Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs ...

Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs …

Today I received my copy of Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, along with some necessary WFRP3 materials. Edge of the Empire is described as a “beginner’s game,” which means that it essentially doesn’t have any character creation rules, has a very stripped down combat system, and contains a well laid out but slightly railroad-y introductory adventure. There are 4 pre-designed PCs, but no way to make other PCs. The rulebook is just 48 pages, the adventure book is 30 pages long, and there are also some tokens to represent PCs/adversaries, and a set of special dice. It really is a beginner’s game, though those with experience of other Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) product can probably hack it (see below). This is a first impressions review.

First of all, the product is very slick. It’s well laid out, in a sparse and modern style that gives the whole thing an atmosphere supportive of a space opera setting. The graphics in the book are very nice, in a space opera style, and the pictures are very heavily focused on Tattooine, which draws the reader’s attention to the original three movies and ensures a certain fidelity to the production. The text is perhaps a little small, so that at times when it is interspersed with the coloured symbols for the dice it is kind of dizzying. The general flow of the rules is sensible, introducing the basic dice mechanic first and then describing skills, then combat and finally a little bit of GM material. The maps are nicely drawn and, as you can see from the picture, include a YT-1300 light freighter. What more can you want?

The system is very light and easy to learn, and it’s a testament to FFG’s game design and presentation skills that the entire system, as well as the GM section, can be laid out in a total of 48 pages (including acknowledgements and index) – even though it includes a section on starship combat. The system is essentially a rules-lite version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3 (WFRP3), with all the fiddly componentry stripped out. There are no action cards for combat, no talent cards or recharge tokens, but essentially the same system in place. Instead of action cards there is a talent tree, with individual parts of the tree purchased at varying xp costs and dependent on previous parts of the tree. The dice system is simplified but very similar to the WFRP3 system. In place of conservative/reckless dice and training dice we have “upgrades,” which are d12s that replace the basic d8 stat dice; challenge dice can also be upgraded. There are equivalents of fortune and misfortune dice, and so the whole thing works in a very similar way. There are also equivalents to banes and boons, and a thing called a triumph that works as a combined additional success/sigmar’s comet. So if you’re used to playing WFRP3 it’s pretty much just a straight conversion, but the dice pools are easier to put together than in WFRP3. Critical hits and wounds are also handled more simply: there are no wound cards, just a growing tier of effects, with every PC able to bear four critical wounds before they become incapacitated; each additional critical wound has an additional effect. For the beginner’s game there is no death, just incapacitation. The system includes no character creation rules but it does provide four PCs: a human smuggler, Twi’lek bounty hunter, droid colonist and wookie hired gun. These are laid out in very attractive “folios” that contain essential rules information. Each folio has three double page spreads: the first is the starting PC, the second gives the same PC with two character development options selected to show how development works, and the third is blank but for the character attributes, and includes a talent tree so that you can develop the PC any way you want. So essentially these folios contain (implicit) information on four character classes and four races, though you have to do a bit of hacking to work out the background.

The adventure is very well laid out and carefully designed for beginning players. It is partially a railroad: the first instructions to the GM are to make clear to the PCs that a) they have to escape the town they are in and b) they can’t go any way except by spaceship. It then lays out a set of six encounters designed to showcase the major aspects of the rules, up to and including starship combat. Each encounter includes boxed sections that contain reminders of the key rules from the rulebook, so a GM learning the system can quickly adapt without having to fiddle in rulebooks. I’m not sure how other “beginners” games lay out their introductory adventures but this seems like an excellent approach. Given the simplicity of the system, I suspect that after one run through this book most GMs will be ready to handle anything else. There is apparently a second adventure available free at the FFG website, but I haven’t checked it.

