HoloNet Uplink – Keith Kappel Species Design Masterclass

Used under Creative Commons. Copyright mcfarlandomo

In today’s HoloNet Uplink we cross the streams by inviting Keith Kappel of Fantasy Flight Games freelance fame back for yet another interview. He’s already talked to us about Suns of Fortune and Force and Destiny, so this time we didn’t to go easy. By drilling deep into the core of how to design a species this article will give GMs more than an interesting interview and instead a masterclass. Enjoy.

Christopher Hunt (CH): Keith, you’ve been interviewed twice already for d20radio’s Interrogation droid. Are you prepared, mentally and emotionally, for a full on Kylo Ren level mind invasion?

Keith Ryan Kappel (KRK): Can anyone truly prepare for that?

CH: Let’s talk about writing species. Can you take us through the general process you use when approaching a species assignment?

KRK: Sure! While this is no means the official FFG way to do things, this is the basic process I’ve been using for the stat blocks. First, there are really only two considerations when creating a species. First, that you create something that is balanced within the system when compared to other species, and second, that you evoke the core experience of what it means to be a (heroic) example of that species. So for me, I start with humans, which are kind of the baseline average for everything. So an ability score of 2, wound and strain thresholds of 10, starting XP of 110, and two single ranks in non-career skills. So the first thing I do, is cash in the special qualities for XP. Buying a single rank in a non-career skill costs 10 XP. The human gets to do this twice. So basically, I get 130 XP to play with.

Next, I increase one stat that is most important to that species, and decrease one stat that is least important. In rare, rare cases, I might decrease 2 stats to increase one twice, or swap two sets of stats. So my stat pools are always (2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2), (3, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2), (3, 3, 1, 1, 2, 2), or (4, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2). I suppose, theoretically, we could also do a (4, 4, 1, 1, 1, 1). Note that any time that 4 shows up, it does represent a slight imbalance. To make up for a 3 or 4, I’ll usually subtract more XP from the pool. My next move is the deal with the thresholds. If they stay at 10 + attribute, then no worries. But if I feel it’s warranted, I can slide the value up or down. I XP charge for these (positively or negatively) just like I would with skills. (cost 5 to move from 10 to 11, or gain 5 XP to move from 10 to 9, etc). I tend to avoid doing this too often, unless the species lore makes it seem necessary.

Finally, I deal with the special qualities. Most species in FFG Star Wars only have two special qualities, so I spend some time researching to find out what biological or cultural distinctions from humans are most important to call out mechanically. This tends to be the trickiest part. What I will usually do, is try and find a precedent in a specialization talent tree that does something equivalent, and see how much that talent costs. I think write up the quality and subtract that much XP from the starting pool. Whatever XP I have left (typically between 90 and 110) is what stays in that starting XP amount. I’m also a big fan of the negative qualities, I think I gave the Dressellians the primitive one, where you have to spend XP to remove it. In these cases, that extra XP is usually still in that starting pool.

As far as how I approach the lore aspects of creating a species, it really just comes with a lot of research. I’m pretty familiar with the various species of the Star Wars galaxy, but even so, I put a lot of time into assembling a research list and trying to extract every bit of information I can. From there, it’s a matter of researching some actual science and doing some thought experiments. The Dressellians’ prune faces were explained as camouflage for tree bark, for example, a new piece of information that makes a kind of evolutionary sense and gave me a reason to talk more about their homeworld, and how important those trees were to their culture and early survival.

My goals when I’m doing a species write up aren’t just to summarize a Wookieepedia article while adding a few new tidbits, however. I want to provide both GMs and players with the right kind of information, the stuff that helps them play that character as something other than “basically acts human with different starting stats.” I want to equip them with the information to make those PCs seem both biologically and culturally very different from others in the party. As such, I tend to focus and explore the things that make that species alien, and quickly gloss over the things about them that are more similar to humans. I’m also trying to create adventure seeds or hooks for GMs in everything I write, especially when I talk about a planet.

CH: A common debate online over home brewed species is how to reflect the natural abilities of an average member of that species. How do you go about analyzing characters from Canon/Legends and distilling statistics for a species?

KRK: I think the trick is not to go crazy and try to stat out every little quality. WEG and WOTC took a different approach, and species tended to have many, many different SQs. FFG is trying to keep the species versatile enough so that they can be serviceable in a wider array of careers and specializations, and players can have the XP to build the PC they want to play. For instance, not every species needs claws called out as a mechanical benefit, or keen senses. If a PC is of a species that has those things, but there isn’t a mechanical benefit, I might allow them to spend advantage to narratively move the story in a way that could only happen because narratively that species has those things, despite not being called out mechanically in the block.

