Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars and the Macbeth Principle

I hate Macbeth. I view it as a steaming turd in the flower bed of Shakespeare. Why? Because it is a story of the tragic fall of a character that we have no reason to like in the first place. In the second scene we are told that Macbeth is a great guy, but from the moment he walks on stage he behaves like a prick who is easily bullied by his evil wife.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy has the same flaw. We are supposed to care about Anakin. I know this not because Episodes I & II set him up as a great guy, but because in Episode IV, Obi Wan told us that he was a great guy. In Episode I he is an annoying little kid. In Episode II he is a whiny teenager. In Episode III (don't worry, no big spoilers--as if you don't know how it turns out anyway) Lucas tries to give us the impression of a decent guy in the first half. He does an OK job, but it isn't enough. Ask anybody: people like Anakin a lot more as Vader as they ever do as himself.

What does all of this have to do with gaming? Well, it teaches us a valuable lesson about constructing stories. You can't get powerful thematic situation about a character that nobody cares about. Now I know that not everyone is looking for thematic situations in play (thematic in the Ron Edwards sense). But it's really a good idea for all stories.

When you start to tell a story, there are people who are the protagonists. You have to establish those people as protagonists in the first act of the story. If you skip this step, no one will care what happens to them. This is part of the problem with having players come up with in-depth backgrounds for their characters: all the cool protagonism is bottled up where on only the player and GM can see it. And such background often fails to align with the SIS of the game.

I think this is why things like Kickers in Sorcerer are such a boon. They make players start their characters in a time of action and decision. A character in flux has a greater chance of proving himself a protagonist than a static character with lots of past behind him.

Anyway, I wouldn't call Episode III a steaming turd. But I wouldn't give it any great praise either. Go see it or not, but learn what you can from the failure of Eps. I-III compared to IV-VI.


Anonymous Bob the Fighter said...

lil historical note: shakespeare wrote macbeth for king james II, who was a scottish native and a big believer in witchcraft.
that aside, i think you're right: lots of folks have smacked Lucas around for his lack of good characterization. episodes 1 and 4 have this with qui-gonn and obi-wan: they die before we really get meaningfully attached to them, in what i guess Vincent Baker might call "upping the stakes". but for a major, central character (like macbeth), we definitely do need something a lil more involved to happen for us to care at all.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

It's not involvement that's important it is showing the character through action that's the key. We never *see* Macbeth being a good person. And we never *see* Anakin being the "good friend" that Obi-Wan says he was in episode IV.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 11:21:00 PM  
Anonymous John Kim said...

I'm extremely suspicious of a lesson in good drama which begins by declaiming Macbeth to be a steaming pile of manure that shows us how not to write a play. Mind you, I'm personally not that fond of Macbeth either, but there are an awful lot of people who have enjoyed it for hundreds of years. While Lucas' latest movie may well be forgotten and rarely seen in a few years, I think that Macbeth has proven itself successful.

I guess my point is that it is important to distinguish between one's personal taste and general principles of drama. i.e. You might not care about Macbeth, but other people who watch the play do. Apropos of gaming, the question is -- who do you want to identify with the PC?

An idea that I floated in Story and Narrative Paradigms in RPGs was that there were at least two models for a protagonist in RPGs. One was "serial protagonism" -- each character serves as a protagonist for all players. Another was more immersive -- the PC serves as protagonist only for that player.

Monday, May 23, 2005 10:41:00 AM  
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Saturday, October 22, 2005 11:19:00 PM  

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