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Threading the Needle on Lore

Let’s talk about Legend of the Five Rings by opening with a discussion on Star Wars.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

A distressing amount of my life has been defined by my adoration of Star Wars.  I am old enough that I managed to see the original trilogy in the theaters, and I adopted the old West End Games Star Wars D6 game nearly as soon as it hit the shelves.  (Y’know, thirty damned years ago.  Ugh.)  My world, for good or for ill, is littered with the ephemera of the setting, whether it come in the form of toys, books, concept art, etc.

I was not, however, a fan of the Prequel Trilogy.  It made little to no sense, and I have made it a point that anyone who prefers these movies is not likely to be a good fit for my playing group.  I’ve gone to the trouble to rewrite my own personal canon for this time period, deviating from the movies as I need to in order to maintain a cohesive narrative, something that these movies do not do.

And so far as it goes, I’m a huge fan of the direction of the new Star Wars movies, with a special eye to the bleakness of Rogue One.  I understand why people don’t necessarily like the new movies, but they’re challenging.  They may not be made for people who are comfortable in their perceptions of the galaxy that these stories are set in.*

I especially liked Solo, which seems to put me in the minority.  I had no problem with the re-casting of the main character, I enjoyed the plot, and more than anything, I was a fan of the inclusion of the myriad little details that hinted at the expanded universe of the old novels and comics.  It was a pity that the so-called “easter eggs” that were scattered throughout the movie were missed by all of the old fans that chose to sit this one out because of their reaction to The Last Jedi.

Looking over the adventure in the Beginner’s Box for L5R, I feel like this edition is going to be the Solo of role-playing.  It’s brand new, gorgeous, and it’s made with a particular mind for the die-hard fans of the game, but there’s an entire contingent of the audience that’s acting all butthurt about the new direction and won’t pick it up.  Which is a shame, since the writers went out of their way to reference specific lore for their benefit.

When it was announced that Alderac was selling L5R off to Fantasy Flight, there was a hue and cry among the various fans that I know, all of them complaining about the new directions that FFG would likely take things in.  When the card game was discontinued and reborn as an LCG, the same set of people muttered darkly about how everything was accordingly ruined.  And of course, when the Beta PDF was released, the new version of Roll & Keep was roundly despised.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that this particular group represents the entirety of the L5R fanbase, but I have little doubt that there are echoes of their displeasure within the audience.  I am well familiar with the Edition Wars that define Dungeons & Dragons (I mean, I’ve complained here about the new edition of Pathfinder that’s due to release in another year; it’s not like I’m a stranger to the phenomenon), so it would be well within bounds to assume that there will be a similar backlash to this new edition of L5R.

One of the things that FFG has done with this new edition is to reset the timeline of the setting, bringing everything back to the very beginning of the familiar storyline.  L5R began its run with the Clan War era, a period of time when the dynastic Emperor was assassinated and the Great Clans raised armies against each other.  It was a rich era for the game, and by doing this, FFG can introduce new players to the setting without trying to make sense of what has happened over the last 20 years of play.

The canned adventure in the Beginner’s Box takes full advantage of this, building out a scenario that is a direct reference to the canned adventure in the back of the original L5R book from 1997.  The adventure is set a year after the original module, with many of the same characters appearing.  The situation is similar, with the newly minted characters being brought forth to participate in the coming-of-age gempukku ritual that ushers them into adulthood.

To anyone unfamiliar with the lore,**  the adventure is a solid sort of one-off.  It allows new players to make sense of the rules and introduces enough aspects of the setting to bring them back for future sessions.  But to the fans of the deeper lore, all of this builds on what has been established and anticipates what is to come.

And really, this is a shame, since I feel like Fantasy Flight went to a lot of trouble to make an adventure that has the right sense of history and placement, only to have the people most poised to appreciate it generally ignore it.

I mean, I could be wrong.  It may turn out that the people that have been with the game for its history could eventually come around and learn to appreciate what FFG has done with the game.  That would, of course, be the best possible situation.  But there seems to be too much ingrained cynicism within the gaming community when it comes to new innovation and design, which could very well doom this game for the old audience.

For my purposes, I can see myself sticking with this edition.  The learning curve for the depth of lore has been eased back, and while it’s still a different flavor of game from what a lot of people are familiar with, it’s a much lower threshold for entry.  That alone should be enough to bring a new audience in.  At least, I can hope for such.

*Point of note:  I actually managed to scare off a player from my regular Star Wars game with a discussion of the new movies.  The guy was bound to the idea that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker was terrible and out of character for what had been established.  He was of the opinion that Luke would have swung in, lightsaber in hand, and defeated the First Order on his own.  When I countered with the idea that Luke’s general methodology was based on reacting out of fear, he nearly flipped the table on me.

But it’s true.  If you look at everything established in the original trilogy, Luke’s actions are not those of a hero as much as they are the actions of a character who is unprepared for the role that has been thrust on him.  This is best illustrated by the sequence in the cave on Dagobah.  There, he is confronted by his own fears, strikes out, and it is revealed that he is in danger of becoming what he most fears:  Darth Vader.  This is reflected by the sequence in Last Jedi, where he confronts Kylo Ren.

