Review Session: Star Wars RPG: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box
Not that long ago
On a tabletop in my home....
One of the main differences I've found between UK and US board and tabletop gaming scenes is that for some reason here in blighty, the Dungeons and Dragons trend never really hit the mainstream as much as it did in the US. For whatever reason boardgames, videogames, and even tabletop miniature games like Warhammer seeped their way into more mainstream audiences, and you could at least find people willing to discuss them and play with you. But that didn't seem to be the case with DnD, which had a great explosion of interest in the US from the 80s onwards. Here, even among game playing nerds it seemed like the outcast game that was for people ever nerdier than them. That finally appears to be changing though, with the help of high profile shows like Stranger Things, as well as plenty of different games, rulesets, and licensed properties all helping to pull interest.
It was a shock then when a non-boardgamey friend in a group chat asked if anyone had played DnD before, because they had heard about it on podcasts recently and wanted to give it a go. Even more to my surprise when multiple other friends also jumped in instantly and wanted to play as well, it was as if everyone had always thought about it, but never wanted to ask.
I think that is true on the wider scale here as well, more people are hearing about it and now wiling to give it a go, and they might know of one person who has tried it who can help steer them in the right direction. As one of the resident nerds of the group, and someone with a little pen and paper experience, I jumped at the chance to have some tabletop fun and introduce some new people to this amazing world.
With that I went about searching for a game to play. I thought about classic DnD briefly but didn't want to jump right in to explaining THAC0, and so decided to aim for a more narratively driven system. I asked the players a simple question, Fantasy or Sci-Fi, they chose Sci-Fi, and so I chose the Star Wars RPG series of books by Fantasy Flight Games. A recognizable universe, with items, imagery, and races that people will be able to conjure in their minds easily due to decades of pop culture indoctrination seemed like a great place to start. The game also has 3 different base sets, with 4 different beginner games, and what better way to begin than with a beginner game?
The Edge of the Empire game is set in the far reaches of the galaxy, miles away from the supposed Jedi, and where the rebellion and the Vader's of the world are something that few have heard of and many more of those don't care about. Here the bounty hunters, workers, and smugglers are just trying to get enough credits to live their lives without starving. It's like the hit blockbuster movie Solo. But good.
The beginner box comes with everything 5 players need to play a full session. 1 person acts as the Game Master (GM), guiding the players through the short adventure, and the other 4 are pre-generated Player Characters (PCs) who each have a backstory and a multi-page folio with stats, skills, equipment, and a full page picture of each to help bring them to life. As well as the adventure book the GM will use to tell the story the box also comes with full colour maps, dice, and plenty of tokens to use for visual representation on the maps. Overall for the price of the kit, it's a great little set that really brings the scenario to life, and the overall quality of everything really helps kickstart the session. That sounds a little shallow, but having full colour character sheets with full page art, custom dice, and full colour maps for the table specific to the scenario really do make an impression, especially for new players and can help draw them in. The intro text even comes in a Star Wars style scrawl on a separate page that I slowly raised over the GM divider on the table while the main Star Wars theme played. Cheesy? Yes. Awesome? YES!
It's time to start then, so how much prep work do the players need to do for this game? Essentially none, though I'd recommend the GM read through the adventure one time to familiarise themselves with it, but no need to learn separate longer rules, or lookup tables and other resources. The adventure book is laid out very cleanly and cleverly in that as the PCs progress through the encounters, each page will unveil new rules as needed. It will explain skill checks when you first start, combat when the first group of enemies track you down, how to use contested skills like negotiate when you need to barter or steal an item. It makes it really manageable to get going, as you can then use these exact moments to explain those rules to the players, no need to do a huge rules dump at the beginning, just the story and set-up and away you go.
The main gameplay element with any RPG is how the dice system works, and here, it's pretty ingenious really. Players create a dice pool of Green and Yellow good dice, and Purple and Red bad dice, and then chuck them. Each dice has a different number of symbols on it, so no numbers or crazy math here and no d20s either. Successes and failures cancel each other out, and at the end if there are success symbols left over then the check or attack - shockingly - is a Success, and if there are failures left then, well, no prize for guessing that one. The clever bit however is in another set of symbols, those for Advantage and Threat, they also cancel each other out and the ones that are left provide the players or the GM scope to essentially do ANYTHING. No, really. A successful hit that also generated threat? Well then sir you swung too hard and got rocked off balance, the next attack against you will gain a boost die. Fail a skill check but also generated advantages? Well ma'am maybe you didn't convince the droid patrol to let you in but you did notice a side entrance to the facility while you where exuberantly gesticulating your argument.
The system works great, providing another layer on top of the standard role playing fare to let both players and the GM do more, come up with crazy interactions, and really tell a story. There are rule based stuff you can spend them on (recover strain, gain a boost die next roll) but even those options we found the PCs still describing how it was happening and why they got that result. Another clever touch is that the advantages get chosen by the PC who rolled, and the threats get decided by the GM which spreads the decision making around so it's not all on one person. It was certainly a lot more entertaining and brought the fights and skill checks to life more than "roll d20, ok a 4 so that's a miss, now it's the next person's turn". There are even 2 more critical symbols, Triumph and Despair that very rarely come up, but when they do basically murder or do anything else crazy.
The campaign is a nice one session length, it took us about 4.5 hours to play through the 8 encounters in total, and while it is pretty linear with a pretty simple critical path, there is scope for the PCs to create havoc by running off and trying to get the GM off kilter. The map of the town when the players are outside has plenty of locations labelled and the campaign book has a tiny blurb of each to help the GM make something up on the spot when they inevitably attempt to go there. Our group only went to one of-path location, which I handled well I might add, but there were discussions of others - as the PCs start by searching for something - but they thankfully chose not to in the end and somehow ended up going straight through the rest of the encounters. There is also some scope for invention, one of the encounters - entering a space control facility - they got in and out of so amazingly fast with absolutely no fuss, managing to convince everyone they were somehow meant to be there, that I then expanded the next encounter by throwing in some more enemies and taking the fight to the streets. It really is a nice balanced back and forth, that lays the rules out as you go, but also allows you to play how you want to play.
I will admit that one thing that I felt helped out was the use of some external resources. I borrowed a whole bunch of FFG's Imperial Assault miniatures from a friend for all the characters and enemies (except the Gamorrean's, pain to find those) and then I also have plenty of X-Wing Miniatures ships which I used for the final encounter. Star Wars also has a whole wealth of soundtracks and music, such as the Cantina Music for when entering a bar, which all helped to create a great atmosphere. Speaking of FFG, you would be forgiven to thinking that there are plenty of accessories to buy, new books to purchase, scripted adventures to carry on with to fork money out on. And yes, there are. But there is also a full free pdf adventure that specifically follows on from this one with the same characters. It's meatier than the adventure here even (sans colour maps) and the fact that it is a free download is quite a huge plus.
So, did my non-game playing friends first venture into the world of tabletop RPGs with the Edge of the Empire Beginner Game prove a rousing success? The answer is a resounding yes. There was more than one exclamation of "this is awesome" and not just from me, and we locked in a date to carry on basically the second we finished up and started packing away. We even have a friend in the wings waiting to join, and I have another set of friends queuing up to run this again, or maybe one of the other Beginner Boxes from the same system. For anyone looking to get into the world of tabletop RPGs who might feel daunted by full Dungeons and Dragons, and has even a passing affinity to Star Wars, this box is great value and a great time.
Though as a word of warning, I've already ordered more books and added even more to my wish list so if you're not after an awesome new hobby, then maybe steer clear!