Sunday, September 9, 2012

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Review

Edge of the Empire (currently in Beta) is the first installment of a new Star Wars TTRPG by Fantasy Flight Games.  The final release is slated for 2013, with the next two releases in the "trilogy" slated for a year after the previous.  It will be interesting to see how this release schedule folds out, especially considering how the same "trilogy" format was abandoned by The One Ring in favor of a single core book set followed by specific supplements.  Set during the period of the Rebellion and the Empire (the classic trilogy), the focus of Edge of the Empire is the Outer Rim; the fringes of the galaxy.  It's a world of smugglers, bounty hunters, and Hutt crime lords, and it seems like it will provide a player experience very reminiscent of Firefly/Serenity.  Which is a good thing, in my book.  The second installment will focus on the Rebel Alliance, presumably providing material for military resources and capital ships, while the third will highlight the Force and Jedi Knights. 

The three core books will be rules-compatible, but somewhat different games from what I understand.  For one, the power level will almost certainly differ, with Jedi characters created using the third core book being substantially more powerful than starting characters from EotE.  This is a negative for some and a positive for others, but my thoughts on the matter favor this setup.  One thing that I didn't like about the D20 Star Wars system is that Jedi were so painstakingly balanced against the more "mundane" classes, which does create a level playing field but doesn't really adhere to the Star Wars mythology.  Jedi are obviously more powerful than everyone else, and so putting them in their own separate game is probably a good way to go.  I imagine there will be guidelines for how to run groups with characters from various core books, most likely giving EotE-style characters much more experience than Jedi to somewhat level the playing field.  But I digress.  The point is, I think the separation of certain elements that would otherwise either be imbalanced or stray too far from the source material is a good move, but we'll see how it plays out.

Production Value
A lot of initial commentary after this product's announcement involved complaints about paying $30 for a beta of a game.  Which is certainly understandable, and personally I was wary of purchasing it.  After reading a number of impressions and reviews I decided to go for it, and I'm glad I did.  Aside from the word "beta" printed on the bottom of the cover, you'd never know that this wasn't a final release.  The paper, binding, and cover are all of superb quality, and the page count clocks in at 224.  The amount of art in the book is sparse (the final is stated to have much more), but what art is present is beautiful, and quite appropriate to the Star Wars universe.  My biggest complaint here is that while all of the races have accompanying art, there is very little art of the starships, including one of the options for a starting ship (the GHTROC 720 Light Freighter).  Without any visuals to go off of, a google image search is necessary for some of these ships.  There's also supposed to be more "fluff" in the final release, but honestly I'm not sure it's even necessary.  Fans of the movies already have a good grasp of the world, and I think some focused supplements (like a starships book, with sample floor plans and such) would suffice here.  In any case, all the rules are right here, in a fully-playable form.  Given the near-release of the final product, I don't expect much of the crunch to change, though there are certainly some noticeable editing mistakes and typos (none of which obscure the intent of the rules, though).

The Core Mechanic (Narrative Dice)
Edge of the Empire runs on a dice pool system, similar to Warhammer Fantasy RPG (also by FFG), which is a system that I've not played.  While the special dice are not included in this Beta, it does include a sticker sheet to convert your own d6s, d8s, and d12s.  Personally I had to go out and buy more d8s and d12s, but more dice are never a bad thing, right?  When an action is attempted that requires a roll, the first step is to create a dice pool, which is unique to that specific situation.  The ability dice (green d8s) and proficiency dice (yellow d12s) all come from the numbers on a character sheet or an enemy's stat block.  It's a combination of their raw talent, and if trained in an appropriate skill a number of the ability dice get upgraded to proficiency dice.  Positive situational "modifiers" are covered by adding a number of boost dice (blue d6s). 

In addition to the positive dice detailed below, negative dice are also added to the pool.  The most common type are difficulty dice (purple d8s), the number of which sets the difficulty of the task.  Certain mechanics can call for a number of difficulty dice to be upgraded into challenge dice, which is a red d12.  To complete the negative/positive symmetry, black d6s are known as setback dice, and these cover negative situational modifiers.  Finally, there's also a Force Die (a white d12) that simply has white (light side) and black (dark side) pips on the different faces.  This die is used for Destiny Points (more on that later), and by Force-sensitive characters (also to be discussed later).

