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So, I’ve read through a fair bit of the Edge of the Empire book and the first thing I have to say is that this book needs a LOT of editing. My reading was focused on the Obligation system and it feels like large portions of text were copy-pasted.
This book has been an absolute chore to read.
And now I know what the mechanical implications of Obligations are!
See, a group will tend to start with an Obligation threshold of 40-50, assuming they don’t take on more Obligation at first level to get bonus XP. But why wouldn’t they? Actually, it’s possible for a group of 4-5 players to have an Obligation threshold of 90-100 from the get-go.
What are the drawbacks? Well, for most of the group, when the GM makes an Obligation check (rolling against the aforementioned threshold), rolling d00 under that number means everyone has a marginally reduced strain threshold.
Strain threshold? Think SAN, but more like regular hit points.
Actually, strain threshold is a combination of environmental effects hp, combined with mental hps and vitality/fatigue. You can spend them and convert small quantities of damage to strain, but if you pass the threshold you pass out.
Strain threshold admittedly makes plenty enough sense when you consider the sheer number of Call of Cthulhu products Fantasy Flight Games publishes.
But okay, when Obligation is triggered, it temporarily lowers your SAN.
So, how much SAN do you have? On average, about twelve. How much does Obligation typically reduce your SAN? One to two points.
A negligible amount.
But wait! What if you exceed 100 Obligation as a group? Well, that one’s a toughie. It means you can’t spend XP to advance your skills, buy new
feats … traits, and you can’t advance you character’s um, class … career.
Does that matter?
Well, it creates an interesting dynamic because in character creation you can accept additional Obligation (as mentioned above) to receive bonus XP for building your character. After that, you can really only take on additional Obligation as an alternative to spending money. (Take on Debt.)
So like, you can get bonus XPs but if you go over a certain amount you can’t spend any. I said it was interesting, yeah? Just work it out with your group.
You’re also technically limited to how much extra Obligation you can take on at the beginning — twice what it would normally be. So, not a lot on an individual level. It’s when you add everyone’s Obligations together to determine the “threshold” that it feels like a lot.
Now, the two primary Obligations I see really working in-play are “Debt” and “Favor.” And, those seem to cover things pretty similar ideas. Either you need something really badly, so you borrow money (Debt) or get someone to do it for you (Favor). Then you’re um, indebted to them. Either way.
Some of the other Obligations don’t make quite as much sense emerging through play — I mean, not typically. Addictions might spontaneously arise in PCs due to a variety of reasons. And I mean, I guess Family can become important after the start of the game. They just don’t seem quite as obvious.
Now, there is a penalty system built into the game if the players don’t address their Obligation when it comes up — see, when you determine the party’s Obligation threshold you’re also supposed to keep track of whose Obligation is triggered when the check indicates SAN decrease.
Generally speaking, when your Obligation comes up your character gets the spotlight because bounty hunters are on your trail, or you really need a freaking drink, but if you don’t actually do something to ameliorate the situation, three “strikes” causes your Obligation to increase by 5 points.
So, avoiding the problem causes it to get worse, I suppose.
But the book doesn’t provide much in the way of guidelines for GMs to “settle” Obligation. Like, at all. This is something that might have an entire chapter or sub-heading, and FFG suggests that you don’t need to see a direct correlation.
I should point out this is a four-hundred-fifty page book.
I’m not… a hundred percent behind this game. And that’s politely overlooking the dice. I get that the dice have received critical acclaim. Still.
On the whole, I’d estimate that 30-50% of this book is unnecessary. The sheer volume of copy-pasted rules text, repeated examples, and just… extra stuff makes this book look a lot more impressive than it really is. I don’t think I’d actually want to play the game, there’s just too much of it.
I felt the same about Laundry Files, but it’s 60% the size.
And I just can’t care about the pretty pictures in EotE.
Following my bewildering montage of D&D and Fiasco is this:
Dungeons and Laundry Fiasco
What on earth have I been smoking?
Let’s go back a little.
Previously I mentioned that I compared D&D to Fiasco to figure out what, exactly, made them different — by comparing their game and story mechanics. Well, there’s been another thing niggling in the back of my mind.
The Laundry Files mission generator.
This thing is absurdly useful, and for months I couldn’t say why. I tore it down and rebuilt it, and I still couldn’t figure out what made the mission generator different from others, or why I thought it was so bloody useful.
Well, let me tell you a few things about the Laundry Files RPG.
Your characters are secret agent cultist pencil-pushers working for the British government. It’s Call of Cthulhu meets Office Space meets James Bond. Or perhaps these days you could say, “Chuck meets Call of Cthulhu.”
