Wednesday, October 30, 2019

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Talisman Adventures Playtest Guide


I was a latecomer to the Talisman boardgame, and I actually played Fantasy Flight’s Relic variant set in the Warhammer 40000 universe before I played Talisman itself. That said, there was a time when I first got the app version of the game that I was playing it obsessively.

I was interested to see what a Talisman RPG would look like when I heard one was in production, but when I heard that Brandes and Rabbit Stoddard had worked on it, I became much more interested in seeing it take shape.

As luck would have it, Brandes and Ian Lemke asked me if I would like to see a copy of the Talisman Adventures Playtest Guide, and I said yes. If you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me reiterate the implied disclaimers—while I’ve only gotten to meet them in person once, this year a Gen Con, I’ve talked with Brandes and Rabbit for years online, and my preview copy of the Playtest Guide was sent to me compliments of Ian Lemke.

Since this is the playtest guide, this won’t be a full review, just a first impression article.

Structure

The Playtest Guide document is 82 pages in PDF form, including six pregenerated characters, a character sheet, a page of playtest questions, and a page of designer notes.

The document is professionally formatted, with artistically rendered boarders and a faux parchment background. One thing that immediately stands out to me is that much of the book has female presenting characters represented as adventurers, as well as people of color. This should be a standard now, but it isn’t nearly as common as it should be.

The PDF includes the following sections:

·         History of the Realm
·         Creating a Character
·         Rules of the Game
·         The Corpse Watchers
·         Character Sheets
·         Playtest Questions
·         Designers Notes

History of the Realm

This section is a three-page introduction to the game. It gives the backstory of the setting in a concise format. The introduction mentions that the game and its setting should bring to mind fairy tale conventions, and the introduction does this very well. Most of the characters are addressed by their titles. If a location had a proper name, it is a very archetypical one, like The Storm River or the Middle Region.

While some of this is a holdover from the terminology of the board game, much like 13th Age and its Icons, this really lends an air of mythic stories or folktales, rather than more “grounded” fantasy. I think detailing the setting background in this manner accomplishes two purposes at the same time—the core game remains rooted in a fairy tale sensibility, while leaving the details as more archetypical almost implies permission to use this set of rules for other similar fantasy settings.

Creating a Character

Creating a character involves picking an ancestry, a class, an alignment, assigning aspects and attributes, and figuring your derived statistics from all of those other steps.

Right off the bat, I’m happy that we’re using a term like ancestry in this game. The game doesn’t give bonuses or penalties for attributes, but it does set caps and restrictions on certain aspects. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. My knee jerk reaction is to say its better to have caps set differently than to have literal bonuses or penalties, but it still feels like its playing in some long term past issues that we may be able to do better in the future.

One thing I know that I like about the ancestries is that each one has its own background, meaning that while there are thematic trends within an ancestry, ancestries aren’t presented as a monoculture. Additionally, each ancestry has four special abilities, only one of which you pick at first level. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but in advancement, you can choose between class abilities or more ancestry special abilities, keeping with the “thematic, but not uniform” feeling of the ancestries.

The ancestries presented are:

·         Human
·         Dwarf
·         Elf
·         Ghoul
·         Sprite
·         Troll

The human special abilities don’t wow me, but I think its always hard to make something as broad as “human” into something that is exciting. Divorced of a particular established culture, “human” is kind of the “point of view,” “create your own core assumptions” kind of ancestry.

My favorite is definitely the ghoul. It’s not an option that you often see in a game, and I love some of the implied story in the background and the special abilities. You can lean hard into creepy, or rise above it a bit and embrace the concept of being a shepherd of the dead, and I really like that range.

Classes include the following options:

·         Assassin
·         Druid
·         Minstrel
·         Priest
·         Prophet
·         Sorcerer
·         Thief
·         Warrior
·         Wizard

The Assassin and the Thief seem to occupy similar thematic space, but I like that the Assassin is more about doing extra damage under the right circumstances and getting advantages from studying a target, and Thief, in combat, is about setting up other characters and learning information about an opponent.

Like the Assassin and the Thief, the Priest and the Prophet are both similar in theme with slightly different execution. The Priest is the character that cares about the day to day administration of the faith, while the Prophet is the person that is shown the big picture. They have abilities that essentially let the GM funnel information from them passively, and actively, they can make checks to have visions or revelations that answer a question that they pose.

