For those of you not plugged in to all the happenings of a Galaxy Far Far Away, Edge of the Empire is a Star Wars roleplaying game by Fantasy Flight. It’s the first in a series of three core books and focuses on life in the Outer Rim. Basically, all those guys in the Mos Eisley cantina. There won’t be any Death Star battles or lightsaber duels out here. Instead, you’ll be smuggling goods through the Kessel Run* and bargaining with Hutts over a cargo hold of delicious bantha steaks.
Fantasy Flight is the third company to take a crack at putting Star Wars into pen and paper form. Let’s see how they do.
The Core Die Mechanic Is… Interesting
Edge of the Empire uses a dice pool system, so it scores points with me. The dice pool is assembled by adding a character’s stat and skill scores, and then rolling for successes equal to the task’s difficulty. So far, so good.
However, Edge of the Empire dice use symbols instead of numbers. Each die that comes up with the success symbol is a success. Still simple enough, right? It gets more complicated. The dice also have a symbols called “advantage” and “triumph,” which is essentially a success and an advantage put together.
Advantage symbols don’t help you succeed at what you’re trying to do. Instead, they grant some kind of ancillary bonus. You don’t just succeed, you succeed with style. Sometimes these bonuses are codified in the rules. When shooting a blaster, you can spend advantage symbols to get a critical hit. Other times it’s not so clear cut. What does an advantage earn you when you’re trying to convince Jabba that you didn’t have any choice but to dump his cargo when an Imperial cruiser scanned you? With no mechanical rules, the GM is expected to make something up.
This is both good and bad. It can break up an otherwise mundane scene with some fun description. “Well, you passed that attack roll with a single advantage, so you also do a badass shoulder roll through some billowing smoke.” The problem is that the GM can feel like the system is dictating how to run their game. They can’t just go with their instincts on description; they have to check with the dice first.
Edge of the Empire also treats all rolls as opposed. That is, the difficulty is always represented by its own set of dice, rather than a flat number. Besides feeling like a transparent attempt to make players buy more of their proprietary dice,* this also means that players have to deal with disadvantage symbols, which have the same effect as advantages but in reverse. Again, this can either make the game more or less fun, depending on how much your GM likes being guided in their description.
Combat Is Serviceable
The first thing that jumps out at you from Edge of the Empire’s conflict rules is that blasters actually feel like blasters. Shooting someone in the Star Wars d20 rules set meant they’d lose a few hitpoints and then keep going like nothing was wrong. Here, getting shot can ruin your day. When the stormtroopers open fire, your players might actually be worried.
There are a few issues, though. The initiative system is more than a little wonky, with two different skills depending on whether or not the character was expecting a fight. If your Vigilance skill is really high, you’ll actually go faster when being ambushed than if you knew a combat was likely. It’s also strange that a character’s ranged defense is determined almost entirely by how far away they are from the shooter and has little to do with their stats. It’s not necessarily bad, as it places a much greater emphasis on cover and other situational bonuses, but it takes some getting used to.
The most pressing issue in Edge of the Empire’s combat is that every player really needs to read the rules. This isn’t like Mouse Guard where you can easily learn while playing. There are many, many options that players need to know. For instance, how do you take cover? If the players don’t know that, they’ll get shot full of holes in the first combat. Then there are long lists of what they can spend advantage symbols on. It’s a very involved system that allows for many tactical options, but trying to explain it at the table is a good way to confuse everyone.
In my experience, it’s difficult to get all of your players to read the rules. Some will, but many simply don’t have time. However, if you can get past that hurdle, you’ll have a combat system with a lot of depth to explore.
Character Creation Is Good but Trapped
I was delighted with Edge of the Empire’s character creation system, especially the Obligation and Motivation rules. These are mechanics that give your character a back story and drive, respectively. You can choose them, or roll randomly, as the mood suits. They provide plot hooks for the GM, and bonus experience for the players. It’s great to see more systems adopting character personality as part of their rules, and it’s also a great source of inspiration for players who aren’t sure who they want to play.
The rules strike a good balance between structured and free form character creation. Players choose from some very broad careers like soldier or explorer, and from there they can spend points to customize their character however they like. If you want to be a tech specialist who is also a good shot with a blaster, you can spend points to make that happen. The only career based limit is which special perks you have access to. Soldiers might get an ability which reduces range penalties, for example, while smugglers get extra black market contacts.
