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Further thoughts on Exalted 3rd, and the lies that people tell…

I’d been planning on addressing some further issues about the release of Exalted 3rd Edition, such as it is.  It would appear that Ironbombs shares many of my numerous and multifarious dislikes about the direction that Onyx Path took with the game, and this lit something of a fire underneath my currently simmering discontent.

White Wolf (and their current incarnation as Onyx Path) is an interesting case study in the contrast between seemingly solid products and utter failure in delivery.  Their Kickstarter record alone paints a fairly awful picture of their actual reliability, and this is their main method of raising a dead company from the ashes of weird corporate shuffling.

Their very first Kickstarter was the V20 Companion, a follow-up to the massive 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this ranks as one of the worst products the company has ever produced in their otherwise agreeable history.  Luckily, it wasn’t a product that I bought into (I had been unaware of it, for whatever reason, seeing as I had lain hands on the V20 book itself), as it was a wildly overpriced and largely unusable product whose only interesting aspect was apparently the appendix that talked about all the interesting stuff that they hadn’t actually put into the book.

From there, they’ve made a regular practice of putting out new books exclusively through Kickstarter, following up later with POD versions through DriveThru.

There’s an entire subordinate discussion about the reality of POD-only books that I may or may not have already chewed apart, but the gist of my disdain* is this:  Without a market that caters to the hobby and gaming stores, these books are kept out of the hands of new customers.  Only the people that are already familiar with these games are going to buy them, and there’s an entire generation of gamers that is cut off from access to these products.  Even if they are introduced by some older veteran, their ability to purchase is limited to precisely one outlet, without any ability to find deals or discounts.  In a small and struggling industry, this is allowing the companies to only produce what they specifically have already sold even as they eliminate the warehousing aspect, but it eliminates many of the avenues of growth from the companies.

Anyway, Onyx Path has gained a deserved reputation for failing to meet deadlines on their products with an alarming regularity.  Before the boondoggle that was Ex3, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf that took eighteen months to fulfill, despite being wholly written at the time of the Kickstarter (and hilariously promising delivery within a month of the Kickstarter’s end).  Similarly, the Hunters Hunted II book took fifteen months to see delivery (again, fully written at the time of the campaign and arriving a full year after the promised deadline), which was a better turnaround, but still…  They were getting better about this by the time the W20 Changing Breeds book came around, in that it only took a year to deliver (still promising delivery about nine months before they were able to), but a pattern had been set by this point.

Onyx Path, as a company, is a weird successor to the highly regarded White Wolf games company that built a solid niche in the 90’s era.  The company was sold off to CCP, the Icelandic video game company responsible for the space spreadsheet MMO, Eve Online.  The idea, at the time, had been to vaguely merge the companies for the sake of developing a new MassMOG based on the Vampire property.  This product barely got past the ‘proof-of-concept’ stage of things before being ash-canned, and the fine print of the corporate hierarchy left the RPG licenses in the hands of a company that apparently had little interest in actually continuing the table top RPG lines.  (Go figure.  It’s a small, niche industry with narrow profit margins, especially compared to the weird financial juggernaut that is Eve Online.)

The result is that Onyx Path is licensing their products from CCP, with whatever fees that might entail.  In that way, it makes a certain sense that they are operating the way they are.

The reality is that they are a ragtag group of freelancers that are loosely tied to a central structure.  There are, perhaps, a half-dozen actual staffers that make up the company, and the rest of the writers are contract monkeys who turn in a manuscript and walk away.  And in essence, this loose structure is what is masquerading as an actual game company these days.  The sheer, obvious incompetence is hilarious in its audacity.  Because they are coasting on the reputation of a larger, better company (the White Wolf of the past), they are able to pretend that they are tapping into the same sort of permanent staff and accumulated expertise.  The truth of the situation is wildly different.  And no product better illustrates the level of incompetence nearly so well as Third Edition Exalted, or Ex3.

1.) Let’s start off with the unfortunate art choices.  Exalted has always been a game of evocative art, erring on the side of anime sensibilities.  Most of Second Edition’s feel was established by artists like Melissa Uran and the UDON Studio.  Some covers (for better or worse) contracted out to well-established and highly regarded artists like Adam Warren (of Dirty Pair and Empowered fame) and Kim Hyung-Tae (who did the character designs for Magna Carta, the PS2 game).  (Odd note:  Before they outsourced to Kim Hyung-Tae, I had picked up a Magna Carta art book as my handy reference guide for new players to show them how I saw Exalted.  It was actually sort of nice to be validated, even if his particular cover illustration was in questionable taste.)  It was colorful, high action, and gave a taste of how awesome the game could be.

In contrast, Ex3 has already hit a wall with their art, being as it looks like it hit the high points of a DeviantArt search.  There are some arguably good pieces (such as the homage to the Kowloon Walled City illustration of Wu Jian), but there are plenty of awful Poser illustrations to offset the good stuff.  One egregious example of poor choices incorporates a recycled image of the Scarlet Empress from a previous book, with a half-assed PhotoShop attempt that makes Creation’s Greatest Enemy look vaguely pregnant.  There’s even a weird depiction of one of the better established Sidereal antagonists looking like the head of Onyx Path and stealing a half dozen pieces of art from other sources.  (This one has already been stricken from the eventual book, even as the near-plagiarized images are allowed to remain.)  And none of this is to get into the truly bizarre and obnoxious piece that one forum termed “Banana Hammock Exhibitionist Display!”  (I feel that description speaks for itself.)

There’s also the issue that the weapons section of the book looks like some trashy late-90’s videogame render.  These entries are supposed to represent the panoply of Exalted power that a player character brings to bear upon their opponent.  Instead, it looks like these images were edited off someone’s Geocities page, just above the 3d spinning envelope that represents the email link.  In comparison, Second Edition looked like it was modeled on a Prima Guidebook for a videogame.  It worked.  This, in comparison, looks like canned ass.

I don’t think it needs to be re-stated that this is a game that raised $700K for development and artwork.  The head of the project is the former Art Director for White Wolf.  There is literally no excuse for this book to look this bad, especially when much smaller companies with far less of a potential art budget are able to produce better and more stylistically appropriate art for their games.  (Seriously, do a Google Search for Enascentia.  It’s an Italian game for Savage Worlds that follows similar design principles, being a high fantasy RPG with anime influences.  It raised a little over 1% of the money that Ex3 raised, and it is doing a better job of looking like Exalted than Exalted is doing these days.)

2.) The backer PDF is being treated like a Beta.

Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.  Let it reach the back of your tongue and soft palate.  This is a game that was “The Most Playtested Game Ever” when it was being pitched to a skeptical public.  This is a game that ostensibly took some 30 months for development and layout.  (The truth is, for whatever reason, the actual layout process was done last, rather than being developed in parallel.  You know, like a professional company might try to do?)  This is a game that was supposed to revitalize the industry and the company and excite all of the former skeptics and naysayers in the ranks.

And yet, the most recent updates on the Kickstarter are trying to “encourage all backers […] to send notes on any technical mistakes you might find” to the company to fix the errors that still remain in the book.  Yes, this is a game that charged over $100 to anyone who wanted a physical book, took two and a half years to get to this point, and now wants its backers to work for free to fix the errors that still remain in the text.

Keep in mind:  This text is the same text that was leaked by a playtester back sometime around late February of 2015, meaning that, in the intervening eight months, this is all the better job they can do of editing this mess.  By all accounts, the minor tweaks that have been done to the text are negligible, and the whiny “damage control” that a couple of the writers engaged in (noting that the release of an unfinished game would diminish the impact of the final product) was nothing more than an exercise in casting themselves as martyrs.

