Saturday, July 23, 2022

A Primer on Star Wars RPGs

If you've received a link to this article, you may have just asked the question, "what's the deal with Star Wars RPGs?" The first part of this post is a succinct overview of all the major (and some minor) options out there which cover this need.

I decided to write this because in the last two weeks, I've seen at least 4 Reddit posts and a couple Discord messages where people asked that very question, and I get tired of explaining it. So if you see someone asking that question, link them to this article.


Outline

Firstly, there are (basically) three official Star Wars RPGs:

  1. West End Games Star Wars (1987), AKA "Star Wars d6." This is the "old school" option and uses big pools of d6s for everything.
  2. Wizards of the Coast Star Wars (2000), AKA "Star Wars d20," which was revised in 2002 and then later given a new edition called Star Wars Saga Edition (2007). This one is like 3E D&D.
  3. Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars (2012), AKA "Star Wars Genesys." This one is very narrativist and uses special dice.
There are also a handful of unofficial Star Wars RPGs:

  1. Star Wars 5E, which is a hack of 5E D&D.
  2. Scum and Villainy, which is a hack of Blades in the Dark.
  3. Star Worlds: Streets of Mos Eisley, which is a hack of World of Dungeons, which is a sort of OSR hack of Dungeon World, which is a D&D hack of Apocalypse World. Jeez louise.
Finally, there are several other unorthodox but very strong and frequently recommended options for playing Star Wars without the brand name being attached:

  1. Stars Without Number, a space game that mixes elements from B/X and Traveller, relies a lot on procedures, faction intrigue, and sandbox play, and which provides a ton of tools for doing so.
  2. White Star, the OSR space opera game, most similar to OD&D and very simple.
  3. Fate, one of the most popular "universalist systems" out there, used for fiction-first narrativist gaming.
  4. Savage Worlds, one of the other most popular "universalist systems," but more action-and-tactics-oriented and fast-paced.

I think from this little bit of information you should already be able to narrow down the list to some options you find promising. By no means would I expect someone to read this entire post.

Below, I'll give a slightly more detailed description of each one to help you make a decision on which game is the best for you. For each one, I'll talk about how the basic mechanics work, how player characters work, how it handles combat, starships, and the Force, and then miscellaneous notable stuff.


West End Games Star Wars

The original tabletop RPG for Star Wars remains quite popular, especially among cranky old gamers. Naturally, it's all Legends material and predates the prequel trilogy. It got a second edition in 1992, an expansion to that in 1996, and an official 30th anniversary re-release of its first edition in 2018. To write this post, I referenced both the original rulebook from 1987 and a fan-made version of the book called "Revised, Expanded, Updated" (REUP), which many regard as a very well-done and authoritative "2.75 edition" if you will. The rules of this game are, funnily enough, a modification of the Ghostbusters RPG from back in the day. Weird, right?

The six main attributes include: Dexterity, Strength, Perception, Knowledge, Mechanical, and Technical. Force-sensitive PCs get three extra stats, including Sense, Control, and Alter. Attributes are measured in the number of dice you roll when making a check with that ability. For example, a wookiee character starts with a 5D in Strength, meaning they roll 5d6. You add the result together, and if it's equal to or greater than the difficulty number, you succeed. You might have a bonus like "2D+1" meaning you add +1 to the end result. You can get multiple +1 bonuses, but when it reaches +3 then you instead just get an extra die to roll and no bonus. In a situation like combat, you can choose to take a penalty where you roll less dice on your checks in exchange for getting to perform multiple actions in a single round. But each successive action applies a penalty to all actions you do that round. Stats stay the same throughout your career, but skills associated with specific stats can be trained and improved (e.g. DEX might stay 2D forever, but you might increase your Blaster skill or Dodge skill to 3D, 4D, etc.). Beyond even checks and skills, almost everything in the game is based on pools of d6s.

Character creation mostly involves picking an existing template like "smuggler" or "bounty hunter." Here's the basic templates from the original core rulebook, but many, many more were created over time. Plus, y'know, it's pretty easy to make your own.

Combat uses 5 second rounds with simultaneous declaration and resolution. First, everyone decides what they're going to do. They must be specific during declaration, not just "I'm going to move and shoot." Then, everyone's first action executes (move, attack, skill check, etc.). If two or more characters' actions conflict, have them do a roll-off for the action they're performing to determine who performs their's first. Next, if anyone declared multiple actions, then you have another action segment to resolve those. Then another and another until everyone has completed all of their declared actions. A really common mechanic is letting you do more or be more particular at the cost of rolling one less die when the time comes for the roll. Want to deal non-lethal damage? Lose a die. Want to draw your blaster from its holster and fire at once? Lose a die. Want to try dodging when fired upon? Alright, but whatever action you're taking at the same time loses a die. Etc.

Characters use a progressive wound system, with increasing dice penalties the more damage you've taken. You can also choose to lower yourself along the wound track in order to boost a die roll. Combat is theatre-of-the-mind, although it uses metric distances when needed (and, in reality, actually handles best when you use some abstract "zone positioning" for the general blaster ranges).

Starship combat is pretty simple, and relies on three main skills that characters can possess: piloting, shields, and gunnery. Distances are explicitly measured using abstracted ranges, so I recommend you get used to using it across the board. Each space combat round has 3+ action segments. First, everyone decides and announces their actions like normal. Next comes the speed segment, where each engaging ship has to roll to see if they close distance with their target or if the distance increases. Then comes the first fire segment, where gunners roll to attack, pilots roll to evade, and shield operators roll to interrupt fire. As with personal combat, you then keep having more and more fire segments for every action declared by each character. If some PCs are just passengers on the party's starship like Leia or C-3PO then they likely won't have much to do.

There are some changes to combat in the second edition. It includes critical successes and failures (an exploding "wild die" I think), there's different damage scaling between person combat, vehicle combat, and starship combat, there's more skills, etc. It's just a generally more expansive game but remains quite simple nonetheless.

