Using the Gambling skill

I’ve recently been part of a discussion about rarely used skills in Star Wars campaigns. Gambling in particular seems like a skill that has little actual use for players and that is difficult for GMs to work into adventures in a meaningful way.

In this case, I think the burden of making the skill useful really does fall primarily to the player. You chose to invest points into the gambling skill, or to take gambler as your character archetype. Of course it is good form for the GM to be accommodating and make an effort to allow players to play to their characters’ strengths. But when you want to play a gambler, or any other character with a focus outside the typical adventure activities for the setting or genre, it falls to you to come up with an idea how it will be part of the campaign.

While I don’t have the slightest idea how to make use of basket weaving in an adventure campaign, I do see quite a number of options of how you can make gambling a meaningful part of a Star Wars campaign, and to some extend in RPGs in general.

When you think of the main purpose of gambling, making money is the obvious answer. But in a Star Wars game, money generally does not play a meaningful role, as all the equipment you really need is a blaster for every character and a small ship for the whole party, which you often get at a very early point of the campaign. It’s not a setting where characters are constantly upgrading their equipment with potato peelers +2 or you have a dozen types of increasingly protective and expensive suits of armor. Like in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, money appears as something much more abstract within the stories, really only mattering when the characters are faced with a massive debt or huge expense that will be impossible to cover unless they take on that one suspiciously well paying job or find the fabled treasure of legend. The need for large amounts of money is an adventure hook, an excuse to get the players to go to a place where the GM has something prepared for them. And in that case it’s in nobody’s interest to have some characters spend a whole session in a casino and play 50 rounds of cards. Which is why the amount of money you can make with gambling or picking pockets is usually trivially low.

My suggestion is forget about money. Don’t go gambling to get rich as a simpler (and boring) alternative to go on an adventure. What really makes gambling interesting from a story perspective are the debts that result from it. When you play a gambler, or any character with a high gambling skill, try to get into games with imperial officers and gang leaders and get them into debt. Because debt means leverage.

This is one of the cases where the GM has to be accommodating. The GM can always say that the NPC in question does not gamble, doesn’t play with the PCs, stops playing when the credits run out, or has the necessary money at hand to pay the debt. But I think when you approach the GM with a plan to try manipulating an NPC through gambling debts, most GMs will be quite happy to give you a chance in at least some situations. It doesn’t make sense for all  NPCs and in all situations, but this is just the kind of creative problem solving that I always love to see from players, and which makes running games the most fun.

When you have an NPC in debt, you can have the leverage to either get information or a favor. Have the NPCs tell you about other people you are really after or about places you want to get into, or ask them to do small things that will greatly help you overcoming some obstacles for your big plan. Getting you access keys, disabling alarms, planting bugs, distracting guards, that kind of thing.

But as it says in the name, gambling is always a gamble, and there’s always a real chance that even a master gambler fails and ends up being the one losing a lot of money. Which ultimately can lead to the player ending up in deep debt to important and influential people. Which from a narrative perspective is awesome! We get to increase the tension for the current adventure and have the players facing even more obstacles than they did before, and they all know perfectly well that it’s purely the result of their own actions. These are the best kinds of consequences and a fantastic example of failing forward.

Another way in which gambling can be useful is simply as a cover while spying on NPCs or checking out places. When you’re sitting at a table loosing great amount of credits (or winning them), nobody is suspecting you to be in the place for other insidious reasons. Gambling is a nice way to get NPCs into conversations and to make them let their guard down by either separating them from their credits or making them enjoy a winning streak. The richest and most powerful people usually tend to play in places where the stakes are very high, and being very good at gambling is a classic trait of various villainous archetypes. You might be able to get a simple customs officer or low ranking gangster into a low stakes game in some cheap cantina, but when you want to go against crime bosses and moffs, you have to be able to play with the pros. Both in skill and the money you bring to the table. So as your gambling skill increases, you don’t just improve your chances of success, but also gain access to more influential and important people.

There doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in a typical adventure that your character can overcome by making a gambling check. And while it may look like a way to make some easy money at the side, like you can do with picking pockets and cracking safes, you really should think of it more as a skill to help you get access to information and objects that are not easily available otherwise. More than anything else, gambling is a social skill. When you approach it like this, the potential situations in which it can win the day broaden considerably.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.

Star Destroyers are big!

Yes, of course they are big. Everyone knows they are big. That’s their thing.

