Saturday, March 17, 2018

Post Mortem--Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs

I’m calling this a post-mortem on FFG’s Star Wars line, but I’m really focused on the end of my time running Age of Rebellion. To be fair, it hasn’t been the longest run. For my full FFG Star Wars resume, I’ve played in two short Edge of the Empire campaigns, ran one with the Beta rules that lasted about four or five sessions, and then ran two 12-episode campaigns with the rules. I’ve run one 9-episode campaign of Force and Destiny that came to completion, and played in another Force and Destiny game while it was in beta. I ran a three-session mash up of all three games that fizzled out. Then we come to Age of Rebellion.

I played in one Age of Rebellion game that lasted about two sessions before I inherited the game from another GM. That game went about four sessions before it ended, because I inherited a traitor sub-plot and it kept coming to the forefront of the game and made it harder to run. Years later, after watching Rogue One and Rebels, I decided to buckle down and run a successful, start to finish, Age of Rebellion campaign. It didn’t work. Here are some thoughts on why.


I have argued in the past that I like the idea that Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny are three different games, because it’s hard to come up with a unifying, ongoing campaign that bridges all those aspects of Star Wars. A GM can come up with a good framing device, but I liked the idea that the game already provided them.

I’ve also played and run several of the FFG Warhammer 40000 Roleplaying games, which had similar, but not identical, resolution mechanics. I’m bringing this up, because I think FFG may have overcorrected for some of the quirks of the 40K line with the Star Wars line.

The big difference between the games comes down to a narrative subsystem, and where the extra, but interchangeable, details are placed. In other words, a character from any of the RPGs could play in any of the other RPGs, with no mechanical conversion, except that different characters will have Obligation, Duty, or Morality as a subsystem, which only comes up in certain situations.

Edge of the Empire has more non-military starships, and gear centered around exploring, gambling, and subverting law enforcement. Age of Rebellion has more mainline Rebel and Imperial ships and gear. Force and Destiny has more available Force Power trees and more details on things like lightsabers. But all those things use common terms and means of determining their use.

One other thing that is common to all three is that you track individual credits, and you use those credits to buy things and get better gear. Gear porn is a thing, even for a game that has some heavy narrative elements like the FFG Star Wars games. I’m not going to say that gear porn doesn’t have a place in Star Wars. The movies alone hint at a lot of customizations and modification of weapons and ships. That said, we may revisit using credits, specifically, to measure how all this works.

There is also a system built into the Negotiation skill for getting items at higher or lower prices, and a rarity system that makes items scarce in different places in the galaxy. Additionally, there are price modifications based on rarity in the gear section, and all of this appears in all three games.

Core Stuff I Like (But Isn’t Perfect)

I love the narrative dice. If you don’t know, there are three levels of positive dice, and three levels of ways you determine how many of each you roll. You can come up with successes, failures, advantages, threats, triumphs, and despairs. The neat thing about these rolls is that you can have success or failure and still have complications or boons arise, independent of that success or failure.
negative dice, and in various

The biggest issue I’ve ever really had with this system is that sometimes you can generate a massive amount of threat or advantage, and it’s hard to adjudicate large amounts of those without feeling like you are subverting what’s cool about rolling a triumph or a despair. When you have one of those odd rolls when you get 8 advantages outside of combat, it just feels like some of that is wasted no matter how you narrate that “extra.”

I’m not sure how it would work, but in some ways, I almost wish there was a banking system for those rolls like the threat and momentum pools in the Star Trek Adventures RPG.

If you aren’t the kind of person that wants to interpret potentially chaotic situations, I can understand that this system may not be your favorite. That said, I kind of love trying to figure out what it means when a character is successful, has threat, a triumph, and a despair. Because clearly SOMETHING happened on that character’s turn.

Disturbance in the Force

I like the general idea of the Force rating, and that’s how many dice you roll, and for each pip corresponding to the side of the Force you are using, you can activate the power and some kickers to go with that power.

