Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Focus Determines Reality: Star Wars RPGs

It's hard to address the question of Star Wars roleplaying systems without coming off like a Fantasy Flight Fanboy. I'm going to do my best, but at some point it's going to devolve into gushing over the newest Star Wars Roleplaying Game(s). I'm not even going to apologize.

I've played a lot of Star Wars. I had my first action figures in 1977 or '78, and they saw a lot of action. I've played all three officially licensed games and a handful of GURPS ports, I played a Gamma World campaign that was heavily influenced by Star Wars, and I've played a Monk/Warlock in D&D who was a Jedi who fought dragons.

I'm just going to focus on the three official games: West End Games' Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Wizards of the Coast's similarly titled entry, and Fantasy Flight Games' trilogy of games (which are really just one game from three different angles, so I'm going to call it one... probably FFG Star Wars).

West End Games | Star Wars d6

I played the Second Edition of the WEG Star Wars Roleplaying Game.  The blue one, though we - of course - bought the revised and expanded rules when they came out (I missed the in-universe advertisements).

This was the granddaddy of them all.  The d6 System was fun because you got to throw around big handfuls of dice (for the things you were good at), and you got to be literally whatever you wanted (I'm still salty about there being no official Jawas in the FFG game). I wish Squibs had made it into the new canon.

How Did It Play?

I think it played pretty straight forward.  You had a series of attributes, basically, and all of your skills were each tied to one of those. To do anything that required a roll, you grabbed a number of six-sided dice equal to your Attribute + your Skill and rolled them.  There were these little "Partial Dice" called pips - three to a die, if I remember, each pip added +1 to a roll. You were rolling to beat a target number.

West End Games gave us the Control, Sense, and Alter paradigm for Force Powers, and I still think of Force Powers in that regard.

What Was Great About It?

Exploding Dice! The 2nd Edition introduced the Wild Die, which was a different color die that you rolled as part of your dice pool. If the Wild Die came up 1, you removed it from the total along with the highest die you rolled. If the Wild Die came up a 6, you added it to the total and rolled it again! If it came up 6 again, you added it again, and so on. It made it seem like - even if the odds were against you - you really could do anything.

WEG had no class system, no Fighters or Scoundrels or What-Have-Yous. You picked your race and then spent your Character Points to make the character you wanted to make. There were templates, to help you figure out who your character was - and to base them on character tropes you might know; but I can't recall if I ever used them (certainly not for the characters I really remember playing). I didn't learn how to see class-based role playing games as nonrestrictive until FFG's Force & Destiny, so this was a major selling point for me.

Being a Force User in the WEG d6 system was also great. At first it was frustrating, because you had to balance your Force Powers with your "normal" abilities (you got the same amount of XP - Character Points, I think - as everyone else). At character creation, you were generally less capable than others in the party, but - like the Wizard in D&D - you quickly rose in power, so that you could really own a battlefield or a dinner party.

I'm going to gloss over the massive amount of material available to players and game masters, the source books and anthologies and all the tons of material which basically laid the foundation for the Legends canon (the Expanded Universe before Disney stepped in).

What Was Terrible About It?

Force Users were really over powered. Oh man. What made being a Force User great for that player had a lot of potential to detract from everyone else's enjoyment as the game devolved into "A Jedi and his Companions." A good GM, and a party willing to play that dynamic could mitigate the imbalance, but many of us had no idea it was going to turn into that sort of game until it was too late, and feelings were hurt. This game was exceedingly unbalanced.

When you got those really big dice pools (which I love so dearly), you could more easily afford the penalties assessed for taking multiple actions in a round. As the player characters got better and better at what they did, combat got a little silly - and took a long time just to get through a single round. The game might not actually have been as "crunchy" as other systems, but it really started to feel that way.

How Does It Compare to d20?

West End Games Star Wars was vastly superior to d20. It was more unbalanced, but the rules system was easier to understand, and it felt more like Star Wars. Also, this might just be from my personal experience; but I found it much easier to tell stories in the WEG system than in d20.

How Does It Compare to FFG?

If I couldn't play Star Wars using FFG, I'd probably play WEG. Again, the balance issues of WEG stand against it. FFG has handfulls of dice too; but rolling all the extra dice doesn't bog down the flow of the game the way it could in the d6 system.

Wizards of the Coast | d20 Star Wars

It's probably a little unfair of me to lump all the d20 editions together as one. Saga edition was vastly different (and vastly superior) to Wizards of the Coast's earlier editions.

For a D&D nerd like me, having just spent quite a load of time learning the (then) new 3rd edition rules - it was quick and easy to adopt the variants in their version of Star Wars.

How Did It Play?

Fine? I played weekly with a pretty great group of guys, so my complaints about this system are things I only noticed in retrospect. It's space D&D, though, so there are classes.  There are Feats, which are a great carrot (in a carrot and stick analogy) for advancement. I remember really craving new feats when I played 3rd edition and Star Wars both.

Starting, 1st-level characters felt a little more capable than they did in WEG's d6 system, and even the canon characters didn't seem to be super-all-powerful demi-gods, the way they did before.

One my favorite all-time games of Star Wars, was a pick-up, one-shot game in the revised 2nd edition of d20, where the players ran characters from the movie in a remake of A New Hope. I'll spare you the details. It was fun, though; and I'm not sure it would have worked as well in the other systems.

d20 Star Wars had quite a few supplements, and some interesting ideas, but mostly I found it much easier to base my games and populate my worlds around the supplements put out by West End Games when I was running d20 campaigns.

What was great about it?

This feels unfair; but I don't know that there was anything "great" about d20 Star Wars. It was nicely balanced, so that characters could all participate and contribute regardless of their choice of character class. I always thought the most fun of D&D 3e (and subsequently d20 Star Wars) was character advancement. Stories were fun and all, but - to me (and I admit I might have been wildly wrong about this) the game was about character advancement.

