Updated: Jun 21, 2022
This week, in honor of "Star Wars Day," I'm taking a break from telling stories about my past to give just a bit more context about what it's like to play a role-playing game. The easiest shorthand to explain the game, of course, is to compare the game to popular movies or TV shows that others are familiar with. When I'm trying to recruit new players, I'll often say, "It's like Legend of Zelda, but one guy is the video game and he explains everything you see and everyone you meet and fight," or "It's like Lord of the Rings, but even weirder and more awesome."
The best analogy to describe actual game play, however, is to say: "It's exactly like Star Wars: A New Hope."
I spend a lot of time thinking about Star Wars. I wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan, but I enjoy the original films a great deal. And as someone who has played D&D for 15 years, in dozens of gaming groups, few films capture the feel of a tabletop roleplaying game like the first Star Wars film.
On the one hand, this should hardly be surprising. The Star Wars characters are built off of the same archetypes that you often see at a gaming table: Luke is the newbie; Han is the cocky smart-ass (there's one of these at every table, though hopefully that’s just their character); Chewie is the strong silent character; Leah might be the one girl at the table (a not-uncommon issue at so many tables), but she's just as sharp and sarcastic as the guys and she can give as good as she gets; R2-D2 is basically the rogue, hacking doors and detecting traps; and C-3PO is the know-it-all who can’t help but correct people every chance he gets (so, he's basically me).
But in all fairness, those are archetypes that we see in lots of places – not just films, but television, literature, video games. No, what really makes the whole thing feel like a game is how stream-of-consciousness the whole story feels.
This doesn't really kick in until they actually get onto the Death Star in the second half, but at that point there are so many scenes that feel like they were lifted right out of a tabletop session:
The Game-Master: You enter a control room with several stormtroopers and one imperial officer. The officer stares you down. "Where are you taking this… thing?"
Luke: "Prisoner transport, from cell block 1138." [Rolls dice] My Deception roll is 16.
The GM: The officer says, "I wasn't notified. I'll have to clear it."
Luke: But I rolled high!
The GM: Yeah, that's why they didn't arrest you or shoot you down. They still have to follow protocols.
Chewbacca: When we put the binders on, we didn't lock them, did we?
Han: No, I think they're, like, half-closed. We'd want you to be able to get your hands free if you need to--
Chewbacca: Okay, I toss the binders off and start attacking stormtroopers.
Luke: Oh crap!
Han: Okay, I want to yell "Look out, he's loose!" and start shooting at the stormtroopers, while making it seem like I'm trying to shoot Chewie.
The GM: Han, you're the closest to the control panel, so you notice an alarm going off.
Han: I turn off the alarm. Is there a radio on this thing?
The GM: Yeah, sure, it's right next to the alarm.
Han: I hit the radio and say, "Everything under control, situation normal!"
The GM: You hear a voice on the radio say, "What happened?"
Han: "We had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine." And I'm going to roll a Deception check, but my Deception is awesome-- [Rolls dice] Crap. That's a 2, so… that's a total of 8. Wow. So apparently I just say, "We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?"
The GM: "We're sending a squad up."
Han: Damn it. Okay, I'm making another Deception check. I say, "Negative, negative. We had a reactor leak here now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Large leak, very dangerous." [Rolls dice] And that's a natural 1. Critical failure.
The GM: "Who is this? What's your operating number?"
Han: … I shoot the radio. Boring conversation anyway.
The GM: Luke, since you and Leia are running through the halls and you don't know where you're going, I'd like you to make a Survival check.
Luke: I rolled a 9.
The GM: Okay, you and Leia are running down the hall from the stormtroopers when you come to an open room where the floor drops off into a large pit.
Luke: Uh, I think we took a wrong turn.
Leia: Is it a dead end?
The GM: Across the room you can see other doorways on other levels, one almost directly across from you. The stormtroopers turn a corner behind you and start firing.
Leia: Are there any controls nearby?
The GM: There's a control panel right next to you.
Leia: I close the door and lock it.
The GM: You can close the door, but there's no lock.
Luke: I pull her away from the door controls and shoot them. That oughta hold them for a while.
Leia: There's a doorway on the other side, right?
The GM: Yeah, you think there's a bridge that extends out.
Luke: I'm going to make an Intelligence check and see if we can activate the bridge. [Rolls dice] 15!
The GM: You shot the controls for the bridge.
The GM: You can hear the stormtroopers on the other side of the door starting to hack the door mechanism.
Leia: Oh, damn it, they're coming through!
Luke: Okay, what do I have in my inventory... now, wait, I already said that I still have the belt from the stormtrooper, so did he have anything on him, like some rope or something?
The GM: In the belt, you find a length of cable and a grappling hook.
Luke: Okay, let's go for it. I toss the hook into the rafters.
I won't do the whole movie, but a lot of the scenes in that film actually work really well with this approach. And I honestly believe that's because the original Star Wars films are built around fantastic adventures with memorable characters at the heart of them - and that's exactly what drives every great D&D game.
For this same reason, Star Wars has been one of the most popular licensed properties to be adapted to an RPG. It’s changed hands a few time, most recently with Fantasy Flight Games publishing a host of RPGs: Age of Rebellion, Edge of the Empire, and Force and Destiny, each compatible games with their own focus in the world of Star Wars, and their own line of books – essentially creating one complex game line. And thanks to custom dice and a unique storytelling system, the game did an excellent job of spreading out the narrative responsibilities to the entire gaming group, rather than just the DM.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t suggest you check out the “Campaign Podcast” from the One Shot Podcast network – those folks were a huge influence on us when we launched “Friday Night Quests,” and Campaign's first season was a delightful series set in the Edge of the Empire game setting (though much goofier than any Star Wars movie or TV show).
Discussion Question: When you think about games like Dungeons and Dragons, it’s easy to get bogged down in the setting, and think of things like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. However, while the setting comes from the game you choose to play, the tone of the game itself is entirely in the hands of the gaming group. So, what sort of tone / genre do you prefer to play? Do you like high adventure (a la Star Wars, Indiana Jones), or more military-centered combat (Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart)? Do you like a good mystery (And Then There Were None, Lost), or high-octane action (Kill Bill, Mad Max)? Are there movies or TV shows you tend to reference in-game, or is it all just Monty Python references? Sound off in the comments!