Sunday, June 6, 2010

Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars: The Darkening Rift (Part Two)

Continuing my analysis of a recent short-run Star Wars campaign using our homebrew system, Action Cards.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

My planning broke into two big parts: story/narrative and system adaptation. I decided to focus on essential elements and sources-- but I didn't go back and watch any of the movies (which seems odd in retrospect). I did glance at a couple of Star Wars rpg pdfs I had-- mostly to see how they handled organizing Force abilities. I moved on quickly. I brainstormed what had to be in the game and what ideas I wanted in the game. I had three things in mind:

1. Obviously it would take place a couple of generations after Return of the Jedi. Chapters I-III had established that the nine movies would be chronologically connected. So I would need to have the possibility of middle trilogy characters appearing in this “movie.” That meant having a New Republic, but also allowed for some form of existing Imperial threat One of the things which had bothered me about the break between Episode III and Episode IV was that the Empire managed in what--less than twenty years?-- to completely subvert a galactic republic. But even in Star Wars, we have the Senate still acting-- so we're talking a Roman style model for the rise and fall? Bottom line-- things seemed to shift too fast, so I imagined a slower pace for the expansion and establishment of a New Republic.

2. I wanted a new kind of alien threat. I wanted something different but with a connection. Later I would find out about the Yuuzhan Vong but I didn't care for that. I wanted a force-based enemy which echoed the Sith but also had a cool visual weapon. In this case I liked the idea of the Sphere Triad, a set of devices which (in my head) looked a little like the floating training sphere from Star Wars. The bad guys would have these floating around them and could control them-- creating arcs of energy or force between. I also had another visual concept, for the raised metal markings or tattoos the alien enemy would have.

3. I also wanted to deal narrative logic with a problem I had came across. I'd read Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire series when came out. I couldn't recall the full plot of it, but I recalled that he'd at least partially answered the question of why they didn't clone Force users. Then as I was doing some reading I saw that some of the later expanded universe material turned on the Emperor coming back by having cloned himself. That bugged me-- so I wanted to deal with that point explicitly. Oddly enough that resulted in my using the cloned Force user concept.

Beyond story, I knew the most difficult part would be the balance of “cool” between Jedi and non-Jedi characters. I wanted to get the feel of Force powers right. On Wookipedia I found their their list of powers and then did a rewrite to group them together. I decided hunt for other useful sources, which led me to the Essential series for Star Wars. These are nice coffee table paperback books,and pretty reasonably priced. I made sure I didn't buy any unless I had a good Borders coupon or got them through Amazon. I ended up picking up three books: Jedi vs. Sith: the Guide to the Force; the New Essential Guide to Alien Species; and the Essential Star Wars Atlas. Later Gene bought me the New Essential Guide to Weapons and Technology.

The Atlas provided some nice perspective on the size of the galaxy and suggested some thematic places I could use (Hutt Space, the Deep Core). It also gave me a better sense of how hyperspace travel worked-- particularly the idea of their being route or areas of space either amicable to travel or at least free of interference such as gravity wells or debris. The idea that such routes had to be mapped and required beacons stuck with me. I also used the Atlas as a source for place names, but generally I skimmed rather than fully reading it. The Alien Species volume I jumped around in and read-- mostly to give me a sense of possibilities as well as race names and details I could throw in. It did point me at a consideration I hadn't had before: that the Empire tended to be Hume-centric. It made sense but I hadn't seen that explicated. The Technology book gave me a number of ideas, but more than anything cemented in my decision to keep equipment and weapons particularly abstract. The game would have no weapons or armor charts. In the SW universe, weapons end up relatively equal except for their “special effects.” In the movies the only more potent blaster we see are the two-man portable blasters of the Imperials. Otherwise everything shot flashes of light that hurt people when they hit.

While I only partially read those, I have to admit I devoured the Guide to the Force. The problem of Force cloning; the alien threats of the later expanded universe; details of the Sith; the awful Holocrons, and a number of other ideas grabbed me. It also mentioned the unfortunately-named precursor race of the Rakata (which I would use). I appreciated the sense it provided for how the Jedi Council had operated in the past-- and how that might change in a New Republic. I rarely read sourcebooks as fully as I did this one. It did reinforce my awareness of the need to balance Jedi and non-Jedi PC. The movies, especially the first trilogy, have the issues of the Force as central to the story. So how do we get the non-Force user characters the same kind of strength and role they have in Parts IV-VI?

I began with a design goal of equally interesting Jedi/Non-Jedi characters while at the same time allowing distinctiveness within those two groups. The YouTube review of The Phantom Menace influenced me here. His point that these more recent movies lack distinct protagonist(s) or memorable characters stuck with me. I knew I would be doing a draft for the cards within a player's deck, so I thought I could use another draft mechanic to give players sharply defined roles. Normal characters would get two picks from a list of “role abilities.” Some of these would be clearly based around a character archetype (Pilot, Medic, Engineer, Thief, etc), while others would be more about coloring the character in that role (Lucky, Charming, Gadgets, Connected). Taking a pick would give the player a really broad ability (like Piloting or Guns) allowing them a repull in any situation closely related to that. Other players wanting to later buy into that area would have to buy narrower skills with more limited applications. The trick would be that each of those role picks could only be taken once. Characters could worry less about others stepping on their toes. I wouldn't use this approach for a standard game, but for a limited number of sessions in a heavily genre-influenced game I think it works.

