Alternate Clone Wars, Part 2

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This week features a slight digression to propose an alternate interpretation of the mechanics of Force use than what I see in most tabletop implementations. It’s presented now because I’m assuming it for the writeup of Jedi next week, and if you use a more standard model, next week’s post may be less useful to you.

Force Powers

One of the classic problems with implementing Jedi in a tabletop game is that the giant raft of powers required to make them feel minimally competent makes them way more powerful than other PCs and/or pre-spends most of their traits making it hard to differentiate them. A pile of powers is certainly in line with the prequels, but not necessarily with the original trilogy or even with The Force Awakens (slightly more mild spoilers than usual for episode 7 in this post, if you’re still worried about that).

The interesting thing about Force use by the classic five (Luke, Vader, Kenobi, Yoda, and the Emperor) and even the two in the new episode is that it’s extremely common to see a power used only by one or two characters. A lot of this is probably meant to be intent and/or screen time: Vader doesn’t really get into a situation where a mind trick is more useful than a force choke, and Kenobi wouldn’t electrocute anyone even presented the opportunity. So we mostly see the tricks that Luke learns, plus a handful of other interesting things that the others do with their limited screen time and that Luke might just not know yet.

But what if it’s not a big list of powers that new Jedi need to check off? What if it’s exactly what it looks like in the films: force lightning isn’t a dark side expression that any skilled force user could use if angry enough, but the Emperor’s unique power. What if the vast majority of force powers are new developments: you can only learn them if you track down their creator and get training.

We now have a solved problem and a new opportunity: starting PCs no longer need a ton of Force powers to feel “correct” and Jedi PCs now have a deep motivation to go adventuring to meet other Jedi and get trained in their powers.

Now we can break the powers expressed in the films into general powers and individual characters’ unique powers.

For general abilities, assume an overall ability to feel and push/pull on connections between the Jedi and other matter/minds:

  • Prescience: It seems to be pretty common to have some level of premonition/sense of destiny.
  • Telekinesis: All Force users seem to be able to shove, yank, and whip small objects, and can sometimes manage bigger objects.
  • Mental Sensitivity: Jedi can often, but not always, sense other individuals to whom they are emotionally tied; particularly if they are nearby and/or Force sensitive.
  • Telepathy: It seems to be pretty common to speak into the mind, at least to call for help, and pull out information (particularly things at the surface of the mind).
  • Mind Control: We don’t see every Force user manage the mind trick, but it certainly seems common enough that Jabba is aware of what Luke’s doing and that he’s immune.

There are also several abilities that are demonstrated by only one Force user, or by only a couple that have a clear training relationship:

  • Leap: In the original trilogy, Luke is the only character that manages a mighty leap. Importantly, Vader seems surprised by it when he escapes from the carbonite bath.
  • Ghost: It’s plausible that the only thing this did for living Kenobi was give him a heightened ability to notice deaths, and Yoda and Vader were really happy to see that he actually came back after dying since they’d spent time learning the trick from him.
  • Size Matters Not: Don’t you think that if Vader could figure out how to lift something bigger than boxes he’d make use of it? It’s less a philosophical revelation and more Yoda’s special power.
  • Choke/Crush: Crushing things is actually harder to do than just pulling them or shoving them; Vader could probably use this for things other than crushing windpipes, and probably did before he fell to the Dark Side.
  • Lightning: The Emperor’s special gift is extremely flashy and terrifying. You’d put a man that could electrocute you with his hands in charge if he asked.
  • Freeze: Kylo Ren’s power seems to be an interesting combo of physical/mental: it pauses inanimate objects/energy and restores their motion when cancelled, but paralyzes people.

Most of these are essentially modifiers on the base powers, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t stack. Kylo Ren can only freeze things he could normally use his powers on (small objects/blasts or sentient minds), but if Luke learned his power he could combine it with Yoda’s to freeze much bigger objects. In a perfect world, each of the powers has a name more like “Size Matters Not” that shows how it reflects the philosophy/psychology of the originating character and explains why that character got that power.

So I’d suggest a fairly simple way to stat Force users (particularly in a low-granularity system like Fate or Savage Worlds):

  • Force Sensitivity is a 0 point character option. If you choose to take it, you can buy more powers and you have the very basics of prescience and mental sensitivity that Leia displays, but you’re also far more vulnerable to the prescience and mental sensitivity of other, possibly more powerful, Force users. That is, it’s free, but if you’re never going to buy more powers you might just give it a pass so the Dark Side users have a harder time getting a bead on you.
  • Any sensitive character can buy the Force skill. This unlocks all the general abilities listed above (roll the skill to use them successfully, with results mapped to the range of effects demonstrated by the movies; e.g., if you have the first rank of the skill, you should have a problem yanking a lightsaber out of a snow drift just outside of arm’s reach). You also get to develop a special ability (possibly only once you’ve bought several ranks in the skill, at the GM’s option; Luke doesn’t Force Leap until most of the way through Empire after a fair bit of training).
  • Jedi training might be its own feat/stunt/edge (or series of them) at the GM’s option. They should focus on being able to use a lightsaber to do cool tricks like deflect blasters, possibly some mental discipline, and/or some social advantages. The trait or trait sequence should be pretty well balanced with equally expensive traits; make it a trait series if you want to give Jedi a lot of other mechanical advantages in addition to the Force skill.
  • Finally, you can buy the special abilities of other Force users if they devote time to showing you how to do it and you spend a feat/stunt/edge. Having a cool power to train is the biggest piece of currency of a Jedi master, so you’ll probably expect to have to do some questing to get most to agree to teach you (plot hooks!). Each of these has its own one-off rules as the GM devises. You can probably only learn it directly from the character that originated it (until episode 8 blows this whole theory to smithereens, anyway); once a Jedi dies, his special power is no longer something new Jedi can aspire to learn.

Using any kind of power may cost Force points (see below).

