Star Wars Edge of the Empire: Being a GM

The Castles & Cooks team finally sat down to play a proper game of Star Wars Edge of the Empire. We already did a review of the core rulebook, but after spending time with character creation, the world and the game itself we’re back to discuss the experience of playing the game. Today we tackle the game from the role of the GM (or DM), and tomorrow we’ll look at it from the perspective of the players.

As someone who has played several RPGs, but only ever been the GM in Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) I must express a bit of trepidation that arose prior to my first session with Edge of the Empire. This game and this system are decidedly different from D&D, not just in how the game adjudicates combat or the addition of vehicles and rules for space combat.

Even using the book adventure as my guide, I still felt the need for an extended prep period. This wasn’t because I hadn’t played the game before (that was a small part of it), but because the way storytelling is woven into the fabric of everything the game does forces the GM to be prepared for unexpected moments. The PCs have more control over twisting the plot and taking the story in a new direction than they do in something like D&D.

How does this work and where did it impact my role as GM? Let’s break it down: 

Force Dice – No escaping destiny

I have a sneaking suspicion that when the guys discuss being a PC in Edge of the Empire that the Destiny Pool will come up at least once. It is one of the major selling points of the system and perhaps the element that most separates it from D&D, apart from the use of dice pools. As a quick refresher, each game the Destiny Pool is created by rolling Force dice, which determines how many light and dark side points are available. Light points are used by PC and dark points by the GM. They have two uses – the first being to upgrade various skill dice to be used in checks, a very straightforward mechanic that sort of meshes with the idea of Action Points in D&D.

The second use is where my interest is centered. A point can be spent to introduce or change facts about the world, creating an important storytelling moment and especially allowing the players to influence the plot in ways that were previously impossible. The game uses the example of the PCs spending a point to retcon that they had brought special breathers on their ship when they land on a planet with an unexpectedly toxic atmosphere.

Yet, its use is not so restrictive and essentially left up to the discretion of the GM so long as the proposed change isn’t world beating/breaking. Most anything could be altered within reason which now gives the PCs an unlimited storytelling toolbox on par with the GM. The PCs can spend more time planning and scheming which means more prep time for the GM and more time spent thinking on how to adapt in general if the party decides to mix things up. We always talk about how the story of any RPG campaign is the responsibility of both the party and the GM, and with a mechanic like the Destiny Pool we now actually have a way to truly emphasize that.

Combat – What is it good for?

There was no actual combat in our game session. The game lasted about 90 minutes, and there was nothing that could be called an encounter. Try playing D&D for 90 minutes without even the hint of combat. It isn’t impossible, but you’d have to be playing a pretty specific adventure type, or embroiled in some strange puzzle for the phrase “roll initiative” not to be uttered. We still had tense moments and one player was almost shot in the face with a blaster, but the lack of actual combat required a bit of a transition in my GM thinking. Creating those big pay-off moments isn’t just about delivering on a cool encounter. In fact, you can’t even rely on combat to occur.

Yes, I could have just forced the party to fight, but given the strong emphasis on storytelling, forcing the party into combat in all but the most important and serious situation would be wrong. The linchpin of a D&D campaign is the ultimate encounter and battle with evil. In Edge of the Empire the linchpin is likely some sort of encounter with an antagonist, but the number of expected outcomes goes far beyond “roll dice and hit each other.”

Being the GM for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is a much different challenge than being a DM in D&D, but it is a fun challenge and gives you the chance to exercise a different skill set. It might require more planning and forethought rather than just scratching together some monster stats and choosing some dungeon tiles, but it is exactly that unpredictability that has me raring to roll up another Destiny Pool and jump back into life on the Outer Rim.