#RPGThursday Retrospective – My #StarWars Saga (Star Wars RPG Saga Edition, 2007)

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Courtesy Wookiepedia

Between 2007 and 2009 I was stationed overseas, and therefore had limited access to RPG items. I had put a lot of my items in storage so I did not have a strong library to draw upon. I was looking for a new RPG game, but had resigned myself to having to wait until my return stateside or use DriveThruRPG (a risky proposition given the internet security of the time). One day I was in the Base Exchange and saw a new book on the shelf, Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition Core Rulebook. The book caught my eye partially because it used a very different form factor (9″x9″) and had a beautiful gold Darth Vader on the cover.

Forward – Going Back?

The Forward was very interesting because Chris Perkins claimed this was the latest iteration of a Star Wars RPG and the first to span the entire six-episode saga (p. 5). This was news to me; I had missed the earlier excellent West End Games Star Wars RPG – although interestingly I had the associated Star Wars: Star Warriors star fighter combat board game – and the original WotC version.

Saga Engine

In terms of the game engine, Star Wars Saga (SWSaga) technically used Wizards of the Coast d20 Modern. In reality, it would later become apparent SWSaga was an interim step between d20 Modern and Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I had tried to use the d20 Modern engine before, but had only limited success. This time around I committed myself to learning the system and playing with it. In concept it sounds so easy:

THE CORE MECHANIC

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses a core mechanic to resolve all actions. This central game rule keeps play fast and intuitive. Whenever you want to attempt an action that has some chance of failure, you roll a twenty-sided die (or “d20”). To determine whether your character succeeds at a task (such as an attack or the use of a skill, you do this:

  • Roll a d20.
  • Add any relevant modifiers.
  • Compare the result to a target number.

If the result equals or exceeds the target number (set by the GM or given in the rules), your character succeeds at the task at hand. If the result is lower than the target number, you fail. (p. 9)

So simple, and easy to figure out. Except that d20 is built on breaking the rules. Feats and Talents are mechanical ways characters can act in addition to the rules. This concept took a long time for me to fully understand because d20 appears internally inconsistent since it emphasizes – at least to me – ways for characters to “break” rules.

Characters with Class

Unlike the Traveller RPG system I was so familiar with, character generation in SWSaga uses classes. Coming as I do from a Traveller RPG background, classes have always felt foreign to me. That said, I dug into SWSaga and built many characters, putting together their Attributes and Skills and Feats and Talents (oh my!).

I struggled again to understand what I was doing. Looking at it critically, I think I struggle with character generation using classes in d20 because I subconciously want to see a life path progression system, not a video game-like leveling up of characters.

May the Fourth Be With You

Combat also proved challenging. As it soon became apparent, SWSaga was moving towards D&D 4th Edition, in which combat has sometime been described as a tabletop video game. On one hand the combat system was a bit familiar, being that it drew heavily from WotC’s Star Wars Miniatures game that I played with my boys. But at the same time it was different. A different part that I found very confusing was Conditions (p. 149). I think I found Conditions confusing not because of what they represent, but how they were presented in the book. Going back now (and after many other narrative games) I see how conditions attempt to explain a non-damage situation in terms of a mechanical game effect. At heart it is not really a difficult concept to imagine, but I found it was not communicated very well by the unlabeled Condition Track on p. 149.

Force…and Destiny

For an RPG about Star Wars, I found The Force rules convoluted and disorganized. In particular, it would seem to make sense to look at Chapter 6: The Force for the relevant rules but within that section one is referred to the Use the Force skill in Chapter 4 (p. 77). Looking at Chapter 6 today, I can see that The Dark Side, and especially Dark Side Transgressions, were a stab at non-mechanical (i.e. narrative) means of explaining how to avoid falling to the Dark Side. To further add to the confusion, Destiny Points (found in Chapter 7: Heroic Traits) were included as an optional form of game economy but I rarely used them because the narrative effect was limited – whatever narrative action was there had been reduced down to a table lookup mechanic (seven effects, three of which were Force-related)(p. 113). From today’s perspective, and after having now played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game, I see how SWSaga Destiny is an earlier form of FFG Star Wars’ Obligation / Duty / Morality mechanic. However, the implementation in SWSaga is weak; the relationship between a character’s Destiny (p. 112) and the tangible Destiny Point is neither detailed nor strong.