When I first read the power trees in Edge of the Empire, I thought there were some fuzzy descriptions. “Sometimes” a target can trigger an opposed test to see if the power worked. If you do that with a power that also requires a skill check normally, are you just rolling that skill check, and checking against what the power says, and the opposed check, and if so, how does the difficulty listed in the power work.

So, there were some fuzzy areas, but my thoughts were that it was due to Force powers not being the “point” of Edge of the Empire. Unfortunately, but the time Force and Destiny came out, there were still some vague descriptions of how some of those powers worked.

In addition, the Force power trees are really confusing to read. In trying to impose an “efficient” structure on the trees, you don’t have enough information in one area to quickly reference what the powers do, and when expressing those powers on an NPC (if you are the GM), they are a nightmare to decipher.

Then, there is the Adversary issue. Adversary is a talent only NPCs have, to help make them simpler to stat. It just makes going after them more difficult, by increasing the difficulty of doing anything to them. Except, as written, it doesn’t apply to Force powers. If you Adversary 4 legendary bounty hunter doesn’t have ranks in Discipline, they are still getting tossed around by your Force user.
Genesys makes it clearer that you “could” allow Adversary to work on “powers” in that book, but the clarification for the Star Wars line would have been nice.

If Money is All You Love . . .

All three games run on credits. By that I mean, you need credits to get stuff, and upgrades to stuff, stuff to do things. You don’t even have starting packages of things you get, you get X amount of credits and you buy until you want to stop buying.
and you need

I think that works great in Edge of the Empire. It makes perfect sense in that context. Smugglers and Bounty Hunters are looking for a big score. Colonists are trying to scrape by day to day. Haggling for prices, filling a cargo hold in once place and hauling it to another place . . . all of that is what Edge of the Empire is ostensibly about.

It’s still functional in Force and Destiny, because the default assumption is that your small band of Force sensitives is running from Inquisitors, and trying to balance their learning about the Force with the mundanities of survival, and Morality can even play into how well you balance making credits with learning about the cosmic truths of the universe.

Where I don’t think strict credit tracking works is in Age of Rebellion. The core book describes the default assumption being that the PCs are elite operatives that only get nudges from the Alliance on how to do their missions, so that they can have a large amount of agency in how they do what they do. The problem is, to do what they do, they need credits.

Additionally, there is a core specialization in Age of Rebellion, the Quartermaster, that plays with the negotiation rules.

Every time a group hits 100 total Duty, they go up a Contribution Rank with the Alliance, and they get either one big item for the group, or an individual piece of gear. But between hitting those contribution rank increases, the group is basically self-sufficient. To get operational funds, they must get stuff from the Empire or other places, resell it, and get what they need.

Age of Rebellion kind of assumes your characters are “true believers.” Either they really hate the Empire above all else, or they really believe in freedom, but they are willingly fighting for the Rebellion. The Rebellion gives them their starting ship, and then nothing until they “prove” themselves at every 100 Duty. It’s almost unavoidable that discussion turns towards “how much does the Alliance really value us,” and toward spending time stealing, selling, and buying gear.

You, as the GM, can give the PCs items and gear, but that’s not really the assumed baseline. What’s the difference between the mission gear you give them and the gear they get from contribution ranks? We know the Alliance has limited resources compared to the Empire, but at the same time, it feels strange that each individual cell is still self-funding once they are an Alliance. That feels more like the whole game is Saw’s Partisans, not the Rebel Alliance.

This is why I brought up the FFG 40K games earlier. At times, while they had a similar resolution mechanic, they had a lot of variability in how characters advanced, and how the subsystems worked. I think FFG saw how divergent some of the games got over the fiddly bits, and wanted to make the Star Wars game more unified, but went one step too far.

Deathwatch, the 40K game based on Space Marines, had a requisition system based on how much glory that character had earned. The more over the top and the more famous the space marine had become, and the more legendary the gear that he could draw for a mission would become. The Only War game, based on the Imperial Guard, had a different requisition system, which could have characters under-equipped, or accidentally given proscribed, heretical gear. Both of those requisition systems made perfect sense for those games, and neither of them should have had the same system as the Profit Factor system used in Rogue Trader, which was based on how well business ventures were going for the crew.

