Hyperborea may be the game I enjoy the most relative to my total lack of skill in it. Didn’t finish last — the player who just learned it tonight won that honor — but damn, I’ve just never cracked the game’s code.

It’s been languishing half forgotten in my one closed cabinet. I opened it this evening, saw many many favorites also locked away and forgotten, and sighed.

Star Wars: The Bile Awakens
But Also Awesomeness

So I self-Santa’ed Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny this year the day after devouring and absolutely loving The Force Awakens. Then I started reading FFG’s rules and was reminded that Star Wars roleplaying is utterly drowned in decades of terrible fanfic. By which I mean the Expanded Universe: all that crap created outside of the movies.

The very worst offender, the place where traditional gamer-brains have completely fucking ruined what is good and wonderful about Star Wars, is the races. The goddamned races. Are you fucking serious with this, people. Every time I open one of these core books and see eight more “playable races,” the first thing I think is D&D and the second thing I think is “these people don’t actually watch the movies at all.” Not once, not once has anyone’s race ever made any narrative difference in a Star Wars movie. It never happens. It is completely irrelevant — that is, until you hit the place where it actually does matter, i.e. the baked-in pro-human specieism of the Empire. It’s pure set dressing, a signal to the audience that the universe is full of some crazy shit. There is no racial essentialism in Star Wars. Just stop.

The second place the gamer fanfic threatens to choke off my ability to love is all the technical detail and deep “history” they slather onto every goddamned thing. Here’s a page of terrible history about this world. Here’s a page of terrible history about the Rebellion. Here’s a list of robot manufacturers. ROBOT MANUFACTURERS. Come on. Jesus.

This is not the stuff that pumps my imagination. It fills holes rather than shows me the holes. It lets my imagination off the hook. 

The good news is, it’s 100% ignorable. And what remains is lab-grade awesome Star Wars.

Age of Rebellion

So, unfortunately, Age of Rebellion is a really weak entry into the line. Frankly it’s just not that easy to make military drama interesting in an RPG: the impulse to defer to endless strung-together fight scenes is pretty overwhelming unless you give the players something else to chew on, a la Night Witches, which is IMO the finest model for interesting military drama roleplaying ever conceived. 

Anyway, Age of Rebellion makes no effort at all to make being a rebel especially faceted or nuanced. The only meaningful mechanical widget they’ve added to the game is an economy called Duty. Unfortunately, Duty is completely busted as written.

So Duty is supposed to go like this: like Obligation in Edge of the Empire, each character has a value that shows how deep they are into the Rebellion. But rather than them owing the Rebellion something, it’s inverted: the more Duty you have, the more the Rebellion will help you out. They’ll also call on your Duty more often as well: you create a little table before each session and roll to see if your Duty is getting called on specifically.

That last part is the first broken thing. If you’re a Rebel, how is it you’re not on duty all the time? I have no idea. I guess you can be pursuing your Motivations (equally undercooked here as in Edge) or whatever. It feels like it’s supposed to take some weight off the GM — hey, let’s see whose job is at the forefront today? — but I’m not persuaded it works all that well.

But the real problem is that your Duty is supposed to be increasing. Once your party’s total Duty hits 100, you earn an Contribution. It’s…kind of a rank of honor in the Rebellion when you’ve made a Contribution, and the Rebellion rewards you with stuff. It also resets your Duty to 0, sending you back on the Duty chase to continue earning/making more Contributions.

The rules never tell you how to earn or pay Duty. No joke. It’s literally never mentioned in the book. And yet it is the main driving economy of the game. What. The. Eff. FFG. There are a few threads here and there, mostly on the official forums, and the answer is “pay as much or as little as you want to calibrate the pace of your campaign.” Holy shit. So I guess I’ll be doing that.

The other weird deal about Age of Rebellion is the spread of classes. Like…you can play a Commander. Of a capital ship. What the hell are you supposed to do as the fucking commander of a capital ship? Hey, you’re an ace pilot, hey you’re a spy, hey you’re an assassin. You guys go have fun down the gravity well while I sit up here and command my capital ship. I cannot wrap my head around how to make that fun or interesting.

Force and Destiny

On the other hand, I feel like Force and Destiny is actually the strongest of the three books. The battle between Light and Dark is the core of Star Wars, and yet it is only here at the bitter end where it finally takes center stage.