3.) The backer PDF is weirdly pre-final.

I would suppose this is a nitpick, but I’ll stand by it.  For backers, this is the first chance that they have to read through the book, gather ideas and set about working up their first stab at a newly christened Ex3 game.  By rights, this should be a real product.  Even setting aside the final editing pass that it needs, this PDF lacks a number of necessary tweaks to be final.  For one thing, it lacks a bookmark system, which would allow users to quickly move from section to section.  Logically, this would have the different chapters, as well as specific sub-headings dealt with (I’m thinking of the bloated Charm section, specifically; given that this is over 200 pages alone, it’s hell to try to find a charm set without a lot of paging and searching).

The official response (apparently) is that this will be added in later, since it would otherwise be too much work.  In response, one backer took about three hours and linked a full bookmark index into their PDF, posting it on the web for other users.

So, yeah.  Two and a half years to put together a semi-final version.  At least eight months with this text.  And nowhere in this time period could anyone spare three damned hours to make this product accessible to the people that had already put their money down on it?

In the mean time, there’s an extra page thrown in after Chapter 5 which throws off the two-page layout.  This borks it for anyone wanting to use two-page view on their PDF viewer, which again makes it difficult to use for a game, especially if you’re reading it off a decent tablet.

4.) Twenty-one pages of Backer Names.

All right, so I get it.  People want to be credited for their participation.  I can’t blame them for including this information in the book, as it offers a Kilroy bonus to the people who pledged and want to be recognized.  I mean, hey.  I’m in there, and everyone who bought this book has my stamp on their copy, however small.  (Stupidly, they managed to miscredit most of the backers of the book.  I am amongst the vast multitude who pledged for a physical book yet get credited for pledging for a PDF.  The difference of cash outlaid is about three to one.)

My problem stems from the base idiocy of having to splay this information across four damned columns.  I guess I should be glad they didn’t use 12-point font, but in comparison, the KS version of Ryuutama displayed their backers in a single column, small type, and only took six pages to do it.  And this is in a 6×9 book, rather than tome that Ex3 will arrive as.  They could have cut the “end credits” section of this book by half, minimum, allowing more space for additional content.  Or as a counterargument, this could have been one of many attempts to bring down the rather sizable bloat that this game ended up with.

5.) Charms.  The fucking Charms, man.

Along with being “The Most Playtested Game Ever,” this edition was supposed to fix the problems of the Second Edition game.

I will say this again.  This was a massive warning klaxon for me, the Cloister Bell of how bad things were going to get.  (And you, right there?  The guy that got that reference?  Nerd.)  I knew that, as soon as anyone came out trashing a wildly popular game as being awful, unplayable and the only people qualified to fix it were the ones hawking a new edition.  It didn’t help that one of the largest problems that was pointed out was Combat, which our collective group had managed to figure out and houserule enough to make it fast and easily dealt.

Another distinct problem was the Charms.

I’m not a banner waving champion of First Edition Exalted, as many of my peers tend to be.  I liked it well enough, but I never had any proper chance to play it to the same extent that I played Second Edition.  I spent more time with Second Edition, I had a great time playing it, and I will defend it on those merits.  That said, I understand completely many of the arguments against Second Edition from those that had been long time players.  The crux of many arguments came down to the Charm bloat that came with the revisions.

Rather than offer broad, customizable Charms that would offer a range of options and outcomes for the Second Edition version of the rules, the decision was made to try to account for every single possible outcome and nuance.  This meant that the number of charms skyrocketed, and the Charm Trees (essentially the flowcharts that allowed a player to make sense of their advancement options) grew huge and weird.  A given ability might have a dozen Charms associated with it, depending on what sort of flavor you wanted to attempt.  Not only was this a headache for players trying to make sense of where they needed to end up for their vision of their character, it was made things immeasurably more difficult for GM’s to cope with.  Not only did they have to keep some idea of what the player characters were capable of, they had to build workable and challenging NPC’s for their campaigns.

Given that each book had a set of new and distinct Charm Trees to properly model specific powers of the given Exalt type, a game of mixed types might have the GM tracking literal hundreds of Charms at any given time.  (For the maths portion of our lesson, let’s consider:  There are 25 separate Skills.  Each Skill has something like ten to fifteen separate charms, not counting Excellencies.  Some range closer to twenty.  Therefore, in a given Exalt type, there may be upwards of 300 Charms.  There are, as of the final books of Second Edition, seven discrete Exalt types.  This is not to mention Martial Arts Charms, which are multitudinous.)

Logically, one of the core goals of making a game more playable would be to address this particular issue, ne?

That, my child, is where you would be dead wrong.  Not only does Ex3 do nothing to deal with the issue of Charm bloat, it makes it far worse.  Looking through my copy, the Charm Section starts on page 250 and runs through page 423.  Further, the Martial Arts section (along with Sorcery, which might as well count) runs from there to page 491.  This is nigh on 250 pages of Charms, which is only made worse by another fascinating design choice, which I will cover in my next bullet point.

In glancing through the book again, as I write this, I realize that they couldn’t even manage to make the Table of Contents right.  There are errors abound in this section, which would seem like five minutes work for anyone with two screens and a modicum of ability.  Seriously, how hard is it to get page numbers right?

6.) There are no Charm Trees.

Yeah.  This is one that’s getting under people’s skin already.  For better or worse, Exalted has always required Charm Trees to navigate the intricacies of advancing a character’s special abilities and powers.  It’s one of the notable features of the game, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite fond of it.  I feel that it says something that Fantasy Flight Games has adopted a similar model to their character advancement in their various Star Wars lines.  It’s quick, visual and allows the players to easily reference what their options are as they go along.

According to Richard Thomas, the head of Onyx Path, the game developers made the decision to “streamline the Charms to no longer need Charm Trees” and hence, there would be no option to add them to the book as it stands.  (This is a direct quote on the Kickstarter update page.)  It’s really hard to come up with a response to this that doesn’t range into absolute profanity.

Condescension is one thing.  This is a clear case of pissing down my back and telling me that it’s raining.

The reason that Charm Trees aren’t included in this book is because they would be impossible to create with any logic or coherency.  Given the snail’s pace of development, the incompetence of the layout and markup, and the rank idiocy of the editorial staff, simply trying to make sense of the Charm Trees would have delayed the book another year.  I’ve seen attempts at the Charm Trees on the forums, and they are awful, mainly because the source material is incoherent and nonsensical.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Richard Thomas blithely offers as a reason.  The Charms were not streamlined.  They were made worse, by an order of magnitude.  By way of example, the Archery Charm Tree from the 2nd Edition main book had some 13 Charms, not counting associated Excellencies.  Another four were added in the First Age boxed set.  In Ex3, we’re already looking at 26 distinct Archery Charms.  And this isn’t to get into the new pseudo-charms (Evocations) that you can acquire for your legendary weapons.  (I will admit, this is a neat, new mechanic where every artifact has the potential to get its own Charm set.  It would be actually worth implementing if they hadn’t gone stupid with the base Charms.)

Another example, picked somewhat at random.  In 2nd Edition, the skill Performance had five Charms.  Another five were added in the First Age set, and Abyssals offered two more.  So, twelve in total.  In comparison, Ex3 goes absolutely stupid with things.  They put forth 36 gods-damned Charms for Performance, dividing them into Music, Dance, Acting, Oratory and … Sex.

Yeah.  Sex.  The edition of the game that was first brought to people’s attention with their Rape Charms has decided that they needed to throw this particular twist into the game.  Apparently this is an attempt to drive home that Exalted is a “mature” game for discerning individuals.  Or some shit.

