Monday, February 26, 2018

HP and XP are Lazy. Let's Make Them Work Harder

This is a stream of consciousness type of blog post. Hopefully you'll like it.

Yup, another Game Maker's Toolkit and this one is a doozy. Mark quotes Miyamoto about how a good mechanic doesn't solve one problem, but a bunch at the same time.

Oh, right, I'm designing a table-top RPG that's a multi-generational fantasy epic. Players will play at least two (hopefully more!) characters across the course of the campaign, with the previous generations having a huge impact on what's played in the next generations. It's based off of the d20 system, specifically Whitehack, with some re-thinking on the basic mechanics that DnD players take for granted. One of these is health, dying, and experience.

Like most DnD clones Whitehack operates on XP, with differing XP requirements for leveling for each class as a way of balancing out more powerful classes. I had already combined XP with roleplay by removing the XP system wholesale from my version of the game and instead tying progression to the number of Beliefs changed. While I'll write more on Beliefs later all you need to know for the moment is that they're ethical statements that are controversial to the setting. In order to level up you must change Beliefs. In order to change Beliefs you must challenge them in play. Each time you challenge a Belief you earn XP, which goes towards changing Beliefs.

I had already had a little bit worked out on HP, which I thought about letting players burn on getting re-rolls (1 HP per die re-rolled) at the possible cost of going down faster. This is a bit harder to get players to do in Whitehack because the hit points are lower, but in my mind it means you're not going to re-roll a die unless you really need to, relying upon the double positive rolls from your groups to do the job.

But what if we merged it once more, and made it to where HP and XP were the same thing?
What if damage by default went to a character's ability scores randomly (roll 1d6 each time, yes, we're using the DnD main six stats) and you had to elect to sacrifice XP  so your ability scores didn't suffer? In the old system I had it to where you needed to get 6 XP to change a Belief, but what if here you needed 6 XP at the end of a scene to do so? All of a sudden combat becomes a very different affair, doesn't it? Each time you have a chance at a fight the question shifts from whose butt you're going to kick to "How do I get through this the most economical way possible?"

But let's add a further twist, cause that's too straightforward. If there's only one way to handle your gameplay it's shallow, not helpful. What if we made it to where if your ability scores were damaged you had the option to re-assign them as you saw fit with an ability check, one point at a time? So let's say you're trying to convince your brother the duke that he should step down and let you rule for a "little bit". You've lost about 8 points all told from you ability scores due to combat and environment, and you decide you'd like to increase your Charisma, which is currently at an 8 (this game is a roll-under system, d20-based). You decide to invest a point in Charisma and you do and you get that regardless of whether you fail the check or not. If you want to take a brief hit to your stats (which otherwise regen at 1 point per stat per week) you can set up your character more to your liking (you better believe I'll do random stat rolls!). Now there's an interesting choice.

But that's still too limited, because not everyone will want to redistribute their scores due to injury. What if we make it to where every time you change a Belief you can move a point around? That way, if you get injured, you can still do rapid re-prioritization, but you can slowly re-make your character by challenging Beliefs, which then lets you not only become more powerful but to specialize in what you'd like to be over time.

And that's just one generation. Next time I'll talk about how this feeds into the only thing that actually matters in a multi-generational game: the setting itself.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Phantom Menace: The Subversion

This is the subversion post. It sits in the middle and is uncomfortable and usually will be quite dreary, like a more poorly written Lemony Snicket novel, without all the great humor. Writing it was depressing. You've been warned.

Unfortunately Padme was right: she can't convince the Senate, but not because of her lack of ability. The Senate is so bogged down by corruption that it can't hear her. There's nothing to be done, so long as everyone's deadlocked. Palpatine then plants the bug in her ear about demanding a vote of no confidence and his plans begins to emerge: this whole incident is his attempt to become leader of the Republic. He plays on Padme's greatest strength, her compassion, and leverages it against her for his own gain. Padme's hope that the system will save her people is well-known to Palpatine, who is very aware of her young and impressionable age. Far as he's concerned he's sidelined her for the rest of the conflict by having the Senate first find a new chancellor.