Jedi PCs start weak but progress to become the strongest characters of all. However, they have a strict moral code they must follow, not unlike an old school paladin in D&D. Breaking it incurs "Dark Side points." The GM rolls a d6 and if it's equal to or less than your Dark Side points, you turn into an evil NPC. The game kinda insisted on being a goody two-shoes. The three force "attributes" are really more like skills, as you can improve them over time. The game has a list of force powers that each fall within one or more of the three force skills. You learn a new force power every time you increase one of the force skills during advancement. The powers are quite specific and have long, detailed descriptions like spells in D&D.

The game has a metacurrency called "force points" that's rewarded for doing cool stuff. You spend these to roll double dice for one round. Any PCs can use force points, not just jedi.

Another cool thing: a lot of people know that SW has a massive expanded universe beyond the movies, fleshed out in television, comics, games, and so on. What they probably don't know is that, like, most of it came from this tabletop RPG. It had a ton of detailed splatbooks that were then often referenced by SW writers as the sort of "setting bible" for the franchise. So chances are, if you see a Star Wars product mention a planet, vehicle, creature, faction, Imperial officer, etc. that predates the prequel trilogy, it very likely came from here.


Wizards of the Coast Star Wars

When WotC acquired D&D, they also got their hands on Star Wars. So when they launched the d20 system, they also made a Star Wars game to go along with it. This game has a lot in common with 3E D&D/Pathfinder 1E, if you're familiar with those systems. It uses the six classic D&D attributes, a d20 "roll high, add stat modifier" mechanic, skills and feats, the works. If you've ever played the Bioware Knights of the Old Republic video games, they were based on this system and borrow some classes from it.

They each include material covering the Legends versions of the original trilogy, prequel trilogy, the future stuff beyond the OT, and even a sourcebook just for running games in the Old Republic. Basically, it includes the complete "George Lucas era."

Because there were many changes over time, I'm going to separate these into two descriptions.


First, Star Wars d20

Like in D&D, you roll or buy ability scores/modifiers, you pick a race (there are maybe a hundred or so if you counted up every sourcebook), and you pick a class. The classes are Scout, Scoundrel, Soldier, Noble, Fringer, Tech Specialist, Force Adept, Jedi Consular, and Jedi Guardian. They're each pretty simple and get all their main abilities by level 6. The game has a skill system like 3E D&D (i.e. get new skill points each level, invest them as "ranks" into class skills, each rank is a +1 bonus to your rolls, etc.) but the list is even longer.

Unfortunately, the 6 D&D attributes aren't necessarily a great fit for SW. In every edition of D&D, Dexterity has always been the best attribute. In no edition was it more overpowered than 3E, where it's used for many key skills, ranged weapons, AC, and initiative. Well in SWd20, it's even more overpowered. At least in a medieval setting, most people are using melee weapons. In this game, nearly everyone is using guns all the time, and they often do enough damage that armor builds are generally agreed to be completely useless and nonfunctional in this game. Even the characters most likely to use a melee weapon, Jedi, will almost certainly take the Weapon Finesse feat to use their Dexterity instead of Strength when wielding a lightsaber. I mean, even Chewbacca uses a gun instead of ever actually tearing someone's arms out.

The tradeoff is that a lot of people (myself among them) are just, like, really comfortable with the 6 D&D attributes and can consistently make on-the-fly rulings with them pretty naturally. Also, y'know, there are lots of D&D statblocks you can use with little conversion, if needed. So yes, this system may still be a good option for you even if it isn't the "hypothetical ideal for SW."

Combat is similar to 3E D&D (raise your hand if you still remember all the things which trigger an "attack of opportunity." Anyone? No?), but HP is replaced with a Grit/Flesh system, called "Vitality" and "Wounds." The 2002 revision also changes armor so that it serves as damage reduction instead of providing an AC bonus, which actually makes it even more useless. Also, the 3E "bull rush" manuever has been renamed "bantha rush."

Starship combat starts with a system similar to person combat, but then adds a bunch of extra stuff. All attacks take some actions to charge up ahead of time, the state of your ship's shields must be accounted for, there's a list of manuevers that can be performed, etc. It's almost like its own board game.

To use the Force, you have to take one of the three feats (borrowed from SWd6): Sense, Control, and Alter. Each of them allows you to begin using and putting ranks into force skills. So in this game, each distinct application of the Force has its own skill check (20 of them in total. Yes, the skill list gets even longer). Using force skills costs Vitality. Additionally, there are force feats you can pick which buff your general aptitude with using force skills. While there is a cost for using the Force, the jedi classes also all get lightsabers whose damage scales with level, making them extremely powerful rather quickly. It's kind of weird, because jedi are both the "spellcaster" class in this system and the melee tank characters, which goes against the typical design of 3E D&D.

The game also has a metacurrency called "force points" that are usable by all characters. You gain one at every level and whenever you do cool stuff. You spend a force point to add bonus dice to a d20 roll, increasing the number of dice as you level. This game does invite PCs to be evil if they want to. When a force-sensitive PC uses force points, they have to declare if they're drawing on the light side or the dark side. The dark side gives more dice to start but has a lower cap.


Second, Saga Edition

Firstly, there are fewer basic classes. Your starting options are just Scout, Scoundrel, Soldier, Noble, and Jedi. However, each class is primarily comprised of a handful of "talent trees" that you pick and choose from as you advance in level. Sticking to one tree can make a fairly consistent build, but feel free to mix-and-match. Two characters of the same class might share zero features in common! Additionally, the game has dozens of prestige classes. It is simply an expectation of this game that everyone will be multiclassing, likely several times. In my own game, I had my players start at level 10 and I believe everyone had at least 2 prestige classes in their starting build. If you like crunch and new abilities that are more interesting than just "have +1 die to X rolls" then you'll prefer this game over SWd6. It's very crunchy. And because 4E D&D came out during Saga Edition's lifetime, you'll see occasional overlap in design sensibilities. Many speculate that certain ideas that we saw in 4E had their "test run" here.

The skill system has been streamlined. Instead of assigning skill points every level, you are simply either trained or untrained in a skill. The list of skills is also shorter. Like in 4E D&D, actually.

Combat is similar to before, except instead of having one AC + saving throws, characters just have three defenses: Reflex, Fortitude, and Will (i.e. Dex-based, Con-based, and Wis-based). That said, 90+ percent of all effects target Reflex. It ditches the Grit/Flesh system and returns to a normal HP system, but characters also have a condition tracker, earning cumulative penalties to everything as it worsens.

