Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

“It is to be commended. What is its number?”

Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.

It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.

In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?

It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)

Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.

The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)

I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.

I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?

It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.

Review: West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, Re-Released

Star Wars: The Roleplaying GameStar Wars: The Roleplaying Game by Greg Costikyan

I first became exposed to Star Wars roleplaying games with Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system. I collected many of those sourcebooks and intermittently played with friends. I dabbled with Fantasy Flight’s newer, narrative-focused system, as well. But the original West End Games version had preceded me; I was born about a year after the publication of the first edition. Yet it held an important place in Star Wars history, keeping interest in the franchise alive at a low point and helping feed the re-ignition of popularity in the early nineties, so I’ve long been aware of it, though never involved with it or truly knowledgeable about its systems.

When Fantasy Flight announced a special anniversary edition over a year ago, I was pretty excited to get the chance to explore this game system. While the release was delayed, that delay was well worth it; this is a worthy addition to the various sourcebooks and systems on my shelf.

There are two books included in this anniversary set: a rulebook and a sourcebook.

The rulebook offers a fairly simple game system oriented around six-sided dice. I imagine that this helped its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties: not only was it more Star Wars to play around in, but it was incredibly easy to throw together the materials to play! Creating player characters (or, for the GM, NPCs and monsters) seems quite simple, with a quick distribution of abilities and a focus more on skills. Plus, any new player could simply grab one of the templates from the back and start with an archetype that allowed for room to role-play while requiring only a few minutes to prepare for the game.

Some of the modifiers and more advanced rules, as usual, got a bit math-heavy and convoluted, but the most complex of those rules were condensed into compact tables across a few pages at the end of the book. And more importantly, the rulebook consistently advised a focus on fun, cinematic, creative, narrative play that prioritized player experience over strict adherence to rules. A GM with a healthy knowledge of the rules and willingness to let things slide as needed, focusing more on working with players to craft a fun collaborative experience, could thrive with this system.

It was funny, then, to see the advertisements in these new editions promoting Fantasy Flight Star Wars game systems. Their narrative RPG is fun, but the need for custom dice plus the necessary learning of the various dice symbols and how they interact seems to actually result in a more exclusionary, rules-heavy environment than that offered by the WEG game, even if less numbers are strictly involved.

The sourcebook was the volume that I enjoyed the most. Even though I knew it influenced a lot of the tone, lore, and language of the EU, I was still surprised and impressed to see how much was still relevant. Even with the new canon, the sourcebook only seldom was directly contradicted. It wisely limited itself to extrapolations from the movies, so even the most specific Clone Wars references can for the most part be easily integrated into the current canon. In contrast, most character descriptions are now outdated and at least somewhat contradicted, and I actually preferred most of the new versions over the old; of all characters, Boba Fett’s remained one of the most accurate still, given the mysteriousness of the character at the time and the lack of hard answers.

Other unique lore elements I actually preferred: droids (or at least the more advanced droids) are definitely treated as sentients who are cruelly held in bondage, and the Force is a mystic religion that allows access to its secrets to just about anyone willing to train diligently under a Jedi Master (downplaying bloodlines and the like, though still keeping Jedi abilities quite limited because it is very clear that the universe intended here has virtually no Jedi left to learn from). Interestingly, the EU and the prequels moved away from some of these ideas, but the newest properties are coming back around to some of these interpretations.

There were very few lore elements in this early version of Star Wars that I actually disliked. The primary element that I found unpleasant: this version of Star Wars is very anthropocentric, and there’s almost as much of a divide between all of humanity in contrast to Aliens as there is between Rebellion and Empire. In a large galaxy, of course there are unaffiliated, unknown, and lost societies out there, and I wouldn’t want that removed from Star Wars. But the newer canon has integrated aliens into a much more diverse version of the galaxy–heck, the prequel trilogy really started that shift. I wouldn’t want to go back to a view where aliens were always so other, where the various non-human races were lumped together simply by being non-human, classified broadly with a capital-A Alien designation. (This version also leans hard into the roleplaying tradition of assigning fairly rigid personality and cultural traits by race.)

