Droids, Midichlorians, and Orcs: Dealing with problematic canon

If you run an RPG, whether it’s a licensed property or not, there are bound to be elements of the canon that you don’t like or disagree with. In general, my recommendation is to suck it up and stick to the canon, if for no other reason than just not to confuse your players. Every so often, though, you run into a truly a gigantic issue that compels some sort of resolution.

I ran into this in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. I had a player who had chosen a droid PC with “Droid Rights” as her motivation. This is cool because it’s a theme the movies raise but don’t explore: droids obviously have some degree of sentience, but are treated as property, which seems wrong. As I started playing with the idea of droid sentience in my own arc, I came across the long-standing rules prohibition against Force-sensitive droids in Star Wars games and wondered why this should be, exactly. If a droid should achieve a degree of sentience comparable with humans somehow – as is generally assumed for droid player characters in these games – why couldn’t they access the Force? The Force is a spiritual energy, a reflection of the soul made manifest, and who are we to say that biological beings have souls but self-aware droids don’t? And what possible narrative purpose could it serve to do so?

The ostensible reason of course is the biggest WTF moment in Star Wars movies: midichlorians. Those symbiotic organisms that, according to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, serve as receptors for the Force. Organic beings have them. Cyborgs have them. Droids don’t. Possibly the Horta doesn’t either, I’m guessing.

I think the introduction of midichlorians broke a lot of Star Wars fans, and had them questioning George Lucas’ sanity and/or intelligence. I admit I had a similar reaction, but my bias was that I knew that Lucas was a smart guy. He had, after all, written and made the original trilogy. The difference between Lucas and J J Abrams is that when Lucas does things, he does them for reasons that make sense. There was probably a reason for the midichlorians, just not one that was apparent to me at the time.

My personal understanding of that reason didn’t come into focus until a few years after Revenge of the Sith came out, and they had become just a small weird background element in the larger trilogy. It went like this: the very first real scene of the trilogy, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the Trade Federation ship, seems quite revealing to me. It starts with a callback to the original trilogy (Obi-Wan saying he has a bad feeling about this), but then immediately stakes out some new territory. Obi-Wan talks about how Yoda has told him he should be mindful of the future, something that Episode V Yoda would probably warn against. Qui-Gon then tells Obi-Wan to be mindful not of the “Force”, but of the “Living Force”, an expression we haven’t heard before. This seems to be staking out a position: how the Jedi understand the Force was different in the past, and this is not exactly the same Yoda we see later. I remember when I watched that scene the first time, it clearly signaled to me that things are going to be different.

This then feeds into questions about the reliability of Qui-Gon and his idea of the “Living Force”. He’s often at odds with the Jedi Council and Jedi orthodoxy. We’ll learn later that he was Count Dooku’s padawan. When he talks about the prophecy that Anakin is supposed to be fulfilling, the rest of the council appears skeptical. His talk of midichlorians doesn’t sway the Jedi Council when he’s trying to get Anakin trained. Even Obi-Wan senses the danger Anakin presents which Qui-Gon seems blind to, and – given how things turn out – insisting on training Anakin may not have been the best call. It’s entirely possible that Qui-Gon is not part of the Jedi mainstream and his understanding of the Living Force and  midichlorians is not, in fact, widely shared. Midichlorians clearly exist, and can be measured – the Council seems to acknowledge this, at least – but it’s possible that not everyone agrees about their function.

Then throw in the fact that after Qui-Gon’s death, nobody brings up midichlorians again. The films tell us several times, mainly in Attack of the Clones, that the state of Jedi knowledge and scholarship is calcified. The Jedi Council, over the course of the films, reveals itself to be a terrible, ineffective organization. All this adds up, for me, to the idea that the Jedi in the timeframe of the prequels may not really have known what they were doing – the results speak for themselves on that count – and that midichlorians were simply a quirk of Qui-Gon’s philosophy of the Living Force, and one that you don’t need to worry about in your games.

The problem, of course, is that this is not actually the correct interpretation, according to George Lucas (bearing in mind that creators are surprisingly often wrong about their own works). I had read a lot of the background history of the creation of the prequels, but never remembered hearing or reading anything that explained Lucas’ thinking behind the midichlorians. In doing background for this piece, I remembered I hadn’t listened to Lucas’ commentary tracks on the prequels in a long time, so I popped in The Phantom Menace and checked out the scenes where midichlorians are mentioned. Lo and behold, there it is, behind the scene where Qui-Gon draws Anakin’s blood to test. And the answer is inextricably tied up with the original sin of the classic trilogy – the single fact that makes Star Wars so hard to game and explains why, even though I respect the classic trilogy more, I actually find it easier as a whole to engage with the people in the prequels.

In the classic trilogy, it is established there is sort of a royal family of the Force, the Skywalkers. They are far more sensitive to the Force than anyone else, to the point that Luke can use his native talent to accomplish almost miraculous feats (blocking blaster bolts with his lightsaber while blindfolded) with only the most minimal training while virtually everyone else remains Force-blind. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s established by Yoda that, amongst the trillions upon trillions of beings in the galaxy, there is literally nobody who is not a descendant of Skywalker who can be trained to defeat Darth Vader – and Vader, as a reconstructed cyborg, has only a fraction of the power he had as Anakin Skywalker.

George Lucas felt this needed some explaining – which it does – and so he introduced midichlorians in a way that he thought would work, and mesh with the themes of Episode I. Midichlorians are described only vaguely, no actual mechanism is ever proposed, and the symbiotic relationship plays into the themes of Star Wars. But midichlorians are wholly unsatisfactory as an explanation because the thing they have to explain is wholly unsatisfactory – that some people have vastly greater potential based solely on genetics. Without that fact you you can’t have big chunks of the original trilogy. Maybe you can live with the galaxy as the playground of the Skywalkers, but once you expand the story into the prequels – or onto your gaming table – you kind of need to deal with it somehow.

To the credit of the prequels, a lot less is made of Anakin’s genes than is made of Luke’s in the originals. Luke ultimately has to face Vader because it is his “destiny” – The Empire Strikes Back’s favorite word. Anakin’s path is, to me, more nuanced and interesting: he makes his own choices, but is also influenced by his situation and by the people around him. His destiny is his to make, but but also for others to influence; the fact that he may or may not be “the chosen one” is not nearly as significant as who he is and who the people around him are. Another intriguing fact that the prequels introduce is that the fact that the Sith don’t pass on their powers by heredity, apparently. They “adopt” their apprentices from the best available candidates. While the Sith are unpleasant, they do a pretty good job of passing on power from generation to generation. Did I mention that Qui-Gon Jinn was Count Dooku’s padawan, before he became Darth Tyranus?

So what is the Star Wars game master to make of all this? One answer is simply to run a campaign without the Force, which is sort of the route taken by Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Force is such a central part of the Star Wars mythology it’s hard to ignore forever. In order to get best results – even if you’re going to draw solely on material from the classic trilogy – you need to wrestle with these issues and figure out what you think of them.

The facts established by the classic trilogy – the importance of your parents to your destiny – are definitely not working for me. Neither, obviously, is the fact that your midichlorian levels dictate your Force potential, since the latter explains the former.

Even if you hate the prequels, the good news is that they provide more than enough cover to simply discard the whole lot of it. I feel there is enough to make the case that Qui-Gon, while right about many things, was wrong about midichlorians. And if that’s true, it’s only a very small step to also argue that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong when they believed only Anakin’s children had the Force potential to overcome him and the Emperor. In the context of the classic trilogy, we have no reason to believe that Yoda is anything other than he appears to be, the wise mentor who we have no reason to doubt. But throw in the prequels, and now Yoda was a key member of the Jedi Council that so abjectly failed the first time; a person who feels the choices he made were so wrong that in at least one important case, he strongly councils Luke to do the exact opposite of what he did under the same circumstances. Obi-Wan was a product of the last, failing generation of Jedi and as Anakin’s former master, he could easily be too emotionally involved in this case. He’s also got a track record of playing a little fast and loose with facts. The power of the Empire at this point would have made finding and training another candidate difficult in any event, so the reason Luke and Leia were their last hopes may, in truth, have owed much more to practicalities than genetics.