Instead of numbers, the dice have special symbols, or sometimes a blank face.  Success symbols are on positive dice, while failure symbols are on negative dice.  These cancel each other out, and if you net more success symbols the task succeeds.  The narrative component comes into play by showing exactly how a character succeeds.  If the rolls succeeds because of a proficiency die, it was the character's practiced skill that allowed him/her to succeed.  Likewise ability dice would indicate raw talent, and boost dice favorable conditions that turned the tables.  Dice also have advantage (positive) and threat (negative) symbols, which offer some additional narrative insight (consequences even with a success, or a silver lining even with a failure), and can also unlock certain special abilities, weapon qualities, or trigger critical hits.  Finally, proficiency and challenge dice have triumph and despair symbols, respectively, which are powerful results that have significant consequences (including counting as a single success or failure). 

I'm cautiously optimistic about this core mechanic, and I definitely look forward to seeing it in play.

Character Creation
Characters are based off of a hybrid class/XP point system which I think works really well, and looks to be extremely flexible.  Each character has a value in 6 characteristics (the equivalent of D&D ability scores) that scale from 1 to 6 (each rank contributes a single ability die; so a rank of 3 would add 3 green d8s to the dice pool to attempt a task).  Base values are determined by species, and can be boosted by spending starting experience.  The physical characteristics are Brawn and Agility, the mental characteristics are Intellect and Cunning, and the personality/social characteristics are Presence and Willpower.  Characters can also have skills ranked from 0 to 5, including general skills such as Pilot (space) and Athletics, Knowledge Skills, and Combat skills such as Brawl and Ranged (light).  The way skills work is that the higher of your skill rank or associated characteristic determines how many ability dice you add to the pool, and the lower value is how many of those dice get upgraded to proficiency dice. Characters also have a value in Soak (how much incoming damage they can negate), Defense (which adds setback dice to an attack made against them), Wound Threshold (the physical component of HP), and Strain Threshold (the mental component of HP). 

In emphasizing the game's narrative focus, the first thing a player chooses is the character's general concept and background.  After that the character's starting Obligation is chosen.  There will be more on that later, but it's one of my favorite mechanics from the game.  Then you finally choose a species, and you have six options:  Human, Bothan, Gand, Rodian, Trandoshan, Twi'lek, Wookie, and Class IV Droid.  After that you choose a career, which is sort of like a rules-light version of "class."  Your options are Bounty Hunter, Colonist, Explorer, Hired Gun, Smuggler, and Technician.  Each career provides 8 career skills (4 of which you get a free rank in), and contain 3 Specializations.  Specializations are where the real meat is.  It gives you 4 additional career skills, 2 of which you get a free rank in, and comes with an associated talent tree, which gives you some neat specialized abilities. 

You can then spend your starting experience to increase characteristics (which is recommended, since these can't be increased through experience earned during play, though some talents are the exception), buy talents, and buy more ranks in skills.  You can buy ranks in non-career skills just fine, but they cost a little extra XP.  You can only buy Talents from your Specialization, but here's the kicker:  you can spend XP to gain additional Specializations (to a maximum of 3), which not only give you access to those talent trees, but provide their associated skills as career skills.  This provides interesting ways to fine-tune your character into exactly who you want them to be (although Specializations outside of your career are slightly more costly).  You want your Assassin (a Bounty Hunter Specialization) to also be a crack pilot?  No problem!  Just pick up the Scoundrel's Pilot specialization.  Disappointed with your main career/specialization's combat abilities?  Pick up a more combat-oriented specialization!  Note that this also gives anyone access to the Doctor specialization (from the Colonist career), and (more on this later) the Force-sensitive Exile is available as a specialization without an associated career.  Overall I find this system to be quite flexible, as different players will mix and match specializations in different ways, some will invest more in talents while others invest more in skills, etc. 

Finally, characters choose a Motivation.  While it's broadly similar to Obligations, there is much less mechanical weight tied to it, and is really more for character development than anything.  You can easily leave Motivations out of the game with no ill-effects, but the rules do advise that GMs might give bonus XP when players stick to their character's motivation.  After the party is assembled, they can either be assigned a ship by the GM, or they can work together to choose one of the 3 starting ships.  These include the GHTROC 720 Light Freighter, the YT-1300 Light Freighter (like the Millennium Falcon), or the Firespray System Patrol Craft (like Boba Fett's Slave 1). 

