What I Love: Rogue One
So, for anyone who has been following this blog for a while, it won't surprise you when I say that Rogue One is my favorite Star Wars film. We've even done a whole series on the movie back when it came out. So this post, I promise, will not be overly long, nor will it just be me fanboying over my favorite film.
We're looking at what we love about the Star Wars films: none of them are perfect, but all of them have something that I love about them as they have taught me a lot about how to be a better roleplayer and game master. And for Rogue One, it's all about staying true to your genre and building characters that are fleshed out enough to carry the story without having to have pages and pages of lore and background.
If you're a roleplayer and you're thinking through running a one-shot or short campaign, this one's for you, because Rogue One has a lot of thoughts for you.
I. A Little Backstory Goes a Long Way
No one in Rogue One has a massive set of backstory; the closest we get is Jyn, mostly because of her parents being integral characters in the tale. And while some would say that the characters are "stock" and "under-developed," I actually don't think that is 1) true or 2) a problem considering the nature of the movie.
We'll talk about genre in the next point so I'll save that discussion for now. Instead, I want to bring your attention to the purpose of the movie. Rogue One was created to flesh out 1) how desperate the Alliance was before the arrival of Luke Skywalker (as mentioned in the opening crawl of Episode IV, which we'll be looking at next week), and 2) to answer the question, "How did the Death Star have such an odd weakness?"
The fact that an exhaust port on the surface could cause a chain reaction to the core of the station has been lampooned for decades, and Rogue One gives a satisfactory answer to that: fifteen years of meticulous engineering driven by hatred from a broken man who lost his family at the hands of the Empire.
I don't think there was ever any real plans for a sequel, which means the characters don't need to have massive backstories. They don't need to have extensive exposition, and that's encouraging for us as roleplayers because let's face it: if you're doing a one-shot campaign or any other short campaign that's only designed to last a month or two, it's wearying to come up with an extensive backstory for your character.
Come up with enough to give your character four things: motivation (why does your character act the way they do), culture (are there some things that the character will or will not do for cultural reasons, like eating people, taking prisoners, surrendering in battle, etc.), ethics (what does your character consider to be acceptable, what can they not allow to happen, what is morally good/displeasing to them, etc.), and flavor (something unique and memorable, as this is their one and only ride, probably).
We think through these four things because it gives the character everything he/she needs to come alive at the gaming table. Don't worry if the clan doesn't have a name, or if your parents don't have a name (unless it matters for the campaign - if your GM is looking to bring dead people back to life, for example), or if you don't know how you came by a given ability or power (that's the one I'm going to get in trouble for in the comments online, but I stand by this in the case of short campaigns): just have enough on-hand that you can bring the character to life. Leave the rest for sagas.
II. Genre Matters
Rogue One is very aware of its genre: it's a war movie (much in the same vein as We Were Soldiers, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and more) with a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven engine for the plot. For more on this, you can see our series on Rogue One linked at the start of this post, as I don't want to bore you here.
But this means that, because of the genre, we can expect certain things from the movie. Like the other Seven Samurai films, we don't expect vast background on the characters: just enough to explain why they would help a fledgling group against a powerful foe. We expect action and drama to drive a relatively simple plot (the seven good guys assist the downtrodden and battle it out against the greater force until they attain their goal). We expect to be on the move at a quick pace, just like those films (so a rushed pace isn't a criticism: it's a feature).
And that means that, even though it may lack things that we like from other films (like deep, fleshed out characters), that's okay, because it's staying true to its genre.
What I'm saying here will hold true for The Mandalorian (which we will discuss next month): genre matters, and this is a word to both the game master and the players. As a player, genre matters: if you're doing an old western (see The Mandalorian as an example), build a character appropriate to the genre. If you are in a zombie apocalypse campaign, build a character who will do well in that setting. If you are playing in an aeronaut steampunk campaign, don't build someone who is afraid of heights and/or useless on an airship (cool as a beast tamer may be, and I'm preaching to myself here).
And it's also true for the game master: don't forget your genre. If you're telling a Spaghetti Western in space, do that. And don't be ashamed of it. If you're going for a mystery/investigation tale with minimal combat and more discovery, spend your prep time building traps, puzzles, and cryptic clues rather than preparing NPCs that are combat-centric.
