Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Star Wars IV

When it comes to licenses, the roleplaying hobby has a holy trinity – The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars. In almost forty years of the hobby, there have been four RPGs set within Middle Earth, five within the Star Trek universe, and three set in the Star Wars universe. As of 2012, it looked as if only the one of this holy trinity was available on the shelves at your local gaming store, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring RPG, but thanks to Fantasy Flight Games, there is a second member of the holy trinity. It is not Star Trek, as that franchise can be best described as being on hold, but rather Star Wars. And there are three curious facts about the new, fourth Star Wars RPG.

The first is that it is not “technically” available yet. Released at GenCon 2012, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is in “beta” test; in other words, the version of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire available to purchase is not the version that will eventually be available. It is a playtest version, Fantasy Flight Games soliciting feedback from its purchasers that will affect the final release, the first of which will be Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game. The second fact is that Star Wars: Edge of the Empire employs its own dice with their own symbols, both positive and negative, much as the publisher’s earlier Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay did. This might dissuade some people from looking at Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, but the mechanics of the new RPG when compared to its predecessor are less fussy, more streamlined, and have the appearance of a roleplaying game rather than a board game as many detractors of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay claimed. The third fact concerns the special dice needed to play the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta. None are available. The book addresses this in two ways. First it gives a table which breaks down the type of dice needed and the symbols that should be on each die, and second, it gives a sheet of stickers that can be placed on the faces of the dice needed. How adhesive these stickers are and how well they will hold up to regular handling is another matter, especially given that there are not enough stickers for all of the dice that both a GM and his players will need.

In addition, Fantasy Flight Games addresses the lack of dice by making available an App that handles the dice rolling in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. It is available for sale for both Apple and Android formats. Lastly, the dice needed for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta are similar to those used in the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures combat game. The dice used are not exactly the same, but it does point towards, as does the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the compatibility of the two.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not just a generic Star Wars RPG in that it has a specific setting, and although it is a standalone core rulebook, it is part of a trilogy. All three titles in the trilogy take place at the height of the Rebel Alliance’s struggle against the Galactic Empire, and each one presents the period from a different perspective. As its title suggests, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is set on the Outer Rim at the furthest extent of the Galactic Empire’s reach, a region that is home to scum and villainy as well as explorers and colonists, all with concerns beyond the rule of law or the rule of tyranny. Fantasy Flight Games will follow this up with Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and then Star Wars: Force and Destiny. In the former, the players confront the Galactic Empire as the wily spies, brash pilots, and loyal soldiery of the Rebel Alliance; whilst in the latter, the players take on the roles of the last of the Jedi, feared and hunted by the Empire. Which if you are aware of Fantasy Flight Games’ other RPGs, you will realise that this follows the model of the RPGs set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 milieu – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch – each entry representing a step up in terms of player character power and capability.

In Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the players take the roles of Bothans, Droids (Class Four), Gands, Humans, Rodians, Trandoshans, Twi’leks, and Wookies, who can have Careers as  Bounty Hunters, Colonists, Explorers, Hired Guns, Smugglers, and Technicians. A character’s species sets a character’s base Abilities and Characteristics, as well as his starting Experience Points. A character’s Career determines his skills and available Specialisations. A Specialisation further defines a character, granting him not only extra skills and extra career skills, but also access to Talents which give him certain advantages. Each Career has three Specialisations, each with its own tree of Talents. For example, the Smuggler Career has the Pilot, Scoundrel, and Thief Specialisations, whilst the Colonist Career has the Doctor, Politico, and Scholar Specialisations. A character begins the game with just the one Specialisation, but he can buy more up to maximum of three from any Career. Those from his own Career are cheaper than those that are not. Talents can then be purchased from these Specialisations.

