Telling Your Star Wars Story with Dice Rolls
In 2012 Fantasy Flight Games published Edge of the Empire, a roleplaying game set in the Star Wars universe. The game focused on smugglers, bounty hunters, and others outside the main story line of Rebellion and Empire. Two additional core rulebooks, Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny, followed in succeeding years, both focusing on different aspects of the Star Wars setting. All three, however, are interchangeable and rely on what Fantasy Flight Games called the Narrative Dice System (NDS).
Most role-playing games rely on dice where the player must achieve a certain numerical threshold for success. Far Future Enterprises’ version of Traveller requires players to roll under a target number using two six-sided dice for an average difficulty task. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, requires rolling higher than a specified number on a twenty-sided die — either an monster’s armor class or a number set by the dungeon master based on the difficulty. These are straightforward success or failure rolls (Mongoose’s rules do account for the degree of success, and Dungeons & Dragons, of course, has the critical failure or success that contributes additional effects to the results).
Standard dice set for Dungeons and Dragons and other games (this set by Ako Dice)
Edge of the Empire abandons a specified target number altogether. Instead, it adopts a dice rolling mechanic intended to generate narrative results—rolls that have an in-game effect beyond how well the character shoots or breaks a lock or sneaks by the guards. Whenever a roll is to be made, the player gathers up a set of dice. While initially a bit of a learning curve, players quickly pick up the process (as this game master [GM] can attest having run the game at conventions with players brand new to the system).
NDS uses a combination of six-, eight-, and twelve-sided dice. In the official set, the green, eight-sided dice is the Ability die. Its opposing die is the purple, eight-sided Difficulty die. The yellow, twelve-sided Proficiency die’s opposite is the red, twelve-sided Challenge die. These are supplemented with two six-sided dice — the blue Boost and the black Setback. (The white, twelve-sided die is used for Destiny points and Force rolls.)
These dice use symbols (or blanks) in lieu of numbers: Success, Failure, Advantage, Threat, Triumph, and Despair. When players roll the dice pool, the results determine not only success or failure, but they also create role-playing opportunities. One of the key tenets of the system is that not every success is without some complication, and not every failure is without some benefit. These are translated into the storytelling around the table, and the players are expected to contribute to the storytelling.
The simplest example to illustrate this is combat. The smuggler Fela Zhalto shoots his blaster at the notorious bounty hunter Tallet Nolusk. The player for Fela grabs two green dice and one yellow die based on Fela’s Dexterity attribute and Ranged Light skill. The GM determines that the range warrants two Difficulty die. Fela’s player grabs two of those. Then she rolls all five dice.
She then evaluates the results. Success and Failure cancel each other out. If at least one success remains, Fela hits Tallet. Otherwise, the shot goes astray. Now things begin to get interesting. Advantage and Threat cancel each other out. What is leftover then factors into the story — again with the aide of the player. If Advantage remain, the player can “spend” those in any number of ways and the rules have a number of pre-sets. One is that you can spend a certain number of Advantage to trigger weapon effects (auto-fire, for example) or critical injuries (more serious injuries that have game effects — like Maimed).
But these are not obligatory. Those Advantage can be spent in other ways, subject to the GM’s approval. Perhaps in addition to getting a damaging hit, Fela’s blaster fire hits a blast door’s control panel — a door that Tallet was planning on coming through. The blast door closes. Or maybe Fela’s player decides that her blaster fire hits not just Tallet but the structure around him, obscuring his vision if he wants to counterattack.
Cards from Fantasy Flight Games’ Critical Hit and Critical Injuries Decks
Again, spending these Advantage and Threats is subject to the GM’s approval, and the more Advantage and Threat in a roll means more triggers or better or worse consequences. What if Fela’s roll results in more Threat than Advantage. Those become the GM’s provenance to spend. The core rules outline some basics — perhaps Fela’s blaster runs out of ammunition (as a mechanic, in Star Wars, ammunition is not tracked, nor is a shot simply a single shot — rather, it represents the character taking a number of shots, so long as it’s s cinematic). However, just like Fela’s player, the GM can spend the Threat however she wants. Instead of Fela’s ammunition being exhausted, perhaps the GM determines that as part of Fela’s shooting action, she had to maneuver out of cover, leaving her exposed to a counterattack. Or Fela’s blaster fire hits a set of beams above Tallet that then fall in front of him, providing better cover for the next round.
One thing to keep in mind, any Advantage or Threat effects are regardless of whether Fela hits with her shot or not (with the exception of a critical injury). Fela can completely miss, not cause any damage to Tallet, and still have that blast door close shut, trapping Tallet on the other side.
The Triumph and Despair, which appear once on the Proficiency and Challenge dice respectively, are even better or worse results. First, seeing those symbols pop up in the roll also means they include a Success and Failure result, which cancel out like normal. Second, the Triumph and Despair symbols never cancel out. They remain regardless. Roll both a Triumph and a Despair? Yep. You get both results. These indicate really good or bad things happen on the roll.