To be fair to Lucas, he obviously wrestles with these contradictions, which have deep roots and you could probably get a Master’s thesis out of. There are plenty of times in The Empire Strikes Back where we don’t particularly believe Luke is special, and Yoda gives the impression that more or less anyone could be a Jedi, with the right discipline and training. But the core of the drama in Empire and Jedi is the father-son dynamic (with the daughter shorted, as usual), and that drives other elements of the story. This dynamic is unlikely to be something you want to replicate in your game, and now the prequels give you enough ammunition to completely jettison the single most problematic aspect of the Star Wars canon – Force power that is innate and primarily heritable – and I think you should. Not only does it make for better gaming, it also makes the Star Wars universe more morally just. It’s Star Wars, from the vantage point of Ahsoka Tano – for me, the most relatable Jedi in the franchise.

So even though it’s apparently not what Lucas intended, I’ve become attached to my interpretation of midichlorians: that they are a wrong idea that fell out of fashion, and furthermore that the idea that receptivity to the Force is measurable and heritable is the product of the failing generations of the Jedi, which the prequels show as conflicted, reactionary, and ultimately not up to the challenge they faced.

The Force model I’ve gone with in my game, following my interpretation of the movies, is that being able to use the Force is a skill, just a very difficult one. I think of it as analogous to the skill required to play classical music at a very high level: it’s extremely difficult to master, some people clearly have an aptitude for it, but most anyone can do it if they have the concentration, discipline, and a good mentor. Being from a family of classical musicians clearly helps, but pre-eminent performers surprisingly often emerge from families with no notable musical history (Hilary Hahn, Sharon Kam). Genetics make a difference – Yuja Wang’s long fingers or Paganini’s freakishly flexible joints are clearly assets (in the case of Paganini, an asset with a high cost) – but not as much as you might think. Even for those with aptitude, it’s a lot of work. Without situational or genetic advantages you may never become the best in the world, but with commitment and the right training and barring disability you can usually become very, very good.

We run into a similar, although possibly less problematic, question when gaming Tolkien: where exactly did the orcs come from, and why are they apparently all evil? Somewhat similarly to midichlorians, orcs are creatures that the story Tolkien is telling requires, but which his philosophy cannot explain. Since in fiction the requirements of story trump the requirements of logic, orcs exist; troublesome questions remain. Within the context of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to worry about it too much, but once you write a prequel (The Silmarillion) or design an RPG arc, the question may become more urgent. In Tolkien’s worldview, evil can only corrupt, not create; so in the version of the Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published, Melkor capture some Elves and corrupt them into orcs (it’s not clear that Tolkien himself thought this was the answer to the conundrum). But this just doesn’t make a lot of sense and raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that, much like George Lucas, Tolkien is trying to weave modern values into a medieval story structure, and there ends up being conflicts. Those conflicts are, in fact, often what brings life to the stories and give them depth. Every so often, though, they create problems for those of us who come later.

The problems here are easier to resolve simply because The Silmarillion was published posthumously and so I’ve never considered it truly “canon” in the Tolkien universe, at least not to the same degree as the stories Tolkien actually published himself during his lifetime. So I can just discard the orc’s origin story as given in The Silmarillion (which somewhat surprisingly make it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings adaptation), and simply choose in favor Tolkien’s dominant modern values: like Gollum, the orcs are not irredeemably evil, they are just slaves to Sauron’s will. Knowing their origin story then becomes unnecessary or a subject of speculation, and not a glaring inconsistency in the universe. Having made this decision, as storytellers themes open up to us and we can use orcs more intelligently as adversaries and not simply as mindless cannon fodder which the players are free to wantonly kill without compunction.

I think my biggest take-away from this whole run-around on the issue of droids and the Force was the importance of spending some time thinking about these things. If there are points of inconsistency or contradiction, you don’t have to tap-dance around them, you can make a philosophical call that is supportable and consistent with the setting and not worry about supporting all possible interpretations, or even supporting things that the artist said at one time which may, in fact, have been wrong! When these questions arise, coming to your own conclusions based on your own values, finding a way to make it clear to your players, and sticking with them will make your own creations better.

For the record: in my Star Wars games, intelligent droids will be able to access the Force.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion – A Deep Dive on Dice Probabilities

A little while ago, I gave Star Wars: Edge of the Empire a reasonably positive review. After another year of playing the game, it’s time to check in again see how it’s faring, and to try to pass along some playing tips for dealing with some of the game’s quirks. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire or Age of Rebellion (they’re exactly the same game system), you might want to catch up by reading that review – this will go pretty deep into the game’s probabilities and what they mean for actual play.

The dice in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, image courtesy FFG. Click for product page.

The central, most intriguing, and most opaque idea in the game is the set of customized dice that are used to form dice pools for task resolution. At their most basic, they are simple and elegant: just add positive ability (green 8-sided) and proficiency (yellow 12-sided) dice for your level of skill, negative purple 8-sided difficulty dice for the difficulty level negative red 12-siders for reasons, and then even some more dice (positive blue boosts and negative black  setbacks, both 6-siders) for situational modifiers (cover, time pressure, assistance from an ally), grab them all, and roll them. Net out success and failure icons, and advantage and threat icons. What you’ve got left is the result. If you end up with at least one success, you succeed. Remaining threat or advantage may give an additional bonus or penalty. It’s a pretty cool idea and rolling lots of dice is fun. However, as I played more, I kept noticing unexpected quirks in the results.

The big thing was that critical hits (which generally require a successful combat check with three advantages) seemed exceptionally rare, and even weapons special powers were hard to activate (they generally require successful check with two advantages). A little bit of analysis of the dice and this made sense. The dice faces never have more than two symbols and rarely show both success and advantage. Good dice only have good faces, and bad dice only have bad faces. So canceling out all the failures and all the threats while having surplus successes and advantages is obviously rare. While there are in theory four different possible “quadrants” the result of a dice roll could fall into (success or failure with advantage or threat), in practice two of them (success with threat and failure with advantage) are predominant, with critical success and critical failure seeming quite rare unless you have a big imbalance between good and bad dice in the pool.

Another odd thing was that it seemed like having high characteristics (Agility, Perception, Brawn, etc.) was a much bigger deal than actually having ranks in skills. A skilled character with a lower characteristic (so, say, a character with Piloting 2 and Agility 2) did not seem to do as well as a character with a slightly higher characteristic (so, no Piloting skill but Agility 3).

Then finally, because nobody really had any idea what the magnitude of the effects of adding various dice were, it made it hard to know what to do with the Destiny Pool, or how to rate the importance of boost and setback dice, or how to wisely spend advantages in combat. The rules seemed to imply that a boost/setback die was a lesser effect while upgrading a die (for example, turning green ability die into a yellow proficiency die) was a bigger deal. But is this really true? It didn’t feel like it.

Now, a little bit (or even a lot) of opacity in the odds is not a bad thing. In fact, a major appeal of the Star Wars system is that dice pools are so intuitive to construct but the probability curves they produce are so complicated as to be essentially incalculable.  That said, we still need to understand some basic things to play the game well. And the only way to get there seemed to be to run some Monte Carlo simulations and see what the numbers looked like. So that’s what I did. Knowing these details definitely improved my game, but they also raised some real questions about whether the designer understood how the dice pool actually works in practice, and if there are fundamental aspects of the game system that need to be re-calibrated.

The dice pool is extremely flexible and it can generate a huge range of probability curves. So I focused on a just few questions: how common are critical successes? What are the quantitative impacts on success and critical success of adding the various different dice to the pool? How big a deal are the challenge dice? To do this, I looked primarily at a few common cases:

  • A difficulty 2 check, which is a typical ranged combat check at medium range or when shooting at a similarly-sized ship
  • A check made by a moderately-skilled entry-level character, with two yellow and one green dice
  • A highly skilled character rolling one green and 3 yellow dice

For a look at a sampling of the numbers generated, you can check out this Google sheet. I’ve focussed on positive results, because they get the most attention from the system. The SUC+2 or SUC+3 columns give the percent chance of a successful check with at least that many advantages. I didn’t go deep, running stats for 2 or 3 or more boost, setback, or challenge dice, but this should give you a feel for how they work. You could really go crazy with the data, but the visualization problems get out of hand very quickly. Also, you need to run a surprisingly large number of iterations to get the results to converge. The numbers for the very large dice pools are not exact.

