Issues with Star Wars: Force and Destiny characters

This is a wonky post, but hopefully it illustrates a broader point about character design in games.

My former gaming group had for sometime alternated between D&D 5th edition and Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Edge of the Empire focuses on the shadier side of Star Wars, with characters wo are smugglers, scoundrels and explorers. Recently, Fantasy Flight released Force and Destiny, which is focused on Jedi-esque characters using the force, which is only a minor part of Edge of the Empire.

Character creation in these games is rather different from D&D. Players start with a set amount of XP based on the race they chose. The player then chooses a career and specialization; a career is similar to a D&D class like paladin, while specialization is like the specific oaths that paladins can take. In Force and Destiny, for example, one career is Guardian; specializations include peacekeeper, protector and Soresu defender (a Jedi training).

After choosing race, career and specialization, a player must buy attributes and skills. This where the career and specialization come in. The specialization and career you choose gives you certain “career skills,” which a player can “buy” relatively cheaply with XP. Players can also buy “non-career skills”–other skills not included in their career–for more XP. And players can buy “talents”–specific upgradeable powers–that depend on their specialization.

Hopefully that’s kind of clear. Basically, the classes are very customizable, but career/specialization push you in certain directions.

Ok, now to the game. Force and Destiny (F&D) has an interesting set-up. You aren’t playing as parties of Jedi Knights, although this may be possible at higher levels. Instead, player characters are “force sensitives,” people with some affinity for force use. They have a variety of careers—pilots, scouts, warriors—and can add force powers and eventually Jedi-like lightsaber training as they gain XP.

So far so good. But as we were putting together a party we kept running into problems. None of us could find a character we were completely comfortable with. And we kept running into issues with party balance. We always tried to calibrate character creation so everyone’s PC has a unique role and nothing important is left out. But we kept struggling. No one was really specialized enough in information gathering. Those of us with combat-focused characters, like me, found ourselves with little to do outside of combat.

And this wasn’t just a rookie mistake. We’d all done this before, and we tried to work out a good party. It kind of felt like there was something with the character creation process that was causing complications.

So we looked into this, and found it. The characters were just a little off.

First, a lot of the career-specialization skills were either oddly mismatched or redundant. The Starfighter specialization had every piloting-related skill as career—piloting, of course, but also astrogation and gunnery. This makes sense if your PC is flying an X-wing, but that barely ever happens in the game. And when you’re on a freighter-type vessel—the usual way to get around space—one person has all the skills needed but can’t use all of them at once. So you either have redundancy—two astrogaters—or are missing important skills.

The Guardian specialization has career skills related to melee combat and medicine. This kind of made sense, but the attributes needed for melee and related skills (brawn, discipline) are not at all complementary with the skill for medicine, intellect. So you either have a character with weak stats in both or who isn’t making use of their character’s full potential.

One more example, the Peacekeeper. The Peacekeeper’s career skills make use of Brawn and Willpower attributes. But all the talents in the talent tree related to leadership checks, which depend on Presence. So again, characters will have trouble balancing this out.

Of course, the Star Wars RPGs’ process lets you customize your character. If you want piloting skills but that isn’t a career skill for your character, you can still take the skills, they just cost more. And you don’t necessarily need to make use of all the skills and talents for a specialization. So all these downsides could be overcome by spending XP for non-career skills or ignoring clashing elements of character design.

But that kind of defeats the purpose of the class system. If we can just have infinitely customizable classes, let’s use a system like Shadowrun’s or the Firefly/Serenity RPG’s. If there are classes, they should be playable. Star Wars character creation system is kind of halfway between D&Ds—with little customizability outside class options or multi-classing—and the games I just mentioned that are very customizable. Maybe in the end it’s an uneasy balance.

