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Prime Directive's Tricode System - an overlooked gem?

Posted: Tue Oct 16, 2018 1:14 am
by Gringnr
Been reading the old Prime Directive RPG. I got it stupid cheap ($2.00 on clearance at Half Price Books). I have a thing for both little-known systems and non-canon stuff (be it Star Trek, Star Wars, or comics), and this ticks both boxes.

I get why this game might be off-putting to many. Too much Trek for non-Trek fans, not enough Trek for Trekkers. See, it's set in the universe of the Star Fleet Battles wargame. So, take The Original Series, add The Animated Series, then add a dozen wars, season with a dash of Niven, and blend. Garnish with smooth-headed Klingons, and voilá! The result is a very militaristic take on the original Star Trek universe.

The game was designed from the ground up to simulate the tropes of the TV show, despite being far more combat-oriented. But aside from the trappings of Trek, the game has a unique RPG system underneath the hood.

Prime Directive uses pools of 6-sided dice, the number of which is determined by stat and/or skill. Every action has a "Tricode", or 3 ascending target numbers (e.g., 4/6/8 for minimal/moderate/complete success). The highest number rolled out of the dice in the pool is the one that counts. 6's explode, and are re-rolled, with the new roll -1 being added to the first roll of 6. There are also rules for failures and "botches", of course. In combat situations, the same roll determines both the success of a given attack, and its damage. Each weapon has a maximum damage capacity, and the Success Level decides how much of it is applied. Initiative is a little hard to grok at first. The characters roll, usually against the base initiative Tricode of 4/6/8, with the same roll being read two different ways to determine both the order of action (determined by overall number of successes, which aren't counted for other roll types), and how many/what type of actions each character can do in their turn (determined by Success Level). So, it is possible that a character might not get to act first, but would get to do more. There's sometimes more to it (such as modifiers), but that's the gist.

Characters have both stun and lethal damage pools.

There is a great analysis of the system here: ... ode-system

And please don't think I'm lazy for not wanting to

a) quote that thread so extensively that I may as well copy/paste the whole thing

b) copy/paste the whole thing

That thread contains a finer dissection than I could give. Check it out for a real nuts n' bolts breakdown of the system.

As for the setting, aside from what is detailed above, the characters are primarily part of "Prime Teams", basically a Special Forces version of Away Teams (though later supplements expanded the theater of play).

Now, whether you like this take on Star Trek or not (and I am NOT wading into that quagmire), it seems to me that this system is sound, and would probably be fun to play. It also seems to me that, with little alteration, the Tricode System could be used as a damn good generic sci-fi ruleset. Well, except for the complete absence of space combat/ship construction/etc. rules. Presumably, the designers intended players to use SFB for that. But, hey, Star Frontiers didn't have those rules out of the box, either, and it did just fine. Prime Directive does have enough to get you started nicely. Weapon and equipment lists, tons of skills, even psionics, for both Vulcans and non-Vulcans (these were also greatly expanded in later books).

There are several optional rules simplifications throughout, for those who want a less complex game. But, overall, Prime Directive lends itself to a more "cinematic" style of play (though it can certainly be deadly!). I find it particularly interesting that the designers choose to break from the complex rigidity of the Star Fleet Battles game for its role-playing counterpart.

I think a re-skinning (or maybe de-skinning, in this case) of these rules would make a fine retro-clone.
And, for that matter, I see no reason why you couldn't use these rules to run more traditional Star Trek adventures, with a bit of tweaking. I could also see this same basic system used for other genres, just as Tunnels & Trolls begat Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes.

Prime Directive, AKA PD One, is available from drivethrurpg. Not the best scans, to be honest, but at least it's available.

Later iterations of Prime Directive would use GURPS or D20, but to me, neither has the unique charm of Tricode, and neither was custom-built to convey the setting.

Re: Prime Directive's Tricode System - an overlooked gem?

Posted: Tue Oct 16, 2018 4:38 pm
by anvil242
I bought it when it came out but was never able to talk any of my friends into playing it. I have played both the Gurps and D20 versions, although just as vanilla trek rules. I had a lot of fun with the Gurps version. It was a decent filler between FASA's version and Last Unicorn Games version. My group is currently playing Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius using the 2D20 rules. That one is aimed at Next Gen era play with some concessions to TOS, so naturally we're playing in the movie era.

Re: Prime Directive's Tricode System - an overlooked gem?

Posted: Wed Oct 17, 2018 10:06 pm
by Gringnr
I have reached out to the designer of the game. He has agreed to answer some questions about Prime Directive and its design. I will post the questions and their answers as soon as I get them.

