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The Force is Not a Skill Tree

Innumerable are the reviews and commentary on The Force Awakens, so I don’t want to pile on. Overall I enjoyed the movie, though I readily concede it was hardly spotless nor was it terribly heady. I do, however, have one thing I think needs explaining: Rey and the Force.

I would caution you against spoilers here, but the movie has been out for a month now, so if you’re that worried about having the movie spoiled, you probably should have seen it by now.



Deal with her awesome. Deal, I say.

A lot of folks out there seem to have a problem with Rey and how Rey goes from “junkyard girl” to “OMG jedi badass!” over the course of the movie, seemingly on her own. Just a brief sampling of comments I’ve seen:

WTF? How does Rey figure out how to use a Jedi Mind Trick when it takes Luke THREE MOVIES to get there?


How is that Kylo Ren, who can stop freaking blaster bolts in mid-air loses to some chick who is just picking up a lightsaber for the FIRST TIME?


Why is it, all of a sudden, Rey can fly the Milennium Falcon better than Han and fight with a lighsaber better than Kylo and…(rant rant rant)

It goes on like that for a while. Now, this could turn into a post about the double standards for male and female heroic leads in action movies and how the objections to Rey are, at their heart, a basic rejection that a girl could be that badass. I’m not going to do that, though. I’m going to explain to you all why Rey’s sudden, amazing skills are not only totally believable but entirely in keeping with Star Wars mythology.



How does Rey magically go from nobody to proto-jedi without ever having instruction?


The Force is not a correspondence course. It’s not like working towards your bachelors or studying for the SAT. It is not a quantitative entity. What does Yoda tell Luke on Dagobah over and over and over:

You must unlearn what you have learned! Let go your conscious self!


Do or do not. There is no try.


Feel the Force flowing through you!


Luke: I…I don’t believe it!

Yoda: That is why you fail.

This message is carried throughout the series, even in the prequels. The Force is not some kind of thing you earns points in, like an RPG (and I feel RPGs have really messed with our heads about this.). It is not a linear model of progression, where you master simple stuff first and more complicated stuff later. There is no simple or complicated stuff. It is all just stuff.

The Force operates on instinct (Obi Wan: “Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.”). Instinct is not something you necessarily have to learn. Granted, instinct can be learned (through exhaustive repetition) and can be improved through discipline, hence why a Jedi Academy ever existed at all, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, a lot of people in the Star Wars universe go around using the Force all the time and never realize it. Consider little Anakin Skywalker and his superhuman pod racing abilities, or Luke’s capacity to bull’s-eye womp rats with his T-16. As for Rey and her “sudden” abilities, they really aren’t so sudden at all. She can do a mind trick because she’s already done one before! Remember this scene:

rey-bb8She just up and takes a valuable droid from a scavenger and tells him to scram. What’s he do? He scrams! THAT’S A JEDI MIND TRICK, PEOPLE!

Rey is able to become badass at the end because she actually starts to understand how she has been able to do things she has always done. It takes the stress of the New Order’s pursuit of her to unlock that potential. Then she does exactly what Obi Wan and Yoda and Qui Gon have been telling their students for ages: She acts on instinct. That’s how the Force works, folks.

I know this sounds implausible or counter-intuitive to a lot of you, but you really have to listen to the teachings of the Jedi Masters we have in the films. The Force is counter-intuitive! That’s what makes it so hard to use – you can’t think about using it, you should just use it.

Just like Rey does.

Practical Lightsaber Dueling 101

Folks, the new Star Wars Episode VII teaser is out. The real one. Attack Plan Delta – go now!

If you’re like me, the thing that caught the most attention was the lightsaber crossguard on that guy’s lightsaber. Of course, being me, while everybody else is saying “that was so cool!,” I am saying “interesting – does that make his lightsaber a better weapon or a worse one?” In the “better” column, we can see that this guy now has the theoretical capacity to trap his opponent’s blade (well, assuming the hilt has ionized plasma in the corner rather than just on the blade and tines); in the “worse” column, he has a thing that, if pressed, might chop off his nose, thumb, or burn a hole in his clothing.

Very cool--no contest. But Jedi would behave a little differently, I think, were it not for the need for flash and glitz.

Very cool–no contest. But Jedi would behave a little differently, I think, were it not for the need for flash and glitz.

I’ve thought a lot about lightsaber dueling. Too much, really. Part of it comes from my nerdish obsession with detail and part of it comes from my brief 2-year stint on the varsity fencing team at BC (it should be noted that I was awful – I think the coach just recruited me as a living practice dummy for the much more talented fencers), wherein a learned a lot about practical swordplay. Anyway, by the end of things, I have two things to say about lightsaber duels in Star Wars:

  1. They are really cool.
  2. There is no way, if a lightsaber existed, people would fight with them like that.

I’m going to expound upon that for a bit. If you don’t like me getting all literal in the midst of the flash and boom of your glee, then you might want to stop reading.