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…

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lighstaber I, part II

Last week I presented the first part of a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire adventure I wrote. The party was hired by a crimelord to retrieve a mysterious item from a renegade employee. This turned out to be a lightsaber, and the group found themselves caught between the crimelord, the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. They gathered their information and prepared to meet the renegade employee to retrieve the item…

The time of the meet now approached. The group was still undecided about who they would work for, but did want to find this mysterious item. They surveyed the meet’s location—a spot near the edge of Trader’s Plaza. The group found signs that someone had set up a position from which they could watch—and snipe the group—if needed from a nearby rooftop. Alex set up a bomb near this position (using a destiny point to uncover explosives), and Sarek set himself up on another rooftop to provide cover. Changkaishek and Alex would hide in the alleyway during the meet, while Bint would do the talking.

Finally, the time for the meet arrived. Oparro arrived with a Barabel guard—a big lizard-like humanoid—and his Rodian slicer. When he realized Bint was here to collect the item, he became hostile and threatened them. Then the group sprung their trap. Alex detonated the bomb, killing what turned out to be a Gand sniper. Sarek, Bint and Alex opened fire. Bint and Alex killed the Rodian, while Sarek scored a critical hit on the Barabel, severely wounding him. Meanwhile, Bint grabbed Oparro and threatened him if he didn’t give up the item.

Bint rolled very well on his intimidation check, so Oparro offered the group 15,000 if they would help him deliver it—as they’d just killed most of his crew. They agreed, and accompanied him back to his ship where his pilot was waiting with the item. Oparro opened a safe, and the item was revealed to be…a lightsaber. Everyone looked in awe at this rare relic for a moment, when suddenly a concussion grenade went off. When they came to, the group saw a man with the lightsaber fleeing on a swoop bike.

Thinking fast, the group piled into Oparro’s speeder and took off after the man. Even though the swoop bike was faster, excellent piloting by Alex allowed them to close with him, and Sarek destroyed his bike. As this chase was occurring, the group realized another speeder was shadowing them on one side, while a TIE shuttle was tracking them overheard.

The swoop bike crashed in a clearing containing an old hut. The group rushed to the man, grabbing the lightsaber as he babbled something about the guilt they would feel for stealing this. Meanwhile, the speeder—which they saw contained the Rebels—and the TIE shuttle (containing Donaldo and some crew) arrived. Both groups got out, and called on them to turn over the lightsaber.

Suddenly, an old lady came out of the house, and everyone turned to her, drawn by her powerful presence. She told them the lightsaber was all she had left from her dead husband, but they might as well just take it since they’d already disturbed her peace. The group was not really interested in this “sidequest” (their words) and formulated a plan to get out of here. They decided to drive over to the Rebels, acting as if they would join them. Then they would toss a grenade into the Rebels’ speeder, fire on Donaldo’s team, and take off in the confusion.

This did not occur as planned, however, as when Alex punched it the speeder’s engines gave out. They had taken considerable strain during the chase as the speeder was not designed for rough driving. It came to a stop near the Rebels, as the Rebels and Imperials began exchanging fire. Alex tried to fix it, but fumbled in his nervousness. Bint managed to convince one of the Rebels to repair the speeder just enough so they could take off. As soon as they did this, Bint tossed the grenade at the Rebels and the group sped away.

They dropped off Oparro, and rushed to their ship. As they were powering up, the space traffic control informed them they required permission and a flight path before leaving. Ignoring this, they took off, barely dodging incoming ships to get into orbit. When they emerged from the atmosphere, they saw Donaldo’s ship bearing down on them.

Alex manned the controls, trying to get the ship far enough away from the planet. Meanwhile, Bint and Sarek attempted to plot a course using the astrogation computer. Neither of them were very skilled at this—and they were heading to a rendezvous point in the middle of nowhere based on coordinates from Oparro—so they fumbled at their attempt and had to redo the calculations (the players kept failing astrogation checks). This gave Donaldo’s ship a chance to close with them and open fire, nearly crippling their ship before the calculations were complete and the made the jump to light speed.

They arrived at the rendezvous where Oparro was waiting. He said he had to set up the payment with his “other buyer”—who he refused to identify—and asked for the lightsaber. The team initially refused until Oparro gave them a valuable relic as collateral. He then told them to wait for him on the planet Chordaan.