In my opinion, Age of Rebellion really needed a requisition system that got away from tracking individual credits. Even if you want you crew of Rebels to “fund” the alliance, they should be hijacking Imperial freighters, not tracking how much the goods on that freighter is worth, and having someone negotiate extra so that they can take their own cut. As it stands, tracking credits too closely almost makes characters feel more like Edge of the Empire Privateers working for the Alliance, than actual members of the Alliance.

Very Specific Side Note—Dawn of Rebellion

I was going to review Dawn of Rebellion, but I’m not sure how to approach it. If you don’t know, Dawn of Rebellion is the first “cross game” sourcebook they released for all three product lines, focusing on information from Rogue One and Rebels, and looking at the galaxy before the destruction of the Death Star.

Licensed products have a line to walk. There is table functionality, and there is fan service. Dawn of Rebellion tried to do both, and it feels thin. I won’t go into too much detail here, but what I was hoping, when the product mentioned things like House Organa, the Free Ryloth Movement, and Saw’s Partisans, was that we might get some information on how to play as members of those cells.
We didn’t really get that. We got descriptions of the organizations. We got stat blocks for some of the NPCs associated with them. There is a great section at the end, on how to run the game with a television series structure, but I wanted more of that. I wanted something like the big list of short mission ideas in the d20 Star Wars era Galactic Campaigns.

But, we get stats for Krennic, and Vader, and the Death Star. But even leaning heavily on the fan service side of things, we don’t get stats for the heroes of Rogue One. The book went into production before some of the best story arcs in Rebels started, so we don’t get information on Mandalorians, Imperial Supercommandoes, or even species stats for Noghri or Lassat.

It feels light on both table useful direction, and fan service stats, to me. Its odd, because we knew when Rebels was ending. It wasn’t a surprise like the Clone Wars. I don’t know why this book came out when it did, with so many loose ends hanging.

In the end, it feels like a lot of good bits that somehow never got pulled together into a cohesive whole (which, to be honest, is the feeling I’ve been getting with a few of the newest products).

Always In Motion, The Future Is

I don’t know when, or if, I’m going back to running FFG Star Wars games. At this point, I am much more inclined to run an Edge of the Empire game than the other lines.

To be clear, ending my most recent Age of Rebellion game came from several items, none of which is the sole determining factor:

  •          Scheduling issues from holidays, illness, and conventions
  •         The GM doing a bad job recapping the theme and tone of the campaign when new players were added or after a break
  •         Lack of enthusiasm for newer products
  •         My villain's plot having way too much resonance with the concluding arc of the Rebels series
One or two of these wouldn’t have been a problem. All four made it hard to recover and move forward.

Fantasy Flight has the last of the “splat books” for all the careers on the schedule now for all three games. I’m not sure what that means for the future of the line, but if they end up doing a second edition of the game, there are some things I hope they address.

  •         Better defined and described Force powers and procedures for adjudicating them
  •         Sub-systems that are going to be used in all three games being defined in the core books instead of partially in three different splat books (looking at you, crafting)
  •         Simpler explanation of vehicle combat, and an emphasis on running vehicle combat as chases except when they aren’t instead of the other way around
  •         A requisition system for the “military” branch of the game line that doesn’t make the team feel like their organization doesn’t particularly support them
  •         A banking system for advantage and threat to help with rolls that generate a ton of those resources

That said, I can’t presume to know if FFG would even do a second edition of the game. They seem to introduce Star Wars lines that compete with themselves, then retire the less popular of those lines, and it makes it hard to get a handle on what the strategy is these days.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

X Marks the Safety Spot (Fun With Misdirected Gnomes)

Respecting other human beings is very important, and sadly not a universally held value. Making others feel welcome in the gaming community is a hot topic, which is odd, considering the gaming community can’t grow if we build a wall around the hobby. This particular post is going to wrap its arms around some of my favorite people talking about a topic, and my personal experiences with that same topic. We’ll be casting a wide net, but hopefully we’ll be pulling it in tight towards the end.