Combat is very specifically built around using minis and a grid, with "square" being the only unit ever given for distances and sizes. This edition was heavily tied to WotC's Star Wars Miniatures tactical war game. This is especially true of the starship combat system. The rulebook even encourages you to just play the miniatures game to resolve starship combat, unless for some reason you need the PCs to each be individually doing notable things aside from piloting.

Now, access to the Force instead comes from several sources. There's a "Use the Force" skill that, if you're trained in it, allows you to do basic applications like moving small objects or "searching your feelings." You must have the "Force Sensitive" feat in order to be trained in the Use the Force skill, however. There's also a feat called "Force Training" that, if taken, allows you to learn a bunch of specific Force Powers that are like D&D spells. Each one can be used once per encounter, not unlike 4E D&D. You still roll a Use the Force check for each one, as they have multiple degrees of success and effects. Finally, whether you have Force Sensitive or Force Training, you gain access to several class-neutral talent trees that are based around the Force. They're each very similar to the way metamagic worked in 3E. In any case, any amount of access to the Force will make you much, much more powerful.

Similarly, there's a class-neutral talent tree just for Droid talents. Oh, there's also rules for cybernetics. They're cool, but they also penalize your "Use the Force" checks. Tech and Force don't get along.

Saga Edition also adds another metacurrency called "Destiny Points," earned for doing really cool things like blowing up Death Stars and defying Darth Vaders. They let you get huge bonuses like auto-succeeding a super hard check.

The most notable example of 4E influence comes from a sourcebook called Galaxy of Intrigue, which introduced a version of Skill Challenges to Saga Edition. I've written an excruciatingly long review of different Skill Challenge rulesets here, including this one, but suffice to say: if you like the idea of Skill Challenges in general, this is one of the very best implementations of them out there and is a serious game changer for running a SW game.


Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars

The current Star Wars RPG, most notable for using specialty "story dice" sold only by Fantasy Flight. Critics deride this system as being very gimmicky and money-grubby, but it's extremely popular and has spawned the equally-popular Genesys system.

An interesting quirk of this system is that it's actually several games, each sold in their own book as self-contained RPGs which can each carry a whole campaign, but which are also compatible if you decide to mix-and-match. Kinda like World of Darkness, y'know? The three original books they released are:

  1. Edge of the Empire: for playing those cool, Wild West characters roughin' it in the Outer Rim. Careers included are the Bounty Hunter, Colonist, Explorer, Hired Gun, Smuggler, and Technician.
  2. Age of Rebellion: for playing rebel soldiers and freedom fighters waging a war against the Galactic Empire. Careers included are the Ace, Commander, Diplomat, Engineer, Soldier, and Spy.
  3. Force and Destiny: for playing Force-sensitives and the last Jedi Knights under the Empire's rule. Careers included are the Consular, Guardian, Mystic, Seeker, Sentinel, and Warrior.
They've since added a setting book for the Clone Wars and a starter set that takes place right before the sequel trilogy, although they assume you're using the rules and options present in the aforementioned three books. Naturally, these all take place in the current Disney canon. Each book has its own character options, setting material (the planets and ships and stuff relevant to that part of the SW universe), and certain mechanics. They also each have a different supplemental mechanic that shapes the campaign: PCs in EotE have "Obligations" like debt or a criminal history or sick loved ones, PCs in AoR have "Duty," which is their status within the Rebellion, and PCs in FaD have "Morality."

Basic checks are resolved by rolling dice pools (typically 5 to 8 dice rolled at once). This game uses special d6s, d8s, and d12s. They're color-coded and have their own symbols on them. It takes awhile to learn and it makes resolving simple actions quite intensive, but the roll is able to incorporate a lot of factors and make sure they have a meaningful impact, and the result of a single roll can tell you a lot about what just happened. It's very similar to the Warhammer RPGs, if you're familiar with those. There's also an official dice roller app that makes things much easier.

Most of the dice are for players, and will have results of either "Success", "Advantage," or "Triumph" (or blank), while the GM dice will have results of "Failure", "Threat", and "Despair" (or blank). Each side rolls, Successes cancel out Failures while Advantages cancel out Threats, and if at least one Success is left then the roll is successful. There's much less tedious arithmetic than most games (especially SWd6), but it's also very difficult to mentally calculate the odds for any given roll. It also requires you to improvise advantages and threats that change the situation on-the-fly, which is very stressful for some people and absolutely exhilerating for others. The players are supposed to come up with their own advantages, with everyone sharing a lot more control over the narrative than just the GM.

There are also attributes in the game which factor into these, ranging from a score of 1 to 6: Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, and Presence. Additionally, you have four different stats for dealing with bad stuff: Strain, Wound Points, Soak, and Defense

Example career talent tree.
For classes, this game uses "careers" quite similar to Saga Edition. Each career comes with a few features that all members get, and then offers several specializations which serve as talent trees to pick and choose from. So for example, the Bounty Hunter career has an Assassin talent tree, a Gadgeteer talent tree, and a Survivalist talent tree. You can mix-and-match as desired, and even multiclass into another career entirely (at a cost).

The combat system is actually very close to standard 5E D&D, although with a lot of terminology changed so it seems different. The most important difference is that movement is abstracted into "range bands" instead of going foot-by-foot or square-by-square. Initiative is a little more flexible than D&D, all attack types are just skills in this game (e.g. unarmed attacks are a skill under the Brawn ability, handguns are a skill under Agility, etc.), and many enemies can be run as "minions" for simplicity (nameless, come in groups, drop like flies). The game is strongly optimized for more narrative and cinematic combat rather than crunchy, tactical, board game-y combat.

Likewise with starship combat, as you can imagine. It's arguably a bit simpler than normal combat because there are only a handful of manuevers you can do with a ship, but the tradeoff is the added complication of tracking every ship's relative position each round since they're constantly moving and typically trying to outrun one another. I've heard it said that starship encounters really begin to sing once you begin treating them just as much like a movie scene of crisis antics as you would the in-person fighting. "The cargo gets loose and is slamming around the ship! Something caught on fire and needs to be put out!" Hope you're good at improvising that sort of thing a lot, though.

