Monday, November 10, 2014

A Gaming Table Far, Far Away...

(Disclaimer: This started out as a review of Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars: Age of Rebellion Role-Playing Game and turned into a bit more of a retrospective on my experience with Star Wars RPGs in general.)

A long time ago, at a gaming table far, far away I entered the gaming hobby with West End Games' 1987 Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game. RPGs had been this exotic collection of wild art and magical theorms up until then. They were reserved for people like my brother, who to my 9 year old mind, knew everything. I didn't know what a half-elf, balor, or a ranger was and there was no way I was ever going to be able to calculate a THAC0 or know the difference between a d8 and a d10.

But Star Wars? Star Wars I knew. I'd been watching those films for as long as I could remember and to this day have fond memories of sitting on the living room floor watching A New Hope over and over again on Betamax. So when I saw the Star Wars RPG on the shelves, I knew I'd just taken my first steps into a larger world. What's more, it used only six-sided dice. I understood those too! I'd been using those for normal board games for almost as long as I'd been watching Star Wars! This game was perfect!

I spent hours pouring over that book. It all clicked. It all made sense. It was the world that was my first home away from home. I only had one other friend who had interest in role-playing games at that age, so we played Star Wars over and over again. Each time he'd try out a new template. Mercenary, Bounty Hunter, Minor Jedi - whatever. We just had fun running around in the universe. It was pure fun.

That was before the dark time. Before the d20. Before the prequels. When Wizards of the Coast got the license for Star Wars I was excited. Not as excited as when I was young, but I was pleased. Star Wars was coming back to the gaming table and that was a good thing in my mind. I thought I run it just as well as d6. I was wrong.

It just didn't work. The free-wheeling, light hearted galaxy that I'd spent so many hours in was bogged down in charts, classes, and countless feats. Instead of dedicating long campaigns to actually earning the right to call yourself a Jedi, it seemed like lightsabers were handed out like party favors. As one of my friends at the time put it, it was "Star-D&D," and much to my own pain, he was right. After d20 Star Wars, we got Saga Edition, which came closer to capturing the feel of Star Wars but didn't quite get it right. Characters were more than skilled - they were god-like. I knew that things just weren't working when I took a 3rd level Jedi and was capable of throwing starfighters through the sky using the Force that there was a problem.

Again, years passed and my gaming life continued to plod on. It had been 25 years since I made Alex Goldenstar, my first Minor Jedi, back in 1987 and as far as I was concerned my Star Wars gaming was, for the most part a thing of the past. I still held on to my Star Wars RPG d6 core book, but more from nostalgia than anything. I'd only had one opportunity to play in those two and a half decades, but was forced to abandon that campaign after only a few sessions due to real life obligations. (If it matters at all it was a helluva good time and I miss playing Galen Thrace, Youngling Survivor).

So in 2013 Fantasy Flight Games announced they were releasing Edge of the Empire, the latest incarnation of Star Wars for the gaming table. I was skeptical, but hopeful. FFG does very high quality stuff and I love their Lord of the Rings living card game. In fact, I'd never regretted a single purchase I'd ever made from Fantasy Flight. But, that being said, you get what you pay for with FFG and their products are not cheap in production quality or price. So, when it was announced that Edge of the Empire was going to be $60 dollars for the core rule book, plus another $15 for a set of custom dice I decided to give it a pass. Sure, the idea of focusing your Star Wars RPG specifically on the criminal element was intriguing (and in my mind, very smart on the part of FFG), I just couldn't justify spending that much money on another Star Wars RPG.