There are some vaguely hilarious subtexts to this, which only make the idea even more stupid.  For example, a Solar getting his groove on can invoke the Masterful Performance Exercise as part of his “performance,” allowing him to re-roll and eliminate all results of “1” in the process.  Combined with another Sex Charm, this makes their Social Influence (on the specific target, naturally) ridiculously effective.  This almost begs for a late night infomercial.

Another Sex Charm offers up this particular gem:  “This intense lovemaking lasts at least three minutes […]”  Whoa there, big guy.  Let’s not get crazy here.

Solar Exalts, the Three Pump Chumps of the gaming world.

The worst part is that these complaints are just the start of things.  I’ve glanced at different sections and read through parts, trying to find improvement, yet all I’m faced with is continuing disappointment.  I’d gone into the entire endeavor with a guarded skepticism, hoping that I would be proven wrong along the way.  Instead, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and the growing dread that my fallback plan – scavenge the text for useful nuggets to convert back to Second Edition – was going to fall flat.

I wanted to like this book.  I did.  But three years of anticipation (the Kickstarter was announced well before it actually launched, at least six months in advance; there used to be a calendar on the Onyx Path site that outlined their unlikely and overblown plans for future products) have have not been bourne out to any satisfactory extent.  Instead, each new update has hardened my basic cynicism toward the game, and every snotty and self-important post by the line developers has shown that this was handed to the exact wrong people.

There had been a point where I had been tempted to build out a PDF to detail the epic Exalted campaign I ran back in the day.  I had wanted to share this vision with a community and offer something back to a group I had assumed would be a like-minded collective.  Instead, I realize that the fanbase of the game, such as it is, is heavily populated by tiresome fanboys who crow about the things in the game I find awful, and the reigns of control of this property have been handed to the loudest of these idiots.

Instead, I made a point of not detailing our campaign.  It has become a legend within our small and closeknit group, a private experience that can be shared with other people while still being kept out of the public eye.

If this is the shape of Exalted these days, I shudder to think what the gibbering masses would do with it anyway.

 

*Mind you, The Gist of My Disdain also happens to be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.

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The Economics of Dice

Lately, I’ve run into an interesting phenomenon, due to the peculiarities of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line.  As noted previously, the system requires a set of specialized dice suitable only for the Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion games.  (When Force and Destiny releases next summer, that will make three game lines, even though they’re all generally playable as one system.)  The dice are available in packs of fourteen for about $15 per set, retail, or $5 for the phone app.  By my reckoning, a player generally needs two sets to be able to assemble the requisite dice pools.

Having gamed as extensively as I have, I’ve amassed a sizable collection of dice over the years.  This includes the old gem dice that I ordered through the mail for TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes game, the decidedly sharp-edged D20 that came un-inked as was the fashion, and the various dice sets that I pick up at the different conventions.  I think nothing of acquiring a new set of dice when the whim strikes, and putting out some scratch for several sets of Fantasy Flight dice was just a side step in my normal habits.

It’s a safe bet to declare that I have over a thousand dice.  And most people I know acquire dice similarly.  Some have very specific requirements for new dice, making them match the products they’re using or specific ideas they have about a game in question.  This was much of the reasoning for picking up Q Workshop dice.  If you’re running Rise of the Runelords, get the officially licensed and properly thematic Runelords dice.  (I haven’t lapsed into this mode, personally, as it could get rather expensive to lay hands on the dice for each individual Adventure Path.  I did buy the Carrion Crown dice, however, but that path has stretched out over the course of three years.)  Similarly, I’ve seen brightly colored dice for superhero games, dark and moody D10’s for White Wolf games, weird green and black dice for Cthulhu and so on.

So, in some ways, it’s kind of funny to hear people whine about having to buy different dice for EotE.  And yet, it’s the common refrain for people who want an excuse to avoid the game anyway.  They can’t be bothered to pick up a set of dice for a game, even though the rule books themselves are factors higher in price.  If you’re willing to put out $250+ for the rule books, what’s $30 for a set of dice?  (This works on standard retail pricing and my contention that two sets are necessary for play.)

Part of it falls back to the specialized nature of the dice.  Outside of the core product, there isn’t much utility for the D6’s, D8’s and D12’s that make up the dice packs.  (And if you’re integrating the X-Wing Miniatures Game, the new D8’s that come with that.)  Logically, you could simply use the charts in the main book and convert your extant dice to the purpose of the new game.  And while this is possible, it’s not a wholly ideal solution, as the chart consultation is a headache and slows down the otherwise fast and loose aspects of using the new dice in the first place.

This argument doesn’t get very far with me, however, given my years of White Wolf and WEG’s D6 Star Wars.  The Storyteller System often required dice pools of a dozen D10’s (or more, if you were playing Exalted), and it wasn’t unheard of to need 20 D6’s for some games of Star Wars.  (There’s also the bizarre footnote of R. Tal’s Dragonball Z game, which technically required several thousand D6’s for a proper Saiyan battle, but there were a number of ways to get around rolling and tallying literal buckets-full of dice.)  And while it was technically true that you could re-purpose your Storyteller dice into an average D&D session, it was pretty unlikely.  If you were playing a game that wasn’t using a standard loadout for dice, you needed to buy dice specifically for the game, no matter what.  I have known people that keep specific dice for specific campaigns, to take it one step farther.

Over the years, my dice have ended up carefully segregated.  My Storyteller dice congregate in one specific bag, where I have another that is devoted to the plethora of D6’s I have amassed over the years.  There’s a bag devoted to D&D/Pathfinder dice of different sorts (mainly according to the specific colored sets), and so on.  My EotE dice have their own dedicated dice canister, as just another set of dice for a specific game.

What I found most interesting in the most recent whinge about having to buy new dice for a new game was that the person that was making the noise was one that didn’t have a lot of room to complain about spending too much on the hobby.  He is well known in the local area for his gaming excesses, between premium hotel rooms at the larger cons and booze to the level that it would cover a car payment.  He’s fully able to drop $4,000 on something like Gen Con, as it’s what he saves up for over the course of the year.  Another $15 for dice is hardly going to break the bank entirely.

And sure…  we all remember being 15 years old, when something like a core rulebook was something that was worked toward and greatly anticipated.  Back in those days, dice were something rare and particular, but that was just part of the overall value and novelty of the hobby at that age.  After a while, a groove is worn in, and there’s no longer any question as to the expense of the hobby.  It’s an expected truth, and for a lot of people, that means that they will concentrate on one game or aspect of the hobby to the careful exclusion of everything else.  Most people have a solid D&D or Pathfinder collection, where others pick up the necessary White Wolf offerings that they need to play.

For me, it means that I’m not going to spend a lot of money on cards or miniatures, since that would cripple my ability to maintain my library.  But then, I’m weird that way.

Session Deconstruction: Star Wars – Edge of the Empire #4

While events conspired to keep us away from Star Wars last week, what with bizarre work schedules (one of the players had to be to work at 2:00am, being as his co-workers wanted to be out at noon on Saturday) and a gaming convention that another was traveling to, this week fell together nicely.

I’ve been putting together a campaign in broad strokes thus far, pulling details from some canned modules in order to give my players a feel for the worldset and the dice mechanics before we drop into the larger aspects of a metaplot.  I’d read through a lot of the details of the various adventures from the different fora, lighting on a workable plot structure to hang the adventure from in the mean time.  Since I’d played some of the different adventures as a player, I wasn’t interested in trying to run these same events for new players.  (This is mainly because I had my own impressions and allegiances to the characters within, and running different characters through the places I had memories of seemed a bit … odd.)  Right now, they’ve gotten about half-way through the third module and are gearing up for the final battle at the main villain’s base.  It’s not a terribly complex module.