Meanwhile Anakin and us are meeting the Jedi Council for the first time, and it's not pretty. Instead of these people being like Qui-Gon, who generally tries to follow the will of the Force, they're stuck in their ways and pick on a nine year old boy who traveled across space seeking to be a Jedi. Instead of realizing that his great talent in the Force means he should be shown how to deal with his feelings of fear and loneliness they just pick on him for feeling those things. I mean, a 900 year old gremlin doesn't have the presence of mind to realize just how horrific he's being? Yoda spits out platitudes that, no matter how true, are used to block from view the inconvenience and annoyance of actually relating to Anakin.  He does injustice to his own creed, a creed that's supposed to help you reach enlightenment, not bully 9 year olds. It's straight up cruelty. Even worse? Obi-Wan agrees with them over Qui-Gon, right in front of Anakin. That's not going to bite Obi-Wan later, right?

We're going to take a second to take a look at something the Council says in reaction to the Sith's resurrection. They comment that the Sith hasn't been seen in over a thousand years. Episode III implies that the Sith had ruled the galaxy before this point and had lost it to the Republic and the Jedi. Yoda is 900 years old and has been teaching Jedi for almost as long. This means that Yoda inherited the victories of his recent predecessors and, standing on their shoulders, crafted his own version of what the Jedi should be like. Some may disagree with me on that score, but the fact is that Yoda is almost as old as the Republic itself but was not part of its founding. Yoda is the source of the problem. An organization that old with one leader for most of its existence is bound to stagnate, and stagnate it has. Everything has been divided up into its proper place so all may work in some sick version of harmony that merely throws the dispossessed into the far corners of the galaxy, far away from those sitting in these ridiculous ivory towers. Materialistic and hypocritical, the Council resents the presence of any reminder that they're not the center of the universe, summed up in this poor young child whose only sin was to be conceived by the Force. Most of us have that reaction to the supernatural, really, assuming we even acknowledge its existence. I mean, c'mon, we have life to live, get out of here!

It's moments of realization like these that make me half wish that Episode III had been rated R for violence against the Jedi. Fortunately Lucas had more restraint than I would have had.

To call the subversion of Episode 1 bleak is an understatement. There are no good guy or bad guys, just people who ignore others' pain and those that inflict it. As Palpatine states, there is no justice, only vicious politics from sociopaths all dressed up in pretty clothes. The Sith are right to want to tear the whole thing down, really. Their motives are certainly not good but the realization that something must be done to fix the system is certainly valid. And more often than not the Overworld doesn't want to fix things. We're comfortable in our shells and our cruelty is socially acceptable, so why not let things go as they are? But be careful, because by hating the Jedi we hate ourselves. We may very well want to be Luke, but most of us are far more like the Council than anything else. Complacent and arrogant to the point of ignorance we move along in our little enclosed worlds, self assured that the way we're living is the right way to live.

Oh, how the Shadow and Sith disagree.

Fortunately Padme has other plans. And thank God, too. I need a bit of a break from such relentlessly pretty darkness. Oh wait, she's not the hero either. Crap.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No I Shouldn't and I Won't

The Washington Post published an opinion piece on why Zack Snyder was a godsend to superhero movies. I find myself disagreeing with it on every possible level. Snyder doesn't understand comics, characters, or why heroism is so necessary. I'd go so far as to say that Snyder doesn't understand masculinity either.

Right off the bat, Sonny falls into Snyder's trap of slow-mo being a good thing. There's a definite purpose to slow-mo: so that when something going on is too fast and complicated to show at normal speed but the audience needs to capture a detail or something pertinent you can make sure they get the information. That's it. Full stop. There is no need for slow-motion beyond that and usually anything more than that comes off as gaudy and over the top. That Snyder was trying to capture reading a comic book is admirable, but it betrays an utter lack of knowledge as to what makes a comic book work. As comics visionary and philosopher Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics, comics are the only medium that force the reader to connect the dots. Images are juxtaposed and the reader is forced to relate them, on his own. The power of comics is what they can suggest, and it's why every single attempt to adapt comic panels goes wrong; they miss the point of what makes a comic book so powerful. Snyder's style "triggered sniggers" because it's stupid, not because it has inherent value that was missed.

