Good morning 2015! I’ve been so busy vacating that I forgot to write my Star Wars Geekery post! So here we go.
To start off: Uncanny Magazine published an essay of mine about how Star Wars shaped science fiction. You can read it here; it covers a lot of ground, but it starts like this:
I was in high school when Star Wars: Episode I hit theaters.
And I was psyched.
At this point only one magic word would convince me to lay down my dish pit money, and that word was “lightsabers.” I owned every Star Wars comic Dark Horse ever published. I can still give you a beat–for–beat account of the Tragedy of Ulic Qel–Droma. I thought Nomi Sunrider was a fantastic character name. (I still kind of do.) There’s a dude in those comics who is a tree, and a Jedi who is a rhinoceros, and they’re fantastic. I owned all the EU books. I played the tabletop RPG. I watched fanvids obsessively; I still would basically melt if I ever met Kevin Rubio face to face.
I saw The Force Awakens on opening night, and the movie was enormous fun—even more fun the second viewing than the first. My Thursday evening pre-release felt incredibly stressful: having been burned before, I held each scene up to the light and turned it ’round, thinking, am I really enjoying this, or just telling myself I am? I backed away and re-approached each scene from different angles. I poked fingers through plot holes, I wondered why Starkiller Base left me cold, I critiqued cause-and-effect storytelling, and I walked away satisfied with the whole and excited by its parts (All the new characters! Han and Chewie! Carrie Fisher!). The second time through, knowing the story’s bones set right, knowing there was no Jar-Jar—using Jar-Jar here metonymically for the myriad oddnesses of the prequel trilogy—I let myself go, and felt all the rush I didn’t let myself feel the first time. Drama and emotions built! Storylines progressed! I cared. I cared enough for my storytelling hindbrain to start fixing issues I’d thought were irreconcilable on first viewing. And for the first time in a long while, I’m excited about telling stories in the Star Wars universe again.
I think part of my excitement stems from how open the universe feels. A lot of the setting power of the Original Trilogy rises from its focus on the Imperial Periphery. We see the edges of power, where the Empire projects force and interesting stuff happens, where the destinies of nations hinge on a single battle or moral choice, rather than the metropole, which corners more slowly if at all. The prequel trilogy’s political ambitions tangled its story with the engines of power that drive the Galaxy Far, Far Away—and limited its characters to maneuvering within those engines, rather than “taking the first step into a wider world.”
Of course, I’m the last person on the planet to decry storytelling about metropolitan politics—that’s the Craft Sequence in a nutshell—but itinerant adventure-having Jedi aren’t a great lens for that sort of story. The cinematic Jedi tool is the lightsaber; think about how often people in Lincoln, say, or The West Wing, draw swords. The Prequel trilogy shows Jedi crushed by a political machine whose workings they barely appreciate. (It’s been funny to read the small flight of essays that hit the web in the leadup to TFA about how “ZOMG upon revisiting the prequel trilogy Palpatine’s plot TOTALLY MAKES SENSE;” the problem with those movies was never the mechanics or inscrutability of Palpatine’s plot—I mean, weren’t its rough outlines pretty obvious starting in the Phantom Menace? The films’ problems lay in direction, storytelling, screenwriting, characterization, occasional failures of actor chemistry, a Hobbit trilogy level disconnect between the cinematic approach and the story being told… But that’s another essay.)
Anyway, my point is that stories about the workings of political machinery tend to be dense and contextual, offering little room for sideline storytelling. (Though it does exist.) By contrast, OT Star Wars and TFA Star Wars are set in Casablanca—a contorted mess of Lego blocks replete with foundations onto which we can build our own stories, an embarrassment of dramatic stakes for us to mold into new characters.
Which, of course, started me thinking about gaming. The core TFA cast stat up really easily in the old West End Games Star Wars d6 system. In fact, every dramatic beat in the story (save, arguably, one) is totally rules justifiable! I know some people have been kvetching about imbalance, specifically w/r/t Rey, so let’s walk through some of the pivotal table interactions in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and see how unfounded that claim is.
(I’m about to start in on the really detailed spoilers here, by the way. Like, beat by beat spoilers.)
