Review – Edge of the Empire (Release Version) (Star Wars RPG)

SWE02-book-right               At GenCon 2012, Fantasy Flight Games released the beta version of Edge of the Empire, the first of three planned Star Wars RPG lines. My review of that was apparently of some interest, since it managed to be the most thumbed review on RPGGeek in 2012 and has accumulated way, way more hits than anything else on the Strange Assembly website (I am sure that this was entirely due to the brilliance of my writing, and not at all related to the popularity of the subject matter). So, now that the final version of Edge of the Empire is now on shelves at game shops everywhere, it seems like I should revisit the topic. Edge of the Empire is a 450-page, full-color hardback that retails for about $60 (the book also comes with a “Read This First” booklet; you can disregard the implied threat of the awesomely sinister shot of Boba Fett – it’s just standard “what is an RPG” material).

Note: This is a review of the book, not the system. Since this is a core book, that necessarily entails looking at mechanics, and I’ll say if there’s anything obviously problematic or cool, but (for obvious reasons) this isn’t going to include something like a subtle analysis of the balancing of the professions and combat options based on months of play experience with the final rules.

The Concept

SWR02_3760_ObligatoryShip_MattBradbury_2_3Edge of the Empire is the first of three planned Star Wars RPG lines. All three lines are set exclusively in the Rebellion Era. In particular, Edge of the Empire is set pretty immediately after the end of A New Hope (Alderaan and the first Death Star have been destroyed, and folks are starting to take the Rebel Alliance seriously).

Edge of the Empire mostly covers characters most at home on the fringe of the galaxy – smugglers, bounty hunters, colonists, and so forth. The core worlds are there, and discussed, and very available for the characters to interact with, but the characters are not going to be returning home to their suburban Corellian homes after a job well done. Indeed, the characters are almost required to have some sort of criminal involvement.

The other two lines are Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny. The former covers (shock) the Rebels v. Imperials conflict (the common Star Wars RPG plotline of the characters starting out as fringers and ending up stalwarts of the Rebellion is not something that Edge of the Empire is equipped to deal with), and the latter is Force users.

Art, Editing, Writing, Etc.

The art is great. No, fantastic. No, splendiferous! Whatever word you want to use, I don’t see how any Star Wars geek would not like this stuff. As you might expect, there’s heavy use of images in both the Star Wars LCG and the RPG, so you can check out online LCG spoilers for a taste of the high quality stuff we’re getting here.

GM Screen

Layout was solid; I didn’t see any problems. I went over 300 pages before seeing the only typo I noticed, so the editing seems pretty great as well (I’m not saying that’s the only one in the book, but I usually notice more than that on a read-through of even a well-done RPG book).

Writing was solid too. It’s a core book, so there’s less room for freeform stuff, but I was pleased all around. Pretty good rules clarity, not a bunch of purple prose, and the flavor was conveyed well where there was room.

Basic Mechanics (~25 pages)

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The Basic Roll

A lot of the mechanics in Edge of the Empire will be familiar to those coming from FFG’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and that starts with the core dice-rolling system. For any skill roll, players will have a characteristic and a skill. The higher of those two numbers dictates how many dice are rolled and the lower dictates how many of those dice are upgraded from normal green d8 “ability dice” to superior yellow d12 “proficiency dice.” Inherent difficulty or opposition adds purple d8 “difficulty dice” or (if hard enough) red d12 “challenge dice.” Circumstances may also add light blue d6 “boost dice” or black d6 “setback dice.” Character talents, equipment, and Dicesuch can alter the composition of this dice pool – adding boost dice or removing setback dice, reducing difficulty, upgrading dice, and so forth.

All of the dice are custom, with four different symbols. Positive dice have success symbols and advantage symbols. Negative dice have failure symbols and threat symbols. The d12 dice also each have a single Triumph (a super-success/advantage) or Despair (super-failure/threat) symbol, as applicable. The successes and failures rolled cancel out and the roll succeeds so long as a single success remains. The advantages and threats also cancel out, and if there are any leftover either way it will affect ancillary results of the task. For example, success on a slicing (aka hacking) roll with a lot of threat might mean that the character succeeded at obtaining the target information, but then tripped an alarm.

Percentile dice are also required. You’ll need to buy custom dice for the rest, available from FFG for $15 retail, or in the form of an app (standard price of $5).

Destiny Points

SWE-dice-force                There’s one final custom die, the Force die, which is used for the limited Force applications in the game and also to generate the initial destiny point pools (one die rolled per character at the start of each session). The Force die has its own symbols – white circles for light side points, black circles for dark side points. Those destiny points are flipped back and forth between the GM and the players during the session. Light side points are used by the players to boost their own dice pools, increase the difficulty of enemy actions, activate certain abilities, or just get lucky (“oh, look, we did randomly pack those rebreathers that the players didn’t know we would need”). Whenever the players spend a light side destiny point, it is converted to a dark side destiny point, which the GM can then use against the players (at which point it flips back to the light side and is ready for use again). The game is intended for a relatively regular flow of destiny points back and forth.

