The stories behind the stories

Star Wars: Canto Bight – “The Ride”

“You’ve developed a system — a gambling system — based on which brothers are in the room?” — Ganzer

Star Wars: Canto Bight – “The Ride”

In a hardcover anthology featuring the new location seen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a card-counter goes on a breakneck odyssey to avoid a broken neck!
Published by Random House/Del Rey • December 5, 2017
Written by John Jackson Miller, with other novellas by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, and Mira Grant

“The Ride” audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis

Mass-market paperback released May 29, 2018

Edited by Elizabeth Schaefer, Tom Hoeler, and Erich Shoeneweiss

Star Wars: Canto Bight came after kind of a break, although given how busy I was, it didn’t seem that way at the time.

The Star Trek: Prey trilogy had taken much of my 2015-16, but I’d continued to do Star Wars work, writing “Rites,” my story for Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, late in the latter year. With the Trek fiction license being renegotiated in advance of the upcoming streaming series, I spent much of the first half of 2017 helping to get my aging parents moved. I also wrote some comics for Halo in that stretch — and attended Star Wars Celebration 2017 in Orlando, where I’d presented a seminar and met up with both the Random House team and a friend from IDW.

The latter encounter resulted in what would become Star Wars Adventures Annual 2018, while the next thing that could come from Random House was something quite different for me. On the first day of summer in 2017, editor Tom Hoeler invited me to be a part of “The Journey to The Last Jedi” as part of Star Wars: Canto Bight — marking the first time I’d done anything in connection with the sequel trilogy.

Where fiction had been released leading up to the events of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Episodes VII and VIII presented an unusual situation, since very little time transpires between them. Lucasfilm and Random House came up with a clever solution: setting a novel-length book at Canto Bight, the casino world shown in The Last Jedi. Lucasfilm had populated the backgrounds of the Canto Bight scenes with many different characters — most of whom had been given short histories in an upcoming encyclopedia, Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The Visual Dictionary by Pablo Hidalgo. Further, the book would be a collection of four interrelated novellas by different authors to deal with the production window.

The studio and publisher tapped Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, and Seanan McGuire (writing as Mira Grant) for the book, with me as the sole veteran. Realizing immediately which characters I wanted to write about, I made my proposal during the conference call first — but I also suggested that my novella appear last. The book’s conceit was that all the stories were taking place on the same night at Canto Bight; we’d salt the individual stories with mentions of the other characters, all the way through my anchor leg.

The characters I chose were Kaljach Sonmi, a snappy-dressing card player, and the “Lucky Three”: Dodi, Thodi, and Wodi, little green brothers with incredible luck. After writing about Zayne Carrick’s swings of good luck and bad, I figured I could have a lot of fun with it. And better, as I joked, it might make all the gambling I’d ever done tax-deductible research! (As it turns out, it wasn’t. Ah, well…)

THE CASINO

I’d been a gamer as a kid, but growing up in the 1980s meant that gambling was only legal in a few places: Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and the odd reservation or riverboat. When that changed, it changed quickly. In the early 1990s, one measure of how disenchanted I’d grown with graduate school was how much time I spent playing the ponies at the off-track betting place or playing cards all night with the guys of the Louisiana State poli sci department.

It wasn’t until after I graduated, though, that I set foot in my first casino — my friends and I driving to the Lady Luck in Natchez, Mississippi, boarding near midnight. We stayed there until  after dawn, and I made the terrible mistake of winning a lot of money. That beginners’ luck gave me a false sense of what my chances were, and I’d give most of that back in the years to follow. But on the boat that night, I also observed something I hadn’t expected. The environment was, of course, a cacophony of light and sound designed to stimulate the senses — but there was something about the people I watched. Folks of different backgrounds who wouldn’t normally associate with one another weren’t just intermingling, but cheering one another on. Everyone had a chance — and mathematically it was the same chance. Where else in life did that happen?

Of course, the house always wins — and people differed in the number of chances they could afford to take. That wasn’t equal. But I brought that feeling into my story for Canto Bight, and in fact that experience is specifically described as something that happened to the main character.

