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Star Wars Radio and Shared Action

Let’s start this off by establishing my relationship to Star Wars: I love Star Wars. Love it. I still spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the brilliant storytelling of the Original Trilogy. I should emphasize, however, that I tend to think of anything outside those three films as addenda of sorts. To me, the prequels and recent trilogy occupy a similar space to novels, video games, The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, etc. Being addenda isn’t a good or bad thing in itself - in fact, my very first exposure to RPGs was the original West End D6 Star Wars. It taught me a lot about gaming could be, and gave me my first lessons in the methodologies of storytelling.

I also love addenda that stretch the idea of what Star Wars is, especially at the very beginning when the first film’s success took everyone by surprise and imaginations went wild. The early Marvel comics, for instance, are an exercise in playful genre-bending as tropes from  westerns, monster movies, 50s crime comics, and even iserious science fiction are all wrapped up in Bronze Age comics outfits (so many capes and collars!) and blasted off to the Galaxy Far, Far, Away. Definite recommended reading for any GMs looking for examples of how to grow a setting beyond its tired associations.
Another bit of early addenda was the original Guide to the Star Wars Universe by Raymond L. Velasco (not to be confused with the second edition by D6 and D20 Star Wars RPG contributor Bill Slavicsek). It was there that I first heard of the radio plays, from the codes identifying which work any given entry appeared in - films, novels, etc. Aside from that, I had no reference point as to what they may have been. Over the years, I occasionally came across mentions here and there, and vaguely remember an article about the Return of the Jedi series’ broadcast in 1997. But they were never something that interested me. I had assumed they were pieced together from audio clips of the films or something to that effect. But, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, I was wrong.

A few months ago, I was in my local music store when it occurred to me that I had no physical copy of any Star Wars soundtrack besides the original version of Star Wars (pre-”New Hope”) on vinyl. (Along with a loaned copy of “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk,” but perhaps some addenda are best left to the era in which they originated.) I was sorely disappointed, however, they had little besides numerous copies of the Phantom Menace soundtrack and other forgettable oddments.  But behind all those there was a box set labelled“Return of the Jedi: The Original Radio Drama.” Idly, I picked it up and looked at the back, which boldly proclaimed:

Starring Anthony Daniels as See-Threepio
Edward Asner as Jabba the Hutt
John Lithgow as Yoda

I read it three times before I was sure I wasn’t getting it wrong. Wait, what? Who?! I wasn’t ready to drop money on such a thing, but I wanted to know more. So, like any modern nerd, I jumped onto Wikipedia the moment I got home and learned the history of these bizarre cultural artifacts, along with the surprising number of familiar names filling out the cast. (Does Brock Peters count as the first actor to do both Star Trek and Star Wars?) And, down at the very bottom of the Wikipedia page, was the best discovery - they were all available legally through! Growing more excited by the minute, I started downloading immediately and began working out a listening plan. I would do one episode on the way to band practice, and one episode on the way back, thus giving each one a bit of time to stand on its own and provide a little of the original listeners’ experience hearing them weekly.

I’m glad I took this approach, spacing these out gave me time to process the changes and even level out the cheesier elements (with the possible exception of the opening narration). The most obvious change, of course, was the actors, with only Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels reprising their film roles in the first adaptation, and Billy Dee Williams joining in the second. Thankfully, all of the new actors put their own spin on the characters, rather than attempt to copy their movie counterparts. At first, I had a hard time getting used to Perry King as Han Solo. King had competed against Harrison Ford for the original film part, so we get to hear a take on the role completely independent of its film counterpart. Ultimately, what won me over to his 30s-inflected take on Han Solo was realizing how similar it was to Spike Spiegel in the English dub of Cowboy Bebop, voiced by Steve Blum.

The difference in story is immediately obvious as well, with Star Wars (again, “A New Hope” was not yet not part of the title) taking two whole episodes to even arrive at the the movie’s opening. But the longer form allows for the “new” scenes (some that had been filmed and cut, some excised at the scrip stage)  to develop characters and backstory. Luke’s Tatooine life and relationship with Biggs is particularly strong thanks to the chemistry between Mark Hamill and Kale Browne - you immediately buy that they’ve been friends for years, and the whole “Bored Teen Racers” aspect reminds you that Star Wars really was created by the guy who did American Graffiti. (Plus the audience get to “see” that Luke is an excellent pilot rather than simply being told multiple times as in the theatrical film.)

