Star Wars Storytelling (Katrina Ostrander Interview)

Used under Creative Commons. Copyright mcfarlandomo

Today I’m pleased to present an interview with Katrina Ostrander, Fantasy Flight Games Fiction Editor, former Star Wars RPG Developer, famed storytelling mentor at her blog, and Guest of Honor at GamerNation Con IV. The third in my series of interviews with Fantasy Flight Games developers, this post departs from the more mechanics based discussions I had with Tim Flanders on Mass Combat and Max Brooke about Crafting and Equipment. Storytelling is the core of roleplaying, so with that in mind Katrina and I dig deep into the why and the how of storytelling in this, the most narrative focused edition of the Star Wars RPG.

Christopher Hunt (CH): Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the RPG industry?

Katrina Ostrander (KO): I’ve been a roleplayer for over fifteen years, but I didn’t cross over into tabletop RPGs until relatively recently. Play-by-post RPG forums were where I got my introduction to the interactive medium, and as a result, RPGs and writing have always been strongly linked for me.

In college, I played a lot of the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, so my experience with the custom dice from that system helped me get hired by Fantasy Flight Games as an RPG Producer on the Star Wars game line, which features a different custom dice system. I also got to try out many different RPGs through my time as the president of my college’s roleplaying guild. Last but not least, being an avid reader and aspiring writer gave me a background in the craft of fiction and narrative structure that I’ve used extensively when developing RPG adventures.

I applied to a full-time position listed on the FFG careers page before I had any real RPG development credits to my name. The industry has already evolved a lot since then, so I would highly recommend newcomers to the industry get their name on a product (even if it’s self-published!) if they want to get a freelance writing or full-time gig in RPGs.

CH: Some GMs have pre-conceived notions and what could be called “baggage” from previous roleplaying systems, so I’d like to start with a very basic question. How do you tell Star Wars roleplaying stories?

KO: One of the biggest differences between traditional roleplaying systems and the one used for FFG’s Star Wars RPG line is having more options than just success and failure! How many of us have pounded the table in frustration when we rolled one less than the target number we needed to succeed at a given task? Our turn feels wasted, and we go back to our phones to see what new Facebook updates have been posted in the last thirty seconds.

The dice in the Star Wars roleplaying games add one or more cool things for players to describe on each check, giving everyone the chance to contribute more to the story on their turn even if their character can’t succeed directly at the action they’re taking.

Having every turn or check count toward advancing the narrative—with success or failure, good or bad side effects, and explosive or destructive results—emulates the action of the movies. You don’t just shoot the blaster door panel, you shoot the door panel and cause the blaster doors to close and trap the Stormtroopers outside while your Ewok allies emerge from the forest to strike! Once you get into the swing of interpreting the results in a cinematic way, your whole paradigm for roleplaying changes—everyone gets to contribute, not just the GM.

The other major difference is that the players themselves are invited—no, empowered—to contribute to the action each turn. They get to tell their story by inventing interpretations for the various dice results, instead of merely listening to the GM to find out what happens next. On a campaign-level, the players also get to give input into the direction of the sessions by selecting Obligations, Duties, and Moralities they want to see come up during play.

CH: What kinds of stories are best told in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game?

KO: I’ve gotten into arguments about this before (so take this with a grain of salt!), but I consider Star Wars to be fantasy in space, not a true science fiction setting. Correspondingly, I believe the best stories told in Star Wars are mythic: these are your tales of good vs. evil, the hero’s journey/grail quests, and the clash of kingdoms (or in this case, planets).

To highlight the battles of good vs. evil, GMs can draw on the mythology of the force and craft NPCs that represent the light side, the dark side, as well as the mixture of both. Superweapons such as the Death Star and Starkiller Base epitomize atrocities in the galaxy that must be stopped, while the Rebellion and the Jedi Order represent the ideals that are worth sacrificing for.

The other major story type that lends itself to Star Wars roleplaying is the hero’s journey, or grail quests. Create a McGuffin (Princess Leia! A lost Jedi temple! A corusca gem!) that everyone wants and then set the PCs and villains loose to chase after the McGuffin from one end of the galaxy to the other. Along the way, they’ll ally or fight with different people and have their existing beliefs challenged. But at the end of the day, the quest isn’t about getting or destroying the McGuffin so much as the journey itself. By the end, how have the PCs changed or grown? What beliefs have they been forced to re-examine?

