Star Wars: The Force Meddles

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This article contains spoilers for The Last Jedi (and likely other Star Wars films).

A significant difference, in my mind, between Star Wars and Star Trek is how many story-moving coincidences I’m willing to accept. If, in the course of Star Trek, a main character transports to a random planet and happens to land a brief foot chase away from other significant characters, I’ll be pulled out of the film. I reject narratives where things happen because they’re convenient to the narrative, even though they’d be extremely unlikely if the world operated on its own consistent internal logic. I don’t require much explanation for events, but a lampshade at minimum on the audacity of the coincidence is appreciated. Things that just occur for no reason other than they’re needed to advance the plot feel lazy.

Except, that is, in Star Wars. Both BB-8 and Finn happen to stumble on Rey within a foot chase from the Millennium Falcon? Sure. The Force did it. The Force meddles. It binds us and penetrates us. It wants interesting things to happen, and interesting people to get together. The Force is an extremely useful bit of universe physics for keeping your narrative lean. In general, the language of most of the films goes even further: the Force loves a hero*. If you try to do the right thing, even when things look bleak, it will turn out alright if you just stick it out. The Force is a great explanation for player narrative currency like Fate Points, Bennies, etc.

So it took me a while to pin down why The Last Jedi felt jarring to me. It ultimately came down to feeling like the film had suddenly forgotten the meddling Force. Poe and Finn were doing the right thing as hard and righteously as possible, and things were not turning out well for them. In fact, DJ showing up in Finn and Rose’s cell right when they needed one of the best slicers in the galaxy seemed like even more of an unexplained coincidence than the films have ever tried before, and it was not in their favor. Leia and Holdo berated Poe for his heroism as if he was not aware that he was living in a pulp universe where making the safe play was usually unnecessary. Why had the Force forsaken them? Why had Leia and Holdo missed that Poe, like the audience, was aware of his place in a universe running on pulp story logic?

And the way I came up with to explain it is meaningful for Star Wars tabletop games if it also makes sense to you.

What was different about The Last Jedi, as opposed to most other media in the series where we’ve seen strange coincidences abound in the support of our heroes was one simple fact: when everything was going wrong for Finn, Rose, and Poe, no Force sensitives were conscious and focused on their efforts.

Most previous film sequences of pulp derring-do feature at least one Force sensitive on the team, being rescued by the team, or both. Poe has experienced years of missions where reckless actions get supported by last-second coincidences in his favor, and he’s never once thought about the fact that Leia was on the comms willing his success. The Force is basically the Secret: Force sensitives put their needs as silent prayers out into the universe, and the Force does what it can to help out. During The Last Jedi, when everything is going wrong, the only Force sensitives paying a lick of attention to our heroes are on the First Order team. No wonder the one big coincidence isn’t in their favor. Leia would really like Poe to realize that the vast majority of people don’t see their heroism constantly rewarded, and he can’t count on her always being around letting him skirt the rules of causality. (Plus, things more or less turning out okay also doesn’t mean a bunch of people won’t die in the attempt.)

And this has obvious ramifications for Star Wars games:

  • In the strong form, you might limit narrative currency spends to only be available when fulfilling the goals of your team’s Force sensitives. If your Jedi doesn’t care, you can’t spend points to make it happen. This obviously makes Jedi even more powerful and more central, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, but list it for completeness.
  • In the moderate form, Force sensitives on the team increase everyone’s narrative resource refresh rate. This could be a good enough benefit that my previous advice to make Force Sensitive a 0-point trait is too cheap, and it should be priced higher. A Force sensitive on your team, even if she isn’t a Jedi, improves everyone’s access to convenient coincidences.
  • In the weakest form, the GM can simply consider the array of Force sensitive intentions surrounding an issue to affect the chance of favorable or unfavorable coincidences. When a lot of Force users are concentrating on something from multiple sides, things can get weird.

