Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Star Wars Edge of the Empire

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, is the current incarnation of the Star Wars role-playing game. Published by Fantasy Flight Games this game comes as a 448 page full colour hardback. Available separately are sets of dice for use with the game. Yes this is a game that has its own custom dice, but bear with me here as I think they're worth it.

So Star Wars: Edge of Empire is definitely a Star Wars RPG, set firmly in the setting we all know and love in the period after the events of the Battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star. Now there have been some criticisms of the setting (and connected rules) provided in this game as now being very Star Wars circulating on the net, and there is a lot of negativity about the game as a result of people expecting something that this game was never supposed to deliver, so lets get the elephant in the room out of the way immediately.

Jedi, lightsabres, fighting valiantly against the Empire as part of the Rebellion starring down Star Destroyers and fighting squadrons of TIE fighters. All Star Wars tropes. All not part of this game. You see Fantasy Flight Games have decided they can't cover all the bases in one go, and there are many different aspects to the setting, so have decided to cover the main aspects one at a time. As a result Edge of Empire does not cover the Rebellion or Jedi, they will come in later releases one specifically for each of those topics.

Some people reading this right now are going, "yay I hate Jedi anywhere there's so much more than can be explored," while some are thinking "no Jedi? Then it's not Star Wars." I personally make no pretense about it and find Jedi the least interesting part of the Star Wars setting. However I am a huge Star Wars fanboi and have been ever since I was a kid, and as a result this game speaks to me.

So what is here if there's no Jedi or Rebellion? Well Edge of Empire is designed to cover the edge of the Empire. It's the outer reaches of space and civilization, the smuggler, the bounty hunter, the moisture farmer who wants to get off his dustball and see the galaxy. Basically role-playing with all the people on the fringes, all the stuff people were doing before getting involved with Jedi and rebellions. Han and Chewie making spice runs for Jabba, Lando conning people, all the people on the edge of the law or who are running from something. That is what this game is about.

So now that out of the way, onto the book itself. The book is a well bound, full colour hardback, weighing in at 450 pages. There is plenty of artwork, but not so much as to take away from the setting and game material, and that artwork is all of a very high quality. Some of the art is original to the game, some is from other Fantasy Flight materials and some comes from the Lucas Arts archives where they seem to have been given access.

Special mention has to be made of the font chosen for the book. The font for the majority of the text is about the same height as a normal font, however it is very light and narrow of stroke. This means that it can sometimes be hard to read. Now I have pretty much perfect eyesight, never had any issues and as a pilot I get a good eye test quite regularly, but if I wasn't reading in bright full on light I had trouble with the text. There simply isn't enough weight to it to be perfectly legible in a decent range of light and sight situations. I've heard from people who simply can't read it, it gives them too much eyestrain as the font isn't heavy enough. Since the line won't be released in PDF format there is the theory going around that the font was chosen to make it difficult to scan the books. Whether there is any truth in that, I don't know. I suggest however you look at a copy to ensure you can comfortably read it before purchasing.

The only other issue I have with the layout is that sometimes, particularly as you come to the end of sections and columns, you can accidentally skip to the wrong section and have the reading not make sense. What I mean by this is that some sections flow through the regular columns as we're used to reading. You read down one column of text then read the next. Sometimes however if you come to the end of some sections, for layout purposes they will instead of continuing a section down a column they've wrap it across two columns at the top of the page and start the next section part way down the page and wrap it across both columns with not a huge amount of space between the sections. Many times while I was reading it I continued down the page into the next section without realising I should have skipped columns then come back. It can be confusing as it doesn't seem to stick to a style.

The various special dice for Edge of Empire
The dice. A lot has been said about the special dice used for the game. Some like the idea, some don't. Personally, I love them.

Basically there are 7 types of die

  • 6 sided positive blue boost die. This is used to give small bonuses and benefits to rolls
  • 8 sided positive green ability die. The core die of a dice pool roll, used to represent basic ability
  • 12 sided positive proficiency die. Used to represent particular skill or talent in a roll, improved version of the ability die
  • 6 sided negative black setback die. Used to represent negative affects on a roll, weather, distractions, disadvantages etc
  • 8 sided negative purple difficulty die. Used to control the basic difficulty of a task, the more difficult the more of these are added to the pool
  • 12 sided red challenge die. Used to represent challenges over and beyond the mere difficulty of a task, a skilled opponent etc
  • 12 sided white force die. populated with dark and light side results, used to generate destiny pool at the beginning of a session and to resolve force related tasks
From these dice you can get the following results
  • Blank, the die contributes nothing to the end result
  • Success, a positive outcome to the success of the roll
  • Advantage, a positive outcome that doesn't affect the success of the roll directly but provides other positive outcome and advantage
  • Triumph, a positive outcome above and beyond, a very powerful result that counts as a success and additional bonus
  • Failure, a negative outcome to the success of the roll
  • Threat, a negative outcome that provides negative side effects and hindrances but doesn't affect the actual success of the action
  • Despair, a very negative outcome that can be both failure and a severe setback
  • Light point, a light side force or destiny point (Force die only)
  • Dark side, a dark side force or destiny point (Force die only)
Confused? Actually it's pretty simple. You build your dice pool based on your characters skills and abilities, add bonus boost die dependant on the situation and that's the positive portion of your dice pool. The GM will then add your difficulty dice and any setback and challenge dice as appropriate to what is happening and then you roll them all.

