Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Playing In Spirit, not Character

Anyone who’s played West End Games’ Star Wars RPG knows that one thing the game does absolutely right is emphasize the spirit of Star Wars…both the original RPG and the 2nd edition were very much about recreating the tropes of Star Wars and the feel of the movies within their game.

Now this was, of course, PRIOR to the “Expanded Universe” or the Prequel Trilogies (the Darkforce Rising comics and and Admiral Thrawn trilogy that opened up the expanded universe came AFTER the release of WEG Star Wars and drew plenty of info/inspiration from the game supplements). As such, the only thing WEG had to go on was the original trilogy (and some minor Lucas apocrypha) and for the most part the emphasis was on re-creating a Star Wars-like adventure environment. This included:

- Space Opera over hard sci-fi

- Starship “dog fights” and explosions (with sound!) in space

- Endless ammunition

- Everything bigger than life and twice as loud

- “Fudging” to prevent player character death (don’t kill the actors!)

- Catch-phrases and Star Wars-isms (“I have a bad feeling about this”)

It’s the last one on the list that I want to write about.

Personally, there are two different ways that I prefer to look at (and play) Star Wars, neither of which goes very well with the WEG version of the RPG:

1) Star Wars as Heavy Metal magazine (i.e. the “non-Jedi version”). Players are random mercenaries a la the Han Solo adventures, hanging out at bars, picking up cargo to smuggle, getting in trouble with whatever passes for an authority figure in the region (Hutts, Imperials, whatever), and basically being crass and blaster-happy.

2) Star Wars as Paladin the RPG (i.e. the “Jedi-centric version”). Everyone is a Jedi or Force-user or aspiring Force-user and must struggle to walk the straight-and-narrow path even as they learn and grow in power to prevent falling to the Dark Side.

Notice these two different themes, while both possible in a “Star Wars Universe,” are fairly mutually exclusive. But these are MY kind of Space Opera…there’s always that exploration of the seedy/shadow side of life. The Star Trek exploration/do-gooder thing just doesn’t appeal to me at all.

Of course, neither of my preferred styles jibes with playing “in the spirit” of Star Wars the Original Movie Trilogy.

To me, playing in the spirit of an established intellectual property takes a lot of balls, and I just haven’t known all that many ballsy gamers. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t personally give them the space to explore their “cheesy side.” Because in a way, playing In The Spirit requires a certain amount of hamming it up with a healthy dose of cheese…and that requires trust and commitment on the part of the players.

That’s asking for more than simple “investment in one’s character.”

It’s definitely led to trouble for my groups in the past…I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve played a lot of ElfQuest and Marvel Superheroes, both games that have (or did have at the time the RPGs were published) well established conventions/tropes of their respective intellectual properties. Unfortunately, attempting to run long-term campaigns with either of these games proved problematic. With EQ, the games with groups of players always degenerated into “going to war with the trolls (again).” And Marvel…well, I believe I previously mentioned how my buddy/GM Scott had to institute “negative karma? One would hardly say we were playing in the spirit of Marvel “heroes!”

Asking people to get on-board with the spirit of a specific IP is asking a lot…that’s my point. Let me give a specific example of how that backfired with Star Wars:

The original WEG Star Wars includes a beginning/sample adventure scenario… "Rebel Break-Out" I believe it’s called (I don’t have the book with me). It involves one-long running battle through a mine (shades of dungeon crawling/Mines of Moria) to pair of Y-Wing fighters to escape with a set of plans vital to the rebellion. Basically one medium-long linear adventure. Fine and dandy…it’s a sample so you don’t expect much.

But to get the players IN THE SPIRIT of Star Wars, it provides an actual script that it expects players to read at the beginning of the game. The adventure begins in media res if I remember correctly, and here your character is expected to speak AUTHORED DIALOGUE written by someone else…in order to show you HOW TO PLAY RIGHT.