 

* To steal and paraphrase from a popular local LARP where it was Death who loved heroes

Savage Star Wars Notes

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It looks like I’ll be running the Alternate Clone Wars game I outlined earlier this year, which requires finalizing the game system. I’ve chosen to go with Savage Worlds. I’ve looked into work others have done online, particularly this one, but I found them overly thorough for the pulpier game I want to run, and I would have had to change rules to fit my personal conception of the setting and desires anyway. However, I did find that the official Science Fiction Companion covers just about everything needed (with some minor hacks). So all the information below assumes you’re using the Savage Worlds Deluxe Core and Science Fiction Companion, and may not make a lot of sense if you don’t have those as a basis.

Setting Rules

For Star Wars, I suggest the following setting rules (from page 94 of the core book):

  • Heroes Never Die
  • High Adventure
  • Joker’s Wild
  • Multiple Languages

For Multiple Languages, I suggest charging the player for all languages out of the free ones (e.g., an alien with Smarts d4 spends the two languages on Basic and the cultural language of the race; essentially, you really only get bonus languages for higher than minimum Smarts). See also the Monolingual hindrance and Languages focus of Knowledge, below.

Races

The race-building options in the core and sci-fi companion books should be adequate to build pretty much any alien race your player desires. As examples:

  • Human: Gains the usual bonus Edge
  • Wookie: Strength Increase (2), Size +1 (1), Reach (1), Cannot Speak (-1), Hindrance: Outsider (-1)
  • Droid: As per the construct race, but see Droid Mods, below, and droids cannot be Force Sensitive nor can they be affected by mind-altering Force abilities

Most characters are assumed to be insensitive to the Force. They cannot buy the Force skill, but they get to use their full Spirit die to defend against any Force abilities that allow such a defense. For 0 points, any non-droid character can instead add the following racial option:

Force Sensitive (0):

  • Bonus Edge: Arcane Background (The Force)
  • Hindrance: You are more open to the Force than others. You may only use your Force skill die to defend against attacks that insensitives could use their full Spirit die against. You may find yourself targeted by effects and enemies that are drawn to Force users.

Edges and Hindrances

Most Edges and Hindrances from the core book are probably appropriate, except for those reliant on Arcane Backgrounds other than The Force. You may wish to allow Champion, Holy Warrior, and Wizard based on Arcane Background (The Force) and the Force skill, instead of their existing background and skill.

From the sci-fi companion, most of the new Edges and Hindrances seem designed for harder science fiction; Star Wars never seems to care enough about gravity and atmosphere to justify traits that affect interacting with them. Of the additions in that book, I’d only suggest using Low Tech/High Tech and Outsider as Hindrances and Cyber Tolerant, Cyborg, and Rocket Jock as Edges (you could also allow Geared Up, but it seems like a much worse long-term investment than the core Rich edge).

The following are additional for Star Wars:

Edges

Arcane Background (The Force)

Arcane Skill: Force (Spirit)

Starting Power Points: 10

Starting Powers: Special (see Force Powers, below)

Sensitive: The character sometimes receives visions and intuitions with a raw Spirit Roll

Jedi

Requirements: Arcane Background (The Force), Force d4+

You gain a lightsaber that does not count against your starting funds. Attackers must defeat your Parry score when firing blasters (instead of the normal base ranged difficulty) if you are using a lightsaber. You gain any allies and enemies of the Jedi order.

Additional Force Trick

Requirements: Force d8+, must be trained personally by the inventor of the trick

You gain an additional Force Trick (see Force Powers, below).

Additional Mods

Requirements: Droid

Gain an additional two points of Mods (see Droid Mods, below). This edge can be taken multiple times to gain further mods.

Hindrances

Monolingual (Minor)

You only speak Basic. You gain no additional languages for the Multiple Languages setting rule, and cannot buy the Languages focus of Knowledge until you have bought off this Hindrance.

Skills

Uncommon Skills

There are several skills that are unlikely to be used often in Star Wars (particularly in my conception of the alternate Clone Wars). Players should likely not take them at all, and should pay half cost for them if they do purchase them:

  • Boating (Agility)
  • Driving (Agility)
  • Lockpicking (Agility) (use Knowledge (Computers) instead)

Suggested Knowledge Focuses

The following are suggested focuses for the Knowledge skill:

  • Battle
  • Computers
  • Electronics
  • History
  • Language*
  • Planets
  • Science

* While using the Multiple Languages setting rule, this is taken as a single skill instead of one per language. Gain additional fluent languages equal to the die size, and roll the skill to interpret languages in which you are not fluent.

