So we've been going through the Star Wars movies, and while I've skipped over the tv shows in our chronological assessment, I've gotten so many good ideas for roleplaying and game design from The Mandalorian (plus I just love the show) that I couldn't help but make a post on it. Since it takes place after Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens, I figured I'd give you an extra post this week, so don't fear: we will still begin the sequel trilogy this week.
The commentary on The Mandalorian has been primarily positive: people seem to really enjoy the show, and seemed ready to purchase two months of Disney+ purely to watch it. As someone who has now watched the first season six times, I wanted to walk through four things that I really love about this series, and because it's useful to do, a quick warning to you: there are no spoilers in this post. That's right: if you haven't seen the series yet, good news: no specific details about the character or plot in this post will go beyond what you see in the trailer.
So with that, let's get to it.
I. Genre Loyalty Is Good
The Mandalorian is a show set in the western genre. If you grew up watching Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bonanza, or western movies with Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, etc. (as I did), you're going to love this show. The homage to Eastwood films in particular is strong in this show, even down to the use of music themes and camera angles.
And this is good: it sets realistic expectations for the viewer of what they can expect. And we've talked about why this is so important in roleplaying before, both in this series and when discussing content for your Session Zero, but it bears repeating: if you want a good roleplay experience, set expectations.
What The Mandalorian also does (and this is where I want to park for this point) is that the characters also set expectations for you as well. Throughout the season you have a pretty good idea of what the title character will do because he's pretty consistent, and when he errs it comes in the form of character development. As characters are introduced, we get a good idea of what they will do, and inasmuch as they err it's because of them changing due to the actions of other characters.
And this is something that perhaps should also be discussed as part of Session Zero: what can the players around the table expect from the other characters in the party? What can they expect from their employer? The local lord? All of this allows you to work out potential issues before they become a problem around the table.
II. Reasonable Grittiness Is Good
When The Mandalorian was first pitched, Favreau mentioned that it would be more gritty than other Star Wars shows and movies. And he's not wrong: there's a bit more grit in this (though my nephews and nieces could handle it, and they are all ages eight and under), but the grit is much like what we saw in Rogue One, which I thought was done very well.
And in a roleplay scenario, especially since we don't have real images in front of us, you can get away with a grittier adventure because it's theater of the mind. Now of course, as part of Session Zero, take into consideration what your players will enjoy. Some people are really squeamish, so hearing about blood streaming from a wound might be too much. Perhaps one of your players was active duty at one point and hearing of someone jumping on a grenade could trigger an episode of PTSD.
So talk openly about what you'll allow, but don't be afraid of gritty adventures: if you do them correctly, it can raise the stakes for your players and make their victories more satisfying.
III. Episodic Adventures Are Good
One of the dumbest critiques I've heard about the first season (which has eight episodes) is that the first three have a tight arc, then there's three episodes of "filler content" that do nothing for the plot or character development, and then there are two wrap-up episodes that return to the arc. I've also heard that the story arcs are derivative, and thus are not enjoyable to watch.
I'll start by returning your attention to the first point in this post.
Anyone who thinks that episodic adventures - one-off adventures that are not tied to a greater, overarching plot - are merely "filler," and are lazy/poorly written if they are reminiscent of other shows and lack ingenuity and novelty don't understand the western genre, and likely didn't grow up watching westerns. Almost every show has a "widowmaker" episode. The Magnificent Seven is itself derivative of Seven Samurai, and has become a template for episodes of The Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, and Rogue One. Following a template isn't bad: what is bad is when it is poorly executed.
You'll find that the "filler episodes" of the series are derivative: they take a classic trope of western shows and films and adapts it to Star Wars very well. But it does more than that, and this is why I think Favreau and the team should be credited for their work on it: they develop the characters very well. We learn about where the title character came from, what he's done in the past, and how he's different now. We learn what he values, the kind of life he'd like to have, and what he's willing to sacrifice. And all of that is good to establish in the first season of a series.
I keep coming back to shows like Firefly and the first season of Arrow where some of the episodes didn't seem to move forward the overarching plot, but as I rewatch them (the former I rewatch every year, the latter I'm rewatching with my wife) I realize how much they help to establish the character in your mind. And I believe that this is also what Favreau and Filoni are doing in The Mandalorian, and I'm glad of it.
So if you are running a campaign, don't be afraid of "episodic content" that may not be tied to an overarching plot. There are rewards to having a session that just says, "Here's what the world is like that you're in after such-and-such event," or, "Here's me resurrecting something from your backstory: what are you going to do with it, and how did this and other circumstances forge you into who you are today?" All of this is good for your sessions, and may make for the most memorable content for one or more of your players as they reflect on the campaign.
IV. Fan Service Is Good
You know, I hate how nowadays "fan service" is said pejoratively. If you make a series (or a roleplay campaign) in someone else's world, I contend that there is nothing wrong with shamelessly throwing something to fans that shows that you know the lore, care about it, and are making connections for them to find.
I do care about whether it derails the plot, changes critical elements of a character, and/or causes issues for the canon as a whole, but if these are not present, there is literally nothing wrong with fan service, as the exemptions are not fan service but lazy writing to get cheap "ahas" from the fans. True fan service serves the fans, as is evidenced by the name.
And The Mandalorian does a great job of this. If you have not seen any Star Wars in the past, you'll find a good story with good characters. If you grew up watching Star Wars, you'll recognize things in the show and will appreciate the references. If you also watched the tv shows, you'll get even more references. And if you read the comics and/or partook of legends (previous canon) content, you'll find even more things you'll recognize and love. But none of this gets in the way of the story they are trying to tell: what is the galaxy like following the Battle of Endor, and what will one man do in a universe where laws are flexible and might makes right?
So if you are setting your game in someone else's world, don't be afraid to do some fan service (tactfully and tastefully, where useful). It will mean a lot to your players, as it helps them to make associations and use the knowledge they have to help them solve problems and/or make decisions.
There is obviously a lot more we could talk about here, but we're getting into spoiler territory if we do that, so I'll stop there. Suffice it to say, though, I'm excited to see Season 2 in October, and I look forward to seeing how they will take the characters and themes that they've started and how they will develop them.
Until next time,