Sad Saga

As much as I tried, I just could never get SWSaga really going. It was not for lack of effort on my part; I eventually bought EVERY SWSaga book in the series. In the end though, I found the setting suffered from the same bloat and canonicity battles that plague the Traveller RPG community – that is, the setting is too detailed and too well defined that it is easy for a GM to get locked into a certain course of action. Indeed, after purchasing every book in the SWSaga series, I realize that I had too much information (although the entire collection is a good ode to Star Wars Legendsbut in the end the rules were too bloated for me to handle.

A New Start

So committed was I to turning over my d20 leaf that I even bought the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set (2008). I prepared to plunge into the world of D&D after avoiding it for 30 years. I really wanted to try to play d20. I thought my boys would want to play D&D (both read many of the Rick Riordan fantasy series). In the end though my inherent dislike of the fantasy RPG genre, coupled with a feeling that D&D 4th Edition was a tabletop video game, put a relatively quick end to that little gaming excursion. As much as I tried to make SWSaga my new science fiction RPG, it just didn’t work. As much as I love Star Wars, playing in the setting using SWSaga felt like I was getting too hemmed in. Even with the option of playing in multiple eras, it still felt restricted (it didn’t help that my boys were huge prequel and Clone Wars fans – two of my least favorite eras – and they wanted to play in those times whereas I didn’t).

The Saga Narrative…NOT!

In preparing for this retrospective, I pulled out the Core Rulebook and tried to look at it independently of the other books in the series. Much like the Traveller RPG community has arguments over the Little Black Books, I can see how the Core Rulebook – by itself – is not a bad game. Setting aside, everything needed to mechanically play a Star Wars adventure is included. Looking at it with my eyes today, I also see how SWSaga attempts to reduce many narrative play elements to mechanical effects. Nowhere is this better seen than in Talents and Feats. Unlike Skills which represent various abilities (be it trained, natural, or luck – p. 57), Talents are particular to a character class and Feats are special features that give characters new or improved capabilities (p. 79). Thus, the classic Star Wars character Han Solo (p. 255) gets classed as a Scoundrel (p. 45.) with the Spacehound Talent (p. 47) – giving him proficiency with starship weapons – and the Quick Draw Feat (p. 87) because, after all, Han shot first! All of this is very descriptive of the character, but together it reduces the character to a set of well-defined – even narrow – mechanical effects. The Core Rulebook example of Han Solo has him with four Classes, seven Talents, eight Feats (several of them in multiple areas) and six Skills. The implied game limitation it that without the “right” Talent or Feat, the action is unachievable by a character regardless of the player’s desire. Thus, instead of “playing” their characters, players start trying to gain/spend XP in pursuit of the right Skill/Talent/Feat to justify a desired action. To me, this is the opposite of narrative play.

So my search for a new RPG continued, and my next two RPG purchases brought back an oldie while introducing something new.


Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Saga Edition Revised Core Rulebook by Christopher Perkins, Owen K.C. Stephens, and Rodney Thompson; Copyright (c) 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd & (R) or TM Where Indicated, All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization. Some rules mechanics are based on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook by Bill Slavicsek, Andy Collins, and ID Wiker, the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (R) rules created by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the new DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game designed by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker, and Peter Atkinson. This Wizards of the Coast game product contains no Open Game Content.