This is one of my favorite mechanics from EotE.  Each character chooses one or more obligations which may include a debt owed to a crime lord, a bounty on his/her head, a favor, an addiction, etc.  The obligation is designed to put pressure on the character(s) during the course of play.  The GM rolls a D% at the start of each session to determine how the group's obligation will affect play.  First of all, if a character's obligation is triggered his strain threshold is reduced by 2, while the rest of the group's is reduced by 1.  This represents the stress of the looming obligation on the characters.  The GM is also encouraged to incorporate consequences of the obligation into the narrative if it will not interrupt the current story, though obligations can often play a crucial role in the ongoing narrative anyways.  Characters can reduce the likelihood of triggering an obligation by reducing it, or "settling it" in-game.  This may be as simple as paying back a debt (in credits), or as complicated as taking on a side-quest.  Obligation can also be used as a resource, as characters can purchase things they would not normally be able to afford, call in a favor, or otherwise help to further their goals by taking on more obligation.  It's an interesting balancing act.  Note also that if the group takes on too much obligation, however, they are under so much pressure that they cannot spend any XP until they reduce their obligation (this threshold is 100).  This threshold is group obligation, so if one player holds the lion's share of the group's obligation there could be inter-party strain as he/she holds his companion's back. 

Finally, it's important to note that players can take on additional obligation even at character creation in exchange for either more starting credits, more experience points, or potentially both.  It's risky, however, since if most of the characters opt to take on maximum additional starting obligation they will begin dangerously close to that group threshold of 100.  Still, the edge to be gained right out of the gate can certainly be tempting. 

Destiny Points
This is another really cool mechanic in EotE, and represents the influence of the Force all around us.  Each session starts with all players rolling the Force Die, with light and dark side results being tallied up.  The results comprise the session's "destiny pool," which remains constant throughout that session.  What changes, however, is the ratio of light/dark side points in the pool.  Each time a player uses a light side point, that point becomes a dark side point that the GM can use, and vice-versa.  The balance of the Force is thus like the law of conservation of energy.  This can have interesting strategic implications, as a player who tries to gain a major edge by spending destiny points several turns in a row is giving the GM resources for later.  One side, either the GM or players, might also be tempted (in certain situations) to hoard their share of points simply to keep them out of the other side's hands (though doing this too much is discouraged).

Destiny points can be used in several ways.  The most straightforward is to simply use one to upgrade an ability/difficulty die into a proficiency/challenge die.  Conversely, a destiny point can also be used to increase the base difficulty (add one difficulty die) to an opponent's action.  There are also some specific talents and abilities that require destiny points as "fuel," and finally destiny points may be used by players to wrest some narrative control from the GM.  This is done by allowing the player to introduce a "fact," such as saying "oh, good thing I remembered to pack those re-breathers" after landing on a planet with a noxious atmosphere. 

Normally I wouldn't write up an entire sub-section just for gear in a review, but there's a mechanic in this game that has my interest piqued.  Weapons, armor, and even starships may have a certain number of "hard points" that players can use to add various attachments.  This allows a degree of customizability in an otherwise fairly generic equipment list (without requiring long lists of tedious options to pore through).  Attachments are a means of customization that are relatively straightforward and perfectly legal, and so characters can either use their own skills to customize their gear or pay someone else to do it.  Attachments may also have a series of options for modding, however, and these need to be installed by a tech-savvy character (usually with a Mechanics check).  Mods don't count against the item's hard points, so ultimately certain characters can be very useful for getting more mileage out of their gear (specializations along this theme from several different careers provide talents that increase a character's proficiency in such endeavors).  Modding does cost credits, of course, and requires time and the proper tools.  I was particularly interested to see how the mod options for hyperdrive generators would allow Han Solo to get the Millennium Falcon to "make 0.5 past lightspeed," were he a character in this game.

I'm normally not into item crafting subsystems, but the combination of the specific mechanics used and the setting in the Outer Rim (and its associated playstyle) makes this a really good fit.  It also helps that virtually anyone can buy technician or bounty hunter specializations to become especially good at doing this, but at the same time simple training in the Mechanics skill will suffice for those who don't want to get too involved in modding their gear.  Another big plus is that the resources a character commits to being good at modding gear are also useful in-play, unlike (for example) the various item crafting feats that Wizards get in 3rd edition D&D. 

