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The Force of the Story

By Steve Darlington


You know, I've never been a huge fan of playing the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Or reading the legion of 'expanded universe' comics and novels available, nor the fan fiction that is ubiquitous on the net, or indeed anything much which isn't the films themselves. The reason for this is simple: I love Star Wars.

I love the films, that is, and the stories they tell. Not the universe, not the technology, not the look or the feel, not even the cosmology or the spirituality. The stories. The crafting of the characters, the form and pace of the narrative, the sheer thrill of vibrant, swashbuckling adventure fiction done to perfection. And frankly, I expect anything with a Star Wars label to match that feeling - or what's the point?

Too often, in trying to recreate Star Wars, people try to recreate the wrong things. Yes, we all loved wookies, we are all enchanted when he hear people talk about the Dune Sea, we all think lightsabers are the coolest thing in the world - but these are just accessories. Without a heart-felt Star Wars story in front, within, and around these cool images and backgrounds, they're hollow and meaningless. Thus, no matter what they look like, the stories won't feel like Star Wars.

Here then, are some tips and suggestions for making your adventures really capture that Star Wars feel in the narrative, and not just in the costumes and setting. Get the plot right, and everything else will follow.

Everything Must be Incredibly Important

Nothing in the Star Wars trilogy is ever incidental. Almost everything we see on screen is vital to the survival of the Rebel Alliance, the return of the Jedi, and thus, the future of the galaxy. The only exceptions to this are when a major character's life is at stake. Nothing small or even medium size ever happens in these films - the stakes are always as big as they can get. The Rebels are always on the verge of destruction, the actions being taken are always vital to saving the day, and empires and legends rise and fall from their successes and failures.

Yet, nine times out of ten, when you sit down to play a Star Wars adventure, what do you get? You get supply missions and laundry runs. You get "go to point A and find out why weird stuff is happening". At best, you get "somebody's doing (or just did) something potentially nasty, go and find out who, then make them stop." This is not Star Wars. Even if the bad person doing the nasty thing were doing something very big and very threatening to the rebellion, this would only barely be acceptable. If I'm not worried that, as a result of the current actions sweeping over me as I speak, the whole universe is going to be forever overshadowed by evil, why do I care? How can this game rival the tale of Luke Skywalker if it doesn't at least have the same level of political import and intensity?

This importance should also be abundantly clear to your players. Mystery-solving and thorough investigations are out of place in Star Wars, and the threats are rarely hidden or in doubt. It's never a case of 'this could lead to the destruction of the Rebellion'; it's always 'this will certainly kill us all.'

It isn't difficult to create this level of drama. In a war, every battle can be crucial. Every weapon, location, power or secret that should be in the hands of one side and not the other could be the trigger that turns the tide forever. And there are millions of innocent victims who need saving. Add to that a setting and storyline which is vast, open to limitless exploration and - it must be said - totally made-up, and any storyteller worth her salt can find plenty of moments when the future of all that is good was decided in one small action by a few desperate heroes swept up in world-shattering events.

Of course, if you are producing a serial medium like most roleplaying campaigns, it's hard to keep players and readers constantly coming back to a recurring story if the galaxy is always under threat. Or is it? What does James Bond do every film but save the world? Star Wars is very much part of the pulp tradition, and you should take a leaf from that book. The leaf that says: the universe is on the brink of destruction every single week - unless our heres can save it!

The Characters Must Be Centre Stage to Everything

This is an old saw, but it's worth reiterating. Star Wars is not a story about the rebels defeating the Empire, it's the story of Luke, Han and Leia. It's no accident that people like Mon Mothma, General Rieekan and Admiral Ackbar appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. It's also no accident that the least interesting and least inspiring battle in the original films is the final one in Jedi - because in it, our heroes play a smaller role, only part of a lesser whole. (This is perhaps necessary though, as to not overshadow Luke's personal battle, but it still feels less impressive than it could have.)

Compare it to the climax of A New Hope, where Luke and Han destroy the Death Star single-handedly. As a film, it makes the best link between the personal stories and the plight of the Empire, and it has the strongest plot of them all as a result.

