Tag Archives: Star Wars

RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

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Last Jedi

If you follow the news at all, you’ll of course have noticed that a lot of powerful and momentous events have happened since I wrote here last. On the one hand I feel like I should write about them, because they’re important and I feel strongly about them, but I also feel strongly that this is not a political blog and that most of you don’t come here to read about my political thoughts and ideas. So I’ll leave that commentary off for now; if you happen to want to know what I think you can probably figure it out from my Twitter feed anyway.

Instead I thought I would join the multitude scrabbling for every scrap of meaning that can be wrenched from the poster for the next Star Wars movie. There isn’t much. It’s just a black field of stars, with the familiar ‘Star Wars’ logo in unfamiliar red, and the movie’s title: The Last Jedi. Not a lot of meat on that bone, but still we gnaw away.

I guess arguably some of this might count as spoilers, but it’s all my speculation (I have no inside source of information, alas) so I think it’s fine, but consider yourself warned.

The obvious thing the title suggests to me (and suggested to many others) is that Luke Skywalker will die in this movie, leaving Rey as the last of the Jedi. I suppose the safe bet is that he’ll perish at the hands of Kylo Ren, his former apprentice. Broadly this would fit with the middle movie of a trilogy, where things are often left in a fairly dark and nasty place to set up the eventual resolution in the final act. This is, of course, what happened in Empire Strikes Back where we were left with Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, Luke defeated and demoralized by Vader, and the best that could be said was that our heroes – mostly – got away. So from that, and the red logo (‘red’ in Star Wars usually denotes the bad-guy Sith, and in a more general sense means emergencies and blood), it’s a reasonably safe bet that this movie is going to have some Bad Things happen.

The death of Luke is the obvious one. From a narrative perspective, the story just doesn’t work very well if Rey goes off to find Luke in the hopes that he’ll fix all the problems, and then he comes back and actually does fix them. It’s a much better story if everyone expects that Luke will (once again) save the day, but then he either fails or succeeds imperfectly, dying in the attempt, and leaving a younger, relatively untried student to try to put things back together. That’s not a bad setup for a third movie where Rey – who is still really just a kid from a junkyard no-one has heard of – will have to shoulder a much heavier burden than anyone anticipated.

Now, lots of people have criticized that as following the arc of the first Star Wars trilogy too closely, and if Last Jedi does unfold according to expectations then it will be running from a fairly familiar playbook. (I mean, broad strokes: Vader kills Obi-Wan, his former teacher, Luke gets his act together to eventually defeat Vader) However, as very many people have also pointed out, the Star Wars story has always been kind of doing that anyway, with its ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ structure and elements plucked from other sources like The Hidden Fortress. In other words, it seems a little late to start getting down on Star Wars for telling a familiar tale; that’s kind of what it has always done. The charm has been that it told that familiar tale well, with heart and humour and flair. As much as writers (and I guess readers) sometimes idolize Original Fresh Plot Ideas, sometimes I think the important part really is that you do a good job of storytelling.

I do also think the writers have left themselves enough room to manoeuvre that even if Rey’s story seems likely to follow a well-traced path, there will be fresh stuff in there. Most prominently, Finn is a character we really haven’t seen yet, and exactly where his path is likely to lead is far less clear. Presumably he’s going to confront his First Order past a little more thoroughly, and he’ll need to figure out what it is he wants to be now that he’s decided not to be a stormtrooper – up to quite recently, his only identity. Through Force Awakens he was more or less carried along by the current of events; at some point (perhaps while recovering from his injuries) he’ll have to decide what he will be now. That’s interesting, to me at least. Who is Finn when it’s not a crisis, when there isn’t a battle to fight? I want to see the answer to that.

I’m less sure what the plan may be for Kylo Ren; the general Star Wars arc would call for some form of redemption, but I think they’ve made that a fairly difficult road this time. Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan in the first movie and was, eventually, redeemed, but Obi-Wan wasn’t his father and wasn’t a character with the resonance of Han Solo. If Kylo kills Luke as well as Han it’s going to be pretty hard for a lot of the audience to buy him as redeemable, but if he’s not redeemed by the end of the trilogy it would be a surprisingly dark direction for Star Wars. Generally, the movies say that if you want to come back from a dark place, you always can. Maybe they’ll tell us the story of why Kylo Ren doesn’t want to, but that would be a bleaker story than the franchise usually gives us. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words about an image that had only 5 words on it to begin with, so I’ll stop here. Perhaps needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next installment quite a bit.