Re: Prime Directive's Tricode System - an overlooked gem?

Posted: Thu Oct 18, 2018 9:34 pm
by Gringnr
Mark Costello, designer of the original Prime Directive RPG, has graciously answered several of my questions about the game.

1. How did Prime Directive come about? What can you tell people about the game's creation, design, evolution, and eventual disappearance?

Back in the mid 80’s Tim Olsen and his brother Jon came over from England to set up Games Workshop US, and I spent several years working for Tim, who was at the time the retail manager of GW-US, first in his start-up shop in downtown Baltimore and later in the official GW Flagship store in Laurel, Maryland. I did in-store and convention demos for all the GW games and was offered the opportunity to write material for a (never officially launched) RPG-focused companion magazine to White Dwarf that was to be called Red Giant. I delivered a couple of fairly lengthy, multi-part Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay scenarios (1st edition of course…) and some miscellaneous add-on articles for WFRPG before GW pulled the plug on the idea of Red Giant. But Tim had been impressed by the work he received and liked the scenarios and campaigns I would come up with for the demo games.

The GW gig kind of fell apart for all of us in the late 80’s (long story, not germane) and Tim and Jon and I fell out of contact for a few years. During that time Jon purchased Task Force Games from I believe New World Computing who had in turn purchased the company from Allen Eldridge, TFG’s cofounder with Steve Cole of Star Fleet Battles fame. Steve had split from TFG to form the Amarillo Design Bureau, taking with him the intellectual and development right to SFB while and Allen and TFG held SFB’s publishing rights and ownership of the remainder of the TFG’s game line. (Including the game Starfire which served as the basis for several novels by David Webber and Steve White.) (And note please, this is how that all went as best I can recall; apologies to all and sundry if I have missed any key points or muddled important facts in any way…)

Not too far into Jon’s tenure as Head Honcho at TFG he approached Steve Cole to float the idea of launching a Star Fleet Battles role playing game, and they agreed it was a good idea. Jon brought Tim onboard to manage the new RPG line, and Tim in turn reached out to me with an offer to design a system for the game and write the core rulebook.

The initial development and design went pretty quickly. Right at the outset Tim and I agreed strongly that constantly sending a Starship’s senior command personnel directly into dangerous situations made very little sense, and we came up with the idea that each Starship should have a dedicated First-Contact/Special-Missions away team who would serve as the canonical PCs for the core book. (We took a lot of flak for not presenting the rules to play the “traditional” Bridge Crew characters as PCs or including rules to play as non-Federation characters in the first book, but we had those rules in the can and they were only left out of the first book owing to space limitations. Hindsight and all…) The very first iteration of these special teams had them as Federation Marines (in fact the very first place-holder name for the game was Marine Action) but Tim quickly came up with the idea of Prime Teams and the project almost instantly became Prime Directive.

As far as system development went, I knew right from the get-go that I didn’t want the system to be pass-fail. I had already watched a lot of TOS Trek by that point in my life (and I mean a really scary value of “a lot”, one of the reasons Tim approached me for the project) and there were elements of the way stuff worked in the TV show that I wanted to reflect in the game. Incomplete or indeterminate sensor and tricorder readings were a must because they occurred so often in the show, as were extended back-and-forth struggles to successfully materialize someone beaming up through turbulence or interference, and just about every attempt to fix or jury-rig damaged systems or equipment. There had to be variable levels of success for this to be Trek, and that had-to-be turned into the Tricode system.

I was sitting in the Student Union cafeteria at the University of Maryland, where I was working at the time (for the University, not the cafeteria…) trying to come up with a clever way to model a variable level of success system that didn’t require the level of complexity that…well...Star Fleet Battles, for instance, required when a remarkably attractive undergrad drifted into my field of vision wearing a snug little shirt on which was printed 5/7/9, which I think was a brand at the time referring to women’s clothing sizes, and BAM! the whole Tricode system just started to unpack and assemble itself in my head. In about two minutes I had scribbled down a pretty complete set of notes for the system in my notebook, and it never really changed going forward.

Similarly, the Background system just kind of emerged in whole cloth early on. Kirk’s former Academy professor is the figurehead leader of the fascist Ekosian planetary government! McCoy just happens to be an expert on the culture of Capella IV because he was assigned there in the years before he joined the crew of the Enterprise! Ensign Riley is one of a handful of surviving colonists who can identify the murderous Governor Kodos! And so on. It seems like every other episode of TOS brought forward some element from one our heroes’ past into the current storyline, so the option to do just that was hard-coded right into the core rules for Prime Directive.