Rounding out our thematically similar pairs, the Sorcerer and the Wizard are both arcane spellcasters, and it’s probably not a surprise that the wizard is the one that does the studying for their craft. The Sorcerer, as far as this game is concerned, is more of what D&D would see, in the modern era, as a Warlock—a character that learns their magic from trafficking with unpredictable powers like fiends or faeries, and they get a familiar that might run amok, if left alone.

If you have played any kind of fantasy roleplaying game before, the archetypes embodied by the Druid, the Minstrel, or the Warrior probably aren’t going to surprise you too much. I did like the explanation of why quickness is important to Minstrels, and it’s interesting that they utilize Nature magic, instead of Arcane or Mystic spells.

Spellcasters have the ability to spend spell points to cast spells. When they are out of spell points, they can burn a spell, meaning that they have to spend time studying the spell again before they can get it back. It’s an interesting, and simple, merger of spell points and Vancian casting.

I also need to take a moment and say how much I love the flavor conveyed in the Wizard’s entry. Wizards get the ability to make psychic attacks, and its flavored in their description by noting that their words themselves have power. If they take a special ability that grants them a staff, their psychic damage is increased. I love that I got overwhelming Saruman vibes just from reading the class description.

Choosing an Alignment is part of character creation, and the alignments are simplified to Good, Neutral, and Evil. Certain class abilities are dependent on alignment, and if a character no longer qualifies because their alignment changes, then they get to pick a new ability, and if they ever go back to their original alignment, they can pick up that old alignment dependent ability again.

In general, I’ve been pretty happy that D&D has been moving away from giving mechanical importance to alignment. The guide for this game goes into a lot of detail to point out that “evil” is, in general, extreme self-interest, and that an evil character shouldn’t screw over their friends or engage in pointless cruelty. The thing is, from the standpoint of emulating Talisman, it makes sense to have alignment as a component, and to have it “shut down” certain abilities when it changes. I’m just wondering if there will be more abilities in the full game that shift alignment, outside of character roleplay, as that’s a thing that happens fairly regularly in the board game.

The different classes set different Strength, Craft, and Life, and Strength and Craft scores are what you use to determine how many points you have to assign to abilities like Brawn, Agility, Mettle, Insight, Wits, and Resolve.

Because it may be a tad bit easy to not pick up on this if you haven’t played the board game, Craft isn’t about making things, per se, it’s about pursuing mental pursuits, such as, for example, crafting spells.

Rules of the Game

The way this book is organized, it has a similar structure to games like D&D, where it jumps you straight into creating a character before it fully explains what all of those numbers mean. There were some tantalizing bits in the character abilities that made me start to wonder, “wait, does that mean . . . “ and here is where I get to find out.

Like the board game, when you want to see if you are successful at something, you roll a number of d6s, then add an attribute if you have a relevant skill, apply a bonus if you have a focus in a skill, or a penalty if you don’t have a skill at all. If you hit the target number, you succeed, and if you don’t, you fail . . . but wait, that’s not all!

Unlike the simpler resolution of the boardgame, in the RPG, there are degrees of success. A standard success is just meeting or exceeding the number. A Great Success is a success where you roll doubles. An Extraordinary Success is a success where you roll triples.

Here is the part where my recent taste in games and preference in game rules gets me excited about this game—the GM doesn’t roll dice, and if the players attack a creature, the creature does damage on a failure, or half damage on a standard success. A Great Success means the opponent doesn’t get to retaliate, and an Extraordinary Success adds extra damage or other effects to the attack.

Any creature that wasn’t engaged by the players and is involved in combat can still take an action, but it its success is determined by the PCs defense roll, rather than by the GM rolling dice.

I love degrees of success, and I am increasingly fascinated with games that define the GMs role with adding complications rather than engaging in the same math as the players. Additionally, there is something that feels different and more impartial about a GM presenting something to the players, but allowing its resolution to be entirely in their hands.

Melee combat, ranged combat, and psychic combat all have different nuances when it comes to what happens in the event of a failure or different levels of success, but all of them revolve around the above generalities.

One of the dice being rolled is the Kismet die, which should be a different color, and works like the other dice, except on a 1 it adds a point of Dark Fate to the GM’s pool, and on a 6, it adds a point of Light Fate to the Player’s pool. Light Fate can be used for rerolls or to trigger special abilities, and the GM can use Dark Fate to trigger special abilities as well.

