Dec 312015

This is the first post of a three part series

The Force.

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, its 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 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. In the third part of this series we will do a side-by-side 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!

Apr 292014

I’ve been active playing Shadowrun since 2003 in a group of people who have committed to that future world scenario RPG. Three of us are still there while four people have chosen to leave us on the way and three people have recently joined us. The player ages range from 23 to roughly 60 and we all enjoy the interesting and diversified gameplay that this pen & paper game provides.

Wikipedia says that Shadowrun is a science tabletop pen&paper game playing in the near future, but I don’t see science as a main driver for the gameplay. “Near future” means in our group that we are always set 70 years off from today as it was specified in the core rulebook in version 3 of the game when we started in 2003 (which was the current version then). In November 2013 the 5th version of the core rules was published bringing some slight improvements to the more complicated version 4 ruleset. The science part in Shadowrun is more a driver when it comes to the storyline that develops but you don’t need to be a tekkie to understand the important parts of the story (or to change the story in a relevant way).

The roleplaying game is played in the traditional way where there is one game master who is developing the story around the characters (at least one player has) created depending on the current set of rules the group has agreed on(V5 at the moment). Each character has a set of attributes and skills that define the set of possibilities the character has during the gameplay. These values are rounded off by a story about the history of the character that explains why that person is currently at that place in in this situation, in addition to some gear and a lifestyle.

Shadowrun gets another facet being open to the magic world and meta-human races of Orcs, Elves, Dwarfs and Trolls. The setting in 70 years time is quite hostile as politics and wars are being fought rather between corporations than countries, races and religions bring up new conflicts, and every person needs to care for her-/himself to stay alive. A (meta-)human live doesn’t count (cost) much and so corporations often rely on small private groups outside of their grounds and legislation to do their dirty work like killing someone (wetwork), kidnapping some important scientist (extraction) or simply sabotaging a site of another company, stealing their intellectual property. Corporations bring in the scientific aspect of the storyline, magicians and computerfreaks (running in the matrix of things) bring that freaky bit of the storyline that shadowrunners love so much.

I’ll give you a few examples here from time to time by updating you with our current storyline as played in our favorite local pub. As I’m mastering the group consisting of  five players with a very heterogenious set of characters. We have two magicians and a technomancer (computer freak) who come from a corporate background and only run through the shadows to get some relief from the office life. They started off with a small run to get one of their buddies freed from a street clinic where he wanted to get some technical exchange body parts. As that small tour went well the security lead of their corporation decided to use the team as a undercover infiltration team to persue the corporate goals (and maybe some of his own). The were introduced into a team of urban brawl fighters to get a legal background for running in the shadows. Urban brawl is a very popular “sport” in Shadowrun where two teams fight with lethal weapons against each other while trying to score shooting a ball into the enimy’s goal. This is broadcast live through the future TV stations (Trideo).  Playing in that urban brawl league two more players joined the shadowrun team from the other fighters.

This team of five currently has the objective to infiltrate the cottage of a very old elf in the Outer Hebrides and retrieve a collection of extremely powerful and invaluable magical artefacts and possibly dispose of the old Lady. The team does not yet know who and how they are going to fight against their enimies, but they are heavily armed and full of good spirit…

Feb 082014

“…I need something more real.” One of my favorite scenes from Star Wars Episode I is the first meeting with Watto at his shop. Bartering for a used hyperdrive component, the heroes run into an age old problem: currency exchange.

Most often in my RPG games, money has been either the generic Gold, Silver, Copper coinage; or for the sci-fi theme, Credits, all tracked on a sheet of paper. Nothing actually changed hands. There were no “Watto moments” where an issue with payment lead to an adventure or series of encounters. I’ve always wanted to get some tangible, tactile money exchange into my game. Something the players could hold onto, something as Watto would say, is “real”. However, such currency available to gamers in the past was either too expensive or of such low quality to be a vehicle for in-game jokes.

As in many things in today’s gaming world: Enter Kickstarter.

Recently, we have seen some quality hobby gaming coin sets come up on Kickstarter. Myself being a long time a-wishin-and-hopin for such reasonably priced options have jumped at the opportunity and backed two such projects. The fruits of the first have recently arrived.

Future coins is designed to supply in-game currency for Minion Games 4x title Hegemonic. However, they can very much be used for any purpose. My primary use for these will be in my sci-fi RPG’s, specifically Traveller and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

I was very pleased with the quality of the credit coins. The coloring, shading, and trim, is very well done. My only nitpick is the color for the highest denomination coin, 100,000, which looks black. The other denominations more than make up for this however, the shading between the raised text and the primary coin color give them a good depth and actually enhances the feeling of being a solid coin. There are both straight colors and metallics. For those of you who lust Ferengi-like after cold-pressed latinum, the 1,000 coin will more than satisfy.

If you are interested in picking up some of these for yourself and missed the Kickstarter campaign, not to worry, Minion has you covered and you can get your hands on some right here.

The other collection of coins I have jumped into is Conquistador Games Best Damn Metal Gaming Coins. This collection offers quite a bit of diversity in choice of era including Roman (my favorite), Spanish, Celtic and others, as well as fantasy and pirate themes. This particular kickstarter has not yet shipped, so if you are interested in picking some up it is possible that Conquistador or their partners in this project, Game Salute, will be selling additional coin sets later this year.