The Last Jedi: 8 Better Ways to Have Handled Luke and Ben

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

 

 

 

I enjoyed The Last Jedi, but it is still a movie with problems. Some of those problems are minor, in my opinion – just flaws like every movie has. The slowest chase scene in the galaxy; no need for Phasma; that kind of thing. Others are problems that can be explained away: theorycraft around Holdo weaponizing hyperspace, and why that wouldn’t just become what everyone does in every space battle, for example.

One problem, though, is a core problem to the story. It can’t be explained away, I don’t think, and it does far more damage to the story than any good it might do. That problem is the big reveal of what happened between Luke and Ben Solo. It is, in a word, an utter failure. It is a moment that the film did not earn, or even attempt to explain. It comes at what is supposed to be an emotional climax for the film, and falls utterly flat. It violates what we the audience know, or think we know, in a way that isn’t subversive or iconoclastic but rather hand-wavey in the worst way.

I paused during a recent conversation online about this scene, and easily came up with eight ways this could have been handled much better.

  • All of these are about actually earning the moment where Luke makes his biggest mistake and falls from grace. Here are some ways they could have earned that moment, but kept the iconoclasm and subversion they were clearly going for:

Luke doesn’t wield power well, but is corrupted by it.

We all know power corrupts. Luke has at least a couple of decades during which he is a galactic hero, the only living Jedi, and during which there are no Sith anyone knows about. It doesn’t take a genius storyteller to tell the story of a hero falling from grace through hubris.

The galaxy is better off without Skywalkers.

Maybe go harder with this theme of subversion – the Star Wars saga so far has been explicitly about the Skywalker dynasty, but show that their dynasty is fundamentally corrupt. The whole idea of dynasties is corrupt. People demand heroes and Chosen Ones, and it always turns out awful in the end. Make the Skywalkers the emblematic example of this. Luke realizes that there is something wrong with a dynastic family that dominates the galaxy’s destiny for generations, and goes into hiding in order to end it all.

Snoke deceived Luke.

Snoke is there in the background, manipulating things. Maybe something Luke does, or fails to do, opens him up to Snoke’s influence. We already know that one Sith Lord can manipulate an entire Temple full of fully-trained Jedi. Maybe Snoke is ancient and knows Force secrets that Luke has hardly guessed at. Maybe this is how Snoke developed the Force-connection technique that he used on Kylo and Rey. And if Snoke deceived Luke at the height of Luke’s powers, then it’s really true that Luke can’t save the galaxy. Then who can? Oh, right, our new heroes. Rey has her Wonder Woman moment, is like “You can’t save the galaxy, but I can.” Bam. The baton is passed.

Luke buys into his own hype.

He comes to see himself the way the galaxy sees him – the hero and savior. But then Ben Solo demonstrates even greater power, even greater talent with the Force. He starts to sway Luke’s students away from him, and they start calling themselves the Knights of Ren. Luke can’t teach them, can’t compete with Ben. Ultimately, it comes to a head.

Luke is telling the truth, but Rey doesn’t believe him.

She feels she has this deep connection with Kylo, and that she can be the one to redeem him. Hell, it’s what Luke himself did with Vader! But “This won’t turn out the way you think!” She confronts Luke, they have their fight, and she leaves to go rescue Kylo. Later, Kylo reveals that it was actually worse than Luke thought. Luke was leaving things out, but it was to save Rey from the full horror of what happened. And damn, Kylo can play the long game, and isn’t just a tantrum-throwing dweeb. He manipulated Rey to get here right where he needed her for his coup. And Rey has learned that she can make big mistakes too, just like Luke. Character growth.

Any deep misunderstanding between Luke and Ben that isn’t stupid.

Delve more deeply into the lore and philosophy of the Jedi. Luke and Ben have very different experiences, very different takes on it. Ben doesn’t understand the danger of the Dark Side, perhaps, because he grew up in an era of the New Republic. He’s like a Baby Boomer, basically, born to affluence and taking it for granted. Kylo tries to stage a coup against Luke, but is defeated, because Luke is more of a baddass than we’d thought. This would also foreshadow his later coup against Snoke, and echo the tradition of Sith betraying their masters. Luke decides that it is the philosophy itself that is incomplete, or fatally flawed.

Luke is too dogmatic.