But in the movies we only ever see one of them next to a Corellian Corvette, which is one of the very smallest ships that is still considered in the capital ship category. A number of additional capital ships have become well established in the Expanded Universe over the decades, each with their own listed lengths. But seeing the numbers on paper usually does not really give a true sense of the relative sizes. A ship that is twice as long as another ship of the same shape is not twice as big in total mass and volume, but eight times as big.

To better visualize this I took images of the various ships that make the most frequent appearances and put them together side by side at the same scale. And it turns out, Star Destroyers are really big.

Top to bottom: GR-75 Medium Transport (90m), Action VI Bulk Freighter (125m), CR90 Corellian Corvette (150m), Lancer Frigate (250m), Nebulon-B Frigate (300m), Carrack Light Cruiser (350m), Strike-class Medium Cruiser (450m), Dreadnought-class Heavy Cruiser (600m), Victory Star Destroyer (900m); in background: USS Nimitz (333m), Interdictor cruiser (600m), Imperial Star Destroyer (1,600m)
Top to bottom: Victory Star Destroyer (900m), MC80 Star Cruiser (1,200m), Imperial Star Destroyer (1,600m)

In the movies, the Imperial Star Destroyers are simply very big, with no real reference to how they compare to other large warships. But against the most common ship types of the Expanded Universe, they are still absolutely massive. There really isn’t anything in their weight class except for the occasional obscure one-off appearances.

Because the Mon Calamari MC80 cruisers are over a thousand meters long, I always had assumed that they are comparable to Imperial Star Destroyers. But seeing them side by side that really is not the case. The MC80 is actually most comparable to the Victory Star Destroyer, which is usually seen as the miniature version of the Imperial Star Destroyer.

And again, the Victory Star Destroyer is not a small ship itself. It is still absolutely enormous. When Dreadnoughts were introduced in the Expanded Universe, they were usually portrayed in a way that made them seem like extremely large and powerful ships, or at the very least would have been during the Clone Wars. Apparently the biggest ships the Old Republic had in its fleet. But at 600 meters in length and with a relatively narrow shape, they are already dwarfed by a Victory Star Destroyer and appear almost tiny next to an Imperial Star Destroyer.

When I create stuff for Star Wars, I always try to take the three movies at face value, taking them as my reference frame for what the Star Wars universe is by default. But in light of this comparison, sending four Imperial Star Destroyers into an asteroid field to chase the Millennium Falcon was absolute overkill. And as much as it pains me as someone who regards The Empire Strikes Back as the best movie ever made, the Super Star Destroyer was just stupid.

When it comes to having Imperial ships make appearances in Star Wars adventures, I think Star Destroyers should be reserved for scenes of particular significance. Using them as the go to Imperial warship for most common space encounters lessens the impact their incredible size and power can have. The appearance of Star Destroyers near a planet where the heroes are on a mission, even a Victory Destroyer, can be used as a very effective signal that the stakes have been raised well above normal. Because when there’s a Star Destroyer, there’s always a huge number of TIE Fighters, and even larger numbers of Stormtroopers that could be on the ground. A Star Destroyer is a threat you can not really fight. Your only options are to try to hide or to run. But unless you have a huge fleet on your side, you’re not going to defeat it in battle. And if you manage to get on board of one to sabotage it, your only hope is to evade the thousands of Stormtroopers. You’re not going to defeat them and capture the ship.

It’s just too damn big!

Knights of the Old Republic: Shadows of the Sith Empire

I went with Star Wars, reviving my idea for a Knights of the Old Republic campaign in which Darth Revan was succeeded by a Sith Empress.

So far, all of these planets are from the Expanded Universe with no completely made up additions of my own. This is the most interesting region of the Galaxy in my opinion, where you get the Republic, the Jedi, the Sith Empire, the Hutts, Czerka Corp, the Mandalorians, and Adascorp, and can easily add in the Exchange. It has the homeworlds of the Arkanians, Cathar, Ithorians, Mandalorians, Miraluka, and Wookiees, which are all prominent races in the Old Republic; and also Gand, Trandoshans, and Weequay. Aside from Twi’leks, Duros, and Rodians, what else could one ever want? And those all have hyperspace engines.

The only other equally interesting region of the Galaxy is the one that holds Tatooine, Bothawui, Rodia, Ryloth, Sluis Van, and Sullust (and Geonosis, Kamino, Mustafar, and  Naboo if you’re into that stuff). In a Rebellion campaign I would probably set my game there, but for the Old Republic there’s no space like Sith Space. But why limit yourself to a small part of the galaxy at all, when the movies very clearly make it look like you can jump from one end to the other in maybe an hour? Because if you give the players a map of the entire galaxy, it’s just way too much information. With a hyperdrive, the players can go almost anywhere at any time, and when every planet is an option, they are easily paralyzed by indecision and you have no way to have at least a little note card with the basic information at hand.