But that's not the chief mistake of Bunch's article. "There’s no idea behind the Marvel films writ large, no overarching thought" he complains. And this is where I truly disagree with him. Marvel's films, by and large, are based upon one very simple (but powerful) idea: heroism is a gift to mankind, but especially the person that the heroism channels itself through. The person and the heroics he performs are not the same thing. Tony Stark isn't an interesting character because he's snarky, it's how he manages to be in the right place and time for everyone, especially himself, that's so compelling. Thor is interesting because, despite his arrogance, he continuously learns that he's not the only fish in the pond and he has to serve those around him for his life to really have meaning. Captain America, who already had these lessons down, had to be shown that the power to effect change is not inborn but is a gift for those who are humble enough to realize it's not all about them. It's masculinity, clean and simple, and in a world where toxic masculinity is upbraided and confused with actual masculinity the real thing is attractive in ways we can hardly fathom.

Someone who is actually masculine does not confuse the power he wields with himself. Unlike the feminine, which is an inborn trait, masculinity is not inherent to males, but is something that is gifted, given by others. That's why so many traditional cultures have coming-of-age ceremonies for men. Their masculinity is given to them in these ceremonies and they are transformed. It's also part of the reason why superheroes jump around in bright and colorful outfits and why traditional religions usually have men dressed up in bright and colorful robes. The fact that in any other context they'd look silly is missing the point: their station is conferred by something greater than themselves. Us Christians call it "God", while atheists mistake this higher power for society or a social contract or what-have-you. The point is that the hero (who, in this sense, can only be male) has been chosen for his role, unworthy as he is of it at times. That's why Marvel's movies do so well: they've dialed this up to 11. One might blame them for their repetitiveness but in a world where actual masculinity is at an all-time low I think they can hardly be blamed for playing a card no one else will play.

There's SPOILERS in the next paragraph. If you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet now's a good time to stop reading.
Not that I think that society has caught on, to the contrary! In The Last Jedi, where Rian Johnson took this theme and played with it, audiences found themselves divided. The lovable and mythic Luke Skywalker had committed the same mistake as the audience and decided that his heroism wasn't a gift that was given to him to give to others, but something inborn, as genetic as his predilection for the Force. Most of the people who loved the movie loved Luke and this truth, while those who didn't were repelled by Luke and the fact that he was a person, and people make mistakes, and someone as powerful and amazing as Luke is far more likely to make powerful and amazingly bad mistakes, and that anyone that high up on the totem pole is going to fall to pride now and again. They mistook the mask of heroism for the person who wore it, much like Luke did. Luke is not his heroics, the heroic worked through Luke. It's what makes the end of that movie, where Luke literally projects a more heroic version of himself across the galaxy to save everyone, so powerful. Luke had realized that heroism and masculinity have nothing to do with power itself, but is the acceptance of the gift of who you are to others. It's a beautiful moment, unparalleled in modern cinema or the rest of Star Wars. The backlash against The Last Jedi, as silly and overwrought as it can be, illustrates my point that what Marvel has found is not conscious in our culture yet. We're not yet aware of why we like Marvel movies, nor are the people who miss the point of them aware that they have indeed missed it. The Marvel movies are not box office smashes because they're vapid, it's because they're pure masculinity in a bottle that show exactly what men should be like.