As for the Force and jedi, they make up an entire third of the system and constitute their very own game. The general consensus is that they're pretty well-balanced with non-jedi characters, mostly by way of that 4E D&D-style solution of, "just make everything a character can do into a talent, whether it's a magic spell, a clever skill, or a special attack."

Once again, this game has its own metacurrency. They're called "Destiny Points," and are represented with physical tokens, one side white and one side black. They're a shared resource spent by players and the GM to re-write the situation to be easier or harder. At the beginning of a session, the players generate the pool by rolling some dice. Then, when they want to spend a light side point to do something, they flip over one of their tokens so it becomes a dark side point. Later, when the GM wants to introduce more complications, they can spend dark side points and flip them into light side points for the PCs.


Now we're at the fan stuff. This is for 5E D&D what SWd20 was for 3E D&D. If you're stuck in that all-too-common situation of "my players refuse to play anything other than 5E" then this might be your best bet. But it's also a pretty good game, because, y'know, 5E D&D is a pretty good game. And despite being a fan creation, it is shockingly well-executed.

It uses all the same basics. Roll d20+ability mod, advantage and disadvantage, simple HP and AC, proficiency, short and long rests, etc. It has many of the same problems that Star Wars d20/Saga Edition have, which is just that the D&D model isn't necessarily the best fit for simulating the Star Wars universe and its stories. But it does a pretty good job making important changes without making the system unrecognizable.

Instead of divine magic and arcane magic, we get Force powers and tech powers. Thus, like in 5E, most classes are "casters," but their "spells" are either applications of the Force or just, like, gadgets and equipment. It's normally very hard to think of anything else a character could do as ever being equivalent to the Force in usefulness and power, but I think that "interacting with technology" is a pretty clever way to balance it. It especially helps to remind us that Star Wars is a science fiction setting, too. It also gives equipment a much bigger role in 5E, because now it serves as the flavor for most character abilities (e.g. instead of throwing a fireball, you're throwing a grenade!).

So the answer to "how does the Force work in this game?" is just "the way magic works in D&D 5E" which is pretty ridiculous but at least it's familiar. Instead of spell slots, it uses a variation of the optional "spell points" rule from the DMG, and there are no spell components, but it's otherwise the same. And 5E is so reliant on its spellcasting system and spellcaster classes that I'm pretty sure there wasn't going to be any way to gut it from the game and still have something recognizable left over.

There are ten classes in the game. They each get their archetype at level 3 instead of it varying, and they all get some special features to pick from that are modeled after the Warlock's Invocations in 5E (thus allowing an additional layer of customization):

  1. Berserker: adaptation of the barbarian, and a way to include a melee tank build that isn't just a jedi. Its invocations are "Instincts."
  2. Consular: jedi class that focuses on Force casting. Its invocations are "Force-Empowered Casting" which is just metamagic.
  3. Engineer: the main tech caster class. If consulars are the wizard, engineers are the cleric. Its invocations are tied to its archetypes.
  4. Fighter: literally just the 5E fighter, except now manuevers are a baseline feature. Still the most simple, flexible, "catch-all" class if you can't find something more fitting for your character. Its invocations are "Strategies."
  5. Guardian: jedi class that's more melee focused, but still inspired by the paladin and works as a half-caster. Its invocations are "Auras."
  6. Monk: just the 5E monk but buffed up a bit. Its invocations are "Monastic Vows."
  7. Operative: adaptation of the rogue. Its invocations are "Exploits."
  8. Scholar: totally brand new class, an Intelligence-based skill monkey that gets features for analyzing and strategizing, gets some situational bonuses, etc. Its invocations are "Discoveries."
  9. Scout: adaptation of the ranger, tech half-caster. Its invocations are "Routines."
  10. Sentinel: the "gish jedi" class that uses a "two-thirds" casting progression. Its invocations are "Ideals."

However, in addition to a player's handbook and a monster manual (Scum and Villainy), there are two other core books: Starships of the Galaxy (rules on starships, space combat, and space travel) and Wretched Hives (rules for downtime, factions, and enhanced items).

While most of the game is pretty much just 5E D&D, it actually has a lot of extra effort put into the starship stuff. Whereas 5E neglects creating procedures for anything other than combat, this game treats starship operation as being nearly as important. When on a big ship together like the Millennium Falcon or a Star Destroyer, each PC takes on a position and does one action to help the ship on their turn. It still uses individual initiative and as far as I can tell, it's still the case that the pilot PC is the one who'll be doing nearly everything.

It's also assumed that the party will be building a starship or several starships just like how they build a PC. Rules for making a custom ship are provided, and in fact there has not yet been released a "monster manual" of pre-made ships (like every other SW RPG has had). So as it stands, all ships must be designed from scratch, but this is kinda freeing. It means that you can make every TIE fighter dead simple if you know that all you mechanically need out of it is "fragile but fast small fighter." Except of course that each ship is ultimately about as complicated as an individual character, with 6 ability scores, 6 modifiers, 6 saving throws, proficiency, and even skills.

You can't buy the books off the shelves of a store, but... you can have it custom printed. The subreddit includes detailed instructions on how to do this, and the results are honestly really impressive.

It's like it's a real RPG!

You like Blades in the Dark? Well this is that, but Star Wars. It's specifically the Outer Rim stuff, though, like Solo or The Mandalorian. It also cites as inspiration Firefly, Guardians of the GalaxyCowboy Bebop, and Outlaw Star. So don't play this one if you wanted to be Jedi or Rebels or Clone Troopers or something. You are specifically a bunch of criminals.

...Except, truth be told, it offers you plenty of generic Star Wars stuff as well.

If you aren't familiar with Blades in the Dark, it's descended from the Powered by the Apocalypse tradition but modifies things a little further. It prioritizes story and drama over objective challenge, strategy, or playing around with mechanics. Players aren't playing their characters so much as they're playing the screenwriter for their character. Death is not likely the consequence you'll face for failing, to the extent that you even can fail. But in BitD, there's also an open-world, sandbox framework that shapes the campaign, where the players are managing a shared faction competing in a dynamic landscape of rival factions. But in this game, instead of your faction being, like, a gang or criminal empire, it's the crew to a starship.

