Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: Star Wars: Edge of Empire




I like Star Wars.

That pretty much sums up my views of Star Wars. I haven't been loudly crying for the last 17 years that Han shot first and somehow my childhood has been ruined or nullified because future generations will be shown some blasphemy the "true" make-believe event. While I think that the prequels kind of sucked pretty bad, JarJar did not desecrate something holy, nor did hessa rape messa childhood. And, in fact, I respect Episode One in the fact that my daughter kind of liked it. So, as I'm a fully grown adult, I've come to realize that maybe the movie about a little kid yelling yippee and winning a long, convoluted race wasn't really meant for me to relate to.

I still enjoy the Star Wars theme and when I see a guy dressed up in Stormtrooper armor walking around, I think that it is rather cool than too nerdy.

However, when it comes to a roleplaying system... well, I had always thought that the Star Wars universe was fun, but a little too goofy for me.

I've played in older versions of Star Wars RPGs and invariably the group will have one person who is way too into canon and the extended universe and will be argumentative with the GM because, lord knows, the guy who knows everything about Star Wars never wants to be the running the game. Invariably there will be a guy who tries to pass himself off as Han Solo, though you wonder half-way through the first session what the hell version of Star Wars he got his image of Han Solo from. Then there will be one guy who is way too into Wookiees. He is just there to change the mildly awkward experience into one that is just creepy.

A true story: The last Star Wars RPG game that I played in, I made a tally of our approximately 5 hour session of how many times someone said, "That's no moon." Our group's count was 4. It may not sound like a lot, but considering each time it was shoehorned into someone saying it in-character, it was awkward.

This has been my biggest turn off to the old Star Wars RPGs and I never really followed the newer versions of them fearful of the group that I might attract.

However, I've been exploring more and more roleplaying systems. I've had taken a hiatus from D&D and I started to explore a lot more independent roleplaying games. They're really wonderful and really opened my eyes to what a system can offer, instead of D&D and Pathfinder, which really just offer combat rules.

The problem with most indie RPGs is that they are limited in their scope of character advancement and long-term campaign play--two things that really invest me and my players into a game.

When Star Wars: Edge of Empire came out, I didn't think much of it. Most of the mainstream RPG systems really are just rules for combat with window dressing of a vibrosword(!) instead of a longsword, a blaster pistol instead of a bow and arrow, and Mandalorian armor instead of full plate mail.

But then I started to hear a few things about Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. There was talk of clunky weird new dice. But there was also talk about how the system worked story into the game.

I was still hesitant about the setting, but I wanted to give it a try.

Right from the very beginning, the game starts out on the right foot.

The first step it lists to create a character in D&D/Pathfinder is to Determine Ability Scores. You roll them, assign them, choose your race, then choose your class. You then pick skills and feats and then you buy equipment. Finally, in the Finishing Details step it tells you to calculate hit points, etc. and the very last sentence of the character creation section is "It is best to jot down a few personality traits as well, to help you play the character during the game."

While it is true players can go into the creation process with something already in mind, the system doesn't care about that. It is pretty evident on what the system finds most important.

The first step in the Star Wars: Edge of Empire character creation is Character Background. You come up with your social status and why you've come out into the dangerous universe from it. The next step is to determine your Obligation--ties to your past that will affect and haunt you throughout your life and in the game. After the background and obligations are determined and you know what kind of life you had, THEN you choose your species and class and buy skills and talents. Afterward, you determine the motivation for your character, giving a mechanism in the game to make your character "tick". Finally, you can buy equipment for your character. If you don't have enough credits, you can always take more Obligation to tie you into debt, giving you more equipment, but also giving you more history and background that will haunt you throughout your career.

And this is the quickest, easiest contrast. You can see where this system places it's emphasis for a  player character--not on their stats, but instead on their story.


So that is a good start. But how does the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG stand up to my other major complaints about mainstream RPGs?

I have issue with the fact that D&D/Pathfinder turned into a combat resolution of slow, unwieldy tactical combat that requires both preparation and table space and slows down the spontaneity of an encounter.

Star Wars is a narrative combat system. It stresses and emphasizes this point very well. There are ranges for combat: Engaged, Short, Medium, Long, Extreme. Moving from one band to the next is an action. That's it. No counting out squares and avoiding attacks of opportunity. It puts the focus of the combat on the narrative.