The Force
Despite the fact that Jedi will not show up until the 3rd core book, Edge of the Empire does provide the option of making Force-sensitive characters in the vein of Luke Skywalker (pre-RotJ, anyways).  It's a specialization not associated with any career, so anyone can pick it up, but it's a little more expensive than a career specialization.  It comes with its own Force talent tree (which doesn't seem imbalanced compared with other talent trees), but instead of providing career skills it allows for the use of Force powers.  You get a basic usage of the 3 Force powers, Sense, Influence, and Move.  You can spend XP to improve one of the 3 powers in various different ways, and upgrades in general increase the strength, magnitude, duration, range, and/or control of previous versions of the power.  For example, one control upgrade for the Sense power gives you some Jedi dodgy-ness, whereas the other control upgrade allows a character to sense thoughts.  Upgrades to Move might affect the number of objects affected, the size, how far away the object needs to be, and eventually allows you to move objects fast enough to deal damage or pull objects from someone's grip.  In short, instead of a long list of different Force Powers that many other games have attempted, EotE provides variations of 3 basic powers that can result in much of the same effects, but with more granularity both for players to customize and for the designers to assign appropriate XP cost.  While the powers seem pretty strong compared with what other characters can do, they do require a pretty hefty XP investment so Force-users that try to boost all 3 powers will likely be very short on skills and talents compared with other characters.  Keep in mind that the type of character this represents is NOT one privy to instruction by a Jedi Master.

On the subject of Lightsabers, it's in the gear section but there's no Lightsaber skill, and the Melee skill doesn't cover it.  Again, characters lucky enough to have a Lightsaber will not have benefitted from training with it.  Emphasis on the lucky, because it's an extremely expensive item with a high rarity.  Even without proper training, however, it has VERY impressive stats.  It's a weapon designed to be earned through a lot of hard work in-game.

Combat in EotE is turn based, with Initiative being determined by 1 of 2 different skills, depending on whether you're aware of the impending fight and prepared for it (Cool) or not (Vigilance).  The neat twist of this initiative system, however, is that the GM just records player initiative slots and adversary initiative slots, and anyone in the party can choose to go in whatever order, so long as each character only takes 1 turn per round.  This is to prevent things like delaying and readying actions, which can (supposedly) bog the game down. 

Each turn a character can take one free maneuver (move), but also has the option of taking a second maneuver by suffering some strain.  Characters also get one action, which is usually going to be a combat skill check.  Melee checks (with the Melee or Brawl skill) are always made against an average difficulty (2 difficulty dice) as a baseline, while the difficulty of ranged attacks depends on how far away your target is.  Shooting while engaged in melee also increases the difficulty (by 1 for light weapons, and 2 for heavy weapons).  Finally, free actions are called "incidentals," and they work pretty much as expected.

Combat is conducted without the use of a grid (though miniatures may be helpful for relative positioning), with a "zone" system that's similar to (but more complicated than) 13th Age.  There are 5 different range bands, and they're determined relative to your target (or attacker).  The first (and most straightforward) is Engaged, which is close enough to be in melee with an opponent.  There aren't any OAs as far as I can tell, but it does cost a maneuver to disengage.  The following bands, in order of increasing distance, are Close, Medium, Long, and Extreme.  It costs a maneuver to move into a different range band (or within your band) through Medium range, and range bands after that require 2 (so, for example, moving from Medium to Long range requires 2 maneuvers).  I can see this getting overly complicated for some groups, since a single PC may be different distances from different opponents, and if combatants move around a lot then their range bands can potentially keep changing.  I'm guessing that the key will be to keep it simple, and try not to over-think it.  We'll have to see whether or not it runs smoothly in play.

One thing I'm on the fence about is that there are several fairly important combat-related tables that will need to be referenced fairly often.  The first is important for both players and GMs, and involves the various uses for spending Advantage and Triumph in combat.  There are 3-4 options for 4 different possible results (1 advantage, 2 advantage, 3 advantage, or triumph), meaning that it might be difficult for most players to memorize outright.  Your specific weapon also has a critical rating which is a number of advantages needed to trigger a critical hit, and many weapons also have triggered special qualities.  The result is a lot of options, which could potentially lead to choice-paralysis. 

The second table is similar, but for GMs only, and involves spending Threat and Despair in combat.  It's more straightforward with fewer options, some of them mirror opposites of the advantage/triumph table.  Finally, there's a Critical Injury table, which is admittedly pretty simple as it's a d% roll which determines the type of injury sustained, with previous unhealed injuries adding +10 to the total. 

