Friday, October 22, 2010

Star Wars Film School

A couple years out of college I made the reckless albeit inspired decision to make a feature film. This didn’t come from nowhere. I’d sort of made my own little films since childhood. Then, throughout my college career I gradually swayed from broadcast journalism to the starving artist world of indie filmmaking.
In studying screenwriting, I learned a very important lesson, one that I apply to designing Star Wars adventures: Show it. Don’t tell it.
I am a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which makes fun of some of the worst movies ever made. What unites an overwhelming majority of the highlighted films is that the characters in these films stand around theorizing in endless dialogue. These scenes can easily put you to sleep. What those movies should do is show dramatic scenes of the heroes discovering clues through active investigation.
Here’s an example. Roll that clip:
“I think the monster is radioactive, Sergeant,” the scientist ponders while sipping a gin and tonic, a cigar smoldering between his fingertips.
“Why do you say that, Doctor?” the Sarge asks.
The scene goes on like this for about a week.
The movie would be much more interesting if the Sarge and Doctor catch a glimpse of the monster as they were driving back to the lab. They leap from their jeep, cute spunky reporter in tow. Shots are fired. A wild chase ensues. They reach a farmyard. The cute reporter is grabbed by the monster. The Sarge picks up an axe and chops off the monster’s arm. The beast drops the reporter and escapes into the foggy night. The men bring the unconscious reporter to the lab (they never take victims straight to the hospital in these movies). The reporter’s skin is all disgusting and reminiscent of custard. She becomes violently ill. The Doctor realizes she has radiation poisoning… a type he doesn’t know how to cure. He’ll need to capture the monster and learn how to help the plucky custard-skinned reporter before the radiation sickness kills her.
Now, let’s adapt this example to a SAGA game.
The PCs sit in a room and talk about the monster rumored to be terrorizing the village. The scientist rolls Knowledge: Life Sciences and gets a 25. The GM tells the player, “You think the creature is radioactive.”
End scene.
Roll the clip for the cooler version:
The PCs are riding on speeder bikes near the village. They see the monster in the shadows and engage in a high speed chase through the forest. The spectacularly fast creature seems to fly through the trees. The PCs barely keep up as they dodge the trees. The forest gives way to a clearing and they reach an agri-processing plant, where giant droid harvesters deposit food on a conveyor belt, that takes the goods through a high-powered washing spray, through a forest of droid arms that separate the good parts from the bad with claws and blades. Finally, the vegetables are flash-frozen and crammed into a transport.
The monster leaps down and grabs the cute reporter, who is the sister of one PC and the love interest of the other. After suffering enough damage, the monster releases the now unconscious reporter and flees. The 21B droid in the med center informs the PCs the reporter is suffering from an unknown form of radiation poisoning and it doesn’t know how to treat her. The PCs will have to capture the monster and study it so they can find a cure.
Don’t let crucial information be learned by a simple knowledge check. There should be a battle and chase for every important plot point gained.
Also, the stakes need to be raised as the plot advances. In my example, the sister/love interest’s life is dependent on the PCs capturing the monster. The plot is now personal.
The beauty of a campaign is you have time to examine the PCs’ back stories and weaknesses. As a GM, it is your job to find out what buttons can be pressed to make the PCs squirm. What are their passions? What are their attachments (ask Anakin how that can be used to motivate a PC)? Then, work it into the storyline. Is it more effective to have a cool NPC gunslinger confront the PCs or to have a cool gunslinger NPC who is the brother of a PC, who betrayed the heroes, imprisoned the PC’s love interest and is now trying to gun them down and collect the bounty?
It was a great scene in ESB when Luke confronted Vader on Cloud City, but the scene would not be as well remembered if GM George hadn’t decided Vader was Luke’s father.
Make it personal. Make the PCs work for the details. Then, you’ll have a blockbuster campaign, not b-movie schlock.

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