Friday, September 26, 2008

Star Wars Saga Edition

Star Wars Saga Edition holds a significant place in recent RPG history if only because it served as a test bed for many ideas that eventually made it into 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Despite this, it is its own distinct system and not merely a variation on D&D, and I am going to try to treat it as such.

I'm a big fan of the old West End Games d6 Star Wars RPG. It had its issues, but most of them came up in longer campaigns as dice pools got out of hand. Most of my games using it were relatively short and a lot of fun. I'm neither a big fan of the d20 system nor the Star Wars Expanded Universe, so I was never that interested in Star Wars RPGs since WotC took over the license. I have owned a copy of each version of the core rules, but they were one of the first things I got rid of when I decided to slim down my collection.

Two things got me to pick up the Saga Edition core rules anyways. The first was the fact that it was a test bed for 4th Edition D&D. My interest in RPG design theory meant that I had to at least take a look at it. The second was the graphic design. The odd size of the book combined with the golden Vader on the cover made it look more like something you'd have on your coffee table than your gaming shelf, and that appealed to me.

Despite picking it up shortly after it was released, I never got that interested in it until recently. It's still d20, it still features a level based system and it emphasized tactical miniatures combat more than I like. This latter was the most important for two reasons. One is that I don't want to spend a lot of money on collectible miniatures and the other is that I've simply always been a fan of narrative combat in RPGs. The latter reason is less important to me now than it used to be after playing in a really good Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game, but it's still a factor.

Two things finally got me to take a closer look at it. The first was 4th Edition D&D. I've really been impressed with 4th Edition D&D, and while Saga Edition doesn't include all the things I like about 4th, it does include a lot of them. The second was the Order 66 podcast. The guys that do Order 66 obviously like the game a lot, and that enthusiasm is infectious. It's also very helpful from a learning perspective to hear these guys talk about rules and character builds. It really helped some of the rules click into place for me.

The result is that I'm really into the game right now, even though I don't have the opportunity to actually play it.

One of the core concepts of the game is that like 4th Edition D&D, the players are heroes from the outset, although they may not yet be at the same level as the ones we see in the movies. They will be able to do truly impressive things right from 1st level if they use their feats and talents wisely, but at the same time a Stormtrooper is still going to be a challenging foe. As the characters advance in levels they will become even more impressive to the point where that Stormtrooper is no longer a challenge, but a squad of them led by an officer just might be. Eventually they will be mowing through them just like Luke and Han in A New Hope, but they won't be doing that right out of the gate (and to be fair, Luke and Han actually spent a lot of time running from those Stormtroopers).

In this, like in other areas, the game is a compromise between cinematic drama and game balance. A compromise which I think leads to a good balance between the two. One of the key elements of this is the use of the per encounter abilities. Nearly all force powers are of this type, as well as an increasing number of other abilities. At first this seemed like a bad thing to me. I felt that if someone can do something then they should be able to do it at will. Seeing the mechanic applied to just about everything in 4th Edition D&D led me to realize just what it was they were accomplishing (beyond creating an interesting tactical dynamic).

In the movies we rarely see the heroes pull out their best move every time they attack some mook. Instead, they wait until the most dramatic moment to unleash their signature move. The once per encounter powers are a game mechanic that encourages players to emulate this style. By rationing their abilities, the players must choose the most effective time to unleash them, which tends to also be the most dramatic time. In D&D this is further enhanced by the introduction of daily powers, but that mechanic isn't used as much in Saga Edition.

Instead, we have Force Points, Destiny Points, and the newly introduced Unleashed abilities. Characters get a certain number of Force points every level depending on their class and abilities. These points are use it or lose it. They are refreshed whenever a character levels, but any remaining from the previous level don't carry over. These points can be used for a number of mechanical game effects, but like per encounter powers, the players need to try to use them at the most opportune moments. These effects range from simply adding extra dice to a damage roll, to being a requirement for using particularly powerful abilities.

Destiny Points are Force Points on steroids. Only characters that choose to take a Destiny get them. Like Force Points, you get them every level, but unlike Force Points you only get one of them, and they don't go away when you level, only when you spend them. They also have a number of mechanical game effects that they can be used for. Some of the basics include giving yourself an automatic natural 20 on a roll, to triggering special more powerful versions of other powers.