(Last warning. Turn back now.)
(NB also: I played so much SWd6 that rules-as-written and generations of master-student house rules are all kind of mushed together in my head. I’m doing my best to ensure the interactions below are consistent with the system, but I’ve probably mucked something up somewhere along the line.)
Okay so, this is about to get really nerdy, even for me.
SWd6, if you’ve never played it before, is my favorite system for Star Wars roleplaying. (I haven’t played the ‘new,’ as in several years old, Fantasy Flight engine yet; I’ll pick it up soon, but I have to run a Tenra Bansho Zero game and a Night’s Black Agents game first, and maybe Primetime Adventures.) SWd6’s great strength is its flexibility: rather than choosing character classes (e.g. ‘I’m a level 7 Jedi,’ which sounds pretty goofy no matter how you slice it), you build your character with a mix of stat and skill dice. Starting human player characters split 18 dice between the following stats:
Dexterity (Everything that involves coordination and speed)
Strength (Everything that involves grit & brute force)
Technical (Fixin’ stuff)
Mechanical (Usin’ stuff)
Knowledge (Knowin’ stuff)
Perception (Seein’ or feelin’ stuff)
Whenever your character wants to do something that seems like it qualifies under a particular stat, you roll the number of six sided dice you’ve assigned to that stat. So, say, Jane wants to build her Stormtrooper, Finn. Stormtroopers are good at shooting things (they are, honest, most of the time we see Stormtroopers in the OT miss it’s because they’ve been explicitly ordered not to hit things). Human stats range between 2D and 4D; Jane starts with 4D in Dexterity, for zapping things and dodging, 3D in Mechanical, which covers using large gun emplacements, and maybe 4D in Perception, which is rolled to determine who goes first in combat. So, we’re at 11D; Finn only has seven dice left! But it makes sense that a brainwashed Stormtrooper wouldn’t know much about the galaxy, and he probably wouldn’t have much technical knowledge—that’s why the First order has an engineering corps, after all. So, 2D each in Tech and Know, and 3D in Strength, which seems about right for a stormtrooper.
Then the player splits seven skill dice among those stats, which give her character advantages in specific areas of expertise. For example, Jane thinks, Finn’s had extensive and focused military training, let’s give him and extra +2D in Blaster (Dex), +1D in Dodge (Dex), +1D in Brawl (Str), +1D in Starship Gunnery (Mech), +1D in Survival (Know), +1D in Running (Dex). So, when Jane wants Finn to shoot at someone, she’s rolling 6D (4D dex + 2D blaster).
Meanwhile, Rey’s player builds her. Rey needs Tech for scavenging, which would be a Capital Starship Repair roll, so 4D there, maybe 3D in Mech, 4D in Dex because that’s where you have running and melee combat, 2D in Knowledge because she’s lived on the back-end of space forever, 2D in Strength, to which we’ll add skill dice for climbing and jumping around old spaceships, and that leaves 3D for Perception. Rey wants to be good at thumping things with a stick, at languages, at climbing, to have a strong will, and to be able to pilot cheap spaceships, so: +1D Melee (Dex), +2D Languages (Know), +2D climbing (Str), +2D willpower (Perc), and +1D Space Transports (Mech). This is a lot of Willpower, but Rey’s player likes arguing that Willpower should let her do things like evade wound penalties. So. Hooray!
In the first session, Finn breaks Poe out, and they run for Jakku. Finn’s manning the guns, rolling 4D to hit (Starship Gunnery of 4D)—which is a decent amount, enough to hit a capital-ship scale target. Good times!
Later, when Finn and Rey are trying to escape a First Order assault, they end up in a shockingly maneuverable (given how crap it looks) YT-1300 freighter, pursued by TIE fighters. Finn’s having a much harder time hitting the TIEs than he had against the gun emplacements—Imperial NPC job-relevant skills tend to hover around 5D for convenience. Hit vs. dodge is a simple opposed die roll—so on average, the TIE pilots have no problem dodging Finn. They can even fire back at the same time, since Star Wars d6 has a permissive multiple-actions-per-round system: you just subtract 1D from each action you want to perform, for each action you want to perform beyond the first. So, a TIE fighter that wants to dodge and fire in the same round is rolling 4D for each, assuming 5D starfighter gunnery and 5D starfighter piloting. This is a good deal for Rey, since she’s only flying the space freighter at 4D!