Last but not least, I see Star Wars stories as revolving around the clash of kingdoms. Is it the Separatists vs the Republic? Galactic Empire vs Rebel Alliance? New Order vs the Resistance? Pick your flavors of the week. But give each side reasons to fight and a sense of moral superiority. The PCs might take on the roles of soldiers, strategists, diplomats, profiteers, or plain-old survivors against this backdrop of war. So your stories can ask how grand conflicts like these disrupt our daily lives, and what makes them worth fighting?

You can mix and match from these three mythic story types to create a memorable campaign with that Star Wars feel.

CH: Considering the greater player ownership of storytelling in the narrative dice system, how do you recommend GMs plan their adventures?

KO: I actually consider players in Star Wars to have narrative ownership on a micro level, not macro. In some systems, players take turns deciding what scenes to feature next, where they take place, and who confronts whom in them (some players can “crash” these scenes, but you need to give up future narrative control to do so). I consider this to be macro-level storytelling control. The Star Wars RPGs don’t quite go this far—the GM is assumed to have the power to start and end scenes, although nothing says the PCs can’t drive the action. It just isn’t built in to the system via dice checks.

When I say micro-level ownership, I mean that Star Wars roleplaying allows players to contribute to the “how” and the “what” of the scene by interpreting checks. What do these Advantages or Triumphs mean? How about these Threats and Despairs? The GM is still responsible for figuring out what the adversaries are up to and how the storyline should generally proceed, though. The players are on one side, and the GM on the other—they’re not necessarily agreeing to metagame in order to create a cool narrative. The players want to be surprised and take part in unraveling the mysteries.

Ultimately, it depends on whether the GMs are detail-oriented or improvisational. Some GMs like to sketch out a whole narrative arc in advance—others build a sandbox and let the PCs run around like murderhobos. No matter which approach you take, you can always boil down adventures to goals, obstacles, and possible outcomes. If you know what each side wants and why they can’t get what they want easily, you can more easily direct the story on the fly in a way that seems believable.

Ultimately, I believe the rules of the system don’t discourage heavy planning on the part of the GM (so long as the GM isn’t planning on the PCs always succeeding!). The rules do give the GM tools to improvise during the session more if the PCs take the story in an unexpected direction, though.

CH: How does the narrative dice system impact published adventures?

KO: One thing the NDS allows us to do in adventures is provide guidance for how dice results can be interpreted in a way specific to the adventure and the scenes within it. We commonly provide suggestions for dice results to represent the unique features of the environment or the characteristics of certain NPCs in investigations, set-piece combats, and social encounters.

For example, Player Characters in The Jewel of Yavin could use the Computers, Knowledge (Underworld), and Streetwise skills to dig up dirt on some of the NPCs featured in that adventure. After determining the results of the check, GMs could look up the results on a table and relay those details to the PCs. In this way, the NDS allows you to determine more than whether or not the PCs get the info they need—it helps tell GMs how much info to give out as well as what other tangential details or red herrings the PCs pick up in the process.

Game Masters designing their own adventures at home can do the same thing: jot down some notes for what cool effects specific to the scene could be triggered by rolling a Triumph or Despair, Advantage or Threat. Doing so might inspire GMs to add details that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise!

Of course, Obligation, Duty, and Morality are quintessential parts of FFG’s Star Wars RPG system as well. This is harder to take into account during published adventures because every group is different, and we can’t custom-tailor the adventure to a group the way a GM can, but we do provide suggestions for how different types of Obligations, Duties, or Moralities might rear their ugly heads in a given module.

Each of the three systems works best if its introduction makes life harder for that particular PC, especially if it conflicts with the main plot of the published adventure. Obligation is perhaps the most straightforward—whatever comes up becomes a point of distraction or temptation for the PCs when they need to be focusing on the job at hand. For Duty, this might mean having something related to the PC’s Duty go terribly wrong during the mission. Morality is about temptation—will the PC’s better nature win out, or will she succumb to her flaws? In each case, forcing the spotlighted PC to grapple with two problems at once creates additional drama at the table and embodies the “I have a bad feeling about this” comedy that’s common to the Star Wars movies.

CH: You’ve discussed gamemastering for emotional impact on your blog TripleCrit. How can Star Wars GMs create an emotional impact on their players?

