What I Love: Revenge of the Sith
Welcome back to the Zurn blog, and happy new year! Today we're looking at arguably the strongest movie in the prequel trilogy (I'm still a sucker for The Phantom Menace but I'm in the minority), Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith.
Just like the last two posts, we'll be covering what I love about the Star Wars movies, and I confess, my initial rough draft for my write-up on Attack of the Clones had references to this movie on almost every point, so if the two posts seem similar (though I've tried to truncate this post, so less similar than they were before), that's only because, well, they are.
And that's fitting, because in a good trilogy the movies touch on similar themes, and this movie is the culmination of a trilogy centered on fear, trust, and revenge.
I. Foreshadowing Is Good
Did you notice that the villains in the prequels are all segments of who Vader will become? Darth Maul is the vengeful sith consumed by anger, perhaps best illustrated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story's final sequence.
Vader's anger is an all-consuming passion, and Maul's thirst for revenge is the same. We see it more outside of The Phantom Menace, but it is his defining trait: his hatred makes him strong.
Dooku is the political maneuverer and duelist, working behind the scenes to orchestrate the greatest challenge the Galactic Republic ever faced.
He is also an idealist who reacts to the corruption around him, just as Anakin does in Revenge of the Sith. He believes that the Jedi Order has failed, and that the Dark Side has power unknown to the Jedi that is worth pursuing.
Vader will embody this idealism (albeit through poor dialogue at times) as he begins to establish the Galactic Empire.
And Grievous is, in the words of Obi-Wan describing Vader, "more machine now than man," commanding the armies of the Separatists with the iron fist that Vader will later embody as he interacts with the admirals and captains of the Imperial navy.
But more than these, as early as the initial space sequence we get the foreshadowing of why Anakin will turn to the Dark Side. He constantly wants to help people only be stonewalled by the Jedi Council. He hears the clones dying as they fly to Grievous's flagship, and Obi-Wan tells him to stay on target and complete the mission of rescuing the Chancellor. Obi-Wan's ship gets overrun by buzz droids, and when he tries to help him Obi-Wan tells him twice to stay on target and complete the mission.
As he tries to show compassion, he's thwarted by those in authority (more on this when we talk about killing Dooku in the next point). So is it a surprise that he becomes who he becomes? Not really. And this is brilliant because it gives a reason for a serious shift in the character. The shift of a young podracing slave to the face of darkness in a galactic empire is a serious shift, and the movie places all of its chips on that development. And it pays off.
So don't be afraid of asking your players, "Hey: do you see this set of circumstances changing your character's alignment, loyalties, etc.?"
II. Complex Good Guys and Bad Guys are Good
There is a lot of complexity to the plot, centered around what "the Jedi way" is in the story. Anakin believes that the Jedi and Sith are different, and when he kills Count Dooku he's conflicted.
The Chancellor tells him that "he doesn't deserve to live," and he feels like this goes against his Jedi training. So imagine his surprise when Mace Windu gives him the exact same reasoning for killing the Chancellor: he sees the hypocrisy in the Jedi, and thus switches sides as the last straw comes for him.
Anakin apologizes (genuinely) in this movie. His patience is tried. He is snubbed by the masters. He endures so much, and with this in mind, when the time comes, it does not surprise us that he snaps.
So give your players complex NPCs to interact with. The "good guys" shouldn't be perfect, and they shouldn't always do what the players would prefer. Cause players to ask the question, "Why am I doing what I do and what would push me over the edge?" This is healthy, and grows the resolve and/or direction of the character.
III. Lore Dumps Done Right
So, of course, I can't talk about Revenge of the Sith without discussing the ballet scene and the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. This scene is legendary for its concise yet effective "lore dump" on the Sith, providing a critical piece of information that the plot needs in order to work (Anakin's fear of losing Padme being solved by turning to the Dark Side).
But of course this is not unique to this movie: the lore dump we get on clones in the previous movie, the training Luke receives from Obi-Wan and Yoda in the Force, etc. are all good examples on how to quickly and (relatively) concisely provide the players with what they need to know when they need to know it.
My recommendation is you use the "Five Breath Rule": if you can't present the info in five breaths, cut it down. Now, naturally, there are times when this may not be possible (the start of a campaign where you're giving the setting), but this is where Session Zero comes in handy. Since the players are the central characters of the story, we want the session to revolve around what they do, not our exposition.
I'm guilty of this at times, and as we head into the coming year this is something I want to work on. Use exposition economically, breaking the action to give pertinent details, then returning to the group to let them drive the plot where it needs to go.
IV. Tragedy in Writing
Naturally there are good comedies in Star Wars: we'll be looking at A New Hope this month. But tragedies tend to resonate with me and others as loss can convey deeper emotion than a comedy. Revenge of the Sith is no exception.
The tricky thing about telling tragedies in roleplaying is that the main characters are our friends and thus we need to ask the question, "How do we do this without just screwing over our friends for the heck of it," and on that point there are two things I'll mention.
First, discuss it in Session Zero. If you are planning for the campaign to be a tragedy tell the players at the outset so that they can discern if they want to be in a tragedy campaign. Some people don't want to be in a tragedy, and that's fine.
If the story is trending in that way due to player decisions, talk to the group outside of the session about where you see it going, get feedback, and insure that everyone is aware of what you are seeing and okay with this progression. This helps to avoid frustration in-game and provides transparency to the players.
Second, good tragedies have victories. We'll see this more when we discuss Rogue One later on this month, but having highs between the lows (and especially leading up to the big drop) adds power and depth to the tragedy. Like a good roller coaster, you want to have a series of ups and downs that leads to a final down.
And Revenge of the Sith does this, with the Jedi defeating Count Dooku only to lead to greater power for the Chancellor. Then defeating the Separatists only to have the clones betray them with Order 66. Then discovering Darth Sidious only to have him escape capture and setup the Galactic Empire. Then Yoda confronting him only to be defeated. Then Obi-Wan defeating Darth Vader only to find he is still alive and more vengeful than before.
The story is a massive tragedy and a fitting end to the prequel trilogy, but it reaches its full potential by having highs that lead into the lows. So don't forget this: your tragedy will be better for it.
Now, of course, there's more we could say - I love the symmetry, some of the scenes are brilliantly shot, and the visuals hold up pretty well even 15 years later. But from a storytelling perspective Revenge of the Sith should be removed from the general criticisms of the prequel trilogy, and truthfully from basically all criticisms of the prequel trilogy. There's a lot to learn from it.
In our next post we'll be discussing Solo: A Star Wars Story, and looking at some of the ways to introduce background on your characters. More on that next week.
Until next time,