Monthly Archives: November 2012

Roleplaying, complexity and mainstream appeal

NaBloPoMo November 2012This was meant to be Monday’s blog post, but I’ve had a really busy week – and ended up making this blog somewhat longer than I’d originally intended. Oops! Looks like I’ll be writing two a day for the next few days to catch up.

My colleagues-cum-friends Emily and John are also doing NaBloPoMo this year. Yesterday, both of them wrote about their experience of roleplaying and story games and so today I thought I’d respond to some of the points they make. You can read their articles here and here respectively (John has actually written a follow up, but I’ve deliberately not read it yet as I wanted to get this article finished).

(As an aside, it is noteworthy that up until now I’ve rarely mentioned my interest in RPGs on this blog, even going so far as to set up a separate Tumblr to write about it. I’ve often wondered why, given that I’m quite happy to write about my other geeky obsessions here. Perhaps it’s because, at its best, roleplaying is the most intimate thing you can do with a group of people with your clothes on – and like all forms of intimacy it feels deeply personal. That, and the whole devil worship, sad sack thing – basically it’s all Tom Hanks’ fault.)

John and Emily have widely differing experiences of RPGs. John has been a hardcore gamer for 10 years, playing several different games on a weekly basis. He’s also deeply involved in the LARP scene. Emily’s first experience of RPGs was just over a year ago. Aside from an abortive game I ran using the Savage Worlds system and the Slaine background (and another game currently in limbo which I started organising but haven’t actually started), her gaming experience is currently limited to Fiasco.

My experience is different again. I’ve pretty much literally been playing RPGs since before John was born. I know this because the Warlock of Firetop Mountain celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year and John is turning 30 at the end of this month. As a teenager I played a lot of games and even helped to set up a gaming club. I got out of the habit at university but began again when I returned to London in 1998 and kept it up when I moved to Leeds in 2000-2. Since returning to London in 2004, I’ve had the odd game here and there, but the last year or so has been the most intensive period of roleplaying for a decade – which is pretty much the whole time John has been playing.

So it was that when I got excited that Mark Rein·Hagen, the creator of two of John’s favourite games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, had not only reemerged after years of disappearance but was actually promoting a new game on Kickstarter, John was unimpressed because Rein·Hagen was some remote figure who had little to do with the game he had got into. Similarly, while I feel that the relaunch of Vampire, now resubtitled The Requiem, was a welcome, get back to basics, step, for John it represented trashing the game he knew and loved.

I differ from both John and Emily in one other significant respect in that while their gaming experience has mostly been (in Emily’s case exclusively) as players, my gaming experience has predominantly been as a referee/games master/storyteller (all games have different terms for the role but in layman’s terms this is the person who moderates and facilitates the game and plays all the secondary, non-player characters).

The difference in experience between GM and player is tremendous. John tells me he has tried being a GM in the past but didn’t enjoy it. I by contrast have tended to be a GM not simply because I tended to be the only one willing to do it, but because if I’m honest, I got a kick out of it and it suited my temperament better. At its best, it is a real blast running a game in which the players are all deeply committed and essentially wallowing in a sandpit of your creation. I’ve seen a lot of writing about the games master as world builder and as a player, but one of the enjoyable aspects of the role I find is as spectator, suppressing your ego while watching the players perform in front of you and jerk on cue when you pull the strings (I feel a maniacal laugh should be inserted here).

I don’t mind admitting that one of the things I’ve noticed since I started playing Fiasco (which I won’t go into detail about here but you can read my previous article about it here) is that I tend to play more passive characters, happy to leave the dramatic heavy lifting to others. In that respect, I’ve been lucky to find a group of players who are more than happy to do so, but it is a bad habit I need to get myself out of.

