Being Skilled, Graciously

I played another Infinity tournament over the weekend, and had a ton of fun with it. The local scene for the game is a huge amount of fun, lots of very nice, casual players who are both humble winners and gracious losers. The whole experience with the group is fantastic, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to join in. I really appreciate how welcoming the group has been.


I was really concerned about jumping in and playing with a new group at first, for a couple of reasons. I never know what kinds of attitudes I’ll have going into new scenes, for starters. I had a great, private group of friends that I played Warmachine with in Austin, and went back to playing in Maryland. I took some time off of the game and game back to the same Maryland group and found it had soured, and it put me off of the game entirely. I haven’t played a single game of Warmachine since I moved to Seattle, and was worried that the same might happen with Infinity.

The other reason is that I was worried about how I might fit into the group. My Infinity group in Maryland was one of the most competitive groups in the country, and the guy I would trade wins back and forth with swept Gen Con and got invited to Spain to participate in their big international tournament. I’m not what you might call a hyper-competitive player in general– I could probably perform better than I do if I played more lists that traded fun for effectiveness, or stuck with one faction and mastered it. I’m not that player. Kodra would probably describe me as somewhere in between a Timmy and a Johnny, in Magic: The Gathering parlance. However, I’ve played a lot of Infinity, and I’ve played a broader swathe of the game than most people are even interested in. I’ve played against some really, really superb players and learned to hold my own.


The short version of this is that, not to toot my own horn too much, I’m a fairly highly skilled player, and introducing a new, highly skilled player to an existing group of players, especially a more casual group of players, can be like dropping pure sodium in water. Having “the new guy” suddenly appear and start sweeping everyone can be a bad experience for a playgroup, and while I do my best to make my games fun for my opponent even as I’m winning, I’m well aware that it’s easy to be frustrated with someone like me. It’s less of a big deal if there’s already another high-skilled player who tends to win a lot, but even that can create strife.

There are two ways I can see to approach this. I can downplay my skill, intentionally add handicaps to my play if it looks like I’m winning too much, or I can play at the level I’m used to and let other people deal with it. The first option has always felt disingenuous to me, and robs me of the fun of the game (and my opponents as well, if they catch on). It bothers me at a deep level, because I feel like it’s twisting the good parts of the game to a nastier, pointless end. On the other hand, it’s hard for me not to feel like playing hard and letting the chips fall where they may is irresponsible.


A good friend of mine locally, who’d seen me play quite a lot in Maryland, demanded that I “just play”, and not concern myself with that sort of meta-thought. It meant a lot, coming from him, because he tends to take a dim view of excessive competitiveness; it’s one thing to win, it’s another thing entirely to stomp an opponent with ease and know full well how and why you’re doing it. It felt like permission to just play the game I enjoyed, which is what I’ve been doing. I’ve played something different, sometimes silly and fun, for every tournament I’ve been to, and while I’ve won all of the ones I’ve attended, the more important bit to me is that I’ve had fun and my opponents have enjoyed themselves.

I care a lot about my opponents enjoying themselves. My least favorite games are the ones I sweep. They were satisfying once, years ago, when I wasn’t sure of my ability at the game, but I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I want games where, at the end, my opponent says “that was awesome!” even if they lost. I think I’m succeeding. People are excited to play games against me; I’ve had a local friend ask me to bring the most vicious list I could come up with against him, just so he could see it in action, and at the last couple of tournaments I’ve had people excited both at the chance to play against me and hopeful for the chance next time.


I think that means I’m doing something right. I’ve won every tournament I’ve been to this year, and I’ve gotten a bit of a rep as a strong player. However, I’m not winning by the margins I was nine months ago; each tournament gets closer and closer. At some point, someone is going to overtake me, and I think they’re going to be thrilled. I’ll be thrilled too– it means that I’ll have been the final boss for someone, and it’ll make their victory all the sweeter.

Short Fiction Friday: Holocron

[Missed a few of these, time to change my schedule a bit so I don’t forget ’em. This is setup for my upcoming tabletop game. Enjoy!]


You were my brother.

The words came unbidden, searing through his mind and shattering his concentration. Floating pieces of glass and metal, not yet anything more than pretty scrap, tumbled to the ground. He cursed, once, breaking a lifetime of training and discipline. Even here, in the desert, far from anyone who might hear him, much less judge him, he felt a pang of guilt.

He’d felt a lot of those, recently. He was responsible for the single greatest failure in the galaxy, and had little else but time to mull over it. He would atone. This self-imposed exile was not simply penance, he was quietly, carefully watching and waiting. If the boy showed promise, he could be the hope that the galaxy needed.

Holding all hope in one fragile basket was a fool’s errand, though. He’d learned that one the hard way. With a sigh, he started picking up the metal and glass pieces and arranging them again. They were for his other gamble, one he wouldn’t be able to oversee in person. If the boy didn’t show promise, or if something happened to him like had happened to the boy’s father, this gamble would have to succeed.

With renewed focus, he concentrated again, willing the shards to rise and form a pattern. This time they settled properly, a faint glow suffusing the room. Allowing himself a smile, he began to speak, making an effort not to stumble over the name he hadn’t used in a decade.


“Greetings. If you’re seeing this, you are the last students of the Jedi, and I congratulate you on coming this far. You have had a harder childhood than you deserve, and I’m sorry.

My name will mean little to you, but I should share it anyway. I am Jedi Master Obi-wan Kenobi, and if you’ll have me, I’ll teach you everything I can. We will never meet, and for that I am sorry, but I will pass on as much knowledge as I’m able through this holocron.

I will teach you what I can, and guide you to places where you can learn more. It is up to you what you do with the knowledge I share, but I hope you will use it for good. There is already enough darkness in the galaxy, and some must stand against it. You will not do this alone; there is another who is being trained, but I do not know if you will cross paths.

I am sorry for the hardships you will face. If you are seeing this, it is not long before you’ll need to flee everything you’ve ever known. It will no longer be safe for you. Some of that is my fault; I have little confidence that this delivery has not been tracked. As my students, I give you your first task: escape. Flee the planet, any way you can. We will speak again once you have.

Good luck, and may the Force be with you, always.”


This time the shards closed properly, folding neatly into a small cube. The man allowed himself a wince, remembering the last time he’d sent a message this way. The next part was easier, but would take months. He would pour his knowledge into this cube, leaving a part of himself within it to teach.

The children would have a difficult time. If that hadn’t been the case before, it certainly would be as soon as they recieved this cube. There were few things in the new Empire that were more illegal to own. One of the others would be included in this package as well. It bothered him to put the children in danger so suddenly, with such a monumental task ahead of them, but he knew of no other way. One hope would be raised in ignorance and idealism, the other would be forged in conflict. One would have to triumph.

He was responsible for the greatest terror the galaxy had ever known, and he would see it ended.


Seeing the Whole Picture (or: The Privilege to Rant)

I’ve been reading a book that was recommended to me by a professor of mine. It’s “You Are Not A Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, and it’s an incredibly interesting read. It’s a studied look at the effects of the Internet on our daily lives, and talks about his take on both how structures influence meaning and culture and, ultimately, how those shape the kinds of things we take for granted.


Lanier has something of a background in the Internet– I’m understating things here; he’s credited with popularizing the term “virtual reality” and has been working in computers and technology for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s fascinating, then, to read his generally skeptical, sometimes negative view on the Internet. He adopts a severely critical view on the culture of the Internet and where it’s gone, and does so from a position of knowledge and understanding, which I find incredibly rare.

The overall tone of the book (as far as I’ve read; about halfway thus far) is that of disappointment; that the Internet could have been much more and instead what we’ve done with it is create a massive shopping network and commodify ourselves, making ourselves and our lives the products for large-scale corporations. He’s not wrong; facebook, twitter, many blogs, lots of games, all of these are making money not from the people who use them, but from third-parties who buy and sell information about people. Indeed, he has a fairly severe anti-social-media bent, though it’s rooted in a deep knowledge of the systems at work.

He takes the concept a step further, and suggests that our easy adoption of these structures has redefined what we consider possible, and that it’s constraining our creativity. He goes beyond that and suggests that we are reducing ourselves through our expression, and that we’re redefining what it means to be a person into something that fits neatly into our current internet-social constructs. He says this is limiting, and that we run the risk of dehumanizing ourselves in our mad rush to be ever more connected and ever more in tune with internet culture, the “culture of the future”.


I’m torn on my reaction to this. Were it said by someone without his credentials, I’d quickly dismiss it as the rocking-chair ranting of someone who the future left behind, who doesn’t understand what the future has brought and is afraid of it. The thing is, he demonstrably DOES understand it, or at least its structure, and as a result I’m inclined to give him a bit more than short shrift. When he talks about how the idea of a “file”, something so deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness as an immutable concept, that’s simply one of many possible means of storing data, it resonates. He comments that the “file” is one of a number of possible structures that were being developed simultaneously, and simply caught on.