First a few general observations:

  • If you’re trying to activate weapon properties or score critical hits which require a success with +2 or +3 advantages, basically forget about it unless you have a very large dice advantage. The odds of a less-experienced character with good skill (a dice pool of 1g+2y) activating her twin-linked cannons on a typical shot (difficulty 2p) are only 9%. The odds of a crit are only 2%. A ridiculously skilled gunner on that same shot (5y) still only gets +2 advantages half the time, and a crit 30% of the time (remember a crit is generally not “you’re dead”, or even double damage, but something like reducing the target’s speed by 1 or removing a defense die). Also: reducing your crit rating is a really big deal. A vibrosword with a mono-molecular, serrated edge is extremely nasty (vicious 2, crit 1). Very nearly as good as a lightsaber.
  • Quantity of dice is better than quality of dice. In virtually every case, your odds of success with N green dice are better than with N-1 yellow dice. For Piloting checks, someone with Agility 3 and skill has worse odds than someone with Agility 5 and no training until the former has trained up to 5 ranks in Piloting. There are minor exceptions when a skill level is high and characteristic ratings are only different by 1, but they are quite small. A boost die has a bigger impact than a die upgrade, and it can significantly increase your chances of success and critical success.
  • In the same vein, upgrading a purple difficulty die to a red challenge dice just isn’t that big a deal. Outside of the triumph and despair symbols (see next), the effects of the yellow and red dice on your chances of success vs failure or advantage vs threat are negligible (they help; just not a lot). In most situations a challenge die is about a 5 percentage point hit on your chances of success, with minimal impact on your chances of critical successes (again, outside of despair, which I’m getting to). Adding a setback die is significantly more impactful than upgrading a check, in that it has a somewhat greater negative impact on your chances of success, and a much nastier hit to your chances of critical success (roughly halving them in the 1g+2y vs. 2p case).
  • By far the most important impact of the proficiency (yellow) and challenge (red) dice are the 1:12 chance for a triumph or despair.  The 1g+2y shot vs. 2p has only a 3% chance of a critical, but it has a 12% chance of a success + triumph. For anything that requires three or more advantages to activate,  triumphs are the way to go. Even when you are enormously skilled and the task is easy, you are still more likely to get triumphs than 3 advantages. The overall impact of the challenge dice on the game (and so the despair symbol) is less pronounced simply because there aren’t very many of them flying around. You’ll occasionally get them through the GM spending Destiny, and a Nemesis’ Adversary talent; that’s about it.
  • The bias for failure + advantage and success + threat is very noticeable when the pool is balanced (equal green and purple dice). Due to the extra threat and missing failure symbols on the purple dice (compared to the green dice), until you have a big dice imbalance success with threat tends to dominate the nontrivial results, with failure plus advantage coming next, and then failure plus threat and success plus advantage only filling up as the dice become overwhelming in one direction or the other.

Some of this makes sense, some of it is decidedly odd.

I am definitely not a fan of how it makes levels of skill relatively unimportant. You might think 3 ranks of Piloting gives you some niche protection in that area; but it does not, someone with 4 Agility is basically as good as you. High characteristics are a big deal, and spending any of your initial XP on anything other than characteristics doesn’t make a ton of sense, from a pure min-maxing perspective. This is not great from a “making characters interesting” perspective.

The flipside of the relative weakness of skills is the imbalance in the Destiny Pool. For the GM, spending a dark side Destiny Point to upgrade the difficulty of a skill check just doesn’t do a lot – it’s usually about a 5% hit, the equivalent of a -1 in a d20-based system, with a small (8%) chance of a despair symbol. Barely worth the effort. The FATE-like “Luck and Deus Ex Machina” function of the Destiny Pool is great and I like it a lot. But spending points to upgrade checks and difficulty is fiddly and low-impact.

In fact, many of the parameters of the game seem to be built on a profound misapprehension about how powerful the challenge and proficiency dice are and the frequency of surplus advantages. There are weapons with critical ratings of 4 or 5, as if the chances of that level of surplus did not round to zero. In table 7-5, which talks about how to spend advantage and triumph in starship combat, two options for spending triumph are: “Do something vital to turning the tide of the battle, such as destroying a capital ship’s shield generator or losing a pursuing ship in an asteroid field”, and “Upgrade an allied character’s next Piloting Gunnery, Computers, or Mechanics check”. Which is deeply weird. That first use of a triumph is obviously extremely powerful – much more powerful than a simple critical hit. Yet for a character with skill, getting a triumph is much more likely than rolling a critical hit! The second effect, on the other hand, is comparatively trivial. Not only that, but it’s usually weaker than adding a boost die to the same check, which you can do with a single advantage! The proficiency dice do come with triumph symbols which boosts do not, which complicates the comparison slightly, I think the general rule holds. Boosts increase you chances of success more than proficiency dice do.

One of the interesting ways in which the dice pool works that did make sense is how armor affects defense. Armor is generally modeled through setback dice, and the interesting thing as that while it’s generally a modest reduction in your to-hit chances (on the order of 8%), it really nerfs your chances of getting surplus advantages (the impact on triumphs is less noticeable).

At the end of the day I’m not sure what to make of all this. I like the dice pool mechanic quite a bit, and if you look at it as a core system, it has lots of interesting features and it’s fun to roll lots of colorful dice. For purely narrative checks it works great, as long as you have a basic grasp of the frequency of some combinations. However, a lot of the crunchy superstructure built on top of it seems deeply suspect.

In the long term, to make a more smoothly functioning game, I think we need a serious recalibration of many of the parameters of the game system. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to figure out some tweaks to make your game run better. Here is what I’ve taken away from it for my GMing:

  1. Be very generous in handing out setback and boost dice; they are the most interesting dice to add to routine checks. Use the boosts like candy; give them to players as a reward for trying something cool cinematic, in addition to their modeling function. They are fairly strong, and in order to get surplus advantage to trigger interesting game effects (primarily in combat), characters are going to need the extra punch provided by boosts. The point of diminishing returns on the chance of success is at about 85-90%, so dice beyond that point (roughly +3 dice, although obviously the system has a lot of variability) are mainly going into generating advantage. A lot of talents also remove setback dice, so in order for that to be interesting you need to be handing them out fairly routinely. As a corollary for players, all those things you can do to gain boost dice in combat (aim, spending advantage) are worth doing.
  2. Don’t overdo the triumph symbols, either narratively or in combat. When characters are skilled, triumphs are not that uncommon (12-15% for a balanced dice pool with a couple Proficiency dice). Feel free to go nuts with multiple triumphs, but a single triumph should not be allowed to dismantle a scene or conflict.
  3. Be aware of the system’s significant bias for success with threat and failure with advantage in routine checks. This is actually mostly a feature, not a bug, and allows you to make success more complicated and (more usefully) mitigate failure. But it does get repetitive, so don’t get too worked up about it; it’s OK for the benefits of rolling an advantage or two on a failed check to be small and transitory, since it’s very common. It also argues for rolling dice only when it’s genuinely interesting to do so, but that’s good advice for any game under any circumstances.
  4. The Destiny pool doesn’t really work, because the impact of a single challenge or proficiency die just isn’t big enough. I don’t really have a solution for this. The house rule I’m considering using is to have the GM spend them for Numenera-like intrusions as the flip side of the players’ “Luck and Deus Ex Machina”, but what the system seems to really want is just a much more potent die.
  5. Find ways to get more challenge dice into the game, just so you can play with despair. As written, the system favors adding setback dice to modify difficulty, which I think generally makes sense, but we’re just not rolling enough red dice and they don’t have enough impact on the game. While excess threat is generally easier to find then excess advantage, we still want to see those despair symbols occasionally! Consider giving more opponents the Adversary talent. Minion groups especially currently really suck, and giving more imposing ones (Stormtroopers, TIE wings) some kind of levels of Adversary would help mix things up.
  6. Speaking of Minion groups, they do really suck because the extra proficiency dice they get for being in larger groups just aren’t hugely significant. I think this is fine and generally the intent of the game, but just bear it in mind. Big groups of minions are far more imposing on the page than they are in actual play. The number of groups is far more important than the numbers in each group.
  7. During character generation, I like to give players an extra 40XP to spend after spending their initial allotment (I think this number could actually be even larger). The system is so heavily biased in favor of characteristics that players are going to sensibly spend as many of of their initial points as possible on those. Making sure your character has one characteristic of 4 is a huge deal. Low characteristics, 1 or 2, can limit you because they cap the number of yellow dice you can roll, and so in the long term limit your ability to generate triumphs no matter how skilled you become. Giving players some points they must  spend on skills & talents to differentiate the characters seems wise. In an unrelated point, characters need a lot more starting money – 1500 credits instead of 500 seems closer to right. Yes, there are options for spending Obligation or Duty for more equipment, but messing with this is awkward and 500 credits is just ludicrously low.