A failure cancels a success. A threat cancels an advantage. If the success number is positive the action is successful, if 0 or negative it is now. If the advantages are positive then you can get some other positive outcome to the roll often as a narrative result (you manage to duck back into cover after firing, you find something you weren't looking for.) If the threats are negative then you will suffer some kind of setback (you may have succeeded but now the path is blocked, you shot the stormtrooper but your blaster has just run out of ammo.) Triumph and Despair can add very powerful advantages and disadvantages to the outcome.

I will agree the actual symbols used on the dice could be more intuitive, they're not immediately obvious what they may be, but once you have a few rolls people get it incredibly quickly so the learning curve is very low. 

If you really don't want to seek out the special dice (you'll need at least 2 packs, or 1 if you have the beginner game,) there is a conversion chart in the book for regular polyhedral dice to the Edge of Empire results, though consulting this could get cumbersome very quickly as opposed to the actual dice where it's very easy to determine the dice pool results from looking at them. I really recommend using the specific dice.

So how about the game itself? Well unlike many of the reviews I do I've actually run Edge of the Empire, and I can tell you it's a blast. The dice system once you get used to it drives the game considerably. I find myself needing less prep for a session beyond the generalities because the interpretation of the dice when the players attempt something can narratively drive so much of the session.

For character generation the players get to choose one of six careers; Smuggler, Colonist, Explorer, Technician, Hired Gun and Bounty Hunter. Each of these careers is then split into three specializations that give you the ability tree you are working on. During character creation you choose your career and initial specialization and off you go.

A character is considered of the career they initially join, however they can spend their experience to buy into additional specializations, even those from other careers. For instance Han Solo would have taken the Smuggler career with the Scoundrel talent tree to begin with. However as we know our old friend Han has many other skills under his belt, so it stands to reason he's taken the Pilot specialization at some point (also from the Smuggler career) and later in life has ended up in the Politico tree under the Colonist career. Maybe a bit of mechanic under the Technician career. No matter all these other specializations, Han is still at heart a smuggler.

One very key part of the character generation process is the subject of obligations. All characters start off with an obligation, with the option of buying more to gain additional experience or starting cash. An obligation is basically debts and, well, obligations that the character owes. It could be they have a bounty on their head or owe someone a lot of money, perhaps their family ties bind and restrict them more than they'd like or they're obsessed with finding the Katana Fleet or some such. These obligations can, under the stock system, come up in play either a plot points or just as dramatic tension.

For example in my game one of the characters has an obsession with destroying the Corporate Sector Authority after the took over his homeworld for it's resources. In a session this came up in the form of a holonet news report announcing the CSA expansion into new world. This had the effect in the game of reducing the amount of stain the character could experience over the course of the adventure (due to thinking of it constantly and it weighing down on him) and ended up with him trying to knock over a protocol droid store that was owned by a CSA signatory (completely the players idea but an example of how these can easily become drivers for side points in an adventure.)

Characters have two trackable resources. The good old hit points and strain. The Hits threshold dictates how much damage physical damage a character can sustain and doesn't require much further explanation. Strain Threshold on the other hand is more interesting.

Strain represents the characters duress, both physical and mental. It represents how much damage you can take from stun weapons for example, or how much psychological stress you can take. It's also interestingly an expendable resource for the players.

A character can choose to experience strain to activate various special abilities and talents that their character may have, to gain extra manoeuvres during a combat and the like. If the character is suffering from an Obligation they may have their strain threshold reduced which obviously makes the available pool smaller. Spend too much, and you'll collapse. Don't use it and you'll be losing out on some of your better abilities and that little but of edge that makes a difference. Just don't get hit by a stun bolt while you're spending them. Strain can mechanically be recovered by gaining advantages on dice rolls or by rest.