The Dark and Light Sides

Less essential to the topic next week, I also have a slightly unusual concept of how to model the sides of the Force. As I’ve mentioned before, I find that players hate to make suboptimal choices, and that makes them basically immune to temptation when giving into it means taking on a long-term character flaw. That is, modeling the Dark Side as something where you have to write something on your character sheet the first time you use it means that players will never use it, even when their characters would be really, really tempted.

Sure, Yoda had a whole spiel about “forever will it dominate your destiny,” but was he being honest or is he basically saying “one drink is too many” to the son of an alcoholic? Is it really impossible to flirt with the Dark Side and then come back, or is Yoda just worried that, for Skywalkers, it’s harder to stop than others and he doesn’t want Luke to risk it? I’d argue that the end of Return of the Jedi is very much Luke tapping the Dark Side, using it to win the fight with Vader, and then renouncing it.

So I’d suggest that Force users have a reserve of Force points to activate powers. This is possibly some kind of granular reservoir that you have to spend one or more of to use any powers. Or you may just treat it like ammunition in a pulp action game: you’re either fully charged or empty, and certain actions, compels, maneuvers, or critical failures can run you out at an unpredictable time.

Importantly, there are two ways to refill your Force points:

  • The Light Side way is to meditate, or at least experience a protracted period of calm.
  • The Dark Side way is to experience strong emotions/pain.

The Dark Side is quicker, easier, more seductive, but not more powerful because it’s all about your battery: Dark Side users don’t have better powers, but they can refill their reserves very quickly, even in combat, and that’s much more rare for Jedi (though we may have seen a moment of utter calm at the end of The Force Awakens that was an in-combat Light Side recharge). Dark Siders can do things like punch themselves in their terrifying abdominal wounds to recharge in the middle of a lightsaber battle.

And here’s where you get to be all tricksy as a GM: there’s no immediate and obvious penalty for indulging in Dark Side use. Sometimes you’re out of Force Points in the middle of a dangerous fight, the GM asks if you’re going to get angry and go all out, and if you say yes, you get a refill with no immediate consequences. Do it sparingly enough, and it’s probably fine.

What’s going on in the background? Indulging in the Dark Side and strong emotions is making it harder to quiet your mind and feel the living force. Where it once took you an hour or two to meditate and get your Force points back the Light Side way, now it takes a little longer. Not too much longer. Maybe not even noticeable the first few times. But it’s cumulative, and if you do it too much, it may start to take so long to recharge via meditation that it’s no longer practical in the middle of an adventure.

That’s the point you need to worry about. Because now you have to call on the Dark Side to get recharged. And any time you’re out of Force points, the GM might start demanding that your shows of emotion aren’t just “I get angry during this fight” but are things like “I didn’t get what I wanted so I’m going to kill this useful officer/wreck this expensive technology suite.” That is, getting back your Force points means accepting Fate-style compels to ruin your own resources or overextend yourself into a bad position. Because you can no longer control your own emotions.

It might be possible to come back, even then. It’s probably much easier before you get to that point. At the GM’s option, the longer you go without drawing on the Dark Side, the more time gets shaved off of meditation times until they’re back to where they were to start with… or almost there.

Because you can’t get your players to hang themselves unless you give them enough rope.

Alternate Clone Wars, Part 1

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If you haven’t read the last few posts, start here to get a more thorough explanation of the goals of this series. But, in short, I’m not a huge fan of the prequels in general, and, in specific, think they made worldbuilding choices that contradicted the much more interesting implications of the original trilogy. So I’ve long wanted to run a tabletop game set in a reimagining of the prequel-era more in line with the references I found interesting from episodes 4-6. For the purpose of this exercise, nothing is canon except the original three movies (and likely The Force Awakens, as it’s much more in line with 4-6), and I’ll pretend that episodes 1-3 and ancillary materials don’t exist.

The Technology of the Clone Wars

In line with last week’s post, I’m assuming that the technology of the Star Wars galaxy works well as analogue to a similar year in Earth’s history. Which is to say, if the original trilogy has technology that works as an analogue to the tech of the very early 1900s, the technology of the Clone Wars is an equivalent of the mid-late 1800s. Unlike the existing prequels (and very unlike the worldbuilding of The Old Republic), the galaxy is in the middle of a sustained technological revolution, and every generation has technology that’s mindblowing to the one before. However, unlike the last few decades on Earth, this progress still takes decades and is unevenly distributed; poorer and less connected locations still make due with tech that hasn’t been cutting edge for quite some time.

Ships

Perhaps the biggest difference in the era of the Clone Wars is in starship capabilities. The ships of the era are to the ships of the original trilogy as boats powered by sail and steam are to those powered by combustion engines. They can still get you where you’re going in a reasonable amount of time, but they are limited in different ways.

Let’s assume that the navicomputer-calculated hyperspace jumps of the original trilogy were a recent refinement of a long-proven technology equivalent to wind-power: well-established hyperspace lanes. The vast majority of the era’s ships get places by intersecting hyperspace in a known location and “settling into” the hyperspace channel to accelerate gradually up to speed. Unlike the original trilogy ships, they don’t jump to lightspeed in a frenetic burst as soon as the navicomputer is finished, but gradually get up to speed (and perform a similar slowing maneuver at their destination). We might as well also state that this is more or less what the “sub-light” engines of the original trilogy do: the Falcon can quickly go from Hoth, to Anoat, to Bespin with a busted hyperspace drive because even the basic propulsion of the ship allows it to dip into hyperspace and benefit from its violation of relativity.