Besides starting Credits, every character starts the game with a Motivation and an Obligation. A Motivation is essentially the character’s primary drive, whilst his Obligation is something much more, both in terms of game play and mechanics. An Obligation can be Addiction, Debt, Oath, or Obsession, each player character possessing a different one, but all of them contributing towards a group total that works as the group’s social standing in the Outer Rim (too low and a crime boss might not do them a favour, too high and their criminal reputation precedes them), and the chance that one of the character’s Obligation weighs heavily on the group that session. Of course, both the group Obligation and the individual Obligations can be used to drive a campaign’s narrative. Every character contributes an equal Obligation value to the group total, but he can contribute more in return for more Experience Points or more Credits to spend during character creation. Lastly a character gets to buy equipment.

Character generation is far from difficult, and it can be done fairly quickly. Initially, the choice of species and Careers looks limited, but the choice of Specialisations within each Career provides both flexibility and a wide choice in terms of Career skills and Talents. By combining them in various ways, a player could create a gambler turned administrator (Scoundrel Specialisation from the Smuggler Career with the Politico Specialisation from the Colonist Career); a farmer turned flyboy (Mechanic Specialisation from the Technician Career with the Pilot Specialisation from the Smuggler Career); and a soldier turned bounty hunter (Mercenary Specialisation from The Hired Gun Career with the Assassin Specialisation from the Bounty Hunter Career); and so on. What is curious about the process is what is missing. First off, there are no Protocol or Astromech Droids. What there is in their stead is the Droid (Class Four) “species,” a type of Droid that is programmed to use weapons, much like the infamous bounty hunter, IG-88. The other curious omission is the lack of Force users in the available choice of Careers, but such roles are not the focus of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

For the sample character, I set out to create an old Star Wars character that I have played in two different campaigns using West End Games’ original version of the Star Wars RPG. Arkady Quayn is an Honours graduate of both the Imperial Academy and the Tir training school, who after flight school decided that deserting was better than serving. He fled to the Outer Rim rather than join the Rebellion and has been making a living as a thief for hire. Of course, this is not his first choice of career, or even his second, but he likes good wine, dice, and the cards. (Note that skills listed as having a rating of “0” are actually unskilled Career skills).

Arkady Quayn
Gender: Male
Race: Human
Career: Smuggler
Specialisations: Pilot, Thief
Obligation: Bounty (+10)
Motivation: Greed
Brawn 2 Cunning 3
Presence 2 Agility 3
Intellect 2 Willpower 2
Skills: Astrogation 1, Coordination 1, Deceit 2, Gunnery 0, Perception 0, Pilot (Planet) 0, Pilot (Space) 2, Skulduggery 2, Stealth 1, Streetwise 1, Vigilance 1, Knowledge (Underworld) 1
Talents: Bypass Security/1, Galaxy Mapper/1, Indistinguishable, Skilled Jockey/1
Wound Threshold: 12
Strain Threshold: 12
Credits 500

To do anything in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire requires the player to assemble a pool of dice. These are drawn from the RPG’s six dice types. The eight-sided Ability dice, the twelve-sided Proficiency dice, and the six-sided Boost dice are positive dice, whilst the eight-sided Difficulty dice, the twelve-sided Challenge dice, and the six-sided Setback dice are negative dice. The Ability dice represent a character’s base skill or aptitude, the Proficiency dice his innate ability and training, whilst Boost dice are benefits granted from the situation. The Difficulty dice represent the task’s inherent complexity, the Challenge dice more extreme adversity; and Setback dice obstacles that come from the situation. The positive dice are marked with Success, Advantage, and Triumph symbols, all of which a player wants to roll, as opposed to the Failure, Threat, and Despair symbols on the negative dice.

When rolled, the opposing symbols on the dice cancel each other out, but a player only needs to roll a single Success to succeed at a task. At its heart though, the dice mechanic Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is orientated towards a narrative outcome rather than a simple binary yes/no outcome. Thus the symbols rolled will actually tell the story of the outcome. For example, a character might roll a simple number of Successes; no Successes, but an Advantage or two; or a number of Failures and several Triumphs; and so on. How these outcomes are interpreted perhaps represents the most challenging aspect of the game.

