Friday, May 15, 2015

The REAL Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Review

Wizards of the Coast had a long and very successful run with Star Wars. I owned a number of their books, but never found much of a reason to run the game. I didn't quite know it at the time, but the mechanical similarity to Dungeons and Dragons is what stopped me. Don't get me wrong, I played DnD for a numbers of years, 4th edition in particular, but somehow I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of using almost identical mechanics  for different stories. It just didn't make sense to me. Again, this is saying nothing was wrong with Saga (or any of the other things Wizards released), I just had a DnD itch already scratched. But what proper nerd doesn't want to run Star Wars in some way, shape, or form?

Enter the new Star Wars, managed by Fantasy Flight games. They came out the gate swinging with X-Wing, a first rate miniatures dogfighting game, and then announced Edge of the Empire, the first in a trilogy of role-playing games set between Episodes 4 and 5. Edge of the Empire is focused on the outer rim of the galaxy, far away from the bulk of the Empire.  That means that things are murky. You have responsibilities, obligations, problems. No one gets out clean.

Edge of the Empire has a unique dice system, as illustrated above.  Your six stats (Brawn, Agility, Cunning, Intelligence, Presence, and Willpower) generate green Ability Dice. Your skills let you swap out those green dice for yellow Skill dice, which have better symbols of success on them. The GM, in turn, has purple Difficulty Dice that can be upgraded to red Challenge Dice. Blue Boost Dice have a smaller amount of success symbols but might work in your favor. Black Setback Dice are the negative version of Boost Dice. You assemble your green dice and upgrade some of them to yellow dice. The GM then adds purple dice and might upgrade some of them to red dice, adding in blue and black dice at the GM's discretion. You then roll all of these dice and read the symbols on them to determine the result.

Using these results the GM and players determine what happens with every check. It's a bit time-consuming, but more than worth it when you consider the results. 

For instance, Jedi master Plo Koon is fighting young Boba Fett. After rolling  and cancelling out the results Plo Koon's left with a success and two threats. Plo Koon barely hits Boba but lost his footing for the next attack, giving Boba a boost die on his next attack.

This is not a dice system for those who simply want the rules to get out of the way. The dice mechanic is the entire reason to play this game and the authors make no attempts to say otherwise. I cannot stress it enough: the dice mechanic is the major hook of this game. Everything else revolves around it to the point where the game plays almost nothing like how it looks. And what it looks like is a traditional RPG.

Character creation is, again, pretty standard. You have your races  (which grant you your base stats and your starting XP), classes (which grant most of your skills) and your sub-classes (which grant you talent trees and a few more skills). You're given some cash to buy stuff and man, it's not enough. Neither's the XP they give you, especially when you realize that you can't raise your attributes/stats past character creation unless you buy super-expensive and hard to get to talents, and even then you can only raise one attribute/stat by one. And stats in character creation take the vast majority of your XP. Which is when the GM offers you the Devil's Deal: more cash and XP for Obligation. 

Obligation is your hook into the game. It's your character's bad past catching up with them now. Each Obligation is given a numerical value (usually 5-10 at the beginning of the game) and a chart is made combining everybody's Obligations. Here's my group's at the moment.
Jer'Ani (Bounty): 1-20
Kaneen (Family Curse): 21-30
Betsy (Betrayed into slavery): 31-40
Melody (Lost brother): 41-50
Zeke (Confirmed Jedi): 51-60
Jabba's Escaped slaves: 61-70
Wanted by the Empire for stealing Death Star plans and seeing the destruction of Alderaan: 71-90

As you can see you can also get Obligations from events you did in the game. At the beginning of the session the GM rolls a d100. If he rolls higher than the chart trouble doesn't come looking for the players. If he rolls any of the numbers on the chart, however, trouble finds the players, from whichever part of the chart that corresponds with the number. This stresses out everyone in the session, the person whose Obligation was triggered in particular. If doubles are rolled something really bad happens and the penalties are doubled.

For instance, at the beginning of the next session I roll a d100 and get a 22.  Kaneen's Obligation of his family curse has been triggered and, thanks to the fact that I rolled doubles, it's a particularly bad session for everyone. 

The GM can offer you more Obligation for more XP and cash. As you can see, Jer'Ani took me up on my kind offer. The Obligation system was a bit tough for me to use at first, but after realizing that that's the primary hook for the session (above and beyond anything else, regardless of what the book tells you), it got a lot easier to work with Obligation. 

Another meta-mechanic is Destiny points. There's Dark (for the GM) and Light (for the players) You can use these points to improve your own dice rolls, hurt another character's dice roll, or make up a small fact about the adventure that wasn't established before. You can only have 1 point spent per side on a single action. After playing it a few times my group and I found that this mechanic was great in theory, not so great in practice. Since you can only spend 1 point at a time it's really easy for both sides to spend a point and for nothing to change. Great idea in theory, not so great in practice.

Combat's pretty standard. You roll for initiative, trying to claim slots in the initiative order that you're allowed to swap with other players. There are two types of damage: wounds and strain. Wounds represent physical harm and strain mental harm. Wounds are harder to recover from than strain, which can just vanish after every encounter. Going down to 0 for either one will take you out of the fight. There's also a critical hit system triggered by Triumphs and enough Advantages, which makes you roll a d100 to determine what type of hit you just dealt/took. Even if the effects of the critical go away the actual status doesn't change until the critical hit is healed, thus adding a modifier to the next critical  hit roll. It adds up pretty fast and, coupled with the dice system, you get some really fun combats that are truly cinematic.

The final important thing is the XP system, which is frustratingly lacking. GMs are expected to hand out between 20-30 XP a session, for...well... whatever you want to reward them for. It's astoundingly loose and informal, which I don't personally count as a strength. You do get rewarded for following your Motivation, but that's all there is to it. It's not that the system's simple: it's simplistic and lazy. 

The bottom line is this: Edge of the Empire is an astoundingly fun system. The dice mechanic, the true core of the system, is a ton of fun and makes up for some well intentioned but flawed story mechanics. Definitely worth buying if you're into Star Wars or just like a narrative dice system.