(Yes, you could make a map showing only selected planets all across the galaxy, but shush!)

Now where did I put my dice…?

Finally main season at work has come to a close. Instead of 44 hours per week I am now down to a much more cozy 35 hours, and also almost no weekend duty anymore. That provides me with a lot more free time.

And immediately I start thinking about starting a new online campaign. The biggest question is what type of campaign I want to make it. Some kind of Conan-style adventures in a Morrowind-style setting using material from my previous games, or do the Knights of the Old Republic game I had wondered about for a long time now.

Now that I think of it, the question can probably be boiled down to “Do I want lightsabers or not.” The rest would actually be mostly the same.

Considering all the options, I am currently favoring Barbarians of Lemuria as the game of choice. It doesn’t have all the numbers and restraints of D&D type fantasy games, but it also is mechanically really simple and easy to understand, which makes it very well suited for online play.

My Star Wars Headcanon

While writing about the Star Wars games that I played, I noticed that almost all of them are pretty old by now. So I got to work to create some kind of timeline of what I consider the important books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe and the result I got is this.

You can get the 90s Kid out of the 90s, but you can’t get the 90s out of the 90s Kid. It really seems like the golden age of Star Wars to me, which is not terribly surprising given how old I was then. If I would have been into anything else, I probably would still vonsider the 90s to be the best period it ever had.

Another thing that surprised me in hindsight that there were six years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 3. Such restraint! It almost seems like they were making those movies one at at time. Which seems incredibly slow by today’s standards. At least I got to be relieved that the time between 3 and 7 was not nearly as long as the time between 6 and 1, which by this point would no longer have surprised me. Still, in trade school I have classmates who were not even born when Episode 1 was out.

My Star Wars Game List

There are a lot of Star Wars video games that have been released over the years and I have played a substential part of them myself. But I have not played any new ones in quite a while, which got me to make this list. These are a roughly chronological order, as far as I can remember it.

  • X-Wing: (1993, PC) My first “proper” videogame that I played at my home for serious amounts of time. After having first played it at a friend’s place after school for dozens of hours, it was the very first game I got for myself when we got our first computer. Wonderful game that I still never completed.
  • Tie Fighter: (1994, PC) Much more polished than X-Wing with better graphics, a much wider variety of ships, and a much stronger campaign. And to my knowledge so far the only game that lets you play as a loyal Imperial from start to end. This one I did actually finish.
  • Rebel Assault II: (1995, PC) An okay arcade game that I played quite some time when I didn’t feel like X-Wing or Tie Fighter, but ultimately it was forgetable.
  • Rebel Assault: (1993, PC) I got this one because it was a Star Wars game and I needed more! Of this one I remember almost nothing and I didn’t play it much.
  • Shadows of the Empire: (1996, PC) A game that I think is objectively pretty poor and probably aged terribly by now, but back in the day I thought it was really awesome. A fun third person console shoter that captured the style of Star Wars pretty well but had a really weird 3D-Engine that handled perspective in a rather wonkey way.
  • Rebellion: (1998, PC) This is a strategy game that was very different from the Command & Conquers and Warcrafts that were the mainstream of that time. Pretty much the whole game takes place on a big map of the galaxy on which you place orders to produce ships and train troops and send them to guard or attack various systems. There is a 3D space battle mode that lets you command your ships in a way somewhat resembling Homeworld, but it never worked well and took really long and you always had the option to simply let the computer calculate an outcome for the battle instantaneously. Still, as a strategy game it was pretty cool and I played it a lot.
  • Rogue Squadron: (1998, PC) This game has lots of big fans, but I am not one of them. I just wanted more stuff like X-Wing and this one is more of an arcade style console game. And I thought it also looked rather ugly with its very limited range of sight and pretty small combat areas.
  • X-Wing Alliance: (1999, PC) This game looks much better and sophisticated than Tie Fighter, but in the end it left me somewhat lukewarm. I still played it all the way through two or three times, but the campaign just couldn’t compete with Tie Fighter.
  • Episode I: (1999, PC) This is one of the worst games I ever played, and certainly the worst one that I finished. It’s just awful in every way and I was actually very hesitant to get it, but it was a Star Wars game and I needed it!
  • Racer: (1999, PC) Making a Star Wars racing game that is really just a reskin of Wipeout sounds like a terrible idea, but the end result was actually really great. It’s really fast, as you would expect from Podracing, and the tracks are just gorgeous. When I got Wipeout HD for PS3 a while back I was actually really disappointed how poorly it held up compared to the cool tracks of Racer. I might actually hunt down an old N64 just to play this game on a big TV.
  • Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast: (2002, PC) This game is awesome! Kyle Katarrn is awesome! And you run around slicing stormtroopers to pieces with a lightsaber! The plot and the villain are crap and the levels not very pretty, but fighting against Dark Jedi with lightsabers is just such amazing fun. I actually played this one online for quite some time, which was always a blast with pretty much every match having force jump and force push set to maximum.
  • Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy: (2003, PC) And this one is even better! You don’t get to play Kyle Katarrn and your new generic Jedi apprentice isn’t that interesting, but the level design is much prettier and the various levels have a lot more variety. And more lightsaber action.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: (2003, PC, Xbox) Widely considered to be the best Star Wars game ever made. And for good reasons. It’s a pretty standard BioWare RPG and actually the first of the post-D&D games style that has now become the standard with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. For some reason I completed the game only once when it came out and started a second short-lived attempt years later. Now 14 years later I am finally giving it another go. (And so far it doesn’t disappoint.)
  • The Force Unleashed: (2008, PS3) This game really is just a Star Wars reskin of God of War/Devil May Cry. And I have to give it to the game that it is pretty fun to play. But as a Star Wars story it’s just terrible. The plot and especially the protagonist are just completely bonkers and have no place in Star Wars. Unlike what I hoped for, this game is in no way a substitute for Jedi Knight. (Still got a Platinum trophy on PS3.)
  • Racer Revenge: (2002, PS2) I got this game when I first heard that Racer was also available on PS2. Though only kind of, as it turned out. It’s the same engine, but this game has completely different tracks. Which just nowhere come close to the awesomness of the original game. A straight up port would have been much better.