This adventure starts with the characters arriving on planet for whatever reason.  I had short-cut the hook to force them to seek out the main conflict as part of their assignment, so it was no particular surprise when they found their main contact dead in an alley.

Sorta.

This was an element that annoyed me when I read the adventure originally, and as I was to find out, it annoyed my players in much the same way.  The plot hook takes the form of broken and dying protocol droid that they find in an alley at the spaceport.  The way the module’s written, this is something of a chance encounter which solidifies the main plot for the characters and brings them into the larger intrigues.  For my purposes, it was one of the two droids that the characters were originally sent to make contact with.

As an aside, the plot has been coming together as such:  In the first module, Under a Black Sun, the characters work for a syndicate that’s looking for a courier that betrayed them.  This established the working relationship that I wanted to build out from there.  The second module, Debts to Pay, sent them to a mining complex that their employer needed an update from.  Being the only real colonization on the planet, I figured that the oridium was valuable enough that their criminal overlords would want a discreet way of moving it to a larger trading hub.  This put them on the trail of a new astrogation route to facilitate the transfer.  That’s where they show up in Trouble Brewing, as they’re looking for the droid that has the information they need.

It ends up being a little weird that the droid in question is an agromech droid, given that he’s got an extremely complex astrogation processor for a farm droid, but that’s weirdly nitpicky and well outside the threshold of care for most.

So anyway, they find this droid dying in an alley.  The way the module is written, there is literally nothing that they can do to save the droid.  He gasps out his message and expires on the spot.  This is pretty annoying when it’s done with an NPC that the characters would otherwise try to save (Aerith from Final Fantasy comes to mind), but it’s even worse when it’s a mechanical being that logically shouldn’t have any volatile memory (think about how badly munged up C-3PO was in Empire).  I tried to handwave it with broken memory chips and fading power supply, but I was greeted with a whole lot of annoyance about not being able to salvage the core workings and keep the droid intact.

More than likely, I shall retcon this particular detail so that they can bring the droid back to original function.  It was a bit of a stupid element in the first place, and even I couldn’t make a good enough case that it made sense as I was trying to run the damned thing.  I probably should have stuck with my original instincts and let the droid live.

There were a couple of random encounters to offer flavor to the spaceport of Formos, which were interesting and went a long way to give a sense to things.  What I found interesting was that one of the players lit on the idea of the planet being strikingly similar to Pandora from Borderlands 1 & 2.  I couldn’t refute it, being that it was a dusty and inhospitable sort of place filled with spacers, criminals and psychopaths.  And given that I may end up basing a lot more adventures on the planet as they set up shop, I can use the references to my advantage.

I did leave out a couple of things from the original text.  In much the same way that every adventure wanted to refer back to Hutts, there are an awful lot of references to Toydarians in these modules.  I have a great antipathy to any mention of Toydarians (the race that Watto belonged to in the abominable prequels), if only because they’re such a horribly racist portrayal.  The same goes for Nemoidians and Gungans.  Only Jawas are spared editing, simply because it’s comparatively subtle.  Otherwise, there’s the notation that the spaceport lies near Kessel, and my experience of the Kevin J. Anderson novels are enough for me to want to avoid dealing with the rat’s nest that are the spice mines.  (And the spice that comes from there is a lot more generic, rather than Anderson’s ham-handed attempt to bring the spice melange into Star Wars canon.)

Eventually, the characters find their way to the main cantina.  There commenced an unnecessary amount of nattering about the nature of musical instruments in the Star Wars universe, none of which had any relevance to the plot.  Such is the nature of my group, where they get caught up in minutiae at points.  They talked briefly to an information broker, dealt with a couple of social encounters and chose to trail some smugglers back to their nearby base on suspicion of being connected to the larger plot.  When their distrusts were borne out, they casually walked in and outright killed the biggest, meanest guy in the room.

Weird and anti-climactic moments are becoming part and parcel of the Wookiee’s methodology.  Before they had gotten to the planet, the Wookiee had decided to upgrade his vibroaxe, giving it a serrated, monomolecular blade.  This had the effect of combining nicely with its extant stats to reduce its threshold for critical hits to next to nothing and boost up the potential critical damage greatly.  In practical terms, it meant that almost any successful hit was going to guarantee a critical hit, and it would be brutal in its application.

For Edge of the Empire, the Critical Hit table ranges to 150%, necessitating a percentile roll to determine severity.  It is technically the only way that a character can outright die.  Without modification, that means that a normal range only will bring you to 100%, which is serious but otherwise non-fatal wound.  With his talents and modifications, the Wookiee was already sitting at a solid boost of +50% to any roll on the chart.  And EotE has a rule that states if you trigger multiple crits, these just add further percentage boosts.  With all of this in place, the final roll topped out the chart, triggering an instant kill on the spot.

This is not to say that a Wookiee with a cyberarm wouldn’t have killed the gang leader outright.  It’s just notable that I never had to bother, since the Critical Hit was enough to drop him on the spot.  And all of this happened before any of the assembled gang members could react.  A seven foot tall mass of rage and fur walks into the room, decapitates their leader and calmly informs them which side their bread was buttered on.  I couldn’t imagine that any of the assembled goons were suicidal enough to try putting  up a fight as a result of this.  They gave up without a fight, and the session ended roughly there, with the raid on the main smuggler base being set up for the next session.

What did I take away from this session?

Well, I have to admit that even if I think I can sell a stupid idea to my players, such as the irrevocably dead protocol droid, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Odds are, if I think it’s stupid when I originally read it, it’s probably pretty stupid when I try to make it happen in the game.  Having the droid end up dead served no purpose for the sake of the story, so there wasn’t any reason to keep the players from being able to work their mojo and save its life.

Oddly, I think that may have annoyed my players enough that they just wanted to beat something in response.  Where last session, they were fairly willing to do things intelligently, there was a greater tendency to want to bring the noise this time.  (See previous notation on the dead gang leader as an example.)  They had debated murdering the rest of the assembled gang members, until it was pointed out that the local Imperials might be willing to do something with them.

Finally, equipment continues to be the most important part of the game, trumping most things like skills or talents.  The Wookiee’s vibroaxe made extremely short work of the one NPC, and there wasn’t anything I could throw out to slow that train down.  Not that this is a surprise to me, mind you.  My Selonian Bounty Hunter had a similarly tricked out weapon near the end as well, but I ended up using it sparingly.  Between that and her heavily modified gun, there wasn’t much that I couldn’t bring down with enough concentrated fire and a little bit of luck.  Sure, my Smuggler could talk the ears off a Gundark, but if shit properly hit the fan, the Selonian’s weapon load-out was brutal enough to back it up.  The same thing was true of their ship-based weaponry.  (Which also pointed to how important Attributes end up being alongside a properly built set of gear.  But that’s a discussion for another time entirely.)

All in all, things go well.  The next session will bring the end of the current module, and once that’s out of the way, I’m likely going to have to launch into unknown territory.  I have a number of ideas in mind, but it’s going to hinge on what sort of direction the players themselves take.  We’ll see what happens.

Session Deconstruction: Star Wars – Edge of the Empire #1 & 2

Lately, I find myself in a bit of a strange bind.  Since I’m looking for a house, that’s taking a lot of my time and creative energy away from me.  There are too many factors to balance that I can’t simply carve out the requisite time to be able to sit down and write.  Or at least, not on the subjects that are required for a novel, per se.  It doesn’t help that I’m in the pre-production stage of putting the new novel together.  I finished the old one, distributed it with a couple of people and the process of building a query letter is also firmly in the ‘once-I-have-things-settled-on-the-house’ area.