One of the most interesting and fun mechanics of the game is the Destiny Pool. The destiny pool is a set of Light Side and Dark Side counters that sit on the table and can be spent by both players and GM. If the players need a little extra boost for a roll they can flip one or more light side counters to the dark side to get that number of upgrades to their dice roll. Similarly the GM can spend Dark Side counters by flipping them to light side to help his NPCs rolls should he desire.

The more interesting aspect is that after the controlling side decides if they're going to upgrade their roll the opposing side can choose to spend to upgrade the difficulty of the roll just the same way they could spend the points to upgrade their own.

For example if the players really want to make that roll to shoot the Imperial Commander before he gets and summons reinforcements they could spend their light side points to upgrade their dice pool to make it more likely to succeed. After this if the GM is feeling mean he can then spend dark side points to make the shot more difficult.

The Destiny Pool is determined randomly at the beginning of each session by each player rolling a force die and allocating the results to the pool.

The pool is a very fun mechanic. Do you save your points for the really difficult challenges, knowing that if you're not spending your points they're not being given to the other side? This can result in a constant flow back and forth in the pool from light to dark and back again. Players are encouraged to spend to make things more heroic while GMs are encouraged to use it to make it more dramatic, swing things in their characters favour and try and keep some light side points for the players to use.

Some of this sounds complex, but in reality it works really fluidly at the table. Rules are kept pretty abstract for the most part in order to keep the system relatively simple so they don't get in the way. The dice results surprisingly, even for ardent role-players who don't always go with dice rolling, drive the flow of the game in a greater way than I've experienced in other systems. The dice allow the GM to say yes to even the most ridiculous requests of the players, if they really want to try it. You really want to try running and slipping under that rapidly closing blast door in the rain while being shot at? Well that will be a difficult athletics skill roll and I'll add 2 setback dice to the roll and spend a dark side point to add the nasty red challenge die to the pool (the only die with the dreaded despair result.) Are you sure you wish to try? And let the dice be the judge.

The flavour of the game through the text is excellent, it really grabs you as a Star Wars game, not as a generic game with an interesting system. The rules really emphasize the narrative nature of the game and the fact that the players are joining the GM in making the world work, not just sitting through the GM's prepared adventure.

If you have any interest in playing in the Star Wars universe this is definitely the game for you, and I say that as a huge fan of the original West End Games D6 game. This is some of the most fun role-playing I've had since I can remember. Highly, highly recommended.

Oh, and don't try and convert, use the special dice, you'll get so much more out of it if you do. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Shadowrun Digital Tool Box

This is my first review in a little while so apologies for that. Also apologies to the kind guys at Catalyst for giving me this to review several weeks ago and not getting around to it (sorry Randall.) I've been stuck in property purchase hell. Anyway moving along.

So the Shadowrun: Digital Tools Box is now available from DriveThruRPG, and this consists of the digital versions of the upcoming box set for Shadowrun; Beginner Box and Alphaware. The two sets complement each other (it was originally planned to be one large box set but I believe it got so large it made sense to split it down) and there is a definite progression and solid connection between them. Even so I'll take them one at a time.

Beginner Box 

So lets start with what do we get in our virtual toolbox.

First up we have the Instructions sheet. This is obviously made for the physical box set as the first instruction is to get to know the six-sided dice. Basically it's a walk through of the order in which you should read the books and components. This is pretty common in modern box sets (Edge of the Empire Beginners Box Set did the same thing) so nothing strange here.

The Edge of Now is the introduction to the setting and starts with a short story introducing us to the heroes from the 5th edition rulebook fiction; Gentry, Coydog, Sledge and Hardpoint. The rest of the book is basically background material culled from the main 5th edition rules, Life in the Sixth World, info about shadowruns, background on the corporations and general setting information and a couple page overview of Seattle. At 26 pages it crams enough in for a beginner to get a vague flavour of the world, but other than the fiction there's nothing new here if you've read the core book.

Next up are 5 two page character sheets for new players representing our four heroes from the fiction and a new Ms Myth character, sort of a streetwise face/security consultant. The new character is the most interesting as she sets the stage for a concept that carries over into the Alphaware box (more on that box later.) 

The new concept is the character dossier. The Beginner Box comes with an 8 page dossier for Ms Myth which gives a pretty detailed background, information on her contacts and roleplaying hints for player the character. Also included is a very nice 2 page section on favoured tactics for the player playing the character which is very appreciated for the target audience of the box. Also included is a 2 page solo run if the GM wishes to take the character through an introductory run with just the one character.

