Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, concluding thoughts

In my last two posts I presented a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE) adventure I wrote. This is a great gaming system that lets players be part of the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, playing as rogue and smugglers who inhabit the Outer Rim. Unlike the D&D mechanics, which involve numerical calculations, EOTE uses custom dice. These dice gives the Game Master (GM) and players resources to craft a narrative together.

In this final post of the series, I have some thoughts on GM-ing EOTE for the first time, and on running an open-ended adventure.

EOTE is in some ways good for new GMs and in some ways bad. It’s very abstract; you use range bands instead of distance, and setback, boost and difficult dice instead of modifiers. So there are fewer tables to memorize than in Shadowrun or even D&D. At the same time, it’s very narrative and interactive. Each dice roll includes failure or success but also advantages and threats; advantages and threats give benefits or raise challenges beyond whether or not something succeeds. So the GM must be able to interpret this on the fly. For example, a slicing attempt might succeed but with threats; one could decide the player gained the information he sought but alerted a rival hacker in the process. And then there are destiny points—chips the players and GM flip to give their side an advantage. The person using the destiny point must come up with a story reason to use it, like a character remembering he’d learned details of Rancor anatomy giving him a boost to an attack or finding an extra grenade in his backpack. This is fun, but can be a bit much to handle alongside the normal tasks of running the game.

And as I mentioned, I tried to make this as open-ended as possible. The group had to retrieve the lightsaber, but they could do this on behalf of the Empire, the Rebels, the criminals, or even themselves. They also could have returned it to the old lady. Unfortunately, they chose what I saw as the least likely option—working with Oparro—and I hadn’t exactly planned how this would go. It worked out, but I stumbled a bit to figure out what to do. Also, I had a big speech planned for the old lady that would give some backstory for why she had the lightsaber and set up the next adventure. The group had no interest in talking to her, and ignored her.

So open-ended adventures can be good, but the GM needs to stay on his or her feet and be prepared for the unexpected. You also need to fight the urge to force the group to do what you want. If the plot can only be resolved in one way, then the adventure isn’t interactive enough. It’s difficult to write a complex RPG adventure that leaves room for player choice, but it’s worth it.

I also had a few thoughts on the mechanics. Both the group and I made judicious use of destiny points. The party was able to rig up a bomb during the ambush of Oparro by flipping a destiny point to find bags of explosive materials. And I used a destiny point to make their attempted betrayal of the Rebels harder, causing their speeder to stall out. But in the end I made this adventure a little too easy for them. Despite the setback dice I gave them for speeding through the swamp, they still caught up to the lightsaber thief before he reached the old lady’s hut (which would have screwed up my ending). And I was afraid of Donaldo’s ship destroying them as they escaped, but by decreasing the difficulty I took away some of the ending’s tension. I’d remember this for the next Episode…

Is charisma overused in fifth edition D&D?

So just to save you reading the blog post in case you’re busy, the answer—in my opinion—is yes. But please read on for my explanation, as well as why I think this matters for gameplay and roleplaying.

One day while a former group was going through a D&D adventure, it came time for a charisma check to deal with a shopkeeper. We realized half the group had high charisma, so we had to debate about who would be best to handle this. This got me thinking about how common high charisma is in fifth edition D&D.

There are numerous classes dependent on high charisma. It is the primary stat for paladins, warlocks, sorcerers and bards. By contrast, dexterity is the primary stat for rogues and rangers (although wisdom is a close second for rangers). Wisdom is important for monks, clerics and rangers. Strength is essential for fighters and barbarians. And intelligence is only important for wizards.

Now someone may argue there is some complexity to this. Charisma is the primary SAD-type stat (that means single ability dependent, i.e. a class that can make do with high scores in one ability) for only sorcerer. Sorcerers are spellcasters and charisma determines everything about their spells, much like intelligence does for wizards. Paladins are a mix of divine magic and combat, so they’ll also be reliant on strength (or dexterity for the rare dex-based paladin). Warlocks are kind of intended to be combat-focused so they may also rely on strength or dexterity. So charisma maybe isn’t that ubiquitous.

There are a few issues with this retort. First, Warlocks and Paladins may be MAD (multiple ability dependent) but they’ll still need high charisma—either of these with mediocre charisma scores is kind of pointless and you might as well just play another class. So they still rely on charisma. Second, whether or not charisma is the primary stat, having relatively high scores among multiple characters means lots of people will be good at similar stuff, especially in social interactions. Finally, there are no classes with intelligence as a secondary stat. Sure it might be good for investigator-type rogues but it’s not really required.

