Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tabletop Tuesday! May the Dice Be With You!

Welcome back to Tabletop Tuesday, my weekly post about tabletop games! Today's post is about a new tabletop RPG I've started playing: the Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). FFG is the same company that makes the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game and Warhammer.

I LOVE Star Wars. Like, squealing fangirl, collapsed pile on the floor, cry every time I see the Episode VII trailer, spend too much time on Wookieepedia, probably going to give myself a stroke-kind of love. So as soon as it was suggested that we play this game, I was in.

My character sheet

Like Dungeons & Dragons, this Star Wars RPG (SWRPG) is a tabletop role-playing game that uses combinations of dice and character stats to determine successful actions and outcomes. However, the dice system/game mechanics used to play the SWRPG is very different from D&D.

Because this post got kind of long, I have divided it into three sections: the game materials available from FFG, an overview of the game expansions and my play experience so far, and my thoughts on some of the game mechanics (character creation and the dice system, specifically).

Read on to learn more!

The FFG SWRPG isn't the only Star Wars tabletop RPG, but it is the only current one. Previously Wizards of the Coast (makers of D&D) had a license to produce a Star Wars RPG. This game used the d20 system, like Dungeons & Dragons, and had releases that tied-in with the prequel movies. FFG picked up the license in 2011 and has held it since, producing three SWRPG expansions using different game mechanics and focusing on the world introduced in the original movie trilogy.

Game Materials...
Players who are interested in playing the Star Wars RPG by FFG have a few different ways to access this game: by buying the Beginner Game pack, by buying the Core Rulebooks, or by downloading free PDF adventures available on the FFG website.

The Beginner Game for each expansion contains dice, a pre-made adventure with pre-made characters, a map and tokens to use on it, and an abbreviated rule book. Each of these retails for about $30, and can be a useful and more-affordable introduction to the game - pre-made adventures are great for new GMs and the Beginner Game rulebook walks players through some of the basic rules, introducing them through the adventure as they are relevant to what the players are experiencing.

Product image, Age of Rebellion Beginner Game

The rulebook included with the Beginner Game is incomplete ("simplified and abridged" they call it), but players can buy the Core Rulebook if they want to make their own characters or learn about the game mechanics beyond the pre-made adventures. There are currently three Core Rulebooks available, one for each expansion. Each Core Rulebook caters to the context of the expansion, so they are not merely reprints of the same material, though the basic game mechanics are all the same. Each expansion's Core Rulebook includes different character creation options, new vehicles and equipment, and rule modifications to apply to that expansion. Core Rulebooks retail for $60. There are also supplemental rulebooks that expand on character classes and pre-made adventure books, available for about $30 retail.

For players who want to try before they buy, the FFG website has a free Edge of the Empire adventure available for download in the Player Resources section of the FFG website. This adventure is called Under a Black Sun. Like the Beginner Game, the rules include an explanation of the dice system, character stats, combat mechanics, and some of the more unique game mechanics, like Destiny Points (Light Side and Dark Side, can act as temporary buffs or cause a serendipitous event) and Obligation (debts, influences player choices and story progression). This free adventure is similar to what is provided in the Basic Game pack, minus the map, dice, and tokens.

Abridged rules, screenshot from Under a Black Sun, available as a free PDF.

I mentioned above that the Beginner Game comes with a set of dice. Those of you who have played tabletop RPGs before may think, "Ok, that's cool, but I already have a dice bag full of everything I need." Well, not only does the SWRPG use a different dice system than the D20 system (used for D&D and many other tabletop RPGs), this game uses a unique set of dice.

See that? No numbers.

Each icon represents a specific mechanic: attack or skill successes and failures, advantages and disadvantages/threat (which influences things like environmental effects, Strain on characters, AoE damage, etc), and critical success (Triumph) or failure (Despair). Opposing symbols cancel each other out, and result of a dice roll is determined based on the number of symbols that are left uncancelled. This is explained in more depth in the third section of this post.

The dice are rolled in various combinations representing the difficulty of the combat or skill check, assistance from other players, or, if your GM is like mine, just because he felt like making it harder on you (dude, the ewoks were able to pilot an AT-ST, I'm pretty sure two Corellians could figure one out!)

There are a couple of ways players can access the dice for this new system. A set of Star Wars RPG dice costs about $12 on Amazon, or can be purchased as part of each expansion's Beginner Game package. There are also conversion charts available in the rulebooks and online, if players want to use their existing dice pool, but applying these conversions takes time, so I think it's a tradeoff - you can spend some time familiarizing yourself with the chart and referencing it, or you can buy a whole new set of dice.

Dice conversion chart, available in Under a Black Sun and the Core Rulebooks.