Luke tries to rebuild the Jedi temple and religion as it was before Palpatine’s purge. He works from ancient Jedi texts that he barely understands. And remember that Luke himself was barely trained at all. He was basically a very skilled, too-old padawan who had the advantage of being Darth Vader’s son and the galaxy’s literal only hope left. But he wasn’t a master in the way that Obi-Wan was, or Yoda was. He could come to embody everything bad about a college sophomore – overconfident about his shallow understanding. Maybe he realizes, too late, that the Jedi philosophy is fundamentally flawed. The Light gives rise to the Dark (as Snoke intimated in TLJ) inevitably. But his realization comes too late to save poor Ben Solo. Because Luke holds back in their inevitable fight, he ends up buried under rubble and utterly dejected. And that explains why he decides to go to the first Jedi temple to ensure that no one makes his mistake ever again.

Han and Leia are not good parents.

This would be more iconoclasm, and was already strongly implied by The Force Awakens. Han is back to scoundrel-ing, and Leia is a Big Damn Leader now, and maybe neither had time for little Ben. They sent him off to study with Uncle Luke when all he wanted was love and attention. Maybe Luke sticks up for Ben’s parents, is offended by Ben’s bitterness, and Ben has his first Force-powered tantrum, burning down the temple. This explains a lot of how Kylo is presented – desperate for Snoke to be the father he never had. Easily manipulated. Unable to control his emotions or deal with frustration and setbacks. And it ends up being precisely what Luke manipulates in their climactic showdown. It explains why Kylo had no idea Luke was an illusion the whole time.

All of these are better than what we got in The Last Jedi, and I’m not even that good of a writer. I think these ideas pull in the core themes of TLJ better, and connects this core moment to other parts of the film. I think when I re-watch, in the back of my mind I’ll just think about these and other alternatives when this scene comes up, and imagine the better moment that could have been.

What are preferable ways to handle this falling out that you’ve come up with?

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: DeRay Mckesson

I think that these profiles have been a little celebrity-heavy lately, and one of my goals is to focus on an attainable idea of positive masculinity. The problem being, of course, that it is hard to find non-celebrities who are people everyone knows about, or who I can describe in a brief blog post if they aren’t widely known.

One person who came to mind is DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who has been on TV a lot but was a community activist first, and only became something of a celebrity because of the political situation in the United States. A community organizer even as a teenager, he ended up being a school administrator, before quitting his job to move to St. Louis. He had been spending all of his free time working with people in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

First, here’s a manly image of Mckesson, one of many times he was arrested in Ferguson (and Baton Rouge, and other places):

Mckesson didn’t start the Black Lives Matter movement (three women were the originators: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi), but he did quit his job to move to the Ferguson area full-time as an activist and leader. He brought to the Ferguson movement a lot of skill with social media and communication, and rose to a position of visibility. He is one of the go-to voices and faces of BLM in the media because of what he has written and what he has risked.

I like what I know of his story, because what he has done is something that anyone could potentially do. Mckesson is not (to my knowledge) a world-class athlete; didn’t come from a prominent, wealthy family; he isn’t a celebrity in some other area who is lending his face and name to BLM. He didn’t strike it rich or have a particular string of luck – I mean, he is partly well-known because of how often he’s been arrested, and that’s not something anyone enjoys. He’s also not some kind of Everyman, but in his passion and commitment I think we can see the best of ourselves.

Black Lives Matter, and I support that movement, because I see it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, which has been ongoing for generations now. DeRay Mckesson’s words and actions also matter, and the relationships he has built matter, and his arrests matter. His struggle matters and his suffering matters, and through him, we are able to get a window into a whole movement. Anyone who gives themselves to a cause can matter in these ways, and one thing he does is show us that. Anyone can fight for what’s right, and one doesn’t have to hurt anyone, or threaten to hurt, or have a lot of political clout.

For showing us what commitment to a nonviolent struggle, and integrity, and eloquence can do, even for those who don’t come into the world with any particular advantage, DeRay Mckesson is our Profile in Positive Masculinity.

5E Eberron Campaign

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I’m currently starting up a 5th Edition Eberron campaign. I have a lot of the books from the original version of Eberron in 3.5, and therefore more fluff than I could ever use, but it will take some adaptation to run this game. Unearthed Arcana has released some updates for basic Eberron material, which I am taking as my starting-point.

House Rules

First, some house rules. I can’t seem to run any RPG without at least a few house rules, and D&D is no exception.

