Wherein I discuss Star Wars
I came to an unfortunate epiphany the other day.
No matter how much time and effort Wizards of the Coast put into D20 Star Wars, it was always doomed to fail me. It didn’t matter that later iterations of the game streamlined the system, that they’d upped the production values of the individual books, or that they’d started producing supplements for things I liked.
The biggest problem that I had with it was that it came on the heels of the thrice damned prequels.
West End Games put out Star Wars D6 in 1986, setting themselves up for the 10th Anniversary the next year. They set the standard for careful attention to detail, to the point that LucasFilm licensees (such as Timothy Zahn) used WEG books as source material to nail down certain elements of canon. The Second Edition version of the game was ushered in by Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, and WEG made certain to capitalize on this association, as well as building out material based on the various Dark Horse Comics of the time.
Then, when WEG lost the license for the RPG, it was snatched up by Wizards, who released their rules the year after Phantom Menace embarrassed itself in theatres. Much of the early material was set in the prequel era, in order to capitalize on the implied excitement of the new movies. And while I’m sure that there was plenty of quality material produced for the two iterations of the game, I was childishly stuck on mocking concepts like a ‘3rd level Wookiee Jedi.’ At the time, I thought it was a slapdash ruleset, capitalizing poorly on two popular things: D20 and Phantom Menace. It felt like game design for the lowest common denominator.
And that’s pretty much what killed it for me. (It didn’t help that they used their financial presence to kill off Last Unicorn Games, thereby dooming Star Trek and keeping Dune from a wider audience.) Wizards and Lucas had conspired to murder something that I had held very dear to my young heart, and the only thing I could do was walk away, embittered by it all. There was a brief resurgence of interest in Star Wars with the Bioware Knights of the Old Republic games, and a little bit of renewed passion with Force Unleashed, but both of those were momentary flashes of devotion, rather than the previous dedication that I had poured into it all. (And my adoration of KotOR just pushed me down the road towards a D6 conversion of D20 material, sadly. Even as I played through the games, I was busily imagining it in a better system.)
Now that J. J. Abrams has announced pre-production on a new Star Wars movie, we find ourselves in the era of a new Star Wars game, produced by Fantasy Flight. And after about fifteen years of antipathy towards the franchise, I find myself cautiously excited once again.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I still love the D6 version of Star Wars. It holds a lot of wonderful memories, and sooner or later, I’ll sit down and devote a bit of space to why it was a fantastic game. (Knowing what I know now, though, I think there are bits of the system that I would streamline for play purposes. But that’s neither here nor there.) In the meantime, however, I’m a lot more inclined to cast my lot in with Fantasy Flight.
For the time being, this will be a sort of ‘first impressions’ review. I have yet to play or run the game, and the book has yet to be fully read in any depth. When I manage to get a session or two under my belt (running it, as seems to be the standard case), I’ll come back to the subject to go through an actual Systems Discussion and a more robust review as needs dictate.
First things first. Funny dice.
I’m sort of torn about this, to be fair. The serious, adult section of my mind is irritated at the inclusion of these damned dice. I didn’t really like it with Fudge or Fate, I thought it was largely unnecessary with their version of Warhammer Fantasy, and I haven’t dealt with Hollow Earth Expedition enough to appreciate Ubiquity Dice. And the idea of having to buy new dice just for this game is a serious outlay, especially since they retail at $15 per pack and every player is going to need at least two sets to adequately get things done.
At the same time, the adolescent part of my psyche is gleefully enamored by the idea of new polyhedrals to fuck around with. It clicks on a light in the memories, taking me back to my early experiences with non-D6 dice, where the novelty of the shapes was still fresh and only possibilities stretched out before me. Oh, sure… they’re only re-skinned versions of D6’s, D8’s and D12’s, but they’re all kinds of pretty and arcane. And that’s what counts.
