Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Mazarbul Gamble

I recently posted my views on improvisational stunt systems in TTRPGs.  In it, I described my own version of such a system that I'd "codified" in 13th Age, as well as a similar system from the Thought Crime blog called Gamble!  Ever the tinkerer, in this post I'll combine the two systems in my quest for a fun, simple, and intuitive houserule for the game.

Due to the very nature of the fact that these are "improvisational" stunts, this set of rules is really more of a guideline.  Sometimes players will come up with stuff that doesn't necessarily fit well into this framework, but hopefully it provides a solid enough framework for GMs to build off of and adjudicate fairly.


A Gamble is whatever the player would like to achieve.  The options below should cover a wide variety of possibilities, with the mechanics reflecting the intent of the action.  The intended effect can be described in whatever narrative way that the player sees fit.

Gambles are usually a quick action skill check, but some of the more impressive effects require a standard action.

Risks are consequences chosen by the GM.  If the skill check for the Gamble fails, then the Risk is triggered.

Any quick action Gamble can be used as a standard action to avoid a Risk.

The DC for skill checks will either be based on the standard difficulty for the environment, or if the action directly opposes an opponent then their PD or MD is used instead.  For simplicity, targeting PD or MD is equivalent to a Normal difficulty.  If the action would normally be a Hard difficulty, add 5 to PD/MD.


Combat Maneuver (quick action): Make a skill check (usually Str or Dex) against your opponents PD (usually).  Optional - stronger effects may additionally require you to hit with your next attack this turn, or may be triggered with a natural 16+ roll on the skill check.


Trip - The target is Stuck until they spend a move action to stand up.  Optional stronger effect - melee attacks get a +2 bonus to hit the target.

Bull Rush - The target is pushed back a few feet, popping them free of any engagements except the bull rusher (and potentially pushing them into new engagements)  Optional - if pushing the target into dangerous terrain (a fire, off of a cliff, etc.) you have two options.  You can use PD + 5 as the DC (or a Hard DC), or you can allow the target a Normal Save to negate the effect.  I prefer increasing the DC personally, because it minimizes die rolling and speeds things along.  If the target is Large or Huge, add an additional +5 to the DC (so it's Very Hard to push a larger creature into dangerous terrain).

Grapple - The target takes a -2 penalty to disengage checks (you must have at least one hand free).

Gain the Advantage (quick action):  Make a skill check against the target's MD or PD, or use the Normal DC for the environment.  Choose 1 of the following effects (or similar), which lasts until the end of your next turn:

  1. the target is Vulnerable
  2. you or 1 ally gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls against the target
  3. you or 1 ally gains a bonus to damage against the target equal to your level.  

Optional - double the bonus on a natural 16+.

Players that really like to gamble may want a stronger effect.  Feel free to give it to them, with a Hard DC (or adding +5 to PD/MD).  Instead, they may choose from these effects:

  1. the target is Dazed
  2. the target is Hampered
  3. choose one of the Normal DC effects, and make it Save Ends.

Examples:  Anything that falls into the umbrella of an Agility or Smarts trick in Savage Worlds probably works here.  Taunting the opponent, throwing sand in his eyes, feinting, using footwork to improve your relative positioning, etc.

Massive Attack (standard action):  First, make a skill check (Hard DC) with an ability appropriate to the action you're describing.  If successful, you can make a basic attack against 1d3 nearby enemies in a group (whether it's a melee or ranged attack depends on how you describe the action).

Examples: Sweep attack, cutting/shooting the rope of a chandelier, throwing a table, etc.

Increase Momentum (standard action): First, describe how you're increasing the momentum of the battle and then roll a skill check with an appropriate ability (Normal DC).  Immediately raise the escalation die by 1 on a success.  This should probably be limited to 1 attempt per battle, but if you're feeling generous you should at least require a different narrative description for additional attempts (in other words, momentum gained from the same description doesn't stack).


Reversal:  One enemy (usually the target, but a ranged leader or lurker works well too) makes an immediate basic attack against the character.  If it makes more sense that the action would endanger an ally, then an ally can suffer the reversal (this will usually only happen if the character that took the Gamble is in a fairly safe position).

Vulnerable:  Until the end of the battle, the character is Vulnerable (+2 crit range to all attacks targeting the character).

Lost Momentum:  Decrease the escalation die by 1.  This should usually be a pretty dramatic event, so you shouldn't overuse it (in other words, don't do it more than once per battle, but see Increase Momentum).