KO: I think that ultimately it comes down to getting players involved in the story and giving them agency to affect the narrative in either direction. This means giving them real choices, showcasing the stakes involved, and letting them face and feel the consequences of their decisions. For example, the moments that stick with me most are the hemming and hawing of whether to imprison or free a dangerous criminal, weighing the pros and cons of choosing different allies for a given task, or figuring out how to approach a given problem.

In the Star Wars galaxy, that means giving players the option of choosing between the light side or the dark, sacrifice or safety, tradition or revolution. No one choice should be easy—both alternatives need to have their upsides and downsides, and those consequences should be felt by the PCs and the people/things they care about. When the PCs have to once again make deals with a space pirate they’ve screwed over in the past, or when they confront the Imperial agent that they’ve barely managed to escape from time and again, you should be getting some kind of emotional reaction from the players.

I guess I’m saying that recurring NPCs can go a long way toward emotionally affecting the PCs, because the PCs have a history with them and have developed positive or negative judgements about them. NPCs that the PCs have interacted with during play will mean more than those who have only appeared in backstory—it’s the difference between the practical and the theoretical, the showing and the telling.

CH: Most groups report they do not make use of the Fear mechanic. How should GMs use Fear, both mechanically and narratively, to convey a Star Wars experience?

KO: If most groups don’t make use of the Fear mechanic, then that might be the right choice for them. The question boils down to whether Fear is important to the stories those groups are looking to tell. Fear might take a backseat when you’re looking for a comedic, high-adventure jaunt across the galaxy, staying one step ahead of those pesky Imperials. Star Wars can have a lightweight feel to it, especially if you’re playing an Edge of the Empire campaign, and that joviality might be what those groups are looking for in their RPG sessions. In my opinion, Rogue One is the first time the tone gets truly dark in the series, although the end of The Empire Strikes Back gets a bit grim as well. Some groups might be interested in replicating similarly dark tones in their home games, but others play RPGs for the escapism, not for more doom and gloom (which real life doles out on its own).

However, If a GM wants to underscore the overwhelming odds facing the Rebellion or the raw power harnessed by a Sith lord, you could dispense with the Fear checks and go for a “show, don’t tell” approach. In this case, “showing” means really endangering the PCs and letting them suffer the consequences. Take away the things that are important to them, mechanically and narratively. Take away their loved ones; take away their sweet weapons and their ability to heal wounds or crits easily. Then, once the players know their characters’ fear, you can call for Fear checks to see whether the PCs flee or stand their ground. The Fear check doesn’t have to be a check to see whether or not a character is afraid, but whether or not a character can be courageous in the face of fear.

CH: Now that the Star Wars RPG has been out for a number of years many play groups are getting into higher XP levels (500+), what advice would you have for storytelling around very powerful and influential characters?

KO: Sounds like it’s time to raise the stakes! Whereas your group’s missions, investigations, and schemes might have had but a small impact on the galaxy so far, now is the chance to zoom out and make the scope more epic. The PCs’ decisions get to become become more consequential: when the PCs make choices, perhaps whole planets or star systems hang in the balance. The Death Stars and Starkiller base threatened countless planets, so you can feel free to throw something similarly dangerous in the PCs’ general direction.

On the flip side, upping the stakes doesn’t always mean increasing the size of the guns. You can always wreak havoc on tap into their characters’ emotions and motivations to provide new challenges no matter how effective your characters are mechanically. If that means bringing a character’s favorite cantina or beloved daughter into the mix, then go for it. Imperil whatever and whomever you need to in order to make the PCs care and worry about whether they can address the problem you’ve put in front of them.

And if you’re still having trouble challenging the PCs, it may be time for them to become a part of the status quo and retire. Their stories have been told. Let the players assume the role of challengers to that status quo, and let the choices of the first group wreak havoc for the second-generation PCs.

CH: Thanks, Kat!

Readers hungry for more of Katrina Ostrander’s insights can visit her blog Triple Crit to access a whole host of content aimed at developing your roleplaying, gamemastery, and storytelling skills.

This concludes my interview series with Fantasy Flight Games developers, at least for now. Let me know in the comments section what you found useful from this series and feel free to leave suggestions and requests for future interviews.

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Christopher Hunt

Christopher Hunt

Staff Writer at d20 Radio
Ready to pull the ears off a Gundark, Chris is new to writing in the gaming industry. Up in the mystical Canadian land of Manitoba, he can be seen running Star Wars for his home group and at PrairieCon events. Chris has a passion for gaming he hopes to unite with academic and corporate writing experience .