Sessions/adventures are structured in a cycle of play that goes like this: 1) Free Play (interact with the world, investigate, talk to NPCs, figure out what you want to do next), 2) Job (the heist, delivery, assassination, espionage, escort, or whatever other mission/caper you're doing today), and 3) Downtime (determine the aftermath of the Job, advance your character and starship, recover).

The basic mechanic involves rolling pools of d6s. If the highest that comes up is a 6, the roll is fully successful. If the highest is a 4 or 5, it's partially successful. Anything less is a failure. Each of your character's Traits has a rating telling you how many dice you roll when using it (typically 0-4). These include 12 actions divided into 3 parent attributes. The attributes and their respective actions are: 1) Insight (Doctor, Hack, Rig, Study) 2) Prowess (Helm, Scramble, Scrap, Skulk), and 3) Resolve (Attune, Command, Consort, Sway).

Actions are used to do stuff while attributes are used to resist bad stuff. All rolls in the game are player-facing; the GM doesn't roll when NPCs do stuff. If a PC attacks a stormtrooper, the player rolls to attack. If a stormtrooper attacks a PC, the player rolls to defend.

Before you pick classes, players are encouraged to first decide on their choice of starship (and therefore, what kind of crew they are). The three options are:

  1. Stardancer: a freighter made for illicit merchants, smugglers, and blockade runners.
  2. Cerberus: a patrol craft made for bounty hunters and extraction specialists.
  3. Firedrake: a corvette made for rebel spies and saboteurs fighting the Empire.

Thus, having now agreed upon the sorts of jobs you typically take on, your classes to pick from are Mechanic, Muscle, Mystic (Jedi), Pilot, Scoundrel (isn't everyone a scoundrel??), Speaker, and Stitch (doctor/scientist). When it comes to species, one of the available backgrounds is just "Alien."

Classes in PbtA games are typically described in "playbooks," a pre-made character sheet with all the class info already there and just a few blanks left to be filled in and some boxes to check off. As you level up, you can pick which of the special abilities on the sheet you want to learn. Each class also comes with NPC allies you can eventually also unlock as well as some class equipment to take. And of course, each class has their own method of gaining XP and advancing. But you're also continuously advancing your starship together and picking out new special abilities and assets for it as a team.

There's not exactly a combat system, per se. A scene with violence is viewed as fundamentally the same as any other scene. The game uses no initiative system, action economy, or other means by which to establish "fairness" or "strategic challenge." You're a screenwriter, remember? Your job is to work together to write a fun and dramatic scene, a good story. So yeah, you can make some Scrap rolls to knock some heads and then roll Resolve to resist a Sith using the Force against you, but the whole thing plays out more like everyone at the table is choreographing a stage play collaboratively. In fact, your character cannot even die unless you consent to it. You always have the option to suffer stress instead, making a resistance roll to determine how bad it is. After you've taken a certain amount of stress, you'll suffer a permanent trauma (paranoid, reckless, haunted, cold-hearted, obsessed, etc.). The game is more interested in characters being changed by their experiences in interesting and dramatic ways rather than them simply dying and having their story end. You can also choose to take on stress in order to boost your rolls and stuff ("push yourself").

Example starship playbook.
Likewise with starships: there is no "space combat" system, there's just the normal rules used for all types of scenes. That said, you also don't need rules for different kinds of spaceships and how they all interact with each other and an idea of how each player fits into it. That's because in this game, the answer is always the same: the party shares their main Millennium Falcon knock-off that they design, operate, and advance collectively like one shared PC. I really, really like the ship rules and customization in this game, with lots of modules you can add in and a strong emphasis on the ship as a subject of the galaxy's social landscape just as much as it's a physical piece of equipment.

In this game, the Force is just the abilities and features of the Mystic class. You gain XP by addressing challenges with wisdom, which is a pretty good way to enforce Jedi-like behavior without creating some kind of paladin code to adhere to. Their class abilities are just a bunch of iconic force moves, and the cost for pretty much all of them is to suffer stress. While this is nearly always the penalty for, like, everything in this game, it also seems like a pretty reasonable (and balanced) way to depict the limitations of the Force.

Of course, there's lots of other Blades in the Dark mechanics in here. Progress clocks, Devil's Bargains, flashbacks, etc. If you aren't familiar with this family of systems but this has sounded promising to you, go ahead and do some research on BitD on your own. It's not my cup of tea but you'll probably be glad you did.

The game comes with its own default, generic sci-fi setting that's pretty much just off-brand Star Wars. I've been referring to all of its content with SW terms but technically, the Force is called "The Way" and the Empire is called "The Hegemony" and blablabla. It also comes with a little pocket of space for your sandbox to take place in. The game's downtime, faction, and consequence mechanics all kind of assume that your adventures take place in just one corner of the Outer Rim, not the whole galaxy at large. But this website also has a bunch of on-brand SW assets created for S&V, setting the game within Hutt Space. It's pretty damn cool.


First of all, this is specifically a playset for having adventures in the city of Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine, during an Imperial crackdown following the Battle of Yavin. It's kind of specific. That said, the rules and character creation stuff should be usable in other contexts as well.

The basic mechanic is to roll 2d6 and add a relevant stat. 6 or less is a failure, 7-9 is a success with a complication, 10-11 is a success, and 12+ is a critical success. The six character stats are Menace (aggression, violence, toughness), Daring (courage, grace under pressure), Guile (trickiness), Acuity (smarts), Presence (charisma), and Spirit (determination and wisdom, used for the Force). You roll for these in order. If you are trained in a skill relevant to the task, then you can never fail it. Instead, a 6 or less will always be treated as a close call with a complication.

You can pick any of 15 species that are all extremely simple. They tell you one or two stats that can't go above a certain bonus, and then a skill. Choose another free skill off the main list, and then pick a class, which gives you two abilities of your choice: Jedi, Soldier, Outlander, Scoundrel, Noble, and Droid. After that, you get some credits and a small list of items you can buy.