And well, the end result of this discussion was that the player in question vanished and has not been seen since.  He was very uncomfortable with the idea that Luke wasn’t his vision of greatness.

**Make no mistake; even though I may own the books, I had to pull the book off the shelf and skim through the adventure to make sure that my assumptions were correct.  Most of my suspicions were confirmed by a couple of specific Google searches and a bit of careful reading of the attendant wiki.  I only know the lore in passing.  I leave it to other people to make a close study of the setting.

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Discontinuations and Assorted Questions

I’ve talked here and there about FFG’s Star Wars games, and I just put up a post about the new L5R game they put out.  While I’m at it,  I want to touch on a couple of other points.  My first instinct has been to gush about the overall quality of FFG games, both in their production and rules, but I would be remiss were I to ignore the company’s questionable past.  Fantasy Flight’s success with actual role-playing games has been pretty spotty, with them handling a number of solid properties and then unceremoniously dumping them when sales or general interest flagged.

Foremost among these was, of course, the venerable British property, Warhammer.  FFG acquired the license to produce both Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K from Black Industries in 2007.  From there, they expanded the WH40K property into a full five separate lines – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War and Black Crusade, for those playing at home; six, if we count 2nd Edition Dark Heresy on its own.  Overall, this ended up with a catalogue of over 50 books, by my count, including modules.

They also developed a wholly new system for Warhammer Fantasy that involved new, color-coded dice and cards to track actions and degrees of success.  While the game line managed close to two dozen products in its line, they only managed to publish it for about three years before abandoning it entirely.  The only bright point in this mess was that the new system of weird dice led directly to their work with the new Star Wars and Genesys lines and their narrative dice system.

All in all, FFG held onto the copyrights for Warhammer Fantasy and 40K for about seven years.  In that time, they managed to put out some well-regarded books; but somewhere along the line, the decision was made to kill the games, and there was no apparent effort to try to salvage the properties.  Perhaps the decision to bring about a second edition of Dark Heresy was one such attempt, but the only products brought forth on that line were all quickly put out in 2014, the last gasp of any WH40K products from FFG.

Less well known was the Anima line, which was a translation of a European (Spain, if we’re being specific) RPG based on Japanese properties like Final Fantasy and Suikoden.  Much like Warhammer, they held the license for about ten years and then discontinued the line with little fanfare.  I can’t specifically blame FFG for the demise of this line, given that the original Spanish version seems to have faded away shortly after it got translated into English, but it’s not like a robust American company couldn’t have expanded upon the property and continued producing material.

And this isn’t even to talk about their early foray into RPG’s with the Midnight line, which was a 3.5 / D20 OGL world that is best summed up as “Lord of the Rings, only if Sauron had won.”  This particular line had over a dozen supplements, a second edition, a boxed set, and even a movie to its name, yet it vanished completely after being published for just over five years.  Less well known D20-era games like Dragonstar, Dawnforge and Fireborn feel like they’ve been dropped into the memory hole altogether.

And much as I love their direction on the three Star Wars lines, it’s not hard to question their future plans with the game, being as they’ve already slowed their news on the next supplements coming out.  This spring had four hardcovers in the pipeline, and as of Gen Con, they soft-pedaled the news on the line to focus on things like L5R.  (Even Genesys was dropped in priority, and they have something like five potential game worlds they can immediately roll out for it.)  At present, there’s literally only one book, and it’s going to be the Prequel Trilogy / Clone Wars book.  (And while I like the Clone Wars cartoon, I’m inclined to write my own history on both that and the Prequels.)

All of this is mysterious to my perception, this promotion and subsequent abandonment.  West End Games only lost the Star Wars license when their company imploded.  And the decision of Alderac to divest L5R seems to have been driven by their decision to move their company over to a boardgame focus.  Pinnacle has dived into the business of their Savage Worlds properties (a mistake in my mind), but they still hold tightly to all of their Deadlands IP.

So, to sum up…  While I really like the new system that Fantasy Flight has designed for L5R, I’m hesitant to hope much for the future of the game in their hands.  Alderac put out the first edition of the L5R RPG back in 1996, and even with the weird hiccups that went along with the game briefly transitioning to Wizards of the Coast,* AEG managed to hold onto the rights for the game through four editions and twenty years.

In comparison, FFG’s best selling line (until Star Wars overtook it, I would presume) has been Warhammer 40K.  They put out the first books in 2008, and the last books in the line were hurriedly dumped out in 2014.  They held the license for another two years before announcing they were terminating their relationship with Black Industries, after which it ended up in the hands of Ulisses Spiele, the guys that have been putting out the new Torg Eternity.  This means that the best that FFG has been able to do in supporting and continuing a line has been seven years.

And well, they’re coming up on year six with Star Wars (Edge of the Empire was put out in 2013, not counting the Beta), and it’s looking like that line has slowed to a near stop with few signs of actual life.  I don’t know as I see much hope for L5R being able to make it beyond 2024, given their track record thus far.

I mean, sure…  it’s going to be very high quality, great art and production values.  But I don’t know that we’re going to see any real future for a game that has come this far over all these years.  At best, I think we’re going to see about a dozen books for the line (all the Great Clans, a couple of location books, some storyline books, and a handful of modules), but sooner or later, FFG is going to abandon the line like they have done all these times before, and it’s a question of what’s going to happen from that point.