So not only must the fate of the galaxy hang by a thread, it must be our heroes who are hanging onto that thread - as well as dealing with all their other problems with romance and long-lost relatives and spiritual vocations. This isn't always simple, as Star Wars is a galaxy filled to bursting with Jedi knights, politicians, princesses, moffs and emperors who are all running the show already. So it's hard work to take your nobodys and squeeze them onto the centre stage - but nobody said this was going to be easy.

Lucas does it by taking a character already in the central position and throwing her in with his other characters - a sound option, and one that can be expanded into a general rule. Simply take one connector to the centre of the action (Leia), and then lead a honey trail to it (through the lost droids) so the players follow it in. Then give them a reason not to part (romance is a reliable one) and you've got a start. The important step then is not to rest on your laurels - keep adding more and more reasons why these characters matter, and not just because they're in the right place and the right time. You can't use the long-lost-father-is-the-villain concept, but you should be looking at ideas on the same level of impact. Take the aforementioned problems of romance, long-lost relatives and spiritual vocations and wire them into the politics. This way, not only will everything the characters do affect the future of the galaxy, but will have a similar impact on their personalities. That's what gives us the best moments ever in Star Wars.

The Big Narrative "Push"

I mentioned above that the players have to be in the right place at the right time, to be central to the action. This next tip is to make sure they are in that place, and that time, and that they stay there. How do you do that? You push them. And in Star Wars, you push them hard.

Look at A New Hope: the droids find Luke, and point him to Ben. Ben takes Luke to Han, Han needs the money (he's being pushed by Jabba) so he flies them to Alderaan, and the next thing they know they get sucked into the very place Leia is being held captive. Convenient, huh? Empire is much the same - Han and Leia spend most of their film running from the frying pan right into the fire. Jedi has less of this pushing and again, suffers as a result of it.

Narrative push can be achieved in many ways: First, motivating the characters through a stick (Han's debt) or a carrot (Luke's attraction to the holovid of Leia) is essential - but not enough on its own. Secondly, dramatic coincidences and miraculous timing are always appropriate, no matter how unlikely - because the audience expects it. Similarly, never be afraid to give players obvious directions to follow or even occasionally force the plot upon them regardless of their actions. If the PCs won't go find Ben Kenobi, send the droid off on its own that night. In the world of Star Wars, a little railroading is a good thing.

Lastly - and this is particularly so in Star Wars - make sure to limit their options. Keep them on the run, out of options, lacking in resources and friends, with no way out and with no time to think, because this desperation makes them go into interesting places (like garbage disposals and bellies of space slugs) and do interesting things (like swing across bridgeless chasms or drop down and out the bottom of a space station thousands of miles above a planet. Or, indeed, launch desperate, hopeless X-wing assaults against something as unstoppable as a Death Star - this idea should be used on both personal and political scales.)

Star Wars is not about limitless choices. The heroes should be choosing between certain death and...certain death on a regular basis, and when they're not, they should never be sitting around thinking about what to do. We almost never see a plan being formed in the films; and when we do, it takes two or three lines to do it. (You stay here, I'll handle the tractor beam). Weighing options and making decisions are much the same. If your heroes are standing around debating what to do, then in Star Wars, that's a good moment to attack them with a snake or start closing the garbage compactor in on them. If Leia is trying to decide if Han can or can't leave Hoth, it's a good moment to lose Luke in a snow storm, and then follow it up by throwing the full weight of the Imperial Army at her, just to help her make up her mind.

In Media Res

There is, of course, a much easier way to get the characters into the spotlight - start them there. This is another old saw when it comes to talking about Star Wars but it is still too often ignored. In media res means "in the middle of things" - starting the story with the action rolling. With Leia already holding the stolen Death Star plans, and already about to lose them to Vader. Many traditional stories start with scene setting and character definition, and then something happens. Star Wars stories benefit greatly from taking the story from that point, and then saying 'and then what happened', and even adding 'and then, and then...' before dropping the audience into the story. If at all possible, we should never see the start of the mission, with people having the situation explained and being given their orders. Remember, that's what the crawl is for.

