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Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

Hitting the 30th anniversary of my first experience running an RPG feels like a bigger deal than I would’ve expected, possibly because this kind of game is currently a larger presence in my life than has been the case for many, many years. I have lost track of how many hours I must have spent GMing in all that time, but the total must be well into three figures. Obviously not many moments of that stand out, but one which does came near the end of my one big Vampire chronicle, back in 1996.

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We were about six months in and the climax of the story was looming, but just prior to this we were resolving a little side-quest as one of the characters had inadvertently tainted herself by consuming the soul of her evil sire (ah, Vampire…) and felt the need to expiate this. During this, one of the group got into a fight with a Spiral Dancer, the dice were unfavourable, and the numbers indicated a PC with a key role to play in the conclusion was, in fact, a pile of ash on the floor.

‘Oh, looks like I’m gone,’ said the player, with a resigned smile on his face. Almost at once I stepped in and explained how his frenzy, or the significance of the moment, or something, allowed him to keep going, with enough strength to either escape the combat or hide or finish off the evil werewolf. I forget exactly what.

It was, of course, a classic dice fudge, one of those occasions where the GM steps in and over-rules the numbers for the sake of the story. (Note I say story rather than game.) It’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more as my style of gaming has become increasingly focused on stories rather than strict adherence to rules mechanics. You wouldn’t enjoy a movie where the protagonist slipped down a flight of steps and broke his neck on his way to the final battle with the villain, and you wouldn’t enjoy playing in a game where a character failed a Dex check and suffered the same fate twenty minutes before the end (this actually happened in a Call of Cthulhu game I was a player in).

I’ve never thought much about this, beyond contemplating different ways of trying to keep dice fudges from being too obvious, but then I was browsing a ‘how to be a better GM‘ discussion the other day and found someone arguing that dice fudging is not fair. The GM may justify doing it on the grounds that he’s serving the story and creating dramatic moments, but couldn’t a player justify disregarding a dice roll for exactly the same reasons? Why bother rolling dice at all, if you’re just going to stick with the story you have in mind? Isn’t this just another example of railroading the story?

Hmmm. Well, this gave me food for thought, and I would still defend the GM’s right to fudge the dice. Firstly, many modern games have a mechanism which gives players the ability to disregard bad dice at critical points, either by a reroll or something else. Every game I currently run has one – Mutants and Masterminds has Hero Points, the Cypher games allow XP to be used to buy rerolls, and the FFG Star Wars game has Destiny Points. Implicit in all these games is the idea that the GM can fudge, in the name of a good story, it’s just that doing so gives the players an increased ability to overrule the dice in response (the implication seems to be that the GM will always be trying to make the story more interesting, i.e. difficult, which doesn’t really include things like saving players’ lives from bad dice rolling and the like).

Also, the player-GM relationship is not really an equivalent or symmetrical one, in the sense that the GM has a lot more power over everything that’s happening. This is a truth of this type of game, where one person is basically the god of the story. The only exception is a game like Fiasco, which doesn’t have a GM or storyteller at all, and which is a rather different gaming experience. Denying the GM the right to fudge is, firstly, an almost impossible restriction to enforce, and, secondly, something which feels like a throwback to the days of wargame-style rules-implementation GMing.

So, on reflection, I think I’ll continue to fudge at key moments. The issue has become a little more complex of late, however, as I have found my own gaming style doesn’t really give me the opportunity to fudge the dice as easily as I once could. This is because I only roll a tiny handful of dice each session in most of the games I run.
This is a core element of the Cypher games: one of the mantras of the system is ‘the players roll all the dice’. I was initially a bit unsure about this, but I quickly became a bit of a convert, mainly because the vast majority of my Cypher experiences have been on roll20 where the last thing I need is to worry about how to use the dice rolling utility. It also makes sense, as it gives the players a bit more to do (one person shouldn’t be throwing almost 50% of the dice, as is sometimes the case in games where the GM rolls).

