What I Love: Solo
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! We've wrapped up the prequel movies for the Skywalker saga, bringing us to the first anthology film chronologically. I confess: this is not my favorite film. I don't mind it; if I was giving a rating from 1-5 stars, it would be a solid 3. It's good but not great, and also not terrible.
I wasn't sold that we needed a backstory movie on Han (as I thought Harrison Ford did a good job in laying out for us who he is with sufficient explanation in the original trilogy), but not opposed to seeing the famed Kessel Run, how he met Chewie, and how he won the Falcon. I just wanted a good movie, and as it happens I learned a lot from it about Han and how to build great characters.
Upon further reflection (and talking with one of my alpha testers for Zurn and a fan of the movie), I've come to realize it provides four things that I think are useful for me as a game master and player.
I. Solo Nails Setting
Since I was a kid hearing about Wedge Antilles and Han Solo I've wanted to see Corellia on-screen. And while we only see a part of it, it is an interesting part: it is not the clean and pastoral Naboo, the rugged Tatooine, or the sparsely populated Endor. It's Corellia, and everything you expect to see is there.
Zooming speeders of various sizes, slums and slumlords in large cities, and the might of the Empire all around. It is an interesting world, one that you know you've only scratched the surface of and leaves you wanting more.
We also begin to understand why Han is both a charming rogue (it's who he wants to be and what he enjoys), how he's such a good pilot (formal training and the way he stayed alive before he entered the academy), and why he lacks Luke's idealism but still has that heart of gold (he's seen the dark parts of the universe, but deep down really wants to help people who are destitute).
Solo does a great job of showing why Han is who he is instead of just telling us (this will come up again later in this series). It shows us the gritty side of the galaxy that forged and shaped Han. The critical part of backstory is understanding what forged the character into the person we know, and we see everything from his cheers, catch phrases, and tendencies in this two-hour film.
So when running a session or a character, paint the setting. What made your NPCs or character who they are? Why are they doing what they are doing? What do players need to know about this group of people? What should people avoid if they want to stay friendly with him/her?
II. High Stakes, High Rewards
All of the adventures in this film are high stakes. A kid with a plan to get him and his girlfriend off Corellia with no weapons and a hope that a guard will let them through. A pilot with a blaster rifle against enemies he cannot see. A train heist that should be done by professionals being done by amateurs high off the ground. Navigating a path no one takes to save time on a job. Escaping from a high-security planet with a massive haul, and then protecting it from being stolen by marauders.
In every case, the stakes are high: if Han and his allies lose, the whole game is up. One wrong step, and it's over. The result: even though we know Han and Chewie live, we are invested in seeing what happens. Will they succeed? Will they barely survive? Will they barely survive without completing the task?
So give your players high stakes, and if they succeed, reward them well. High stakes can take a lot of forms: danger of death is a common one, but there are others that may be even more powerful and emotionally investing for them. What if the risk is not your life but a limb: permanently down one hand if you put your hand in the wrong place while stealing the object from within the laser field? What if the risk is one you love, or a possession that defines you being destroyed and you have to live with it? Find what makes the stakes high for your players, and use that.
I once had an encounter where the party needed to enter a temple to get an artifact for their employer, and in order to succeed all they needed to do was shave their heads. Do you know how many people in that party of five took me up on it?
For all of them the stakes were too high, and literally the stakes were let them shave your head. I had not planned on this: I thought for sure they would think, "Eh, it will grow back in a few months," and that part of the adventure would progress in five minutes, leading to the traps inside. Instead we had a half-hour conversation about why letting someone shave off your hair was unacceptable.
So we turned the sneak-in heist into a break-in heist. They knew that they would be against alarms, traps, and guards inside. They knew they increased those stakes because of their decision, so when the game master said, "You realize that this will now be harder," their response was one in unison: "Bring it on."
So we did. And we all had a blast. Far better than I had imagined it would be. All because I (without knowing) started with high stakes. So find what makes it high stakes for your players, and make their day.
III. Complex Underworlds
The underworld groups in this film are complex (spoilers below, by the way, if you haven't seen Solo). We start in the slums of Corellia where we see what we typically think of when we think "criminal underworld": slaves under a master who is ruthless and powerful.
When we arrive at Crimson Dawn we see the other form of underworld organizations we think of: the high-brow, sophisticated, wealthy syndicate that will spill your guts if you fail them. We later get confirmation that they are led by Maul, a Dark Side wielder, channeling his anger through his work as the head of Crimson Dawn.
When they meet Lando we get a different scene: prize fighting, a bar with people playing Sabaac (space poker), and a scrap yard, indicating not a crime syndicate per se so much as people eking out money as best they can, and that means danger to your savings or fighting droid.
Don't make all of your crime syndicates the same. Ask yourself why the group was formed: did they come together to stick it to the authorities (idealists who care more about geopolitics over money)? Did they form for survival (gathering resources)? Is there something or someone that they lost, and they work to restore that?
Once you know what drives them, ask what this did to forge them (see where this is going? It's just like building a character!), and use that to discern how to build out the syndicate. This will give your leaders and thugs in the gang greater justification for what they do, and will help to guide you as you lead them.
Party leaders would be wise to think about this, too, as regards how they interact with their group: what made your party into who they are?
IV. Varieties of Heroes
The last thing we see is the variety of heroes. There are few truly "good" heroes in this film: Han has a heart of gold, but he's got the "bad boy" vibe that he should have (as that's who Han is at the start of Episode IV, which we'll see later on this month). Chewie is really the only through-and-through hero in this story, always doing what a good person would do.
What we get alongside these two is a host of complex characters. People who are just trying to make it to retirement. People who have everything and are just trying to stay out of trouble. People who were rescued from poverty and death, indentured to other dangerous people, just trying to stay on their good side. A droid with a one-track mind toward droid equality and freedom.
This is what keeps it interesting. It's why the original trilogy and the prequels work: the characters all bring different things to the table. And this means that they will at times disagree on what to do, and as they work through it they will grow stronger.
Use this to bring your party together. Don't expect (or demand) that they all be the same, and take the time to let them work through their conundrums. This is part of the forge that makes the party what they are, and it helps to shape them into who they should be.
Solo is a good adventure story. It's probably no one's favorite Star Wars movie (Alden is good, but he's no Harrison Ford), but it's a good one. And a lot of that stems from the fact that they spent a lot of time asking the right questions and then showing that on-screen.
Until next time,