Obligation

hutt-crime-lordCharacters will all start the game with Obligation. There are a variety of options, such as a debt, having a bounty on your head, a duty to someone, a family issue, an oath, etc. The stronger the obligation, the more likely it is to come up each session, which mechanically applies additional mental strain on the characters. For storytelling purposes, the GM would then also try to work a particular character’s obligation into ongoing events (perhaps he has the chance to pay off part of that debt he owes). Characters will have the chance to ‘work off’ their obligation during gameplay (although never all of it), but they’ll also have the chance to take on more obligation.

Obligation also serves to distinguish the party’s notoriety – the higher the total obligation, the easier it is to deal with criminals and the harder it is to work on the straight-and-narrow. Because of this last twist, it feels like the “standard” sort of obligations are more likely to be criminally-related ones – owing that Hutt money, having that bounty hunter after you, having a life-debt to someone else who is a criminal, and so forth. There just doesn’t seem to be the same sort of flavor/mechanics link when the obligation is something like Responsibility (take care of my kids).

Characters (~110 pages, including the Skills and Talents chapter)

scoutIn addition to the obligation (and some sort of motivation), characters start with a species, a career, a specialization, and a pool of XP to spend. Species defines the base values for the character’s six characteristics (Brawn, Presence, Intellect, Cunning, Agility, Willpower – usual starting value of 2), the starting wound and strain thresholds (10 + Brawn/Willpower is typical), the starting XP pool (usually 100XP), and one or more special traits (usually starting with a free training in a particular skill and another small perk). The available species are Bothans, Droids, Gands, Humans, Rodians, Trandoshans, Twi’leks, and Wookies.

Characters then choose one career (out of six) and then one specialization (out of three) from that career. Careers each mark eight skills as “career skills” that are cheaper to train, as well a rank of training in four of those skills (player’s choice). The specialization grants four career skills, as well as a rank of training in two of those skills (there may be overlap between the broad career and the specialization). Each specialization is associated with a Talent Tree, which contains 20 special abilities – the character doesn’t get any talents for free, but may buy them later. The six careers (and associated specializations are: Bounty Hunter (Assassin, Gadgeteer, Survivalist), Colonist (Doctor, Politico, Scholar), Explorer (Fringer, Scout, Trader), Hired Gun (Bodyguard, Marauder, Mercenary), Smuggler (Pilot, Scoundrel, Thief), Technician (Mechanic, Outlaw Tech, Slicer).

The starting xp pool can be spent to raise characteristics (expensive but important), train in skills, buy talents, or buy another specialization. Buying another specialization is not restricted to the character’s career, although it is cheaper if it is. Buying additional specializations doesn’t gain the character anything right away – it simply provides additional career skills (so future purchases will be cheaper) and access to an additional talent tree. Characters cannot take values too high during character creation, but for the most part everything costs the same during character creation as it would with normal experience later (the big exception being characteristics, which can never be raised with XP after character creation). A character can get a few more XP (or a few extra credits) by taking on more Obligation.

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Each character gets a small amount of credits to spend on starting gear and, finally, the party as a whole gets a ship. There are three options presemted – a YT-1300 Light Freighter (aka, the Millennium Falcon (random observation: how terrible would it be if Lucas had given that ship some really lame name and all of us Star Wars geeks hated it, but had to recite it over and over?), a Firespray System Patrol Craft (aka, Boba Fett’s Slave 1), or a Wayfarer Medium Transport. Alternatively, with GM permission, the characters can take any ship they feel like with a value of up to 120,000 credits (as expensive as the Wayfarer; the YT-1300 and the Firespray are worth less). The Falcon clone seems to be the default ship.

The Force (~15 pages)

failed-jediThe Force is present in Edge of the Empire, but (aside from the Destiny Points) is pretty limited – those semi-Jedi will have to wait for the Force and Destiny product line. Characters can, however, choose the Force Exile specialization (which always counts as an in-career specialization). It grants the character no bonus career skills, but does give him or her a Force Rating of 1. In addition to the talent tree, having a Force Rating lets a character purchase Force powers – Sense, Influence, Move. These are not particularly impressive, limited most of all by the fact that activating them means you roll one Force die per Force Rating, which for almost all characters will translate to one Force die (there is a talent in the Force-Sensitive Exile tree that gives another one, but gunning straight for it means sinking 100 XP into it, and that doesn’t count the cost of the Force powers themselves). And the Force die has more Dark Side faces than Light Side faces, which are only useable if you have Destiny Points to flip and are willing to eat strain damage.