I decided that Kal — “Kaljach” was too much of a mouthful to type! — would be a player who approached the games scientifically, but who had yet to make his big score. He worked as a “proposition player” for Canto Bight — literally, a player that the house pays to fill out games that only work with multiple participants. Playing cards is literally his job, and I wanted us to meet him at a time when he’s exhausted, no longer seeing the joy of playing. How horrible is it for a favorite pastime to become a chore?

Enter the Suertons — the species name for the Lucky Three, literally selected by Pablo as a nod to “suerte,” which means luck in Spanish. His idea was that the three were preternaturally lucky, but that it wasn’t connected to the Force; it was just something that happened, and that everyone went with. I wanted Dodi, Thodi, and Wodi to cross paths with Kaljach at exactly the wrong moment, when the professional player’s life was riding on the outcome of a single game.

He would lose, and curse fate — and then he would realize that the only way to save himself was to follow the Lucky Three around, betting on what they bet as a “rider,” benefiting from their luck. But he’d also discover that their luck swung wildly depending on which brothers were around. Sunny and happy Dodi, obnoxious know-it-all Thodi, drunken fool Wodi — when all three were together, their fortunes improved dramatically. But any two on their own would argue, and their fortunes would sour. They canceled one another out.

In the end, Dodi would convince Kal to “let go,” as Obi-Wan said to Luke; to abandon his systems and just enjoy the ride. It would mean he’d never make his fortune — but as he’d discover, there was still a way to stay and play. And enjoy, for a change, the ride — which provided the title to my story!

Lastly, I needed a representative for Ganna, the mobster running the planet. I turned again to my old friend Mosep Binneed, the accountant for Jabba the Hutt who had appeared in Star Wars: Kenobi and whose lineage goes all the way back to the original Marvel comics. It was a delight to bring him into the movie canon!

THE GAMES

We knew from Lucasfilm that there’d be fathier racing at the casino; I included it in a later act. But the core would be table games, and I knew a lot of those already existed in the Star Wars universe. Sabacc, of course; also pazaak, from Knights of the Old Republic, which I knew I wanted to highlight because it was something many readers played in the video game. I also drew a lot of other games in from their mentions in the old West End Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

But I also needed a frustratingly complex game at the beginning, one that Kal could play in the hopes of winning a single large jackpot. Since he didn’t have much money, it would have to be something akin to a progressive pot on a video poker machine — but it would also have to be something that a card-counter could actually win. By sitting at the same table and waiting long enough, he could predict what cards he’d get.

Fortunately, I’d written the book on collectible card games in my time editing Scrye, and knew how to make an incredibly complicated game. So I pulled the name “zinbiddle” from the RPG and set to work reverse-engineering a game from what I wanted to have happen. Players play against one another, with the house taking a rake or fee from every pot. There are multiple rounds of betting. Players would be able to buy cards to improve their hands; that money going into a side jackpot that built and built. And the trigger for winning it would be a perfect hand which could only be trumped with the same hand plus the Vermilion Six, a special card mentioned in the dictionary. (The “ion barrage” — the perfect hand — was also mentioned there.)

It wasn’t my intention to design a completed game, nor was it necessary — but I did send Lucasfilm and Random House a Powerpoint deck that showed what I imagined a game would look like. For years, afterward, I was asked by readers to provide the real rules; keep reading to find those! But first…

CONNECTING THE STORIES

As stories came in and were massaged, references from one to the next took place. Saladin’s story “Rules of the Game” starred vaporator salesbeing-of-the-year Kedpin Shoklop, and I included him in my final chapter in “The Ride” to serve as a bookend for the earlier appearance. Lexo, the star masseur from Rae Carson’s “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing,” is mentioned in my story—and Joris, one of Lexo’s clients, winds up being Kal’s advisor at the fathier track.

One of the more visible influences I had on the book as a whole was that I’d broken my story into chapters, each one with a gambling term as story title that served as a double-entendre. Rather than have my story be the only one with chapters, all the other authors agreed to break their stories down into chapters as well. I think that helped the flow a lot, particularly when you’re listening to the audiobook.

All the stories take place in the same night, but we were careful not to say what night it was. It’s definitely before Episode VIII, but exactly when is not said. I do have a couple of characters refer to Hosnian Prime as if it still exists, but they’re also both shown to be, like many visitors to Canto Bight, not exactly caring about the rest of the galaxy. The line plays either way whenever the story is set—and was intended be a bit of dark humor regardless.