Players roll all the dice. I just like this way of running a game, especially a game like D&D. I feel like the game slows to a crawl whenever the DM needs to roll dice for all the monsters and NPCs. Basically, where NPCs have bonuses I make those DCs, and where PCs have DCs (like Armor Class) I make those bonuses. I also use set damage, as in the MM. (Bonus: based on our first session, this rule works amazingly well, and is now how I DM)

Let it ride. I use this rule in all of my games. I get it from Burning Wheel. Basically, once you roll for something, the stakes remain. One stealth roll to sneak all the way in the castle. One roll to pick the lock. You can’t make another attempt until the conditions change.

Action points. One element of Eberron is Action Points. To emulate those in 5E, I just made the simple change that players can store, and swap, points of inspiration. Over time they can build up, and have a similar function to Action Points.

I’m also going to be working on house rules for House Tarkanan aberrant dragonmarks and the effects of the Mark of Vol, which I will share when I have them.

Principles

Everyone’s hack of D&D 5E to run Eberron will be a bit different. Here is what I have in mind for my own: in the Eberron setting material as written, as usual for 3.X D&D, the NPCs often have PC character classes, sometimes mixed with NPC classes. 5E’s approach from the Monster Manual and onward seems to be much more about exception-based design, including for humanoids who have abilities very similar to player-character classes.

One thing from Eberron that I’ll retain is that there are not many high-level NPCs in the world. So you get a setting where tons of characters have first-level spells of various kinds, and spells are relatively common up to maybe 3rd level, but if you need someone resurrected you’ll have to go on a question to find some sort of religious figure who can help you out. There also end up being plenty of threats that only the PCs can really deal with in the world, as CR 20 monsters abound.

Obsidian Portal

I love using Obsidian Portal for campaign management. It’s a good way to have a lot of my worldbuilding notes right in front of me, to track player-characters and NPCs, and to have something cool for players to dig through looking for Easter eggs that will help them in-game. This is my Obsidian portal page for Shadows of the Last War.

They Didn’t Meet In A Bar

To introduce the characters to one another, I threw them into a pretty contrived fight scene where some of their backgrounds came out all at once. After that, though, I had to have a reason for them to be working together. I hate the stage in a game where the PCs are pretending not to want to work together, so I decided to just force them together early on, and the players were OK with that. Sharn gave me an option I hadn’t used before – because of the high rent in Deathsgate where they all wanted to live, they are roommates. So now it’s a sort of dysfunctional episode of Friends, and the players all introduced their characters to each other by answering the question, “What kind of roommate are you?” It went great, and I recommend it as something to have in the goodie-bag for ways to get the party together early in a game, especially an urban one.

Elves and Batman: Stories With No End Aggrieve Us

In the legendarium (I just like that word) of Middle-Earth, the story of the elves ends in grief and loss. The elves are slowly overcome by grief by their long years in the world, and at last the world loses them as they depart into the Undying Lands. Their stories have no endings – they just go on and on. In the same way that Bilbo found so exhausting when he still had the Ring, “…like butter scraped over too much bread.” It’s clear from the text, to me at least, that their longevity is what brings their grief – part of why human mortality is called a gift. Our stories, as humans, have endings built in from the start.

I was thinking about superhero reboots, just now. How even in the comics, periodically superheroes and supervillains have to be rebooted, and in movies every decade or so. Or more often if you’re Spider-Man. Even when you have four Batman movies in a row without a new origin story, they are four very different Batman movies. But it seems that a trilogy is about as far as they tend to get before they start again.

How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents shot, or seen Uncle Ben die? How many times has Superman crash-landed on Earth? Right now I’m watching the new Punisher series on Netflix, and I’ve watched two other Punisher movies before now. Ten or fifteen years from now, will we have a Wonder Woman or Black Panther reboot? Will that be how we know that POC and female supers are here to stay as lead characters?

The problem with superheroes is that they are like elves – their stories have no end unless they die, and since death means the end of a storyline and loss of sales, superheroes never die. Neither do supervillains. Well, generally speaking of course. But even looking through a list of supers who have died, particular individuals have been the ones who died. The superheroes go on. They never die, and eventually it comes to grief. We just get tired of the story, and then comes the reboot.

Thing is, stories need endings. Eventually they attenuate, then burn out; wear out their welcome and their meaning. Eventually, without an end, stories don’t mean anything.

