Sunday, February 26, 2012

The DarkStryder Campaign

The DarkStryder Campaign is a series of products that are now over 15 years old, created for the West End Games Star Wars RPG.  It is an attempt to create an extended campaign for the system spread over one boxed set and three modules.  It provides some great adventure ideas and character concepts, but as a playable campaign out of the box it's a failure.  I'm reviewing it now because I only recently had the chance to read through the whole line while preparing for a Star Wars game I'm running.

I'll be including some possible spoilers in this review, so on the off chance that you expect to actually play in a DarkStryder Campaign I'll summarize here and suggest that you not read the rest:  don't do it, unless the GM is simply using the published material as inspiration.  If they are actually going to try to run it as published, then expect to be both frustrated and disappointed.

First, the good stuff.  Much of the setup is great.  The New Republic is stretched thin trying to mop up the Imperial remnants following the Battle of Endor.  They have just liberated the capital of the Kathol Sector, decisively defeating Moff Sarne, although the Moff himself got away.  Kathol Sector is a backwater sector on the edge of what was once the Empire, and now that the Moff has been defeated, the New Republic fleet must move on to more important matters, leaving only a token force to track down the defeated Moff.

The players are that force.  They are given the FarStar, an aging Corellian Corvette formerly under the control of Moff Sarne.  The ship had been undergoing a complete refit and conversion under the Moff, being retrofitted with a docking bay for carrying fighters, along with some other upgrades.  Getting it spaceworthy in time to be useful requires a great deal of effort and jury-rigging.

The crew is a mixed bag with a handful of elites along with unwanted castoffs from the rest of the fleet, and a large number of volunteers recruited from the newly liberated world.  The latter includes a volatile mix of both victims and servants of the former regime (most of the latter attempting to keep their pasts a secret).  Many of the pre-generated characters have interconnected backgrounds that could provide fodder for great roleplaying.

The result is a crowded ship with every spare corner filled with supplies, cables and conduits running everywhere, and a crew that is sometimes suspicious of each other and often irritable due to the conditions.  It reminds me a bit of the atmosphere of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.

Several of the adventures that are scripted for the FarStar to go through have good ideas, and the nature of the situation they are in provides a lot of inspiration for other ideas.

Now for the bad stuff.  The situation provides some good ideas for carrots and sticks to keep the players on track, but the campaign as written doesn't use them.  Instead, it sets the FarStar solidly on a set of rails and gives it a solid push to get it going.  This is possibly the most railroaded campaign I've ever seen.

If the player characters include the command crew, as is suggested, then they will often find major decisions taken out of their hands and instead decided by GM fiat.  If they don't include the command crew, then they will simply be spectators as the major events of the campaign go on around them.

In addition, many events over the course of the campaign are fated to happen in a specific way, including some characters leaving the campaign through death or desertion (remember, these are likely to be player characters, not NPCs), as well as major plot points both good and bad for the players.  In some cases deus ex machina appears to have been the first resort of the designers rather than the last.  This applies from the first scene where two of the main characters are removed from the story no matter what the players do (remember, these are likely PCs) to the climactic battle where multiple fleets inexplicably appear to join in the battle, somehow managing to navigate through an incredibly dangerous area of space that the FarStar itself only managed to get through because they had the only navigator known to be able to do it!

There are also a lot of plot holes in the story when it's looked at too closely.  The DarkStryder technology that is supposed to be the reason why the New Republic can't just let the Moff get away doesn't really seem to be that powerful.  It consists of ultra-rare, one-use items that only have a limited effect on a small scale.  A far bigger threat is the Moff's fleet, which includes multiple Star Destroyers.  The reasons why the Moff doesn't use this fleet to retake the capital after the New Republic fleet moves on are flimsy.  The reasons why the FarStar doesn't immediately fall back and call for reinforcements after learning the Moff has Star Destroyers are non-existent.

In fact, there's very little explanation as to what the FarStar is supposed to do once they find the Moff.  There's talk about them calling for reinforcements, but it takes months for the FarStar to get to its destination, and yet they expect reinforcements to arrive almost instantly?  Admittedly part of the time involved is because they have to find star charts along the way, but it would still be a lengthy trip for anyone following them, especially due to the navigational difficulties mentioned earlier.

The final book in the series includes some designers' notes that shed some light on how these problems likely came about.  A lot of the adventures in the series were written on a very short schedule that would have left little time for review of the finished work before publication, let alone any playtesting.  Also, external factors sometimes altered the original intent, such as when the choice to use cover artwork that included a Star Destroyer forced the last minute inclusion of a Star Destroyer into an adventure that hadn't previously included one.

Overall, the DarkStryder Campaign is worth mining for inspiration, but appears to have been created with little regard to how gaming groups actually operate at the table.  Something that may have been excusable had it been written back in 1985, but which designers in 1995 and 1996 should have been better able to take into account.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Board Game Afternoon

Attended my first regular board game event since the end of BGN.  A successful get together of nine people total, only one of which I've played games with before.  I got to play in three games, including two I've really been wanting to get to the table.  The best thing about it was that I wasn't the one running it!   That means I can arrive late and leave early, or skip sessions entirely, without it wrecking the event.  Something that's important for me to be able to do.

The location is a bit cramped, but friendly.  Bears by the Maul Gaming Lounge is an interesting location that takes up a narrow two story section at the end of a warehouse.  In addition to the cramped gaming area in the basement, you have to go outside and around the corner to get to the restroom, and they're pretty much a CCG only shop in terms of merchandise.  On the positive side, the staff is friendly and open to our playing board games there despite their not actually selling anything we play, and their hours of operation are good.

They're also located close to the bypass, which makes it more convenient for gamers from the north to drive down to play.  BGN's old location in the center of Fayetteville made that harder for some people.  Another thing that makes it easier for those people is the time slot:  Sunday from 2 to close, which seems to be around 7 to 9 depending on how late the staff can stay.  This means people working regular 8 to 5 jobs don't have to rush to get to the event.

With a time slot like that, I should also finally be able to get some of my longer games to the table, maybe even Die Macher, finally!