Upcoming

These are games that I have not played yet but plan to do so, or which have been announced and that I am looking forward to to see how they turn out.

  • Republic Commando: (2005, Xbox) I’ve heard pretty good things about this game many times and always planned to try it myself some day. Until just recently I never realized that it’s actually been out for 12 years now. I finally got the game and play to give it a try after I finished my new KotOR run.
  • Battlefront 4: (PS4) Battlefront 3 is the most impressive looking game I’ve ever seen and I’ve been planning to give another shot at serious online playing for a while, but all the reviews for it just made it sound too simplistic to invest more than a few hours into it. With Battlefront 4 I am hoping that they won’t be repeating the same mistakes and the announcements for the campaign actually sound like something that could potentially be pretty interesting. Not expecting much from it, but it’s something I want to keep an eye on.
  • Visceral Games RPG: (PS4) I know very little about the game except that it’s an RPG that is being made by the developers of Dead Space and has the director and writer of the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series. And as a huge bonus it is set during the Rebellion era, which means it probably is going to ignore the Clone Wars and New Wars material for the most part. This could potentially be huge.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition

Now that’s a game I have not heard from in a long time. A long time…

This comes completely out of nowhere. Fantasy Flight Games, the current license holder for Star Wars pen and paper Roleplaying Games, is releasing a 30th Anniversary Edition of the one and only original Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

It looks to even be the first edition, which is widely regarded as the best edition of the West End Games game because of its simplicity, and even as the best Star Wars ever made. It’s described as a limited edition but priced at a reasonable $60. Which leaves the question how limited it will really be.

It’s a fantastic game, but I think in the current RPG market there is probably little risk of this becoming any kind of threat to FFG’s own Star Wars game. Small and tidy games don’t seem to be making it big these days and customers love their piles of splatbooks with lots of pictures and endless character customization. Which this game certainly doesn’t have.

If I could get my hands on one for $60, I’d definitely buy it.

I just gave up on the new Star Wars

For me, the last two Star Wars movies rank at the very bottom together with Episode 2, all below Episode 1. But I was still having some hope that Rogue One was meant as a quick cash grab (which the Han Solo movie seems to follow) and that Episode 8 could finally turn things around with Jeffrey Abrams being gone.

But I just learned that Abrams will be back for Episode 9. So whatever good might come out of 8 will all become irrelevant anyway.

Thanks, but no. I gave this new series two tries and I just can’t get myself to care.