Recently, I came upon a neat little blog that focuses on video game design, analyzing what are widely considered to be “the classics” and seeing what makes them really jive. This post, certainly very relevant to Triumph & Despair from the onset, got me thinking about the use of details and story depth in Star Wars fandom.
The classic incarnation of Star Wars has relatively little detail. This is a strength to the series as it adds mystery and lets the viewer come to their own interesting conclusions. it’s a very satisfying experience, as conjecture and theories, both spoken and unspoken. It’s interesting to dream about why the X-Wings are shaped the way they are, or what vast and alien worlds the characters come from.
The classic Star Wars films have a certain level of depth to them as well. The characters are believable, have emotions that can be related to. For example, when Han Solo and Princess Leia fall in love, it’s a believable sequence of events and one that most people can relate to. Not only that, but we the audience are wrapped up in the thick of the action by witnessing the trials and pitfalls of this romantic journey. We’re along for the ride the whole time, and as a result, we become invested. This is our ideal.
The kind of artistry and skill needed to achieve that level of character depth is often elusive. Creativity, really bold and innovative creativity, can’t be forced. By and large, modern Star Wars offerings (movies, video games, TV shows, etc.) eschew this difficult to achieve character depth and attempt to compensate with a flood of ultimately worthless detail. A character’s anecdotal backstory is used as a cheap substitute for growth and development. The penultimate example of these is a scene wherein Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are in an elevator talking about their adventures, such as getting entangled in a nest of Gundarks (Attack of the Clones). What’s so objectionable about this scene is that it tells us interesting things instead of showing us interesting scenes. Everything is detached, as if reading from a textbook, and so the audience has scant emotions to draw up leaving us only with apathy. (I’m sure most of you know that the faults of this scene were referenced in the Mr. Plinkett reviews, and that team does a far better job at hitting the nail on the head here.)
This textbook recital of details is shown no worse than the overwhelming amount of information available through sources such as Wookieepedia. While an interesting catalog of the history of Star Wars publications, far too many Galaxy Masters see this as an infallible source never to be questioned. On the contrary: it’s a trap. A trap of expounding upon minutia when the focus should instead be squarely centered on the depth of the story. My favorite pet peeve example is the galactic map. While created with good intentions, a list like this is a siren song leading Galaxy Masters to boring design. There is simply too much information presented here; the detail level of all trade routes, important planets, names of sectors, etc. imply to a reader that this is a definitive listing. We Galaxy Masters, on the other hand, should instead be embracing the new and expressing our own creativity with fresh designs that better deliver the tone, style, and emotions we wish to see in our games. We need to take responsibility for our games and not just tag along for the lazy river that is Lucas Arts’ designs. And we can only do this by sweeping away the detail detritus of the last 30 years to embark on bold new avenues of exploration within the Star Wars universe.
Lastly, here’s an example of designing for depth without unnecessary detail, taken from Triumph & Despair‘s recently released heist, ‘Only Two ways Home’. With this one short non-player character (NPC) stat block, a rough pastiche of this character’s skills and personality are laid bare. The mechanics reinforce the narrative in a meaningful way, with Ensign Caldwell’s Willpower and subsequent Discipline being very low to reflect her insecurities. There is enough information to start a Galaxy Master off, provide impetus for interaction with the scene, and entice the Crew into trying to manipulate this character to achieve their goals. It’s concise and leaves just enough room for a Galaxy Master to create any additional details for this character as they are needed. This type of thinking dovetails right into the philosophy behind Star Wars: Edge of the Empire‘s dice pool resolution mechanic; giving enough information to keep the game moving, but allowing the players at the table enough latitude with the narrative to own a piece of the story by injecting their own details.