Friday, October 14, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Age of Rebellion: Onslaught at Arda I

After tackling two adventures for the Edge of the Empire system, I thought it would be interesting to look at the first adventure to come out of the Age of Rebellion game, that adventure being Onslaught at Arda I. Previously, I had mined it for the mass combat rules and action track mechanics that the adventure introduced to the game, but now I've read it cover to cover, and I've got some thoughts.

Onslaught at Arda I was the first adventure for the Age of Rebellion system, which was the second of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars RPGs to see publication. The "Legends Announcement," where the Star Wars EU was clearly branded as an alternate reality to what was going to be published and portrayed in Star Wars media from that point forward, occurred only a few months before Onslaught at Arda I saw publication, which means it was likely well into development by the time anyone could react to the news.

Unlike the earlier Edge of the Empire adventure and it's continuity sidebars, this product doesn't have any disclaimer discussing the EU or canon events versus the events in the adventure. Despite that, there is still a section that references events that happened in The Old Republic video game and uses a planet that was first mentioned in that game as one of the settings for the adventure. Arda I was previously referenced in the old Star Wars newspaper strips, but the action in the strips takes place on neighboring Arda II (or Arda-2 in the strip), so there wasn't much previous material with which to detail the planet.

Crude Matter

As goes without saying for most Fantasy Flight products, Onslaught at Arda I is a very attractive book. The format is consistent with the previous Star Wars RPG products, and the amount of art specific to this book and it's locations is considerable. The book itself, as is standard for the Star Wars RPG adventures, is 96 pages long.

Introductory Fiction

Like The Jewel of Yavin, the introductory fiction for this adventure is limited to a single page, and involves characters that will be NPCs in the adventures, explaining a situation that comes to light later in the adventure. For someone that isn't a fan of fiction inside of game products, I like this approach, and it's probably one of the most effective ways to utilize fiction in a game product.


As with most of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars adventures, the introduction gives on outline of the general plot of the adventure, a sketch of the most important NPCs in the adventure, and some advice on how to tailor the plot to the PCs in the adventure, using their motivations as a guide.

Unlike the Edge of the Empire adventures, where the Obligations are used to tie the adventure to the PCs as well as motivations, the section on customizing the adventure for the PCs focuses on their motivations. Duty, since it basically represents what the character specializes in and is focused on from a military perspective, is just kind of assumed to fall in line when their Duty comes up.

A lot of the introduction is spent introducing the Alliance traitor and giving his motivations, and he is actually somewhat sympathetic. They play with themes of collateral loss and how much chaos people are willing to accept versus how much freedom they are willing to give up. This same section definitely paints the ISB as nasty characters, doing despicable things to nudge the balance towards the Empire.

I felt a little bit of a red flag when the introduction mentions that the GM may want to come up with or adapt some scenarios that let them have the PCs meet and interact with the Arda I base crew, since interacting with the NPCs and getting a feel for them would be important later on. This concerned me because it makes me worry that the adventure isn't quite as complete as I may have hoped, and if I'm a GM that is running this because I don't have the time to work up a whole campaign on my own, telling me to do extra work to use this adventure means what is in the adventure should really be amazing to make me want to use it.

As a bit of a flash forward, the adventure itself seems to keep assuming the PCs are outsiders new to the base, with few notes on how to modify the adventure for them being "insiders," so I'm not sure those extra adventures are really needed.

Side Note: Duty Sidebars

The introduction mentions that there are sidebars that can be used to introduce little side actions that you can have PCs perform when their Duty triggers. Because they are first mentioned here and scattered throughout the book, I wanted to address this up front.

These aren't all that useful as side actions to throw in when Duty triggers, because not every Duty has examples in every act. Some of the sidebars seem interesting as ways for the PCs to gain more points of Duty, but in some cases, they can't even avoid the "side action," it happens as part of a main part of the adventure, so it not even something "extra" to trigger, it's just assumed to happen.

