Deeper Impressions from the Edge of the Empire

This series was originally envisioned as being of technical discussions and recaps for our Edge of the Empire campaign, but that latter aspect ended up being shunted to the YouTube channel. Now that the campaign is in its 8th month, the idea of trying to catch up on written recaps is a preposterous one, and I would freely admit to Yoda with no hesitation if he were to ask, that it is far too big a burden for me to lift in this lifetime. Instead, this series will stick to what it is like to run the game. It has been a while since those initial posts on Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG were written and since the game has taken such a prominent role in my gaming, so there is a lot to catch up on. In order to speed that along, this post will link to a lot of videos from my Star Wars video playlist at relevant points.

Ease of Adoption

Reading over the first Impressions from the Edge of the Empire post, I notice that a recurring theme is the ease with which the game was picked up by the group. There are three aspects to this which I feel it is perhaps beneficial to explore right off the bat. The first one is that, as mentioned, the entire group loves Star Wars to varying degrees from fanatic to passing interest, but each member has an active interest and familiarity with the source material. Without that, getting a group going with just the core book would be a daunting task. While it may be hard for those who read this blog to imagine a group playing an RPG without an awareness and appreciation for Star Wars, they are out there. If you stumble across one or two, or a group of them, the core book plus the three films (you know the three I mean) will get you ready to go in… about 6 hours.

The second aspect impacting on a group’s ability to get up and smuggling with this game is general familiarity with gaming. Most games these days, despite 40+ years of roleplaying gamers playing roleplaying games, are still addressed – to one degree or another – to beginners. From my perspective as an active gamer, with a large and well-explored collection of games, this game seems pitched directly at newcomers to the hobby. The Beginner Boxes are explicitly targetting first time players of any RPG, and the core book takes a lot of time to address the nuances of running a game beyond just those for the new concepts it introduces via the dice mechanic. On reflection, while I still consider gaming experience to be an asset for learning a new RPG, I might downgrade its importance in this case. My group were making a transition from playing D&D, and approached the system with very open minds. They seemed to expect it to be very different, and were open to that experience. Many of the people I have talked to online with a lot of games going on were curiously resistant to the game, or found it to appear too difficult to run. This sort of impediment to learning is nothing new, but it is a shame if resistance based in refusal to treat something new as something new and on its own terms gets in the way of discovery and enjoyment. Were I to start this game with a new group, I would worry less about how hard it might be to learn for newcomers, and worry more about how hard it might be to teach to grognards. At the end of the day, it is not the mechanics which are hard to grasp in this game, it is the mindset required to run it smoothly and allow it to evoke the genre of that galaxy far, far away. Ingrained habits are harder to overcome than forming new ones, I feel.

That is the third aspect to consider when learning the game, what it requires of the group. Star Wars is a layered creation of elements not all of which are obvious. To help evoke that feel at the table, the game features a dice mechanic that provides direct input in the form of information far beyond pass/fail and degrees of success/failure. Simply put, a roll of the dice will tell you if the action succeeds and to what degree. It will also tell you of advantages, threats, important advantages, and serious threats that are arising in the moment. This can definitely seem complicated at first, but I feel it is important to recognize that it can be made much more complicated and convoluted than it really is. In the end, the GM needs to be able to consistently and accurately frame useful rolls, while the players need to understand and be creatively imagining the scenes in which their characters are acting. These are skills needed for any game. The difference here, and what it strikes me that people miss, is that these dice contribute and collaborate with you. Instead of simply indicating impartially that an action works out or goes astray, they impartially demonstrate the ebb and flow of fortune as well.

Framing a roll in Star WarsFFGSWDice1a

To frame a roll, the objective needs to be stated clearly. What is it that the active character is attempting? That objective is addressed by the number of successes which are left after the roll. This is the traditional binary outcome, pass or fail. If there is 1 success symbol more than failure symbols after the roll, the action succeeds. If there are additional successes, the action – if appropriate – might have added benefits which the player is free to spend those successes to obtain, such as activating a special effect pertinent to the scene. If not, then additional successes do not have to mean anything at all.

The second step is to build the pool with all of its contributory elements. The player assembles their green skill dice and their yellow proficiency dice, if any. If they have a Talent or Device which contributes a bonus, they add that in as well. This might be an upgrade of Skill dice to Proficiency, or it might be the addition of Boost dice (a significant perk!). Next, the GM contributes the purple Difficulty dice and any of the red Challenge dice which might be needed. Once this is done, the GM and the group may want to add further elements to the roll, if necessary. These might be black Setback dice to represent environmental conditions or other problems and impediments, and additional Boost dice to reflect conditions which are of use in achieving the objective. A character may have a Talent or Device which will modify the number of Setback dice at this stage. Finally, the player may decide to use a Light Force point from the Destiny Pool to upgrade their Skill dice to Proficiency dice, or downgrade Challenge dice to Difficulty dice. As noted in the first entry in this series, my group caught on to this mechanic within a few rolls. I made sure to use at least one of every type of roll (simple, standard, opposed, competitive, and assisted) repeatedly, and by name during the first few sessions, but that really was overkill.