If you must include the start of a story, then make it quick -Luke is dropped into trouble very quickly, and your players should do likewise. In the two days Luke owns the droids, he learns about his past and his powers, sees his uncle and aunt killed, and leaves his home to join the rebellion. In other words, that narrative push should be twice as hard when it comes to beginnings.

Similarly, if you must show the giving of orders, keep it short and keep it moving. Note the way Lucas keeps the only military briefing scenes in the trilogy (for each Death Star attack) very short, and starts both of them halfway through. If there is a need for more explication of tactics or goals, then it comes from the fighters themselves, in battle. Indeed, as a rule, don't explain anything more than you have to. Unlike what Lucas did in The Phantom Menace, you should be a brutal editor and cut out absolutely anything that is unnecessary, paying particular attention to exposition scenes and any beginnings. If they can't be cut altogether, then they should be stripped to the bone.

Don't worry about your players not quite understanding things - curiosity will keep them wanting to hear more. That's part of the thrill of Star Wars.

A Sense of Wonder

Ask people what they like most about the Star Wars films and a lot of them will mention the "sense of wonder" that Lucas creates. Adventure films appeal to the kid in us, and one of the best ways they do that is showing us a world bigger, stranger and more amazing than we ever dreamed could exist, to makes us gape in awe at the spectacle. A New Hope kicks off with a big, big, BIG ship going right over our heads, and in Mos Eisley we pan around the patrons of the bar for at least thirty seconds, solely so we have time to go "woah, that's cool!" at least five separate times.

The problem is that too many writers, in an effort to recreate Star Wars simply replay the same old ideas. However, what we've seen before cannot fill us with awe in the same way. It's important, therefore, for GMs to create new scenes, and bring new ideas to the universe. Masks were scary on Darth Vader, but they've been done. So Lucas topped it with Maul's incredible body-painting/tattoos. The vastness of the ships in A New Hope was topped by the bottomless towers of Coruscant; the sweeping sunset on the Dune Sea exceeded by the glittering Theed palace by the waterfall. Wonder should be built into the geography, architecture and especially the costuming of any Star Wars story.

Of course, vast, sweeping grandeur and other intense imagery isn't the only way to create wonder. New things will also fill the bill. Midichlorians may have made 90% of Star wars fans feel decidedly queasy, but they changed the rules of the Force, and that keeps us wondering. Lucas isn't the only one allowed to break from "canon". Of course, if you break the rules too much, it won't be Star Wars, but you should never be afraid to say "well, why not?" and throw your players some surprises. Old things, like new ones, are also full of wonder - like the Jedi order, or the distant way in which Ben refers to the Clone Wars - so don't be afraid to include your own old things too. Soon, there won't be any wonder left attached to that war (when we see it happen), so we're going to need something to replace it.

Big things, new things, old things, ugly things and not forgetting just plain weird things - Star Wars is a playground for big kids, and should be full of cool toys, in the foreground and background. Don't overdo it though, or the playground will simply look cluttered and any wonder will be lost. Just remember that every now and then you have to show your audience something they've never seen before, something new, vast and unimaginable, that makes them speechless at the scope of it. Those are the golden moments in the films; set yourself the challenge of creating your own.

Blow Things Up A Lot

Greg Costikyan once said "Let your players blow something up at least every half an hour." Raymond Chandler once said "When in doubt, have two men with guns burst in the door." The idea is much the same: adventure fiction is a roller-coaster ride, and that means always keeping the plot moving and the action explosive, so to speak. Not only should a Star Wars story have a tight plot with a strong narrative push and no unnecessary details, it should be punctuated with highly regular doses of action, shooting and explosions, and those explosions should be big, loud and right in your face.

If people (or ships) have guns, they should be firing them as soon and as often as possible. If something gets shot, it should explode with sparks, even if it is just a wall. If it's a person, they should scream and flail wildly while exploding. If it's a droid, it should go flying twenty feet backwards. If it's a ship, then it should spiral out of control, make a cool noise and smack into something (a Death Star, a mountain, or best of all, another ship), then explode. Notice that even after the Walker gets brought down without exploding during the Battle of Hoth, a snow-speeder comes along finishes the job and gives us the big boom we're waiting for. Blow up more and more things as the plot goes on, and blow up bigger and bigger things too - Death Stars, planets, imperial battleships - a good Star Wars GM should be the Cecil B. De Mille of blowing things up.