And, of course, there’s that whole “the Empire is going to try and kill you if anyone finds out you can use the Force” thing.

Options and Gear (~85 pages of gear/weapons, droids, vehicles, and starships)

There are lots of Talents and a good number of Skills, and these are (of course) all described. There’s also an expected gear list, vehicle/starship list, and some droids. Every piece of equipment has a rarity (which affects the difficulty of the roll to find it), and some is Restricted if you’re going to buy it on the legitimate market. There are an array of standard weapons, and they are also fairly customizable (you can add attachments to weapons, which just costs cash, and then modify those attachments, which requires skill rolls) . I don’t think there’s anything noteworthy and generic missing from this list, although it’s not too extensive (Star Wars itself never fixated too much on specific kinds of hand weapons, but if you’re looking for that specific DL-44 heavy blaster pistol that Han was carrying, you’ll have to wait for some sort of supplement). There’s even a lightsaber, although there is deliberately no skill associated with it – use at your own risk.

utiniThere is a limited armor selection (armor does not seem terribly effective – even the best armor doesn’t come close to keeping up with weapon damage, which is consistent with what we see in the movies). Armor can be customized in the same manner as weapons. There’s also a section of non-combat gear – coms, survival equipment, macrobinoculars, some cybernetics (mostly limb replacements), etc. There’s also some black market gear – drugs and outlaw tech.

The starship/vehicle/droid lists are extensive but not comprehensive, although this may just be to keep the focus on the smuggler-level scale while saving some of the more well-known material for the Age of Rebellion books. So you’ll find Cloud Cars, T-16 Skyhoppers, snowspeeders, Imperial speeder bikes, swoops, landspeeders, sandcrawlers, some Clone War-era walkers, Lambda-class shuttles, TIE/ln, Y-Wings, Z-95 Headhunters, Firesprays, Skipray Blast Boats, a large variety of transports and freighters, Corellian Corvettes, and Nebulon-B frigates, but not AT-ATs, AT-STs, X-Wings, A-Wings, B-Wings, any TIE past a standard TIE Fighter, or any sort of Star Destroyer. Nor are there write-ups for the unique ships (so there’s the YT-1300 model, but no specifically Falcon version of it). The customization system for starships and vehicles works the same as it does for weapons (except everything costs 10 times as much).

Except for the rules for player characters, droids are addressed only the Adversaries chapter. They come in categories (seven of them), rather than specific models – so there’s an astromech droid stat block, but no R2 unit stat block. There are no rules for modifying NPC droids specifically – PC droids are modified just like normal PCs (they can do pretty much whatever the PC can, with regards to equipment, it’s just a system upgrade instead of a separate piece of gear).

Combat (~35 pages for combat and dealing with the environment)

Personal Combat

It’s usual for an RPG that the most detailed rules are for combat, and Edge of the Empire is no exception. The game’s focus on roleplaying extends even here, and things are relatively abstracted. There’s no miniatures combat aspect to it, starting with the Range system, which (for mechanical purposes) reduces positioning to vaguely how far away you are from each other. This general philosophy is also seen in things like cover – yeah, there’s cover, but unless you’re in a bunker or something wild like that, it’s just a straight one setback die penalty to anyone shooting at you, without (mechanically) worrying about things like what the cover is made of, what percentage of your body it covers, or other details you might use in another more tactical system.

firefight

Initiative is handled in a pretty unique way – at the start of a fight, everyone rolls initiative, and then is slotted out by the number generated. But instead of locking a particular PC into that slot, the slots are just for “PC” or “NPC” – when a PC slot comes up, the PCs can pick any PC to act (likewise for the GM and NPCs). Characters still only get one chance to act per round.

Every structured gameplay round a character gets one maneuver and one action, plus any number of incidentals. Actions are anything that requires a skill roll, including attacking. The action slot can also be used to take a maneuver. Maneuvers are used to move, but also to assist, aim, guard, engage in complicated gear management, and the like. Moving between Ranged Bands at long ranges requires more than one maneuver. An additional maneuver can be had in exchange for strain (mental damage, basically), but no character can ever get more than two maneuvers a turn.

SWR02_3759_Fear_ChristinaDavisAttacks are like any other skill check, although there’s a lot more detail (for example, there are much more specific uses for advantages, such as activating critical hits or weapon qualities). Range is important, since you have to be engaged for melee combat and longer ranges add difficulty dice to ranged attacks. Armor can increase the difficulty of a shot and/or soak damage. Characters get into real trouble once their wounds reach the wound threshold (usually 10+Brawn), which incapacitation and Critical Injuries start to occur – they don’t go away until healed, you get more every subsequent time you get hit, and the effects get worse and worse based on how many you already have. It seems like a couple of solid shots from a blaster rifle is likely to take down most characters.