Adjudicating a roll in Star Wars

Once the dice have been rolled, what next? How does the GM interpret them quickly and appropriately? In the image above, you can see a roll which came from an early session in our campaign. We took a picture of it precisely because it presents one of the extreme cases which can crop up in this system. Contrary to the belief of some detractors, this is not a corner case to be worried about, this is a thrilling scene waiting to happen!

What is represented are three success symbols, a triumph symbol (which also counts as a success), a despair symbol, which also counts as a failure, and a threat. There were no Boost dice for this roll, and one of the player’s Talents from their Career negated the Setback dice (which made them feel cool and capable). The difficulty arrayed was “Standard” or two purple Difficulty dice, one of which I used a Dark Force point from the Destiny Pool on to transform into a Challenge die. The player’s skill enabled them to have 1 of the green Skill dice, and 3 of the superior Proficiency dice. With a pool like this, success of some sort was expected, but the degree of success (the number of extra successes) was important, and the possibility of things turning decidedly for or against the group was important. As there are blank faces on all of the dice, failure was still a definite possibility.

This roll gave us 3 total successes (the Triumph’s success and the Despair’s failure cancel each other out), one threat, the effect of Despair, and the effect of Triumph, all at the same time. For some, this could be cause for panic, but when you are engrossed in the scene and working together from the first call to roll to build the pool and then make the check, it’s really just a physical metaphor for the action going on in your mind.

The game offers pictorial tips for learning how to interpret the dice (EotE, p296-297) and spells it out clearly both in the text of the corebook and in the starter adventures should you choose to use those. If the way all of this works seems slippery for you, going through rolls step by step as practice will be the key to overcoming that temporary strangeness. Practice can be a drag, or it can be a means to an end. In this case, a faster and more exciting game for everyone at the table is the desired end. That’s worth it, right? The sad part is, this sort of practice is also needed in games that look simpler, but instead of assisting with the decision making process leave it all up to the GM. Improvement here will make all of your games better, and you will be able to note that improvement and use it to your advantage no matter what you are playing.

Let’s say this roll represented a shot with a blaster at short range. We start first with noting that whatever else is going on, the shot was a success. There are three uncancelled successes showing and that is the basis for everything else we determine. In Star Wars, additional successes add to the damage of the weapon, so we can make use of those. In another case, they might not matter much at all. The game helpfully supplies examples of things to use Threat, Advantage, Despair, and Triumph for (EotE table 6-2, 6-3). Not all scenes will have something weighty to affect with these results. Combat is not one of those scenes. The threat we can use to apply Strain to our Hero which will make them sit up and take notice. We might then decide that the Triumph offers them some useful information about the environment, such as by noticing a vent (and not caring what we smell) big enough to slide in; or makes the opposition’s next attack roll more difficult, perhaps from all the smoke created during the exchange. The Despair we can use for a variety of things, but the depletion of ammo can be a thrilling complication in the middle of a firefight. Normally, ammo is not tracked in the game, and so this result is an easy way to make such things matter. The Triumph and Despair results do not cancel each other, they are independent. If we use the Despair to determine that this shot was the last in the clip, we are adding a complication for that next round. It takes far longer to read these words than to do this, and the cool part is, as it is being done, the whole table is engaged and interacting with the results as they are formed.

To recap, we note that the roll is a success, then we deal with advantages or threats, then any Triumphs and any Despairs. This is an ordered process moving from basics through to details in a clear sequence, based on consistent elements. The roll comes first, then the narration. In your mind right now, you can walk through it piece by piece and imagining how quickly it would flow once you learned the sequence:

Paul Highwind whirls and fires at the charging merc, (success, generating 11 damage) forcing the trandoshan to throw himself heavily aside (narrative license, damage is still done but can be described as we see fit). The effort of tracking the fast moving reptilian merc has Highwind break a sweat (1 Strain from 1 threat) as he notes that his clip is empty (1 Despair). While the trandoshan is kissing the dirt, Highwind goes for cover to reload (attacker’s difficulty raised on next attack from 1 Triumph).

