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.

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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.

X-Wing Miniatures Game

No franchise is more beloved of gamers than Star Wars, and it’s actually had a number of pretty good games. My personal favorite is The Queen’s Gambit. The two Star Wars adaptations of Risk (Clone Warsand Original Trilogy) are still Risk but surprisingly good, and Clash of the Lightsabers is a nice fast 2-player game that melds euro-y mechanical tightness with a nice thematic detail. The West End and d20 Saga Star Wars RPGs are decent but to me nothing special, and there are still a lot of mediocre games trying to make a quick buck off the license along with the well-intentioned but misguided (Star Warriors), but overall I can’t complain. Fantasy Flight has now thrown two new games into the ring (X-Wing and Star Wars: The Card Game), with one more (the official release of the Edge of the Empire RPG) coming soon.

X-Wing was hard for me to know what to make of initially. It’s built on a very similar engine to Ares’ Wings of Glory (which has mechanically similar, but quite different in feel, WWI and WWII versions). Players simultaneously plot their moves ahead of time, then reveal and execute turns, loops, and whatnot and then fire their weapons. There are enough clear similarities between the games, and my respect for FFG’s in-house design team is low enough, that my initial impression was “OK, they just ripped off Wings of Glory” and to proceed to apply similar heuristics for tactics and strategy. Fortunately for gamers and unfortunately for my pilots, it is not. In fact, in terms of where the game is – where the real decisions lie, and what the game tensions are – X-Wing is very distinct from its parent game.

For starters, combat in X-Wing is quite lethal. An off-the-rack TIE fighter can absorb 3 points of damage before exploding in a cinematic fireball. An X-Wing with its 3 attack dice can do that outright one time in 8 – the 8-sided attack dice have hits on half the faces. If your attacker is focussed, the odds increase to almost 50%. If he’s Wedge, or locked-on, or a Marksman, or at point-blank range, or all of the above, the odds – which you really need to be told about – keep on increasing. Now, the TIE Fighter is going to get some weaker evasion dice, and he may be spending effort on dodging. Nonetheless, the X-Wing in this confrontation will only need to land one or two blows to take out its target. In Wings of Glory, inflicting the 18 damage points required to take down an Me-109 is likely going to take three or more point-blank shots from a Spitfire.

Where Wings of Glory spends all its attention to detail on hardware differences – the different turning or speed or weapon capabilities of different aircraft – X-Wing is much more focussed on pilot capabilities. The differences in speed and maneuverability between an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter, while not zero, are pretty small compared to the differences between Luke Skywalker and a generic Red Squadron Pilot.The single most crucial performance asymmetry of real ariel warfare that is at the core of the design in both Wings of Glory games – turning radius – varies only slightly across all fighters in X-Wing. The TIE fighter may be slightly faster than the X-Wing, but at a given velocity everyone turns in the same circles, with a few differences on the edges (A-Wings and TIE Fighters have a slower minimum speed so can execute somewhat tighter circles, while Y-Wing pilots take stress for some tight turns).*,** Putting Wedge Antllies in the cockpit, on the other hand, dramatically increases the ship’s lethality.

Lastly, scenarios in X-Wing don’t give you an order of battle, instead they give you points (usually 100) with which to buy your forces. The number of available options for spending these points is large, assuming you’ve invested in a modestly-sized collection. Pilots for your fighters are the big cost, but pilots can also be given special skills (marksmanship, determination), fighters can have additional weaponry added (proton torpedoes, ion cannons, various missiles), and there are more specialized upgrades (R2 units for your X-Wings, and Slave I or the Millennium Falcon can be tricked out with half-a-dozen different options). If like me your perspective is Wings of Glory, you might think “Aha! At last, a point-buy system for getting reasonably balanced match-ups!”. But that’s not what this is about.

Because of the game’s lethality, X-Wing is about big battles. Where in Wings of Glory you would be content with the complexity of controlling 1 or 2 planes, in X-Wing you’ll want 3 or 4 or more fighters to stay interested. In Wings of Glory, you’ll be primarily concerned about how to maneuver your one or two planes to improve your positional advantage on the one or two enemy planes in your vicinity. In X-Wing, you’ll be concerned about how to use your entire squadron such that pilot special abilities and synergies are maximized and any special weaponry you’ve bought is employed to its best effect. And, crucially, you’ll want to spend your 100 points such that your squadron is both tactically coherent and as potent as you can make it.