I think essentially in this game the people at FFG have learnt from their mistakes with the overly complex and fiddly WFRP3 system, as well as identifying better ways to introduce the system to new players and GMs, and intend to trial it with this stripped back version for Star Wars. This version is a little disappointing, in that it doesn’t offer any freedom for experienced players to just jump into the Star Wars universe, and for an experienced GM like me it seems like a rip-off. It also doesn’t provide much background material on the Star Wars milieu, which I really need (I don’t know anything beyond the stuff in the original three movies), and it is set in the early stages of the rebellion so is the perfect setting for exploring the world of the original movies with a fast-paced, simple and creative system. Given this, I’m disappointed that they didn’t include a second book of background material, perhaps with options for character development. I certainly hope that the next set they release in the series will flesh out the full system, including Jedi, so that we can have a complete gaming system for the Star Wars universe. I remain a big fan of the fundamental ideas underlying WFRP3, and it’s nice to see FFG committing to producing more material in a similar vein, while ironing out the creases in the original.

Finally, I think that the system presented here could be easily hacked to produce a rules-lite version of WFRP3. I might give this a go over the next few weeks, and see what I can come up with. In any case, I think it’s only a matter of time before the revised system presented here gets turned into a classic fantasy RPG. That will be fun, I think. Let’s hope that this Star Wars system is a success, and FFG are encouraged to apply its pared-back rules to other settings.

Standing on a frozen plain under the milky way, listening to Sigur Ros and watching great shimmering sheets of light dance across the sky in gossamer waves. That’s why I came to Iceland!

When I was a student of physics I remember having to answer a question about what faster-than-light travel would look like, from the windows of a spaceship. I think it was in Mathematical Methods and Classical Field Theory[1], though it may have been Relativistic Field Theory[7], and I vaguely recall the answer involved stars from behind the spaceship (that you couldn’t see from the windscreen) slowly moving into the front view; as the ship got further from the lightspeed limit, more of these stars would come into the front and if you got fast enough you would eventually see all the stars visible to the eye in a kind of field in front of you, surrounded by darkness (or something). This, of course, would be when the gibbering madness set in, and one of your crew decided to torch the ship in honour of an unnamed god[9]. Note that this is very different to the Star Wars image, where all the stars blur. In fact, I think our solutions explicitly stated that at faster than the speed of light, stars can’t  blur (I can’t remember why).

It’s a mark of how far we had come by the time we got to MM&CFT (3rd year, I seem to recall) to compare that question and its solution to the question we got in first year Newtonian Mechanics: do you get less wet if you run through rain?

Currently I’m reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, and he’s writing about hyperspace quite a bit – he calls it the immer – which got me to thinking about different visions of hyperspace and how it can be represented in science fiction. It’s a topic of enduring interest to sci-fi authors, and there’s a lot of different ways of representing it. I can only remember four now, but here goes:

  • Mieville’s strange ocean: The immer is a kind of ocean of darkness and chaos, with its own predators that may or may not be life-forms, and strange beings that sometimes hitch into the realm of the living. There are tides, currents, and deeps, and it is navigated by humans who learn to work their way through these precarious shoals. It also makes humans sick to be in it, and it is conceived as running through or between the material of the universe. The universe we are in is the third universe, with two previous ones having grown and then collapsed; but the immer was there through all of them. This immer is dark and dangerous, rich in its own life and history.
  • Iain M. Banks’s strange geometry: in contrast, Banks’s Culture novels have a representation of hyperspace as a barren, mathematical substrate underlying physical reality; ships travel at hyperspeed through this substrate, and as far as I can remember there are no dangers or risks to them, except when they emerge too close to a gravitational source, which warps the substrate and increases the risk that the ship will be torn apart by entering or leaving the substrate. While Mieville’s hyperspace speaks of a mysterious and wild universe that humans explore at their peril, Banks’s vision speaks of a universe subjugated to human will, reduced to a toll-road with a few tricky interchanges. These different visions are very suited to the cultural backdrops of the novel, I think – an interesting pairing of the cosmological and the sociological.
  • Stephen Baxter’s Bubble: In Ark (the sequel to Flood) we get a description of an early attempt at inerstellar FTL flight. This time it’s a fragile bubble surrounding a spaceship, held together with huge amounts of energy, which draws the ship forward into a kind of gap in the space-time continuum. Anything touching the bubble from the inside is instantly torn apart, and once the bubble is set on its path it can’t be diverted or its direction changed. It’s very “realistic” sci-fi (he even gives a reference) and the whole story, both inside the Ark and in the science guiding its use, is based primarily around the constraints the science poses on action. The opposite of the Culture in every way.
  • Gateway Catapults: The staple of shows like Babylon 5, these present us with hyperspace as a kind of insoluble problem. Instead of navigating it, you get chucked through it by a massive catapult. Some ships (usually military) can open their own gateways into the swirling mystery of hyperspace, but others just hurl themselves at the gate and hope for the best. This is a vision of high science fiction where one of the fundamental mechanisms of the social order is actually quite primitive. We also see this in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where the decision to close the gates destroys whole societies – and is driven by the realization that the human “masters” of the gates never understood them or their real purpose at all.