There's a very short list of status effects (staggered, immobilized, disoriented) which are pretty intuitive, and then your state of health.  Unwounded means that you haven't taken any damage, Wounded means that you have (but you're not at your wound threshold yet), Critically Injured means you've suffered 1 or more crits (this is completely separate from Wounded), and Incapacitated means that you've exceeded your Wound or Strain Threshold, and you're unconscious.  Death only occurs via the Critical Injury table as far as I can tell, and you'll usually need several critical injuries already stacked up to roll high enough to outright die (a result of 141 on a d%). 

Adversaries are grouped into 3 types.  Nemeses are the most complicated, with stats and abilities comparable to PCs.  Henchmen are simplified (the biggest thing is that strain damage applies directly to wounds, so you don't have to track strain) though still numerically pretty competent.  Finally, minions are your typical fodder (guess what a Stormtrooper is!).  Minions also do not suffer strain, and are killed outright by critical injuries.  They also don't have skills, but gain skills when they fight as a group.  What this means is that a "unit" of 4 stormtroopers would gain 3 ranks in their listed skills (1 for each individual beyond the first), but the group would make a single attack.  Like the mook rules for 13th Age, the group takes damage as a whole, but for each fraction of damage taken an individual is killed.  It should be pretty easy to run combats with large numbers of enemies using this mechanic.

Starships are technically a subsystem, but they mirror the core system pretty well.  Hull Integrity corresponds to Wound Threshold, System Strain to Strain, Armor to Soak Value, and Defense is the same (though ships may have different values for different zones, with the ability to re-route shields to strengthen a particular zone).  Ships have Hard Points like weapons and armor, and they also have a Speed and Handling value, which will be important for pilot characters to know about.  Ships also have their own weapon list to reflect their more powerful weaponry (note that 1 damage to Hull Integrity on the Starship Scale equals 10 damage to Wounds, on the character scale). 

Starships not surprisingly have their own list of specific maneuvers and actions.  Some maneuvers are designated as Pilot Only (for example, Evasive Maneuvers or Punch It), and likewise for some actions (Gain the Advantage).  Other characters aboard the ship may have things to do as well, including angling deflector shields, running damage control, or manning any gun turrets if they're present on the ship.

Vehicles use the same Range Bands, though the actual distances that they represent are necessarily much bigger.  Vehicles also have their own critical hits table. 

Note that there are planetary vehicles (i.e. speeders) as well as starships, and Pilot (Planet) is a different skill than Pilot (Space).  The value of such skills will largely depend on what types of vehicles the party has access to, though at least one PC will want some training in Pilot (Space) since all groups get a free ship as their base of operations.

Overall Impressions
Though I haven't run the game yet, I think it's looking really good.  It seems like it will run fast and smoothly once the somewhat unique mechanics are learned, and it appears to be relatively simple to GM.  Adversary stat blocks are concise and intuitive, with one exception:  adversaries with multiple weapons have both weapons (and their stats) written as one continuous "paragraph," which is extremely difficult to reference.  The weapon name isn't even bolded or anything, so they sort of just run together.  But that's a minor point.  The game very much has a Star Wars feel to it, and it looks like the rules will support a pace that facilitates the type of high-action adventures that characterize the movies. 

The rules definitely cater to the "fringer" playstyle of the assumed setting, though it wouldn't be too difficult to extrapolate and run a game in a different era, assuming you don't want fully-fledged Jedi.  That's a big assumption for some people, and a definite disadvantage to this book, but some groups will consider it a feature (myself among them).  Jedi are disruptive in an RPG unless everyone plays one because of the in-world power discrepancy.  You either have "mundanes" that feel useless because they're constantly overshadowed, or Jedi that feel gimped because the mechanics don't support the mythology due to the necessity of balance.  The Force-sensitive Exile is a nice compromise.  The thing to keep in mind is that Edge of the Empire strives for a very specific experience, and it does that experience very well.  If your group prefers fully-fledged Jedi, then it's simply not the best choice of system for you.  Perhaps the 3rd core book will deliver on that, but until then there's always d6 or d20 Star Wars, which may be a better fit.  For me though, this game is looking like the best option for running Star Wars.

1 comment:

  1. Great review!! I'm sure I'm gonna buy as soon as it goes back to stock (out of order now).