Episode I

Getting to the base on Arda I is suppose to require tricky flying, but the representation of this flying isn't presented in the same flavorful manner of, for example, the flight to the surface of Raxus Prime in Beyond the Rim, or the legs of the race in The Jewel of Yavin. In addition to the less exciting way of presenting this piloting challenge, as written, it's assumed that your characters don't have a piece of equipment they really kind of need if they are suppose to be assigned to this base, which feels really odd. It turns out, this kind of sets the tone for some of the biggest problems in this adventure, because your characters can make a check to jury-rig the piece of equipment, which promptly doesn't matter because of the plot.

After the introduction, the PCs are suppose to wander the base and meet up with the NPCs, so they have some names later on when it comes time to figuring out who the traitor is. Oddly enough, the NPCs mentioned in this section are only about half the NPCs that are potential suspects, with the other half not being introduced until Episode II, even though they are all part of this cell and should be present. I also wish they had assigned an NPC to give the PCs a tour of their new base instead of having the PCs try to figure out where to go and what to do without any prompting. There is an NPC perfect for this, but he isn't used for this role. Even later when he appears to be introduced as someone to help keep the PCs on track in their investigation, he just sort of tells them to bring him evidence, and there is no mention of him nudging them in the right direction if they go off track.

I did appreciate that there is at least a little bit of space spent on mentioning how this might play out differently if you want to use this as a bridge between an Edge of the Empire game and an Age of Rebellion game.

Part of this episode is designed to evoke the feel of Echo Base being assaulted by the Imperials in The Empire Strikes Back, and the subsequent evacuation. To this end, there are also mass combat rules introduced in this episode. I really like the mass combat rules. They are simple, have their own chart of how to spend symbols, and can be used to quickly determine big fights that are on a larger scale than the PC skirmishers. I also don't really like how they use them here. Essentially the PCs have multiple tasks to accomplish, and those tasks affect the mass combat roll--so far so good. But there are four stages to the assault, and for the first three stages, the main consequence of winning or losing is just a boost die or a setback die to the next check, and the final stage consequence is basically how many bad guys the PCs fight on the way out.

There is a thing the PCs are suppose to find that clues them in that there is a traitor, and they have three chances to trip over the thing, and the final time they trip over the thing, the actual traitor is right in front of them, but because plot they can't see who it is or chase them. I mean, at least have the GM flip a Destiny point and come up with a good narrative reason for the PCs to not be able to pursue.

There are flying and ground missions, but they all happen in sequence. X happens, then Y happens, etc. It would have been nice for some of these things to have been potentially concurrent, so that while the ground forces of, say PC soldiers and engineers do a thing, the pilots and gunners can do a thing as well, and if you don't have one or the other, they aren't doing a thing they aren't good at for a segment of the adventure.

There are named Imperial officers here, which I like, but no good way in the narrative to introduce who they are or any reputation they might have, so they might as well still be TIE Fighter Flight Leader. NPC statblocks also have a lot of clutter, with talents that don't seem relevant in the capacity that the NPC will be used. Do you really need to put talents into the stat block to show their ability to buy restricted goods on the black market, or could you just give them a high Streetwise skill and leave it at that?

Towards the end of the chapter, there is a whole page of information based on how much evidence the PCs have and how long they have been serving with the Rebellion about how hard it is to convince the leaders of this cell that there is a traitor. If you succeed, they admit there may be a traitor. If you fail, they don't think there is. Neither outcome affects the rest of the adventure at all.

Episode II

Episode II sees the PCs move on to a remote swampy world with lots of strange alien predators. Remote Rebel base? Check. Lots of strange alien monsters that can cause problems? Check. Good use of Star Wars tropes.

The episode is broken up into several missions that the PCs will be asked to do as their "day job" on the planet, and the second half details investigating into the traitor. The "day job" is pretty serviceable, and makes sense for a new Rebel base being set up. The investigation side has a lot of promise, but ultimately feels pointless.

There is a bit of a false start where the PCs are introduced to a Rebel officer who is suppose to be on the lookout for traitors and has a bit more pull than them. You get the feeling that he might be in the adventure to point them in the right direction if they don't have good ideas for the investigation. Instead, he's there to take the evidence they gather, and talk to the leadership for them. There is also a section about using various skills to ask around the base about a traitor, and all of the successful results lead to red herrings, but those red herrings might have useful information. So to proceed with the real investigation, you have to successfully get wrong information that will lead you to other NPCs that if you get a normal success might give you a useful clue, but the really useful clues don't come up unless you get multiple advantages or triumphs.

