During this year’s Gen Con I was able to get my hands on a BETA copy of the newest addition to Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG line: Age of Rebellion. Though many of you are probably already familiar with the game system–Edge of the Empire has been available for a few months–this was my first peak under the hood. I have be honest with you–I was quite surprised.
Before I tell you why I have to confess that I was primed to hate both Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion. For many years (I’m old) I have been a fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP). When Green Ronin picked up the game line and revised it I was more than happy. And when Fantasy Flight acquired the Warhammer license after Green Ronin looked like it had abandoned WFRP, I was stoked. My beloved WFRP would live on.
Unfortunately, all of my joy and happiness about continuing my adventures in the grim-dark world of Warhammer was dashed when I got my first whiff of how Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition was turning out. Instead of the tried and true percentile based game mechanics of the original two editions, WFRP was going to get a new game engine. An engine that I thought destroyed one of my favorite game’s tactical combat system AND involved me buying specialized dice.
To add insult to injury I watched Fantasy Flight’s Gen Con sales pitch for WFRP 3rd Edition on youtube. Ugh. Specialized dice, playing cards, and what looked like board game pieces were all I could see. Don’t get me wrong, I love board games and card games. I just did not want them replacing a RPG system that admired.
Plus, even though I like and play a number of Fantasy Flight’s games (Terrible Gamers is running a Warhammer 40k RPG campaign using all of Fantasy Flight’s 40k game lines), I am kind of turned off by their corporate feel. I know. First and foremost companies that make games are in the entertainment business. I just could not escape the feeling that Fantasy Flight had designed the WFRP 3rd Edition system around milking gamers for the most money possible. You needed Fantasy Flight’s special dice, their game “cards”, their game pieces and their new rulebooks.
This was a great deal for them, I thought, because not only did you need to spend so much more to “buy in” to their system, but all of those little things were what gamers were most likely to lose, misplace, or destroy. Cha-ching. So I never gave Fantasy Flight a chance. I refused right then and there to be “fooled” by them. I am starting to rethink that stance now.
Winding the clock forward to Gen Con 2013 I found myself similarly primed to hate the new Star Wars games. They did not have the cards and all of the other junk that you needed for WFRP, but they did require specialized dice. So it took all I had to swallow my pride and pick up a copy of Age of Rebellion’s BETA at Gen Con. When I finally got around to cracking over the cover last Saturday I didn’t put the book down until it was finished.
My immediate feeling when I was done reading Age of Rebellion was strangely reminiscent of a Dr. Sues book my son is fond of. I liked it! No that’s not right. I was amazed by it. I immediately wanted to abandon both our Dungeons & Dragons 4e and Warhammer 40k RPG campaigns, and to replace them with Edge of The Empire or Age of Rebellion. I ultimately decided this was a bad idea. Mostly because didn’t want to be murdered by 5 crazed men and women shouting “no new campaigns!”
Before we go any farther let me remind you that we have not actually played the game yet. Therefore what is going to follow is just my thoughts on how Age of Rebellion and, I’m guessing, Edge of the Empire read. They are my initial impressions so take them as such. When we get a chance to actually run the game a detailed review will follow. You can count on that review to be more detailed, grounded and accurate to the actual game play. With all of that in mind, you are probably going to be disappointed. I am not going to go into great detail about the game here, but read on. I think it is worth it.
Age of Rebellion uses the same dice pool system as Edge of the Empire. The same one I told you I was primed to hate. Here is how it works. When a player attempts to do anything that requires a roll, like slicing a computer or shooting a storm trooper in the face, she assembles a dice pool based on a number of factors. Things like skill level, difficulty of the task, and the force are all taken into account. The dice are rolled, and successes are compared to failures. If you have more successes than failures you succeed, if you don’t you fail. Simple enough.
This is where, for me, the system gets amazing. In addition to successes and failures you also end up rolling advantages and disadvantages. These open up narrative opportunities for both the players and the GM with every roll. It could be that your blaster shot missed that storm trooper’s face, but if you rolled a bunch of advantages things might not be all that bad. Maybe your shot forces the storm trooper out of cover. Maybe your shot hits the computer terminal the storm trooper is hiding behind destroying it the process. Or maybe your shot causes the terminal to explode in a flash of light temporarily blinding the storm trooper.
In a similar way bad things can happen even when you succeed. If you rolled more disadvantages than advantages, but still succeeded in your attempt to slice a computer you still get the information you need. The thing is it was really hard to slice that computer and it took you a really long time to do it. Imperial agents have been made aware of your actions. Or perhaps you successfully slice a terminal that unlocks the cell door of that Rebel Alliance diplomat you’ve been sent to rescue. Unfortunately, in the process you’ve also succeeded in locking all the doors you counted on being open for your escape.
My personal philosophy on running games is that roleplaying is an exercise in collective improvisational storytelling. I want player input, and I want the opportunity to make a fucking compelling story together. The kind of narrative opportunities that Fantasy Flight’s game mechanics build into Age of Rebellion and Edge of The Empire support my values. So much so that every single roll of the dice provides many opportunities to expand the story in unexpected directions. I can really imagine using these mechanics with my players and telling a story that lives up to the cinematic scope of the original Star Wars movies. I think Fantasy Flight should be applauded for this.
Now, again, we have not yet played the game. It is entirely possible that a yet unseen issue will crop up and ruin everything. And there are some things I scratch my head at. Do we really need new dice for this? I mean I suppose custom dice might help add to the emersion, but I prefer to use my gamescience dice (I like rolls to actually be random). For that reason, when we do play these games I won’t be using the Edge of The Empire dice rolling phone app (algorithms do not result in randomness) or the specialized dice that I bought at Gen Con. Instead, I will be using my dice and using the conversion chart Fantasy Flight so generously published. And what if I want to write a campaign around Imperial characters who slowly learn the truth about the masters they serve? Well, nope. Not with these games as they are written. Finally, we were looking at a BETA. It could be quite different than the finished product.
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(c) Scott Mills 2013