This all neatly segues into the the debate over “traditional” RPGs and indie story games. Of course, if this was 20 years ago, John’s preferred mode of gaming would be regarded as pretty radical and cutting edge (I certainly remember the waves Vampire made when it first came out), but by traditional I mean a game which has a pretty meaty ruleset which focuses on detailed statistics defining each character and how well they can “do” things (I believe the vogue term is “crunchy”), an expansive and ever growing list of sourcebooks (or “fluff”), and, of course, a games master to keep it all in check. Not all “indie” games do away with the game master but typically they have a much simpler ruleset, a focus on story and relationships and encourage much greater collaboration between the players in terms of world building – in preference over big chunky sourcebooks which basically tell you how the world works.

Fiasco takes it about as far as it goes, having as it does just two statistics for players to keep track of (the number of black and white dice they have been rewarded respectively), no GM, and a mechanism that assumes you will create a whole new setting – and pretty much wreck it – in each game. There are no ongoing, 10 year Fiasco campaigns whereas for most traditional games that is regarded as all but the default – something which I’ll come onto.

John and Emily are split across this divide. John’s view of Fiasco et al is that “I like them as an occasional thing, but they’re not something I’d want to do every week… they’re more about creating an overall story that’s interesting, rather than individual character’s influence on the story/world.” Emily, by contrast, writes about her experience of Fiasco and trad roleplaying thus: “Taking out the gamemasters and limiting the number of scenes is a real advantage… My first impressions of role play games was that they requires hours of commitment, character development where learning how to fight required homework… Appealing to my somewhat scatty attention span, the great thing about Fiasco is its length and flexibility… The game doesn’t go the way you expect or is tricky to bringing the different story threads. But like any good game [it] has replayability and the scope to build on of what you’ve learnt.”

On balance, my own position is probably closer to Emily’s than John’s. I really could play Fiasco every week – the only problem being I wouldn’t be able to fit in any other gaming. I’ve never had a bad Fiasco experience. As Emily said, adding the special zombies add on to the parliament playset didn’t work especially well, but everyone still seemed to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, our previous Fiasco game was sublime. Using the Camp Death playset, which draws its inspiration from slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, the game we played was a wonderful blend of homage and inverted tropes, in which the slasher was also the scream queen and the real villains were just as colourful. We managed to hit all the right beats in all the right places – it wasn’t just a fun game, it was a film I fervently want to see (to only a slightly lesser extent my first Fiasco experience was also pretty awesome, and you can read about it here).

In short, Fiasco has completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of story gaming in a way I didn’t think was possible. The Fiasco games I’ve played are the first where the rules have served the story rather than the other way round.

But I wouldn’t want to go too far and claim that our Fiasco experience is somehow superior to John’s Exalted one. I truly envy John and his years of rich gaming experiences. It’s something I’ve hankered for myself for many years but never quite managed to find it – probably because I’ve tended to insist on being a GM, despite a lack of application, rather than a player in someone else’s game. And I couldn’t do it now, again because the level of commitment it would involve would have to come at the expense of other interests.

Equally, despite my love of Fiasco, it has it’s limitations. The mechanism is such that it only really tells one type of story: the type of story that ends in, well, a fiasco (to put it politely). I love Coen Brothers films, but that doesn’t mean I would want to watch them exclusively. So, is there a happy medium between Fiasco and more traditional gaming? Something which allows for more collaborative play, simpler rules and a focus on story but which also encourages greater depth than the frankly superficial Fiasco?

The short answer is I don’t know, but am optimistic. The next on my list of games I am determined to encourage, cajole and if need be bludgeon my friends into playing is Monsterhearts. Unlike Fiasco, this game has a somewhat more specific setting – teenage horror both figuratively and literally. Inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and (pfft) the Twilight Saga, the players each play a teenager with supernatural powers, be it a werewolf, vampire, ghost or something more obscure.

Intriguingly (at least for me), the game very much has a queer agenda. Straight characters are encouraged to go gay, male characters are encouraged to explore their femininity, dominant characters are encouraged to go sub… this is a game about exploring sexual identities – as we all do as teenagers.

