They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?

millennium_falcon_ep52With all this thinking about, watching, and gaming Star Wars, lately, I’ve been idly wondering what it is that makes Star Wars work: why is the original trilogy so engaging and fresh, even after multiple viewings and decades of accumulated cruft? Then a stray thought popped into my head: Star Wars works because it only ever does something once.

Think about it: every thrilling and memorable moment of the films happens once, then never again. The first time the Millennium Falcon escapes a planet, they blast off into hyperspace and leave the Star Destroyers in the dust. The second time. . .the hyperdrive’s busted and it’s time for a thrilling chase. The first time they’re pursued by TIE Fighters, Han and Luke gun them down with the quad cannons. The second time, the cannons sit unused while the ships play thread the needle with asteroids. One military engagement is X- and Y-wings against TIEs, the next is Snowspeeders against Imperial Walkers. Same with environments: the first flick’s action takes place in a desert and a giant battlestation. The second has an ice world, a swamp and a city in the clouds. The third returns to the desert, sure, but the main event’s in a forest. Nothing ever becomes stale or routine.

Now, it is true that Return of the Jedi re-uses one important thing: the Death Star. But this is precisely where Star Wars starts to wear out its welcome, precisely because it repeats itself. Jedi gets a little frayed around the edges as the fresh ideas start to dry up, and I’d argue that there’s practically nothing fresh and new in the prequels, because they abandon this principle.

That’s how it works in so much adventure fiction. Always the new, the fresh, the different, the surprising, with scarcely a look back. But when we look at adventure roleplaying, we often see the opposite. Players generally do the same thing, over and over. It makes a certain amount of sense–if something works once, why not again? If quad guns work well against TIEs, let’s hop in the turrets every time we face them, right?

But it kills drama. It kills excitement. It kills wonder. If the thing to do is the same thing you did last time, there’s no reason to do anything particularly; actions just sort of blend together into a soupy gray. I wonder how we would go about reclaiming that freshness in a game environment. Dramatic devices like the busted hyperdrive help, and we can definitely play mindfully toward that. What else? Perhaps a procedural framework that incentivizes doing things in a new way? That offers diminishing returns each time you use the same solution to a problem?

What else would work? And how have you tackled this issue?



5 Responses to “They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?”

  1. April 21, 2009 at 11:42 am

    This sounds like the creative opposite of reincorporation;

    In the way that reincorporation provides structure and coherence, this prevents against staleness and repetitiveness.

    What does Star Wars repeat? Witty banter. “I have a bad feeling about this”. Battles themselves. Laser blasts. etc. Robots.

    Maybe this has to do with “just enough reincorporation, but not too much”.

    If you have three plays in a row, with a gun in the first act, maybe in the first play someone murders someone with it in the third act, in the second play they pistol whip, in the third it goes off accidently in a child’s hands.

    Thinking out loud, here.

  2. 2 Tim Jensen
    April 21, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I think 3:16 strikes a good balance between reincorporation and new game environments with its GM Planet Sheets. When determining the parameters for missions, you check off entries as they’re used. After 20 missions, you can start over in a new order.

    Oracle-based games (like In A Wicked Age) work on a similar vibe. Even if you draw the same set of images again you are likely to play a very different game.

  3. 3 Julian Michels
    April 21, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    As far as storyjamming goes, dramatic freshness is inherently rewarded because it *is* the award, or at the very least the most important one.

    As far as single-character “adventurers” go, I like to use “Stunting”, also known as the “Awesome Bonus.”

    In Three Ages of Men, we use this mechanic to assign an arbitrary bonus to actions when the group goes “oooo, cool.”

    If the adventurers try the same tactics, then it usually falls flat.

    This is part of my emphasis on Mind over Matter, also known as Cool Story trumps Physics.

  4. 4 storybythethroat
    April 21, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Maybe this has to do with “just enough reincorporation, but not too much”.

    Yeah, Willem!

    I think this is a principle that works, not in opposition to reincorporation, but in counterpoint to it. Both principles operating in tandem create a nice little story-ecosytem that, as you say, provides coherence while preventing staleness.

    Seems to me the trick is in how you reincorporate. When an element comes up again, it’s got to do something different each time, or be the same up until the last time, and so forth. Y’know, all that juicy stuff from Graham’s Play Unsafe. You never just fight two Death Stars; at the very least you’ve got to shoot an exhaust port once, then fly into the core the next time. And on a deeper level, you should never answer the same question the same way. Star Wars is simple and direct enough that there aren’t a lot of repeated or remixed themes, but how cool would Luke’s “I’ll never join you!” be if later on he did join his father (yet another reason to love the Paradigm!), or someone else faced a similar temptation and give in?

    This is just like what you said about the three plays with a gun. Also, Tim, your comments on Oracles and such are right on the money here. Taking a familiar element and doing something different is hardly stale; in fact it gives new life to a story.

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