At the same time, I’m finding myself with a stock of things to talk about, blog-wise.  For the first time in quite a while, I have a surplus of blog entries written out, with more pushing in around the edges.  I guess the habit of writing on a daily basis has sorta taken hold on me, given my previous rate of production here and on novel-related ephemera.  At the same time, I don’t particularly want to go back to a daily deadline with these, since I know things are going to get in the way of my goals.  A weekly entry seemed like a good idea, and I am loathe to break that schedule too badly.

As a sort of compromise, I figure I’ll put in an extra feature – a sort of post-game recap of the one game that I’ve got going at the moment.  (Technically, I’m running two regular games, but the biweekly Carrion Crown game has been going for three years at this point, so I don’t know as that grind is necessary to talk about at length.)  The game in question is a recently built Star Wars game, using FFG’s Edge of the Empire system.  I’ve talked about the system at different points, and I only grow more fond of it as time progresses.  As to why I’ve put together a new game of it, I’ll get around to talking about that … oh, next week.

The game has been running for two weeks thus far.  I put together a new group, comprised of one of my current players, one of my old players from a little over ten years back, and the guy that originally introduced me to role-playing in the first place.

It’s … a bit of an odd group.

For what it’s worth (and like I say, I’ll get into this part a bit later), the current player is the last man standing of what had been a pretty solid group up until recently.  When the last other player departed, we decided that, rather than scrap the idea of a regular Friday game entirely, I’d cast about to see what I could assemble from the other possibilities.  The second player is a good friend of mine who had moved off to The Big City a little over ten years back, only to return about six months ago.  I had largely fallen out of touch with him over the years, what with being in Asia and generally not having a lot of time to look him up when I wasn’t.  Sure, my wife’s parents were less than twenty miles from where he was living, but I never managed to cross paths with him while we were there.

As to the third guy, he and I had fallen out of touch a while back.  After his first marriage ended, I’d tried to give him a hand getting back on his feet.  It was one of those situations where no good deed went unpunished.  I ended up writing him off before I went abroad, and it was only after his second marriage fell apart that we’ve been talking again.  (These aren’t specifically related, but that was the impetus for him to reach out again and look to reconcile.)

I suppose it’s something peculiar to our local group, but the saying goes that we can forgive anything except a bad game.  Oddly, the guy that coined that ended up running one of the worst games any of us had collectively been in, right before he melted down and burned his last bridge with the larger group.  C’est la vie, I guess.

The first session had two of the three players, as one was coming down from dental surgery and begged off that week.  We built characters, decided on the era of play and started throwing dice.  I was running a canned adventure from one of the available official modules, just to make things simple.  I’ve gotten into the mode of starting things off with the FFG stuff, just to test the waters and see what the players are up for.  I figure I’ll run one or two more before deciding what direction to go in from there.

It’s an interesting notation, in its way.  Fantasy Flight has done some fascinating things with the way they craft their adventures in Edge of the Empire.  When I convinced one of my older players to run it for us, he dove directly into the canned adventures to get an idea of how the flow was supposed to go and to see what sorts of tempo the game designers had in mind.  And the adventures that he’d lain hands on were startlingly good, even as far back as the original beta of the core rules.  The module was fast, loose, action-packed and filled with really interesting locales from the various media of the galaxy.  There was investigation alongside the shoot-outs, some ship combat and plenty of opportunity to play the action hero in the midst of it all.  It was actually sort of impressive.

It also laid the groundwork for the larger plots that the GM put together.  The important NPC’s from that adventure were tweaked into the other adventures, and it established enough of the backdrop that we could range about within the plots that we had already set in motion.  Naturally, I took this success as a cue and worked up my new campaign with the same sort of ideas in place.

The first session was a simple sort of intro adventure, taken from one of the Free RPG Day modules that I never got the chance to find locally.  (As an unneeded commentary on the hellhole that I currently live in, the only store to actually participate in Free RPG Day in my area is also the only one in about two hundred miles.  There’s not much to go around, once the regulars have stopped in for their swag.)  Since it was meant to get people buying the product line, it’s fairly fast and fun, geared toward extremely basic characters.  I didn’t bother with the pre-generated characters that had been included, assuming rightly that they wouldn’t be terribly interesting or long-term.

What’s interesting, as I look over the pre-gens, is that none of these characters make any sense from the established rules that I’ve been using.  I could understand it, were this an early beta or the like, but the rules were codified enough to release the core rules within a month or two.  (Furthermore, they re-released this module on PDF after the rules had been out for a little while, and the pre-gens are still really, really weird.)  A similar thing holds for the characters in the Beginner’s Game Box Set, where the rules that govern these characters are similarly weird.  In the case of the Boxed Set, the characters are given advancement trees that are wildly dissimilar.

Digress, digress, digress.

The module itself is extremely simple and geared pretty heavily to the locales, rather than any intricate plot.  It starts in media res, with the characters fleeing a data theft that they were given as a job.  They’ve successfully stolen the data, the enemies were alerted to what’s going on and a chase ensues.

I wish I could say this went well.  That is to say, the players had fun, but their characters suffered.

One of the players had power-built his character (which seems to be part of FFG’s philosophy in their pre-gens) by stocking most of his points into attributes and leaving the rest of the character to natural advancement.  This ended up giving him a fairly respectable dice pool for most of the important actions.  Being a Wookiee Melee Specialist, this meant that he was mainly focused on beating people with his vibro-axe.  The other character was a stock human Slicer who had a scattering of skills, largely average attributes and some as-yet unnecessary talents.  And for whatever reason, neither one could roll a success to save their lives.  It was actually fascinating to watch.

When they finally made their escape, following two largely unnecessary combat sequences, they learn that they need to do some investigation and track their quarry down to wherever he’s holed up.  And again, when it comes to throwing dice at actions, they’re able to maintain a legacy unmarred by success.  The fact that they accidentally over-bribe a passing informant is all that leads them in the right direction.  Doing so shortcuts the rest of the adventure and leads them directly to the main villain of the scenario.

Oddly, this is where everything comes together.  They manage to succeed admirably in evading security, tracking the logical hideout of the bounty hunter and finding their way to him.  Granted, they managed twice to accidentally set off the traps that have been strewn in their paths, but the end result isn’t changed much as a result.  I figure this is going to turn into a tense scenario like the first combat, only to have the Wookiee hack the villain’s arm off and intimidate him enough to give up.  They return the stolen goods to their employer without incident, and all is well.

There’s an odd aspect to this adventure, having read through a number of other modules and various suggestions in the core rules.  The adventure that’s featured in the core rule book of EotE makes a fairly succinct point of denying the crew as much of their reward as they possibly can.  When they manage to apprehend their target, they’re essentially told that they’re working for free or that actually making good on the money they were promised is next to impossible.  Yet in the end of this module, the conclusion notes that they will come off with a solid amount of money without problem.  By way of comparison, the reward is about five to ten times as much as the bounty the core book wants to deny them.  And in a similar manner, the module I’m working the characters through now offers a similar screw job where they may be able to walk away with a tidy sum, but the consequences for doing so mean that they’re going to end up in much worse straits in the immediate future.

