Welcome to the second of an exciting series of interviews with Fantasy Flight Games developers. Max Brooke, lead developer for Special Modifications joins us for a discussion of the Crafting Rules. You can check out our first interview in the series with Tim Flanders all about Mass Combat here, and be sure to keep watching d20radio.com in the coming months for more of these in-depth interviews.
Christopher Hunt (CH): For those who never listen to the Order 66 podcast, please tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the RPG industry?
Max Brooke (MB): I started at Fantasy Flight Games five years ago, which was my entrance into the Roleplaying industry proper. Prior to that, I did an internship at University Games in San Francisco, which makes board games. That experience gave me some extremely helpful insight when applying for the job at FFG, but it wasn’t directly related to RPGs.
When I started at FFG, I worked on Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay (particularly Rogue Trader and Only War) for several years before starting on Star Wars projects.
These days, I work on both roleplaying games and Star Wars: X-Wing the Miniatures Game. So I get a lot of Star Wars in my professional life.
CH: Why crafting rules?
MB: Star Wars is founded on hero myths. Luke is given his father’s lightsaber right off the bat—a lightsaber that has been passed on to the new generation yet again as of The Force Awakens. And myths like these have tons of instances of the forging of swords, the crafting of armor, and the building of great inventions.
Interestingly, Star Wars is usually presented as a DIY universe when it comes to technology. Everyone seems to build their own stuff, customize their own ships, upgrade their own droids, and modify their own equipment. Han and Chewie are always depicted as dealing with the Millennium Falcon’s idiosyncrasies on their own, Luke is a handy mechanic, and other characters seem to know their way around a hydrospanner. Technology isn’t treated as disposable in Star Wars the way that it often is today, and I wonder if this doesn’t stem in part from the differences between the 70s and today.
These themes were built into the system from the start with the attachment rules, which grant all sorts of options for personalizing one’s gear, and the crafting rules are just a natural extension of that idea.
CH: You mentioned the difference between today’s disposable technology and the fact Star Wars tech’s “future of the 1970s” feel. How does this impact Star Wars roleplaying?
MB: It often comes across through a certain degree of scarcity. GMs who want to evoke this can encourage their PCs to scavenge, and remind them that—especially in the Outer Rim—well-stocked workshops are hard to come by. Remind your players that replacements might be hard to come by when they journey to the fringe, and you’ll find that they get extremely creative with recycled parts.
CH: How do these rules fit within a narrative roleplaying game?
MB: Crafting is presented mechanically, but it’s not just a mechanical exercise, and when writing the crafting rules, I’ve tried to play this up whenever possible. When a character crafts an item, they’re putting a bit of themselves into it, and creating something unique. This item might go on to be central to the campaign, or it might be a minor note, but either way, it reflects back on the character who made it—the obstacles they had to overcome to create it, and the deeds they do with it once it is completed.
CH: What role does equipment play mechanically, and how does that impact the narrative nature of the game?
MB: Equipment is interesting in Star Wars Roleplaying, because its usefulness varies a lot by situation. Some tasks require the right equipment (engineering, surgery, other tool-oriented jobs), and for the characters who specialize in those things, equipment is key. Equipment is also very useful in combat, for both dealing damage and staying alive. But plenty of characters can get by and be perfectly effective without tons of specialized gear. A social character likely doesn’t need much in the way of equipment to do their job, and plenty of combat character only need a decent weapon to be effective. Further, creative players can often get the tools they need out of their characters’ environments through use of advantage, triumph, and good roleplaying.
CH: How “nitty gritty” are the equipment, crafting, and modification systems meant to be?
MB: We view this as opt-in complexity, that players and GMs can choose to pursue if they want it. We want these systems to be appealing, which necessitates a certain degree of complexity. But we also recognize that some people aren’t going to be as interested in building a custom droid or the most high-tech gun, regardless of the system in place—they’re just drawn to different stories. So if a player doesn’t want to engage with this system, we aim for them to be able to play the game just as well as someone who does.
Certain characters get tangible mechanical benefits out of exploring the crafting system (especially Technicians and their ilk), but there are actually many characters for whom it just isn’t as necessary. A Politico or Advocate might get a bit of benefit out of some crafted items, or some of the socially focused items in Desperate Allies, for instance, but a tooled-up blaster or custom armor doesn’t make their job that much easier most of the time. It’s nice to have, but it’s not vital. Most Force sensitives need little more than a lightsaber and a robe (though some, such as the Artisan, are well-equipped to delve into the crafting system). Someone could even play a Technician who was more focused on repairs and maintenance than invention and innovation.