Etiquette (Smarts)

This skill works very similarly to Streetwise, but for the complicated politics of high society and Republic bureaucracy.

Force (Spirit)

Roll this skill to activate your Force powers and to defend against such attacks. At d8+, you originate your own Force Trick (see below).

Force Powers

For simplicity, I’ve chosen to frame all Force powers as modifications of existing powers in the core rulebook. They have the same costs and statistics unless otherwise noted. As a global change, any power that uses the caster’s Spirit or Smarts to set a variable (such as range) instead uses the caster’s Force skill die. Force powers do not generally have specific trappings (though their activation may be obvious to nearby Force sensitives).

Basic Powers

All Force sensitives can activate the following six powers:

  • Boost Trait (core page 110): This can be used on the caster only, and can only be used for Boost (not Lower). It cannot be used to boost the Spirit attribute or Force skill. It can only boost skills that the GM agrees are suitably athletic or intuition-based that relying on the Force for guidance would help. This power is essentially a catch-all for minor Force-user advantages, and a way to use up power points in combat other than Telekinesis.
  • Detect Arcana (core page 111): This can be used to Detect only, not Conceal (though adding in Conceal would be a good Force Trick).
  • Divination (core page 112): This requires a whole meditation period rather than just a minute. Answers are presented as a cryptic vision. Trying to learn something useful about an enemy or otherwise unwilling target may be opposed by that target’s Force defense (Spirit if insensitive, Force if sensitive).
  • Mind Reading (core page 115): This is opposed by an unwilling target’s Force defense.
  • Puppet (core page 115): This is opposed by an unwilling target’s Force defense (and may be hard-stopped if the target’s defense die is equal to or higher than the caster Force die, if you want to make the Mind Trick reliably ineffective against certain targets like in the films). It can only be used to convince the target of a fact, or compel them to take a simple series of actions, not to take combat control (as per the normal Puppet power).
  • Telekinesis (core page 118): The Telekinetic Weapon option can only be used for a single attack (i.e., saber throw) rather than an ongoing floating weapon. Damage of dropping/throwing objects is based on the caster’s Force instead of Spirit. To better reflect the movies, you might want to put the weight limits on an exponential scale rather than a linear one based on Force die size (such as die size squared, rounded down to the nearest 10 pounds, so the progression is d4 (10), d6 (30), d8 (60), d10 (100), d12 (140)); a raise still multiplies the allowed weight by five.

Force Trick

Once a Force Sensitive raises the Force skill to d8, he or she invents a unique Force Trick, and can train others in this trick if they take the Additional Force Trick edge. See the original post for more information on the logic behind this. In general, the player and GM should work together to come up with something that either expands an existing power’s capabilities, or adds a whole new power (likely based on unused Savage Worlds powers). Force Tricks that modify an existing power stack with one another; the caster can always choose to activate all relevant tricks.

Recovering Power Points

Force sensitives can recover power points in two ways:

  • Light Side: After a protracted meditation, recover all power points to full. The length of this meditation is whatever makes sense to the GM, and may require a Force roll to tune out distractions. As per the original post linked above, dabbling with the dark side should extend the time required to benefit from meditation. Jedi can, rarely, achieve this level of calm during conflict; if the GM and player agree that it makes sense due to roleplaying, the player can take an action to make a Force roll and recover two power points on success plus two per raise.
  • Dark Side: The character may choose to channel strong emotions into power, including anger, fear, and pain. Doing this is considered using the dark side, and affects time to meditate. The character may do this reflexively on any round he or she attempts to remove Shaken, and by taking an action otherwise. Wound penalties are flipped and become wound bonuses to this roll. The character rolls Force and regains one power point, plus one per raise. The GM may adjust the difficulty higher or lower based on interpreting how strong the emotion seems to be (stronger emotions have lower difficulties).