Backfired:  Something went wrong, and now the character is either Dazed or Stuck (save ends).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

On Improvisational Stunt Systems

I've been thinking a lot about improvisational actions in tabletop RPG combat lately.  I suppose it was initially triggered by arguments during the early D&D Next playtest process, specifically over the issue of simple vs complex mechanics.  Some favored a minimalist, "old school" rule set because you're forced to get narratively creative to do things in the game world since you can't fall back on "I use X skill," or "I use my ____ power."  Furthermore, complex and tactical rule sets can actively discourage this type of thinking because the existence of a feat/power/whatever that says you can do X means that characters without that thing CAN'T do the action.  In other words, it has "No" built into the system, which runs counter to the "Yes, and..." philosophy of many modern RPGs.  Kind of ironic, since old school D&D came out on the side of the modern "Yes, and...".

The thing is, though, that I like tactical games too.  I'm also not convinced that the two philosophies are mutually exclusive, and playing 13th Age has taught me that.  And so I will examine the influence that several game systems have had on my thoughts on the matter, and hopefully will arrive at some generic principles that can be applied to most any system to allow a more improvisational style of play.

Savage Worlds

I'll admit that I've never actually played the system, but I have the Deluxe Explorer's Edition and I've read enough forum threads to have a good idea for how the system plays.  Granted I don't like everything about the system, but I can't help but appreciate the elegance of the Combat Survival Guide.  There are just so many ways that so many different types of characters (including non-combat types) can contribute toward taking down a foe, and everything's on one very simple reference page.

It should be noted that the system is very streamlined, and small modifiers make a big difference because of how the core dice mechanic works.  Turns also go really fast, and there isn't any HP so stunting an enemy to make him easier to hit later will be much more effective than attacking for a non-so-solid hit.

Ultimately, the system works well because it's simple and generic.  "Agility Trick" covers everything from throwing sand in someone's face, to a wild flurry of sword strikes that tire the foe or leave him open without any intent of hitting him, to running toward a wall while being pursued and then jumping off of it, flipping over the foe's back at the last minute to leave him off balance and facing the wall.  The sky is the limit in terms of the narrative.

Pathfinder/D&D 3.x

Now, for a completely diametrically opposed rules set.  This is an important system to cover because of its sheer popularity, and the fact that many gamers cut their teeth on it (myself included).  Thanks to the SRD, it's extremely easy to get into it, and there are a lot of other games that use the basic d20 system (all the same arguments apply).

In Pathfinder/3.x, you have a HUGE list of feats (a prolific amount of splatbooks doesn't help here), and so there's effectively a HUGE list of "you can't do that unless you have this feat" restrictions.  It's also a very rules-heavy, fiddly system that strives toward simulationism (though it often falls short, especially compared with the "common sense" approach of a more narrative system).  There are very specific and complicated rules for grappling, tripping, sundering, etc.  In other words, the basis for stunts.  The problem is that the baseline options for these stunts are extremely poor choices.  You give up your attack to do them, the roll is heavily penalized, and there's often a risk of taking opportunity attacks on top of that.  The designers might as well have just saved the page space and just wrote "don't do any of this."

Except, of course, for the feats.  There are feat chains that modify these options, but with feats being such a limited resource (and a grab bag of EVERYTHING, from attack/damage bonuses to new options to knowing new languages) it's a pretty big deal to specialize in these "stunts."  A melee character can be a grappling master, or a tripping master, sure, but then it becomes a non-choice essentially.  Since he's spent so many character resources into that thing he'd damn well better press his "trip" or "grapple" button as much as possible, as opposed to thinking creatively in terms of what's going on in the game world.  If he does think creatively and tries something off-the-wall (that he hasn't invested feat support in) he's less likely to succeed.

That is a fundamental failure of any stunt system.  The whole point is to make meaningful decisions in the moment, based on the fiction.  For example: Oh, this guy's wearing really heavy armor with a big visor on his helm, so that means if I dart around, keep moving, and try to stay out of his field of vision I should gain some kind of advantage.  Maybe he'll tire himself trying to chase me, or simply be less able to hit me, or maybe I'll try to maneuver him into a position so that I can take advantage of the environment.  This kind of stuff would happen all the time in Savage Worlds, but it just never comes up in a PF/3.x game.  Rather, you're reduced to your "auto-choices" of flank to better hit him, and then use whatever toys you've specialized in to wear him down.  Creativity is actively discouraged by default, but that's not to say that it has to be that way.  The precedent set by other d20 games may provide insight into house rules that can be adapted to the system.