I’ve got so into the non-rolling GM mindset that when I was recruited to run a Mutants and Masterminds game I gave the system a minor hack so that I didn’t need to roll any dice there, either. (One of my players pointed out, six months into the series, that opting to have heroes roll damage against a villain’s Toughness-based DC meant they could use Hero Points to make villains fail their Toughness checks, which isn’t possible in the original rules, so I may need to house-rule that a bit further.) And this also seems to work pretty well and be popular with my players.

And it doesn’t mean I can’t fudge stuff, either: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve decided to have a bad guy cave in when the players’ attack rolls haven’t quite justified it, simply because the battle was a foregone conclusion and it would have been dull to go through three or four rounds of the players just mugging someone. As long as the players can’t see your notes, you can always do that sort of thing.

However: now I’m hoping to run FFG’s Star Wars rules, a system perhaps most distinctive for its unique dice (and dice system). The nature of the game is such that I’m not sure it can easily be hacked in the same way – the way the dice are weighted means you can’t reverse the maths and easily turn an GM-rolled attack into a player-rolled dodge. At least, I’m not confident you can. But this will be a face-to-face game so at least rolling the dice will be easy enough.
But will it be easy to fudge? The whole point of the game is that everyone involved comes up with a way to interpret every dice roll together. (One wonders quite why FFG sells GM screens for these games, given all the dice rolls are supposed to be done in the open – then again, FFG don’t usually seem to have an issue with selling things which might seem at first glance superfluous.) The flow of information is still in my hands, and I still have my godlike GM faculties when it comes to NPCs and the game world, so I suspect I still have options. Anyway, we shall see how it goes.

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Say what you like about the new movie, and I see that many people have, but if nothing else it has certainly succeeded in putting Star Wars back at centre-stage when it comes to popular culture: books, models, DVDs, toys, games, a veritable deluge of the stuff. Now, I feel I should make clear that whatever my attitude to the Disney films and JJ Abrams, my affection for Star Wars in general remains entirely undiminished, which is probably the main reason why I recently checked out Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG system.

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It took a relatively long time for an official Star Wars RPG to come out – 1987 or thereabouts, with WEG’s fondly-remembered D6 system, which I of course bought, along with several of the supplements. I still have good memories of the simplicity of the basic system, which was a welcome step away from the more crunch-heavy percentile- and d20- based games I’d mainly been playing up to that point.

Later there was a d20 Star Wars game, which I steered clear of, partly because I wasn’t doing any gaming and partly because it looked a bit too much like D&D. (There may well have been even more Star Wars RPGs that passed me by completely: it’s not as though there was ever any shortage of demand for Star Wars games. I’ve seen homebrew supplements cooking up Star Wars-specific rules for lots of other systems.)

And so to the FFG system, which I am reluctant to call a game, singular, as the company have opted to release a triptych of Core Books, each dealing with a different aspect of adventuring in that galaxy far, far away. Edge of the Empire focuses on shady doings and underworld life on the fringes and in the dark underbelly of the Empire, with players most likely playing smugglers, bounty hunters, and other equally dubious characters. Age of Rebellion is the book for anyone wanting to play a member of the Rebel Alliance (the default setting for the game is around the time of Episode IV, though I suspect it’s easy enough to adapt for adventuring during the era of the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, or either of the post-Episode VI continuities) – pilots, diplomats, commandos, and so on. Finally, Force and Destiny is the Jedi-centric book, with players adopting the roles of survivors of Order 66 or other Force-sensitive individuals with a modicum of Jedi training.

The first potential brick to be slung in FFG’s direction is the decision to release the above as three hefty (and fairly expensive) 200+ page hardback books, with a fair degree of duplication of material within them, certainly as far as the core rules go. One wonders why they didn’t just produce a single book with just the game rules in it and then three setting-specific sourcebooks, and it’s hard not to conclude that the bottom line is ultimately the overriding concern. I can’t really imagine any group wanting to role-play in the Star Wars universe being entirely happy limiting themselves to playing just scoundrels, or rebels, or Jedi, so purchasing multiple core books is probably going to be a requirement for most groups wanting to run this game.

