Monday, April 11, 2016

Star Wars and Ad Astra

I spent at least a little bit of time this weekend reviewing my Star Wars m20 document for suitability to being ported as the rules for AD ASTRA and what I'd have to change.  While the good news is that the answer to that is "hardly anything other than some proper names and labels" I also discovered a few minor inconsistencies or other things that were ripe for change, partly due to the fact that the rules were a little old.  They preceded some of the play-testing changes made to my own DARK•HERITAGE version of the m20 rules and they preceded the release of either the Star Wars: Rebels TV show or The Force Awakens theatrical release.

I've taken the opportunity to update the document from v. 1.2 to v. 1.3 therefore as part of that exercise.  It's located here:

And don't forget the character sheet:

And then, the final section, with a few minor updates, I think deserves to be reprinted on the blog.  These two sections actually originally started off as blog posts here, but they've gone through a few minor tweaks since then.  Because this is equally important to a game of AD ASTRA as it is to my STAR WARS REMIXED setting, I've tagged both.   For AD ASTRA there won't be The Force, of course, but the same concept applies to characters who can use psionics.

The Force vs. Normals: How to Strike a Playable Balance
Star Wars has often been very much about the Jedi and the Sith. Luke's discovery of his heritage as the son and later apprentice of a Jedi, and his grand finale battle with the Sith Master Palpatine, can be seen as the over-arching story of the entire Original Trilogy. The prequels and The Force Awakens even more overtly deal with the Jedi—hardly a major character exists who isn't a Force-using Knight of some kind or another, and the story is designed to be told from the perspective of the Jedi, or at least a specific Jedi. The Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows are also primarily told from the perspective of the Jedi, and are about their doings.

This focus partially obscures some things, though. In the Original Trilogy, Luke, Vader, the Emperor, and to a lesser extent Ben Kenobi and Yoda are the only knights that make any appearance at all. Many other characters are significant characters, like Han, Leia, the droids, etc. What's important here is that non-Force using characters can be pretty darn important to Star Wars, and in fact should be. You can see this in many episodes of the Clone Wars too—while overall the series is about the Jedi— especially Ahsoka and Anakin, many episodes barely feature them, or even don't feature any Jedi, Sith or otherwise at all. Star Wars: Rebels focuses on them somewhat less although it’s as much the story of Kanan and Ezra reiterating the relationships of Obiwan and Luke to a great degree, and Ahsoka and the Inquisitors play a large role as well.

Sometimes the writers (including George Lucas himself) lose sight of this, and make the Jedi both too good, too capable, and too important for anyone to stand up to them in any meaningful sense. But other times, it's quite clear that non-Force using characters can be the equal to a Jedi when they need to be. Jango Fett fought Obiwan to a standstill in Attack of the Clones. Highly skilled bounty hunters like Sugi, Embo, Cad Bane, and others showed themselves equal to the Jedi (or Sith) when they needed to be. Pre Viszla's duel with Darth Maul showed him to be highly capable, and he might have won, even though Maul was one of the most dangerous combatants in the galaxy.

Of course, in order to do this, these characters almost become superheroes themselves. It's actually easy to see Embo as an alien Captain America, and Sugi as an alien Black Widow. The Mandalorians, with their tricked out supercommando battle armor, almost seem to be Iron Man like at times.

But maybe this is the lesson in how to run Star Wars. The action is over-the-top. It is extremely swashbucklery, and borders on overt comic book like in tone and feel, quite frequently, even. It's easy to justify this superheroic action with the Jedi, because after all, they have the Force with them, which makes them superheroes. But when the plot dictates, anyone else can be just about as capable, either through intense training, fancy equipment, or a combination of the two. In reality, that means that highly capable non-Force users should be like Batman, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, or other characters, who while lacking overt superpowers, routinely are able to go toe-to-toe with actual superheroes as needed by the demands of the plot of the stories that they're in.

And aside from any meta reasons to make characters be equal, it's only good fun for everyone involved if everyone is more or less balanced with everyone else. If one character is just so much more capable than everyone else that he ends up doing everything, and the rest of the players are relegated to being his sidekicks, that's not likely to be very fun for very long (ahem, Rey.) But, the tendency can be to bring knights down to a regular character's level, when what usually works better is to bring the other characters up to the knight's level, in terms of swashbuckling action. Let your scoundrels and fighters and whatnot be Embos, Sukis, Boba Fetts and the like—the Captain Americas and Batmans of the Star Wars setting—rather than making everyone feel an "action tax" dictated by your sense of what is more reasonable for real people to do. This isn't about real people. This is about Star Wars characters. Forgetting that and making things too difficult to accomplish, or penalizing those who want to attempt them, is at odds with the source material.  Star Wars is kind of wild, swashbucklery action in lieu of a more conservative, cautious approach. The latter may be some other game, including many people's idea of D&D, for instance. But it’s not Star Wars.

When in doubt, and since it's now in Free-To-Play mode, check out The Old Republic. (Or watch some youtube videos to get a summary of the stories)  Only half of the character classes are Force users, and the bounty hunters, scoundrels, Imperial agents and Republic troopers don't suffer because of their lack of the Force. Rather, they're great examples of what Star Wars can be when knights aren't around.

And, to add to this, Star Wars is filled with mooks. By this, I mean antagonists who aren't really meant to be terribly threatening, especially not on an individual level. From battle droids to stormtroopers, part of what makes the heroes seem so cool is the fact that they can mow through mooks with relative ease. Not impunity, but relative ease. Mooks don't have any hit points. Any hit at all and they go down. They slow down the heroes. They can threaten the heroes in large numbers. But to some degree, the whole point of mooks is to make sure that the heroes feel heroic.