The practical differences between these hyperspace “sailing” ships and the later versions are threefold:

  • They take time to get up to speed (less than if they had to deal with g-force and relativity, but still meaningful amounts), thus it’s much harder to escape an encounter by jumping away. It takes a few moments to exceed the range of the big guns of non-accelerating ships, and a faster ship might catch you up and continue the fight as you get deeper into hyperspace. Mass of the ship is a still a component in acceleration, so smaller, lighter ships can often get up to speed much more quickly than larger, heavier ones.
  • They are limited in the paths they can take to make the best speed. Moving within a system often involves “tacking against” the hyperspace channels, for reasonably quick travel to nearby planets, but, even then, ships with a more favorable vector might go further in the same amount of time. For long trips (such as those between systems), it’s almost unheard of to try going any way but via an established and well-recorded lane; it may well be faster to travel through multiple other systems to go to one that’s closer to your starting position. These lanes are all loaded into your ship’s computer, and there’s a lot of value for captains in having secret connecting routes that others don’t know about. Finally, it’s rare but a ship might suffer being the equivalent of becalmed: sometimes the boundaries between space and hyperspace mysterious thicken, and ships must use drastically slower engines that accelerate using normal physics to move until the problem ends.
  • They are extremely fuel-efficient, and probably get almost all they need from solar power and other space-renewable sources; the engines have been in use for hundreds of years, and have been all but perfected in their elegance. A ship that isn’t damaged by an enemy or accident can stay in space as long as its food and life support holds out for the crew, though regular drydock maintenance is advised.

Meanwhile, the equivalent of steamships have been in use for over two generations. They follow a revolutionary new technology that allows the ship to enter hyperspace quickly and gain equal speed in virtually any direction. While superficially a huge advance over the existing technology, they have their drawbacks:

  • The engines required are generally massive and require copious amounts of planet-mined fuel.
  • They all have some chance of catastrophic overload when used too much, too quickly. Making them smaller and more fuel-efficient tends to increase this risk dramatically.
  • The mechanism for ignoring the normal hyperspace routes is much faster “against the wind” but relatively slow compared to the fastest old-model ships on charted voyages.
  • Thus, they tend to only be used for larger vessels (which would be slow to accelerate under the older tech regardless) and for large-scale hauling (where the advantage of taking a shorter route can make enough money to pay for the cost of fuel) or military uses (where full-axis maneuverability on a large vessel can be a huge advantage in warfare).

The development of the technology of the original trilogy-era ships occurs several years after the Clone Wars are decided, and is such an advantage over both previous technologies that it quickly begins to supplant it: it takes less fuel than the steamship equivalents and has much less danger of failing catastrophically, and moves faster than the sailboat equivalents in most situations, even in a favorable hyperspace lane.

Weapons

Similar to the Edo period of Earth, prior to the Clone Wars the politics of the galaxy had not prioritized development of blaster technology (it was still considered a more civilized age, where the lightsaber saw use even by non-Jedi; see part 3 for that analogy). Much as Japan was still using matchlock muskets, then rapidly scaled up to flintlock and then cartridge-based guns, the era of the Clone Wars sees a massive arms race in the capabilities of blasters.

If the blasters of the original trilogy are equivalent to guns after magazines and rifling were worked out, the blasters immediately prior to the Clone Wars are single-shot, unrifled muskets. Their power consumption is high and their accuracy is low. Ammunition cells can only hold enough power for a shot or two before being swapped out (and the technology is so inelegant that detaching and reattaching a cell is a time-consuming process). The beam coherency is abysmal, particularly for blaster pistols, deforming as it flies and sometimes deflecting off of atmosphere. Combatants can often only get off a few shots a minute, and are easy prey for a melee combatant that can get into range. Lightsabers are, in fact, the apex of technology designed to try to ignore the blaster’s limitations: a constantly-regenerating wand of energy that can be more efficient in its power consumption and not have to worry about flight through the air.

But the Clone Wars will see the battlefield change drastically, as the newly risen Empire scoffs at the old politics and sees great advantage in rapidly improving the state of the art in blasters.

Other Tech

Other technology doesn’t see quite the same level of change between the Clone Wars and the original trilogy, but there are notable differences:

  • Comlinks weren’t developed until after the Clone Wars, as they utilize some of the same new awareness of hyperspace needed for the upgraded ships after the era. Planetary communications use radio waves (much less efficient than broadcasting through hyperspace), which means they’re all but useless for inter-system communication. Some systems have managed highly expensive fixed-point hyperspace broadcasting channels (equivalent to the telegraph), but many cultures still rely on uploading communications to a ship heading in the right direction to be transmitted to the recipient on exiting hyperspace.
  • Screens and holograms are slightly less refined, but are still very similar to their depictions in the original trilogy (just as popular entertainment didn’t have any massive technological shifts in the late 1800s… though one might expect a revolution in entertainment uses after the original trilogy to parallel the rise of film).
  • Droids are equivalent to people, not technology, in the analogy, so are unlikely to see any major changes in their capabilities except where they incorporate other technologies.
  • Speeders are equivalent to automobiles, so are probably completely nonexistent in the era of the Clone Wars. Planetary ground transportation probably involves much slower wheeled conveyances (along with the omnipresent beast mounts, which are often far superior to mechanized transport).

Anything not listed probably works more or less the same as in the original trilogy, unless you want to dive deeper into the non-warfare technological progress in the late 1800s and its equivalents than I want to in this format.

Next week, a slight digression into a different conception of using the Force, before part 3 starts the political worldbuilding in earnest.

Star Wars as Island-Hopping Pulp

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Last week’s post talked about the tech that’s present in the original trilogy, and how difficult it is to convert to the kind of consistent, predictable technology that players crave in their worldbuilding. Today, I’m presenting a Doylist framework for figuring out what technology/tech functionality to allow and disallow in a Star Wars game. Let me just go ahead and summarize it real quick, then explain in more depth:

If it would make sense in a pulp action-adventure novel set in Earth’s South Pacific in the early 20th Century, it makes sense translated to Star Wars.

Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars was inarguably all varieties of pulp from the early 20th Century, as well as Kurosawa films. The influence is so significant that you could back-translate the entire original trilogy into a slightly alt-universe, pro-mystic adventure novel set around 1905 in the islands near Japan, and you’d have to change basically nothing but the sets and props.

