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Watch for TIE(-in) Fighters!

"Tie-in." If you're hearing the term outside of a purely technical sense, odds are it's a pejorative. It's not something we call works we like, even when they fall within the (sometimes blurry) definition. "Tie-in" seems so cold, so mercantile, it might a well be "cash grab" or "knock-off." I'm sure you're already thinking of examples of tie-ins that fit one or both of those descriptions - but I won't name any myself, because all art is experienced subjectively. What might appear as crass commercialization to you may be the take on a character or property that "clicks" for someone else in a unique and meaningful way. Not to mention that, under capitalism, commercialization is inevitable, whether it's an original concept or something adjacent. And if we look at the concept of tie-ins the right way, we can gain some perspective that applies to our own creations... especially, as with most tabletop RPGs, they exist in a universe made by others.

Neither Star Wars Day (May 4th) nor Free Comic Book Day (the first Saturday in May) existed when I was a kid, but if they had, I would have appreciated their proximity. The comics were no less "Star Wars" than the movies we had on tape. (They were probably more "Star Wars" to me than my Star Wars Question and Answer books about space and computers, though, even if those were surprisingly educational.) As I've noted numerous times in this blog, much of my childhood media was secondhand, acquired through thrift stores and yard sales, and Star Wars, which had gone from a marketing juggernaut to a "has-been" franchise with surprising quickness in the years following Return of the Jedi, had plenty to provide. (With each passing year of increased Star Wars content, it seems increasingly ludicrous that there was a period of a few years where there was simply no new content. Not a long stretch in hindsight, but an eternity when you're a kid and those years represent the majority of your life.) This did result in a wide smattering of material rather than any consistent run, especially when it came to the comics: a handful of issues from all over the Marvel series' run, adaptations of the films in all sorts of different formats, original graphic novels, you name it. And while this made keeping track of any of the original storylines an impossibility, it did give me an idea of the breadth of what Star Wars could be. Many of the aspects of tie-in media that people complain about became part of this experience. Characters looking wildly different from their cinematic counterparts (or even other versions of them from different issues), details that were directly contradicted by the films, tonal and thematic incongruities from the franchise as a whole... those were just reminders that something could still be Star Wars, even if it was different.

I admit that this flexibility was enhanced by youth and some awareness that this might be the most Star Wars there ever would be. (Something we'll explore more in our Return of the Jedi 40th anniversary post in a few weeks.) As we get older, we learn more about the ugly truths behind the way our media is made and presented - even though I could name George Lucas as a kid and even had an idea of how the films were made thanks to the From Star Wars to Jedi documentary my parents had taped off HBO along with Return, Star Wars is simply a thing that was. Sure, the toys and everything else were bought in stores (I can still remember being able to find stuff in the clearance bin at Kay-Bee), I couldn't conceive of Star Wars itself as product, a brand that was being sold. But we all (mostly) grow into understanding that the media we love is part of a business venture, and one way we rationalize that is to section aspects of that venture into tiers. The original, we tell ourselves, is a work of art, born of passion, but the things attached to it are cynical cash grabs. The Star Wars movies are fine, say, but the expanded universe novels are not. This gets easier when a property is marketed as heavily as Star Wars - from a commercial perspective, is a tie-in comic with an original story that different from the glow-in-the dark Yoda bulletin board or talking alarm clock? (Both of which I had, my mother loves to remind me that the alarm was C-3PO saying "wake up, little Rebel, you're going to be late.")

But this cynicism can be too broadly applied. Of course narrative tie-in media is going to serve a different purpose than the Star Wars hand towel (which I still use). After all, books and comics don't tend to make very effective towels, and certainly not for repeated use!  But as we try to distance our love of a piece of media from the marketing engine it drives, many of us act as if they're one and the same, especially in adolescence, when we're trying to show that we're more adult than the unquestioning kids that loved anything associated with their favorite properties, no matter what it was. This isn't to say that there aren't cynical, lazy, cash-grab narrative tie-in works out there - again, I will leave it to the reader to provide their own examples, because story, unlike an unfortunately-designed tape dispenser, is always subjective. Its value is based on the effect it has on an audience, and might offer a new take or interpretation that affects someone differently than the source material. It might be as simple as a new background detail or adjusted bit of dialogue, or it may be as major as an elaborate character history that re-contextualizes their role in the source material. It's all been done, especially with properties that have been around for decades, and everything means something to somebody.

Even within this context, tie-in comics offer something different. With a novel or even an audio play, the audience handles most of the "production" themselves, and thus the connections to the source material. This Han Solo sounds different, he probably looks that way, too. Maybe you give Darth Vader an entirely different mask than that of the film. But comics are tethered to their source material visually, anchoring things with a common reference point, while still letting the audience fill in all the gaps between the panels. In a way, it's the perfect tie-in medium, equally grounded in the original text and open for audience interpretation - even when the characters on the page don't look all that much like their theatrical versions. Tie-in electronic games can operate in a similar way, although technological developments and ever-increasing budgets mean a push for an approach closer to cinema than comics, leaving less for the audience to fill in than in earlier, lower-fi titles that replied on the player's imagination handling what limited hardware could not.

Tabletop games, on the other hand, rely exclusively on that imaginative ability. Not all games are based directly on licensed properties from other media, of course (although many are), but most do bank on providing some connection to an established universe - whether it be that of Dungeons & Dragons, Paranoia, Shadowrun, part of the experience TTRPGs offer is the opportunity to venture into something open, yet familiar. So here we can look to those tie-in comics on ways to ground our collaborative stories. If we view what might otherwise seem off-model, off-brand, or off-kilter as alternate perspectives on a universe we've only seen through the officially sanctioned lens, we can get a wider understanding of what that universe can offer. Sometimes, it's seeing what a similar, yet adjacent set of influences bring: one of the first storylines in the original Marvel Star Wars comic follows the original movie's Akira Kurosawa influence by doing its own version of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (probably via is 1960 adaptation as The Magnificent Seven). It's still recognizably Star Wars, but it's from a different angle. Later stories in all the comic incarnations would explore the Star Wars universe from every angle imaginable, but kept it with in the frame of something recognizable.

Just as tie-in authors need to start from an assumption of basic shared familiarity (the audience probably has seen the source material, or at least heard about it) and build out from there, GMs can approach systems the same way. Take what the players are expecting and come at it from a different angle, a different perspective - after all, that's what they're going to do. Most of all, think about what inherent qualities a particular setting or system requires and make that the border of your cartography, the horizon to which you are all racing. What you all find along the way should be that perfect mix of the new and the familiar... the kind of thing that makes a world you love all love coming back to, time and again.

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