He goes on to state that, unlike a lot of other human endeavors, computer science and software engineering don’t necessarily generate the best solutions. A massive, unfathomably complex system needs a particular fix, and needs it RIGHT NOW, and the first, quickest fix isn’t necessarily the best one, yet it endures because tearing down the edifice to “do it right” is unthinkable. He uses MIDI as an example– developed originally as a way of digitizing a single, specific musical instrument (the keyboard), it has expanded to imitate a vast number of musical concept, some better than others, and has instilled itself as a type of sound we expect. It’s worked its way backwards from an imitation of “real” music into “real” music itself, and entire genres and subgenres of music are borne of it.

It’s about here where he and I disagree. He’s horrified by this, saying that the extremely limited MIDI form constrains our understanding of the whole of music as we come to expect its sounds over other musical sounds. I find it clever and fascinating that we have the ingenuity to turn anything, even the most simplistic pale imitation of music, into a musical art form unto itself. He thinks it speaks to a reduction in our worldview, I see it as a triumph of the human urge to express itself. Digital music allows people who could previously never have made music to express themselves musically, and yet it’s still a functional and practical enough medium to be recognizably used for specific technological purposes (like cell phone tones and PC error messages).


I also see his scathing critiques of social media and the harms that some of it have allowed, and I’m unable to completely disagree. He talks about the parasitic nature of social media, and how it pulls us apart while purporting to bring us together. I’m hard-pressed to disagree, especially as I see friends of mine get burned out of things like Facebook and Twitter and take a break, attempting to rid themselves of the mental toll it takes. He mentions the original source of anonymity on the Internet, and laments that this stopgap solution put in place decades ago has become a tool for harassment, trolling, and other vulgarity.

I can’t disagree with what he sees, but I also don’t think it’s the entire picture. Were I to abandon social media, I would lose contact with a great many close friends, solely because of the inconvenience of distance and different time zones. The great sign of friendship that we often rave about is the ability to see a person after months or years and pick up where we left off as if only hours had passed. Prior to the internet, that was rare, a special kind of friendship that few of us attained, if we attained it at all. Now, for me, it’s true of many of my friends, far more than I’d otherwise be able to keep up with in person. I see the harms of anonymity, people being harmful or dangerous and using anonymity as a shield to protect them from retribution. I also see the people whose voices were never previously heard, able to speak for the first time (sometimes in human history) because that same anonymity shield protects them from reprisal.


It’s a privilege, I think, to be able to look only at the bad that the Internet has wrought, and knowing that one could do without it, decry the endeavor as a disappointment. I think it speaks to how we can be highly knowledgeable in our field and still not see the bigger picture; we can be blind to the implications of our own work despite our expertise. It mirrors my own concern with my creative work– do I include viewpoints that I don’t share or don’t fully understand and cause them to be represented even if my representation is inaccurate or unintentionally offensive, or do I leave them out and perpetuate the cycle of under-representation?

It creates a catch-22, I think. I can’t write about perspectives I know without risking misrepresentation, but I can’t avoid writing about them if I’m concerned about perpetuating the status quo. We can’t purge the anonymous internet trolls without catching the previously-voiceless in the crossfire.

I used to think, like Lanier appears to, that we could build things “properly”, such that we got all of the good parts and none of the bad. I’m no longer think that’s possible. There’s no getting the good without the bad, and what’s left is deciding how much of each is worth it.

SWTOR’s Jedi Consular

I talked a bit yesterday about how I didn’t want to just bash on the Jedi Consular story without commenting on what I would have done differently. I’m loathe to critique something if I don’t have a better suggestion, and so I want to follow up with how I would have approached the Consular story, and why.

To get to what I would change, I want to talk a bit about why the Consular story doesn’t work, because the writing in it isn’t bad. There are some great moments, and when the Consular story has good moments, they’re very memorable. The biggest flaw with the Consular in my opinion is that the image the story is going for– the wise, diplomatic healer– does not translate well into gameplay, so there’s this automatic disconnect between the story concept and the structure of the game it’s in. It means that the good writing (and there is good writing in the Consular story) is scattered and doesn’t form a coherent whole. It’s a lot of justifications to get to the interesting moments, which are good, but feel too few and far between.


Why This Doesn’t Work, and What Does Work

The concept of the Consulars that appear elsewhere in Star Wars mostly comes from Yoda, who does a lot of sitting around talking and precious little actual action. It’s not conducive to a game, at least not one where the core mechanics are centered around traveling around and fighting. The “healer” side of things is a bit more compelling, because going around and healing people is pretty reasonable, but the urge to go more character-driven means you fall into a pattern of chasing people around and then finally doing some healing at the end. The same is sort of true of the diplomacy part– you’re really going out and doing favors so that you can do a bit of diplomacy at the end. It makes the majority of your time feel tacked-on, because the real ‘meat’ of what you’re supposed to be doing is the healing or the diplomacy or the being wise, which isn’t sustainable and so is doled out in small pieces.

There’s also the problem that the Jedi Knight steals a LOT of thunder from the Consular. The Consular is at its best when it’s doing things that the Knight isn’t, which is why the Consular Act 2 is the most conceptually compelling chapter, because it’s dealing with galactic diplomacy, which the Knight doesn’t even touch. A lot of the other stuff the Consular does, the Knight ALSO gets to do, while doing other, cooler stuff as well.

From the story, it feels like the Consular is going for a more cerebral kind of story than the Jedi Knight’s lightsabers-and-heroics story, and is trying to showcase different aspects of what Jedi powers do. I think this is great, and it’s both fitting for the Consular and compelling as a story. The other thing that the Consular story pushes that the Knight story doesn’t really bother with is the role of the Jedi in the Republic. You get a bit of that with the diplomacy side of things, and again, this is why Act 2 is the strongest in concept.

I think it’s possible to retain a lot of the structure of the Consular story as well as the overall themes and ideas it seems to be going for in a way that would separate it further from the Jedi Knight and make it its own awesome thing.

What I Want out of Consular

So, I want a story that ties the Republic in with the Jedi more. I want it to feel significantly different from the Jedi Knight, and I want it to be more cerebral while still touching on the more mystical side of the Jedi. I want more memorable companions, and I want my gameplay actions to cleave a bit closer to the concept I’m after. I also want the mysticism to be more of an active part of the story, rather than a justification or macguffin.

There’s a part of the Republic that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the various storylines, that I think we could work a bit more with: the Strategic Intelligence Service (SIS), the Republic’s spy agency. Neat characters, neat opportunities for cool moments, and mostly don’t show up in the other class stories (except Agent). Speaking of Agent, it’s a story theme (cloak-and-dagger spies) that doesn’t show up in the Republic-side classes pretty much at all.

You may see where I’m going with this.

Consular 2.0 (draft)

The Jedi Knight is a story about heroics and loud, blatant awesomeness. We want the Consular to feel different from that, and being more subtle and cerebral gives us a nice departure. We can emphasize that by pulling in the SIS, and adding a touch of an “intelligence/black ops agent” feel to the class. We run the risk of having a “dark” Consular story, but that works in this case, I think, since the point is to be more subtle and clever.

Here’s the basic pitch: the Jedi Consular is a Seer, able to have clear visions through the Force, and uses that power to help the Jedi and the Republic on missions that would never have been possible without a Seer’s farsight and impossible knowledge. It’s a story about being one step ahead of your enemies, and helping people who would have gone unsaved but for your mystical foresight. You don’t just have visions through the Force, you act on them.

I’ll go act by act.

Prologue – Tython

Not a lot has to change here, I don’t think. I would drop a moment extremely early on where you have a vision of your ultimate enemy, and have the other Jedi argue your visions only to have you be proven right. It gives you the opportunity to attach to your Master, who believes your visions, and an early sense of your power. I’d also have the Twi’lek you face have gotten his information from somewhere else, a manipulator from the shadows. Otherwise, you complete your training and finish Tython as a full Jedi. Rather than introducing Qyzen Fess here, I would introduce your ranged tank, the Twi’lek you face at the end who joins you both because his village cast him out and because he wants revenge on the puppetmaster pulling his strings. We can keep Qyzen as a melee tank later, when he makes more sense and isn’t a weird adjunct to the story. This is also a much more interesting use of Zenith, who can be a more complex character who’s both bitter about the plight of his people and his exile but excited to be seeing the galaxy.

Act 1 – Healer of Worlds

Reports of criminal groups on Coruscant fencing stolen Jedi relics concerns the Jedi Council, and you’re dispatched to Coruscant to find out what’s going on. It’s a problem, but the more established Jedi are busy elsewhere and this is a good use of a junior Jedi, as well as a good opportunity to work with the Republic. You’re assisted by an SIS agent who’s providing intel, and you wind up working through the Coruscant underbelly tracking down these relics and using your Force visions to guide your way. You wind up facing down a Sith Lord’s apprentice who’s ransacking the Jedi Temple and was using the criminal organizations to smuggle certain relics offworld. In places of deep sadness or trauma, the Force can become dark and be a font of power if left unchecked. By recovering the relics and ousting the Sith, you can ‘heal’ the wound at the Jedi Temple and purify it.

