What I Love: The Phantom Menace
I'm going to start doing a few posts on things that I love about the Star Wars movies (prequels, trilogy, sequels, and anthology movies) as I've been rewatching them in preparation for seeing The Rise of Skywalker tomorrow. In today's post we are going to discuss Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, looking at the movie from the lens of a roleplay player and game master.
So to be clear, I'm looking at what I love as a person who plays and designs RPGs: even if I don't personally like the movie, I'll be giving a positive review in these posts as the focus is more on what is useful to us, not on whether the movie performs well. If you are wondering how this is possible, check out my post on why I watch B Movies on this blog.
I. Phantom Menace Sets the Stage
Part of effective roleplaying is making sure that you are acting in accordance with the world: if you are playing in Middle Earth, orcs are always bad. If you run afoul of a Hutt in Star Wars, expect retribution by bounty hunters. So setting expectations (which is huge in roleplaying) requires us to paint the background and setting for our players.
Phantom Menace does a great job setting the stage for what the universe is like. The Jedi enforce peace across the galaxy (which we knew they did as far back as 1977, but we now know how: they are dispatched by the Chancellor to places in dispute, and negotiate peace, possibly at the end of a lightsaber), there are organizations that are represented in the Galactic Senate, and the sith are lurking in the shadows.
But perhaps more importantly, we learn that the republic is corrupt - we begin to understand why people would be okay with replacing it with a Galactic Empire, and we see how Palpatine is maneuvering his way to be the person to bring that about. We get an idea of where this falls within the greater timeline to make sense of the story as a whole.
So think through where your story is set for your roleplay group: do you need to show (not tell) why things are the way they are? If you are doing a First Age RPG in Middle Earth, there are a lot more dragons around, and there shouldn't be come the Second Age. Morgoth is roaming the earth destroying things. Think through the setting and what it will tell your characters about its place in the timeline.
II. Phantom Menace Has Great Encounters
Quick: which of these encounters would you like to do in an RPG this weekend: attempt to negotiate, fight your way out of that person's lair, take a secret path to safety, rescue royalty, tear through detachments of enemy soldiers without breaking a sweat, compete in a Ben Hur-style chariot race, unravel a mystery, work through a prophecy, and have a climactic duel to the death against a foe you met earlier in the adventure?
I'm up for all of these - and these aren't all of the encounters in Phantom Menace. The selection of encounters in this movie may be a bit hodge-podge at times, but going back to what we said above, all of this is designed to flesh out the setting.
It is not a time of civil war (the setting of the Original Trilogy): people watch sports like podracing, we have clean and idyllic worlds like Naboo and sprawling squalid planet-cities like Coruscant. We have a massive Jedi Order that dispatches diplomats to settle interplanetary disputes. All of this helps us to understand how this world differs from, say, the Star Wars universe of c. 15 years later, let alone other universes that we could play in.
And the encounters have a structure: different characters are challenged in different ways, which then introduces the new ones. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon begin in space, and they face a challenge: droids and gas trying to kill them. We get introduced to their skills as they overcome them, and then we get a new problem: they are lost in the forest. So we introduce Jar Jar, who, though perhaps not competent at all times, does take them from one side of the planet to another. When they get into space we find that none of our main characters can fix a ship, so we get R2-D2. And when they can't replace a part, we get Anakin.
And it continues: the encounters help to introduce the skills of the party. And that is a very good way to show (not tell) the group what a character can do.
III. Phantom Menace Has Progressive Difficulty
The encounters also progress as the adventure continues. The first few droids that attack the Jedi are easily dispatched, but as the movie goes on the battle droids (let alone our main antagonist, Darth Maul) present more of an obstacle, even to the point of killing a major character.
Even the fights with Darth Maul go up in difficulty. Maul fights Qui-Gon with a single blade in the desert, and Qui-Gon is able to leap away onto the ship to escape the engagement, but as we reach the epic "Duel of the Fates," we have an opponent who is competent, challenging, fast, clever (other than that last part), and deadly.
So we get a nice progression to the adventure, going up in difficulty to continually challenge the party.
The Phantom Menace is not a perfect movie, but I've never hated it. I don't think it's the weakest of the prequels either. I really enjoy this movie, and it's not just because I love Qui-Gon Jinn, young Obi-Wan, or an amazing sith duelist. I love what this movie does to increase my campaign creation for my players, and I think there's a lot to glean from it.
Until next time,