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I can’t quite leave it without saying something about the horrible shootings in St. Foy, Quebec, when innocent people were murdered while they were at prayer. There was horror, there was a great deal of confusion. Authorities called it an act of terror, which it was, and eventually it emerged that the perpetrator was a white man with hard right-wing views. We don’t know everything about what led him to act exactly how and when he did, but the broad strokes of the story are all too evident.

This is what happens when people promote ideas of division and intolerance. When we say that this or that group shouldn’t be here, or that this particular religion is a danger, or that people who live their lives a certain way cause some kind of hazard, we naturally create a climate of fear and crisis. Given time, eventually some distressed, frightened and hateful soul will lash out against these enemies we have created. You can only tell people they’re in danger for so long before they’re going to react, and all to often people react with violence. We know this. I like to tell myself this isn’t a deliberate orchestration, but we should know well enough not to do this any more.

You can’t preach hate and division and then wash your hands of the consequences. Think very carefully about the ideas you spread and the ones you fail to denounce. The end point of intolerance is what happened in St. Foy. No political agenda you may have can possibly be worth the slaughter of people who have done nothing to anyone. If Sunday night’s massacre horrified you, then stand firm against the ideologies that led to it.

We can’t have it. I believe we won’t stand it. I believe the tide runs very firmly in the opposite direction, that society will become more and more diverse and that we will have more and more different kinds of people, and it will be wonderful. Of course, it only happens if we make it happen.

We do that through resistance to what is not right, to calling what is wrong what it is, and through being the kinder, more tolerant, welcoming people we all want to live with. The future is ours. Let’s go get it.

Thanks for reading.

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Rogue One Trailer

The trailer for the new Star Wars movie Rogue One is out, and I gather it has caused a lot of fuss, both the happy clamour of excited fans and (apparently) the gnashing of teeth by people who are (for very stupid reasons that I’m not getting into here) Very Upset by what they’ve seen. There’s probably a lot of indifferent people in the middle of those extremes as well.

Since I was roughly the last sapient being known to science to give my thoughts on The Force Awakens, I thought I would do a snap reaction to the Rogue One trailer. I may or may not be procrastinating doing something else. Hush.

What I think is this – there’s not a lot of meat on the bones but it looks pretty cool. I mean there’s AT-ATs and stormtroopers getting beaten up with a stick (does that armour, in fact, protect them from anything at all?) and Mon Mothma and what looks to be a good heaping helping of Star Wars action. Which should be fun, although as Phantom Menace taught me, best not to get too excited yet. Heck, there have been plenty of bad movies with good looking trailers.

The main thing that I feel like I can say something more meaningful about is our main character, Jyn Erso. She seems like she’s going to be pretty interesting. They’re at least sowing the seeds that she may be a less than lily-white character who may not be perfectly idealistically aligned with the Rebellion and is closer to being an actual criminal.

Obviously this sets up a fairly standard SFF (and, well, other genres too) redemption story arc for the character with A Troubled Past, and if I was placing any bets that would be where my money would go. On the other hand, it would be potentially interesting to have the main character of Rogue One be genuinely a difficult person with some shady parts to their past and personality.

For one thing, her line ‘This is a rebellion, isn’t it?’ from the trailer works well with this; if you were really running a shoestring revolt against an overwhelming power, you wouldn’t really get to pick and choose who all the people you’d need to work with would be. You’d probably end up having to make some difficult choices and difficult alliances if you wanted to accomplish your overall goal, and maybe end up wondering exactly how far you could go in that direction without ending up badly compromised. That might be intriguing territory for a Star Wars movie to look at, and it would be easier to do with one that doesn’t have all our thoroughly heroic heroes in it.

Because look, most of the Star Wars heroes and heroines are more or less thoroughly good people (and don’t give me any crap about Han Solo, I’m not even sure he gets ‘redeemed’ as much as stops pretending that he’s not a huge softie) and it would be interesting to have one who might honestly not be. Maybe Jyn Erso is thoroughly competent, very good at what she’s asked to do, but also kind of an unprincipled jerk. (Again, no, that’s not Han Solo.) That would be a neat, and unique, addition to the Star Wars pantheon.

