Let me be clear. What follows are not reviews – they are my opinions about two fairly recent games (one more recent than the other) and my impressions of them. These are both games I followed the news and previews for and ended up checking out. Here’s where I stand… on Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars and Shadowrun, 5th Edition.
Star Wars Roleplaying: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game (Fantasy Flight)
I wrote about this game a while ago – when I was following the previews – and wrote about my dislike of the “narrative dice” and “fiddly bits” that came with the Warhammer Fantasy, 3rd edition. My hope for Star Wars was that FF would not go down this path because, you know, WH Fantasy 3E is a terrible game. I can’t really judge the entirety of the new Star Wars game from the beginner set, but it was a gift and I read through it and surprisingly – I don’t hate it. It’s not a game that I have any interest in playing or running but it was actually fun to read. The sample adventure has a railroad tunnel in it that is unforgivable even in a basic box adventure… but otherwise I had a really good time reading it. I liked the art and the books themselves were beautiful in terms of layout and style. Everything was colorful, even though they were clearly going for that “Edge of the Empire” look. No mention of the Force (well, a little), though I was already prepared for that going in and the Force is pretty much always the downside of any Star Wars RPG – because Force users are inherently “better” mechanically than non-Force users and there is little way to get around that without overly gimping the Force as it is represented in the source material.
And despite my true and enduring hatred of Warhammer Fantasy, 3E – which this system is kissin’ cousins with – I didn’t open this Star Wars RPG box and want to claw out my own eyes like I did with WHFRPG3. Part of that is the lesser amount of fiddly bits. WHFRPG3 is just an eye-popping nightmare of tokens and cards and little cards and even littler cards. This box restricted itself to a few destiny tokens and a few tokens for the pregenerated characters (which are there because it is a beginner box). It does appear to have a career system because there are talent trees for advancement and I’m down with that. While I am not as fond of strict class/level systems, I don’t mind thinly veiled packages that help me define my character and direct my talent spending options… oddly enough… that was one of the best parts of the Star Wars Saga Edition put out by WoTC. Also, the Destiny point mechanic is actually clever and interesting – I quite enjoyed it.
That said, the downfall of this game for me is still the whole narrative dice thing. I can’t really see the point. As I read the sections about how to use the dice and build dice pools and swapping dice in and out as modifiers all I could think was… why? Is selling a few specialty dice to your customers really worth the headache the system gives me when I think about it? I’m certain that with a little system mastery the whole thing becomes almost seamless (except when the GM starts handing out modifiers and such) but I’ve played with groups whose level of commitment to learning the system of a game was practically nil too many times to believe that this is a good game to just pick up and run. I have visions of a lot of GMs out there getting to about the 6th session and just flipping over tables having full-on psychobilly freakouts because their players refuse to learn how the dice interact. That is not the game’s fault – strictly speaking – but it sets the game up to have a harder curve to get to the fun parts, and that’s a non starter for me.
So… let’s talk about that other game.
Shadowrun, 5th edition
I’m debating how much detail I should go into here. I’m balancing my need to talk about this game against the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. Because I don’t have anything nice to say.
I’ll start here. I followed all the design blogs and previews as they were released. So I had a strong feeling I was going to be disappointed in this game. But I told myself I was going to pick it up anyway because Catalyst has always done right by two of my favorite games – Battletech and Shadowrun – so far, so they deserved that much consumer consideration. Maybe the best course of action is to just hit a few high points and back out quickly.
The Limit System is not a good thing. First of all, it’s balanced very strangely. Certain attributes are prioritized (by doubling them before doing your deriving) and some attributes aren’t included at all. The physical limit for example uses STRx2 but leaves Agility out altogether. Initially I rationalized that the design idea stemmed from the fact that Agility controls the lion’s share of physical active skills. But Logic is doubled in the mental limit, controls the lion’s share of mental active skills, and seems to put the lie to that idea. Also, Willpower is figured into two limits, not just one.