Combat is another PbtA-style freeform system. Well, maybe. I found at least one weapon feature that refers to "combat turns" so I'm not sure what the intention was. Armor serves as damage reduction and also tells you your max speed, which is also the initiative system (ties are broken by rolling Daring). Health is a simple Grit system, and when it reaches 0 you get the "Wounded" condition which penalizes all your checks. If you get hit again while Wounded, you go straight to Dying.

There's a list of vehicles (mostly starships) that each have a listed HP, armor, weapon, and some other traits. Otherwise, there's no "space combat" system or space travel rules or anything. The list is short and you just kind of play it by ear the same way you do with all situations.

The Force is included as the class powers for Jedi PCs. You start with only one ability instead of two, because you get a lightsaber right from the get-go. There are 6 general Force abilities and a couple lightsaber abilities. Some of them arbitrarily say, "can be used once per day" while others (including, like, telekinesis) have literally no limits at all. So yeah, definitely one of the most powerful iterations of Jedi PCs of any game described in this post.

This game's metacurrency is also it's XP system. Players can earn Hero Points by doing cool stuff. Then they spend Hero Points to re-roll checks, avoid damage, deal bonus damage, recharge a spent ability, or even make use of a class ability you don't have yet. Then, you keep track of how many Hero Points you've spent. Once you've used 12, you level up! This might be my favorite metacurrency in this entire post just because it so elegantly forces the GM to grant it and the players to use it.

The game includes a map and a bunch of locations in Mos Eisley, which are pretty good and should definitely be stolen even if you're running your SW game in another system. It also includes small sample enemies and also hirelings, which is always an excellent addition to any game and is all-too-rare.


Stars Without Number

A setting-neutral space game by Kevin Crawford, Stars Without Number (SWN) is most famous for its minimalism and usability, with immaculate layout and writing in the core rulebook. Crawford's work is often lumped in with the OSR, particularly his emphasis on open-world sandboxes, emergent story, and "domain-level play." The game is oftentimes described as a mix of B/X D&D and Traveller. That said, where it really excels for anyone is in providing the GM tools to create and run their own setting with lots and lots of adventure content and NPC factions.

It uses the six classic D&D attributes, which each have a score and a modifier. There is no basic task resolution mechanic, just like in B/X. But there is a skill system for tasks requiring specialized knowledge. The GM sets a difficulty and the player rolls 2d6 + their level in the skill (0 to 4) + any relevant ability modifier.

PCs choose one of 20 backgrounds which give a starting skill and some other randomized elements (all your standard SW character concepts are in there), and then you pick a class. The classes are Warrior, Psychic, and Expert (AKA everything else). The fourth option is Adventurer: pick two of the other classes and get a watered-down version of each one's features. Lastly, you choose a focus: these are extra little feats that allow you to mechanically flesh out your character a bit more, like "Alertness" or "Sniper" or "Hacker." PCs who want to be aliens or robots can do that by picking an "origin focus," which are included in the book. PCs also have HP, "system strain," a base attack bonus, AC, three saving throws, a starting equipment package, and potentially the entire psionics system on top of all that. Many disagree with me, but I'm usually inclined to call all of that at least moderate levels of crunch, not rules lite. There's also a simple, clean, modular system for designing your own starships that is almost tailor-made for SW.

Combat uses a traditional D&D-style rounds+turns system with your choice of either individual initiative or side initiative. It's more lethal than most games, and might be more lethal than you would want for a SW game (however the book does have a very long and detailed chapter on modifying things to make "Heroic Characters" in its section on suggested houserules). Characters get one Main Action and one Movement on their turn, plus free actions. The game uses metric distances and theatre of the mind, attacks are d20+stat against AC (ascending AC in SWN 2E), but most attack types are included in the skill system. One of the ways that the system keeps melee weapons relevant in a sci-fi game is that they usually apply shock: even when you miss an attack, you still do the minimum amount of damage to any target below a certain AC, to represent the general strain you're putting them under by engaging them in melee combat.

The starship combat is controversial. A turn represents about 15 minutes. Positioning isn't tracked, even in some kind of abstract way. Either the ships are close enough to be fighting or they aren't. Each ship rolls initiative, and then on their turn the crew will decide the order of each department. There are five departments on every ship: the bridge (controls movement), gunnery (attack rolls), engineering (repairing systems, boosting speed, or healing the hull), comms (hack enemy ships and de-buff them), and the captain (choose initiative order, mitigate bad stuff to the ship, alleviate the cost of certain actions, and, if the party is up for it, tells others what they should do). The ship relies on an action economy built on "command points" (CP).

If you have less PCs than you have departments then that's tough. They can try to pull double duty but the unchanging rule is that each character has one action on their turn. This can be a general action that anyone can take, or a department-specific one. Some actions create CP while other actions cost CP, making it a resource shared by all departments which they're coordinating to use optimally. Any CP that isn't used by the end of the turn is lost. NPC ships can be streamlined to just have a simple CP number per turn based on its general crew quality.

Whenever the ship takes a hit, the party can choose to instead accept a crisis. This is a random event that will cause even greater damage if it isn't solved by next turn, but at least you've bought some time and a second chance to avoid any damage. A ship's armor both sets its AC and gives it damage reduction.

This ruleset works fine under very specific parameters. Flying a one or two-person ship breaks it. Coming up with ideas that there aren't already actions for is really, really straining the system. The CP system is very often criticized and many choose to just get rid of CP entirely. That said, it's at least offering a more robust framework than you'll find in many of the other totally handwaved "freeform" starship combat systems described in this post. Plus, it gets everyone involved, while most other rulesets don't even try.

The Force is most easily represented by playing a Psychic. They gain access to an additional 6 skills: Precognition (sensory and probability powers), Telekinesis (duh), Telepathy (duher), Teleportation (duhest), Biopsionics (healing, shapeshifting, body horror), and Metapsionics (modify other psionic powers). Each discipline has a "core technique" that you learn automatically when you point one rank into its skill, and then a bunch of other techniques you can learn as you invest more in it. Psionic powers are fueled by Effort, which is equal to 1 + WIS or CON (whichever is higher) + their highest psychic skill score. Every time you use a psionic technique, you have to commit one Effort towards it for the duration of the current scene. This usually means that you can do a lot of Force powers simultaneously, most of which will be rapidly scaling in power as you advance in level. Once again, the standard Jedi build will probably be pretty OP compared to everyone else. You can decide for yourself how comfortable you are with that. That said, I guess most Jedi PCs would also want to be a lightsaber fighter, so they'd more likely choose Adventurer (Warrior+Psychic) so they could do the melee stuff. But if you do, then you can only ever get one psionic discipline. How many Jedi can only do telekinesis or only do precognition? Then again, maybe SW would be more interesting if that were a thing.