Leia’s story in this part is much more distinct from anything that was filmed, and showcases her double life as a politician and resistance fighter. Author Brian Daley was no newcomer to Star Wars, having previously written the Han Solo Adventures novels and laying the foundation for the Expanded Universe. We get a taste of Alderaan and the Organa family, as well as the banal evil of the Empire. (I need to steal the line “the Ruling Council no longer exists, neither as a governing body nor as individuals” for something.) Of course, this prologue also allows the audience to get used to Anne Sach’s take on Princess Leia before she utters a single line of dialogue in common with Carrie Fisher. It’s something of a pity that everything in this part was (officially) undone by Rogue One.

As I went through the series, I often found myself thinking about tabletop roleplaying, and it took me a while to unpack why this was happening. Of course, there is the longstanding association between Star Wars and RPGs,  but this felt more personal, like the kind of energy I experienced during play sessions. Part of it, no doubt, was some of the hammier accents and voices given to smaller parts to maximize a tiny cast - a trick every GM has used to help make NPCs distinguishable. Part of it was the somewhat breezier, informal tone that came across from actors speaking their lines more slowly than the rapid-fire pace of film dialogue. But there was still something else going on. For an example, I’ve chosen a scene that most of us could quote from memory so that the differences can be clear. Plus, it’s one of the great “Roll Bluff” scenarios that could arise at any table running any system:
PA System: 517 to Scanner Control, 517 to Scanner Control…
Luke: [hums]
Han: How long are we gonna have to wait for these lift tubes?
Luke: They’ll be here soon.
Chewbacca: [groans]
Luke: Boy, this helmet’s too big for me. I can’t see a thing.
Han: Ah, boy.
[Lift door opens]
Han: All right, here they are. In you go, Chewie.
PA: 53 to Upper Bay Door..
Imperial Officer: Wait!
Luke: What?
Han: Uh…
Officer: Hold that car!
Han: Oh, uh… [affects accent] Sorry, sir, we’ve got a prisoner here, you’ll have to take the next car. [nervous laugh] Regulations, you know.
Officer: Oh. Very well.
[Lift door closes]
Luke: Quick thinking, Han.
Han: I can’t get these binders to stay closed on Chewie’s wrists. This isn’t gonna work!
Luke: Why didn’t you say so before?
Han: I did say so before!
Luke: Okay, we’re here. [lift door opens] Let’s go.
Han: Okay.
Detention Block Officer: Hey! Stop there, you two!
Han: Oh….
Officer: Where do you think you’re taking this thing?
Chewbacca: [whines]
Luke: Uh… It’s a prisoner transfer from Detention Block… 1138.
Officer: Well, nobody notified me, and I’m the Duty Officer here. [sighs] I’ll have to clear it.
Luke: [under breath] Oh no…
Officer: This is block uh… double A 23 Duty Officer speaking. Put me through to the Detention Level Commander.
Luke: They’re not going for it…
Officer: Sir! We have an irregularity here, there’s apparently been a foul-up in the prisoner transfer. That’s right, sir.
Luke: [whispers] What are we gonna do?
Officer: Yes, I’ll hold.
Han: [whispers] Listen, there are only three guards and the Duty Officer. Chewie, you grab my blaster. Make it look like you’re making a break, okay? [louder] Go!
Chewie: [roars]
Han: He’s got my blaster!
[blaster fire, explosions]
Han: Shoot out that camera eye, c’mon!
[blaster fire]
Han: Get it, Chewie! Hurry up, c’mon! Right behind you, look out!
[blaster fire, explosions, Chewbacca noises]
Han: Okay, shoot out the last camera eye!
[blaster fire and Chewbacca noises, followed by high-pitched beeping]
Han: Okay, let me get this helmet off! Really stinks in there!
Intercom: Detention level double A 23! What’s happening, what’s going on there?
Luke: I got the camera eye, do something about that alarm!
Han: Why’d he have to pick an alarm switch to die on?! Stupid officers!
Chewbacca: [Groans]
Intercom: [louder] Detention Level double A 23! What’s happening?!
Han: Now, we’d better find out which cell that Princess of yours is in.
Intercom: Detention Level double A 23! What’s going on there?
Han: Ah, here we go. Cell number 2187. You go get her, kid. I’ll try to keep a lid on things here.
Luke: I’ll be right back!
Han: I hope! Let’s have a little peace and quiet.
Intercom: Detention level –
[switch click]
Han: Um… Hmm.. [clears throat] Uh, this is… Detention Level, ah… D-double A 23. Everything’s uh… under control down here. Situation is… normal.
Intercom: What’s going on?! What happened?
Han: Oh… Uh, we had a slight… weapons malfunction! But, e…everything’s perfectly all right now. It’s… it’s… we’re fine. We’re all fine here. Thank you. Fine. Yeah. Um… How are you?
Intercom: We’re sending a squad to your location.
Han: Oooh… Negative! Negative! We, uh… we had… a… a… reactor leak here. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. It’s a large leak. Very dangerous.
Intercom: Who is this?! What’s your Operating Number?
Han: Ah… uh…. I… uh…
Chewbacca: [groans]
Han: Good idea! [blaster fire] Boring conversation, anyway. Let’s hope the kid moves fast, Chewie! We’re gonna have company!
 A pretty standard sequence of events starting from Player Plans, right? But look at the way action is indicated. Audio storytelling , of course, has the issue of description being conveyed either through dialogue or narration, neither being particularly natural. (“Hey, let me describe this thing that you are also looking at!”) But here, the action is conveyed through dialogue, and thus becomes a group effort. A character will suggest another character do something, or ask for help in doing something. (Incidentally, this gives Leia a lot more to do, an issue in the filmed versions of Empire and Jedi.) This not only reflects the way suggestions bounce around a gaming table, but also the way that actions in RPGs are broken down to specific tasks associated with skill roles. What’s impressive is how well it flows, staying entirely within the setting and characters. Here’s another:

