January 8, 2016

The Force Awakens

This is a post about character hooks, but it contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Don't read on if you're trying to avoid spoilers.

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J. J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt wrote the script for The Force Awakens with the intention of creating a new generation of Star Wars.  That literally means new, young characters to feature in a series of at least three films.  When you make new characters for multiple films, you need to give them hooks; you need to introduce them early; and you need to leave most of them unresolved.

Remember, there are character hooks and story hooks.  Character hooks are things a character cares about, but their future is uncertain.  Story hooks are the things that make the characters care about the story.  Imagine a character as the engine and the story as the train.  The character is the motive force that pulls the train along.   The character's hook to the story is the coupling.

Source: wikimedia.org

The story is a series of exciting train cars, each coupled to the next in a series of variable length.  Without a coupling/hook to connect to the engine, the story doesn't move.  The character can wander all over, but the story stays put.

Unlike a train, that character is probably going to go way off the rails.  So maybe a character hook is more like a tractor hitch.  What's the use of a tractor without anything hitched to it?

Source: wikimedia.org

Consider that in The Force Awakens (TFA), we're introduced to four young new characters:

Poe is the best pilot in the Republic.  Why?  What is his military ambition?  Why so dedicated to the cause?  He takes a suicidal risk to track down the map at the beginning of the story, and even figuratively spits in the eye of Kylo Ren.  Where'd he get his cocky attitude and near death wish?  And why does he have a totally unique BB unit droid?  Where'd he get a unique one?  Did he make BB-8 himself?

Finn is not a clone trooper.  These new stormtroopers were taken from their parents at an early age and programmed.  Why didn't the programming stick with him?  Is he force sensitive?  Is he force talented?  Who are his parents?  What was the programming like?

Rey is full of mystery.  What's with that staff she has?  The top looks like a lightsaber.  Who is she waiting for?  Why was she abandoned on Jakku?  Who abandoned her?  What forced them away?  She has visions of the future!  That's cool!  They even came true!  So where's that leading?  She can use the Force, and is pretty powerful.  She picked up the skill remarkably fast, even compared to the previous force superstars Luke and Anakin.  Is she a messiah figure like Luke?  Or is she being set up for a face-heel turn?  She doesn't have Finn's strong ethical sense.  Whens she fights with a lightsaber, she doesn't show the remote calm of Obi Wan Kenobi, but more of an Anakin-style fiercness.

Kylo Ren (Ben Organa-Solo?) is full of questions.  How did he get corrupted?  Who are the Knights of Ren?  What happened in his apprenticeship with Luke to turn him away?  Why did Leia Organa send him off to train with Luke?  How did the Knights of Ren build so quickly and then destroy the new generation of Jedi?  He is struggling with the Light - but was his father's death enough to seal him to the Dark Side, or will he continue to struggle, in an inverse reflection of the Anakin-Vader progression?

These hooks were set in a film just 135 minutes long, padded with (pretty awesome) action scenes.  It doesn't take much time to drop hooks like this in an RPG, either.

Do the player characters in your campaign have this many high quality hooks?

Each one cares about something.  At the start of TFA, only half the characters are interested in the story - a race between the Knights of Ren and the Republic to find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, who has gone into hiding.

At the start of the movie, Finn just wants to stop being a stormtrooper, Poe wants to get the map fragment back to General Organa, Rey wants to survive on scavenging until her parents (?) come back, and Kylo Ren wants to find the map to Luke Skywalker.  BB-8 serves as a cute little shunting engine (to continue using our train analogy).

Source: wikimedia
The little droid connects Finn and Rey to the map plot.  First, Finn uses Poe to help him escape, so he can stop being a stormtrooper.  He needs a pilot, and Poe, the captured Republic pilot, will do for his purposes.  But Poe reveals his mission, and when Finn gets to the Jakku salvage yard and sees Rey with BB-8, he draws her into his flight from the First Order.  BB-8's possession of the map fragment drives the plot until the battle on Takodana, where Rey is captured.  Until that point, Rey and Finn are not yet coupled to the plot.


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The battle at Takodana is the first act twist. This story structure conceit explains the need for BB-8 to serve as a plot shunting engine for the first chunk of the film (I suspect TFA has a very long first act because it's the first part of a planned trilogy).

When she's captured, Finn decides he cares more about Rey's friendship and greater issues like opposing the First Order than he does about his scared flight from the First Order.  At this time, Rey also discovers her force powers and decides to oppose the Knights of Ren.  And the plot also neatly does away with the need for a shunting engine.  BB-8 is returned to Poe, General Organa gets the map, and even Kylo Ren doesn't need the droid anymore, since he thinks he can pull it from Rey's mind.

The second act starts with all the characters striving for something:  Finn wants to save Rey; Rey wants to escape; Poe wants to destroy Starkiller Base; Han and Chewy want to destroy it, but Han also wants to find Kylo Ren; Kylo Ren wants to resolve his internal struggle between the light and dark.

When the story concludes, there are many, many unresolved character hooks.  These characters are strong locomotives with fresh couplings waiting for the next script to hook plots onto them.

So back to tabletop RPGs...

Let's think of the four new Star Wars characters as PCs in an RPG.  What story hooks could we latch onto their character hooks to draw them into an adventure?

Here are just a few quick thoughts I had.  GMs should think of their players' characters the same way when planning adventures.  Use those hooks.  Use as many as you can.

Poe Dameron:
  • Orders from General Organa
  • Crash landed behind enemy lines during a battle
  • A up-and-coming rival pilot makes trouble for the "best pilot" in the republic
  • BB-8's designer needs to see him right away
  • BB-8 reveals mysterious hidden programming Poe didn't know about
  • Poe's X-wing breaks down and needs a specific part, but he's stranded far from a Republic base

Finn:
  • Flashback to being taken from his parents, or to his conditioning revealing an opportunity or personal motivation
  • Other storm troopers who were conditioned alongside Finn start to lose their conditioning; or else are employed as bounty hunters to find him
  • Temptation is offered to rejoin the First Order in a command role; perhaps after feeling sidelined in the Republic (he wants to come across as a Big Deal)
  • Captain Phasma is likely to act as a major enemy of Finn's.  She resents his treason personally; and she is probably out for revenge from when he captured her and forced her to lower shields on Starkiller Base


Rey:
  • Force visions are an easy hook.  Any character who can see things in dreams or visions that come unbidden has plenty of hook potential.
  • A villain from her past - someone who forced her separation from her parents
  • Hearing a rumor that the person she's waiting for was seen in Cloud City
  • Something important was discovered by a salvager, and someone with connections in the world of salvagers is needed to track it down
  • Learn a dark secret about who her parents were
  • A villain knows something about her parents and taunts her with the information


Kylo Ren:
  • Orders from Snoke (what a dumb name)
  • Snoke pushes him to commit a horrifying atrocity, and his struggle with the light side resumes
  • Hux or Phasma tries to sideline him, and he needs to preserve his authority
  • The Knights of Ren need his help
  • Finds a force-sensitive youngling to train and has to decide whether to hand the child over to Snoke or take his own apprentice
  • Force visions draw him to the light side by presenting tantalizing mysteries
  • Discovers evidence of betrayal or treason


Hey players!  

If you can't make a list of possible hooks to tie your character to various kinds of plot, you don't have a fully fleshed out character.  Oh sure, you may have your gear picked out and feats chosen for the next 19 levels.  You may have chosen your character's hair and eye color, and even written a 20-page backstory.  But unless that backstory generates new problems for your character, like the new generation of Star Wars characters, you're not done.  Read How to Write a Character Background here on Run a Game to get some tips.