Thursday, September 26, 2013

In Praise of the Adequate

I was pointed to this fun NYT article about personal satisfaction by Sarah Vowell's Facebook feed:

"Not everything has to be great. Maybe it’s a thrill to watch things become great. Maybe it’s healthy to feel that a meal is reasonable, that a performance had its moments, that a trip was fun in parts, that a person is engaging and you look forward to finding out what they’re really like, that last night’s sex was nice. In my slow but persistent bid for the reader’s sanity, I hereby prescribe a period of allowing things to be adequate."

I agree. So, to wit, a few pleasingly adequate games I've played in the recent or not-so-recent past and that otherwise I might not bother to write about:

Arctic Scavengers: While deck-building is an inherently engaging design pattern, that doesn't mean it's easy to do something interesting and different. I like Arctic Scavengers for its chaos and uncertainty, because it's designed on a standard deck-building core and yet goes in a completely different direction, and because of its effective communication design. Players are trying to build a tribe in a post-apocolyptic, nuclear-winter scenario, and the tropes of the genre – scavenging for equipment, skirmishes over scarce resources, bringing together scattered specialists – are all authentically there. I also like the new idea it brings to the game genre, that of building buildings which provide a permanent effect that helps you manage the chaos of the card flow. Is it a classic? No. But it pleasingly and effectively does what it sets out to do.

DC Comics Deckbuilding: Another deckbuilder, this is essentially Cryptozoic ripping off and re-theming Ascension (these comments apply more or less equally to the Lord of the Rings Deckbuilders, just choose which franchise you like best). The artistry here is not in the mechanics of the design, but in the application of new paint. It nicely hits all the touchstones of the genre, and all your favorite characters are here in more or less plausible versions of themselves. Also, all the games include many more attack cards (thematically keyed to defeated enemies) and fewer "permanents" (Ascension constructs) which gives them a bit more feeling of fluidity.  It's certainly not thematically rich, being closer to the Monopoly re-themes than to Lord of the Rings or even Cryptozoic's own The Hobbit, but when the underlying game is excellent and reasonably appropriate to the genre you could do a lot worse.

Indigo: Classic Knizian elegance, this ones sees us building paths for stones that start on a central tile, trying to guide them to our scoring gates which are spaced out around the outside edge of the hexagonal playing board. The twist is that many gates are controlled by two players, both of whom will score when a stone exits. Natural alliances grow in various areas of the board as turn order and shared gates work for or against different player pairings. Abstract and not that deep, there is still a lot more here than a cursory glance might reveal, and the physical design of the game is very attractive. This is a prototypical nice game.

Infiltration: This brings with it the usual hazards of Fantasy Flight Games: tiny fonts and questionable presentation decisions make it physically hard to play for older gamers. Still, this is a nice, short push-your-luck game with Vaccarinio's trademark of lots of interacting cards (rooms that you infiltrate through, in this incarnation) with special rules. What makes Infiltration for me is how nicely it pulls in the elements of the heist story: a ticking clock working relentlessly against you while you dodge internal security and deploy your fancy, high-tech equipment. The Android universe is also colorful and nicely-drawn.

Smash-Up: The central idea of this game is to get at the good stuff from deck-building games, while minimizing the risks of degenerate card offerings, runaway leaders, small early misjudgments dooming you, and other hazards of the genre. You "build" your deck out of two halves of flavored cards (Zombies bring cards back out of the discard pile, Dinosaurs have raw combat power, Leprechauns move cards around and change rules in combat, Ninjas sneakily show up right before scoring, and so on) to create Zombie Ninjas, Alien Dinosaurs, and other inherently entertaining combinations. It's a nice mix of the zany with an interesting tactical/resource management game that gets much of the fun of deckbuilders without some of the downsides. Plus, it has really good art and even uses adequate font sizes! It maybe runs just a touch long and is a little thinky for what it is, but is still a nicely-put-together game.

Star Trek Catan: It's more or less straight Catan, but the one mechanical addition – crew cards with special powers that you can keep for a short time – accelerate the game slightly, add some nice flexibility with things like relocating ships (roads), flexible bank trading, and add some more ways to help players catch up. The Federation Space expansion map is a nice touch and even includes episode references. The little plastic Enterprises and general presentation is also quite nice, although the fonts on the crew cards are ludicrously small. Catan is almost 20 years old at this point, but it's still a classic game and fun to play a spruced-up version.