This all sits a bit uneasily with my feeling that one of the things I like about Star Wars is that you have Good vs. Evil and not a lot of the shades of grey stuff that is immensely popular at the moment. (Look if you’re waiting for me to adopt entirely consistent positions on things, you’re gonna be waiting a while) I think there’s room to still do that and still tell a story that would still be Star Wars – Good vs. Evil. I think it is worthwhile recognizing that in the pursuit of good goals, sometimes things happen that are less than good. I think it’s definitely worth recognizing that even people who do very good things are unlikely to be perfect. Even if we decide, ‘yes, this is a good person’ in the end, there are probably some parts of them that are less than ideal. Except Galahad, and Galahad is no fun.

Now again, I don’t think that’s actually what we’re gonna get and what will happen is we’ll get a movie about Jyn who comes from a rough background and doesn’t trust anyone and looks out only for herself learning to be a part of a team and commit to a cause that’s larger than she is in that fairly standard Becoming a Hero way, and that will probably be a perfectly entertaining movie. It would just be a little more interesting, to me, if we got a character who (say) doesn’t like the Empire, but also doesn’t really like this whole Republic thing either, because governments in general can’t be trusted or just rip you off, but she’ll work with the Rebels for now because they’re helping her blow up Imperial stuff.

Anyway. Those are my quick-draw thoughts. December seems a long way off, although I’m sure we’ll get lots more teasers tossed our way before then.

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Star Wars

Goofy idea postponed yet again (at this rate I may never do it!) because, as you may have seen on the Twitter, later last week I was finally one of the last sentient creatures roaming the surface of the planet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m gonna ramble on about that a little bit today. In the interests of the last few entities wandering around out there who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, including especially the part where Jabba the Hutt turns out to be the new head of the Jedi.

One of the interesting things in waiting so long (in the safe damp darkness underneath the rock where I live) to see the movie was that I got to see a bunch of reactions to it before I went myself. Overall the tone of these seemed to be positive, although there is/was a significant minority of negative outcry as well. So I was ever so slightly sceptical as the stupid preshow smartphone games and previews finally ended and the iconic Crawl O’Text began to make its stately way up the screen.

My first reaction, honestly, was relief. Star Wars was back.

I should explain. Through my teens and into my early twenties (not quite a long, long time ago but verging upon it) I was an enormous Star Wars fan, perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree. I absolutely loved the original trilogy of films, and could have done most of the dialogue from memory. I had Star Wars posters all over my walls, played all sorts of Star Wars games, and was frequently kitted out in Star Wars t-shirts. I was deeply invested in the franchise, to say the least. Then Phantom Menace came out, and some friends and I rented out a VIP screening room to watch it on the first possible day. The movie started. I still keenly remember sitting there trying to convince myself that the movie wasn’t shit, and eventually failing. I had looked forward to a new Star Wars movie so much, and it was awful.

As a result I waited for the reviews on Attack of the Clones, heard it was shit, and so … never saw it. I never even considered seeing Revenge of the Sith. The movies sold tons of tickets so I just basically filed away Star Wars as a franchise that was no longer ‘for me’ and put it away in the ‘fond memories’ category. Time passed and I thought about Star Wars less all the time (probably a good thing) until the news started to trickle out about new movies being made, and then The Force Awakens came out.

As I said, with some scepticism I (eventually) went to see it, and again, wow, Star Wars was back. Part of it was (of course) the return of familiar characters like Han Solo and Leia, but they also just got the overall tone and feel of the movie very nearly exactly right. I’ve seen the movie criticized for ‘playing things too safe’ and being too much like the original trilogy and I guess especially A New Hope, but for me a movie that looked and felt like the Star Wars movies I had loved was exactly what was necessary. Maybe the next two movies will take more ‘risks’ but I hope they don’t do too much, because fundamentally the Star Wars setup works pretty well.

One of the things I enjoy is that you have characters who are clearly Good, if somewhat flawed at times, and characters who are clearly Evil, and the story the movie tells is essentially a conflict between these. I think part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars as a setting is its (usually) unapologetic presentation of a confrontation between Right and Wrong and an overall narrative that suggests that, in the end, evil will be defeated. I think that’s a story that twangs something very deep inside us, it’s a story we’re sort of culturally primed to like, and part of why stories like Star Wars and Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf are the ones that we keep coming back to.