Ugh! Double ugh! I’ve run Rebel Break-Out two or three times and my players have always HATED the script thing. They’ve railed, they’ve scoffed, they’ve ridiculed, they’ve done everything EXCEPT take the damn thing seriously. If anything it feels so awkward and fake (and contrived) that if they were in the mood to play a space opera/Star Wars game by the time they’re done with the script they’re no longer very interested.

After all, these were not actors auditioning for a role…they were players of a game. They had created their own characters with their own personalities (however two- or three-dimensional those personalities were made no difference). You just can’t script role-playing. It’s a different artistic genre from theater.

Now having written all THAT, let me do a bit of a 180 and say that while it’s been my experience that you cannot script role-playing AND furthermore it is incredibly difficult to get players to play “in the spirit” of a particular creative license that does NOT mean:

1) that playing in the spirit may still be appropriate to certain game systems, and

2) it may be possible to facilitate playing in the spirit by working it into the rules/design

I look at the Dying Earth RPG as an example. DE is based on the excellent stories of the same name by Jack Vance, and Mr. Vance is known for his own Vancisms of flowery, elaborately obscure language…characters in Vance’s Dying Earth stories speak like they’ve swallowed huge dictionaries and practice verbal fencing every day (as well as their regular swordsmanship). To facilitate creating the proper Vancian flavor, the actual reward/advancement system is tied to the use of this Vancian language…each player is handed a list of properly erudite phrases at the beginning of the session, and being able to work them into your dialogue in play earns you points with which you may improve your character. Simple and fun. It’s un-necessary to participate (there’s no script) and the player’s have the choice of how and when to use the phrases (if they want to use them at all), and they are rewarded for it…AND it helps everyone at the table get into the spirit of the game.

Now in discussing advancement systems for my B/X space opera game, one thing I might be willing to consider is something of this nature to encourage the Star Wars-isms and playing In The Spirit…not necessarily specific lines of dialogue (“I have a bad feeling” and “May the Force be with you” are the only oft repeated lines from the film), but something a little more open-ended.

Think of any drinking game for a beloved television: everyone takes a drink whenever regular character says or DOES something often repeated and well-established as their particular pattern of behavior. It may be possible to incorporate some system like this (the Drinking Game Advancement System! Need to trademark that!) into an RPG where players earn bonus “points” for their characters by adding interactions to the game that promote the flavor of the licensed IP.

Reward systems encourage behavior patterns, that’s a damn fact (and one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of just rewarding simple participation…assuming they want to play a space game in the first place or they wouldn’t show up at the table). If you want people to play a certain way, encourage a particular behavior rather than trying to discourage the “wrong” action.

Now, unfortunately, this is not necessarily helpful to me in light of my “preferred ways of playing Star Wars” (see above), because Star Wars-isms from the original movie trilogy tend to be a little more goody-good than my exploration of the game world…but even so, this train of thought may be helpful to folks that ARE trying to develop RPGs based on specific licenses. And who knows…maybe my game will be more goody-go when finished than I’m currently envisioning it.

; )


  1. You got me all enthused about Dying Earth, then I find out the license has been withdrawn and it is no longer in print.


  2. Really? There are a couple copies on the shelf of my local game shop. Get yours before they sell out!
    : )

  3. I have to totally agree with you on the 'Adventure Script' idea being lame. Even as big of a WEG SW fan as I am, that is one aspect of the game that quickly fell by the wayside in my own campaign. Likewise, many of the 'in media res' starts to adventures had to be tempered quite a bit (if not eliminated entirely). One of the cinematic 'tactics' I felt DID work were the 'cut away' scenes—where we see things happening elsewhere, outside of direct player knowledge (i.e. villain monologues, minor plot exposition by NPCs, etc.). I don't use these all the time (as they're hard to come up with on the fly), but they have been used to great effect in some of my games. I've also found that cut-away scenes in published modules often have to be altered to reflect player actions, because players rarely do what is expected—and that's one of the reasons I love gaming so much.