The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.


(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.

Eberron: Random Tables for Shargon’s Teeth

I’m currently running a 5th Edition game in Eberron. The PCs are sailing across the Thunder Sea, past Shargon’s Teeth, to Stormreach and Xen’Drik. Of course, bad things are happening, and it looks like they’ll end up stranded on one of the islands of Shargon’s Teeth, possibly island-hopping their way to Stormreach.

Or they’re going to defeat a Marid as a 4th level group – 5th Ed is crazy.

I like having random tables – they actually help me with creativity when I need to do something like come up with a bunch of interesting but variable islands. If all of the options on the tables are interesting to me, then what becomes interesting are the surprise interactions. I didn’t always like them, but I’ve changed in the last few years.

I’ve come up with some random tables  to use in creating islands in Shargon’s Teeth. Part of my thinking here is to treat Shargon’s Teeth kind of like different versions of Galapagos islands. At least, I’m using the Galapagos as inspiration for the Teeth (as I’m using Madagascar and New Guinea as inspiration for Xen’Drik).

First is a random table of unique elements for each island. These are the first thing you’d notice about the island, and form the core of how I describe it:

Random Island Features: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Easily accessible fresh water
  2. Barren and dry; water from fruit and coconuts and rain
  3. Plenty of coastal food, shellfish, shoals
  4. Brutal sharp coral surrounding the island
  5. A high peak at the center for long visibility (if climbed)
  6. Crumbling ruins of a lost civilization
  7. Island formed around the ruins of a massive, ancient ship
  8. Coral atoll surrounding a deep blue hole
  9. Groves of dragonsblood trees (Socotra Island)
  10. Sharp, steaming volcanic activity (steam and magma mephits)

Next, I have a random table for the dominant living thing on a given island. I’m thinking of the islands having some basic island plants and animals, but there’s one dominant living thing, taken from this list:

Random Island Megafauna (and Megaflora): Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Giant marine iguanas
  2. Giant tortoises
  3. Carnivorous pisonia trees
  4. Giant racer snakes
  5. Giant ironweb spiders
  6. Basilisks
  7. A water weird
  8. Swarms of stirges
  9. Giant crabs
  10. A Pseudodragon

Last, I have whether there are intelligent inhabitants on the island. There’s a one third chance of each island being uninhabited by any intelligent creature, and then some interesting options:

Random Island Inhabitants: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d12

  1. No one
  2. No one
  3. No one
  4. No one
  5. Sahuagin outpost
  6. Sahuagin outpost
  7. Locathah living in a blue hole, self-sustaining and hidden
  8. A subterranean, underwater cult of kuo-toa
  9. Feral victims of a previous shipwreck
  10. Escaped sea spawn
  11. Lizardfolk
  12. Sea hag

Obviously, these are specific to Shargon’s Teeth, and may not translate to any other particular setting. But I really like these as a starting-point for these particular islands, and I hope the PCs end up island-hopping for a while.

I also created a big random event and encounter table to keep the journey interesting. The results weren’t quite what I’d hoped, but I think I tried to cram too much into the voyage, including testing out Xanathar’s Guide’s downtime rules during the voyage and having some intrigue as well.

As often as you’d like, have a player roll a d100 and consult this table. Not all of these are supposed to be combat encounters – none of them were for our game. Rather, they were glimpses of a larger and sometimes scarier world:


1-4 Huge marine iguanas

5-6 Water elemental

7-8 Air elemental

9-10 Kraken

11-20 Sahuagin patrol

21-22 Dragon eel

23-24 Dragon turtle

25-26 Giant octopus

27-30 School of giant squid

31-35 Soarwood ship

36-46 Ship – roll to determine if it is a pirate

47-48 Wind galleon

49-50 Lyrandar airship

51-55 Pod of whales

56-60 Dolphins at the prow

61-64 Merfolk at the prow

65-67 Dragon (black, green, bronze or gold)