This may all sound negative, and I do think it’s true that there is too much in the game that just doesn’t make much sense as designed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in the game – weapon ratings, talents, advantage spends – that clearly are at least somewhat misaligned. But, the cool thing about the system is that fundamentally it’s quite simple and elegant and has a lot of potential. Once you’ve gotten a handle on how things actually work, it’s not that hard to hammer things into some form of order. I still need to find a fix for the destiny pool, but I feel like as I play more and get more of an understanding of how the pieces fit together, and how to use them properly (even if that’s not exactly what the rules say), I’m happier with the game. While it’s always going to be a game in need of constant tinkering to keep working, that tinkering is not particularly onerous, Star Wars is fun, dice are fun, and the core system is good.

Numenera: The Beale of Boregal

I finally got to play some Numenera. Kim had played an intro module at BigBadCon last October and really enjoyed it, so it wasn’t too hard to talk her into GMing a few sessions for us. She decided to run The Beale of Boregal, the first module from the core book, mixed up a little bit to both more fit her personal style and to be a jumping-off point for a longer arc.

My character is In Gwen Said (thanks, random name generator!), a Graceful Jack who Explores Dark Places. Ousted from the Explorers Guild by a rival and ostracized, Gwen is on the Wandering Walk – a mystical pilgrimage route through the Ninth World with no clear beginning or ending – as a sort of walkabout. Gwen links up with fellow-travellers: Kal, a swift jack trying to escape the consequences of the tragic accident that gave him a halo of fire; Vehm, a swift nano who fuses flesh and steel, who found it more convenient to leave town after he killed a high-profile criminal; Millord, the rugged glaive who howls at the moon and is on a quest to restore his family’s fortune; and Meck, the mystical nano who controls beasts and as yet has no backstory despite the best efforts of the character creation system.

The story starts off on the Wandering Walk with the standard meet-and-greet. Gwen and Kal are friends who did some artifact-hunting together in the past; all the other characters turn out, conveniently, to know each other in some way, so that helps. With pleasantries disposed of, the group sights a scutimorph on the horizon, with riders! On the off chance you aren’t familiar with scutimorphs, they are 6 foot high, 12 foot long millipede-like creatures that, as far as anyone knows, are untamable. So that’s kind of odd. The riders turn out to be a teenage boy and his badly wounded younger sister who, it seems, is telepathic or at least empathic. It develops that the two are fleeing a raid on their village, and looking for aid and healing. We don’t have the healing the girl needs, so we arrange for an escort to the spa town down the road while we trudge off to see what we can do for their village.

Said village is in the False Woods, so named (as quickly becomes apparent) because what looks like an orchard from a distance is actually a bunch of identical tubes, all hovering about 2′ off the ground, arrayed in neat rows and columns and supporting a net of some kind. And also, with scutimoprhs wrapped around them. As the villagers are trying to homestead on top of numenera they don’t understand, weird stuff has been happening: villagers are having bad dreams, animals in the vicinity are becoming unusually erratic and/or homicidal, stuff life that. After the nanos in the party spend a little time deciphering the numenera, to everyone’s general amusement, we follow the signs off towards the village of Embered Peaks which we suspect to be the source of the psychic disruption.

On the way we are ambushed by some Stratherian War Moths (because, if I’m a warped high-level nano wanting to bioengineer some killing machines, the first thing that occurs to me is to start with a moth). These would have been nastier if Kal had not remembered he had a cypher that could produce a large Wall of Cold, turning a highly dangerous encounter into a manageable one. Gwen shows off some archery skills, along with fast defensive maneuvering which leaves the moths blasting their heat rays at shadows.

On arrival at Embered Peaks, we find the small village in chaos. People are running around in madness. Houses are on fire. Millord detects a survivor in one burning building, and Gwen runs in along with Kal to try to effect rescue. Things start to go wrong when Kal decides throwing a small child out a second story window to safety is probably fine, and ends with Kal clinging to the other survivor and a Reality Spike mounted to nothing 20 feet off the ground while the house collapses around him and Gwen dances back out the front door.

Undeterred, at the heart of town we find a strange cult fiddling while things burn. Embered Peak’s claim to tourist fame is an oracle that supposedly lets people talk with the dead if they are in possession of the corpse, but in a way that a) only allows them to ask one question, and b) the answers are always lies. Gwen thinks this sounds not particularly productive, but whatever. It turns out to be trickier than you might think to formulate a couple of questions to ask that might ascertain the truth of the situation. This turns out to be important, as the numenera that powers this feat (and as a byproduct seems to be driving people in the vicinity to madness) is what looks like a person who has been hooked via tubes and wires to a giant artifact of some kind. The person has probably been there for a very, very long time. It’s really unclear to the party whether the person wants to be disconnected, put out of his misery, or what exactly and whether any of it would put an end to the ongoing situation. The local cultists are (perhaps unsurprisingly) not that helpful. After some back and forth in which Kal is revealed to have a complicated ethical framework, we try disconnecting. This gets awkward when the artifact itself seems reluctant to let its captive/host/symbiote go, and the party must fend off encroaching cables and tubes trying to capture them while disconnecting the captive. Eventually the captive is released! He seems to be a powerful fusion of flesh and numenera, so that’s a little scary, but he also seems grateful and non-homicidal! So that was probably the right answer. Problem solved. What’s next?

I’m a big fan of Monte Cook’s work – my favorite d20-style RPG by far was Arcana Unearthed/Evolved – so I came into Numenera with some confidence, even though the “billion years in the future” and “technology or magic – you decide!” hook didn’t immediately grab me. In the end, the game easily exceeded expectations and I enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed any RPG I’ve ever played. The character creation process is genius (and easy), the system of GM intrusions is fantastic, and the rest of the system is very lightweight and extremely efficient. The game world of Numenera is rich and engaging. At a high level it has a similar aesthetic to Ashen Stars: take something familiar (the fantasy d20 tradition), and then “reboot” it by introducing a few quirky, disruptive elements to make it novel. Numenera has gone a lot farther down this path than Ashen Stars did, though. It has (like Arcana Evolved before it) jettisoned all the elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, and other baggage and completely replaced it with an entirely new, thoroughly-developed world designed both as a compelling fictional setting and to support the peculiar storytelling requirements of the  roleplaying genre. The amount of creative effort that has gone into the setting is impressive: from all the strange creatures and races to the cyphers, oddities, and artifacts, there is a ton of depth here and it steadfastly refuses to fall back on cliches. There is a lot to like and I hope to be playing it for quite a while. I highly recommend it.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is Fantasy Flight’s attempt to bring the Star Wars universe to tabletop roleplaying, and by my count this is the third or fourth crack at this general problem. Wizards of the Coast had two iterations using a d20-based system and while they produced some great sourcebooks, the feel of the gameplay was, to me, never right. West End Games’ Star Wars game was old school, and while it had its moments and makes a virtue of elegance, it feels dated today.

Star Wars presents significant obstacles to being adapted as a roleplaying game. I wrote a piece on GUMSHOE a couple years ago, about how classic RPGs built on simple task resolution systems have a hard time evoking the feel of many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and epics. It can be done, but’s down to the players to do all the heavy lifting without any support from the game system itself. GUMSHOE attacks these problems by baking the tropes and conventions of the procedural mystery genre into the game system, giving the players the support they need.

Star Wars is not a mystery, though. It isn’t even obviously procedural, although there are procedural threads in the prequels. For me, Star Wars defies easy categorization. It’s  a romance, it’s an epic, it’s fantasy, it’s drama. In some ways it’s a fairy story, in other ways it’s a nuanced allegory. It resembles a hero’s quest, but like Lord of the Rings it veers off-course in the final act. The narratives are built on timeless structures, yet are also tightly bound to the eras that spawned them (the 60s and 70s for the originals, the 90s and 00s for the prequels).