Gear

Lots of the gear in the sci-fi companion makes sense for Star Wars. Use your judgement as to what fits and what doesn’t. In general, the pricing for most items seems relatively close to the pricing in other Star Wars sources like Edge of the Empire, such that you can take the Savage Worlds dollar values and use them as credits. One specific exception is starship prices: Star Wars tends to think of them as costing tens or hundreds of thousands, while Savage Worlds prices them at millions or billions. The Savage Worlds prices are probably more realistic: a starship includes lots of expensive components, such that it should probably cost more than 100 times the cost of a blaster. On the other hand, starships in Star Wars aren’t really starships, they’re boats that haul the player characters between adventures. It makes sense to price them more like cargo trucks or luxury cars, so a player team can reasonably own and maintain one.

I would suggest coming up with a consistent monetary theory that makes everyone happy, and sticking with it. This is easier if you just give the players a ship, rather than making them purchase one, and include enough economics to drive interesting play (e.g., very little for traditional pulp heroics, more if your PCs are smugglers trying to save up enough money to get out from under a crime lord’s sluglike thumb). If you’re going to be more loose with available funds, pay careful attention to the prices of some of the items in the sci-fi companion, as they may be game breaking if they’re too affordable. In particular, if you use the basic robot rules you could purchase some pretty nasty combat droids for your party with only a few hundred thousand credits (see Droid Mods, below).

The following are my suggestions for specific Star Wars combat gear:

  • Lightsaber: Treat this as a Katana with the Energy Weapon template. It does Str+d12 damage, has AP 6, and its AP should probably counter the Parry of someone with a physical melee weapon (e.g., against someone with Parry 4 and a physical weapon, attack against Parry 0, break the weapon, and deal damage at AP 2 against any remaining armor on the target). The Savage Worlds pricing places it at 1,500, but you might increase that for the ability to chop through weapons, and just flat out make them only available with the Jedi edge during A New Hope era games.
  • Lightbayonet: A useful addition to Clone Wars era games where lightsabers are more common, treat this as a module that allows a blaster rifle to emit a short lightsaber from its barrel in order to defend against lightsaber-wielders cutting up your firing line. It takes an action to switch the weapon from bayonet mode to blaster mode. While in bayonet mode, it’s a melee weapon that does Str+d8 damage, AP 4, Reach 1, requires two hands, and can parry lightsabers (that’s applying the Energy Weapon template to the Bayonet stats; it may be too good with those stats, and might need to be reduced accordingly). Savage Worlds pricing places it at 525.
  • Blasters: A New Hope era blasters should use the Particle Accelerators (Blasters) stats on page 21 of the sci-fi companion. For Clone Wars era blasters, if you’re using my suggestion that they should be much more primitive, I would start out with drastically lowered range (or slightly lowered range and an inherent inaccuracy penalty), reduce the damage by a die size or two, and drastically lower the shots per clip.
  • Ion Weapons: These can probably just be statted as blasters that deal electricity damage, and have a die size lower damage. This means they’ll be less effective than a blaster against organic targets, and more effective against droids (since they take +4 damage from electricity).

Droid Mods

If you’re allowing droids as characters, I think the rules in the sci-fi companion (and the Savage Star Wars PDF linked at the top of the post) that link robot options to purchases and maintenance costs are very risky. It means the GM has to be very careful handing out monetary rewards to make sure that the party’s droids aren’t much better or worse than the other party members. So I’d instead suggest just handling droid modifications as customizable racial features. Each mod has a cost comparable to racial mod costs, and you can take them until you get your droid set up the way that makes sense to you and the GM.