68-69 Stirges

70-80 Becalmed

81-91 Thunderstorm

92-93 Roc

94-95 Steam or ice mephits

96-97 Plesiosaurus

98-99 Coelacanth or other huge archaic fish

100 Roll twice

“Cursed” Items in D&D

Image result for cursed items d&d

This post arose from a conversation on social media a few weeks ago on the topic of cursed items in D&D. I don’t think I’ve used a cursed item in any of my games for 20 years or more, not since I first started playing AD&D in ancient times. The reason is that I just don’t like how cursed items work in D&D – they’re merely a “gotcha.” They’re a way to ensure that players never experiment with mysterious objects, wondering what they do – they quarantine them until someone can find a 100gp pearl and let the Wizard sit down and identify them.

And that simply isn’t fun, at least not for me.

The cursed items that come to mind for me impose some kind of disadvantage or unwanted change on a character, and are of course always difficult to remove, requiring a remove curse spell or something equivalent. There’s just nothing interesting about that, in the game or in the story. As DM, I have innumerable ways to challenge or inconvenience the PCs without having to resort to a Girdle of Gender Change or a helmet you can’t take off.

So it got me thinking, and talking, and I came up with two categories of cursed items that are interesting: cursed items that tempt, and cursed items for evil characters.

Tempting Cursed Items

Why would an item have a curse on it? Presumably because a powerful evil spellcaster put the curse on it, or because the item was used to do something heinous and this event left a stain of some sort on it. Here I’m thinking of dragon-gold in Middle-Earth causing dragon-sickness, or the Spear of Longinus. In either case, the curse has a purpose aside from inconveniencing and frustrating the person who finds the item.

My favorite example of an item that is cursed in an interesting way is also a trope – the sword that cannot be sheathed until it draws blood. This is a good cursed item because it encourages a certain kind of behavior. You could easily imagine a sword used to betray a brother, for example, that now thirsts for blood. This is interesting to me because it provides a mechanical bonus – it is still a magical sword, and maybe even deals bonus damage – but it also tempts the character to behave in morally questionable ways. Maybe she draws the sword to threaten someone during a tense scene, and then realizes that she now has to wound someone before she can sheathe it.

“Cursed” Items for Evil Characters

This kind of cursed item simply comes from a reversal of assumptions, using the same principle above. An evil blackguard finds a healing potion that refills itself, but only when he makes a donation and receives a blessing at a shrine of the God of Healing. Or maybe he finds a shield that makes him impervious to arrows, but only if he has no weapon in his hand and deals no damage.

In this case, the magic item is still useful, which is key, but the ‘cost’ of using it is engaging in benevolent, or at least restrained, behavior. These could even be holy artifacts never meant to be carried by the evil folks who now have them, and so the beneficial effects built into the items are glitches for their new owner. From the examples above, the shield could have originally been the Shield of Reconciliation, created to enable diplomats and negotiators to safely cross a battlefield without being shot so that they could try to end the battle with diplomacy.

At Cross Purposes

As a thought experiment to get you mind running, imagine holy artifacts and benevolent magic items that would cause problems when used by evil characters. Perhaps the item only grants a benefit when defending someone else, or it has to be recharged by some benevolent action. Think of something that would be useful for a good person, but limit an evil person’s choices.

From the other side, imagine evil artifacts that would cause moral quandaries for a wielder who is neutral or good. Perhaps a weapon that always deals bonus poison damage, but therefore cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage, or a bow that always seeks out a target’s vitals, meaning if the archer critically fails, she’s likely to shoot an ally in the heart.

Feel free to comment with your ideas for “cursed” items in D&D. 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #5: All D&D

Dungeons and Dragons – C’era una volta.. Il Bardo, il ...