The pattern will be similar to what happened on Tython, and your companion will be able to comment that he was supposed to stir up pain and conflict as well, to generate this kind of power.

You have a vision of other places of power, at which point, with the help of the Jedi Council and the SIS, you’re off to find out what this Sith Lord is up to and stop him/her. The four planets that are a part of the Republic Act 1 work nicely for this– Taris has obvious “tragic event” overtones, Nar Shaddaa is a great place to engineer a tragedy, and longstanding suffering is common there, Tattooine is somewhat similar to Nar Shaddaa (and has some hints at serious tragedy surrounding the Sand People), and Alderaan is a historied planet with a ton of longstanding bad blood.

These are all ripe for both existing or upcoming tragedies, and while the overall theme of healing a wounded place and restoring balance is maintained, the ways in which you do that can vary pretty wildly from planet to planet. On Coruscant, you might restore parts of the Jedi Temple and recover important relics. On Taris, you can heal sick people and stop a madman from spreading the rakghoul plague. On Nar Shaddaa, you can restore and fortify an organization that aids and protects people from gangs and slavers. On Tattooine, you can delve deep into Sand People history and restore lost knowledge to a wandering people. On Alderaan, you can take part in a diplomatic summit and put a stop to the bloodshed and strife on the planet. In all cases, you’re doing some mystical, some mundane things to heal these ‘wounded’ planets in your own way, opposed by a Sith at each step of the way.

There’s a great opportunity here to solve these problems BEFORE the Sith even arrives, because you have awesome Force visionary powers. It lets the Big Bad show up at the end, but gives you a sense of proactive cleverness that you don’t get in other stories. You’re prepared, because you can glimpse the future, and your Sith opponents can be very surprised to find you already stopping their plans.

By managing to be a step ahead of the shadowy Sith Lord’s plans, she’ll make things personal, and make a point of calling you out. There’s a great opportunity here for a sequence in which you make your way through a heavily booby-trapped area, with your visions guiding you past the traps, and calmly walking through the traps and facing off against a Sith Lord would be great. I would also make THIS character a companion, who joins you when you show her that your power, despite not being borne of the dark side, is vastly beyond hers. Rather than using ‘wounded’ planets as a font for more power, she’ll join you and learn where you get your power from. This also gives you a chance to redeem her or not, depending on your alignment, giving a nice analogue to the Sith Warrior story and separating the Consular yet further from the Jedi Knight.

Act 2 – Light from the Shadows

At this point, you’ve got something of a reputation for being in the right place at the right time, and the SIS wants you for some extremely difficult black ops missions. You’re able to get intel that they can’t through the Force, and you can help solidify the Rift Alliance by pulling off these missions. It’s a very similar structure to the existing Act 2, but it’s more focused around clandestine humanitarian operations rather than taking orders from politicians. Absolutely have an SIS agent as a companion somewhere in here.

As a finale, we have a confrontation with an Imperial warship who’s trying to strongarm the Rift Alliance and is using a brother-sister pair of Inquisitors, both members of the Dark Council, to outmaneuver you and convince the diplomats to join them. This is aided by their influence over one of the politicians, who is being manipulated with Force Persuasion and poisoning the other politicians against the Republic. You slip aboard the warship and collect information to discredit them and disrupt their mind control, then present it and send them packing, though not without a fight. You manage to escape with the siblings vowing revenge.

Act 3 – Dark Rivals

As a proven diplomat and healer, you are now assigned to the most sensitive diplomatic missions possible, both trying to undermine Sith control of planets and establish Republic holds. This puts you on Belsavis, where Imperial agents are trying to use the secret prison planet as a massive propaganda campaign against the Republic, where once again you face the siblings working to undermine you. You discover that the siblings, together, also have future-sight powers and limited mind control, and that you can’t stay one step ahead of them. You follow up on Voss, where they’re trying to brutally undermine negotiations with the Voss and you have to prove the validity of your visions versus the siblings’, which impresses the Voss, who value their own seers.

The pair then changes tactics, using their own visions to hunt down Jedi on Corellia and cripple the offensive. You need to meet them where they’re going to get hit, slowly gaining ground until you can hit them at their base. This proves to be a ruse, and they’ve attacked your own ship and your crew. You have to retake your ship, fending off your own crewmembers who are being controlled. However, before you manage to retake the ship, the siblings steal a crucial piece of information: the location of the Republic Fleet, and are racing to bring warships for a surprise attack.

In the Act 3 finale, you fend off an Imperial assault against the unprepared Republic Fleet, rallying troops throughout the Fleet area and preparing for the conflict. With many Jedi and warships on a “secret mission” (which is happening in parallel during the Jedi Knight story), the fleet is vulnerable. You prepare the defense, then fend off the twins and bring them both down on the bridge of their own vessel. Defeated, they call on the Dark Council for aid, but the Dark Council shuns them for their failure. You are a hero of the Republic, and a defender of the people in a way that the Jedi Knight isn’t.

Final Thoughts

This is obviously a draft, but it’s the kind of structure that I think addresses a lot of the issues with the Consular story while giving it its own theme and maintaining the general concepts it’s going for. It’s a story that makes equal sense for both Sage and Shadow, and where your actions are tied into the story a lot more closely. Having Force Visions is a neat, mystic-y concept but actually acting on them is satisfying. There’s a possibility for this type of Consular story to make you feel smarter then your enemies and more proactive in general, and it leaves a lot of room for more interesting companions.

It’s also easy to make alterations based on which planets wind up being used. The overall concept for each Act doesn’t change much, and planets could be added or removed (say, during development) without the story being heavily impacted. It keeps a fairly episodic structure, much like the Agent story.

SWTOR Class Story Reviews (Part 3)

I’m not really looking forward to writing this one. In general, I like to be positive about the games I talk about or at least constructively critical. SWTOR is almost four years old now, and I can’t imagine my critique at this point is able to be constructive. Still, it’s something that weighs on my mind, especially as someone who does their own writing, and perhaps I can put the thoughts to rest by writing them down. As per usual, spoilers ahead, probably more significant than the others of these I’ve written.


I’ve been doing these in pairs for a particular reason. SWTOR class stories tie together in thematic pairs surprisingly nicely. Whether this is an intentional sort of duality or not I don’t know, but as I’ve played them, the classes seem to arrange themselves into tidy pairs. Trooper and Agent are stories about being a dutiful member of an organization. The Sith Inquisitor and Warrior stories are about paths to power and respect. The Smuggler and Bounty Hunter stories are about being on the outside looking in (and I’m interested in seeing more of both). Finally, the Jedi Consular and Knight stories are about being superheroes, the key piece that sets Star Wars apart from other settings.

I talked before about “Star Wars stories” vs “stories that happen to be set in Star Wars”. Both of the Jedi stories are the former. In general, I’m a lot less of a fan of these stories, and in the case of the two Jedi classes, one works and one doesn’t. I’ll start with the one that does, so I can talk about the other one.


Jedi Knight

The Jedi Knight storyline is, in a variety of ways, the “main story” of SWTOR, as much as it has one. It draws from the great moments of KOTOR, the prequels, and the original trilogy to deliver a focused beam of cool Star Wars-y content. It has companions that pull from the “standard” characters throughout Star Wars and the events that occur during the Jedi Knight story are not only referenced in other class stories more than pretty much any other class, but in fact are the catalyst for (at least) an entire expansion’s worth of content, as well as frequent callouts elsewhere.

The story is comprised of pretty much every Jedi-y concept in Star Wars, and it’s very clearly thoroughly thought out. The first Act of the story is about finding and disarming superweapons. You’re plunged pretty much instantly into Serious Business, and the game slowly weans you off your older, snarky master. Of note here: your master is basically Qui-Gon Jinn, and throughout the first act you are Obi-Wan Kenobi circa the Clone Wars, complete with your very own not-entirely-light-side Padawan, who hides a secret from you. You get to be better than Kenobi, though, and while your master is killed, he comes back as a spirit and advises you from beyond the grave, and you can keep your Padawan on the straight-and-narrow, with a bit of leeway and understanding.

Throughout Act 1, there’s this continual choice to kill your foes or to try to redeem them. Almost all of these characters are set up very well to make these choices not so cut and dry. There’s a lot of doubt surrounding the ability for fallen Jedi or Sith to be redeemed, and you also deal with the political fallout of “traitor Jedi” which tarnish the Jedi reputation. The choices were compelling enough (and my lack of care about being “full light side” or “full dark side” being pretty significant) that I actually spared some and killed others, based on the situation.