External References

There are two main sources that sparked this article. The first one is Phil Vecchione’s safety article on the Gnome Stew website ( ) , and the responses to that article. The second is the 300th episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast ( ), which discusses safety at the end, in reference to the article and discussion above. There was also some follow up discussion between Phil and Chris Sniezak which which is only available to those that viewed the live show recording, or Patreon supporters of the podcast.

Quick Summaries

For anyone familiar with the sources referenced above, please let me know if I’ve misrepresented anything in the discussion.

Phil is a huge proponent of using safety tools at the table, including using visible artifacts at the table, such as the X Card. Phil’s article explains the benefits of using safety tools at the table, and some of the most commonly available forms of physical objects utilized as safety tools.

In response to his article, there was pushback of varying degrees about using safety tools. Some responses were more vehement and were framed as safety tools being objectively bad for society as a whole, while other responses that were reticent, but were more focused around losing control of the table to players.

Phil’s response to the initial respondent was a bit more vehement, but the more moderately toned responses garnered actual back and forth discussion. Phil attempted to ascertain if the respondent actually knew how most safety tools were used at a table, and if not, how they may not do what the respondent thought they did.

In the discussion on Misdirected Mark, Chris agreed that safety was important, but expressed that he doesn’t use physical safety tools, but rather safety procedures, such as line and veils and periodic table check-ins. He further mentioned that some people may have developed a natural antipathy for physical safety tools at the table due to second-hand narrative about those tools.

This is where things get interesting, because I think, just like in the Clone Wars, there are heroes on both sides. Some people in the chatroom were strong advocates of physical safety tools being present, and many expressed a lack of concern for accommodating people that have any level of antipathy towards safety tools.

Phil advocated for education, but pushing out some people from the RPG community, and Chris advocated for reaching out to people that have said antipathy, but not by trying to get them to realign their thinking on physical safety tools, in particular.

Lines in the Sand

Some people are just problems in any community they participate in. They are never going to be worthwhile participants, and they are going to make an environment hostile. These are people that have firmly decided that they don’t need to play with people that don’t match their views on gender, race, religion, or politics. Anyone not standing in the place where they are standing is wrong, and need to be demonized for "not getting on board."

I don’t think anyone thinks that someone that has carved out that hard-line position is someone who will benefit from time and patience. If they have some kind of change of heart or conversion, its going to have to come from within, with personal circumstances beyond the people they interact with in the hobby.

Standing on the Line

I’m going to posit something that I believe to be true, and I welcome people to discuss this with me and tell me where my reasoning may be flawed.

  • We live in a world that has become more cynical, which makes people very skeptical of things they have not yet encountered
  • We live in a world where very negative voices have a very broad platform to say many, many negative things
  • If someone is not already vigilant against picking up outside influences, humans tend to pick up vocabulary, terminology, and quirks mirrored around them

Taken collectively, I think this creates a group of people that aren’t hardened against their fellow human being, but may have picked up some vocabulary and habits of some of the worst elements of modern culture, and who may naturally be wary of anything they are told will fix societal ills. Even if they wish society were a better place, their natural cynicism tells them that nothing is going to fix the garbage fire of modern society.

My belief is that these are the people that may learn a knee-jerk reaction against something that is regarded as a positive thing. But these are also people that are not hardened against other human beings, only the idea that the world can get better. I firmly believe that we have an army of people that aren’t empathetic, not because they do not wish to be, but because the armor of cynicism has dulled that part of them that can reach out, for fear of vulnerability.

Supposition City

I hope I’m not crossing a line by saying that I think Chris Sniezak has a more natural tendency to be able to speak his mind than I do. I tend to be diplomatic to a fault. I tend to hang back in difficult discussions until I can find a “hook” to vector into the conversation. I think there are times this is good, and there are times it takes me too long to react to something that was best handled immediately, in the moment.