Surprise rules get a lot more detail than I was expecting, but when getting into the exploration and travel rules presented in the adventure later in the book, this makes a little more sense, as navigation rules can regularly lead to one side or another in a travel encounter having the ability to set up ambushes. The penalties can really rack up during an ambush, and I’m curious to see how devastating ambushes are in an ongoing game.

Injuries are tracked on two different axis, while measuring Life as well as incurring wounds. A character dropped to 0 Life may be dying, but they also get a wound. Even when they get Life back, wounds are treated separately, and provide a persistent penalty to checks. It reminds me a little of the ongoing crits a character can suffer in Genesys, except that in Genesys, losing vitality doesn’t kill you, crits kill you.

There is a section on spells, and, broadly, some spells have utility effects (see through an animal’s eyes, teleport a short distance), while others heal or cause damage. Spells generally require tests, however, meaning that it’s not trivial to use them.

The next section caught my attention, because it introduces rules for Followers. This is another aspect of the game that makes sense given that you can pick up followers as assets in the board game, but I really like the implementation of them in this game.

Followers aren’t fully stated out characters. They have a Life score, and a Max Loyalty score, and they have something that they can do for characters, either passively or actively. There are entries on how to restore Loyalty, because if the Followers Loyalty drops for too long, they’ll leave. They are also more fragile than regular characters, meaning they die if they hit 0 Life. No making tests to stay alive for them. Some followers also have alignment requirements as well, and they take off if they don’t like the vibe their getting from their boss.

I love the idea of having followers that do something in the game, but I have always hated the idea of running a fully detailed additional character in these circumstances. Even when the follower is a built using “monster rules,” they still effectively engage the rules in a similar manner to a regular character. I really like that these followers have quantified rules for what they do, and under what conditions they expire or leave. I’m really interested to see this in play.

The Corpse Watchers

The sample adventure sees the adventures arrive in town, find out about some missing townsfolk, travel to a location, stumble upon a cursed area, and have the opportunity to save the townsfolk. Rather than have a GM section that explains reactions, travel rules, or opponents, the adventure serves as the means of giving examples of what these rules look like in play.

I love some of the wilder bits of fantasy in this adventure. The structure is fairly basic, but you run across items like the Phoenix Potion, which lets you come back the next day if you die before the next sunrise. Its kind of a crazy, over the top item that feels very folkloreish in is straightforward implementation. “By the way, if you drink this first, then die, don’t worry, you’ll be back.”

The Exploration rules are mentioned in this adventure as a summary of what a more detailed system will look like in the main rules. It involves giving PCs roles like The Guide, Watcher, and Hunter, and having different events trigger during the trip based on their rolls. This really reminded me of the Journey rules in The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth, and that’s a good thing. I think its way more interesting if a “random encounter” triggers from the guide or the watcher not seeing all of the dangers on the upcoming path rather than leaving things up to actual random determination.

Looking over the traits given to the example creatures, I’m not thrilled with having special abilities that the GM can trigger that can potentially paralyze a PC for up to six rounds. Because the GM specifically has to spend Dark Fate to trigger this, it feels very adversarial to me, more so than just doing extra damage or even a lesser, temporary penalty. I think I would almost rather the special abilities that the GM can trigger serve to keep the opponent in the fight longer, rather than doing something extra nasty, since they are specifically spending from their pool to cause that effect.

I like that there are multiple ways to resolve the curse hanging over the afflicted villagers, and I also like the risk versus reward aspect the adventure introduces when it comes to trying to gather extra treasure.

The end of the adventure summarizes what leveling up looks like in the game, which generally involves adding increases to Life, getting access to new abilities, or bonuses to aspects. There are XP rewards for various goals in the adventure, as well as XP rewards for individual monsters. I almost wish the XP reward for potential combat encounters were phrased more like Dungeon Crawl Classics, where the XP is for surviving the encounter, whether that involved killing the monster or running from it, even though the encounter is worth more depending on how dangerous it was.

Final Thoughts

It’s kind of fascinating that by designing the game to pick up on a lot of the traits of the boardgame, the RPG also picks up on some modern trends in RPG design, such as more player facing and driven mechanics. I am generally a big fan of GM currencies and player facing mechanics, although I do thing some of the triggered abilities in the example creatures feel a bit too adversarial. When I spend resources in games that give me GM resources, it’s usually to make things more complicated or to keep an opponent in play, not to negate a player’s ability to participate.

