Review – Edge of the Empire Beta

A couple of weeks ago, Fantasy Flight Games announced at GenCon they would be releasing the beta rules for their new Star Wars roleplaying game Edge of the Empireselling them for $30. While this caused no small amount of groaning from gamers, a lot of whom didn’t think they should have to pay to test “beta” rules, many more, myself included, plunked down the money and ordered the book.

I’ve had my book for about a week now and have had a chance to read it cover to cover and digest the rules. I, like many people, was tentative at first when I heard how tightly focused the game was going to be. It is the classic era (the time of A New Hope), and the game focuses on the characters working at the edges of the galaxy, in the Outer Rim. Bounty hunters, smugglers, frontier doctors, and ne’er-do-well scoundrels are all represented in this book.

I was also tentative because I, like may not other Star Wars gamers had fallen in love with Star Wars Saga Editionthe d20 roleplaying game released by Wizards of the Coast that officially ended its line several years ago. I didn’t think anything was going to be able to top the cinematic flair and feel of that game.

I’m here to tell you that I was wrong to be so tentative, on all counts.

Edge of the Empire is a game that really puts the focus on the narrative, using abstracted combat systems instead of gridded battle maps and miniatures to help in this. It truly is a marriage of the best things from all the previous Star Wars roleplaying games.

Character creation is quick, but there is a lot of room for customization. You choose your species from one of eight listed in the books, ranging from Bothans to Humans to Wookiees to Gand (yes, you heard me right) to Combat model Droids. Then you choose a “career” which is a broad idea of what your character does. The six careers are: Bounty Hunter, Colonist, Explorer, Hired Gun, Smuggler, and Technician. You then further define what your character is good at by selecting one of three specializations within that career. If you’re a Hired Gun, what kind of fighter are you? Are you a Bodyguard? Do you like to get in close and mix it up in melee combat? Or are you more of a battlefield leader? Each of these specializations gives you access to a list of abilities you can purchase called talents. Many of these talents provide bonus dice on actions you take or eliminate some penalty dice. Others increase your attributes and characteristics. Others yet give you various abilities that you can use during combat or even rerolls you can make during a game session. Your choice of career and specialization also gets you six free points in a number of skills that is determined by each one. This list of skills is cheaper for you to improved during play as well, as these skills are a part of your core focus. You then spend a starting XP budget to increase your attributes and skills, purchase talents, and even purchase a second specialization. You can even choose a second specialization that is outside of your career, it just costs you more to get access to it off the bat.

You also choose (or roll randomly) for an Obligation and a Motivation. These are the roleplaying hooks your character has that a GM can use to drive the story. Obligation is measured in a numerical scale, and includes things like debt, addition, oaths, and other things. The total numbers are laid out between all the characters and put into a chart. At the beginning of every session, the GM makes a die roll on a pair of percentile dice. If he hits a certain number, your character’s obligation comes into play. If he rolls doubles, it’s in a big, character changing way. Characters can choose to take on more obligation as the game goes on, or they can choose to buy it off through their actions. Either way, it really lets them feel that they are affecting and are being affected by the galaxy at large.

Fantasy Flight also announced that this game would require special dice to play. These dice are your basic polyhedrals, but instead of numbers, they include symbols. There are seven kinds of dice that this game uses – three of them are beneficial and three that are antagonistic. The seventh is a wild card die and is used in special situations. The positive dice generate “successes” and “advantages” which are directly countered by the negative dices’ “failures” and “threat.”

A player gathers up all the dice he’ll need to perform an action, positive and negative, and rolls them all together. The amount of negative dice is determined by the overall difficulty of the action he is attempting. If it is easy and there is little chance of failure, he may only have one negative die. If the odds are really against him, he may have as many as five. The number of positive dice he rolls is determined by the skill he is using and the governing attribute of that skill. If he has more successes than failures, the action succeeds. Advantage and threat are then spent to modify an action positively and negatively. It’s possible to succeed at an action and still suffer negative results due to threat generation, as well as fail at an action, but get some kind of boon out of it due to advantage. Two other symbols appear on two of the dice, called “triumph” and “despair.” These are essentially advantage and threat on steroids and can be spent to do things that would normally require multiple numbers of either of other. In addition, triumph and despair count as a success and failure respectively when rolled. The final die is the Force Die, and is used in many actions a Force sensitive character makes as well as to define the size of a resource called the “Destiny Pool” at the beginning of the game. The Force Die can generate both light side and dark side points each of these translating directly to a “light side destiny point” and a “dark side destiny point.” Each of these points can be used by either the player or GM to gain an edge on a die roll or impact the narrative, and is then “flipped” to the other side for use by the opposition.

This may seem a little “high concept,” and at first it is, but the more I read about how the dice work in the game, the more it began to make sense to me. The physical dice aren’t for sale from the company yet, but the beta did come with a sheet of stickers that can be used to modify existing dice, and also includes resources for printing off more. They have also released a dice rolling app for $4.95 that can handle all of the dice rolling. I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but from screenshots, it looks very nice.

Combat in this game is handled on a very abstract, cinematic level. It takes place at different “range bands” which characters can move between as they jockey for position and engage enemies. Attacking is governed by weapons skills as well as what range you’re attacking from as well as the general size of the target, called their “silhouette.” If you hit, you deal damage based on your weapon plus however many extra successes you rolled. Damage is reduced by a character’s natural strength modified by armor. Advantage and triumph can be spent in combat to activate weapon abilities like autofire, blast, burn, and even critical hits which can really put the hurt on an opponent. Threat and despair can cause malfunctions or even drain your blaster’s power cells.

Starship combat is handled directly the same, albeit with a few more wrinkles to include things like multiple Defense Zones and fire arcs, though these things are all handled in a very rules light way. Silhouette comes into play more in starship combat than it does in personal combat, but everything else is very analogous.

One thing that I can say from reading through the rules is that combat is a much faster, much deadlier game than it has been in any of the more recent d20 games. Wound points are small and damage numbers are high. It’s possible that a couple of well placed shots could take you out of the fight, but options for healing are numerous and fairly quick, so you won’t be out of the fight for very long (unless the worst case happens and you’re outright killed by a critical hit). This is something that  I really look forward to playing around with as combats in the previous system could take a long time, especially at higher levels of play.

The Force is also touched on in this book, though it is as a dabbler in the power instead of someone with formal training. You can purchase access to the Force-Sensitive Exile talent tree to get access to new abilities as well as be able to purchase actual Force powers. The three that are included in this book are Sense, Influence, and Move. They start out as bare bones powers that you can’t do much with, but are upgraded through experience points to do more and more things. Sense lets you read the thoughts of more people who are further away and lets you modify attack rolls for both you and your enemy. Move lets you move bigger objects at higher speeds from further away.

All in all, this feels like an incredibly solid game. I can’t wait to grab some people and see if the theory stands up to the practice, but I really think that Fantasy Flight took a calculated risk with the tight theme of the game, but in doing so, they may have hit it out of the park.

I’ll be back with more thoughts after some actual play gets done and have more to report then. If you want more information in the interim, you can check out these two episodes of the Ennie award winning Order 66 Podcast. The first one is a live recording of the hosts demoing the game with lead designer Jay Little during GenCon. The second is a full episode they released after the convention where they got a chance to talk with Little more as well as veteran Star Wars designer Sterling Hershey. Until then, remember that the Force will be with you. Always.

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