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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: Star Wars: Edge of Empire

Hey Crawlers. I've kind of been wondering what I should be posting here, if I should keep it strictly business (for the sake of drumming up...well, business) or if I should use it for a bit more, like system reviews and the like. I've decided to do the latter, I paid for the awesome URL after all, why not squeeze as much as I can out of it?  Some of you might remember my previous blog of waxing game-philosophical, "Storyteller For Hire", and if you don't, don't worry!  I'll probably recycle some of it here when I'm feeling lazy. 

"Star Wars: Edge of Empire", released 2013, is the first in a line of Star Wars core rule books. That line includes "Star Wars: Age of Rebellion"(2014) and "Star Wars: Force and Destiny"(2015).  I know that many of us are all to familiar with the "Core Book Trinity" concept, but Fantasy Flight has gone a slightly different direction, instead of each core book just being contributing pieces of a whole, each Star Wars core book focuses on a different aspect of Star Wars, still contributing to a whole to be sure, but easily allowing each book to contribute individually.  As I'm sure you can determine from the titles, "Force and Destiny" focuses on the Jedi and other force users, "Age of Rebellion" focuses on the work of the Rebel Alliance during the Galactic Civil War, and "Edge of Empire" focuses on just the, Society's Fringe.

One could argue that the three books focus on the exploits you would associate with the three main characters of the original trilogy.  I could be a LOT more comprehensive in my comparisons, but I've only played Edge of Empire, so let's talk about the theme, then a bit about the systems in play, and finally my review of the system.
Welcome to the Outer Rim. What Ben Kenobi
describes as a "Hive of scum and villainy"
is your "Ruby Tuesday".

Edge of Empire focuses on the "Grittier" aspects of life in a galaxy far, far away.  On the fringe, on the rim, where "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side...", obligatory quotes aside, this is reflected heavily in character classes, Bounty Hunters, Colonists, Technicians, etc. (Just the sorts of skill sets you'd need to fly away from the galactic core and stay away).  As such, actual content in the rest of the book focuses on dealing with just the sorts of things you'd come up against in the outer rim, pirates, scoundrels, cartels, the occasional Imperial interference, and very, VERY rarely, a rogue Jedi. 

Playable Species are pretty diverse...
Star Wars has four (or three and a half, depending on how you look at it) tabletop roleplaying games under its belt, from West End Games' 1987 D6 rules set, to Wizards of the Coast's D20 and "Saga Edition", and finally Fantasy Flight's latest work.  What sets this system apart from the others is the dice.  For those of you who have looked into the system, you know exactly what I'm talking about. They are different...REALLY different.  Though it was a bit of a squeeze to wrap our brains around it, the dice actually ended up working out pretty well. Here's a rundown of how they work.

...Hell yeah you can be a Wookiee.
When you assemble a dice pool when taking an action, made up of Ability Dice (Green D8's) and Proficiency Dice (Yellow D12's) based on your skill set.  Then instead of hitting a difficulty number, the GM gives you a number of Difficulty Dice (Purple D8's) and possible Challenge Dice (Red D12's) to roll.  For situational modifiers throw in a use the D6's (Blue=Good, Black=Bad).  There's two things going on in every roll, Success/Failure and Advantage/Threat. 

Success/Failure is a classic dice mechanic, you succeed or you don't. The symbols cancel each other out, so more success symbols than failure means success and visa versa, and in combat your net successes mean more damage.

Advantage/Threat is the new kid in school, and this mechanic can be complex.  Like Success and Failure the symbols cancel each other out but what you DO with net Advantage and Threat is the tricky part.  Though the results have very real rules mechanics associated with them, like taking/doing additional damage, giving friends "Good Dice" to their next pool or giving enemies "Bad Dice" to their next pool, etc.  There's lots of options tied to what your character is capable of, what their weapons are capable of, what the ship is capable of, and so on and so on.  So why so complex?  You've got a pass fail system and a few other really good systems working in here, why add something so damned complicated?