If this is a problem for you, then there's also an option you might want to look into from a supplement book called The Codex of the Black Sun, which introduced a new class called the Sunblade. It is quite specifically intended to be a "Jedi class," being trained with a sacred weapon and getting one God-skill they can use for all powers, lore checks, and attacks with the sacred weapon (AKA a "Use the Force" skill, essentially).

The core rulebook also has a bunch of supplemental rule modules for things like mecha, playing AI characters, transhumanism, fantasy magic spellcaster classes, and other stuff. Then you get to the splatbooks, which are mostly system-neutral but which give guidelines for setting up campaigns revolving around trade, warfare, espionage, discovery, cyberpunk stuff (if you hate outer space, I guess), and others. And I really cannot emphasize enough just how incredibly strong the sector creation materials and faction rulesets are. Whatever RPG you end up choosing, steal them anyway. They can carry the whole campaign.


White Star

White Star is based on Swords & Wizardry RPG, which is a retroclone of 1974 OD&D. They're all compatible. This right here is quintessential OSR. It's extremely lite, favoring rulings over rules, and you can make characters quickly and just jump right in. From everything I've read, you might as well get the "Galaxy Edition" which combines all the content that's been released and adds even more on top. So that's the version I'll be describing here.

As stated, the mechanics resembled early D&D. It uses all the dice, the same classic 6 abilities, you roll 3d6 for each one in order, and you pick a class. There is no core mechanic for basic task resolution, with ability scores and modifiers instead being used as variables factoring into miscellaneous places throughout the rules. Strength determines carrying capacity and is used for melee attacks, Constitution factors into HP, Intelligence gives you extra languages and is used for the magic system, etc. Classes have a "prime attribute," the most important stat to them which will increase the rate at which you gain XP the higher it is. There is, however, an optional, simple skill system. It's an X-in-6 roll, you get three skills to start and can learn more and increase your rank in them every few levels, pretty basic stuff.

The standard classes include AristocratMercenary, Pilot, Robot, and Star Knight (Jedi). The added optional classes include Alien Brute, Bounty Hunter, Brimling (space halflings), Combat Medic, Cypher (hacker), Deep Space Explorer, Freed Assimilant (inspired by Star Trek), Gunslinger, Man of Tomorrow (sort of a weird, celebrity-superhero class?), Mecha Jock, Novomachina (literally a Transformer), Plucky Sidekick, Rock Star, Two-Fisted Technician, Uttin (rat aliens who scavenge and jury-rig), Yabnabs (Ewok), Alien Mystic, Star Pilot (a jedi that specializes in starships), Star Squirrel (a race of mystic squirrel aliens), and Untrained Initiate (non-Jedi force sensitive). Kinda all over the place. But remember, classes are real simple. They consist of weapon and armor restrictions, HD size, base attack bonus, saving throws, XP table (not everyone advances equally in the old school, kids), and maybe a unique ability or two. Equipment and hirelings tend to be a lot more valuable than your class.

Combat includes guidelines for many popular options. Ascending or descending AC, individual or side initiative, optional criticals and fumbles, etc. Characters are squishy and morale rolls are an important mechanic that keeps combat from devolving into a complete bloodbath. It's pretty simple though and definitely isn't the main event.

Starship combat is extremely similar. Notable mechanics include:

  1. There's a distinction between "pilot-linked guns" and other guns aboard a ship. On the pilot's turn, they can move the ship and do an action, which could be operating a pilot-linked gun. Meanwhile, other characters aboard a bigger ship might take up non-pilot gunner positions if there are some available. I don't know why I've never seen another system just have something like this.
  2. Force fields as damage reduction, but every time it gets used to reduce an attack, it drains a bit. Shields can only be used so many times before they run out.
  3. There are some ship mods you can buy like cloaking devices, tractor beams, automated weapons, and so on.

Jedi are represented in this game with the Star Knight class, along with any other class that has access to "Mysticism." It's just spellcasting from D&D. Their class description will include a chart showing how many "Meditations" they get per day of each level, they have to spend time each day prepping their Meditations in classic Vancian-fashion, and most of the basic cinematic "Force powers" are mixed in with classic D&D spells like Read Languages, Find Traps, Dark Vision, and Speak With Plants. They also get a free star sword with +2 to hit when using it and get +2 on Saving Throws to resist Force powers. But my favorite part is the incorporation of OD&D-style domain level play: at 10th level a Star Knight can construct a monastery on a secluded planet and start training more Jedi.

There are also extensive rules for mechas, cybernetics, and Ewok rune magic called "etchings." There's a very extensive bestiary but it has a lot of goofy, Spelljammer-style things in it like "space ducks" and "laser rex" and tons of furries.


So if you haven't even heard of Fate then I'm not quite sure how you got here. But that's okay. I'll help.

Fate is one of the most popular RPGs in the world, and as a general system probably ranks either third or fourth place in total popularity after the D&D family. It can be used to run any genre of game and puts its focus on drama and "narrative." It's also pretty simple. It's explicitly designed with the assumption that rules and dice should be minimized because they get in the way of telling good stories.

Fate is originally derived from the FUDGE system that originated in the 90s, but was published in its first full, official edition in 2003. It's currently in its 4th edition, published in 2013. Most materials you'll find for the game will be perfectly compatible regardless.

The game relies entirely on specialty "FUDGE dice." These are d6s with two sides blank, two sides minus, and two sides plus (essentially a d3). On a standard check, you roll 4 FUDGE dice and sum all sides. This creates a bell curve strongly centered on 0. If you have any relevant skills, you can add a small bonus (1-5). On an unmodified roll, even a difficulty of 1 is only about 40% likely to be beaten.

