I'm a long-time fan of Star Wars and its RPGs, and I was very excited to see FF finally announcing their new system .
After playing RPGs for nearly a decade, I've discovered what type of gameplay aspects I like in my RPGs. Star Wars Saga Edition got really close to these aspects I find really important in RPGs, and I would like to know from the folks playtesting Edge of the Empire if the new system adresses these characteristics I find so relevant.
As I understand, the new system and editorial choices have some aspects in common with FF's Warhammer franchise. I do not know much about the latest Warhammer RPG (that would be its 3rd edition, right?) but from what I hear, Edge of the Empire has a similar system. The editorial choices about the line remind of FF's Warhammer 40k products. Instead of all encompassing system in a big core book, different aspects of the setting are gradually woven into a coherent game system. So, this new book focuses on the fringe elements of Star Wars in a very specific time period of the setting (and arguably, the most classic and iconic). Later books will focus on other archetypes and eventually, with all three of them, players will be able to choose a more varied pool of archetypes and stories. I understand the strengths of such design, but that also means players (and stories) about soldiers, pilots and/or jedis must wait a little longer to be told. And though this choice gives interesting depth to the chosen aspects of the setting, meshing them together may become somewhat harder. Perhaps it's important to state that even though I have great admiration and interest for Warhammer 40k and would love to play an RPG set on this setting, the game system currently in the hands of FF is what makes me balk from playing it - I'm really not a fan of it's playstyle and design choices…
So, with this said, I want to show you what aspects I find important in RPGs - with the full understading that these are merely my personal opinion and are not universal - and ask of the current playtests if Edge of the Empire may be an interesting system for me .
Overall, I would summarize my opinion thusly: I favor RPGs with strategic, varied, balanced, fast, simple but yet deep gameplay elements that focuses in making sure the mechanics work well while providing ease of GMing and creative and narrative freedom for all players involved.
This may look contraditory to some of you, but from the Star Wars RPGs that I knew, I would count Saga Edition as the best to fulfill these criteria. Further, perhaps even more inflamatory, if I brought "D&D" into this discussion, of all the editions I played (2nd, 3rd and 4th), I would say 4th is the best one to fulfill such tenets. I realize some (or many) of you may disagree with these statements, but these will help you understand my point of view. These are not intended to "flame" this topic in any way, nor would I try to defend these systems as "objectly better" - I have played enough RPGs to understand that the "best" system is the one your gaming group finds best - and not what some guy is claiming to be in the internets…
So, that being said, these are the aspects I'm more interested in collecting feedback!
1. Lethality level
This aspect touches my preferences of realism and narrative freedom. To me, nothing is worse to a narrative than a RPG with a high lethality level. I do not "adjust" dice results and outcomes, I do not use a GM screen and I do not "adjust" the situation to "help" or "hinder" my players when I think narratively appropriate. That means I need the system to have a somewhat predicatble lethality level, otherwise, I'll keep having campaigns with "revolving door characters". To me, death must haunt players characters only after bad decisions and judgments on their parts or after an incredibly rare string of bad luck. Smart players should be able to avoid it in most of the time - the proability of death only gets higher when situation starts stacking against them - and even then, these players should be able to reverse the odds or at least be able to escape from the situation. So how is lethality in Edge of the Empire? Do player characters die with a single blaster shot? Does a lightsaber hit decapitates or maims anyone it strikes? Does healing takes a long time? Is piloting starships a death-sentence or are starships and pilots of similar "power levels" able to have a balanced battle? May a random die roll kill a character in full health in a "regular battle"?
2. Cinematic vs. Realism
Overall, I emphasize narrative and cinematic logic over hard realism. I still base my Gming decisions in reality and reasonbale guesses, but always thinking about the narrative aspect of the game. To my mind, hard realism negates a lot of traditional stories. In a book, comic or movie, the author always has full control of the characters and the enviroment. It is he or she who decides who lives and who dies, who gets to shine, what abilities hero and villains have and so on. In a game-like enviroment such as traditional RPGs, these decisions does not rest solely on the GM (unless you fudge everything to your liking - which I don't do). This aspect ties to a lot of the other points I like here, but I need a careful explanation. First, hard realism is fine for some narratives - I wouldn't like a Call of Cthullhu game, for example, that wasn't "realistic hard". But for the "usual" narratives we are used in movies and books, hard realism coded into the rules tend to impossibilitate or difficultate generating similar stories. If every battle is "80% lethal", Lord of the Rings would probably by a much shorter story (and then Frodo dies at the hands of the troll…). Luke, Han and Leia would probably have died in one of their many battles. Roland would not have reached the Dark Tower. Even fiction classifies as "realistic" or "gritty" would look very different - the stories of Conan tend to be very gritty, but amazingly, Conan is always alive at the end of the day. To emulate that protagonist protection in a game is very hard (unless the GM fudges). Even A Song of Ice and Fire would look very different if at any and every battle everything was decided at the whims of the dice. Eddard would be a lucy bastard to survive until he did - the other hundreds of battles he battled would probably have killed him much sooner in his life. With realism hard coded in the rules, survival depends less on the players' (and characters') ability and much more on simple luck. That does not mean I want "anime style" gameplay or, to use a closer example, that everything is cranked past 11 like in Force Unleashed. This, just like gritty hard rules, is just as valid style of narrative, but not the ones usual to us - and, more important, not usual to Star Wars.
