In The Shadows of a Black Sun: An Edge of the Empire Adventure Review

SWEP01_FreeRPGdayBookletAs, hopefully, many folks were aware, the 15th of June was Free RPG Day.  If you weren’t, you can read about it here: http://www.freerpgday.com/.  Hopefully, many of you were close enough to a participating gaming store to partake in the gaming bounty that was on offer.  If not, my condolences.

Well, amidst this year’s offering of free gaming goods was a module for Fantasy Flight Games’ upcoming Edge of the Empire system ominously titled “Shadows of a Black Sun.”  It’s a soft-cover booklet of 40 pages, and was printed on good quality shiny paper.  If you’ve picked up any of FFG’s other Edge of the Empire products, such as the Beginner’s Box or the EotE Beta, then you know what to expect from the artwork and layout of this module, and it doesn’t disappoint, so kudos to Zoe Robinson and the team of artists under her expert direction.

The first dozen pages consist of a run-down of the game mechanics, starting with the dice system and moving onto skills and combat.  Of note is that FFG has printed a version of the dice conversion chart we saw in the Beta rulebook; makes sense as this is a Free RPG Day offering and not everyone will have purchased the Beginner’s Box or the dice roller app, so most people will need to use their regular dice. However in comparing the two charts, I spotted a couple differences between which standard dice facings translated to EotE results.  Nothing major, but something that caught my eye.

One complaint I remember from the early days of the Beta rulebook was that the chapter on the dice mechanics was rather difficult for a lot of folks to absorb, especially on the first read through.  Shadows of a Black Sun averts that, with the basic rules summary on the dice only being two pages long.  It obviously isn’t able to go into a great amount of detail about the nuances of FFG’s narrative dice system, but it’s enough to give a player or GM new to the system enough to work with.  After that, it’s a rundown of Characteristics (aka ability scores) and Skills; again, not a lot of detail, but enough to give you a working idea of what they represent and what they are used for.  From there, it’s on to combat which, being the most dynamic aspect of any game system, merits three pages.  The summary chart of how to spend Advantage, Threat, Triumphs, and Despair in combat is also listed, and it’s functionally the same as what we’ve seen in the past, with a few bits of wording changed to make things easier, such as replacing “gain +1 ranged or melee defense” with “add Setback die to ranged or melee attacks targeting you,” but the core mechanics remain the same.

One thing of interest that I spotted while reading through the rules section while waiting for the GM (a pretty cool local gamer by the name of Mike Sanchez) to arrive was on page 9, specifically the difficulty for making Brawl or Melee attacks.  Those of us familiar with the combat rules from the Beta rulebook and the Beginner’s Box know that the standard difficulty for those attacks is Average, or two Difficulty/purple dice, and yet in Shadows it’s listed as being Easy, or just one Difficulty/purple dice.  I don’t know if this was a mistake on FFG’s part, or if it really has gotten a lot easier to slug someone in the face in the final version of the EotE rules; either way, I suppose we’ll see in a couple weeks when the EotE rulebook gets released.  Another point of interest was that Shadows uses an abbreviated version of the critical injury chart from the Beta rather than the vastly simplified critical injury rules from the Beginner Box

The rules section wraps up with a half-page discussion on the various enemy types, from the lowly Minion to the more durable Rival (seems that FFG is going to use Rival instead of Henchman) to the dangerous Nemesis (which was misspelled) and how they interact with the Strain and Critical Injury mechanics and finally a review of Destiny Points.  For this adventure, instead of having every character roll a Force Die to generate the Destiny Point pool, it is instead assumed that there’s one Light Side and one Dark Side Destiny Point for each character present.  I’m guessing that’s simply there for sake of making things easy on a GM that’s new to the system, and might be something I’ll incorporate into the entry-level adventure module that I’m currently working on.

With the discussion of mechanics wrapped up, the next page is a planetary gazetteer entry on Coruscant.  The format is pretty straight-forward, and is followed up with some neat background information that isn’t really necessary to the adventure, but is still nice to have just in case the players have questions about what sort of planet Coruscant is or even question how a world that’s just one big overgrown city manages to function.