For example, if I have a Wookiee, which we all know has pretty acute senses, despite not having them called out. On a perception check, I might give a narrative result that speaks to those enhanced senses instead of just information I give to a human. A human succeeding with advantage might see a starship with some smoke rising behind it. A Wookiee might see a starship, and smell roasting bantha steaks. If a character has a justification in their lore or background for why their character might be good at something, it’s also usually good for a boost die from me when I GM. If you’re a Wookiee about to climb a tree, for instance, and remind me of your climbing claws before the check, I’ll probably throw you a boost for that. We don’t need a mechanic listed out for that. That is just rewarding the player for having learned about their species, which encourages them to learn more. The more they learn, the more interesting and alien qualities they might bring to the table, which should make for a better game for everyone.

So I think the trick is to pick out only the first couple of abilities you think of that define that species. That is usually going to be a combination of gut instinct and detailed research. Once you have that, see if you can find a talent that does something similar mechanically as a precedent, so you can get a sense its value in XP, and then do your best to write it up.

CH: The SW RPG community has discovered there seems to be a bit of a formula for balancing the species, in terms of the characteristic array and costing for special abilities. Could you comment on how species are balanced? Is there a formula or rules of thumb you use to keep all the abilities in line?

KRK: There is nothing official, at all. The process I outlined above is what I used to come up with the species for Stay on Target, but balance is ultimately achieved through rigorous playtesting, feedback, and tweaking.

CH: From what I hear, you were responsible for getting the Xexto into Stay on Target. While I know you can’t talk about cut content, could you use the Xexto as an example of the species creation process?

KRK: I did! We originally had something else, but in my view, they were a bit too primitive for the book, considering we already had the primitive Dressellians. I always loved the design of the Xexto, ever since seeing Gasgano in Episode I, and they seemed like a great example archetype species for the Hotshot specialization. Chadra-Fan already seemed like a great archetype for the Rigger, and Dressellians were already fulfilling that Beast Rider archetype. I brought my concerns to editor Andrew Fischer, and he was keen to make the shift. They were a lot of fun because they are so big on risk-taking.

Xexto really aren’t a good example, though, as they went through a lot of changes in playtesting, mechanically speaking, and I can’t really speak to what the play testers did and what got changed with any sort of authority. Dressellians work out exactly, though. Stats had one swap, wound threshold took 5 XP, one rank in survival took another 5-10 XP (depending on specialization), they have a 3 in their stat block, so that would cost 30 to go from 2 to 3, but they have a 1 as well, so that gains back 10. So we are at 100 XP right now. Then I give them the primitive quality, which costs 10 XP to remove, adding 10 XP back into the pool for 110 starting XP.

CH: You’ve given us something fans will really appreciate in a masterclass on how to build species for FFG Star Wars. Is there anything else you want to add on that topic?

KRK: I think the main thing is not to lose the story factors for the stat block. This is a really narrative game, and you want to make sure that a player using that species isn’t treating them as an alien looking human with a different stat block. Equip your player with the tools to play that species at the table. Make sure they understand what their homeworld is like. Even speaking in broad generalizations, they should know culturally what that species is like. How will they behave in certain, common situations to adventuring? Their backgrounds, motivations, and duties might require some tweaking to make it more appropriate to that species. Also, note that you don’t have to play the stereotypical example of that species. Do something atypical, these are adventurers. But, make sure that you take a moment to think about what being atypical means for that character, how they might have been treated on their homeworld, what it might have done to shape their personality, and what it means for their history and how they behave now. You don’t have to play the typical example, but you need to be informed of what that is. If that player likes to do voices at the table, try and give them a description, or even better, an audio clip of that species from one of the movies, cartoons, or video games.

You can tell what’s important in any piece of writing by how much word count goes into it. Note that in any species block, the background material is much, much longer than the stat block. That should tell you how important that kind of information is supposed to be.

CH: Thanks, Keith! 

Today marks a full month of weekly HoloNet Uplink content. As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Specifically, I want to hear your input on this interview as a potential new content format. Would you like to see more masterclass interviews with FFG freelancers and major community members to get their in depth insight as Keith as done today? Should Fantasy Flight Games freelance fame be known as the 5F? Want to see something completely different? Let me know in the comments below.

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Christopher Hunt

Christopher Hunt

Staff Writer at d20 Radio
Ready to pull the ears off a Gundark, Chris is new to writing in the gaming industry. Up in the mystical Canadian land of Manitoba, he can be seen running Star Wars for his home group and at PrairieCon events. Chris has a passion for gaming he hopes to unite with academic and corporate writing experience .
Christopher Hunt

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