Why couldn't the guy looking for traitors just point the PCs to the second layer of NPCs right from the start? Maybe there should be some kind of mechanic for getting better clues from them than hoping for the good one with a triumph. The PCs also might trip over a few computer programs with much more direct clues, but the GM is warned off of doing this unless the PCs hit a dead end. Like getting a bunch of false leads after successfully making their rolls.

If you successfully present your case to the Alliance leaders, the traitor activates his plot armor and kidnaps one of the leaders, and the PCs can't stop him. Then they can go on a chase after him, and if they win the chase, he still gets away. On the other hand, if they present information on the wrong person as the traitor, they get thrown in the brig, then immediately released to go after the traitor when he escapes.

Episode III

This episode starts with one of the Alliance Leaders handing you an astromech droid and saying "the traitor is from this planet, we're 100% sure he's heading there, and this astromech will give you a route that will get you there before he arrives." No making a Knowledge (Outer Rim) to find a nearby Imperial world or finding a file to slice in his private journal. Then you make four hyperspace navigation rolls, and if you fail, you still get there before him, but with a little less time to do stuff. Also, they mention how long it takes with a Class One hyperdrive, but if you aren't using a ship with that rating, there isn't any note on it being harder to arrive before the traitor.

The last leg of the hyperspace jump has an alternate effect on a despair that introduces an encounter with a capital ship that should be terrifying, but is kind of hand waved. It feels like a complete waste of the ship, and the encounter notes don't even make note of scariest thing about the type of ship they use for the encounter.

This episode introduces the action track mechanic, which ticks off a box every time "something"  happens, and at the end of the track, an event is triggered. I like this mechanic, and hope to see it in future products, just like the mass combat rules in Episode I. It also feels like something that could have been used in Episode II, and I'm not really sure it creates the tension that it is suppose to in this episode. There just aren't high enough stakes for failures or events triggering to make it feel tense.

This episode has two more chases where if the PCs win, the plot still happens the same way, a Rebel agent that is detailed and I'm not sure how you actually meet her, and finally, a boss fight with something that feels like the tabletop equivalent of a Quick Time Event from a video game. In the end, if you rescue the Rebel leader, do you have to sneak out of the capital and escape the planet without anyone noticing you? Nope. Exactly the moment you defeat the boss and walk out of the "boss lair," the Rebels from your cell catch up with you, and despite the Imperial presence on the world, you succeed.

I actually like Ord Radama as a setting for possible insurgency, but the text mentions the names of The Old Republic (as in the video game) era ships and the statue of Darth Malgus without clarifying if people are suppose to actually know what these things are in the modern era. Even one of the boxes of flavor text mentions Darth Malgus by name, which either feels like a mistake or as if it's addressing the players and not the characters.

Imperial Protocols 

There are so many encounters that have no stakes. This feels very much like a railroad adventure. So many sections essentially have the PCs roll for things, and no matter what happens, the plot proceeds exactly the same way. There are some great tools for mass battles, timing events, and even having named Imperials that can serve as memorable bad guys, but as written, those tools don't do much in this adventure, and there isn't much opportunity for those named Imperials to actually have any drama associated with them.

Alliance Principles

Used for other purposes, the mass combat rules and the action track are great tools for the game, and I hope to see them used elsewhere. Jagomir and Ord Radama are interesting places to use as locations in a longer term campaign. The NPCs introduced in the investigation section are kind of interesting and give you a ready made group of people for your PCs to interact with so that their Rebel cell can be a place populated with actual characters and not just faceless Rebels.

You May Fire When Ready

There are some fun NPCs, and as a sourcebook for running missions out of the locations detailed, you can certainly get some utility out of this book. The tools included can be useful when repurposed. The adventure itself needs a lot of work on the GM's part, or players that don't mind the railroad, as it becomes more apparent across the episodes. The novelty of the adventure itself isn't so great as to make that work seem worthwhile.

** (out of 5)

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