The trap is in base stats like Brawn and Agility. These are by far the most powerful options on the character sheet and cost the most to raise. That makes sense, except you can only raise them at character generation. It’s not clear why this is the case. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to miss if you’re only skimming the rules and could come back to haunt you. Mechanically, players should spend their starting points on base stats and pick up skills later. Those who start the game well rounded will regret it later when they can’t increase their Brawn.*
The career special abilities can also be a trap. They look useful, but in reality they rarely come up. Many of them remove special added difficulty dice that the GM can put on certain rolls, but when I ran Edge of the Empire, I hardly ever used those dice. In effect, the player is buying the ability to bypass rules the GM might never use.
Proprietary Dice Are Really Frustrating
As I mentioned, Edge of the Empire dice have symbols, not numbers. There are two ways to get these symbols. Either use normal dice and constantly check with a conversion chart in the book, or buy packs of Fantasy Flight’s proprietary dice. These run about $15 per pack, and you’ll need at least two packs if you don’t want to be passing dice back and forth all night. You could also buy a smartphone app to roll the dice for you, assuming every player has a smartphone and doesn’t mind passing it around to show the GM what they rolled.
Checking the conversion chart slows play down a lot, and the smartphone app is just annoying, so you’re looking at an extra $30 up front. It gets worse because if you ever lose one of these special dice,* you can’t simply replace it. You have to go out and buy a new set. This makes Edge of the Empire easily the most expensive roleplaying game I’ve ever owned. I understand that making money off these games is hard, but companies usually have the good manners to at least provide some expansion books when they make a cash grab.
This doesn’t reflect on Edge of the Empire’s mechanics, but it is something to be aware of before you buy in. Make sure you’re okay with handing over the extra cash first.
Currency Is Disappointingly Basic
While we’re on the subject of money, Edge of the Empire doesn’t handle it well. That is, the game uses your basic coin counting system, except without all of D&D’s elaborate tables for determining how much money the PCs should get. That’s particularly odd considering that this is a game about mercenaries, smugglers, and bounty hunters. In other words, people who do everything for money.
The Serenity roleplaying game had a similar problem. Both systems assumed the characters would be primarily motivated by profit rather than ideology but failed to make it part of the game mechanics. Instead, players have to keep track of every credit they earn. The GM has two options here: either keep coming up with reasons why the PCs can’t quite manage that big score, or watch as they accumulate obscene amounts of cash. The former will lead to a frustrated group, while the latter will mean there’s no motivation to go adventuring anymore.
There’s even a sidebar on page 151 where the game acknowledges this problem, but the suggestions it provides are woefully inadequate. Essentially, GMs will have to be constantly on the lookout to make sure their players’ bank accounts don’t get too flush.
Because gear is a big part of the Star Wars universe, this also creates balance problems. There are some frighteningly powerful weapons available at the higher credit levels, such as the infamous thermal detonator. With nothing else to spend their piles of cash on, PCs could end up bristling with so many weapons that nothing the GM throws at them will pose a challenge.
Space Combat Is Lacking, at Best
While character scale combat works pretty well in Edge of the Empire, the same cannot be said of climbing into a cockpit. The rules are baffling, particularly because the Pilot skill is at best a tertiary concern. In fact, you could easily win a dogfight without ever using it. Evasive maneuvers don’t require a roll, they’re just something you do that makes your ship slightly harder to shoot. Firing the weapons requires Gunnery, even if they are fixed like those of an X-Wing.
This isn’t the only problem, it’s just the most obvious. Edge of the Empire tries to adapt its normal combat rules to space, and it just doesn’t work. The turn based method is a poor way to simulate the constant movement of opposing starfighters. The only positive is that there are support actions listed for PCs who are not the pilot. Shield calibration, damage control, etc. In fact, these ancillary options are handled better than the primary rules.
It should go without saying that space combat is really important in a Star Wars game, so its failure here is a big disappointment. Vehicle combat rules have always been tricky, but Fantasy Flight has a good track record with the X-Wing miniatures game, so I was expecting better. If your players want to fly their modified freighter into combat, I recommend abstracting it to an opposed Pilot and Gunnery roll.
On the bright side, the space combat rules are the only aspect of Edge of the Empire that is genuinely unplayable. The rest delivers a solid experience that’ll let you have fun in the Star Wars universe. It’s definitely an improvement over the previous d20 attempts. It doesn’t clearly surpass the old West End d6 system, but it’s a lot easier to find. Focusing on one setting, the Outer Rim, was a smart decision, as it allows for later books to better flesh out other aspects of the franchise. Who knows, maybe the Age of Rebellion book even has competent space battles in it.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.