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

star_wars_roleplaying_game_saga_edition_core_rulebook
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.

 

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Ending My Second RPG Interregnum

While preparing this RPG retrospective series, I discovered that there were two significant gaps in time between my RPG purchases. The first interregnum was between 1986 and the mid-1990s. The second interregnum was from the late-1990s to 2005.

The first purchases after my second RPG interregnum also reflect a change in the RPG industry that I was slow to catch up on, but ultimately started me on a path of learning RPGs unlike I had ever experienced before. What I had missed during my second interregnum was the birth of Open Game Content, and the release of the Open Game License (OGL) in 2000 by Wizards of the Coast.

The OGL released, for public use, certain portions of RPG systems – the Open Game Content. I say “systems” because the OGL was initially intended to release for public use the underlying rules system, or “mechanics” of the game, and not settings.

I discovered this when in 2005 I purchased Prime Directive d20 (PD20). The cover clearly states that this is the “Core Rulebook.” What I missed was the (obvious) yellow text box on the back cover which stated:

Requires the use of the Third Edition Player’s Handbook (v 3.5) published by Wizards of the Coast. Compatible with all d20 rulebooks so GMs will have resources to create infinite new worlds to explore.

Well, that sucked. After being lured in by the “Core Rulebook” on the cover, I instead was hunting around for whatever these “d20 rulebooks” were. I found a seller in England named Mongoose Publishing that sold The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook. I think I was lured in by the publisher’s blurb on the backcover:

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is a simple guide to the world’s most popular Modern roleplaying game system. It contains exactly what a reader needs to play the game and nothing else.

With this guide to the intricacies of the Modern OGL rules set, Players and Games Masters can make use of any other setting or devise their own for a campaign that is uniquely theirs while still retaining the basic framework of the Modern OGL game. If it is a basic rule covering character creation, combat, equipment, vehicles, creatures or magic, it has a home in these pages.

Everything you need, in a pocket-sized edition with a pocket-sized price.

So I ordered one (and paid way too much in shipping – another costly lesson learned).

I am sure you already see my obvious mistake. First, I didn’t understand the d20 product line meaning I didn’t understand the difference between Third Edition and Modern rulebooks. Second, I was very confused when I tried to read the Modern Handbook. There were many rules, presented in a not-very-friendly manner, but no setting. I remember trying to make sense of the rules and being confused for days and days. I compounded my confusion by trying to play Prime Directive d20 using the Modern Handbook. Although the PD20 back cover claimed “compatible with all d20 rulebooks” the reality is the differences between Third Edition (v3.5) and Modern were enough to make play virtually unachievable for me. This was especially true since I was starting out with above-average confusion by not understanding d20 to begin with.

Prime Directive d20 started with a good fiction piece, which was interesting because it did NOT feature a Prime Team. This is emblematic of the entire book – it suffers from an identity crisis. In Chapter 3: Character Classes there are five “Adventure Party Formats” introduced:

  1. The Bridge Crew: Officers on Call
  2. Special Assignment: Ready for Anything
  3. Prime Team: The Best of the Best
  4. Fighter Pilots: Wild Dogfights, Wild Parties
  5. Freelancers: Have Phaser, Will Travel

The first is obviously Star Trek. Problem is, this is the Star Fleet Universe, with a recommended setting taking place right before the big General War kicks off. The second setting is the sort featured in the opening fiction; a team thrown together for a special mission. The third is the namesake of the system, but notes that characters start at 9th Level (so much for a beginner’s adventure). The fourth setting was likely an attempt to capitalize on the (then) successful Battlestar Galactica reimagining. The final setting, Freelancers, looked to be PD20′s version of Traveller. The greatest problem with PD20 is that the Third Edition (v3.5) rules don’t do a good job of portraying any of these tropes.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook I now know is actually a System Reference Document (SRD) and is not supposed to be a rulebook for playing an RPG. An SRD is the foundation used to construct an RPG rulebook. Problem was I tried to play using the SRD with no success at the time.

