Friday, January 18, 2013

RPG Review: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

I recently got my hands on the new Star Wars role-playing game by Fantasy Flight Games. This new product, the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner's Game, is specifically an introductory product. As I have spent the past few weeks running introductory sessions of the game at my local game shop, I thought I would take some time and discuss my impressions of the product and, as much as I can, the new Star Wars RPG as it has been so far presented.

Star Wars, Fantasy Flight style.
The Contents of the Box

The Beginner Game has everything a new group of players needs to get started. There are four character folios, featuring notable Star Wars aliens and "fringe" character types. A bounty hunter, a smuggler, a colonist, and a hired gun make up the arrangement of ne'er-do-wells provided with this set. There are also two additional character folios featured on the game's website. An adventure book provides a potential Game Master content to slowly introduce players to the game. There is also a rulebook that summarizes the basic game rules and provides additional information for a group to use after they finish the introductory adventure. To round it off, there is a sheet of tokens, a map of locations featured in the adventure, and some game dice.

Everything in the box, plus two bonus characters.
When you look at it, this is essentially the "Red Box" of Fantasy Flight's new Star Wars RPG. It has introductory content that is simple to learn as you go. Once you get the basic system down, it gives you some additional content and rules to keep playing your own adventures. That being said, like the original D&D Red Box, it only goes so far. It will not take a typical gaming group that long to find the limits of what is provided in the Beginner Game rulebook. With the Core Rulebook still not available, interested players will just have to do their best.

Adventure book and rulebook. Just enough to
get you started with the game...
There are some less stellar aspects to the contents of the Beginner Game. Unlike the classic Red Box, there is no simple introductory solo play materials to familiarize the would-be Game Master. I never found the solo-play content of the classic D&D Red Box to be especially compelling, but it was a convenient way to learn how to play before inviting my friends over. Although the Star Wars Beginner Game does a great job of introducing the game via its introductory adventure, it requires a Game Master to already have some fluency with the game. As a Game Master, I found it frustrating that I was essentially learning the game as I was trying to explain it. It is a small complaint but one that still managed to frustrate me.

Custom Dice and Multi-Level Success

There is also the matter of the dice. Like the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the new Star Wars RPG uses custom dice. These dice are used to build dice pools based on talent, skill, difficulty, and other challenges. There are "good" dice (green, yellow, and light blue) and "bad" dice (purple, red, and black). On any skill check, a player will build a pool of good dice based on his character's abilities and then add bad dice based on the difficulty of the challenge faced.

Colorful dice with custom faces.
The dice have a variety of symbols that measure success. What is interesting is that the two-tiered system from WFRP was utilized in this game. Some of the symbols represent success or failure at the task; success and failure symbols cancel each other and the remaining symbol determines the outcome. However, there are also symbols for "advantage" and "threat." This is an independent determination from success or failure. At the most basic level, advantage and threat cause or relieve the character's strain (a measure of fatigue). However, they can also be used to cause other effects that benefit or hinder the character's allies or enemies.
Let's assume somebody failed
her skill check on this one.

Let me provide an example to illustrate the effect. While aboard a freighter owned by a rather unpleasant Trandoshan, Sasha the Explorer shot her slugthrower at him. The player made his dice pool and rolled, resulting in two successes, three failures, four advantage, and two threat. Sasha had missed (since the failures cancelled out the successes) but had two advantage. Sasha's player decided that although the shot had missed, it hit some steam piping behind the Trandoshan, blowing a bunch of steam in his face and making his next attack more difficult (represented by an added bad die).

As a fan of story games and collaborative narratives in role-playing games, the dice mechanics became a very interesting way for players to adapt the story to their dice. To a certain extent, it became a measured amount of "fail forward" with some "succeed backwards" thrown in for effect. When one player attempted to distract the local junk dealer with Charm, he rolled a number of successes but also a handful of threat (disadvantage). He succeeded at the distraction but creatively interpreted the threat as the junk dealer misinterpreting the charm as a thinly-veiled sexual advance. A group that is flexible in their narrative can use the success/advantage and failure/threat mechanics to really drive interesting narratives within the Star Wars universe.

FFG and Three-book Monte

The interesting thing about what Fantasy Flight has announced regarding the Star Wars RPG is the peculiar way that they seem to be designing and marketing the game. Edge of the Empire is the first of three role-playing game rulebooks that they intend to publish. In addition, they have announced Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and Star Wars: Force and Destiny. Edge of the Empire specifically focuses on smugglers, traders, bounty hunters, and other sorts of "fringers" within the Rebellion-era Star Wars universe. Essentially, FFG has provided us Star Wars: Scoundrels, the role-playing game.

FFG must have been big fans of this kind of thing.
My issue with this release schedule is the manner in which the chose to "break up" the Star Wars RPG. Instead of books focusing on eras of play (the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, or the New Jedi Order, for example), the books are all focused on the Rebellion Era but seemingly divide up the film's characters (Smugglers, Soldiers, and Jedi). Under this schedule, a group that wanted to play a story akin to Star Wars: A New Hope, in which two smugglers, a rebellion diplomat/princess, a Jedi, two droids, and a kid farmer/Jedi-in-training fight the Empire would require all three rulebooks (!). Players trying to create a story set in the Clone Wars, Old Republic, or New Jedi Order eras will likely face similar difficulty given the limits of Edge of the Empire.

Not the sort of campaign your group is expected to play.
My biggest question about the trisected rulebooks is how the final book, Star Wars: Force and Destiny, will work as a stand-alone product set in the Rebellion Era of Star Wars. There are not many force users featured in the original trilogy. Even the expanded universe has added very few additional Jedi to the mix; an entire game group of force-users seems highly improbable given the setting. Of course, as that product is still on the far horizon, I have plenty of time to continue to wonder about it.

Overall, a Good Introduction

Fantasy Flight has provided a good introductory product for their upcoming Star Wars RPG. It comes with content that familiarizes players with the rules of the new Star Wars RPG in a relatively simple way. It takes the Star Wars universe and carves out a specific niche for players to have adventures in. This niche may not make sit right with the general view of the Star Wars universe, but it is an interesting take on the setting and one that is sure to appeal to a variety of different Star Wars fans. The mechanics are peculiar at first but eventually become an interesting way to share narrative control over the game. Given what has been provided, I look forward to the Core Rulebook when it becomes available later this year.

Nobody said I could not run my own version of
Star Wars: Edge of the Republic...