Say what you like about the new movie, and I see that many people have, but if nothing else it has certainly succeeded in putting Star Wars back at centre-stage when it comes to popular culture: books, models, DVDs, toys, games, a veritable deluge of the stuff. Now, I feel I should make clear that whatever my attitude to the Disney films and JJ Abrams, my affection for Star Wars in general remains entirely undiminished, which is probably the main reason why I recently checked out Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG system.
It took a relatively long time for an official Star Wars RPG to come out – 1987 or thereabouts, with WEG’s fondly-remembered D6 system, which I of course bought, along with several of the supplements. I still have good memories of the simplicity of the basic system, which was a welcome step away from the more crunch-heavy percentile- and d20- based games I’d mainly been playing up to that point.
Later there was a d20 Star Wars game, which I steered clear of, partly because I wasn’t doing any gaming and partly because it looked a bit too much like D&D. (There may well have been even more Star Wars RPGs that passed me by completely: it’s not as though there was ever any shortage of demand for Star Wars games. I’ve seen homebrew supplements cooking up Star Wars-specific rules for lots of other systems.)
And so to the FFG system, which I am reluctant to call a game, singular, as the company have opted to release a triptych of Core Books, each dealing with a different aspect of adventuring in that galaxy far, far away. Edge of the Empire focuses on shady doings and underworld life on the fringes and in the dark underbelly of the Empire, with players most likely playing smugglers, bounty hunters, and other equally dubious characters. Age of Rebellion is the book for anyone wanting to play a member of the Rebel Alliance (the default setting for the game is around the time of Episode IV, though I suspect it’s easy enough to adapt for adventuring during the era of the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, or either of the post-Episode VI continuities) – pilots, diplomats, commandos, and so on. Finally, Force and Destiny is the Jedi-centric book, with players adopting the roles of survivors of Order 66 or other Force-sensitive individuals with a modicum of Jedi training.
The first potential brick to be slung in FFG’s direction is the decision to release the above as three hefty (and fairly expensive) 200+ page hardback books, with a fair degree of duplication of material within them, certainly as far as the core rules go. One wonders why they didn’t just produce a single book with just the game rules in it and then three setting-specific sourcebooks, and it’s hard not to conclude that the bottom line is ultimately the overriding concern. I can’t really imagine any group wanting to role-play in the Star Wars universe being entirely happy limiting themselves to playing just scoundrels, or rebels, or Jedi, so purchasing multiple core books is probably going to be a requirement for most groups wanting to run this game.
Another potential bone of contention is with the core rules themselves, which use a set of special proprietary dice. Now, to be fair, you don’t actually need to buy these dice: a conversion table for using standard D6s, D8s, D12s is provided (an electronic dice roller is also available on t’internet), but I suspect this would result in an extremely cumbersome gameplay experience until everyone got familiar with the table.
Set against this is the undeniable fact that FFG’s system is interesting and fun and potentially very creative for all concerned. The typical resolution mechanic of most RPGs is to roll either a d20, or d100, or some other dice pool, and attempt to beat a specific target number set by the GM. While many games incorporate the possibility of really good or really poor results (or ‘criticals’), this is still essentially a binary-based, succeed or fail, mechanic.
The FFG system is anything but binary. When carrying out an action check, you assemble a pool of ‘good’ dice based on your abilities, skills, and favourable conditions, and add to that ‘bad’ dice based on the difficulty of the task and any unfavourable conditions, and roll them all together. The various good dice generate positive results, called Success, Advantage, and Triumph, and the bad dice generate their opposites, Failure, Threat, and Despair. They key thing is that Success and Failure cancel each other out, as do Advantage and Threat, but your Success does not reduce your level of Threat, nor your Advantage your level of Failure.
As a result you can succeed in a task but still generate Threat against yourself, or fail and generate Advantage – it’s not a binary Yes/No system, but one with a huge range of possible Yes, And…/Yes/Yes, But…/No, But…/No/No, And… results.
How does this work? Well, let’s say I’m playing the game and I want my character to swing his lightsaber at an annoying stormtrooper. As a moderately well-trained Jedi, I get two proficiency dice and an ability die, and the trooper is taken somewhat by surprise (a situational effect) so my kind GM has granted me a Boost die to reflect this. On the other hand, the GM is adding two Difficulty dice as this is a standard close combat check. I roll the six dice and get…
Well, let’s say I roll 2 Successes, 1 Triumph, and 3 Threat (a Yes, But… result). The combined Successes and Triumph are enough to make this a solid hit against the trooper, doing more than enough damage to take him out (individual troopers are relatively puny, so only a single saber hit usually disposes of them). But, and this is something I can’t think of any other system incorporating, I still have those 3 Threat to resolve – I’ve taken out my enemy, but it’s left me at risk somehow, in a manner to be negotiated with the GM. Maybe I’ve left myself open to an attack from one of my opponent’s allies (granting them a Boost die on their next attack check), or the rigours of combat are wearing down my resolve (reducing my reserve of what are called ‘strain’ but are essentially kind of non-lethal hit points).
I’ve seen it suggested that there are essentially 18 possible results of any dice check in the FFG system, but even this seems to me to be ignoring the fact that the degree of Success, Advantage, etc, generated is also an issue. Generate enough Advantage and you can activate the special features of your weapon (using a lightsaber to sunder an opponent’s weapon, using the linked laser cannon on an X-wing to hit multiple times from one check, and so on), for instance.
