Star Wars under the Microscope: What if Darth Vader wasn’t Luke’s father?

Our Star Wars timeline in Microscope. Only the events of A New Hope were considered fixed.

A long time ago (about a week), in a galaxy far, far away (an hour on the London underground), I sat down with three of my friends to play a game of Microscope that retold the Star Wars saga. Let me tell you about it!

“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

I used to write a lot of fan fiction. I don’t do that much anymore, because now I prefer to collaborate with other people when making up stories, but one of the pieces of fan fiction that I never got round to writing was an alternate Star Wars saga, exploring what might have happened if the franchise had gone in another direction during the production of the original trilogy. Things could have been vastly different if the producers had made different decisions at that early stage.

Here’s an example of revelations that built on each other and shaped everything that came afterwards:

  • In A New Hope, we are told (by Obi-Wan Kenobi) that Luke Skywalker’s father was a great hero who had been Obi-Wan’s friend, while Darth Vader is Obi-Wan’s former pupil who fell to the dark side of the Force and murdered Luke’s father.
  • In The Empire Strikes Back, actually it turns out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (spoilers, I guess).
  • It’s not until Return of the Jedi that we find out Darth Vader and Obi-Wan’s old friend the war hero are the same person, that Vader had once been known as Anakin Skywalker before his fall to the dark side, and that he had been both Obi-Wan’s pupil and his friend.

I wanted to explore what might have happened differently, but I don’t have the time or the patience or enough creative ingenuity to re-do the whole Star Wars saga by myself.

That’s why I suggested that my friends and I use Microscope to do it together!

Why Microscope?

Microscope is a roleplaying game unlike any other I’ve played. Although other roleplaying games can tell stories within the galaxy far, far away, Microscope is uniquely able to explore and re-tell the Star Wars saga as a whole.

In Microscope, instead of playing a single character and following their story, you build a timeline for an entire fictional setting. You start with the broad sweeps of history and then narrow the focus incrementally: divide the timeline into periods, the periods into events, and finally events into scenes that the players can act out to find out what happens.

Microscope is also a non-linear game. Periods, events and scenes can be created in any order.

Since the original trilogy of films sits right in the middle of the Star Wars saga, we needed to be able to expand the timeline outwards, tracking the echoes of the first movies forwards and backwards through time. Microscope was the perfect choice.

“No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

There were four of us playing, all fans of Star Wars in different ways and all with different opinions about the franchise. Discussing the game beforehand, we decided that we would base the timeline around the events of A New Hope, but that anything else in the timeline was up for reinterpretation. Everything from the theatrical cut of A New Hope was fixed (nothing could be added or removed), but nothing from any of the other movies or any other Star Wars media happened unless we added it to our timeline. (However, we did say that if alien species were introduced then we would consider them to be as they appeared in official sources.)

We started with the big picture (choosing the very first option from the book, “An ancient empire rises and falls”), and then book-ended our timeline with two periods: Days of the Old Republic at the start, and The Empire Replaced with the New Republic at the end, with a period for A New Hope in the middle. This focused us nicely on the period of the Star Wars movies, with the option of expanding if we chose. (Days of the Old Republic could have been a very long period. A thousand generations, at least…)

Next, we set up our palette. The first thing we agreed on was to adhere to the tone from the Star Wars movies, but we didn’t bother to write this on the palette. Then we mostly used the palette to indicate ways we wanted to avoid retreading the ground of the official saga. We banned midichlorians and the concept of a Chosen One, both from The Phantom Menace, as well as the First Order (a replacement Empire in all but name) and meaningless escalation (such as Starkiller Base), both from The Force Awakens. We also wanted to allow the possibility of technological advancement over time and to encourage the use of more aliens as main characters.

Then we were ready to play.

Use the Focus, Luke

In Microscope, play is done in rounds in which people can add cards (representing periods, events or scenes) to the timeline. There is a first pass in which everyone adds one card, then each round is led by one of the players (a Lens) who declares what the Focus will be for the round.

In our first pass, we added some periods like The Empire Strikes Back (sue me, this was mine, but the ending turned out very different), The Secession of the Outer Rim and The Pacification of the Outer Rim. Here, “pacification” was clearly implied to be an euphemism for planetary genocide by the emergent Empire.

Things got really interesting when Emperor Palpatine was chosen as our first Focus. We found out that, after the destruction of the Rebellion, Imperial commanders had attempted to overthrow Palpatine with the assistance of Palpatine’s advisors, but the coup was crushed and all but two of the plotters were killed. The survivors? None other than Luke Skywalker, having been turned to the dark side by the Emperor, and Darth Vader.

