What I Love: Empire Strikes Back
Welcome back to the blog! Today we're looking at The Empire Strikes Back, one of the most beloved Star Wars movies of all time. In this series we are looking at what I love with no comments about what I don't like, but I'll say this: nothing comes to mind that I don't like about this film.
And perhaps part of what contributes to this is the fact that the movie not only is consistent on its own, but it is also cohesive with the rest of the series, is a natural progression from Episode IV, and develops the characters enough to prepare the viewer for Episode VI. More on that when we discuss the sequel trilogy next month.
When I watched this movie this week with my wife, we had a blast enjoying this movie. The banter, the pace, the imaginative creatures, a serious land battle - the film is a treasure of cinema. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
I. Good Banter Is Good
Perhaps the best thing about this film is the banter. Other Star Wars films have tried to match Empire, but by far this film does it the best. Quick, quippy comebacks from Han and Leia. Tension and sarcasm appearing naturally and seamlessly in quick succession. Witty confusing sayings from a puppet. All of it is good.
Other movies (including Star Wars movies) try to do this, so it's worth noting that what I praise here is not banter but good banter. Good banter is timely, punchy, and most of all believable both for the character and the circumstance. A long diatribe is not banter, no matter how funny.
And this does happen around your roleplay table if you let it happen. Naturally some of it will depend on your players being willing to engage with each other and/or your NPCs, but it can be sparked and fanned by you as the game master. How often do your NPCs just talk to the players? How often do you engage in witty banter with your players through your NPCs? If you create an environment for discussion, party members are more likely to engage.
And truthfully, this is something you should discuss in Session Zero. You will want to know if this is something people are interested in engaging in before you start pushing for it at the table. But if your group is interesting, it does make the session more fun and more memorable.
II. Complex Combat Is Good
I cannot tell you how excited I was when I watched the Battle of Hoth again: I held back from noting to my wife which corporation created the turrets and how there was a design for an Imperial walker that had an artillery gun on the back, but I cannot tell you how excited I was about this battle.
And that got me thinking: why do I like the Battle of Hoth, the asteroid chase, and Luke's engagement with Vader (and this goes beyond Empire to include the fight on the Naboo Battle Plains in Phantom Menace)? I realized that it's because the combat is complex, constantly shifting one way and then another. Unless you've seen it before you don't know how it will end.
And this is something you don't see in a lot of movies, or in a lot of roleplay sessions. Typically things either start tough for the protagonists, then they fight back, and then they thin out the enemy until they attain victory, or things tart tough for the protagonists, they try some things, they don't work out, and the protagonists lose.
And for most combats, as Master Yoda notes, "That is why you fail."
What a good combat requires is back and forth: tugging in both directions. And in a roleplay context there are many ways to do this. You can release the hostile NPCs in waves, saving elements of the force for future waves as a way to raise the stakes and provide a setback to the progress made by the party up to that point. You can display new attacks or weapons used by the NPCs as it progresses, making it more difficult or revealing something that the party can take advantage of (does killing an enemy trooper give you access to the dead trooper's grenades?).
One of the more controversial things you can do is you can add non-combat elements to a combat. Does the party need to solve a puzzle while fighting, with 1-2 party members not taking combat actions because they are solving a puzzle? This "splits the party" (even if they are near each other physically) as it removes actions from the party's action economy.
All of these raise the stakes, encourage tactics, and incentivize thinking outside the box, which is what makes combat interesting to the group.
III. Archetypes for Quick Recognition Is Good
Complexity is not the answer to everything though: complex characters are good, but complex characters and character concepts require time on-screen (or in session for roleplaying) to explain, and time is something we don't always have. Empire does a good job handling this, using archetypes to simplify character concepts, making it easier to understand the motivations and nature of the person.
Empire gives us three good examples of this. We'll start with the most obscure: the wampa ice monster of Hoth.
We don't know much about wampas, and we aren't told anything really about them in the movie. We know that they have thick fur (which makes sense in this climate), horns (that we don't know what they do, as they aren't positioned correctly as a weapon or for defense), claws, are carnivores, and apparently can sneak up on people in the middle of an open snowy field.
But have you noticed that no one complains about wampas attacking people in the middle of an open area? Why is that? Simple: because of the Yeti, Bigfoot, and other archetypal creatures. The wampa is the Yeti of Star Wars: there's almost something mystical about it that allows such a large creature with non-padded feet to slink around, and we buy that because of the archetypal creature it mimics.
Similarly, we don't need too much background on Lando to know why he does what he does. We know he's a friend of Han, so it doesn't surprise us that he's a scoundrel with a heart of gold, or that he's motivated by business over ethics, or that he's sweet on Leia. We need virtually no explanation about him save that he and Han go way back and that their history is not squeaky clean, but even the latter is something we don't need to know because of what we know about Han.
And of course, we can't talk about archetypes without discussing Master Yoda. Every detail about this character is centered on the archetypal guru master: he's old, he's wise (or at least sounds wise), he is powerful in the Force, and he could write fortune cookie sayings really well. Even the fact that we don't know his species name or homeworld plays into this: he's built entirely around an archetype.
And this works, because the audience doesn't need a lot of explanation. The writers can get into the character's interaction with the plot instead of taking time to lay out who the person is, why they are the way they are, and what they want (and how that puts them in-line with or at odds with the protagonists). Your main characters should be more than an archetype, but for some of your NPCs? You can get away with this.
Now, it's worth noting that an archetype differs from a cliche, and that is where we'll end this post.
IV. Complex Motivations for Characters Is Good
How do the characters in Empire get away with being archetypal and/or predictable? They have complex motivations for their actions, even if we don't know what all of those motivations are. Yoda is a powerful Force user, and while we don't know why such a powerful Jedi is in hiding save what Obi-Wan says in A New Hope about Vader hunting down the Jedi, we know that he sees Luke, not himself as the only hope they have. So his warnings to Luke not to confront Vader makes sense.
Lando runs a business and seems to care a lot about money, so it makes sense that he sells them out to the Empire (and his bad history with Han makes it even more believable).
So while Empire doesn't spend immense time covering motivations, the time that is spent on it is sufficient to explain everything else. This is a good lesson for GMs: we want our players to understand the "why" behind people's actions, but you don't need to explain everything - you just need to explain enough that they can put the pieces together by themselves.
Now, of course, not all characters need complex motivations - the wampa is another great example of this. So your motivations should be fitting for the character and the character's role. Is the person hostile to the group? You should know why. Is the person selling something in a store? Probably don't need complex motivations for him. Can the person be turned from hostile to allied with the party? You should know what would create that transformation.
All of this makes it easier to portray the NPC to your players: if you know what they want, it is easier to play them consistently and persuasively to the group.
I don't think I'll ever tire of watching Empire. It's my favorite of the Original Trilogy, and in my top three of all time, and for good reason: it's an all-around good movie. And you'll find that next week's review of Return of the Jedi is more of the same, ewoks included.
Until next time,