This is why, fundamentally, the ideas behind the Crush the Rebellion campaign for the FFG Star Wars RPG make an empirically good roleplaying game.
What Makes A Good Roleplaying Game?
This kind of question is asked and answered poorly so often in our hobby that it has become cliche. However, I like to take a somewhat different approach that goes deeper and in a way that is often overlooked or ignored by many in the industry. What I’m getting at is a more traditional definition of roleplaying game. While many pundits wax poetic on the romantic values of character backstory, rich setting detail, and compelling NPCs; in truth, all of these are as ephemeral as tears in the rain. A Galaxy Master’s universe is insignificant compared to the power of the players’ decisions.
A good roleplaying game adheres to the values of game theory; designed to analyze and predict the rational decisions of players in a constructed environment. Meaningful decision-making is integral to game theory and, I believe, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the roleplaying game field who would not agree that tough decisions are at the heart of RPGs.
Crush the Rebellion creates an environment to test the motivations and social responsibilities of the participants by a twist on the Tragedy of the Commons, a game theory scenario that is commonplace in almost every Political Science 101 class across all of academia. In a common description of this scenario, a group of shepherds tends their flocks upon one communal meadow. If the shepherds restrain themselves and only let their sheep graze during the day, then the meadow will be sustainable and the community as a whole will prosper the most. However, a shepherd may sneak away at night and let their flock graze an additional time. The individual flock will do better at the expense of a depleted meadow and the community as a whole suffering. An important question to all players arises in this scenario: Does one sacrifice the good of the community for the benefit of the self?
This is the core of Crush the Rebellion. In this campaign, the players are repeated asked that very question. To succeed at the end-game goal of completing their Secret Agendas, they much expend precious resources, experience points, on skills purposefully chosen to be the least beneficial to the group, having limited, corner-case benefits. The consequences of failure are severe: execution. Though I’m now only at the very beginning of the campaign, I can already see the players’ trying to gingerly toe the line between designing characters that have useful skills to succeed at Operations while still retaining as much focus as possible on the oddball skills needed to advance their Secret Agenda properly and win the campaign.
An additional layer of complexity and hard decisions are added in the rules surrounding Secret Agenda advancement checks, more akin to another scenario from game theory, The Prisoner’s Dilemma. When making these checks at the end of an Operation, a player (and only a player, never the Galaxy Master) may upgrade the difficulty through use of an available Destiny Point, as per standard rules as written. On a result of Despair, the character making that check is discovered by the Emperor and executed.
The Game Theory strategy and intense decision making comes into play here in a particularly gripping fashion. Some strategies dictate that it is never worthwhile to upgrade the check, for fear of retaliation not only of the affected player, but also from the remainder of the group whom now view the player as an aggressor. Another strategy calls for an aggressive stance to actively keep ones opponents down. A third option is to save Destiny Point usage here for strictly retaliatory effects, punishing those who would commit such violent acts against the community. These tense moments at the end of an Operation when such truly important decisions are being made are, quite frankly, thrilling. It captures the feeling of betrayal, mistrust, an icy suspicions that I feel are so absolutely necessary in a campaign designed to show off the inherent distrust and corruption from within inherent in a beuracratic behemoth such as the Galactic Empire.
In summary, roleplaying games are not about pretending to speak in weird, alien voices and they’re not about sitting back and letting the person in charge spin you a leisurely yarn about a fictional universe. Those things are just fun dressing and cover used to sugar-coat the more deeper exploration of how we interact with each other and what our place is in society.