This last point brings me to why I think it’s an issue. Just having lots of charismatic characters around should be a good thing, right? But there are downsides.

The first is if you want a smart character. Intelligence is useful for a variety of knowledge skills, and I think it’s a cool character concept to have a nerdy professor-type, so I wanted a smart character. But one of my fellow party members likes to always play sorcerers, so we didn’t really need a wizard. I realized then that the only way to have a smart non-wizard character is to lower a more useful secondary skill (like dexterity or constitution). But there are plenty of character builds pushing you towards having pretty good charisma so I kept ending up with charismatic characters with intelligence as their drop stat.

Now obviously this is only a problem if you want smart characters. But there are other issues. One is duplication. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, we kept running into situations where everyone could do a charisma check that came up. It takes away the fun when people don’t have unique skills, and can get a little frustrating. I bet a lot of 5e parties end up with lots of people with +5s on persuasion and none with more than +1 on history or arcana.

The final one is more of a conceptual issue. When I raised concerns about the overuse of charisma, my fellow players said it’s because there are different types of charisma. A charismatic paladin may be a bold leader, able to inspire the troops. A charismatic bard is a charmer. A charismatic warlock or sorcerer has a powerful, strong personality that can literally summon magic from nothing. So charisma isn’t overused, it’s a diverse concept.

But when a concept can stretch to fit numerous applications, maybe it’s poorly defined. Indeed, when you look at other game systems—like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, which I will blog about here—they have multiple skills that would fall under charisma. Of course, I have issues with very specific skills or attributes as that tends to lead to redundance or over-complexity (look for a future post on this).

So what is the solution? Maybe replace charisma with wisdom for either warlock or sorcerer. This would balance stats out a bit. Or even make intelligence the primary stat for warlocks. A warlock usually comes into contact with his or her patron through study or exploration, so it makes sense for wisdom or intelligence to be high. This would ease the over-reliance on charisma a bit.

Any thoughts?

Why I’m not a fan of Shadowrun/Two types of players

I was initially going to call this just “Issues with Shadowrun,” but to be honest if I don’t like a game as popular and influential as Shadowrun the issue is probably with me, not the game. That got me thinking about what became the real theme of this post.

It all started when a former gaming group tried to play Shadowrun. We created characters, started running the intro adventure, and it went nowhere. I spent days customizing my character (a ninja-type investigator/infiltrator) and learning the rules for evasion and using my grapping hook. And I never used any of them, as we spent our entire session debating rules as one person tried have his technomancer create sprits. We spent so much time on the rules of the game we never really had a chance to become immersed in it. (If you’ve never played Shadowrun and have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine, it’s just complicated Shadowrun stuff).

I complained on our group chat channel and we never played again. So I was annoyed that I spent tons of time on a character for a game I wasn’t excited about in the first place and then never really got to use.

At first I decided the issue, as I said, was with Shadowrun. It is a very complex game. There are different rules for semi-automatic, burst fire and fully-automatic guns. There are complicated rules for hacking into computer networks or using magic. And, to be fair, by mixing magic, complicated combat and technology the game has a bit of the most difficult to learn parts of other game systems. As a huge fan of D&D 5e I didn’t see why Shadowrun couldn’t be simplified along the lines of 5e’s advantage/disadvantage modifier system.

But then I thought about how much time I spent on my character, mostly after I’d closed my door to my office and kept glancing worriedly at the window to see if anyone was looking in (in a previous job, I am a very dutiful worker now). It was kind of cool to have such a complex, customizable process and I could see how someone could get lost in the very detailed rules for every aspect of the game.

So maybe there are just two types of players. Some of us get really excited about immersing ourselves in an abstract alternate world. We like coming up with character backstories, acting out what the character would do, writing blog posts about their history and personality (ahem). Others of us love the mechanics of translating adventures—combat, exploration, investigation—into dice rolls. Realizing that a burst fire from a machine pistol would do more damage but be less accurate, and seeing how this affects the number of and modifiers to your dice pool, is pretty cool.

Some games are geared towards the immersive. I think the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games fall into this category, as the dice rolls lend themselves to narrative story-telling and slightly abstract action. And then Shadowrun would be—as one of my former group members called it—more “crunchy.” In my opinion, D&D is the perfect blend of the two.

The challenge, then, is finding the right game for the different players in your group or being open to disagreement about your direction, as mine was after I whined about Shadowrun.