Monty Haul vs. Mr. Scrooge GM: Challenges and Equipment in Star Wars
Dungeon Magazine may have warned us against the Monty Haul style of GMing, which has influenced countless games of D&D (no doubt for the better.) But keep in mind this thought...

At no point in Star Wars do I recall a character ever really needing some piece of equipment and not having it. When Luke and Ben need to fly to Alderaan, they divest themselves of their old landspeeder, and it's enough to get them there on the Millennium Falcon. When Luke suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a chasm in the Death Star, well, voila!, he's got a rope to swing on in his belt (this isn't quite as cheesy as having bat-shark repellent handy just when you find yourself being attacked by a shark, but nearly so). When Luke needs to attack the Death Star, there's an X-wing there for him to fly. And apparently the Rebel Alliance just gives those things away to people that they like, since he continues to use it throughout the series.

The landspeeder is also an interesting case in point. At no point do the characters bog themselves down with equipment either. In a game like D&D, resource management and logistics is part of the fun (for some players. Not me, actually.) Worrying about actually having all the right equipment is important. Worrying about how much you can carry so you can make sure that you actually have what you need when you need it is important. Making the hard decisions on what to carry to keep your weight at a point where it doesn't bog you down is important.

I can't ever remember anything like this ever being a consideration in any Star Wars movie or Clone Wars episode that I've ever seen. It is a concern sometimes in Old Republic or Knights of the Old Republic because those are games that are, to some degree or another, based on the D&D paradigm. And it is in many of the Star Wars campaigns in various RPG settings that I've played in the past. Although, again, this is mostly because the D&D paradigm is hard to shake for folks who've grown up on it. But in my Star Wars d20 game, worrying excessively about equipment and money has clearly been one of those things, when we've allowed it to take over our game, has significantly hurt its ability to feel like Star Wars.

Although at times characters have been on the lookout for a ship, they never had to do anything too extraordinary to eventually procure one, or at least the services of one. This is the biggest single expense item that a character can have, but a character really needs to have a ship. Going from planet to planet, and engaging in space combat is part and parcel of playing Star Wars.

That said, you don't need a bunch of individual ships for your entire group. For most of the movies, the Millennium Falcon plus Luke's X-wing (so he can split up from the group and do his own stuff) are sufficient, with only the occasional other ship (shuttle Tyderium). Characters shouldn't be carrying around backpacks full of stuff, or need to hire a porter to bring all of the things that they might have in their ship. They don't need swoops or speeder-bikes or land-speeders or anything else on a regular basis. Let them have some money to spend on stuff from time to time, and make sure that stuff is available for them to purchase. And then don't worry too much about it. The equipment list isn't extensive enough that having nearly everything on it buried in the cargo hold somewhere would be a problem even, and realistically, characters can't use everything all at once either.

Some classes, such as soldiers, also benefit from having tricked out equipment. Especially at higher level, it's assumed that they'll have it. The Mandalorians wouldn't be nearly as cool without their armor, for instance. How would they stand up to the typical Jedi without their jetpacks, missiles, and whatever else? What's Cad Bane without all his gear?

Encourage your players not to get into gear-hoarding mode. That's not Star Wars. And then err on the side of gratuitousness with equipment. If it ends up being a problem, there are ways to bleed that off as needed. Equipment can get stolen, or broken or whatever. It's usually considered "cheap" to do this, so don't do it unless you really need to bleed off an excess of equipment. But honestly, given the limited equipment list presented here, that's not likely to be an issue. You can also bleed off excess money or loot by having players need to repair battle damage to their vehicles or droids, by wastage caused by using disposable items (like thermal detonators) or allowing them to pick up a droid cohort (start at 3-4,000 credits for a base level 1 droid, let them spend more to equip him with more stuff, and force the cohort to level up by gaining levels the same as any other player character.) Let your players have the equipment that they want, for the most part. That's part of the setting's conceit. While characters aren't rich, challenging them with resource management isn't very heroic, swashbucklery, or Star Wars like.

And the characters may need to come into money fairly quickly. If it's the character's conceit that he's got armor equivalent to a Mandalorian battle-suit, well that thing costs out to over 18,000 credits. If he can't get it until near the end of his career, that kind of sucks for him as a player too. He can't wait to afford a starship and an astromech at 7-8th level in a 10 level game. That doesn't mean that your fighter needs a full-fledged Mandalorian battle-suit at 1st level either.

As a rough guideline, I think characters should get between 5-10,000 credits worth of money (or stuff of equivalent value) per level, mostly. And they should spend 20-30% of that on maintenance of stuff. The fighter that wants the equivalent of a Mandalorian battle-suit should have to piece it together bit by bit over the course of a few levels, getting stuff and then upgrading it as time goes on. By 3-4th level, he should have most of what he wants.

And at some point, characters should get out of the game of worrying much about equipment or money at all. There is no wealth/level guideline. Once the characters have what they want, you should focus on maintenance with your money rewards. As always, keep in mind that logistics, accounting, and shopping are not at the heart of any Star Wars game. Use scarcity (especially at lower levels) to be a bit of a motivator, but don't be a Mr. Scrooge GM. But if your players are concerned about getting monetary rewards for their characters (unless it's in character—i.e., Han Solo) then they're missing the point and you need to recalibrate your game somewhat.

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