The Finality of Death (or the lack thereof)

Let me explain where Deep Space Nine lost me.

Okay, some groundwork first:

At some point as writers we will be tempted to take the easy way out. Sometimes it can be attributed to “Writer’s Block,” that nebulous, dastardly affliction that can neither be described nor cured. Other times we have figuratively written ourselves into a corner; there is no clear path to resolution. Sadly, sometimes we simply aren’t as skilled at our craft as we hoped.

Writing anything is hard. Writing something that moves the reader, engages them in the story, and provides a unique and memorable narrative is HARD. Very hard.

So, on occasion, we find ourselves stuck in a story that we don’t know how to finish. This happens frequently in the writer’s room for an ongoing series, because generally the goal for that story is to not end. And how can you create tension, drama, and gripping character discovery week after week after week? Well, death comes to mind.

Death, especially with major characters, is a tricky subject. Killing off a beloved character will create that gripping emotional response from the audience, but committing to it is tough. Will the audience forgive you? Will their attention remain in a story without their favorite character? Writers have to deal with this fallout, and there are a couple of tricks they use to “have it all.”

1. The Twin. Surprise! Jeffrey had an identical twin this whole time, and he was the one that fell down that elevator shaft.

2. Alternate Dimension Double. Yes, that was Jeffrey being blown out of the air lock, but it wasn’t our Jeffrey. It was a Jeffrey from an alternate universe! Everything is fine! (except for alternate-Jeffrey’s friends and family, but we don’t even know them so who cares.)

3. ROBITS! It looked like Jeffrey, but actually it was a highly sophisticated robot / android / magical construct. Whew! Our Jeffrey doesn’t have all those wires and circuits jutting out of his spleen.

4. The Shapeshifter. (And this is where DS9 comes into play.) It wasn’t Jeffrey who stole the artifact, killed the guards, and then was gunned down by his companions. It was a creature capable of changing its appearance, or wearing a disguise, or had a magical glamer cast over it.

Now, it’s easy to sit here and just blurt out “That’s bad writing.” Even if I agree most of the time, sometimes these strategies can be used effectively. Presentation is important, after all, and finding an interesting new angle for a tired mechanic sometimes results in brilliance. I’m not condemning them completely.

The thing about all these writing crutches is that they only work once.

Once you’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on your audience, you have immediately scarred them. They may even appreciate being deceived the first time, but their emotional investment into the same set of circumstances will be greatly decreased in the future. It’s a trap that the writers have set for themselves. All of a sudden, any character showing atypical behavior is a clone. That’s not the real Jeffrey, he wouldn’t do that.

Now anyone can be an imposter, and the audience can’t trust what they read or see. DS9 fell victim to this. There were too many Changelings, they had too much power. How do you write yourself out of that scenario in a believable, gripping way? Well, the writers of DS9 didn’t, in my opinion. But that’s not really the point of this essay.

There’s a bigger trap here. When you explain away the life-or-death decisions of characters with clones, imposters, and doppelgangers you aren’t allowing your characters to grow, change, or evolve. Sometimes you have to let them fuck up, and if the audience isn’t buying into it because “they’ll just end up being a Changeling,” then you have overused that gimmick. You have exhausted your audience. You’ve broken your story.

Death is the ultimate emotional catapult. You want it to mean something, and you want your audience to experience it. If death is never permanent–if consequences are never paid and mortality is never risked–you have rendered it sterile. Death has to be real or your audience won’t buy into it.

So how does this relate to gaming? Simple: You, as the GM, are writing a series. You have the same obstacles and pitfalls for keeping your players interested in your campaign as a writer does for their audience. It’s easy to write ourselves into a corner, and it’s even easier to bail ourselves out with these weak escape routes. But like an audience, your players will notice, and if they aren’t gripped by the plot points because EVERYONE keeps coming back from the dead, you’re gonna lose them. It’s as simple as that.

Whether it’s a role playing game, a television series, or a collection of novels, the basic truth of castrating death’s finality is the same: don’t do it. Sometimes you just have to let your characters die.

Scifi Supplemental

Here is a short guest spot I did on the fantastic podcast Scifi with Jesse Mercury, in which I attempt to talk about my relationship with the show Firefly, but end up talking about all the other shows I’ve ever seen instead.

Check out www.jessemercury.com for some amazing scifi goodness!

http://jessemercury.com/scifi-supplemental-matty-on-scifi-85

To Explore Strange New RPGs

At one time I started working on a Star Trek RPG homebrew using the BASE12 system. I’ll probably not do anything else with it because I’m much more interested in creating my own worlds than I am in repurposing other people’s. But if you need a starting point for a Star Trek home game, here’s a Race/Class/Skills handbook and character sheet that you can use. This is literally everything I have, so you’ll have to get creative to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

Player’s Handbook

Character Sheet

Revisiting Rogue One: A Star Wars Post

Yes, I spent the evening of May the Fourth watching a Star Wars movie, like so many other people across the world. To be fair, I had planned on watching Rogue One last night BEFORE I looked at a calendar and realized what pretend holiday it was.