*This was a tangled mess, really.  As I understood it at the time, Wizards was looking for a domestic source to print their Magic cards, being as they had been outsourcing to Carta Mundi in Belgium.  They saw the opportunity to acquire Five Rings Publishing, which was the card printing company that was attached to AEG.  In doing so, they ended up with L5R, printing the 2nd Edition main books with the Wizards logo alongside the AEG logo.  This led to the D20 Oriental Adventures being set in Rokugan and 2nd Edition L5R being dual-statted to D20 and Roll & Keep.  Somewhere in the process, things reverted back to AEG, and 3rd and 4th Edition L5R went back to the original dice.

And this underscores the weirdness of AEG and their handling of property.  Back in the day, they had some sort of arrangement with Pinnacle, to the point that the two game companies briefly shared ownership of Brave New World, a dystopic supers game that used a system similar to Pinnacle’s Deadlands.  The core books were put out by Pinnacle, but all subsequent books ended up being AEG properties.  This was along the same time that AEG was handling Pinnacle’s Doomtown card game, so there was the sense that the way BNW was handled had to do with the distribution rights for Doomtown, but no one really talked much about it.

A String of Alphanumerics

There’s no good way to title an entry on the new edition of an old game and still have it come out being comprehensible to anyone beyond a very narrow niche of people already familiar with the game in the first place.  My original title would have looked something like “FFG’s L5R 5E RPG,” with some qualifiers, so I just gave up.

Gen Con saw the release of the first product for the new edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (hereafter shortened to the much easier L5R), in the form of the Beginner Game Boxed Set.  Fantasy Flight Games bought the license from Alderac Entertainment Group, who had originated the setting back in 1995, gaining rights to both the card game and the RPG from this point forward.*

Much like Alderac before them, FFG put out the card game beforehand, albeit in a Living Card Game format, rather than Collectible.  I feel like this was a necessary step for them to take (the LCG vs. CCG thing), given that the 90’s were littered with failed card games and collectors that had to learn the hard lesson that nothing other than Magic was worth buying and investing in.**  FFG had previously had some success with adapting the old Netrunner game (based on R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG) into an LCG, so it only made sense to go in that direction anyway.

The new game plays to the current strengths of FFG’s recent history.  It’s a well-defined setting with a long history and a lot of lore, and they can build a system that allows them to sell off unique dice sets with funny symbols on them.

The actual core book isn’t due out until some time in October, by current estimations, so right now, all we’re working with is the Beginner’s Box and the PDF of the Beta that they put out back in the spring.  That said, I feel like we’re already off to a good start on things with this new edition.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I haven’t had a huge amount of experience with the older editions of L5R.  I never played the card game, which seems to be the gateway drug for the RPG and the lore therein, and while I like the setting, it was always a bit … much.  The original books read less like an RPG than a culture guide to Shogunate Era Japan, to the point that the diehards could accurately reel off increasingly esoteric trivia about the setting.  How many handmaids could a samurai reasonably expect to have travel with them on a journey to the Winter Court?  What was the number of peasants that a distant province would likely have at a given time?  Et cetera.***

What I do have is a lot of experience with people who played L5R in its original editions.  And my perception of these gamers is that they cleaved to the lore of the setting to the point that their samurai were always extremely precise and mannered in all possible situations, never deviating from the proper courtesies and behavior.

And well, FFG is having none of that.

Part of the reasoning behind the dice sets with the funny symbols is that they can revise the mechanics of the system to put in what I have taken to calling “Samurai Freakouts.”

In Star Wars, the Strain mechanic has become something of a character limiter for my games.  Wounds (and Critical Injuries) are one thing, but more often, my players have found that their characters suffer a crippling amount of battle fatigue, to the point that they’re constantly looking for ways to mitigate the Strain that they take in the middle of combat.  For me, it allows a solid mechanic to create tension and equalize what might otherwise be one-sided fights.

This mechanic has shown up in the new edition of L5R in the form of Strain.  The dice are divided into Ring and Skill Dice, and keeping with the original Roll & Keep of the old editions, characters build a dice pool and roll, keeping a number of dice equal to their Ring.  (For the uninitiated, the Ring is roughly equivalent to the Attribute Dice in other games.  The Rings are based on the elements of the setting, and here they define how a character approaches a problem.  More on this elsewhere.)

The Ring Dice are six-sided black dice, with symbols for Success, Opportunity,  Exploding Success, and Strife.  The Skill Dice are twelve-sided white dice with the same symbols, in different combinations.  Unlike the narrative dice of Genesys and Star Wars, there are no failure symbols, but many of the success symbols come at the expense of Strife.  And if you build up too much Strife, your character is going to lose their shit in a well defined and spectacular way.

It bears noting that the manner in which your character “Unmasks” or loses their very particular shit is up to the player.  The mechanism is chosen at character creation, and the method by which they freak out in the game is left to the character.  None of this is forced on the player by the GM, which is important.

Also, since the system is a new iteration of Roll & Keep, the player can choose to either succeed with a buildup of Strife, or lose with grace, simply by choosing which dice they want to keep for their final result.