For an example of a specific use of Force and Destiny points let's look at the Force power Move Object. The normal Move Object power tops off at Colossal Size, which is an object the size of the Millennium Falcon. Someone spending a Force Point can bump that up an additional size category to Colossal (Frigate). Now they're moving a Corellian Corvette around. Someone spending a Destiny Point moves that up three sizes to Colossal (Station). Now they're tossing around Star Destroyers, or even pushing the Death Star out of orbit! The catch is that they had to spend a Destiny Point to do it, so they're doing it once per level at most.

This has been expanded upon even more with the introduction of Unleashed abilities in the Force Unleashed sourcebook, which greatly expanded the number of abilities that can benefit from spending a Destiny Point for those characters willing to take the Unleashed feat. These represent extreme abilities that a character can pull off maybe once or twice in his life in cases of extreme need. Similar in concept to the stories of adrenaline charged mothers lifting cars off of their trapped child.

This lets players pull off truly heroic feats without letting them just wade through all the lesser threats, which I think offers some truly interesting cinematic possibilities.

The catch with all of this is that it's implemented as part of a tactical combat resolution system. For more narrative roleplayers this is a severe drawback as keeping track of actions and calculating move points can take them out of the narrative. For others this can be a bonus as it presents an interesting tactical game for those who may not be as interested in the narrative roleplaying, while often encouraging those same players to become a bit more involved in the narrative, at least during combat.

The Destiny that gets you Destiny points is another way the game encourages dramatic play. Players have the option to give their characters a Destiny. These are abstract concepts such as corruption, redemption, or destruction. For example, in A New Hope, Luke might have had the Destruction Destiny. The player of Luke's character didn't know at the beginning of the game what it was that he was destined to destroy, instead the GM determined that during the course of the game. Luke ends up fulfilling his Destiny by destroying the Death Star. A player doesn't even have to choose a type of Destiny, they can leave it completely in the GM's hands as to what type of Destiny they have, only learning about it over the course of the game.

The drawback to a Destiny is that if you take a course of action that takes you further away from fulfilling it, then you and those around you take a penalty to your actions for a period of time. The type of penalty varying depending on the nature of your Destiny. An additional bonus beyond the Destiny Points is that if you take a course of action that moves you towards fulfilling your Destiny, then you and those around you get a bonus to your actions.

An example would be if Han Solo had the Destruction Destiny in A New Hope. Most of the movie neither moves him closer to nor further from fulfilling his Destiny, so he earns no bonuses or penalties. After reaching Yavin IV he decides to leave with his payment rather than join the attack on the Death Star, this action moves him directly away from an opportunity to fulfill his Destiny, and gains him a penalty to his actions. If he didn't realize it before, the applied penalty notifies the player that he just moved away from a potential destiny fulfilling opportunity, so he has Han turn the ship around and fly back to the Death Star, gaining the Destiny bonus for taking an action that takes him closer to fulfilling his Destiny.

The Destiny mechanic ends up adding an extra level of drama and opportunity for character development with very real mechanical benefits and drawbacks to encourage and reward the player for playing it out in game.

One problem I see with Star Wars Saga Edition is that it could easily go the way of D&D 3.5, becoming a huge monstrosity of character powers and abilities spread over dozens of books. Even with just the five books that are out for the system now there are well over 400 character talents! There are also cases of abilities in one book having prerequisites in other books other than the core rulebook. In the case of the Knights of the Old Republic sourcebook, there was at least one talent that had a prereq that was only found in The Force Unleashed sourcebook. Due to changes in the publishing schedule, the latter book didn't even come out until months after the former. These issues along with a lack of a common index could easily cause problems as the system grows.

Still, it looks like a good system overall, and it's a good time to get into it if you're interested. New releases were very slow following the release of the core rulebook as WotC's resources were funneled into the launch of 4th Edition D&D, so it's still relatively easy to digest everything out there, but there are more new releases in the pipeline.

No comments:

Post a Comment