Game Day: Complexity and Time, Mutant Heroes, Dwarven Quakes

Friday was utterly consumed by an all-day staff retreat at work, denying me my normal lunchtime opportunity to write my Game Day column.

But here we go again, one day late, but a little wiser nonetheless as I take some time to look at the new Star Wars: Saga Edition RPG, consider lessons learned during our latest Mutants & Masterminds character creation session and review our latest Khelez-Mar adventure.

Complexity and Time

Time was touched on in last week’s column, and the issue of time came up again last night as I read through preview articles for Wizards of the Coast’s new Star Wars: Saga Edition RPG (buy it from Amazon). This is the third incarnation of the d20 Star Wars rules, and this time around Wizards is trying to make more streamlined and cinematic and less like a scifi port of D&D.

One of the biggest changes to Star Wars is the skill system: it ditches the concept of skill points in favor of a binary system where you’re either trained in a skill or not. Under the new system, anyone can make a Skill check (with a base modifier based on the character’s level and appropriate ability modifier) but those who are Trained get a +5 bonus. Feats allow you to further enhance your character’s skills, but you can say goodbye to spending points to buy ranks or cross-skill synergies.  You’ll also find that the skill tree is greatly pared back, as skills like Spot, Listen, and Sense Motive are collected into an overarching “Perception” skill

As explained by the designers, the goal is two fold. First, this revised skill system more closely mimics the movies by giving everyone a chance to do something. In the movies, you never feel like Han and Luke are held up by the fact that they didn’t take enough ranks in “Ride”, despite the fact that they’re smugglers and fighter pilots, not Tauntaun riders. Second, it simplifies character creation; players (especially new players) should be able to blow through the sometimes cumbersome skill selection process and get on to the more enjoyable stuff, like picking feats (and my friends who think that skill selection process isn’t slow and plodding should think back to when we were teaching our friend Jim how to pick skills for Fading Suns d20).

All of this bodes well for the game master, who is the one most likely to need to create characters quickly. The fact that it takes me an days to stat out a 15th level NPC (and an hour to do a 6th level one) is one of the big reasons I’m not GMing any more — I simply do not have the time to plow through game mechanics in support of my story.

Reaction among the group was mixed; some though it might worked, some thought it robbed the game of some of its depth and diversity as everyone ends up with similar skill sets. We’re going to be play testing the game next week for a review I’m writing, so we’ll see how well it works out in practice.

Mutant Heroes

While some may complain about the coming decline of complexity in Star Wars d20, they can take solace in the fact that our Mutants & Masterminds campaign is slowly moving forward. We had another character building session on Tuesday, in which we statted out Jonkga’s speedster and Damon’s earth elementalist. M&M is easily the most customizable, flexible, and just plain complex character building system our group has ever encountered.

This isn’t to say it’s bad — we’re all having a hell of a lot of fun building our characters — but we’ve been at this on and off for more than a month. It’s a power gamer’s dream, as is illustrated by how much fun Evil Genius is having tweaking and re-tweaking his power-suited superhero Paladin. If we don’t start playing soon, he may end up ascending to godhood.

In addition to building characters Tuesday night, we had our biggest rules fight in six months over whether or not a hero nullifying an arrayed power took out the entire array, or just that aspect of it. The answer turns out to be that yes, this will take out the entire array, but man did we ever have an impassioned debate over that one.

The debate just reaffirms my belief that we need to spend some time away from d20. I feel like we’re getting too caught up in these particular mechanics, and we need the distance and perspective that comes from playing some other games for a few sessions — I’m thinking of Savage Worlds, Spirit of the Century and Call of Cthulhu in particular. I think we need some time where the focus is on the story and/or fast and furious play, not understanding every last rule and exception to those rules.

Dwarven Quakes

After two weeks of Ravenloft, we returned to our Khelez-Mar dwarven campaign. This week saw our heroes return to the fortress of Khelez-Mar from the dangerous depths of the Obsidian Maze and the destruction of a wyvren rookery. Not long after arriving back however, the adventurers found the underground fortress shaken badly by a decidedly unnatural earthquake. We spent the rest of the night searching for dwarven experits and clergy who might be able to tell us more about what happened — was it an attack? Was it a sign from the gods? — in our most role-playing intensive session of Khelez-Mar yet.  We ended the session on the cusp of the entrance to the UnderDark, wondering if the answer to our quest might be found there. You can check out my saga notes from the adventure on my Atomic Age blog.

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