Acts 2 and 3 are where things really pick up. While other classes are embroiled in internal rivalries or military actions or what have you, as a Jedi Knight you are gunning for the Emperor himself. It’s a bold move, and Act 2 is about setting your strike up, bringing together some other dedicated Jedi, and attacking the Emperor’s secret base. It’s a very KOTOR-like segment, with you working towards a clear, obvious project. I like the delivery here because what you’re doing is notable every step of the way, and you’re reminded what you’re doing and why, so there’s none of the usual “why am I on this planet again?” sense of disorientation. The characters you meet along the way are generally interesting as well (I especially like the Jedi Master who has several “meedee” droid pets).

Act 3 begins after your (failed) attack on the Emperor, during which you gain a lot of insight into the Emperor’s (horrific, galaxy-destroying) plans as well as gaining an unexpected Sith ally. Lord Scourge is an interesting character, and contextualizes for the Republic what the Sith opinion of the Emperor is. He wants to see the Emperor go down just as much as you do, but has no faith in the Dark Council’s ability to fight him. He’s had a vision and made a deal with the devil to be able to see it through. In Act 3, you get an interesting inversion of the redeem/kill choices in Act 1, as you find yourself face to face with the rest of your Jedi strike team, all controlled by the Emperor.

Throughout Act 3, you are Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion Republic, and helping out with military actions while setting up to take down the ultimate evil in the galaxy. The final confrontation with the Emperor is distinctly reminescent of the end of Return of the Jedi, with you going (mostly) alone deep into enemy territory, and the story’s finale looks more like the awards ceremony at the end of A New Hope than anything else in the game. The music is exciting, the applause raucous, the lights gleaming, and the camera hitting the right notes.


The Jedi Knight story is an example of a “star wars story” done well. It’s comprised of lots of hints and callouts to the rest of Star Wars lore, but it’s woven together into a coherent, compelling story that hits all the right notes without directly stealing from anywhere (except possibly that awards ceremony). You do incredible, heroic things, you do all of the cool Jedi stuff you’re used to seeing, and you get recognized for your awesomeness. It’s not a story you can remove from Star Wars, but it’s the kind of story that you can only tell in the Star Wars universe, and it’s a pretty good one, with some neat twists and interesting moments. And then…


Jedi Consular

For all that the Jedi Knight story does well, the Jedi Consular stumbles and falls. I’ve played through this story twice now, and the Consular is mechanically my favorite class in the game, but I am extremely glad I played it first, before playing any other class story. I don’t want to go on and on about how it’s just a bad story, but I do want to talk about why.

For the Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, and Jedi Knight, there are clear, obvious characters in the Star Wars mythos that are being evoked. For the Consular, not so much. There aren’t a lot of Consular-type Jedi who take front-and-center; you’ve got… Yoda, and… Yoda. Talking backwards at people is not exactly compelling gameplay and a core conceit of Yoda’s character is that he’s crazy powerful. Being crazy powerful right at the start of the Consular story doesn’t work, and it’s pretty clear from the word go that the story is kind of adrift.

Notably, playing Consular and Knight side by side, it feels like the Jedi Knight was a story built on the big, notable “Jedi” moments and the Consular was kinda left with the scraps. Throughout the Consular story, there are these hints at cool “Jedi” moments, but they’re never delivered as well as they are in the Jedi Knight story, or as coherently. There’s a ton of mysticism, which is appropriate, but it ultimately doesn’t affect much– the mysticism quickly becomes a hand-wavey way of telling me that I’m doing “something cool” without showing me why it’s cool.


As an example: Act 1 is about… a virus, kind of, that sort of affects Jedi Masters. Your Master falls ill and one of your first acts is trying to cure her. You’re looking for some Jedi artifacts that are unique and special and put you face-to-face with some old wise Jedi Masters, some of which are callbacks to KOTOR and all of which are lore faucets, telling you a bunch of things that boil down to “we have no idea what’s wrong with your Master”, up until you find the very last one. There’s no sense of progression other than a few throwaway lines along the lines of “oh, yeah, we can think about this more clearly because you found the other ones for some reason”. Bear in mind: during this same stretch of time, the Trooper is hunting the squad that betrayed them up close and personally, the Smuggler is seeking revenge for their stolen ship, and the Jedi Knight is racing to stop a superweapon. The Consular is… looking for some forgotten lore to help fight some mysterious ailment that’s affecting their Master? Eventually you find this cure, some kind of ritual that blocks the virus and the mind control (?) that comes with it. You’re warned that doing so weakens you in some unspecified way, but that’s about it.

This is the big story hook that’s supposed to draw you into the rest of the story, and it’s vague and uncertain. It’s also littered with holes that make it feel even more uncertain and not super well-thought-out. One of the first things you find out in this whole hunting-the-cure segment is that your Master is mostly delirious or comatose and attacked one of the medical staff. A little later, this happens again, and you have to fight her yourself. She’s equipped with her lightsaber. There isn’t even an option to ask the medical staff why they let a delirious, violent, martially-trained patient keep their deadly weapon. The story is full of these “wait, what” moments that further weaken the already uncertain story. These kinds of things exist elsewhere, and it’s possible to accuse me of nitpicking here, but the point I want to make is that a minor plot hole like this in a strong story like the Agent’s is a lot less noticeable and more easily forgiven than a similar issue in a weaker, less compelling story like the Consular’s.


Act 1 continues with you finding out that some Masters might also be afflicted, so you travel around the galaxy checking on them and finding out that, yep, they’re all afflicted. You track them down, find out they’re preparing to do something awful while mind controlled, stop them from doing said awful thing, and then decide whether to save them or not. There’s a parallel here to the Jedi Knight story, except that in the Jedi Knight story the people you’re “saving” aren’t necessarily innocents, whereas every single one in the Consular story is an innocent who is literally being mind controlled. Your choice is to save them, like you came to these planets to do, or murder them with no real rationale. There’s the occasional person on the planet who clearly doesn’t understand the big picture who tends to urge you to kill whoever you’re there to save, but you don’t really get the opportunity to explain things.

Act 1 wraps up with you working some mysticism with your Master to find the location of the person behind all of this. You get pretty much no clues about where to find the guy or who he is up until this point, and then you perform some unspecified ritual and then hunt him down. When you get there, surprise, it’s some guy you’ve never met but has been hinted at throughout Act 1, except everyone thought he was dead, because that provably stops the Force elsewhere in lore. During the showdown, he mocks you, saying that you can’t kill him because he’s infected TONS of Jedi Masters somehow, despite the disease spreading by touch, and if you kill him all of those Jedi Masters will die.


The frustrating thing for me is that I’m trying to be charitable. I’ve played through this story twice and it’s still vague and uncertain for me, and almost every major plot point in Act 1 boils down to “because magic”. The first Act is not without its bright spots, too. There’s a really cool moment where you can save some people from a burning wreck using Force Lift, because you’re just that awesome, and it’s a moment of greatness unlike anything the Jedi Knight gets to do. Later, you get to take part in a diplomatic summit, which is another neat moment and wraps up that planet very nicely as well as foreshadowing the next Act. The Jedi Consular is at its best when it’s getting to do things the Jedi Knight doesn’t get to do, and at its worst when it’s doing the same things as the Knight but less interestingly.

Act 2 shifts gears considerably, and is, I think, the most interesting part of the Consular storyline while being the most frustrating. Your role shifts to diplomat, and Act 2 becomes about getting a particular group of people to join the Republic by, essentially, solving their problems on their home planets. This would actually have been really compelling if any of the representatives you dealt with were likable; they’re pretty much all either sniveling or entitled, and doing work for them leaves you feeling unappreciated– you get a lot of grudging thanks and bickering that mars an otherwise compelling story arc.


Act 3 returns you to mysticism land, where once again you’re dealing with mind controlled people, mostly Force-users, who are the Children of the Emperor, secretly doing his bidding as sleeper agents all over the galaxy. This is a really compelling concept that unfortunately just becomes mystical nonsense because it doesn’t have enough build time. You sort of get a few infodumps about who these people are and why they’re bad and then you do some magic to find them and stop them before they complete their inevitable betrayal. This culminates in you facing off against a notable Jedi Master who’s one of the few recurring characters in this story, which is an honestly really great moment. It’s overshadowed by the Jedi Knight getting a nearly identical fight at the exact same time with a better-developed character, right BEFORE a much more impressive, much more epic sequence that the Consular lacks entirely.