Simply put, Narrative.

Damn, Han. Take 5 more xp.
Split second happenstances that have the potential to change the game. Obviously, actions in a game are much more integrated to the narrative than "I shoot the Storm Trooper, :Wilhelm Scream:", but this system really hammers "cause and effect" home.  Your shot could create an opening to give an ally a better shot, or inspire them.  That Storm Trooper could fall into a power coupling, creating an explosion and filling the room with smoke, or the shot could make his friends dive for cover.  There's a thousand ways to interpret what happened do to the Advantage/Threat outcome, but there IS always an outcome (unless of course Advantages and Threats cancel down to zero).

This also changes the outcome of a Success/Fail result.  A failed roll with lots of advantages could turn out to help your friends in a major way or set yourself up for something great or though it didn't do what you intended, turn into a big setback for your enemies.  And a success with lots of threats could give you exactly what you want, but at a serious cost. 

Well...someone started with way too much Obligation.
Add to this the "Obligation" system, which allows players to start with more experience or currency, but at the cost of potentially reducing "hit points" (or their equivalent) of the party during the course of a game, reflecting the the strain of your character's obligations.  This adds a layer of motivation
for the players, story inspiration for the game master, and an interesting mechanic to give the players a leg up at the start of the game (as well as an excuse for them to start with their own ship!).

Finally, the "Destiny Pool" give the players and the game master a way to augment dice pools.  Two pools are created at the outset of the game, one for the players and another for the game master, when a point is spent from one pool, it's then transferred to the other, reflecting the ebb and flow of the Force.

Starting out, the system seemed intimidating to be certain, wrapping my brain around a dice system that was such a large departure from what I'd worked with in the past seemed insurmountable.  My players were not new to gaming, but two of the three had little experience playing anything beyond D20 or Cypher System.  I urged them, about a week before the game, to read up on the system and make sure they were familiar with how the dice system shook out, but was prepared to teach the system in case they weren't able to make time.  I also took as much time as I could reading over the chapters detailing dice rules, rolls, combats, vehicular combat, etc., to make sure I was ready to keep things moving.  Rolling dice is always fun for players, deciphering those rolls can be a pain though and can bog down the game.  I knew when it came down to it I wouldn't have mastered the system without practical experience, but I was confident that I'd spent enough time studying the system to be able to fake it.
No, you can't fly "The" Millennium Falcon...
...but you can fly "Your" Millennium Falcon.

As expected, the players and I struggled a bit with not only keeping track of what the symbols meant, but also what could be done with the excess Advantage and Threat.  It didn't take long to get the hang of things though.  One of the players put it best after the game, "As soon as I stopped associating my rolls with numbers and instead started thinking of it in pictures, I was good".  No easy feat to change what your used to, but sometimes it's refreshing to (sorry I have to do this again), "Unlearn what you have learned".

It falls to the players and the game master to make sure they know what they can do with their excess Advantage/Threat and resolve the effects quickly to keep the game moving.  I want to say that that's what makes the system appear "unwieldy", but in reality it's no more calculation than character based "special abilities" in other systems, only your abilities take place in reaction to your roll.  This creates an interesting dynamic, the dice forcing players and GM to develop the classic improvisational "yes, and..." mechanic.  Conceptually this slows down play, but in practice players and GM think on their feet, engaging them to resolve rolls and work together to make them benefit the players the most, i.e. "Guys, I've got two advantage left over does someone want a boost die, or do we give the enemy a threat die?" and from there developing narrative to justify the result.

Obligation helps set the tone for the game, while the Destiny Pool gives players a way to get a leg up when they want to make a roll count, or allow the GM to up the stakes.

All said there is definitely a larger learning curve associated with the system then most I've played, but the the complexity of it is much more threatening on paper than it is in play.  While I wouldn't recommend the game for casual one shots, in a continued campaign, its experience system and Obligation system really shine, and if you've got dedicated players enthusiastic for the chance to play good Star Wars game, Star Wars: Edge of Empire won't disappoint.