This post will include some repeats from the previous RPG Mechanic Round-Ups, but then again, very few people read those, so I imagine it’ll all be like new! Anyway, these are all of the little notes for house rules and hacks that I have for D&D:

Simplified Hirelings

Instead of having hirelings that the PCs then try to manipulate into walking ahead to set off traps or walk into ambushes, PCs simply hire them to eliminate a single kind of challenge. For example, PCs could hire a locksmith to bypass all locks during their adventure, or a guide to ensure that they find good camp sites each night, or are able to forage food as they travel. They could even hire a trap-springer to walk into traps for them if that’s what they want. In exchange for this help from the hireling, the PCs take a percentage reduction from their XP for that adventure, or maybe just miss out on the XP they would get from disarming those traps themselves.

Druid Circle of Rust

New D&D Druid circle: Circle of Rust. Rusting grasp, shatter, etc. Focused on conquering technology and civilization. (This is something I want to put the work into later)

Mystery Monsters

When you first encounter a monster in combat, especially in an ambush, you only get two or three descriptors for the monster. Then each round, you get one more descriptor, unless you take a moment to stand back and assess the situation. Otherwise, it’s a whirl of claws and teeth and blood and panic, and you’re just not seeing details. This is only for new monsters – monsters you’ve already encountered you’ll recognize.

Get Saved

I had the idea to add save points to D&D. I’m not sure if anyone would even want this. But have the PCs go to a temple and have a priest “save” them – for a large donation of course! Then if they die, they can come back to live at the temple with maybe a little loss of the XP you earned – 10% or so.

Bleeding Wounds

When a creature takes piercing or slashing damage, they begin to bleed 1 hit point each round on their turn. This is halted if they receive any magical healing, or after combat with a DC 10 Medicine check. This rule would also lead to cool scenes like tracking your opponent overland after they flee battle and try to regroup, following the dollops of monster blood on the ground. (Or monsters doing the same to chase the PCs down) Of course, this rule will make low-level adventuring even more brutal, but that’s the point.

Effects by Damage Type

I like adding special effects for the three types of physical damage. With a called shot made at disadvantage, a bludgeoning attack can deal damage and destroy one piece of armor; a piercing attack can deal double damage; and a slashing attack can deal normal damage and sever a limb.

Damage Bonus for Melee and Missile

Sometimes higher-level combats take too long, as the characters whittle down a monster’s hit points, and sometimes a higher-level character isn’t as dangerous as they should be, apart from having more hit points. A solution I’ve always had for this problem is to simply let all characters add their level to the damage they deal with melee or missile attacks.

Level Up Your Community

This idea has come up in a few tweets and posts lately, and I was also reminded of it playing through the Thieve’s Guild storyline in Skyrim. The idea is that as the character’s level, their community also levels. This can happen automatically, as their fame spreads, or can be something they pay into with all of that spare gold they accumulate. This system could also help tie them more deeply to a community – rather than leave for a larger city that has a better magic item store, through their heroics they build up their little village until it has a great magic item store of its own.

Simplified: Hit Dice Power Everything

When you have a special ability that is only available in a particular situation, like sneak attack perhaps, or with any limited special ability, make it so that the ability is powered by hit dice instead. The player describes how the conditions are met, spends the hit die, and the ability can be used. So, for example, the player playing the rogue says how her character feints to throw the monster off-balance for a moment, spends a hit die, and rolls the extra damage dice. I haven’t worked it out yet, but I think this can be adapted for most limited-use or situational-use PC abilities.


Hit-Point Hack

Low-level D&D can be grueling in a way that isn’t fun, especially in later versions of the game that are less meant to be meat-grinders. At the same time, when high-level characters have loads of hit points, it can be more difficult to challenge them without just arbitrarily increasing monster damage. My solution for this is for characters to begin with three hit dice instead of one hit die, and for their first hit die to continue to give maximum hit points. So a 1st level fighter, for example, would have 10 hit points, plus 2d10 hit points, plus 3 times her Constitution modifier.

At the upper end, I like the idea of lower hit points at higher levels, so I would say that a character stops gaining new hit dice with level 10. At 11th level and onward, she still gets any special abilities or spells as normal, but no new hit points. Technically, with the low-level hit point hack above, she would have the same hit points at level 10 that she would normally have at level 12, so I think it balances out well.