The storyline can, in theory, be held together by its characters, though. The Smuggler story, from what I’ve seen thus far and what I’ve heard, is more about the cool characters than the actual plot, and the Consular storyline could easily have been saved by a selection of interesting characters. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really happen. You start with a Trandoshan melee tank, whose philosophy is about hunting and killing, and who is hanging around with you for some kind of unclear lore reason, whether you want him to or not. You also get a character whose defining characteristic is he’s a military guy, and another whose defining characteristic is that he’s a freedom fighter. Neither are terribly memorable. The Consular’s padawan (and potential love interest if you’re a male) is a naive teenaged girl who’s excited to see the galaxy (making the whole love interest thing really creepy), and who you don’t get until extremely late in the story, making her companion arc feel rushed. That having been said, the Consular does get one great companion in Tharan Cedrax, who is annoying and narcissistic at first but winds up being both extraordinarily useful and genuinely funny, and is a lot more complex of a character than most.

maxresdefault (8)

What’s frustrating to me is that I’m trying to be as charitable as I can. For a story with so much potential, it’s riddled with problems and is punctuated by a few bright spots, but otherwise spends a ton of time telling you about Star Wars mysticism minutiae. It’s very similar to the Sith Inquisitor storyline in that respect, except that the mysticism you’re hearing about doesn’t have much bearing on what you’re actually doing, it’s just a loose justification. You get all kinds of lore about the mind-control virus that was invented by [ancient sith lord] and employed in [historical moment] and rediscovered on [planet you never visit], but in the end it’s just a reason for you to go save some people, and it leaves things feeling hollow.

I don’t want to leave this without talking a bit about what I would have done to improve it, and why, but I’ve gone on for quite a while at this point. More tomorrow.

A New Tabletop Campaign

I’ve wrapped up the first arc of my Shadowrun campaign and, thanks largely to the timing and the Star Wars hype going around, I’m getting started with a new game before picking up Shadowrun again. I’m running the Fantasy Flight Star Wars system, which I’m excited to run. It’s a somewhat unwieldy system with three “core” books, so I’ve slimmed things down a little bit to make it a bit more accessible. For the most part, my players will only be using the new Force and Destiny book.


The premise should be fun. Set right around the time of Episode IV, the party is a collection of Force-sensitives who were slated to train at the Jedi Temple but avoided the Purge and have been hiding out ever since. They’ve been raised on Coruscant by a loyal and savvy local businessman (Dexter Jettster, of Dex’s Diner) and kept out of harm’s way. It’s a reasonable arrangement, with the kids helping out at the diner and picking up some tricks in secret. It keeps everyone together and with roughly aligned goals even if they have wildly different personalities; they’re more like a family than a party of convenience.

I’m looking forward to running in parallel with the original trilogy, writing for and showing off a different view of events as the movie plots play out (elsewhere in the galaxy). I like the “party of nascent Jedi” concept, too, especially since with this setup I can lean on the interesting mythology and have it be relevant to all of the characters, but not force everyone to be the usual berobed lightsaber-wielding knights.

Systemically, I’m also interested in seeing how the game plays out. It’s a much, much less deadly game than Shadowrun is in general, which makes for some interesting choices. It should feel like it’s a lot less necessary to make extremely detailed plans and avoid risk at all costs, and I think that’ll be a good break from the sometimes-oppressive Shadowrun setting, where one wrong move and horrible things happen to everyone.

I really like that the system has clearly-defined degrees of success, along with a non-binary resolution system. There’s more to a roll than whether you simply succeeded or failed, and it’s entirely possible to fail but still have something good happen or succeed and still have something go wrong. It makes even failed rolls interesting as a player, and gives me as the DM a lot more hooks to attach interesting things to.

The big concern I have is writing time. I usually write campaigns for about three to six months prior to the first session, and I’m compressing that time into about three weeks. I’m taking next week off of running game because there’s an Infinity tournament that day, but it also gives me more time to get a lead on writing this campaign. Because I don’t have time to extensively map out every possible set of actions that the group can take (notably, I’ve done this in the past and as I’ve mentioned previously, throw out about 80% of everything I write), I’m adopting a style of writing that I used for the previous Star Wars game I ran. Instead of a highly detailed tree, I’m essentially writing little “blobs” of content and connecting them on the fly, adapting to what the group is doing and sometimes stringing them together. My biggest worry about this approach is that it can lead to a “monster of the week” sort of feel, though I think even that can be fun for a little while.

I’ve got a big group for this one– seven or eight players– and I suspect there will be some amount of cycling that goes on as some people can make it some days but not others. It’s a good, balanced group, though, and one of the nice things about FFG’s Star Wars system is that it splits the usual party roles up enough to prevent certain common problems from arising. There won’t be a disaster because the one Face character isn’t around, and they’re not going to suddenly have a combat disaster because the healer can’t make it that night. I should be able to run just fine even if any one or two characters are missing, which is perfect.

I’m really looking forward to running this one. It’s got some cool moments already, and I look forward to dropping the party on Taris once again.

SWTOR Class Story Reviews (Part 2)

More on SWTOR class stories today, as I finished another one last night which gives me a nice grouping to work with. I wanted to talk about these thematically, starting with the “member of a military organization” pair, because I think they work well as story pairs. Part of this is the duality of Republic vs Sith, but really I think it has to do with source material and inspirations.


For this part, I want to go into the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior stories. These two have the clearest source material– Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, respectively, and I feel like they live up to their inspirations in interesting ways. They’re also two stories written VERY differently, which I want to talk about a bit, because it’ll come up later when I’m less kind about a particular class story. As before, expect spoilers here.

Without further ado:



Sith Warrior is, among other things, a story about privilege. You start as an acolyte who is sped through the Sith training process, handed everything on a silver platter, and disliked intensely by your rival, who by all accounts worked hard to get to where he is. From here you move to being the favored apprentice of a powerful Darth, given both free reign and high-profile assignments.

Your first three companions exacerbate this– Vette is a former slave, Quinn is bound by military discipline, and Jaesa is wrapped up in Jedi teachings. You have none of their limitations, which is the source of both their interest in you and conflicts between you and these party members. I bring up companions here because the Sith Warrior’s story is bound into its companions more than any of the others I’ve played. The entirety of Act 1 is a lead-in to Jaesa– you first hear about her at level 13 or 14, and finally acquire her as a party member around level 30, as the crowning finale of Act 1. You are Darth Vader, tempting Luke Skywalker over to the Dark Side, and it takes quite a bit of doing.

This Darth Vader throughline lasts throughout the entire story, and it’s great. You get a lot of moments that feel like you’re a powerful Sith Lord without taking directly from any of the movies. What I get a lot of from the Sith Warrior storyline as well is a sense that my choices matter. Of all of the classes, this is the one I’m most likely to play a second time, because the variance between the Light Side and Dark Side feels pretty significant. Depending on how far to one side or the other you are, the outcome of Act 1 can change drastically, giving you a literally different Jaesa depending on what your choice is.


Act 2 moves in a different direction, with you working to turn the cold war between Republic and Sith into all-out war, at Darth Baras’ direction. You’ve gotten hints all through Act 1 that Baras has plans within plans, and in Act 2 it starts to become apparent that not only is he manipulating the two sides into war, he’s also using the conflict to push his own agenda. Your role in this is eliminating key Republic officials to get the ball rolling and ensure the Sith have a strong position, and by the end of Act 2 you’ve openly gotten a war started, and fought alongside another of Baras’ apprentices to eliminate Baras’ superior and propel him onto the Dark Council. Throughout all of this, Baras is more and more open about how much of a pawn you are, up to and including taking credit for your work when you’re not around. For all that he’s given you, it’s the point where you start to resent him.

Act 3 ramps this up: in your very first mission you’re set up and left to die in a bombed-out cave. It’s blatant that Baras is behind it and expect you to have died, and this Act centers mostly around revenge. You’ve dealt with/heard about a lot of people who have a bone to pick with Baras, and in this chapter you’re working with them to bring down your former master. The timing here is great. Right at the point where you’re tired of taking orders from Baras, you start working against him directly. In this chapter, a bunch of Sith mysticism stuff starts to come into play, but it’s an extremely light touch. Mostly you’re disrupting Baras’ power base, so the details of the mysticism he’s employing aren’t terribly important insofar as you can ruin it.


One of the things I like a lot about Act 3 here is that it inverts a lot of what you’ve gotten used to in the rest of the story. Throughout the storyline’s first and second acts, you land on a planet and get immediate respect and obedience from everyone you talk to, because they’re afraid of Baras, if not you. Starting in Act 3, you no longer have that buffer and people will openly defy you, forcing you to take other routes. It’s a bit of friction that works really well in the story and drives home that underlying theme. No longer propped up by the system, you start working outside of it to get your goals accomplished.

There’s a note about the Sith Warrior that I want to make before moving onto the Inquisitor. This storyline, despite being about a lightsaber-wielding Sith Lord in a Star Wars game, is a fully fleshed out story on its own. You don’t need to know anything about Star Wars to appreciate the story, it stands on its own without the trappings of the setting (much like the Agent and Trooper stories do). Put another way, it’s a good story that happens to be in the Star Wars universe, not good Star Wars that happens to be formed into a story. Moving on:



This is a fascinating story when compared to the Sith Warrior, because it’s the opposite in many ways. You start as a slave, who happens to have a talent for the Force and thus gets shuttled off to be a Sith acolyte. Whereas the Sith Warrior is handed success on a silver platter, the Sith Inquisitor is set up for failure from the word go, with an overseer who is openly prejudiced against you and is trying to keep you down. It’s a stark contrast, and when you get matched up with a Darth, there’s the distinct impression that it’s because of your perseverance in the face of adversity, not your raw awesomeness that overcomes your flaws.

