Here we go with another in the ever-growing series that you love to click on but offer no comment towards. The Force Awakens was pretty great even with a few hiccups, but the world is our sourcebook so once again, what can we learn about good storygaming from this cultural monolith? Spoilers follow but if you’re seeing it for the fifth time, slow down and see if you notice that:
- Return To The Well, Because It Never Runs Dry
“Immature writers imitate, mature writers steal” said the great TS Eliot and he was damn right. Don’t get me wrong, things can become hackneyed and tiresome. Ideas can wear out their welcome. But shapes and archetypes last forever, and we humans despite craving novelty crave familiarity all the more. And this applies to all sorts of things, but perhaps nothing more so than character archetypes and plot shapes. We don’t mind that the First Order is almost exactly like the Empire because we want there to be a great force of evil. We don’t mind that the embattled Rebel- I mean Resistance has one shot to take out a devastating weapon because we need last minute stories of triumph against terrible odds and huge cathartic explosions upon victory. A lot of storytelling is simply moving shadow-puppets around into familiar configurations, then giving them new names and hats so it feels different. This is especially important in storygaming where you need to grab people through artifice and pull them into a shared improvisation – on a chaotic journey, the more signposts the better. It’s okay to go back to the well. You just need to know that that’s not the real story because:
2. Character Is King
The Force Awakens stands tall because it stands on the soldiers of giants, and I don’t mean those that came before. I mean Rey and Finn, and to a lesser extent BB-8 and Poe. From almost the first moment we are caught up in their story: Finn’s horrified realization, Rey’s lonely vigil, and BB8 exists to get Finn and Rey together and give them something to do together so they stay in frame. If the movie has a weak spot, it is when characters of the past come looming in so much they steal the spotlight. They’re well written and performed but they can’t help but feeling secondary because we start and end with Rey and Finn. If there’s one thing the prequels failed at and the original films and TFA got right is to keep things personal. It doesn’t matter how cool you think your backstory is about empires and resistances and ancient magic, character is king. Your PCs are what the game is about, where the connection happens. That doesn’t mean you can’t build epic universes and fantastic plots if you want, but it means you do those things to showcase the PCs. It’s even right there in the titles: The New Hope and the Awakening are CHARACTERS. Specific people. Put them front and centre, every time.
3. Orphans Are Good Because They Create Proxy Families
For a while, there was a gut reaction away from the orphan hero in roleplaying. Murder hobos with zero connections to anyone have been de rigeur in many campaigns as a way to stop the GM messing with you (ie making the story about you), and so people went the other way full-throttle: no more orphans! But the risk of tying people too much into their life-before-adventure is they have too many reasons NOT to go adventuring. What’s more, if they have a vacuum in their life, story will naturally fill it and the biggest sucking hole is the one for friends and family. It can be hard as hell to get the PCs to hang out with each other sometimes, so why not make it so they are desperate to do so because they are starved for support? Rey and Finn have nobody else in the galaxy to turn to, which is why they bond so quickly and firmly with each other. Finn needs the Resistance because he has left everything he’s ever known behind. Rey needs Han’s job offer because she’s been abandoned. The truth is, almost all groups in stories are proxy families for those without them. Use this, roll up orphans. They can still HAVE families, just not on-stage until they need to cause trouble.
4. Fear is the Spur
In the ancestor of these pieces, I explained how Star Wars works because of its enormously strong narrative “push”, and the best way to push is with a terrifyingly large stick. New Hope and Force Awakens share this strongly: everyone is always running at top speed, away from something very very bad. BB8’s information makes Finn, Rey and it the target of everyone in the First Order, and the Resistance, and even Han’s side plot is about two people trying to kill him while a giant squid does the same. This makes characters act on instinct, glomming onto that proxy family and new identities as soon as they are offered, leaving old ties behind and taking enormous risks – because looking back or standing still is much, much worse. And fear is there before the story even starts: Rey is desperatelyt fighting off starvation, Finn is at risk the moment he refuses to shoot. Poe is a wanted criminal in his backstory. And they’re all running to Leia, who is hunting for Luke. Their fear makes them funnel into the plot because the plot is somewhere safer than standing still. And the plot finds them too: they can’t sit in Moz’ bar for too long because everyone reacts when they walk in. That helps you make sure your characters are always in the spotlight, narratively and in exegesis.
5. Split The Party
The catchcry of all roleplaying is “Don’t Split The Party” and the people saying otherwise have never really addressed WHY we don’t split the party – it’s because gaming is participatory and nobody likes waiting too long for their turn, no matter how exciting it is to watch others. But once you recognize that as the key downside to splitting the party, you can see that it is also its power, and you should use that anticipation to your benefit. See, it works for characters and audiences alike too – and nothing is better than having your audience wanting what your characters do. Once the proxy family is formed, there is nothing more sacred – we the audience desperately want them to stay on camera together so when Rey and Finn are separated our narrative needs ache as hard as our empathy for the personas. Players keen to roll their dice have the same ache, so tie it into a plot point. Let them build their proxy family, let them be terrified of everything coming at them, let them reach out for the other party members for the stats they need to survive – then YANK THAT AWAY. Hide the fate of one PC entirely for a scene or two. Let everyone rolling dice want the missing player to roll dice too so they can find out what happened to them. That way they’ll speed up their dice rolling, working as hard as they can to force the spotlight back onto the person they ache to see. And that person knows all of that is waiting for them, so they’ll mind less about waiting. And armed with the knowledge help is on its way, they can escape their restraints and be ready for the rescue. Remember, metagaming is your friend.
Again, this is all about making characters king. For roleplaying, you want the players to not just care about their own characters, as that’s usually given. What you want is for them to be audience too and build a sense of love for the other characters, and for the proxy family of the party together. By focusing on characters, stripping them of outside families and making everything else against them, you will build that proxy family…and then you can take it away from them and make them care harder than they ever have about anything. And once you do that, it doesn’t matter how familiar things look when they come from the old well. We want it simple and familiar because we’re not here for that. We’re here for the family. That’s what makes great roleplaying – and great space opera epics. Go. Build it. And may the Force be with you.