It’s an innovative and appealing system but there is the expense involved in buying all the proprietary dice required, and it makes playing over a web platform like roll20 almost impossible unless you really know your stuff technically. Plus there is the complexity involved in bringing new players up to speed on the system – most people can grasp ‘roll a d20 and get 12 or more’ fairly swiftly, but the learning curve here would be rather longer and steeper. This is a shame, as any system based on Star Wars should be an ideal ‘gateway game’ to get new people into RPGs, especially right now. (To be fair, FFG have released a ‘beginner game’ for each core book, which apparently breaks the newbies in gently, but yet again they are open to the charge of simply padding out their profits – you need to buy the beginner box and the core book to play the full game.)
I suppose the rules are hackable into something more traditional using regular dice, but it would be an extensive hack and lose much of the charm and potential of the system – and if you were sufficiently unimpressed with the FFG system to do that, I suspect it would be simpler just to use the WEG rules (for instance).
Apart from the central resolution mechanic, the rest of the game seems like a fairly solid system, with perhaps a touch more crunch than I personally like in the rules that I use. Character creation is fairly straightforward – you choose a race, a career, and a specialisation for your character, and invest a number of starting experience points (XP) to bring them on a bit before the game starts.
Many of the obvious Star Wars alien races are covered in the different core books (Wookiees, Rodians, Mon Cal, Twi’Lek, Zabraks, and so on – no sign of Gungans or Ewoks so far, shockingly), along with a few rather more obscure ones, especially in the supplements (yes, you can play a Hutt, if you really want to). (Droids also count as a playable ‘race’ for game purproses.) As someone who would want his Star Wars RPG to actually resemble Star Wars (which is, after all, humanocentric), I’m not sure how I would head off the possibility of the entirely non-Human party, short of putting an outright ban on non-human Player Characters except by GM consent. Perhaps giving human PCs substantial bonus starting XP and well-played alien PCs bonus in-game XPs would be a possible solution, but here we’re drifting on to one of my personal bugbears when it comes to RPGs, so let’s move on.
Each core book provides half-a-dozen careers for characters – so Edge of the Empire characters can be bounty hunters or smugglers, for instance, Rebel characters can be aces or commandos, and Jedi can be guardians, sentinels, mystics, and so on. Each career is further broken down into three specialisations – so, for instance, a smuggler could be a pilot, a scoundrel or a thief. Each specialisation has a number of special abilities tied to it which can be purchased in-game, along with a set of skills. Fifty-four starting specialisations covers a lot of territory, with more available in the various supplements, so there’s no shortage of possible character types. Characters can belong to more than one specialisation, too, not necessarily from the same career (though this is more expensive) – so if you want to play a fallen Jedi Makashi duelist from Force and Destiny, turned underworld enforcer from Edge of the Empire (there’s a potentially terrifying melee combatant…), you can – GM permitting, as usual.
There is, inevitably, quite a lot of crunch to negotiate here, with the commensurate risk of the spectre of D&Dthink manifesting itself and endless discussions as to the best talent and career options ensuing, but I suppose this is all a question of play style, and discreet game-management by the GM should keep this sort of thing to a minimum. Overall, I would say number-crunching and rules are kept to reasonable levels, except perhaps in the section on equipment, which seem to assume every weapon and vehicle possessed by players is going to get heavily modified fairly quickly.
Rules for the Force are, inevitably, most detailed in the Force and Destiny books, but again they are not excessively complex and mesh well with the narrative/cinematic style of the game. If you are running a composite game, there’s the question of how to handle the tricky issue of a character’s relationship with the Dark Side – this is fairly central to Force and Destiny, as you’d expect, but the other core books skip over it.
In a similar way, each core book introduces a specific mechanic – Obligation for EotE (perhaps that pesky debt your character owes the local Hutt crimelord), Duty for AoR (the consequences of signing up with a military organisation), and Morality (one’s Light/Dark Side balance) for FaD. How to combine these in a game featuring multiple character types is left to the individual GM, but it’s my understanding that this mechanic also gets quietly dropped in many games. (I’m not entirely surprised that the FFG system often gets house-ruled, to be honest.)
Moving on from the actual system, the books themselves are extremely handsomely presented pieces of work, stuffed with lovely and evocative pieces of art, and equally evocative text pieces introducing parts of the Star Wars universe that people only familiar with the movies may not know that much about.
I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here and just take a moment to praise, and indeed marvel at, the consistency and coherence of the way the Star Wars universe has been presented in other media over the years. Given the rather ramshackle development of the fictional universes of most comic book companies, or that of Star Trek or Doctor Who, LFL’s devotion to incorporating as much as possible into their canon is – or was – hugely impressive. I picked up The Imperial Handbook recently (published this year), which in addition to being completely compatible and consistent with 27-year-old sources such as the old WEG Star Wars Sourcebook, also has a go at including things originally existing as slightly dubious models in the old Kenner toy line. The quantity and quality of detail is almost irresistibly convincing – to the point where you really feel the pain of those hard-core fans outraged by having many years of post-Episode VI ‘history’ – the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, the fall of Darth Caedus, and so on – obliterated to make way for the Disney incarnation of Star Wars.
In short, there’s a wealth of detailed setting material – places, people, races, history – freely available on sites like Wookiepedia, most of which can easily be interpreted in game terms for the FFG system. Added to the immense popularity of Star Wars in general, the result is an almost uniquely appealing setting for an RPG. Whether this is the ideal set of rules to exploit that is another question, but the system is an innovative and imaginative one, and one I’m looking forward to giving a proper try in the not too distant future.