Whereas the Sith Warrior presents you with a position that you can be proud of, with others fearing and respecting you, even once you’ve made it as the apprentice of Darth Zash, you’re still criticized and disrespected by other Sith. Zash isn’t as feared or respected as Baras, and as her apprentice you’re even less respected. As a point of comparison– when you first land on Dromund Kaas as a Sith Warrior, you’re met by a groveling servant whose biggest fear is that you won’t tell Baras he did well. As an Inquisitor, your welcome is a face-to-face with another Darth, who threatens you and then laughs in your face if you speak up against him.


Act 1 of the Inquisitor storyline is all about setting the groundwork for a ritual for Zash. Unlike Baras, who is pretty clear in his authority, Zash is almost cloyingly sweet to you unless you back-talk her directly, and you’re warned multiple times, sometimes explicitly, that Zash is going to betray you. This starts early, before level 20, when you wind up in a tomb facing an ancestor of yours. As it turns out, you’re the ancestor of an old Sith Lord whose ghost is interested in maintaining its legacy through you, and helps you out through the story. He warns you first of Zash’s impending betrayal and while you’re working through setting up for Zash’s ritual (which she promises will make you incredibly powerful), he’s providing you defenses against her. Ultimately, when the ritual occurs, it turns out it was a possession ritual– Zash knows you’ll be more powerful than she is so seeks to possess your body, combining her knowledge and your talent. Instead, she winds up possessing one of your companions. More on this a bit later.

The “communing with ghosts” theme runs through the story, and it’s one of the most-criticized aspects of the Sith Inquisitor storyline. Frankly, I think it works– the idea that you’re digging for more power through ancient mysticism is a pretty reasonable one, and since you can’t take power the usual way because the system is keeping you down, you take a more obscure path.

Act 2 of the Inquisitor storyline is about gaining power. Zash’s power play attracted the attention of another Darth, a hyper-traditionalist who seeks to discredit and dishonor Zash and eliminate her entire power base as a posthumous punishment for her arrogance. This includes you, and the start of Act 2 is this new Darth, called Thanaton, trying to get you killed. When this fails, you return and fight him directly and he beats you down pretty thoroughly, using powers you have no real defense against. Act 2 then becomes about finding defenses against Thanaton’s powers, which in this case involves enlisting the aid of other spirits beyond your ancestor. Essentially, you’re taking an extreme shortcut to power by robbing the dead.


It’s at this point that I want to go off on a tangent and talk a bit about the Sith Inquisitor’s companions and supporting NPCs. The companions are (unfortunately) mostly forgettable, and you’re stuck with your first one for quite a while. This companion is a big monster in a loincloth who is disagreeable, talks down to you, and ultimately winds up getting possessed by Zash, which both he and she resent. This companion represents my biggest criticism of the Sith Inquisitor storyline, which comes up a lot. Your first companion, Khem Val, is something called a Dashade, which is some kind of Force-resistant something something Sith assassin something something ancient Sith Lord something. It’s a one-shot of obscure Star Wars lore that’s largely irrelevant to the story but feels like a reference to some obscure piece of Star Wars mythos. This kind of thing litters the Sith Inquisitor storyline, and I think leads to the “ghostbusters” critique you see a lot. On the other hand, a lot of the incidental people you meet on various planets are rather important to the story and quite interesting, and you return to them quite a bit in Act 3. I particularly like the cult you start as a quick route to acquiring an artifact, which keeps returning and being relevant later on.

While the overall arc for the Sith Inquisitor is very good, it suffers from a lot of these one-shot lore bombs, where you’re told about some obscure bit of Star Wars backstory whose only relevance to the story is that it’s the next thing you’re going to go collect. As a result of this, Acts 1 and 2 can feel like a long fetch-quest with some interesting bits laced throughout, because really you’re just going and acquiring ancient power for the first forty levels or so. It boils down to “go to planet, collect artifact/ghost” six or seven times in a row, making the first two arcs feel very repetitive if you aren’t bought into the lore. If you are bought into the lore, it’s a cool lens into some obscure Star Wars mythos, which is where I draw the distinction between the Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor storylines. Sith Inquisitor is a bunch of good Star Wars lore mashed together into a story, rather than a good story set in the Star Wars universe.


This changes in Act 3. Having proven that you can stand up to Darth Thanaton and survive at the end of Act 2, Act 3 is about consolidating your powerbase and facing Thanaton for good. There’s a bit of a snag, though, in that your extremely quick route to power is destroying you. While fending off Thanaton and building a solid powerbase, you’re trying to find a cure for the degeneration your stolen power is causing. This takes things in a new direction, where rather than acquiring tchotchkes, you’re following vague hints and scraps of lore for notes. The thread of “obscure Star Wars mythos” continues in this chapter, but it’s directly tied to the story and completely relevant, so they feel a lot more meaningful. Effectively, you’re seeing a technological and spiritual cure for your condition, and as you do so you’re putting together a front against Thanaton.

The Inquisitor Act 3 is an interesting inversion of the Sith Warrior. Up to that point, you’re kind of disrespected as a Sith and often have to use force to get any kind of consideration. In Act 3, between your powerbase and your increasing allies, you’re taken more and more seriously as a legitimate rival to Thanaton, and get the according respect and assistance you might require. You go from being outside the system and the machinations of the Sith to playing a direct part in them, and your allies and powerbase are helping you the entire way through. You finish the story having earned a place on the Dark Council, which is notably a step further than even the Sith Warrior gets. While the Warrior is a lone badass operating outside the lines, the Sith Inquisitor is a legitimate member of the Dark Council with a network of allies and agents spanning quite a few planets.


The big difference in the two that I want to call attention to is that the Inquisitor’s main storyline is possibly the least interesting thing about the class. The writing of the individual planets is far stronger than the overall thread, and the incidental characters you meet are interesting and fun, even when they’re temporary or short-lived. Whereas Sith Warrior has a compelling thread all throughout, Sith Inquisitor has a lot of good moments, even without the thread. Inquisitor’s Act 3 pulls everything together quite nicely, which is also somewhat rare; I tend to dislike Belsavis and Voss on most characters, whereas they’re interesting on the Inquisitor and feel more tied into the class story, as opposed to incidental (they feel INCREDIBLY incidental to the Sith Warrior and Trooper stories).

Of the two, I like the Sith Warrior more, but Inquisitor is also rather good if you buy into the Star Wars mythos it’s built on. I think the use of mysticism is generally fine, but I think Act 3’s direct link between action and lore is stronger than the Acts 1 and 2 lore tie-ins that mostly serve to make it feel like going to a planet and finding some macguffin or another is more interesting. That being said, both deliver on the feeling of being a powerful Vader-type character or a shadowy, schemeing Palpatine figure extremely well, particularly with the payoffs at the end.

The Price of Failure

I’ve been running tabletop games more or less continuously for the last five or six years, and on and off before that. I take my role as DM fairly seriously, and most of my larger campaigns are a few hundred pages’ worth of notes and reference material. A big part of that involves layers of failure– what happens if my players don’t succeed at whatever their goals are at a given time?


For all the pages of content, I wind up using about 15-20% of it. To use a recent example, I just wrapped up the first chapter of a Shadowrun game, and I think about a third of the NPCs I created for the game wound up getting used, and of those, a goodly fraction wound up appearing once and never again, not playing an important role in the game. I’m not bothered by this “wasted” work; I leave my games and the approaches my players take very open, and I rarely see a reason to force an NPC on my party if he or she doesn’t make the game more fun and align with the party’s goals. I do my best not to be a ‘railroading’ DM, and I provide story hooks but rarely explicit tunnels. At pretty much any point, my players can say “nope, not going to do that” and they’ll wind up going down some different, alternate path.

I can get away with this because I’m gifted with a group of players who aren’t actively trying to break the game world or intentionally derail the story. I can throw interesting and varied challenges at them and they’ll be taken seriously, but still approached creatively. I haven’t killed a player-character in years. I haven’t needed to, although it’s been close a few times in particularly scary combat encounters. Outside of combat, though, I don’t gun for my PCs– I generally feel like killing a player character is so trivial a job for a DM that there’s no real reason to do it except to curb game-destructive behavior.


As an example: I’m not going to kill a PC because the party forgot to disable one of ten security systems, or because a hacking attempt went badly and they got noticed, or what have you. It’s way too easy to create “gotcha” moments where something the party could never have anticipated comes out and kills them. I will cause problems if a danger they should have discovered and neutralized goes ignored, but again, I’m not killing anyone because they overlooked some detail. On the other hand, if I have a party member start openly trying to break the game or turn it into their personal playground to the detriment of people taking the game more seriously, I will and have punished that kind of destructive behavior by killing that character. At one point, I had a player (not in my usual group) make a point of cutting in and mocking every NPC the party talked to. At first, NPCs ignored this, then they started getting insulted and treating the party less well, but this didn’t curb the behavior. Eventually, they ran into a particularly powerful NPC who intended to make a deal with them. She got instantly insulted by the player, gestured once, and the player was cut down by sniper fire, at which point she turned back to the party to continue the conversation.