Jonathan Davis recorded “The Ride” in the audiobook, and it is absolutely the way to enjoy this book best. His voices for the Lucky Three are hilarious.

THE RELEASE

Random House promoted the release with a program involving a special coin; the use of “cantocoin” tokens rather than electronic payments is something that came from the movie, and which we incorporated.

The book came out two weeks before “The Last Jedi” in two different versions: the regular book, and also a Barnes and Noble special edition with a color plate section depicting the characters in the movie. That’s a great version to get, since — as people would see on screen — the anthology’s cast members appear only briefly.  “Where’s Waldo” is easily possible using the Canto Bight scenes!

I took the opportunity in promoting the book to change my usual talk; at the book launch event at Barnes & Noble in Appleton, Wis., I spoke about Star Wars and its connection to games, both in real-life and in-universe. I developed that into a slideshow presentation for Midsouthcon at Memphis in 2018.

Canto Bight remains unusual for the franchise in that it’s an anthology of novellas by multiple authors, and yet one that’s very wired into a movie setting. “The Ride” is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written; it was a joy to do.

THE EVENT: ONE NIGHT AT CANTO BIGHT

At Emerald City Comic Con in early March 2018, I was asked to host a gaming table as part of the celebrity-gamemaster night put on by the Worldbuilders charity. Players bid to join my table, and I decided to do something cool for them. There was no time to finish the real rules for zinbiddle, so instead I used the pazaak deck that I’d been given by a friend in 2017 to concoct an adventure campaign.

“One Night at Canto Bight” was a hybrid: pazaak rounds in the “casino” interspersed with episodes in a demolition derby arena, where I used the cards and rules from Steve Jackson’s Car Wars Card Game to simulate both a sporting event, and later an attack on Mosep Binneed’s sail barge.

Del Rey editor Elizabeth Schaefer played at the table as well, and it was a lot of fun. All the patrons took home a pazaak deck, and the night’s winner got a nice prize package. It was a fun way to wrap up my promotion of the book. Some images from my materials from that event appear below. The first was one of the player character templates:

And here’s the boss ship that the players had to fight in the final demolition derby.Since the Car Wars game had attacks that struck opponents’ tires, we just figured that meant the Tagge Industries Repulsorlift Engines. Yeah, that’s it!

“I don’t question it, Kal, so you shouldn’t. Have fun.” — Dodi

Chapter 1

A “grinder” is a player that sits there working at it every day. Of course, it’s also a machine that Kal feels like he’s being crushed by.

Kal’s “count” doesn’t mean anything specific; we just read it as part of a system that’s too complicated to understand.

Ganzer’s name was inspired by Benzer, the friend of Robert Urich’s Dan Tanna on the classic TV show VEGA$. You should go watch the opening, because you should always watch the opening of VEGA$.

The amount that Kal needed to make — eight hundred thousand — was carefully selected. It’s very close to 2 to the 13th power times 100, which reflects the number of times Kal doubles up the the pazaak room. “Unlucky 13” was also carefully chosen there!

Vestry is a blast. I needed a pit boss that found Kal an annoyance—but she also cares greatly about the casino and making sure the games go off as they’re supposed to. The new employee Minn also serves a role, since it allows Vestry to explain a few things about how the games work.

Chapter 2

“Trips” refers to three-of-a-kind in cards — and, of course, the triplets.

Note that when Thodi shows up and just two of the Suertons are present, they start to lose. An initial tipoff.

The Alderaan joke is probably in no better taste than the Hosnian Prime joke, but in for a Cantocoin, in for a kilogram…

Chapter 3

A “gutshot” is an inside straight — a very hard hand to make. Here, it’s also what Kal feels like he’s been struck with.

The spilled drink is no small thing: it moves Kal out of the spot where he’d have been the winner. Instead, all three brothers being together causes something to improve their luck.

A key element here: the Ion Barrage doesn’t end the game like a zinbiddle does. I kept needing to sneak the rules into the story so I could make my desired result work within the game. It helps if you can change the game’s rules at will!

The 560-to-1 odds mention is yet another one of my “560” plants, inspired by my grandfather’s ship, the LST-560, in World War II.

The Kuari Princess comes from West End’s 1989 Star Wars: Riders of the Maelstrom.