D&D 4E

In some ways the system fails just as much as PF/3.5 in terms of providing an improvisational stunt system.  While a unified power structure did wonders for ensuring that all classes were balanced and everyone had interested options, the game still usually devolved into "button mashing" in the same way that PF/3.5 did.  Fights mostly involved choosing whichever power would work best in any given round.  Now, the good news is that choosing powers wasn't a resource sink that could have been spent on something else; it was its own little resource pool, and everyone got a good number of interesting, tactically meaningful choices.

Furthermore, the flavor of a given power was often extremely mutable.  4E was written in a very clear "technical writing" style that defined the game mechanics that were being used.  Those mechanics were intentionally more streamlined than PF/3.x so that the focus would be on the narrative rather than the fiddly rules.  Instead of 5 flavors of "sickened," "dazed," or "afraid" 4E would me inclined to lump everything like that under "Dazed."  Seriously, whereas PF has 3 pages of extremely tiny (8 point font?) text in "wall" format of conditions, 4E has a single page of larger-font, stat-block-style conditions with bullet points.  Having very specific conditions is limiting, whereas having a broad mechanic that can be interpreted multiple ways opens the door for narrative "stunting."

Unfortunately, the devil's in the details.  You're still just picking from a list even if you're doing something different in the game world each time you use the power, but worse is the fact that the long combats, the large amount of powers available, and the tactical complexity means that there's often not time to think about combat in terms of the narrative.  Most of the time players just say "I use X power" and call it a day (and fights still take forever).  Granted there's also a table in the DMG (the infamous "Page 42") that provides a baseline for improvisational actions, but a) the effects are inferior to most powers (though not to the extent that the baseline PF/3.x maneuvers were), and b) at mid to high levels most players can get overwhelmed with the sheer number of options their character has, let alone trying to think "outside the box," as it were.

13th Age

Ah, 13th Age.  The beauty of this system (which is technically a d20 system but uses a lot of narrative indie-game mechanics) is that it's streamlined even further than 4E, and less tactically complex.  On top of that, it also has extremely transparent math, sidebars discussing the designer's intents and/or disagreements, and encourages improvisation and house-ruling.

But for all that there's no codified stunt system.

Individual classes do have options that grant them improvisational carte-blanche.  We'll examine the Rogue's, which is the Swashbuckle talent, because it hints at unwritten general stunt rules.  Swashbuckle basically boils down to "do a fun stunt, and you'll probably want to make an attack as part of it."  Like 4E (and unlike PF/3.x) you're not given up your attack, but rather adding a "rider" on top of it.  Unlike 4E the rider is whatever makes sense given your description.  Interestingly, the last paragraph reads "Of course, 13th Age is a game where everyone might attempt stunts like this at some point.  But you're the swashbuckler who is prone to automatically succeeding, often, instead of needing a difficult skill check to pull the stunt off."

Unfortunately, the core book has no guidelines on how to implement such a skill-based stunt system in combat.

I eventually settled on houseruling it like this:

  1. Make a skill check as a quick action.  DC could be for the environment, or the foe's PD/MD.
  2. If you succeed, you can tack on an improvisational effect on your next attack appropriate to the stunt's narrative description.
  3. If you fail, the opponent gets an opportunity attack.
  4. If you're feeling really cautious, you can roll the skill check as a standard action instead of a quick action, giving up your attack but avoiding the risk for an opportunity attack.
Then I stumbled on the Gamble! system on the Thought Crime blog.  It's similar to how I've been doing 13th Age stunts, but it's presented a little differently and I think the "Gamble!" title is really catchy.  It also hearkens back to the "Mephistophelean style of GMing" that designer Rob Heinsoo is noted for.  I'll probably end up tweaking the basics of Gamble!, keeping it generic but perhaps adding a few more Risks and merging it with my own stunt system that uses Quick actions to tack riders onto attacks (reserving standard actions for more powerful effects, like the Massive Attack and Increase Momentum).  Hopefully look for that in a future post!

Edge of the Empire

I'll end how I started, by discussing a non-d20 system to illustrate how different core mechanics can be more or less improvisational friendly out of the gate.