Uchronia: Glory to Rome was a game I think I always wanted to like more than I actually did. Despite the hugely appealing interplay of quirky special powers, it had a problem with punishing luck (you can be out of it in 15 minutes if you fail to draw a decent bootstrap combo early) and very little tolerance for players' mistakes, with apparently minor errors easily throwing the game. This can lead to a lot of irritation for non-experts. Uchronia files off many of these rough edges and makes for a more streamlined, pleasing experience. It's lost the quirky insanity of the original, which admittedly was a significant element of the draw; it's also got a wretched rulebook that seems to uses terminology designed to be obtuse, and the fonts are (again) too small for how they are used in the real world. But get past this, and there is a solid game underneath that takes the well-conceived construction metaphor from Glory to Rome and turns it into a game more people will find engaging.

After a few dry years for new hobby boardgames, for me the last year or so has been great – in no small part due to plenty of solid, decent new games like this. Here's looking forward to more of them.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is Fantasy Flight's attempt to bring the Star Wars universe to tabletop roleplaying, and by my count this is the third or fourth crack at this general problem. Wizards of the Coast had two iterations using a d20-based system and while they produced some great sourcebooks, the feel of the gameplay was, to me, never right. West End Games' Star Wars game was old school, and while it had its moments and makes a virtue of elegance, it feels dated today.

Star Wars presents significant obstacle to being adapted as a roleplaying game. I wrote a piece on GUMSHOE a couple years ago, about how classic RPGs built on simple task resolution systems have a hard time evoking the feel of many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and epics. It can be done, but's down to the players to do all the heavy lifting without any support from the game system itself. GUMSHOE attacks these problems by baking the tropes and conventions of the procedural mystery genre into the game system, giving the players the support they need.

Star Wars is not a mystery, though. It isn't even obviously procedural, although there are procedural threads in the prequels. For me, Star Wars defies easy categorization. It's  a romance, it's an epic, it's fantasy, it's drama. In some ways it's a fairy story, in other ways it's a nuanced allegory. It resembles a hero's quest, but like Lord of the Rings it veers off-course in the final act. The narratives are built on timeless structures, yet are also tightly bound to the eras that spawned them (the 60s and 70s for the originals, the 90s and 00s for the prequels).

Adding further complexity, there is the question of what people consider canon. For me, it's the 6 movies plus the Clone Wars TV show, and I want nothing to do with tie-in books or video games and the Extended Universe in general. But, some people disavow the prequel trilogies, others like the much more pulpy, super-heroic books, and now there are books that run the gamut of genre mash-ups. Some players grew up playing Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic or X-Wing and it will please them to see elements of those stories recognized..

These are the core questions that a Star Wars RPG has to wrestle with and find answers to in 2013: what, exactly, is Star Wars? And can we get everyone at the table to more or less agree on an answer?


Edge of the Empire reminds me of The One Ring, which I reviewed last year. Task resolution involves a set of customized dice built into a pool: add positive 8 and 12-siders  for your level of skill, negative 8 and 12-siders for the level of difficulty, throw in some d6s for situational modifiers, gather up all the dice, roll them, and try to keep them all on the table (difficulty level: average, modified by your table's elasticity). Net out the success and failure symbols to see if you succeeded. The twist, and why rolling all these dice is interesting, is that in addition to success or failure symbols there are also threat and advantage symbols along with their more powerful cousins despair and triumph. They are netted out similarly to successes and failures, and can serve both mechanical and narrative purposes. In combat, threat and advantage tends to be spent in well-specified, crunchy ways to score critical hits, use weapon or character special powers, or create a temporary situational advantage. Outside of combat, they are used as narrative hooks to allow you to succeed at tasks with complications, or to fail but gain some advantage, or some other mix.

A typical test will involve rolling maybe 6 dice. The character will get 3 for a skill he or she is reasonably good at (say two ability dice plus one proficiency die), while a moderately difficult task will add 3 difficulty dice. Perhaps one more will be added as a boost or setback for external circumstances. These are all information-rich dice. The ability (and difficulty) dice have only one blank face, with the rest having 5 distinct mixes of one or two success (failure) and/or advantage (threat) symbols. The proficiency and challenge dice are similarly dense and add triumph and despair symbols. Assembling and rolling a dice pool and figuring out the results is not entirely trivial, much more involved than adding up numbers and looking for Tengwars in The One Ring, or netting out successes on FUDGE dice.

I like this. Because there is weight associated with die rolls – both mechanically and creatively because you have to be prepared to figure out what to do with threats and advantages – it encourages you to make rolls only when the results are going to be interesting. If after rolling the dice, you're routinely drawing a blank on what to do with the resulting threats or advantages, you're doing it wrong and rolling for too many routine tasks. At the same time, building the pool is fairly intuitive, and adding a setback die to a check for, say, being under time pressure is more interesting and generates more tension than just giving you a -2 to your d20 or increasing your success threshold by 1.