Adding further complexity, there is the question of what people consider canon. For me, it’s the 6 movies plus the Clone Wars TV show, and I want nothing to do with tie-in books or video games and the Extended Universe in general. But, some people disavow the prequel trilogies, others like the much more pulpy, super-heroic books, and now there are books that run the gamut of genre mash-ups. Some players grew up playing Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic or X-Wing and it will please them to see elements of those stories recognized.

These are the core questions that a Star Wars RPG has to wrestle with and find answers to in 2013: what, exactly, is Star Wars? And can we get everyone at the table to more or less agree on an answer?

Edge of the Empire reminds me of The One Ring, which I reviewed last year. Task resolution involves a set of customized dice built into a pool: add positive 8 and 12-siders  for your level of skill, negative 8 and 12-siders for the level of difficulty, throw in some d6s for situational modifiers, gather up all the dice, roll them, and try to keep them all on the table (difficulty level: average, modified by your table’s elasticity). Net out the success and failure symbols to see if you succeeded. The twist, and why rolling all these dice is interesting, is that in addition to success or failure symbols there are also threat and advantage symbols along with their more powerful cousins despair and triumph. They are netted out similarly to successes and failures, and can serve both mechanical and narrative purposes. In combat, threat and advantage tends to be spent in well-specified, crunchy ways to score critical hits, use weapon or character special powers, or create a temporary situational advantage. Outside of combat, they are used as narrative hooks to allow you to succeed at tasks with complications, or to fail but gain some advantage, or some other mix.

A typical test will involve rolling maybe 6 dice. The character will get 3 for a skill he or she is reasonably good at (say two ability dice plus one proficiency die), while a moderately difficult task will add 3 difficulty dice. Perhaps one more will be added as a boost or setback for external circumstances. These are all information-rich dice. The ability (and difficulty) dice have only one blank face, with the rest having 5 distinct mixes of one or two success (failure) and/or advantage (threat) symbols. The proficiency and challenge dice are similarly dense and add triumph and despair symbols. Assembling and rolling a dice pool and figuring out the results is not entirely trivial, much more involved than adding up numbers and looking for Tengwars in The One Ring, or netting out successes on FUDGE dice.

I like this. Because there is weight associated with die rolls – both mechanically and creatively because you have to be prepared to figure out what to do with threats and advantages – it encourages you to make rolls only when the results are going to be interesting. If after rolling the dice, you’re routinely drawing a blank on what to do with the resulting threats or advantages, you’re doing it wrong and rolling for too many routine tasks. At the same time, building the pool is fairly intuitive, and adding a setback die to a check for, say, being under time pressure is more interesting and generates more tension than just giving you a -2 to your d20 or increasing your success threshold by 1.

This dice pool compares interestingly to Fate, a game system that seems to have influenced Edge of the Empire significantly. In that game, fate point give the players interesting narrative control over a skill check by allowing them to tag their own aspects or things in the environment for bonuses. In combat in Fate, I might spend a Fate point to tag a “venting gas leak” for a +2 bonus to my shot as my character uses it for cover to get into a better firing position. Most of your creative energy goes into the setup of the challenge and ends after the dice are rolled. By contrast, in Edge of the Empire (as in The One Ring), you say what you’re trying to do, roll the dice, look at the pool, and create the outcome out of the mixture of success, advantage, and threat. So if I get a couple of Advantage symbols, maybe a stray shot creates a venting gas leak that another player can use as cover in the future (giving a setback die to shots aimed at her). The rules are mealy-mouthed on how much control players get over their advantage results, especially outside of combat, but I’d suggest that by default if the player has a good idea you should go with it. This has the nice feature that creativity always feels like it’s rewarded. If you spend energy coming up with some creative tagging in Fate you can still blow the check, in which case it’s easy to feel like it was all for naught. Advantage and threat in Edge of the Empire are the result of an interesting die roll.

A vital ancillary system is Destiny points. These are analogous to Fate’s Fate points. At the start of the game, you randomly assemble a pool of Destiny points on their light or dark side, one or two per player. The light points are spent by the players to upgrade characters’ dice for a skill check, the dark points by the GM to improve difficulty dice. Once spent, they flip. Crucially, the can also be used by the players in a free-form way to introduce a true fact about the galaxy in a the same way as making a declaration with a Fate point (and with a similar narrative affect to making a GUMSHOE investigative spend). This covers a lot of ground, from simply declaring you have available the equipment you need even if it’s not on your character sheet, to allowing you to use your skills in unexpected ways or creating NPC relationships. Like Fate, the rule is just that it has to be interesting and meet with the GM’s approval.

The final piece of the puzzle is a character’s Obligation. Recent RPGs have taken to building some sort of genre-appropriate motivation descriptor into character generation, a descriptor that has significant mechanical implications. Whether it’s GUMSHOE’s drives or Fate’s Aspects, they can work as a hammer to make characters do something risky and interesting when a more reasonable response might be to turtle or not act. In a GUMSHOE game, the Drives provided for the setting tell you a lot about what it’s like. The drives in Night’s Black Agents are quite different from the ones in Ashen Stars. A Fate character’s Aspects, although tricky to get right, can provide a useful tool for the GM to propel action.

Obligation is the analog in Edge of the Empire, and here we finally get to the nub of what kind of Star Wars story we’re doing. Each character starts with one, with a rating of maybe between 5 and 20 (starting rating varies with the number of players, and you can add more to get more stuff). The off-the-shelf Obligations are things like Criminal, Debt, Bounty, Blackmail, and Betrayal, although they also include Dutybound, Family, Oath, and Obsession. The rating indicates the likelihood that the Obligation will intrude on whatever the players are doing. The GM makes a percentile roll before each session (not unlike the Icon relationship roll in 13th Age) and if it comes in below the group’s total obligation level, one of the obligations kicks in, adding a complication to the story.

This should tell you who’s stories we’re looking at here: those of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian. They’re the only main characters in the movies that have clear obligations (Debt to Jabba the Hutt, an Oath to protect Han, and Responsibility for Cloud City). None of the other characters in the classic trilogy have anything resembling an Obligation. Some of the prequel characters seem like they might – maybe Obsession for Anakin, or Duty for Padmé – but the Obligation mechanics don’t work for their stories. Obligations represent some external force that can benefit the character, but can also have external consequences – again, very similar to 13th Age Icon relationships or a Source of Stability in a pulp Trail of Cthulhu game. Anakin’s Obsession in the prequels is clearly a GUMSHOE Drive, a personal imperative that you violate only at a personal psychological cost, and not the external Edge of the Empire Obligation.

So, we’re telling Han Solo’s story. More specifically, we’re telling Han Solo’s story before he links up with Luke and Ben. Although this might sound limiting, creativity requires boundaries, and it’s actually empowering for both players and GMs as long as they take the hint and are not distracted by the fact that the game has unwisely included lightsabers in the equipment list (despite the fact that the game offers no way to gain access to the skill for using them). Star Wars is a big universe, exponentially more so once you throw in the EU, and players can come to the table with a wide range of understandings and expectations. So picking one clear aspect of the universe and developing it is a good way to both make your game robust, set expectations, and get all the players on the same page.

I know Fantasy Flight primarily through their boardgames (I’ve never played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition, which Edge of the Empire apparently has some similarities to), and I think of their design sensibilities as fairly retro. By contrast, Edge of the Empire is a contemporary design clearly much more influenced by Fate and GUMSHOE than d20 or GURPS. Still, the dice pool task resolution system is much more concrete, more nuanced, and finicky than anything in a rules-light game, and things like weapon lists and capabilities (different weapons have different powers that can be activated through spending advantage symbols), character abilities, and space combat actions are spelled out in crunchy detail. The game is trying to give at least something to all of Robin’s Laws Power Gamers, Butt-Kickers, Method Actors, and Storytellers.

I really like the total package here. The game that I’ve played that is closest in feel to Edge of the Empire is The One Ring, but I feel like Edge of the Empire’s dice pool is more nuanced which allows it to have a crunchier, more flavorful and interesting combat system, although as a result it has to be used somewhat sparingly. The wide range of dice results combined with character powers and explicit combat options give players who enjoy those elements something to get their teeth into, and the point-purchase system of advancement lets players grow their character sheets. Outside of combat, the Destiny Pool imports some useful ideas from Fate and gives the system a touch of epic-ness while still remaining grounded. The Obligations carve off a nice, constrained element of the Star Wars space and lets you develop ideas there and avoid many of the pitfalls of generic Star Wars gaming.