That’s the thing, though.  I get that Edge of the Empire characters are supposed to be scum and villainy who have to work for their every meal.  Between Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, it’s a common theme of the genre.  What I don’t get is that FFG is going out of their way to make sure that they will never get ahead, no matter how hard they try.  Or that when they do manage to do so, it seems like a pre-beta mistake in writing.  Add into this the fact that decent equipment is the core of the game, and it starts to get weird.  (By way of explanation, it’s been noted that investing several thousand into your gear will compensate for much of the early power disparity for the low level characters.  A good gun or a set of custom armor will get a character much farther than skills or attributes alone.  The same holds true for customized ship systems, but that requires a whole lot more outlay.)

That was the first session.The second session, which ran this last Friday, added our third player, likely the final addition to the group.  This netted us a Selonian Smuggler, which makes it official – if I am involved in an Edge of the Empire game in any way, there has to be a Selonian involved somehow.  My Bounty Hunter in one game was a female on the run from her clan, and a friend of mine played a Selonian Soldier searching for information on the destruction of one branch of her clan in the game I ran.

As I go along, I’m building out the crime syndicate that the characters are working for.  At the moment, it’s shaping up to be a Rodian Crime Boss with a mass of scar tissue along the side of his head, a cybernetic eye and a propensity to quietly threaten them with untold consequence if they don’t manage to succeed.  It’s going well, all told.  I made a mistake early on, when I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to the details of the module (and didn’t check on a specific mention in the module), so I’m going to modify the picky aspects of it for the subsequent modules.

One of the problems I have with the FFG adventures is that, if you aren’t completely aware of the reference that they’re making in the text, there’s a good chance that you’ll miss the larger backstory.  The case in point that I was referring to earlier is the Pyke Syndicate.  The module notes that they’re a group of spice smuggling crime lords, and the syndicate is made up of members of the Pyke species.  In my skim through to prepare the adventure, I had missed the species angle to things and assumed that it was more of a family thing.  When I started researching bits later, I realized that it was a reference to a Clone Wars episode that I had not watched and there’s much more to the syndicate than I had put into the adventure (and the build out of their criminal contacts).  As such, the details that I built out specifically contradict the species and syndicate as they already exist.  Since none of the actual Syndicate show up in the module (they’re more of a shadowy employer that works through go-betweens), it hadn’t been a problem.  Now that I’m involving the characters more readily in these affairs, I need to retcon a couple of names.

As things go, the characters haven’t gotten terribly far in the module as yet.  It opens out with the characters on their way to meet with their employer.  (In the original text of the module, they’re working for a Hutt.  This is another bit that starts to wear on me.  I realize that the Hutt crime families are built out pretty heavily in the expanded universe, but it seems like about half the modules lead back to a Hutt in one way or another.  In about six modules, I want to say that they mention four separate Hutt crime lords that the characters are either working for or running from.)

Early on, there’s a conflict between some Gamorreans and the crime lord over finances.  It’s supposed to be a subtle thing that the characters pick up on as the action mounts, but the Wookiee noticed it right off and picked a fight with a couple that were waiting around for the action to start.  Largely without provocation, he demanded to know if they had ‘paid the looking tax’ for loitering outside the boss’ mansion, beat them senseless and threw them at the boss’ feet.  This had the interesting effect of shortcutting the action and removing a third of the adversaries from the upcoming fight.  Needless to say, they had things well in hand when the rest of the group showed up.

Well, up to the point that the Wookiee got his arm cut off.  Live by the sword, and all that.  He took a chunk of Obligation and ended up with a cybernetic replacement (something that he had talked about getting anyway), and they were sent off to deal with a labor dispute at a mining complex.  We called the session a little after they arrived, and I’m figuring that the rest of the module will be finished in another session.

So, what observations can I draw from the first sessions?

This is essentially the second campaign I’ve started for Edge.  And as I go along, I’m more and more impressed by the ease at which the rules come together for new players.  Character creation is ridiculously simple, the dice rolling is both fast and intuitive and most of the players are immediately familiar with the source material.  The more I look at it, I think there’s an inherent assumption that most of the opening experience points are going to go into Attribute buys, as it’s the one thing that is actually difficult to do later.  As such, it seems like the spread is somewhere around two to three of the six attributes are expected to have raised to three.  If a player chooses to keep their attributes close to stock, it’s a bit of a disadvantage over both the short and long term.

For starting characters, there needs to be at least three players to have any balance.  All characters need some sort of combat ability, no matter what.  From there, it’s assumed that one character will be able to pilot, one will take care of technical matters (including first aid and general knowledge) and one will have the ability to talk.  If any of these are not well represented, the adventures will get hung up in fairly short order.

Of my players, two are pretty heavy Star Wars fans.  At the same time, they’re the two players that haven’t played this system before.  The third player has been in two separate games, having built a number of solid characters, and he’s able to speed up the dice and move the action along for me.  It isn’t as though the system requires a lot of heavy explanation as it goes along, but an experienced player helps free me up for other tasks.

…and I pushed this past 3,000 words.  If I go any farther, I’m never going to get around to talking about Session #3, wherein the focus of the game starts to come to the fore.  I shall pick this up next time.`

How I Spent My Gen Con Vacation

Drinking with Game Designers.  Full stop.

Yeah, that’s a piss-poor entry, even my by admittedly loose standards.  Let me see…

Let’s go with a loose, overall set of impressions, shall we?  This way, I can cover some ground of what the various game publishers have been doing, and in the process, I can talk about things as they come up.  Have no expectations about the content or quality, and you shall be less disappointed than otherwise.

First off, the con was slammed.  The press release from Peter Adkison (nice guy, met him once, and he also happened to attend my friends’ wedding) that immediately followed said that it was up 10% from last year and has more than doubled over the past five years.  It was wall-to-wall people, everywhere you looked, and yet, I was still able to hook up with many old friends from years before, just happening past in the aisles.  The con personnel are getting crowd control well in hand, and even picking up my badge from the Will Call line took no time at all.

What’s more interesting is that Paizo is starting to get a handle on how popular their booth is, seeing as they always used to run out of their pins within a couple of hours of the exhibitor hall opening.  This year was literally the first time I have ever been able to pick up all four days’ worth of commemorative pins.  (Don’t ask me why this matters to me; I don’t have any real answer.)  They had to run a line outside of the hall, out in the main corridor, but when I wandered in to look at some of the years’ merch, it moved pretty fast, all things considered.  I didn’t go at exactly peak times, but there were plenty of people waiting with me, and it only took twenty minutes, all told.

And while I love Paizo dearly, they still have occasion to let a mistake past, despite otherwise having raised the bar to nigh insurmountable levels for most other publishers.  It’s oddly amusing to see this happen, precisely because they hold themselves to such standards.  This year’s new hardcover release was the the Advanced Class Guide, where they meld the basic classes into what amounts to being hybrid classes.  It’s a nifty book, well worth the time and money (this is where I could bitch about how one should only pick up a book of theirs if it’s Advanced, while carefully steering clear of the Ultimate ones; it’s a topic for another time), but the first print run is listed as being an Adventure Path on the cover.  It’s a simple logo switch that happened some time in production, but there it is.  The second print run will be rid of the offending text, so snatch up your ‘collectible’ copies while you can.

Competing with Paizo for the long lines is Fantasy Flight.  Unlike Paizo, they couldn’t route people out into the outer corridor, so they had people snaking around their booth and demo area for most of the con.  They managed to get people through that line pretty quickly, assisted by a ‘get to know the people in line with you’ card game.  In theory, there was a prize for managing to collect the right base of cards, but that was well beyond the ten or twelve people we were in line with.