Being an introductory adventure for a game system that has yet to be officially released, Shadows of a Black Sun contains four pre-generated characters, with two additional pre-gens available from FFG’s website.  The pre-gens cover a wide mix of character types, from the combat-centric to the support-heavy, but everyone has something to offer to the group in terms of accomplishing their goals during the adventure.  You can find free PDFs of all six pre-generated characters here.  The pre-gen character sheets for Shadows are all one-page documents, and it’s nice that FFG offered all six characters as free PDFs as the four included with the module are stuck right in the booklet, and would either need to be photocopied or ripped right out.

ch1Now, a few things that I and a few other folks noticed was that if you figure the set-up of talent trees in the EotE core rulebook are going to be pretty similar in layout to the EotE Beta + Final Week update versions, then some of these pre-gens have the option to select talents that are otherwise impossible for them to attain.  And a few of them have better skill ranks than your average starting PC would be able to achieve, to say nothing of the Droid pre-gen having a couple of 4’s in his Characteristics, something that’s pretty impossible to achieve.  I guess the point to take away from this is that these pre-generated characters shouldn’t be taken as examples of what your average starting character is going to look like using the regular Edge of the Empire character creation system.  That said however, the characters are each fun and interesting, with their backstory provided in terms of their starting Obligations, and players are given pre-selected options that they can take at the cost of further increasing their Obligation, either in terms of extra gear or unlocking an additional talent.  The GM for my table didn’t use the Obligation, but his focus was more on getting the players (of whom I was the only one to have any prior experience with EotE) to grasp and comprehend the dice mechanics and to have fun playing the game, which everyone did on both counts, so job well done, Mike.  However, the adventure makes note of where certain levels of Obligation for the four included pre-gens would impact the adventure, so if you’re playing one of those four, you might want to keep that In mind before you start grabbing all those upgrades.

CAUTION: Some Spoilers follow. Scroll down to END OF SPOILERS to read on.

With the rules discussed and the pre-gen characters selected, it’s off to the adventure itself.  In the grand Star Wars tradition, there’s an opening scroll that gives the basic set-up of the adventure, which is broken up into three acts, or Episodes as the adventure calls them, with each Episode being further broken down into a number of encounters.  And much like Episode IV: A New Hope began “in media res,” so too does Shadows of a Black Sun, with the PCs escaping from a Black Sun facility after having just stolen some heavily encrypted data.  There’s little time for chat as Black Sun agents are hot on the character’s heels, with the action moving to a chase sequence (we failed by the way, as our best pilot was plagued by lousy luck on the dice).  After a brief in-character exposition sequence courtesy of the character’s main contact with the criminal outfit they are working for (willingly or otherwise), it’s off to the second act, with the characters now working to track down their objective, make a few credits, and maybe satisfy some of their Obligation to the Pyke crime family.  There’s a page devoted to optional NPC encounters that the GM may want to spring on the players at certain points in the adventure, such as police droids, undercover police, and a couple examples of Coruscant’s local vermin, such as the non-sentient duracrete slug and the more sentient Black Sun thugs.

The second Episode is the real meat of the adventure, with plenty of opportunities for players to accomplish their goal, either by sticking to the general script or improvising their own plans, which is what our group did.  The adventure offers three set pieces to do some information gathering; a seedy dive that’s a haven for death stick dealers, a gambling parlor where credits and information are wagered in games of sabacc, and a corporate tower for a shipping company that deals in weapon smuggling.  While the adventure seems to suggest that the characters will need to visit all three locations, it’s quite possible for an enterprising and clever group of characters to get all the info they need from just visiting one of these locations.  Now while a GM may not need all three locations for this particular adventure, each of them is still useful as they can provide a template for GMs to include similar locations in their own adventures.  You could even blend some of them, creating such locations as the seedy gambling parlor where the owner does a brisk trade in death sticks and one of the regulars is a known black market arms dealer.  As I mentioned earlier, there are several sidebars in Episode II of the adventure that make mention of how certain character’s Obligations will affect the adventure, especially if they’ve taken or accrued 15 or more points of Obligation, causing such things as Setback dice or upgraded difficulties to old foes showing up when least wanted.  It’s an interesting way to have a character’s Obligation make things more difficult for the party outside of the usual Obligation mechanics, and could easily be adapted for use outside this adventure as an alternative means of having a character be affected when their Obligation is rolled.

The final Episode is predominately about the confrontation with the major adversary of the adventure, whom the characters have tracked to this person’s hiding spot in the underbelly of Coruscant.  There’s a number of ways the final encounter can go down, or even how the players approach that encounter.  Our group tried sneaking our way in, but wound up pulling a Bavarian Fire Drill (look it up on TVTropes.org) to convince the organic workers present to let us be; something about a potential reactor leak, very bad, needed to lock it down, and yes we’ve got the proper permits to be here, move along, take the rest of the day off with pay, move along.  A really crafty group of players will be able to get the complete drop on the major adversary and take them out before they can return fire.  Otherwise, it could be a tough fight, and there’s a sidebar with a tip to make the fight a bit harder if dealing with a full complement of six characters, or to make it easier if the two combat-heavy characters are not present.

