Convention Star Wars

My Star Wars game at AcadeCon was remarkably, thrillingly satisfying. It went better than I had hoped, certainly better than I expected. In fact, it went so well I couldn’t process it for some time. My players were excellent and bought into my cheap trick GM shenanigans gleefully. This post is about that session, what I learned, and how I can make it better.

Unabashedly Clone Wars

The tone of the game was unapologetically that of The Clone Wars animated series. Things were dark, serious, violent, comedic, and tragic. It’s a tale of a squad of clones caught in a war they were engineered for but never asked to join.

The Siege of Mandalore is the setting. It’s referenced in Star Wars Rebels and the novel Ahsoka but never shown on screen. Season 5 of The Clone Wars sets up the siege in the episode “The Lawless.” Obi-Wan tells Bo-Katan that the events that have transpired will bring the Republic and all-out war to Mandalore. In the second season of Rebels, Captain Rex tells Phoenix Squadron, “I fought with [Ahsoka] from the Battle of Cristophsis to the Siege of Mandalore.” Lastly, in Ahsoka it’s hinted that Order 66 was issued as the battle was wrapping up. That fixes the time pretty firmly.

So that’s where we are with my scenario: the Siege of Mandalore as the events of Revenge of the Sith unfold elsewhere in the galaxy.

The PCs are a squad of clone troopers and their Jedi padawan commander. It’s very much a reflection of Ahsoka in The Clone Wars and the brief glimpses we got of other padawans in various media. The Jedi Master is an NPC. The eight clones are all different specializations with different skill sets. Since I was using Age of Rebellion, they all had pretty firm niches to fill and not a lot of overlap. They were partially inspired by the unfinished arc of The Clone Wars called “The Bad Batch.” Since this is the end of the war, I gave all the PCs 250xp earned when I built them. Shinies they were not.

99 Problems but the Sith Ain’t One

I first had the idea for this game a few years ago. I opened the session by having the players pick characters. Three of the four randomized their choice. We wound up with Hawkbat the sniper, Moli the demolitions expert, Nursie the medic, and Hobber the heavy weapons specialist. Left on the table were: Naut, the commando; Wraith, the scout; Cap, the squad’s captain; Repo, the driver and procurement specialist; and Rel, the Jedi padawan.

With characters chosen, I started in on leading questions about the squad, its history, and their intra-squad relationships. The squad’s official designation was the 99th Clone Battalion, but they are commonly called 99 Problems. This is partly because things are already pretty bad if the 99th is getting called in but also because they have a reputation for collateral damage.

For relationships, the players decided that they all loved the Jedi master but the padawan didn’t gel with the squad as well; he was too overeager and didn’t treat them as people. Except Hobber disagreed, having worked with the padawan a lot. Hawkbat had saved Repo – the squad’s driver – a few times without Repo ever knowing. Wraith – the squad’s stealthy melee commando – was standoffish and was interested in studying the ways of the Force. Ultimately I made sure that every PC had a connection to at least one other PC and that every character left on the table had at least one connection to the chosen squad.

Dirty GM Tricks

With all the history and back story fleshed out, I started the game. It was framed like the opening of a The Clone Wars episode which almost all feature a brief “previously on” montage at the start even if those events were never shown on screen. Our montage was of their Star Destroyer, the Steadfast, dealing with a weird space anomaly and being delayed in getting to Mandalore. I did my best Stephen Stanton narrator as I proclaimed “The Steadfast and her crew race to Mandalore, already under siege!”

The squad loads up into a LAAT/i and Jedi Master Kune Jee gives them the broad strokes of the mission as they descend through the atmosphere. Somehow either the Separatists or the Mandalorians secretly built a shield generator strong enough to withstand bombardment and prevent invasion of the capital city. The shield generator and the power station that fuels it are located in a suburb of the capital atop a mesa that houses an ancient Mandalorian fortress city. The 99th has been instructed to bring that shield down, preferably without destroying it. The Republic will have need of it after they oust the Separatists.

Anti-air batteries fill the sky with fire. The LAAT/i pilot starts to yell, “Incoming!” but is cut off by a massive explosion. Everything goes dark. The four PCs wake up on the ground, having been thrown from the landing craft. The LAAT/i is in ruins, the cockpit filled with flames and the rest warped, twisted, and crushed almost beyond recognition. They are the only survivors. Master Jee was crushed underneath. Rel was caught by shrapnel. The rest of 99 Problems perished in the crash. The Separatists are jamming communications, they can’t update command. They are on their own.

I was honestly surprised that this went over well. It could easily have fallen absolutely flat The players took it as a tone-setting piece of narration rather than GM fiat, which is what was going for. They had a moment of stunned silence. Nursie’s player checked everyone’s vitals; sorry, dude, they were all still dead. He wanted to try and revive the Jedi master. I told him, “His chest doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s been crushed flat.” Eventually one of the players said, “Well, this got real in a hurry.” and from there they were all business.