At the end of the day, X-Wing is a deck-building game with a detailed combat resolution system. I think you will enjoy this in direct proportion to how much you enjoy tricking out your squadron and seeing how it fares in battle. The tactical game is pretty good, but a little random and not, in isolation, enough to be engaging for more than a few plays. But combine it with the fairly rich squadron purchasing system, and now you’ve got something. You’ve invested the pre-game energy in your pilots and ships and (probably) developed both a more nuanced tactical view of how it should be employed that may only play out over a few games, as well as something of an emotional attachment to your pilots.

Does all this hew to the feel of Star Wars? Yes-ish, with the caveat that like most classic books and movies, Star Wars speaks in different ways to different viewers. The emphasis on people more than machines is clearly right, although more pictures of people on the card design would have been a no-brainer (and restoring some of the female pilots cut from Return of the Jedi would have been awesome). For me personally though, X-Wing buys into one thing that has always bugged me about Star Wars material not written by George Lucas: it assumes that all the people we see on screen are more competent than everyone who doesn’t get name-checked. I always thought the classic stories focussed on Luke and Han and Leia because they were interesting, not because they were the biggest bad-asses in the entire universe. Games, books, and comics frequently assign superpowers that are just not in evidence in the movies, where the humanity and relative ordinariness of the characters is such an important element. In fairness, X-Wing is far from the worst offender here, but it still bugs me a bit that Wedge Antilles has a table presence that vastly exceeds any other Red Squadron pilot. I always thought he was some guy who happened to be Luke’s wingman. Both excellent pilots, but really, does the Rebel Alliance have nobody else? These personal feelings aside, X-Wing does do a good job of evoking the feel of the scenes in the movies. Action is fast and furious, combat is capricious unless you’ve heavily invested in an über-pilot, and the miniatures really are fantastic – very attractive and very faithful to the original models, but durable enough to stand up to the stress of play (the design of the stands themselves isn’t that great, but Litko makes a nice replacement if and when something breaks).

So, generally pretty appealing, but a couple obstacles remain. Firstly is the lack of decent support for multiplayer. 100 point squadrons are borderline OK, with players each taking control of 2-4 ships. Due to the lethality of combat though, someone is bound to have a ship or two knocked out early and face waning interest. It’s not bad, but out of the box X-Wing is really optimized for two players and you’ll have to make do. Multiplayer really wants specialized scenarios with multiple squadrons on a side, with players buying their own (smaller) forces, possibly with different tasking. This is slightly unfortunate given the possibilities and given how good Wings of Glory is for 4 or more players. (As an aside, when playing multiplayer do not neglect the very important rule that you cannot show your maneuver dials to your allies).

Secondly, do not mistake the point values assigned to various upgrades as a reasonable approximations of their worth. Squadron building requires thought. You can’t throw together 100 points of stuff and and figure it’ll do OK any more than you can throw together 60 vaguely appropriate Magic cards and expect that deck to perform. There are good and bad buys in the mix, and you can build both very potent and very underpowered ships and squadrons. This is fine – part of the game even – but something casual players who enjoy Wings of Glory may find frustrating. While you won’t go too far wrong fielding X-Wings, an off-the-rack Y-Wing is pretty pricey for what you get in most cases, and as such is a specialty ship. Add an Ion Cannon to it and it’s a huge hole in your budget unless it’s filling an important tactical need. For the Imperials, their fragile TIE fighters require attention to synergizing pilot abilities to be competitive – but a large, finely-tunend Imperial squadron can be a beast.

Thirdly of course is cost. As usual, Fantasy Flight has shipped a core set that is playable only in a technical sense, and is a teaser more then a satisfying game. You’re going to need more ships for this to work – my feeling is at least a second core set and a few of the Wave 1 expansion blisters. With big-box games now routinely weighing in at $60 or more it’s actually not too bad comparatively and you do get nicely detailed and painted ships, but it can add up. For me, the online prices were palatable, full retail not so much. Fortunately, you’re also going to need multiple invested players, so there is no reason you can’t pool ships in a regular gaming group.

