Rise of Skywalker

So, I went to see Rise of Skywalker. And usually after a new Star Wars movie drops there are a small legion of thinkpieces about the ideas contained in the movie. I keep a list of interesting items about Star Wars, and even after a sub-par Star Wars movie you can find someone with some interesting commentary on the film. I’ve had unkind things to say about the prequel movies (and in particular what a shitshow Attack of the Clones is, from start to finish) but you can still find good articles discussing the pacing of Anakin’s descent to evil or the bioethics of the Clone Wars.

There’s been none of this for Rise of Skywalker. And this is because the movie is an incoherent mess. While watching it I spent the first third of the movie thinking, “Slow down!” There’s so many plot points presented and they move from action sequence to action sequence so quickly that there’s no space to take it all in. It’s like they sat down to have a skull session about plot points and when they were done J.J. Abrams said, “Yep. All of it!” And so the movie is overstuffed with plot points, many of which don’t connect to each other. But even though there’s so much going on there is no overarching theme to the story. The characters are so busy running from place-to-place that there’s no chance to stop and reflect on where the story is taking us.

Critically, this is where the movie comes apart. It can revisit the beats from Return of the Jedi, which it does, but it can’t find the emotional notes that story did because Abrams has no sense of the theme that he’s working to.*
Say what you will about the prequel trilogy, but Lucas had a single, coherent vision for the movies: Palpatine leads the galaxy to war so that he can crush the Old Republic under his boot heel and along the way he seduces Anakin to the Dark Side. (I continue to maintain that the prequel trilogy would have worked better as a long-running prestige TV series along the lines of Breaking Bad, but that’s a discussion for another time.) While Attack of the Clones has a meandering plot, bad acting, bad directing, and some absolutely cringe-inducing dialog, it does connect the narrative arc of the trilogy together. (And that’s the first time I’ve had something positive to say about Attack of the Clones!)

This failure has to be laid at the feet of Lucasfilm executives. Most especially Kathleen Kennedy. It is instructive to contrast the coherent narrative failures of the sequel trilogy with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Kevin Feige has a particular, hands-on approach to guiding continuity. The MCU is stitched together so it all makes sense, in a way that the Star Wars sequel trilogy does not. At the very least, major plot points like, “Rey is a Palpatine,” must be communicated between the creative teams on the two movies.

I liked The Force Awakens. Yes, it was a rehash of A New Hope, but it had some clever lines and a couple of interesting new additions: Kylo Ren was a terrific villain in that movie, with the potential to grow into more. Finn, the stormtrooper defector, adds an interesting perspective to the heroes. And the desperate assault on Starkiller Base works in some ways that are very different from Luke’s success at the original Death Star. Plus, the movie sets up the Star Wars universe to grow in different ways.

The Last Jedi pays off many of those choices and takes some interesting new risks. The movie is, in many ways, a meditation on failure. And that’s good! Different! It’s an interesting thematic choice and it allows the characters to learn and grow (if at horrific cost).

Episode IX throws all of that away because it can’t find a thematic thread. If it wants to make the movie about Palpatine’s return then it needs to lean into that. (And if they wanted to do that, they needed to seed a few hints in the earlier movies.) If it wants to be about the relationship between Kylo and Rey (also an interesting idea!) it needs to focus on that point. The most interesting choice of all might have been for Rey to puzzle out how Force users should be ordered in the absence of a Jedi-Sith conflict, a point that the movie hints at but can’t commit to. I can’t commit to any of this because the movie has no idea what it’s about. J.J. Abrams has no idea what the movie is about. And so it’s empty.

Really, Lucasfilm would have been better off either leaving the entire sequel trilogy in the hands of J.J. Abrams so that they have a continual narrative thread. Alternatively, they could have gone and found someone new to take the opportunities that Rian Johnson afforded them in the wake of The Last Jedi and create a different Episode IX around them.

But they didn’t. And because they didn’t we’re never going to see interesting thinkpieces on “Where the Jedi go from here,” or, “What Rey’s new Force academy looks like,” or “How does the galaxy recover from this?” Because those questions aren’t interesting in the face of a movie that is thematically bankrupt.