At this same time, I discovered a web site on an alternative history of the Luftwaffe named Luft ’46. This in turn led me to a comic book series, Luftwaffe 1946 by Ted Nomura. In a fortunate coincidence, I also somehow discovered DriveThruRPG. In my second-ever purchase from the site, I downloaded Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game is not a complete RPG – it is a setting book like PD20. Unlike PD20, it used another rules set, the ACTION! SYSTEM. Now I was even more confused and more than a little bit upset. Why on Earth can I not get a “complete” game? Why do I have to keep buying a separate rulebook and setting book? I downloaded a free version of the ACTION! SYSTEM and tried to learn the game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game tries to be an RPG homage to Luftwaffe 1946. A major part of the core setting is aircraft combat. This demands a strong air combat system. The problem is the ACTION! SYSTEM does NOT have a good vehicle combat system. Without a good fighter combat system, the existence of this entire game is questionable. It also didn’t help that in the introduction Ted Nomura gets upset that he cannot find good plastic model kits with accurate swastika decals. This makes him declare:

Being educated in America and thus thinking that we’re a free press society, I found the obvious censorship of history highly insulting to my intelligence. Thus, at the beginning of the early 1970’s, I made a more careful study of Nazi Germany and found out that their atrocities were not much worse than what any other major countries had done to their people and their neighbors throughout the centuries of warfare. Focusing only on a select few seemed not only unfair but inaccurate. – p. 7

After reading this, I put Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game on a back shelf. It wasn’t pulled out again until this retrospective series (and I think I am going to shred the printed copy and reuse the binder for another game).

After the Luftwaffe: 1946 failure, I looked around and found a setting book that I thought I liked, ACTION! CLASSICS The War of the Worlds Source Book. The cover of this book looked promising because it proudly proclaimed the book contained “Game stats for both Action! System and d20 System.” This would be great; if I didn’t like the ACTION! SYSTEM I could always go to d20.

The War of the Worlds Source Book starts out with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds novel. The novel takes up the first 76 pages of the book. The book is only 101 pages long. This meant the actual game material was slim, and what was there was often repeated (ACTION! SYSTEM/d20 System). Given that I never really enjoyed the ACTION! SYSTEM or d20, I gave up on this setting.

What I didn’t realize then, but see now, is that the OGL had changed the RPG industry. The  OGL allowed rules sets to go public, and enabled many smaller publishers to publish their own settings. The RPG industry focus had turned from RPG rules to RPG settings.

Not all was bad at this time. Using DriveThruRPG I was able to buy books for older games that I had missed out on. Publishers like Far Future Enterprises sold CDs with older Traveller RPG collections. I eagerly picked these up and thoroughly enjoyed the rediscovery of these older classics and going back to my RPG roots from the late-1970s and 1980s. The future of RPGs was dead to me – I was not a d20 player and I didn’t want all those other new systems.

That was, until my next purchase.


Luftwaffe: 1946 title (c) 1996, 2001 Ted Nomura and Ben Dunn. All other material is (c) 1996, 2001 Antarctic Press. The Luftwaffe: 1946 and related material are used under license. Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game Copyright (c) 2003 Battlefield Press, Inc.

Action! Classics: The War of the Worlds Sourcebook copyright (c) 2003 by Gold Rush Games.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is (c) 2004 Mongoose Publishing.

Prime Directive d20 is copyright (c) 2005 by Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc. “d20 System” and the “d20 System” logo are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and are used according to the terms of the d20 System License version 5.0. Elements of the Star Fleet Universe are property of Paramount Pictures Corporation and are used with their permission.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”

My Babylon 5 RPG Universe

Babylon 5 is one of my guilty pleasures; a 1990’s sic-fi TV series that actually had a story beyond “the monster of the week.” When it first aired I was overseas a lot and really only got to watch it in reruns or later when it streamed online for a while.

In the world of roleplaying games, there have been a few publishers that handled the Babylon 5 license. In 1997, WireFrame Productions co-published The Babylon Project with Chameleon Eclectic. I reminisced about this game in January 2013 and, after rereading that post, find that my opinion has not changed.

In the early 20-oughts Mongoose Publishing picked up the license and produced a new rulebook based on D&D 3rd Edition. I never got the core rules, but over time have picked up many of the sourcebooks and supplements that Mongoose published to use as reference material for campaigns. I have guides to seasons 2-5 (The Coming of Shadows, The Point of No Return, No Surrender No Retreat, and Wheel of Fire). I also have sourcebooks for several major powers (Earth Alliance, Minbari , and Narn) as well as a campaign book for Earthforce. Other supplements include, The Rangers, Free Mars, and The Zocalo (galactic trade and black markets).

In 2008 Mongoose repackaged the Babylon 5 rules using their Traveller RPG license. In a post from May 2011 I was less-than-impressed with those rules, and that has not changed. But as a result of nearly 20 years of collecting, I have a pretty robust set of Babylon 5 RPG books. Enough that I could make a story arc (using The Babylon Project method) with details from the D20 sourcebooks and supplements. In February 2013 I even stat’ed up a character.

Add this one to the growing “Winter Wish List” of projects!