Last week’s Species Design Masterclass with Keith Kappel was the result of an epic interview that contained so much awesome, it could not be contained within one article. This week, Keith talks in depth about his work on Stay on Target. As with last week, my hope is that this more in depth format lets you get inside the mind of a freelancer. Enjoy.
Christopher Hunt (CH): I’d like to talk Stay on Target. What sections of the book were you and the other freelancer responsible for?
Keith Ryan Kappel (KRK): I wrote all of Chapter I, excepting designing the actual talent trees and signature abilities, which FFG does in house. So I handled most of the character creation type stuff: backgrounds, duties, motivations, new species, as well as flavor for new specializations and signature abilities.
CH: The section on Ace Backgrounds starting on page 12 gives a great cross section of potential origins for Ace PCs, from bush pilot to Imperial defector and more. But I bet a lot of players and GMs skip past sections like this and head straight for the new specialization trees. Tell us more about the role Class Background sections play in these books, and what GMs and Players should get out of them?
KRK: Well, I think in a game like FFG’s Star Wars, which relies so heavily on storytelling and really playing your character to create interesting situations, the richer your character is, the more developed their history and personality, the better a game you are going to have. Motivation and Duty provide obvious goals for PCs in the game, but players should remember that the lens that PC is viewing those goals is through their own personal history. For instance, two Hotshots with the air superiority duty and cause: rebellion motivation might seem to approach problems similarly. But if they have different backgrounds, they really shouldn’t. One hotshot might have the entertainer background, a former stunt flyer. His first instinct is going to be to show off, and solve problems with a flashy display that maybe forces other enemies to retreat. Meanwhile, a Clone Wars veteran Hotshot might take a very different approach, something still more tactical, just very, very aggressive. This is just how they might play in combat. Obviously a stunt pilot and a war veteran are going to play VERY different in social encounters, despite having identical motivations and duties.
I think there are generally three kinds of players building a PC, and I think this section of the book can really help all three of them. The first is the person that has absolutely no idea what they want to do. Obviously, browsing this section is going to essentially give them some character concepts to start with. They can just read the section, find one that speaks to them, and start building. The second is someone who already knows what specialization they want, but aren’t sure how that kind of character might fit into the party. There are essentially 36 different background archetypes to choose from, six for each specialization. So if you mechanically build your character and are very happy with that, but find their actual personality is lacking, attaching some kind of background to the PC can really make them come alive at the table. Finally, there is the person who really does have a pretty fully developed character concept in mind. This player might already know their specialization and their character’s basic background, which means they probably only have to read 2-3 of the entries in this section. Still, those specific entries might provide a new wrinkle, personality quirk, or historical tid-bit that player can use at the table to more bring their PC to life.
CH: Recently on the FFG boards there was a question of how to run the Support duty when it is triggered. Some replies went as far as to suggest rolling again until something else was triggered. From an Ace perspective, how do you suggest GMs handle a triggered Support duty?
KRK: I think the chief complaint is that it maybe has some players feel like it robs their PC of agency, but really, it just makes for a more versatile character that is open to doing anything that helps the Rebellion. In many cases, they might be a tie-breaking vote on which objective the party commits to, since the rest of the party might all have different ideas on how best to complete an objective. Support is easy to play in a leadership role because of this. I also think Ace lends itself very easily to the Support Duty. In many parties, the Ace might be the only pilot, or by far the best pilot in the party. While every campaign should strive to have a variety of objectives in the air, space, on the ground, or social challenges, and more, just to ensure every character has their moment to shine, I think an Ace with the Support Duty is very well suited to assist in a way that gives them more signature moments during a campaign.
If the Rebels are a predominantly ground team, then an Ace with the support duty might help by providing…. air support. This might start with inserting the rebel forces stealthily without appearing on Imperial sensors. Afterward, Support Duty might mean flying a combat air patrol to deny the enemy from launching their own fighters. This could also mean flying and using the sensors to detect enemies in advance and provide early warning to the ground units. It could mean strafing runs or bombing runs on entrenched targets (which is sure to draw anti-air artillery fire). And at the end of the mission, when Imperial reinforcements arrive and everything is starting to turn south, it might mean flying low and slow to make an extraction, and then fleeing in an epic chase to make it to orbit so they can make it to hyperspace.
But that is a more general kind of support for the mission, and can apply easily to those other PCs with the combat victory or space superiority duties. What about the rest? Let’s get specific. Supporting Counter-Intelligence? You might have to bomb a data storage building that stores sensor feed information, so the Empire never knows your unit was there. Intelligence? You might be flying the Imperial ship sneaking behind enemy lines to collect a deep cover agent. Internal Security? They won’t be able to escape to the Empire to report their findings with an Ace on their tail. Personnel? You’re the pilot, you need to get that medivac in there to get the wounded out. Political Support? It might turn out the young price that your diplomat is trying to recruit to the alliance has an obsession with starfighter pilots (don’t we all?) Looks like you’re going to have to spend some time with the kid and tell some really good war stories. Recruiting? What poster-boy for the Rebellion ISN’T a starfighter pilot. And based on your background, you might know a few more really great pilots from the air show you used to work at, or your old fighter squadron from the Clone Wars. As an insider, you might play a key role in a Diplomat’s Duty to bring them into the Rebel ranks. Resource Acquisition? You’re going to try and steal a few crates of thermal detonators off that Imperial garrison you’re raiding? Well, some pilot has to be crazy enough to fly combat with a hold full of unsecured explosives. I guess that’s you. Sabotage? This is obviously bombing runs of targets of opportunity, like blowing up a spacecraft hangar, warehouse, or storage depot. Tech Procurement? I guess you guys must be infiltrating that base where they were developing a TIE fighter with a cloaking device, you could steal it for the Rebellion and fly it home.