Leia: Luke, stop!
Luke: Wha.. wooah! I think we took a wrong turn!
Leia: This must be the central core shaft.
Luke: There’s no way across!
Leia: We can’t go back, they’re blocking our way!
Luke: Shut the hatchway, quick!
[door hisses]
Leia: There’s no lock!
Luke: I’ll shoot the control panel! Stand back! [blaster fire] That ought to hold them for a while!
Leia: Not for long! We’ve got to find the control that extends the bridgeway across the shaft!
Luke: Uh… I think I just blasted it.
Leia: They’re trying to burn their way through the hatch!
Luke: It sounds like they’re succeeding! Look, you’d better stand to one side, Princess, out of the line of fire. I’ll try to hold them off!
Leia: Luke, no! There must be some other way!
Luke: None that I can see!
[blaster fire]
Leia: Look out!
Luke: What?
Leia: Up there, across the shaft! More troopers!
Luke: Just what we needed! Wait a minute… that’s it! My belt!
Leia: BELT?!
Luke: I took it off a stormtrooper, look! It’s got a grappling hook on it! We’ll swing across the shaft! [jingling] Here, take the blaster, keep them busy! Now let’s just hope the hook’s strong enough! There’s enough line on the spool…
Leia: But where… where will you secure it?!
Luke: Look, those outlet clusters up there in the shaft! There! Here goes!
Leia: Luke, they’re getting the hatch open!
Luke: It caught! We’re in business! Grab hold of me tight!
Leia: Wait! [smack] A kiss for luck.
Luke: We’ll need it! Hand on!
Luke: We made it!
Leia: Now what?
Luke: Let me get rid of this line. [crash]
Leia: How do we get to the ship from here?
Luke: There’s a service shaft down there to the left, I think. Let’s go!

You can almost hear the dice rolling. It’s almost a masterclass in collective narrative movement. (It also helps that this entire sequence feels like a GM throwing random problems at players who figured out how to get past his carefully planned obstacles.) By setting the pace through shared action, rather than focusing specific checks on individual characters, players are encouraged to take part, rather than simply waiting their turn to be called on. Or so I’d like to believe, I haven’t run a game since I first heard these, but I’m looking forward to my first opportunity to.

The Star Wars Radio Dramas are far from perfect. Darth Vader, in particular, doesn’t translate to audio well - most of the character is conveyed through physical presence and costume design, and he has few lines of dialogue, memorable as it is. There’s also the problem of him having to describe what he’s doing with the Force, and what would be a quick “actor puts hand to throat” moment onscreen becomes Vader monologuing about how that character can feel themselves being choked. The fact it’s Brock Peters doesn’t help either - I associate him too strongly with his role as Joseph Sisko on Deep Space Nine. All this, plus awareness of their (at that point unwritten) familial relationship, makes a scene where Vader interrogates Leia quite uncomfortable listening.

Return of the Jedi is especially lacking. Not only is it the most visually-dependant of the original trilogy, but the runtime is shortened to six episodes from the much lengthier previous adaptations. The thirteen years between productions shows, not only in a difference in the actors’ voices, but also the absence of Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams, and a very 90s need to start shoehorning in references to the Expanded Universe. (Nothing is gained by giving Mara Jade a cameo as one Jabba’s dancers.) Still, the pre-Special Edition melancholy of the film is evident, and it’s satisfying that they were able to finish off the series.

So, for GMs looking for ideas in running action sequences and Star Wars fans looking for something different, give the radio dramas a try. There is a definite thrill to hearing scenes you know by heart grown out just a little bit, like finding hidden treasure. I recommend spacing them out to let the individual episodes breathe, and (especially) sticking through the ridiculous opening narration - which is one thing that stays consistent through the whole series.

And Lithgow? He makes a pretty good Yoda.



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