Your character’s “Assignment” determines a bunch of their skills and also their position in the labyrinthine Laundry organization. You have, at minimum, one supervisor and one line manager — but you can be “on loan” to another department, and your fellow PCs have their own managers to worry about.
So, by this count we have Characters and Relationships defined by the players. Scenarios are left in the hands of the GM (and can be rolled up randomly), and Conflict resolution is achieved through negotiation and dice rolls, per usual.
Now, here’s the best part: due to the bureaucracy of the Laundry, the variety of mission types, and the menagerie of Mythos beasties, the game’s Needs, Places, and Things may be radically different from one mission to another.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to field-test a Shoggoth Net. Or you’ll be issued some state-of-the-art cuff links that make you undetectable by scrying. Or the armory will refuse to issue weapons before a firefight with a cult of Shub-Nigguroth.
And nearly always, the mission briefing will fail to mention stuff you learn when you go afield. It’s a game of improbable fantasy improvisation.
Ultimately, the mission generator works so well because you have Relationships that demand you take the mission. You’re secret agent office drones armed with iPhone versions of the Necronomicon. You might be passed over for promotion if you fail a mission, or you might be turned into a zombie.
Or the space-time continuum might collapse.
The Laundry Files is a very complete game. It has everything it needs to be a full game, delivering on characters, relationships, scenarios, and whatnot. I just kind of wish, you know, that it were better edited. And perhaps that it didn’t use a point-based skill system. The combat system is clunky, too.
But, man! Have I learned a lot from this game! (And Fiasco!)
I’ve had my eye on Fiasco for a while. Last week, I played for the first time.
It’s… different. It’s a game that I think is easier to play than to explain. Our group actually played while I read the rules. It did create a snarl when we realized that we’d assigned too many dice to relationships and hadn’t chosen enough details, but it was easy enough to scrap what we had and begin again.
But I noticed something in playing Fiasco that I realized had captured something I have struggled with for a long time. Relationships.
Characters in Fiasco are defined by their relationships, quite literally. Setup for the game is actually part of the game, like if players participated in GM Prep. I really like that aspect, as it eliminates the “solitary” nature of GM Prep.
But the important thing is that players define the relationships their characters have to each other and the world before they so much as choose a character name. Character is emergent in Fiasco. Which is a big change from D&D.
Enough of a change that it made me wonder what exactly made them different.
I created a list of game and story components in two columns and tried to determine which in Fiasco or D&D were defined, and which were emergent.
In Fiasco, the players define their Relationships, Needs, Places, and Things. Characters are emergent, as are Scenarios and Conflicts. Why do I say that? Because they’re all improvised, of course. They emerge though play.
D&D on the other hand, defines virtually everything from the outset — the characters are explicitly defined by the players. Need is always pretty much, “survive.” Place is always “the dungeon.” Thing is always “treasure.”
Scenarios are predefined by the Game Master, whether they’re using a published module or they developed the adventure themselves. Conflict is often (if not always) resolved through negotiation or the dice.
So, what does that leave?
In D&D, the primary element that emerges through play is the relationships between the characters and the environment. This is what makes D&D such a personal experience for players despite its social nature.
Each player is free to invest as little or as much of themselves in the different traps, treasures, monsters, and NPCs. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t “relationship” mechanics in D&D. Consider alignment and deities.
Your character’s choice to worship a particular deity or adhere to one of the
three, nine, five, nine alignments, defines their relationship to the campaign setting — and to the other Player Characters. (Paladin, anyone?)
Actually, this position explains a lot of the “bloat” that is often associated with D&D. Throughout the lifespan of an Edition, we see lots and lots of new options for players to invest in relationships — new races and classes (which can also be used as the basis of relationships), new gods, and new background options.
5e has its own “backstory” option: Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.
Every piece of a character can be used to form a relationship with the world however, ability scores being the most fundamental. But you also have your character’s race/class, level, skills, feats (3e-5e), alignment, equipment, and spells. Everything can be used to establish relationships.
I think what’s critical here though, is that to form these relationships, you have to play the game. I think that may be much of the reason I’ve found D&D less fulfilling as time passes. I don’t get to play enough. Fights take too long and there isn’t enough to do outside of a fight.
Blah, blah, “roleplay.” Roleplay what? There isn’t enough to do. Spending an hour chatting with a merchant over coffee isn’t playing the game. Making decisions, rolling dice, dodging traps, finding treasure. That’s playing the game.
Seriously, I think my montage just concluded. I need a mentor to step out of the mist behind me to say, “you are ready,” so I can go fight the boss.
Maybe not “need.” Still, it’d be cool.