Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alternative Universe Experiments

Remember high school science class? Do you remember those lab experiments where you lost half a grade letter if you didn’t start your report with the words, “The purpose of this experiment is to determine…?” You blocked that nightmare out of your head? Sorry to dredge it up. Let’s use the old science class lab form to help create your next long form adventure or campaign. With the scientific method and the manner of thinking it dictates, you will create the crux of your campaign.
The key to the scientific method is to alter a single variable and compare the altered scenario against a control group, where everything is kept status quo. In game terms, the control group is the Star Wars movies and widely accepted canon (the Clone Wars tv show, various games, comics and books). What you’re going to do with your Star Wars experiment is alter one variable in the canon and determine how it affects everything else.
The purpose of this experiment is to determine what would happen if Force sensitive beings banded together as part of a traveling Galactic circus. This brainstorm was inspired by the last season of Heroes, where superpower endowed individuals hid in plain sight as carnies.
The first thing to consider is how this what-if scenario would affect the Galaxy or how the Galactic situation of each era would affect our what-if. For the Old Republic, the circus could be a hunting ground, where Jedi and Sith try to abduct or recruit new members from the pool of powerful Force users. Imagine contortionist Jedi or lightsaber swallowing Sith! Some circus people turn Sith, others Jedi, They would eventually square off against one another, as brother fought brother during the American Civil War. I would have the final showdown back at the circus.
For the Rise of the Empire era, Jedi could try to take the performers’ children to the Temple for training. The Jedi sent to gather the kids vanish. The PCs are sent to track down the missing and find out what happened. Are the Jedi still alive? Were they captured? Did they run away with the circus?
The Dark Times and Rebellion Eras present an interesting scenario for heroes helping hide Force sensitives, using the idea of the underground railroad. Maybe the heroes must help convince the performers to abandon their circus home, because Inquisitors are on the way. Some of the Force sensitives refuse to give up their community. The performers agree that if one stays, they all stay. The Force sensitives and PCs must confront the Inquisitors and troopers at the circus.
In the New Jedi Order era, Luke sends heroes to try and recruit Force sensitives to join the Jedi Academy. However, Vong operatives have infiltrated the circus, posing as freaks. As the circus moves from system to system, the Vong operatives scout the Galaxy to aid the upcoming invasion. While visiting the circus and doing the recruitment drive, the PCs stumble on the Vong’s true motives.
With the help of your players, you can determine the story’s angle. Perhaps your players want to be the  Inquisitors hunting down Force sensitives. Perhaps they want to be the undercover Vong operatives who have to neutralize those darn Jedi who learned too much for their own good. Maybe the players want to be the circus performers protecting their families from the Sith and Jedi trying to snatch the children and break up the families.
Next, it’s time to brainstorm set pieces. When George Lucas plans his movies, he uses this concept: design a series of locales with an idea of really cool things that happen there. Then, design the story to integrate these cool locations. One day, George might have been eating at Arby’s when he thought how cool it would be to have a fight on flat-bed like vehicles hovering above a pit where a hungry monster reaches out, pulling victims into its gullet. He may have been mowing the lawn when he thought how neat it would be to see a high speed chase through the airspeeder lanes above Coruscant, with characters leaping from vehicle to vehicle.
Those two examples are set pieces. We haven’t yet figured out how they fit the story. We only have a sense of location and some neat special effects. Get the idea?
But how do you come up with set pieces? Think about the elements of your story. Then think what cool stuff could happen. The circus setting includes the chance to battle some cool beasts. Between the cages, big top and transports there are plenty of interesting locations for eye-poppingly groovy fights. Plus, the circus travels the Galaxy, so the campaign can include multiple unique star systems. There’s also the possibility of space combat as the circus leaves or arrives at a system.
With the Force sensitive circus example, let’s brainstorm various set pieces. Make them as varied as possible. Don’t come up with all cool lightsaber fights or giant monster battles. Keep in mind, this is Star Wars, and that means space battles. Come up with at least one starfighter/vehicle battle/chase. Don’t whine. It’s part of what makes Star Wars Star Wars.
Let’s do some brainstorming.
