Sunday, January 1, 2012

Star Wars: Creating Atmosphere

Atmosphere is essential to creating an authentic Star Wars experience for your players. A good GM knows that atmosphere is important in any game. But Star Wars presents a unique challenge, because the goal isn't creating an atmosphere which enhances feelings of dread or excitement. The goal is to create a far more specific atmosphere which enhances the illusion that the players are acting out a continuation of the Star Wars films. There's a certain feel to the Star Wars mythos, one which sets it apart from other internally consistent fictional universes. It's a dirty, gritty place, yet never a hopeless place. It's a universe of stark contrasts between good and evil, where even characters who exist as a shade of gray have picked a de facto side.

The West End Games core rulebook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (second edition, revised and expanded) has some great tips for creating the Star Wars atmosphere. These are some of my own thoughts on how to enhance that atmosphere.

Used Universe
One of the core principals behind the original Star Wars films was the Used Universe philosophy. Unlike other future-tech media, which was filled with gleaming white, or worse, chrome technology, the Star Wars universe is a dirty patchwork which breaks down half the time. Many other works of fiction, such as Firefly, have adopted the used universe philosophy, and it is arguably the most important part of the Star Wars atmosphere.

Very little in a Star Wars game should look pristine and new. Even the ships of the Imperial Navy should have obvious score marks from battles, off-color hull plates where replacements were added, and corrosion here and there. Outside the Imperial Navy, this should be even worse. The ships of the rebellion, or ships owned by smugglers and pirates, often have multicolored hulls from the numerous replacement hull plates which have been installed over the years. And the interiors should be no better. Things get piled in corridors or empty store rooms, sections of ships might even be completely shut down to save on precious energy if money is tight.

Ancient Universe
Have you ever really thought about the like "For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic?" That means the old republic must have existed for at 1001 generations. A generation is an imprecise method of describing time, but even by lowballing and saying that one generation is equal to thirty years, we're talking about a single government which lasted longer than the entire history of human civilization. And before the rise of the Old Republic, there must have been hundreds or thousands more generations of pre-republic history.

Nobody remembers a time before traveling around the universe was commonplace. No planet has a history which is unaffected by the existence of interstellar travel--at least no history which anyone remembers.

That said, it doesn't mean there are no unexplored planets. And there's always the unknown regions to provide unknown challenges.

Tactile Universe
The original Star Wars films were made in the late seventies and early eighties, and reflect the technology of the period. In the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, Han solo flips switches, adjusts levers, and even spins dials. Holograms are grainy and heavily tinted to green or blue, and computer readouts are primitive, to say the least. This can create cognitive dissonance for players who already own technology much more advanced than that seen in Star Wars. The handheld comlink Luke Skywalker uses to tell C-3PO to shut down the garbage masher doesn't really stand up when it's compared to a Samsung Galaxy II, or whatever the kids are excited about this week.

This dissonance can be solved somewhat by mixing your tech levels based on the technology being used. Ships and military hardware, for example, should have more tactile controls. Mechanical parts which need to be physically manipulated in order to bring about the desired effect. This can be explained as simpler hardware being more reliable than touch screens and fancy high definition readouts. Don't be afraid to mix a little bit of high-end future tech in there as well, though. Traditionally, datapads have always been a kind of cross between an e-reader and a TI-85 calculator. But there's no reason you couldn't let your players use them as tablet computers.

Fantasy, not Science Fiction
Star Wars should never be confused with science fiction. There's nothing scientific about it. The distinctive scream of a TIE fighter would never be heard in the vacuum of space, no planet could ever exist as a single biome, lightsabers make no sense, and The Force is magic. A Star Wars GM could never make a bigger mistake than enforcing the laws of science onto the fantastical universe of Star Wars.

That's all there really is to say on the matter.

Droids Like Their Lot
Stories which take place in space tend to fall into two groups. Either there are no robots, or very very few robots, such as in Firefly or Star Trek. Or robots are omnipresent, but they're secretly plotting the downfall of humanity, such as in the Terminator or Matrix films. Such stories often place emphasis on the balance between how advanced artificial intelligence has become, and whether humanity has granted civil rights to those artificial intelligences. Personally I take the Speaker For the Dead / Questionable Content position on this issue, but that's neither here nor there.

In Star Wars, robots (which are always referred to as droids, despite rarely being androids of any kind) are both highly intelligent, and completely content with their subservient position to the organic species of the galaxy. There are a handful of exceptions withing Star Wars cannon. IG-88 and 8T88 are both good examples. And, of course, there was the great droid revolution, but that was an isolated incident.

Their contentment with subservience doesn't mean they're always docile, or even that they're content under whichever master currently owns them. More highly intelligent droids can do plenty of grumbling, and R2-D2 is notoriously sarcastic, even with his beloved master Luke. Droids can have very strong personalities, but it's unlikely that they'll ever actually turn on their masters without outside interference, such as a malicious hacker (or "slicer" in star wars terminology).

Unique Terminology
A GM who isn't a devoted Star Wars fan might find this to be more trouble than it is worth, but I for one find the unique terminology of the Star Wars universe to be an important element of immersion. Many things which exist on earth, and also within Star Wars, have alternate names. Paper is Flimsi, Coffee is Caff, and a bar is a Tapcaff. I could create a list of cross-referenced terms (like some kind of English to Star Wars dictionary) and might actually do so at some point, but simply making a point to use the terms you're already aware of can be helpful.

In the same vein, it's good to make use of Star Wars' unique slang and material names. You, like me, may feel that "Bantha Fodder" is a shitty sub-in for the word "shit," but many of the later novels have done a good job of creating more organic sounding profanity. Words like "Sithspit," "Stang" or "Karking" have the kind of punch we expect from profanity. Other examples of slang include "Eyeball" for a TIE fighter, "Squint" for a TIE Interceptor, or "Impstar Deuce" for an Imperial Star Destroyer Mark II. And it never hurts to make up your own. Just remember to avoid making up terms which sound as goofy as "Bantha Fodder."

As a quick example of how helpful this can be, consider this scenario: Your players are rebel commandos. They're on a transport on their way to a mission. As they come out of Hyperspace, the NPC pilot exclaims:

"Shit! There's a Star Destroyer out there. Looks like a victory class, and it's launching TIEs! Man the guns, people!"

There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think it holds up well when compared to a more flavorful exclamation:

"Sithspit! There's karking Star Destroyer, looks like a Vic. And it's deploying squints! Get to the quads!"


  1. Actually, I find that the linguistic style (of the films, anyway) is most striking and effective for how generic it often is. Things have weird proper names, but the Millennium Falcon is a "transport". Luke's flying car is a "speeder". Han's sidearm is a "Blaster". The Imperials run around in "destroyers" and "fighters" (admittedly qualified as "star" and "TIE").

    That's actually pretty evocative of the ancientness of the setting, in a way that "Glace Cake" is not.

  2. You make a compelling point, though I can't say I know what you mean by "Glace Cake."

    Still, I don't think there's necessarily any reason why the universe can't accommodate both styles of speech. "That's a nice blaster." "Thanks, it's a BlasTech DL-44." or "Incoming fighters! Looks like eyeballs and dupes!"

    The jargon has always been engaging for me.


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