In our Fela and Tallet scenario, if a Triumph appears and Fela hits with her shot, not only does she cause damage but perhaps the ceiling also comes down in front of Tallet, stunning him long enough for Fela to make her escape. If a Despair is rolled, however, perhaps a couple of Tallet’s buddies were standing by and appear to assist. Again, both of these things can happen with the same role regardless if Fela’s shot actually hit or not. The Triumphs are for the player to spend (these can also be used for getting a critical injury), and Despairs are for the GM.
The Setback and Boost dice are placed into the pool for a variety of environmental and other conditions. Perhaps the encounter is happening at night during a rainstorm. The GM might state that each condition represents a Setback die if the characters want to shoot — but a Boost if they want to remain hidden. The bad guy walks around with a flashlight, illuminating him. An attempt to shoot him gets a Boost die. These three dice get added to the pool and rolled.
Using the Setback and Boost dice liberally allows players to use their character’s talents actively. Talents they purchased with experience points. For example, Savvy Negotiator, is a talent that removes a Setback die for all Negotiation or Streetwise skill checks. If the GM builds that into the encounter, they give the player this opportunity to remove them, making them feel that the investment into the talent was valuable. Many talents and traits come embedded with this notion. Also, you can use the dice to help narratively tell the results.
This can get a bit fuzzy sometimes — roll three Boost and the roll succeeds with one Advantage — but is nonetheless possible and encouraged. Triumphs and Despair are the result of a skill or proficiency. The character can claim a Triumph because if their incredible Agility or their Piloting (Space) skill. Thus, when interpreting the results, they player can stress in their telling, “As I blast away at Tallet, I take a couple of shots at the ceiling and bring it crashing down on him.” This would be in contrast to an Advantage appearing with the help of added Boost dice. “I’m sneaking up behind the guard. The darkness and rain help to obscure my approach, allowing me to get almost on top of him.”
As a GM, I often save Threats or Despairs in circumstances requiring stealth, only to revealed the results later. For example, as the team infiltrates an Imperial base, the hacker rolls a couple of Threat on her otherwise successful role to disable the cameras. The GM, might interpret the results that a guard is a bit extra vigilant and sees a blip on the screen and decides to investigate in person. That Threat result is not immediate but is a consequence of the roll. If the player had rolled a Despair on the hacking roll, the GM still could have kept the result secret. Instead of the guard checking it out by himself, he decides to get some back up and investigate urgently. A few moments later, the guard appears with four Stormtroopers. Or the GM could not keep it secret. The hack succeeds but the alarms all trigger. The cameras are down, but the base knows that something is amiss.
NDS allows for generating these interesting results, requiring the players to engage in the storytelling as a result of the mechanic. This is key. The system is designed so that the players and the GM work together to interpret and narrate the results. Following the rulebook’s suggestions by rote is not the intent. If one player rolls a single advantage and wants to give the next player in line a Boost die for their roll, that is all fine and well. The risk appears in not asking the player to provide a reason for how the other player gives the assist. The suggestions in the books can become the default responses for situations, when they are intended more as prompts. This takes a bit of getting used to by both GMs and players, but the results can be a lot of fun and even spectacular.
This GM ran a Star Wars game at Gen Con in 2019. The players, a Rebellion special forces team, had infiltrated an Imperial base to rescue an Alliance spy. The base’s alarms went off, and they were under attack, shooting their way out. As they were crossing an open area between the base and its perimeter walls, a squad of Death Troopers appeared. One player took his Aqualish heavy trooper and pinned the Death Troopers down. His intention was to blow the preset thermal detonators, setting off a series of explosions and providing his comrades cover for their escape, sacrificing himself in the process.
Another player, seeing this effort, leapt aboard an AT-RT and fired its blaster cannon at the Death Troopers. It was the last roll of the night. Almost four hours in. Near midnight. The roll turned up not one but two Triumphs. After the table calmed down from the roll, the player said that beyond the hit, he wanted to use the two Triumphs to bring down a part of the base’s wall and block the Death Troopers. He looked at me, smiling with anticipation. I allowed it, and all the players survived. I think all walked away from the table with a memorable moment.
This is certainly possible in other systems as well. Rolling a natural 20 is a meme for a reason. I think the difference with this system is that every roll generates results that empower narrative storytelling in ways that are not as obvious or ready in other systems — or that encourage as much player participation in the story beyond giving the what they hope to achieve, seeing the roll, and resulting in a success or failure.
NDS is easy to learn. After a few rolls, calculating success or failure comes pretty readily. With a GM prompting, “what are you going to do with that Advantage?” players get into the groove after a few minutes. The dice system provides an interesting take on dice mechanics in role-playing games, and it is worth checking out.
Patrick Kanouse encountered Traveller and Star Frontiers in the early 1980s, which he then subjected his brother to many games of. Outside of RPGs, he is a fiction writer and new convert to war gaming. His last post for Black Gate was A Traveller Whodunnit: Murder on Arcturus Station. You can check out his ongoing, play-by-post, referee-less Traveller game at basiliskstation.blogspot.com. Twitter: @patrickkanouse. Facebook: www.facebook.com/patrickkanouse