If this were not a blaster shot, but a slicing attempt versus a system Backslash had already infiltrated, we might adjudicate the results this way:

Backslash dumps the data from the slaver they are tracking into her memory (successful roll), but monitoring for increased security taxes her system somewhat more than usual (1 Strain from 1 Threat). As the data transfers, she notes that it has been recently accessed by that slaver; he’s in the building now! (1 Triumph) As she notes this, her access to the system is challenged, and she is in danger of being dumped and an alarm triggered (1 Despair). She’ll have to act fast to set up an override!

By using this mechanic, you open yourself to new input you might not have been accessing in your adjudication as a GM, and free your imagination to create even more vibrant scenes with your players. By no means is such a mechanic necessary to run a good game, good games were run for decades before this came along. It does, however, enhance what a good veteran already knows how to do, and contributes to the building of solid skills in the newcomer. If you come to the game looking to get swept up in the action, this will be fun and easy. If you are the type who comes to the game set on the habits and prejudices of past experience, the mental friction built up by such an attitude will understandably kill your joy.

 How much information do the dice provide, anyway?

Just to be clear, the potential range of outcomes includes, but may not be limited to:

Success, Multiple Success, Success with Advantage, Success with Threat, Success with Triumph, Success with Despair, Success with multiple Advantage, success with multiple Threat, Success with multiple Triumph, Success with multiple Despair, Success with Triumph and Advantage, Success with Triumph and Threat, Success with Triumph tempered with Despair, Success with Triumph tempered with Despair and Advantage, Success with Triumph tempered with Despair and Threat, Success with Despair tempered by Triumph, Success with Despair tempered by Triumph and Advantage, Success with Despair tempered by Triumph and Threat, Multiple Success with Advantage, Multiple Success with Threat, Multiple Success with Triumph, Multiple Success with Despair, Multiple Success with multiple Advantage, Multiple Success with multiple Threat, Multiple Success with multiple Triumph, Multiple Success with multiple Despair, Multiple Success with Triumph and Advantage, Multiple Success with Triumph and Threat, Multiple Success with Triumph tempered with Despair, Multiple Success with Triumph tempered with Despair and Advantage, Multiple Success with Triumph tempered with Despair and Threat, Multiple Success with Despair tempered by Triumph, Multiple Success with Despair tempered by Triumph and Advantage, Multiple Success with Despair tempered by Triumph and Threat, Failure, Multiple Failure, Failure with Advantage, Failure with Threat, Failure with Triumph, Failure with Triumph and Advantage, Failure with Triumph and Threat, Failure with Despair, Failure with Despair and Advantage, Failure with Despair and Threat, Failure with multiple Advantage, Failure with multiple Threat, Failure with multiple Triumph, Failure with multiple Despair, Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair, Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph, Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair and Advantage, Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph and Advantage, Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair and Threat, Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph and Threat? Multiple Failure with Advantage, Multiple Failure with Threat, Multiple Failure with Triumph, Multiple Failure with Triumph and Advantage, Multiple Failure with Triumph and Threat, Multiple Failure with Despair, Multiple Failure with Despair and Advantage, Multiple Failure with Despair and Threat, Multiple Failure with multiple Advantage, Multiple Failure with multiple Threat, Multiple Failure with multiple Triumph, Multiple Failure with multiple Despair, Multiple Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair, Multiple Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph, Multiple Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair and Advantage, Multiple Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph and Advantage, Multiple Failure with Triumph tempered with Despair and Threat, Multiple Failure with Despair tempered by Triumph and Threat.

If you had it to do all over again?

If I had the opportunity to start this campaign over again knowing what I know now, eight months later, I would have handled experience differently. Of all the sections in the core book, I feel the least support was given in clarifying the progression of characters through XP. The amount to assign per session is broad and vague, there is no indication of when to dole it out and when it can be spent, and no guidelines to help you figure out at what rate you will note significant improvement in the performance of the characters as they build their skills.

Obligation works very well, either as disparate forces pulling the group in different directions, or as a unified debt or problem dogging the group as a whole. It presents a subtle spin on each session, active or not, and keeps what could be an aimless game of drifting around getting into trouble in focus. Motivations give scene to scene play good direction, and the freedom to interpret Careers and Specializations as broadly as necessary further supports the creation of interesting characters the players like to play. Where all of this great support breaks down for me is in the experience point system.