The thing is, these are not purposeless dice. Fantasy Flight has designed the game around these goofy things, and they form a certain inherent flavor for the game. In some ways, they remind me of Fate Dice (where positive and negative can cancel each other out) and Ubiquity Dice (where the color of the dice is as important as anything else), which helps the novelty of things. These dice can only be used with this game, and that’s kinda neat.
Using dice as a Difficulty Scale is nifty as well. TSR (pre-Wizards) tried something similar with Alternity, where modifiers came in the form of positive or negative dice, but the system felt clunky at best, and the relatively quick death of that game killed any possible revision of such mechanics. Given time, I feel like Alternity may have ended up in similar territory with FF-SW, but that’s mainly just speculation.
The way it works is as such: Rather than assigning a static Difficulty Number as a threshold to overcome, the GM assigns the Difficulty in terms of negative dice to act against the PC’s skills and attributes. When faced with Opposed Skill checks, the same sort of mechanic applies. Instead of having the GM roll an opponent’s dice pool, the player making the check simply adds negative dice to their own pool to then roll for results. It’s an elegant sort of system, just from the initial rules pass. I’m still unclear on whether or not the GM has to roll dice very often, if at all.
As a quick digression, that was one of my main impressions of the Icons RPG by Steve Kenson, which used a form of the Fate System. I played it at a local con, and what fascinated me most about the game was that the GM literally never had to pick up dice. Trying to hit a villain? Roll your attack against their static defense number. The villain’s trying to shoot at you? Roll your dodge against their static attack number. It made the session quick and simple, and the GM was freed up from having to bother with opposed rolls of any sort.
Destiny Points have an interesting system, where it’s something of an ebb and flow between the characters and the GM, in terms of who has the advantage at a given moment. Weis’ Marvel Heroic (and I assume by extension, other games in the Cortex Plus family) appeared to have a similar sort of give and take with the Doom Pool, but my basic inexperience with Marvel Heroic keeps me from comparing them in any depth. The Destiny Points can be used to put a villain at a disadvantage, but in doing so, the points flip to the GM’s pool. The GM can similarly use these to put the heroes at a disadvantage, but this flips the points back to the PC’s pool, and so on.
Talent Trees and Careers have their own flavor, as a means to customize the characters in very specific ways. As a veteran of Exalted, flow charts like this are familiar ground, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they work in the hands of players. (It would almost be too much to ask at the moment for the chance to play in a game myself. The groups I’m in presently are more inclined to keep with the games that are being run currently rather than switch to a new one. The best I could immediately hope for would be to run a few sessions and see what happens.)
Finally, the other stand out element of the ruleset is Obligation. Most RPG’s build this into backgrounds or specific character history. In WEG’s D6 game, the smuggler template was built with a 25,000 Credit debt to offset the ability to start the game with a starship, and the Bounty Hunter’s guide dealt with crime lords in greater depth. Beyond that, there was nothing to tie the characters down mechanically. In White Wolf’s World of Darkness, a character could take Flaws to reflect this sort of responsibility. With Edge of the Empire, a character’s obligations to specific individuals or organizations is represented with a broad number that serves to represent how much and how often the obligation comes into play. Different characters have different obligations, and the GM randomly rolls to see which one comes into play in a given adventure.
I really like having hard numbers to fall back on with things like this. Yeah, I admit it, I’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches with games like Pathfinder and D&D, so a certain amount of crunch is always appealing. And being able to leave something to an arbitrary flip of the dice is very appealing, as it offers impartiality and random chance.
Beyond this, it’s a Star Wars game. You get what you pay for. There are Jedi, Rebels, Imperials and Smugglers; everything that you generally want in your officially licensed science-fantasy. What’s nice about this edition over the previous ones is that Fantasy Flight is dedicated to taking your money from you. With a little bit of work (and more funny dice), you can adapt their beautifully rendered X-Wing Miniatures Battles starships into your RPG and add that element to your high action adventures. Were I possessed of unlimited funds, I would think dearly on doing just that. As it is, I’ve already acquired $100 worth of merch without ever playing in a session. And I’ve mapped out where the next $100 is going to go, as far as this game is concerned.