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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Damage Report

I really enjoy real time games. In fact, I enjoy it so much I spend much of my life in that state. However, add this to a game and it really makes it stand out.

For me, what really compels me to enjoy a game is the quality of the decisions that need to be made. Two things add to this:

First is theme and narrative. Abstract games are full of logical decisions that can be determined or "mathed" out. There is some merit to these puzzles, I suppose, but theme and narrative can really alter this. But my preference is when a game forces me to make a decision between what is logical and what feels right. I want choosing logic to "hurt" as a decision and making the emotional (and thematic) decision to feel justified by the theme and the decision. Sacrificing that character might be the "logical" thing to do, but it becomes a difficult decision because the narrative made it so.

Second is real time. Pandemic can reach moments where it the puzzle steps ahead of you and you need a few moments to reflect on how to best approach the situation. You think about the rough card count and how close you are to the next Epidemic and you plan out to conserve your moves so that you can accomplish the most preemptive damage control before that card is drawn. It can feel a little stressful, but only as much as you are unable to math out the situation. Now imagine playing Pandemic with a chess clock. You have fifteen minutes for the game. As soon as you take your actions, you stop the clock and resolve the maintenance of the game. Then the timer starts again for your next action. Now this simple game of logic and conservation and efficiency of moves suddenly becomes a LOT more tense.

Both of these circumstances can take puzzle solutions and muddy them, making the decisions much more muddied and difficult. Both of these circumstances can also greatly add to the tension of a game.

Damage Report is a game full of theme and narrative run in real-time. The game is set on a space ship in crisis, with the players having limited time to resolve each crisis as more and more happens to the ship throughout the course of the game.

In the game, players choose a character, each with their own special abilities and then chooses a scenario to play based on the number of players in the game. Each scenario places the ship in an unique crisis that needs to be resolved from being attacked by alien ships to escaping a star about to nova to curing a plague that is harming the inhabitants of the ship.

The chosen scenario will dictate how the ship is set up and where each of the repair components begin. The scenario also dictates which modules are present on the ship for this mission.

Once play begins, players need to resolve the crisis. They do this by taking actions. Actions are relatively simple: Relay, Inspect, Repair and Special.

Stuff you can pick up and use for repairs.
Relay actions are the most difficult for new players to grasp. It is not just a pick up an item or drop off an item action. Nor is it just a movement action. It is both. With a Relay action, a player MAY pick up and/or drop off items (any amount that they want limited to their carrying capacity) in their room, THEN they MAY move to an adjacent room, THEN they MAY pick up and/or drop off items (any amount that they want limited to their carrying capacity) in the new room. This is a handy way of moving things around the ship, but new players invariably forget that moving and picking up and dropping is one large combined action. However, moving items around and dropping them off in other locations saves time and is key to winning the game, because each character can only carry a specific amount of items at any time.

The Inspect action allows you to flip over a card in the room you are at from the Repair Deck to see what components are required to make repairs in the room. The revealed card also shows how much the systems in the room will be repaired by. For example, the Repair Card may show that an Energy Crystal and Duct Tape are needed to repair the system in the room and it will repair it by 20%.

The Repair action can be taken in a room where a revealed Repair Card is displayed. With this action, a player can take ONE item from their personal inventory and place it on the Repair Card. Once all materials needed are placed on the Repair Card, the component in the room is fixed and the card is removed and the items are returned back to their storage spaces.

Special actions vary. Some characters can take special actions (like the Doctor healing players) and some rooms offer special actions (such as the Teleport Module teleporting repair items to other sections of the ship).

Now this seems simple enough. However, at the start of the game, players may only take actions every 30 seconds. If they repair Life Support to 90% or greater effectiveness, they can take one action every 15 seconds. However, if Life Support takes more damage, actions may only be taken every 45 seconds or possibly even every 60 seconds.

Scenarios run for a set amount of time--usually 33 or 45 minutes. However, making things even more challenging is the fact that every three minutes a timer goes off, indicating that the players must flip over a Damage Report card, which is drawn from a randomized deck. Each Damage Report card indicates which systems take damage and how much damage each of them takes. Usually this damage is mitigated by the power level of the ship's Shield, which then decrease from the hit until they are repaired to a higher level. Sometimes even hallway sections might breach, sucking out all of the air in that section, making any action that one might take in that section take a full 60 seconds to complete, including all of the required repair actions to fix it.

Most games have loss conditions of time running out, Ship Hull integrity reaching 0%, or Life Support reaching 0%. Certain scenarios also have other loss conditions.

Each scenario also dictates the required win condition as well. Some require the Hyperdrive to be repaired to 100%, others require cargo to be scanned and possibly jettisoned and destroyed, but each of them is thematic enough for the scenario at hand.

I've played the prototype version of the game and I've played with the full Kickstarter produced version with all of the bells and whistles (and bonus scenario). The game is gorgeously produced. The character artwork is a little stylistic and would be fine, but it stands out a bit against the high production values of everything else in the game. The tiles for the ship pieces are heavy cardboard and the components are well produced and give a nice, heavy tactile feel to them.

However, that being said, portions of the game are actually over-produced. The tools, for example, are molded plastic representations of the tools versus the simple cut outs from the prototype. The issue with the over-produced tools is that they roll. The blowtorch is a cylinder and it easily rolls off of the ship and off of the character sheet of whoever is carrying it.