Buy Used

Settings like Forgotten Realms and Eberron are teeming with adventuring parties, and this would have to mean that there is a hot market for used adventuring gear. This used gear has a starting price that is equal to one half what the PHB or other sourcebook lists, with the caveat that when the player-character rolls a 1 using the equipment, or a monster rolls a critical hit (if it is armor) then it is damaged and useless until the character pays to have it repaired. Used weapons break on a 1, used armor breaks on a monster’s 20, and used equipment of any other kind also breaks on a 1.

No Overnight Healing

Healing is just rolling your remaining hit dice, rather than recovering all hit points.On the one hand, this will somewhat punish characters that had to use their hit dice to heal during short rests. On the other hand, it softens the “video game” effect of healing completely overnight.

Bullseye (Random Scatter)

Roll a d8 for random directional scatter, and then another die for distance from the intended target in concentric circles like a bullseye. On the d8, 1 is north, above, or away from the DM, and 5 is south, below, or toward the DM. The second die could be feet, or squares, or even inches in the given direction.

So, for example, a mirror golem deflects a lightning bolt in a random direction. You roll a 5 on the d8, so it is deflected toward the DM on the battle mat, and you roll a 4 on a d6, meaning it extends for 4 squares in that direction, electrocuting everyone along that line.

Disarm Feat

Grappling is famously bad in RPGs. I’m not sure how many players take the Grappler feat in D&D 5E, but I’m assuming that few do. In real-world martial arts, you often have to make someone miss in order to disarm them, and I thought it would be interesting to add an effect like that to the Grappler feat. Once per round, when an opponent misses an attack against you, you can use your reaction to try to disarm them with an opposed Strength roll. If you beat your opponent by 10 or more, you can grab their weapon for yourself.

Simplified Paralysis Effects

Paralysis effects are not fun. Really, any effect where you just lose your turn is not fun, in any game. A way to fix paralysis effects like hold person is for them to simply allow a single critical hit. Basically, they hold you paralyzed until you’re shocked back into action by a damaging strike. I think that this would provide enough bang for the proverbial buck.

XP for Conditions and Disadvantages

Another way to handle conditions and disadvantages, stolen from Chronicles of Darkness. You get XP when a condition affects you adversely, and it is up to the player to choose when these conditions will come up. This means that they don’t miss the character-defining d20 roll because they’re poisoned, but at the same time are rewarded for causing their characters trouble. This idea can be expanded to disadvantages as well. It would be up to the DM how much XP to award, and also what counts as enough of a problem caused to warrant it.

Simplified Conditions

Another way to handle conditions is to have each of them impose disadvantage once and then be cleared. This is much simpler and less punitive than the RAW, but some groups would prefer that. Another possibility is for some conditions to impose disadvantage more than once if they are more severe.

Equipment and Encumbrance by Kit

I have not enjoyed, or even been very interested in, tracking encumbrance for many years now. The system I use with another game I’ve designed is to have a character simply choose a “kit” that represents their equipment. (This also represents the idea that even adventurers aren’t always in full armor lugging their worldly possessions around with them)

Some examples could be war kit, travel kit, hunting kit, town/city kit, etc. It could also be simplified to light, medium and heavy. These kits could work as ‘presets’ for equipment, as exist in a lot of video games, and could also be a way to abstract out what exactly a character is carrying. For example, hunting kit would assume the character isn’t wearing armor, since they would be focusing on stealth and mobility, whereas war kit would include all of their combat gear but none of their other gear, since no one wants to fight with a huge pack on their back.

Historical Bows

This is just a historical tweak for bow terminology in D&D beyond short versus long. A hunting bow would be smaller and more maneuverable, and would deal d6 damage (around 40-50 pounds draw). a horse bow would be heavier than a hunting bow, meant to go through armor and shoot at long range in combat, but still small enough to use from horseback, dealing d8 damage (60-100 pounds draw). A war bow would be huge and heavy, requiring years of training to learn how to draw fully, but would deal perhaps d10 damage (100+ pounds draw).