In all situations in the game, there are always exactly four actions you can take: "attack," "defend," "overcome obstacle" (a catch-all for solving problems), and "create an advantage." Those four actions are contexualized based on the current situation in the fiction, and you judge if you have any relevant bonuses or detriments before rolling.

For character customization, we start with a skill system. The default list has 18 skills but any given Fate game or setting will have a custom list, with literally dozens and dozens to be found across all iterations of the system. But you don't have to memorize them or anything. You only pick one to four things that you're good at and then everything else remains at 0. Basically, you're considered unremarkable at nearly everything except the handful of stuff your character is specifically known for. Han Solo would have a +0 to all rolls except for, say, Piloting, Gunslinging, and maybe Seduction. However, the fourth and current edition replaces skills with six "approaches" to solving problems: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky.

Characters also have "aspects," which are the primary descriptors of what makes them unique and important. They can be personality traits, beliefs, relationships, titles, or even just a narrative role. Examples might be, "Tempted by Shiny Things" or "Just the Man for the Job" or "Fear of Heights" or "Merchant Guildmaster." It's incredibly open-ended.

Everyone also starts with a pool of fate points, which are represented with little tokens. You spend a fate point to declare a story detail or to invoke one of your aspects. When you invoke an aspect, you either get a +2 on your roll or you get to re-roll, whichever would be better. But you have to justify how that aspect is relevant to the action. To gain fate points back, you accept "compels," i.e. whenever one of your aspects complicates your life.

Because the dice are so unlikely to get you anything above a 0 or 1, it means that the bonuses you get from your skills and aspects are the most important thing that defines you. The last major part of character customization are stunts, which are special tricks that let you gain an extra benefit from a skill or otherwise alter some game rule to work in your favor. Examples include things like, "backstab" or "fancy ettiquette" or "hogtie."

There are three recommended frameworks for adjudicating "zoomed in" action: Challenges (characters try to do something complicated), Contests (2+ characters compete for a goal), and Conflict (2+ characters try to directly harm each other). A Challenge is kind of like a freeform Skill Challenge where the GM creates a bunch of obstacles that will each need a different skill, aspect, or stunt to solve. A Contest is done as a series of exchanges where everyone rolls off to determine the victor turn-by-turn until someone has won three exchanges. Finally, a Conflict is usually run like a generic RPG combat using a series of rounds with individual turns taken one at a time, each person does an action on their turn. It's usually run as theatre-of-the-mind with little more than some fuzzy "zones" established in the battlefield. If you get smacked, you can either be taken out or concede the conflict if you're ready to lose. If not, you have two options. The first is to accept a level of stress. You have a few levels of Physical Stress and Mental Stress and they'll reset once the fight is over and you can catch your breath. The second is to accept a consequence, taking on a new negative aspect (such as an injury) that will take longer to undo.

And that's most of what there is to say about Fate in general. There's more to it of course, but I explained a greater percentage of this game's rules than any other in this post.

So what about Star Wars? Well, I'm gunna be real with you: this is a path you must explore on your own. There is no official SW book for Fate, but there are many, many fan-created options out there. Behold. Just one pretty high-effort and good-looking iteration can be found here, but I encourage you to research further or even build it on your own. If you liked what I was describing up there, then I might have just converted you into a Fate evangelist, never again to roll a non-FUDGE die in your gaming life.


Savage Worlds

This is another very popular universalist system, with a focus on fast-paced, pulpy action. If you ever felt like D&D was "boring" in real play, this should fix that. It also came out in 2003 and has lots and lots and lots of supplement books that help you set up a campaign in so-and-so setting with accompanying content to fill it out. But even the core rules will go a long way towards helping you run some Star Wars. And most of it's free.

I would give a brief description of the rules, but honestly I'm instead going to refer you to this two-page comic summarizing all the main stuff. It's so well-done that I can't really outdo it and it makes me endlessly frustrated that not all games have something like this. Please click to expand, or read here.

As with Fate, you probably already guessed that there's no official Star Wars setting for the game. But the game is very much driven by its fanbase, and you'll find no shortage of Star Wars materials made for it. Here's a pretty thorough-looking one I dug up immediately on a Google search. I also know there's a Savage Worlds setting book called "Slipstream" that's meant to be an off-brand Flash Gordon, which many people recommend as being one of the best options for running some Star Wars. But also, why run Star Wars when you could instead be playing Flash Gordon? And yeah, it's beyond my purview here to attempt to research the fullest answer possible for you when it comes to Savage Worlds Star Wars, but if that comic made the game sound fun then you can explore further on your own and find out if you're a Savage convert.


Conclusion

There are countless more options out there than what's covered in this blog post. I just hit the most popular ones (plus a few extra), but you may yet end up reading all this and still concluding that you haven't found the right option yet. I know I haven't. But I also find it interesting to see all these different approaches to tackling the same design challenges. How do you do the Force? How do you run space combat? What are the "classes" of Star Wars? Does every alien need stats or can that just be flavor? What about droids? And most of all, how do you craft gameplay that stays true to the spirit of the franchise?

...Apparently by including some generic metacurrency to let players ass-pull themselves out of bad situations.


-Dwiz

7 comments:

  1. I think this list would be enriched to consider Hodag's off-brand Star Wars games as well!

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    1. Do you have a link? I'm not familiar.

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    2. Beyond! The Hypertrench is the culmination of Hodag's not!starswars obsession, but he has literally dozens of micro games set in this milieu: https://hodagrpg.itch.io/

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  2. Can’t believe you missed Never Tell Me the Odds, a neat little lightweight RPG designed for one-shot games about space scoundrels.

    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/270007/Never-Tell-Me-the-Odds-The-SpaceScoundrel-RPG-About-Risking-It-All

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  3. Thanks for including Galaxy Far Away here!

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  4. It may be worth differentiating between Fate (Core) and Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) here, with the latter generally being a bit better fit for Star Wars.

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  5. Thanks for doing this! Some of the fan made games are new to me.

    If you wanted to expand on this article, you could do a worked example of a rogue shooting a rogue at medium distance with a medium blaster pistol, just to show how the different systems handle it.

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