CH: Special Modifications includes some very flavourful drawbacks for GMs to spend Threat and Despair on. Often negative dice results are cancelled meaning these drawbacks are not used. Do you have any guidance on how to introduce these drawbacks?
MB: If GMs want to have Advantage and Threat not cancel on Crafting checks and apply both results, mechanically speaking, that would work just fine. We didn’t go that route in the printed Crafting rules because we want to keep items reasonably simple, in keeping with the overall design ethos of Star Wars Roleplaying. Triumph and Despair not cancelling still introduces a decent possibility of creating an item with both a flaw and a positive feature. Still, if a GM wants the extra granularity, I don’t think it’d be a problem.
CH: How would you handle players seeking to craft specific items, in particular items with specific special effects?
MB: In my own games, I’d likely look to the closest equivalent template, and then alter the cost, time required, and difficulty of the ensuing check as appropriate for the effect the player desires.
A lot of times, though, there is already a weapon or armor attachment that provides a desired effect—in which case, the character can build the closest template and then buy the attachment to grant it the effect.
CH: How can players craft attachments?
MB: When it comes to customization, the baseline attachment system is already pretty robust. Most attachments have modifications that allow players to get deep into the nitty-gritty of how they want the attachment to alter the item.
If GMs want to work with their players to design new attachments, that’s fantastic. Presumably, the player would make a Mechanics check after purchasing supplies that cost an appropriate amount, using the existing attachments as a baseline. You could allow Advantage and Triumph on the check to add new modification options, while Threat and Despair add downsides to the attachment itself (perhaps that can be removed with other mods.
There are a ton of existing weapon and armor attachments, though, so I don’t know how often it’d come up that you really need one that doesn’t have an equivalent somewhere. But I always encourage people to be creative with the system!
CH: What would you tell GMs still concerned with the power level of crafted items?
MB: Crafted items can be potent, but remember the key limiting factors: money and, most importantly, time. Crafting anything really powerful is a time-intensive process, and as the Game Master, you have control over the tempo of the game. If you’re letting the PCs hole up in a workshop for months of in-game time making the greatest gun in existence, remember that it’s your choice to let them do that. Their Obligations, Duties, Moralities, and other narrative wrinkles can come kick in the door whenever you choose.
CH: What guidance can you provide on which templates to make available to players?
MB: Generally, I think players having access to most templates most of the time is fine. Again, they’ll have limited in-game time to actually build items if the pace of the story is moving at a solid clip. If they spend a lot of time trying to build something complex and fail, that time is often wasted, after all.
For particularly special items, it might be worth making the PC go on some sort of quest to acquire the template, as this makes it feel more mythic and integrated into the story. But that could also be a quest to acquire materials, or even to get to a special place required to build the time. There are a lot of way that GMs can work the crafting process into their stories as more than a purely mechanical exercise.
CH: Many character’s in Star Wars have signature equipment, such as Han Solo’s DL-44 and Boba Fett’s iconic armor, but often PC’s are quick to discard their kit for upgrades. How can GMs encourage greater connections between PCs and their equipment?
MB: There are a few ways to do this. Narrative hooks are obviously good—if a character has to work hard to acquire or build a piece of equipment, it already has a story that matters to the character. There are also talents (such as Jury Rigged and the talents related to Signature Vehicles) that characters can use to deepen their bonds with their gear, and GMs can always point players toward these mechanical options. The GM also has control over the rate at which characters have access to new gear—if they’ve just gotten a piece of equipment, don’t arm the NPCs they’re going to fight with better gear that your PCs are almost certainly going to end up with after the dust settles.
CH: Is there anything else you would like to add about equipment or crafting?
MB: Ultimately, equipment is usually as much a story accouterment as much as it is a thing that provides a mechanical edge. A character’s gear tells us something about them, especially in a setting like Star Wars, which is so rich with visual tropes. Even the attachments a character chooses can help show us who they are—Boba Fett’s extremely aggressive armaments built into his armor tell us that he is a dangerous fellow, while the uniformity of the Stormtroopers let the viewer know that they conform to the Empire’s harsh standards. The variance in the gear of the Rebels tells us that they are stretched for resources, but also that the Rebel Alliance values individualism, resourcefulness, and creativity in a way that the Empire does not. I hope people use the crafting rules to create gear that helps flesh out their characters in interesting ways that they might not have considered before!