In this version, Vader was not Luke’s father, but had succeeded in capturing him for the Emperor during The Empire Strikes Back. It took months for Luke to break, but he finally gave in to give Leia a chance to escape Palpatine.

Our second Focus was Darth Vader. In that round, a young and idealistic Darth Vader (which is his real name in this version) won the approval of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. After being seduced by Palpatine, a corrupted Vader killed his close friend Anakin Skywalker in a duel on Utapau, horrifically scarring himself in the process. After Luke’s fall to the dark side, Vader became close friends with Luke (Anakin’s son) and together they destroyed Endor and crushed the Rebellion.

Our third and final Focus was The Fall of the Empire, which was a great pick to round out the day because it led to a nicely satisfying conclusion. A last alliance of secessionists, Rebels (including Leia and Chewbacca, her one true love) and former Imperial commanders (including Luke and Darth) combined to take down Palpatine, and in the midst of an assassination attempt by Palpatine’s spy, Vader revealed that (even though he wasn’t Luke’s father) he really was Leia’s father. As expected, Leia did not take it well at first.

After Palpatine was defeated, he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Leia was elected to Speaker of the Senate. Finally, the old Imperial commanders were put on trial for war crimes at the Bespin Trials… and Darth Vader voluntarily surrendered himself to their judgement. Ahead of Vader’s trial, Leia approached Vader in his cell and asked why he had given himself up instead of running away. Jeered at by the unrepentant Palpatine from a nearby cell, a regretful Vader said that he was now free of the Emperor’s control, and that as a free man he had chosen to surrender himself to the court to help restore justice.

I have a good feeling about this

This was a very fun exploration of Star Wars and we ended up with a fascinating “what if” alternate timeline.

Everyone really got into the spirit of the exercise. One of the players excellently hammed it up as Emperor Palpatine, particularly when seducing Luke to the dark side and taunting Vader as he was about to be put on trial. Several of us played Vader at different times, but the player who played him during the final scene before his trial on Bespin gave a wonderful performance and did an excellent impression of the man, complete with laboured breathing.

As for me, I got to play Chewbacca. RRRrrruurgh!

I’d happily play a second session to further explore this alternate timeline. I might even do another game of Microscope, this time fixing not only A New Hope but also The Empire Strikes Back. I’m sure that would end up being different again. (Our game didn’t even include Yoda, for example.) If you like Star Wars, consider giving it a try! And if you do, let me know how it works!

I wonder if Microscope could work with any other long-running franchises? Hm…

The timeline (in case you can’t read the cards on the image well)

  • Days of the Old Republic (start)
    • Vader puts himself forward for Jedi training
  • Secession of the Outer Rim
    • Palpatine manipulates political rivals to secede, clearing his path to power
    • Vader is taken as an apprentice by Obi-Wan Kenobi
      • How does Vader impress Obi-Wan enough to be accepted? His passion and his vision.
    • The wookiees of Kashyyyk choose not to secede from the Republic
  • Pacification of the Outer Rim
    • Palpatine seduces Vader
    • Darth Vader kills Anakin Skywalker
      • How does Vader kill Anakin? Vader Force pulls Anakin with him into a vat of acid. Only Vader emerges.
  • A New Hope (locked)
  • Empire Strikes Back
    • The Emperor turns Skywalker
      • How long does Luke hold out? Long enough for Leia to flee!
  • The Rebellion is Put Down
    • Imperial commanders Skywalker and Vader win the Battle of Endor
      • How is Endor destroyed? The Death Star in order to defeat the rebel threat
    • Seeds of dissent
  • Palpatine’s Grip Weakens
    • The Coup – Imperial commanders attempt to overthrow the Emperor. They are unsuccessful
      • How many Imperial commanders escape alive? 2: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader
    • The search for Leia
    • The Last Alliance – Final team up with Luke, Leia, Vader and others to defeat the Emperor
      • How does Leia react to learning Vader is her father? Badly! But maybe there is hope…
  • Empire Replaced With the New Republic (end)
    • Hunt for Palpatine
    • The Trial of Emperor Palpatine
    • Leia is elected Speaker of the Senate, de facto leader of the Galaxy
    • The Bespin Trials
      • Why does Darth Vader surrender to the Bespin Trials? To restore justice as a free man, not the Emperor’s slave

Legacies:

  • Leia
  • Endor
  • Chewbacca
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