The other things is, the end of stories is always contrived. Endings are something we make up, so that we can make sense. Sam Gamgee hits on this truth, when he realizes that he is part of the same story that Beren and Luthien were in, that the light of the Silmaril is the same light caught in the Vial of Galadriel that he and Frodo carried. “Don’t the great tales ever end?”

Well, Sam, yes and no. We end them, in order to make meaning. Or, when we can’t end them, as with so may superheroes, they lose the meaning they had. I think so, anyway. So we go to see reboots, because if the story can’t end, at least it can begin again.

But that’s not as good. It’s never as good.

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #4

Big Fish Points

Big Fish is a cool movie. In part, the movie is driven by the conflict between story on the one hand and fact on the other. One refrain that comes up in the various yarns is when the storyteller says, “This isn’t how I die.” The story then takes some turn for the better, and we know that it doesn’t end here even if things look dire.

The idea here is for the player to have “This isn’t how I die” points which she can spend when, according to the rules-as-written, they would normally die. This is to protect a character from a meaningless death, or a death that doesn’t make a good story.

Zombie Dinner Bell

In a zombie game, or any game where there is a potential for drawing the attention of swarming foes, have a dinner bell mechanic. Every time the characters do something noisy, or something that would draw attention, the dinner bell rating increases. As it increases, the number of monsters attracted should increase, maybe geometrically. So in the zombie example, first you attract 1 zombie, and then 4, and then 9, or maybe even 1 and then 10 and then 100 for a quicker escalation. I think that the effect could be comparable to that of the Jenga tower in Dread.

Always Minimal Success

Few things are less fun, in a RPG, than rolling a failure that just means you have no impact on the story. You take your turn to act as the player, and nothing happens because of a dice roll.

This idea is for a system that attaches a minimal effect to every action. To take D&D as an example, we could say that every melee or missile attack deals a minimal amount of damage, maybe equal to the character level, or equal to their ability score bonus. Even if you miss, you have some effect, chipping away at your foes.

For skills and other abilities, I would add a minimal effect that can be accomplished without any dice roll at all. It is possible to make something interesting of a failed roll, but there should be times when a character just gets to be awesome without having to take a risk. To take D&D as an example again, if a character is proficient with a skill, there should be a basic action they can always take. If they are proficient with thieves’ tools, then they can open a normal lock if they aren’t under time pressure. If they are proficient with Athletics, they can swim across a river or climb a rope without rolling.

 

When Anger Drives Creativity

With thanks to Jason Godesky, who helped me articulate this realization better than I have in the past.

Get Angry, Make Things

I was reflecting recently on how many of the creative projects I’ve actually finished were started because I was angry. It started early – I created a literary magazine with my best fried in high school because we were angry with our English teachers. It was called The Erudite Review.

The next angry things I created, with two more of my best friends in Seminary, was Shared Governance, the first student publication of San Francisco Theological Seminary. We create it because we were angry – the Seminary at the time was being reviewed for accreditation, something that happens regularly I suppose. At the same time, a lot of shenanigans were taking place, including some things like ignoring black mold that put a student in the hospital, and ten refusing to do anything more than paint over the mold in her student housing. We got attention when we put a copy of Shared Governance in every board member’s mailbox in the administration building – we even got a sit-down with the President of SFTS himself. I don’t know that we did significant good, but we were angry, and we created a thing.

From 2007 to 2012, I was at work on Parsec, the RPG I was designing, writing and editing for Jolly Roger Games. I was given an established setting and a number of guidelines as to what the owner of JRG wanted in the RPG and set to work. Obviously, it was a long process from being hired after a conversation at Origins to our successful Kickstarter in 2012. But part of this project was also driven by anger, or at least frustration, with Shadowrun. Because of that, I made sure Parsec lacked a huge equipment catalog – in particular a huge gun list – and I made sure that the cool plans you make matter.

One of the worst things about Shadowrun, in every incarnation, is when the players spend an hour or more making a complex plan for the job they are undertaking, and then the job doesn’t matter because the GM has planned something else, or someone fails their key roll, etc. As a result, Parsec equipment, including weapons and armor, is abstracted, and your cool plan gives you bonus dice when you go to execute it, so that your cool plan matters.

Another book I’ve written, with the same friends who helped on Shared Governance, was Never Pray Again. This time, the anger was directed against “Thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedy, or being told to pray my depression away, or the way that so much prayer seems to lead to so little change. So we wrote a book about all of the amazing things we could do instead of praying.