I bring this up because, for someone like Chris, who is more likely to speak his mind and who is more outgoing, I think using safety tools that are not physical objects works very well. He can ask up front where people’s lines are. If someone gets close to that line, he’s not going to hesitate to jump on that situation.

Me? I’m more comfortable inhabiting the space "one step back" from the actual situation. If I see a safety concern, I am more comfortable engaging a mechanism, which I’ve already established has some particular rule attached to it, because, to me, it feels less like jumping to a conclusion or doing the wrong thing, and more like tapping the brakes on my car because there might be ice on the road.

The Right Tool For The Job

Safety tools, whether they be procedural or physical objects at the table, are tools. The usefulness of tools is based not just on their functionality, but with the comfort level and preference of the person using the tool.

To move it to a less charged space, I still can’t get comfortable with virtual table tops for running online games. I’m obsessive about bells and whistles, and if I can’t get a VTT to look and react exactly the way I want it to react, with no interruption in flow when I’m running a game, it distracts me. That has nothing to do with potential players, who may not care if it takes me 30 seconds to get a map to display, or if we have to re-roll initiative.

That doesn’t mean I think people using VTTs are making a mistake or doing it wrong. That doesn’t mean I can’t see how awesome they may be for the future of roleplaying. That doesn’t mean I don’t run games online using my own workarounds.

When it comes to the X-Card ( ), specifically, it is not my favorite tool. I think it was a great innovation, and it has started a lot of excellent conversations on safety. It has fostered empathy. But it is a very binary tool. Visually, it only communicates “there is something in the game I do not want in the game.” If someone is uncomfortable, they should not have to explain themselves, but there may be times when there is room for more nuance.

I tend to like the Script Change tool ( ), because it does have a little more nuance to it. Sometimes people need a break, but they don’t need anything removed. Sometimes people are okay with an element being in the game, as long as its not the focus. Sometimes we just need to start over and make sure everyone is good with how a scene is playing out.

I’m not saying this to say one is better than another, just that we all have preferences. Some GMs may not want physical tools at the table, but may use other safe practices. Some GMs may not see the need to use safety tools, because they have never encountered a situation where they felt safety tools were needed. If you don’t feel safe gaming at that table, there is nothing wrong with you, but that GM may not be a person that is actively excluding or regressing the hobby. Someone that has never needed to erase something that they have written isn’t going to see the virtues of using a pencil over a pen.


From all of this broad range of discussion, I’ve been trying to come up with some takeaways. Here is a stab at them, but these are only from my point of view.

  • Not everyone that has an aversion to safety tools is a bad actor in the RPG hobby
  • Not every GM that doesn’t use physical safety tools at the table is promoting exclusionary play
  • If you don’t feel safe at a table that isn’t using physical safety tools, there is nothing wrong with your decision to leave the table
  • If someone at your table asks to use physical safety tools for themselves, when you aren’t providing them as a GM, denying them is telling them that they can’t tell you when they are having a problem with the game, because that’s all they are doing, just with a physical object instead of words
  • Some people have bad habits and may someday get rid of those bad habits
  • It is not your responsibility to teach anyone to set aside their bad habits, but others might want to do so
  • If someone wants to do something or not do something at their table, and it isn’t harmful to anyone at their table, and you aren’t likely to be at their table, try not to tell them, in absolutes, that they are wrong

I could have a bad read on any of these takeaways. I’m human. I try not to be cynical, even when I really want to collapse into cynicism. It is always possible that I’m over-correcting to avoid that cynicism. But the biggest thing is that I want to keep learning as much as I can about others, and how to utilize empathy to make the world better. I know I fail at it, a lot. I just don’t want to quit trying.