The key to enjoying Edge of the Empire is embracing these constraints. I played once with a GM who wanted to run a Jedi-centric (of course) post-Order 66 story arc, so home-brewed some force rules and introduced dramatic emotional complications between the pre-generated player characters and generally tried to force the game to be something it isn’t. This is a recipe for pain. While there is no reason why an adventure like this couldn’t work in theory, when confronted with it in practice the players likely won’t have a common touchstone to use to respond to it, and harnessing player creativity is so key to making these games work. The single biggest challenge to roleplaying in the universes of Lucas or Tolkien or Lovecraft – universes that have taken on lives of their own as they have became embedded in the popular culture – is often simply getting everyone at the table to understand and agree on the tone and theme of the game before you start. Edge of the Empire is not a game about dramatic conflict, or epic confrontations, or the hero’s journey, even though those may be elements of Star Wars. It’s about making a living in the grey areas of the galaxy while perhaps brushing up against the epic conflict. Take advantage of this clear direction, and embrace what the game does well.

After having said good things about the Edge of the Empire game system, I have to mention the massive complication that is the actual Edge of the Empire core rulebook. It is dire. While it has a nice layout and the art ranges from passable to excellent, the font sizes – especially on the tables – are small and hard to read. The text is dense and poorly organized. The prose is leaden and the rules are poorly explained. Never, for example, are the actual mechanics of a skill check properly spelled out! The core mechanic of the dice pool – which is straightforward and which I can explain to a player in a couple minutes – takes 10 pages of dense, wordy description with liberal use of copy and paste combined with search and replace. The bane of Fantasy Flight’s boardgame rules is badly-ordered or unstructured  explanations which rarely give you the context to actually understand what you’re reading (I talked about how to do this properly in an old piece on rules), and this is on full display here also. You really get the sense that the writers must have been paid by the pound, given how the rules seem to have been structured to maximize the amount of repetition required and how often they feel the need to brutally over-explain simple concepts.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not a complicated game. It’s not rules-light, but it compares favorably with Fate-based games or The One Ring in terms of how difficult it is to play. It’s just that the book makes it seem three to four times as complicated as it actually is. Having been spoiled recently by fantastic Pelgrane products, just reading Edge of the Empire was an epic struggle.

The section on GMing the game is also frustratingly useless for anyone reading this blog, as it deals with many peripheral issues (maybe you can find players online! or at your local game store!) without ever seriously tackling anything important: things like adventure themes, structure, and tone. Interestingly, a number of excellent, concrete, and useful tips that are included in the Beginner’s Game box set (fail forward; say “yes, but”; don’t roll the dice if success and failure aren’t both interesting; don’t let forward momentum stop just because of a failed check) are nowhere to be found in the core book.

The rest of the supporting material is OK. The adversaries list is solid. The list of ships is a bit thin, but OK. The Galactic Guide is a nice if somewhat meandering overview of the Star Wars universe which unfortunately does not focus on the actual premise of the game, the Obligated character.

Again, though, the whole thing is compromised by a prose style that I consider basically unreadable. If you’re like me, you’ll read it just enough to figure out the core systems and design intent, get some stats for stormtroopers, and probably never go back to it again except for some tables. You’ve watched the movies. You really don’t need any more background than that – more information may in fact be unhelpful – and adversaries and starships don’t have that many stats to generate.

I liked Edge of the Empire. With the huge caveat of the quality of the writing, I think it’s the best take on Star Wars by far. The dice pool is versatile and provides useful hooks when used efficiently, and helps to narratively empower the players if the GM so desires. Other supporting elements are borrowed from proven systems. Obligations may not seem like a lot, but they are vital in setting the tone and character of the game. While the book doesn’t provide the support that one might hope, the game system itself provides enough structure for an experienced GM to run with and gives players opportunities to both play creatively and trick out their characters with cool powers and gear. While it certainly lacks the elegance and professionalism of a Robin Laws or Kenneth Hite game, there is still a lot to like here.

The One Ring RPG

I threw in the towel on D&D (3, 3.5 and 4, plus Pathfinder) a couple years ago and switched my roleplaying energies to Gumshoe, a decision I’m quite happy with. But, as is usual with these things, I didn’t bring along all the friends I game with. For players who like the tactical combat, detailed character building, and the die-rolling of D&D or Pathfinder, Gumshoe is not going to be in their wheelhouse.

So I’m always on the lookout for somewhere we can meet in the middle. A game, probably a fantasy game, that has interesting combat with plenty of die-rolling but doesn’t get bogged down in minutia and can be enjoyed more in the quick-playing, systems-light style. Something that has plenty of skills and feat-like-things, but that still taps into the more improvisational RPG aesthetic.The One Ring looked perfect.

Not that I came to that conclusion right away though. I picked it up after it got some buzz from GenCon 2011 despite the fact that Tolkien roleplaying games in general have a rather sorry history, mainly because of my Tolkien fandom and because it was through Sophisticated Games, which has a good track record with licensed products. Unfortunately, The One Ring’s two core books are incoherent: rules presented in almost random order, topics split between sections and between both books and fully explained nowhere, paragraphs that give up their meaning only after intense textual analysis – it’s really terrible. After doing my initial read I shelved it feeling like it was making the right noises, but having little idea what the game was trying to do. It was only once I picked it up again six months later and plowed through it on a mission that I figured out what the game was about.

It’s a nice blend of ideas. The skill check system is straightforward: you roll against target numbers with a single d12 Fate die, plus one regular d6 for each rank you have in the skill. There are a few nuances built in to the custom dice: the d6s have a Tengwar rune for an exceptional success on the 6, and the 1-3 faces are shaded and count for zero if you are weary. The big variance on the Fate die makes it possible for more or less anyone to succeed (albeit rarely) at many things, but it takes skill to get the exceptional successes that trigger bonuses. The probability curve is rather nice and gives you real flexibility as the GM with target numbers; there are big differences between how characters with various ranks in skills will feel about targets of 10, 12, 14, or 16. The rules for Weariness, zeroing out your d6 rolls of 1 through 3, are very clean but impactful, and make tasks a lot harder but don’t make impossible anything you could accomplish when well-rested.

This solid skill check system then works quite well in combat, which is abstract but has good texture. Each combat round you choose how closely you are going to engage, which affects both how easy it will be for you to hit the enemy as well as how easily they hit you. Each range bracket has a special action associated with it (intimidate, rally, protect, aim), and there are other standard combat options (called shots, accepting knockback) which provide some choices and are thematic. Additionally, it’s nice to see attention to workable rules for disengaging and fleeing from combat, a common occurrence in the books. Also nice is that enemies have a Hate rating which both powers their special abilities and is a proxy for morale, giving the GM an explicit cue for when the bad guys break and run away themselves. Still, despite the solid mechanical support here, combat is still pretty abstract and nowhere near as tactically detailed as many would probably like. Gumshoe has always relied on the players to be a little more imaginative than just saying “I shoot him. I’ll spend 2 shooting points. I hit. I do 6 points of damage”. You don’t need involved narration for every combat roll, but it’s in the hands of the players to bring the action to life. The One Ring gives players much more support than Gumshoe does in terms of structure to hang some narration on, but it will still get repetitive and feel flat unless players can engage with it and flesh it out through colorful description.

This is all good and well-designed, but where does the players’ real narrative authority kick in? Characters in The One Ring have Traits (which can be Specialties, which are like backgrounds, or Distinctive Features, which are more like personality traits), which serve some of the same game functions as FATE’s Aspects or Gumshoe’s investigative skills. They are little bits of description that if you can integrate in to what you’re trying to accomplish with a skill, you get a significant bonus – sometimes an auto-success, sometimes an extra experience point. There is no token economy backing this up as in FATE – you can earn the bonus as often as you can do it – and neither is as integral to the system as Trail of Cthulhu’s Drives which have a hard link to a character’s Sanity. It’s more akin to the Technothriller Monologue and similar cherries in Night’s Black Agents. Give a little narration that invokes your trait and pleases the GM and the other players, and you get a bonus. My only complaint is that I think a number of The One Ring’s pre-packaged Traits can be problematic. Some of them are just hard to work into adventuring sorts of actions without straining something (Fishing?). Others, while perhaps thematic, are problematic from a game perspective as they can feed bad group dynamics (Secretive, Suspicious, or Wilful will be grabbed immediately by your player who enjoys hosing the party or abusing the gaming social contract).