Hyperspace in its many forms seems like it plays a more important role in the universes of its setting than mere substance. It’s not just a scientific backdrop or a constraint on action; it takes a form which often reinforces or complements the style and cultural background of the novel. It’s a very good example of how the best sci-fi is not about the science at all, but about what it can be used to tell us about ourselves.

fn1:literally the most evil subject you can take. This subject ate Electromagnetism and Advanced Quantum Mechanics[2] for breakfast and shat them out as a tensor problem you couldn’t solve by graduation, then laughed at your poor mortal brain and ate your soul for lunch. It was an evil subject, worth a paltry 2 credit points (out of 24 in my year), but which consisted of 6 assignments and an exam, and each assignment took – this is not an exaggeration – at least 50 pages of scrap paper, and at least 12 hours of our time. My friends and I had a shift system going in Lab (which, by comparison, was 9 hours a week and worth 8 credit points). One of us would work on the experiment while the other three used up copious amounts of paper trying to solve impossible problems in gravitational dipoles[3]. Then after lab we would charge off to our tutor’s room and he would infuriatingly refuse to give us the answers[4], even though it meant we would pester him again. Finally we would get a breakthrough, and off we would go to reduce the romantic image of moonlight and the gentle slap of waves on the beach to a series of Bessel Functions[5].

fn2: for which I got 94%, yay![6]

fn3: seriously, who knew the tides were soooo fucking complex?

fn4: what can I say, we weren’t really paying fees at this university, we got in on merit and we survived by luck, effort and the regular application of sleepless nights and cask wine to every problem. No one thought we had any right to pass anything, and everybody forced us to study.

fn5: Which, also, can I say, you guys suck.

fn6: Which reminds me that the pure maths subject Lie Algebras – which apparently, people who understand it tell me, has some relationship to Advanced Quantum Mechanics – may have been harder than CFT&MM; but that subject was taught by a Mind Flayer, so I’m not sure if my memory of it is correct

fn7: I’m pretty sure we had a subject called this. It had a lot of Tensor equations in it, and when me and my buddies arrived in our Honours Year[8] there was an equation pinned to the door of our room (from the previous poor bastard to study there) which consisted entirely of Tensor expressions, and took up a whole page of A4 paper (in a not-very-large font). We all stood looking at it, and said “fuck. What have we done?”

fn8: Honours is an Australian idea, I think: because Australians are smarter than you lot, we do our undergraduate degree in three years, then our masters degree (and thesis) is compressed into one year with two extra subjects and called “honours” even though there’s nothing honourable about brutalizing young people in this way. In addition to having the kind of discipline and brains and educational background required to survive this kind of nasty, Australia also has one of the best rugby teams in the world. Dwell on that, Northern Hemisphere Losers!

fn9: This part wasn’t in the official solutions, but I should think it’s pretty obvious.

The Daily Mash tells me that it’s one year since Neptune was discovered. A lot has happened in that time – Pluto was demoted to junk-planet status, we discovered the possibility of planets around other stars and explored to within a few seconds (?) of the Big Bang. But Neptune is still going strong, doing what Neptune does. Happy Birthday Neptune!

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