I’d also like to take a moment to address the whole… Essence lowering lowers your social limit… Here’s the thing. It’s 2075. Two whole generations have grown up since the magic returned. Goblinization, cyber and bio ware, drones, SURGE… At this point, pretending like the fact that someone has bioware is really a huge detriment to how others perceive them is starting to seem a little disingenuous. Sure, I know that in 2013 we still can’t get over skin color and sexual orientation – but this is a world full of ridiculously weird shit. A few pieces of ware just isn’t a thing anymore. You’re a little less “human?” Who isn’t in 2075? Okay, I’m over it.
Basically – here’s the nickel tour of my feelings about the new rules – they are the pet projects of some designers who really like rules for the sake of rules but they fail to add significantly to any part of the gameplay to make it more interesting or meaningful. I’ve written about the limits thing in detail elsewhere so I’ll let you read that if you are interested, turns out it was all as bad as I predicted.
Character Creation – a return to the priority system, but with some twists, like having some freebie Karma to spend at the end and a very weird interaction between metatype and special attributes. One example – if you are a troll and not a magic type – you always start with either 1 Edge or 6 Edge. There is no in-between. Ask anyone who has played Aberrant about what happens when you spend points in categories and then get “bonus points” tacked on at the end and you’ll hear a cautionary tale about how they just made a priority system that is supposed to be “easier” than 4E into a nightmare of agony as you try to figure out the best way to spend those points. The first mage I sat down to create I ended up switching priorities at least 3 times in 15 minutes as I struggled with balancing my freebies, my special attribute points, and my magic priority. It was awful. I made two characters – a mage and a face – and even if this was my first time sitting down with the game I probably would have been ready to call it quits after that.
Combat – again, a return to older editions with the way initiative works. It was a bad plan then, it’s a bad plan now, and that’s all I’ll say about combat.
Finally – and this is very “my opinion” stuff so you can skip it if you want but I want to spend a few words on the setting presentation (and overall presentation) of the book. Shadowrun Anniversary Edition was a pretty game. It was an appealing game. The fiction bits painted a fantastic picture of a world I’d want to live and adventure in. The allusions to major NPCs and the hacker/runner community were inviting and made it feel like a living, breathing universe. I didn’t feel like I was making a character who was a few thin wires above most of the gangs running Seattle… but that’s how 5E made me feel. I felt like it was telling me – you live on the streets. It’s hardscrabble out there. And it was reflected in the layout and presentation of the book. The colors are harsh, the layout is cramped, the people are… indistinct and very distinct at the same time. The writers and designers were presenting one very specific image of Shadowrun that I don’t find appealing at all. It’s hard out there, sure. Life as a runner is dangerous – I get that. This book is pretty bleak though – and that’s not a world I want to play in. But the thing is – where Anniversary Edition sparkled, light and dark – 5e is almost arrogantly, aggressively one-note. It was depressing to read – why would I play it?
If I wanted to play Shadowrun 2E, I would have – I can get it right off of RPGNow. 4E/AE was a great game that needed some specific, targeted revisions to be nearly perfect. 5E is an ugly lens with ungainly mechanics.
As a closing thought – I know I post a lot about games I don’t like… I get that. But I try to reason through my dislike of them as well as respond to them creatively and emotionally. There are a lot of fine games, old and new, out there. I have some pretty old-school sensibilities even though I play/read/run plenty of newer games as well. It just seems like the only “new” games I am actually enjoying these days are from small press or independent publishers. There have been very few “big ticket” games that have gotten new editions in recent years that are worth the price of admission. The AGE system from Green Ronin is one of the few I can point to with any love. But my hard drive is full of PDFs of both free and paid games from small presses that are AMAZING. And I think part of my disdain for “modern” big-box systems is that they have this whole “newer is better – look, we changed everything! Just for you!” attitude about their games that leaves me feeling a lot like I did while watching Star Wars Episode One and wondering what the hell went wrong.
That’s all I’m putting out there about this. I won’t be discussing Shadowrun, 5E anymore. I bought it, I read it, I played around with it, and I’m done with it. Hopefully, in 3-5 years we’ll get 6E and it will strip out all this junk that’s gunking 5E (because by then, 4E will be retro!).
As always, thanks for reading my ramblings and I’ll be back soon with something more hopeful.