But there are too many fighters, so Rey decides to fly toward the wreck of a crashed Star Destroyer she knows well. That way, the TIEs will have to roll piloting to evade rubble, dodge to evade Finn’s guns, and gunnery, if they want to fire. Of course, Rey will have to split her action between piloting through the rubble and dodging blasters—but Rey argues that, since she’s familiar with the Star Destroyer wreckage, she should have an easier time navigating it than the TIE pilots. The GM, feeling that this is a good argument, says Rey’s piloting roll is Moderate difficulty, while the TIE’s is Difficult; if Rey rolls an 11 or above on her three dice, she succeeds, while the TIEs need 15-20 on their three dice, which is very hard.
Hitting an eleven on three dice is a little better than average, but Rey decides to chance it, especially since one of those three dice is the Wild Die—a feature of the game. If you roll a 6 on the Wild Die, you get to roll again, and add that result to your total. So! Rey rolls well, and between the TIEs rolling 3d6 against Finn’s 4d6 Starship Gunnery, and 3d6 against the Difficult terrain, they’re left with a single TIE pursuer. Awesome! Unfortunately, one of the TIEs had an exploding wild die on their Starship Gunnery roll, and hit Finn’s gun turret; the guns are frozen in a forward position! Now the TIE is only rolling two actions: Starfighter Piloting against the terrain, and Gunnery against Rey’s piloting, 4D against 4D, with Rey’s freighter already damaged!
Rey decides this needs to be dealt with fast. First, Rey dives into the Star destroyer wreckage, which she argues increases the DC by the same amount for each pilot—so Rey’s rolling 4D and looking for a 15-20. Not easy! But the TIE, which follows, decides he’d rather roll 5D against a DC 20-25 than risk rolling 4D piloting to get a 4D shot at Our Heroes.
At which point:
Rey: “Finn’s guns are jammed forward, right?”
Jane: “I can’t move them at all.”
Rey: “Can I pilot the ship to set up his shot?”
GM: “Um. That’d be a Hard roll at least.”
Rey: “Well, that’s why I have these character points.”
Character points are a sort of player currency: they can be used to increase skills between adventures with GM permission, or spent during an adventure to add one die to any roll, and each character point die rerolls on a 6. Characters start with 3 CP; Rey spends all three, rolling 7D, for an average of ~21. One of the character point dice comes up 6, then 4, and the TIE fighter is in Finn’s sights.
Character points, by the way, are only one of the two forms of player currency in SWd6. The other, the Force Point, is much more powerful—but also riskier. Characters that are not Force sensitive start with only one; characters that are, start with two. A Force point, spent, doubles the number of dice a player rolls for her next action. But Force force points are gained and recovered in an unpredictable fashion: a Force Point spent for evil ends is lost, and the character gains a Dark Side point. A Force Point spent for selfish ends is lost forever. A Force Point spent for heroic ends is earned back at the end of the adventure. A Force Point spent in above-the-call-of-duty heroics at the dramatically appropriate moment, is earned back with interest: the player gets two Force Points back at the end of the adventure. The GM has sole authority over the Force Point economy. Players using a Force Point should feel scared, and brave, but feel what they’re doing is worth the risk.
Anyway. Here we are: Finn fires.
We’ll skim forward. (Lots of role-playing ensues; Rey rolls a 1 on her Wild Die while attempting to close the blast doors to save Han, which releases the Big Squiggly Monsters, which Finn spends several turns trying to brawl with to save himself.) The battle on Moz’s planet is pretty simple: Rey gets the drop on a Stormtrooper and hits him with her 4D Dex stat. Finn gets to use a lightsaber! Lightsabers in SWd6 are dangerous, but not impossible, for non-Jedi to use: you roll either Lightsaber combat, which is Dex, or Melee Weapons, also Dex, depending on which edition of the rules you’re playing with. A house rule my group played with was, if you roll a 1 on your Wild Die while using a lightsaber, you deal Lightsaber damage to yourself—which is Bad News Bears, since Lightsabers roll a minimum of 5D damage against your Puny Human strength of 2D or 3D, and if you fail your roll by 9-12, you’re Incapacitated. Fail by 16, and you’re killed outright.
