This is the first post of a three part series
It’s one of the most recognizable yet mysterious aspects of Star Wars. In RPG circles it is equivalent to the “magic system” of a campaign, but as I will explore in this post, The Force should be treated as much more than tacked on “super powers”. Without being true to the spirit of Star Wars, any RPG representation of The Force can at a minimum feel contrived, and at worse, complicate and muddle the design. The art of roleplaying embodies the spirit of Star Wars. Storytelling and the kindred struggle of a group of close friends are central concepts in the saga, and roleplaying is my favorite way to simulate these concepts on a gaming table. The light and dark side, good and evil, and the balance of the Force, are concepts Star Wars fans are familiar with. They intertwine with the story arcs throughout the saga and provide Star Wars with part of its unique feel. Getting this same element right in an RPG makes it feel like Star Wars rather than a refactoring of a generic adventuring RPG.
In this series of posts, I am going to cover the playability and design of Force mechanics in Star Wars Roleplaying games over the last 15 years. I am leaving out West Ends classic D6 edition because I have never played it, nor feel confident in making comparisons of it to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) or Fantasy Flight’s designs. I will also not be completely comprehensive in regards to the details of the systems; my approach here is to bring out the differences of the systems and possibly bring some insight into this critical element of a Star Wars RPG.
With the release of 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, an effort by Lucasfilm to consolidate some of the previous Star Wars license holders was initiated. The dormant RPG license previously held by West End Games was transferred to Lucasfilm’s primary toy partner, Hasbro. Hasbro had acquired Wizards of the Coast late that year and the gang from Renton was an obvious team to take on a new RPG line. Given their experience with Dungeons and Dragons and their D20 System they had ready experience and material to draw from.
Star Wars D20 was launched in November of 2000 to a lot of pent up demand in the gaming community. It was built on the solid D20 system, not without its flaws, the system had evolved over its various iterations and was effective and flexible. With the release of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones in 2002, a revised edition was published.
In Star Wars D20, the Force is represented by Force Points. As could be expected, all living beings possess Force Points which can be used for adding bonus dice to checks. Droids, being an example of a non-living being, do not possess Force Points. Non-Sensitive Force users were limited to five points, they could never become more powerful in the Force. Force-sensitives however, could gain Force Points well beyond five. The Force came into its own when Force-sensitive and Jedi Player Characters (PC) expended points to gain bonus dice to boost the effectiveness of their Force Powers.
It makes intuitive sense that the stronger in the Force a PC is, the more powerful they are using force-based skilled and powers: the apprentice can lift a rock, while the master lifts a star-fighter. To highlight the difference between the light side and the dark side of the Force, a force-sensitive PC declares which side of the force they call on when performing a check; they state whether they are calling upon the light side or the dark side of the force. This changes the curve on the bonus dice granted depending on character level and whether they were a force-sensitive or not. (Non-force-sensitives did not “realize” they were using the force when expending Force Points).
This curve awards more bonus dice with the use of the dark side of the force at lower character levels. By level ten the light side catches up and by level thirteen provides more bonus dice than the dark side. While not explicitly stated, the designers wanted to simulate the ease and draw of being “seduced” by the power of the dark side with this mechanism.
The penalty for drawing on the dark side is the gaining of a Dark Side Point. There are other ways to gain Dark Side Points besides calling on the dark side as determined by the GM, but by accumulating enough Dark Side Points the PC could slip away from the light with a penalty now present for using any light side force powers. When a PCs Dark Side Points exceed their wisdom score, the character has “committed completely to the path of darkness.”
Overall, D20 was good a baseline for a Star Wars RPG; but as the focus of this post implies, the development and representation of The Force is where you move from a competent action based system with guns, vehicles and fighting, to imparting a Star Wars feel to the texture of the design. Miss there and the seams where the force powers system is built into the overall design will begin to show.
One of these “seams” in Star Wars D20 is the design to reflect the balance between the light and dark side of the Force: the bonus dice curve, and the dark points accumulation was implemented to represent the pull of dark side power and the negative affects to the PCs if they travel down that path. However, it’s primary implementation occurs as a response effect when force-sensitives fuel force powers with the dark side of the force. The text notes that GMs should monitor and assign Dark Side Points to non-force-sensitives based on the “evilness” of their actions. But this actually only appears in a sidebar, as if the designers realized the weakness of the mechanics but recognized something had to be done to implement the balance of light and dark across the system, not just for Force-sensitives.
You are probably seeing right now another issue: if effects occur due the use of the dark side, why is there no counterbalance of effects for the use of the light? Intuitively, when you think of balance, a positive-negative polarization comes to mind, a pendulum, even a see-saw. What you are thinking of dear reader is the Yin and the Yang.
In D20 we have effects for Yin, but see no representation of the Yang. Just being a PC with zero Dark Side Points doesn’t make Yang. That’s more akin to being at the center.
We will pick up next time looking at how WotC made changes to the Force mechanics in Star Wars Saga edition. Further on in this series we will do a side-by0side comparison between WotC D20, WotC Saga, and Fantasy Flight’s Force and Destiny. Until then, may the Force remain in balance for all of your campaigns!