This brings me back to the concept of failure. I’m unlikely to kill players for failure; that’s not terribly interesting. They may be inconvenienced, but if I’m going to make a legitimately challenging encounter, I think it’s unfair of me to start killing players because dice randomness didn’t go their way in a particular session. Instead, I go down a different story path; failure is interesting, and winning all the time gets dull.


What’s interesting to me is that my current party has become highly risk-averse. In the last several games, there’s been a pretty strong reticence to take anything other than the most calculated risks, and any situation in which they might delve into the unknown leads to quick paralysis and inaction. At least in Shadowrun, I feel like the game system is oppressive enough and lethal enough that taking anything but a very carefully measured approach is very dangerous, but I’ve also seen relatively little risk-taking elsewhere. Powerful artifacts are left alone or returned to their owners, dangerous encounters are avoided rather than turned to an advantage, and moving forward without as complete knowledge as possible is rare.

I consider this a failure on my part in two ways. First, I haven’t made it clear enough that failure and death are not synonymous, and that the game will go on (and potentially be interesting with interesting hooks!) even if a particular quest or mission or fight goes badly. Second, I’ve been a little too balanced in my encounter design. I keep very careful tabs on what I know the party is capable of, and I never put them in situations that I don’t think they have a statistically significant chance of winning (75% or more). Combined with my players’ penchant for coming up with clever combos and creative solutions, I haven’t actually seen a failed encounter in quite a while now– there’s pretty much been a string of resounding successes, often well beyond what I expect.

maxresdefault (7)

As a result of all of this, I’ve started looking into systems that have failure as a built-in mechanic. I always look at Burning Wheel as a compelling system; it creates fantastic stories and has some really interesting character creation and advancement, but there’s a ton of crunch involved and it’s a really impenetrable and lethal system. I think a couple of my players would love it and the rest would get bogged down in the mire of rules.

I’d thought that my group disliked the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars system, which I’d always thought was a pity because it builds degrees of success and failure into the basic dice rolls in (I think) interesting ways. I found out recently that pretty much everyone is interested in getting into it, so I’m excited to give it a whirl. I think the system does a great job of making you feel like your die rolls are more than binary success/failure, and gives me a lot of interesting buttons to push and levers to pull on the DM side. On top of that, it’s not a very lethal game– even losing the entire party in combat isn’t necessarily a death sentence, unlike… pretty much every other game I’ve played.

My biggest concern is that the power level of starting characters in the system is very low. It can be hard to succeed at much of anything on your first try, and you want to work together and try to get bonuses from a variety of sources to try really difficult things. Failure is still interesting and moves things forward, but you are going to fail quite a lot, and the game will keep moving. I’m worried this is going to result in people hyperspecializing, to maximize success in a single given category, and then avoid using that skill at all if the key person who’s “good at it” isn’t around. I may have to do a bit more splitting of the party than I usually do.


That being said, the premise is interesting (force-sensitives before and during Episode IV), and I’m excited to see what kinds of characters I’ll be writing for. I have a very loose sketch of the early parts of the game, but I don’t like writing until I know what my players are playing, so I can weave their ideas into the story. I’ll have about a week to start fleshing things out, which should be enough to get a few sessions going.

SWTOR Class Story Reviews (Part 1)

This week I want to spend some time talking about the SWTOR class stories. I’ve played through most of them and should be catching up on the last ones soon. There will probably be some spoilers, so feel free to skip these if you don’t want to hear them. Part of this is going to be recap, part of it is going to be review, and part of it is going to be “what I would have done differently”. It’s worth noting that I think the writing in the main storylines of the game in general is top notch, and while I’m going to be game-dev critical (read: harsh) in some places, I think that even the less-interesting stories are well-written and have some great moments, which I’m going to try to call out.


The first two I want to talk about are the Republic Trooper and the Imperial Agent. I want to start with these two because they were the two classes I was the LEAST interested in playing, and I’d heard quite a lot about them. I also want to start this series with some absolutely unmitigated praise. Without further ado:


Imperial Agent

Holy wow, this class story. There is some absolutely top-notch storytelling going on here, and for a class I didn’t actually enjoy the gameplay mechanics of, I was hooked through all 50 levels of main story. Even if I don’t come back to it later, it was worth the ride, and by itself was probably worth my resubscription money. I’d play it as a standalone game.

Let me break it down: You are an Imperial spy. The tutorial is a mission in which you pretend to be a notorious criminal (with a hilariously awful American accent) in order to manipulate some behind-the-scenes Hutt politics. It’s a pretty straightforward affair, with you befriending a close contact of the Hutt’s and working with him to clean up some messes and get him looking good for his Hutt master, who wants an edge over his rival, some other Hutt. It doesn’t matter, the main friend you make is this beefy older guy who is happy to have you around and who you are lying through your teeth to the entire time.


It’s a great setup, and right around the time you’re getting to like your new buddy, a call comes in from HQ, informing you that an accident has happened to the guy’s two sons and that you need to kill him before he finds out the Imperials caused the accident. It’s the kind of little-detail wrench in the works that tipped me off that there’s a lot of thought put into the Agent story. It forces your hand; you have to either do your job and kill the guy you’re after or set him free, but make everyone think he’s dead. The story changes the op on the fly, and you get a taste of how your support team at HQ handles situations– professionally and effectively, if ruthlessly.

This is a continuing theme throughout the Agent storyline, and it’s extremely well done. Keeping your humanity or being a soulless murderer and liar is a continual question; what are you willing to do for the Greater Good? Each of the planets you land on as an Agent is a separate mission, with its own characters and parameters, and with you pretending to be someone different each time. After a terrorist attack against a Sith Lord and his personal battleship right over the Sith capital, Imperial Intelligence becomes dead set on hunting down the terrorists who did it, which comprises the majority of your Act 1 arcs. Each mission you do gives you bits and pieces of who and what you’re looking for, while you dismantle the terrorist organization in a variety of ways.

The story also starts slipping in suggestions that you shouldn’t trust anyone, mostly from unreliable sources. It comes off as the kind of thing that desperate people would say to make you doubt yourself, especially considering that your handlers have your back pretty much the whole time. It’s a very effective setup, and though you do ultimately find out WHY people are saying this, it’s ambiguous enough that you can still decide if you think they’re right.


In the meantime, you dismantle a terrorist organization through a serious of classic spy tropes on various planets. You’re like a mix of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Agent 47, with plenty of ways to express each of them. Act 1 ends with a bang, giving you one of the hardest choices in the entire game across any of the stories and really making you FEEL the impact of that decision. It seems like it could play out in a huge number of ways, and I only saw one of them. I won’t lie, I’m tempted to play another Agent just to see some of the rest.

After the Act 1 finale, however, I expected the story to take something of a downturn. The “mission on each planet” theme had just about worn out its welcome, and the Act 1 finale was so good I couldn’t imagine the game topping it. I was horribly wrong.

The Agent Act 2 begins with you being inserted as a double agent. It instantly and totally changes your main contacts and the kinds of decisions you make throughout the second arc. You’re working for the Republic while trying not to cause too much damage to the Empire but also not blow your cover… and that’s just the setup for every mission. It turns the structure of the story on its head and hands you several compelling new characters, a few of whom introduce a twist to make you despise them. Act 2 becomes about working undercover while subtly working towards Imperial interests, all while juggling these new, compellingly awful characters who need to believe you’re on their side.

The Act 2 finale, weak for most classes, is surprisingly strong for the Agent, allowing you to finish off your double-agent career and put a stop to the plans of this Republic spy force you’ve been working with. One of them escapes, however, and you realize that he’s much more than just a Republic spy.


The third act of Agent is about chasing down this incredibly elusive character, who has given you a ton of reason to hate him. He’s got a ton of resources mysteriously at his disposal and is perfectly willing to use your own past against you. Throughout Act 3, I would get ambushed by the agents of characters I’d dealt with previously, who were tipped off to my location and out for revenge. The looming threat of having my identity publicly exposed was a spectre throughout the third Act, and the secretive spy I was hunting for would frequently call in to gloat, Handsome Jack style. It was fantastically compelling and an absolute pleasure to reach the final conclusion, which is the second most satisfying finale of any class story I’ve played.

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the Agent, and very little criticism. The biggest criticism I have is that the Sniper subclass is relatively uninspiring compared to the others. It hits hard, and that’s about it. The only other major criticism (that you’ll see a lot of) is that the Agent takes FOREVER to get companions, getting the standard first one on its starting planet then not seeing another until Tattooine. It does, however, have some of the most interesting companions, and while I don’t love all of them, I’m at least interested in them. I just wish I’d gotten them sooner.