Each droid starts off with one point of mods, and can gain two additional points for each time he or she purchases the Additional Mods edge. The following are the allowable mods from the sci-fi companion, with their mod cost in parenthesis (this may be different from the mod cost in the book, as it takes price into account, and any mod that normally grants more mod slots does not for these purposes):

  • Android (2)
  • Aquatic (1)
  • Armor (1)
  • Data Jack (1)
  • Flight (2)
  • Immobile (-1)
  • Magnetic Pads (1)
  • Pace (1)
  • Power Pack (1)
  • Sensor Suite (1)
  • Size Increase (2)
  • Size Reduction (-1) (also reduces Toughness by -1 as per the racial)
  • Stealth System (4)
  • Targeting System (1)
  • Trait Bonus (2)
  • Wall Walker (1)
  • Wheeled or Tracked (0)

The following are additional mod options (either taken from the other racial mods or invented for Star Wars):

  • Binary Communicator (-1): The droid can only speak in the binary language
  • Environmental Hardening (1): +4 to resist a single environmental effect (heat, cold, etc.)
  • Frail (-1): Flimsy construction imposes -1 Toughness
  • High-Speed Processing (3): Gain one extra non-movement action without a multi-action penalty
  • Integrated Equipment (*): Can have reasonable integrated weapons or tools; costs 1 mod slot per 500 cost of the items, and includes the purchase of the item
  • Noncombat (-2): The droid cannot buy the Fighting or Shooting skills
  • Restraining Bolt (0): The droid is disabled if it exceeds a designated range from the controller, or the controller is activated
  • Slow (-1): -1 Pace and d4 running die (cannot buy the Pace mod).
  • Specialized Appendages (-1): The droid has no generic manipulation appendages (like hands), and must use other mods (integrated equipment, data jack, etc.) to manipulate most physical items

Example droid configurations:

  • R2 Unit: Binary Communicator (-1), Data Jack (1), Frail (-1), Integrated Equipment (3; 1,500 credits worth of misc tools), Magnetic Pads (1), Noncombat (-2), Sensor Suite (1), Size Reduction (-1), Specialized Appendages (-1), Tracked (0), Trait Bonus (2; Repair)
  • Protocol Droid: Frail (-2), Integrated Equipment (4; Language Translator from sfc p. 15), Noncombat (-2), Slow (-1), Trait Bonus (2; Etiquette)

Alternate Clone Wars, Part 3

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And now that the basic tech and Force theory is out of the way, here’s the meat of the alternate take on the Clone Wars era.

The Trap of the Old Republic

If you are to understand anything about the way things are, you must understand that the Republic is both the greatest achievement of the galaxy, bringing peace to billions, and the worst thing to ever happen to the Jedi.

It began innocently enough. In the dark ages before the Republic, when each planet was often at war with its neighbors, the Jedi were the protectors of the defenseless. When a despot wrung her people dry, or a petty king began to wipe out civilians to ruin the will of his enemies, the Force would see that the Jedi were there to stop them. The civilization of the galaxy from which the Republic grew was largely due to all the work Jedi had done to remove the most terrible and unjust of leaders.

As peace treaties began to proliferate, alliances spread, and the Senate began to form, those in power were those that the Jedi had been without cause to target. Many had been dear friends, assisting lone Jedi or small teams of them in taking down particularly vicious and powerful targets. The political leaders that formed the Senate owed the Jedi. They gave them new rights, built them temples, and sought even deeper alliances.

While the Force is more democratic than other forms of power, able to arise in even the commonest individual, in practice it tends to flow with the blood. The children of powerful Jedi are often strong in the Force themselves. As this tendency became noticed, it became a natural ideal of the planets that passed political power through inheritance. So gradually they barely even noticed, one beautiful and adoring price or princess at a time, the Jedi became deeply ensnared in the royal and noble lines of the galaxy. Without meaning to, they became part of the politics through ties of blood, rather than mere servants of the Force.

It took an embarrassingly long time for the Jedi masters to notice the problem. Jedi temples became finishing schools for the political elite. Jedi knights guarded kings and led armies against those with whom diplomacy had failed (sometimes forgetting to question whether the war was truly just). Apprentices from the highest birth often did not have the necessary humility to serve the will of the Force, and had to be cut down as they fell to the Dark Side.