I’m curious to see more magic items in play in this system as well. Given that one of the spells in the game is a relatively casual magic item destroyer, and given how much the RPG seems to be emulating aspects of the board game, I’m expecting magic items to be fairly common. I’m just hoping for more items with the whimsy (and admitted usefulness) of the Phoenix Potion.

I’m really happy to see the diversity of characters in the artwork. I am curious to see if the game can manage other forms of diversity, given that the genre it’s playing with often only touches lightly on deeper story issues. It would still be nice to see an adventure with a prince’s true love that doesn’t have to be a woman, or to have a priest or a prophet that doesn’t conform to binary gender.

Reading through this playtest document, I’m way more excited to see a full version of this game than I thought I would be. It does a great job of balancing RPG design with thematic elements pulled from the board game, and catching the feel of fantasy that is just a shade closer to folklore than it is to full blown epic fantasy.



Monday, October 28, 2019

What Do I Know About Genre Fiction? The Binding Stone


I was deeply invested in 3.5, but I never got into Eberron. I was way too busy picking up every sing “core” D&D release, and every single Forgotten Realms release, that I just never got into the setting. Over time, there has been a lot that ended up intriguing me about the setting, not the least of which is the idea that the traditional “evil” races aren’t necessarily so in Eberron.

With the resurgence of Eberron and the impending release of the new 5e hardcover, I decided to investigate Eberron by picking up one of the novels to get a feel for the setting. 

  • Disclaimer number one, away—Unlike the Forgotten Realms, the Eberron novels weren’t considered canon. I’m not examining this from the lens of what is “canon” for the setting, so much as, “they wanted to use this product to promote the setting.”
  • Disclaimer number two—fire!—As with some of the other things I’ve written, I’m criticizing the work more than the author. A lot of what we see are unfortunate trends that show up, that should have been broken, but weren’t established in this book.



Eberron Conceits

If you aren’t familiar with Eberron, it’s a fantasy setting, but one where magic is used more like technology. There was a world war that just ended not too long ago, there are lightning rails (magic trains) and airships. There are sending stones that act as magical telephones.
In a lot of ways, Eberron feels like a 1930s pulp setting, but instead of the technology we expect, people have wands instead of guns, still carry around swords and wear armor, and there are still all kinds of fantastic creatures flying around, like dragons and eldritch abominations from beyond.

Back in 3.5, the setting touted that alignment was more fluid and situational, which I read as “let’s confuse people instead of getting rid of something that doesn’t work for the setting,” but I get what they were trying to do.

In addition to “fuzzy alignment,” species don’t have their traditional roles in the setting. Orcs were the first druids. Goblins had an ancient empire that predates humanity. Elves raise their elders to keep an eye on them with not-evil undead (that don’t get called undead, because 3.5 was still being weird about fluid alignment and undead being BAD THINGS).

That doesn’t mean the setting doesn’t have fantasy racism, but it does mean that fantasy racism is less based on the setting itself going out of its way to show us that certain species are “born bad.” So, I was expecting some interesting protagonists and character development.

Casual Racism Among Friends

Eberron also has a few unique demographics that don’t exist in other D&D worlds, at least not as formal elements of the settings. One of those unique groups are the Shifters, people descended from lycanthropes, that have less extreme animal-based supernatural powers.


One of the protagonists of this novel is a Shifter, who is friends with a druid. That druid, in the first half of the book, is constantly making jokes about Shifters having fleas. He points out whenever his Shifter friend does or says something he doesn’t agree with that “this is why people are afraid of Shifters.”

We are told that the people in the small town where the Shifter and his druid friend live wouldn’t have accepted the Shifter, except that the druid vouched for him. But after vouching for him, he seems to constantly remind his “friend” that Shifter stereotypes exist and that he wouldn’t be accepted without someone vouching for him.

I’m not saying that this attitude wouldn’t exist in the setting, or that you couldn’t tell a story using this as a plot point, if you did it carefully. This was not careful, or thoughtful. We are introduced to a “new” species unique to this setting by laying out all the negative things people think about the species first. Other than his commentary on his Shifter friend, the druid is portrayed as a wise and open-minded character. So essentially, the narrative is guiding us to thinking, not that the wise and open-minded can be wrong, but that his causal racism is completely normal.

Exoticism

Another protagonist in this novel is a Kalashtar, a character that is not from the same continent as the other characters, who has bronze skin, and different facial features. Then we get a comment that we don’t get about any of the male characters, pointing out that her “exotic” features were attractive.