Next week I will discuss my thoughts on creating and running an adventure in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, Part 1

This is another in my series of walkthrough posts, in which I run through what happened in a game session. See my earlier posts on a D&D 5e session. This post deals with a different RPG, Fantasy Flight’s excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE). This game focuses on the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, with players creating rogues, smugglers and exiles who adventure in the Outer Rim. It’s my favorite of the Star Wars RPGs (I’ll blog about others later).

In this post I’ll talk about a module I created. I’ll talk about the backstory and what happened when we ran it. I’ll also include notes on game mechanics [in brackets] as I did with my earlier walkthroughs. Unlike my earlier walkthrough, I’ll have an extra post discussing thoughts on creating and running an original module for EOTE.

My former group was alternating between D&D and EOTE, when our EOTE GM became interested in trying out a new character. So I volunteered to run the group. There were some premade modules available, but I was interested in trying to write my own.

I decided to make a three-episode adventure revolving around a rediscovered lightsaber. In the opening adventure, the group would be tasked by a crimelord with retrieving the lightsaber (although they don’t yet know what it is) and gradually they become embroiled in broader turmoil, as the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and a fallen Jedi all get involved.

I designed the first episode to be as non-railroady as possible (characters get to make a lot of open-ended choices). The basic plot is that the group was hired by Deg-Lilek, a Twi’ilek crimelord, to retrieve an item (revealed to be the lightsaber) from a rogue employee, Oparro (a Toydarian). In addition to Oparro and Deg-Lilek, the lightsaber is sought after by a rogue Imperial agent, some Rebel spies, and its original owner, the widow of a Jedi who hid after the Purge. When I wrote it, I had no idea what path the group would take, which was kind of fun.

The group included Sarek, a Chiss big game hunter; Alex, a human mechanic; Bint, a Draal doctor; and ChanngKaishk, a Wookie brawler. They gathered at Deg-Lilek’s compound on the smuggler’s moon of Nar Shadaa after being summoned. The crimelord told them one of his employees—Oparro—had gone rogue while recovering an item for a client; Oparro claimed he had another buyer and was holding out for more money. Deg-Lilek wants the group to travel to meet Oparro on the planet of Atzerri, pretending to have his money. They are to retrieve the item however they see fit, and will be paid 5,000.

The group agreed, and headed to Atzerri. Shortly after arriving in the system, however, an Imperial patrol craft stops them and requests to inspect their ship. The group knew they’ve done nothing illegal (yet) so they shut down their systems and prepared to be boarded.  The Imperial commander, Donaldo, turned out to be Deg-Lilek’s client. He is annoyed that Deg-Lilek failed to deliver the item—which he hopes to deliver to the Emperor, going around his chain of command, to gain his favor—and wants the group to get it for him. He’ll double what they were being paid. Not having much of a choice, they promise to help and he lets them go.

They then landed on Atzerri, a swamp planet with very little governance and a wild, sprawling capital city. The meet with Oparro was scheduled for the next day. The group passed through the chaotic Traders’ Plaza—a kind of giant space-souk—where they tried to get information on what Oparro was up to. They then continued to gather information in Dak’s Cantina, a prominent watering hole near the Plaza.

While they were walking around, two encounters happened. First, late at night after leaving the cantina, they were ambushed by a group of men in an alleyway. They dispatched them easily, killing all but one, whom they incapacitated and left in a dumpster. On one of the bodies they found a datapad with information on themselves as well as Oparro’s group, and mentions of a woman still being safe despite the item’s theft.

The second encounter happened the next day. As they were walking through a busy avenue off Trader’s Plaza, a group of men surrounded them. One, a Sullustan, asked them to step into an alleyway to chat. He turned out to be a member of the Rebel alliance. They were hoping to gain the item for themselves; while they didn’t know what Donaldo was up to, they thought frustrating the Empire was worthwhile. They couldn’t offer as much money as Deg-Lilek or Donaldo, but they promised the Rebel alliance would help the group in the future. Again, the group agreed—just because it was difficult to argue when they were surrounded—and left.

The adventure concludes in next week’s post

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.