Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Martial Arts Breakdown: Luke vs Darth Vader in the Empire Strikes Back

I would argue that this was the single most impressive and defining lightsaber fight of the original trilogy, and the one that forever cemented Vader's status as the most impressive of the Sith.  You can watch the fight yourself here (the fun starts 30 seconds in).

The Fight

The misty, moody lighting is worth a -1 to vision and attack.

Luke activates his lightsaber and shifts to a defensive grip.  This gives him +1 defense from attacks that come from the front, but -1 to attacks from behind or the side, and -2 to attack but +1 damage, and he can treat the weapon as two-handed for the purposes of parries.  This is a good strategy against a superior enemy!  The blade takes one second to materialize.

Darth Vader actives his lightsaber and remains in a standard grip.  This is a good strategy if you want to remain offensive, but I think Darth Vader just doesn't take Luke very seriously.  The blade takes one second to materialize.

Initially, neither does anything except stare at one another over their lightsaber.  This might be a Contest of Wills (Supported by Darth Vader later praising Luke for "controlling his fear.").  The rules for a Contest of Wills are found on page 130 of Martial Arts. They roll a quick contest of Will (Vader might be using Intimidation instead, and he benefits from his fearsome reputation, and his superior force sword skill). Luke loses the contest, elects to attack, and suffers a penalty on his attack equal to the amount by which he failed.

Turn 1
Luke attacks. Darth Vader casually parries, then almost instantly follows up with his own attack (a Counter Attack or Riposte.  If a riposte, he applied a penalty to his defense, likely because of Luke's weak, intimidated attack, and then applies the same penalty to Luke's defense). Luke parries.

Turn 2
Luke Evaluates.
Darth Vader Evaluates.

Turn 3
Luke makes an All-Out Attack (Determined).  Darth Vader parries.
Then Darth Vader shoves Luke with his lightsaber by pressing it against Luke.  This requires a Force Sword roll, which Luke fails, and he cannot defend because of his All-Out Attack.  Vader rolls thrust-1, and inflicts enough knockback to force Luke back one yard.  Luke must make a DX roll to keep his feet, and fails.

Turn 4
Luke changes posture to crawling.
Darth Vader Does Nothing.

Turn 5
Luke changes posture to standing.
Darth Vader waits ("If Luke attacks, I will All-Out Defend").

Turn 6.
Luke Steps and Evaluates
Darth Vader retreats a step and waits.

Turn 7.
Luke Steps and Evaluates.
Darth Vader retreats a step and waits.

Turn 8
Luke Steps and makes an All-Out Attack (Double).
Darth Vader All-Out Defends with a focus on Parries..

Turn 9
Luke attacks. Darth Vader parries.
Darth Vader attacks.  Luke Parries.

Turn 10
Luke makes a spinning attack (Force Sword-2 vs Darth Vader's Force Sword.  If Luke wins, he gets his margin of victory as a penalty on Darth Vader's defense.  If Darth Vader wins, he gains a bonus to his defense) and fails, increasing Darth Vader's defense.
Darth Vader casually parries, and then makes a rapid-strike beat and attack.  Luke is forced to make an Feverish Defense.

Turn 11
Luke, learning quickly, makes a beat (rolling ST-based Force Sword vs Darth Vader's ST- or DX-based Force Sword) and evidently wins.

Darth Vader uses Grip Mastery to shift to a defensive grip and All-Out Defends.

Turn 12
Luke makes a Rapid Strike.  Darth Vader Parries both attacks (Gaining his all-out defense bonus).

Darth Vader uses Grip Mastery to shift to a single-handed grip, and makes another Rapid Strike Beat and Attack, and the attack is a Mighty Blow.  Luke, rather than parry (as he's starting to catch on) elects to Dodge and Retreat.  Darth Vader inflicts some dramatic collateral damage.

Turn 13
In a moment's respite, Darth Vader takes the time to compliment Luke while keeping his distance, who responds with an attempt at repartee, perhaps a ham-fisted Intimidation attempt.

Turn 14
In an effort to make good on his threat of being "full of surprises," Luke makes a complex rapid strike with the extra effort option "Great Lunge," clearing the distance between the two, and dropping to a crouch after, which gives him a -2 to further attacks and parries.

Darth Vader makes a quick defensive attack (or perhaps a set-up attack) and Luke parries (at -2)

Turn 15
Luke attacks (-2) and Darth Vader parries.

Darth Vader makes a rapid Strike Beat (and very dramatically succeeds) and then a disarm, which Luke fails to parry. Vader opts for ST-based force sword vs Luke's DX-based force sword skill for the contest, and handily wins, knocking his lightsaber away.


Darth Vader clearly has the upper-hand here, and is toying with Luke, but just how much of an upper-hand wasn't obvious to me until I broke the fight down.  At no point is Darth Vader even remotely worried about losing this fight.  Towards the end of the entire encounter, he seems to grow irritated and just pushes for the fight to end, in an attempt to prove to Luke that the whole fight was pointless, to thoroughly demoralize him.

The revelation that Darth Vader is (Spoiler!) Luke's father actually makes a great deal of sense in the context of this scene.  Luke fights like a child eager to impress ("You'll find I'm full of surprises") and regularly takes dumb risks, like All-Out Attacks, or flashy maneuvers that make him fall over.  Darth Vader fights like a father, offering encouragement, taking his time, watching the child fight and giving advice.  In a sense, the fight is meant as an object lesson for Luke.  Yoda trained him in the light side of the force, while Darth Vader trains him in the dark side, showing him what it's like to fight an unleashed maniac while the force flails around him; the very force he had relied upon suddenly turned against him and trying to destroy him.  In a sense, it's two fights in one, with Luke believing that this is his confrontation with the big bad, while for Vader, it's a chance to see how far his son has come, and to reconnect with him.

The fight is slow and moody.  It reminds me of low-key samurai films, like the slow and dramatic fight from Love and Honor.  Characters regularly take their time, they pause, they rest, they evaluate and they talk.  Luke often seems overexerted and tired, while Darth Vader never shows exertion,  This might be a factor of Luke using lots of Extra Effort to keep up with Vader, but given the pauses, it might also be that they're using Douglas Cole's Last Gasp.  Evaluate also seems rather handy in the fight, moreso than is portrayed in GURPS.

The Force Swordsmanship on display here is clearly very kenjutsu inspired, with the characters facing one another full on, rather than side to side as a Western fencer might.  Luke does use some more rounded motion, though, bringing to mind a more Chinese style, but the strength of their blows and the two-handed grasp seems more typical of kenjutsu.

This fight lacks flashy uses of the force (Luke does one or two Force Leaps, and Vader uses the force to throw some stuff around), but at no point do they Force Push one another. The Force doesn't seem to take a regular role in the fight, except perhaps in some subdued, nebulous way (perhaps they call upon it for minor, unseen bonuses).

Strength also plays a key role in the fight.  The attacks seem to be very heavy, though that might just be the speed/force of a deceptive attack, but Vader definitely shoves Luke's lightsaber around with his own (Beats) and Luke himself (Shoves, grapples).  This might be a factor of his cybernetics.  As noted above, hand-to-hand skills also play a role.

I'm also surprised at how beautiful the fight is, with the mist, their silhouettes, and the gleam of their lightsabers.  Later lightsaber fights, especially in the prequels, lack this sort of artistic touch, which strikes me as a shame.

Finally, I want to note that it was not David Prowse in Vader's suit during this duel, but Bob Anderson, an olympic-level fencer. The effortlessness with which Vader fought was, thus, real.  It also explains Vader's preference for a single-handed grip on his saber.

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