Star Wars: Saga Edition – Annotated Playtest #1

Our Star Wars: Saga Edition campaign kicked off on Friday with our first full-fledged Knights of the Old Republic session. Since my Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Annotated Playtest went over so well  I decided to do the same for this Saga Edition.

This one will work a little differently; instead of annotating a single combat encounter, I’m going to offer my thoughts on the game session as a whole, discussing both combat and role-playing aspects of the game. If there’s enough interest, I’ll also do a round-by-round combat playtest for melee and starship combat.

Dawn on Zebulon

The adventure began on the world of Zebulon Beta, part of the binary planetary system of Zebulon in the Vargis Tau system. We joined our three young padawans in the training yards of the Citadel of Kal-Kor, home to the Unified Force Academy, under the watchful eye of Jedi Knight Lornn Varri.

The name “Zebulon” is a throwback to Star Frontiers, my first SF RPG love. Since KOTOR is the first long-term scifi campaign I’ve had a chance to run, I thought it appropriate mention a world that inspired so much creativity and pointless world building for me as a kid.

The padawans consisted of Quest Fios ( Khil Jedi 1, combat build, played by Damon), Rann (Miraluka Jedi 1, combat build, played by EvilGenius) and Rade Casa (Human Jedi 1, diplomatic build, played by Erilar).

Varri, lead teacher for the academy’s field instruction exercises, had summoned them to face off against Jedi training droid JPD-14 (Solider 1, lightsaber trained, played by Nate). The combat would serve to evaluate padawans’ combat capabilities in preparation for their first mission off-world.

This party make up — three Jedi and one soldier — was worrisome going into the game. D&D has trained my brain to think in terms role, and having three characters of the same class in a party can be a recipe for disaster (especially when joined by the droid, who is also trained in lightsabers). Granted, we did this a bunch of times in earlier editions, but the spectre of TPK was always there.

In Saga Edition though, the combinations of talents, feats and species are enough to keep even such an apparently homogenious group viable in-game. We had a combat jedi, an acrobatic jedi and a diplomatic jedi, all of whom were able to shine in their own way.

The combat took place in a courtyard littered with stone pillars, with the three padawans starting equidistant from the droid. The three Jedi trying out their various battle moves, including Force Stun (ineffective against droids), Move Object (used to pin JPD-14 to a column, which was very effective) and Force Slam. The droid proved to be a tough match for the group, but once they pinned him against the pillar, they were able to move in on the flanks and finally wear him down. If memory serves, Quest Fios got in the most definitive blows, earning the respect of his fellow padawans (who proved far less effective in martial combat, mostly because of dice rolling).

At this point, I think it should be standard operating procedure for us to open any session of a new (or fairly new) game system with a combat. It worked for Savage Worlds and Mutants and Masterminds, and it worked for Star Wars. It gives people a chance to familiarize themselves with the combat rules and — especially in the first session — get a feel for what their characters are capable of.

It also helps identify and problem areas early on, when everyone’s still fresh. In this case, Force Slam had us scrambling to figure out what the rules meant by a 6-square cone. It seems that in eight years of playing D&D 3.x, we never really got it right; I think we were using our old cone-templates from 2E all that time.

We only realized this after I dug out my D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide, which had area effect templates in the back. We were all some what stunned to see the shape more “cone-like” then actual “cone”. One further note: the Star Wars GM screen, which I ordered for Friday’s game, but which arrived a day late, could have answered this question in a glance; it has cone templates printed on Panel #4.

 Strong in the Force, Weak in Skills

After the training bout, Jedi Knight Lornn Varri  charged the padawans with their first offworld assignment: investigate the crash of the transport Surly Susanna on Zebulon Prime (a jungle world, and sister planet to Zebulon Beta, where the academy is located). JPD-14 was assigned to escort them, and serve as a field trainer.

