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.
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.
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 SWSagaDestiny 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.
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 Legends) but 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 SWSagamy new science fiction RPG, it just didn’t work. As much as I love Star Wars, playing in the setting using SWSagafelt 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.
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 Playfrom 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 Guidewhich 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 theStar 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.