Some Assumptions

Okay, so my analysis of lightsabers is based upon a couple assumptions of what they are and how they work. The blade is formed by a loop of plasma (superheated gas) trapped in a kind of magnetic bottling-field technology. It is the magnetic bottle that repels other lightsabers as well as blaster bolts (which are also plasma-based – they are not actually lasers). The density of the plasma in the blade is relatively slight, meaning the blade itself is virtually weightless, and the magnetic bottle is sufficiently rigid as to be similar to thick steel in stiffness (i.e. the blade doesn’t bend easily when pressed). All of these facts are clear from observing the films.

What This Means When Wielding One

Well, if the blade is weightless, rigid, and will burn through anything it touches, one of the first things you probably want to learn is how not to cut off your own arm or burn yourself or your clothing. Furthermore, if it cuts through whatever it touches, that means you really don’t need to put much muscle behind the thing to injure somebody – touching them lightly will do.

Given all this, your strategy when using a lightsaber would be to keep the blade away from your body and aim to injure the enemy with a quick touch. Given that, all the swinging around and acrobatics would be counterproductive. Lightsaber duelists would not slash much, but rather concern themselves with thrusting or quick, short cuts, therefore maintaining control over their weapon at all times and keeping the maximum distance between themselves and their opponents (better to lose a hand than a head or arm, right?).

Wait, Why Wouldn’t They Slash?

Well, a slash is slower than a thrust. Try it out – get somebody else and get two pencils of equal length. One of you hold the pencil with the point sticking at the other and the other hold it so that you are going to whack the other with the side. See who hits first – given approximately similar reach and reflexes, the thrust will strike home first, as there is less distance to go, less energy needed, and less dexterity required to pull it all off. Slashes are easier to dodge, are more likely to miss, and so on.

People slash with swords because the slash (or “blow”) carries behind it more force. That makes a straight-blade more likely to punch through armor or cut through bone and flesh. Also, it uses the weight of the weapon to its advantage. The thing is, though, if your weapon had no weight and needed no force to cut through things, why would you bother with slashing about when you could just dart in and poke them in the chest and kill them outright.

Sure, some slashing would happen (good for scything through a bunch of lightsaber-less enemies, for instance), but in a duel, you’d see the two Jedi suddenly become very compact and tight in their movements – more like an epee fencer than a Viking warlord.

How Would The Duel Look, Then?

Lightsaber blades would probably be as long as could be managed (which they may very well be – we don’t know). The Jedi would likely stand sideways with the blade in one hand, orienting his whole body behind the lightsaber. He would keep the point at his opponent, protecting his hand. Each Jedi would aim to strike the closest body part they could (ideally the sword arm of the other), thus disarming or stunning him, which would then allow a follow up and likely fatal blow. Bladework would be fast and not all that flashy to the untrained eye, all of it happening in a fairly compact 18″ by 18″ square in front of them. In brief, it would be every bit as deadly, but half as fun to watch.

The good news, though, is that they would still wear those flowing robes, as they would help hide the exact location of their body. This would make them a harder target for the enemy. Of course, those robes had better be flame retardant, or else that is one robe that is going to go up in flames as soon as it gets hit.

As for that crossguard, it’s clearly a good idea (everybody would probably have one), but it would probably work better as a basket-hilt configuration, curling over the hand and protecting the arm in a circle, in the manner of a rapier. So, yeah, basically it would be less Samurai/Kendo and more 3 Musketeers/Fencing.

That’s my thoughts, anyway. For the record, I am rather glad this isn’t what the lightsaber duels look like on screen, since that wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Sword Vs Gun

When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.

This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.

The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.

Your Weapon: Raw Power

Your Weapon: Raw Power

The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.

Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one – to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.

In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.

It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.

Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ‘male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.

The Fine Science of Stupendous Badassery

As usual, I am in the process of putting together a new science fiction/fantasy setting in which to set stories, novels, and potentially a homemade RPG or two. This one is space operatic, so we’re talking giant spaceships, exotic aliens, high adventure, and a healthy dollop of weirdo mysticism. You can read a bit about the world here, if you like. Talking about it, though, isn’t the central thesis of this post. What I want to talk about is the creation of a badass.

Not your basic, run-of-the-mill, loner badass, though. I’m talking one of a whole society of badassery. My world needs a class of super-dudes that every little kid wants to be for Halloween. The dude who gets top billing on all the movie posters. The guy who cosplay fanatics break their wallets to dress as. How does one create such a thing? Well, once you allow for lightning to strike so that your book is the most popular thing ever, the rest comes down to a kind of basic character alchemy. You find stuff that’s awesome and you add it up together somehow. Here’s my process, as it stands:

Step #1: Pick Ninja, Pirate, Samurai, or Marine

Nice start, right?

