Thinking Like Thrawn
Guest Writer Bryan Young on Keeping Your Players Off-Balance
"The Empire is getting better at anticipating our moves."
In previous articles, guest writer Bryan Young has explored the different ways that we can improve our Star Wars™ roleplaying campaigns by drawing from the examples of characters like Ahsoka Tano and Agent Kallus. Whether, as Game Masters, we introduce these characters into our games directly or create other characters modeled after them, Bryan argues that they make it easy for us to shape our adventures.
Sometimes they can even help shape a whole campaign—or help us reshape a campaign in which the players may have become too comfortable…
There are three different, standalone takes on the Star Wars roleplaying line. Of the three, Star Wars™: Age of Rebellion™ arguably offers the clearest adventure hooks; your player characters are members of the Rebel Alliance. They take their orders and perform their duty. However, for that reason, many players who prefer the more individualistic and free-form aspects of roleplaying gravitate toward Edge of the Empire™ or Force and Destiny™.
While there's nothing wrong with those decisions, it's also a mistake to presume that the structure a Game Master imposes upon the early adventures of an Age of Rebellion campaign has to limit the campaign's ability to respond to the players' decisions. It's also a mistake to presume that the fact the players take their cues from their superior officers should—in any way—mean they know exactly what's going on or what they're likely to face.
As the third season of Star Wars Rebels brings one of the Star Wars galaxy's most popular Legends firmly into the new canon, Bryan looks at how his example may allow you to shape—or reshape—your Age of Rebellion campaign (or any Star Wars roleplaying campaign) in such a way as to ensure your players never take their adventures for granted.
Bryan Young on Thinking Like Grand Admiral Thrawn
Has there ever been a greater tactician in the world of Star Wars than Grand Admiral Thrawn? Probably not. He’s a genius, able to read the clues between the clues and know his enemy in a way no other villain in Star Wars has been able to. He can read the art and culture of his opponents and think of moves ten in advance as though they were a simple holochess game. With his appearance in Star Wars Rebels Season Three imminent, he’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been wondering how I can think more like Thrawn in my games.
It’s one thing to get a campaign on its feet, establishing how the characters are going to operate and fit into the structure of the galaxy—and the burgeoning rebellion—but it’s another thing to really challenge your players in a cunning and intelligent way.
That’s where learning how to think like the Grand Admiral comes into play.
Altering the Norms
For any group of players looking to subvert the Empire, they’re going to get used to the habits of standard Imperial procedure. This is a false sense of security that you as the Game Master, thinking like Thrawn, are going to cultivate. You’re going to give them reasons to understand how the Imperials should react in situations. And then when things get predictable, back all the Imperials away. Make the most difficult mission they thought they would be running headlong into a milk-run.
Perhaps the base is deserted, staffed entirely by a skeleton crew of Stormtroopers to offer a token resistance. Maybe the pursuit team is a pair of TIE Fighters instead of the whole squadron.
Don’t hesitate to give the team information that makes them think they’re walking into a trap and then making the encounter alarmingly easy. They’ll get sloppy on one end, but they’ll also know something larger is going on.
Laying Traps and Altering Perception
This is something at which Thrawn is a master. Think about how your players would prepare for a given situation and then surprise them with something for which they’re wholly unprepared. Imagine their commander giving them a mission briefing leading them to a place that will give them answers about these Imperial bases with peculiar activity.
They’ll assume resistance will be light given the previous history of the intel they’ve been given, and they will prepare for the worst. What they won’t expect is the Interdictor pulling them out of orbit en route and trying to capture them.
Creating Lose-Lose Scenarios
Put your players on the defensive. Have your Imperials start attacking Rebel bases and strongholds. This was one of Thrawn’s favorite ploys. He would create situations that put the Rebels at a loss no matter what. Being in this sort of situation will be stressful on your characters and make them feel like they must strike back.
How would a situation like this work?
Well, for example, in the original, now Legends, Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, Thrawn needed new ships for his armada. He decided to attack the Sluis Van Shipyards, but did so in a way that would rob the Rebels of the ships they held there no matter what. He used mining drills to pierce the ship hulls. Small squadrons of Stormtroopers were used as boarding parties and they worked to take over the ships.
In order to keep the ships out of Thrawn’s hands, the only course of action left to the Rebels was to turn the drilling ships back on and have them drill all the way through the ships. This created a win-win situation for Thrawn. If he makes off with the ships, he robs the Rebels of them. If the Rebels find it necessary to destroy the ships to keep them out of Thrawn's hands, they still lose the ships; it’s still a defeat for them.
There are definitely ways to put this sort of conundrum before your players, but you’re going to have to think more like Thrawn. Perhaps there’s a ship the Imperials are hoping to take from your players because of some asset aboard it. This particular sort of situation could easily be applied to a Star Wars RPG session as well as a hybrid of the RPG and X-Wing™ Miniatures Game. But it doesn’t need to happen in space, either. What if there’s a base or a code or a code-breaker who would be better dead than in Imperial hands?
Preying on Character Weaknesses
If Thrawn were a Game Master, he would play upon the characters' weaknesses and their personal foibles; I’m positive of it. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important for players to have well-fleshed out backgrounds and for the Game Master to be familiar with them.
Why are each of your characters involved in the conflict? A common theme amongst my players is that the Empire killed their family. It’s a nice, easy back story. It’s understandable and leaves them with few attachments. But what would a person like Thrawn do to prey on that weakness?
Imagine the effect it would have for one of your players to see a loved one they had thought long-dead. As an NPC, this character could join the group and play the double agent. Of course, the player characters wouldn’t know that this character was trained by Imperial agents and is really a Clawdite changeling. Think of the emotional havoc this sort of situation could wreak on a group of players. Think of the intel it could give your big bad guy.
Or your players could meet a character similar to Joruus C’baoth, claiming to be a Jedi and offering to train a Force-sensitive character. Or maybe it's a fighter ace that the PCs want to train them. Either way, if they’re crazed clones in the employ of the Empire, that’s definitely a game Thrawn would play, and you can use it as a tool to poke and prod at your players.
The Long Game
Grand Admiral Thrawn is a master of playing the long game. He doesn't close his traps around his opponents too early. He is patient. He analyzes the weaknesses of those involved and lures them, slowly. Take the standard behaviors of your players and use them against them, bit by bit. Increase the costs of these behaviors over the campaign. Play to win in the long run. Let them get away in the short term in order to crush the Rebellion in the long term.
Be sure to think in these terms, and you have a campaign that never loses its tension.
Thrawn always said that to know an enemy you have to understand their art, but Thrawn himself is art. Study him and you’ll be able to give your players an epic Age of Rebellion campaign that they won’t soon forget.
And as they’re dying, felled by the traps you’ve laid for them, their last words will almost certainly carry a familiar ring: “It was so artistically done.”
When he's not making life difficult for his friends' small band of Rebels, Bryan Young is a writer, podcaster, and gamer. He writes regularly for StarWars.Com and Star Wars Insider, and hosts the Star Wars podcast Full of Sith. You can follow him on Twitter @Swankmotron.
Architects of Their Own Destruction
We're pretty certain that Bryan's being a little facetious in his closing statements. We don't really think he approaches his Game Mastering from an adversorial standpoint. After all, the purpose of Star Wars roleplaying is to enjoy cooperative storytelling in which everyone plays his or her own role—players and GM.
However, if there's even a hint of sincerity in Bryan's statements (and we think there's at least that much), we encourage his players' characters to watch out. Keep your eyes open. If you're facing an enemy who thinks like Grand Admiral Thrawn, then you're in for some serious trouble!