The biggest difference that requires a slight alt-universe is the omnipresent Empire, but it’s not actually that much of a stretch. Assume either British imperialists deciding to take over Japan through Indonesia along with their escapades in China and India, or the government of the Meiji Restoration deciding to expand past the original borders of Japan. They’re not culturally diverse; the non-humans of Star Wars are different island cultures that have been co-opted by the Empire, and non-Imperial humans are just immigrants from the motherland that identify more with their new homes than with their home culture. Droids are the lowest caste, and the blatant acceptance of heroes with slaves in their retinue is overlooked at the time but not the proudest moment for readers looking back on the stories.

Draw in disenfranchised Samurai, probably with some elements of other Asiatic mystic warrior groups like Shinobi and Kung Fu Monks, with exactly the kind of provable mystic powers that would show up in an adventure novel, and you have Jedi. Force powers and lightsaber duels are ninja tricks and katana battles without even having to squint hard.

Now look at small island nations in the earliest days of the 1900s. Plane travel is still a few years out, but other methods of transportation are clustered in a way they never will be again: gas, steam, and wind all power ships with different speeds and advantages to get from island to island, and local travel is at least as likely to be on animal back as on a powered automobile.

Weapons tech is similarly muddled. Firearms are widespread, and powerful enough to shoot through armor, but the soldiers of the Empire may still encounter enough opponents armed with slings and arrows that it’s worthwhile to keep wearing standardized protection. Almost nobody bothers with melee weapons anymore… except those mysterious wandering monks that are so skilled they can bring a katana to a gunfight and come out ahead (they’re so fast they can cut bullets out of the very air!).

A young farmboy who’s a fair hand at sailing lives with his aunt and uncle on a desert island deep in the sea, more of a haven for pirates and smugglers than honest folk. When his family is killed, he takes his new mentor and new servants to try to reunite them with the princess who sent for aid. To get there, they’ll need help from a pirate and his decrepit but fast smuggling ship. Yet when they arrive, they find that the Empire has rolled out a new weapon: an island-sized ship that can quickly launch enough ordinance to reduce an entire city-state to rubble from the harbor and ignore the weapons of the defenders. Now they’re in a race to get the secrets of the base back to a hidden island of rebels and launch a fleet of fast-moving boats that might evade its guns and shoot torpedoes into its engines. All the while, the young man’s training as the last Ronin is dogged by a threatening black-clad former Samurai who threw in with the very Empire that exterminated his brethren.

Let’s look at a few obvious technology translations:

  • Blaster – Gun: They punch through armor and are becoming extremely reliable and available, quickly changing the face of warfare that was using bows, single-shot muskets, and swords a few decades earlier.
  • Comlink – Short Wave Radio: Still in its technological infancy and easily jammed and corrupted, but able to reach far across the South Pacific.
  • Lightsaber – Katana: People still seriously argue about the legendary sharpness of katana; in pulp from a century ago, they’re easily attributed with even wilder properties.
  • Starship – Ship: Heavily armored ships likely use diesel engines, but steamships and even sailboats may still be in common use to get from island to island. Ships may commonly have a diesel engine to go somewhere really fast, and sails for local travel, in the same parallels as hyperspace and sub-light engines.

With all of these in mind, the least-plausible tech from the original trilogy makes sense in context. Ships can get virtually anywhere in a few hours, because we’re just in the South Pacific, not in a whole galaxy. Tractor beams? Sure, because a bigger ship could shoot grapples at a smaller ship it wanted to board. Tightly packed asteroid field, and you can hide in one and get out of your ship without an EVA suit? It makes sense if it’s just a rough patch of sea studded with detritus and tiny islands. Blowing up a whole planet makes much more sense if you’re just wiping out a large city.

Essentially, if you want to know if a piece of technology would fit into a Star Wars game, just imagine whether an early-1900s analogue would have a place in a semi-realistic pulp novel. If the capabilities imparted by the tech would cause a scientifically literate reader pause, then it’s too weird. If you think it would fit, now you just have to remember to have its sci-fi translation interact with all the other translations in a plausible manner (e.g., if you could break the “real” piece of tech by shooting it with a gun, then you can break the Star Wars tech by shooting it with a blaster).

Additionally, accepting this idea works fine with The Force Awakens and real timetables. The differences in tech between episodes 6 and 7 are the same 30 year timeskip: if it would make sense in a spy thriller set immediately before WWII in the same alt-history pulp world, then it makes sense in the timeline of the new movies.

Similarly, doing the same transformation backwards, Obi-Wan and Anakin would be young men in the mid-late 1800s… which would be smack dab in the middle of the Meiji Restoration and the Opium Wars. And both of those might provide ample ideas for the alternate prequel-era backstory that I’ll start laying out next week.

Star Wars Original Trilogy Facts, Part 3

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We’re still on the same topic as last week and the week before. This week, that stickiest of storytelling subjects: science and technology.

Even the works of science fiction that try the hardest to obey our extrapolated knowledge of physics and other sciences tend to make compromises: The writer of The Martian admits that the soil on Mars is way too toxic to grow potatoes, no matter how much poop you add, and the writers of The Expanse are trying to make the science just plausible enough that it doesn’t get in the way for educated readers. For space opera, like Star Wars, there’s even less impetus to get the science right: even if real physics wouldn’t completely negate the story you’re trying to tell, explaining it would kill the pacing of a movie.

Unfortunately, in a movie you can have Han and Chewie shout technobabble at each other while frantically fiddling with complicated mechanisms and distract the audience long enough to get to the next plot point, but that doesn’t work as well in an RPG. The players don’t necessarily need the technology to be plausible, but they need it to be predictable. That’s what makes it technology instead of magic: they can assume, if they’ve spent the points, their characters understand it and can make it work consistently. So is there any such consistency in the tech of Star Wars?

Lasers and Lightspeed

Perhaps the biggest conceptual hurdle is that light just doesn’t work the way Star Wars implies it does.