 

 

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#WargameWednesday #RPGThursday Retrospective – Commando: The Combat Adventure Game (1979)

Commando: The Combat Adventure Game was published by SPI in 1979. I didn’t buy this game; it came to me thru a trade with a friend sometime between 1980 and 1982. I was running our (Classic) Traveller RPG adventures and use both the 1978 [Little Black] Book 4: Mercenary and the 1979 green box, first edition of Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future for expanded combat. Given our group came from a wargaming background, we were looking for different combat rules. We avoided Striker (1981), likely because it was a set of miniatures rules and we couldn’t afford miniatures! At one point we tried to integrate Commando into our games. My copy has scribbles (like only middle schoolers can do) where weapons on tables were replaced with their Traveller versions. As I recall, this system integration effort didn’t get far mostly because Commando is a very rules-dense game with a very specific Sequence of Play. More importantly, the game is historically focused and us middle schoolers couldn’t wrap our heads around how to integrate the Fusion Gun, Man Portable-15 (FGMP-15) into the game. Far easier to just use Snapshot!

When preparing for this article, I was surprised to discover that Commando was the 1979 H.G. Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Winner. So is this a wargame or an RPG? Interestingly, the game has an entry both at BoardGameGeek and RPGGeek. The Historical Game is clearly a wargame. More specifically, it is a skirmish game of man-to-man battle. A 48-page rulebook uses the SPI classic Case System of numbered paragraphs. The other game of Commando is the role-playing game. This game is covered in a second 24-page rulebook. Here one finds the classic components of an RPG including gamemaster hints, character creation, and running a campaign.

Looking at the game today, The Designer’s Notes and Expansion Notes at the end of the role-playing game rules are true treasures. Note that in the late 70’s I was not a Dungeons & Dragons (Original or Basic/First Edition) player – I actually avoided D&D because I preferred science fiction over fantasy genres. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, these notes capture the dynamics of the competition between wargamers and the rising RPG community. There is so much goodness here and I hope the legacy SPI copyright holders can forgive me for some lengthy quotes.

First off, some choice lines from the Designer’s Notes written by Eric Goldberg in 1979:

Role-playing is perhaps the fastest growing genre within the wargaming hobby. Boosted by the phenomenal success of fantasy role-playing, the field is branching out from its roots into more conventional endeavors. There is no serious doubt that fantasy role-playing will continue to hold sway within the field, but there are many other possible applications of role-play. While fantasy does have some problems of its own (chief being the need to define magic numerically, which strips it of its mystery), designers of fantasy role-playing games can justify almost anything through magic.

One of the first design mechanics resolved was the use of the Miraculous Escape Matrix and the incorporation of a Character in a fire team. Because the Historical Game was already being used as the combat system (a choice which makes eminently good sense; Players appreciate a game being complete when received – generally not a custom observed by role-playing designers), the fatality rate of Characters was at a level unacceptable to the average Player. After all, a Player would have little incentive to build up and breathe life into his Character if he knew the odds had it that he would have to start all over again every five missions. There is no recourse to the fantasy role-playing solution – the last Man purported to be resurrected was a gentleman of Nazareth, but that was 2000 years ago, and it was understood He had considerable help from the man upstairs.

Character generation systems have proliferated in recent months, but basically represent two schools of thought. One holds Characters should be different, and this difference should be determined randomly (generally by dice). The logic behind this approach is that life isn’t fair in distributing physical and mental characteristics to you and me, and why should it be any different in a role-playing game? The illogic in the use of the system it that it clearly proved the better dice-roller is Homo Superior. The other approach is the all Characters are equal, which is usually resolved by a point assignment system – Characters may have “X” points assigned to their various characteristics in a particular fashion. Thus, Characters are molded to their players’ preferences. The argument for this system is obvious; free choice of character-type and all Characters are equal. In truth, the second claim is a sham; there is not one role-playing game on the market which will work equitably with a point assignment system. The general problem is that one or two characteristics are extremely important, and therefore, to be competitive, all Characters will be essentially similar.

Commando breaks a bit of new ground in role-playing games by the very nature of its subject, and also because of its design approach. The game will appeal to those who feel most comfortable with suspense fiction, and those who can easily make the transition from tactical game or role-playing games. There is certainly tremendous unmapped territory to be gone over in this field. Commando is nearly the groundbreaker.

Greg Costikyan contributed Expansion Notes (again from 1979):

…true role-playing games can be divided into two general categories (with some overlap between categories occurring); closed-system role-playing games and open-ended role-playing games. An open-ended role-playing game requires a Gamemaster to invent a world, construct adventures for the characters, and provide new rules as necessary to round out his world. The rules to an open-ended role-playing game are designed not so much to limit the Gamemaster, as to provide a flexible framework of rules to be amended as he desires, and which aid him in the construction and operation of a world.

