Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Down & Out In Mos Shuuta -- Under the Hood of EotE

This last Sunday, my home game suffered from some big absences (we were down to four out of seven players) so we decided to rethink our normal Sunday night game. Since +Matt Woodard had been working on a ShadowRun campaign, I thought that it might be time to fire up a mini-run, but it turns out that no one has characters ready (including myself; I may have said this before, but I am scared shitless of creating characters in ShadowRun 4e, even more scared than making 3.x or Pathfinder characters), so we were on to Plan C. Plan C involved me hitching a ride with Matt back to my place to drop off unnecessary gaming materials and to pick up my new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game Box. Within a few minutes of getting back to the house where we game, we were killing Gamorreans in a Mos Shuuta cantina and loving it. I know that I'll end up writing about this game at the end of the month in my New Year, New Games post for March, but I thought our night of scoundrelous mayhem and the system itself deserved a post all its own. After all, I'm a huge fan of "basic sets," spend a lot of my time sorting out rules mechanics and had a great time with the play experience; I have enough to talk about here that it's time to just get right into it.

Beginning With The Box

I love "basic boxes," "starter sets" or whatever you want to call them. For the player, they represent your first glimpse into the larger world of the RPG, broken down into manageable, bite-sized chunks that are designed to not overwhelm the players. My entrance into the RPG hobby was through the Mentzer Red Box so my expectations are a little high. I love the slim rule books, the crappy dice, the now-necessary hand outs, the (sometimes well-constructed, sometimes poorly-constructed) box itself; I love the idea of this little box serving not only as my own introduction to the given game, but also, perhaps the introduction of generations of imaginary future Muszkiewiczes (yes, that is the correct pluralization of Muszkiewicz) who just might find the box on a shelf somewhere in a closet or attic or (more probably) bookshelf and say to themselves that it looks like fun. Thus is the cycle perpetuated, right?

So, how does the EotE Beginner Box hold up compared to some of my other favorite starter sets? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. First, the rules are in fact nice and slim but still complete and robust. Really there was only one rules question that I had that I couldn't figure out (which was more of an advanced sort of question and one for a later post; perhaps an upcoming "Things I Learned About EotE" post is in the offing). Some things from the main rules are glossed over, which is totally fine since they really aren't needed until your players & characters become sufficiently advanced. Yes, the fact that character creation rules are missing is a bit of a bummer, but those would swell the rules well beyond starter set size, so I'm not too upset. Besides, the pregenerated characters represented a really great cross-section of Star Wars archetypes and in-game roles that serve to provide a balanced team to all players, newbies and veterans alike. Also, the dice were fairly high quality. Sure, they're not my GameScience precision dice, but they're alright and seem to be on par with the quality of Q Workshop dice (these may actually be Q Workshop dice, I honestly have no idea) which are pretty good, just not as great as GameScience ones. The maps are nice, if a bit small (of course, we're all used to traditional battle mats and minis, so we're spoiled) and the tokens are better than average (they feel board game-quality, which is really nice).

Worst. Box. Ever.
Which brings me to the bad. The box itself sucks. Really sucks. This thing will not survive more than the most delicate of treatments. My "only used once" box is already ripped and torn. It's made of crazy thin card stock, the shape of which is only maintained due to a cardboard insert. From my perspective, this crappy box is the worst mistake that Fantasy Flight made with this boxed set. It has everything else that my imaginary future Muszkiewiczes will need to play the game; too bad they won't be able to find it in the original box that it came it. (I'll probably end up actually constructing a box for this game, I like it that much.) The poor quality here makes me wonder if Fantasy Flight actually understands what the point of making a beginner's box actually is. I mean, "box" is in the friggin' name of this product, so you'd think they'd have bothered with a halfway decent one. This fact irritates me so much that I just spent an entire paragraph talking smack about how shitty it was; I don't normally hold on to negativity that long.

Under The Hood

Most folks who've been reading my blog for awhile will already know that I'm not afraid of funky dice. Duh. Not to sound opinionated, but objecting to a game just because it doesn't use dice that you already have is a pretty weak argument. Okay, really weak. "Oh, I'd play DCC if it weren't for the fact it uses all those strange dice." "Oh, FFG just wants to gauge us for more money so they made up pointless dice you'll never use for anything else." Forget it. I know each of you geeks out there owns something bizarre and particular that you bought for some game or hobby or something that you're not friggin' using. Ever own a bobble head? Well, these funky FFG dice are much cooler and *gasp* you'll actually get use out of these. So shut up. I'm sick of this crap.