This eliminates (or at least sharply mitigates) the perfectly mannered samurai that I have heard tell of in the previous editions, and I couldn’t be happier with the idea.  Yes, this is a game of political intrigues and samurai action, but having a core mechanism with an eye to creating internal tension for the characters is a masterstroke.  It gives greater depth to the narratives, and it allows a greater degree of humanity to be present in the games from this point forward.

*There are some interesting permutations to this, I might note.  According to some fairly well-connected sources, this license was strictly and severely limited, in that apparently it only covers the core setting of Rokugan, with a rather specific exclusion of the Legend of the Burning Sands setting that is tied to it.  Burning Sands was the weird and largely unused Arabian Nights setting that existed to the West of Rokugan.  This was where the Unicorn Clan wandered during its exile, and where the Scorpion ventured after the failed coup.

Removing this setting from L5R poses some interesting problems, should the game ever need to expand.  Granted, it was only ever included in the regular RPG in a single book in the 3rd Edition of the game, but the diehard historians know that it’s out there, the same way that the Ivory Kingdoms to the South are a documented part of the setting.

Also, it is interesting to see that, with the divestment of their 7th Sea and L5R properties, Alderac has become just another board game publisher.  I get the feeling that, given the way that they went and the direction that Steve Jackson Games is going, RPG’s just aren’t able to bring in the necessary operating funds.  Not that this is a surprise, necessarily, but it’s still worth talking about.

Unless you’re publishing Dungeons & Dragons, of course.

**The L5R CCG is a particularly damning example to put up against Magic, since it has a lot of factors making it expensive to get into without any investment angle.  First off, AEG tried to sell the early sets on a monthly rotation, meaning that you were always buying cards, and the cards you were getting weren’t necessarily that good, since they might be replaced next month.

Second, being a clan-based play style, anyone playing was going to concentrate on their one or two factions in order to have a playable deck.  This meant that roughly 80% of the cards in a given booster pack were going to be worthless to the average player.  Sure you could trade off with the other people in a local group, but it’s a little disheartening to get a stack of cards, some of them amazing, that you were going to have to immediately turn around and get rid of.

And finally, each core set made sure that the cards you’d been playing with last year were no longer tournament legal.  If you weren’t playing with the current edition-legal cards, you really couldn’t play.  (I may be wrong about this, but somewhere along the way, I found out that people never played different sets against each other.  To the point that there had to be fan-made rules in place to allow such ideas.)  This meant that within a year or two, the card base that you would have spent serious time and money amassing was going to be strictly worthless.  Which also had the effect of making stores less likely to bother stocking L5R, being that they could get stuck with product that would literally never move off their shelves.

At least when I got out of Magic, I had a base of cards I could sell off to justify the amount of money I had put into it at the time.  Sure, I still have stacks and stacks of worthless cards, but being able to sell a single card for $900 makes up for a lot of that.

***There was a notation in the Beginner’s Box adventure that felt like a callback to this sort of nonsense.  In a contest of etiquette, they had an example of the sort of question that a samurai with the proper understanding of the culture of manners would be able to answer.  Roughly, if meeting at a narrow bridge, would would defer to the rank of the other, an Emerald Magistrate or the Topaz Champion?  This feels like the sort of deep lore that a diehard player would be able to answer.

Also, for what it may be worth…  yeah, I never played L5R very much, but my own idiot collector tendencies ensure that I have a near-complete set of all of the previous editions of the game.  Whee.

Most Recent RPG Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 6

Sadly, this particular day is the easiest entry in the whole schema thus far.  Most of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been languishing in something of a limbo since I moved, stranded without any semblance of a solid gaming group as I settle into the new house.  Granted, the old group that I had held together for several years finally started drifting apart, so I was going to be faced with this dilemma anyway.  This sort of thing seems to happen on a periodic basis, just because people tend to shift in and out based on work and school, but it doesn’t make regular groups any easier to keep solid.

As such, instead of the two to four groups I used to run with in a given week, I’m down to one.  Occasionally, we’ll get a second session in, for a different game, but it’s not terribly consistent.

Most Recent RPG Played

Oddly, this happens to be for a game that I hadn’t been terribly interested in, initially.  One of our crew picked up the latest iteration of Outbreak: Undead last year at Gen Con, the stand-alone book for Outbreak Deep Space.  He tends to be a fan of zombie games in general, with a prodigious All Flesh Must Be Eaten collection (one of the few systems that most people own more of than I do) and a scattering of others.

I should note that the new Outbreak edition is coming out shortly, with Pandemic Organized Play system.  It’s a bit like the old Infiniverse newsletters that WEG used to do for Torg, with some interesting tweaks.  The new edition looks amazing, with a lot of solid refinements that will move the game forward nicely.

Anyway, Outbreak Deep Space is a fascinating system, being as I was largely unfamiliar with anything of the original system in the first place.  It uses a percentile system, which is nothing unusual in its own right, but it really starts to get innovative with the Descriptor system.  Descriptors run along the same lines as Tags in Fate, where certain qualities of a person’s equipment or background can come into play in different ways.