I wanted to make playing PD1 as much like being one of the characters in TOS as possible, to the extent that a lot of the quasi sub-textual qualities that worked themselves into the game were actually intended to model playing characters who were in turn characters appearing in a popular 1960’s sci-fi TV series. It was all very meta-textual, and a couple of references to that “you’re playing characters in a TV show” design element actually ended up going into the published game. (Take a look at the section on Heroic Reputation for instance.)

None of which went over very well with the hardcore SFB players of course, who I still believe in their heart-of-hearts wanted Prime Directive to be Squad Leader With Phasers. And they continue to be salty about the whole thing even today, which is their right. But it has irked me mildly that people continue to express the notion that “This wasn’t the game I wanted” as “This was a terrible game.” Certainly, it is possible for both those statements to be true from someone’s personal perspective, but the one does not obligatorily imply the other.

In its day PD1 sold reasonably well, got mixed to generally good reviews, and picked up a couple of GAMA nominations. We released several products in the PD line and they did okay as well. What did us in, I believe, was not that game wasn’t popular or viable, but rather the tremendous impact the release of Magic the Gathering had on the industry, sucking much of the air out of the RPG publishing industry at the time. Remember, this was years before any kind of online commerce was generally available and virtually all the commercial traffic that game companies relied upon was through brick and mortar game shops. When Magic hit, it hit huge, and most game stores threw the vast, vast majority of their inventory budget into buying Magic cards, which of course made tons of sense. The things were flying off the shelves. But left behind in the wake of the Magic retail frenzy were a lot of second and third tier game companies (TFG included) who suddenly couldn’t get their products onto store shelves. There were lot of midline companies, good companies, who weren’t TSR or FASA that went out of business in those years. We got caught up in a market shift; it happens. C’est la vie.

2. Were you a role-player when you designed PD? Are you now?

I had been a long time roleplayer and gamer in general by the time Prime Directive was a thing. I had been playing and GMing three-book D&D and Advanced D&D for many years, along with Metamorphosis Alpha, EPT, 1st edition Traveler and lots and lots of Champions. And of course I had a deep dive into all the Games Workshop games as well.

And even after the demise of Task Force I have continued to play, and design, tabletop games as my primary hobby.

3. What were your design goals? Do you feel that you achieved them?

See above. PD was my first top-to-bottom published design work and while there are things I think I could write more clearly and design considerations I think I could make a little tighter today, by and large I was, and still am, generally happy with the game and its mechanics and esthetic.

4. Why do you think PD never really "took off"?

As you (very correctly I think) said in your article, it wasn’t Trek enough for the Trekkies or Battles enough for the SFBers. SFB was always kind of the red-headed stepchild of the Trek-verse, and frankly, some of the “grace notes” that Steve Cole wedged into the game were potentially alienating to a sizable portion of our audience. (The “Go Home And Read The Dictionary While The Guys Go Out For Pizza” thing was practically the “Leeeeeeeroy Jennnnnnnkins!” of its day. And all those pages of medals. Just…Oy.) None of those things of course were directly, or even really significantly, contributory to PD1’s short span on the market, but man, they certainly didn’t improve the reception the game received.

5. If you had to design PD today, would you do anything differently? If so, what, and why?

Better layout, more consistent interior artwork (though a lot of the art were did get in there was really top notch) a better and more concise explanation of the Tricoide system rules, and in particular the use of the various individual skills and the examples listed for them. Better player aides, in particular a TiC chart and most certainly a little mat or tracking card that would simplify the initiative system for the players. It’s useless to wish we could have separated PD from some of the particulars of the Star Fleet Battles ‘Verse, but, yeah, that too I guess.

6. Do you think the Tricode System is better than systems that have been used since for gaming in the Starfleet Universe? Why or why not?

That has to come down to individual player preferences of course, but I like the Tricode system and still think it does a credible and enjoyable job of modeling Trek as a tabletop game. FASA-trek was good fun, and they had the gold standard of canon background info, plus the Battle Simulator which was just freaking great. I never really played LUG-Trek that much but the little I did play didn’t leave much of an impression.

As for ADB’s GURPS Prime Directive or Prime Directive D20, well, they did a credible job skinning those systems with SFBU Trek, and if you like playing those systems and you like SFB I guess that’s enough to let you put on an enjoyable game. I find GURPs and D20 skins to be, by and large, a little generic, but really that adaptability is their strength as much as it might be seen as a drawback.

Any well run game with into-it players is going to be fun for everyone regardless of the system. That’s the bottom line. But given a choice of system for running or playing-in a PD game, I would go with the Tricode system every time, which really should come a no surprise.