Our sample action finds Arkady Quayn attempting to break into an evidence locker as a “favour” to Xyras Chupa-Pau, a local businessman. Breaking the lock is hampered by the fact that it is dark and raining, and by the fact that it needs to be done without alerting the security guards. Fortunately, Arkady has a SysTek Security Breaker electronic lock breaker and is wearing scanner goggles. He also has the Talent of Bypass Security/1, which will help him get past this lock. With this information his player begins to assemble the dice pool. From his Cunning score of 3, he gains three Ability dice, of which two are upgraded to Proficiency dice by his Skulduggery skill of 2, so currently he is rolling one Ability die, and two Proficiency dice. The GM assigns three Difficulty dice for the quality of the lock, and because it has an intrusion alert subroutine, upgrades on of the three Difficulty dice to a Challenge die. He also adds two Setback dice for the darkness and the weather, Arkady’s player counters these with the scanner goggles and the electronic lock breaker, and so receives two Boost dice. Even better, Arkady’s Talent of Bypass Security/1 means that he can remove one Setback die from the roll. So all together, Arkady’s player is rolling one Ability die, two Proficiency dice, two Boost dice, two Difficulty dice, one Challenge die, and lastly, just the one Setback die.

Rolling the dice gives four Success and four Advantage symbols, as well as two Threat symbols, and one Despair symbol. The Despair symbol also counts as a Failure symbol, which gives four Success and four Advantage symbols, one Failure symbol, two Threat symbols, and one Despair symbol. The Failure symbol cancels out one Success, the two Threat symbols cancel out two Advantage symbols, leaving a result of three Success, two Advantage, and one Despair symbol. Arkady has definitely got inside the evidence locker, and with ease; plus the Advantage symbols means that not only was the intrusion alert subroutine not triggered, but when the security patrol comes back around the door will appear to be still locked. Unfortunately, the Despair symbol means that water got into circuits of the lock breaker and temporarily shorted it out. It will need repairing if Arkady wants to use it again.

In addition, both the players and the GM have access to another resource during a session – Destiny Points. These have a light side, useable only by the players; and a dark side, useable by the GM. A player can spend them to upgrade one of his Ability dice to a Proficiency die in a skill check; to upgrade a Difficulty die to a Challenge die in a NPC’s skill check; to activate certain Talents; and to add certain small elements to help the game’s narrative. The clever aspect to Destiny Points is that when a player uses a light side Destiny Point, it becomes a dark side Destiny Point, and vice versa. This adds a certain narrative flow to the game, back and forth, as events go in, and against, the player characters’ favour.

The number of Destiny Points available at the start of each session is determined by a seventh die type, the Force die. This is a twelve-sided die that generates one or two Destiny Points, either dark side or light side. The Force die is also used when a player character uses Force Power. Although in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the Force is not the focus of the game or the setting, but rules for them are given, and with the GM’s permission, a player character can become Force sensitive and gain another Characteristic, that of Force. This starts at a value of one, but can be increased later on. This is done by purchasing the Force Exile Specialisation, which counts against a character’s three Specialisation limit and grants access to the Force Exile Talent Tree as well as the Trees for the Force Powers of Sense, Influence, Move, and Control. The rules for these all work fairly simply, and cost more to purchase as they are counted outside of a player character’s chosen Career.

Thus the second sample character is a Force Sensitive. A noted doctor on Ryloth, Kinsa Tualin went on the run after Imperial agents took an interest in her. She fled to the Outer Rim to hide, but has no idea why the Empire would be taking an interest in her. Currently she owes money to those who arranged passage for her, and often provides medical aid to their associates. By day she works as a doctor serving the poor. She has no idea that she is Force sensitive and does not believe in the existence of the Force. Her Force Sensitivity manifests as particularly sharp perception, represented by her Uncanny Senses/1 Talent.