Another potential bone of contention is with the core rules themselves, which use a set of special proprietary dice. Now, to be fair, you don’t actually need to buy these dice: a conversion table for using standard D6s, D8s, D12s is provided (an electronic dice roller is also available on t’internet), but I suspect this would result in an extremely cumbersome gameplay experience until everyone got familiar with the table.

...hmmmm.

…hmmmm.

Set against this is the undeniable fact that FFG’s system is interesting and fun and potentially very creative for all concerned. The typical resolution mechanic of most RPGs is to roll either a d20, or d100, or some other dice pool, and attempt to beat a specific target number set by the GM. While many games incorporate the possibility of really good or really poor results (or ‘criticals’), this is still essentially a binary-based, succeed or fail, mechanic.

The FFG system is anything but binary. When carrying out an action check, you assemble a pool of ‘good’ dice based on your abilities, skills, and favourable conditions, and add to that ‘bad’ dice based on the difficulty of the task and any unfavourable conditions, and roll them all together. The various good dice generate positive results, called Success, Advantage, and Triumph, and the bad dice generate their opposites, Failure, Threat, and Despair. They key thing is that Success and Failure cancel each other out, as do Advantage and Threat, but your Success does not reduce your level of Threat, nor your Advantage your level of Failure.

As a result you can succeed in a task but still generate Threat against yourself, or fail and generate Advantage – it’s not a binary Yes/No system, but one with a huge range of possible Yes, And…/Yes/Yes, But…/No, But…/No/No, And… results.

How does this work? Well, let’s say I’m playing the game and I want my character to swing his lightsaber at an annoying stormtrooper. As a moderately well-trained Jedi, I get two proficiency dice and an ability die, and the trooper is taken somewhat by surprise (a situational effect) so my kind GM has granted me a Boost die to reflect this. On the other hand, the GM is adding two Difficulty dice as this is a standard close combat check. I roll the six dice and get…

Well, let’s say I roll 2 Successes, 1 Triumph, and 3 Threat (a Yes, But… result). The combined Successes and Triumph are enough to make this a solid hit against the trooper, doing more than enough damage to take him out (individual troopers are relatively puny, so only a single saber hit usually disposes of them). But, and this is something I can’t think of any other system incorporating, I still have those 3 Threat to resolve – I’ve taken out my enemy, but it’s left me at risk somehow, in a manner to be negotiated with the GM. Maybe I’ve left myself open to an attack from one of my opponent’s allies (granting them a Boost die on their next attack check), or the rigours of combat are wearing down my resolve (reducing my reserve of what are called ‘strain’ but are essentially kind of non-lethal hit points).

I’ve seen it suggested that there are essentially 18 possible results of any dice check in the FFG system, but even this seems to me to be ignoring the fact that the degree of Success, Advantage, etc, generated is also an issue. Generate enough Advantage and you can activate the special features of your weapon (using a lightsaber to sunder an opponent’s weapon, using the linked laser cannon on an X-wing to hit multiple times from one check, and so on), for instance.

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It’s an innovative and appealing system but there is the expense involved in buying all the proprietary dice required, and it makes playing over a web platform like roll20 almost impossible unless you really know your stuff technically. Plus there is the complexity involved in bringing new players up to speed on the system – most people can grasp ‘roll a d20 and get 12 or more’ fairly swiftly, but the learning curve here would be rather longer and steeper. This is a shame, as any system based on Star Wars should be an ideal ‘gateway game’ to get new people into RPGs, especially right now. (To be fair, FFG have released a ‘beginner game’ for each core book, which apparently breaks the newbies in gently, but yet again they are open to the charge of simply padding out their profits – you need to buy the beginner box and the core book to play the full game.)

