Game Review: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Part I)

Apparently this is the "week" of many weeks. For you elasmobrancholophiles with cable access, it's the much-anticipated Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Plenty of opportunities to view your favorite cartilaginous fish and to use the word elasmobrancholophile! It also happens to be Geek Week on YouTube. The latter is...of dubious quality, but maybe gets a pat on the back for trying? <watches> Nope, doesn't even merit that. Do you guys think this might be a sign that pop culture has hit "Peak Nerd"?

In any case, I was loathe to register that the entire work week now stands between me and a chance to run a second session of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I'm still garnering feedback from my players, but it seems that my first attempt at GMing wasn't an epic failure! At least it seems that way, given that said players haven't run screaming into the night. But, my neophyte nerd-herding aside, you guys probably want to know how the system itself played and I aim to deliver on that.
Yes, seriously. How was it?

All in all, a very fun, highly flexible game and a refreshing departure from dungeon crawling. It's quite clear that Fantasy Flight wanted this to be a game that gets your neurons fired up and the creative juices flowing. It has a few dense bits, rules-wise, but it seems as though you can easily iron those out over time either by making table-sanctioned adjustments or just building up raw experience.

You know I have to ask: How did your players take to using the custom dice?

Last year, when I procured a copyof the beta rulebook, my well-practiced GM friends latched onto the system's requisite fudge dice with a heavy air of derision. Contrary to their near-unanimous preemptive verdict of "game killer", my players were able to pick up the mechanic very quickly. It'll likely be another session or two before everyone is completely comfortable with it, but the novelty didn't impact the pace or flow of the session at all.

Not nearly as complicated as they look
To backtrack a little, Edge of the Empire utilizes a set of custom narrative dice for its core mechanic which you can either purchase at your local game store/FFG's site or download the dice app to your smartphone. The rulebook does include a table by which you could convert results from standard 8 and 12-sided dice, but that extra step does detract from the fluidity of gameplay. The actual mechanic is a pool of dice that individual players assemble each time they want to make a check. Checks can be anything from basic perception to flying a YT-1300 and plotting routes through hyperspace (each of these having attending skills that players may or may not have allotted themselves during character creation). The player rolls his/her pool of dice and the GM will roll a complementing pool against that check, deriving the latter from things like environmental effects or the ferocity of an NPC opponent. If the PC's dice turn up more Success symbols than there are Failure symbols on the GM's dice, the check succeeds. Pretty simple yeah?

It doesn't end there though. The truly engaging aspect of the narrative dice is the supported flexibility they give both the players and the GM to decide how events hinging on checks play out. It's not so cut-and-dry as "the check succeeds/fails." Interspersed with the Success and Failure symbols are Advantages and Threats. Though the latter do not actually sway the fundamental outcome of a given check, they represent the degree, scope, and ancillary effects of the action in question and involve input from both the PCs and the GM. It's entirely possible to have a PC fail a check, but end the action with unanticipated gains. Layered atop all the aforementioned possibilities are the Triumph and Despair symbols, which can function like critical hits on steroids depending on what other symbols turn up in a given check. In short, the dice do exactly what they were intended to do, which is facilitate the roleplaying aspect of the game.

But you said you're only one session in. How could you possible garner enough information at this early stage?

Ah, very true. As such, this review is based heavily on my own study of the rules, walking my players through the character creation process, and initial impressions from the table. 

Character Creation
Arguably everyone's favorite process, Edge of the Empire delivers a unique method for crafting your in-game avatar that can produce results as simple or complex as you'd prefer. Though the game lists out base stats for 8 races, a GM knowledgeable in the Star Wars Universe can easily adapt the fundamentals to accommodate any alien species you can imagine (which several have already done here). After selecting a species, players can choose from a handful of careers ranging from wisecracking smuggler to brash hired gun to silent-death-from-above bounty hunter. In between determining all that, players must give thought to what makes their character tick by selecting an Obligation. Since the entirety of this game universe is set in the lawless Outer Rim, the general bent of Obligation is who or what finds your character useful or, if not useful, wants you dead? Players have the option to entwine their back stories and share their Obligation or simply band together as a matter of convenience (at least initially). Everyone seemed to pick this process up quickly. Total time spent on the construction process ranged from 20 minutes (she had a very defined idea) to over 2 hours (he had several great ideas and needed help tailoring the best of each to the parameters of the game). If you're short on time but still want to play, Fantasy Flight offers a Beginner's Game that comes with 4 pre-generated characters and an introductory session.

GM Prep Work
I read the beta book cover-to-cover twice in order to familiarize myself with all the mechanics, skills, concepts and basic premises. Once the core rulebook came out, I read that through as well though, at over 400 pages, it took a bit longer than its beta predecessor. It was worth the extra effort to be thorough, as Edge of the Empire is not similar to most other systems commonly being played at present. The fundamental structure of the game was based on the Warhammer 40K RPG, but that's as close a relative as you will find (yes, that includes either of the other Star Wars RPGs, which Edge of the Empire does not resemble aside from the fact that both are set in the Star Wars universe).

I picked up a copy of the Beginner Game primarily because I wanted another set of the narrative dice and the kit was only marginally more expensive than just the dice. My players and I use 2.5 sets of the dice (the half set being some d8s and d12s that the GIR and I converted with the stickers from our beta books), but 2 sets would probably be plenty for a table of four players and a GM. 

All this for only a couple dollars more than the dice
The actual Beginner Game provides some nice scaffolding if, like me, you're new to GMing or you want to familiarize yourself with the system faster. I say scaffolding because I used the adventure in the Beginner Game as just that, stripping out the parts that I thought my players wouldn't care for (like using the pre-generated characters) and adding scenes to make the experience more engaging. It was a nice add-on, but the Beginner Game certainly isn't necessary.

Fantasy Flight offers quite a bit in the way of support for GMs, including this set of free downloadables which features character sheets, more pre-generated characters, and even a 3-act fully written adventure. Perhaps even more useful is the thoughtful, supportive community of players and GMs housed here in the forums. 

Overall Initial Impressions/Observations
This is not a game that easily accommodates large parties. The rulebook recommends tables be no larger than 6 players and I have to agree with that. Our table of four players felt like an ideal size so I imagine that any more than 6 would make it difficult to balance the narrative aspects in such a way that everyone felt like they were a legitimate part of the action.

Some bits of the rules are, at first glance, pretty dense. Specifically, those regulations governing starship combat are difficult to pick up on the fly (I swear that terrible pun was unintentional). The encumbrance dicta are similarly dry, but can be easily modified or even omitted with little appreciable effect. 

Ostensibly, being a fan of Star Wars goes a long way. Yes, there is a section in the rulebook that speaks directly to GMs and players who want to go outside canon and build their own subset of the universe (and good for them!), but, for every kid who ever wanted to pilot a starship or chat with a droid or fight alongside a Wookiee, there is a deep layer of satisfaction. 

Session two is a handful of work days away, so I hope to have more for you all then!

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