While the original trilogy doesn’t really ever call blasters “lasers” (unless I missed a reference), most people seem to think that’s just a shortening of “laser blasters.” They do mention “turbo lasers.” Neither of these things behave like a laser beam on earth: they work much more like the weapons are spitting a coherent spout of plasma that somehow doesn’t deform in atmosphere but only moves at subsonic speeds (only around 20% the speed of sound, based on visual calculations by the Mythbusters).

References to “Lightspeed” in the films are even worse, particularly in how they cause physicist after physicist to want to use Star Wars travel to explain the twin paradox. But not only are there no relativistic effects involved, the speeds involved are clearly much faster than the speed of light. (Unless solar systems in a galaxy far, far away are significantly closer to one another than those in our galaxy) even at 100% of the speed of light, it should take years to get in between systems (a trip that takes hardly any time in hyperspace, and which, in Empire Strikes Back, Han, Leia, and Chewie make in an indeterminate but short time even using “sub-light” engines).

Particularly in these instances, and in a lot of others, it’s probably best to just assume that the translator of the epic sagas from long, long ago used the closest English approximation for technical terms, even when they’re only superficially similar. That is, it’s easier to assume that any kind of technical jargon that sounds like an English term is actually a bad translation of a much different piece of technology that defies our understanding. You’ll still run into problems if, say, the players need to describe something that emits a coherent beam of light and then figure out how long it will take to get somewhere, but at least you won’t be trying to twist real physics to somehow explain what appears on screen.

Lightsabers

This practice saves you a ton of work when explaining lightsabers, because clearly nothing in our known physics would explain a way to emit a cylindrical shaft of energy that somehow stops dead a meter from its housing. Before you come up with your own consistent explanation for lightsabers, don’t forget a few pieces on information that seem to have gotten lost in later materials:

  • Particularly in the first film, lightsabers aren’t just uniform cylinders. Anakin’s saber is shaped much more like a blade: it clearly flattens and expands as Luke turns it, as if you’re sometimes seeing the flat and sometimes the edge. Later movies (even in the original trilogy) seem to have simplified the graphic effect, but it’s completely reasonable to assume that lightsabers have a directionality.
  • Lightsabers can’t necessarily cut through anything; there are actually only a few examples of successfully cutting through large/dense structures. In Empire, Vader cuts through some metal cylinders on the catwalk fighting Luke that appear to be a handspan across and not solid metal. In Jedi, he cuts through several support struts of the catwalk in the Emperor’s room with a saber throw, but it’s unclear how thick they are or what they’re made of. Casual interactions of sabers with floors and walls tend to leave a light scorch mark or no mark at all. Obviously, these can be explained most efficiently by sometimes things are practical effects meant to be cut in half and sometimes the actors banged their props into things and the special effects team had to do the best they could in post-production, but they nonetheless made it to the screen. It’s completely reasonable to assume that a saber works more or less on the order of a powerful cutting torch: it’s emitting a lot of focused heat, and could weld but not cut through anything that can soak up all that heat. That is, you don’t have to let your jedi cut through floors or blast doors, no matter how much they want to.

Planetary Tech

Now that the big issues are out of the way, let’s just hit the high points of various pieces of tech we see in the original trilogy:

  • Blasters are pretty deadly to anyone they hit; even the pistols tend to one-shot targets in heavy armor. It’s unclear what the difference is between pistols and rifles (maybe it’s ammunition, maybe it’s accuracy, maybe its that rifles can have a stun setting; only the Stormtroopers ever mention an ability to set for stun). Whatever they use for ammunition, they can be unloaded (since Stormtroopers remind each other to load their blasters). Whatever they’re doing responds to magnetism (unless “magnetically sealed” is another untrustworthy jargon term); certain rooms, like trash compactors, can make blaster bolts ricochet.
  • Some weapons can emit a pulse of electricity that disables droids. These are probably “Ion” weapons, as that term is mentioned later in another context, but there’s no hard proof one way or the other in the trilogy. Certainly the “Ion Cannons” that the Rebels use to clear the airspace over Hoth do something very similar to starships to what the Jawas did to R2.
  • Comlinks are small handheld cylinders that allow long-distance communication, possibly at interplanetary distances with no lightspeed (the real meaning of the term) delay. However, whatever method they use to communicate can be jammed. Jamming is so common that it’s built into Stormtrooper speeder bikes in a very well-known location.
  • Cyberware is pretty amazingly good, though it’s unclear how expensive it is. Cybernetic prosthetics can provide an extremely functional replacement with realistic skin and the sensation of touch.
  • Display technology in screens seems to be pretty primitive compared to modern Earth; it’s possible that screens work entirely based on vector technology, so are much better at making wireframes than real images. Meanwhile, holograms are common and good: even a droid can emit a fuzzy, blue-tinted hologram, and other sources (like the Falcon’s chess game) are true-color with hardly any visual artifacts. It’s entirely plausible that the availability of holograms for entertainment means that screens are only used for technical and military applications, and have never had any consumer impetus to get better than ugly wireframes.
  • Data can be stored on card-shaped disks that can be inserted into droids. Access to computers, at least for droids, is through a seemingly universal port that involves rotation to access data.
  • In general, many technologies seem to have some level of AI. Owen needs C3PO to talk to his moisture vaporators, and 3PO mentions that load lifters use the same type of Binary language.
  • Ship-mounted scanners can detect “life forms” (exact context undescribed) from long distances, and R2 seems to have a droid-mounted variation with a smaller range.
  • High-tech binoculars come with low-light compensation and zoom.

