Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide

Waagh! Work is hard! Believe it or not, I read this book as fast as I could (days off playing video games notwithstanding). But for some reason, people decided to stay at my hotel on weekdays for a change. Six of the the last eight days have been my busiest in close to a decade.

I only bring it up because having my reading split up like that really messes with my process. Usually, while I'm reading a book, I'll develop a thesis, and then I'll keep my eyes open for passages that support that thesis (I'd like to say I have the intellectual integrity to also keep my eyes open for contradictory passages, but we all know my initial gut reaction is never wrong). This time, though, any building theories I've had about the book have been swept from my head by a constant stream of interruptions.

Therefor, my impressions of this book are of something stitched together from disparate pieces, united only by their presence in this particular book, and given a theme only in so far as the book's setting is a direct inference from the movie canon. Something must have happened to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. This book is that something.

On the one hand, this impression is total bullshit. I don't think I need to draw a diagram between how I read The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide and my emotional reaction to the experience. And yet, there's a little bit of that feeling whenever I read any Star Wars rpg material.

I think it comes from the Star Wars universe being so diversely sourced. There's a lot of Star Wars media out there, of various degrees of canonicity and the rpgs have never been shy about mining it all. So there's always this mosaic of the familiar, the novel, and the naggingly half-remembered. Like, Thrawn is here. All I know about him is that he's king shit of the EU, so I guess he played a role in the transition between Republic and Empire? Similarly, the Dark Side Prophets - were they those guys hanging out with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi? Or are they entirely an invention of the books? Does it matter?

What's interesting is that The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide ostensibly draws inspiration not just from generic inter-movie gap-filling, but from a specific piece of Star Wars media. One I am intimately familiar with because I recently played it twice in a row for reasons that now seem obscure and confusing.

(Un?)fortunately, this book doesn't do anything super interesting with The Force Unleashed background. We learn a bit about Juno Eclipse's atrocities and that Proxy is a robot with the skills of an experienced Jedi knight (literally, a level 9 Jedi - normally it takes until level 7 to qualify for the Jedi Knight prestige class), but nothing that would make Starkiller even the slightest bit more charismatic or the plot of the games any less eye-rolling. I guess in 2008, it was a boon to the rpg to tie into an exciting new video game, but in retrospect, it adds less than nothing here. The book has a remarkable "Campaign Guidelines" chapter that gives a ton of useful advice for creating suspenseful political-thriller-type games, and if you added any of The Force Unleashed crew to that, you'd almost instantly ruin it.

Overall, this is a book in search of a mission. Because it's based on filling in an empty part of the timeline, it lacks the movie-ready aesthetic of other, more popular time periods. Maybe if it were made after Rogue One, but I think the book probably makes the movie weaker, even in retrospect. I've seen this time period covered three times - Kyle Katarn's adventures, which felt like they tried entirely too hard to be marketable. Starkiller's adventures, which had that same market-pleasing sensibility, but aimed towards a different demographic. And then the story of Jyn Erso, which definitely had a stronger presentation, but also felt, in its own way, like it was riding the current historical moment.

Maybe this time period is just cursed. Maybe we were never meant to know what happened between the prequels and the original trilogy. Maybe this rpg is the best we're ever going to get.

I actually wouldn't go that far. But The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide is at worst bland. At times it really gets into its material, but then, a chapter later, it will just present generically useful stuff, like it's as good a place as any to put the Independent Droid prestige class or the power hammer melee weapon.

UKSS Contribution: From the second I picked up this book, I knew Ukss was going to be home to some version of Juno Eclipse. She has the most on-the-nose Star Wars name imaginable and was wasted in The Force Unleashed series as one half of the least convincing romantic relationship in all of fiction. I very virtuously told myself that I was going to rescue Juno Eclipse from the scrap heap of forgettable Star Wars EU characters and make her into something cool . . .

And then I learned that she was responsible for genociding an entire planet. Before she was assigned to ferry Starkiller around the universe, she had another job as the leader of Darth Vader's crack genocide squad and got her "promotion" to top-secret shuttle pilot as a "reward" for bombing the planet Callos into a radioactive wasteland.

Which . . . uh, ew. I never thought I'd say this, but she and Starkiller deserve each other.

So the Ukss contribution is still going to have Juno Eclipse, but she's going to be a fascist villain instead of a fun and rebellious antihero. Technically, that's me respecting her agency.

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