starwarsedge

Characters are the core of my newest Star Wars game.

In my previous posts, I’d been exploring the Agenda and Principles for Apocalypse World. This was partially because I think they’re really sweet, and partially because I was running a campaign of the game. Sadly, that game seems to be done, as we had two key players move out of state.

In the meantime, with another group, I’ve started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game set in the Force Awakens-era Star Wars universe. The idea of Agenda, Principles, and Moves won’t leave me alone, though. I find them to be hugely useful, to the point that I’m going to reiterate the statement that you saw in the subject of this post:

To be a better GM, you need to know the characters more than the mechanics.

Figured we’d pause a few moments to let any strong feelings subside so I can explain myself.

Story, Story, Story

My statement is all about priorities when running (or playing) a game. I focus a lot, almost exclusively, on story when I’m at the table. That doesn’t mean that I’m not familiar with the systems I’m running, or that I can’t make rules calls as the session progresses. What it does mean is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, that I want all the characters I run to react authentically, and that I want the players to be engaged in the choices their characters make.

That brings me back around to the stuff I want to lift from Apocalypse World. If you look at the Agenda and Principles, you don’t see anything in there that has to do with dice rolls or rules. It’s all about how you present the setting and the story. I’m of a mind that these things can be applied to any game system where story can take center stage.

Case in point: I’ve adapted the AW Agenda and Principles to Star Wars: EoE. Check it out–

Agenda

  • Make the Star Wars Universe seem real
  • Make the player characters’ lives not boring
  • Play to find out what happens

Principles

  • Make with the blasters and lightsabers
  • Address yourself to the characters, not the players
  • Make your move, but misdirect
  • Make your move, but never speak its name
  • Look through the datapad
  • Name everyone, make everyone real
  • Ask provocative questions and build on the answers
  • Respond with complications and regular rewards
  • Be a fan of the players’ characters
  • Think offscreen too
  • Sometimes, disclaim decision-making

If you compare these to the Agenda and Principles from AW itself, you’ll see that this initial set of changes don’t differ that much from the original list. Here’s what I altered:

  • Make the Star Wars Universe seem real
  • Make with the blasters and lightsabers
  • Look through the datapad
  • Name everyone, make everyone real
  • Respond with complications and regular rewards

These five, I changed to fit better with the Star Wars universe. “Make it seem real” is pretty self-explanatory. “Blasters and lightsabers” replaces “Barf forth apocalyptica” as my reminder to keep it Star Wars.

“Look through the datapad” replaces “look through the crosshairs” and I made that change because Star Wars isn’t all character disposability (Death Stars and exploding planets notwithstanding). Instead, every character in Star Wars seems to have a real history upon which they can draw. There’s some record of them somewhere, even if it’s only a story told in hushed whispers. This is my reminder to link the characters to the setting and imply a history even if I don’t come up with a fully developed one myself.

“Make everyone real” replaces “Make everyone human,” because aliens.

Lastly, I replaced “intermittent fuckery” with “complications” because it felt more in keeping with the theme of Star Wars. The idea’s the same, but I wanted something that wasn’t as swear-y for Star Wars.

Okay, So You’ve Got Those. What About What You Said About Mechanics?

Right, that bit.

That’s where Moves come in. I’d not gotten to any in-depth examination of Moves in my previous posts. What they come down to in AW is this: they’re things you do when you roll the dice. They have outcomes based on the die roll, and they produce in-fiction effects (sometimes mechanical, sometimes not) based on that outcome.

Since this post is about how to use AW-type stuff in other games, let’s leave Moves in AW at that, for now.

The point of all of this is that knowing how characters are going to react in a given situation, knowing how their actions will further the story, and having a strong sense of how all of your NPCs work within the Agenda and Principles of any game you run, well…

All of that is more important than knowing how to do that stuff in a given system.

Now, that’s a hugely reductionist statement. For any game to work, you need to know how the mechanics of a system function, especially if you’re the one running the game. You’ve got to have a better-than-basic grasp of the system, or the gears of your game are gonna grind to a halt the first time (and every subsequent time) the mechanics come up.

However, in my experience, you can always get help with the mechanics from someone else at the table, look up how a rule works, or just hand-wave the mechanical issue in the moment and come back to it later.

The thing you absolutely cannot do any of that with is the story.

In all types of media, people talk about immersion, or suspension of disbelief, or being “in the moment.” When you’re at a game table and one of the players has their character do something that doesn’t fit the tone of the game, or that doesn’t jibe with how everyone else is playing, that breaks those things. When you’re the GM and you’re responsible for spooling events from one moment to the next to be the sort of glue that holds the fabric of the story together, you’ve got to keep that priority set first.

I’ve always been sort of aware of that when I’m running a game. Focusing on Moves and focusing on how fictional actions and agendas all work together to activate the mechanics of any system has improved how I run games. I don’t tend to plan out the plot of any given session because I want to have the agendas of the characters, the PC agendas and the agendas of the NPCs I run, to drive the story. To be able to do that more effectively at the table, I’ve been focusing on non-mechanical Moves for my NPCs.

What that means, practically, is that when it comes time for my people to do something, I have motivations, actions, things they can do. Once they do those things, I can bring in the appropriate mechanics to make sure everything goes the way it should for a given system.

So, What’s the Point, Really?

The point is that I know I’ve got this deficiency as a GM and I’ve found this method to shore it up. When I make NPCs, or intricate parts of a setting, too, I tend to think I need to keep all of those things active in my mind while I run a session. Trying to keep fully realized characters or setting pieces in my head while I also deal with game mechanics makes me burn out when I try to improvise a session.

It’s totally a self-created problem. But Agenda, Principles, and Moves help me get around it.

In my next post, I’ll give y’all concrete examples of how I do this with the Star Wars campaign I mentioned above. That Agenda and those Principles give me a good grounding for campaign-level things, but when it comes to NPCs and settings, Moves are where it’s at. Tune in next time for that breakdown.