I quite enjoyed X-Wing, although it took me a little bit to get there. As a long-time Wings of Glory player, the similarities between the games are deceptive and it took some effort to appreciate a rather different game. As an older gamer, it’s filling a tricky niche though. It needs multiple players who have bought in enough to have forces available and be willing to spend the up-front time tuning their squadrons. It’s not a ton of time, but it is some. It’s best as a two-player game until we get some scenarios optimized for multiplayer. It’s in the same general niche as Wings of Glory, but it lacks that game’s accessibility and easy tactical richness. Having said all that, though, X-Wing is definitely not Wings of Glory, and it brings a very different, richly varied, and exciting experience. And honestly, who doesn’t want to fly around authentic, nicely-painted X-Wing miniatures?

* Because the TIE Fighter has the Barrel Roll action available, it can technically turn in a noticeably tighter radius than other ships. Unfortunately, since doing this costs the pilot his action, this comes at the expense of evading or focusing – actions crucial to keeping his fragile ship alive. So it’s helpful, especially if it means dodging out of someone’s firing arc at the last minute, but not a general-purpose ability. See also the following correction.

** Correction: This sentence originally stated everyone’s turn radius is the same. This is not quite true. Everyone uses the same movement templates at any given speed, but not everyone can use the shortest/tightest-radius template. The ability of TIEs and A-Wings to do very tight turns is not insignificant, but it’s rather different from (say) knowing that your Spitfire can out-turn opponents at any speed, and its just not as important to the X-Wing design in my opinion. For a look how the different fighters move, check out this file on BGG. Some of the distinctions seem nonsensical (why is a speed 2 sharp turn an easy maneuver for an A-Wing, while a speed 3 is not? Why can the A-Wing and TIE Interceptor do an Immelman – sorry, Koiogran – at speeds 3 and 5 but not 4?).  Who knows. But the system does work, and provides some maneuver differentiation without going crazy.

Rex: Final Days of the Empire

Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Avalon Hill’s Dune. I must have played it a hundred times in the late 80s to mid 90s, enough to even have played the lousy Spice Harvest, The Duel, Landsraad, and Tleilaxu variants several times (you have to be pretty desperate for some variety to do that). Whenever someone designs some kind of stupid multi-way free-for-all euroish wargame these days (Antike, Space Empires, Sid Meier’s Civilization, RuneWars, Conan, etc., etc.) I always feel like screaming “Hey! Dune did this right in 1979! Why are you still doing it wrong?” A terrific combat system, interesting deal-making diplomacy without backstabbing or force-of-personality persuasion, well-paced, with players able to come back after being out of it, and of course a colorfully drawn and faithful interpretation of Herbert’s book are amongst the game’s great strengths.

But it fell off out of circulation for me in the mid 90s, largely for one reason: the potentially long and unpredictable playing time. The joke was that a game could last anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours. It wasn’t really a joke. While most games would finish in a workable 4 hours, the outliers are a problem especially since the fluid game situation can’t just be called early and scored – if you’ve put in the 6 hours, you want to see how it ends.

When Fantasy Flight announced their Dune remake, sans Dune, I was intrigued mainly because they offered a 3-4 hour playing time. Could Rex get Dune back on the table, and would my fondness for Dune hold up in a truncated version and without the Dune theme? Or would it turn out that It was all nostalgia and my affection for Dune itself, and not so much the game?

tore into Fantasy Flight last year for a run of truly wretched game designs, so I approached Rex with some skepticism. They seem to have done the right thing though, and kept the Dune game systems largely intact. Players fight over 5 strongholds on the map. They commit their armies, in the form of tokens, to battle, then win or lose on a combination of card-play and risk: each player decides how many tokens they are willing to lose, what leader to commit, and what weapons and defenses their leader will use. The loser loses everything, the winner loses just what he or she committed. Everything is decided secretly and simultaneously, which is cool, because the game has a lot of hidden information but also a fair amount of “information leakage” – you’re likely to have some idea what cards and capabilities your opponent has, but unlikely to have a full picture. Weapons and defenses, along with a variety of special actions, are available each turn in a blind auction, and by blind, I mean around-and-around but you don’t actually know what you’re bidding on. What really makes the game then is that each faction has a variety of strong player powers that hugely impact the core systems: the Jol-Nar can see cards before they are bid on, the Xxcha can force you to do things you’d prefer not to in battle, the Empire has elite shock troops and collects all the money bid for cards. The game engine itself is fairly straightforward, but all the interesting, thematic, and rule-breaking special powers (mainly through faction’s powers, but also via the cards) are what brings it to life.