With my current familiarity with the system to draw upon, I would have given smaller experience rewards than I did at first, with larger bonuses for the spectacular scenes and stunts that each character has been able to demonstrate from story to story. I would also have given these out at the end of each session and allowed the expenditure at any point it makes good sense. Learning a new skill would require a teacher and downtime, while improving a skill might not always do so. The guidelines are 10 to 20 XP per session + bonuses for good play. I set up the game to give out the XP in a lump sum at the end of a natural break in events and provided downtime to pursue independent goals, whatever those might be. Skill improvements were capped at 1 increment per story, but Talents were not capped as it felt like there had to be something to spend XP on.

Were I to start again, I would keep the downtime learning requirements, but have the players keep a running tally of XP and lobby the group for the ability to spend it on things from session to session. This group has a very even keel and makes good decisions with minimal bias toward their characters. With another group, a different approach might be necessary. Regardless, having the opportunity to spend points more often would contribute to a broader skill set, with lower overall values, and give a more sequential feeling of improvement over time. It would also prolong the longevity of whatever sweet spot for character ability this system turns out to have, but most importantly, it would give more opportunities for characters to need and want to assist one another in tasks.

That’s it? I thought you were worried about the Force?

My biggest concern from a character standpoint at the start of the campaign was the desire by one or more players to run a Force sensitive character. I felt this way as I had the impression it would take us longer than it did to get acquainted with the system, and because I wanted to streamline the learning curve. The Force powers are not complicated, but they add in another set of character-specific abilities to remember. With 5 different characters with five different careers, there was already a ton of stuff to remember from the start.

We waived this restriction after the first story ended, and have been enjoying Enree’s progression in his understanding of the Force ever since. The only real problem we have had with it is how to reconcile his ability to learn on his own. I have never been completely happy with that, but fortunately, the player has had good in-character reasons for how this might be happening, and has simultaneously been open to my thoughts on the matter as well. Now that we have reached a spot in our ongoing tale where tutelage is a very real factor in Enree’s life, much of this concern, a purely narrative one, has also been lifted. What is specifically restricted is the training provided to Jedi. Unless he meets one, he will not be able to progress in that direction. At this point, with what he has already managed to learn, that may not be something he desires anyway.

The lightsabre is still an object of interest, though…

Travel to the stars and shoot people!

Combat is the last item this post needs to discuss. Over the course of the campaign, I have learned the value of applying Strain. This is an element of character design which is well-explained, except for strong recommendations of when and how to apply it. Many Talents and certain actions require it, but not in significant amounts for the career and character types I have in my game. It should be a factor of play, and as such the GM has to be willing to apply it in times of emotional tension, for environmental effects, and for exertion. A little, plus the normal accretion of Strain in play through the use of abilities, makes the game feel more like the dangerous and important place we see on the screen.

Likewise, understanding that characters will pretty much always be able to dish out far more damage than they can take is a valuable thing to know. This system has several ways to allow you to run the ‘small band of characters vs the large squads of stormtroopers’ conceit quickly and satisfyingly, but if you as the GM are prone to raising the stakes when the opposition you are running at the start of the encounter suddenly seems too easy to beat, you may find yourself with crippled or unconscious characters. If you want to match encounters by some sort of ‘threat level’ this will not be at all easy to calculate. If you are like me, and allow the narrative needs of the genre to dictate what should and should not be arrayed against the crew of characters, you may find yourself white-knuckling your way through some close calls where the kind ‘not spy’ nearly gets gutted. I like those thrills and letting those gambles ride, but not all GMs and players do.

This is not to say that characters are all glass cannons, but it does mean that hits are important, they have serious narrative effects, and critical injuries are just a die toss away. The players must fight smart as well as hard. The GM must focus on providing thematically appropriate challenges that fit the style of the opposition. A Stormtrooper should be using government issued gear, no matter how many of his buddies the characters have taken out. A bounty hunter on the other hand should have the characters diving for cover.

Sometimes you chase the enemy down the hall, sometimes it chases you.

Conclusion

Edge of the Empire, like any new game, requires more than just buying the book to be able to play it. Some games like to trick you into thinking you can just run it after a quick glance, but that is not this game. It is not hard, but it wants your respect and attention. If you give it, you will find your effort rewarded in great measure. I have a group of five very busy people, who for eight months have been carving out hours of time to make sure they are present and ready to play every week no matter how we feel, or what else is going on around us. They aren’t doing this because of any charming personality or way with people, they are doing it because the game, and our camaraderie through that game are that much fun.

This series will continue, and look at specific systems and possibilities for the GM and players. The next one will look at the Force.

Stay Tuned~

Comments
2 Responses to “Deeper Impressions from the Edge of the Empire”
  1. This post is really good! I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week Series for February 1-7, 2015.

    http://dyverscampaign.blogspot.com/2015/03/best-reads-of-week-february-1-7-2015_2.html

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