Critical Options

I like the Paizo Critial Deck(s) and having other options for critical hits. I even kind of liked the Rolemaster/MERP critical hit tables. I like having options for critical hits beyond double damage, and here are some that I like to use I my games:

  1. Automatically deal max damage (similar to double damage rolled, but more predictable)
  2. Deal normal damage and knock your opponent prone
  3. Deal normal damage and blind your opponent until your next turn
  4. Deal normal damage and disarm your opponent (weapon falls at their feet)
  5. Deal normal damage and destroy your opponent’s shield
  6. Deal normal damage and stagger your opponent, cutting their movement in half until your next turn

Automatic Downtime

I need to revisit this idea in light of Xanathar’s Guid eto Everything and how it expands downtime rules, but the idea here is for things to happen over downtime automatically, based on a character’s class and possibly background. A guild artisan slowly rises up in their guild hierarchy; a fighter builds a reputation that draws other warriors to her banner; a cleric receives donations and tithes and puts them toward building a shrine or temple in the area; and so on. Wizards slowly create scrolls; warlocks are shown occult secrets in dreams. This is to replace more complex systems that require rolling and saving up gold pieces, but on the other hand keeps the development of the characters and the world around them front and center during downtime.

Bards Rock

In D&D, there is absolutely no reason for a bard to ever play a musical instrument unless they are out of combat, or they are using some kind of artifact item. I’ve always thought that bards should get a bonus of some kind for only using an instrument and their music in combat.

I have a few ideas for this one, none of which I’ve tried in 5E, for when a bard uses a musical instrument in combat:

  1. The bard counts as two levels higher than normal, and has access to more powerful spells
  2. The bard’s spells are power potent, adding 1 or 2 to their spell attack bonus and to the DC for saves against their magic
  3. They don’t lose spell slots – they can keep casting indefinitely, or maybe they have one extra spell slot per level that can only be used when they are using their instrument in combat (since indefinite spells is pretty powerful)
  4. There is an ongoing bonus effect – an aura of courage like a paladin has, or an aura of bonus hit points for her comrades, or something similar
  5. Her other bardic inspiration dice go up one die type, so from d6 to d8 and so on


Some of these will be full posts when I have time to flesh them out and add details, but ideas are cheap. Steal and enjoy!

The Last Jedi: Themes Critique

***Yar! Here Be Spoilers!***



It’s too bad that JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson got into an argument about what Star Wars is about, because it makes for a somewhat jarring viewing experience. At least, it did for me, and I get the impression it did for a significant number of other fans as well. JJ did his stupid “mystery box” thing, and then Rian Johnson came and said “Fuck you and your mystery boxes,” basically. There are at least a half dozen huge questions that The Force Awakens asks, some explicitly but all quite clearly, which Rian Johnson just has no interest in answering. He had another agenda entirely, which was fine, but I wish they had worked more closely with one another.

The Last Jedi was in many ways a repudiation of what came before it: Episode 8 versus Episodes 1-7. It is an iconoclastic film in the Star Wars legendarium, and it only had two and a half hours during which to smash expectations and tropes. As a result, I think there were a number of themes touched upon that I would have liked to have seen explored more fully.


Early in the film, we have Kylo smashing his faux-Vader mask in another fit of rage. We get to see a bit of Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the smashed chrome helmet at the end of her fight with Fin. We have a bit of unmasking on Casino Planet (Canto Bight), when Fin realizes the ugly nature of the beautiful place he sees. Supreme Leader Snoke himself could have been unmasked. This theme of unmasking could have been explored more deeply, and could have provided a bit of connective thread in a movie that was very busy severing connective threads with not only The Force Awakens but also every previous Star Wars film. If someone sets out to tell a story that defies strongly-established tropes, one also needs to offer something in place of those tropes, like a strong, consistent theme explored from multiple angles.