The characters have statistics and, significantly, the game is overseen by a GM (or rather “Master of Ceremonies”). But in all other respects it is closer in spirit to Fiasco than a traditional RPG. In favour of extensive preparation by the GM, the Monsterhearts rule book suggests the “MC” deliberately avoids preparing much in advance at all in favour of “staying feral” and letting the players take the lead. And while the rules system is rather more complex than Fiasco, it’s pretty simple as rules sets go – with the focus on social interaction rather than combat. For the Emily’s of this world who lack the patience to play ongoing open ended campaigns, this game is designed to tell an overall story over the course of around half a dozen sessions – a fairly happy compromise. Further “seasons” are possible after that, but they provide a useful point for both jumping off and getting on board – and indeed finishing to move onto other things.

With Monsterhearts, the game master facilitates the players’ game; all too often with traditional RPGs, it’s the other way around. A growing number of indie games have adopted a similar approach (I’m also keen to try Mortal Coil and Monsterhearts itself is based on Apocalypse World). The question is, can you get rid of the GM altogether? Joe Prince certainly thinks so, and argues the case in this article on Geek Native. Personally, I think that’s a step too far. There is certainly a place for GM-less games like Fiasco and I suspect designers have many more amazing and ingenious GM-less to come up with. But in terms of building a larger, cohesive narrative over several sessions of play, I’m yet to be convinced you can get rid of the role altogether.

The real issue is not whether GM-less games are better or not but that traditional RPGs tend to encourage a type of GM which only a tiny minority can ever hope to aspire to. My RPG experience, and I’m sure I’m far from unique, is this: I started gaming at 8 with a game called Runequest. I didn’t really understand the rules or what GMing entailed, made it up as I went along and had a blast. As I got older I realised we were playing the game wrong and discovered others. I spent the next decade collecting games, playing by the rules and trying to get back to that original, rawly creative experience – but while I had some great times, that magic was lost. My mistake was to think that if I played by the rules, I’d find that magic. In fact the rules were stopping me.

Most RPG rule books like to emphasise how hard it is to GM and how much preparation you’ll have to do. This not only puts most people off, it encourages a very narrow view of how you can play the game. And while most RPG publishers are pretty amateur in terms of outlook (if not income), the simple fact of the matter is that if they encourage that style of play, they’re encouraging a model which puts pressure on wannabe GMs to buy every sourcebook and handbook they can get their hands on. So it is the RPG “industry” survives, but the cost is that the hobby remains niche and impenetrable for the vast majority of people.

How about, instead of making preparation heavy games the norm, RPG publishers focus on developing their own gateway games where the rules are simple and the role of player and GM is as interchangeable as possible? Then, if people want to take it further, one option would be to move onto more complicated modes of play? To be fair on some of the bigger publishers, there is now a focus on producing simple introductory games. The introductory 4th edition rulebook of Dungeons and Dragons is written like a Fighting Fantasy game book in which you learn the rules as you play (and the book comes in a box which closely resembles the classic “red box” Basic Dungeons and Dragons set which my generation grew up with). Even then however, the publishers steer you pretty ruthlessly towards a style of play in which the GM does all the heavy lifting and has all the control.

There’s nothing really to stop people from playing D&D et al in a more collaborative manner, but that would challenge convention and – perhaps more significantly – encourage people to simply make it up as they go along rather than use endless sourcebooks as a crutch.

You can’t blame the publishers for keeping the hobby in its ghetto entirely though however. In my experience, there are few people more reactionary and conservative than gamers. One of my friends told me that when he tried more collaborative approaches in the past, he got complaints from players accusing him of “attempting to get them to do his job for him”. And there are parallels with the comics industry as well, which is stuffed with people who are determined to ensure that the medium is confused with a genre (superheroes) to as great an extent as possible.