My kids haven’t seen Rise yet and I don’t know what we’re going to talk about when they do. Every previous entry in the Star Wars universe has offered me an opportunity to have a deeper discussion about something important. This entry has no such opportunity.

*Other than, “I didn’t like what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi.” I don’t think this is some conspiracy by J.J. Abrams to cater to vocal fans who didn’t like Episode VIII. I just think that Abrams didn’t like where that movie went and wanted to finish the trilogy on the path he established in The Force Awakens.

Sidekick Quests Kickstarter

My friend James Stowe writes the delightful Sidekick Quests webcomic. He's also turning SKQ into a roleplaying game for kids in the 8-13 age bracket. My eldest son got to play SKQ the weekend before last and had a screaming good time. The game is well set-up for kids that are developing their RPG muscles.

James is putting out a print collection of the first storyline of Sidekick Quests comics, plus the rules for the SKQ RPG and an adventure based on that first storyline, The Secret of the Sewer Wizard. You can find the Kickstarter here if you're interested. I've already bought in, and I encourage anyone with kids to do the same.

Alex and Uncle Alex

My friend James is a comic author. He writes the delightful Sidekick Quests (which you really ought to add to your reading list.) As part of his comic promotion, he does "Retweet Rewards" where he does a custom drawing for one random retweeter a week. A couple weeks ago I won. I got this drawing as a result:

That's my brother and my son in their Scout uniforms. It's the only picture I have of the two of them together. Thanks, James.

Destiny of a Kingdom, Revisited

Some friends are throwing a gamer retreat in late June, and I've been invited to go along. So I've volunteered to run a LARPish-style national security game based on current events. So it's plenty of research on NATO and Eastern European politics for me for two months, plus a hefty dose of writing!

To support this effort I pulled out an old binder from the dim mists of time. Yes, it's the IL game I ran in college: Destiny of a Kingdom. I skimmed bits of it last night looking for ideas.

The first thing that hit me: Holy smokes, I wrote 200 pages of stuff for a game! (I think so. I haven't counted.)

The second thing that hit me: Parts of this were laughably bad, weren't they? Looking back with twenty years of experience does give some perspective, doesn't it. Some of the plot lines were transparent. Some of the writing was bad. And the mechanics were a mess; I over-drove the game mechanics in the system. Live and learn.

The third thing that hit me were some memories of events during that game. There was a lot of fun stuff there. We did some cool stuff, and a lot of people had a lot of fun. I also remember late nights in my dorm room hacking over a lot of stuff and getting feedback from glaciation and isildur. Really big fun requires a lot of work. Satisfying, fun work, but it's still work.

So I'm back at it again. I've got nine players for a game in June, which is a lot less overhead. And I know more now. But it's still going to be lots of work to get done, and I'd better crack the whip.

Oh, it's only been a year

Okay, more like eleven months since I last posted. So I suppose maybe an update is in order. Or something.

Things are great! Erica's expecting our fourth child in May. The kids are getting bigger and smarter all the time. My job is wonderful. Things are really darned good.

Alex is reading like a champ. This makes it so that I can expand his game-playing world a little. Or a lot. He got a copy of the X-Wing Miniatures Game for Christmas, and he loves it. For his birthday, we added on a Y-Wing and a TIE/Advanced. He consistently beats the crap out of me with that Y-Wing and an ion cannon. I have yet to figure out a counter. We've also tried a great variety of other stuff, including Galaxy Trucker, Battlelore, and a few others.

Chris is reading, too. He's in the "building vocabulary" phase. But that means we're able to branch out some on games for him, too. He loves (loves loves loves) Robot Turtles (by Mudd alum Dan Shapiro), and I got him into a Battlelore game with Alex this last weekend, which went well. They can play together! Oh, and he's a shark at Settlers of Catan.

Annemarie is growing fast, and is building verbal vocabulary. She's affectionate, too. There's nothing better than a kiss on the cheek from your two-year old daughter.