Jedi have an edge, however: the Lightsaber Combat skill, which, well, is a bit broken. Here’s how Force Powers work: there are three Force Skills, Control (used to control your own body), Sense (used to sense the world around you), and Alter (used to control the world around you). Lightsaber combat is a Jedi power that involves rolling both Control and Sense; if the Jedi succeeds at both rolls, she adds her Sense die to her skill with Lightsaber or Melee Weapons, and her Control die to damage. So, a Jedi with Control 3D, Sense 2D, and Lightsaber 5D rolls 7D to hit and 8D damage. Which is a lot. This will be relevant later!
Anyway, Finn does fine rolling his 4D Dex with the saber, until he runs into a Stormtrooper who actually has spent points on Melee Weapons, at which point, Yipe! Things turn bad. But, like I said, skimming forward.
So, Rey’s captured by Kylo Ren. Ren’s an interesting character: he’s a powerful Dark Side Force user, but most of the cool stuff we see him do, like grabbing folks and snatching blaster bolts in midair, involves a lot of Alter. His telepathic interrogation’s clearly him being pretty good at Sense, but it’s also difficult—trembling hand, intense focus, etc, compared to the offhand way he tosses people around with Alter. The Receptive Telepathy power is actively resisted by Perception, or possibly Willpower depending on house rules; if the Jedi doesn’t double the target’s roll, she can only read surface thoughts, which explains Ren’s chatty, “Don’t think of pink elephants” approach to interrogation. Let’s give Ren a very uneven, Dark-Side-y build: say 5D Alter, 3D sense, 1D control.
Ren’s 3D sense isn’t getting much of anywhere against Rey’s 6D Willpower; it has trouble even against her 4D Perception. And, by the way—the GM decides this is a dramatically appropriate moment for Rey’s player to acquire some Force Skills, if she wants ’em. This is, after all, her first exposure to the Force!
Rey’s player has been saving up character points for just such an emergency. There’s a bit of confusion in the rules as to how, exactly, you “buy into” the Force after character creation, but let’s say the GM lets her buy 1d in each Force skill for 3 character points each. Nine CP, and Rey has 1D Control, 1D Sense, 1D Alter. And the first thing she decides to do, is use the Receptive Telepathy power to try to read Ren’s mind back. Ren doesn’t even know she’s Force sensitive, so he doesn’t actively resist. Rey spends a couple more character points to boost her Sense roll to 3D and rolls into Ren’s mind. This is awesome, so the GM gives her a character point back. We’ll say Rey is left with 5 CP; we’re three sessions into the adventure (Jakku, Han’s ship, Moz’s Place), and 5CP/session is a reasonable average.
Getting herself out of restraints is harder. Rey’s player knows the Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded, and knows that the Stormtroopers are weak minded, but Rey doesn’t know much about the Force yet; she doesn’t have a clear power list. The GM asks her to roll Control, Sense, and Alter; he makes a few notes, but says she fails: the Trooper’s mind is too strong. She tries again; she describes bending her will against him, forcing him to obey her, and spends a character point on each roll. The GM tells her she succeeds. The GM keeps his ominous smile to himself, and gives Rey a character point.
Kylo Ren has been hit by a Bowcaster bolt. Bowcasters do *serious* damage (we put it at 5D, but that might have been a house rule), and it looks like Ren’s Puny Human Strength hovers at 2D. He *should* be wounded or incapacitated, but he’s using a Force Power called “Control Pain” to, well, do exactly what it says on the tin; keeping that power running costs him 1D on every action, but at least he can act. Finn and Rey are running away; Ren follows them. Bringing up Lightsaber Combat requires a Control roll (he’s at 0D) and a Sense roll(2D), and keeping Lightsaber Combat up costs another 1D per round, but Ren figures it’s worth the extra net +1D to his Lightsaber skill rolls. He smashes Rey into a tree (even with his penalties, 5D is still a lot of Alter), and faces Finn. Let’s figure he’s rolling 8D for Lightsaber, counting the Lightsaber Combat bonus. Finn’s still rolling 4D Melee. He spends character points attacking Ren, but Ren out-averages him heavily; onscreen, Ren’s clearly dominating the fight, taking time out for blade flourishes. (Finn’s player considers using a blaster, but remembers how easily Ren deals with those.)