I can’t help but feel that this is all holding the RPG industry back though and, again as with comics, preventing it from connecting with a latent mainstream audience that would lap up some of the material on offer if only it knew it existed. I also suspect the industry at large is missing the zeitgeist here; in the 21st century we seem to be inexorably shifting towards a blurring between medium producer and consumer, whether it is via blogs, YouTube and social media (I should acknowledge at this point that major RPG publishers do now regularly experiment with more extensive, collaborative playtesting and open source, but only within their existing base rather than attempting to reach out more widely).

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there who would get a lot out of roleplaying, who simply aren’t aware of the breadth of different types of games out there. Somehow, the gaming industry needs to do more to connect with those people.

W is for Wally Squad [MINOR SPOILERS]

Note the first: this post contains minor spoilers regarding a current 2000AD storyline.

NaBloPoMo November 2012Note the second: back in August, I attempted to write a personal A-Z of the comic strip Judge Dredd during the run up to the release of the new Dredd 3D film. I got fairly far in but due to work pressures (and getting slightly bored of it, if truth be told), I failed to get it all done before the film came out. So one of the tasks I’m setting myself during NaBloPoMo is to get it finished off. If you’d like to read my other efforts in this series, see the index page.

Prog 390The Wally Squad is nickname of the undercover subdivision of the Justice Department. As any Brit can guess, the word “wally” is a pejorative term to mean a foolish person and thus implies the respect and reverence that judges treat the people they serve. Once again, this is an example of how the strip rather liberally inserts British slang into the future East Coast of North America (see my previous comment on U-fronts).

First appearing in an eponymous story oddly inserted between “A Case for Treatment” and “City of the Damned” [1] (progs 390-392, 1984), artist Brett Ewins [2] drew the Wally Squad with great aplomb, drawing on the portrayal of the Mega Citizenry by Mick McMahon and Ron Smith, as well as the punk psychodelia of Ewins’s occasional collaborator Brendan McCarthy who went on to design the Judda.

Ever since that story, the Wally Squad have been a mainstay of the Dredd strip – the only real surprise being why it took them seven years from the creation of the strip to introduce them. Probably the most prominent Wally Squad character to appear in the Dredd strip itself was Guthrie, a deep cover agent who goes rogue in “The Pit” due to the deep corruption in the Sector House at which he is based.

But it is in the various spin-offs of Judge Dredd that the Wally Squad has really come alive. At the heart of this is the inherent problem the Judge Dredd Megazine has faced over the years in establishing sustainable and popular spin-offs of the series. Most Dredd spin-offs fit into one of two categories: judges from other countries or cities (Armitage, Shimura, Pan-African Judges, Missionary Man) or other Mega City One judges (Anderson, Hershey). There are only so many cop stories you can write, or shoulder pads you can draw, before it all starts to feel a bit samey. The advantage of Wally Squad spin-offs is that they not only allow artists to draw more original looking protagonists, but they allow writers to explore a rather more grey area of law enforcement where the nature of the cops’ work means that they are unable to live the monastic life that street judges must adopt. All in all, those grey areas can lead to some solid storytelling.

Lenny ZeroThe first Wally Squad strip appeared almost by accident. In order to afford commissioning Sin City and Dark Knight Returns writer-artist Frank Miller to draw a cover for the 10 year anniversary issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, then editor Andy Diggle wrote a 10 page script for free. The Frank Miller cover was, ahem, not very good and ended up not being used but the strip Diggle wrote, Lenny Zero (Meg 3.68, 2000), was a runaway success and would lead to Diggle finding a long time collaborator in artist Jock (see Vicious Imagery and 2000AD Covers Uncovered for more details). Lenny Zero has recently returned to 2000AD (“Zero’s 7”, 2012).

Jack PointThis was soon followed by The Simping Detective, originally written and drawn by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving respectively. Jack Point, the Simping Detective in the title (yes, the name is a reference to the Dennis Potter TV drama with a similar name) is a deep cover judge who hides behind the persona of private detective who dresses like a clown. It manages to mix Mega City lunacy with a wry, ironic Chandler-esque narrative. In some ways it is the quintessential Si Spurrier strip, with his love of sick humour and overwrought puns.