Those strongest in the Force were either winnowed due to falling to the Dark Side or became sensitive enough to learn that this sedentary life of privilege was not what the Force meant for them. One by one, they left the temples and returned to the old ways. Over generations, the Jedi of the noble classes became more and more ceremonial, weak users of the Force barely trained to use a lightsaber. They were the “Jedi” that most civilians were familiar with, and it was easy to doubt the legends in the face of self-important knights with barely a few tricks over those that didn’t claim the titles. The real Jedi were elsewhere.

Jedi Before the Clone Wars

In the giant galaxy, these scant years before the Clone Wars, there are only a handful of Jedi. Most wander incessantly, though they have their preferred waystations where those in need might find them eventually, and they all try to keep in touch with the few that have become stationary. Their primary mission is to be tossed about by the Force, wave men riding the universe’s currents to where they are needed most. To save lives. To broker peace. To destroy the corrupt. To protect innocents. Very few civilians, in the grand scheme of things, ever meet a real Jedi. Most that do, do in the heat of the most interesting days of their lives, as a lone warrior-priest arrives to try to tilt a situation away from disaster. They don’t stay long, but they usually leave with more friends than enemies.

An exception to the normal mission (or, often, an addition) is to find new Force sensitives and, if they seem strong in the Force and moral enough to follow the code, to train them. Often these powers come with puberty, and it’s helpful to get youths before their teenage nature has set in and made them distrustful of adult authority. Some Jedi masters don’t like to train students close to adulthood, worried that they’re too old to accept training. This is an opinion, not a rule.

Training as a Jedi is often a series of brief bouts of working apprenticeship. Everything your master can tell you, she can tell you in a few days. What she can show you, she can show you in weeks. It’s only when you have to put the lessons into context in a real situation that you truly start to learn. A new apprentice Jedi often spends the longest with the first teacher, learning and adventuring until he or she can feel the call of the Force without aid. The mentor then suggests some other Jedi that the student might seek out that can impart different lessons, and new understanding of the Force. On the way to the next master, the student suffers through a series of interesting events, better putting training to practice. And new teachers demand their own quests before imparting their wisdom. Life as a Jedi is the life of a questing knight, forever in motion. A Jedi does not crave adventure, knowing that adventure will find her, regardless.

Even without the impetus of the Force, though, few Jedi would think to stop moving. There are two types of Force users that stop moving for long: the eldest, who are now more valuable as teachers than warriors, and those that choose temporal power over wisdom. Many powerful individuals would pay gladly for true Jedi to serve them, but those they get will never become more powerful: they will not learn the lessons the Force means to teach, and they will not meet others that can train them in new expressions of the Force.

Each active Force user eventually finds an expression of his or her personality in the Force: a unique power known to no other. In addition to greater wisdom, this is the real prize that others seek to be taught. You can only learn new powers from those that were blessed with them by the Force and their own temperament. A Jedi with only the basics is powerful, but not beyond what a normal individual can do with some cunning tech. But a Jedi well-versed in the arts of many teachers can become unstoppable.

The Rise of the Empire

The patchwork unity of the Republic is delicate, an intricately-woven diplomacy that the Senate maintains at all cost. Brilliant minds are encouraged to join the bureaucracy, putting their talents to the service of the smooth operation of the galaxy. Those that cannot be dissuaded from a love of engineering and science are encouraged to refine existing knowledge and technology, or make new toys and entertainment, rather than inventing or greatly improving what exists. Those that ignore these encouragements and try to invent new things are scrutinized, and often meet with mysterious ends. Improving starships might upset generations-old trade contracts. Improving weapons might encourage the foolish to use this new edge to start a war. And so, under the well-intentioned thumb of the Senate, the technology of the Republic became ever more elegant and ever more stagnant.

Nobody knows, for sure, the origins of the Emperor, for propaganda was a strength of his from very early, and each story of his rise seems more of a lie than the last. The Jedi suspect that he was a throwback from a noble family, much stronger in the Force than other “Jedi” in their line. There is much doubt whether he was ever formally trained; at least, none admit to having taught him, and his corruption by the Dark Side is so thorough it has ravaged his body, such that it should have been obvious even at a young age that he should not be trained. And yet, even the gifts of the Force available to the self-taught can be powerful, correctly applied: prescience to see the path to power, the ability to command weak minds, and terrifying “magic” to cow those that cannot be controlled.