There is also a mobile dice app available for download. This app costs about $5 and can be used to create combinations of the specific dice used for FFG's Star Wars games, including X-Wing Miniatures. It also has fun sound effects.

Screenshot of the Star Wars Dice App. Results are listed along the bottom.

Playing the Game...
One of the first things our group had to decide was which version/expansion of the SWRPG we wanted to play. There are three versions of this game out right now:

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
This version of the game takes place during the era when the Empire had control of the galaxy and the Rebellion barely had any influence. Player characters have to navigate life under the Empire's oppression, and choosing a character race and class will influence this/be limited by this. Alien species are discriminated against and character classes include Bounty Hunters and Smugglers, meaning that players will role play as people living on the fringes of society.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion
This version of the game incorporates the Rebel Alliance, and allows players to take an active role in subverting the Empire. Character classes include Pilots, Mechanics, and other roles that help the Rebellion succeed in missions against Imperial bases and ships. Players should think about how and why their character joined the Rebellion, and their role and talents within the structure of the Rebellion.

Star Wars: Force and Destiny
This is the newest expansion and the first one that really deals with Force users. In this game, players can finally play the role of a lost Jedi, surviving Order 66 and preserving the teachings of the Jedi. Or players can be Force sensitive, without any formal Jedi training and just trying to live under Imperial rule. This expansion is so new that the rulebooks for it just started shipping.

While there are some differences in character creation and game context, these expansions are all designed to work together, allowing groups to customize their games. Many of the game mechanics detailed in the Core Rulebooks are the same across the expansions, so a player who does their research can get away with buying only one or two manuals specific to their character and the experience they want to craft.

Our group decided to incorporate elements from all three expansions to add some variety, but our GM decided to begin with the adventure available in the Beginner Game for the second expansion, Age of Rebellion. Unfortunately, most of us used the character creation rules/races/classes from Edge of the Empire and didn't develop backstories that connected us to the Rebel Alliance - so we were left with our decidedly non-rebel characters plunked down in the middle of a mission for the Rebellion. This left me feeling pretty irritated the first night, because I enjoy the role-playing and character growth aspects of tabletop RPGs, and I had no idea who these other characters were or why my character was working with them. But now that I've developed a backstory that has her working for the Rebels, I'm much happier and having a great time!

We spent our first game night learning about the SWRPG and creating characters. The second session was spent finishing the adventure from the Age of Rebellion Beginner Game, "Takeover at Whisper Base." And last night, our third session, we started the continuation of the story begun in the Beginner Game pack, which is titled, "Operation: Shadowpoint." This adventure is available online.

By implementing some small changes to how we played through certain conversations in the Beginner Game and "Operation: Shadowpoint," our GM has customized this adventure for our group - we are part of the start of the Rebel Alliance, and our missions are taking place before the Battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star, even before the events of the upcoming movie, Rogue One. We have not had to drastically change these adventures to make this new timeframe work, and eventually our characters will progress through those events, and maybe even take part in some of them!

Game Mechanics:

Really, this entire section can be summed up as: the SWRPG lets players and GMs create a highly customized gaming experience, enabling role play, story telling, and world creation with something as mundane as a single dice roll. There is a lot of material that could be discussed under this heading, but I am only going to focus on character creation and the dice system.

Character Creation
Because of how much the materials cost, our GM discouraged the group from buying our own manuals until we knew if we were going to continue playing... so we had one hardcopy to share and some PDFs (of dubious legality) to use when we created our characters, but none of the materials were shared until we all met for our first play session. This was a frustrating experience - I like reading game rules carefully and arriving prepared.

If you're getting a group together to play for the first time, I would recommend that the GM share the relevant character creation rules prior to the first session, so everyone can familiarize themselves with the character options, skills, and game mechanics before the group expects to start playing.

There are some FAQs and summaries available online that help explain the character creation process, and other important mechanics and features of the game. The SWRPG subReddit and the official forums are both great sources of information.

Smuggler is just one of the classes available in Edge of the Empire

For the SWRPG character creation process, players choose a class (called a Career, includes Smuggler, Bounty Hunter, Pilot, etc) and a race (species, such as Human, Wookiee, Droid, Twi'lek). Within their Career, players also choose a Specialization, which grants additional skills and talents. These class and race combinations are spread out among the different Core Rulebooks.

Like they usually do in a tabletop RPG, these class and race combinations grant the player character some base stats (called Characteristics in the SWRPG) and skills. Players might select a certain race and class combination to tell a story, or to make their character as powerful as possible.

