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.
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.
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.
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 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.