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.