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Through A Glass Darkly: The Mirror Universe
For the Star Trek Roleplaying Game
Reviewed by James L. Cambias, © 2006

Format: Game
By:   Matthew Colville, Kenneth Hite, Steven S. Long, et al
Genre:   Star Trek
Review Date:   March 13, 2006
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Through A Glass Darkly is a sourcebook for Decipher's Star Trek Roleplaying Game, covering the evil "Mirror Universe," populated by villainous (and frequently bearded) counterparts of Star Trek's heroes. The Mirror Universe first appeared in the Original Series episode"Mirror, Mirror," and came back for several encores on Deep Space 9. The Mirror Universe has also become a favorite setting for Trekkie fan fiction. So the book is a useful addition to the Star Trek roleplaying canon. Available from DriveThruRPG.com, the 11.7 MB document is 160 pages long, done with Decipher's usual excellent graphics and lots of well-chosen photos from the series. The quality of the writing is impressively high, making it quite entertaining to read even if you're not playing the game.

The book actually covers two distinct campaign settings. The first is the age of the rapacious Terran Empire encountered by Captain Kirk and company in the Mirror Universe's first outing. The second covers the era of the even more rapacious Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, encountered by the Deep Space 9 characters. In the later period the mighty Terran Empire has fallen and humans are an oppressed slave race. Each period gets a history chapter as well as discussions of the major space faring races, and important planets.

Long-time Trek fans will likely be entertained by the clever way the designers have woven various minor characters from the TV series into the history of the Mirror Universe. For instance, the leader of the Terran Empire is John Gill, whose "real world" counterpart was the faux Fuehrer of the pseudo-Nazi society in the Original Series episode "Patterns of Force." The roguish Harry Mudd turns up as the Imperial treasurer. There's less of this in the Alliance era, if only because the Deep Space 9 Mirror episodes already put the alternates of the series characters into key roles in the Terran rebellion.

Since the Mirror Universe is an evil alternate of the main Trek setting, there's not a lot of new technology for gearheads. The book does describe a few cool items. There's the deadly Tantalus Field, a secret weapon used by the Evil Kirk, and stats for Agonizers and the dreaded Agony Booth. There are a number of biological weapons and sinister drugs for the Terran Empire's sinister security agents to employ -- most of which are substances familiar from the televised exploits of the Nice Kirk. Apparently the evil Terran Empire doesn't have the perplexing "one use only" policy of the Federation. So characters can pump up their telekinesis with Kironide injections or go super-fast with Scalosian water. (Needless to say, there are side effects.)

Two chapters cover character creation. One focuses on "mirroring" a heroic Federation character into a villainous alternate, the other on creating "native" Mirror Universe characters. There are some rule changes: instead of Courage points one gets Brutality points to reflect the harsher nature of the Mirror Universe. There are new Edges like "Cruel" and "Minions." (Amusingly, the characters in a Mirror Universe campaign are referred to as the "Conspirators" instead of the "Crew.")

The "Toolkit" chapter provides game frameworks and adventure hooks for a variety of Mirror Universe scenarios and campaigns. The simplest, of course, is a visit by characters from one alternate universe to the other -- either Federation PCs cast into the Mirror Universe, or their villainous counterparts invading the Star Trek Galaxy. (By the time of Deep Space 9 such visits apparently were almost as common as cross-town subway trips.)

But players can also cast ethics to the winds and get down and dirty in a Mirror Universe campaign. They can be either jolly, backstabbing imperialists in the Terran Empire era, or grim, backstabbing resistance fighters in the hyper-dystopian Alliance period.

A very useful feature of the Toolkit is the "Wheel of Comeuppance" concept, outlining story arcs to allow Mirror characters to rise to power, overcome adversaries, overreach, and fall back. The capsule description of a Mirror campaign is a "darkly humorous soap opera with science fiction elements." The focus on story and character is wise, since the violent nature of the Mirror Universe might tempt game masters to use it for nothing but bloody fights, which wastes a lot of the setting's potential.

The final chapter covers mysteries of the Mirror Universe, including the fate of Spock, the androids Data and Lore, and the enigmatic Tholians. The chapter presents lots of very interesting possibilities, some of which could be adapted for "real world" adventures. The Tholian material is particularly intriguing.

The book is not completely without flaws. An entire chapter on the "science" of the Mirror Universe is pretty much an exercise in technobabble handwaving and could easily be summed up in a sidebar. The history chapters repeat material unnecessarily, both from the core sourcebooks and within this book. At times the parade of cameos edges past being clever into annoying fannishness.

Despite the wealth of campaign advice, it's difficult to imagine either the Terran Empire setting or the Alliance era supporting anything more than a mini-campaign or a convention-style single-session scenario. While it's certainly a fun change from the stuffy Prime Directive to just pull out your phaser and start blasting uppity aliens, one would hope the players wouldn't want to wallow in treachery and brutality on a continuing basis. (And for those who do, Mongoose Publishing's Paranoia XP has already staked out the territory.)

Part of the problem is simply the fundamental implausibility of the Mirror Universe as a concept. With vigorous handwaving and plenty of distractions one could get players to suspend disbelief for a few game sessions, but in any ongoing campaign it would be harder and harder to avoid the logical holes.

Overall, though, as a guidebook for Federation characters venturing into the Mirror Universe or coping with interdimensional irruptors, the book looks highly useful. Players who enjoy the idea of the Mirror Universe will find it a very entertaining read and a good source of ideas.

James L. Cambias obviously has a mirror-universe duplicate, because he is sometimes seen with a beard and sometimes without. The evil version has written for Steve Jackson Games and HERO Games, and is a partner in Zygote Games. The good one writes science fiction stories.

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