I took similar tact with Force user characters. I broke the powers into eight tracks (Mind Tricks, Lightsaber, Senses, Physical Enhancement, Telekinesis, Energy Manipulation, Force Defenses, Telepathy). Each of those would have five specific powers: one at the Padwan level, two at the Knight level and two at the Master level). Coming up with those, fitting them into their tracks and writing descriptions so that fairly vague things had specific applications took a couple of solid days of work. I moved things around multiple times before I settled on the final arrangement.

Like the non-Jedi, each Jedi player would get two picks from the eight tracks. Their first pick would put them at “Knight” level with that track-- giving them the Padwan power and their choice of one of the Knight powers. One a track had been chosen for a 'first' pick, other Jedi players could not pick that one. On the second pick, Jedi could pick a track taken as a first pick for another player (gaining only the Padwan power) but still could not duplicate another person's second pick. I hoped this would give the Jedi some fulfilling tricks, but also keep them from repeating.

Just a general note here: building abilities for a fairly open and abstract system actually ends up more difficult than for a specific and detailed system. You want abilities to be striking and distinct. But at the same time, you don't want to have the negate the choices of other players. A good deal of d20 suffers from this problem. The existence of a feat means that players can't use their skills creatively to create a like effect without either reducing the value of that feat or negating someone's build choices. My original sense of the Jedi abilities would be that players would have an ability and a power level existing independently. But was more than needed to be tracked. So the abilities have both a relative strength and what they can do. I tried to build them so that later buys in the same track would not mean that earlier purchases ended up useless.

I considered some mechanisms other rpgs had used for Jedi powers. I decided quickly against having a test to actually activate the power. Instead the test would be about the successful application of the power. I also decided against any kind of mana or endurance cost for powers. That would required another for players to track, didn't add to balance, and felt out of place in the genre. I did note in descriptions that continued use of some powers might be taxing (giving me a later, narrative out). Finally there remained the question of how to handle the Dark Side. I decided that Jedi users would have a certain level of moral expectation, one which would be even more stringent when using Force powers. If a player blatantly violated those codes they could gain a corruption card in their deck-- one which could snowball and create even more corruption cards. It was important to me to handle that problem within the player's deck itself.

A standard Action Cards deck has 24 cards. Of those, 14 give results in the four basic action areas (Physical, Social, Combat and Mental). Note that I used the category “Mental” here rather than Knowledge or Smarts as it better fits with the genre. Usually those fourteen category-result cards split into two types: non-fixed-- where players can assign and raise results during the campaign and fixed-- where the results begin at a certain level cannot be changed with experience. The system logic behind that works for an extended campaign: to make sure that players do have at least a few lower results for any given category. That encourages skills and investment in edges to affect those results. That consideration would be less of an issue for a shorter run campaign.

Each player would start with the same seven fixed category-result cards, but players would be able to increase those results later in play. Players would then draft another six category-result cards. These would have significantly higher results than with a normal campaign. That's the easiest way to simulate experienced characters. To do this I assigned each result value a number (from a 0 for Catastrophic to 5 for Masterful!). I then set out to make 36 cards with the results varied, but in a range of about 14-16 total points). After doing that, I numbered each card in the bottom corner. I planned to record and reconstruct decks if I needed to later using those codes.

Beyond those thirteen cards, a players deck would also have five special result cards: Deadlock, I'd Rather Be Lucky, Egregious Humiliation, Moment of Glory and Crawling from the Wreckage. For Crawling... I changed the text from the previous version. Previously the result stated that something just broke-- the player narrated what-- and then they drew another card for the results. That ended up unsatisfying and in play usually I handled it differently. The new version gave players success or failure based on the sacrifice they made in the broken thing: so their own weapon could break, but they'd get a big success or the enemy's weapon could break but they'd fail their action attempt. I dropped the Vagaries of Fate card from the standard deck for two reasons. First, it eliminated a card which required more deck management. Second, it represented having more veteran characters who would have bought that card out of their deck. Players would also have three unique cards they would draft: two positive and one negative. For the positive cards I created 18 possible cards, in some cases using phrases from Star Wars for card titles. This took some time, but I used the models for unique cards created in the other Action Cards campaign, coming up with a pretty decent spread of options. numbered each of those so I could track the decks. I made up 12 negative cards as well. I also figured players would eventually be able to make up a card (or two) for themselves during the course of play.

My last touches for prep involved writing up a rules summary as well as formatting the reference pdfs for picks and Jedi powers and sending those out. I also decided that since I knew Kenny would be taking the pilot role, I ought to have a system for managing and upgrading the ship. I came up with a set of “picks” and options for the ship which took about half a day to put together. Finally beyond sketching out some more plot notes, I wrote up the “Opening Crawl” for the campaign (having checked the format) and sent that out to players.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three