I suppose the rules are hackable into something more traditional using regular dice, but it would be an extensive hack and lose much of the charm and potential of the system – and if you were sufficiently unimpressed with the FFG system to do that, I suspect it would be simpler just to use the WEG rules (for instance).

Apart from the central resolution mechanic, the rest of the game seems like a fairly solid system, with perhaps a touch more crunch than I personally like in the rules that I use. Character creation is fairly straightforward – you choose a race, a career, and a specialisation for your character, and invest a number of starting experience points (XP) to bring them on a bit before the game starts.

Many of the obvious Star Wars alien races are covered in the different core books (Wookiees, Rodians, Mon Cal, Twi’Lek, Zabraks, and so on – no sign of Gungans or Ewoks so far, shockingly), along with a few rather more obscure ones, especially in the supplements (yes, you can play a Hutt, if you really want to). (Droids also count as a playable ‘race’ for game purproses.) As someone who would want his Star Wars RPG to actually resemble Star Wars (which is, after all, humanocentric), I’m not sure how I would head off the possibility of the entirely non-Human party, short of putting an outright ban on non-human Player Characters except by GM consent. Perhaps giving human PCs substantial bonus starting XP and well-played alien PCs bonus in-game XPs would be a possible solution, but here we’re drifting on to one of my personal bugbears when it comes to RPGs, so let’s move on.

Each core book provides half-a-dozen careers for characters – so Edge of the Empire characters can be bounty hunters or smugglers, for instance, Rebel characters can be aces or commandos, and Jedi can be guardians, sentinels, mystics, and so on. Each career is further broken down into three specialisations – so, for instance, a smuggler could be a pilot, a scoundrel or a thief. Each specialisation has a number of special abilities tied to it which can be purchased in-game, along with a set of skills. Fifty-four starting specialisations covers a lot of territory, with more available in the various supplements, so there’s no shortage of possible character types. Characters can belong to more than one specialisation, too, not necessarily from the same career (though this is more expensive) – so if you want to play a fallen Jedi Makashi duelist from Force and Destiny, turned underworld enforcer from Edge of the Empire (there’s a potentially terrifying melee combatant…), you can – GM permitting, as usual.

There is, inevitably, quite a lot of crunch to negotiate here, with the commensurate risk of the spectre of D&Dthink manifesting itself and endless discussions as to the best talent and career options ensuing, but I suppose this is all a question of play style, and discreet game-management by the GM should keep this sort of thing to a minimum. Overall, I would say number-crunching and rules are kept to reasonable levels, except perhaps in the section on equipment, which seem to assume every weapon and vehicle possessed by players is going to get heavily modified fairly quickly.

Rules for the Force are, inevitably, most detailed in the Force and Destiny books, but again they are not excessively complex and mesh well with the narrative/cinematic style of the game. If you are running a composite game, there’s the question of how to handle the tricky issue of a character’s relationship with the Dark Side – this is fairly central to Force and Destiny, as you’d expect, but the other core books skip over it.

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In a similar way, each core book introduces a specific mechanic – Obligation for EotE (perhaps that pesky debt your character owes the local Hutt crimelord), Duty for AoR (the consequences of signing up with a military organisation), and Morality (one’s Light/Dark Side balance) for FaD. How to combine these in a game featuring multiple character types is left to the individual GM, but it’s my understanding that this mechanic also gets quietly dropped in many games. (I’m not entirely surprised that the FFG system often gets house-ruled, to be honest.)

Moving on from the actual system, the books themselves are extremely handsomely presented pieces of work, stuffed with lovely and evocative pieces of art, and equally evocative text pieces introducing parts of the Star Wars universe that people only familiar with the movies may not know that much about.