In a similar vein, I prefer the newer, more nuanced approach to the Mon Calamari and the Quarren. Their involvement in larger galactic society, rather than being newcomers, makes them less “Exotic.” Still, it’s impossible not to recognize how much has been carried over from the WEG sourcebook. The Mon Cal and the Quarren still shared a homeworld, and the Quarren still felt jealous of the Mon Cal. The Quarren joining with the Separatists, and later realigning with the Mon Calamari, and the Mon Calamari’s oppression under the Empire and early support of the Rebellion, are clearly drawn from elements of their original story. In all things, later Star Wars owes a significant debt to this early attempt at a Star Wars RPG–not to mention that so much of the weird nineties Star Wars short fiction that I love so much emerged out of communities oriented around the game.

Finally, I must point out the charm of the use of movie stills and a wealth of concept artwork to illustrate the various races, equipment, vehicles, and concepts described within.

The original WEG game holds up to the test of time. And this beautiful anniversary edition, with hardcover core rulebook and sourcebook contained in a slim black casing with beautiful cover art, is an excellent version to introduce oneself to it.

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I sure hope that I have the opportunity to play soon. David Schwarz’s recent advice on Eleven-ThirtyEight for leading your own RPG campaign certainly got me thinking about the possibilities just as I was reading through these WEG books. Plus, I’d already accumulated some fun WEG companion books from past convention sellers, providing additional lore and examples of NPC stats to me well before I’d even read the core books…

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I don’t know if I’ll have the time, or even an interested group of friends who would have the same time available, but we’ll see.

Gen Con Week 2017

I wanted to talk about what I really liked about Gen Con, and about this past week in general. But you’ll have to use your imagination a bit. Believe it or not (given the absurd number of blurry bird pictures I’ve posted here), I don’t really take that many pictures. I typically just try to enjoy the moment. So pictures from Gen Con are sorely lacking. No cool pictures of cosplayers, for instance. Then again, if you want pictures of Gen Con cosplayers, I’m pretty sure IndyStar has you covered.

As usual, my wife and I went to a lot of the panels and seminars, especially related to the Writer’s Symposium. It’s been refreshing that every year there is new and different programming; these events haven’t begun to feel stale or repetitive. Highlights this year included a discussion of tabletop game development with transmedia in mind and a fairly intimate panel with authors openly discussing their struggles with depression. As usual, there were interesting panels about diversity and about the writer’s craft, as well: my wife and I especially liked a session on the representation of Arabs and Muslims in tabletop gaming and an early panel on producing novel synopses for popular fiction. Outside of writing panels, I got a kick out of “Metal Church,” a mid-morning Sunday event that explored the intersecting history of heavy metal and fantasy roleplaying games.

Shockingly, one of my favorite events of the convention was the Glitter Guild’s “Nerdlesque” burlesque show on Thursday night. I haven’t really had an interest in burlesque, but my wife has an interest in things like burlesque entertainment and contemporary pin-up art (one of our big purchases from last year’s Gen Con was a massive pin-up print of Leia), and as I mentioned before, I like to encourage her to pursue her passions, so we went. Great show. I think I “get” burlesque more now, as a disinterested observer, than I did in the past. It’s very body-positive, welcoming of people of various ethnicities, body types, and genders. And it’s obviously exhibitionist, but it truly feels empowering to those on stage. Oh, also, it ended with one of the hosts doing a bit as the late great Carrie Fisher as Leia, and I lost it when she strangled an inflatable Jabba the Hutt on stage (okay, maybe you had to be there).

And speaking of sort of off-kilter events, as usual, the Sun King Wednesday evening street party before the official Gen Con opening was great fun. Dragon’s Delight, a “Belgian Golden Ale,” was an enjoyably smooth beer. And “Lez Zeppelin,” the (I kid you not) all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, was actually really good–more than anything else, your mileage may vary depending on how much you like Led Zeppelin to begin with.