Chapter 4

A “bad beat” is an occasion when a great hand unexpectedly loses to something even more improbable. Some casinos will even pay a consolation for that.

We see that Ganzer is definitely aware of the Lucky Three — and not just because they’re such great tippers. He’s secretly part of the security for the casino.

In promoting the novella, I suggested that Obi-Wan Kenobi had an impact on my story, and indeed, it’s because he’s in it! As we broadly suggest, the diner with the gambling cheats was probably Dex’s Diner, and the Jedi in question was Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan’s line here would be relevant in a later work.

I don’t think we say it specifically, but I imagined Orisha to be a Zeltron.

Chapter 5

“Sharp” refers to a great card player. The term actually isn’t “card sharks,” despite what the game show’s name would have you believe!

Our only mention of the First Order is here. Canto Bight really is far from the worries of the galaxy.

Savareen whist is another game that came from the West End era, I believe. I figured it was a higher-class game, like baccarat.

Chapter 6

I wasn’t clear on whether or not there was anyplace else on Cantonica for someone to run to, but I figured Kal wouldn’t know anyway. He lived his whole life inside.

The very first convention I went to — Midsouthcon in Memphis back in 1985 — had elevator races going on. Which was kind of silly, because there were only three floors. Not that the races weren’t silly anyway.

Here, once again, the two brothers’ luck combines to make everyone worse off. Kal is beginning to figure that out.

Chapter 7

Pemmin Brunce was another character that appears briefly in the movie. He’s the security chief. Likewise, Thamm, the tiny croupier, also came from the screen.

Note the three threes that keep turning up. Not a mistake! Three is the magic number, as someone sang…

Chapter 8

A “buy-in” is what it costs to get into a tournament. It also fits here, as Kal must buy into the idea of following the Suertons.

The jubilee wheel is a bit like roulette, I’d imagine. It’s just the sort of game where a winning system is impossible and for which Thodi would be sure to think he had one anyway.

Chapter 9

Part of the fun of the Suertons was establishing that they would bet on anything, anywhere, and that it would ultimately mean mischief. Colliding droids definitely qualified as that.

I had actually gotten rid of “turbolift” as a term in Star Wars: A New Dawn as part of a housecleaning — the word came from Star Trek, via Brian Daley. But it had crept back in in the time since.

Chapter 10

The “stretch” is a location on a race track — and, of course, what Kal was forcing himself to do at this point.

One of the books I read in preparing to write this story was Horseplayers by Ted McClelland, which is about horsetrack culture. It discussed “stooping,” which was the practice of broke bettors looking around on the ground for uncashed tickets. I knew I wanted a lost ticket to be part of the story, so I figured the bets would be on flimsiplast rather than some electronic medium; that fits with the aesthetic of the coins on Canto Bight. But there would never be any tickets on the ground at Canto Bight for Kal to find because the place was constantly clean. This led to the shoe gag, instead, which worked a lot better!

Joris plays a role in Rae Carson’s story, earlier in the book. If you follow these side characters you can sort of trace their days.

Flatcakes was a delicacy that I’d used before in Knights of the Old Republic — making them was the thing that Slyssk was good at.

Claiming races were something I knew a bit about from my days playing at the OTB back in college in Louisiana. The idea of buying a competing horse before a race seemed to me a neat thing to adapt — and get some chaos out of.

The Suertons get bored and wander off when it’s mentioned that fathier racing is pari-mutuel, but it’s important information to get in. As more money is bet on an animal, his odds drop.

Time for Flatcakes was sired by Kreegah, which is a cry of danger in Tarzan. It was suggested by my wife, who is a major Tarzan fan.

The big bet is on the three in the thirteenth, and Kal must double up thirteen times at book’s end. Numerology everywhere!

Chapter 11

“The Turn” is the fourth card dealt face-up in Texas Hold’em, and also a location on a racetrack. It’s also, naturally, what happens in the story.

Chapter 12

“The Wire” refers to the finish line of a track — but also, here, it connects to the electrical calamity.

It was a delight bringing back Mosep Binneed. I wasn’t able to be a part of From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi, but if I had I surely would have tried to write about his escape from Tatooine. Let’s just assume he did!