EotE is a huge divergence from your classic d20 experience because not only does it use a dice pool system, but it employs narrative dice.  The faces have no numbers, but rather different combinations of success and failure symbols (which cancel each other out), advantage and threat (which cancel each other out and add additional effects, positive or negative, independent of success), and Triumph and Despair (rare symbols that don't cancel, an indicate something REALLY good or REALLY bad).

Like Savage Worlds, combat rounds tend to move quickly so it's less of a big deal to give up your attack in order to do something else.  It's also really easy to represent different effects and circumstances by simply adding, upgrading, or removing dice from the dice pool.

Each roll results in improvisation and interpretation of the results because there are so many possible combinations and variations of outcomes (which can be generally grouped as success, failure, success with complications, success with additional benefits, failure with complications, and failure with benefits).  In some ways, an improvisational stunt system is inexorably entwined into the core mechanic.


Obviously something like Edge of the Empire's core mechanics are pretty impossible to introduce into other systems without a massive re-write of the rules.  But the effects on gameplay are certainly valuable to keep in mind, as they can probably be achieved in other ways.  I'll certainly be keeping this in mind as I play more EotE.

Savage Worlds is a good model to use in 13th Age, as both are narrative-centric (add whatever "trappings" onto the mechanics) games with intentionally streamlined systems designed for ease-of-use.  They're very different systems, of course, but they do have those common themes.  Even though I've never run or played Savage Worlds, its rules have certainly influenced by own stunt system, and I can see the influence in the Gamble! system as well.

By adopting some principles from Savage Worlds into 13th Age, 13th Age may serve as a "bridge" for incorporating some of these mechanics into a more traditional d20 game like D&D 4E or Pathfinder.  I'm going to be playing in a Pathfinder game soon, after having sworn off 3.x and its ilk in favor of less fiddly systems.  Mostly because the group still wants to play Pathfinder (I'll never DM it, though), and because the DM is looking to incorporate some 13th Age mechanics into the game (definitely One Unique Thing, and ED and Icons are likely as well).  It intrigues me, and I'm curious whether those additions will make Pathfinder more palatable to me.  Perhaps once I re-familiarize myself with its rules I can begin to adapt some form of improvised stunts rules to the system.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jayna Valeri - My First Edge of the Empire Character

In a few weeks I'll be wrapping up my 13th Age campaign, and one of my players has graciously agreed to be the first to GM Edge of the Empire for us (aside from the Beginner Game sessions that I ran).  I haven't actually played a character in over a year, so this was an exciting prospect, and being new to the system on top of that I was just awash with different ideas.  So I decided to roll a random Obligation and Motivation, and I rolled randomly for my species (between Bothan and Human, because another player already expressed interest in making a Wookie).  Fortunately, those elements narrowed down my Career choice as well.

I ended up with Blackmail as my Obligation, and Relationship (Pet) as my Motivation.  Yeah, that second one threw me for a loop.  Most people consider me an "animal guy," and I've had more pets than most myself, but I had to get creative to make that a driving force behind a Star Wars character.  Some concepts I was considering were Nibbler from Futurama (I'd use my pet's droppings as starship fuel) and being an actual nerf herder.  But I ended up going a less campy route, and here's the backstory I came up with (inspired by just a few random rolls).


Some childhood memories are as vivid as if they'd happened yesterday.  Back on Dantooine I used to spend the summers with Grandpa and Grandma Valeri.  Grandpa and I would just sit, watching the sun slowly set, creating a play of ever-deepening colors on the gently rippling savannah grass.  If we were lucky we'd be out on an evening where both moons would rise at the same time.  Grandpa was an explorer, too, back in his day.  I guess you could say he's the reason I became one.  Him, and Brick.

Brick is what Grandpa calls a salamandyr.  Found him after crash landing on an unknown planet, but the little guy kept him as warm as a brick oven throughout the cold night.  All along the length of his tail spouts candle-like flames, usually only when he's upset but he must have known that Grandpa would be cold that night.

Brick's still around, actually.  Grandpa always said he seemed lonely, so far from his home planet.  A planet that Grandpa couldn't remember how to get to (he never got the astrogation data after being evacuated offworld).  Spent most of his late career trying to find it again, and when he passed I just couldn't let the work remain unfinished.  So I'm always on the lookout for Brick's homeworld as I ply the spacelanes.  Some might say I spend more time hopping around in Wild Space than doing my actual job.  But someday I'm going to find that planet.