Starships

Again, let’s just hit the high points, since this post is already getting hella long:

  • Starships have a “main reactor” which implies secondary reactors. It’s unclear what they use to generate power, and if or how often they have to refuel. They have “auxiliary power” systems, and you might need them for high-energy maneuvers like going into full reverse.
  • Ships have “deflector shields” that appear to be the primary defense in ship-to-ship combat. They have to be angled to intersect with incoming fire, and it’s unclear whether the size of their coverage can be altered on the fly.
  • Ship weapons typically seem to be scaled up versions of blasters, but these don’t work against targets, like the Death Star exhaust port, that are “ray shielded;” this may be very similar to the magnetic seal in the trash compactor that reflected hand-held blasters. In these cases, ships can use “proton torpedoes” and it’s unclear if these are physical missiles, or just an alternate firing method for the ship’s guns (they look more like big energy bolts than physical torpedoes).
  • Ships can go into hyperspace to get places quickly, as discussed above, and “.5 past lightspeed” is a term that means something relevant to speed in hyperspace (and, since it’s the Falcon’s speed, presumably that’s near as fast as any ship can go). These trips could be interfered with by massive objects in space, so navicomputers are necessary to plot a course through hyperspace rather than just a single distance and direction. TIE Fighters, unlike X-Wings, cannot get into hyperspace on their own, but they might in a convoy (so, potentially, one ship could open a hyperspace route and drag smaller ships with it even if they weren’t physically connected?).
  • Larger ships, like Star Destroyers, can have “turbolasers” which are powerful but slow (not good against “snubfighters” the size of an X-Wing). Large ships might also include a cloaking device (we never see one, but the Imperials seem pretty convinced the Millennium Falcon, at least, is too small to have one). They might also have “tractor beams” that can invisibly reel in a smaller ship; you might not even notice you’ve been caught until you realize you’ve lost control of your ship.
  • Ship bays with atmosphere are protected from the void by a “magnetic field.” On initially reeling in the Falcon, it seems important to clear the Death Star bay before lowering the field (as if lowering it would remove the air from the bay), and it’s unclear whether the Falcon’s escape caused any kind of decompression (as, again, the bay seemed mostly clear when it left). Later films seem to make the field permeable to ships but not air, so it’s probably safest to just assume the Imperials had another reason for clearing the bay (rather than, what probably actually happened, which was something that made sense in the first movie being a bad scene-setup for later ones).

In Conclusion

In general, an interesting takeaway for Star Wars tech from the original trilogy is that does not feel like a stagnant universe. The prequel films and other materials (particularly Knights of the Old Republic) tend to paint a galaxy that’s had basically the same tech for generations, and, if anything, has lost knowledge by the time of the original trilogy. But little references, like Luke not being able to get a good price for his speeder since the XP-38 came out, and everyone’s reaction to the Millennium Falcon as a piece of junk imply that new technology is being invented on a regular basis.

And all of that is what you need to work out your own basis for the technology. I’ve already come up with a Watsonian explanation that uses the Force as a magic exception to explain the tech. Next week, I’ll provide a more Doylist framework for inventing technology and technological explanations that feel Star Warsy.

I have a few more blocks of facts, like languages, droids, people, and places that may justify later posts in this series, and I’ll edit a link into this post if I ever get around to writing them.

Star Wars Original Trilogy Facts, Part 2

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Continuing the same thought experiment from last week (what would you be able to use for worldbuilding if you only had episodes 4-6?), this week is all about those risky dinner table topics: religion and politics.

The Force as Religion

The original trilogy implies, to my mind, a fairly weird development of religion in the galaxy:

  • There is an inarguable source of supernatural power, and it likely crowds out other religions that don’t demonstrably let their priests predict the future, control minds, and levitate things.
  • At some point, it gets a bad reputation and most of its empowered representatives disappear (possibly when a growing Empire decides to go on a pogrom against it, possibly on its own).
  • By the time of A New Hope, it’s considered hokey, ancient, and just a bunch of tricks. Likely, technology is advanced enough that it’s pretty easy to assume, on casual inspection, that Force powers are just some kind of sleight of hand that you haven’t figured out yet. There aren’t enough Force users left to give most people a non-casual inspection.
  • No dominant religion seems to have replaced it, it’s just as if people have moved off of religion (or, conversely, are just very good about never, ever mentioning their religion in a multicultural society with a lot of tiny religions). Well, except for the Ewoks’ tendency to cargo-cult shiny droids.

Maybe it’s because, religion-wise, the Force has much more in common with Buddhism or Shintoism as opposed to ones that have gods that espouse dogma. That is, after an unknown but presumably long period where the major religion doesn’t feature commandments, but instead is just about feeling how everything is connected, people just got out of the habit of using divine mandate to justify their actions?

In particular, the Empire is lacking a certain undercurrent of “We’re the good guys because our god wants us to do this” that is prevalent in similar structures in the real world. In fact, the Empire, at least at its highest levels, is self-avowedly evil. Whenever Luke accuses Vader that “there is still good in you” it meets with denial, and exhortations about the power of the Dark Side (implying that yes, he’s evil, but it’s worth it). It’s not like the Emperor and Vader have even constructed a moral equivalency where they think the Dark Side is superior and morally correct; they know they’re doing the wrong thing, and enjoying the power.

From a worldbuilding standpoint, this probably means there are three kinds of religions in the galaxy:

  • Religions that are just some kind of gloss on light side Force use, which somehow reference the connection between all things and demonize anger, fear, aggression, and hate.
  • Antinomian religions that are a gloss on the Dark Side (and probably opposed to some other light side religion), that actually admit to being demonic in exchange for power.
  • Religions that can’t demonstrably create miracles, so are likely to hemorrhage adherents to the first cult that happens by that is led by a Force user .

And none of those religions receive much credence from the dominant political structure in the galaxy or even from your common man who’d rather have a good blaster at his side.

The Politics of the Empire

The original trilogy is kind of a Libertarian paradise.

The galaxy is huge, most planets seem to be habitable by humanoids, and going to a different planet is relatively easy (particularly if you’re not too picky about time frames and exactly where you’re going). This likely creates an abundant frontier mindset, where it’s pretty common to pack it in and move somewhere away from people if you can’t get along with the folks where you are. Indeed, even core, developed worlds seem to only have millions of inhabitants (unless Obi-Wan’s death-sense is inaccurate by a couple orders of magnitude); they don’t get packed like modern day Earth, because there are plenty of places to go if your planet starts getting crowded.

