RPG Thursday – On the Fringe of Star Wars

The Fringe (Wookiepedia)

One can’t go anywhere on the Geeky InterWebs this week without seeing the news that JJ Abrams has signed on to direct Star Wars: Episode VII. I have little to add to that discussion beyond a hope that the new Star Wars films will be more like the Original Trilogy and less like the Prequels or Clone Wars.

Star Wars is a very tightly controlled commercial media empire. From movies to books to TV to toys, every item released to the public is carefully selected to meet certain standards – even going as far as making changes to canon (Han shot first!). It seems to me that empire has aimed its marketing squarely at pre-teen boys – like my youngest. For evidence I will direct you to the entire Clone Wars series and the toys and other paraphernalia associated with it. I admit I actively promote Star Wars in my house, for I too love the toys and models and games. I also think RPGs are a valuable form of gaming and I want my kids to play and enjoy them. One way to get them to play an RPG is to use a familiar universe, like Star Wars.

Courtesy RPG Geek

Which makes the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Roleplaying Game (SW: EotE) from Fantasy Flight Games puzzling to me. FFG certainly has a challenge;  for success they need to show how their version is different – and better – than the West End Games (1987-1999) and Wizards of the Coast (2000-2010) versions. To do so, FFG appears to have tapped into a recent trend of the Star Wars commercial juggernaut – going bad. Other elements of the Star Wars media empire are trying to tap into this same vibe. Look at the upcoming video game Star Wars 1313 or Timothy Zahn’s newest Star Wars novel, Scoundrels. Both take place in “grim and gritty” places where the “morality is gray.”  This is what is known in Star Wars as the “fringe;” the shady underbelly of society in which smugglers, bounty hunters, pirates, black marketeers, thieves, and assorted criminals operate.

The new FFG Star Wars RPG aims to land squarely in the fringe. As FFG says on their own website description for the game:

Participate in grim and gritty adventures in places where morality is gray and nothing is certain. Ply your trade as a smuggler in the Outer Rim, collect bounties on the scum that live in the shadows of Coruscant, or try to establish a new colony on a planet beneath the Empire’s notice.

My recently purchased Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game illustrates this theme quite clearly. The four characters – a Bounty Hunter, Hired Gun, Smuggler and Colonist (what? – should be a Slave) – are fleeing gangster Teemo the Hutt who has an evil plan to take control of some illegal spice trade. The characters are morally challenged; a bounty hunter who is protecting her sister, the Wookie fighting for his people but was enslaved and forced to fight, a pilot who ran afoul of politically connected enemies, and a droid who just wants to be doctor. SW: EotE also takes place in the time period just after the Battle of Yavin from the original Star Wars (Episode IV – A  New Hope for you hopeless young ones) – just like Scoundrels. In this time, the Galactic Civil War is heating up and there are very few Force users.

Personally, I like the setting. It reminds me of my old Classic Traveller adventures where all our characters were not heroes and lived on the edge of the Imperium trying to eek out an existence by staying one step ahead of the starship repo man or law enforcement authorities. We were mercenaries, pirates, and bounty hunters. We took the dirty jobs. We started bar fights for the fun of it. We didn’t use psionics since Han Solo had it right when he said, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” (Star Wars, 1977)

Which all taken together is exactly why I may not introduce my own kids to the FFG version of Star Wars roleplaying for a while. At least not the setting the game is using. As a parent bringing my kids into the world of RPGs, SW: EotE is not the setting I want them to play in. As much as I personally detest the Clone Wars, for kids it is a more straight-forward, good versus evil, Jedi versus Sith, world.

Part of my problem here is that I like the Core Mechanic and semi-narrative approach of SW: EotE better than other versions or hacks I have seen out there. I have the complete Saga Edition, but never liked the class approach to characters (not to mention having the game spread out over 14 books!). I have seen homebrew Savage Worlds or Cortex hacks…but all feel unfinished.

So in the end I am torn and will likely wait on the fence before investing further into SW: EotE until I see just how edgy this fringe really is.

RPG Thursday – A Retrospective Look at The Babylon Project

Courtesy RPG Geek

Not long ago, I was in a (sometimes) FLGS and saw a whole slew of Mongoose D20 Babylon 5 RPGbooks. Having seen this sit on the shelf for over a year, I approached the staff and was able to make a deal to get a nice discount on a bulk buy. All the books I purchased were source books covering races or campaigns; I don’t have the Mongoose Babylon 5 D20 rules nor do I want them given they were based on Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition. What I do have is Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5 and the much older Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment, Inc. The Babylon Project.

I actually didn’t remember much of The Babylon Project and never actually played it with a group.  I do remember thinking the combat system was “complicated.”  I recently took the time to reread the rules. In doing so, I now have to reconsider the game and give it more credit than I had previously.