Dirty FrankMost recently we have Low Life which was originally created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, although D’Israeli has been its exclusive artist over the last few years. Low Life, initially at least, focused on a team of Wally Squad judges but more recently has revolved around its most charismatic character Dirty Frank, who was originally modeled on Alan Moore.

Superficially, these three strips look rather similar. In the hands of their respective writers however, they are in fact quite different in tone and style. Lenny Zero has the look and feel of a rather groovy heist movie. The Simping Detective is pure comic noir. Low Life, perhaps the hardest to define, is much more absurdist (in the Simping Detective, Jack Point may be weird but the other characters are quite straight laced – in Low Life, everyone is distinctly odd).

Despite their differences, these strips (Lenny Zero excepted, at least thus far) have recently come together with Judge Dredd to form a rather unique crossover storyline. Completely untrumpeted, and initially starting as three completely different stories, the current storyline has Dredd investigating the disappearance of computer file which has major implications for both Jack Point and Dirty Frank. The high point so far was Prog 1807 when the three strips literally all flowed into each other.

Normally, crossovers in comics get announced in advance in huge neon letters, so it is a credit to the creators and editorial team that they opted to keep this little treat a secret. As surprises go, it is up there with the big reveal at the end of The Dead Man.

Nonetheless, at the time of writing the fate of the Wally Squad judges is undetermined. In many ways however, the Wally Squad typifies the genius of Dredd: taking a fairly common trope of cop shows and cinema and giving it a futuristic and cynical twist.

Notes:

[1] It is clear from the script that the latter was meant to follow on from the former – but presumably they were having problems with the artists on Damned, as you can see from the wide range of different artists who worked on it.
[2] For more on Brett Ewins’ unfortunate life since his 2000AD days and recent incarceration, see here. I for one wish him well – his treatment by the police appears to be typically heavy-handed and appalling.

What’s left of what I believe

XKCD strip on nihilism
NaBloPoMo November 2012The main reason I’ve allowed this blog to fall into misuse over the past couple of years is that I stopped writing about politics. While my original concept behind this blog was always to write in the intersection between politics and geekery, at some point – specifically in May 2010 – I decided I could no longer really afford to vent my undiluted spleen about the state of the nation and had to start being a little more diplomatic and careful about what I say.

The problem is, I’m a little all-or-nothing and being careful quickly lead to me saying nothing at all. I figured it would get easier once the spotlight was off after the AV referendum; it didn’t. I figured I could be much less careful after I’d quit the party and thus my views became instantly irrelevant in the media’s eyes, but at that point I acquired a new problem: how can I write about politics without it either coming across as or actually being score settling following my resignation? I exchanged one set of anxieties for another and sclerosis quickly settled in once again.

And so, here I am, writing a blog about politics – which once again is really all about me. This is my problem in a nutshell. All I can do is plead for sympathy from you, dear reader: after 16 years, quitting a political party really is a big deal. It’s a wrench. It is no surprise at all that nearly eight months on I’m still a little defined by it. But at least you now know why it is that I’d much rather be writing about comics or, if you’ve seen my tumblr, even more esoteric things.

My article in September about quitting the Liberal Democrats had an interesting response. It was surprisingly positive, but I found it strange how so many people told me that they either loved or hated it but didn’t really engage with the issues at all. I had several Clegg loyalists tell me how much they loved it; curious given that I was not exactly nice about him. My favourite response was from a friend who told me that he agreed with “35% of it”. It was a strangely precise figure, yet he wouldn’t expand on what he actually meant by it.

Most of the negative feedback I did get from it, other than the abuse, centred around the accusation that I was being cynical and didn’t have anything constructive to say. I think the latter was fair comment and pretty much sums up where I am politically at the moment, but there is a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think I am cynical – indeed my decision to quit the party was about as far from cynical as it was possible to get. I took the decision to walk away rather that to stay on the inside and just feel bitter about things. The fact that I don’t have a fully worked out alternative to what the Lib Dems, and for that matter, politics more widely, doesn’t make me a cynic – it just makes me average.