That is, if I can ever get Vassen Rell off my back.  Vassen's a sector ranger.  A corrupt sector ranger, I should add.  He had no right to tag my ship, that job was totally legitimate.  It's the one after that was the problem.  I never should have stolen that secret Imperial hyperspace route, but there was a promising slice of unmapped Wild Space, and that was the only way around the region's nebulae.  Needless to say it didn't lead to Brick's homeworld.  There was an Imperial space station there, but I didn't see anything, I swear!  Vassen jumped out of hyperspace shortly behind me, and I thought I was dead.  When he told me he wouldn't report me, I was relieved.  I should never have taken that twinkle in his eye for kindness.  There is no kindness behind those eyes.  And now I get to run regular missions for the bastard, because if I refuse he'll turn me in.

Sometimes I wonder what was at that space station.  Sometimes I wonder if there's any dirt on Vassen that I can throw in his face, maybe get out from under his heel.  Sometimes I wonder how far I have to go before I can get away from all this crap.  I will NOT be Vassen's runner forever, I swear to that!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

First Impressions of the Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook

It's been over a week since I've gotten my copy and I'm just now getting to the end of reading it cover to cover.  The first thing you notice is just how MASSIVE it is.  A nearly 450 page hardcover, it almost feels more like a textbook than a game book when you're sitting there reading it.  The next thing I noticed after flipping open the cover was the end spreads of a Firespray, dwarfed by the planet its departing from (which given the twin suns is probably Tatooine).  I LOVE THIS PIECE OF ART!  I haven't heard anyone mention it in any other reviews yet, but it's probably my favorite piece in the whole book (which is filled with top-notch art).  And of course after that I skimmed through the book, flipping through each page very briefly and being hit by a flood of information.

Production Value

Much like the Beginner Game, the quality is EXTREMELY high here.  Nice thick, glossy pages and excellent binding should be pretty resistant to wear and tear.  Around the time the Beta came out I'd heard that FFG often has editing issues in their products, but that's generally not the case here.  Sure, there were some typos (I've yet to read an RPG book without any), but the most glaring error is the presence of references to the Surveillance skill, which was cut during the Beta.  A minor issue, though.  Finally, as I hinted at before, the art in this book is gorgeous all around.  Some of it is recycled from the Beta book and Beginner Game, but most of these were pieces I already really liked.  And there is new stuff aplenty as well.  The deeper I've delved into this hobby, the more I've come to appreciate good art in a book.  It goes a long way toward increasing immersion in the setting.

Game Mechanics and Character Creation

No big surprises here given that I already had the Beta book and had followed the Beta updates.  The additional examples of dice pool creation and interpretation should make the mechanic very easy to understand even for new players (though of course nothing is easier than simply playing the game).  My biggest point of contention with the core mechanic is that I still feel some of the skills are redundant.  The skill chapter promised to shed light on the differences between similar skills, and while the examples certainly pointed out different mechanics and situations where such skills were used, it didn't quite answer the "why" of splitting them up.  The biggest offender here are the "Cool" and "Discipline" skills.  Cool is defined as "the ability to stay calm and think as one's life hangs in the balance," which sounds an awful lot like "the ability to maintain their [sic] composure and react in an effective manner" as Discipline is described.  So yeah, you can say that Cool is used for initiative and Discipline is used for fear checks, and that both oppose different social skills, but that still doesn't change the fact that they're both basically the same thing.  It's almost like having a "Running" and "Sprinting" skill.  The other offending pair that comes to mind is Perception and Vigilance.  The Order 66 podcast differentiated the two as Vigilance representing noticing things because you're constantly on the lookout, whereas Perception is your ability to notice things you don't expect, but I'm not buying this distinction either.  You're still basically just noticing things either way.  Sure, they say different things about a character (paying attention vs reacting), but I just don't think that's enough of a distinction to justify more than one skill.

Character Creation is quick, with a lot of room for customization.  The presentation of the talent trees (as well as the Force power trees) is much improved from the Beta so that it's much easier to tell how much XP everything costs at a glance.  The design is also sleeker and simplified, so that there's less visual clutter.  The Obligation and Motivation sections were fleshed out a bit more, and each career also has a sidebar that provides some neat inspiration (the Bounty Hunter's Creed, Unknown Stars for the Explorer, Droid Companions for the Technician, etc.).  Finally, a small detail that I really liked was putting the sentence reminding players that starting XP is the easiest way to increase characteristics, and therefore that a good chunk of it should usually be used for that purpose, in bold.  It jumps out immediately when you turn to the page, ensuring that new players see the advice (which they're, of course, free to ignore, but at least they can make an informed decision).