There’s probably not a lot of worry about environmental consequences. When a planet can be blown up with a big shrug even with millions dead, likely nobody cares too much about the long-term effects of Tibanna gas extraction on the Bespin ecosystem. There’s always somewhere else to go if you start ruining your current planet.

We don’t really see too many active societies, and maybe Mos Eisley and Bespin aren’t ideal snapshots of what a normal city would look like, but they’re notable for their lack of police and government services. Tatooine is the very picture of an armed, polite society: everyone has a blaster, and if someone starts something in a bar nobody’s too worried if they get maimed or killed, unless Stormtroopers happen by to ask about it. And, yet, you don’t seem to get enclaves of warlords trying to take over the territory; everyone seems to be able to just go about their farming, bar-owning, trading, and criminal activities in relative peace. Likely it has something to do with a combination of everyone being armed with instantly lethal blasters, most people having an easy time of escaping to a different planet if you make things annoying for them, and the Empire probably stepping in to quash local warlords that aren’t acting on their behalf.

Instead, what you seem to get is, at the bottom levels, a fairly peaceful anarchy. There are enough space pilots that pretty much any piece of technology can be had shipped in from anywhere, and everyone self-organizes to plug into this galactic trade in some way without oversight. Owen is the very picture of a small-business entrepreneur, and Lando’s operation isn’t really that much bigger.

At the non-local level, the films suggest only a few galactic hierarchies:

  • There’s an Emperor, and star destroyers and death stars fly about the galaxy trying to enact his greater agenda. They have good communications, and are able to project overwhelming force, but, crucially, not everywhere at once. Getting on the Empire’s radar might drop a star destroyer on your head (more if you’re considered a key rebellion hotspot), but you may not even see them except for rare inspections if you’re not a priority for them.
  • There are Governors, which probably call in the star destroyers when needed, but we have no idea how big their territories are, and the only one we ever meet, Tarkin, is actually serving as a general on a death star. Your governor is probably mainly just your local source for grievances if you want to be a snitch and get the Empire involved in your dispute, and the guys that try to keep a finger on what’s going on in their systems to coordinate Empire activities.
  • There was a Senate, but it was a remnant of the Old Republic, and likely had no power beyond the ceremonial. Before the senate was dissolved, you could probably track down a diplomat to run something up to your senator to try to get the senate to pass a non-binding resolution that the Emperor might or might not listen to, as fit his whimsy for the day. Dissolving it didn’t seem to make anyone that upset other than Leia.
  • There are Guilds, like the Mining Guild, that you can join (and which might come around and lean on you to join if you get big enough). They probably offer a pretty straightforward deal of dues/cut of the profits for larger protection and negotiating power. Lando obviously considers them too expensive to be worthwhile, though he might have been in a stronger position against Vader if he’d have been able to call in the Mining Guild to help out.

But, on the ground, things seem to work incredibly well without government involvement. The Empire is an imposition, though it may have a few benefits over total anarchy. In general, people just do their own things trying to provide goods and services that plug into a galactic trade economy. Yeah, sometimes you get assaulted by Sand People, maimed in a bar, or disintegrated because you accidentally got involved with a rebellion/Empire dust up, but, on the whole, you’re pretty safe. On a planet that’s home to a galaxy-spanning cartel and a wretched hive of scum and villainy, you can safely maintain a small desert farmstead for two decades using only yourself, your spouse, your nephew, a few used droids, and some seasonal farmhands.

You’re armed, and most people don’t want to risk getting shot, if things get too hot you can pack up and jump a freighter at the nearest port, and, all things considered, the Empire sucks but at least they’re more likely to bother the guy trying to set up a fiefdom at your expense than to bother you. Keep your head down and figure out how to make money, and you don’t even need a functioning local government.

(Continued in Part 3)

Star Wars Original Trilogy Facts, Part 1

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(This series has, at worst, extremely minor spoilers for The Force Awakens, but if you were worried about that, you’d have probably seen it by now, right?)

The Red Letter Media review of The Force Awakens made a good point about the new movie: that before the prequels, one could actually assume that Luke’s training was only slightly atypical (that Jedi training usually starts out in the early teens, perhaps, rather than with tiny children). This reminded me of a game I’ve been wanting to run for a while (nearly a decade!): a prequel-era game that totally ignores the information in the prequels (and, really, any information that doesn’t come from episodes 4-6). Instead, the game would reconceive of everything in the backstory based on worldbuilding done during the original trilogy.

To that end, I first off had to figure out what facts were actually in the original trilogy. I’m working off of a list of hastily-assembled notes I made while rewatching the movies, and this series will expand on some of the material in the linked document.

Some overall impressions, before diving in:

  • Did most of the last names come first from the merchandising? There’s a surprising dearth of recognizable last names in the film, unless I just totally missed them. I don’t think you can know that Owen and Beru have the last name Lars, or Leia’s is Organa, without some kind of secondary material. When did The Emperor become Emperor Palpatine… was it after the prequels?
  • The original films are actually pretty light on wacky words. Tarkin is called “Governor” rather than “Grand Moff.” Jedi take pupils or apprentices, not “Padawans.” I’m not sure where the profusion of nouns started, but it wasn’t the core movies; they tended to use a reasonable English word rather than inventing a new one if the concept was at all similar.
  • It’s pretty well known that the expanded materials really overcharged lightsaber battles, but it’s surprising just how limited Force powers are. We’ve gotten so used to Force-pushing down whole legions and other telekinesis-stunts that it’s hard to square with how little supernatural stuff even experienced Jedi like Kenobi, Yoda, and Vader do.
  • The Force Awakens, overall, does a much better job of staying in line with the power-levels and tech of the original trilogy than the prequels ever did.
  • The movies have always been story-first, seat-of-the-pants creations where continuity, travel-times, and other internal logic took a back seat to what was cool at the moment. For example, I’ve heard a few nitpicks about how JJ Abrams doesn’t know how big space is, but the distances involved in the original trilogy weren’t much longer or at all realistic to how an actual galaxy would be laid out.

