(All images in this article are official concept art assets to the game and were obtained from the official website of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire)
In a tabletop setting, players work with each other and a designated GM (Gamemaster) to collectively create an interactive story. Each game features a unique system of rules and processes that dictate how the players navigate the fictional world of the game.
Usually, these game systems are heavily based on mathematics and statistics. Deciding what your character does next is nearly open-ended, but it’s your character stats that dictate what you are actually able to accomplish. These numbers usually translate into different magnitude of dice rolls. These dice rolls then provide additional numbers that translate into success or failure on the actions that players and NPCs take.
It’s incredible to see players use little more than basic numbers to fuel their creativity and make up such incredible stories. But imagine if these game systems didn’t just use numbers to dictate the progression of the narrative. Imagine if the system somehow encouraged or even forced players to create more obstacles for themselves, initiate complex character development, or even tempt the fate of the story, itself.
Roleplaying in the Star Wars Universe
Players have characters who hold different stats in various characteristics. These characteristic ratings, and their corresponding skills, dictate how many dice the player can use to perform certain types of actions. In addition, every character’s health is measured by a numerical “wound” threshold that fluctuates based on weapon damage.
From there, however, the system really begins to take on it’s own unique format, one that focuses far more heavily on storytelling. In fact, the following are three of the system’s primary mechanics, all of which encourage the entire group to push the story further and further into a galaxy far, far away.
I. Narrative Dice
Many tabletop systems take advantage of numerical dice. When most people think of dice, they think of the kind with dots or numbers.When it comes to Edge, however, things are already off to a more unique Star Wars-y start.
Instead of numbers, the Edge system employs dice that are based on conceptual symbols. These symbols provide dice rolls that are far more qualitative than quantitative, forcing players and GMs to interpret their unfolding story with more complexity and flair.
One way to discuss the dice is through the lens of three symbol pairs.
Two of the symbols translate to either a Success or Failure on the action taken for that roll.
Another two of the symbols translate into Advantages or Threats.
And the last two symbols translate into Triumphs or Despairs.
As is apparent, each pair features statuses that are polar opposites of each other. In fact, mechanically, the dice take this into consideration.
Upon rolling a pool of dice, the players must cancel out each symbol to its corresponding opposite. Only the symbols that remain after being cancelled out are used to dictate the outcome of the roll. If I roll 2 Successes and 3 Failures, that cancels out into just a single Failure. If I roll 4 Advantages and 2 Threats, that cancels out to be 2 Advantages.
Now, this is really where the compelling storytelling starts to appear. Successes or failures do NOT cancel out with Advantages or Threats. This means that a character can easily Succeed at their roll, while still getting several Threats. Or, a character Fail at the action they were attempting to make, but still make it out with several Advantages.
A great example of this would be if a character is trying to fire upon an enemy Stormtrooper. If they rolled 1 Failure and 2 Advantages, for example, one possible interpretation could be as follows:
You fire your blaster at the Stormtrooper, but the bolt of energy goes just past his shoulder (the Failure). However, in reaction to your attack, the Stormtrooper somersaults away . . . right out of cover. The next attack will be easier to hit (the Advantages).
Interestingly enough, because of their rarity, Triumphs and Despairs do not cancel out with each other and it’s here that we find the next biggest narrative tool.
As the names might suggest, Triumphs and Despairs mean something really good or really bad has occurred. These are critical successes and failures and, again, can still exist, regardless of how a character fares in their check.
An example of this at work could be seen if a character is in a docking bay, searching for a crate of stolen cargo on behalf of a bounty hunter. Imagine if they rolled 2 Failures but a single Triumph. One possible interpretation could be as follows:
You search the docking bay for several minutes, to no avail. There’s no sign of the cargo (the Failures). However, while rummaging through one particular crate of supplies, you find something surprising. It’s a datapad with messages and images that incriminate the bounty hunter who hired you for this job. You suddenly realize, with a smirk on your face, that you have everything you need right here . . . to blackmail her (the Triumph).
In the above example, we see that the player has still failed at what it was they were trying to accomplish, but the triumph has brought them a tool that could very well be a gamechanger—something that opens up the player’s possible choices even more.
All in all, standard tabletop dice rolls usually equate to a simple success or failure, “yes,” or “no.” In Edge of the Empire, there is rarely a roll so simple. The majority of the time, the players find themselves with a roll that translates more easily into, “Yes, and . . . ” or “No, but . . . ”
Not only does this make the experience more dynamic and the story more complex, it encourages all who participate to think in different ways. When the roll is always full of different surprises, players have no choice but to become more creative and agile with their imaginations.
Star Wars is a franchise that is especially well-known for its characters. Memorable individuals like Darth Vader or Yoda are what most people think about when they hear the iconic John Williams music. And one very special mechanic in Edge of the Empire encourages players to roleplay as more complex, layered characters.
The idea behind obligation is that every character in this universe has a past. And therefore, every character has something that they are beholden to in some way. Players can choose anything that makes sense within the setting, but the guide book provides a wide range of example options to get ideas flowing.
Sample Obligation categories range from addiction to certain drugs, to haunting criminal pasts, to family members who are dependent on the character and for whom they are responsible.
At first, Obligation is purely narrative-based and is used, simply, as a tool to help players further get into the headspace of their characters. Mechanically, however, it does manage to play a role in the system, itself.