Equipment and Starships

I like the approach the game takes toward gear.  There's a combination of different approaches to economics, with credits being the D&D "counting gold pieces" approach, whereas Obligation provides an opportunity for a more abstract wealth (or, rather, debt) system (sort of like Treasure Points in The One Ring).  Obligation will be very useful for providing PCs access to specific big-ticket items without giving them so much credits that they could save up for said items, but are just as likely to wreak havoc on your plans buy buying a small army or arsenal instead.

Equipment walks a fine line between big lists of different stuff that promotes a "let's go shopping!" style of play and a simple, to-the-point list (instead of Merr-Sonn Model 44 blaster and BlasTech DL-18 being separate items, they're both just a "Light Blaster Pistol" and you can fluff to taste).  The baseline equipment list is pretty simplified, but individual items are customizable by using their "Hard Points" to add different "Attachments."  Tech-savvy characters can put further time and resources into the process by "Modding" these attachments for additional benefits (though it requires skill, and is risky).  Some Talents also provide options for customizing gear.  It should cater equally well to the detail-oriented and those who just want to grab a gun and get into the action.

When we played the beginner game, my group was really into Starship Combat.  The table of additional actions will make it even more enjoyable (this was also in a Beta update), as well as the fact that the book makes it very clear that these aren't the extent of your options, but rather should act as inspiration for improvisation.  I love the side bar on Chase scenes (simple and exciting).  I was surprised to see that the GHTROC 720 was removed from the list of starting ship options (and from the book!), and was replaced by the Wayfarer-Class freighter.  While I really like the GHTROC, I've made my peace with it not making the cut and I understand why they did it.  It was fairly similar to the YT-1300, whereas the Wayfarer provides a more distinctly different option.  The thing's a full silhouette bigger, it's unwieldy, and its Encumbrance capacity is more than 4 times that of the YT-1300.  Overall, there's a good variety of vehicles of every kind, and should be more than enough for most groups.

Oh yeah, and there's a Starship sheet included, which is awesome (and necessary!).


More were added since the Beta, including such iconic creatures as Gundarks and Rancors.  Unfortunately, the stat block presentation is atrocious.  This is easily my biggest sticking point with the book.  Sure there's a graphic with individual boxes for Soak, Wounds, Strain (for Nemeses), and Defenses, and the Characteristics are laid out in an eye-catching format just like the character sheet.  This is an improvement, but they really only got halfway.  Nemeses with a lot of talents have a wall of text, and more egregious yet is the fact that equipment (including weapons) have this same wall of text style!  Individual weapons don't even get their own line; they just continue as part of a bizarre run on sentence of weapon statistics.  None of the weapon names are bolded, and because they're just part of sentences there's no one place in the stat block you can look to get a weapons damage or crit rating, for example.  You have to skim this paragraph, which is a presentation style that I've found crippling in actual play.

I vastly prefer stat blocks that are well-organized for ease of reference.  D&D 4E is a great example of this.  Fortunately, the Triumph and Despair blog produced some 4E style stat blocks for all of the adversaries in the Edge of the Empire Beta, and there are plans to update them for consistency with the core rulebook.  First is the name of the adversary, and then sub-blocks (each name highlighted for an obvious visual break point) split up by Social, Defense, Attacks, Special Abilities, and Other Skills (which includes Characteristics).  Each weapon is given its own line, with its range listed first in bold (so your eyes are immediately drawn to melee weapons vs the different ranges of ranged weapons without even having to read the weapon's name).  I'll certainly be using these stat blocks for my game, but it's a shame that I don't have a useable reference in the actual book.

Background Info

There's a whole chapter devoted to The Galaxy, and another for Law and Society.  There's a Galactic Map (complete with hyperlanes), and an overview of each region with specific points of interest, historical facts, etc.  My favorite feature is a series of datapad-graphic sidebars called Grinner's Galaxy of Opportunities.  Grinner is a former smuggler, current infochant, and these sidebars are his first-person accounts of each galactic region.  His reaction gives you an initial overall impression of what the region's like, he cautions you about its perils and opportunities, and then best of all provides you with a list of current jobs in that region.  These examples are great inspiration for adventure seeds for GMs, and they give players a good idea of the type of jobs they might seek out (and where to go to find them).  At the end of the Galaxy chapter are 8 full-page planetary profiles where major worlds are detailed.