Anyway, let’s start looking at some overall categories in the order I think of them. Remember, we’re ignoring the prequels, the EU, merchandising, and novelizations for this breakdown. This is a thought experiment where we only have the DVDs of episodes 4-6, and we’re having to establish everything else from context.

The Family Skywalker

Does anyone really believe that there was a grand plan for Vader to be secretly the father of twin siblings, Luke and Leia, from the first movie? In order to actually make that work, you have to assume that Obi-Wan’s tendency to say things that are only true “from a certain point of view” extends to pure fabrication, and that Vader is the most unobservant father in the galaxy. Using the prequels makes this way worse, of course, but it’s hard to square the facts even in the originals (almost as if things were being retconned as Lucas had better ideas).

There are some very definite statements made, which have sizable implications:

First, it’s not clear how Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are actually related to Luke. Is one of them Anakin’s sibling (it could even be Owen, if you ignore the “Lars” surname as non-core and assume he’s Owen Skywalker)? Luke’s mother’s? Or are they just trusted family friends/godparents (a couple of my best friends’ kids call me “Uncle”) that would have grudgingly taken “orphaned” Luke? Obi-Wan does make a significant point that Owen knew Anakin way back when and didn’t think he should have gotten involved in the wars, and is worried that Luke will get lured off on another one of Kenobi’s “damn-fool idealistic crusades.” It would be logical, but I don’t even think it was strongly implied, that they’ve always lived on Tatooine: if you’re going to steal your recently-evil friend’s son, not change the last name, and foster the child with his close relatives, one would think at the very least you’d get them to move.

Second, somehow Leia wound up a princess. Now, obviously royalty in a galaxy far, far away could work differently than it does on Earth, but let’s assume it doesn’t for a second. Leia’s “father” that she references several times in A New Hope is presumably a king, or at least a prince, on Alderaan. It’s unclear whether he’s the king of Alderaan, or the planet has multiple kingdoms, but, regardless, “princess” is a pretty important royal title. If there’s any level of scheming peerage on the planet, it would be extremely hard to take in a woman and her baby girl and just be like, “This is my daughter, Leia. She’s princess now.” It only takes one angry cadet line of royalty upset at getting bumped down in the succession to raise a stink that the Empire might hear about. Leia remembers her real mother, even though she died when Leia was very young. Did she marry into the royalty of Alderaan and pass Leia off as the legitimate daughter of the new husband? Did she hide in the court in some other capacity and somehow substitute Leia for the true legitimate daughter? Did Anakin just straight up seduce a queen and not realize he got her pregnant? Somehow Vader never associated the woman he got pregnant with the headstrong young princess and senator he clashed with.

Finally, the prequels just straight up butchered the implications about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s friendship in favor of a little kid excited about pod racing. Obi-Wan actually paints a very clear picture of a young man (probably about Luke’s age) that he met and thought he could train. A war was going on, and Anakin had ideals that Owen disagreed with, probably already on a path to get involved even before Obi-Wan showed up to take him on a crusade. Anakin was a great pilot when they met (implied to be a pilot like Luke, not a pod racer or whatever). Obi-Wan thought he could train Anakin as well as Yoda, but was wrong. The mental picture is of two friends bonded by their ideals and the Force that go off together to fight a war, one of whom is overconfident about his abilities as a teacher such that the other is not properly protected against the Dark Side. But before that happens, the duo fights and romances their way across a galaxy at war.

It is, of course, that mental picture that makes me want to run a reconceived game in the first place.

(Continued in Part 2)

Magic Hoard App

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And here’s the version of the Magic Shop app that I promised last week for the newest edition:

Magic Hoard Windows App

Unlike last week’s app, this one is much simpler as items in the new edition are not ascribed actual prices. Instead, it’s mostly just a way to generate random results that include randomized special features.

What It Does

Select a treasure table.

Each table comes with a predefined chance for each special feature (e.g., at 25%, since there are four different special feature types, on average each item will generate one special feature, while at 100% it will always generate all four features). You can change the rate for a table by moving the slider (the rate is saved for the session, but not for when you close and reopen the app).

Click Add Item from Selected Table to randomly roll an item (plus possible special features). It’s added to the top of the list in the output box.

Click Sort List to sort all the items in the box alphabetically by item name.

Click Clear List to empty the list. Unless you click Clear List, switching between tables and special feature chances will not change anything about the already generated items in the list (e.g., you could generate three from table A and then one from table D, and all would be in the list).

Installing the App and Editing Modifiers

Extract everything in the .zip file to its own folder. Run the .exe file; it’s looking in its own folder for the .txt files.

As with the previous app, everything uses statistical weights to determine when it shows up. Read last week’s post for a description of how that works.

The files and their formats are:

  • AllItems: A list of every item (without special features), in the format [Treasure Table]|[Random Weight]|[Item Name]. If you add a new table name, you also have to add it to the TreasureTables file.
  • SpecialFeatures: A list of every possible special feature, in the format [Random Weight]|[Feature Table]|[Feature Name]|[Feature Description]. Unlike with AllItems, you can add a completely new table of features here and it will automatically added (e.g., you could add entries for a new Previous Owner table fully within the text file).
  • TreasureTables: This file purely saves the default special feature chances for each table, in the format [Treasure Table]|[Percentage Chance]. Percentage chance must be an integer between 0 and 100, and new tables added have to also have at least one entry in AllItems. This is where you change the default special feature values for good if you don’t like the defaults I picked out.

Known Limitations

In order to keep it as extensible as possible using just the text files, I didn’t include the “pick two properties” entry on the Property table, so it will never generate more than one Property special feature.

There’s a weird bug that I can’t quick track down such that sometimes, when you make a bunch of items with a high chance of special features, items with the same name will have exactly the same (or almost exactly the same) special features. I haven’t been able to generate it reliably, and if you get it, clearing the list, changing the percentage slider and generating a few items, then changing it back and clearing again seems to fix it for the session. Programming is hard, y’all.

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