“It’s Not Going To Turn Out the Way You Think It Will”
Gaming Inspiration from Star Wars: The Last Jedi
By Ian Eller
Note: This blog entry includes spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Continue at your own risk.
When Luke Skywalker says the words, “It’s not going to go the way you think,” he wasn’t kidding. From the moment the dishevelled jedi master takes his lightsaber from Rey — the one she, and we, had been waiting two years for him to take — and tossed it over the side of a cliff, it was clear: Star Wars: The Last Jedi was going to subvert expectations and keep the audience guessing. This from a series that had leaned heavily on formula and tropes for four decades was a bold and, frankly, controversial move.
But we’re not actually here to talk about The Last Jedi (TLJ going forward). We’re here to talk about the games you run as a GM and how to consciously make the decision to break from tradition, subvert tropes, manipulate expectations and otherwise keep your players guessing as to what could possibly happen next. We will continue to use TLJ as a framing device, however, so spoilers abound. This is your last warning to click away.
The decision to do things differently than before, to break out of your own habits (good or bad; this isn’t about judgement) is a tough one for a GM. Not only does it tend to be easier to run games using familiar techniques, but it also provides a place of comfort for your players in a longer term campaign. We all play RPGs to have fun, and some people rely on them to relax and blow off some steam and don’t enjoy being challenged. It is no small thing to toss that element away in favor of exploring new territory.
Imagine you were a Star Wars GM. You had run a long and successful campaign where your players fought and defeated the Emperor through luck, skill and grit. The Farmboy turned Jedi Knight, the Diplomat turned General and the Scoundrel turned Hero achieve their goals and you talk about that campaign for ages. Later, you decide to get the band back together for more adventures in the same universe. You make their old characters into important NPCs and everyone chooses a new role: a force sensitive Scavenger, a brash Ace Pilot and a conflicted Stormtrooper. In your opening adventure, you hew close to the tropes of the old game: giant planet killing weapons, evil Jedi, giant monsters and, of course, tons of white armored mooks to mow down. It’s fun. It is. But, something is missing.
What you may have failed to account for is that you are older now. You not only are in different places in your lives, but you have perhaps a decade or two of new gaming experiences under your belts, exposure to new and interesting ideas, and a level of creative maturity that you lacked when all you wanted to do was blast Imperials and soak up the melodrama. It isn’t that your old games weren’t fun. It isn’t even that your new campaign is somehow flawed. It is just that you are different and the game has to be different, too.
It is not a perfect analogy, of course. After all, you don’t have a massive creative infrastructure at your disposal. Even so, that feeling that things need a bit of a nudge out of the rut, that times and you all have changed and the game needs to change too maps pretty well with TLJ compared to previous entries in the Star Wars saga. So staying with that analogy, let’s see how you might subvert the expectations of your players:
Your force sensitive Scavenger player made a big deal about the mystery of their character’s parentage. You realize that is too close a retread of the previous campaign, and decide that the Scav did not have special parents. They were just amoral junk dealers that sold their daughter for drinking money. What you are aiming for is not-so-subtly telling the player that it is the character, not their lineage, that is important. Will the player embrace this idea? Or will they feel the story they wanted to tell has been invalidated?
Similarly, the Ace Pilot player loves jumping into an X-Wing and blowing stuff up to solve problems. That’s fun, but it is also simplistic and a little juvenile compared to the more complex story you have decided you want to tell. So you create real consequences for the constantly brash and ill conceived plans of the character. Things don’t turn out as cleanly as the Pilot would like. Beloved NPCs get hurt or die and their own position in the Resistance is threatened. Will the player embrace this and decide their character learns to be a better leader, or will they feel they have been cheated out of their preferred playstyle?
The Stormtrooper is interesting because the player already started out with a fairly complex story for their character: he isn’t just rebellious, but also something of a coward. The player latched onto another PC as a focal point and is constantly pushing a romance with the Scavenger — who, for their part, does not want to engage in any relationship play beyond platonic. So you decide to feed the Stormtrooper’s journey toward courage and dedication and at the same time introduce an NPC love interest to try and pry them apart from the Scavenger PC. Will this work? Is the Stormtrooper player just interested in a romance of any kind, or did you misread their creative intent?
And beyond all those PC issues, you realize you are kind of bored with the whole Empire-analogue versus Rebellion-analogue conflict. You don’t want to rehash the same campaign you played years ago. So, you decide to blow it all up. You kill important characters, decimate both sides and otherwise throw a wrench in the works, all in the name of a clean slate and a fresh experience. It all seems like a great idea until the session ends and you see your players staring at you, dumbfounded and perhaps even a little angry. What now?
Drastic changes are hard, especially when you are talking about changing something people love. Tabletop RPGs, especially in the context of a long lasting campaign that was good enough to inspire multiple sequel and prequel campaigns, are especially beloved. Role-playing is an intimate exercise. You share a deep part of yourself with other people when you share stories in which you play a part. You reveal wants and needs and hopes and fears, even when you are just pushing little figures around a grid and using funny voices while pretending to buy 50 feet of rope.
One benefit your players have over the audience streaming into to see TLJ opening weekend is that they have a voice. Your players are part of your writers room and your production staff. Don’t forget that. It can be tempting to keep secrets from them for their own good, so as not to spoil the surprise. Be careful doing that, however. They have a lot more invested in their characters and your shared world than you might think, and they deserve a voice in the question of their Scavenger’s parentage, their Pilot’s learning experiences and their Stormtrooper’s love life.
If you feel the need to make drastic changes, check in with your players. You can take a break from an actual play session to have a “story meeting” where your players and you talk out your concerns and interests. Not only will this reduce the shock of any drastic change you have in mind, it will give the players an opportunity to tell you what they would like to see changed up and what they want to hold on to.
All tabletop role-playing games are ultimately a conversation. Don’t be afraid to talk.