Nice start, right?

Okay, okay – I know somebody is going to start crowing about their Ninja Pirate, so lets just cut this one right off at the start: you don’t get two. You might think you get two, but you don’t. Ninjas are sneaky assassins who study the arts of subtlety and stealth to kill their enemies. Pirates are brash, freedom loving duelists who excel at pithy dialogue and clever tactics. Samurai are honor-bound super-warriors with a stoic demeanor and ancestral codes of respect. Marines are tough-as-nails destruction artists who believe in their survival and the survival of their men in situations that usually overshadow their apparent abilities. You can try adding some of these together, but it quickly becomes a muddle. Pick one to start.

I pick Samurai.

Step #2: Does He Have A Gun or a Sword?

Sure, he can have a gun and a sword, but which is his favorite? Which is the thing he uses most, the thing that defines him best. And by ‘sword’, by the way, I don’t mean it has to be a sword. I mean does he fight with his hands, or does he blow stuff away from a distance? In the first place, you’re creating a group that is up close and personal in their battles. You should expect to write a lot of duels between individuals or small groups. If you’ve got a guy who is worshipping the gun, he blows up big things and guns down hordes of nobodies like its nothing. For that character, combat isn’t a contest of individual wills but rather an environment to be survived, akin to a violent storm or a sweltering desert. You aren’t going to zoom in on everybody they blow away, but you will be following their trail of destruction with a variety of crane/wide shots (to use movie terminology).

I pick sword.

Step #3: Barbarian or Sophisticate?

Listen up, you primitive screwheads: this is my BOOMSTICK.

Listen up, you primitive screw-heads: this is my BOOMSTICK.

Is your group of bad-asses on the inside or the outside of the social order/civilization? For example, the Fremen are outside, whereas the Adeptus Astartes (the Space Marines) are inside. The Jedi began on the inside and wound up outside, but they really belonged inside all along. Barbarians are there to destroy or conquer the corrupt society, whereas sophisticates are there to protect the jewels of civilization from the barbarous ravages of the uncivilized. They are two halves of the same coin and, while they may switch sides during the story, there is a default setting to be considered.

I pick Sophisticate.

Step #4: Walk or Ride?

Does your dude go about his business on foot, or does he ride/fly/pilot himself into his incredible acts of derring-do? If he’s on foot, to some extent this means he is a part of the fabric of the battlefield. He cannot leave at a whim – his story has him bracketed by circumstance, trapped in situations he must either resolve or be destroyed by. If he rides, he swoops in suddenly and can depart suddenly, too. He is aid unlooked for, and therefore often operates alone. This is the difference, essentially, between the fighter pilot and the grunt: the fighter pilot has a plush airbase to fly back to, while the grunt hunkers down in the mud and holds on with his dirty fingernails until the job is finished. Most of your superhero types ‘ride’ in some way (Superman’s ability to fly basically counts), while your grittier heroes get stuck in.

I pick Ride.

Step #5: Born to Rock or Tooth-and-Nail?

Do folks who become badasses of this variety become so by virtue of birth (like Jedi or Aes Sedai), or do they choose to become this thing, forsaking all other goals in the pursuit of their awesomeness (Shaolin Monks)? In the first place, they are engineered to be awesome, which gives them a certain aura. In the second case, they are mentally determined and driven to succeed, which gives them a certain grit.

I pick Born to Rock.

Step #6: Magic or Muscle?

What is the secret to their super-ness? Do they have access to unique tools or superhuman talents or, instead, do they learn that the most dangerous weapon is just their own will to win? In the first place we’ve got your Jedi and your samurai and your cyborg super-soldiers. In the second place we’ve got your kung-fu masters, battle-tested campaigners, and your Dirty Dozen-esque commandos.

I pick Magic.

Step #7: Work It All Together

I’ve got myself a Magic Sophisticated Samurai, born to rock while Riding with his Sword. In my science fiction setting, this works out to my Dryth Solon using super-advanced nano-technology and quasi-organic armor to fly through space ripping things apart with his incredible nanite-blades, having become so by being raised from birth to be the supreme arbiter and bearer of his House’s honor and word. Cool, right?

Try this little system with other famous groups of badasses:

Jedi: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Walk, Born to Rock, Magic

Space Marine: Marine, Gun, Sophisticate (or Barbarian, depending on chapter), Walk, Tooth-and-Nail, Magic

The Kingsguard: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle

The Fremen: Ninja, Sword, Barbarian, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle

And so on and so forth…

It might be incomplete, but tell me I’m wrong.