In terms of production values, the book was ahead of its times. Full-color pages make it rich looking, even if some of the art is of marginal quality (a mix of photos from the series and artwork inspired by the same). Today people would scream for a low-ink version for print-at-home.

I remember not liking character generation. Of course, I had grown up on Classic Traveller  making many of the concepts in The Babylon Project seem foreign. Character generation in The Babylon Project uses a combination storytelling and point-buy approach and is done in three phases. In the first phase, the player uses storytelling aspects to create a character concept and basic history. This in turn leads to adjusting the 13 attributes that define your character. Attributes are rated 1-9 with each race having a typical attribute value. Players can adjust the typical attributes based on the concept and background but for every attribute raised another has to be lowered. The second phase – childhood – has the player answer another set of questions which guide picking Learned Skills and Characteristics (an early version of the Savage Worlds or Cortex System advantages/hindrances). This same process is repeated in a third phase – adulthood – which again gains Learned Skills and more (or changed) Characteristics. This system was very much NOT what I had grown up with in Traveller or my other RPGs of this time like FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game or the first edition of Prime Directive. At the time, I think it was just too different for me to be comfortable; now I see it for what it is – a well thought out, guided, lifepath character generation system.

The adventure and campaign system focuses less on episodic events than on creation of a story arc. The Babylon Project certainly tries to match the grand, sweeping, epic feel of the series. The mechanic used is the Story Chart which the Gamemaster uses to loosely chart out the path of the campaign. The Story Chart uses four basic symbols to lay out an adventure:

  • Non-exclusive Chapters: Events which do not directly relate to other events in the story; can be worked into story almost any point to uncover key pieces of information, encounter non-critical NPCs, or experience important scenes.
  • Exclusive Chapters: Events which the characters must experience and can only happen once; these change the nature of the story and cannot be revisited or reversed.
  • Independent Chapters: Not critical to the overall puzzle, but may help.
  • Information: The flow between chapters that lead from one to another.

Like character generation, I think at the time I viewed this (again) as too different to understand. Today, I can see the designer’s intent and zeal to get closer to the grand, sweeping, epic feel of Babylon 5. Unfortunately, even today I don’t often see a similar approach in other games that could use it like Star Wars Saga Edition or even Battlestar Galactica.

The core Game Mechanic is actually very simple. Players compare Attribute+Skill and Specialty+/- Modifiers +/- a Random Modifier against a Task Difficulty set by the GM. To use the examples from the book:

Jessica is attempting to bypass the reactor control circuitry. The bypass isn’t particularly difficult, but Jessica is working by flashlight in zero-G. Dana specifies that Jessica will take the necessary time to make sure the job is done right. Taking all of those factors into consideration, the GM decides that the task is Difficult, which gives it a Difficulty Number of 11. Jessica’s Intelligence is 5; her skill in Engineering: Electrical is 3; and her Specialty in Electrical Applications adds another 2 – all totaling to an Ability of 10. Her GM decides that no additional penalties or bonuses apply. (The Babylon Project, p. 90)

The Random Modifier is created by taking two die (a green positive and red negative) and rolling. Look at the lowest number. That die is now the modifier – positive if the green die and negative if the red. This makes the Random Modified range from +5 to -5.  To continue using the example from the rule book:

Dana rolls the dice. Her Negative Die result is 5, with a Positive Die result of 2. Thus, her Random Modifier is +2. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

The degree of success or failure is also a consideration. As the example continues:

Jessica’s Ability in her attempt to bypass the reactor control circuitry is 10. Adding the Random Modifier of +2 just rolled by Dana gets a total Result of 12. That’s 1 over the Difficulty of 11 set by the GM – a Marginal Success. The GM tells Dana that Jessica’s bypass has fixed the problem, but that it won’t hold up for long, and not at all if the reactor is run at over half its rated power output. Thus, her success in the task resolution fixes the problem, but the GM interprets its marginal nature as a limitation on engine power and fortitude. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

Given my close acquaintance with Classic Traveller and the definite lack of a clearly defined task system – much less an emphasis on degrees of success – it is not surprising I didn’t immediately embrace the simple task mechanic in The Babylon Project.

Combat comes in two forms, Close and Ranged, and is played in phases of two-seconds each meaning the player character gets a single action. Players make an attacker roll versus a defender roll. An important combat consideration is aim point; there is a default aim point and if the attacker wants to (or must) aim elsewhere there is a modifier. The degree of success determines how close to the aim point the hit occurs and the level of damage. Combat then moves to Immediate Effects. This table determines if the hit results in immediate death, stun, or impairment. Given the Damage Ratings of the weapons and not-so-great armor this means combat in The Babylon Project is very dangerous! Once combat is over, then Final Effects are dealt with, to include the extent of injuries and wounds. Like all of The Babylon Project, there is a heavy emphasis on the storytelling effect of the injury. Again this is nothing like Classic Traveller yet today I can see the design effect the designer was reaching for – speedy combat using the simple core mechanic with detailed wounds and healing latter. I think the designer achieved what he was trying to do with combat.

