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?

Peace,

-Joel

Birth of a legend

niamh-with-eyes-openOn December 10, at almost midnight, Niamh Shempert was born. My daughter. It was a harrowing day and a half for Annie and I, her especially, as our home birthing stalled out from dehydration and we finally checked into the Birthing Center at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital after 24 hours of labor. At the hospital Annie was able to receive just enough anesthesia to rest and recover her wits and strength, and when she finally started pushing the process was swift and intense.

Annie smiled in her labor pains, proud and triumphant to be delivering her child at last–to the awe of nurses and midwives, and of me. She proved every person in that room wrong, with their thoughts of shoulder dystocia and C-sections and gestational diabetes, as Niamh (“neev”) came quickly and gloriously out to meet the world in perfect health. Then, while the nurses treated Annie’s hemorrhaging, I was Niamh’s guardian in the wee hours, holding her in comfort and love through Nurses’ tests and warding off invasive procedures. Our birth wasn’t what we planned, but we had it on our terms in as natural and nurturing a setting as possible.

I knew as I held Annie’s hand in pride and awe that I was in the midst of a great story, one that would be a joy to tell and retell–all the more for its factual truth. Now as last week’s events seep into my skin and stir about in my soul, I wonder things. I wonder about the place and value of story in our lives. I wonder about the virtue of seeking out such adventures versus letting them come to us. If our birth had gone as planned, I wouldn’t have such an amazing story to tell. I would have a much simpler and everyday tale that would elicit a few “aww, that’s nice” ‘s, not hold them in wonderment. But would I ever, ever willingly put my wife and my daughter through such danger and trauma just to add an epic to my repertoire? Not on your life!

So, I ask: what IS story in our lives? Is “adventure” something, as they say, that you hate while it’s happening, but love in the telling? Is there a way to pursue storied life without inviting needless sorrow and pain? I look at my daughter in the paradoxical knowledge that I want her to have adventures, but would never wish her danger or harm.

But for now, it is enough to glory in the epic of her arrival, and take joy in her present peace.

So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.

Peace,

Joel