The dice themselves, once you get used to them, are easy to read and figure out. We quickly went from "what's that symbol mean?" to mentally adding up dice results and interpreting them (yes, interpreting the dice in EotE is a real and important thing). Even the player who tends to not dig on the dice math seemed to not have any problems sorting out her dice rolls. It took us a little bit to sort out what counted as an Advantage or a Threat and what you could (or had to) do with them, but once we re-read the section of the adventure that teaches how to read the dice for the second time, we were confident enough in what we were doing to rock it out.

The included adventure was really well-done. Not as in "it was a compelling story that had us in tears and on the edge of our seats in suspense," but as in "does exactly what it sets out to do." And what it sets out to do is to put the characters in an exciting environment where each one gets to do his or her own thing and teach the rules to the players and the DM as the game progresses. Which means I don't actually have to crack open the rule book before playing (but I totally did), which is nice. On-the-job training, after a fashion, and it worked. So, mission accomplished, FFG! For your next mission, may I suggest teaching your team to order boxes for your games that don't completely suck? Sorry, sorry, I'm still bitter about the box.

In Play

To get this party started right, I cued up the Star Wars intro music and read the opening crawl from the starter adventure. Geeky and fun. Only a few laughs. The opening crawl as written is evocative and very much in the feeling of the originals; since I've run about six bazillion Star Wars RPG sessions (of various editions), I know a good crawl when I see one (as well as a bad one; if you want examples if bad, I'd be glad to provide any of the tons I've written that always get too long or miss their mark somehow). So, everyone was keyed up. The team got to working together nicely, playing to each others' strengths. It was nice to see the players pair up differently than they normally do for D&D.

As far as rules in play, they seemed to work pretty simply and have reasonable narrative consequences. Task resolution of all types boils down to roughly the same options, which makes it easy to think about what you can do at any one point in time. Combat works quickly and smoothly, especially once the DM understands the difference between the several sorts of enemies (Minions, Henchmen, Rivals and Nemeses in ascending order of threat). Most situations just needed a little common sense adjudicating and few rules got in the way of logic. Every skill check follows the same rules, which makes tons of sense, since FFG is requiring a high degree of player buy-in with their specialty dice; if you're going to make people learn to read and use special dice, you had better make sure you fucking use them as often as you can. The starship combat rules follow the same lead and roughly the same structure as person-to-person combat and avoid the common pitfall of "one guy flies the ship, the rest of the players take a nap" that so many other games (including my beloved d6 Star Wars!) have been guilty. Once the players stole their own ship and got into a dogfight with some TIE Fighters, everyone had something vital to contribute to the war effort. The smuggler worked to keep the TIEs from hitting the ship, while the bounty hunter & wookiee (could wookiee perhaps be the original "race as class?") manned the top & bottom gun turrets and the droid worked to keep the damage from the initial hit under control. Easy to learn? Yes. Simple to implement? Yes. Fun to play? Yes.

The session ended with the inevitable jump into hyperspace with the players wondering why I even bothered to give them experience points. "Surely this was a one-shot?" they asked.

"Why?" I asked in return. "Wouldn't you play this again?"

"Oh yeah, you bet we would," they said something approximately like what with my memory of the conversation being significantly less than perfect. "But we've got D&D & ShadowRun already. We don't want to lose a night of either of those games."

"Well," says I, "How about Edge of Empire as our 'we're three men down but still want to game' game?"

The gleam in their collective eyes was all the answer I needed. I think the fact that they ended up with a rust-red YT-1300 was the defining factor.

The Verdict

Yep. I'll play & run EotE again and love it. I think, though, that I am the ideal EotE DM. I have a deep and abiding love for the setting (no, I'm not challenging your deep and abiding love) and the right mind to find the beautiful balance in the rules system. "Skills & talents" makes a ton of sense to me for Star Wars (when compared to "class & level" particularly), so the character development is what I'd like to see. I'd gladly run this again with my home group at the drop of a hat, particularly since it felt like they had a bunch of fun. In fact, I dug it so much that I think I might just have to give it a shot via G+ soon. Takers?