Circling around the Edge of the Empire

Star_Wars_Role-Playing_Game_1987

If it’s not already clear from my previous posts on the subject (like this one and this one), I am a hardcore fan of West End Games’ d6-based Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. Here are some things I like about it:

  • The core mechanic is super simple. All of the stats–for PCs, adversaries, droids, vehicles, starfighters, lockpicking, social interaction, strength, damage, you name it–are in the form of nD6(+1 or +2 maybe). Like 3D, 3D+1, 3D+2, 4D. Roll that number of d6s (what muggles call regular-ass dice), add one or two to the result if that’s indicated, and you’re done. There is a single, simple difficulty scale (Very Easy: 5; Easy: 10; Medium: 15; Hard: 20; Very Hard: 25; Heroically Difficult: 30), or use opposed rolls for combat and other adversarial interactions. Your blaster is 4D+1 and the stormtrooper’s dodge is 3D–roll to hit. Your cannon’s damage code is 3D and the Imperial speeder bike’s body strength is 2D–roll for damage. And so on.
  • All you really need to play are character sheets and dice. After you’ve played about 5 sessions you can write down a character sheet from memory, and the dice can come from anywhere. More than once I played a pick-up game where we had zero official WEG gaming materials.* I’d write down character sheets while other folks stole dice from whatever games were in the closet. Heaven only knows how many unloved Yahtzee boxes gave their dice to Star Wars: The RPG.
  • That said, there was a vast amount of supporting material. As in dozens of published adventures and even more sourcebooks and supplements. Want to play a bounty hunter? Here’s a book full of how-tos, notable bounty hunters, some bounties to chase, and gear for the hunt. Repeat almost ad nauseum for smugglers, explorer, spec ops, etc. Thankfully almost all of this stuff is archived on the d6 Holocron site.

* Someone somewhere wrote that the history of D&D was a struggle between enthusiasts that wanted to treat it like a hobby, and a company (or series of companies, really) that wanted to treat it like a business. That seems apropos here. I did buy a ton of WEG Star Wars stuff, but IMHO stuff you buy should make the game better, not make it possible.

So anyway, WEG Star Wars is simple enough to learn in five minutes, deep enough to keep you going for years, has lots of stuff to buy (or download scans of, now) if that’s your thing, but in a pinch you can play with a few sheets of notebook paper and the dice from Monopoly.

Tragically, WEG folded in 1998. After that the Star Wars RPG license was picked up by Wizards of the Coast, which grafted the Star Wars setting onto their D&D rules. This worked with varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask. I dunno, I never tried it.

game-layoutNow the license has passed to Fantasy Flight Games, which has a reputation above all for giving gamers big boxes of stuff with high production values–possibly more bits than any game actually needs, and not cheap, but not cheaply made, either. Some people love ’em for the nice kit, some people hate ’em for making games too fiddly and charging for all the bits. The first wave of Star Wars RPG stuff from FFG is in the Edge of the Empire setting–basically scoundrels on the make in the Outer Rim–with settings covering the Rebellion, Clone Wars, etc. coming along in due course. Notably, there is an Edge of the Empire beginner box set (shown above) with pared-down rulebooks, starting characters, some sweet maps, and dice.

As an outsider looking in, the dice are the biggest potential hang-up. They’re not d6s, they’re not even regular “funny dice” like d4, d8, d10, d12, d20 like D&D and many other games use, they’re special proprietary dice just for this game.  They have symbols that require interpretation, and they interact with each other in potentially near-infinite ways.

To be fair, some people really seem to like this. Almost all of the reviews say that the dice are rough going at first but after a session or so they get to be second nature, and they really do enhance the storytelling in useful ways. But I have to admit that I have a gut-level dislike of the dice, for several reasons.

First, here’s the WEG 1st edition rulebook on modifiers and rolling dice (page 89):

If you can’t quite remember the modifier for shooting at a prone target, don’t spend a lot of time flipping through the rules looking for the right table. Combat happens fast–finding rules is slow. To preserve the atmosphere of fast action, you’ll have to act fast. If you don’t remember the modifier, use something reasonable and keep things moving. You decide; which is better?

Gamemaster One: “Okay the target is prone. There’s a difficulty modifier for that, now what was it? Hmmm. Don’t recall. Let’s see (flip, flip, flip). Page 142…yeah, okay, the table is…there we go. Aha. Okay. Plus five. Now what was the range?”

Gamemaster Two: “Okay! Your blaster goes ‘pyew-pyewpyew’. The target’s prone, so you need to roll a–oh, uh–a 15. (Clatter of dice.) Too bad. The stormtrooper rolls away from your shot, brings his blaster down level and…”

…and here’s the dice rolling example from the FFG website:

FFG Star Wars dicepoolScrew that.

Second, the dice are not cheap. The list price for one set is $15, although you can get them for $10-12 if you look around. They also have a dice rolling app that they will sell you for about $5. So you’re out $5-15 just to friggin’ roll dice–and unlike a $5-15 set of normal polygonal dice, these are not dice that you can use for any other game.