Every character has a magnitude on their Obligation, usually a number between 5 and 25. As a group, the players write down a list of all their obligations, with each obligation corresponding to a range of numbers equivalent to their obligation. Three people with obligations of 10, 15, and 10, respectively, would write their list as such:
Obligation 1: 0-10
Obligation 2: 11-25
Obligation 3: 26-35
At the beginning of each session, a D100 dice is rolled. If it lands on a number that corresponds to a player’s obligation, that obligation is set to be in play for that session.
This can take on a lot of different meanings and is open to the GM’s interpretation. He or she can dictate that said player will be slightly handicapped on their rolls for the duration of their session. Or they can go as far as to have the character’s obligation and corresponding backstory make a surprise appearance in the actual narrative itself.
This latter option is especially interesting as it can force characters to go through significant character development. It can even strain or evolve the dynamics between the party, as character secrets are forced to the surface.
Obligation is a fascinating way for players to further immerse themselves into their character’s roles. It also ensures that individual character depth remains an important focus in a universe as wide and expansive as the one of Star Wars. And by accomplishing these things, it directly empowers the group as a whole to tell a more compelling story.
III. Destiny Points
A game meant to emulate the entire Star Wars universe would just feel incomplete without the inclusion of The Force, the unseen energy that binds all living things and gives Jedi and Sith their incredible abilities.
How do you design a mechanic to account for the will of The Force throughout the universe? How do you keep The Force relevant in a Star Wars story when many, if not, all player characters in a session might not even be force-sensitive characters?
Edge of the Empire manages to generate this concept of fate into its own unique mechanic called Destiny points. At the beginning of each session, in addition to rolling the Obligation, discussed above, the party members each take turns rolling one special white die. This is the Force die and features either Light Side points or Dark Side points. As everyone rolls, everyone earns one to two Light Side and/or Dark Side points. These points are then pooled together for the entire group to have access to, together.
When hoping for a touch of luck in their favor, the players can choose to flip one of their collectively owned Light Side points. This action can help them to upgrade one of their own skills for the duration of a single action or can help add new context to a situation via the characters or setting.
In the middle of a firefight, a player has yet to be seen by the enemy. He knows that he’s outmatched and that it’ll be difficult to escape without getting captured, or worse. Thinking creatively, the player decides that he wants to try and plant an explosive in a hidden container and trick the enemy into picking up the container, so that he can then get the drop on them. Unfortunately, he is in the middle of a forest.
However, the GM says that if he flips one of his group’s Light Side points, she will allow him to find an old survivalist box, buried in the grass, that was left several years ago. Or, on the other hand, the player could just try to stealth away, and he could use the same Light Side point to upgrade the chance of success in the dice pool.
These Light Side points provide players with options to succeed and strategize in different ways, as well as the opportunity to change the direction of the encounter or narrative.
But, like any good balanced game mechanic, there’s a catch. In fact, as Star Wars lore informs us, the Force, itself, must always be balanced, as well. And perhaps most intriguing of all in the Edge system, these Destiny points accomplish exactly that.
There’s a reason it’s called “flipping” a point. Players use special double-sided game tokens to represent their points. To flip a Light Side point, players must take a token with a Light Side icon facing upwards, and turn it down. On the other side of the token is Dark Side icon and this is, of course, the tradeoff.
The action of using the Light Side emboldens the Dark Side. Once the player cashes in their Light Side point, they simultaneously create a Dark Side point. And Dark Side points, as one might expect, are not the kind of thing players want to endure.
Dark Side points can lead to similar results as Light Side points, except they are only used by the GM to antagonize the players. The GM can use a Dark Side point to have something negative materialize in the situation, or to upgrade the difficulty of a player’s skill check. Of course, once they use the point, they flip it back to a Light Side point for the players. There is always this tug-of-war feeling, and it’s an excellent mechanic that captures both the nature of The Force, as we know it from the films, as well as the overarching theme of Good vs. Evil.
There are a variety of ways in which these points can be used. Like all the rules in this game system, it’s heavily dependent on the interpretation of the players and their GM. What kind of story do they want to tell and how will The Force help them achieve it?
Do or Do Not (or Listen)…
There’s a pretty simple reason why it’s worth examining these system mechanics. The ability for our imaginations to run wild based only on a series of numbers is an amazing feat. But somehow, the mechanics of Edge of the Empire encourage players to not just be creative, but also intricately so. This is a system that doesn’t just encourage good storytelling: it teaches players how to construct more compelling narratives and balance complex interactions.
It’s also worth noting that as developers, we may have the tendency to separate our game mechanics from our game’s story, but by looking at systems like Edge of the Empire’s, where story is very much integrated with the mechanics, the mind races. Maybe that RPG about closing portals now has a minigame mechanic about closing those portals, or maybe your ninja sloth bullet hell now includes a time distortion feature where the “One” sloth can bend time to their will (and in this case, speed things up).
Whether you choose to look at these systems as great practice for writing your own game stories or if you look at the actual concept of integrating storytelling mechanics into the system of a game, I’d highly recommend playing this game, or one like it, for anyone looking to succeed in the game development industry. And if you can’t play it, yourself, a great way to get introduced to the wonders of the Edge of the Empire system is by sitting in on someone else’s session. And thanks to the brilliant improv comedians and gamers at the One Shot Network, you can do just that by listening in on a brilliantly thought-out series of campaigns on the Campaign Podcast.
For more on Edge of the Empire, don’t forget to visit FantasyFlightGames.com or check out this video in which the developers, themselves, discuss the elements of the game.