I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here and just take a moment to praise, and indeed marvel at, the consistency and coherence of the way the Star Wars universe has been presented in other media over the years. Given the rather ramshackle development of the fictional universes of most comic book companies, or that of Star Trek or Doctor Who, LFL’s devotion to incorporating as much as possible into their canon is – or was – hugely impressive. I picked up The Imperial Handbook recently (published this year), which in addition to being completely compatible and consistent with 27-year-old sources such as the old WEG Star Wars Sourcebook, also has a go at including things originally existing as slightly dubious models in the old Kenner toy line. The quantity and quality of detail is almost irresistibly convincing – to the point where you really feel the pain of those hard-core fans outraged by having many years of post-Episode VI ‘history’ – the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, the fall of Darth Caedus, and so on – obliterated to make way for the Disney incarnation of Star Wars.

In short, there’s a wealth of detailed setting material – places, people, races, history – freely available on sites like Wookiepedia, most of which can easily be interpreted in game terms for the FFG system. Added to the immense popularity of Star Wars in general, the result is an almost uniquely appealing setting for an RPG. Whether this is the ideal set of rules to exploit that is another question, but the system is an innovative and imaginative one, and one I’m looking forward to giving a proper try in the not too distant future.

 

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My parents assure me that the first film I went to see was Bambi, rereleased as part of the seven-year cycle all the classic Disney films were on back in the mid-Seventies. I, however, have no recollection of the experience.

The honour of my first memory of going to a film goes – like that of many people of my generation, I suspect – to the 1978 UK release of Star Wars. It’s actually quite difficult for me to put into words quite what an impact this had on me, or the quality of the memories which remain burned into my brain even now, after so many subsequent viewings. Films and Star Wars arrived in my life at the same time, and they remain intrinsically linked for me on some strange level.

Certainly for me the Star Wars movies belong and come to life on a big screen unlike any others. This is why, despite already owning all of them on multiple formats, I will happily trot along to watch any of them theatrically, given half a chance. This is why, despite my general aversion to 3D, I even turned out for the current stereoscopic reissue of The Phantom Menace.

(History repeats itself here: back in 1999, I had planned to see this movie about a week after release with a friend. But the very day it came out I happened to be passing the local multiplex, having just signed on, and the urge was too great. This time around I’d planned to either save the viewing for a special occasion, or see it on Valentine’s Day – although given my past record it would probably be less a Duel of the Fates than a Date of the Fools – but once again I found myself strangely incapable of putting it off.)

I have written about The Phantom Menace before at some length, and on re-reading my previous thoughts in the light of seeing it in 3D, I can only conclude that in the past I have given it much too easy a ride. There really is an awful lot going wrong here.

Let’s get the 3D aspect out of the way nice and early – it’s a retro-3D release, obviously, and as a result the effect is really not that noticeable. On one level I suppose we must be grateful for the absence of lightsabers being laboriously jabbed directly at the camera, but on the other hand, this really just points up the brazen nature of the retro-3D-ing fad: you’re paying extra for the 3D, but it doesn’t add anything to a film which wasn’t designed to utilise it. But, of course, I would have gone to see a Phantom Menace re-issue no matter what format it was in, so let’s move on.

Well, hang on, you may be saying, if The Phantom Menace is as clunky as you just alluded, why do you say that? Surely the Star Wars brand name alone isn’t enough to make you suspend your (so-called) critical faculties? What’s it got to commend it?

It’s partly the thing that the Star Wars movies do better than almost any other fantasy films – which is to make you almost believe they were filmed on location in another world. The galaxy far, far away is as alluringly presented here as it ever has been, in seductive detail and on an epic scale. (The production values are, unsurprisingly, superb, not that this in itself should really be a positive.) The film’s visual invention reaches a high point in the realisation of new villain Darth Maul (Ray Park), whose prominence in the publicity for both releases suggests the film-makers agree. (The way that the script horribly underuses Maul – starting a trend that would continue throughout the prequels – is another issue.) The action choreography is great, and it’s not as if all the acting is as dreadful as some people would have you believe – there are genuinely good performances from Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August. There is, of course, John Williams’ wonderful score. But that’s really about it in terms of positives – though the sheer look of the thing is difficult to overestimate as a factor.