This dice pool compares interestingly to Fate, a game system that seems to have influenced Edge of the Empire significantly. In that game, fate point give the players interesting narrative control over a skill check by allowing them to tag their own aspects or things in the environment for bonuses. In combat in Fate, I might spend a Fate point to tag a "venting gas leak" for a +2 bonus to my shot as my character uses it for cover to get into a better firing position. Most of your creative energy goes into the setup of the challenge and ends after the dice are rolled. By contrast, in Edge of the Empire (as in The One Ring), you say what you're trying to do, roll the dice, look at the pool, and create the outcome out of the mixture of success, advantage, and threat. So if I get a couple of Advantage symbols, maybe a stray shot creates a venting gas leak that another player can use as cover in the future (giving a setback die to shots aimed at her). The rules are mealy-mouthed on how much control players get over their advantage results, especially outside of combat, but I'd suggest that by default if the player has a good idea you should go with it. This has the nice feature that creativity always feels like it's rewarded. If you spend energy coming up with some creative tagging in Fate you can still blow the check, in which case it's easy to feel like it was all for naught. Advantage and threat in Edge of the Empire are the result of an interesting die roll.

A vital ancillary system is Destiny points. These are analogous to Fate's Fate points. At the start of the game, you randomly assemble a pool of Destiny points on their light or dark side, one or two per player. The light points are spent by the players to upgrade characters' dice for a skill check, the dark points by the GM to improve difficulty dice. Once spent, they flip. Crucially, the can also be used by the players in a free-form way to introduce a true fact about the galaxy in a the same way as making a declaration with a Fate point (and with a similar narrative affect to making a GUMSHOE investigative spend). This covers a lot of ground, from simply declaring you have available the equipment you need even if it's not on your character sheet, to allowing you to use your skills in unexpected ways or creating NPC relationships. Like Fate, the rule is just that it has to be interesting and meet with the GM's approval.

The final piece of the puzzle is a character's Obligation. Recent RPGs have taken to building some sort of genre-appropriate motivation descriptor into character generation, a descriptor that has significant mechanical implications. Whether it's GUMSHOE's drives or Fate's Aspects, they can work as a hammer to make characters do something risky and interesting when a more reasonable response might be to turtle or not act. In a GUMSHOE game, the Drives provided for the setting tell you a lot about what it's like. The drives in Night's Black Agents are quite different from the ones in Ashen Stars. A Fate character's Aspects, although tricky to get right, can provide a useful tool for the GM to propel action.

Obligation is the analog in Edge of the Empire, and here we finally get to the nub of what kind of Star Wars story we're doing. Each character starts with one, with a rating of maybe between 5 and 20 (starting rating varies with the number of players, and you can add more to get more stuff). The off-the-shelf Obligations are things like Criminal, Debt, Bounty, Blackmail, and Betrayal, although they also include Dutybound, Family, Oath, and Obsession. The rating indicates the likelihood that the Obligation will intrude on whatever the players are doing. The GM makes a percentile roll before each session (not unlike the Icon relationship roll in 13th Age) and if it comes in below the group's total obligation level, one of the obligations kicks in, adding a complication to the story.

This should tell you who's stories we're looking at here: those of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian. They're the only main characters in the movies that have clear obligations (Debt to Jabba the Hutt, an Oath to protect Han, and Responsibility for Cloud City). None of the other characters in the classic trilogy have anything resembling an Obligation. Some of the prequel characters seem like they might – maybe Obsession for Anakin, or Duty for Padmé – but the Obligation mechanics don't work for their stories. Obligations represent some external force that can benefit the character, but can also have external consequences – again, very similar to 13th Age Icon relationships or a Source of Stability in a pulp Trail of Cthulhu game. Anakin's Obsession in the prequels is clearly a GUMSHOE Drive, a personal imperative that you violate only at a personal psychological cost, and not the external Edge of the Empire Obligation.

So, we're telling Han Solo's story. More specifically, we're telling Han Solo's story before he links up with Luke and Ben. Although this might sound limiting, creativity requires boundaries, and it's actually empowering for both players and GMs as long as they take the hint and are not distracted by the fact that the game has unwisely included lightsabers in the equipment list (despite the fact that the game offers no way to gain access to the skill for using them). Star Wars is a big universe, exponentially more so once you throw in the EU, and players can come to the table with a wide range of understandings and expectations. So picking one clear aspect of the universe and developing it is a good way to both make your game robust, set expectations, and get all the players on the same page.

I know Fantasy Flight primarily through their boardgames (I've never played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition, which Edge of the Empire apparently has some similarities to), and I think of their design sensibilities as fairly retro. By contrast, Edge of the Empire is a contemporary design clearly much more influenced by Fate and GUMSHOE than d20 or GURPS. Still, the dice pool task resolution system is much more concrete, more nuanced, and finicky than anything in a rules-light game, and things like weapon lists and capabilities (different weapons have different powers that can be activated through spending advantage symbols), character abilities, and space combat actions are spelled out in crunchy detail. The game is trying to give at least something to all of Robin's Laws Power Gamers, Butt-Kickers, Method Actors, and Storytellers.