So how cinematic is Edge of the Empire? Can Luke hop into the gun of the Millenium Falcon and easily shoot a few Tie Fighters piloted by the best of the Empire's pilots? Can Han shoot the tentacle of the Saarlac to save Lando while battle rages all around him? Can Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan survive being chained to a pillar in the arena on Geonosis? Can Delta Squad infiltrate an Acclamator-ship infested with trandoshans and survive? How probable is each of these things happening? Unlikely? Common place? Somewhere in between? Are heroes able to battle for most of the day or do they need long periods of rest to "lick their wounds"?
3. Simple Strategic and Tactical Depth
This is a harder aspect to communicate. Perhaps the hardest. As I have said, I prefer a game system with strategic and tactical depth, but with simple and fast mechanics. That means that a system too simple and too generic does not please me, even though it can be simple and fast. In the other hand, a system with lots of detailed options and strategic depth may be interesting, but it may not be simple and fast, and this will put me off. Attaining that balance between these two extremes is the hard part. For example, the products of the Warhammer 40k RPG are products that interest because of their setting - but their rules, in my view, fall into the latter category (besides not "checking" in a lot of the other four points I explicitate here). When my players wade into a battle, I want them to have different options and abilities. I want each player to feel his character is unique, with exclusive abilities. I also want these abilities to be simple to use and understand, even though using them well may require tactical expertise. I don't want them (or me) going through books to understand the effects of an ability, power or similar. I want combat to have a lot of options and tactical layers, but I also want it to be fast and intuitive. I also want the players to feel that they have a varied array of options for developing their character, always maintaining it true to the narrative archetype they created. But I also don't want them to be overwhelmed by options and rules. In the GM side of things, I want adventures to be easy to construct and gauge. I want to be able to easily gauge the power level between my group and a group of adversaries, be them on a land battle, a starship dogfight, or a tense debate in the galactice senate. I want to easily construct balanced NPCs that function the way I intend them to function. I don't want to be obligated to remember hundreds of differents subsystems to run the game. If I pick a published adventure, I should be able to run it without constantly refering to the book.
So, even though I understand these may be a bit too general, how do you think Edge of the Empire fare in this regard? Is it easy to create a PC, or does it takes several hours to go through the mechanics alone? Is it easy for the GM to generate an NPC in the spot, or is this another "hours-long" process? Do PCs of different "classes" have different abilities? What about PCs of the same "class", can they be very different from each other? Can two bounty hunters diverge as much as Boba Fett diverges from Bossk? Is starship combat an entire differnt way of making battle? What about vehicle battles? Can I easily integrate starships and land vehicles in a battle? What about characters, land vehicles and starships in the same battle? Can the GM easily gauge the difficult of a task and make a balance decision about it? Is there a good rule for creating an "encounter" or is everything left to "GM experience" to gauge and define? Do battles and encounters feel varied or are they static?
An aspect that ties into a lot of the ones - specially narrative freedom. RPGs, by merging storytelling processes with game elements always walk a fine line in this point. Some RPGs opt not to regard balance in a mechanical, gamistic perspective and let the full-weight of the setting and the narrative decide the power level between different characters. Others, try to balance the mechanics just as well as a more traditional game would. I'm a firm believer that balancing mechanics is a "must" for most narratives and stories for RPGs, and that this actually frees narrative space and lessen the burden in the GM. Tha means that, to me, its importante that every player, no matter the archetype, always feel that he can contribute to the game, both to the story and to the challenges the GM may be throwing in the group. If certain aspects of the mechanics are revealed to be better than the others, either players feel the need to have those aspects to be relevant or are "penalized" for not having them. Of the RPGs I played, D&D 4th edition is the best one in this regard. Saga manages to be reasonably balanced as well (glaring unbalances excepted), but needs actual tinkering with the mechanics to achieve a higher degree of balance between archetypes. Perfect balance is a myth - and games that near that goal tend to be too homogeneous between the aspects being balanced to actually provied the variety and customizability needed by an RPG. However, I think it is important to attempt a tight balance between mechanics while maintaining variability - a hard achievement indeed, but one of the inherent difficulties of designing a strong RPG, in my opinion. I'm aware that discussing balance in Star Wars is a heated topic. There are a lot of players, for example, that preach that Force-User and Jedi should be inherently superior to other archetypes, since that's how they're usually portrayed. While I accept that opinion as a valid one, I'm of a different mind. Since authors can decide how relevant a force-user can be to his story and such imbalance would not be beneficial to the game aspect of an RPG (in my mind), I prefer character archetypes to be balanced. There will always be a narrative imbalance, no matter how much the mechanical aspect of the rules are close to "balanced", I don't agree that further differentiating these archetypes by coding different power levels in the rules is needed. And last, but not least, it is harder to a GM to manually balance a set of unbalanced rules than to unbalance one that is balanced.