So no, I'm not going to miss Snyder's horrific vision. I'm glad DC changed their minds and I hope that they never go that ridiculous route again. We as a nation really need men, real men, men who are aware that they've been given a gift and they're the only ones who can use it. Hopefully DC figures this out and how to do a darker take on the theme, because we need that too. Although, if the backlash from The Last Jedi tells us anything, it's that DC  should get used to controversy if they go that route. I say go for it. Rattle some cages.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Adventure Design in RPGs

I am a lover of Zelda. Like most DnD players I've tried to design Zelda dungeons in my tabletop games, but have always found them to be lacking. Now, some (most) of this has to do with the fact that I'm not a very experienced dungeon designer. I don't put in proper rest points and, regardless of layout, I always manage to make the Gauntlet from Hell that makes my players ragequit. I also try these things out on newbies, who group wipe every time. But regardless of that there was always something missing in these dungeons, beyond the amateur hour showcase that they were. A spark was missing, the thing that always made me think while playing Zelda "Wow, this is amazing!"   

Then I watched this episode of Gamer's Toolkit.  

What I got out of the episode was not that we should all be making games like Pikmin and Mario, which are story-lite. That approach doesn't work in a table-top RPG. Table-top is a very different animal from video game RPGs. But there's a key that Nintendo has found: the mechanics of the game are levers for the GM, not just the players. The mechanics on your players' sheets are built-in hooks. The more dense the game, the more hooks at your disposal.

Take, for example, the Saving Throw of DnD. It comes in many flavors: from the catch-all of Whitehack to the Fortitude-Reflex-Will line up of 3.5 and its ilk and beyond. Saving Throws are quite prolific. They're also generally not understood very well, and I certainly didn't use them very well when designing adventures back when I ran 3.5. They're supposed to be used as a reaction against an unexpected threat. The idea, by and large, seems to be that they're lower than skills with toughter DCs. That means you don't want to be caught  by surprise. If you have to roll a Saving Throw something has gone wrong.

You know what would be fun to do with that? Make a situation where players can't make a skill check when they decide to do something, turning it into a Saving Throw instead. Like slick ice that, each time you try to do something Dexterity-related, forces a Reflex saving throw instead. It's vague, but the beauty of this little lever is that, since it's a tabletop game, the rule can be adjusted on the fly by the GM for differing situations. Let's say some rogue decides he's going to pick a lock while on this ice. The GM immediately forces a Reflex Saving throw and the Rogue fails it, falling flat on his butt (rules like Fail Forward, where failures aren't allowed to dead-end but instead frustrate the original intent, and Let it Ride, which prevent rolling ad-nauseum for the same thing, are crucial here). Falling on his rear would inflict a condition of some sort like Distracted or Angry, penalizing the Rogue, even though he got the door open. Someone else may try to throw someone on the ground and, instead of making a Strength check, has to make a Reflex Saving Throw which, if they fail, makes them prone as well.

All of a sudden there's a complication that speaks to the mechanics of what's on the sheet and players have a hook they can work with. Let's go back to that first example, with the Rogue and the door. The Rogue's tired of getting that condition each time he falls on his butt, so the Fighter decides to bash the door down. Turning to the GM he announces he's going to run at the door and bash it down, using the ice for momentum. When the GM points out that tripping might mean that he hurts himself to bash down the door the fighter flexes his muscles and starts talking about what a big boy he is. The  GM, rolling his eyes, gives it to the fighter, because if the failure isn't a psychological threat to the player there's no point in inflicting it on the character. But the thing is that the GM succeeded. He made something interesting the players had fun interacting with. In the second example, with throwing the target, the smart-ass bard, who's constantly touting that Indiana Jones whip that everyone tells him is useless, pulls the sucker out and lashes the target's legs, calling for a Strength check.  The GM grants the chance to him and the bard pulls the big tough orc off his feet without breaking a sweat. Again, the GM made something fun that required the players to think outside the box.

Notice that no solution has been thought of by the GM. He merely made a problem that had a mechanical hook and the players responded with something in the fiction that would address the problem. Of course, the problem must be couched in story terms. That's too much of a break in the fiction in my opinion. But, unlike most video games, no one set answer is necessary to making this work well. All the GM has to do is plop the problem in front of the players. He can then start adding more rules as they progress. Each time a Strength check is attempted a Reflex save must occur (bull in a china shop with stalactites), Athletics and Acrobatics type checks now require tools (slippery floors and endless chasms and smooth walls), HP loss incurs extra conditions that are harder to get rid of, and whatever else you can think of. Unfortunately this has to be game-specific; I plan on making several suggestions for mechanics as time goes on, in different games.