I ended up enjoying Rex more than I expected to. It does however suffer from 3 major problems.

Firstly is the expected Fantasy Flight horrifically bad graphic design. Compare the Dune map to the Rex map. Can you even easily see where the 5 victory strongholds are on the Rex map? Game-centric information is lost in a sea of visual clutter. The point-to-point map makes visualization of where the Sol Fleet is going next and which territories are at risk of bombardment hard to see. Again, compare to how clearly the same information (the Storm) is presented on the Dune map. As many will surely point out, it’s fine when you get used to it, but graphical missteps pervade the design and introduce a non-trivial risk of game-breaking errors. Case in point: the last game I played, the Jol-Nar player played the whole game thinking she had the Emperor top leader for her traitor because the card background colors are not suitability distinct and not a strong element of the visual design, the reference sheet is unhelpful (the Emperor and Letnev both have 6s for their top leader and the sheet doesn’t give names), and leader names have been completely genericized. It’s not a mistake you make twice, but lousy presentation design basically ruined the game for her. This mistake would have been completely impossible to make in Dune. While this is a particularly egregious example, there are plenty of ways in which the presentation makes it more likely errors will occur.

Chani vs. General

Secondly, the Twilight Imperium backstory is almost completely generic and unconvincing and fails to provide any color for the game in a way which actively impedes gameplay. I knew the Twilight Imperium universe was pretty soulless, but I thought perhaps Dune’s wonderfully evocative game systems would help bring it to life. One of the truisms about games, as with stories and photography, is that it helps a lot when there are people involved and not just factions or armies. This was one of the great things about the original Dune. When your leaders are Stilgar, Chani, Ortheym, Shadout Mapes, and Jamis, that means something. Even if you haven’t read the book, these named characters with distinctive headshots on their large, round pieces build up associations over time and play and can be easily identified. It’s been 15 years since I played or read Dune, and I didn’t have to look up any of those names. I’ve payed Rex 5 times in the last 6 months and I couldn’t tell you the names of the equivalent leaders; turns out they are Admiral, General, Colonel, Captain, and Commander. I can remember Chani has a 6 battle rating and can get worked up about her being a traitor. Not so much General.

While on the topic of the Twilight Imperium universe and its many shortcomings, I also must point out the troubling fact that Rex has almost completely erased women from the game. One of the great things about Dune was all the interesting and colorful female characters (even if they didn’t always quite manage to escape genre stereotypes), and the boardgame captured this with 1 female faction leader (out of 6), 8 out of a total 30 leaders, and half the leaders rated 5 or higher. Amongst the book’s “good guys”, Lady Jessica is a 5 (tied for the best Atriedes leader) and Chani a 6 (second to Stilgar’s 7 amongst the Fremen). All of this has been excised. As near as I can tell, there is one female leader, Sol’s Captain, but she just looks like one of the guys and you can’t tell from the tiny picture on her leader piece, you need to go to the traitor card. The faction from Dune that was entirely women, the Bene Gesserit, has been replaced by alien turtles – all of whom look male to me, but it’s of course a little hard to tell. Out of context it just seems dumb and like needlessly throwing away one of the interesting features of the original. In the context of a hobby with serious gender issues, it’s especially frustrating and troubling.

Lastly, and most seriously, is Fantasy Flight’s persistent trouble with game balance. Rex has been admirably tightened up and shortened from the original, which is great. In the process, though, it has made it far too easy for Hacan to win. As with the Guild in the original, Hacan and their allies win if nobody else has when time runs out. With Rex’s greater unit replacement rates, easier leader revival, somewhat greater difficulty in playing traitors, and much larger influence (cash) supply, stalling for time and holding off players and alliances pushing for a win has become noticeably easier. Couple that with playing only half as many turns, and Hacan has won all of the 6-player games I’ve played, and it hasn’t really ever been close. The situation is better with 4 or 5 players; 4 in fact may be the sweet spot. Unfortunately, without the tectonic stresses of 5 or 6 factions competing for Rex, the game just isn’t as interesting. It becomes more of a tactical game and less of a power struggle.