In short, I think with a slight amount of GM effort to consider that any moment in the adventure he builds in to appeal to a Duty, he remembers he has an Ace with Support as well, it is very easy to find a support role for the guy with the starship.
CH: Although this is covered in Chapter 3 not Chapter 1 which you worked on, given your experience in the US Navy on an aircraft carrier and your immense Star Wars knowledge, what advice would you give GMs wanting to run a star fighter game inspired by the likes of X-Wing and Wing Commander?
KRK: Well, my first bit of advice would, of course, be to play all three story-based games in that classic X-Wing series, as well as N64’s Rogue Squadron, and read the 9 X-Wing novels by Mike Stackpole and the late great Aaron Allston (who the Clone Wars era Ace Aron Onstall referenced in the book was named after). All those things are going to give you a great sense of what kinds of missions you can send squadrons on, what squadron life is like, and more. Further, I’d highly recommend picking up Strongholds of Resistance. We put the MC cruiser Independence in there as a location specifically for fans of the X-Wing games and for GMs who want to run a squadron off a ship. There are also a lot of Starfighter campaign friendly locations detailed like the Roche Asteroid Field, Chardaan, Mon Cala, and Sullust. Each of those locations is an important link in the starfighter supply chain for the Rebel Alliance, and many missions can consist of pilots trying to get the ships or parts off those worlds and to the Rebel Fleet.
But sales pitch aside, I think the important thing is to vary the mission objectives to keep the campaign from getting stale. It is very easy to fall into the trap of having objective X to destroy, and sending the squadron to go destroy it, more so with a squadron than with a ground-based party. So make sure you mix things up. Have air cover missions where the objective is to protect ground forces from enemy TIE bombers. Have insertion and extraction missions, where delivering a cargo or getting it out of a dangerous place is the objective, not combat. Have some stealth missions that require the pilots to take recon flights to collect sensor data, or make those infiltrations or extractions stealthy. Have a piracy mission where the Rebels have to disable an Imperial corvette with ion cannons, and defend it long enough for the mass combat rules ground team to take over the ship. Then you have to escort it safely back to base while Imperial reinforcements arrive. Have supply runs that directly affect the squadron, maybe new astromechs or shield generators or upgraded laser cannons that seem like they should be smooth and easy, then turn into anything but thanks to a spy somewhere in the works. Have decoy missions, where the squadron’s main job is to be a distraction, and draw Imperial attention away from a covert operation elsewhere. Have missions where squadrons have to lure Imperial capital ships into a trap where the fleet is waiting in an asteroid field or behind a moon, ready to pounce. Have missions where they run out of fuel, and have to find a way to acquire more to return to the Rebel Fleet. Have tricky hyperspace astrogation challenges, mechanical challenges, and don’t forget to keep up the social challenges too. Just because everyone specializes in starship combat doesn’t mean you can’t have a balanced game.
CH: You commented on how backgrounds add to duty and motivation to help create a fully fleshed out character. Similar to backgrounds, I feel some groups just pay lip service to motivation. How would you recommend GMs make better use of character motivations?
KRK: I mean, the easiest way is to have an XP reward for role playing. Even if its just 5 XP, that is often enough to get players paying attention to their backgrounds, motivations, and duties. If you’re coming some other tabletop games, paying this much attention to a PC’s actual character as opposed to their stats might be really foreign to your players. Generally, you can just have a chat with them about it, and tell them that in this game, it’s a lot more fun if people really let their PC’s duty, motivation, and background inform their decisions. Between that, and an XP bonus for doing so to encourage it, you should see a significant change at the table.
As for how GM’s should be using it in game? I think the trick is to create internal party conflict. Give them choices that force them to choose between a personal background or motivation and their duty. This can either tear a single character apart, or you can spread the conflicting interests out amongst the party, so it puts strain on the party’s ability to work together on one decided course of action. This is what makes for drama (the good kind). Stan Lee used to create tension in his early Spider-man comics by forcing Peter Parker to choose between bringing Aunt May her heart pills, or fighting doctor octopus in downtown NYC. He has a duty to protect the people of New York, but Aunt May is family, and he has a responsibility to her too. So what does he do? These are the kinds of decisions you can present your players with. Imperial reinforcements response time is 5 minutes; we have time to do one thing in this Imperial outpost we just plowed through. Do we raid the mainframe for intelligence? Do we plant false intelligence? Do we see if we can find the location of one of the PC’s family members stuck in an Imperial prison? What is the priority? Having at least one moment where those kinds of choices have to get made every session or adventure is what can create some really memorable moments at the table.
I had originally intended to run this interview later, but I am really excited about this more in depth style. Now that you, the readers, have seen two of these I really want to know what you think. Do you like the level of detail? Is it too much all at once? Let me know in the comments below.