In practice, while Traits are simple, work, and I like them, nonetheless they didn’t exert much pull on the imaginations of my fellow-players. Perhaps the off-the-shelf ones were too vague and not generally useful enough, or the benefits of using them are not as crisp and clear as FATE’s Fate points. I suspect a combination. If you have a group that likes and has some experience with these sorts of player narrative hooks I’m sure it’ll be fine, but I suspect for groups trying to make the switch form D&D, GURPS, or Call of Cthulhu there might not be enough direction here.

More practical and useful I think are a few conventions and pointers for GMs. One key bit is that skill checks are resolved in a somewhat non-traditional way: first, as a player state what you are trying to accomplish; second, roll the dice; and finally, narrate your character’s actions and the outcome, maybe with the help of the GM. This is a simple thing but makes for a much more satisfactory narrative, especially for social skills. How often have you framed, say, a Diplomacy check by narrating a suave approach and a persuasive argument only to fumble the die roll? It becomes hard to climb down at that point and narrate an interesting and plausible failure. This is a good habit to get into with any game I think, but The One Ring’s easy skill check details for extraordinary successes and fumbles supports it especially well. It also allows the characters more narrative control over both how they succeed and how they fail, which can be fun. Watch out though for the players who are too possessive and have a hard time narrating failure for their characters, instead trying to twist a failed die roll into an uncomplicated narrative success, but I suspect we can agree not to blame the system for that.

Beyond these core ideas, The One Ring provides a lot of mechanical support for adventuring in Tolkien’s world. There is a nice journeying sub-game for long trips which folds into the weariness system and provides a good way to hook in “random” encounters along the way when players blow rolls. Hope gives a way for characters to boost rolls, but spend too much Hope and you may gain a Shadow-Weaknesses, a Trait that works more to your disadvantage. The mix of wounds, weariness, and loss of hope inflicted by combat is much more thematic and interesting than just tracking hit points. The advancement system is point-buy, but the way experience points are awarded is quite clever – you get them for skill checks, but you can’t rack them up for using a single strong skill, you need to use a range of skills of different types. While the game is definitely what I’d consider lightweight, there is some detail to it. Unfortunately, I have to come back to the wretched books which make the game seem far more complicated than it really is. The first time we played, we were frequently flipping pages (and thrashing with the useless index) to find simple concepts. I ended up having to read both books cover to cover a third time, taking notes, to build up a reference card with a summary of all the systems just to make the game playable. It was only one page front and back in a large-ish font – this is a simple game with a truly terrible ruleset.

The last thing to talk about is the inherent difficulty associated with gaming in the worlds of J R R Tolkien. I think The One Ring has done a good job in hewing to the feel of the books, and I think focusing on the period and style of The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings is the right choice. The Hobbit makes more fertile ground for lighter, fun, action-adventure games, while The Lord of the Rings is complicated by its truly epic scale and the fact that anything you might do is vastly less important than whatever the Fellowship is up to. Still, even focusing on The Hobbit, the problem is that like the Cthulhu Mythos every reader finds something different in Tolkien and decades of bad knock-offs have polluted the environment, so it can be hard for everyone to be on the same page style-wise. How many battles do the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings actually initiate? None as far as I can remember – they’re all defensive engagements, or running battles with the heroes trying to escape. But a million D&D set-pieces where dwarves and elves and men take the battle to the bad guys (and loot their stuff) makes balancing expectations complicated. I really enjoy reading the parts of the Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents rules where Robin Laws and Kenneth Hite talk quite specifically about how stories are structured in their game worlds, what the themes are and how to keep the characters moving. Something along these lines for The One Ring would have been hugely helpful, as the modules provided in the rulebook and the Tales from Wilderland sourcebook are mediocre. Tolkien is not about escorting hapless two-bit merchants through Mirkwood for a flat fee. Perhaps an equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos’ “purist” vs. “pulp” would be helpful here.

Bottom line for me: as a person intrigued by game systems and how they tweak players and enable different play styles, I liked The One Ring a lot and it overcame my inherent skepticism about the gameability of Tolkien. The dice system is terrific, the combat system is light-ish but thematic and interesting and with some subtlety, and the game is faithful to the books. Unfortunately the supports for the good game mechanics are not very good. The books are atrociously put together. The adventures are at best OK. The vital Traits are a mixed bag. There is little help for the GM in terms of the nitty-gritty of designing adventures, and crucially little practical guidance on the complicated questions of style and how to game Tolkien in a way that’s fun. As good as the game system is, and as I much as I hope The One Ring can find a niche in my roleplaying rotation, these practical obstacles are significant and I fear I need to keep looking for something reliable to fill the gap between D&D and Gumshoe. Maybe 13th Age will fill the bill.

GUMSHOE Tips for Players

As regular readers will know, Robin Laws’ and Pelgrane Press’ GUMSHOE game system has become by far my favorite roleplaying system over the past year. Much as I like it, its focus on character and narrative instead of the more traditional event-driven stories can make for a tricky adaptation for both players and GMs. There is a lot of advice and material out there for GMs, but not so much for players. So, here are are some strategies that I’ve picked up from playing and running games.

  • Look at your Drive. Understand it. If it’s not completely clear to you, ask your GM. Never mind your background, character flavor, or skills, your Drive is your single most important roleplaying tool. If you’re ever in doubt about what direction your character should be going, consult your Drive. Nobody will ever fault you for honestly pushing your Drive, and your GM will likely thank you.
  • Don’t concern yourself with equipment. Rely on your Preparedness skill instead. The GUMSHOE character sheets have no inventory lists – there is a reason for that. The GM is not out to screw you because you forgot a 10′ pole. It’s just not that sort of game. Let go. Pick a weapon, if appropriate, and leave the rest to Preparedness.
  • For your first few games, don’t worry about investigative spends. They make sense, but only once players are comfortable with the system and its goals. One good, simple way to think about them is this: if you monopolize the GM’s time for a little while, that’s a spend. If you find that a skill use you’ve called for has ended up highlighting your character for a non-trivial sequence, dock yourself a point or two based on your sense of how much screen time you sucked down. Once you have no points left in a skill, be careful about calling for actions using that skill that place demands on the GMs time to the exclusion of other players.
  • Think about what information you need, then look at your investigative skills to figure out how your character might go about it if you need help. Remember, GUMSHOE characters are generally highly competent, and as such their skills define them more strongly than in other games. Other systems can develop a pattern of “here’s what I want to do, what skill should I roll against?”, but this can cause problems for GUMSHOE because of the auto-succeed nature of investigative skills. So know what skill you’re using. The skill list has been carefully chosen to reflect the genre and style. When in doubt, you can look at your skill list and try to figure out how those skills might be useful and interesting in this scene.
  • This is tricky, but try to let scenes develop while also knowing when to end them. GUMSHOE is a character-driven game. If the GM sets a scene or introduces a character, it’s something for your character to explore, have some fun with, and see where it goes. Once you’ve developed something a bit, try to recognize when it’s played out. The GM will try to help you here – pay attention if she is trying to shut the scene down. This is easier said than done, but scenes usually follow a logical narrative flow which you can try to grasp.
  • Recognize each player’s character’s strengths, as represented by their skill ratings, and let them take care of stuff in their specialties. If you have Library Use 1, that’s great, but let the player with Library Use 4 take charge in an appropriate scene. GUMSHOE parties are built as teams, almost to a greater degree even than D&D parties. Let each team member shine at what they do well.
  • Recognize dead ends. If you call for a skill use and the GM doesn’t give you anything interesting, there is nothing there. If you’ve called for Reassurance to calm down an NPC and get information out of him, and he’s not forthcoming, there is no key reassuring phrase you can utter in-character that will change this. This is the magic of investigative skills … you never have to worry about looking for something and missing it. If you use your skills, and don’t get results, you can still play out the scene for dramatic purposes if there is something interesting there – but you’ve got all the information you’re going to get. It’s tempting to think that anything significant the GM introduces at any point is immediately important, but that’s not always true. Sometimes it’s laying pipe, sometimes it’s just flavor, sometimes it’s a background detail. Don’t beat your head against things. In an event-driven story, you can never go back. In GUMSHOE, you can.
  • Be very careful about splitting the party. This is of course a truism in D&D, where there are endless jokes about it. GUMSHOE may be a totally different game from D&D, but there remains relentless logic behind sticking together. If half the party investigates one avenue while the other half minds the store, the GM can’t run a big scene without idling half the players for a significant amount of time and running the risk that skills key to resolving it are absent. If you lose the argument about what to do next, suck it up.
  • Apropos the last point, another trope of classic RPGs is to strictly cordon off player knowledge from character knowledge. Don’t do this. Or at least don’t go crazy. For example, if you do split the party for legitimate reasons, don’t duplicate what the other half of the group has already done because that’s what your character would do and he hasn’t got that information yet. Remember, your remit as a player is to move the narrative forward and be interesting. What your character does still has to make sense of course, but don’t do boring or redundant things because that’s what your character would do when you as a player know better.
  • GUMSHOE is about information: getting it, understanding it, making decisions based on it. The emotional tenor of the game will be based on what kind of information we’re talking about and how it’s revealed, but pieces of information are the corridors, doors, and treasure of GUMSHOE. Have a plan to get the information. Follow the information where it leads. Stay focussed. Let your plans play out.