The main way F&D addresses the battle is that everyone who is Force-sensitive (either via one of the zillion classes here, or via a Force-sensitive specialization from either of the previous two books) has a new stat called Morality. It’s a … little heavy-handed and arbitrary, but it looks super interesting. Basically your Force-sensitive folks are rolling up Force Points to spend: finally you get to use those weird white d12s with the black/white dots. Assuming you’re not fallen to the Dark Side, you get to spend those white dots as Force Points, no harm no foul. But you can also spend the black dots! And when you do, you earn yourself a Conflict (as well as flip one of the party’s Destiny Points over to Dark). At the end of the session, you roll a d10. If you roll equal or under your total Conflicts for the session, your Morality slips down a bit (and if you roll over, it climbs a bit). Morality starts at 50, dead-center; if you drop to 29 or less, now you’ve fallen to the Dark Side. And your Force Point rules change a bit. If you get it above 70, now you’re a … something. An avatar of Light-side goodness or whatever. 

What I’m not seeing is a direct impact on your behavior for slipping to the Dark Side. I don’t see it mandating douchebaggery. This might actually be a strength. TBH I can’t really eyeball the play dynamic.

You can also earn Conflicts off a table that lays out stuff the Dark Side likes: being mean, killing bystanders, being selfish. You can also earn them “when the GM says,” which, you know, kind of how trad games are, right? I’d have to see if that’s terrible or okay. Oh oh and you can also earn Conflicts by failing Fear rolls, and I gotta say that’s some hot stuff right there. Makes me really want to put the characters into fearful positions.

Kitchen Sink

So I’m planning on running a kitchen sink game: be a scoundrel, or a goody-goody rebel, or a space wizard, whatever. You can also play combinations of those things: you can have both Obligation and Duty! You can be a space wizard who owes the Hutts! Whatever. That’s neat and it feels to me like it should create some interesting tensions. But maybe not, right? Because none of these rules are especially airtight when it comes to actually shaping play at the table. It’s like trad designers either don’t realize that behavior-shaping is a thing, or they’re terrified of indulging it too much because some angry nerd will grab their chest and cry out “role playing not roll playing!” and fall over dead.

The stuff I think I have to leave out or change or whatever just for my sanity, as it relates to how I believe Star Wars actually addresses its themes:

* Race matters not-at-all until you’re dealing with the Empire. Because the Empire is racist and terrible and will enslave you outright if you’re not human. Otherwise, no, you don’t get special snowflake benefits for being a Nautolan (although Whitney Delaglio may rub up against you, just saying that might happen). 

* Strongly consider how better to use that neat Morality system from Force and Destiny, maybe even for non-Force users. Maybe. It feels underused. Or more to the point, it feels like it sets Force-sensitive folks too far apart, like their moral choices matter cosmically in a way that non-sensitives don’t.

* Direct folks away from the difficult specializations in Age of Rebellion. Or give me a reeeeeally good explanation for why your capital ship commander or Senate aristo or whatever is risking getting shot at.

* Mechanize Motivations a little more. I’m thinking it can be as simple as “if you’re pursuing a Motivation, here’s a blue die. If you’re directly opposing your Motivation, here’s a black die. If your Motivation drives play in a new direction, here’s 5 XPs.” Because Motivations are honestly the only like…characterization element of the game.

EDIT! * Technology. My Star Wars fandom dies a little every time I am reminded that “slicers” are a thing in the EU and the games. Dumb. Turning Star Wars tech into something that looks like today’s tech opens up just a huge can of worms. I hate it. I hate the unrelenting push to normalize and standardize and explain everything about what is ultimately a fantasy setting. Once you have slicers then you have the Internet, and then you have hacking and shit, and there’s just no place at all for hackers in a fantasy setting. Can they hack droids? Do droids have wifi? The movies say no, duh, you need a terminal and a plug and you need to be a machine to talk to machines. Slicers, go away.

Sorry for the strong language, everyone. I have strong feels about Star Wars! It’s why I could never really dig into WEG’s stuff; that’s where the shitty fanfic problem started. Down with the EU!

Trial Balloon/Too Many Choices

I’ve set myself an Iron GM goal of running one thing each day at Dreamation in a couple months. But I’ve got so so many things I want to run. And I’m also bringing along at least one big board game to play with friends, and those tend to take like a third of a day to play out. So I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

That said, imma throw these titles out there just to test the waters. Lowest vote definitely gets dropped; possibly the bottom two get dropped and I “only” run three things in four days. Which is approximately my current highest pace for facilitating heavier-than-systemless games.

Really the only games here that require any kind of prep are Burning Wheel and Motobushido, but in both cases it’s fairly minimal. BW takes the most delicate touch, but damn I miss me some Wheel. And if it’s a one-shot, shit man, let’s go ahead and say it might be Wheel or Empires. That’s right. 



The Problem With Trad Games

Totally clickbait, kids. Don’t freak out. I’m just gonna talk about my problems. They’re not your problems.