That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good, compelling, ‘shades of grey’ story, obviously you can and I enjoy them immensely at times. (Battlestar Galactica was almost entirely shades of grey, by the end, and it was a fantastic series) At the same time, I think that not every story needs to be grey, that there’s an undeniable appeal in a story that gives you clear Good Guys and Bad Guys.* In a lot of ways, I think we ultimately want it to be true that there are truly good forces in the world, and that in the end the bad things in our society and our world can end up being defeated.**

That’s one of the things fiction can do very well: provide an inspiring or comforting vision of the way we would like things to go in the real world, something we can look at or read and think ‘yes, this is the way it should be‘. Perhaps it can be that way in the real world. Perhaps we can make it that way. I think, at times, fiction can be an aspirational text, the goal we’re aiming for, and in a very loose way Star Wars can be that for some people. Certainly I think there are examples there that can excite, motivate, and inspire you, if you let them.

I think that was part of the reason that teenage me got so into Star Wars. It was an ultimately positive vision, and I tend to like those. As I’ve said before, right now I think we get more than enough examples of it being difficult to find unproblematically good figures in the world and plenty of examples of what is wrong going unconfronted or uncorrected that it’s nice to not get that in my fiction as well. I think the new movie, in this particular way and in a lot of others, remembers what was really fun and good and enjoyable about the first trilogy of films and gives it back to you. I guess you could say that’s not very daring or ambitious, but I think it’s also very welcome.

Ok, I’ve already written a lot about this movie and I’m not going to go on very much more about it, but I want to address one of the most loudly-expressed objections to what we got in The Force Awakens at least a little.

I read a lot of criticisms of Rey’s character prior to watching the movie, primarily that she is a ‘Mary Sue’ – (briefly) one of those (often very annoying) characters who have every special talent, can do everything and handle anything. In my opinion, it doesn’t hold up. Rey does get to do a lot of cool things in the movie and is at the forefront of most of the action. However, that’s because she’s what we call the main character, or the star of the show. So of course she’s leading the way, that’s what main characters do. You can’t go into (say) an Indiana Jones movie and complain that Indy does everything; that’s what protagonists or main characters do.

<Gonna get slightly spoiler-y here for a second>

 

 

 

Rey also does exhibit a fairly wide range of talents, although again in part that’s just a hero being a hero. However, even by the movie’s internal logic, they make sense. She’s good at fixing starships because she’s been taking them apart her whole life. Presumably that’s also why she has an idea of how to pilot one; she’s done the equivalent of growing up in an enormous junkyard and therefore having a basic sense of what to do with a car. She turns out to be really good at it because of the Force. I mean, you can hate that as an explanation but it’s imbedded in the Star Wars setting. Luke was a great starfighter pilot with no training because of the Force and does probably 98% of the things he can do because of Space Magic. Same deal with Rey, in fact if there is a criticism here it’s that it’s quite so close to Luke’s story.

 

 

 

<spoilery stuff ends>

I suspect some of the criticism of Rey comes from people trying to justify being unhappy with a female lead. That’s immensely disappointing and distressing, for reasons that I trust I don’t have to lay out here. She’s a great character, well acted by Daisy Ridley, and I’m already looking forward to the next part of her story.

All right, that really is it for this week, except to say that if you are one of the remaining sentiences out there on the planetary crust who hasn’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I’d recommend it as a good time.  Thank you for indulging what became a more than slightly bloated, fanboy-ish gush of a post. Normal service will resume next week.

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* – Yes, of course I’m aware that it’s possible to problematize Star Wars by thinking about innocent bystanders on the Death Star and that ordinary citizens might possibly like the order provided by the Empire and so on. I think it’s clear, though, that this isn’t the vision the story is intending you to pick up. It’s fun to read against texts and unravel things, of course, but you also have to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

** – Avoiding spoilers, but of course in the original trilogy and in this new movie these victories don’t come without various kinds of sacrifice. That’s generally the way the narrative goes in these kinds of story though, isn’t it, and (without getting too anthropological) I think it’s another useful part of the message. Evil can be defeated, but not trivially, not without commitment. That’s one of those things that you sense is true as soon as it’s suggested to you.

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