Vincent Baker had it right when he said that Role-playing games are a conversation. His Apocalypse World (and the powered by the Apocalypse imprint) are an embodiment of this philosophy. I may not be the only one to say it, but I posit that this conversation is essentially two-sided: a game played by conversation that creates a story. Without those mechanics the story does not surface in a fun way, otherwise why make it a game? Thinking of mechanics first may not be something to straightjacket to but it's always good to have another tool in your arsenal.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Phantom Menace: The Opener

The opening scenario of Star Wars is a negotiation. Or the attempt of one, at any rate. The Trade Federation has gotten into a trade dispute with the rich and fertile planet of Naboo and has blockaded them. Apparently this isn't an uncommon thing, because Qui-Gon doesn't seem all that concerned that a planet is being blockaded for not paying its bills. This is normal. And all of this comes off as... unusual... to us viewers, doesn't it? Well, it should. It's going from right to left. Every time the Jedi are actually moving, trying to figure things out, it's shot at an awkward angle, the classical "bad" shot.  Oh, and the Trade Federation is generally shot at this angle as well. Something's up. The good guys aren't actually doing anything helpful (playing by a broken system) and the Trade Federation isn't either.

The first indication to me that something is weird is Qui Gon telling Obi-Wan to go onto another vessel and not for reasons that most people would think. It didn't bother me because it seemed stupid, it bothered me because the decision seemed familiar. Years later I would learn that Qui Gon is an ENFP (of which I happen to be one), and he made a lot of sense all of a sudden. Qui Gon is not the person who has a plan so much as he reads a situation and makes a snap decision, logic be damned. I know this because I do it all the time. Reading the signs of my life the way a shaman reads bones I jump, often with no rational  thought beyond a gut feeling that right then and there a certain reaction is necessary, even if it drives my poor INTJ wife up the bloody wall. And Qui Gon, who is apparently an ENFP, does much the same thing. He takes a quick look and then jumps, figuring that it'll sort itself out later.

I cannot begin to tell you how realistic this situation is for an ENFP. Don't laugh.
You may be some poor ENFP's Jar Jar Binks and not know it.
And we find our fool. This is where things start to really focus on what Lucas is going for. Most people who hate the Phantom Menace point to Jar Jar Binks and call him either racist or just dumb. But I don't think that's it. It's merciless. Star Wars is not a sentimental affair, it's very cerebral and makes no apologies about it. Unlike many people who love the Prequels I am not going to try and explain that these movies are not uncomfortable. They most assuredly are and Binks is front and center of a very, very, very uncomfortable truth: sometimes people really aren't anymore than their stereotype... in fact they're usually not. And these are the people ENFP types run into the most, because they just wander from place to place and pick up people that nobody else in their right mind would. I've done this so often it's not even funny, finding and befriending people who drive me absolutely crazy, but there's a worth to them that I find that I can't explain and so I keep them around, hoping to figure it out. And so Qui Gon, curious, follows Binks down to his undersea kingdom.

It's here we get the introduction to the theme of the The Phantom Menace: symbiosis. Obi-Wan points out a psychological fact that no one I've ever met wants to acknowledge. Speaking to the denizens of an underwater (water can stand for deception and darkness, speaking of the underworld) kingdom Obi-Wan reminds them that they need the people on the surface too. If something happens to the Naboo it's likely to happen to them as well. It's important to note that Boss Nass's reaction is the exact same most of us have when we hear the words "What happens to one affects the other": contempt. But no psychologist, priest, mystic, or shaman worth their salt would dare disagree with Obi-Wan; most of us  aren't that on top of things, sadly, myself especially. Obi-Wan telling the weird and offensive denizens of the underworld that they need the overworld to exist is incredibly poetic.