So anyway Mark Delsing posted yesterday about feeling the pull to play a big sprawling trad game (but only with the “right crowd,” because he’s judgy discerning). Boy do I have sympathy for this feeling.

The past few weeks I’ve been feeling maybe burned out on RPGs. Maybe. I thought, at first, that (like Mark) I was maybe just feeling burned out on small press games. And man do I have a lot of them. Between my own collecting and the huge airdrop Andi Carrison did last year, I have a lot of titles. And none of them are really calling out to me. Either I’ve played them, chewed through and found the tasty marrow, or I’ve read them and I can’t build enthusiasm for what I’m reading.

But then I realized, more recently, that there’s another vector at play. I get a lot of energy from the enthusiasm of my players. And I feel like my players’ enthusiasm for small-press games can be either fleeting (fun first session followed by less-fun second, as we figure stuff out) or highly conditional (very specific preferences for how their behaviors are shaped). They just don’t have the same deep hunger for novelty and exploration that I do — we have different agendas of play. At a different level than ye olde capital-A Agendas.

So I stand in front of my shelves, longing for something to read that will excite me. Or that I think will excite my players. Obviously it’s synergistic, or maybe codependent: I bring excitement to the table, they get jazzed up, which jazzes me up. But I stare and I stare and I just can’t bring myself to pull down one of my beloved small-press games and really dig into it (again).

But you know what I love to read? I mean really, really love? Trad game books. By which I mean stuff produced by supplement treadmills at a very high gloss. Stuff packed with dreams.

I love the illustrations and the text, but not the probably-broken rules. I love that they’re glossy and colorful. They excite me in a visceral way that small-press stuff just doesn’t (at least after that first read and internalization). Maybe I’m shallow. I’m okay with that.

Probably the next thing I’ll run for a few sessions starting in January is a FFG Star Wars game. Depending on what gift certificates come my way this holiday season, I’ll be getting Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny and putting together a kitchen-sink Star Wars thing that’ll run 5 or 6 sessions. Hopefully it’ll cohere around a few very tight hooks. My players are cautiously optimistic, but we’ve had two failed Edge of the Empire games already so I can’t blame them for being a little gunshy.

So my problem with trad games is that they’re so great to read. I love pulling pretty much any title off the shelf and thumbing through it. Just letting the images and tables and names wash over me. And then knowing that they probably don’t work without a lot of heavy lifting, i.e. running them “like a roleplaying game.” Fixing rules. Building up legal precedence. Keenly feeling rules that should be there but just aren’t. Hacking out solutions on the fly all the damn time.

My dream is that somehow, someday small-press games will somehow produce exciting supplemental materials. Don’t know that that’s ever going to happen, for a variety of branding and practical reasons. I refuse to believe it’s impossible for rules reasons, but god damn it I have yet to see a game that provides procedurally tight play with minimal GM prep/lifting and is fun to just thumb through and dream. All the bandwidth gets used up on those tight procedures and nothing is left for the other senses.

Tragedy Looper Redux

Took a second swing at Tragedy Looper with a mostly new crowd and it went a whole lot better.

Since one of my players had done the first training scenario, I moved ahead to the second “First Steps” scenario. Everyone at the table was smart as hell; no big deal getting them to understand the interplay of actions and deductions. 

Also I lost on the second loop. Because everyone was smart as hell. And because the scenario doesn’t spell out the smart plays like the first one did.

The big thing about being the Mastermind and actually having a shot at winning is bluffing. Lots and lots of bluffing. I barely bluffed at all because, frankly, it’s been several weeks and I was feeling kind of vague about leveraging the abilities of the various roles. So I’d just plow straight ahead into a solution that I knew would work, not really thinking about how to dress up my efforts so they looked like I could be playing toward more than one possible scenario.

The game’s biggest fan is also my group’s biggest Field Commander, and in a game like this I honestly can’t see playing it well without a lot of centralized control. We played the game with the table talk throttle wide open; apparently the other extreme is that you get, like, 5 minutes to sort your shit between loops and then play in silence. That seems uh…very difficult. Very very difficult. So the other two players, whether they had the Leader card that day or not, would not really do much more than propose a play and then my alpha nerd would vet it against the notes he was taking.

A board game that requires note taking! What a world.

Anyway, now that I’ve got a good population of folks trained up on the game, I’m looking forward to getting a lot more cutthroat about bluffing as we start exploring the “real” tragedies of the Basic Set. And I still have the Midnight Circle expansion sitting here, unopened. So many tragedies. 

All the games where a Field Commander’s presence is felt usually end up burning out my crowd, and I can’t really blame them. Tightening down the table talk rules probably helps that some, but it feels like an artificial fix. I guess it’s on par with strictly hiding your cards in Pandemic.