The vision and goal for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game impressed me with its ambition. As a designer at Fantasy Flight Games, I’m part of a team that was tasked to create an adventure for Star Wars that can be played straight out of the box by people unfamiliar with role-playing games (RPGs). In our perfect world, this means that three-five friends can gather around a table, open the box for the first time, and immediately begin role-playing their way through epic adventures in a galaxy far, far away…
So the goal was clear (create an adventure that teaches the rules as the players go through it), but getting there was complex. Writing rules in such a way that they are easy to learn is a very difficult skill, even within the scope of a traditional rulebook. Most games spread via word of mouth, one gamer teaching another, who goes on to teach another, and so on. RPGs are a largely collaborative affair (no one is trying to “win”), and this sort of organic word-of-mouth spread suits RPGs quite well.
But what about forming a brand new group? Someone who has no one to teach him or her? How can we help create a new gaming group out of whole cloth? That’s what the Beginner Game is for. And for that to work, the game has to be its own teacher. Since we’re assuming that at least part of our audience is not only new to our game, but new to role-playing entirely, we have to go all the way back to…
The Very, Very Basics
To begin with, we have to answer some fundamental questions about what is about to happen. I’ve been playing RPGs since I was about 12 years old, so to me they are second nature. But to the uninitiated, RPGs are pretty weird. They’re “games,” but they don’t have winners or losers, or objectives, and even a lot of the rules are pretty wishy-washy and open to interpretation. (That’s a good thing, by the way — it makes the system more flexible.) For our Beginner Game to have success, it had to strip away the weird and make the whole concept accessible. We had to explain what an RPG is, what a Game Master is, who the Player Characters are, and give the players a model for what sort of behaviors they should expect to be engaging in at the table — in the real world, mind you. We haven’t even gotten to the fictional world of the game — or the rules — yet!
If terms like Game Master and Player Character seem strange to you, don’t worry! We tackled the problem head on, and the Beginner Game box contains an introduction that explains these concepts and includes a detailed example of play. The example of play, in my experience, is the most important part. Describing a RPG is much less effective than showing one in action.
Once we’ve introduced players to the basics, it’s time to bring them into the adventure and begin teaching the rules. This is where the tricky part begins. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is a large and interconnected system and it’s not a trivial task to explain it. Even allowing for the streamlining and simplification we did to adapt that game to our Beginner Game, there’s quite a lot to cover. So we started with the simplest thing we could.
The very first thing that the Player Characters (PCs) do in the Beginner Game is perform a skill check. Each player will get a chance to build a dice pool, roll a skill check, and interpret the results. This references the core mechanic of the game, and the process of performing a skill check is the most important piece of rules to learn, so we started there. Teaching these rules and the concepts of success, failure, advantage, and threat, is in fact the entire purpose of the first encounter of the adventure.
As the adventure progresses, astute players will notice a logic to it. Each encounter teaches something new. New rules are introduced as required by the plot. The second encounter (spoiler alert!) teaches combat, the third encounter teaches opposed checks, and so on. We also fudge a few things to keep complexity down and avoid throwing too much at once at players. For example, in encounter two there is no roll for turn order; those rules are taught later.
There’s another key piece of the rules that we delay teaching for quite some time. How we found a way around it, and the greater design philosophy behind it, is part of the next section…
Tools and Techniques
In order to make the Beginner Game as accessible as possible, we examined every aspect of how information is presented to the player. We wanted to present the necessary information as succinctly and clearly as possible, perhaps even finding shortcuts through the rules by doing so.
One good example of such a shortcut is the representation of dice pools. In the Beginner Game, characters have the dice pools for their frequently-used skills (or for every single skill, for PCs) determined beforehand and printed directly in that character’s description using the dice symbols. So when it comes time to build a dice pool using, say, a character’s Stealth skill, that player simply has to look at the entry on his character sheet and pick up the matching dice. The fact that Edge of the Empire uses a system of comparing skill and characteristic to determine total dice pool isn’t something that needs to be taught straight away. In fact, attempting to teach that, AND how to choose which skill to use, AND how to interpret the results once rolled all at once is too much for the average new gamer to take in. (We know, we tested it.)
Role-playing Edge of the Empire Style
Beyond simply the rules and processes of playing the game, the adventure included in the Beginner Game was our opportunity to teach what I think of as good game habits. One of the hallmarks of good RPG design and gameplay is their flexibility and the open-ended nature of the stories they can tell, but this is meaningless without a similar degree of adaptability on the part of the players.
Due to the narrow focus of our design goals for this adventure, the end result is a narrative relatively linear. In order to teach good habits of flexibility, we worked hard to show the GM and the players that there are multiple paths through even a simple adventure. For example, if the PCs have to gain access to a hangar to steal a starship, they have many options besides just blasting the droids guarding the door. They can bluff their way past the droids, or sneak in through a side door, or lure the droids away, or so on.
The point is that creatively solving the problem (“How do we get past the droids?”) is a big part of what’s fun about RPGs. In an RPG, a character’s options aren’t defined by the rules, but by the “reality” of the story. Thinking creatively makes for more interesting stories and a more varied gameplay experience, and it also means your character is more likely to reach the end of the story alive! (Seriously, don’t pick a fight with Stormtroopers if you can avoid it. Those guys pack a wallop.)
So get out there, grab a copy of the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, and get gaming! If you’ve never role-played before, this is a great place to start and a great way to learn. If you’re a veteran gamer, grab a copy and use it to break in the next generation. You might even learn a thing or two yourself.
And always remember the most important rule of RPGs: If everyone’s having fun, you’re doing it right.
Enjoy the game!
Daniel Lovat Clark is a writer and designer of analog games at Fantasy Flight Games in Minnesota. His credits include the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition.