SWSE rulebook cover Over the last couple of years, I have been lucky to play in two linked series of Star Wars Saga games. My experience with the system has been as a player, but my GM and I have discussed the system quite a bit. He’ll chime in with comments in italics throughout the article.

Katana Geldar wrote a nice post about the recent announcement by Wizards of the Coast, where they declare the end of the Star Wars RPG line. Geldar then asked us the following in the suggestion pot:

I would like to see something about Star Wars Saga written up, there seems to be very little critique of the system on the Nets outside message boards and my own blog. And given that the current publishing run is ending rather soon, perhaps someone could take a look back at the system as a whole and what could be done in the future.

Saga in Time

Saga Edition came during an interesting period, with an interesting pedigree. It was released a year ahead of 4e, was widely viewed as a bridge to 4e, and introduced many mechanics and conceptual changes from their earlier Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

Bryan says: Saga Edition, in my opinion, was a huge improvement over the previous d20 incarnations of the game. If I could choose one thing about Saga Edition that was the greatest improvement I would undoubtedly say it was The Force rules. This was the first Star Wars RPG that seemed to get the Force right both mechanically and still stay within the spirit of the movies. I ran D6 Star Wars for nearly twenty years and while it played well enough for non-Jedi characters, the Force rules were just not what I was looking for in a Force system. The loss of vitality to use Force abilities in d20 RCR was a major complaint that I had under that edition as it didn’t fit what I saw as displays of the Force on screen. Saga Edition ditched that idea and went with “Uses” instead; uses that could be refreshed with a Force Point or completely refreshed with a minute break or a natural 20 on the “Use the Force” skill check. It works very well.

Fourth edition D&D players can find their way around a Saga character sheet pretty easily– stats, defenses, ability modifiers and feats are all quite similar. Many Jedi talents resemble encounter powers, as do some talents for each of the classes.

Saga Edition developed alongside 4e; it doesn’t remain locked in 2007 anymore than 4e is locked in 2008. Still, many 4e changes that might make sense in Saga Edition were never implemented. For example, minion rules were never brought across– so hordes of Stormtroopers soon have a lot of hit points if they hope to hit high level PCs, and can be a chore to bring down (since damage doesn’t increase much). Similarly, Saga NPCs are designed like PCs, rather than using the shortcut formulas that make 4e monster and encounter preparation such a snap.

Bryan: Minion rules are some thing that I wish had made it into Saga Edition. They will be added as a form of house rule to any future games I run using Saga Edition. Key NPC’s are created with the same rules as player characters. Minor NPCs can be taken from a non-heroic statblock provided in the books or custom created by the GM as a non-heroic template. While running the games mentioned, I often found it necessary to steal an existing statblock and modify it because there was so much bookwork to do when creating statblocks. Minor NPCs are easier than major NPCs (less to deal with) but you must still figure out the purchase of feats and trained skills (minor NPCs and/or beasts don’t normally have Talents). Other than modifying a stat block or using one as is, a GM doesn’t have the ease of preparation that 4e apparently provides and this can be a time sink in game prep. Saga Sheet (a player created aide) is helpful but it has bugs that you must be aware of such as weapons needing to be re-equipped to have the modifiers calculate correctly (not sure if it is fixed yet or not).

The Saga Core

The rules in the Saga core book were all we used at the start of our first series. It was a solid game engine, with many of the proper components, but with limited feats, equipment, and talents– clearly a good enough start, but designed to be expandable.

Our game was set soon after the Knights of the Old Republic video game. The technological stagnation of the Star Wars universe was a big help– even though specific equipment for the era was missing, it was easy to pick up a similar piece of equipment from the core book and rename it to match the setting.

At low levels, everyone contributed relatively equally, and niches were well protected. First level Saga characters are much closer to 4e than 3e in terms of durability– and the explicit decision to allow PCs to save their lives by spending a force point made a lot of sense for the setting. (It also resulted in Doumar enjoying time in a bacta tank after getting clotheslined by a wookie…)

Alternating talents and class specific feats on leveling helped maintain the unique feel of the classes. Those talents and feats added to design that ensured that characters gained something at each level combined to make each level rewarding. Multi-classing was handled closer to 3.x style D&D, which worked well when our noble’s Jedi heritage was revealed.

Bryan adds: There was a good deal of balance with the corebook. The Jedi did not seem to overpower the other classes initially. Each class contributed to the group’s success. The Noble and the Scout had very useful talents. The Scout seemed to have more talents that helped himself and thereby helped the party, while the Noble had more that helped the party and thereby helped himself. The Jedi seemed to compliment the Scout and the Noble well, rushing into melee while the Scout and Noble broke out the blasters. Our Noble character was able to multi-class seamlessly and Saga Edition handles Multiclassing very well in my opinion. What made it more fun though was that our Noble player came up with a creative slant on the multi-classing, wanting to bring it out through role-playing more than just mechanically (which we followed as well).

Now with Splatbooks

Speaking of changes… we took a several month break between the first and second storylines. When we returned in September of 2008, a number of supplements had been released (including the very useful to us Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide), and several more books were in the pipeline. kotor_cover170x174

The game’s additional complexity made keeping track of characters a little more difficult; we moved to SagaSheet for the even the PCs– and the GM began suffering from the long enemy build times, even with aids like SagaSheet.