Besides, my faith in Star Wars had waned. After years of watching the EU Machine crank out crap that ranged from extra-dimensional beings to aliens from beyond the galactic border who were not part of the Force and then being subjected to a Prequel trilogy that was little more than an 8 hour long special effect with a licensing option to produce toys, I just didn't believe in Star Wars anymore. The only good thing to come out of the franchise since West End Games had lost the license was the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It featured an Anakin Skywalker who was actually a likable swashbuckler and brought that "pulp serial" feeling back to Star Wars. Yeah, it was pretty darn good - but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But then something changed. When George Lucas sold his Galactic Empire to Disney, there was a new hope in the stars. I knew with this cataclysmic event we'd undoubtedly get announcements from Disney that there'd be new films, new tie-ins, new merchandise. "Sure," I thought cynically, "they've got to keep that money machine printing." Still, it might be good. Maybe, but probably not.

Then Disney pulled the ears of a Gundark and announced they were invalidating almost all of the Expanded Universe. With the exception of the films themselves and The Clone Wars animated series, the entire Expanded Universe was being being invalidated. The last remnants of the old era had been swept away.

Suddenly, I got excited again. I didn't have this baggage that came with being a Star Wars fan hanging off my shoulders. I didn't have to worry about a convoluted, bloated canon that made no sense. I didn't have to know the details of every single comic book or novel to keep up with the next story. It didn't make things perfect by a long shot. The prequels were still part of the canon and that's a damned shame - but I feel like that was done as a gesture of respect to George Lucas.

Which, brings me to an important aside: George Lucas did not rape my childhood. He made three bad movies. George Lucas made my childhood. He's the reason I ran around with a blanket tied around my neck swinging a wiffle-ball bat while making woosh noises. He's the reason I rode my bike a top speed between two tall buildings while pretending to fire off my proton torpedoes at just the right moment. He's the reason I walked out with my groomsmen to the Imperial March on my wedding day. George Lucas changed my life and he changed it for the better, Jar Jar Binks or no Jar Jar Binks. Thanks George.

Anyway, so the weigh of the canon I'd been tied to since all before I was born was suddenly lifted. While that gave me hope, things could still go horribly wrong. I mean the trailer for The Phantom Menace looked awesome. The reality of things... yeah, not so much.

Then I saw Star Wars: Rebels and it did something that hadn't been done since the halcyon days of West End Games - it made Star Wars fun. Holy crap, was that even possible any more? I'd forgotten that Star Wars could be fun. It was nice to be reminded.

So with my faith restored I turned again to the gaming table. I picked up a copy of the massive Star Wars: Age of Rebellion Roleplaying Game. Clocking in at over 460 pages and featuring custom dice, I was skeptical. Having spent the better part of the past five years firmly entrenched in the OSR community, I was used to short core books and simple rules. This smacked entirely too much of 3rd Edition D&D and it's glut of feats and optional rules. But FFG had always put out quality products before, so I kept the faith.

I spent over a week and a half reading the book. It is lavishly illustrated and evokes the visual feel of the Star Wars universe very, very well. Still, I wasn't liking what I was reading. Funky dice with funky symbols which required pages of explanation? Classes, Careers, Specializations and Talents? Wound Points? Strain Points? Experience Points? This did not look good. This was going to be a train wreck. I was going to be selling these books off in a month or two.

Well, then I sat down and actually applied what I read. I was able make a new character in 15 minutes. I then set to testing the funky dice by doing a mock combat against a few storm troopers. Again, things went swimmingly The Force was strong with this one. In theory, Age of Rebellion is a complete train wreck. In practice, it's fast, cinematic and fun. I'm seriously, seriously impressed.

Would I recommend FFG's series of Star Wars RPGs to a gamer? Well, that depends. If you're still rocking the old d6 West End Games and loving it, then no. Both games accomplish a similar (though not quite the same) feel in different ways. But if you're looking for a bit more cinematic and narrative license in your Star Wars table-top game, then yes FFG's game is absolutely worth it - even with the hefty price tag.

1 comment:

  1. I share much the same sentiment James. I was initially skeptical about FFG only because the entry to the game (cost and complexity) seemed to create a barrier to younger players, but having had the chance to play it, it really is a lot of fun. Still love my WEG though! :-D


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