Consider a character that has spent time in the military.  Along their career progression, they’ve picked up some bits of knowledge about firearms, the ability to weather harsh conditions, and a certain amount of tactical knowledge.  In play, the character can draw on certain Descriptors to help them in other tasks.  The firearms knowledge, for example, can be used as a static value that can add to their actual shooting skill, as well as rolls to recognize certain models of pistol or rolls to effect repairs to their weaponry.  The Descriptors aren’t tied to a specific roll, instead being able to be used in relevant situations.

Being a zombie game, at its heart, there is a lot of focus on certain tactical decisions within the game, such as how well the characters equip themselves and what sort of strongholds they employ to gain some measure of safety against the undead hordes.  In space, this comes in the form of the starships that come into play, which can serve as more broadly universal facilities than buildings might in a normal, contemporary Outbreak game.

There are some rough edges to this edition, to be sure, but there seems to be some movement toward a revision and update of this edition, moving toward more setting specific game lines.  (These are the things you learn when you can actually track down and bend the ear of the designer themselves.)

The other games that I’ve been involved with lately (though not as recently as the Outbreak game) are Star Wars by Fantasy Flight and Pathfinder.  We’ve sort of rolled a lot of the different aspects of the FFG line of games into one central whole, with my character, a Falleen Jedi, alongside an Ewok marauder and a murderbot.  There’s a lot of Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion aspects being bandied about, making the game a proper gestalt.  Eventually, I would love to see a comprehensive edition of this game that incorporates all three game lines into a single line, but I can understand why they split it into separate books.  If nothing else, the Jedi rules needed more time to distill and tweak.  They’re easily the largest headache for any designer.

Somewhere, it has been said that the ultimate purpose of all role-playing games and systems is to be able to create Jedi within the rules.  I can’t argue this.  As such, when it’s part of the oblique purpose, you have to be able to do it correctly in the end result.

I’ve also had occasion to play Pathfinder, but that’s less of a revelation and more of an admission that I still game with normal gamers here and there.  I’m hoping there will be opportunity for a larger, more dedicated game to be run (one put together and run by someone else for a change, I would hope), but that’s hinging on greater logistics than I can wield at the moment.  Too many balls in the air and all that implies.

Going forward, the games I would love to be able to play occupy a much more fanciful niche.  I’d like to see a longer, more involved game with the Unisystem rules, like Conspiracy X or possibly All Flesh Must Be Eaten perhaps.  The few times I’ve sat down to play Unisystem, I’ve enjoyed it, but they’ve been few and far between.  There’s also the Cipher System, which includes Numenera and The Strange, neither of which I’ve been able to find in any of my gaming groups.

And finally, I’ve been looking to some future point where I might be able to either run or play something using one of Green Ronin’s non-D20 systems, either AGE System or Chronicle System, which run Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire, respectively.  I’ve run a couple of sessions with ASoIaF, here and there, and I’ve liked everything about it, but all of the sessions have been distressingly short-lived.  The backstory and world-building that the game implies have been spectacularly solid in the sessions I’ve run, but nothing ever lasts beyond a couple of sessions, for one reason or another.

Most Surprising Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 4

Man, the days just fly by around here.

I’m not going to bitch about Autocratik, since I barely know the guy, but it’s a little weird to go from the strictly defined criteria of the first few entries (“Most anticipated forthcoming,” “Favorite game of the past year,” etc.) to the rather ambiguous “Most Surprising” by the fourth entry.  I had gotten quite used to the rails I was riding on, only to find myself pondering which direction to go with this new category.

Should I venture into territory of games that I assumed would be good, only to be surprised at their general awfulness?  Or do I toss the ring at games I picked up for a larf, only to really enjoy them?  Moreover, should these be current, relevant games (as the first three entries were generally required to be) or old relics plucked from the used bin at some increasingly ephemeral local gaming store?  When should this game have surprised me?  Recently?  Back when I first started gaming?  I mean, if we’re going to dig back through the mists of yesteryear, my threshold of surprise was a lot lower and easier to overcome, in comparison to my current jaded self.

Most Surprising Game

Let’s try this:  The game I’m going to talk about is the game that has, most consistently, surprised me in terms of what the normal interpretation by the fans has been, in comparison to how I, myself, have interpreted the game.

The immediate question to resolve with this is how I define my terms.  For the purposes of this entry, let’s assume that you’ve picked up a game of some sort or another.  Let’s say it’s some iteration of Star Wars, be it original WEG D6, Wizards’ D20, or FFG’s DWhatever.  You’ve seen the movies each a dozen times (except for the prequels, because seriously…), you had licensed sheets and pillow cases, and there may be a couple of Ralph McQuarrie posters on your walls.  You regularly toss around favorite quotes, and the back of your closet hides a half-dozen broken lightsaber toys, rent from mock battles in the back yard.  You know this stuff, backward and forward.

Naturally, when you sit down at the table to game, you’re going to build sagas of desperate odds, implacable and technocratic foes, and weird samurai mysticism.  You know, the stuff you loved from the movies.  One player is going to build the world-weary smuggler, another has the sheltered aristocrat, and a third has the wide eyed idealist that may or may not be an ace pilot in his spare time.  There will be droids, starships, and guns.  It will be recognizable.

And after you’ve played for a time, you start investigating the internet fan community.  And none of it makes sense.