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the booth at Fantasy Flight, since I had a singular mission, but they did come out with a number of new minis for the X-Wing game, a new fleet tactical game for Star Wars and the new edition of Dark Heresy.  I might have considered a YT-2400 – I’ve always had a soft spot for Dash Rendar’s Outrider and we managed to make it our main ship in Edge – but they were already sold out by the time I got to the line.  (The same holds true for AEG’s Limited Edition wooden box release of Doomtown.  I want badly to get hold of the game, but not at the original price of $120, let alone the notably multiplied eBay markups.)

The Beta for Force and Destiny is a fine thing, as it captures all of the flavor and variance of the old Knights of the Old Republic video game, between the character careers and the lightsaber modifications.  I’m sure that some new stuff will be thrown in for the final edition, being that this is merely the Beta, but what I have in front of me is enough that I’m already jonesing for a proper game to go.

I picked up my backer copy of Primeval Thule at the booth.  They made a couple of interesting design choices in the book, just from my initial perusal.  Since they managed to get the support for three different editions of the damned thing, between 13th Age, Pathfinder and 4e, they had to make some editing decisions in the process.  What this boiled down to was a choice to make an appendix that the relevant parts of the book referred back to in-text.  This way, only one part of the book needed to be changed between the editions.  I’m still debating if this was an elegant or lazy way of doing things.  And in doing so, I’m sort of leaning toward elegant, just on the basis of the novelty of it all.  We shall see if this judgment holds.

They did commit a cardinal sin with the book, however, by including in-text adventures.  Over the years, I’ve found that I would rather have such things appear as web enhancements, like D&D 3.5 did with many of their products.  (A practice that I feel started with Deadlands, back in the day.)  Rather than waste valuable pages on an adventure that may only be run once, if at all, I would much rather have the illustrative introductory adventure show up in some other form, when I’m paying for the book to have as much reference material as physically possible.

… and just like that, I find myself standing at the brink of a Wick hole.

This is a lot of the problem I’m finding I have with Wicked Fantasy, overall.  There’s a lot of wasted space in the book that might have been used for actual interesting things.  I don’t need to know what the Orkish word for blood is.  I want to know what sort of vaguely Klingon-inspired weapon they’re going to use to spill it.  What do their villages and family units look like?  What is it about this world that makes these orks darker and edgier and more dangerous than the orcs of pretty much every other D&D game?  Instead, we get … words … about words.  There are between fifty and seventy wasted pages of bad fanfic that serves no concrete purpose and does nothing to illuminate the world.  The page count on this idiot book could have been cut in half, and I would have come out better for it.

Man, I hate that book.  I would burn the damned thing, if that didn’t go farther to illustrate the wasted money.

Anyway, my point remains.  If you’re going to insist on an adventure to properly introduce a game, then it shouldn’t have to take up real estate in the book itself.  Especially not in this day and age, when a good portion of book sales seems to come in the form of digital copies anyway.  It’s almost enough to make me want to invest in a tablet PC to be able to carry even more reference material wherever I go.

I invested heavily in Fate books, finishing out my Dresden Files collection (of two books; I know…) and picking up a copy of Fate Core.  My main bill at the IPR booth was acquiring materia for other people, including a copy of Tenra Bansho Zero for one of the guys.  In doing so, I accidentally ran into Andy Kitkowski, the translator for TBZ and the upcoming Ryuutama.  He had come back from Nihon for the sake of Gen Con, dragging along Atsuhiro Okada, the actual writer and designer for Ryuutama.  It was an interesting chance meeting, and I took the opportunity to have him sign a couple of the post card GM handouts for me.  Alas, since Ryuutama has yet to hit print, there was nothing for me to have Okada sign, alas.

The final note, as I’ve largely lost the thread of where I was going when I started this post, was that I saw something truly fascinating at the greater DriveThru booth.  As has become usual for White Wolf/Onyx Path, there was no actual product of any weight to be had at the booth.  It’s Print on Demand and digital distribution, after all, why bother with trying to sell it at the convention?  They did have some product on display, but very little of it seemed available to sell.  One thing, in particular, did catch my eye, however.

And this is so much gaming esoterica, I grant.  It was a copy of the oft-lamented BESM 3rd Edition, the final product of Guardians of Order, after the weird horror that was the Game of Thrones RPG that everyone seemed to have tried to buy yet no one ever ran.  BESM 3rd was the full sized red cover version of the rules that somehow ended up in the hands of White Wolf for distribution.  It came out in January of 2007, got snatched up by the fan base and has never been seen since.  Naturally, it’s still ridiculously expensive (to the point that a copy of the original printing, even this long out of print, is only about twice as much), but it’s once again available.

All in all, there was a lot more that passed outside of my perception at the convention, since I had specific goals and aspirations.  There were events for D&D 5th that I blithely ignored, there were new products from publishers I have nothing to do with, and there were games running that I didn’t attend.  But the things I saw were worth my time, and some of them will even merit further study in future entries.

Further thoughts on Edge of the Empire

The other night, we managed an abbreviated session of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars – Edge of the Empire.  Being a holiday weekend, we all had other obligations on the following days, so there wasn’t time for the main session we’d had in mind.  Right now, we’re running two separate campaigns of EotE, largely because I managed to convert one of my players over to the system pretty early.  He sees it as a chance to better learn the rules through running the game, and I have a rare chance to actually play the damned thing.  It’s a strange phenomenon, let me tell you.

Being on the other side of the screen has afforded me a number of interesting insights into the mechanics of the game, particularly in terms of how important equipment modifications and and attribute arrays are.  The attribute part is fairly self-evident, given that it’s relatively difficult to upgrade once play has begun as you have to dedicate something like 75 Experience Points (with a base of 10 to 20 awarded per session) in each specific Career Specialization.  And a little experience with the system tells us that even though it may be generally possible to play a character with the absolute minimum for attributes, it’s a better idea to have at least two points per, else things start to get problematic.

It was the equipment modifications that caught me off-guard, in all truth.  I’d glanced over the rules in my first pass through the book, but it hadn’t seemed like it was something essential.  It was only when it showed up in play did I realize how much of a real difference these rules offered.

Baseline equipment – which includes weapons, armor and vehicles – comes with a number of hardpoints which vary based on the type and quality of the equipment in general.  These hardpoints offer a discrete number of modification slots that can be fitted with attachments and accessories.  Since weapons are the most likely to be initially modified, I’ll use them as the go-to example for the moment.

Say your character has skill in Ranged (Heavy), which covers the ability to shoot most sorts of rifles and heavier armaments of the like.  For a starting character, the best options for blasters are regular Blaster Rifles and Heavy Blaster Rifles.  The differences with these weapons are actually relatively minimal.  The Heavy Rifle does one more point of damage, but it weighs significantly more and has a special quality (Cumbersome) to make it more difficult to wield in combat.  (Encumbrance is actually a part of the game, but it’s minor and fairly easily dealt with.  For the most part, it’s in there to keep characters from rattling around the galaxy with eight different guns strapped to their belts.)  The increased difficulty of using it is balanced with it having the ability to fire fully automatic.  This is pretty significant, to be honest.

Just looking at the numbers, however, is enough to drop the Heavy Rifle from consideration.  Using a stock Heavy Rifle is actually fairly unlikely for most characters, as the normal starting Brawn for most races is under the requisite threshold.  With that in mind, it’s probably acceptable to go with the normal Blaster Rifle instead.

