advisor had something to say about that.
“You look at these kids and you think they will learn from their mistakes, perhaps. You see them growing from their wrongs, becoming honorable adults. But that’s not what I see. I am a Klingon, and if my child were to steal it would be as if I stole. They have no shame or dishonor alone, you as their guardians share that dishonor. I don’t seek kids that did wrong, I see adults that didn’t do right, and have abandoned their oaths to their children. It is you who should be in the cell with them… were you a Klingon, of course. This is a federation ship, and federation law. You children, as you, are free to learn from your mistakes.”
Oh, I do channel Martok so intently when I am the Klingon. As the episode came to a close, they learned that the observation team had been forced to “gate” away to an unknown and distant planet, with the hopes of one day returning home. They also learned that one of the scientists, Dr. Tarsis, had forced them through the gate and had returned to the planet to fix the decimal place and hopefully, with luck, a starship would hear their distress signal and save 9 billion Hebbians. The big reveal was that Tarsis was the child of one of the Vulcan PCs. No one, not even the players knew this until they beamed Tarsis up and he said “Mom?” to the PC.
This was an awesome cliffhanger as it was stated that the PC had an adult child, and as a Vulcan, they wouldn’t have shown any emotion about their kid…it was a very fun moment. It’s relevant to the overall plot as this entire scenario is a parent and child allegory. One week later we all gathered to play, we did a recap and we started right back up with the Vulcan mom escorting her adult son to guest quarters. The captain decided to not arrest Tarsis until he knew the extent of the damage. There were some research roles to build momentum and then they went into the briefing room.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the Vulcan mom, in the privacy of the quarters gave a scathing monolog similar to Spock and Valaris from ST VI, that we all listen to wide-eyed. Awesome Oscar-level drama from my group! Tarsis noted that he did, in fact, violate the prime directive but did it in such a way that the Hebbians would never know. The captain orders him arrested and the Players begin to find a way to undo the damage. At this point, I checked the moral compass, and everyone was on board with not violating the prime directive. It was sad, it was tragic, but after all, I had set it up to be unbreakable.
Tarsis, in typical Star Trek fashion, escapes using an ancient Tillikal artifact, that causes telepathic hallucinations across the ship. Each player faces down their fears, or issues from the past, challenging or embracing their values. This takes up the first half of the game. There is a “B” plot where the kids get offered the chance to sell “glitter” a light but illegal narcotic. They get caught, but the telepathic attack takes priority. When it’s over they are faced with a very upset Klingon advisor, to whom they are lying through their teeth about the glitter.
“You are lying, and there is only one reason we like. Because we lack power, and we fear the consequence of the truth. Are you a coward, are you ruled by fear? Would you lie to me, who has shown you mercy in the past? Would you forever tarnish the way I see you, the way I see your father? A Klingon cannot lie because he fears consequence. What are you, boy, a brave warrior, strong enough to endure what you have wrought, or weak and spineless coward?”
The young Cardassian, played by one of the PCs decides to tell the truth, admits that he didn’t know what glitter was, but he was trying to make a deal to sell it, he tried to take the responsibility for the other boy, but the other boy stood up and also told the truth. K’tremney let them go, saying it would be impossible to know if they were affected by the telepathic attack, and noted that everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves, sometimes two chances.
“I have faith that you will find your way.”
When the boy asked why he could lie, as they all knew the deal took place before the telepathic attack, the Klingon replied,
“I didn’t say you couldn’t lie, as there are times one must do so, but not with cowardice. Face your fear, know the consequence, and be ready to pay. Some things are worth any consequence to protect.”
Once the action is resolved they now have a debate. On the one side, the damage is done, it would be incredibly risky to try to intercept the probe, restore its original programming, and at the cost of a billion lives. They could just look away, and when the probe goes to warp they use the full might of the Argo to redirect the asteroid. The civilization is at a cusp but they still have warring factions and are victims of disinformation still. They haven’t learned the basic evolution of fact-checking, they are still self-destructing their planet, with pollution, and strife.
This debate takes an hour with the players deciding they will restore the original programming.
The Hebbians have a space elevator and the probe will be traveling through it. They have used some interception of data and some information from the observation post to identify a point where the probe will receive a last-minute systems check from three astronauts at the space elevator exit. Their plan is to tight beam into the spacesuits of the Hebbian astronauts, update the intermix program then beam back. The astronauts will be stunned and then returned to their suits only slightly dazed and confused.
Hebbians absorb nadion particles as part of their natural biology and as a result, things on the shuttle don’t go exactly as planned. Phasers are pretty much a nadion stream so it was like spraying them with water. The PCs manage to subdue the aliens with a fun and rousing series of dice rolls. At the space elevator, another complication has arisen. One of the astronauts is contacted by a Hebbian on the planet trying to confirm “the bomb” has been placed on the probe. A Hebbian faction that believes Hebe is the center of the universe has been sabotaging the probes all along. Now, a player must decide if they are going to place a bomb on the probe.
“Is this a violation of the Prime Directive?” is immediately asked. Are they actually a warp civilization that just sabotaged themselves? Should we save them? Was beaming the Hebbian out complicating the issue? Maybe he would have planted the bomb, maybe he wouldn’t have? 9 billion people are about to die, literally, at the hands of a Starfleet officer. A micro debate occurs as the FTL probe arises. The command officer orders the other PC’s to place the bomb, the PCs are incredibly conflicted, and time is running out.
A player character will have to place the bomb that will kill nine billion people and suddenly it feels very different than when the entire Federation was bearing responsibility for the action. K’tremny’s words are quoted in the debate, though none of the PC’s were there to hear it. “Some things are worth any consequence to protect.” (The debate is done in a meta context, not in-game time)
They decide to plant the bomb. They return to the ship as the probe leaves orbit and preps to launch. The decimal place has been restored, and it is expected that the probe with either explode or submerge forever into subspace. The asteroid will then shortly impact, and the Argo will, with great sadness record the last hours of the Hebbians. At this moment I check my texts and note that the player that planted the bomb texted me some side info. He planted the bomb but disarmed it. I do the traditional sci-fi count down. The probe lights up then fades and recedes into subspace as expected, and its signal is lost. They wait several minutes, but ground control and the Argo conclude the probe failed.
The captain orders the ship to stand down from the Asteroid rescue operation.
Then, ops picks up the signal four light-years away. The probe didn’t warp using a traditional warp bubble but dove deep into subspace reemerging instantly 4 light-years away. The captain orders hailing frequencies and warn the Hebbians of the asteroid and offers to intervene should they agree. They do. 9 billion people were saved. Dr. Tarsis, the man who initially violated the Prime Directive and abandoned the observation team on an unknown world, managed to escape. I bet they never see him again.
There were some family scenes where the parents and the kids made some decisions to make changes. First contact teams worked diligently off-screen to fix all the plot holes and XP was awarded. Values were updated, focuses changed and the game came to a close. We were all emotionally spent, but it was probably one of the best games I have ever run. The Prime Directive is a challenging foe for a storyteller. I hope you enjoyed the way that I brought it into our game. Keep on Trekking sentients.