What I Love: The Force Awakens
Welcome back to the blog! We make our way into the sequel trilogy today, starting with The Force Awakens. I loved this movie when it came out, and I still love watching it to this day. And while it may not be the perfect movie, there are several things that it does well, especially for us as roleplayers, and that is what we are going to focus on today.
Some of the things we will discuss today will mimic my thoughts about The Mandalorian which we reviewed earlier in the week, and for good reason: in the post-Lucas era there are some things that stand out in the making of Star Wars shows and movies, and these things also tend to be the kind of things that will make for good stories, which makes sense because the strength of Lucas as a writer is his use of tropes and themes.
I. Mystery Is Good
Critics varied in response to The Force Awakens, but if there is one thing everyone agreed on it was that it was the perfect mystery box, the trademark of J.J. Abrams. There are so many questions and few answers: who is Rey (and who are all of the new characters)? What is her background? Why is Luke missing, and how do we reach him? The whole movie was a massive mystery box.
And while this might have caused problems for the trilogy, I have to admit (as someone who participated full force in the theorizing), it was really fun to have that much to wonder about and consider between movies. And I suspect that your players will find the same to be true between sessions for your roleplay games.
One of the most well-received campaigns I ever ran was a mystery campaign with little combat and mostly problem solving and character interaction. I loved it, because it meant preparing less NPC stats and more focus on crafting tiny details that the party may or may not pick up on immediately, but would prove to be critical to the plot. My players also loved it because it allowed them to just straight roleplay, instead of having to worry about combat dynamics.
So don't be afraid to include - or even heavily rely on - mystery, presuming that you follow the advice in Point #4 below. It can keep your players interested for months on end (if not years).
II. Nostalgia Is Good
We touched on this in our last post on The Mandalorian, but nostalgia and fan service are good things. If people love a world or setting, putting them there will make the whole experience that much more enjoyable. And Force Awakens does that (perhaps too much, but it definitely does it).
And I want to park on this a bit more than I did in The Mandalorian, because this is worth discussing. "Nostalgia" can be seen in our modern culture as, "illogical love of something because of past experiences," and I think that's wrong. We should view nostalgia as, "free buy-in by the audience to the story you are telling because you are making connections to information that they already know and love," and that is a powerful tool that should be used.
So if you are setting your campaign in someone else's world - Tolkien, Lucas, Lewis, or a friend who ran the last campaign and needs a break - using nostalgia is not a bad thing. It helps to give points of connection that reward players that know the lore (so they feel affirmed), it will serve as points of future connection for those who don't know the lore, and, when used correctly, helps to give a feel for what the world is like.
So have dog fights with starfighters in a Star Wars setting (even if the smarter move would be missiles from a far distance away). Have talking beasts randomly pop up if you are in Narnia. Don't make "good orcs" in Middle Earth. Give them immersion, as they are likely playing the game in this setting because they like the world. Feed that nostalgia, and they'll buy in to your story, reducing burnout and lack of interest in your campaign.
III. Competent Characters Are Good
So, I want to note that the "Rey is a Mary Sue" diatribe is not true in The Force Awakens. This may cause some of my followers to leave, but I don't care: everything that Rey does in The Force Awakens can either be explained by personal training and the hinting at her lineage (whether that is developed well later in the series is another question which we will answer next week).
Rey is not a Mary Sue in The Force Awakens: she's a competent character, much like Han Solo in A New Hope. She's a scavenger who built a working speeder out of a podracer engine (which we know because 1) we see a podracer with similar engines on Jakku, 2) you can tell by looking at it that it's a podracer engine, and 3) the fact that it has no natural seat means it's been requisitioned into a speeder), so her ability to both scavenge parts and put them together is grounded in the movie (helping us make sense of her mechanic knowledge later on the Falcon). She is used to climbing around the wreckage of a Star Destroyer, so climbing up a wall with serviceable handholds is not an amazing feat.
She has learned how to fight with a staff, and uses it effectively (though I wish she had done more of this in the rest of the trilogy - a double-bladed saber would have been a better choice for her, but I digress). She is perceptive of her surroundings, and has some latent and powerful connections with the Force (not unlike a farmboy who can use the Force to guide his proton torpedoes down an exhaust port).
When building a roleplay character, you don't have to build a meta character (i.e., maximizing your ability to perform tasks), but you should build a competent one. They should bring real advantages to the team that are reliable and meet needs. I played in a campaign once where another player built a character that was only designed as a seductress. Turns out that when in combat against an animal underwater, that means the character is literally just dead weight for the team.
Compare this to the player in one of my groups who created a young mother of an infant, who brought a watchful eye/ear (high perception), the ability to make fires and forage for food (in a campaign where freezing to death at night was a legitimate threat), and the ability to cast protective shields on people to ward away damage. You can run crazy character ideas, just make sure that they do things that both interest you as a player and do things that are of use to the group.
But all of this comes with a warning, which we will investigate further in the next two weeks...
IV. Planning Is Good
Have a plan for where the story might go. Your players will likely derail it, and that's not bad, but have a plan for where you want to go. Players like structure, and having a structure for what could happen will keep the action moving and avoid burnout and/or loss of interest in the campaign.
This is especially true when employing a "mystery box": if you are making up the answers to the mysteries as you go, you run the risk of disappointment, frustration, and people thinking, "...I thought there would be more." And whether you agree with it or not, this is what we have seen with the Star Wars sequel trilogy, so take it as a warning: even one of the largest franchises in history is susceptible to this. So plan your backgrounds, motivations, and explanations in advance, and let that help to guide the plot when the players default to you as to what they want to do.
I could have talked about quippy lines and memeable material ("That's not how the Force works!"), but I'll end it here. Suffice it to say, though, if you haven't watched The Force Awakens in a while, you should. It's not a perfect movie (or in my top three for Star Wars), but it's a good ride, and has a lot to teach us about good storytelling.
Our next post will be on what I love about The Last Jedi, so buckle up, kids! XD
Until next time,