I watched Rogue One in the theatre; not opening day or anything, but I made sure to have the theatre experience for this one. I don’t go out to the movies very often. I much prefer watching them at home, where I can drink some whiskey, eat popcorn that doesn’t cost $12 and hit pause to use the bathroom when I need to. Being in a crowded theatre with 100 other people doesn’t add to the cinematic experience for me. In fact, it usually takes away from it. I have a hard time getting lost in the moment or allowing the mood to overtake me when I can hear people chewing and coughing and shifting in their seats. No, give me a dark, empty living room with nobody around, not even my closest friends. I want to disappear from the physical world and become the camera lens, capturing the story and the vistas and the horrors and the budding romances and the heartbreaks and the triumphant victories.

Even so, Rogue One immediately became my favorite Star Wars movie. Even after watching it in the *gasp* theatre.

Now, before you get all defensive about your precious galaxy far far away, let me explain: I don’t think Rogue One is the BEST Star Wars movie. It’s just my favorite.

There were two main reasons that I felt this way after watching the movie on the big screen.

** MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD **

First, it tells a story that has been churning, building, and desperately waiting to be told for forty years now. FORTY. How did the Rebel Alliance get the plans to the Death Star? How did they know to look for a weakness in its construction? WHY was there a weakness in its construction in the first place? These questions have been asked and speculated upon for two generations, and finally we know the answers.

Second, it didn’t have a happy ending. War is brutal, and heroes often die. There was no escape for these protagonists, it didn’t candy-coat or white-wash it. They fulfilled their mission, yes, but they would never be the ones to reap the rewards of their success. There was no celebration. It just told the story, the way the story was supposed to be told.

Rewatching last night, a couple new things stood out to me, and it forced me to add to this list.

Third: There is no romance or sexual tension in this movie. That’s huge. Romance is the easiest writing crutch there is, and although it is so prevalent in all media–and cinema especially–because of its mirrored prevalence in our real lives, I find it tiresome and cheap when a writer uses it for tension, plot advancement, or character building. Doubly so in a war film. Some people may try to link Jyn and Cassian romantically, based on a single extended look and a climactic embrace, but this would be cheapening the real emotions of these scenes. They were not finding love within one another, they were finding Hope.

Which brings me to my fourth bullet: Hope.

Hope is the Antagonist in this film. Let that sink in. To repeat, the antagonist in Rogue One is not Krennic. It’s not Grand Moff Tarkin, or Darth Vader, either. It’s not even the Empire itself. It’s Hope. Finding it, fighting it, believing in it, surrendering to it. Hope is what must be conquered. It’s what stands in the way of the protagonists. They must discover hope within themselves, define it in others around them, and release their personal notions of morality, survival, and cooperation to be overcome by it. The Hope they must conquer in Rogue One is a hope that there is enough balance in the universe that the Rebellion can even exist in the first place. The rebels are torn apart, of different minds. Some fight because they WANT to change the universe, but not because they think they CAN. Some fight because they are angry. Some have no other reason to live. And some would rather die and fail TRYING to achieve something unattainable because they find it right, not because they find it possible. These people all have a different type of Hope. What they need is One Hope. What they need is A New Hope.

That’s why its so important that Jyn and Cassian die in that final non-sexual embrace. Cassian had to learn that he was fighting for Hope itself, not for the Rebellion. Not for victory. Not to win a war. Jyn had to learn that survival was not the ultimate goal, which is a tough lesson to learn for someone that was planted and grown in the soil of Strength. Hope supersedes our will and our desires.  The moralists had to learn that even an imperial pilot was not outside of Hope’s reach. The faithful servants had to learn that Hope was not going to win because of its intrinsic nature; it needed a catalyst. The downtrodden needed to learn that Hope existed at all, even though a shadow covered the galaxy, and they would never see its end.

The Hope they found at the end of Rogue One was the real segue between films. They discovered it, believed in it, chose it. They were not going to win just because they were right. They were not going to lose just because they were weak. And the Force was with them whether they survived or not. In fact, it was with the Empire, too. It was impartial, balanced, and essential. Hope was the force that could unbalance Chance. Hope was the force that could overcome Faith. Hope was the force that could conquer Chaos, win or lose. And now that they’ve found it, it’s time to let that Hope grow into something bigger and better. Something New.

Star Wars IV is aptly named.