Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Matters of Scale

The boy and I have been watching Star Wars Rebels lately (it runs on TV in Paraguay, though I have to ask him to translate the show for me). It's good enough, and fun enough (and kid friendly enough) that we decided to go ahead and download the first season on iTunes. Unfortunately, with the crap internet connection here, that means about four+ hours per episode. When the internet is working.

Things aren't always this exciting...but often enough.
Still, the first three or four episodes have been worth the cost (in time and money), especially as I now get to watch the show in English (the boy misses a lot, after all...he is only five). But while there's a lot of annoying things about it (mainly about the main characters), I'm still finding the show to be (in sum) a good watch and interesting from the possibility of game development.

The idea of using a single ship as a reason for an adventuring crew to stick together isn't anything new. Traveller did it. Star Trek (and IP-inspired works like Far Trek) did it. Ashen Stars did it. Bulldog did it. Back in '05 I was working on something called "Shipboard," I was doing it. I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting. But having adventures/stories revolve around the exploits of a single crewed vessel is a time-honored tradition of science fiction...whether you're talking comics (the Micronauts, Dreadstar), television (Star Trek, Space 1999, Firefly), or film/novels. It's a good trope, the whole "life-in-a-can" thing. Very Das Boot...you're stuck together, so better work together.

So that's not anything I find terribly interesting (though it is a rather new thing for the "Star Wars" 'verse...usually, you've got SW protagonists operating all over the galaxy simultaneously). No, what's more interesting to me is the scale at which these rebels are carrying out their various subversive ops against the Empire. Rather than the usual galactic scale, we find them working at a planetary scale...in and around (for the most part) a single planet.

This is a very interesting choice of setting and one that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. I mean, the scales in Star Wars are all wonky anyway...you have a couple dozen (maybe) star fighters going toe-to-toe with an Empire that has the resources of a trillion beings to draw upon? Um...okay.

What can one ship or rogues do against a whole galaxy? Or a whole system of inhabited planets? Or against even a couple capital ships? Not much, of course (run away!)...but I'm not just talking about open conflict (laser-on-laser action). What kind of difference can a single ship make in helping the oppressed people of an over-thrown, galactic republic?

Not much...that's a lot of (refugee) mouths to feed.

Much of the Star Wars comics published by Marvel (back in the pre-prequel, pre-RotJ days) centered around the antics of Luke and Leia acting as spies and diplomats, trying to drum up support for their rebellion (flying around, talking to planetary governments about throwing in their lot with the rebels and getting all united in The Revolution), while Han and Chewie did their Hand and Chewie "loser thing" (getting into small change trouble with small change crooks). I mean, you can't rescue a princess and blow up a Death Star every episode/issue, right?

[you know, come to think of it, Lucas really did a huge disservice to his whole franchise by rehashing the Death Star thing in Return of the Jedi. Forget your hate of ewoks, forget the inconsistency of yet another appearance on backwater Tatooine at the ass-end of the galaxy, forget the whole crazy Leia-is-your-sister thing. Sure...those things all have varying degrees of suckage and lazy-plotting attached to them. Lucas, at the tail end of a broken marriage and a thwarted attempt at (real) empire-building was just trying to tie the thing up in as expedient a manner as possible, in order to make a buck (thank God for licensing, huh?)...and that, of course, is understandable. BUT, the bit that sucks the hardest is the recycling of the same film plot from the first movie with a bigger scale. What we should have seen is a showdown with Vader and the Emperor (and those dudes in the red imperial guardsmen) in some shadowy, lava-moated citadel with ALL the protagonists present and accounted for, with ALL the heroes facing their "moment-of-truth" with new Dark Side mind-fucks and Jedi mysticism, a culmination of the path of the first two films, while matched with the B-SciFi monster horror and Flash Gordon comic-tropes that Lucas mashed together in the first place. What a wasted opportunity]


But doing what Marvel did isn't a great recipe for an RPG. Playing diplomat is fun if you're playing a game like Diplomacy (natch), but it's fairly boring stuff in a game that's supposed to be about soaring space opera and blasting stormtroopers. Splitting protagonists and giving them different agendas in different parts of the galaxy may be nice for expanding and growing a setting, but it's a superficial exploration...not the dig-down-deep that it could be.

A while back I wrote a bit about "closed systems;" what I suppose I meant as limited environments for exploration. A single dungeon for a D&D-ish game. A single city for a superhero game. For a game that features a spacecraft capable of faster-than-light travel (and a galaxy filled with a million inhabitable worlds) confining the setting to a single planet (with occasional side jaunts) seems fairly limiting...at least given the homogenous environments of the Star Wars universe (where every planet has a "type:" water world, desert world, forest world, etc.).

I like this. Sorry, I do. I know some folks buck the ideas of limits, of artificial restraints imposed on their adventures. But for me, it seems there's plenty of good adventures to explore in such a small environment, plenty of impact to be had by acting on a single world, plenty of character that can be developed within a small crucible. I mean, it IS a planet...even if it lacks the diversity of environment, culture, and species found on little ol' Earth, it's still big enough that you can make for a meaningful series/saga. There's a lot of potential there, even with a relatively unimportant planet in the empire (and I'm not so sure Lothal IS unimportant...being a farm planet, it appears to supply a ton of food to the Empire's military. Tampering with that supply will get the number of troops at the garrison upped in no time flat).

So, cool. It's got me thinking of one or two ideas. It's also making me think I might have short-changed Star Wars (the West End Games D6-based RPG) back in the day. If I'd considered something of this (small) scale, I might have found it easier...and saner...to run a SW saga.


  1. The series seems to draw on the WEG Star Wars game, as well. The characters are pretty clearly based on several of the default templates from that game. There's someone who was writing up each of the episodes as if they were WEG Star Wars play sessions (though he hasn't written a post on it in about a year).

  2. Why not a whole solar system? Plenty of worlds to visit with asteroids, moon, dwarf planets, and full-sized planets. It let's those who are just dying to get into space to get into space and gives room for future development.