But yes, I am a political nihilist at the moment, and as someone used to having a cause I can assure you that’s far more of a problem for me than it is for anybody else. All I have is a few scraps of ideas about what a possible way forward might look like, and they can be summed up as follows:

  • Triangulation is a doomed strategy for any political party – doubly so if you aren’t either Labour or the Conservatives. The people leading the political debate right now are the outliers who are working outside of the political mainstream but are successfully shifting the centre-ground to their direction simply by being well organised and disciplined. Right now, sadly, for the most part that means the weird axis of economic libertarians and social authoritarians who are exemplified by the Tea Party in the US but operate in different forms around the world. They aren’t succeeding electorally, but they don’t really need to. Everyone else is dancing to their tune.
  • Capitalism as we know it needs to die. Not trade, not commerce, but the system which commodifies and seeks to squeeze wealth from everything from people to ideas and natural resources is utterly anathema in terms of what humanity needs to do to survive the next millennium. That means critically reassessing what we regard as capital and property and thus what we believe can and cannot be owned. I feel I’ve just used a load of meaningless words there, but it makes sense to me. In terms of specific examples this means a fundamental shift from income and sales taxes onto things like land value taxation, and a massive global crackdown on the drift widening intellectual property laws to mean that every aspect of our culture ultimately becomes owned by a corporation out to make a quick buck.
  • It’s too bloody easy to blame the politicians. Our politico-economic system and media have infantilised the public, but as information technology spreads so does the onus on individuals to accept responsibility for the health of their democracy and culture. We have the tools to create a much better world, yet most people just sit there like good little consumers waiting for someone else to do it for them, and consider passively shrugging about it to be the mature response for when they don’t.

Beyond that? I’m lost. I have no idea about how you take those notions and turn them into something tangible which has any chance of being implemented. But I’m thinking about it – a lot. And perhaps I should write about it here a bit more often.

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

20121102-013005.jpg
NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.

(Inter)National Blog Posting Month

NaBloPoMo November 2012It’s November, and I’ve decided to set myself two tasks. The first is to take part in Movember, partly to raise money for prostate cancer research but mainly because I reckon I can kick my colleagues’ fellow moustache growing attempts thanks to my swarthy Mediterranean genes.

But the other thing I’m planning to do is National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). Or should that be International Blog Posting Month (InNaBloPoMo)? For that matter, I’m not clear if this is even a thing; the only reference to it I can find is the BlogHer portal in the US and they haven’t updated their Twitter feed for a year.

No matter. I’ve seen people doing this in the past and my colleagues Emily and John are planning to do the same – so this can be our thing.

I briefly flirted with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo before realising I was doomed to failure. I may have a novel in me, but extracting it isn’t going to happen right now (I’m also a little ambivalent about the whole concept – surely we should be encouraging aspiring writers to perfect the art of the short story first before getting them to inflict their doorstop sized magnum opi on us? Discuss).

In lieu of there being any clearly established set of NaBloPoMo rules as far as I can tell, I’m going to set myself a few. Unlike those brave NaNoWriMo souls, I’m not planning to bash out 1,700 words on this blog every day (although I’ve been known to write far more in a single posting). My only rules are that each posting must be an article and not simply a couple of sentences, and that I do a piece every day (if I skip a day for any reason, I’ll have to catch up – which could get challenging if I leave it for more than a day). I’m going to aim for articles to be around 300-500 words, with the occasional longer piece.

In the not so distant past, doing this would not have seemed like much of a challenge – I’ve certainly had periods where I wrote far more than that. Right now, it seems quite a task: I didn’t even manage to finish my A-Z of Dredd in the summer (although I plan to use this as a chance to rectify that) – it’s very true that writing is like a muscle; the more you exercise it the easier it becomes. Any suggestions about what to write on would be greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, please contribute to my Movember‘s efforts. Thank you!