The only bad thing I can say about the character dossier is the lack of them for the other characters. They are found in the Alphaware box, but I think they should be included in the Beginners box instead as it's more of the target initial audience who will get the most mileage out of the concept.

The Quickstart Rules give a simple quick and concise overview of the main rule points, as expected. It also includes a new version of the classic Shadowrun staple adventure, Food Fight. A quick reference sheet for the GM on the PC stats and a one sheet GM screen round out the booklet. It does the job reasonably well and is newly put together for this box set, it bears little to no resemblance to the quick start rules from last years Free RPG Day.

Rounding out the box is a rather solid excerpt from the upcoming novel Fire & Frost to help wet the appetite for new Shadowrun fiction.

So what's good? The characters are good, the dossier idea is excellent (did I mention that already?) and the quick start rules definition do the job. 

So what's not so good? Well the only criticisms I'd have is that the character dossiers for the rest of the characters really should be included in this box set rather than the Alphaware box, and I would like to see a more substantial adventure in a beginner's box to introduce new players beyond just the expanded Food Fight.

All in all, a really good attempt with a few minor criticisms, however I'm not the target audience. Could I run an adventure or two with this? Absolutely.


Now this section is where the meat of the download content is, and it's pretty impressive all in all.

We have the instruction sheet, same as the Beginners Box, but it starts strangely by referring the players to the Edge of Now booklet which isn't contained in the Alphaware set (at least not in the digital review version I received.) I think there's an assumption written in that both sets are available to the reader which is certainly the case in this digital copy, but may cause some confusion if the print version ends up the same as the digital copies, but maybe the booklet will be reproduced in both boxes.

Rules of the Street is a substantial 90 cut down version of the SR5 rules. At 90 pages it's obviously not massively cut down, most of the core rules are here. Some of the nuances and more specific rules may not be present (such as the grenade chunky salsa rules) but all the major ones are present and correct including a 20 page gear section. Sometimes it amazes me how you can reduce a tome like SR5 into a more accessible package and they clearly manage it well. Not so sure about the art on page 2 however, unless it's a deliberate Cyborg Commando homage the cyborg our elf ninja is attacking is not very Shadowrun to my mind.

Next up we have new more detailed character sheets for the five characters presented in the Beginners Box and the character dossiers for the remaining four.

Cards PDF. Here we have a 110 page PDF of two card sets, Spell cards and Gear cards. Basically simple cards that detail the pertinent information about the more common spells and pieces of equipment. These have been on sale for a little while (and I bought a physical set of them in the store just yesterday.) Handy for some groups, not all will make use of them. However I can easily see these being very useful for beginning players who buy these box sets in physical form. 

The next book is Plots and Paydata, an 82 page GMs book. Now often these books are just GM information, experience rules etc and an adventure tucked in the back. Not quite in this case. Yes it starts with the GM advice (condensing the phenomenal GM advice section in the core rulebook) and contains the same Food Fight adventure from the Beginners Box set, but then it differs from most.

This book doesn't just contain an intro adventure (the aforementioned Food Fight.) Oh no. This booklet contains a min-campaign of 5 connected adventures. And they're pretty good as well. That's 30 pages of mini-campaign, enough to keep a group going for 5 or more sessions. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The remainder of the book is taken up with explanations and details around the maps that are included in the box (good old Sprawl Sites) that include decent sets of adventure hooks (some are pretty fleshed out and taking almost half a page on their own) and a decent section of NPCs and contacts for the players to interact with.

Finally we have two sets of maps. One is a double sided map of North America in the Sixth World on one side and a nice poster size version of the final box set cover image by the talented Echo Chernik.

The other set are sprawl site maps. These are 8 locations taken from the Sprawl Sites: High Society and Low Life and Sprawl Sites: North America map sets that were released last year. 


All the material is presented to the same high quality as the SR5 main rulebook. That is decent amounts of art, all full colour and using the same new layouts and styles as the 5th edition line. It all comes across as very professionally done.

For beginners to the game these box sets will be very useful in physical form, and also in digital as this material currently is. For more established players there is definitely useful stuff in here such as the maps, cards, beginner characters and dossiers etc if you're starting a new campaign. The mini-campaign is pretty good as well.

The only real thing I would say against it is not about the digital version really, but is about the final print versions that will come out of it. That is the repetition of some stuff and their separate availability. Mainly the card decks and maps. They're available outside this box and some will already have them. Sure it's useful to have extras but that may be a consideration for established players purchasing the physical set.

As for this digital set, it is retailing for $19.99 over at DriveThruRPG and I honestly believe it's easily worth that price for what you get. Even for established players. So yes, this gets a two thumbs up chummer.