Chapter 13

In horse racing, a breakdown is a career-ending injury. It’s also what Kal suffers, sort of.

I really wanted Kal to suffer a penalty for not knowing the sport he was betting, and not understanding how claiming races worked was a great opportunity for that.

Chapter 14

“Surrender” is an option allowed in some casinos where a blackjack player can forfeit half their bet after seeing their cards. It works here in the context of the story, as well.

My first casino experience, discussed above, directly inspires Kal’s story here.

The “Vermilion Six at the front of the shoe” is probably the most elaborate play on words I’d ever try. The wild thing is it was just sitting there, waiting to be used.

Chapter 15

And finally we reach pazaak, which was in the Knights of the Old Republic game as a minigame. It helped to have Vestry teaching the dealers, since for this game we needed to know the rules, and I figured people would need reminding.

One thing we get is that Vestry has great respect for and knowledge of the traditons of the games that she runs. One thing people may not get without seeing her is that a Quermian, with their extremely long necks, would be great as a pit boss. She could see everything!

I think by some point I may have known about the commemorative coin that Random House was making available, as single coins are relevant a number of times.

“This is a square house” is the sign that’s on the wall at Cheers!

Chapter 16

I was very much having to keep the math straight as far as hour much money Kal had after each win; I think we got it exactly right.

KOTOR players will tell you that the plus-six is the worst side deck card possible. Naturally Thodi has a different opinion.

Chapter 17

“Kicker” is a poker term — the additional card that breaks ties. It’s literal here, with the crash that follows.

There it is: They’re serving Trandoshani flatcakes. It’s Slyssk’s famous recipe!

The changing value of sabacc cards goes way back in Star Wars fiction, and I figured it would work for my story finale. My friend that supplied me with custom pazaak decks also made me a +333 card. I’ll never part with it!

Chapter 18

The “rake” is the share of the table game receipts that the casino takes — and it’s also what our suave, well-dressed gambler becomes.

After doubling up from 100 thirteen times, Kal would have had 819,200 coins — leaving enough for a huge tip to Minn. And that act helps save his future.

Kedpin Shoklop shows up from the start of the book, tying things up.

The paperback of the book concludes with an excerpt from the Last Jedi adaptation by Jason Fry. It is not in the hardcover.

“It’s a game! It’s not supposed to be fun!” — Kal

Zinbiddle: Kuari Style: An attempt at the rules

One of the things people have asked for most following the release of “The Ride” has to do with zinbiddle, and what the rules of the game are. As noted above, I actually did provide Lucasfilm and Del Rey with a Powerpoint deck explaining what was happening in the game. But it did not include details like what the cards themselves said, just a rationalization for what was being depicted in the story.

In December 2023, a full six years after the book came out, I finally took the time to finish off a ruleset that actually did show card values, and a step-by-step method pf play. A few things of note:

First, this is not the document I provided Lucasfilm; it’s almost a hundred slides longer! Second, it is completely unofficial, as it’s just a homebrew of my own — but it does comport with the action that’s seen on the page in “The Ride.”

The next thing to say is that I haven’t playtested it at all, and have no idea whether it would work — or be fun! Remember, zinbiddle is supposed to be a convoluted and frustrating game. It’s not as deliberately silly as, say, fizzbin (which comes up in another book of mine), but it’s supposed to be a game that is quite complicated to play, and which Kal might be expected to devote years to learning.

I also note that I built the game with the smallest number of cards possible: just the numbers 1-4 in four suits, plus some “null” cards. It can be made up at home with a simple Uno deck; that’s what I did. It is surely the case that the zinbiddle played in Canto Bight would have involved more cards — and certainly a slew of special wild cards.

At any rate, here’s the ruleset, for any brave and patient souls to season to taste as they desire. (A direct download is here.) Never let it be said that we don’t think everything through!

Zinbiddle explained 2023-compressed

The up and down buttons at lower left advance the reader.

My next foray into card games and Star Wars would come in Star Wars: The Living Force in 2024, which has a significant element relating to a particular game I haven’t written about before.


Hardcover edition

Star Wars: Canto Bight

Star Wars: Canto Bight

As seen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, welcome to the casino city of Canto Bight. A place where exotic aliens, captivating creatures, and other would-be high rollers are willing to risk everything to make their fortunes!

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