The academy arranged travel to the Prime aboard the Dynamic-class freighter Ruby Raptor, which was crewed by Captain Korinth Cloudskimmer, a pilot and scout for Starrior Exploration Corp., and his Trandoshan first mate, Tursserk. The ship was docked at the planet’s only starport, located in its capitol city of Jolus. The drive into the city was uneventful, though during the course of it the party discovered that only one padawan, Quest Fios,had the pilot ability … or knew how to understand Binary (and thus, was the only one who could speak with the droid. This further impressed his fellow padawans, who began to wonder if perhaps their teachers might have slipped a Jedi Knight into their ranks to secretly observe them.

We’ve had a few conversations about the Jedi’s limited number of trained skills, and their lack of skill depth relative to other classes. In talking it through, we noted two things: the limits on skills serve as a check on the Jedi’s power relative to other classes. This edition of the game goes out of its way to make sure Jedi are balanced against the other classes; this is part of that. The other thing is that trained skills are less important in this game, because — as in D&D 4E — everyone’s untrained skills improve as they level up. There are a few skills that can’t be used untrained, namely Mechanics and Use the Force, but by and large all heroes, including Jedi, are well rounded when it comes to what they know, and what they can do.

Plus, I think this is offset somewhat by multiclassing; a Jedi who takes levels in scoundrel or noble gains access to a number of new skills (though they aren’t trained skills; training in one of them requires taking the Skill Training Feat.

On a role-playing note, Nate, JPD-14’s player, decided at the start that the droid can’t speak original phrases. Instead, he uses a variety of stock phrases (including “JPD-14 is in need of repair”, “try not. do or do not,” and various other Jedi training aphorisms. Nate’s recorded these on his laptop with a voice modulator, and plays them during the game.

This is a challenge in combat, because he can’t simply tell everyone else what’s happening, which is why having Quest be able to speak the droid’s native Binary is a big deal.

 Pirate Attack!

After meeting up with the crew of the Ruby Raptor, the ship headed off to the Prime. En route they found themselves being hailed by another ship. The vessel — which displayed the burning claw signifying it as a pirate ship — was a Ghtrock 720-class freighter, apparently modified to incorporate a docking clamp and electronics jammers. JPD-14 and Rann (EvilGenius’s Miraluka Jedi) immediately jumping on the Ruby Raptor’s laser turrets while Rade Casa (Erilar’s diplomatic Jedi) headed up to the cockpit.

Jumping on the radio, he attempted to talk the other ship into standing down, but when he identified them as Jedi, it’s surprised captain promised to blow them out of the sky and broke off communications.

This combat demonstrates one of the things I love about Star Wars: everyone has a chance to shine, and the skills to do so. One of our complaints about D&D 4E was how pared down its skill list was. Saga Edition’s skill list is also streamlined, but it remains robust enough to handle a variety of situations. Moreover, the game actively encourage non-combat role-playing; while we had three Jedi in the party, other classes — particularly the noble — have talents that allow them to rally troops, demand surrenders, and generally serve as skillful leaders. Coupled with a good selection of skills, I think Saga ends up doing a better job of promoting this aspect of the game than 4E.

A brief battle ensued between the two evenly-matched freighters. The pirates hit with their opening volley, but it failed to penetrate the Ruby Raptor’s shields and hull plating. The Jedi on the turrents fired back, with Rann getting off an exceptional shot that smashed through the enemy’s shields, blew past its armor, and left it all but crippled.

I encourage anyone who plans to use the Saga Edition starship combat rules to playtest them first. We ran through two sessions, and we found that while the rules themselves are fast and familiar, the setup is frustratingly obtuse. Saga’s Challenge Level system doesn’t translate all that well when you mix the starship and player character scales, and while Starships of the Galaxy offers some guidance on this, it’s very much an art rather than a science.

Unable to continue the fight, the pirates broke off the attack and began limping away. The Ruby Raptor, intent on their mission and fearful that the pirates might get in a lucky blast of their own, were content to let them go.  They continued on to the Prime.