Now, this is the third Gen Con we attended (we first went in 2015), and every year we’ve focused more on panels and events than games–even though it’s promoted as the best four days in gaming. That’s not to say that we avoid games; it’s a gaming convention, after all, and we are there because we enjoy tabletop gaming. But we have enjoyed focusing a little more on the writing/design elements of the convention. We always make at least one grand tour through the exhibition hall, though, and we always try to demo some games. This year, our favorite game was 1754, and we bought it after playing (though in full disclosure, I think this was the only game we played in full this year). Great fun, and it manages to capture some of the complicated politics and ultimate futility of the French and Indian War. Plus, it’s easy to pick up, and we already look forward to teaching some of our friends to play.

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Funny enough, we got to 1754 because we passed the Academy Games booth in the exhibition hall, and my wife was really interested in their Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal game. The guy at the booth sold her on trying it out and told us that we could demo the game over in the big game hall space with some generic tickets. So when we finally made it to the game hall, trying this game was our top priority. There was an opening when we got there, but we realized we didn’t have any generic tickets on us. By the time we had the generic tickets, there wasn’t a free game. But we walked around and waited and eventually 1754 opened up. We decided to try it out and loved it.

As usual, a healthy dose of whimsy can lead to exciting discoveries (we love the used roleplaying game store set up in the exhibition hall the past couple years because we always make some serendipitous finds). But on the flip side, we never actually did play Guadalcanal. We finally made a decision for next year. Next year, we’re going to be more proactive. Next year, not only will we get badges early, we’ll actually research some games in advance and sign up for some play times (and so will actually register for the wishlist and buy specific game tickets) so we can try out the games we’re most interested in and maybe play some games we already love.

Outside of Gen Con itself, I had some other fun, geeky things to be excited about this past week.

First, as some or many or most of you may know, Fantasy Flight is publishing a 30th-anniversary version of West End Games’ original Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game! Pretty cool! No, I didn’t play this game. The first Star Wars roleplaying game I got into was the Wizards of the Coast version; I still have mountains (or at least carefully exaggerated molehills) of those source books and supplements. WEG’s version was before my time. But it was such a monumental part of developing early Star Wars expanded lore and keeping the franchise alive between Return of the Jedi and Heir to the Empire (and of course it framed a lot of the lore of Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy). And what a great time for it to return, with the Star Wars universe still relatively fresh post-reboot. The only thing I’m disappointed about? There was a “30 Years of Star Wars RPGs” panel at Gen Con, with Bill Slavicsek, Sam Stewart, Sterling Hershey, and Pablo Hidalgo, and I completely missed out on it. I only became aware of it about an hour after it was over! So that’s another reason why I’m actually going to plan next year’s Gen Con itinerary out a little better…

Second, we live so close to downtown Indy that we just walked to and from the convention center, and this gave me time to play Pokemon Go with my wife. I actually haven’t played in a while. She introduced me to the new raid system, and I familiarized myself with the new gym battle and defense system. Both things are a lot of fun, and I think Pokemon Go is a lot better game now! Even the same tap-tap-swipe combat system feels a bit fresher, as lagging seemed a lot less significant, so I could actually get my combatants to respond to my commands in a timely and useful fashion.

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I sure taught that Magikarp a lesson! We’ve since done raids against Machamp and Cyndaquil, but no legendaries yet.

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Hall of Champions moment. Jesus loves me for this, the game says so.

Third, in related Pokemon news, my wife and I also tried out Magikarp Jump. My god. That game is so cute and so addictive. It’s just a clicky sort of game, no real skill involved, but boy, it can suck you in if you cultivate time and resource management techniques. The combination of feeding, training, and competing, cycling with random events and special encounters to regenerate your ability to do all three, can keep me going for a half an hour or more at a time. Not bad for a stupid little game like this. I had to turn off my notifications for the game so that I wasn’t constantly being tempted for “just a few more minutes” of training.

Fourth and finally, all the extra walking from the past week yielded a new bird sighting for me. A lot of little birds were freaking out with alarm calls, flitting all over a tree. Naturally, this caught my attention. Sitting up on a branch was what appeared to be a massive owl, just chilling out in the middle of the day. Frustratingly, I couldn’t get a great look at him, and the pictures turned out even worse. Like that’s going to stop me from sharing, though! To end this post, look upon this owlish majesty:

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