III. The Ending Makes Sense
There is a tension sometimes when playing an RPG or creating a movie between what is realistic and what has been called, "The Rule of Cool," that basically says, "If it's cool, it can happen, regardless of how unlikely it may be." I want to say upfront that my next point is not me saying, "Don't follow the Rule of Cool." Instead, I want to temper the tension and bring them to a semblance of peace and unity.
Cool things are good - they make players feel special when they do them, and it gives people things to say when they are hanging out with friends between sessions. My big concern, though, is that your reputation as a GM (and as a player - more on that in a bit) is shaped by what people say about your style, and if you always give in to the Rule of Cool, the vibe will be, "Eh, don't think - just do something that sounds cool and Aaron (or whoever) will let you get away with it."
I tend to err on the other side (perhaps too much): if it doesn't sound realistic, I won't let it fly. I'll give ideas for other things your character can do, but my games tend toward realism more than Cool Factor. What makes Rogue One work, though, is how real it is. We know that people across the galaxy fear the Empire, and it helps to justify that when stormtroopers actually kill people, bad guys actually complete their objectives, and characters we love die.
I love Empire Strikes Back, as you'll see in two weeks when I review it. But at the end of Empire, how many of the main characters die? What is the end result of Vader's brilliant tactics in the film? Nothing - the good guys all escape and they set a plan in motion to free Han (which is also successful).
Rogue One is real in a gritty sense: this is what you are afraid of, Vader included. And it does this in spades. If you stand up to the Empire, you'll get shot. You'll lose your family. Oh, and they'll still have a Death Star and a massive fleet that can blow your fleet to bits. Destroying a few star destroyers with a Hammerhead Corvette is cool, but it will mean nothing when we blow your fleet to pieces with even more star destroyers.
So if you want to defeat the Empire, you're going to need something else - a new hope. Which brings us to one more thing...
IV. Tragedy in Storytelling
I promise I'll keep this short, in part because we discussed this in our Rogue One series, and in part because this post is getting long, but tragedy is a compelling form of storytelling. I like comedies like the next person: A New Hope and Return of the Jedi are among my favorite Star Wars films, as is Phantom Menace. But a good tragedy will touch deeper emotions than a comedy, and that is definitely true in the Star Wars universe.
Rogue One does this even more so than, say, Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith, and The Last Jedi (though I'm caveating this now: not entirely sure it's actually a tragedy, but more on that in March). Every main character is asking two questions throughout the film: what does it mean to trust, and what does it mean to hope. And for all of them, the answer inevitably is the same: trust means sacrifice, and hope means trusting someone else to bring about the final victory.
All of the main characters (and just in case, for whatever reason, you haven't seen this movie yet, SPOILERS) die in this film. Rebel and Imperial alike. Gaelan and Lyra Erso die first, affirming to Director Krennic that he won't win, trusting that good will win out. K2SO is next in line (brief moment of silence for him), sacrificing so that Jyn and Cassian can retrieve the plans.
Chirrut is next, giving his life to insure that the plans can be beamed out of Scarif Base. Bodhi then does his part to insure that the plans go through, and is summarily blown up with a grenade shortly after accomplishing this. Then comes Baze, who dies protecting his friends, restored to his faith in the Force through the sacrifice of Chirrut.
And finally Jyn and Cassian die alongside Krennic as the Death Star tears apart the Scarif Base, satisfied that the plans got out and hopefully someone received it and will finish off this weapon of terror.
It's a gripping story, mostly because 1) we don't expect it to end this way (I know when the movie came out there was a lot of speculation about Jyn being Rey's mom), as no other Seven Samurai film ends like this, and 2) because it's satisfying. We really get what trust and hope are from their sacrifices, and we are now ready for the next episode - A New Hope.
So while you need to be careful in how you approach tragedy in roleplaying, don't be afraid to embrace it if it makes the story better. Maybe your character needs to die to save the group. Maybe the campaign should center around a traumatic/cataclysmic event. Talk to your game master/players before doing anything, but don't be afraid to ask the question. Some of the best stories in the world involve tragedies.
There is so much more I could say, but I won't because this post is already too long. In the next post, though, expect a bit more of a lighthearted tone, because we are going back to the origins of Star Wars as we look at Episode IV: A New Hope.
Until next time,