The other big thing we learned in the Starships Playtest is that shields are absolutely mandatory. Ships without shields, like TIE Fighters, won’t last two rounds in a dogfight, and even freighters would be hard pressed to survive without shields.

The playtest also helped us work through some other issues — such as how an attack that overcomes a ship’s shields doesn’t disable them, it just reduces their effectiveness — without putting player characters at risk. It made this game session’s starship combat play out fast and furious, just like we see in the movies.

In this scenario, the pirate vessel had shields (albiet less effective ones than the players) but if it hadn’t, the ship would have been destroyed outright. Lesson learned: Never send PCs out in a ship that doesn’t have shields. Don’t put important NPCs in a ship unless you’re willing to see them vaporized.

 Touchdown on the Prime

The Ruby Raptor proceeded to the planet, following the last known coordinates location of the crashed ship’s tracking beacon. They arrived to find the ship had plowed into the planet, carving out a small crater that had partially re-filled with swampy water.

It’s at this point in the episode that Evil Genius decided to convert his Jedi from a human to a  Miraluka, which gives him some more role-playing potential as well as some nifty “Force-seeing” powers. The Miraluka are a race of blind near-Humans from the KOTOR setting. Instead of eyes, they “see” with the Force … as long as there are other life forms around. He also adopted the “Destruction” destiny, which means I need to come up with a story arc for his character involving said destiny. Given that the Mandalorian Wars are a mere 5 years away, game time, that shouldn’t be hard to do.

The padawans and their droid escort scouted out the ship, carefully moving through the swamp. Quest Fios decided to take a shortcut by using Force Surge to jump to the top of the ship,  through an open hatch, and drop into the hold.

This was a fantastic use of Force Surge. Damon made an extremely good roll, and suddenly his character was soaring above the swamp, then dropping gracefully through the hatch. It helped reinforce his “Jedi Knight in Padawan’s Robes” persona.

After hacking into the ship’s computer, JPD-14 determined that from the ship’s log that at least some of the crew had likely survived the crash. He also determined that the ship’s gun turret was still active, and that the ship had been carrying hardware and supplies for base camps on the Prime.

I underestimated how big a role the computer plays in “Use Computer” checks. By that I mean I was used to simply relying on setting Difficulty Classes, and having players make their skill checks against that. But it turns out many of the “Use Computer” checks actually go against the computer’s Will Defense (especially when doing things that run counter to its programming). It worked out with the Surly Susanna, because I just grabbed the stats for a generic R2 unit. But it was more of an issue for the pirate base computer later in the adventure.

Next time, I’ll be sure to stat out any computers the PCs are likely to run into.

The Jedi were able to find no trace of the cargo, but Rann’s uncanny connection to the Force allowed him to perceive a swath of dead algae in the swamp water. He posited that some sort of heavy machinery — a repulser sled transport perhaps — had been here and leaking oil, which killed the algae.

He was proven right a short time later when he heard the sound of an approaching sled, apparently powered by some sort of jet turbines. This vessel arrived to find JPD-14 on the turret, Rann weighting in the water, and the other Jedi poised to act.

The thugs onboard the sled attempted to convince the Jedi that they were the rightful owners of the ship, and outraged that the padawans were trespassing. The Jedi, of course, saw through this. Rade Casa was able to Force compel and otherwise persuade the leader of the thugs to admit why he was really there: they were part of a band of pirates that had forced the ship down from orbit, looted its hull, captured its surviving crew of two, and then returned a second time to strip the rest of the ship’s gear.