The base game only comes with a total of five scenarios, though the randomness in the Damage Control deck does create different plays and danger areas in each game allowing for replay without "solving" the scenarios. Each of the scenarios is unique and does expand what one can do with the limited scope of actions available. For example, in two of the scenarios, one of the Repair Decks is used to calibrate the scanners of the ship and in another a Repair Deck is used to prepare Runabouts to fly through and destroy asteroids.

While it is explained in the rules (the repair items aren't needed to scan, but to calibrate the scanners for each scan), it still does stretch the theme a little bit and ultimately even the most dynamic of the missions ends up feeling a little same-y by using the same set of actions and tools for everything.

But the scenarios feel different wherein the ship isn't always being shot and damaged. Sometimes the Damage Report cards are replaced with cards that show infection and quarantine for sections of the ship, effectively blocking passage or use of those modules until the quarantine is lifted.

Ultimately, however, despite the varied theme of each of the missions, each of the missions' mechanisms are, at the core, identical making the variety a bit illusory.

This lack of variety, however, is not a death knell to the game. It still has a lot going for it. The real time panic and desperation makes you forget that you are all basically just picking shit up in one room and putting it down in another room for 45 minutes straight. And once you understand the basics of gameplay, I HIGHLY recommend adding Event Cards into the deck. While the standard Damage Report Cards just damage sections of the ship, the Event Cards bring on the possibility of new and unexpected (and unwanted) twists every three minutes.

However, it would be remiss not to mention the game's largest flaws:

First, there are only five scenarios in the base game. As I said, the random Damage Report card draw adds to the variety, however, each game is only playable with a certain number of people. If you have 2 or 3 people, there is only one scenario that you can play. With four players there are two scenarios and with 5 or 6 players, there are six scenarios. However, even this is a little misleading as the scenarios do not scale automatically. First Contact is for 4-6 players. However, the scenario is a BEAST with 4 players and mildly challenging with 6. There are means of adjusting the difficulty (Event Cards, fiddling with the amount of damage done, etc.), but it takes a lot of tinkering to figure out which ones work best to make the scenario playable at a static challenge level regardless of players.

One of the ship set-ups: The SS Tablespace.
Second, there is the limited use of certain characters. If a character is in a corridor when it breaches, they are immediately full wounded. If there is no Infirmary, there is no way to heal except for the Doctor. However, a situation where someone is in a corridor as it breaches is rare, making the Doctor's special ability worthless in all but the rarest circumstances, or in one scenario where she can avoid the quarantines. This limited niche use of characters would be fine if there were a variety to choose from. However, in a six-player game, all six characters are being used and some people will be playing less useful characters.

Some people may also criticize Baxter the Robot's limited use and the fact that he is often penalized throughout the game with his consistent speed of 30 second actions. I disagree, however, because whoever is playing Baxter can talk in a robot voice throughout the game, which more than makes up for any of his other handicaps.

Third, scalability is a big problem in this game. A scenario that plays 4-6 players does not innately scale based on if you have 4 or if you have 6 players. While there are tools there for the players to scale the game manually, it really is the requirement of the game to scale to see that each game plays to the same effect. Set scales should be included for each scenario for number of players. Maybe with 4 players, the timer and Damage Report card is drawn every 4 minutes. Maybe you begin with your Shields halved for six players. My issue is that the game should realize this, not me.

Fourth, randomness is an issue. It is a cooperative game and I don't mind the randomness of the Damage Report cards or Event Cards. But, as I said, the Doctor is worthless in 80% of the scenarios unless a specific happenstance should occur in which case she is necessary. But the Stranded! scenario requires 12 pieces or Cargo to be scanned. Contaminated cargo must be flushed out of the airlock and destroyed by laser fire (on each specific cargo piece). However, after a Cargo piece is scanned, it is determined if it is contaminated by a flip of a coin. This means, theoretically, all 12 could be uninfected or all 12 could be infected. This is such a wide swing of difficulty that it shows sloppy design and adds to the problem of consistency with the game. I am a big fan of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so I am always willing to accept that heads could easily come up 12 times in a row.

And last, the lack of variety does hurt the game. Varied missions but that still all use the same mechanisms, only six characters available making it so that every six player game will include the exact same characters, and the fact that there are really only a couple missions for each number of players makes the game difficult to see lasting for very long. The game cries out for an expansion. However, because of the Kickstarter high production values on components thanks to stretch goals, an expansion will be very costly to keep the same level of components, when the game really just needs a small, cheap expansion to increase the variety.

Now all of this seems like I am tearing apart the game. Which I am. However, I do it for a reason: I like this game. Despite all of its flaws, the game is a lot of fun to play and it is staying in my collection for the foreseeable future. It hits that niche of thematic real-time game that is interesting with pressured decisions and frantic coordination.

Almost all of the flaws I bring up could easily be fixed with a well-designed expansion. I don't like it when expansions are used to fix games, but this game has such a grand potential that it needs it. I want this game to continue and I want this game to recover from its flaws and succeed. I will still play it in the meantime and still enjoy it, but I will long for those little tweaks to fix what is wrong with it.

But if I am building a wishlist for expansions, this game cries out for one thing more than anything else:

A soundtrack.

Yeah, whenever I unpack a Flying Frog game the first thing I do it throw the music CD across the room to get out of my way for things of value in the box. However, this is a timed game. Tense music would make it play so much better. Think about Escape: The Curse of the Temple. There music is used to dramatically increase the tension.

Damage Report should have an app. It should play tense music during the countdown, be used to extend the 3 minute timer (for scaling) and multiple players each with their own app can use it for their action timer.

Damage Report is a flawed game, but fun even through those flaws. However, the most painful thing about playing it is seeing how easily these flaws could be fixed.