Set against this… well, watching it again properly now, the thing that strikes me is how numbingly cack-handed the storytelling is, often on the most basic of levels. I could write a much longer piece than I’m prepared, or indeed have time to, at this point, listing mystifying creative choices and simple mis-steps by the dozen. The apparent racial stereotyping, the belligerent office furniture, the constant unfunny ‘comic relief’, the weird narrative shifts between an epic moral clash between absolute good and pure evil and a politico-economical dispute about trade franchises and taxation (these days the film gives a weird impression of being about the European Parliament)… but anyway.

Let us instead on focus on the core issues with this film. First and foremost, this movie should start from scratch and establish the key characters and themes for the rest of the series. Does it? Does it cobblers. Who exactly are these Sith guys and the Trade Federation and what’s their problem with the Naboo? We’re never told. It never feels like a true beginning. The main character in this movie, certainly in terms of screen time, is Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who is by no means a major player in the overall story. Jinn’s characterisation is as a mass of stoic inertia wrapped in some very odd hair appliances. There is an awful lot of Qui-Gon given that the prequel trilogy as a whole is about other characters.

The relationships and characters here are thin to the point of non-existent. Jake Lloyd is quite simply not very good as Anakin Skywalker, though the rotten dialogue he’s given does not help. His relationship with the woman we know will be his wife in the future (Natalie Portman) just seems weird given she is obviously twice his age (for no strong reason demanded by the plot). As for his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), one of the most central ones in the whole series – in this film, Anakin and Obi-Wan barely have any dialogue with each other, as Qui-Gon is hogging all the script. And as for his relationship with Palpatine, another enormously important plot thread – one line passes between them in the entire movie. In terms of laying foundations and establishing themes, The Phantom Menace is a total failure.

Looking at it now and seeing how the prequel trilogy developed, it seems to me that George Lucas’ biggest misjudgement was to insist that the films be made for a future audience that would not have seen the original trilogy and who would experience the saga in chronological order. The main result of this, in terms of the storytelling, is a strident insistence on preserving the ‘surprise’ that Darth Sidious and Palpatine are the same man (although even The Phantom Menace comes close to blowing the gaffe at one point through an injudicious cut).

As a result, if you’re not in the know as to the ‘secret identity’ the story comes across as bemusingly inconsequential, but if you do know who’s really who, it’s simply baffling instead. Sidious and his Neimoidian allies talk several times of his schemes and plans but we never learn what they consist of, beyond simply taking over the planet. What exactly is he after? What precisely underpins all the various machinations he’s clearly working hard at throughout the movie?

It certainly looks very much like the end of this movie shows Darth Sidious’s plans going somewhat askew – his apprentice chopped asunder, his allies under arrest – but him skilfully parlaying this into a long-term benefit – to wit, his being elected Chancellor. So how would he have benefitted if, instead, things had worked out as he’d planned and the Federation taken over Naboo? Still the Chancellorship? If he was going to get the job either way, why make such a big deal out of trying to capture the Queen, packing Darth Maul off to Tatooine and revealing his existence to the hitherto-oblivious Jedi? Unless this also was part of his plan. In which case… (And so on.)

The problem with having to maintain the narrative distance between Sidious and Palpatine is that as a result none of this can be addressed, even obliquely (Sidious has fairly limited screen-time, too). As a result we get a movie where the objectives and plans of the bad guys remain largely obscure throughout, a real rarity in the fantasy-adventure genre.