War On Mandalore

The PCs were on their own with no hope of reinforcements and only a cursory explanation of their mission. Sure, they had some holo briefings with tactical suggestions based on outdated information but it was really up to them. They opted to sneak into the city and shut down the power to the shield facility rather than blow everything up. Other solutions included shutting down the shield, blowing up the shield generator, blowing up the power station, or using the power station to overload the shield generator.

Their ongoing battles involved a recon party of B-1 battle droids investigating the crash, a fight to burst through the shield perimeter, an ambush by commando droids in the ancient drainage tunnels, a running firefight through the streets against Mandalorian warriors, and a climactic fight inside the power generation station that featured B-2 Super Battle Droids, Droideka, Mandalorian warriors, and a Mandalorian nemesis.

Sprinkled throughout the battles were hints that things were not normal on Mandalore. The B-1s that found the crashed landing craft were armed with different blasters than every other battle droid in the war. After blasting a hole in the defensive line around the shield the clones realized these were from Concordian Crescent Technologies. For some reason, the Separatist were using Mandalorian weapons. Battle droids on STAPs were commanded by Mandalorians on jetpacks. There was a third faction shooting at the Mandalorians in the city. Eventually they met that third faction, the remnants of Deathwatch under Bo-Katan Kryze. They had formed a resistance against the Saxon clan, who had aided and joined the Separatists. Bo-Katan’s group were assaulting the power station to restore power to the city. The clones decided to help.

Ultimately, we ran out of time. I’d never run this scenario before and had packed too much into it. The final battle was in desperate straits and I was already five minutes over so I had all the players make a super hard roll using a skill they wanted to use to finish the mission. It was actually a very satisfying result. The stakes were high, the dice created interesting results, and the players embraced those results. Two of the players rolled Despair on their final checks – Hobber and Moli wound up dying heroically even though they succeeded in their aims. The mission was a success but we lost all but two of the 99 Problems in the process. There were tears in my eyes as Hobber’s player talks about stepping out from cover to draw fire and mow down the Mandalorians who were trying to stop Moli from rerouting the power cables. Moli’s final moment was getting shot repeatedly but still struggling to stand up and throw the final lever that shut down power to the shield generator and brought the city back on line.

What I Learned – The Good

The setup of the squad and all its messy relationships followed by killing off more than half the potential PCs worked amazingly well. It could have easily faceplanted but I think the combination of the setting and my delivery turned it into a solid way to set the stakes and tone early on.

I already knew the narrative dice are phenomenal but this session really drove home that the red dice are potent story telling devices. Despair came up a number of times in the game and it really made an impact every time it came up. GMs should really push the red dice in their games to up tension.

If someone plays the padawan, I need to end with Order 66. Throughout AcadeCon I couldn’t help myself when talking about my game. Anyone who asked for details got my setup, my dirty little GM tricks, and my planned ending if someone takes the padawan. Lots of people (including the players in my game during a quick debrief) lost their minds at the prospect of, “‘Execute Order 66’, and fade to black” as an ending. Probably shouldn’t put spoilers like that out here on the internet like this but no one really reads my blog anyway.

What I Learned – The Indifferent

Wow, FFG’s Star Wars is a deadly system. It is very easy for a GM to knock a character out if they want to. All the characters took significant damage, some of them multiple times. If Nursie hadn’t been in the group things would have been much more dire. Five combat encounters was a lot to run through but it was also in keeping with the war story I presented them with. The final fight was too much; had we played it out the clones would have been wiped out. If I stick with these rules, I’ll have to scale that back significantly. The rules work great for smaller scale combat that we see in the original trilogy, not the sort of epic battle scenes we get in The Clone Wars. That final fight had two Destroyer Droids (droideka), a squad of B-2 Super Battle Droids, a squad of Mandalorian warriors (statted as minions), two small squads of BX-series Commando Droids, and a nemesis Mandalorian. That’s a big, interesting fight on TV. Here it was enough to TPK even hugely badass, experienced. This isn’t bad, mind you. It’s just a statement of how the game runs and a consideration to take when designing scenarios.

What I Learned – The Bad

There were some significant pacing issues. That’s on me. Too many encounters were crammed in there; I wanted the session to feel like a war movie where they had to fight their way through enemy territory. The goal was also to tell the plot through inference and let the players take actions based on the small things they notice or I describe. There was very little spoken dialogue between the mission briefing and the the setup for the final fight.

I keep bumping into edge cases in FFG Star Wars as I build characters, and run & play games that are just building aggravations. The game has a very strict encumbrance system. You’re locked into the talent tree model. Combat is perilous but not always in a satisfying way. Healing is hard and has diminishing returns on easy healing. These things aren’t bad design choices, they’re bad design fits for me.

It may be a better idea for me to take this whole thing and port it over to Fate. There are some pretty dang cool things I can do with condition and stunts for clones and Jedi. The demolitions expert checks a box to have a grenade of the appropriate type, for example. Or the squad leader being able to give orders that creates a Battle Plan aspect with additional free invokes for other clones.

Coming Soon to a Convention Near You

When all is said and done, I think I’ve found my go-to convention scenario. It may change to Fate but this setup and the story it created is one of the best convention games I’ve ever run. This is a scenario that can go wildly different depending on the characters, the players, and the system. I look forward to seeing those variations.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

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