Republic Trooper

Talk about a class I had zero interest in playing. I don’t go in much for the whole military-dude-in-power-armor thing; I’ve never liked Halo and I have Opinions about Warhammer 40k, so the Trooper seemed like it was going to be dead in the water for me. I was extremely wrong.

The Trooper story begins with a mission on Ord Mantell, a backwater planet. You’re a part of the elite Republic Special Forces, nicknamed Havoc Squad, and you meet the rest of your team, who are all welcoming but not super personable. This is fine, you work with them, work on recovering a nasty bomb, have to make some choices between being dutiful and being humane (the running theme of the class), and honestly this is where Trooper always stalled out for me. The finale on Ord Mantell revolves around your squad betraying you and defecting. You’re the only one left, things have gone pear-shaped, and your commanding officer is Not Happy, and trying to keep the wholesale defection of Havoc Squad off the record.

To this end, the majority of Act 1 is hunting down the defectors. This wouldn’t be so interesting if it weren’t so characterful. You meet a LOT of interesting characters, and make a lot of decisions between doing the right thing and pissing off your CO, who really wants the Mission To Be Adhered To, Dammit. Some of the defectors can be captured, some have to be killed, one even escapes, and ultimately you face off against the leader, whose plan is falling apart thanks to your work. There’re a lot of interesting characters and mini-arcs as you find the various defectors, and I found myself really interested in finding out the stories of the defectors and the people I met.

The strength of the Trooper story is in its characters and in the choices you can make in dialogue; there’s some really funny stuff in there, and the characters are compelling and interesting. I really want to call out the male Trooper romance here. Elara Dorne has a fascinating companion storyline that meshes really well into the rest of the plot, and the romance between her and your trooper has some serious hurdles to get over, due to that whole “fraternizing with a squadmate” thing. More interestingly, it’s not glossed over the way it is in other class stories, partly because of Elara’s by-the-book personality. I really like the resolution there, and the entire arc feels a lot more adult and mature than a majority of the other romances, where the primary conflict pretty much gets resolved at the point both you and your companion decide you’re into one another.


There’s a common trope in romances in media where the biggest conflict two lovers face is confessing their love for one another, and that things are pretty much smooth sailing from there. Once the “main couple” is together and settled, it seems, everything else falls into place and most of their interactions revolve around being sappy and lovey at one another. Indeed, most of the romances in SWTOR follow this arc, and there are very, very few examples I can think of where that isn’t the case (honestly, it’s one of the reasons I like SAO as much as I do). The Trooper storyline doesn’t do this anywhere near as much, and the most significant relationship conflicts actually happen AFTER you’re together with Elara. It’s a detail I like quite a bit; it makes the whole thing more believable and richer for me, and less like a “hit buttons, get romance” thing.

Trooper Act 2 is interesting, because it revolves around you bringing Havoc Squad up to full strength to take down an Imperial superweapon. It’s a neat concept, and the character focus switches from hunting down defectors to the new characters you’ll get to recruit. You need particular experts and specialists, and the story takes you to some remote planets to retrieve them. The interesting twist here involves their COs, who often aren’t thrilled to part with the best person under their command and sometimes work against you as best they can.

The Act 2 finale is even better than the Act 1, with your entire squad taking part and you working directly alongside a couple of members yourself to get the mission done. It’s fantastically scripted and makes you feel like there’s a full team effort going on. There’s no Big Bad to deal with here, but there doesn’t need to be, because your team provides the characterization you want to work with. Funnily enough, I suspect this superweapon might be adjacent to the one that appears in the Sith Inquisitor storyline, but I might be wrong.


Act 3 is where the Trooper story loses me. It’s analogous to Act 2, in that I’m going from planet to planet to retrieve key personnel, but the personnel in question aren’t characterized as well. It would be a great opportunity to focus on a particular Big Bad, and there is one, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so I’m not terribly interested. It’s a telling rather than showing problem; I’m told this Imperial guy is really bad, but I barely see him and he doesn’t do a lot to convince me I should care.

I feel like the Trooper story would have benefitted from a better throughline connecting the Acts. If the Imperial Admiral in Act 3 had been the contact of the original defecting Havoc Squad, and more closely connected with the superweapon, he could have been sending agents to personally hunt Havoc Squad, which would give him more face time and make him a more compelling villain. As it stands, I’m not terribly interested in this guy other than from the standpoint of “my CO is telling me he’s bad and I should fight him, so that’s what I’m doing because I AM SOLDIER”. Without the compelling characterization or the thought-provoking choices of the first two Acts, Act 3 falls quite a bit short, and even at 12x XP I managed to stall out on Voss for a while.

I wouldn’t have played either of these characters were it not for the rave reviews I’d heard from other people, and I’m really glad I came back to SWTOR to play them. Even if the third Act of Trooper fell a bit flat, the first two Acts were great and Act 3 still has some great moments. Imperial Agent was fantastic from start to finish, excellently written, excellently paced, and honestly worth my subscription fee by itself.


Pretentious. I just used the word and you thought of one or two or a handful of things– people, speeches, movies, games, books… it’s a term thrown around for a lot of things.

It has a very simple dictionary meaning: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. It’s not how it’s used, mainly. It’s mainly used an an attack, a way of saying “this thing isn’t as smart as it thinks it is”. It’s barely a critique; it’s a meta-critique, that attacks the thing for daring to try to be more than the attacker has decided it is “allowed” to be. We see it elsewhere, when someone is “trying too hard”.

There is another meaning, one people don’t want to admit. A thing is pretentious when I am afraid I am not enough for it. Not smart enough, not fashionable enough, not witty enough, not attractive enough– not enough of something. It is the crowning attack of the anti-intellectual, the denial that something can push our limits, be beyond our grasp.

We’re hardwired to do this. We fight against anything we don’t understand, and our first reaction is to deny it any validation. We weld our understanding to our beliefs, and we fight for both. That something might be valid but beyond our comprehension is anathema– we instead fight against it and seek to validate ourselves in so doing.

It’s possible to be genuinely pretentious. Creators often do this, when they’re afraid their audience is catching up with them. Works will be made obtuse, defy explanation, and hint at a bigger picture than is actually there. To actually be pretentious, something has to pretend.

I remember playing The Stanley Parable, and Braid, and the rallying cry of the detractors for both games was that those games were pretentious. They are not. What they don’t do is fully explain themselves, but that isn’t the same thing. It just sounds better to say something is pretentious than “I didn’t get it”, or “I did get it, but it didn’t move me”. It’s okay not to be moved by a powerful work. It’s not okay to try to say a work isn’t powerful just because it wasn’t powerful for you.

I’ve written before about how it’s okay to not like things. This is the same concept. It’s okay to have a different reaction to things than other people. In fact, it’s pretty much inevitable. I don’t think we talk about this enough. I feel like we have culturally moved to a place where, in our little circles, it’s not okay not to like the things everyone else likes. You have to have a reason WHY, and if you do, you have to be willing to listen and try all the suggestions people have to make it better. If someone likes something and you do not, something is wrong and must be fixed.

I just finished a game, one that’s already being blasted as “pretentious”. It’s about a lot of things, about game design, about relationships, about fixing broken things. It’s about being pretentious, and about being heartfelt and genuine. It’s powerful, and a lot of people won’t get it. A lot of people won’t be able to get it; they’ll simply lack the experience and understanding to have it resonate. They’ll have different experiences and understandings, and other things will resonate with them.

I keep typing this paragraph over and over again, because I can’t quite get the thoughts in my head to coalesce. Maybe it’s late, maybe I’m tired, but I don’t want to sleep and have these thoughts get lost, paved over by the new day. I lose a lot of thoughts that way, because I’ve convinced myself that I’m creative and can just come up with more. I’m fond of saying that ideas are worth very little until you make something with them. I still believe that, but I think I’ve started to conflate ideas with thoughts, and I think I’ve started discarding thoughts, even important ones, because I believe I can just come up with more.

I can, I always will, but perhaps sometimes it’s worth holding onto a thought. I just finished a game that felt like a front row seat to a cry of anguish, and in experiencing it I felt like I could have perfectly mimicked that cry. It cut deeply, and I’m still reeling. This whole post, all of it, I’m writing so that I can make sense of my own thoughts, because they were a mess. They’re better now, I’ve made sense of them while talking around them for ten paragraphs.

I’m very reticent of recommending games to people, especially ones that affect me personally. I see myself as something of a curator of media, and I try to only make recommendations to specific people for specific things. I don’t want to recommend The Beginner’s Guide, because it’s a work that’s powerful for me and I have no way of knowing if it would be powerful for anyone else, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

I think I’ve come to an end, here. This post rambles, and doesn’t really go anywhere, but I think it has to be that way. Like many such posts of mine, I’m leaving out images as a bit of a flag; my half-baked thoughts are distinctive as half-baked blog posts. I could clean it up, put a polish on it, and make things look more like I meant them, like I’ve got a point to make in saying all of this, but that would be, well. Pretentious.

Thank you for reading.