I don't like that advancement is tied into combat. You get XPs for killing shit to be better at killing other shit, inevitably, focusing the direction of the campaign to combat.

SW:EotE rewards experience per session, based loosely on encounters. It doesn't matter if you killed everyone in the encounter, it is just that you had it. You also get bonus experience for playing off of your character's motivation. There are systems in place to reward roleplaying!

Advancement in mainstream RPGs also tends to see power creep into the game, which unbalances encounters, forcing players to fight bigger and bigger things and also making combat more and more slow and unwieldy.

SW:EotE's skill systems work off of Ability Scores, which are static after character creation. This means that even though I may be adding more dice to my pool when I increase a skill, the number of "good dice" is capped to the static scores. You become better, but not overwhelmingly so.

Most mainstream RPGs focus on combat mechanisms before story advancement. 90% of most D&D/Pathfinder books are combat systems and there is nothing set for structure of roleplaying in them. As a result just about everything on your character sheet is just a system for combat use.

There are combat systems on Edge of Empire's character sheets, but there is also background information which is vital to your character and the story. At the start of each session, the GM rolls to see if a character's Obligation will come into play during that story. If so, the background of the character will affect the story and the characters. Background matters on the sheet. Since you gain experience regardless of combat in Edge of Empire, the focus is on combat only so much as it is the will of the players and the story.

Mainstream RPGs tend to be designed to create conflict between a player and GM instead of pulling them together and having them trust one another to create a compelling story. Mainstream RPGs don't allow for the players to suddenly alter circumstances to progress the story.

There are two small, but amazing features in Edge. The first is Destiny Points.

Destiny points can be Light or Dark. The PC's use Light points and the villains use Dark points. When a Light point is used, it is flipped to its Dark side and is then usable by the villains. Once they use one, it flips to the Light side, ready for the PC's use.

What the points do it to allow players (and villains) a chance to rise up in the story. Points can be spent to simply aid with skill checks and some talents use them for powerful bonuses. However, they can also be used to add to the story. The PCs land on a water planet and one of the characters spends a Destiny Point and says, "Good thing I remembered to pack these rebreathers." Players can use a Destiny Point to find a stimpack in the rubble or, with the GM's permission, change the narrative dramatically. The epic villain is about to be cornered by the PCs? The GM uses Destiny to suddenly create his method of escape and survival for another day.

Imagine that the PCs are in a dead end corridor with Stormtroopers shooting at them from the other end of the hallway. It looks grim. But then one of the players spends a Destiny Point to change the narrative. He tells the GM that he is blasting a hole into the side of the corridor and hopping down to escape, and the players end up safe from the Stormtroopers, but find themselves in the garbage compactor level...

The other thing that Edge introduces is narrative through the dice rolls. Checks (including combat checks) are resolved with the roll of a collection of dice for dice pools. The dice show success and failure, but they also show Advantage and Threat, and Triumph and Despair.

A skill check could succeed, but still generate threat, which means something negative occurs as well. Similarly a check could fail, but generate enough advantage that there is still something good to come from it.

Advantage and Threat are used to enhance narrative. Perhaps you hacked into the computer system and downloaded the secret plans (success!), but in the process you also triggered the alarm and now Stormtroopers are on their way (threat). Perhaps the guard to the shuttle bay did not believe your story (failure!), but in scoffing at you and turning you away, he mentions a scheduled repair crew arriving soon, giving you another chance to slip past him (advantage).

The thing about Advantage and Threat is that they are potentially present in all dice pools. This means combat can give opportunities to add to the narrative. I roll to shoot the troopers coming through the door and I spend my advantage to see the blast door controls, knowing that if I shoot that I'll be able to cut off the trooper reinforcements. Or maybe I found a bit of cover, or maybe my last shot knocked my enemy off guard and he'll be easier to hit next round. Each of these effects is chosen by the play rolling the dice, good or bad, and they are used to fuel the narrative of the checks and of combat.

Both Destiny Points and the Advantage/Threat mechanism foster trust between player and GM. They show that both sides of the GM screen can be trusted to modify the story.

As for everything else in the system, it is pretty standard fare. It is well polished and designed and the core mechanisms are what I really appreciate.

