It's a few lifetimes ago and some college kids have just escaped their last and inevitably most boring class of the day (seriously, my meteorology professor was like Bob Newhart without the charisma). Star Trek: Enterprise may be in its last season, but we're watching an episode of Next Generation that we've already seen a hundred times — maybe “Cause and Effect” or “Yesterday's Enterprise” — still noticing details or moments that we’ve missed before. Or just adding our own Mystery Science Theater commentary, spinning jokes out of the tropes - about turbolift rides that last exactly as long as the conversations happening in them, or about how the Enterprise is always the only ship in range even when it's sitting in Earth's orbit.
And then at the perfectly reasonable hour of one or two in the morning, we'd call it a night and cross town back to our individual apartments — after all we had class in the morning.
These days, friends who once lived across town now live across the country and there are fewer hours in the day and more obligations to fill them. And — at least for now — the pandemic has robbed us even of the few get-togethers we normally looked forward to over the course of the year.
Like everyone else, we've shifted to virtual hangouts both for special occasions and sometimes just because. But as the world ground to a halt in March of 2020, we’d already started to find a groove coming together for our regular Star Trek Adventures sessions, using Skype and Zoom and the website Roll20 to make long distance work. Our particular journey began before the pandemic but it was almost prescient that it did. Since the group of us went into this with RPG experience ranging the gamut from almost none to absolutely none, it took several clumsy false starts to get to the point where we spent more time playing than figuring out the rules. That point came right around the onset of the pandemic, and as a result we had unwittingly prepared a social lifeline for ourselves just in the nick of time.
To the uninitiated, a roleplaying game looks largely like any other board game where moves and dice rolls determine winners and losers, not unlike the endless games of Risk we played in college (it's a wonder we're still friends). But roleplaying games differ in that a player's decisions are rooted in the character they've created for themselves and the plots and stories spin out from those decisions, usually in tandem with dice rolls and other board game mechanics. The end result is a kind of collaboratively told story, with everyone at the table contributing their own piece and perspective.
If you're familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek Adventures is essentially the Star Trek version of that. A group of friends sit around a table - one serving as the 'Game Master' and the others playing different characters of their own creation. Together they spin out a story of how their characters work through a scenario presented by the gamemaster. In Star Trek Adventures, the usual setup is for the players to play characters that represent the senior officers of a starship — much in the way that most Star Trek TV shows focus on the captain and senior officers of a ship (or space station) — the captain, first officer, science officer, and so on. And then using the game rules (which, FYI, are quite different from Dungeons and Dragons), they tackle a Star Trek like story as best they can, with the Game Master playing and directing all of the nonplayer characters and the overall events.
We also take an extra step, recording our sessions as a fully produced podcast and putting them online for an audience. As friends, we have performed together on stage, told stories together, and — of course — played tons of nerdy games together. But even with the experiences of each of these elements separately, throwing them together is a challenging, exhilarating, and sometimes slightly overwhelming juggling act.
In that regard, it carries much of the same frenetic energy that we would feel on a play's opening night or at a film's first screening — that sense of a wellspring of potential energy bubbling just beneath the surface, waiting for the moment it can spill out into the world and sweep you away into something far removed from the sluggish dread of life's more mundane challenges, like an upcoming exam, finding a job, or coping with a global pandemic.
We each bring and get something slightly different out of the undertaking. For my part as Game Master, I get to explore ideas and questions and tell stories in my favorite fictional world. I can even take the truly ridiculous amount of Star Trek trivia I know and put it to some kind of constructive use. Ryan, who found a creative outlet post-college as a sound designer for audio dramas, not only gets to live out the childhood fantasy of being a starship captain, but also applies that sound design experience to one of his favorite sandboxes. Tara can indulge her love of mysteries, puzzles, and silly voices, while Travis can scour the rulebook to work out exactly how to wield every rule for maximum advantage.
Even parsing it out like that feels like an unfair oversimplification. Because in practice, all of those elements and more are swirled into a cauldron together and mixed into a single magical experience of old friends laughing, playing, and performing together in a new way. If you're looking for a way to spend time and reconnect with your fellow nerds and Trekkies, pick up a copy of the rulebook and check out the compendiums of playable missions. Gather around a table (if it's safe to do so) or fire up Zoom and/or Roll20 and connect with friends anywhere in the world. And together you can take your own trip into the final frontier, where no one has gone before.
Brian (he/him/ta) is the writer, Executive Producer, and Game Master for the roleplaying game podcast Star Trek: Tempest. You can find him on Twitter at @Brianfinifter and the Tempest podcast at @starshiptempest. He lives in Los Angeles with his two cats, whom he should've named after Star Trek characters instead of ones from that show from a couple years ago with the terrible ending that was a big deal but which everyone has now forgotten.