The first thing he did, upon gaining a foothold of power, was to offer sanctuary to inventors that hated the rules of the Republic. Before anyone could have noticed, he already had a substantial technological edge. And he had humanity behind him.

Though the Republic never officially instituted any kind of racism against non-humans, a peculiarity of the race was its adaptability and will to power. Humans would have spread all over the galaxy regardless, and Republic representation based on planetary leadership only encouraged them. They already held almost a majority of Senate seats, and a majority of Jedi (both real and political). And the Emperor exploited this mercilessly.

Starting on the fringes, he recruited groups of humans that felt trapped against entrenched non-human habitations with no room to expand. He wove a tale of human excellence and superiority, and convinced them to conquer the lands of disagreeable neighbors. It took too long for the Senate to respond, as he had foreseen, paralyzed by old rivalries, recriminations, and a near-majority human representation that didn’t feel threatened. By the time the galaxy realized it was at war, being consumed by the Empire, the Emperor’s power base was already substantial.

If he had just had superior weapons and ships, there might have still been a hope of defeating him. But the greatest technology of the Empire is cloning. The Republic’s soldiers vary in combat ability and most would rather not be fighting. The Emperor can find soldiers with the greatest predilection for warfare, replicate them indefinitely, and train them so they know nothing but battle. Win a decisive and bloody skirmish against a battalion of stormtroopers, and an identically trained one will be right behind them. The Clone Wars have begun.

The greatest masters seem resigned. They are already the greatest threats the Emperor faces, and he is mercilessly hunting them down even as he pursues his greater agenda. Some counsel patience, waiting for the Force to show them the way through, while others feel that the only answer is to hide. But some still have hope and an impulse to act now. They take their long-abandoned positions as knights and generals for the Republic and strike back. The Empire’s growth seems inevitable, but it moves slowly, and there are still many opportunities before it fully engulfs the Republic. The Jedi were weary of the well-meaning mistakes of the Republic, but the Empire is far, far worse. The time to act is now, even though it may already be too late.

And I’ve been going on about Star Wars for the better part of two months. So next week, something completely different.

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)

Borrowing from Video Games: SW:TOR’s Story

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If you’d told me a few months ago how many hours I was going to blow on Star Wars: The Old Republic within my first month, I wouldn’t have believed you. After all, I’ve been clean of World of Warcraft for nearly five years. I’ve played other DIKU-style MMOs in the intervening time completely casually, often getting bored after a few hours in. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Guild Wars 2 for precisely the reason that it’s replacing a lot of the most obvious inheritances from EverQuest and WoW. Yet the gameplay in TOR could almost entirely be run in any standard DIKU from WoW to Rift with just an art and sounds change. And, while I’m a big fan of lightsabers and all the other assorted brand identity of Star Wars, that in itself wouldn’t explain the draw of the MMO.

What does is the story.

The most obvious evidence of this is the sheer amount of cash spent on voice acting and animation: every mission in the game has at least a short conversation that is fully voiced, animated, and cut like a scene from an animated film. It’s leagues beyond “click NPC, see mission text, click accept” and the level of animation and NPC interaction is far beyond even any other voiced MMOs I’ve played. When you get your quest to kill ten rats you’re going to feel viscerally that the death of this arbitrary number of arbitrary critters is a matter of life or death for your questor. Not only do you see the emotional reaction to your mission completion, you even usually get a thank you note a little while later giving you the denouement of the plotline.

That’s useful, high-production-value gloss. It really makes the game shine. But it’s not the true engine of the story.

The real brilliance is the story flow, which is something I’ve never seen another MMO really do in the same way, and certainly not to the same success. The way most MMOs these days work is the concept of quest hub to quest hub. You go to a little village or camp, there are a bunch of NPCs that have missions in the area that need doing, and eventually one of them gives you a mission that takes you to the next quest hub. There may be some overarching logic to your overall path, but it gets drowned in the noise of all the quests you’re doing. And the overarching logic is shared by everyone in your faction.