There is an instance where a serving woman mentions that a man is attractive, but all her attraction is focused on how well dressed and well-groomed he is, rather than his features.
In addition to the Kalashtar, we have dark-skinned tribe members that have been subverted into a cult by a powerful outsider for generations. They aren’t portrayed as evil, but they do get slapped pretty hard with the “noble savage” trope, being vulnerable to being manipulated by the smart evil outsider that dazzles them with his powers.

There is also one member of the tribe that turns on the others because she realizes how bad their evil leader is, but this then plays into the “one good one” trope, which is very icky as well.

Traditional Fantasy Racism

When we get to a discussion of the ancient goblin empire or to orcs as the original druids, this isn’t presented as just a historical fact. Both goblins and orcs are still presented as largely viewed the same way people view them in other traditional fantasy settings. It’s unbelievable that the evil, savage raiders they know in the present era could have ever been more “civilized.”

Eventually, the group runs into an orc druid, and that character is presented as a pretty rational, relatable character, but once the group visits his tribe, the tribe is harsh and vicious. They are protecting the world from a “greater evil,” but they are, themselves, presented as savage and dangerous allies. Additionally, the orc tribe is cruel towards the half-orc character that is traveling with the protagonists.

The overall effect is less “this is the traditional portrayal of goblins and orcs you are accustomed to,” so much as “these are 90% the goblins and orcs you are used to, but 10% of their backstory is deeper than you realize.”

Bloodline Magic

Eberron has a type of magic called Dragonmarks where characters are born with the mark of their family bloodline, and this gives them access to magical powers based on that mark. The Dragonmarked Houses are big, important organizations in the setting.

This is a trope that reinforces “some people are better than others,” but given that the houses are often shown to be akin to modern corporations, “better” doesn’t have to mean, “more morally correct.”

The problem is, the primary way we get this information about the Dragonmarks in this novel is through the woman who turns on her tribe, who is descended from a member of one of the Dragonmarked houses, who was forced to stay with the tribe and become one of them, but his mark didn’t get passed on to her. The narrative surrounding this exposition feels a little too close to saying that the tribe wasn’t civilized enough for the Dragonmark to “breed true.”

Filtered Introduction

It seems clear that this novel wanted to introduce several unique elements to Eberron, but it did so by telling us the stories filtered first by racism and stereotypes, then filtered down to what was “true” and contextual. If we had more time with our Shifter where he could present his own thoughts on Shifters, and we had more interactions with people that didn’t immediately point out racist attitudes directed at his people, maybe we would have gotten a better view of the setting element. The same holds true with our Kalashtar character.

If we had gotten anything that played against type, with perhaps people expecting the druidic orcs to be more savage than they actually were, with the orcs understanding and interacting with societal elements with more proficiency than expected, proving the biased parties wrong in their assumptions, it might have been a nice subversion.

It almost feels like the novel is afraid to deviate too far from what the 3.5 D&D baseline was, so any deviation was introduced slowly, and through the lens of racism bias that was the assumed “norm” in D&D.


Of course, all of that doesn’t make up for fetishizing a woman that represents “the other” in the novel, but thankfully, that largely gets left by the wayside once she begins to interact with the other protagonists later in the novel.

The Bonus Round—Audiobook Narrator

I listened to this book in audiobook form. Want to guess what accent they gave the woman that broke away from her tribe and delivers most of the tribal perspective exposition? If you guessed that they gave her a heavy Caribbean accent, you would have been correct.

Wishes

From everything I had heard about Eberron, I just wish this had been a better introduction. While it wasn’t perfect by any means, It wasn’t too long ago that I finally read the Taladas trilogy of Dragonlance novels. In many cases, point of view characters got to determine a lot more of their own narrative when they were introduced, so while we may have known that some cultures were in opposition to one another, we didn’t have the relative ranking of “civilized” versus “primitive” in quite the same way from the point of view characters.
Yes, we did get some of that later in the books from cultures that were introduced and that did not have a point of view character, and that isn’t great, but it was minimized compared to how we are introduced to various cultures in this novel.

On a broader note, a lot of what is unique about Eberron that gets referenced is “off-screen.” This feels much more like a “traditional” D&D adventure, in a setting where, far off in Sharn or wherever else is beyond the scope of the story, there are all these magi-technical wonders. Far in the past, there are these nonstandard origins for species. But in the present, and where the story is focused, it’s pretty much standard D&D-isms all the way down. That feels like a lost opportunity.