Let me know where I’ve gone off the rails. I want to hear from you.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Fun with Rebellions--Talking it Out in a Galaxy Far, Far, Away

My Age of Rebellion game has had some ups and downs. We’ve had several sessions where a month or more elapsed between games, and trying to keep everything moving forward has been a challenge.

Last session I had a strange thing happen. I know the session didn’t go well, but I didn’t feel like I could put my finger on exactly what I did wrong. The scenario made sense. Parts of the session went went. But when it didn’t go well, it really fell flat.

     The party was hiding from Imperial detection, and was jamming and spoofing sensors as they hopped around the planet
     The doctor had to make a cure for a genetically engineered disease which would take a specific amount of time
     A stealth model scout walker was tramping around the area searching for them visually
     A small Imperial capital ship was following up on anything the detected on the planet

The cure got manufactured, and half the PCs went off hunting the scout walker, with the other half thinking this was a bad idea.

     The scout walker was brought down, but one of the PCs suffered the permanent attribute damage crit that is one of the worst results in the game
     The group managed to escape from the capital ship when they uploaded a virus made by the PCs

At the end of the game, I told the group that I assume total blame for the session not going well, and that I wanted to solicit opinions on exactly what might have been the problem.

While I was down on myself for not catching the mood of the table and addressing the issues sooner, this was a departure from what I might have done in the past. Depending on how badly I felt the session went, I would have likely just ended the session, went home, and written everyone an email about everything I felt went wrong, or, if the session felt really off, I’d send out an email telling people that I don’t think I can salvage the campaign, and what would they like to do instead.

I’ve learned at least a little bit, so I wanted to catch the mood and ideas at the table before everyone went their separate ways.

     For my part, I was sure I didn’t read the table quickly enough to adapt to the people not having fun
     I let the pacing suffer because of how the night progressed

So I asked the table for their side of what didn’t work. What I got was the following:

     I had poorly communicated the threat of both the capital ship in the scenario and the walker
     My player that was new to the system wasn’t sure about chases or range bands, so he didn’t want to risk running from a fight, because he was unsure of how dangerous that would be
     The party wasn’t on the same page about what to do at the end of the scenario, so they went in two different directions, with a disagreement on the actions being taken

I expressed to the group my concern about running more simulationist games after running games like 7th Sea, Dresden Accelerated, and Powered by the Apocalypse games for so long. I was concerned that I was too willing to let them try anything to properly communicate that they could succeed when they did so, and that I may be doing a poor job of coming up with proper challenges.

After some talking, it definitely seems less like the problem is the actual threat level, and was more the confluence of events on that particular night.

     One of my players, the one that has the least experience with the rules, is much more used to more simulationist games--with Age of Rebellion straddling the line between simulation and adding in narrative elements, I need to really express things like adding details to a scene via Destiny points or even trying impossible tasks
     Five out of six of my players were in on session zero and played through a scenario where they all joined the Rebellion together, but then we added a player--I think I needed to do a better job of integrating that character into the team to rebuild the common purpose they started with
     Because of the way ability advancement works in the Fantasy Flight games, taking permanent ability damage is really, really bad--we agreed to modify the effects of this crit, since its actually better to lose a limb in this system than take permanent ability damage
     Since I had half the team not participating in the walker hunt, instead of letting them wait on the other team, I really needed to come up with some developing situation with them that needed to be dealt with

I’m glad I took the time to discuss this with the players afterwards. My initial thought process was very focussed on the session being the issue, with me screwing up the game in that moment, and with all of the breaks in momentum, I had forgotten what groundwork I had laid in where.

I have a player not as familiar with the rules as others, and not familiar with more narrative elements in the game. I have a player that wasn’t part of the initial session zero, and not as tied to the meta-plot of the campaign that I developed. The scenario wasn’t the main problem (there are things I could have fined tuned), the problem is with making sure I remind the players of the alternative options they always have available, why they are doing what they are doing, and touching base often on mechanical issues to make sure they make sense to everyone.

But, if I hadn’t taken the time to listen to and solicit opinions, I would have been much more focused on how this one session, and my GMing, was terrible.