The Babylon Project also uses Fortune Points, this games version of Bennies or Plot Points. Each player starts a session with five Fortune Points. Fortune Points can be used to improve a task roll, save  your life in combat, and attempt a task that the player normally could not attempt. This game mechanism is not found in Classic Traveller and a the time I think I saw it as too cinematic or “space opera” for my hard sci-fi taste. Today, I take for granted the use of Plot Points or Bennies or like mechanisms as a useful tool for players to exercise narrative control on the game instead of leaving it in the sole hands of the GM. I have also grown to appreciate the cinematic benefits of Plot Points as I have moved (a bit) away from hard sci-fi rules mechanics.

Courtesy RPG Geek

The last page of The Babylon Project rulebook is a one-page GM Reference Sheet. Literally everything needed to run the game is on this one page. Really…everything! How did they ever expect to sell a GM screen? In fact they did – it was one of the items I also picked up in my bulk buy – and used three panels. The left panel has Attributes and Skills (a useful reminder of the entire list available) as well as Martial Arts Maneuvers (rules added in the Earthforce Sourcebook supplement). The right panel is a Weapons and Armor table – again useful but not absolutely essential. The center panel is a colorful, slightly reformatted version of the original GM Reference Guide.

Courtesy RPG Geek

It would also be negligent of me not to mention that one of the reasons I originally got The Babylon Project was for the space combat system. Introduced in Earthforce Sourcebook, the space combat system was developed by Jon Tuffley and based on his successful Full Thrust miniatures system. This approach to incorporating popular, known, miniatures space combat rules and an RPG was later repeated by the Traveller community with the publication of Power Projection: Fleet.

Rereading The Babylon Project has opened my eyes to just how much of a gem this game really is. Compared to the more recent Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5, which I reviewed in 2011, the earlier The Babylon Project is more appropriate to the source and setting. Since the 1997 publication of the game, I have also matured as an RPG player and am more comfortable with the narrative/storytelling  and cinematic aspects of the rules. I can now see where The Babylon Project is much like the early Cortex System (Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) or Savage Worlds – game systems I really love and enjoy playing.  I think I will work on a story arc for The Babylon Project and see what happens….

RPG Thursday – Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game

Courtesy MWP

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has received great honors this year, winning the 2012 Gold Ennie for Best Rules and 2012 Silver Ennies for Product of the Year and Best Game. The game, from Margaret Weis Productions, is the latest implementation/evolution/application of the Cortex Plus system that I first became acquainted with in MWP’s Smallville RPG.

My first impressions are framed by the Ennie awards. Since it won the Best Rules and was the Runner-up for Best Game and Product I have high expectations.

Rules – I have to admit the presentation of the rules is very good. I especially like how the rules are cross-referenced in the text and margins. If you look at my Smallville comments above, you see that I was having a hard time wrapping my head around several game concepts. I have used the Cortex system since Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPG’s and it has certainly evolved over time (better to say “changed significantly”). This is by far the best explanation of the Cortex Plus system I have yet to read, in part because of the numerous helpful graphics and gameplay examples used. However, I feel the Datafile Creation rules are incomplete. Indeed, they come across as more guidelines than rules. In one case – Assigning Specialties – the book directs the player to “compare your hero to those heroes and villains known throughout the  Marvel Universe….” This is an example of being too closely linked to your license; makes being a Marvel fanboy a near-necessity to play. I don’t think this is really MWP’s intention but it comes across as such.

Product of the Year – My product is the Basic Game, which includes the Operations Manual and the Mini-Event “Breakout.” The Operations Manual weighs in at 126 pages (page OM00 is unmarked) and as I already stated is lavishly illustrated and assisted by helpful graphics and play examples. The blank Datafile, Glossary, and Index are here but numbered as part of the Breakout Mini-Event. The Mini-Event is definitely geared towards learning the game. It is 97 pages long and composed of two Acts (the second Act is optional) and has 23 Hero Datafiles and 48 Villains/Minor Characters/NPCs. This large selection is very helpful in designing your own character. It is also provides insight, especially comparing Black Widow the Hero (Natasha, BR58) with Black Widow the Villain (Yelona Belova, BR32). Overall, this does well as a stand-alone product. Minus the dice, of course. But for $19.99 retail this compares very favorably with the 2012 Ennie Gold Winner for Best Game, Savage Worlds Deluxewhich is also a rulebook sans dice.