A closed-system role-playing game, by contrast, may not even require a Gamemaster. The best example of this is En Garde! A closed-system role-playing game provides a set of rules that are closer to the rules of standard historical games in spirit than the the rules of open-ended role-playing games. The rules cover every eventuality that may arise in the course of play; they are a closed-system not requiring outside interference.

…the existence of a Gamemaster in Commando means that the game can be readily developed into an open-ended role-playing game with comparative ease. Doing so requires junking the scenario generation system, because an open-ended games must deal with the everyday life of the characters, as well as whatever combat actions they involve themselves in. (Thus, in a good fantasy role-playing world, the emphasis of the game is not on hack-and-slash monster fighting, but on development of characters and the world.)

…. In an open-ended game, anything (well, almost anything) is possible; the game is limited only by the flexible framework of the rules, and the imagination of the Gamemaster and Players….The appeal of even badly-written role-playing games lies in this potentially infinite variety; while one may be bored with a boardgame after the fifth playing, one will never be bored with an open-ended role-playing game (assuming a sufficiently imaginative Gamemaster).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, these notes actually captured much of what I was feeling in my early role-playing days. SPI was one of the powerhouses of wargames; as a true grognard if this was their perspective I needed to pay attention! With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, I can now see that my wargaming roots started me out as a closed-system aficionado. As I go though my retrospective of RPGs, its going to be interesting to see how my tastes evolved over time.

From an RPG-perspective, I give this game a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 5 (Combat system from Historical Game is rules-heavy)
  • Simulationist = 4 (There is a reason you create a Character and the Fireteam)
  • Narrativism = 1.5 (The Miraculous Escape Matrix necessitates a large suspension of reality)

 

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

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From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

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From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

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From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

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From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.

RPG Thursday – It’s a Shiny Day Again

Courtesy MWP

Recent news from Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) tells of the return of an RPG based on Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly/Serenity TV series and movie.

A couple of thoughts come to mind here. First, from the subtitle of the press release, what does MWP mean when they say “Pick-Up-And-Play Games?” This line is repeated in the body text where MWP states, “MWP’s own crew of seasoned designers and creators of licensed role-playing games, stand ready to develop an all-new series of pick-up-and-play games and game supplements.” Second – and closely related to my first question – will this new RPG use the latest version of Cortex or an older or newer system?

MWP previously produced the Serenity RPG. This was the first game to use their Cortex System (named after the Cortex in Firefly/Serenity and now known as Cortex Classic). As an early effort, the game had much further development done through later releases, especially items like the Big Damn Heroes Handbook which was as much a Cortex System update as a sourcebook. It also apparently had a limited license – MWP was able to use only the movie.

Later MWP RPG games took Cortex through several upgrades and outright system changes. Changes to the point that the early versions of Cortex are almost not recognizable when placed next to the later versions, now known as Cortex Plus. Cortex started out as a dice pool mechanic that also used Plot Points to create a cinematic effect. As Cortex developed over the years, it has become much more narrative in approach. To see what I mean take a look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Example of Play from the MWP website. The battle scene presented uses no figures, no map, but only pools of dice and some sticky notes yet it moves along rapidly in a good representation of an action-packed comic book superhero confrontation. This is much different than Cortex Classic. Look at this Example of Play taken from the Battlestar Galactica Quickstart Guide which certainly captures the cinematic aspects of the source material but in a much different, more recognizable (classic RPG?) way.

Karl “Helo” Agathon (played in this example by Sean) has been trapped on Cylon-occupied Caprica for weeks with his co-pilot, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. They have fled one hiding place after another and have recently discovered a shelter beneath a restaurant. They are planning to rest and re-supply. Helo has ventured upstairs to make a hot breakfast, while Boomer catches some extra sleep.

GM: Helo, you find that the perishable food has all spoiled. You do discover plenty of canned and boxed food in the pantry, including oatmeal and toaster pastries.