Law and Society gives an overview of the major players (obviously the biggest of which is the Empire).  This is full of information on power structures, goals, and most importantly how encounters with such groups are likely to play out for the PCs.  Also covered is the Rebel Alliance, Black Sun, the Hutts, and misc. other groups.  All good stuff.


Though I have a few gripes with it (I doubt a perfect product is possible), FFG have largely done a phenomenal job here.  While some may complain that the core books are being split up between fringers/smugglers, the struggle of the rebellion, and the Jedi, the fact that they were able to deliver the experience with such depth is a huge selling point to me.  I don't feel that I really need any supplements to get a complete experience (though I'm sure I'll pick up some of them), and I think that the focus makes for a more cohesive gaming experience (of course that could very well be thrown out the window in 3 years when you have a bounty hunter, a rebel x-wing pilot, and a Jedi all running around in the same party).  The biggest advantage of this format in my eyes is that after 2 years of actual experience by thousands of groups, the designers will be in a much better position to ensure that they get Jedi "right" on the balance scale.  Personally I don't know what "right" will be for this game, because Jedi are inherently problematic.  Either you let them do what Jedi are known for and they overshadow everyone else, or you reign in their power so that they're balanced and risk them not feeling like Jedi anymore.  For now I'm happy playing without them.

You can purchase the book here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Laptops at the Gaming Table

I've gone back and forth with using a laptop for GMing during play.  Ultimately, while I've always found word processors useful for planning sessions because you can add onto individual notes without having everything scribbled everywhere in a haphazard fashion, connected with a complex system of arrows, etc. (as inevitably happens when making paper notes), I generally prefer keeping notes in a notebook.  Or used to, anyways.  Mostly because a large volume of notes (for a campaign, for example) is more easily searchable in a well-organized binder.  You can take multiple pages out and view them side-by-side even if they were written at different times, and are thus separated by a lot of other notes.  And so I've kept a very well-organized campaign binder, leaving the laptop at home.

Until I discovered Evernote.

Evernote is an organizational tool that isn't designed specifically for tabletop RPGs, but it works nearly perfectly for it.  You create folders, which you can organize into stacks and/or pin to a shortcuts sidebar, and in the folders you keep "notes."  A second sidebar lists all of the notes in a folder.  Each note can be given multiple tags, but a search bar can make it even easier to find specific things as it searches the body of the notes.  You can attach pretty much anything to a note (a spreadsheet, a pdf, a web page), keeping everything at your fingertips.  Because that's the real beauty of Evernote.  Everything is so accessible with a single click.

As an example, I have a stack for 13th Age.  The stack contains 3 folders - a general folder (for big-picture brainstorming that I won't need to reference at the table, and probably isn't related to the current campaign), a folder for my current campaign, and a folder for "set pieces" (generic cinematic scenes that I can adapt to many situations, which is great for on-the-fly encounters).  My campaign folder and the set pieces folder are both in the shortcuts bar, so I can switch between them with a click.  The campaign folder has a bunch of notes, each with a very specific topic, and all are listed along the side for ease of switching between them.  I've got a note with all of the PC information (icons, backgrounds, OUTs, etc.), an NPC list, a list of random names that don't have NPCs attached to them yet, the monster builder reference sheet, a player reference sheet, a GM reference sheet, a list of homebrewed potions, a damage tracker, specific notes on using the icons of my PCs, and of course an individual note for each week's session.

Everything is organized into its own category, and each note is relatively short so you're immediately looking at the exact information you need.  Try it.  It'll make your GMing life much easier.

On a related note, I decided that since I'll be using the laptop for Evernote, I might as well make a damage-tracker spreadsheet for combat.  This is great, because when I'm tracking damage on paper and I have 8 monsters to pay attention to, and multiple players shouting things at me (they're great, really), it sometimes takes me a second to mentally do the math.  More importantly, I have to devote my mental energy to doing math as opposed to coming up with cool things for the NPCs to do, or good ways to describe the action.  The spreadsheet's great because I just have a column for each monster, and I list its initiative, any conditions, and its total HP.  Under that I have a SUM cell, so when a player calls out the damage they did I just type it into the next cell down and the SUM cell spits out the total.  It's made things noticeably easier on my end.