Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Star Wars, Dying Earth, and the Programmed Setting
This contains discussion of Star Wars VII, no major plot spoilers but some general criticism. (Also, it's five weeks in, so see the damn film already.)
Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is not just a role-playing game set in Jack Vance's literary world. It also tries to codify the essential elements of that world - game as criticism. According to Laws the elements of a Vancian picaresque tale are: odd customs, crafty swindles, heated protests and presumptuous claims, casual cruelty, weird magic, strange vistas, ruined wonders, exotic food, and foppish apparel. The system also handles such Vancian happenings as being persuaded against your better interest, and winning great wealth only to lose it all ("All is mutability!")
And Episode VII for me was also a recombination of the elements of "Star Wars": you could see the boxes being checked off, with "doomsday machine", "terrifying monsters", "lightsaber duel", "alien cantina" and so on. But really that is nothing new. I remember reading more than one Star Wars novel in the 90's that seemed like a reshake of elements from the first three movies. Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy featured a doomsday device called the Suncrusher. There were monsters, dogfights, lightsaber duels and star lowlife a-plenty.
Also: if you tried to do a love story, a police procedural, a picaresque in the Star Wars universe, it might work, but would it be "Star Wars"? The hesitation in the answer reveals that, like the Dying Earth, Star Wars is a programmed setting. It not only provides character types, artifacts and settings, but dictates the plot and action. Compare this to a setting that has become unprogrammed, like the Wild West. While at one time there might have been a stock plot for the cowboy yarn, over many generations its expansion and reinvention has left room for social commentary, horror, preposterous steampunk action-adventure, etc.
Meanwhile, things might have gone differently if the second Star Wars trilogy's attempt to expand the repertoire with political drama, noir elements and romance had been at all convincing. But it wasn't. George Lucas caused a lot of buzz recently defending that trilogy and how he populated it “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.” It's a shallow view, but one that by omission acknowledges that the other "new" elements were failures, that the only things that stand up in those films are the laser duels, space battles, and spectacle. This is probably what sent J. J. Abrams running back to formula, from the potential of a universe to the safety of a program.
I think there's also a reason for the greater popularity of programmed settings over unprogrammed in roleplaying. The Standard Renfaire-Tolkien Setting, with its cozy taverns, dour dwarves, righteous paladins and hen's egg sized diamonds, is a convenient backdrop against which the slightest departure from custom - be it to invoke a different culture, a different genre or just something different - blazes forth like a star of creativity. And on the players' side, a solid and well-known backdrop gives a basis for their own creativity and improvisation.