Friday, October 25, 2019

What Do I Know About Genre Fiction? The New Jedi Order



Recently, I decided to finish up a few books that I’ve had laying around for a very long time. There is some interesting insight that can be gleaned from looking at the time and influences that were evident in this era that didn’t really seem like it was that long ago.



The first book I’m looking it is from The New Jedi Order series of books. I’m going to look at the series as a whole and the trends that were evident, instead of the book in question. Also, I would just like to say, up front, I’m not accusing any particular author of any specific thing, I’m just looking at things that our pop culture (and those of us consuming that pop culture) integrated into content, without a degree of thoughtfulness.

The Pitch

Just in case you weren’t around at the time, The New Jedi Order series revolves around the galaxy being invaded by the Yuuzong Vong, a species that hates traditional technology, and gets everything done through biological devices that can accomplish pretty much the same thing as standard technology. They have organic hyperdrives, organic shield generators, spore-based weapons, etc.

My History With The Books

I had largely dropped out of the Star Wars Expanded Universe at the time these books came out. While I was still watching the movies, I had already started to burn out on the parade of Imperial Remnant resurgences, unrelated Dark Side cults, and prototype superweapons that were better than the Death Star. 

I’m going to posit some modern critique, from my perspective now, but I want to make it clear that I wasn’t thinking this deeply about any of this at the time. I was mainly just tired of what felt like a perpetual cycle of galactic government collapsing, rebuilding, and collapsing again, with the exact same heroes doing the exact same things every few years.

If you have criticized the sequel trilogy without reading the old EU, we never had a 30 year period of peace in the galaxy, The New Republic, as it turns out, didn’t so much win the war as just quit fighting it until the next Imperial Remnant leader showed up to unite what was left of the Empire, and we didn’t get a new Death Star like weapon after 30 years, we got a new superweapon about every five years or so, that the Empire lost track of for a while and then found.

On one hand, The New Jedi Order started to reverse this, by coming up with villains that weren’t the Empire or some divergent version of the Sith, and by focusing on a broader range of strange technology that was hard to deal with across the board, but didn’t add up to one specific superweapon. On the other hand, The New Jedi Order took forever to resolve, and was very sure it was positing very serious early 2000s era philosophy. 

In case it makes a difference, I got roped back into the Star Wars EU with Knights of the Old Republic (the games and the comic book series), and The Legacy comics (which were very early 2000s edgy on their own, but for some reason it felt more “Star Wars Edgy” to me because of the comic book storytelling medium—don’t accuse me of being consistent).

Modern Dissection

The New Jedi Order series was published from 1999-2003. These dates are going to be important. The series also comprised 19 novels, as well as a few short stories and later comic book series. This was a pretty comprehensive storyline that isn’t to be engaged with casually. There were a few books that originally came out as hardcover novels that were the “high points,” but overall, there was a lot going on across a lot of stories.

What could have possibly happened that made some elements of the story . . . uncomfortable by the end of the series? While there were already some overtones evident in the structure of the story, things just got more uncomfortable after 9/11. 

Framing the Villains

The Yuuzong Vong were from “outside the galaxy.” They weren’t “normal” aliens. They were “alien” aliens. They were cut off from the Force, the religion of the “normal” galaxy. They had their own religion, to which they adhered to “fanatically.” They hated droids and traditional technology in favor of their own biological technology. They also employed “suicide bomber” tactics, and had terrorist cells in various New Republic worlds to sow . . . terror . . . in their enemy’s territory.

It’s hard now, looking back on the Vong, to not see some of the uncomfortable analogies that the story was introducing. 

They don’t adhere to the “right” religion. They have suicide bombers. They hate technology (even if they have a version of their own). It’s like a laundry list of jingoistic commentary about Middle Eastern terrorism all wrapped up in one enemy species.

There is also some uncomfortable commentary from characters regarding the personhood of the Vong. In one case, an attractive female Vong (of course) is captured by the New Republic, and the New Republic officers comment that they didn’t know any of their females could be this attractive. It’s like a double word score of racism and sexism. 

There is also the uncomfortable discussion around which Vong are “close enough” to human that they can wear Maskers, technology that lets them pass for human. See, some things that aren’t human and are inherently bad can “pass” for human.