END OF SPOILERS

So, that in a nutshell is what you can expect to find in “Shadows of a Black Sun.”  I’ve tried to avoid too many spoilers for the sake of those folks who have yet to play it.  I believe that Fantasy Flight Games is planning to offer this adventure as a free download off their website now that Free RPG Day has passed, but there’s no indication of when that might be.  However, one juicy little tidbit to be found on the very last page of the adventure, under the Epilogue, is that we now know the names of the starting adventures to be included in the EotE core rulebook and the GM kit, those being “Trouble Brewing” and “Debts to Pay” respectively.  So further adventure support does seem to be a continuing thing for FFG, which is always a plus as it helps out those GMs that lack the time or familiarity with the system to create their own adventures.

matweSo, what did I think of this adventure?  In short, I really liked it.  Although I was initially skeptical of the proposed “gritty criminal fringe” feel that Edge of the Empire supports, I’ve come to like it; particularly the challenge of playing a “Simon Tam” type of idealist that contrasts sharply with the “Mals” and “Jaynes” that typically operate in the galactic fringe.  And this adventure does a pretty good job of capturing that “criminal fringe” feeling, even if it is set in the heart of the Galactic Empire, demonstrating that not all Edge of the Empire campaigns really do have to take place in the Outer Rim.  I’m curious to see what happens if I run this adventure for a group of characters built using the regular character creation rules, possibly modifying the set-up so that those characters were specifically hired to pull the opening job before getting involved in the rest of the adventure.

Also of interest, even to those folks that may have zero interest in playing or running this adventure, are the rules included for Sabacc.  They do a pretty good job of blending a character’s skillfulness as a card player and the randomness that comes with the constantly shifting tiles by way of the Force Die, which is rolled after the character makes their skill roll but before the final results are tallied.  Sadly, the Rodian in our group had pretty miserable luck, especially where the Force Die was concerned, which turned possibly winning hands into crushing defeats.

Earlier in the article, I made mention of our GM, one Mr. Mike Sanchez.  As the players started to gather, we talked briefly about Edge of the Empire.  As it so happened, I was the veteran player, as Mike’s involvement consisted of the Beginner Box and a couple sessions run as a GM.  But that wasn’t a factor as Mike did an excellent job of explaining the dice mechanics, helping the players to assemble their dice pools and interpret the results (particularly where Advantage and Threat came into play).  He certainly embraced the “Yes, and then…” philosophy that Jay Little espoused on an earlier episode of the Order 66 podcast, as each of the players came up with different and interesting ideas for how our Advantage, Threats, and Triumphs would affect the story.  This is a great example of a GM that not only enjoys the system, but enjoys running the game and wants the players to enjoy playing the game by keeping them involved.  I think a few players were surprised at how fast combat goes in Edge of the Empire, as neither of the two fight scenes we had lasted past the second round.  We also managed to cut through a lot of Episode II and get the information we needed to fulfill our job in the adventure with a visit to just one of three locations, pulling off a pretty impressive con job that ended with the Rodian being a thousand credits richer and the Human smuggler (played by me) accomplishing a pretty deft bit of skullduggery to swipe a datapad form a significant NPC without him noticing it.  In the firefight that occurred not long after, we ended up taking down that same NPC and his lackeys, with the Rodian using our speeder to run down one lackey, setting up a wonderfully cinematic scene where the Human smuggler hidden behind the speeder suddenly coming into view, blaster pistol aimed at the NPC and spouting off a chipper one-liner before dropping him like a bad spice habit.

While I had brought my iPad so that I could make use of the dice roller app if need be, I generally wound up using the dice from my copy of the Beginner Box instead, as there’s just something visceral about actually rolling dice, though Mike and I did have to check to make sure that we each had our standard allotment of dice as we packed up since there was a lot of mixing and matching due to players having to roll more Proficiency dice or Challenge dice than the Beginner Box provided.  That and I had a copy of the cheat sheet created by FFG forum poster sumqui during the early days of the Beta playtest, so it would be rather cumbersome to swap between the PDF cheat sheet and the dice roller app; thus rolling of physical dice instead of electronic dice.

All in all, I had a blast playing this adventure, and I am looking forward to playing it again come GenCon. Hopefully I’ll see some of you folks, both readers and fellow GSA agents, at the table.  Until then, may the Force be with your dice rolls.

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