They’re playing Star Wars, but it’s not anything that you properly recognize.  For some reason, they’re focusing on vampires, and most of their session notes make references to Meg Ryan movies of the mid-90’s, rather than science fiction.  They’ve all chosen to set their games on a single planet, involve themselves in small retail concerns, and most of the actual role-playing involves their attempts to define their relationships in the face of a changing landscape of career options.  None of these careers involve shooting guns or flying starships.

I’m not saying any of these games would be bad.  But if I just got through a marathon of science fiction movies, capped off by the battle of the second Death Star, I’d have a hard time trying to reconcile any of these campaign ideas with what I want to play in a Star Wars game.  These ideas belong in some other game that would be better suited for that type of play.  I mean, play what your group wants to play, but there are better vehicles for such things.  And none of the source material supports any of these ideas.

This is how I feel when I talk about Exalted.  When I first picked up the original edition, it was a strange, barren land where the society was forged from a broken empire and the heroes of all the myths and legends had been killed.  The implication was that they had made deals with darker powers, and their servants had risen up to destroy them, leaving a drifting and rudderless world of regional powers poised on the brink of unnecessary war.  The default assumption was that the player characters were the lost heroes reborn, saddled with a destiny they couldn’t possibly fulfill in a setting that sought to silence their ambitions.  Second Edition shifted a little bit of this around, but there was always the sense that things in the First Age had descended into madness, but the plots of the Sidereals and Dragon-Blooded legions were an overcorrection that doomed the world to a different misery.

For my part, I always ran my games with a heavy dosing of Greek Tragedy, as the mythic hubris of the Solars had caused the destruction of their great empire and works, and it was the role of the newly reincarnated heroes to try to forge a new world without the mistakes of the old.  All of this bases on the mythic underpinnings of the game itself, which draws from the mythic traditions of the different cultures of the world.  There is a lot of Western mythic tradition within the pages of the Exalted main books, but there is as much that draws from Japanese, Chinese and Indian sources as well.  This is a game about gods and heroes, where the Solar Exalts play some version between Hercules and Sun Wukong.

This is not how the internet forums tend to run this game, however.

Exalted, for better or worse, used a lot of anime influence for their artwork.  This attracted an audience of gamers, but these players and GM’s never seemed to dig beneath the surface to see what the game itself was concerned with.  Instead of seeing the mythic structure beneath the initial impression, most forums appear to have stuck solidly with the anime ideals and used the game to run their favorite Naruto or Sailor Moon fanfic.  All too often, horror stories would emerge from the different forums to talk about how one person’s experience of the game ran into how many quotes the players could wedge in from a particular anime or what ridiculous overpower build they could get away with.  There was no divine consequence for their actions (as I would have inflicted in my games), and the characters were encouraged to play at being irresponsible powermongers because it was cool.

People will play the game they want to play.  I understand that.  But I feel a bit like the character of Mugato in Zoolander, like I’m the one taking crazy pills.  People in the forums talk about how their characters are wildly overpowered this way or that, and I can only shake my head.  The great and epic game that I ran, back in the day, had the player characters hedging their power against the grim outcomes that they saw lurking on the horizon.  I once made the object of an epic quest turn out to be an artifact of world-ending potential.  (The Five Metal Shrike.  Look it up, if you’re so inclined.)  My players’ reaction was to lock it away in a box to make sure that it could never be used, either by them or against them.  This was an item of ultimate power and potential, and they saw how it could all go so very wrong.

And this is what is so surprising about this game for me.

The precepts of the game are spelled out in great detail, and there is little question to me as to what the central themes of the game happen to be.  But none of these ideals translate into the normal experience of people playing the game.  And judging from the drafts I’ve seen of the 3rd Edition rules (“The Most Playtested Game Ever Written,” my ass), the designers have no idea either.

Favorite New Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 3

So, anyone who’s paying particularly close attention (I know who you are, all … three (?) of you) will have noted that I am slamming through these #RPGaDay2015 entries in fairly fast succession.  The day’s not over yet, and here I am, working on the third entry.

It’s not a huge mystery.  I really hate being late about this, and what with Gen Con and not really paying attention, I’m nigh on a week behind.  I mean, it might be fine with Ironbombs to be a couple of days late, but here in the Library … something.  Either that, or I’m so sick of Ironbombs snagging all of the good games away from me that I’m not going to play catch-up any longer.  (The truth being, with this blog close to a year behind on keeping a real schedule, I’m just glad to have some measure of inspiration at all.  And this is enough to keep me in front of the keyboard for a couple of minutes, all things being equal.)

This one is a weird one, for me at least.  I tend to buy so many games that there isn’t a lot of new stuff that goes into the Library.  More often than not, I tend to buy games to patch holes in my collection, which doesn’t really feel new so much as it feels like an addition to what has previously been established.  That said, I think I can make a good claim.

Favorite New Game (within the last 12 months)

My current favorite game happens to be one that I don’t yet own, technically.  And it’s only been released about a week back.