Unlike other tabletop RPGs, characters in SWRPG do not level. Instead they begin the game with a pool of XP that they spend like a currency to buy skill proficiencies, talents, and boost their Characteristics. Characteristics generally cannot be changed once the game begins, so it is recommended that players front-load their specialized skills by raising their Characteristic point values during character creation. Players should focus on the Characteristics that fuel the skills and talents they want their character to use. This means that players have to make some serious decisions about their characters before they even start playing, by identify what skills their character will use and boosting the Characteristics that fuel them (like Cunning, Brawn, and Wisdom).

After the initial character creation, players can use talent trees to further customize and build up their character's skill set with the XP they earn by completing missions. For example, last night I was awarded 20 XP for the missions we completed, and I used that to purchase two 1st level talents and a 2nd level talent off of my scoundrel tree. Mission XP can also be used to buy skill proficiencies, changing the dice a player would roll for checks and attacks using that skill and increasing their chances of success.

Smuggler: Scoundrel partial talent tree.
Note the XP cost of the different talents and the Career Skills available to Smugglers.

One last thing I'd like to share about character creation in the SWRPG: in a game like D&D, adventures can often feel like the characters are just moving from combat encounter to combat encounter, with a little role play thrown in between. A character's attacks and the skills that fuel them are very important in a game like that, and if a character is not make for combat, they probably won't be much use to the group.

In the SWRPG, though, we have encountered more puzzles, in the forms of deceptions and negotiations, than active combat. Of course, a failed negotiation could turn into a fight or a GM could run a combat-heavy, dungeon-crawler style game, and this observation is limited to the two pre-made adventures I've played, but I think this is generally reflective of the SWRPG and how it is just as important to consider the people- and real-world skills of your character as their combat ability. While my character is very skilled with her blasters, it was her Deception and Streetwise skills that let us rescue the captured Rebel Operative without firing a single shot last night.

The Dice
I thought this new dice system was very easy to learn, because it is all based on simple icons. Within the pool of dice a player rolls for any given task, the opposing symbols cancel each other out, and the result is determined by the uncanceled symbols.

Excerpt from the dice summary available in the Under a Black Sun free adventure, detailing how
and when each type of dice is used, what the symbols mean, and how to interpret the results.

The different types of dice are color coded, so they are easy to recognize and use. Each type of dice corresponds with skill proficiency and task difficulty. Rather than rolling a d20 for every attack and hoping the result is a high enough number, my smuggler might roll a different combination of dice for each enemy in a single fight, even though she used the same attack each time.

The results of a single roll could be extremely varied, depending on what symbols are left uncanceled. The game rulebooks include a chart explaining the effects that could result from different combinations of uncanceled dice symbols.

Abridged Advantage/Disadvantage chart, available in the free Under a Black Sun pdf

Attack and skill successes and failures are pretty straightforward - did you complete the skill or hit your target? Did you do enough damage? - but the advantages and disadvantages rolled can influence the story or environment, help a character reduce Strain or find cover, create additional damage, or alter the immediate difficulty of an encounter. The chart above, from the free adventure "Under a Black Sun," helps guide these results. A more detailed chart is available in the Core Rulebooks.

Every dice roll is a chance for the players and GM to role play or create a unique experience, and a clever and creative GM will be able to use these dice results to create an immersive and interesting story for their players.

Unfortunately, it is also really easy for a GM to rely too heavily on the chart and fall into a "this grants an additional black die"/"reduce one Strain"/"you shot your ally" pattern - which, to me, defeats the purpose of having so much variability in the dice results.

Three of the many different races available for players to choose from


So, that's my introduction to the Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. Sorry that it got so long!

At first I was nervous about learning a new game system, but the SWRPG is a fun tabletop RPG that encourages role play and storytelling with its unique game mechanics. I think it has the potential to be a pretty epic tabletop RPG experience in the hands of a skilled GM, and I would recommend it to anyone who is a Star Wars fan who also enjoys tabletop RPGs or wants the opportunity to tell their own Star Wars stories.

Like other FFG games I've encountered, I've found the materials needed to play this game are high quality. But this game is also kind of pricey. The free SWRPG adventure, "Under a Black Sun" is enough to get players started in the dice and combat system, but players will need access to the various Rulebooks to fully experience this game system. Luckily, because the expansions were intended to be used together, as players desire, the Core Rulebooks are very similar - many of the differences are related to character creation options and game context, not the primary game mechanics.

Because of the cost of materials and the wide variety of options available to players, I think the SWRPG is a perfect example of the value of game demos at conventions and hobby shops.
If there is a game you are interested in, check to see if there are any demos/games held at your local gaming/comic shop - sometimes just knowing there is an interest is enough for the employees to organize a demo or put you in touch with a group that already plays!

Thanks for reading! As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, leave them in the comments! And until next time, GAME ON!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. I like the idea of the fancy dice but it's difficult at first to sort out the symbols.