A few weeks ago I talked about a roleplaying session that was subtle, low-key, and resolved the fiction peaceably. Today I’d like to talk about the opposite.
I ran a convention game based on the Skywalker Paradigm, a radical interpretation of the Star Wars films from a perspective of propaganda analysis. Its central conceit is that the original films (not the prequels or books!) are documentary footage manipulated by the Skywalker Regime to justify their rise to power. The important points are that the “rebellion” is actually Royalty trying to get back into power, Darth Vader is an anti-royalist general trying like mad to prevent that, and he’s the one hiding Luke on Tatooine as a secret weapon to try and assassinate the Emperor together, which they eventually do.
The Paradigm offers a fairly sober (if enthusiastic!) picture of the Star Wars universe, packed with complex motivations and subtle political implications. The game we played was anything but sober and subtle. I used the Solar System, a game perfectly calibrated to let players drive hard toward passionate motivations and bold actions. As a con session, there wasn’t time to establish and slowly build a carefully crafted narrative with elaborate and emergent themes. For a long-term game you want to develop a shared, intimate bond of understanding, appreciation and respect. In its place we substituted gusto, audacity and reckless abandon. It was exhilarating!
Joe McDonald kicked things into high gear with the revelation that Leia was responsible for the destruction of Alderaan, for the purpose of vilifying the Empire and eliminating her rivals for Royal succession. The other players gleefully followed suit: Darth Vader (Lukas Myhan) was furious and tried to kill her in her cell, but she escaped and snuck around the Death Star committing sabotage until she stole a Stormtrooper uniform, gathered a cadre of troopers to her–and made them swear fealty to her, creating a new order of knighthood to restore the aristocracy! Leia and her Knights of the Storm had their showdown with Vader in the docking bay outside the Millennium Falcon, while Luke (Julian Michels), a redneck thrill-junkie pumped full of Vader-hating brainwashing by old Ben, joined the fray with abandon. As his kid blasted away with a stationary gun turret, Vader killed Leia outright and played the “I’m your father!” card, eventually getting through and convincing Luke. Obi-wan (Andrew Henderson) meanwhile was trying all kinds of conniving gambits, like wiring Luke’s lightsaber to explode and take out him and Vader, or rigging the Falcon’s missiles to target the exhaust port and blow the Death Star right then and there–before venturing out of the ship and getting felled by his nemesis. Han (Mark Sharp) and Chewie were hunkered down in the ship cursing the day they took a job from these loonies, until Han had finally had enough, and blew up the Falcon to escape in another ship–frying Tarkin and his personal guard. Vader and Luke escaped to rule the galaxy as Father and Son. . .
What made this work? Sheer, relentless enthusiasm, a fearless willingness to put characters at odds and in harm’s way. Being a one-shot affair, there was no incentive for caution or reserve; anything that’s going to happen will happen in the next three hours of play, so dream big, play hard and stake your life!
The only thing that was missing was a deeper emotional investment. Without the investment potential of continued play, and that trust-building effect of a bonded, long-term group, there was pretty much only emotional room for a spectacle of the moment that could be tossed lightly aside when done. Everyone laughed madly as they burned their characters out in a flash, ending everything in fire and blood. It was great fun–but now I’d like to consider the next level of excited, switched-on play: emotional vulnerability, where we care about the characters’ struggles and open ourselves to real catharsis and pain. Any ideas on how to achieve that reckless, balls-to-the-wall play without making the characters and story emotionally disposable?