We've all been watching Star Blazers together. Watching old cartoons is a lot better with your young children. I was afraid that Star Blazers would suck going back to it after thirty-five years. But with the kids around, I see it through their eyes. It retains that sense of wonder.

Other than that, things are pretty well normal. It's good here. I like that.

On the Boston Bombing

A good article, the summary of which should make you proud to be an American:

"There was remarkably little panic; instead, a well-organized rescue effort... But the prompt and effective reaction by so many, amateurs as well as trained professionals, undoubtedly prevented the death toll from being much worse. We should be proud of our fellow citizens."

More Fun Kickstarter Madness

Dwarven Forge makes very cool game stuff. It's dungeon terrain for playing games with. I have several sets, and I enjoy the heck out of it.

They've just put out a Kickstarter for their new game tiles. I'm tempted to buy a couple sets to (relatively) inexpensively grow my collection. And as the Kickstarter grows they're adding free stuff on, so the deal gets better and better.

I still have a month or so to decide, but I get the feeling this one's going to blow up like the Reaper Miniatures Kickstarter did. And it'd be fun to sit back and watch it grow.

It's Been a Year

Arclin laid me off a year ago today.

There have been a lot of ups and downs, but things have worked out really well. I'm in a better job now, doing more interesting work. I'm being challenged and learning a ton of new stuff instead of being an expert on something I already understand very well. It's going to be a while until I get up to speed around here but I'm already useful and I'm sucking up a lot of good experience.

I like my new coworkers and I seem to fit in around here pretty well. And I have a better manager than I used to.

Financially, we have more money in the bank, fewer debts, a better debt structure (we just refinanced the house at 3.5% on a 20 year fixed), and I have a higher salary and better benefits.

In fact, the only thing that sucks now is the commute. I'm spending an extra hour a day in the car. That hurts, but it's not the end of the world.

A little patience and a little faith and everything's come up roses. I suppose I needed a shock to get out of the rut I'd worked myself into. But it's all worked out for the best.

Now I need to get back to my cool new job.

RPG Talk

My Sunday night RPG group has one more session of the campaign that's occupied our attention for three years, now. Our 4e PCs have gone from level 1 to 21, and the story's just about over. We won, and our characters are looking toward retirement. Sunday is the last huzzah.

We're looking for the next big story that's going to occupy us for a while. I'm planning to run a short (~3 session) game set in Bujold's Vorkosigan universe, using the GURPS ruleset. After that, we're going to run a few one-shots until we can get our idea refined for the Next Big Game.

We're going to try and do a collaborative GM kind of game. The setting will all be the same (we think a city somewhere), and each GM will have a different set of PCs to work with. That would allow us to run some different styles of games while still doing some good, collaborative world-building. One of the guys wants to run an investigative/Sherlock Holmes kind of game. Another wants to do political intrigue. My best skill is an ability to run a good combat round: Action comedy is my schtick.

A city is the ideal sort of thing for this setup: there's a lot of room for adventures without the GMs treading on each others' toes, but you can still reference events that take place in other parts of the setting, and do some shared world-building. So we're trotting out some different ideas for settings:

Sigil, in the Planescape setting, is an interesting place. I'm not so sure we'd keep the AD&D 2e engine (or any other D&D engine, for that matter.) We're thinking more low-magic and scary, evil wizards.

There are a number of cities in the Warhammer setting that work very well, and the WFRP 2e rules are pretty good, and support a number of subgenres.

The Iron Kingdoms (Warmachine/Hordes setting) also has some interesting bits, and they have their own bespoke RPG engine that I'm going to take a look at, and which might be full of good ideas.

I've floated the idea of "Musketeers with Monsters", which would mean a lot more world-building. But that could be a fun setting, and isn't traditional fantasy.

And one of the other guys in the group wrote the Midnight campaign setting. His general idea started with, "So, what would the world be like if Sauron won?" And his ideas flowed from there. It's a very dark, dismal campaign setting, quite unlike most anything else I've seen.