This honor goes to Fantasy Flight Games’ Force and Destiny RPG, which I have been playing since the Beta ruleset was released a year ago at Gen Con.  Right or wrong, I find Fantasy Flight’s strategy of putting out a hard copy of semi-finished rules to be a fascinating idea.  Paizo does similar with their playtest versions of upcoming character classes (most recently, the Occult Adventures collection, their own version of Psionics), but there’s an attendant murmur within the fan community of whether or not these actually serve as a bed for playtesting Beta rules or not.  FFG does put out incremental updates to specific rules and sich in their Beta versions, so I think there is a fair amount of feedback within the forums.  For whatever that is worth.

For my own part, I enjoy the early access to the material for my own sake.  I haven’t been active on the forums to see what the moods within the community are, nor have I spent much time trying to suss out what changes are needed to make this game into something other than what I familiarized myself with after the last Gen Con.  Really, all I did was get a handle on the specifics that were introduced for the broader Jedi campaign and ran with it.  If there was something that seemed out of place or egregiously overpowered, I checked against the forums as needed or did my own edits as I went along.  I know Star Wars well enough that I didn’t need to reference too much beyond Wookieepedia, and these rules are pretty conducive to kit-bashing as the need arises.

There are a couple of serious contenders to being my new favorite game, and they deserve some mention herein.

First up against the wall would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy, but this doesn’t really rate as being new, so much as it’s new to me.  I picked the entire line up during an online fire sale, where everything was marked down to a mere fraction of what it originally retailed for.  I get the idea that Fantasy Flight is burning all of their extraneous merch lines, of which this one would have been more expensive than its profit margins would have allowed for.  And I can’t blame them for this, since it’s a weird niche product anyway an English translation of a Spanish game that tries its best to emulate Japanese fantasy.  And it’s pretty crunchy, as well, with an ostensibly percentile based system that goes off the rails almost as soon as complexity and variant power levels are given text.  I’m a huge, huge fan of the detail that I’ve seen in the game, but it’s going to require some serious devotion to crack the code enough to play the damned game.  And let’s not think of how much work it’s going to take to allow me to run it for a new group, let alone explain the rules quickly and simply.

Next, there’s the Cthulhu assortment.  Again, I managed to find an internet fire sale, reducing all of these titles to an much more manageable price point.  I bought all of these on the same shipment, which means that I’ve only skimmed some occasioned bits of text of each, but it gives me some fascinating insight as to which ones I’m more likely to run at a given point.

Working roughly backwards, we start with The Laundry, based on the book series by Charles Stross.  I have yet to read through these, but they come highly recommended by one of my regular gaming group.  The plot concerns an underfunded section of British Intelligence that deals with Mythos threats.  On the surface, this puts it as being a version of Delta Green, with parts of Necroscope and Night Watch, only with more bureaucracy and a slightly tongue-in-cheek outlook on things.  It’s a neat game, from what I’ve looked through thus far, but it suffers from being a standalone game, rather than a Call of Cthulhu supplement.  As such, there are rules from the Cthulhu main book included to allow the game to run without referencing anything else.

Then comes Achtung! Cthulhu, which casts the Cthulhu Mythos against a more or less Pulp version of World War II.  Easily the prettiest game line of the three within my Cthulhu assortment, this game suffers not from being a standalone, but from trying to dual-stat the damned things.  I hated it when games in the Deadlands line did this, and it’s not any better here.  A good portion of my discontent hinges on the fact that I rabidly dislike Savage Worlds, so having to share space on the page with that game means that there’s wasted space in the book for my purposes.

And finally, there’s Cubicle 7’s take on the same material as Achtung! Cthulhu, in the form of World War Cthulhu.  This is good, good stuff,  but where Achtung! would have you mix and match whatever interesting pulp ideas come to mind, this is treated a lot more drily.

The big difference between these two games comes in how the war itself is given treatment beside the in-universe truth of the Mythos.  For Achtung!, there’s no problem coming up with some convoluted plot involving the Thule Gesellschaft and Nyarlathotep.  If it sounds entertaining, throw that shit in!  In comparison, World War Cthulhu goes to great lengths to note that it was actual, human evil that bombed London and set up Auschwitz and Dachau, so involving the Cthulhu Mythos cheapens what they consider the true horror of the setting.  If Himmler was corrupted by whispers from Azathoth, that offers him a ready excuse for his actions.  Instead, the game goes in the direction of setting the two horrors beside each other, forcing a balancing act between a pair of different (yet no less abhorrent) evils.

I can’t say which of these games ranks higher in my estimation, but I have the feeling I would be more likely to run Achtung! on a regular basis.  I’d certainly use elements of WWC, but it comes across as being much more grim and scarring.

So, yeah.  Those are my runners-up for Favorite New Game.  I’m sure, had I read through them and run them after I’d gotten them, they may have displaced Star Wars, but right now, my priorities lie with the bird in the hand.

Memetic Transference — #RPGaDay2015, Day 1

So, funny thing…  Out of the clear blue, I get an update through my feeds, telling me that Ironbombs has done some recent posting, all with this blogger meme from Autocratik (I swear, I love the Sovietization, but I want to put two “k’s” into his web address).  And being Ironbombs, he’s a couple of days late to the party.

Naturally, this means that, if I am to engage in this as a dust-clearing exercise, I’m going to be closer to a week behind.

Oh, well.  No one has ever accused me of being hot on the button on these things.