Where does that leave Rex for me at the end of the day? I enjoyed it for a little while, and have to give Fantasy Flight their due for bringing this classic back to the table. Unfortunately it just has too many significant issues, and I still own Dune. Mainly it inspired me to break out my old copy of that game, and discover that at WBC they now play only 10 turns instead of 15, which would make for a game of roughly the same length as Rex – and Rex is in no way superior to Dune.

What about everyone who doesn’t have access of the original? Rex is still pretty good by the modern standards of this sort of game – unlike Conan or Sid Meier’s Civilization or Space Empires or their ilk, there is an interesting and solid game here (although play Eclipse with the alien races instead if given the choice). Dune itself is a tremendous piece of raw game design, showing how a number of chronic problems with this genre can be solved. While Fantasy Flight has made a number of missteps in adapting it, it’s still a strong game, albeit one that will need a house rule to rein in the Hacan. It could have been so much better with more rigorous development and a less boring and sexist backstory, but it’s still a game worth playing.

Trail of Cthulhu, games as stories, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and why Mansions of Madness doesn’t really work

I’ve finally had a chance to play the Trail of Cthulhu role-playing game, which uses Pelegrane Press’ GUMSHOE game system. The GUMSHOE system is very interesting, for both boardgamers and role-players. To explain why, I need to back up a bit and lay some groundwork.

What differentiates the sorts of games we like, be it RPGs or boardgames, from other sorts of games is that they tell stories. They may be boring, short, or thin stories, or the story may not be the most important element of the game, but if stories weren’t important, we wouldn’t get pasted-on themes, nice art, or miniatures. The story can be something that is more abstract and visceral, as in Knizia games like Ra, Through the Desert, or Ingenious, but these games still have a narrative arc of buildup, tension, and release that is the stuff of storytelling. Plus of course, there is a large segment of the hobby – which Fantasy Flight is trying to corner – for which the story the game tells is the key thing.

The Cthulhu Mythos is well-travelled thematic ground, with many board and role-playing games trying to capture the flavor of Lovecraft’s popular creations. As always, trying to take a literary story and re-tell it in game format is not an easy proposition, and failures vastly outnumber successes. To see why it’s hard, let’s look at one particular game system that, while popular, is to my mind clearly not a success: the RPG Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu is, at a system level, a very traditional roleplaying game. Ever since D&D, the core of role-playing games has been a task resolution system. While the details may differ – the game may use a d20, 3d6, d100, or a pool of d6 or fudge dice – the vast majority of popular RPGs are set up such that whenever players interact with the world of the game, it’s a conflict or a task at which they succeed or fail with measurable probability. When a character wants to accomplish something, we pick a character trait to use, figure out a difficulty number, and roll some dice. The variance between the systems is in the choice of what skills to define and what kinds of probability curves to use.

This is great, but this core system of task resolution simply can’t tell a wide range of stories that people who play RPGs happen to like and desperately want to game. The most obvious are, unfortunately, mysteries, horror, and epics (I use the term “epic” as Stephen R Donaldson lays it out in his monograph Epic Fantasy in the Modern World).

The problems with telling mystery stories are straightforward, and fairly obvious if you’ve ever tried to run a mystery in Call of Cthulhu. The narrative structure of a mystery story is that there is a trail of clues that the characters must gather and piece together to figure out what’s going on. That trail of clues drives the narrative arc. The characters start out with a hint, follow the leads, and over time the truth is revealed. There are all sorts of conventions to the mystery genre which allow readers or viewers to engage with them, but this is the core. This is an incredibly common narrative format, used by H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen R. Donaldson, the X-Files, and Law & Order as well as many – probably the majority – of the episodes of Star Trek or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Even the Harry Potter novels are, from the point of view of narrative format, actually mysteries.