It's here, again, where we watch an ENFP in his element: in the middle of absolute chaos that he feels is NOT. With the knowledge that Qui Gon is an ENFP it's actually funny to watch him just cruise through the ensuing chaos, trying not to get annoyed at Jar Jar. None of the big and scary things are very frightening to him simply because, in his mind, it's all a part of the plan that he's discovering, one step at a time. Many is the time that you'll find an ENFP doing things that no one in their right mind would even consider doing (like going through the planet core) simply because it seemed like a good idea at the time, conscious thinking be damned to the trap-inducing hell it belongs.

Of course this line of thinking winds him up with a Queen on a damaged ship stranded on Tatooine. So, he sets out with someone he knows is actually the Queen (yeah, he picks up on that), poking at her that her ideas are bad and that his are good and he's not impressed with a 14 year old girl's ideas on how to do much of anything. Does she pick up on this? It's unknown. If she does she doesn't let on.

It's here we meet Anakin Skywalker, a lonely slave boy who, despite the abuse of Watto, still has some compassion in him. I think. It's hard to tell, actually, if Anakin is compassionate or has a god-complex. And who can blame him? He built a friggin' droid at the age of nine and can race pods. At nine. Most people I know think Anakin is annoying, but a few good home videos embarrass them by similarity so badly it's hilarious. Art is a very finely constructed mirror, and Lucas's mirror is constructed to remind us that no, we're really not all that special. Even if we are gifted in some areas we're probably annoying to teach us some humility. A good rule of thumb from the Eastern Christian Fathers is this: if something about a person annoys you it's because you possess the same flaw but it's hidden, and therefore you should probably thank the annoying person for cluing you into yourself.

I don't know a person alive that Anakin doesn't annoy on a personal level.

Regardless of Anakin's potential for hubris even at this age (I mean, he dreams about saving the slaves for criminy's sake), Qui Gon, not thinking but feeling, puts his trust in him because he's the only puzzle piece that can complete the picture of them getting off this horrible planet. Turns out he's right to do so.

Last, but definitely not least, is Queen Padme Amidala. An elected monarch of the tender age of 14, Padme has all the idealism of a child, right along with her planet. With a blockade starving her people to death and communications cut Padme still wants to negotiate, a move so patently naive that her own advisers correct her. She decides to go to onto Tatooine, despite Qui Gon's issues. Why on earth would she do this? There's no explanation given, but I wonder if it's because she's disillusioned with her decision to rely on negotiations. Being a ruler is a lot of responsibility, no matter your age, and at 14 it's going to be crushing. I'd wanna get off the ship too and clear my head. It's here she meets Anakin, a slave who has much potential, so much promise, like herself. And yet, when faced with trusting another young person besides herself, someone she's clearly interested in (even if not romantically), she backs away. What does that say about Padme and what she thinks of herself?  Probably nothing very good, although she doesn't voice it. I mean, she's only a few years older than Anakin and look how that turned out! Why should she trust him when she really can't even trust to show her own true self for most of the movie? Fortunately Anakin succeeds. In amazement Padme says that Anakin saved them all. Maybe there's some hope for Naboo through her after all. I mean, if a nine year old boy can do the impossible maybe she can too. Padme owes Anakin a great deal and finds herself caring for him because, in a way, it means caring for herself. But all of this is said from the right. Even here, trouble is hinted at. She can't tell the truth about who she is and it all ends up hollow. It's an ominous end to the first act.