Day 1 – Forthcoming Game You’re Most Looking Forward To

Had it not already been scooped by Ironbombs, it would probably be Torg Eternity.  I had the chance to talk to several of the developers at Gen Con, and the tweaks that are being made to this system and setting are enough to make me giddy already.  I own several copies of the original run (including the now-rare and inexplicable Revised & Expanded hardcover from the Gibson Era of West End Games), but from the sound of it, those are going to be pleasantly obsolete within a short time.  There are a number of things that I’ve been cautioned not to reveal until the involved parties have made announcements (it’s kind of nice being a known quantity to some of these guys), so I’ll hold off on the juicier aspects.  Suffice to say that, of all people, Greg Gorden is fully in support of the new direction of things, so any lingering doubts have vanished with that.

I will be honest, though.  I didn’t think this day would ever come.  The original incarnation of West End Games went bankrupt in 1998, languished in the hands of a weird French gaming company for a couple of years, and was eventually sold to Purgatory Publishing in 2004.  Torg itself languished until the “Kansas Jim” edition was published in 2005, which had the support of a couple of lackluster PDF modules and little else.  Even at the time, it felt like a quick and dirty way to sell warehouse stock.  This is not to say that it wasn’t a quality book.  It just needed more support than the hand-waved scraps it was given.  And then, in 2010, Ulisses Spiel got hold of the license and little else was heard.

It’s interesting, really.  There wasn’t much press regarding the acquisition of Torg by a German company, and once they’d finalized the sale, there wasn’t anything further on the public side.  Apparently, they had contacted many of the old WEG luminaries some years back, only to be met with a collective shrug.  It wasn’t until some of these same writers (on their own initiative, from what I was to gather) changed their minds and started assembling a stable of interested contributors that it got traction.  And here we are.

So, what is my actual game of interest?

Ryuutama, of course.

I put in post-Kickstarter money to Kotodama when I found out about this game, based on everything I read about the game in the aftermath.  It hasn’t been exactly speedy in its release, but I can hardly blame these guys, being that it is a side job for them.  (I actually talked with Andy Kitkowski at Gen Con one year, along with Atsuhiro Okada.  Nice guys.  The pity was that it was just a chance encounter, rather than something I was more prepared for.  Someday, I would love to have drinks with these guys, just hanging out and talking games.  Preferably somewhere in Tokyo.  But I digress.)

As I’ve said earlier, I am singularly ill-suited to run this game without a lot of prep.  It’s nothing like the sort of games that I would normally find myself putting together, but the challenge that this poses offers me some interesting insights.  It’s not often that I find myself in a gaming situation where I have to give this much thought to how a game should run or what sort of obstacles I should populate it with.  It’s actually sort of refreshing.  (All too often, I tend to tweak a game’s setting to conspiracy and eldritch horror; as one friend said, we only really run one type of game.)

The nice thing is that, apparently the print edition of Ryuutama is going to be showing up at the distributor sometime in the next month.  And unless I utterly borked up my order, I’ll be getting a copy of both the limited and the general release version.  You know, the shelf copy and the play copy.  From that point, I can dedicate myself to learning a new system and figuring out how to run it as it was meant to be run, rather than than how my natural tendencies would have me doing.

Other contenders for this honor:

Blue Rose, the AGE edition.  I put in for this Kickstarter, despite the fact that I have never a) played the original, b) played anything with the Dragon Age RPG rules that this is based on, c) paid any attention to the Titansgrave hoopla, or c) actually had a group for which this game might be appropriate.  The truth is, much like Ryuutama, I want to see things that I otherwise have not been likely to put into my own home games.  I’ve heard great things about the AGE system, outside of the Dragon Age setting, to the effect that it is supposed to be one of the better fantasy engines around.  And trying to put paid to some different gaming tropes would be a fine thing, just to shake things up a bit.  I’ve done the D&D tropes to death over the years, so breathing new life into these games is somewhat necessary.

Force and Destiny.  I don’t know as this counts, precisely.  For one thing, it officially released about a week ago, and I doubt very much that it differs in any substantive way from the Beta that I’ve been running games with over the last year.  That said, it will be nice to finally have my hardcover going up on the wall, to join the ever-growing FFG Star Wars line.  And what the hell, I’m sure that there are enough tweaks to make the new edition shine.

Apocrypha.  This one is a weird one, to be honest.  A card based RPG that might actually have some staying power.  There have been some other attempts at card-based RPG’s in the past, such as Dragon Storm, which had fairly limited success.  The backstory reads like a World of Darkness campaign, which is interesting in its own right, and the game is put together by Mike Selinker’s Lone Shark Games, who are generally responsible for Paizo’s spate of card games.  (Which, to be honest, may well be card-based RPG’s, but since I don’t personally know anyone who’s actually bought and played them, I’m not going to commit 100% to that idea.)

Lone Wolf Adventure Game.  I can’t exactly claim this one anyway, since I managed to pick up my Kickstarter copy at Gen Con.  (Signed by Joe Dever!  Whoo!  Very nice man, who seems mildly nonplussed to be so universally regarded.)  I haven’t perused it as yet, but I want to devote some time to it when I can.  The rest of the KS rewards are coming at some future point, so I guess I could have hinged my entry on that ideal.

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.`