Hidden Origins

The Force Awakens asked a lot of pretty explicit questions: who were Rey’s parents? What happened between Luke and Ben Solo? Where did those other students of Luke’s go? How did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How is the First Order related to the Empire? How is the Resistance related to the Rebellion? Why did Luke go into hiding?

The Last Jedi clearly did not care about most of these questions. Of course, a few answers are offered. Luke had a moment when he thought he might murder Ben Solo and put an end to the growing influence of darkness in him (which just made no sense, I’m sorry), and subsequently returned to the birthplace of the Jedi to die of old age. Rey’s parents are (allegedly) nobodies who died in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. Those are unsatisfying answers, though at least the answer about Rey’s parentage ties directly into one of the core themes of the film, which we’ll talk about below.

I think this lack of thematic development around hidden origins would have been less of a problem if the directors had worked together more closely, or at least had not been at cross purposes. Those are a lot of huge questions, and only the question of Rey’s parentage is answered in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, there is just a cosmic shrug. Who cares who Snoke was, he’s dead. Who cares where the First Order came from, they’re here and inexplicably threatening, despite being led by a man who throws tantrums and an incompetent Hux. The Resistance is just the Rebellion with a new name for no good reason. Who cares where Luke’s other students are, they’ll show up in a video game or something.

Light and Dark End to become Balance

My impression of the progress of the story isn’t so much that Light and Dark must end, but rather light and dark changing shape somewhat but moving ahead, still in direct opposition. Kylo Ren might want to end the Sith, but he did the archetypal Sith thing, which is to betray and kill his master. He’s Sith through and through, whatever he might say. And Rey similarly does the archetypal Light-side thing, as we’ve seen with Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke, in that she ignores the instruction of her master and goes off half-cocked to save the world.

I was honestly expecting more nuance between Kylo and Rey. I expected Kylo to reveal more layers, and I expected Rey to be more tempted by what she was presented with. I could see Rey, disillusioned entirely by Luke, being more willing to hear a more-reasonable Snoke out. Maybe more actively consider joining Kylo to kill Snoke.

Luke and Rey said a lot of eloquent things about balance, but Kylo and Rey basically lived out the old pattern – a little Return of the Jedi and then a little Empire Strikes Back. But the whole second half of the film would have been even more interesting if Kylo and Rey had been a bit more grey.

Skywalkers with Power become Tyrants

Luke almost deciding to murder the only child of his sister and best friend just makes no damn sense. I’m sorry. No work was put in to explain why that would suddenly be in his character. It was there for the shock, and the iconoclasm, and to add some “See, Kylo has a point” to the story. But the filmmakers didn’t do the work to earn that moment.

They could have, though. What do we know of the Skywalkers? Anakin became the most famous villain in the galaxy. Leia actually seems to remain herself through her story, and would perhaps be the exception that proves the rule. Kylo is a mini-Vader, prone to ultraviolance and temper-tantrums. So what if we presented the theme that, actually, when Skywalkers get power, especially power through the Force, they become tyrants? What if we saw Luke, well-intentioned but without guidance from any other Jedi, slowly become more harsh and unyielding and doctrinaire? What if we saw Kylo eclipse him, winning the students over because he gives into his darker urges more readily than Luke, and this gives him greater power?

Any of these options could have been handled with a five-minute montage, at most. Probably one much shorter. And then when Luke and Kylo come to blows, Kylo wins, thinks he has killed Luke, burns his temple to the ground. Luke, maybe in voiceover, realizes that there is something corrupt about the Skywalker line and its relationship to the Force, and so that’s why he goes into hiding – to quarantine himself. He thinks he might even corrupt Leia, which is why he just ghosts her for years.

That would have been an amazing revelation to put on screen. Yes, this is the story of the Skywalker dynasty, but it is the story of the galaxy defeating the Skywalker dynasty, because they are inclined to become tyrants when they develop Force powers. So now we have the nobodies rising up, with their own power and their own agenda, to bring down the First Order and the Jedi – the last legacy of the Skywalkers themselves.

See? That’s how you earn that moment of shock and revelation.