Kinsa Tualin
Race: Twi’lek
Career: Colonist
Specialisations: Doctor, Force Exile, Politico
Obligation: Criminal
Motivation: The Weak/Charity
Brawn 1 Cunning 2
Presence 3 Agility 2
Intellect 3 Willpower 2
Force 1
Skills: Charm 2, Coerce 0, Cool 1, Deceit 0, Knowledge (Core Worlds) 1, Knowledge (Education) 2, Knowledge (Lore) 0, Leadership 1, Medicine 2, Perception 1, Negotiation 1, Streetwise 0
Talents: Grit/1, Kill with Kindness/1, Surgeon/1, Uncanny Senses/1
Wound Threshold: 11
Strain Threshold: 12
Credits 500

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire uses the same mechanics throughout, extending them into its combat system for both personal combat and starship combat. The rules go into more detail how a player can spend rolled Advantage and Triumph symbols, such as performing an extra manoeuvre or aiding an ally by granting him a Boost die on his next action; and a GM spend Threat and Despair symbols, like tripping a character up or having a player character’s weapon run out of ammunition. A character can take damage in two ways. First, he can take Wounds, from being shot with a blaster or being caught in an explosion. Suffer too much and a character will suffer critical wounds. He can also suffer from Strain damage, representing his suffering anxiety, stress, fear, heat stroke, and so on. A character can also suffer from Strain damage by exerting himself, usually to activate certain Talents.

In terms of background support, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire comes with two good sections; the first on arms and equipment, and the other on vehicles, both planetary and interstellar. Both describe an array of devices that the player characters will use and have used against them, along with rules for customisation and modification. This allows a player character to fit an automatic re-cocker to his bowcaster or a reinforced shield generator to his GHTROC 720 Light Freighter. After all, a Technician has to do something in the game other than make repairs to his allies’ equipment. Numerous pieces of equipment and starships are described, with many of them being also named, though not the personal weapons.

The GM advice focuses on the handling of the game’s rules. In particular, the interpreting of the results of the dice pools. It also gives advice on how to use Motivation, Obligation, and Destiny Points. He is also given an array of adversaries, comprised of minions, henchmen, and nemeses. These are drawn from the Galactic Underworld and the forces of Law & Order, as well as spaceport personnel, bounty hunters, patrons, clients, droids, and oddities. Rounding out Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is the scenario, “Crates of Krayts,” in which a startship crew in debt get a chance to work off some of the monies owed by doing a little job and getting involved in underworld shenanigans.

Being a playtest beta, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is missing one or two elements. It is only very lightly illustrated for example, and there is very little background material about the Outer Rim given to support the GM. This is no surprise, given that the beta is designed to have its rules and mechanics playtested, rather than present a whole, fully-rounded game. Then again, the mechanics give all of the elements that a Star Wars RPG should have – the character species, the Careers and Specialisations, the spaceships, and so on – and beyond that, the Star Wars universe should be familiar enough to most GMs and most players. That said, it is a little rough in places and could do with a closer edit, but this is a beta, and a beta need not be perfect.

So the question is, does Star Wars: Edge of the Empire feel like a Star Wars RPG? Does it feel like it could be used to run a Star Wars game? The answer to both questions is a definite yes. The mechanics feel as if they will support the somewhat cinematic action of the genre, and they also allow room for player input with the narrative output of the dice pool system. If there is an issue around the dice beyond that of their unavailability, it is the learning curve attached to assembling and interpreting the rolls. Especially the latter as the results are not always going to be straightforward and linear.

Some may also complain that Star Wars: Edge of the Empire constrains what characters that can be played and what type of games that can be run. To a point they would be correct, but there are options aplenty in terms of character design – it is all a matter of mixing and matching the Careers and Specialisations – and whilst Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not necessarily a game in which the player characters will be taking the fight to the Empire or be founding Jedi order again. That leaves the whole of the Outer Rim to explore, more than one Hutt to be played off against another Hutt, and Imperial entanglements to be avoided. Plus there is the matter of what brought the player characters to the Outer Rim to be explored. (Curiously this is also what makes it feel just a little like a “Space Western” or rather a Firefly RPG, though one with aliens and blasters and the Force… But then which came first, Firefly or Star Wars?).

Above all, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire does feel like a Star Wars RPG. It feels like it can handle both the action and the drama whilst letting the players bring elements to the game. At the moment it might be undergoing a playtest process, but the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta requires relatively little tweaking before the finalised version makes a welcome return to our gaming shelves.