This doesn't mean that Edge of Empire isn't without its flaws.

First, social resolution is still resolved with dice. This mechanism actually inhibits roleplaying. Instead of walking up to a guard and trying to, in character, make up a believable story as to why you should be allowed to pass and having a back and forth exchange, the option is always there to simply say, "I try to trick the guard to let us pass. I'll roll Deception."

My groups would roleplay it, but if a five minute in-character exchange is then resolved by a roll of dice, then those five minutes were actually superfluous by the mechanisms present in the system.

The dice can be daunting at first, and do slow things down initially as players need to scour over the symbols and try to determine their meaning.

The other flaw of the system is that it both is and isn't a self-contained system. Edge of the Empire is a setting for the scoundrels and smugglers who are avoiding the conflict between the Rebellion and Empire. Profit is what motivates them.

Later this year, Age of Rebellion will be released. It is the same system, but for playing members of the Rebellion. Obligation is replaced with Duty, but 80% of the new book will be covering the exact same rules and systems in Edge of the Empire. The core books are thick and expensive. Instead of just putting out a Rebellion supplement, I will need to buy another copy of the same rules on top of it.

This will be done once more when the Force and Destiny book comes out allowing players to expand their play to incorporate characters who use the Force.

Now, I started out by saying how awkward I found the setting of the Star Wars universe and how goofy it felt to run a long range campaign in.

However, after my first plays, I don't care.

The system is that good. The mechanisms are so refreshing.

I want to be a player in any of the Star Wars systems and I want to be a GM in any of them. I really did not think that I would get over the limitations of the universe setting, but the mechanisms are so refreshing that they completely won me over. I still won't growl like a Wookiee in character, my character won't have a bad feeling about everything, and I won't correct the GM when he mentions that they don't sell power converters at the Tosche Station.

I want to play this beautiful system and have fun with it. I might even be willing to concede that some of the things we come across may not actually be a moon.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for a great review. I'm trying to resist the urge to buy more rpgs. Your review did not help :)

    I would like to comment on social interaction. I am torn about this issue. I absolutely see your point that having a solid social mechanic can detract from roleplaying. It becomes just another roll.

    On the other hand if you don't have a social mechanic then how would a social inept player, play an elite diplomat?

    If we compare social interaction to combat. It is easy to play a very proficient swordsman without having any clue yourself (as a player) about combat. Should this be completely different for social skills?

    I have no solution to this problem. But the choice between these views on social interaction are not obvious, at least for me.

    And again thanks for a great review and a great blog. I really like it.

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  2. I agree with you as far as there is no easy solution for social resolution in roleplaying games other than "play what you are able", which defeats the purpose of creating a character--especially since weak people can still play strong characters without restriction.

    I've just come back to mainstream RPGs after a long bout with indie games that essentially didn't have these mechanisms. Fiasco, Dread, etc. are just a react to what you said sytem. It was refreshing, but I am VERY fortunate to have an outgoing, acting-heavy group.

    Still, I find social systems awkward. If I say I swing my sword and I miss, that is the fall of the dice and not a problem since nothing was invested in the action. However, if I craft a story on the spot, come up with an amazingly plausible deception that ties in a lot of discovered character backgrounds and spin a spellbinding dialogue for two minutes and then roll a 1... that is frustrating because you actually had invested something into that roll. It is further frustrating when the next player steps up and says, "Let me try. I lie to the guard and say I relieve his shift" and then they roll a 20.

    As a DM/GM, I tend to ignore a lot of those rolls and just "go with it". But I know I am doing a disservice then to the players who put a lot of points into those skills who never roll them.

    I don't know what the solution is either, but I tend to let players talk and roleplay evolve naturally and let someone's points in Diplomacy equate me telling them, "What you are saying will probably upset them. You might want to say something else."

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  3. Oh and thanks, and also, I didn't expect to want to add Edge of Empire to my RPGs that I wanted to play. I already have too many as is as well. :)

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  4. I liked your review as well. As a big Star Wars fan but not semi-embarrassing super fan, I'm intrigued. Maybe this version of the Star Wars RPG could be merged with D&D 5e... more successfully than SW and 3rd edition.

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  5. Take the time to visit the me http://whistory.org , and say that the change in design and meniu?

    ReplyDelete