Bryan: I have found numerous game aides that help with Saga Edition crunch, but there is still an incredible amount of stuff to remember. No one item is hard to comprehend but it can get quite hard to recall every little detail with so many feats, talents, and force powers added to just about every book. One doesn’t need to use it all, I suppose, but most of it is very good stuff and part of the fun is in choosing cool new elements to add to a PC’s arsenal of capabilities. If we had a weekly game instead of a twice monthly game, we would have had a sharper grasp of the mechanics. The additional abilities also required that I be very prepared with Major NPC capabilities. The additional information released by the supplements does add to the variety of PC and NPC builds though. You can have many different variations on the five classes.

Characterization and roleplaying continued to be fun, but balancing got wonky. The decision to hold on to the different BAB advancement rates made it trickier to provide foes that could challenge Soldiers and Jedi, but still be shot by classes with slower advancement rates. For most classes damage output plateaued early on, leaving only Jedi high damage area of effect abilities.

Bryan expressed frustration with the book’s CR calculations; the fights were difficult to predict and could range from underwhelming to tough at the same CR. He tried out the 4e inspired encounter budget system (pdf, homebrew), and found it worked a little more consistently.

Bryan: My players did a great job with characterization. You can’t be thankful enough for pro-active and engaged players.

Balancing encounters in Saga Edition might as well be non-existent as written in the core rulebook. It is one of Saga Edition’s greatest flaws. Early on, it was guesswork as to how much a group of PCs would be able to handle. Like D&D 3.5, there were many times where I would design conservatively, hoping not to kill the whole group, but also able to bring in reserves if the fight was going too easily. Gauging the CR for the encounters was a real stinker. I discovered a link to a Budget system for Saga Edition that was based on that found in D&D 4e. While it was not perfect, it was a far better solution than offered by the design team in the errata. I consider it essential to use the budget system. Having a fairly reasonable guideline is far better than having useless or no guidelines at all.

All Tied Up

Saga Edition Star Wars has been the favorite game of our young group; soon after the first series ended we pressed the GM to work on a sequel. A year later, at the end of the sequel campaign, our rallying cry became “Star Wars comes in Trilogies”.

Bryan taunts: I suppose it will happen sooner or later. A third “movie” seems to be a near requirement. I’ve been sorely tempted to run it using FATE or Savage Worlds though. πŸ™‚

Despite our joy in the characters and campaign, a few annoyances mean that the GM needs a good break before he will be able to look at a sequel. The lack of a shortcut NPC math means that custom NPCs take a long time to build, and that you have to trust your spreadsheet keep track of the math.

NPC “grunts” can have a lot of hit points if they have attack bonus enough to hit, which can be a pain to track. I strongly suspect that if we play again, minions and minor enemies will get tracked by number of blows rather than strict damage counting (like John’s 10 good hits system).

It has become quite clear that Jedi are the heroes, just like in the movies– particularly at high level. This doesn’t take mechanical adjustment, but the group has to be comfortable with spotlight balance instead of a combat effectiveness balance.

Bryan: It became difficult, after 9th level, to keep everyone in the spotlight because it did seem like the Jedi were beginning to dominate combat with Force Slams and other useful powers. One thing was apparent though, and this is likely true for many games: the Sith Lords the group were fighting would focus on the Jedi PCs while having their minions deal with the non-Jedi of the group or using the minions to add to the Jedi’s problems. More often than not, it was the Jedi that were dealing with the Sith Force Users while the Scout, Soldier, and Scoundrel were dealing with Sith Troopers, thugs, and the like.

An advantage, pointed out in Geldar’s linked post, is that the system will be complete in a few months. At that point the expense of the system drops to zero, and books become something to review at your leisure instead of scrimping to purchase and cram this month’s supplement. I hope that the system keeps its fan base and players continue to actively play, even with the official support coasting to a close. I know that I have some dice ready for another Saga campaign.

Bryan: Indeed. The line is coming to an end but the games go on. Some of the late supplements have been very good. Galaxy at War adds much information about military campaigns and military organizations. Galaxy of Intrigue adds much about political and espionage operations, along with a Skill Challenge system appropriate for those types of activities. I’m not sure that they could have added that much more to the rules of the game without turning it into a bloated mess. There is quite enough to work with as it is. About the only book I will miss will be one about Riding Beasts and Creatures. This is one area of the rules that could surely have been expanded upon.

The Future

The future of Saga is unclear– much of it is in our hands. Without a corporation and a steady stream of new product the game will fade from some players’ minds. Others will continue to find the game and their way into roleplaying when they encounter the books in the store. Star Wars is a great universe that we enjoy imagining and it will remain on people’s minds with TV shows, expanded universe novels and comics, and other merchandise.

From a player’s point of view, they are releasing the last class book before they wind down the line, so there aren’t any obvious holes. (GMs and players will continue to homebrew feats and talents particular to their characters and campaigns, but there isn’t a crying need for more.)

For GMs, most eras have a book that provides some information, but requires additional work. Fortunately, much of the missing information is easily adapted from the movie or expanded universe sources– if you need the Sun Crusher, the novel provides a strong springboard. A network of premade NPCs, ships, and worlds could make the lives of GMs easier. Those contributions are easier to make knowing that an official version won’t come out two months later. The future is in the community’s hands.