That being said, what would you say about balance in the Edge of the Empire? Are Force-Users balanced with the non Force-Users? Is there unbalance between the different "classes/talents/trees"? Is every archetype presented in the book able to contribute to most scenes? Can everyone help in a starship battle? Can everyone help in a debate in the senate? Can everyone provide signigicant help in combat? Is there a need for a determined archetype to be present in the group for the to be able to take on the challenges in the game?
5. Narrative freedom
A point that touches all of the above. If the game aspects of the system are balanced, fun and interesting, the GM usually has much more freedom to weave the narrative he or she wants. He knows what kind of elements are challenging to the party. He knows everybody will be able to contribute in most of the scenes. He knows the system will run without coming to a grinding halt because of some obscure rule that needs to be looked up. He can concoct whatever flies his fancies and the system will work with him, not against him. And one easy way to kill all this is by codifying narrative elements in the rules. This is seen today as "focusing on the narrative", but in reality, all it does is mechanize the story aspects of the game. It may even foster and enrich some kinds and types of stories - but most of the times, this comes at the expense of other stories and narratives. By nature, some elements of an RPG are codified into rules for many reason - one of the most important being that if there were no rules, there would be very difficult to have a game. Traditionally, RPGs tend to focus on codifying combat - one aspect that can be hard to represent otherwise. By its nature, some layer of further codification is needed to make the system work as a "simulator". Some systems go far in this direction, trying to codify everything possible. The thing is, codification is necessary for any RPG - but creating mechanics for something also sets boundaries for that aspect. For that reason, I tend to prefer game systems that leave characters feelings, psychological aspects and narrative decisions up to the players and the GM. If there are no rules for such, the group is free to emphasize whatever they like about those things. I agree that some gaming groups may focus better in the psychological aspects of their characters and in the narrative if there are rules to serve as guidelines - and some of those rules are even sure to make some stories much better, but more often than not, these same rules will also difficultate other narratives.
Unfortunately, from what I have seen about Edge of the Empire, some of these "narrative codifications" are already built into the game. Groups have an obligation, that seems to work as focus for the narrative of tha particular group. Every group has its own starship at the beginning of the game - another thing that locks the all stories into "every group always start with a starship". And of course, one should mention the editorial decisions - Edge of the Empire focuses only on the fringe. Every other type of Star Wars story must wait for their appropriate "books" to come out. Again, I understand this decision has its merits, but in many ways, it's like "locking" narratives to certain books, instead of merely locking archetypes.
To make a D&D comparison, some players may be bummed to have to wait for a future supplement to provide him with the feats, powers or abilities he wants for his archetype - but this line of design substitutes that by something that could be analogue in D&D to: "This book only features non-casters and focuses exclusively in the stories of such characters. If you want to play as a cleric, you have to wait for the 'cleric and divine book game'. Later, we'll also release the 'wizard and arcane book game'. Then you mays, perhaps, try and mesh these all together…"
This is also one of the reasons I have not yet tried Deathwatch. I would love to DM a Warhammer 40k where the players are space-marines of a certain chapter. But the book forces the Deathwatch narrative to the game. I understand one can adapt the system to create a narrative of battle-brothers in the same chapter, but that is exactly what I said before - right from the start, the system is working against me rather than helping me tell the story I want to tell. Things are further worsened by that setting because there are no female space-marines. I'm not saying 40k should have female SMs, but if I want to create a niche for my female players, the suggested options - like creating Adeptus Sororitas or an Inquisitor should be meshed more easily with an space-marine squad. Again, if I want my female friends to game, I have to work to make a Battle-Sister or an Inquisitor balanced against an Space-Marine - I'm wrestling with the system yet again to tell the narrative I want.
But I haven't read Edge of the Empire, and so, do not know how focuses are these aspects of the game. What do you say about the narrative freedom of the game? Can players create a good variety of archetypes with this book? Can the GM create a good variety of NPCs to his campaign? Can all the players of the game create the story they want or do the mechanics favor some kinds of stories in detriment of others?
I realize this is a long post so I would like to thank anyone with enough patience and interest to make a full read.
I'm looking forward for the responses!
Best of gaming to you all!