TOR starts with a personal, class-specific quest. It’s different for each of the eight primary classes in the game. You’re on a personal mission: the quest to catch and ruin the criminal that stole your ship, the careful dance of ending a terrorist conspiracy, a secretive search for a rival operative that threatens to undo your master’s plans, and so on. Each of these personal stories is broken into a whole series of smaller goals… and each of those smaller goals sends you by the ubiquitous quest hubs to pick up a few more missions while you just happen to be in the area. It’s a simple and yet winning change: instead of the focus being on whatever arbitrary pile of tasks happen to be in the area, it’s on the much more compelling (yet equally arbitrary) series of class story tasks that happen to send you through the area.

And these tasks are incredibly arbitrary for the simple fact that every one of the four class stories in a faction has to share exactly the same series of beats. If you travel in a group of four, each a different primary class, you’ll never have to wander more than a bit out of your way to do each other’s story quests. The agent goes to the temple to stop terrorists, the inquisitor is hunting a relic buried there, the warrior needs yet another relic, and the hunter has to eliminate a troublesome NPC that happens to be there. Yet the overall design is clever enough that your own story doesn’t feel especially slighted by knowing everyone else is going to the same places for different reasons.

That’s a long lead up of explanation to get to the question: Why don’t we do this more often in tabletop RPGs?

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in tabletop games, particularly those run by new GMs (or just for new groups where the GM doesn’t know the players well), is in getting player engagement. As a GM, you put your story out there and the players either find something about it that their characters invest in, or they slog along out of friendliness hoping something will eventually click. I’ve seen a lot of games eventually stall out largely because most of the group never really cared much about the story.

The obvious solution to this is to run a sandbox game where the players completely drive the action based on what their characters want. But, in addition to not working well for all genres, a true sandbox requires a level of improv skill and/or prep time that not every GM is ready to bring. Plus, ignoring the derisive label of frustrated novelist, a lot of GMs get inspired by a story idea that they want to try rather than an open setting.

TOR offers a compromise: an individually-directed story that nevertheless parallels and draws the player into the story the GM is interested in telling. Instead of the player character’s goals being side tasks that sometimes distract the group from the main story, they’re the hooks that get the group into the main story in the first place.

Interestingly, the place I see this kind of thing most often is convention games with pre-gen characters that have written backstories. GMs that make these often take great pains to ensure that the pre-gen’s goals will keep the plot moving. Why not do this with your home game where the players each have their own character? For all but the most closed or disinterested players, it’s a simple matter to ask them for their take on where they’d like their characters to grow or what they want them to accomplish. Then set measurable steps to this goal (either as achievements out of play with the player, or delivered in-character but clearly during the first session). You can even bribe the player with the promise of a big dump of exp or other upgrades set to milestones or total completion: for certain players, nothing focuses the mind like pursuit of system-based character improvement.

Once you know where the players want to go and you have a finite series of steps to get there, it should be a simple matter to bind those steps into the main story you want to run. Want the players in a haunted house? The solution to a player’s personal mystery is hidden inside. Want them to infiltrate an enemy group? One of them has information pertinent to a player’s story that has to be socially engineered. Need them to kill ten rats? A contact has a crucial piece of the puzzle and that’s his price for turning it over. Sure, the players may grumble a little: it is obvious what you’re doing. But as long as it has a measurable impact at getting them closer to their goals, they’ll most likely play along.

And the coolest thing about this in a tabletop game is that you should be able to disguise it more easily than an MMO with areas that have fixed levels of enemies. Player goals don’t necessarily all have to serendipitously wind up at the same place. They can be trusted to help one another on disparate goals only to see a story emerging from all of them together. Or, for groups where their goals run largely perpendicular to one another, you could even gloss the entire game as periods of downtime progress on goals with sessions chronicling the times that a bunch of the PCs’ goals happen to intersect.

It might not be high art, but it certainly beats a player complaining that he doesn’t even know why his character is there.

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