I’m thinking of old time circus trains, like the one from the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. How about a chase on top of a circus transport convoy as the circus vehicles move through a planet’s atmosphere? Various beasts reach through the bars (the hull slides away so the crowds can get a peak at the beasts and consequentially want to attend the show) to snag the characters running on the roof.
I’m thinking of a clown car, a tiny automobile which impossibly spews out a hundred clowns. We could play on that concept by having the PCs think they’re about to fight a single small circus starship… but a hundred tiny ships impossibly pop out of the circus vehicle. Oops.
Can these set pieces be used in any era? Yes. Do I have any idea how these encounters fit the story? I don’t even know what story I’m telling yet!
By taking canon and altering a single element and creating a what-if hypothetical situation, you can analyze the effect of the variable on the era. Then, take this unique idea to your friends and run it by them. From their reaction, develop the angle you’re going to take. Finally, create a multitude of set pieces that can be used to craft the adventure.
Some people love the concept of an Alternate Universe, especially GM Chris from the Order 66 Podcast at He wondered what would happen if Anakin Skywalker let Mace Windu slay Palpatine in the middle of Episode 3. According to Chris’s logic, the war quickly ends. Anakin grows resentful of the Jedi, especially Mace’s decision to exact justice without an arrest. Anakin resigns from the Jedi Order and raises Luke and Leia with Padme on Naboo. He becomes increasingly bitter, bad-mouths the Jedi and insists he train the children himself. Padme secretly takes the kids to the Jedi Temple, where they are accepted. Anakin blows a gasket and leaves Padme. He dies as a lonely bitter moisture farmer on Tattooine. Padme passes away soon after. Having lost his parents, Master Luke Skywalker seems to have slain a Jedi librarian, stolen a Sith holocron and vanished. When he shows up in the Outer Rim on a random security recording ten years later, the PCs are called in by Jedi Master Leia Skywalker to find her brother. Because there is a chance Luke has gone Sith, everything needs to be kept hush-hush, so the Senate doesn’t flip its lid.
Wow. What a cool story, and it all unravels from altering the single variable of Anakin allowing Mace to execute Palpatine.
Like many folks, I wish the prequels had been better. My ultimate prequel dream without altering too much of the story would involve Padme turning out to be Darth Sidious’s Sith Master. Palpatine and Padme both manipulate Anakin (what better position to be in to manipulate someone than to marry him), but Palpatine ultimately sets up Anakin to slay Padme.
Other GMs cling to canon and refuse to put the heroes in a situation where they could alter the course of accepted events. These GMs usually refuse to allow the heroes to rub elbows with legendary characters. Heaven forbid they somehow manage to kill Boba Fett. Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi wouldn’t be able to happen as written without the Fett!
I believe that by deciding to enter the Star Wars universe with your own stories and your friends’ unique characters, you have already made the decision to create a ripple in the water. You are contributing to the officially recognized, fan-made expanded universe. This is nothing to fear. This is what we always wanted… to be a part of the Star Wars universe. Why would we want to play a Star Wars rpg if we couldn’t make a difference in the fate of the Galaxy? Dream big. Don’t be afraid to mess with canon. Some of the most exciting ideas come from poking at a variable and studying the ripple effect.
The purpose of this experiment is to create a gripping take on the Star Wars stories and to give your friends’ PCs the chance to do great deeds and make a difference in the fate of the Galaxy…
Call it what you want. It sounds like an alternate universe to me.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I dig the alternate universe approach, the possibility that time splits off into a million new splinters every second with every decision you make-- the Paul Atreides problem, to be heretical and introduce a non-SW note into this discussion. But take the example given of GM Chris-- it doesn't necessarily go the way he plans it, after Windu is allowed to kill Palpatine. That is only one scenario, one splintered timeline.
    Perhaps what happens is, Padme is upset by the "unjust" action, and turns away from the Jedi order. Meanwhile, Anakin slowly realizes he has lost a mentor in Palpatine. He is mesmerised by the horror of that truth, and doesn't know where to go with it-- until Count Dooku makes a false move of reconciliation towards him and the Jedi, while quietly making his bid for power over the followers of the Sith, now that the Big Sith has been conveniently removed... just think of the repercussions! Anakin gets primed to be Dooku's protege, a disenchanted Padme takes her talented newborns out and away from Jedi influnce, where their natural talents may or may not develop wildly...
    It could be crazy fun.