Before we wrap up we need to go to what Sidious and Maul are up to. It's important to note the colors they wear, because this tells us a lot about them. Black is the color of purpose, and they're shown from right to left and left to right, up in the heavens and shadows of Coruscant, plotting. Considering that the Jedi are all naive and earthy (whites with browns) this tells us a few things. The Sith are not mindlessly angry; they have a plan, and it's one of revenge. We find out later that the Sith used to rule the galaxy and things were what they call peaceful. That's something to discuss more when we get to Revenge of the Sith, but it's important to remember that we are the myth. While the overworlds of our minds may be aimless and dumb at times that's something you can never, ever, ever, attribute to the Shadow in us. Our Shadow has been hurt over a period of many, many years, and has gotten quite could at thinking in the midst of the awful pains that we've put into it in an attempt to not look crazy in our insane pride and vanity. So the Shadow goes crazy for the Overworld, concealing the hurts and pains. But eventually everybody's Shadow has had enough and, using any slight pretext to begin moving, craftily makes plans to take over, simply so that it won't be forced to hurt again.

At last it will have revenge upon the Ego, the Overworld. At last the Shadow, the Underworld, will go after the one that isn't actually there to save the enslaved, but only goes through the Underworld by accident, hoping to leave as soon as possible. At last the Underworld will say: "I'm here, I'm powerful, I've been ignored, and I'm pissed off." When that day comes no one is unafraid, because it's never in our plans to have the Underworld show up. And when it does we both size each other up, draw swords, and try to put an end to each other as fast as we can...

It's a mess. That very well may be what suicide is.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

What is the Force?

Yes, he is somewhat turning back the lightning. On his first try.
This move knocked out Yoda COLD.
But people say Rey's broken.
I would like to give the caveat that I'm not going to write exhaustively about the Force in this post, merely hit some of the spots that people seem to miss that I've noticed.

What is the Force? That's easy, it's the energy that is generated by all living things that holds them together.

The Force has two aspects: the Living Force and the Cosmic Force. As Qui-Gon tells Yoda when the two first meet post Qui-Gon's death:

"I am a manifestation of the Force, a Force that consists of two parts: living beings generate the Living Force, which in turn powers the wellspring that is the Cosmic Force [...] All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything."

Great, so there's two parts: Living (what the living creatures generate) and the Cosmic (what the dying go to so their energy can hold together the living). Or, as Luke says in The Last Jedi:

"It's the energy between all things, a tension, a balance that binds the universe together."

The Force is essentially the glue of the universe, on a particular and universal level. You can't help but interact with it. Nothing can be outside it because then it couldn't exist. This energy is us and yet is not us. It's a weird tension of saying that we are distinct from the energy that we supply and are supplied with. So, to the best of my knowledge, it's not straight up pantheism, although it does lean that way.

This energy can be accessed by certain individuals who can feel it and thus manipulate it. The way they do this, biologically speaking, is by the help of creatures called midi-chlorians.

Don't you dare put down the computer and walk away.

Yes, you.

No, flipping the table like a child and walking away is not helpful. Sit down and read.

Thank you.

Yes, there is a biological component to accessing the Force. For a lot of people this somehow seems to cancel out is mystical nature. But mystics across the ages have always used some physical component to help them focus better, whether that be posture, incense, drugs, lack of sleep, fasting or some combination thereof. The idea that somehow there's an aspect of our bodies that responds to a universal energy generated by said body is hardly contradictory. Actually, it seems inevitable, far as I'm concerned.

There are two basic ways to access the Force: Light and Dark. Notice I didn't refer to them as "sides", even though that's how pretty much every single movie and source calls them. That's because the "sides" really seem to operate more like approaches. Side sounds much too passive for what I'm trying to expound on here, so I hope you can forgive my slight modification for now.

The Light approach is one of accessing the Force while in harmony with the creatures who provide it. The Light values the good order of all life, allowing for a multiplicity of views and approaches, embodied by the differing lightsaber colors of its practitioners. Harmony in diversity is the ideal, reflecting on nature.

It's important to understand that this doesn't mean anarchy. Nature makes hierarchy. There are higher and lower approaches to life. But nothing is in competition with each other, for the cycle benefits all if we but stick to it. So, despite the multiplicity of approaches, all approach the same way and for the same reason. All submit in peace to the cycle of the Force. This is generally why you won't see Force Powers like lightning and choking, because in essence nothing wishes to actually harm anything else. The innate goodness of creation prevents it from wishing to inflict harm for its own sake.