I really like the total package here. The game that I've played that is closest in feel to Edge of the Empire is The One Ring, but I feel like Edge of the Empire's dice pool is more nuanced which allows it to have a crunchier, more flavorful and interesting combat system, although as a result it has to be used somewhat sparingly. The wide range of dice results combined with character powers and explicit combat options give players who enjoy those elements something to get their teeth into, and the point-purchase system of advancement lets players grow their character sheets. Outside of combat, the Destiny Pool imports some useful ideas from Fate and gives the system a touch of epic-ness while still remaining grounded. The Obligations carve off a nice, constrained element of the Star Wars space and lets you develop ideas there and avoid many of the pitfalls of generic Star Wars gaming.

The key to enjoying Edge of the Empire is embracing these constraints. I played once with a GM who wanted to run a Jedi-centric (of course) post-Order 66 story arc, so home-brewed some force rules and introduced dramatic emotional complications between the pre-generated player characters and generally tried to force the game to be something it isn't. This is a recipe for pain. While there is no reason why an adventure like this couldn't work in theory, when confronted with it in practice the players likely won't have a common touchstone to use to respond to it, and harnessing player creativity is so key to making these games work. The single biggest challenge to roleplaying in the universes of Lucas or Tolkien or Lovecraft – universes that have taken on lives of their own as they have became embedded in the popular culture – is often simply getting everyone at the table to understand and agree on the tone and theme of the game before you start. Edge of the Empire is not a game about dramatic conflict, or epic confrontations, or the hero's journey, even though those may be elements of Star Wars. It's about making a living in the grey areas of the galaxy while perhaps brushing up against the epic conflict. Take advantage of this clear direction, and embrace what the game does well.

After having said good things about the Edge of the Empire game system, I have to mention the massive complication that is the actual Edge of the Empire core rulebook. It is dire. While it has a nice layout and the art ranges from passable to excellent, the font sizes – especially on the tables – are small and hard to read. The text is dense and poorly organized. The prose is leaden and the rules are poorly explained. Never, for example, are the actual mechanics of a skill check properly spelled out! The core mechanic of the dice pool – which is straightforward and which I can explain to a player in a couple minutes – takes 10 pages of dense, wordy description with liberal use of copy and paste combined with search and replace. The bane of Fantasy Flight's boardgame rules is badly-ordered or unstructured  explanations which rarely give you the context to actually understand what you're reading (I talked about how to do this properly in an old piece on rules), and this is on full display here also. You really get the sense that the writers must have been paid by the pound, given how the rules seem to have been structured to maximize the amount of repetition required and how often they feel the need to brutally over-explain simple concepts.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not a complicated game. It's not rules-light, but it compares favorably with Fate-based games or The One Ring in terms of how difficult it is to play. It's just that the book makes it seem three to four times as complicated as it actually is. Having been spoiled recently by fantastic Pelgrane products, just reading Edge of the Empire was an epic struggle.

The section on GMing the game is also frustratingly useless for anyone reading this blog, as it deals with many peripheral issues (maybe you can find players online! or at your local game store!) without ever seriously tackling anything important: things like adventure themes, structure, and tone. Interestingly, a number of excellent, concrete, and useful tips that are included in the Beginner's Game box set (fail forward; say "yes, but"; don't roll the dice if success and failure aren't both interesting; don't let forward momentum stop just because of a failed check) are nowhere to be found in the core book.

The rest of the supporting material is OK. The adversaries list is solid. The list of ships is a bit thin, but OK. The Galactic Guide is a nice if somewhat meandering overview of the Star Wars universe which unfortunately does not focus on the actual premise of the game, the Obligated character.

Again, though, the whole thing is compromised by a prose style that I consider basically unreadable. If you're like me, you'll read it just enough to figure out the core systems and design intent, get some stats for stormtroopers, and probably never go back to it again except for some tables. You've watched the movies. You really don't need any more background than that – more information may in fact be unhelpful – and adversaries and starships don't have that many stats to generate.


I liked Edge of the Empire. With the huge caveat of the quality of the writing, I think it's the best take on Star Wars by far. The dice pool is versatile and provides useful hooks when used efficiently, and helps to narratively empower the players if the GM so desires. Other supporting elements are borrowed from proven systems. Obligations may not seem like a lot, but they are vital in setting the tone and character of the game. While the book doesn't provide the support that one might hope, the game system itself provides enough structure for an experienced GM to run with and gives players opportunities to both play creatively and trick out their characters with cool powers and gear. While it certainly lacks the elegance and professionalism of a Robin Laws or Kenneth Hite game, there is still a lot to like here.