Anger Driving Art History

In thinking about it with Jason on Twitter, it occurred to me more clearly how one could see art history as being anger-driven. The Renaissance in frustration against the Roman Catholic strictures on medieval art. Romantics frustrated with the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Realism and Modernism arose as opposed to Romanticism. Postmodernism opposed to Modernism. And so on.

It’s interesting – I can imagine so much great historical artwork being the result of someone muttering “Dammit” under their breath and then going to work.

Anger Driving Modern Game Design

It’s easy to see game design in a similar way. The Forge was basically founded on anger and frustration with White Wolf. This was often explicit in what Forge designers said about themselves and their process. Ron Edwards and Vince Baker famously described Vampire the Masquerade as causing brain damage in players. I can only guess how much narrativism came out of frustration with a ‘Storyteller system’ that certain gamers found didn’t help them tell stories.

That being said, pretty much everything referred to as “indie” in tabletop role-playing games, including influential and popular games like Apocalypse World and its derivatives, including Dungeon World, Monsterhearts and Masks. Pretty much a who’s-who of story games from the last 15 years originated with the Forge and the discussions that took place there. And a lot of the discussions were driven by frustration with the way non-Forge games were designed.

The Healthy Function of Anger

 

They don’t talk about this in The Artist’s Way, but a lot of creativity is born from anger. I don’t see this connection discussed very often, but having thought it through a bit, I can now see it everywhere. So many great creators saying to themselves “Screw this, I’m-a make a thing!”

In the theory of emotions that I’ve absorbed, positive and negative emotions all have healthy functions. The healthy function of anger, as I understand it, is to give us the energy to protect ourselves and to overcome obstacles. And it’s clear how anger could be helpful in creative endeavors, which always involve overcoming obstacle after obstacle.

So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that as creators, creative people, and maybe people in general, we could focus on our anger. Let our anger tell us what the next project is. Rely on our anger, even, to carry us through.

I’m looking at my own anger to see what might be next for me.

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #3

Image result for game design

Still drawing from that idea document that I maintain, these are further game mechanic ideas that I like. Feel free to take these, use them, adapt them or hack them for your own games.

Advantage and Disadvantage with Fate Dice

As written, Fate Core allows you to use Aspects to add a +2 bonus to rolls after the fact, or to re-roll. I thought of another way to represent an advantage in a Fate roll, this time before the fact. In some of my Fate-based designs, I have a player set aside one of their four dice, and set it to a “+” or “-” ahead of time. This not only grants a bonus that is approximately equivalent to the +2 from an Aspect, it also reduces the amount of swing that is possible in the roll. With only three dice, the worst that can happen with the advantage is that three dice come up “-“, or a total of just -2. I also like how visible the bonus (or penalty) is on the table, and I think of it as similar to D&D 5th Edition’s advantage/disadvantage mechanic.

Using the Force or Magic Skill

One of the things I like about skill systems in RPGs is when you have to make a limited number of selections from a list, all of which are desirable options. (No dump stats or skills in our designs, please) One of the things I’d like to see more explicitly is treating magic, or whatever your equivalent is, as a skill, meaning that you have to commit time and practice to magic, and that time and practice does not go elsewhere. You have the super-skill, so you lack the other skills a mundane person would have.

Specifically, I have in mind Jedi in the Star Wars universe, who tend to be better than everyone at everything, and to also have magic powers. Rey is an example of this, but so is Luke, and Anakin or Obi-wan before him. They are fantastic at every action-hero thing they try, and also have the Force on top of that. I much prefer Force-users, or magic-users, as specialists who have an arcane, occult, rare specialty, and I think that games should reflect this by making the choice to have magic powers a choice with a cost.

Elvish Skills

I have an idea for a game from the point of view of elves, or of other beings who have very long lives compared to humans. In this game, there will only be three levels of skill to reflect the kind of mastery an elf might achieve (assuming D&D elvish lifespans): one year of skill, ten years of skill, and a hundred years of skill. I like there being a level of mastery that is simply unattainable for shorter-lived beings, and also reflecting the idea of some diminishing return in gaining skills. The differences in skill become very small at the highest level in any field, it seems. But I like the idea of a setting where these very long lives matter, and where the most highly skilled elves could simply clown the most highly skilled humans or others. It’s a challenge to build a game around this fundamental unbalance, but is fun to think about.