Rade convinced the thug to surrender, and he agreed, dropping his blaster and vibro-ax. He ordered his men to do the same; one obeyed but the two on the sled reached for their weapons instead. JPD-14, who had been waiting for them to take such an action, fired on the sled’s jet engines. He scored a critical hit, causing both engines to explode. The sled — and its two-men crew — were destroyed in a tremendous fireball

Another good encounter. I think there’s something about playing Jedi (rather than say, fighters or wizards) that causes them to ask questions first, and draw lightsabers second. This encounter gave Rade a chance to try and talk the thugs down, and if I hadn’t had the other pirates scramble to try and get away, they probably could have gotten through it without drawing a lightsaber or firing a single shot.

That said … I’m glad we did what we did.

JPD-14’s spectacular shot from the ship’s guns shows just how dangerous heavy weapons can be. With the critical, guns did 100 hit points of damage, which would kill any 1st level character several times over.

Into the Pirate Base

After Rade persuaded the leader of the thugs that cooperating was in his best interests, the thug explained that the pirates were operating out of an ancient Zebulian stone shrine attached to a cavern complex. The front entrance was protected by a heavy laser turret (capable of badly damaging approaching ships) but that the rear entrance — concealed by a large waterfall — led to a cavern that held the ship.  The Jedi infiltrated the complex through the waterfall, disabled the ship (which was in the process of being repaired from the devastating fight in orbit) and wiped out the battle droids they encountered inside.

One of the things that continually surprised us about Friday’s game is how quickly everything ran. Granted, it’s low level, so player choices are limited, but even so I think the game runs much faster than either D&D 3E or 4E at the same level. Several times during the night people were surprised to find that their turn had come around again so soon.

Why? Well, I think for one thing everyone was using the same basic rules because we had a bunch of Jedi padawans running around. A more diversified group might have required more rules consultations. The previous two week’s starship combat tests also helped; starship combat is basically melee combat writ large, so learning one helps with the other.

But overall, I think the system’s just more efficient. Cumbersome rules like grapple and trip have been stripped down to their basics, and the advanced manuevers (like pinning an opponent) now require feats. I think having diverse battlefields (and characters who can use them) helps as well; with the ship needing to be disabled, a comm panel to reach, and a variety of crates to hide behind, players didn’t have to charge into battle (although a few did).

JPD-14 was able to convince the computer system to overload the turbolaser’s systems, causing it to explode (and drawing the attention of the bulk of the complex’s pirate defenders). The leader of the pirates however, was apparently out on a hunting expedition, and was not there to rally his troops).

This is the computer I should have statted out. I think the machine ended up being too much of a pushover for JPD-14, and with a better Will score (and a touch of personality) I think it would have been more of challenge. I’m hoping that the upcoming Scum and Villany supplement will offer some more options for hacking; as is I’m thinking of setting up a D&D 4E-style mini skill challenge for the PCs next encounter with a computer.

The heroes found a protocol droid that had had a astronavigation module crudely patched into its main processor; this caused the machine to act oddly, and complain greatly about the abuse heaped upon it. They were able to remove the module, convince the droid to join them, rescue the captain and first mate of the downed freighter Surly Susanna, and then flee the complex before the pirates turned their attention to the hanger bay.

Escaping on the Ruby Raptor, they hacked the astronavigation module and learned that the pirates had been fed ship travel itineraries — including theirs — by someone using the account of Torg Shepherdson, assistant portmaster at the Jolus starport. When confronted with this, Torg admitted to selling the data, and then blocking the distress calls from the ships he’d given to the pirates. He had given them the Jedi’s transport information because he’d hoped the pirates would have destroyed them, ending the investigation, but alas, that didn’t work. Now he’s fearful of both the government AND the pirates, whom he effectively double-crossed by feeding said pirates false shipping information.

Tallying up the experience points after the session, I was surprised to find we’d managed to run four combat sessions in about 5 hours. That’s amazingly good for us; most D&D 3.x sessions I’m lucky to get in two combat encounters, in D&D 4E we had to work hard to get through three encounters. With Star Wars, we simply blew through the battles. I’m curious to see how it holds up at higher levels, but so far, I’m very pleased with how the combat system worked.