Third, you must have the dice to play. Suppose you’re at a friend’s house and everyone gets a hankering to play Star Wars. With d6, you’re probably good to go, as long as your friend has at least one other game in the house from which to steal dice. With FFG, you’d better have the app on your mobile device or carry your proprietary dice around everywhere you go, or you and your buddies will be doing something else.  Screw that noise forever twice (as Zak said about a different problem in a different game).

So if I’m so philosophically opposed to FFG’s proprietary expensive dice, why I am even thinking about their game? Why not skip the nerdrage and go think about something else? It basically comes down to three things:

One, I have read enough positive reviews of the FFG system to be intrigued. One guy on this (hilarious) RPGGeek thread even wrote, “I used to swear by WEG – but Edge does what I want at least as well, and easier” (emphasis added). Someone else backed him up. That got my attention. Even I have to admit that a long series of opposed rolls with big handfuls of dice can be a grind-y and uninspiring way to get through a battle.

Two, I’m a sucker for well-made game stuff, and like just about everything FFG touches, their Star Wars kit is just gorgeous. I’ve been seriously thinking about picking up the Edge of the Empire beginner box set just for the maps alone. Here’s a scan of the Mos Shuuta map from the box set. By the time I made large-format color prints of this and the other three maps that come with it, I might as well skip the piracy and shell out the twenty-odd bucks for legit copies, not to mention all the other goodies that come in the box.

Mos Shuuta map 966And finally, it’s more than a little hypocritical for a guy with probably $400 worth of WEG Star Wars books to complain about plunking down $15 for some dice. I gave WEG a shot and found it worth investing in, I owe FFG at least a try before I dismiss it.

So, I’m squarely on the fence. Persuade me or dissuade me–the comment thread is open.

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11 Responses to Circling around the Edge of the Empire

  1. davekheath says:

    I love the WEG version, it might be my favorite game. Haven’t tried the new one but read good reviews.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    That first image is bizarre: Han with a lightsaber. How does that make sense?

    … is what I wrote, before realising that that’s actually a gun, and we’re seeing an insanely solid, coherent muzzle-flash.

  3. Matt Wedel says:

    Dave, your comment made me laugh, because you summed up my whole post in two short sentences. Well done! 🙂

    Mike, fun fact: Han is the only non-Force-user that we see wield a lightsaber in any of the Star Wars movies to date. Which is kinda weird, given that in some of the early production art, laser swords were all over the place (see, for example, the stormtrooper holding a lightsaber here). But yeah, that gun blast looks odd, and I remember that way back when I first saw the book, I momentarily thought it was a lightsaber myself.

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  5. One of the things that I really dig about the FFG system is the way that the dice surprise even the GM. Sometimes they show you a path in the narrative that forces you (and helps you to improv) ways for the game to go that you never expected. The dice can help create a sense of discovery and the GM gets excited to see the dice results because he is just as anxious to see how the story will unfold as the players. It’s definitely a learning curve, and will put you out of your comfort zone, but it’s made me a better GM and a better storyteller and I am thankful for it.

  6. Matt Wedel says:

    Thanks, Steven, that is a pretty interesting perspective. I like the idea of the dice throwing narrative curveballs beyond just “I failed my Climb roll” or “I got a critical hit on that stormtrooper”. I am now pretty certain that I will give this a shot in the near future, just have to pick the group and the time to do it.

  7. MrB says:

    I have ran a number of sessions of FFG Star Wars and I find the dice mechanic to be a breath of fresh air. The dice bring a very cinematic feel to the game because each roll is not just pass or fail, it’s pass or fail with a positive or negative side effect. While the dice are strange at first, it has only taken a few rolls for all of my players to get the hang of it.

    This video from FFG is a great explanation on this RPG:

  8. Matt Wedel says:

    Thanks, MrB, both for your thoughts on the dice system and for the link.

  9. klecser says:

    I appreciate your gut reaction to FFG version. That is one thick rulebook and the dice system is not intuitive. I’m a working adult and although I love to RP and was a huge fan of WEG SWRPG, I have to say that I don’t have the time or funds to get into an RPG that “intense”. To each their own, of course, and I hope FFG is successful as they are a great company. If I need a Rosetta stone to decipher the rolls….that’s a game killer for me. Role-playing isn’t about the mechanics anyway. It’s story and character.

  10. Dodger says:

    The FFG dice are only complicated when you first look at them. It actually is an intuitive system. Your “dice pool” consists of positive and negative dice. Positive dice yield successes of varying degrees, negative dice yield failures of varying degrees. If you understand what the dice mean, the GM can interpret the result and make the action more cinematic rather than just a numbers grind.

    I think the dice are a fresh new way to combine randomness and story telling, and aren’t as complicated as they first seem.
    In addition, there is a table to convert the results of non-FFG dice into the system, which is a little clunky, but completely doable if you don’t want to get the dice set.

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