The Movie I’ll Never Make

About six years ago now (wow – how times flies!) I ran a Star Wars RPG campaign. Its structure was to mimic a trilogy of Star Wars movies – tightly paced, action-packed, complete with credits, text crawl on starfield at the start, a full cast, etc.. The players knew going in that the game wasn’t going to be as ‘open-ended’ as some other campaigns I had run, in that we had plot points to hit and a pre-defined conflict to resolve. The three ‘films’ would take place between Episode III and Episode IV and covered the founding and establishment of the Rebel Alliance. They wound up being great, great fun.

Cast of Characters

  • Cordelia Algodon: The Last Jedi (so far as she’s aware), who’s been on the run from the ISB and Vader ever since the Jedi holocaust of Episode 3. A Padawan who saw her master murdered before her eyes by ISB Operative Sammar, her story arc saw her midwifing the Alliance into existence and, finally, sacrificing her life to ensure its survival. Played by my friend Melissa.
  • Bi-Fi Doon: A space pirate played by my friend Bobby who winds up finding his calling as the fledgling Allaince’s best operative. Love interest of Mon Mothma (who was a major NPC). Partners with Heidel Thann (played by my friend Fisher). Wound up as one of those bearded guys in the background at the Battle of Yavin
  • Heidel Thann: First officer aboard Doon’s pirate vessel, the Totally Legitimate. Though Doon retained his skepticism of the Alliance’s high ideals, Thann jumped in with both feet. Wound up being the founder of Red Squadron.
  • Kthaar, DC4P, et al.: There was a disaffected Nohgri Assassin, a grumpy protocol droid, and a variety of guest stars, all PCs, and, while they were all awesome, they weren’t central to the main plot of the ‘films’
  • Sammar: An Imperial Security Agent hot on Cordelia’s tail (and secretly in love with her). He is trained in the Dark Side by Palpatine in secret from Darth Vader (Palpatine was grooming him as an insurance policy should Vader betray him). Sammar killed Cordelia’s master prior to the start of the first ‘film’.

There were other characters, too, but I don’t want to bother going too in-depth here. Suffice to say we had a whole functioning trilogy with lots of awesome moments and tons of fun had. It’s very possible what we did conflicted with the Expanded Universe (I never read much beyond the Timothy Zahn novels), but we didn’t care (hell, Lucas doesn’t care, either, so whatever). Episode 3.3, Freedom’s Embers, involved the PCs rescuing Mon Mothma from Coruscant and establishing a safe haven on Dantooine; 3.6, Clash at Corellia, involved the theft of the plans for the X-Wing fighter and the rescue of key scientists from the Kessel Spice Mines; Episode 3.9 was about the recruitment of Admiral Ackbar and the first naval victory of the Alliance over Mon Calamari.

I even went so far as to write up trailers for the films, and, to be honest, if someone gave me a chunk of cash to write and produce the things we came up with here, they would make damned good movies. Anyway, what follows in the trailer to the second episode. I hope you enjoy it:

(Mon Mothma stands at a podium. It is dark, and the shadows of various aliens in a variety of martial and rugged attire hang on her every word.)

To the Emperor Palpatine, we say this:

(Sammar emerges from the crowd, blaster in hand, and shoots Tamik in the back of the head)

You have murdered and imprisoned millions…

(We see Cordelia in the crowd, screaming)

(A fleet of Star Destroyers comes into orbit around a blue-green planet)

You have stolen our land and our property…

(We see TIE fighters strafing a city)

(Stormtroopers stand watch over a prison-camp, where exhausted slaves trudge into the depths of a mine)

You have used your military for the sole purpose of oppressing your subjects.

(We see an old man collapse. A Stormtrooper stands over him, takes aim, and as the blaster fires we…)

(close shot of Mothma, her voice hard)

This will not stand. We will fight you.

(As Mothma speaks, the following images are seen:)

(A heavily forested world where ancient ruins pierce the trees)

So it is that we…

(A shot of Rebel pilots running to their Y-Wings)

…the free beings of the Galaxy, do solemnly pledge…

(A shot of Doon running a hand along the underbelly of the Legitimate)

…our property…

(A shot of Cordelia and Sammar raising their lightsabers in a dark hall)

…our honor…

(a shot of K’thaar leaping in front of somebody to take a blaster shot)

…and our lives…

(a shot of a massive space battle between Star Destroyers and lots and lots of corvettes)

…until the Empire is destroyed…

(close shot of Mothma)

…or we are.

(following images flash across the screen)

(A giant Imperial wheeled vehicle smashing through walls)
(Cordelia engaged in lightsaber duel atop some kind vehicle at high speed)
(A man throwing a tarp off of a concealed object)
(DC4P fleeing an explosion)
(The Legitimate pursued by TIE fighters)
(Cordelia running through an ancient stone hall)

(Cordelia stops up short, her lightsaber drawn, her face terrified)


(block lettering appears: “Episode 3.6: Clash at Corellia)
(Vader’s tell-tale respirator starts up)

No more running, little girl.

(block lettering: Coming 11-13-05)