The problem of course is what happens when acquiring a clue requires success at a task which the players repeatedly fail? What if there is a witness holding out on them and the players can’t make their Intimidation check to save their lives? Or if there are documents hidden in a room and the players can’t pass a search check? The GM then has to resort to ever-more-improbable ways to get the players the information they need to follow the trail of clues. OK, you blew your search, maybe the contents of the documents was known by an NPC and you can try diplomacy. Blew that too? OK, maybe the documents were in another location. Still not making that search roll? Eventually the documents end up lying in the middle of the road where the PCs trip over them. This is immensely unsatisfying because a) why are we rolling all these dice and jumping through all these hoops when the conventions of the genre of story we’re trying to tell requires us to get this clue?, and b) in the system we’re using, which is all about tasks and succeeding and failing at them, why are we not being punished for all these failures? Because the players are failing all these checks, they can clearly see the hand of the GM coming in and granting them the information they require. To look at it form a narrative point of view, you never have a scene in Law & Order where the detectives execute a search warrant and no information comes out of it. Searching the apartment was a scene in a sequence, and the narratively interesting thing is not whether or not the detectives’ skills were up to the task of finding anything, but what they found, how they went about finding it, how illuminating the information was in light of other clues already gathered, and what they do with the information to move the narrative forward.

This is not to say that good mystery stories have not been told by many talented GMs using the Call of Cthulhu game system. But their success in doing this is in spite of the system, not because of it.

To divert briefly into epic tales, you don’t have to go very far into Tolkien to find story elements that stymie RPG-standard tools of skill checks and difficulty levels (or traditional boardgame tools of resource management, risk, and positional tactics). The epic confrontation between Eowyn, Merry, and the Witch-King cannot be gamed using any sort of task-based system. Tolkien has just spent the last three books building up the Witch-King and the Nazgul as terrifying and powerful, so in gamer-land no rational player who can look at their character sheet and know their odds of succeeding at various tasks is going to resort to direct conflict to take him down. And if they do, and win, does it feel like a victory, or like the GM resorted to fiddling the dice or making stuff up to let them do it, a far less satisfying outcome given the entire structure of the game is based around tasks with predictable odds? There is something else going on here. This is an epic scene where characters go beyond themselves, tying in with previous plot hints, and as such is hard to imagine how it could satisfactorily be done in a games which are driven by probabilities and specific knowledge of capabilities.

To get back to the main topic of mysteries, the GUMSHOE system sets out specifically to tell mystery stories. It recognizes that to do this, a systemically different way to define characters and drive narrative is required. So it defines characters partially in a traditional conflict-based way (because mysteries have fight scenes), but simultaneously in a more narrative-focussed way. Your skill with firearms will be familiar, but your rating as a forensic accountant is different. If you have skill in accounting, the system says that you are sufficiently skilled that no narratively critical clue that can be unearthed using accounting will elude you. Your rating in these skills are not skill points, but narrative points, and reflects the importance of that skill to your character’s narrative. If you have some rating points to spend in accounting, your character can move the narrative a bit if the player can come up with a way of weaving the skill into the story. If so, the character can unearth clues which, while not the core clues that allow the players to solve the mystery in a baseline sort of way, will expand the character’s understanding of what’s going on and perhaps make piecing together other clues easier. It’s important to mention that the GUMSHOE system is not a collaborative storytelling system like Fiasco or Polaris; 3 points in accounting doesn’t give you narrative prerogative to skip the suspect interview and hit the books. But it does allow you to weave the storyline if the GM can figure out how to get you interesting information from your proposed course of action, the more detailed and persuasive the better (perhaps you could use Legal to get a search warrant for a suspect’s banking records, then Accounting to track down information that the GM had originally intended to come out via Intimidate or Reassurance in an interview).

