A week or so ago I picked up the newest $40 iteration of, “We’ve rewritten the d20 Star Wars rules again, give us money.” Mockery aside, I was really looking forward to this. The teasers the the WotC Web site made it look like the fixed some of my big gripes about the older systems. (Well, aside from the fact that it’s still d20.) Prior to this, I had been thinking that any future run I did of Star Wars would involve me adapting a lot of the concepts from True 20/Mutants and Masterminds to the old Revised Core Rules.
They’ve stripped out and merged a lot of stuff to streamline it a lot. Which I think is awesome for the most part. I like simple and elegant rules. But then I discovered that they stripped out what I’ll call the “fluff skills,” skills which provide little to no mechanical benefit. Craft, Entertain and Profession are all gone. Their practical aspects have been mostly absorbed by other skills or talents. You can’t have Entertain (actor) or Profession (lawyer) but you can take skills like Deception and Persuasion that emulate the benefits that come from those skills. I immediately grokked why they did that. Being able to sing well or paint a picture or build a house have no mechanical, measurable value in the game. This was confirmed by a game designer who happens to moderate the Star Wars mailing list, who felt that if someone wanted to be a great musician, they didn’t need to devote character resources to it. It could just be part of their background.
I’m of conflicting feelings about the subject.
Star Wars is obviously not the first RPG to bulletshape their game and leave tangential abilities to the wayside. Amber Diceless springs instantly to mind. The stuff you can spend points on represent the things the Wuj thought were relevant to the setting: the power to manipulate through Shadow, four venues of conflict for your throne wars, an assortment of other resources you can dump points into. Skills? You could just write down whatever skills you wanted. Medical degree? Classically trained cellist? Master of Japanese flower arrangement? All free. Because it utterly didn’t fit into the Wuj’s view of what Amber was about, he felt you should just be able to just choose what you wanted in those categories. (Granted, he also advised you to abuse the rules in order to one-up certain GMing tropes, like riddles.)
The problem that you invariably run into with Amber this is the bombshell known as Princess Florimel. The rules don’t really support the conniving socialite that Flora is portrayed as in the books. There are no skills for being a socially oriented character. It’s usually assumed to be a mix of free skills and player roleplaying. Which is fine. But where do all those points go? I’ve seen all kinds of suggestions: High psyche (for the empathic ability to read emotions) and lots of allies is an obvious hack. I’ve also been on the wrong end of a Flora with inexplicably high Strength. (The GM’s rationale? Those points had to go somewhere.) But the rules don’t strongly support someone who doesn’t want to be the overly competent combat monster or master of a million powers. You are supposed to be larger than life machiavellian assholes and that’s what the rules point you towards.
So the new Star Wars rules, in some ways, point you towards making characters like the heroes from the movies. So you have a lot of actiony skills and they have a new optional rule for Destiny Points to encourage you to take on the role of a hero with a legend. The Dark Side rules are meant to keep you from slipping too far down the moral slope. All great ideas. I guess where I get frustrated is, again, that they don’t really give good indicators for what to do if you don’t want to be the sort of character they are pushing you towards. At least with Amber it explicitly states that skills are generally free. The new Star Wars rules…? Character concept isn’t even a step in character creation. It’s given a slight mention in “Step Three: Choose Your Class.” (Steps one and two are “generate ability scores” and “choose race.”)
This is not to say I don’t like bulletshaped character creation. 7th Sea has a really fascinating character creation setup. Specifically the way it handles flaws is really interesting. Either you have to spend character creation points in order to get story share from these problems that crop up (and get extra XP when they do) or you get character creation points for taking on flaws that are still fit with the swashbuckling genre. You don’t get extra points for being an albino parapalegic sociopath. But invariably there will come a point where someone wants to go off the map a bit as far as the rules are concerned. Sometimes that’s way off the map (“Okay, we’re playing Call of Cthulhu.” “I want to be a sentient moss!” “Erm…”) But sometimes off the map fits well within the genre but not well within the rules. I think how the system handles pushing the limits really sets apart the okay games from the truly good ones.
Whether it’s Figrin D’an, Max Rebo, twi’lek dancing girls or Ewok tribal music… Entertainers of varying sorts are always lurking in the background waiting to have their stories explored. There’s also the trope of the “everyman” character who gets drawn into things. You aren’t a badass. You’re just a guy who gets drawn into a larger world. Star Wars doesn’t use this trope as often as others, but it does come out periodically. Aside from their roles in a larger story, there isn’t much to distinguish Anakin as he appeared in Phantom Menace, let alone Jar-Jar Binks or C-3PO. I know what the stock answer for this is: If you want to play a character that is at a disadvantage, nothing’s stopping you. I’ve gotten that answer from more than one game designer I really like and respect. You just aren’t encouraged to do it.
Which sounds fine on paper, but I’ve been on the losing end of too many rounds of “Concept Character vs. GM’s Plot” to think it’s an entirely fun prospect. I really prefer a lot more carrot with my stick. I like suggestions from the game designer in the book on how to handle these situations. Different games have had different approaches to this. Sometimes I wonder if WotC, in trying to push the viability of the d20 agenda has missed a lot of chances to really try something new. I enjoy playing d20 games once in a while, but I invariably feel like you play d20 games to play d20 games. Using it to play something outside of the d20 zone is a lesson in frustration.
I’m an experienced enough player and GM to house rule my way around the limitations of a system as written. It would just be nice if they’d put guidelines for going off the map for those who are new to the hobby.