This is where the equipment modifications become important.  As it happens, simply adding a strap to the Heavy Blaster is enough to mitigate the difficulty of using the gun by removing a point from the Cumbersome keyword.  And as it turns out, further tweaks to this strap are enough to imbue the weapon with the Quick Draw quality, which appears elsewhere as a Talent that can only be bought in a couple of career specializations.  So, for the price of a couple of hundred credits, a gun that was originally too heavy for a normal character to easily use in combat becomes ridiculously useful, as it no longer has any real drawback in combat and is given a significant advantage in the process.

Similar modifications can net such advantages as better up-close weapons and vastly improved tactical ability, most of which just require a competent technician to modify for use.  Each upgrade requires an ever-increasing difficulty to install, but the effects make this something of a necessary thing, as they can quickly shift the balance of combat towards the characters.

Finally, I came to sort of epiphany on the Obligation system for the game.  As I have noted, this is one of my favorite elements of EotE, as it gives the GM a dynamic method for generating adventures and keeping the characters aware of the things that have brought them to this place.  Edge of the Empire is, at its heart, a game about broken characters, and the Obligation reinforces this element of the backstory.

As written, the characters are free to choose their starting Obligation based on the various sorts of backgrounds that make sense to the player.  This means that a sample group of four characters will have four wholly separate skeletons in their closet to work out over the course of play, which is fine and good, were it not for the whole ‘having a ship’ thing.  See, the final part of the whole character creation thing has the characters picking out a ship for their group, assuming that the cost of such is balanced by the previously allocated Obligation.  Mechanically, it works out pretty well, but thematically, it has a couple of holes.

Most of this comes in the form of not being able to reconcile the alien who has important familial ties and the hardened criminal that’s fleeing the bounty hunters after he murdered someone back on his home planet with whomsoever they’re owing money to for the privilege of having a home base and means of transport.

For my own part, I’ve decided to house-rule it so that the required Starting Obligation takes the form of Debt to a specific source, thereby allowing the ship to provide adventure hooks in and of itself.  While there’s plenty of room to adjust things (like the case of Lando, where ships and executive positions are gained through games of Sabacc), it gives a starting point for the game and a sense of why the ship itself binds them together.

Star Wars – From the Other Side of History

Over the years, I’ve run and played quite a lot of the various Star Wars RPG’s.  Until the time of the Prequel Trilogy, it was one of my favorite movie series, and I delved pretty deeply into the lore of the setting.  While it was originally bourne of outright fandom, the role-playing game from West End Games offered me something of a practical outlet for my unnatural obsessions.  It helped that WEG themselves were pretty hardcore in their general fandom as well, to the point that their source books were handed out as reference guides to incoming authors.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with players who wanted to build their own versions of the ragtag group of heroes that will ultimately scrape through and save the galaxy from the predations of the so-named evil Galactic Empire.  While fine and good, this particular genre of games has something of a shelf life for anyone who’s seen it all already.  When I realized that there was a particular antipathy settling into my bones towards the normal sort of Star Wars game, I began casting about for something different to allow some fresh air into my games.

The remedy that I settled upon was the idea of an Imperial based game.  There was plenty of source material that was available for such an endeavor, between the novels, comics and WEG source books, so it just fell on me to sort through and figure out which sort of game was best suited for a new group.  A lot of the original thinking for this particular game idea was sketched out while I was living overseas, and since I lacked the proper gaming group to be able to fine tune these ideas, I simply worked out most of the campaign ideas with an eye to running it in the future.

For better or worse, I managed to run part of my original idea with one of my local groups, but the logistics of the group ended up stalling it partway into the first act.  A lot of the baseline ideas were solidified, but there was never any sort of forward motion into the later parts of the longer campaign.

The idea was that the characters would start out the game as relatively fresh Stormtrooper recruits, assigned as part of the main detail on a sector-based Star Destroyer.

And yes, recruits.  As I’ve stated before, I loathe nearly every aspect of the Prequel Trilogy, so any canon that is derived from those movies is almost instantly stricken, as it manages to contradict both its own internal logic and much of the Expanded Universe that came before it.  For that matter, I made a firm point of removing the latter half of Return of the Jedi from canon as well, for a number of reasons.  Moving on.

The first act of the campaign would entail setting up the worldview of the Galactic Empire from the standpoint of the Imperial Marines, as they had to act as the peacekeepers throughout the galaxy where some million separate worlds had to peaceably coexist.  From their outlook, the Rebel Alliance was a band of hostile terrorists seeking to undermine the authority of an interim Emperor who was desperately trying to hold everything together as internal struggles threatened political stability.

The punchline to all of this was that it was entirely true, even in the scope of what Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back portrayed.  Everything that these Stormtroopers were fighting to maintain was according to a secret agenda that the Emperor himself had set up, based on knowledge that only he held.

See, if you return to the original themes of the Empire, as established in the first two movies, the idea of the Emperor as a powerful Jedi actually weakens the movies.  Darth Vader is not a powerful or highly respected individual in the A New Hope; rather, he is a mocked and derided character, a superstitious and broken old man who clings to an ancient religion even as the galaxy moves on without him.  At the same time, the New Order itself is clean and sleek and full of technocratic authority.  Even Leia recognizes this when she’s captured by Vader and brought to Grand Moff Tarkin, as she refers to Tarkin as ‘holding Vader’s leash.’

At the same time, Vader is noted as being utterly faithful to the Emperor.  Given that A New Hope is directly pulled from the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, the allegory of Vader being an aging samurai warrior whose loyalty to his daimyo is absolute, there’s specifically no reason for making the Emperor into a Dark Jedi, as he’s already powerful enough with his political influence.  Physically, he may be a frail old man, but he wielded enough influence to dissolve the Galactic Senate with very little opposition, and it is this same presence and influence that keeps an aging warrior like Vader under his sway.

I’ll leave the Nixon allegories out of this, for what that’s worth.

So, let’s work with the idea that the Emperor was acting on a different agenda.  The Clone Wars are in the recent past, something shadowy and vaguely embarrassing to the galaxy that avoids being brought up.  Tarkin himself has taken command of the Death Star, an Imperial military project that the Emperor authorized for some specific and currently unknown purpose.  According to other sources, there exist a number of weapon stockpiles scattered across the Galactic Rim, in places such as Mount Tantiss on the planet Wayland.  All of this points to a secretive build up of forces somewhere outside of the military command.

The second act of the campaign would follow the characters on a series of missions set by the Admiral in command of their ISD home base.  Having found a couple of these mysterious storehouses of materiel and clone tanks, there would be enough evidence of some deeper agenda, which the Admiral would task the characters with investigating.  Along the way, there would be seeds of a larger conspiracy, as specific agents of the Emperor would be involved in keeping the secrets, without working to sabotage the efforts of the player characters.

The third act would come after the assassination of the Emperor, whose confirmed death would invoke a final directive to the active Imperial forces.  This would reveal the nature of the weapon stockpiles, as they were put in place to defend the galaxy from an external force that threatened to pull everything down around them, now that the Emperor could no longer work to dismantle this threat.

Overall, I figured that each act of the campaign could cover specific time periods.  The first part would take place before the events of A New Hope, and the final part would pretty much be set in motion after the (heavily revised) events of Return of the Jedi, with narrative skips to cover the intervening years between parts.  The exact nature of the extra-galactic threat would come down to whichever villain I felt would best fit, whether it was a Ssi-Ruuk sort of adversary, only writ large and fearful, or something closer to my own interpretation of the Yuuzhang Vong.

As it happened, I only managed something like a third to half of the first act, where the characters had been firmly established as proper Imperial Stormtroopers, and they’d become marginally aware of the larger aspects of what was going on behind the scenes.  It was a fantastic game, but there was too much fracturing in the group to be able to hold a long term game together, and accordingly, it fell apart after a fair number of sessions.