7. How do you feel about the Tricode System having lapsed into semi-obscurity?

Eh. The Tricode system is not for everyone. I continue to be proud of it, and there continue to be folks in the community who still champion it and who very much enjoy playing it. I tried to buy the rights to the generic Tricode system from Steve Cole several years ago and he essentially refused to sell it, saying it still had “potential value in the marketplace”. (I think he asked $100,000 for it; something like that.) Of course he has done nothing whatsoever with it and that’s his right. I would like to revive the system as a generic, multi-genre engine, and I think it could be a popular niche title in today’s Narrative Game segment, but the rights aren’t mine and for whatever reason (and I will not speculate here what those reason likely are) Steve ain’t letting go. And I’m okay with that.

8. What does the Tricode System offer to the gamers of today? To game designers?

I like to think of the Tricode system as a spiritual precursor to games like Genesys and FATE and Apocalypse World (and the whole PBTA engine genre.) The whole thing about the LoS system was that the GM and the players would get to situationally work out what the actual in-game effect of a Moderate Success was. I loved that about the game. Being a product of its time, of course PD was a little crunchier than a lot of the new narrative engines, but in sprit it was also about the story everyone at the table was creating together. I’m not sure Tricode does that better job at that than some of these modern games, but it still has a nice internal logic and a pleasing kind of verisimilitude, especially for cinematic kinds of genres. I’d like to think that if someone were to put out a splat book laying out how to adapt the system to a range of genres it might find an audience. (A “Try Code” system perhaps?)

9. Who owns the Tricode System today?

Steve Cole and ADB. All rights reverted to him when TFG went out of business.

10. Do you think that the Tricode System could be adapted for role-playing in other genres? Why or why not?

As above, absolutely.

11. Are you surprised that there hasn't been a "retro-clone" of Tricode? Would you be supportive of such an effort?

PD1 and the Tricode system in tandem fell off the radar a long time ago. I’ve been approached a few time over the years by players either wanting to buy the rights from me (sorry guys!) or expressing interest in putting together some “off-book” PD1 material, but the logistics of doing something like that in a way that would likely not arouse Steve Cole’s litigious wrath would be difficult. If someone feels up to the effort who can either successfully deal with Steve or who knows copyright law well enough to avoid the potential legal pitfalls I’m more than glad to lend my support.

Thing to note is that you can’t copyright a system, only the specify terms and tables and whatnot related to it. You can publish a system that uses three numbers in an ascending sequence to roll D6 against (or D10 or D12 or whatever) but you can’t call or refer to it as a Tricode or the Tricode system. And etc.

12. Is there anything else you would like to say about Prime Directive or Tricode?

Mostly what I’ve said above. I’m proud of the system even if it has had its detractors. I’m similarly proud of the Trekness that I was able to model into PD1 even if that meant it wasn’t a game particularly suited to playing in the SFU per se. I’m glad I had the opportunity to write the game and work with Tim and Jon, and am generally happy with the way it turned out. If the system could see a second life apart from Prime Directive in the future, I would be quite pleased.

13. What, in your mind, is the "legacy" of the Tricode System?

Again, I like to think of it as a forerunner to the FATE/PBTA games of today. (Which I play a lot of these days!)

14. What can you say about the "cinematic" feel of Prime Directive? How much of this contrast between the tactical nature of Starfleet Battles and the almost TV-like feel of the RPG was intentional?

All of it. Every bit of it. As discussed above I wanted to give players the sense of playing a character in a genre TV show, right down to how much their fan mail would influence the writers room to give them more “cool” in their scenes. (Really, it’s right in the rules…)

15. Time is measured in "Time In Combat" and "Time Out of Combat", or TIC/TOC... Pun intended?

...yes, the whole TiC ToC thing? Completely intentional pun!



Re: Prime Directive's Tricode System - an overlooked gem?

Posted: Fri Oct 19, 2018 3:39 pm
by Gringnr
Bonus question: Why no ship construction/combat rules? Was it assumed/hoped that SFB would be used for that?

Yes - SFB was always intended to cover all the Starship operations and combat situations for PD. Steve and company wrote up a very nice set of PD/SFB interface rules in the Tournament Book that would act as the bridge between the two system components and they even included Primes Teams (for all the races) as tactical considerations right into SFB and Federation & Empire. (At least I think they got included into F&E. I'm not 100% certain of that though.) And the various deck-plans they did were absolutely brilliant aides for running PD situations aboard ship. I still have multiple copies of those maps that I drag out from time to time. Really good stuff!

Thanks again! This was fun. I hope you got/are-getting more or less what you had hoped for out of this, or have at least found the info interesting.