Star Wars stories should, ideally, be always in one of two modes: building up to an action scene, or in an action scene. And if they can't fight (because they're options are limited, as mentioned above) they should be running or hiding instead. What's more, it's also important to include action and explosions even when you're not in a fight scene. Discussing the location of a rebel base, or what to do with the Jedi ambassadors? Break up the talking by blowing up a planet, or their transport ship. Bored on the Dune Sea? Then there must be a sand person right behind you.

Note that: he's right behind you. That same 'in your face' scare is also used on Hoth - we see the Wampa claw hit Luke full on, out of nowhere. It's not quite an explosion but it has the same "POW!" feel. If you can't blow things up, or cut them in half, then punch them right in the face or throw them through a window into the vacuum of space.

If you are in an action scene, then don't stop with the explosions, and keep it going as long as you can. After having shoot-up after shoot-up with stormtroopers during a long foot chase through the Death Star, culminating in a desperate flight from overwhelming forces, our heroes blast away to freedom, only to go straight into a dog fight with TIE fighters. When they get out of that, they have about ten minutes before they have to take on the Death Star, before it blows them all up. So they take off, and lots and lots of X-wings blow up, and then R2-D2 blows up. And then the Han shows up, the TIE fighters blow up, and finally, the Death Star blows up and man, it blows up BIG.

See the pattern? Go, and do likewise.

Pour it On

The final rule is just to apply all the previous rules at once. You should use narrative push and in media res to make sure the characters are the people holding the future of the galaxy in their hands. Then you should use their character ties to make everything have even more significance - Luke's not just fighting for the galaxy, he's fighting his own dark destiny, and one cannot be separated from the other...while down on the planet, the important sabotage mission is made more tense by Han's jealousy. Meanwhile, all this is happening against the background of the most amazing, beautiful, frightening and wondrous places and people you've ever seen; epic battles in a truly epic landscape, with new secrets and wonders hiding behind each corner. And every five minutes, something explodes.

It's a mainstay of all good dramatic writing, but again, it is doubly true on the Star Wars roller-coaster ride: pour it on, and never let up. Just when your characters and your audience think it cannot get any worse or any more exciting, turn the screw. Then turn it some more. Add more personal problems, more importance to the events, more of the galaxy hanging in the balance. Explode even more things, and even bigger things. And make the odds worse and worse, and the choices increasingly limited and the situation more and more desperate.

See, it's Star Wars - we know that, even if it takes another film, the big happy ending is coming. So to balance that assuredness, to make that ending not seem hollow because we knew it was coming, you have to make your audience earn it. You need to arc up the bad situation as much as possible, even to the point where victory makes no sense whatsoever. It's swashbuckling pulp adventure, so we're all quite willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for the miraculous victory and the happy ending, because in exchange we get to see a couple of scruffy-looking heroes kick the butt of the entire Imperial navy.

Which brings us to the most important message of all, which is: if people are having fun, they will put up with a lot. And if they're having enough Star Wars fun, you can get away with almost anything. So whatever you do, don't slow down, don't stop to explain, and if possible, don't even go back to correct yourself. In Star Wars, pacing and excitement are far more important than logic or correctness. If the lightsabers are blazing, then you can get away with any dramatic contrivance, any unbelievable retro-fitted coincidence, any pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, a total disregard for established facts about the setting, history and nature of the characters...hell, if you're good enough, you can even slip in things which break all the laws of human behaviour, physics, and sensible storytelling. You might even get away with Jar Jar.

In fact, get the plot to feel right, to have that same pure sense of boyish adventure, and people will be enjoying the ride so much they'll switch off their brains and follow you anywhere. So most of all, remember to relax, go with the flow and have fun with it. That, more than anything, is what Star Wars is all about.

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