Sean: The pastries should be fine. I heat them up in the toaster and look for a couple of clean plates.

GM: While you’re scrounging around the cupboards, you hear a loud crash and the sound of broken glass coming from up front, near the door.

Sean: Frak! I look for someplace where I can hide and see what’s going on.

GM: Okay, roll your Alertness + Covert. Sean rolls the dice for a total of 11. The GM rolls Alertness + Perception for the Cylon Centurion who is entering the front door. The Cylon gets an 8.

GM: You are pressed up against the wall. From here, you can see tall shadows moving in through the door. You hear heavy footsteps.

Sean: I pull out my pistol, trying to stay as quiet and stealthy as possible. Any way I can get a better view from my vantage point?

GM: You look around and see a stainless steel dishwarmer off to one side. In its reflection you can make at two Cylon Centurions. They slowly walk around the room.

Sean: I remain quiet and perfectly still in my hiding place. Maybe they’ll go away.

GM: They continue to look around the room, but something’s up. The Centurion closest to you readies its arm-mounted rifle, though neither of them are looking your way. The Game Master rolls again for the Cylon’s chance to spot Helo, and again the Centurion fails.

GM: You smell something baking.

Sean: Uh oh. Is breakfast still toasting?

GM: Yes, and it looks ready to pop up.

Sean: How far away is the toaster?

GM: Do you mean the Cylon, or—

Sean: The one holding my breakfast!

GM: It’s about fifteen feet away. The first Cylon Centurion is only a few feet away, partially separated from you by a frosted glass wall.

Sean: I make sure the safety is off of my gun.

GM: Sure enough, the pastries pop up, and the sound alerts the Cylons. Both Centurions spin toward the source of the sound. At the same moment, Sharon walks through the door from the stairs.They turn away from you, focus on her.

Sean: I fire at the closest toaster—er, Cylon! I yell for Sharon to run!

GM: Since the Cylons were not aware of you, you have the Initiative and can go ahead and roll the attack: Agility + Guns. Sean rolls, scoring a 17. Shouting a short phrase does not count as an action in combat.

Sean: Good roll! Did I hit? The GM determines that the Cylon was standing still, facing Sharon. As an Easy target, the Cylon’s defense was 3. He calculates base damage as 14. He also adds 3 more points for the weapon damage of the pistol—a total of 17!

GM: Your armor-piercing rounds hit. The first shell tears through the back of the Cylon’s head, and the second goes through its torso. The Centurion looks as if it’s about to drop. Now we have to take a look at Initiative. The GM checks everyone’s Initiative ratings. The surviving Cylon Centurion goes first, then Sharon, then Helo. Checking the Cylon’s game information, the GM rolls an attack on Helo. The result is a 9.

GM: The remaining Cylon shoves its way past its comrade and begins firing at you in a wide arc. Sharon stumbles to get out of the line of fire. Are you going to be attacking this turn or defending?

Sean: These things have automatic weapons. I’m dodging, and I’m going to dive for cover when my action comes up.

GM: Roll Agility + Dodge.

Sean: I’m spending two Plot Points on my dodge action! Sean rolls the Attribute and Skill dice, and adds a d4 for the Plot Points. All together, he rolls an 11.

GM: You barely dive out of the way as bullets tear the room to shreds. You duck behind the bar, even as light fixtures and other debris fall down on you from the ceiling.

(For the record, I do think that MWP has some of the best Examples of Play since old Victory Games and their James Bond 007 game. Go to this link and read the two-column example of play starting on page 12 of the pdf which has a classic set of scenes from Goldfinger and an in-game version side-by-side.)

I for one welcome the narrative approach to gaming. I dare say that narrative RPG play is gaining popularity and will get a huge shot-in-the-arm when Fantasy Flight Games releases the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook in the second quarter of 2013. This narrative surge is in stark contrast to what Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appears to be trying to do by releasing Dungeons & Dragon classics. Although I have no personal interest in DnD 5e, it will be interesting to see just how many narrative elements WotC does – or does not – bring into their new edition.