Because it’s such a different way of looking at characters, and because task-based systems are so ubiquitous, this definitely takes some getting used to. A 3 rating in Evidence Collection is not more capable than a 1 rating in Evidence Collection. Instead, the character with a 3 rating has a little more latitude to expand the narrative – the rules refer to it as “spotlight time” – than the player with a 1 rating, if he can effectively weave it into the story. Either character will discover the clue that will get the group to the next scene, but the player with the 3 rating can spend some points to try to direct the narrative a little bit and gain information that, while not critical, will be helpful later or give more detail to the grand picture. So, for example, Evidence Collection may turn up three shell casings, some fingerprints, and a bloodstain, but a 1-point spend might additionally tell you (with some narrative associated) that that the shell casings have been sitting there for four days, even though the crime scene is only a day old. In both cases the players get the two critical plot hooks, leading them to identify the fingerprints or take the shell casings to the lab, but the player who had the spend has some information which may make the picture make more sense as it develops and will make the scene more narratively satisfying. So, we have a systemic way to develop the story in interesting ways that relies on player ingenuity in the application of their skills, but not on crude skill checks. This means that GUMSHOE is very good at the specific types of stories it is trying to tell. It focusses on information, how (and not whether) it is obtained, and what the players do with it, which is the stuff of mystery stories.

Boardgamers actually have had something analogous to this for some time: Tales of the Arabian Nights. In this game, the players choose what skills and traits their characters have – Appearance, Weapons Use, Magic, Piety – and then how to respond to encounters, whether by Negotiation, Robbing, Courting, and so on. Then through the magic of a lot of cross-referencing and a book with 2500-odd paragraphs in it, the narrative of the encounter emerges. Instead of choosing how to use your resources and abilities to navigate an existing narrative successfully, your choices (along with a dose of luck) define the narrative which allows it to be, at times, epic in nature. Like in Trail of Cthulhu, Seafaring is not going to get you out of an encounter with an angry Djinn if there is no water in sight, but your skills and your choices nonetheless help shape the story. This is what makes Tales of the Arabian Nights narratively satisfying, while Betrayal at House on the Hill just feels like a fire-hose of disjointed random events.

This brings us, finally, to Fantasy Flight’s most recent weighty box of plastic and cardboard, Mansions of Madness. I’ve only played it once, so I’m not going to judge too harshly. But, like Call of Cthulhu, Mansions of Madness is trying to tell stories that are narratively mysteries while using the standard boardgame tools of conflict, risk, and resource management. In my opinion, this is a case of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The common core mechanics we have in boardgames (and RPGs) are simply not amenable to mystery stories, and Mansions of Madness ends up being a nail, in this case a glorified dungeon crawl. Which is fine, but all the trappings of mystery – the extensive intro text, the flavor of a path of clues – are squandered and can actually detract from the gaming experience, since they may misdirect you into thinking the story is something it isn’t.

If we want to tell different kinds of stories, we need to expand our toolbox. Arkham Horror is not a tale of mystery or horror, it’s a tactical game of resource management with the narrative structure (to the extent it has any, which is not great) of an action-adventure with characters being led through set-pieces over which they have no control. By contrast, Castle Ravenloft – which is fundamentally the same game as Mansions of Madness – may not be a classic game, but it’s more narratively satisfying because the tools it uses are appropriate to the story it’s trying to tell and it gets the critical structural bits (pacing and tension management primarily) pretty much right.

Worlds like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos are notoriously hard gaming problems, done badly so many times, and these are the reasons why. The very few great games we have work because they’ve limited themselves to portions of the story that can be told with the mechanics available. The brilliant bit of the classic CCG Middle-Earth: The Wizards was to focus on the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when stories could be adventures of risk and reward and not epics. Knizia’s Lord of the Rings works in part because it focuses in tightly on the hobbits, who are modern characters who become immersed in an epic world which is not their own, and also of course because Knizia is a design genius who is keenly aware of how tension management and tight pacing can produce strong narrative structures in games. What success Lovecraftian boardgames have had, they have when they focus on the pulpier, action-oriented face of the mythos at the expense of the core stories that the readers love (it’s interesting to contemplate how much of the veering of Lovecraftian material into pulp is a direct result of a gaming fandom which lacked the conventions to tell the real stories). Clearly there is room for innovative new systems and mechanics that will help us tell these other kinds of stories in enjoyable and satisfying ways. RPGs are leading the way with serious, envelope-pushing titles like Trail of Cthulhu, Polaris, and Fiasco, all designed to tell specific types of stories that would be extremely challenging (at best) to do using more traditional systems. There is no reason these trains of thought can’t be extended into boardgames where the differences between the two blur.