The most important overarching thing to remember goes back to where I started: unlike most RPGs, GUMSHOE is primarily character-driven, not event-driven. Don’t concern yourself at all with what the GM is trying to do to your character. Ask yourself what you are doing to interestingly drive the narrative forward. The GM is not going to hose you, at least not in uninteresting ways. In fact, the only way you will end up getting hosed is if the GM is forced to hose you because you are being boring. Players have a lot of the responsibility for making a GUMSHOE story interesting, and the GM is at your mercy here. Consult your Drive and your skills to figure out ways to move the narrative forward. Most of the time you can go with just doing something obvious, because what is obvious to you in the context of your character, your drive, and your skills will usually be interesting to everyone else, including the GM. There is still plenty of room for dramatic, character-building scenes, but GUMSHOE is an investigative system which requires the players to get the information they need. Figure out what you need to know, what questions you need answered, and get those answers. Answers, not questions, move the narrative forward. Ask yourself, is what I’m doing interesting? Is it trying to answer questions based on what we’ve seen, what we know, or what my drive is? If it’s not, come up with something different.

D&D, 4th Edition

The Fourth Edition of D&D has been out for oh, about a year now, so maybe it’s about time I got around to saying a few words about it.

4E is a major overhaul of D&D 3(.5), a system that was in desperate need of something along those lines. I had gotten to the point after 5 years or so of off-again, on-again D&D 3 that I simply didn’t want to play it anymore (I might make an exception for Monte Cook’s Ptolus). I like several d20 systems – Arcana Evolved particularly,  also Star Wars d20, but I had come to loathe D&D: the abusive feat combos, the broken weaponry, the endless puzzling over vaguely-worded spells, the ludicrously unbalanced classes with limited development choices, the power-gaming, the endless splatbooks, the incompetent low-level characters, the classic vaguely-Tolkienesque fantasy archetypes that had all the life sucked out of them. It was an incredible mess, and a sinkhole that I honestly just didn’t enjoy and didn’t want to get involved with again.

So, I was relieved to see that 4E tackled head-on many of the problems I had with 3E. Character abilities have been streamlined and the system complexity greatly reduced. A wider variety of fantasy archetypes can be played in 4E, some (some) life has been breathed back into the stale races and classes, and parties have greater latitude in composition instead of being forced to have a Cleric, a Fighter, a Wizard, and whoever else wants to come along. Non-mainline character classes like Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks are much more interesting, can be developed in a range of ways, and feel like core game elements instead of the bolted-on additions they  have been in all previous editions (I was able to play a decidedly ambiguous Paladin devoted to the Raven Queen as one of my characters). 1st level characters are much more robust and competent. While the emphasis in D&D remains monster-slaying, the new system of skill points and broader skills (Spot and Listen reduced to Perception; Climb, Jump, and Swim to Athletics; a bunch of stuff to Thievery; etc.) allow characters to be good at a variety of things and widens the range of challenges the DM can throw at them. Also, because all characters abilities have now been framed in similar ways (at-will powers, daily powers, and encounter powers), all character classes have interesting choices about when to unleash their powerful strikes, instead of having Wizards pore over their spell lists every round while Fighters just try to guess how much to Power Attack for. Also, as magic users now have decent at-will powers, they no longer have to worry about being completely useless after they’ve exhausted their few, precious spell slots.

All in all, I’ve been pleased with how 4E plays. It’s cleaner, quicker, and appears better-balanced. While it’s clearly aimed at players more interested in the violence than the roleplaying, it’s full of good tips and helpful, if basic, roleplaying cues. Monsters are now easier to run for the GM without sacrificing much in terms of tactical interest, which is a big win. I no longer feel particularly drawn to D&D as a genre; I like Arcana Evolved much better as fantasy, Star Wars Saga Edition does the whole heroic angle better, and I’ve been recently been drawn to the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues) for investigative-type games. But D&D is an institution, bad D&D particularly so, and 4E does a good job of trying to make it relevant again.

Which brings me to the thing I find most odd about D&D 4E. The one complaint I’ve heard often about 4E is that it’s not D&D anymore, it’s trying to morph D&D into World of Warcraft. Which is an odd argument to make, given that World of Warcraft is basically ripped off from D&D, from what I understand of it. To me, this seems beside the point. 4E is a cleaner system, which takes D&D 3.5, in which perhaps 90% of a character’s abilities were devoted either to killing things or avoiding being killed by things, and brings the number down to maybe 80%. How many times have you been in a D&D game only to realize that none of your characters have any social skills because everyone has mini-maxed their Charisma down to 8 (Charisma being a generally worthless stat) and has too few skill points to focus on anything other than one or two core skills? 4E makes this scenario much less likely, and while most of your powers will involve killing things and taking their stuff, it’s much less likely that your party will be powerless in the face of a slightly uncooperative NPC or a moderately steep slope.

I think the World of Warcraft complaint is based not so much on the system itself, but the fact that Wizards seems to be going with a decidedly retro angle to marketing D&D 4. Despite having developed a pretty good game system, they seem to be trying to go back to the days of AD&D in terms of game sophistication, which just happens to be about where World of Warcraft is. The off-the-shelf modules seem like absolutely classic bad D&D: dungeon hack-fests with random traps to give the Thief’s life meaning and NPCs that are designed either to read exposition or to be killed. Good grief. Maybe this is what players like; but for me, not so much. I’m not into the extremes of “palace intrigue” or “cooperative storytelling” styles of roleplaying either, but I like some variety: a little humor, mystery, or intrigue between the bloodletting, some drama, some pacing. The same things I like in my boardgames. Not just clearing the room, then wondering what’s going to be in the next room, and whether or not we should take a break to allow our encounter powers to reset. D&D is a much more flexible game system than this. Trail of Cthulhu has Pulp and Purist, and Paranoia has Classic, Straight, and Zap, all to help try to support different players who have different expectations. Even closer to home, the Star Wars Saga Edition has really had a quite brilliant strategy in focussing on providing sourcebooks for different periods in the Star Wars Universe (Clone Wars, Classic Trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic, Scum and Villainy) with very different flavors and styles for different players. 4E could really use something along these lines so that those who are into the whole straight dungeon-crawling experience could be happy at the same time as those of us who aren’t. Maybe it’s there, but if it is, Wizards’ marketing isn’t doing a good job of telling me about it.

Anyway, I like 4E. The core of 4E is a good game system that tries to make things much more playable, characters more competent with a wider variety of abilities and more development choices. The Players’ Handbook II further develops the system with some great new classes and races that D&D desperately needs; it would be fun to play a party of characters drawn solely from the decidedly non-Tolkienesque races and classes in the PHB II, just to get some real variety. There is definitely a good game here. I’m just waiting for Wizards to support players like me before I get much farther into it.