What I Love: Return of the Jedi
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! The past two weeks have been busy, but we got in a chance to watch Return of the Jedi and we're ready to discuss what we love about this film.
It won't surprise anyone to hear that this is one of my top five favorite Star Wars films, as it does such a good job of closing arcs satisfactorily while also having the banter, battles, and booming tunes of John Williams that we have all come to love. But since I don't want to just rehash what I've said for other films in the series, I want to touch on four other things that I love about this film that are of use to us as roleplayers, be we game designers, game masters, or gamers playing in a campaign.
I. Portray Your Archvillain as a Villain
When you think about it, what does the Emperor actually do in the Original Trilogy? He talks to Vader by hologram in Episode V (which is the first time he's seen), he comes to the Death Star in pomp and circumstance, he holds Vader's chain in the capture of Luke, he entices Luke to the Dark Side, he laughs a lot, and he shocks Luke before (spoilers) dying. On its face it doesn't look that evil, especially in light of Vader choking people left and right and cutting off hands in Empire, right?
And yet we totally buy that he's the archvillain: the real bad guy behind Vader. And while we are hoping that Luke can turn Vader, it never crosses our minds that the Emperor could be turned. Why?
First, because of what others say of him. We get a hush over the Rebel leadership as Mon Mothma mentions that the Emperor is overseeing the final stages of the Death Star's construction. We hear Vader saying that, "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am," and this from Darth Vader. Everything surrounding this guy screams, "He's not a good guy, and he's beyond redemption."
And that's good, because he's the archvillain. We need someone that can be opposed to the protagonists, allowing the story to end on a more epic note than a High School Musical-style fantasy adventure.
Second, inflection goes a long way, and this is more than just what he sounds like. You might even call this "branding" for the character. Sure, his voice plays a factor in it for sure: the way he laughs has that maniacal cackle to it, yet it still exudes power and terror, not just high-pitched screeching. But it's more than that.
He is fully in black, making him look ominous. His lightning is blue, but it's not the blue of Obi-Wan's lightsaber: it's more of a chilling blue, and seeing Luke writhe on the ground as he's struck sends that same shock down your body.
So when describing your villains - when they act, when they appear, when others talk about them - use inflection. Don't just say, "He's evil," or have him drown puppies. Have your other villains fear him and convey that to the players. Then show what the hands of your archvillain have wrought, and then when they appear embody a single trait that embodies them (in Sheev Palpatine's case, "terrifying power") and go all-in on that trait.
II. New Stuff Is Good
Did you notice all of the new things we got in this film? We got A-Wings, TIE Interceptors, B-Wings, Mon Calamari cruisers, new aliens at Jabba's Palace - all stuff that is just downright cool. You get excited looking at it, because it's not just new, it is good, and your games should be the same way.
Capture the imagination of your players by providing new things for them to see and interact with. And if you find yourself getting stuck, talk to others - maybe people who are not in your gaming group so as not to spoil it for your players. But don't be afraid to ask for help - I've done it on many occasions, and it's made for some of the best sessions I've ever run.
One of the other things it does, though, is it can show progression in your world. Why does the Rebel Alliance have the A-Wing? They need a fast fighter. What does the presence of MC80 cruisers - seriously large warships - show us about the Rebel Alliance? They are picking up traction and gaining support. All of this is good: it's a visual cue to the viewer that things are progressing in the world.
So what technological advancements should occur in your world to show that time is passing? Should you run your campaign with limitations to help set the stage and give it a place on the timeline (maybe plate mail, automatic firearms, or interstellar travel haven't been invented yet)? Think through how progress can fit into the world you are designing, as it will help to make it feel more real if cultures are adapting and innovating over time.
III. Ewoks Are Good
Yes, that's right: I'm about to give you a (short) defense of the ewoks. I've always loved ewoks, even when it wasn't cool.
Everyone loves to deride the "teddy bears" that helped the Rebellion topple the Empire, and it typically boils down to, "low-tech races shouldn't beat high-tech soldiers" or "plot armor is dumb and shouldn't work."
I don't think either of these is the case.
First, blunt force trauma is how people in our universe have dealt with armored people for centuries. The club, war hammer, and mace were all designed to concuss the target when you couldn't puncture it, and that is almost literally all ewok weapons (save spears which we don't actually see getting any kills in the battle, which is accurate). Even further back in time, dropping rocks and millstones on the heads of attackers was used (much like the ewok gliders and other ewoks near the end of the battle) because, well, the law of gravity.
Now of course all of this has a limit: firing a catapult (blunt force trauma) against an AT-ST isn't going to work, and sure enough we don't see it work. Similarly tripping up walkers is a good idea, but a bunch of small creatures trying to trip it with a rope won't work (as we see in the movie).
There's also the question of visibility and the real threat of ambush. Anyone who has ever played Battlefront knows how hard it is to see an ewok before he comes out to kill you, and that's a very real concern for troopers who have visible gaps in their plastoid armor.
So I don't buy the "plot armor" argument. I also don't buy the, "higher tech always wins" because that's been proven false in history as well. Tech makes victory easier to be sure, but it isn't the end-all, be-all factor to determine victory.
So don't let that be the determining factor for your players either. Give your players room to be creative, using things beyond the stats of their weapons, armor, etc. to give them an edge. In Zurn's system we call this a "situational modifier," and while this is something that may not exist in your game system, perhaps you should add it. You want to encourage your players to engage with your content, and one of the best ways to do this is to encourage them to think tactically instead of just picking up dice and rolling them.
IV. Satisfactory Conclusions Are Good
Episode III is a good conclusion to the prequel trilogy: all of the major players are in place, and we see the symmetry and hope for what will follow in the Original Trilogy. Episode VI, however, is perhaps more compelling as it closes out all of the arcs while still making you think that the characters could go on to do other things. It isn't a full conclusion so much as a satisfying one, and that's a mistake that I think a lot of roleplay campaigns make.
There is only one Jedi at the end of the movie, and we know that Leia can also learn the ways of the Force. The Rebellion has destroyed the Death Star, but a new republic still needs to be built. Han and Leia are free to fall in love with Han's debts paid and the Rebel cause looking on the up and up, but what happens to them is a mystery. All of these are possible to pursue, but we don't feel like we need to, because the ending is satisfying, even if not full.
Players don't want to think, "My character's story is done." They want to think that their character's journey was satisfying. They are at a resting point where they could leave off, and the character would continue living their life and doing things without them noticing. So leave room for them to dream about what their characters might do after the campaign is completed without tying up everything. They will likely never know what you did for them, but trust me: they will unknowingly thank you.
I hope you all aren't tiring of the series; we're almost done with the Star Wars movies, and will be finishing up this month. I know that, upon rewatching the films, I've been seeing more of what Lucas did with story design, and I hope that these insights are of use to you.
In our next post we will dive into The Force Awakens and the beginning of the sequel trilogy - new Star Wars films for our modern times, and plenty of lessons to learn.
Until next time,