roleplaying games

Canon fodder

Everyone in my online group, it seems, loves Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games. Everyone, that is, except for me.

Don’t get me wrong, the system is pretty slick. I rolled my eyes at custom dice at first, but the advantage/threat and triumph/despair systems are neat ways to plug some narrative randomizers into the dice system. And the career system maintains game balance fairly well, given relatively even XP distribution. It’s a solid core mechanic, with just enough gamification levers to make it interesting.

It’s also Star Wars.

I don’t have the greatest relationship with the broader setting of Star Wars. There’s loads of material thanks to the Expanded Universe and all the companion pieces, but despite having plenty of opportunities to get outside of the main story, it seems to come with great difficulty to most gamers. Fantasy Flight did try to give platforms for out-of-canon storytelling, but their three main products far too easily fall back into familiar territory: Edge of the Empire lets you play Boba Fett or Han Solo. Age of Rebellion is basically designed to tell the arc of the three original movies. Force and Destiny is designed to tell the arc of the three prequels.

In all cases, it’s easy to fall into storylines that players are familiar with. And here’s the problem: unless you’re willing to violate or overwrite canon, these stories will have no dramatic tension. I cannot possibly care about helping the Rebels steal plans for some sort of secret TIE Fighter. We saw Return of the Jedi, so as long as you’re telling me this is the movie universe this campaign doesn’t matter at all to the setting. That’s death to the story.

On the other hand, if you tell me that we’re starting from a baseline but things will go differently, that’s interesting. If by the end of the introductory session it’s already clear that we’ve altered history…that’s really interesting. But while the departure gives a lot of opportunity, there’s a relatively high probability that a player with some attachment to canon will try to pull the plot back into place. Decision points will have biases that conform to player expectations of the setting, which makes it that much more difficult to make things truly interesting or different.

No matter the story or the genre, I find that using existing settings puts you in a box, rather than expanding your options. When using baked-in game settings (most notably Cyberpunk 2020’s setting), the setting never survived first contact with the GM or the players…the version of the setting I ended up using had significant changes made from what was written. In a licensed setting that everyone is familiar with, these sorts of alterations can cause cognitive dissonance among players, and even arguments if your players are attached to the setting.

I can understand the value of an existing setting, and I understand the attachment people have to existing properties. I will continue to avoid them in any game I run. Existing settings don’t help me write (quite the opposite), and I can’t help but find that ties to existing settings stifle player creativity when it comes to trying to write new characters and tell new stories. I’m glad other people have fun writing like that…but it’ll never be me.

 

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