Dice: A Tale of Triumph and Despair in A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Edge-of-the-empire-picture
“Look, all I’m saying is, I’ve never seen Yoda and Darth Vader in the same room, that’s all.”

Currently, I’m having quite a bit of fun running a campaign of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game for my college buddies. After getting an itch to create my own stories in the Star Wars universe, and finding that itch unsatisfied with games like Knights of the Old Republic, I did some investigation into what tabletop games have been made for the iconic franchise. The answer turns out to be quite interesting: one per trilogy, approximately.

During the time of the original trilogy, West End Games put out Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. A fun and fairly simple d6 system, this game actually used an evolved version of the mechanics from West End’s Ghostbusters game. About six trillion supplement books came out for this game, and it’s good fun. It’s not too simple, not too complicated, and a lot of people still consider it their go-to Star Wars system.

With the prequel trilogy came a need for a new game company to produce the roleplaying game, as West End Games went bankrupt a year prior to The Phantom Menace. The late 90s and early 2000s were a relative dark age for roleplaying games, with the indie revolution not yet able to begin, and the golden era of Gygaxian roleplaying long dead. Thus, with only large publishers to turn to, the Star Wars license went to Wizards of the Coast.

Star Wars d20, and its subsequent rework as Star Wars Saga Edition, are basically reskins of Dungeons and Dragons into Star Destroyers and Sarlaccs. The d20 mechanics of D&D are basically unchanged, and new classes were developed for the new setting. D20 tends to be the least popular of the three Star Wars games, as it has a hard time offering interesting class features to distinguish any class from any other class, and on top of that, Force users are stupidly broken compared to anything else.

Now, with the new trilogy beginning, the license for Star Wars has gone to a relatively new juggernaut in the world of tabletop gaming, Fantasy Flight Games. FFG’s main foray into tabletop roleplaying prior to this was in creating the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, so they’d had experience working on large sci-fi universes with established canon. Star Wars is the king of that category, however, so Fantasy Flight had a lot to live up to. Could they match the fun of West End’s d6 system while creating a more comprehensive set of rules? Could they fix the balance issues of WOTC’s d20 system without gimping the Force users into oblivion?

swf24_12309_monsterslaying_timothybenzweifel-5
Oh hell yes

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is thoroughly, in my opinion, a masterpiece of a game, not just among Star Wars games, but in the entire roleplaying genre. The entire game just oozes Star Wars, and manages to be complex in every way it needs to be, while remaining fast and fun.

The first, and most immediately noticeable, piece of genius in this game is the fact that it’s divided into three core rulebooks. However, unlike other, more Dungeon-y and Dragon-y games, where all three rulebooks are required to play, each of these three core rulebooks in Star Wars contains all of the rules needed to play and game master. Instead of segmenting rules, the Star Wars RPG rulebooks segment themes. The first book, Edge of the Empire, covers games featuring smugglers, bounty hunters, and other criminal types in the Outer Rim. The second book, Age of Rebellion, covers adventures of Rebellion heroes fighting the evil Empire. The final book, Force and Destiny, covers how to play an adventure focusing on Force users.

By creating this distinction, Fantasy Flight lets you only pick up the books relevant to the stories you want to tell, while still having a full game available. Every aspect of Star Wars is given equal, deep coverage, and the division of books also gives you a nice way to frame your game in such a way as to avoid things irrelevant to your story taking the spotlight. Don’t want Jedi and Sith to be the strongest characters in your game? Don’t play Force and Destiny. Force users are still available in Edge and Age, but the lesser amount of coverage they get means they won’t become the de facto hogs of the spotlight, at least not without some work.

The next biggest aspect of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is easily the one that interests me the most, and that’s these babies:

DiceFan
“Luke, these were your father’s polyhedrons. Yes, your father was pretty lame.”

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses custom dice, which initially led to skepticism about them being a cheap cash-grab, but having used them, these dice are a masterpiece of design. You’ll notice that these dice don’t have numbers, but symbols. When you roll these dice, you total the symbols, and infer the results from their meaning.

Success and Failure symbols cancel each other out, and as long as you have one uncancelled Success at the end of a roll, you succeed at doing the thing you’re doing. Advantage and Threat symbols also cancel each other out, with a surplus of Advantage signifying that things are going your way, while a surplus of Threat indicates that things are starting to go down the crapper. Triumph and Despair symbols represent moments of incredible success and dire failure, but interestingly, this pair does not cancel each other out.

It’s a lot to learn at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s extremely simple. Knowing which dice to roll becomes extremely easy to figure out after a session of doing it (which the Beginner Games make silky smooth), and having results in the form of these symbols instead of a flat number or sum means that skill check results exist on a spectrum. You can succeed, but badly if you have uncancelled Successes but a surplus of Threat (ex. You can successfully blast an enemy droid, doing damage, but doing so disables his combat inhibitor and increases his deadliness). Similarly, you can fail, but still fail in such a way that’s beneficial with a surplus of Advantage (ex. You miss your shot against the Imperial Jailer, but the shot rebounds and instead breaks the lock on your buddy’s cell). Add the dimension of Triumph and Despair to this, and it’s extremely hard to roll the dice and have nothing happen. Which is good, because nothing happening is an extremely boring game.

Imagine all the times you played a roleplaying game and the GM said “Roll a Perception check”, or “Roll a Sense Motive check”. You roll the dice and he goes “Oh. You notice nothing.” That is so ungodly boring. All you gained from that interaction is a bit of metagame knowledge (there’s something to perceive here, or a motive to sense, I just need to figure out what it is) with nothing gained in the story. Imagine instead if you could still fail that check, but still grow the story in interesting ways. “You notice nothing about the boss you’re talking to, but one of his cronies is really antsy, and keeps eyeing the nearest escape”. Isn’t that more interesting?

This is the key to Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and the way it solves one of the hardest problems of roleplaying game design: keeping the game interesting. If your party always succeeds every check, there’s never any risk or tension, but you don’t want to nerf a party that’s obeying the rules. If your party fumbles every check, they can’t move ahead in the story, but you don’t want to give them victories they haven’t earned. With these custom dice, Star Wars ensures that even parties on a losing streak can push forward in their goals ever so slightly, and parties that win all the time still aren’t free from danger.

A story of nothing but success or nothing but failure is a boring story. The best storytellers know that engaging stories are made of struggles, and Fantasy Flight created this system of “Yes, but…” and “No, but…” to ensure that every action the players take has the potential to be more interesting than simple flat success and failure, and thus ensure that the game’s core mechanics naturally generate struggles and a constant stream of successes, failures, and most importantly, twists.

 

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