All in all, without having played the game in almost a decade, I think d20 Star Wars was adequate. It was the system they adapted for the Knights of the Old Republic games, so it's got that going for it, which is nice.

What Was Terrible About It?

I might've summed this one up above. I find my brain still sometimes focused on character advancement, rather than character development. The rules were just as convoluted in Star Wars as they were in D&D (when 3rd Edition D&D became 3.5, d20 Star Wars also got an update - but they didn't really get better. Just different).

We played one epic campaign of d20 Star Wars, and quite a few partial games that didn't really go anywhere. We sort of just stopped playing Star Wars at some point, and (right or wrong), I always kind of blamed the d20 System.

How Does It Compare to WEG?

The d20 system was more balanced than WEG, and if you're familiar with D&D 3rd Edition, or even Pathfinder, the rules in Saga Edition are probably not going to be too difficult to understand. d20 might be a little more simulationist, but I think WEG was actually the more crunchy of the two.

How Does It Compare to FFG?

It doesn't. Oh boy. This might be the point where I'm going to start geeking out about Force & Destiny. Honestly, though, the more I think about it, the less I can come up with in defense of the d20 system.

Fantasy Flight Games | Age of Rebellion,

Edge of the Empire, Force & Destiny

There's no way you could be blamed for thinking Fantasy Flight Games' line of Star Wars games was a soulless cash grab. It seems like a recipe for disaster. Three separate core rulebooks. Proprietary dice. Classes. Duty? Obligation? Morality? I understand why there are so many players who are reluctant to take a look at it.

There is no excuse for how good this game is. It makes no sense to me as a gamer. Like, at... all.

How Did It Play?

The word "narrative" is bandied about quite a bit, and I think that's a key element of the FFG Star Wars systems. It can be a little jarring for players who are used to the more simulationist games. There's a thing about the game that forces the player and the game master both to stretch their imagination a little more than they might otherwise have done. Giving a player more control over the setting and even the plot (as opposed to just playing their character's reactions to them) puts an unsuspecting player in the hot seat. It can be uncomfortable at first; but once it clicks with everyone at the table, it's amazing.

What Was Great About It?

Balance. I haven't played a game with characters from each of the different books - by which I mean, I haven't played an Edge of the Empire character in a Force & Destiny game, or something like that. But it seems to be a decently balanced system, overall. My longest-running character (shout-out to Xen Ma'lak on the Dice For Brains Podcast) is a burgeoning pacifist who abhors violence, but can still (pretty much) hold his own with the more violence-focused characters. Worst-case scenario, I feel useful in every fight situation that comes up, and I'm having fun doing it.

Character advancement is fun and pretty straight forward. They don't discourage multi-classing (picking up additional specializations - even those from outside your chosen career), and I think it might be a bad idea, "Jacks of All Trades" and all that. But using and improving mastery of the Force is pretty simple, and even the really hard to obtain advances to your character (better Characteristics, more Force Dice) feel worthwhile, and the talents you pick up on your way there, are always useful.

The Destiny Pool is genius - giving the players opportunity to affect the game world in a way that gives their character an advantage AND tying that pool to the GM's ability to do the opposite makes the Destiny Pool an amazingly fun tool. So long as both GMs and Players remember to use the Destiny Pool, it's a really interesting mechanic.

What Was Terrible About It?

It takes a little bit of time to get used to the new dice, but I think that's only because they're different. I think new players have a much easier time of it. Success, Failure, Advantage, Threat, Triumph, & Despair. These are the six outcomes on the dice, and it's theoretically possible to get five of them at a time. Most of the trouble I think comes from the first few sessions, when players are trying to figure out what cancels what, and how do we use our Triumphs, Advantages, Threats, and Despair.

As I've said, I haven't tried to run characters from the different books in the same campaign, so I don't know how Morality, Obligation, and Duty would function together. Also, I get Morality, and I enjoy playing Force & Destiny in part because of it; but I haven't had a chance to use Duty or Obligation. Obligation makes perfect sense to me, but I'm not sure whether I like Duty as a system. I look forward to giving it a shot, however.

How Does It Compare to the Others?

I really like FFG better than any other Star Wars RPG system. It feels more like Star Wars, once you get into the guts of a story. It plays pretty straightforward, once you get your head around the mechanics. I just feel like I've had more fun playing Force & Destiny (and its contemporaries) than any other Star Wars game I've played to date.

If you've got a good group of gamers together, you could tell good stories and have great fun with any of these systems. It mostly does come down to who's at the table; but for my table, I prefer FFG to the others.

1 comment:

Jim Rasmussen said...

Thanks for the thoughts David. I am a huge Star Wars FFG fan, and nearly as big a fan of Xen. The game is everything that I want it to be, and Xen is the type of Jedi that I'd like to meet in a cantina someday. Keep striving for that restrained pacifist vibe, it is what makes it possible for a full blown Jedi Knight level character to be a companion to characters like Mor'a and Simon. If Xen weren't so laid back, this season of D4B would suffer as the other characters became little more than sidekicks. Best of luck to you and our favorite battle scarred Nautolan.

To offer a subtle counterpoint to your commentary- I think that the narrative gameplay is only a hurdle insofar as players and GM's allow it to be. If we fear the more free form playstyle, it can hinder our enjoyment of the system and game. On the other hand, once we learn to embrace the chaos, it opens up an entirely different style of gaming. I have players that are experiencing a renaissance, while others approach each game session with some trepidation. I think it is largely up to the GM to be receptive to where each player is in their process of adopting the system, to find the happy place were the game is structured enough to feel safe, yet open enough to allow that new style FFG jazz to unfold.


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