Ren uses his Lightsaber rolls to back Finn against a tree, and starts toying with him, wounding him in the shoulder. At the last extremity, Finn’s player recognizes that Fighting the Dark Side is totally heroic, and spends a Force Point, doubling Finn’s Melee to 8D. Finn hits! Ren Controls Pain *again*, spending his last character points to boost his Control skill from zero to 3D so he can make the check. Now he’s keeping up three powers: Lightsaber combat, and 2x. Control Pain. And he’s done toying around. He hits the already-Wounded Finn for full damage; Finn’s Wound gives him -1D to his Strength roll to soak the lightsaber. He 1s the Wild Die and goes down, Mortally Wounded. The lightsaber falls in the snow.
Kylo Ren reaches for the lightsaber with the Force, because why not? He’s at 2D to Alter, counting cumulative penalties, and he rolls low. But, who else is around to stop him?
She wakes up, spends two character points, and her 3D beats Ren’s weaksauce 2D roll no problem. The saber zips through the air to her waiting hand. This is fucking awesome. The table (Poe, Finn, BB-8) cheers!
Rey’s rolling 5D melee against Ren’s 7D saber. Tense times. They trade blows; Ren’s beating her, on average. She tries to run, using her Climbing to get better position, but Ren follows. As the terrain shifts, Ren backs her against a cliff. “I’ll teach you to use the Force.”
Use the Force. Rey’s scared. She’s angry. She closes her eyes, like Moz told her. She spends a Force point. And the Force, by which I mean the GM, offers her more power: the power to fight back, the power to stop Ren.
Rey calls upon the Dark Side.
Calling upon the Dark Side is an easy Perception roll, the first time you try it—and the difficulty increases by three each time. Calling upon the Dark Side gives you a free Force point for immediate use, in addition to any Force Points you may have spent already. The most conservative reading of the doubling rules suggest that Rey is now rolling three times her usual die codes. And she gains a Dark Side Point, which will stain her soul until she makes amends. She’s started down the Dark path, and forever will it dominate her destiny.
“But,” you say, “Rey doesn’t fall to the Dark Side.”
She doesn’t fall, no, she doesn’t turn evil. But watch that scene again. She closes her eyes. She reaches for the Force. And when she opens her eyes again, she snarls. She beats Ren back with brute strength and vicious, choppy saber-blows, like Luke used in Return of the Jedi when the Dark Side tempted him. When Ren’s forced to his knees, she circles him with the Dark Side stalk. Daisey Ridley delivers a perfect physical quote of Ray Park’s Darth Maul.
In game terms, she’s rolling 15D. She makes four attacks that round at 12D each, smashing through Ren’s defense. He falls. She almost finishes the job, but the ground erupts beneath her and she runs.
Rey carries the fight. Saves Finn. (Who gets his Force Point back, and maybe gets another one, too—fighting a Dark Jedi on your own, without Force powers? There’s a solid argument for suicidal self-sacrifice here.) Rey gets her Force point back, though she doesn’t get another one. Rey finds the map; she ventures out to Skellig Michael, climbs several thousand stone steps, and meets Luke.
Who, after years of isolation after his Academy failed and his students fell to the Dark Side, turns around to see a young Force Sensitive woman, holding out a lightsaber, desperate for training, scared and awed and eager. And in her heart: the touch of the Dark Side of the Force.
Violins swell. Credits roll.
Rey’s rule mechanics are more interesting than those of, say, Finn, or Poe, or BB-8, but they’re still clear. Everything she does fits easily within a straightforward build and a decent grasp of the rules.
Han firing the Bowcaster, though, now that makes no sense. IIRC humans aren’t strong enough to use them, the kickback alone…. But that’s another post for another day.