Perhaps this is ultimately at the heart of The Phantom Menace‘s incoherence, ideas and scenes piling up on top of one another with not much evidence of an organising principle. Possibly the most disappointing thing about the re-release of this film is that, for once, Lucas has resisted the temptation to fiddle about with and ‘improve’ it, because for once it could really do with it. That, or withdraw it completely and just have another go at telling the story again in an entirely different way. As it is, with this as its origin myth and foundation, the Star Wars saga is a house built on sand. (Not that I don’t still love it, of course.)

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Stone in the Mind’s Shoe. Blowing in the Mind’s Wind. I’m sorry, I should probably stop now. Yes, nonsense upon nonsense and you may well be wondering exactly what I am on about.

Well, here’s the thing. As those who know me will be all too aware I am chronically unable to pass a second-hand bookshop without popping in for a good rummage about, and last weekend was no exception. I spent a happy hour or so in Hurlingham’s, apparently ‘the best bookshop in London’ (nearest Tube stop Putney Bridge), and was pleasantly surprised to discover a copy of Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, an unassuming volume but one nevertheless of some note as only the second piece of Star Wars fiction ever written. Worth a look simply for curiosity value, I think you’ll agree.

You may be wondering why this tale trades under that particular title. Well, having read it, so am I, as it isn’t really addressed in the story. What the story does concern itself with is a secret mission undertaken by Luke, Leia and the droids, to attend a rebel conference. Unfortunately Leia’s ship gets the space equivalent of a flat tyre and they are forced to crash-land on the swampy planet Mimban. Before too many chapters have elapsed they find themselves roped into a quest to recover a mysterious crystal which grants the holder tremendous control over the Force. Unfortunately the Empire has also got wind of its existence and Darth Vader himself is on the way to recover it.

And the results are, er, really incredibly dull. No, really, they are. There’s a lot of wandering around in swamps, ruins and tunnels and conversations between fairly irksome characters. Partly this derives from the fact that the story is based around Luke and the Princess, undoubtedly the two most blandly written and performed characters in the original movie (Vader only shows up in the very last section of the book), even if their characterisation here seems a little eccentric.

There is also, you may not be surprised to learn, a rich vein of ick running through the story for modern readers, as Luke and Leia contend with the powerful sexual chemistry between them. This is written with the obvious intention to be cute (there’s a bit where they have to change clothes which involves a lot of bashfulness and backs being turned) but just comes across as deeply queasy.

There’s what looks like an H.P. Lovecraft reference at one point (which was probably a lot more subtle at the time) but really most interesting thing about reading this book was not the actual story but trying to figure out why it was written the way that it was. Why was the story so lacking in ambition, spectacle and incident? Why weren’t Han and Chewbacca in it, or even referred to much? Why did the story share such odd similarities with scenes from the later movies (it opens with Luke crashing his X-wing into a swamp and later on the Imperial Stormtroopers take a beating at the hands of furry aboriginals)?

Well, readers, if you don’t want the only interesting thing about this book spoiling for you, look away now. My researches (okay, Wikipedia) have revealed that this book originates from such a distant point in the past that at the time George Lucas was worried that the first Star Wars might not be a moneyspinning hit, and commissioned the story for a low-budget sequel to amortise costs. And Splinter is that story, transformed into a novel.

Why is it so dull and lacking in incident and spectacle? Because incident and spectacle are expensive things, unsuited to a low-budget quickie sequel. Why aren’t Han and Chewie in the film? Because Harrison Ford hadn’t signed up for the follow-up when the story was being put together. Why do odd bits of this story resurface in later movies? Presumably because Lucas took a liking to them and decided to recycle.

I do usually like Alan Dean Foster’s writing, his Alien novelisations are exemplary and his original novels (the Spellsingers, for instance) are full of wit and imagination. But Splinter is really only of historical interest, a vision of not such a terribly long time ago in a parallel universe that was probably closer than many people think. That said, it is almost impossible to imagine the original Star Wars not being a monster hit: the fact that George Lucas himself was unsure of its success is somehow rather sweet.

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