This wasn’t one person that came up with this. This was a group of people working on this overall, long term storyline that didn’t spend the time to be introspective enough to see where there were some issues with how this came across. I suspect, having lived through it, there were a lot of people after 2001 that didn’t care, even if they saw the parallels. 

Additionally, the oblique references to the Vong adoration of pain as part of their religion feels like some BDSM kink-shaming on a massive scale. 

Framing the Heroes

Hey, let’s throw another disclaimer in here . . . I think there is room for introspection about how the Jedi Order has lost the thread of why they did some of the things that they did in the past, and that they could use some reform. I also think there is room for discussing how sometimes it may be healthier to integrate the darkness, understand, and mitigate it, than trying to avoid it altogether. 

In retrospect, the deeper philosophy of The New Jedi Order doesn’t feel as deep as it might have at the time. Long story short, the Jedi “learn” there is no Dark Side, everything is 100% based on your intentions, not on elements of the Force itself having tendencies one direction or the other.

More modern treatments of this discussion, such as from the canon novel Dark Disciple, frame this as the Dark Side being a real thing, but that Dark and Light are less Good and Evil. Giving in to the Dark Side thoughtlessly is bad, but understanding how and why it exists, and what the consequences of tapping into it are, may be more important than avoiding it all together. Essentially, it is likened to predatory instincts, which may be useful in some situations, but which shouldn’t be used to guide one’s day to day life.

But, hey, there is no good and evil, the ends justify the means, etc. was very popular in the early 2000s. Remember, the Jedi learn this in the middle of a war. If your opponents are bad enough, maybe its okay to do things that others, in the past, wrongly thought were “The Dark Side.” Kind of like how maybe treating prisoners without human dignity in order to get information from them warrants not calling something torture but coming up with a new term like enhanced interrogation. The intentions are what’s important.

This story also paved the way for the Galactic Alliance to supersede The New Republic. What this meant was, the old Imperial Remnant wouldn’t be villains anymore. They got to be allied fascists that could keep their neat uniforms and slightly less fascist rules as long as they were part of the Alliance, because the Outsiders were the real threat. 

In other words, the real villains weren’t the people that looked like the New Republic, it was the people that were complete outsiders. The Imperial Remnant may have practiced virulent human supremacy, misogyny, and colonialism, but if they just “tone it down” and help the New Republic to guard against “the bad ones,” all will be forgiven.

A Little Bit More Of The Unfortunate

When the creatives on this project were trying to come up with who to kill, they decided to kill off Chewbacca, rather than any of the established human characters. Its not as directly bad as if they had killed off their only person of color from the original trilogy, but “alien sidekicks are expendable” is not the best message to send when aliens were used as a shorthand for marginalized groups in the EU narrative.

Also, while we’re talking about Han’s alien sidekicks, Han’s new copilot in this series, after Chewie dies, is a character from a species that is framed as “space Roma.” On one hand, the text points out they are persecuted and driven out of places unfairly. On the other hand, they are noted as having a reputation as thieves and con artists, and they physiologically have a built-in musical instrument. Also, Han meets this new partner in conjunction with underworld contacts, so no breaking stereotypes there.

Perspective Time

I’m not saying everything in The New Jedi Order books is bad, racist, or sexist. I am just pointing out that there were some very structural, foundational elements to the overall story that play up some destructive, oppressive systems of oppression. 

Is this still relevant? Well, the books are what they are, but they are still in print under the “Legends” banner. The biggest thing I would point out is that this could all be more relevant of the Vong ever get introduced into the current stories.

I would hope that some of the creepy sexist ogling while still denigrating the species could be avoided easily. It would also be great if the species weren’t monolithically portrayed as adhering to the same religion, and/or if they weren’t portrayed as having a uniformly bad religion. Also, saying they were cut off from the Force is kind of like saying “God doesn’t like them” in Star Wars speak, so that plot element really feels out of place.

Ironically, for as edgy as the series was trying to be, The Legacy comics started doing the work of not portraying the Vong as universally bad, with the Jedi working with them to terraform planets and reconnect with the Force, although this narrative, while playing to the Star Wars redemption theme, also plays to the “they need to get right with OUR god,” story elements.

What Almost Was

Just in case you are convinced the Vong would have never moved beyond novels and comics, there was a potential Clone Wars episode where Anakin would encounter an early Vong scout force. Given that we’re seeing new Clone Wars episodes, who knows of they will remain 100% Legends.