Best Game – I have not compared all the 2012 Ennie nominees so I cannot judge if this is really the game of the year. What I will say it that this game is not a hack-and-slash supers game, but much more narrative in approach. To get the maximum enjoyment out of the game will demand a high level of player involvement as it is the players and not the Watcher that creates most of the action. The rules also require more than a passing acquaintance to understand and get the most out of. Regardless of the genre, this game is probably best with seasoned RPG players and not players just starting RPGs or kids.

Random Thoughts – Smallville RPG

Courtesy MWP

A few weeks ago I was in a local Barnes & Nobles and looked over their $2 clearance table. To my surprise, I found several hardcover copies of the Margaret Weis Productions Smallville RPG Corebook. Now, I am not a Smallville fan (I have never seen one complete episode) but I do like the Cortex System as used by Serenity RPG and the Battlestar Galactica RPG. So for two bucks I figured I could not go wrong.

The game I found is very much unlike any other I have played before, and in some ways it defies explanation. The Smallville RPG is not a supers hack-n-slash game nor is it a pure narrative storytelling RPG. Some have described it as “indie” which I take to be almost anything not hack-n-slash. The core mechanic is known as Cortex-K or Cortex Plus. It uses the standard Cortex dice pool of various size dice which are rolled to get your number. Plot points serve as meta-currency for the game.

Where this game is much different is the characters. Each character (either a Lead or Feature) is described by Values, Attributes (Distinctions and Abilities), Resources and Relationships. These are created using a Pathways system which I read has been used in some form or variation elsewhere. The Pathways Map lays out all of the above. When you try to do something you pick the value, attribute, and relationship to roll against. For example, as used in the Corebook, Oliver shoots arrows at a thug trying to run off with Lois over his shoulder so he used Love (Value) + Lois (Relationship) +Tricked-Out Compound Bow (Attribute) as his dice pool, rolling all three and adding the highest two. A series of scenes make up an episode, where the GM (“Watchtower”) used Wedges (i.e. conflicts between Leads) to make players challenge their characters beliefs and relationships.

While I find the Pathways method of character generation interesting, I have had a hard time wrapping my head around how scenes and episodes play out. What I get out of the book is that this game is all about challenging the other Leads and less about working with them. On the surface this looks to be mighty confrontational and is not what I really expect in an RPG.

In my quest to understand the Pathways method I created three Leads and mapped out their “life.” For lack of better terms, I labeled them The Jock, The Nerd, and The Princess. For this example, I carried their Pathways through five of the nine stages, which carries them from “Origin” to “Youth” to “Focus” to “Road” and to the “Life-Changing Event.”

The Jock starts out as an Ordinary guy. The two most important people in his early life are his Coach (Led By) and a Booster (Advice, Money From). He hangs out at the local Cafe which the Booster owns. However, at his Life-Changing Event he discovers he is a Technopathy; able to control technology. He now has a Secret Basement in the stadium as his refuge. He is rather stand-offish with the Nerd but wants to “save” the Princess.

The Nerd starts out Gifted. He works for a Scientist who hates him at a Lab that also supplies high-tech games to the Arcade where he likes to hang out. Unfortunately, this is also where the Jock has bullied him in the past. He is a clever genius with a super iPad which he has customized to support his hacking and computer activities. He also has an autistic brother who depends on him but who he tries to hide from the world. The Nerds Life Changing Event was First Contact when he gained knowledge of Extraterrestrials. He despises the Jock but recognizes the Princess has money he needs.

The Princess is the most complicated. As a Rich girl, she of course loves her Daddy who owns the Bank which the scientist has hacked into in the past. She also has a secret Bad Boyfriend who knows the Jock takes money and is blackmailing him. Her Daddy also had an affair with the Booster’s Wife making those two men rivals. Along the way, she has discovered that being attractive not only allows her to manipulate others, but she may even be able to influence their dreams. Her Life Changing Event was a Tragedy when she slept with the Booster, became pregnant, and secretly got an abortion. She is much more balanced in her relationships with the other Leads, favoring the Jock a bit more than the Nerd.

Sounds like a soap opera, right? Well, it is Smallville. Right away we have conflict between the Technopathy Jock who can control technology and the Genius Nerd who depends on it. Maybe the Nerds autistic brother is not autistic, but alien? And how will the Jock, the Princess, the Bad Boy and the Booster keep their secrets away from each other?

Maybe I am a bit too old-fashioned to fully understand and embrace this game. But for $2 I am not shedding any tears. I am looking for how to use the Pathways in other games because it does do a great job defining how players are related to each other as well as their drives and motivations. Much more useful than dropping players into a bar in some distant spaceport and letting them go from there.