And yet, still, that is too tempting of an offer to pass up.
The Dark approach, however, focuses on ruling others. Afraid of the natural cycle that all are a part of a Dark Side practitioner will exert himself over others unnaturally. Of course the only way to do this is to remove the differences between you and others, because difference you didn't create means a hierarchy that you didn't either.  And that means a threat to your independence from the cycle that all are a part of.

But that's not the worst part. This approach is so poisonous that it destroys itself, preventing it from propagating through its own merits. Instead a system of a single master and apprentice is put in place, because any more than two and the whole thing falls apart. The master picks the apprentice knowing that someday the apprentice will try to kill him and the apprentice prays he gets that chance soon. Even in rebelling from the natural cycle of life and death the Dark Side practitioner just makes another one, but control of any kind is precious to someone who has this approach and, so long as they get control over everyone else, they relish what little power they think they have.

It shouldn't be hard to see where this fits on an interior level. We're supposed to have multiple aspects to ourselves, all healthily in balance with each other, allowing for healthy integration. No healthy psychology or religion wants there to be only one aspect of a person. Order is not an interior fascism where all is dress-right-dress and push ups, but where all parts (Id, ego, super-ego, nous, incensive power, desiring power, WHATEVER you want to call it) are able to contribute what they can.

Something implied in the movies is that your power level in the Force is directly corollary to your connected-ness to people. The more connected you are, the more powerful. It doesn't seem to matter if that relationship is positive or not, but simply where you sit in relation to the universe itself, with the Force choosing those who seem isolated, but are not, or won't stay that way for long.

 Anakin is a slave on Tatooine who has managed to keep his compassion, despite his loneliness and the constant abuse from being a slave. His potential is unlocked by Qui-Gon Jinn who bets everything on him. Anakin goes from never having completed a pod-race before to taking first place. He then accidentally destroys the Droid Federation Ship that controls all the droids over Naboo, in a ship he's never flown before, which, even though accidental, is no mean feat, creating a ripple effect in the Force that saves Obi-Wan in his fight with Darth Maul.

Luke is an overly sheltered kid who keeps wanting to discover who his father is, possibly as a way of discovering who he is and why he's so different from his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Obi-Wan Kenobi believes in him, making him capable of not only reflecting laser bolts with a lightsaber but to land what is one of the most impressive Force-feats of all time, firing a torpedo from a ship he's never flown before down an exhaust (it pushes things OUT) port to blow up the Death Star. The fact that Luke can hear Ben at all, with no training, puts Luke into possibly the most powerful Force-user of all time. But we'll get back to that later.

Rey is a slave on Jakku who manages to live alone and unmolested for years, learning everything she needs to be self-sufficient and isolating herself, hoping that her parents will come back for her, trusting that maybe just maybe it was a mistake and they'll get her out of this hell and explain everything. But Finn offers his friendship and she flies a ship that she's never flown out of the atmosphere. Anakin's lightsaber reaches out to her, granting her a vision of who she is and where she fits (which she rejects) and Kylo Ren, by acknowledging their connection and offering to teach her, opens up Rey's potential in a way that was unknown in the series before.

The Force chooses people, based off of how much they stand to gain from having that power and whether it'll do them any good in the end. The three protagonists are people who need the reassurance that the world has not abandoned them and the Force answered this need by giving them the ability to feel the connection they otherwise don't have at the beginning of their stories. Those who are Dark Side users take their power; it's not given to them but they are also in a position where the Force would have sought them out.

Why did I write this post here, before actually writing on the episodes? Because Star Wars doesn't reveal how it all works at the beginning, but reveals it all piece-meal. Also, since so many people have been exposed to the EU, they accidentally fold in what they think they to know to Star Wars, which doesn't follow the same rules. There's more to the Force but we'll cover that as it comes. The point is that some aspects of the Force can be explained to help digest the myth faster, but that's really the only point of commentary on mythology to begin with, isn't it?