Characters can heal from medpacs (using a Medicine check), bacta, or (what seems really, really important), stimpacks. Stimpacks seem to serve as healing potions, giving an immediate return of wounds plus a chance to cure a critical injury – all for just a maneuver. They get less and less effective the more that are used, however, so they are not a panacea.

Starship Combat

Starship (and vehicle) combat is based on the same framework as personal combat, but with extra complexities (especially when capital ships are involved). Starship combat adds in Silhouette (mostly synonymous with size, this modifies attacks to reflect that bigger ships are easier to hit, and replaces the range modifiers on attacks), Speed (a ship can’t just accelerate and decelerate willy-nilly, and Speed affects what sort of distance-changing maneuvers can be performed), and facing/fire arcs (especially for capital ships). Snubfighters have a lot more maneuver/action options than capital ships, although capital ships will presumably have a lot more crew on board to take actions and maneuvers.

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Advice for the GM (~35 pages)

As per usual for an RPG core book, Edge of the Empire includes advice for GMs – basic things like group-based character creation, running a campaign, managing the party, using XP, incorporating player motivation into the plot, and so forth. It also includes game-specific notions like how to interpret dice rolls, using obligation, the starship as base of operations, and destiny point management.

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Gazetteer (~65 pages)

General setting info is divided into two chapters – The Galaxy, and Law and Society. No one book could possibly go into all of the detail that has been created about the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU), but Edge of the Empire has a nice galactic map and overview of different areas of nal-huttaspace – Deep Core, Core Worlds, Colonies, Inner Rim, Expansion Region, Mid Rim, Outer Rim (there’s the most detail here), Wild Space and Unknown Regions, Hutt Space, and the Corporate Sector (technically those last two are noteworthy subdivisions of other classifications). Each of those areas lists at least a few locations, and up to several dozen for the Outer Rim (each sector also has an in-character sidebar about possible job opportunities). Eight planets also get full-page write-ups – Bespin, Corellia, Fondor, Kessel, Nal Hutta, Ord Mantell, Ryloth, and Tatooine.

You need a discussion of Law in Edge of the Empire because, one imagines, the characters aren’t going to make it out of the first session without breaking it. In addition to strictly legal matters, topics here include Imperial structure (the military, COMPNOR, and intelligence agencies), Alliance structure, the Black Sun, the Hutts, CorSec, and a few smaller entries.

Bestiary (~30 pages)

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OK, OK, it’s really Adversaries, but calling it a Bestiary amuses me more – besides, some of the NPCs here might easily be used in a non-adversarial capacity. NPCs come in three flavors – minion, henchmen, and nemeses. Minions are squishy (duh), don’t have skills, and can be rolled/killed as a group in order to move things along. Henchmen don’t instantly die when they take a critical injury, but any strain damage is applied as normal wound damage and they auto-die when they hit their wound threshold. Nemeses follow all the normal rules that PCs do. Edge of the Empire bestiary includes smugglers, thugs/gangers, informants, spaceport crew, security personnel, pirates, bounty hunters, Imperial military personnel, bureaucrats, a rancor, and (if you really want to mess the players up) an Emperor’s Hand, Imperial Moff, Forsaken Jedi, Hutt crime lord, or Black Sun underboss. There are no stat blocks for movie/EU characters.

An Adventure

As is usual for FFG RPGs, there’s an adventure in the back of Edge of the Empire, which I shall not spoil in case you might end up playing through it (technically, I’m not even reading it in case I get to play through it, so I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to).

Judgment

Edge of the Empire is pretty top-notch all around – amazing art, good layout, good writing, system doesn’t have any obvious holes at first glance, and did I mention amazing art? It’s Star Wars, so I can think of about a thousand other things I’d want to see – more ships, more species, write-ups for familiar characters, that sort of thing. But it’s not like there’s really any room for that sort of thing, or that it’s necessary. Ultimately, the relative dearth of player character species options is the only one that seems lacking any real way (the Saga Edition Star Wars RPG, by comparison, had 17 PC species options in the core book). I could comment on what I think of it as a setting but, again, it’s Star Wars – I suspect that at this point you either like it or you don’t as a roleplaying setting. The one thing I’d note is that, as I mentioned near the start, Edge of the Empire is not set up to handle being in the Rebellion (or being a Jedi), including what I think of as the “standard” Star Wars Original Trilogy-era early campaign plot of starting out as fringers and then getting drawn into the Rebellion (with one guy who just has to be a Jedi – or maybe that was just all my groups because that guy who had to be a Jedi was totally me). You’ll have to wait for the next game line for that storyline.

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Until that batch of awesome, you’ll just have to enjoy this batch of awesome.


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